intellectuals like Bill Kristol, Max Boot and Robert Kagan reject
the American tradition of neutrality and peace. They say the United
States should enter wars or start wars to do good.
wars have proven to be the most volatile, unpredictable and dangerous
of all human activities. They often have terrible unintended consequences.
neocons, perhaps the most challenging question is: what about World
War I? This, also known as "the great war," was supposed
to be "the war to end all wars" and the war to make the
world "safe for democracy." Some 9 million people were
killed, and it led to Hitler who murdered more than 20 million;
led to Lenin and Stalin who murdered more than 40 million, and their
disciple Chairman Mao who murdered another 35 million and caused
a famine in which an estimated 27 million more died; led to
World War II and another 50 million deaths. And the post-World War
I settlement established the new nation of Iraq with Sunnis ruling
Shiites, setting the stage for the civil war going on today.
War I was one of the worst catastrophes in human history, and everything
about it underscores the folly of the neocon view that smart guys
can make wars turn out as intended, and that war can be a controlled,
rational basis for American foreign policy.
Great Peace Before The Great War
War I marked the end of a glorious era, the most peaceful period
in modern history. The last general European war had concluded a
century earlier in 1815 when the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte
was defeated and banished to a shabby house on St. Helena,
a British-controlled island in the South Atlantic Ocean, about 1,140
miles west of South Africa.
Napoleonic wars helped convince several generations that war was
an evil to be avoided. The dapper Corsican Napoleon had emerged
as a military strong man amidst the wreckage of the French Revolution.
In 1799 and 1800, he led successful French military campaigns against
Austro-Hungarian armies in Italy and Germany. In 1799, he seized
power in a coup. He declared himself to be Consul for life. He resolved
to conquer Egypt, gain French territory in the Caribbean and extend
his influence throughout the Mediterranean. He annexed Piedmont
and forced a more congenial government on the Swiss Confederation.
established the first modern police state. He tapped Joseph Fouché,
who had been educated for the clergy but never took his vows as
a priest, to organize a secret police force. As a Jacobin during
the French Revolution, Fouché had organized mass shootings.
He developed Napoleon's spy network throughout Europe, and he arranged
to have adversaries abducted and shot.
nationalist fury that swept through Germany during the mid-20th
century, providing political support for Hitler, began to develop
after Napoleon humiliated the German-speaking people. He defeated
the Austrian army at Austerlitz (1805) and crushed the Prussians
at Jena (1806). Prussian generals turned out to be cowards, and
the Prussian army quickly disintegrated. Prussia had built a system
of forts that were expected to provide a sturdy defense, but they
generally surrendered without much resistance. Napoleon ordered
that German-speaking states, including Bavaria, Württemberg,
Baden, Hesse-Darmstadt, Nassau and Berg, be combined to form the
Confédération du Rhin — the Confederation of
the Rhine. These French-controlled, German-speaking territories
were in addition to those territories west of the Rhine, notably
Cologne and Mainz, that France had annexed in 1792.
dismissed corrupt old tyrants, which local people surely appreciated,
but in many cases they were replaced by Napoleon's relatives who
became corrupt new tyrants. He imposed his Code Napoléon
on conquered territories. Based on Roman law and some 14,000 decrees
issued during the French Revolution, this was a simplified civil
law code providing uniform rules for people to live by. Napoleon
abolished the hodge-podge of feudal laws and customs. As historian
J. M. Thompson noted, "the Code Napoléon contained
less than 120,000 words and could be carried in the pocket."
100,000 of Napoleon's troops occupied Prussia at the nation's expense.
In 1807, he signed the Treaty of Tilsit with Russia, stripping Prussia
of German-speaking provinces north and west of the lower Elbe River,
and Polish provinces to the east. Altogether, Prussian territory
was cut from 89,120 square miles to 46,032. Napoleon demanded that
the Prussian government pay him 140 million francs. This amounted
to a huge tax that devastated the economy. Making things worse was
Napoleon's "Continental System," aimed at harming Britain
by closing Europe's ports. The Continental System meant that Prussia
couldn't earn its accustomed revenues from grain exports.
Napoleon was paid off, he withdrew his forces from Prussia and turned
his attention elsewhere, and the Prussian king pondered how his
state might regain its place in the world. He was persuaded to name
Karl vom Stein as chief minister. Stein was fascinated by Anne Robert
Jacques Turgot who had urged dramatic reforms on the last French
king to possess absolute power, Louis XVI. Stein persuaded Frederick
William III to issue the Edict of Emancipation, October 1807, that
abolished feudal privileges and restrictions on the sale of land
— he opened up property markets. There weren't any more legal distinctions
among aristocrats, merchants or peasants. Civil rights were extended
to Jews. Stein was convinced these reforms would unleash the energies
of the people.
were reforms in what was left of the Prussian army. Ineffective
officers were dismissed. Junior officers were promoted on merit.
Army policies were adopted to improve efficiency. The long process
of rebuilding got underway. The consequences of the Napoleonic wars
were devastating as they played out decades later in Prussia and
Napoleonic wars themselves were bad enough. Historian Paul Johnson
observed that the wars "set back the economic life of much
of Europe for a generation. They made men behave like beasts, and
worse. The battles were bigger and much more bloody. The armies
of the old regimes were of long-service professional veterans, often
lifers, obsessed with uniforms, pipe clay, polished brass, and their
elaborate drill — the kings could not bear to lose them. Bonaparte
cut off the pigtails, ended the powdered hair, supplied mass-produced
uniforms and spent the lives of his young, conscripted recruits
as though they were loose change. His insistence that they live
off the land did not work in subsistence economies like Spain and
Russia, where if the soldiers stole, the peasants starved…Throughout
Europe, the standards of human conduct declined as men and women,
and their growing children, learned to live brutally."
savagery was shocking. Reporting on Napoleon's campaign in Spain,
historian Antonina Vallentin wrote: "French corpses piled up
in the mountain ravines…Drunk with fury against the servants of
Christ who preached hatred, the French soldiers sacked the churches,
carried away the objects of veneration, profaned the House. The
village priests slaughtered the French who sought refuge among them.
Farms were left burning like torches when the French had passed
by. The wounded and the ill were murdered as they were being taken
from one place to another. The roads were strewn with denuded corpses;
the trees were weighed down with the bodies of men hanged; blind
hate was loosed against hate, a nameless terror roamed the deserted
countryside, death came slowly through the most frightful mutilations."
worst horrors occurred during the Russian campaign. In the spring
of 1812, he assembled some 600,000 soldiers — his "Grand Army"
including Prussians, Austrians and Italians. They crossed the Niemen
River that flows from western Russia into the Baltic, and they headed
east in a front some 300 miles wide. Napoleon wanted a decisive
battle that would force the Russian Czar Alexander I to become
his subject, but the Czar's forces harassed Napoleon's soldiers
in skirmishes, then withdrew into the interior of the country, destroying
fields, towns and cities as they went, denying Napoleon the opportunity
to replenish his supplies. The further Napoleon advanced, the further
Russian forces withdrew, and the more devastation Napoleon encountered.
His forces entered Smolensk, only to find it consumed by flames.
to historian Christopher Herold, "the progress of his carriage
along a road choked with limping cripples, stretchers, and ambulances
set him into a somber mood. In Smolensk he passed carts loaded with
amputated limbs. In the hospitals the surgeons ran out of dressings
and used paper and birch bark fibers as substitutes; many of those
who survived surgery died of starvation, for the supply service
had virtually broken down. In addition to the battle casualties,
hundreds of men fell victim to the Russian secret weapon, vodka,
dying by the roadside from a combination of raw spirits and exposure.
Such, it must be emphasized, was the condition of the Grand Army
not during its tragic retreat but during its victorious advance."
Napoleon's supply lines were stretched to the limit, he could see
that his forces would disintegrate if they spent the winter in Smolensk.
He decided they must continue on to Moscow. The September 1812 Battle
of Borodino was among the few engagements — there were some 30,000
French casualties and 45,000 Russian casualties. On September 14,
Napoleon reached the outskirts of Moscow with about 90,000 soldiers.
He stopped advancing and waited for a Russian delegation to surrender,
but they never came. By the time Napoleon actually entered Moscow,
it was burning.
soldiers reveled in the riches they looted from the city, but they
needed food. Foraging in the countryside yielded less and less.
Their boots had worn out, and they had nothing else to wear. They
didn't have winter clothing when the weather turned bitter cold
in October. By then, Napoleon recognized he had to retreat, and
he headed for Smolensk. As his soldiers retreated, they were attacked
by Cossack fighters and peasant guerrillas. One of Napoleon's generals,
Philippe-Paul Ségur recalled: "the earth was littered
with battered helmets and breastplates, broken drums, fragments
of weapons, shreds of uniforms, and blood-stained flags. Lying amidst
this desolation were half-devoured corpses."
first heavy snowfall was on November 6. Ségur wrote, "Objects
changed their shape; we walked without knowing where we were or
what lay ahead, and anything became an obstacle…Yet the poor wretches
[Napoleon's soldiers] dragged themselves along, shivering, with
chattering teeth, until the snow packed under the soles of their
boots, a bit of debris, a branch, or the body of a fallen comrade
tripped them and threw them down. Then their moans for help went
unheeded. The snow soon covered them up and only low white mounds
showed where they lay." Cossack fighters and peasant guerillas
massacred the stragglers, and Russian armies joined the rout. When
Napoleon's Grand Army had been reduced to about 9,000 he went ahead
to raise another army in an effort to suppress Germans and other
of the most eloquent French liberals, Benjamin Constant, denounced
Napoleon: "Are we here only to build, with our dying bodies,
your road to fame? You have a genius for fighting; what good is
it to us? You are bored by the inactivity of peace. Why should your
boredom concern us? Learn civilization, if you wish to reign in
a civilized age. Learn peace, if you wish to rule over peaceful
peoples. Man from another world, stop despoiling this one."
Napoleon's wars resulted in the deaths of some 2 million people.
Undoubtedly the memories of Napoleonic war horrors convinced many
people that they should refrain from war. In September 1814, five
months after Napoleon's first abdication, European foreign ministers
met at the Congress of Vienna, to negotiate history's most comprehensive
and successful peace treaty.
Faire & Peace
memories of Napoleon's war horrors weren't the only reasons why
the 19th century was comparatively peaceful. This
was a period when the intellectual movement known as classical liberalism
was in its heyday. Classical liberals cherished individual liberty,
toleration and peace, and to achieve these things they embraced
constitutional limitations on government power.
were radical ideas, because for centuries the prevailing view had
been that private individuals couldn't be trusted to make their
own choices. The fear was that if people were free to choose their
church, or were free to buy and sell as they wished, there would
be chaos. Hence, it was thought that kings were needed to maintain
order by enforcing religious and business monopolies. But by the
1700s, it had become clear that government-enforced religious monopolies
and business monopolies led to wars. Those who didn't agree with
the church monopoly or the business monopoly had to fight or be
crushed. As people grew weary of all the bloodshed, governments
in western Europe gradually let people make more of their own choices,
and there was more peace. The movement toward a separation of church
and state meant that Roman Catholics could go to their place of
worship, Lutherans could go to their place of worship, Congregationalists
could go to theirs, Quakers could go to theirs, and Jews could go
to theirs, and none of them had to fight about it. There was harmony.
Similarly, a separation of the economy and the state meant that
increasingly people could do business where and with whom they wished,
and business conflicts didn't have to cause military conflicts.
The battle cry of 18th century French liberals like Jacques
Turgot was "Laissez faire!" which meant "Let
it be!" Classical liberals began to sweep away thousands of
taxes, tariffs, restrictions and special privileges that had kept
Europe, people debated and adopted written constitutions. The
Spirit of the Laws (1748) by Charles-Louis Secondat, Baron
de Montesquieu, was an early discussion of constitutions that inspired
America's Founders to develop a modern constitution for a large
country. Another influential Frenchman, Benjamin Constant, had witnessed
the horrors of the French Revolution as well as the horrors of Napoleon.
He recognized that for liberty to flourish, government power must
be limited whether it was exercised in the name of the king or the
although Britain didn't have a written constitution, its unwritten
scheme, that evolved over the centuries, influenced people everywhere.
Historian Carleton J. H. Hayes: "The English system of government
— with its full complement of a bill of rights, a king who reigned
but did not rule, a parliament which levied the taxes and made the
laws, and a ruling ministry responsible to the parliament — all
this had been formally embodied in written constitutions in Spain,
Portugal, Belgium, Italy, Greece, Austria and Hungary. In France,
where there had been a plethora of written constitutions ever since
the revolutionary days of 1791, the English system finally prevailed
in the u2018constitutional laws' of 1875, except that the titular head
was a president instead of a king. Written constitutions obtained
in other countries, but while they provided for parliaments and
ministries more or less in the English fashion, they usually left
the ministry responsible to the monarch rather than to the parliament."
was during the 19th century that the West became the
first civilization to abolish slavery on its own initiative. Thomas
Sowell observed that "Although Western Europeans had for centuries
enslaved principally the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Balkans,
by the time the Western Hemisphere was discovered and conquered,
Africa was one of the few remaining areas of the world where massive
enslavement continued to be feasible. After still more centuries,
however, the ideological contradiction between the European conception
of freedom and the brutal reality of their enslavement of Africans
began to produce, first in Britain and later in other European and
European-offshoot nations, a growing political opposition to slavery
as such — the first such mass opposition to this ancient institution
in the history of the world. Because this moral opposition developed
within countries with overwhelming military power and worldwide
imperial hegemony, slavery came under growing pressure all over
the planet — and was eventually destroyed by Europeans, despite
opposition within their own ranks, as well as opposition and evasion
by virtually every non-European civilization."
the 19th century, more than 20 Western societies abolished
slavery without the kind of civil war that devastated the United
States. Among these, Argentina (1813), Colombia (1814), Chile (1823),
Central America (1824), Mexico (1829), Bolivia (1831), British colonies
(1840), Uruguay (1842), French colonies (1848), Danish colonies
(1848), Ecuador (1851), Peru (1854), Venezuela (1854), Dutch colonies
(1863), Puerto Rico (1873), Brazil (1878) and Cuba (1886).
for free trade and peace grew hand-in-hand. One of the most crucial
insights of classical liberal economists like Adam Smith was that
nations could become more prosperous through trade rather than through
conquest. It didn't matter where political borders might be drawn,
as long as people were free to trade, free to invest and free to
travel. Adam Smith presented his case in The Wealth of Nations
(1776), and it began to have an impact in Britain after the Napoleonic
Wars. Smith's ideas inspired Manchester textile entrepreneurs Richard
Cobden and John Bright, who led the movement to repeal the "corn
laws" — tariffs on imported grain. The Corn Laws were abolished
in 1846. Just as earlier champions of liberty had agitated for a
separation of church and state, Cobden and his associates agitated
for a separation of the economy and state. By reducing if not eliminating
trade restrictions, people on one side of a border had the same
economic advantages as people on the other side of a border. Neither
side was penalized by tariffs, taxes or other discriminatory measures.
Free trade reduced the risks that economic disputes would escalate
into political disputes and war.
and Bright were eloquent foes of colonialism and imperialism, a
common source of conflict among nations. Cobden declared, "It
will be a happy day when England has not an acre of territory in
Continental Asia. But how such a state of things is to be brought
about is more than I can tell…For where do we find even an individual
who is not imbued with the notion that England would sink to ruin
if she were deprived of her Indian Empire? Leave me, then, to my
pigs and sheep, which are not labouring under any such delusions.”
in Bordeaux, France, journalist Frédéric Bastiat
organized the Association for Free Trade, and he kept French
people informed about what the British free traders were doing.
Born in 1801, he had been a gentleman farmer in Mugron, absorbing
the work of Adam Smith and Jean-Baptiste Say who popularized Smith's
ideas in France. Bastiat became a prolific pamphleteer, doing much
of his work on the socially beneficial effects of trade. In 1845,
he published Cobden et la Ligue, ou l’Agitation Anglaise pour
la Liberté des Échanges [Cobden and the League,
or The English Agitation for Freedom of Trade]. Bastiat issued
a succession of clever satires, the most famous of which was
about a petition from candlemakers who wanted the government to
block competition from sunlight. Bastiat insisted that a country
gained by opening its borders, even though other countries
July 1859, John Bright gave a speech suggesting that England cut
its military spending – much of which was to protect against
a possible attack from France – and that both countries should
liberalize trade to help promote peace. This, he declared, "would
bring about a state of things which history would pronounce to be
glorious." Six months later, January 23, 1860, a treaty was
signed, liberalizing trade between the two countries. In December
1860, Cobden persuaded the French Minister of the Interior to abolish
passports for English subjects, thereby achieving greater freedom
treaty had a dynamic impact. Between 1862 and 1866, the French
negotiated trade liberalization treaties with the Zollverein (German
customs union), Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain,
Portugal, Sweden, Norway, Papal States and North German commercial cities.
Most of these, in turn, liberalized trade with each other.
Trade restrictions were reduced or eliminated on international waterways
such as the Baltic and North Sea channel (1857), Danube (1857),
Rhine (1861), Scheldt (1863) and Elbe (1870). Even Russia
lowered tariffs somewhat, in 1857 and 1868. Because each
treaty observed the "most favored nation" principle,
it liberalized trade not only for the signatory nations, but for
everyone else as well. Never before in European history had people
been able to go about their daily business so freely.
continued to set an example. Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone
led a successful campaign to abolish more than a thousand — 95%
– of Britain's tariffs that remained after the abolition of
the corn laws. Gladstone cut Britain's income tax to 1.25%. Although
he was less successful campaigning to stop British imperialism and
give the oppressed Irish people self-government, it was remarkable
that a British government leader would mount such a campaign at
all. Biographer H.C.G. Matthew observed, "In offering freedom,
representative government, free-trade economic progress, international
co-operation through discussion and arbitration, probity in government
and society generally, as the chief objectives of public life, and
an ideology which combined and harmonized them, Gladstone offered
much to the concept of a civilized society of nations."
liberal ideas prevailed through the 1860s in western Europe, and
military conflicts were few and limited. There was substantial separation
between the economy and the state. Political borders were more open
than they had been before, and if private businessmen in one country
wanted to do a deal in another country, they could negotiate directly
with their private counterparties. They weren't thwarted or discriminated
against by regulations in the other country, so they didn't have
any reason to be concerned about where the political borders happened
to be. As long as governments stayed out of business, competition
among private firms from different countries wasn't likely to have
political consequences, any more than the success of imported Mercedes
cars would be viewed as a national security threat today, even though
it might mean less business for a U.S.-based car producer like General
Attack Laissez Faire
are always intellectual counter-currents, and attacks on laissez
faire began before it was at a peak.
most explicit, influential case for government interference in the
economy came from the German political activist Friedrich List (1789–1846).
He had spent his early adult years helping to promote a German customs
union as a way of retaliating against the British Corn Laws that
prevented German farmers from selling their grain in Britain. List
developed his ideas after a visit to the United States where prevailing
policy at the time was Henry Clay's high-tariff "American System,"
based on Alexander Hamilton's ideas about protecting domestic manufacturers
at the expense of foreign competitors. In his National System
of Political Economy (1841), List attacked free trade as a devious
means for industrialized nations, especially Britain, to exploit
backward nations. He believed the primary objective of economic
policy should be to enhance national power. He claimed that backward
nations could foster industrialization with high tariffs, thereby
enhancing their national power. Some passages suggest that List
favored expanding Germany-controlled territory and building a colonial
empire. He had limited influence during his lifetime, but his book
became a bible of economic nationalism. It was translated into English
Communist Manifesto (1848), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
denounced "that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade.
In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political
illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation."
They advocated "the Communist abolition of buying and selling,
of the bourgeois conditions of production, and of the bourgeoisie
socialists founded the Fabian Society (1883), which relentlessly
promoted the expansion of government power to remedy the perceived
ills of laissez faire. They wanted social welfare spending,
nationalization of public utilities, credit, transportation and
mining, and they steadfastly opposed free trade. Playwright George
Bernard Shaw, among the most famous Fabians, urged people to "turn
our backs on Adam Smith and Cobden, and confess that both the old
Tories and modern Socialists are right, and that there is no salvation
for the world in Free Contract and Free Trade."
Webb, perhaps the most prolific Fabian propagandist, revealed the
collectivism underlying these views: "the perfect and fitting
development of each individual is not necessarily the utmost and
highest cultivation of his own personality, but the filling, in
the best possible way, of his humble function in the great social
machine. We must abandon the self-conceit of imagining that we are
independent units, and bend our jealous minds, absorbed in their
own cultivation, to this subjection to the higher end, the Common
von Bismarck did more than anyone else to begin turning the world
away from the principles of laissez faire, free trade and
peace. Though he was considered a conservative, he saw that socialist
ideas could help expand his government's power to strike at real
or imagined adversaries, and he accelerated trends that exploded
into World War I.
was the Prime Minister of Prussia (1862–1890) and founder and
first Chancellor of the German Empire (1871–1890). Historian
A. J. P. Taylor described him as "a big man, made bigger by
his persistence in eating and drinking too much. He walked stiffly,
with the upright carriage of a hereditary officer. Yet he had a
small, fine head; the delicate hands of an artist; and when he spoke,
his voice, which one would have expected to be deep and powerful,
was thin and reedy — almost a falsetto — the voice of an academic,
not of a man of action. Nor did he always present the same face
to the world. He lives in history clean-shaven, except for a heady
moustache. Actually he wore a full beard for long periods of his
life; and this at a time when beards were symbols on the continent
of Europe of the Romantic movement, if not of radicalism."
was born in Schönhausen, Prussia, April 1, 1815, the son of
a small landed aristocrat. On his mother's side were government
officials and academics. His mother pushed him to study law at the
University of Göttingen, but he didn't do well. He spent some
time at the University of Berlin, then went to work for the Prussian
government. At the time, before unification, "Germany"
consisted of many small states, the strongest of which was Prussia.
He accepted traditional views that the role of the government was
to enforce order. He rejected the liberal idea that Britain was
a good model for Prussia.
1849, Bismarck was elected to the Prussian Chamber of Deputies —
one of the two parts of their Diet (legislature), meeting in Berlin.
He came to resent Austria-Hungary's — the Habsburg empire's – dominance
of Central Europe. He became a defender of the Prussian monarchy
and an advocate of Prussian supremacy. The Prussian King Frederick
William IV named Bismarck as the Prussian representative at the
federal diet in Frankfurt. By 1859, Bismarck was Prussia's ambassador
to Russia, and three years later he was Prussia's ambassador to
Frederick William struggled with liberal members of the Chamber
of Deputies, who demanded control over military expenditures. The
king insisted that the military was his prerogative. In 1862, he
appointed Bismarck as Prussia's Prime Minister and Foreign Minister,
hoping that Bismarck would find a way to prevail. Bismarck declared
there was a loophole in Prussia's constitution, providing that if
the king and diet couldn't agree on a budget, previous spending
and taxing levels continued in force, and the king's ministers could
make decisions until there was an agreement. For three years, Bismarck
used the opportunity to strengthen Prussia's military.
declared, "Prussia’s frontiers as laid down by the Vienna treaties
are not conducive to a healthy national life; it is not by means
of speeches and majority resolutions that the great issues of the
day will be decided – that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849
– but by blood and iron." He maneuvered Austria-Hungary into
a quick war that Prussia won in 1866. While he didn't seek territory
from Austria-Hungary, he annexed Hanover, Hesse-Kassel, Nassau,
and Frankfurt – German territories that had fought against him.
He established the North German Confederation. He worked to achieve
a German free trade area and joint military exercises among various
in 1869, the Spanish throne was offered to the Prussian king's cousin,
the French emperor Napoleon III opposed this as a threat to his
country, and he declared war on Prussia the following year. Prussia
made quick work of France and annexed the provinces Alsace and Lorraine,
for which the French never forgave the Germans. By January 1871,
southern German territories joined the North German Confederation
to form the German Empire. With these foreign policy successes,
Bismarck trumped the liberals who had tried to control the government's
budget. He became known as the "Iron Chancellor."
German historian Heinrich von Treitschke, a professor at the government-controlled
University of Berlin, declared that the mission of a powerful government
was to expand its territory. He crusaded for Prussia to annex more
territory. He wrote a friend: "only the good sword of the conqueror
can unite these lands with the North." Bismarck launched Germany's
overseas empire in 1884 by claiming Southwest Africa as a protectorate.
Italy, Belgium and other countries joined the scramble for territory.
in just a few decades, the horrors of the Napoleon wars had been
forgotten, and more people began to dream about imperial glory.
Britain had lost its American colonies but developed trading posts
in India, and after 1870 people wanted more. Randolph Churchill
launched the "Primrose League" to promote imperialism
in the name of securing overseas markets, finding outlets for excess
population and denying advantages to rivals.
Benjamin Disraeli promoted imperialism. He was a thin and dark-complexioned
man, with long ringlets of black hair. For years, he was known as
a dandy who wore jeweled shirts and rings over his gloves. He was
born December 1804 the son of a Jewish man of letters but later
baptized into the Church of England. The Tory prime minister from
1874 to 1880, he defended the monarchy, the House of Lords and the
Church of England.
spent more money on armaments. He got involved in the war between
Russia and Turkey. He occupied Cyprus. He had British forces invade
Transvaal, South Africa and Kabul, Afghanistan. He guaranteed to
protect three states on the Malay Peninsula. He claimed about 200
Pacific islands. He acquired controlling interest in the Suez Canal,
a move which afforded more secure access to British India but became
an 80-year occupation of Egypt, including wars, big military expenditures
and political embarrassments. Disraeli flattered Queen Victoria
by naming her Empress of India, and she cherished the thought that
the sun never set on the British Empire.
French Republican Premier Jules Ferry warned that if his country
didn't gain imperial territory while it was still available, it
would "descend from the first rank to the third or fourth."
In 1881, Ferry seized territory in Africa and East Asia.
of imperialism cited the protectionist Friedrich List who had declared:
"Companies should be founded in the German seaports to buy
lands in foreign countries and settle them with the German colonies;
also companies for commerce and navigation whose object would be
to open new markets abroad for German manufacturers and to establish
steamship lines…Colonies are the best means of developing manufactures,
export and import trade, and finally a respectable navy."
blamed imperialism on capitalism. Yet conquerors pillaged the earth
for centuries before anyone ever heard of free markets. Some of
the highest living standards were recorded in countries like Norway,
Sweden and Denmark when these countries didn't have an empire. Countries
without much investment capital, like Russia and Italy, eagerly
pursued imperial glory. Germany exported capital only after it had
established an overseas empire. Once colonies were acquired, European
investments still flowed not to the colonies but to other prosperous
countries — established markets. French investors, for instance,
concentrated their efforts in Eastern Europe, Russia and Argentina.
Similarly, European countries continued to conduct an estimated
three-quarters of their trade with each other. Poor colonial people
simply couldn't afford to buy many European manufactured goods.
Nor did many Europeans migrate to the colonies, especially those
in the tropics. As a financial proposition, most colonies were losers,
since there was little trade, and the cost of defending the colonies
and building infrastructure was high. Imperialism was a competition
for power and prestige, not wealth. British, French and German imperial
ambitions clashed in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Russia clashed
Wars & Political Conflicts
reaction against free trade was strongest in the most backward,
brutal, authoritarian regimes like Russia that had never cut their
tariffs much. Czar Alexander II ruled by imperial decree and police
action. The Czar reintroduced a secret police that dispatched dissenters
to forced labor in Siberian mines. Officials encouraged the murder
of Jews. In 1876, the Czar raised tariffs 50% and demanded that
they be paid in gold, throttling imports of coal, steel, machinery
and other manufactured goods. Following his assassination in 1881,
the new Czar Alexander III intensified these authoritarian policies.
same year in Spain, the Conservative Premier Antonio Canovas del
Castillo announced a new constitution that curtailed freedom of
religion, freedom of the press and freedom of association. He reasserted
a high tariff policy. Moreover, he introduced tariff discrimination
— a schedule of lower tariffs for countries that signed reciprocal
trade agreements, and a schedule of higher tariffs for everyone
else. He was driven from power following his violent repression
of demonstrators, then returned in 1890. Two years later, he successfully
promoted a tougher tariff policy. Spain's railroad traffic, international
trade and finance declined, bringing on an economic crisis that
persisted through the 1890s.
Italian states were unified in 1861, they adopted Piedmont's trade
liberalization policy, but farmers agitated for higher tariffs to
prevent Italian consumers from buying cheaper food elsewhere. Since,
as a result of higher tariffs, the cost of raw materials headed
up, manufacturers wanted higher tariffs, too, and in 1878 Italy
enacted higher tariffs for both agricultural commodities and manufactured
1881, French legislators abandoned the trade liberalization treaty
with Britain and raised tariff rates about 24% on manufactured goods
and such agricultural commodities as sugar beets, wheat, rye, barley
and flour. The government subsidized shipping and shipbuilding.
The 1892 Méline tariff provided two tariff schedules, much
higher rates on products imported from "bad guys" and
lower rates on products imported from "good guys."
1886, both France and Italy raised tariffs against each other's
products. The following year, the Italian legislature raised tariffs
to about 60% and denounced trade liberalization treaties with other
countries. Italian Prime Minister Francisco Crispi demanded that
the French lower their tariffs on Italian silk, wine, olive oil
and cattle. On December 19, 1887, indignant French legislators voted
to double tariffs against Italian products and imposed a 50% tariff
on Italian goods that had previously been tariff-free. According
to one estimate, between 1887 and 1897, French exports to Italy
fell 21%, and Italian exports to France plunged 57%.
will generated by these trade wars was a factor leading Italy to
join Germany in an alliance against France. Germany promised Italy
support against France in the struggle for African colonies. In
January 1888, Italy promised to provide military assistance in the
event of another war between France and Germany.
the 1890s, France got into a trade war with Switzerland that had
no general tariffs before it adopted a federal constitution in 1848,
and Switzerland had low tariffs until 1890. The Swiss demanded that
the French cut tariffs on 62 Swiss products, and when the French
refused the Swiss raised tariffs 90% against French products. The
French retaliated by raising their already high tariffs another
50% against Swiss products. Between 1891 and 1894, Swiss exports
to France fell about 35%, while French exports to Switzerland fell
German farmers and manufacturers pushed hard for higher tariffs
to limit competition. Alarmed at the prospect of paying more for
manufactured goods, farmers demanded high tariffs. On June 12, 1879,
the German Reichstag — their legislature — approved high tariffs
on textiles, iron, grain and meat, while admitting industrial raw
materials duty-free. From the standpoint of German government officials,
the tariffs were intended to increase revenue. As biographer Emil
Ludwig observed, "Protection was only a means for increasing
the power of the state."
1879 German tariff law as well as revisions in 1885 and 1887, raised
tariffs on Russian agricultural commodities. The Russians retaliated
by raising tariffs on German imports in 1881, 1886 and 1891. Then
Russia offered not to further raise its tariffs against German products
for a decade, but the Germans countered that Russian tariffs were
already very high. The Germans demanded that Russian tariffs be
rolled back to the levels prevailing in 1880. Russia countered by
raising tariffs against German goods, Germany retaliated with 50%
penalties against Russian goods, and Russia retaliated with 50%
penalties on top of its high tariff rates. Historian Gordon A. Craig
noted that the Russians "vented their feelings in the nationalist
press in Moscow and the semi-official press in St. Petersburg."
It was during this trade war that Russia signed a military alliance
with France against Germany.
high tariffs were a drain on the German economy. The gains
of large German farmers, noted Craig, "were paid for by the
ordinary German citizen and were made at the cost of technical progress.
What happened in effect was that land remained in grain production
(as late as 1902, 60 per cent of cultivated land was used for this
purpose) that might more profitably have been converted to cattle
raising, dairy farming, and specialized production. Such conversion
would probably have made Germany more vulnerable to blockade during
the First World War, but that is hardly a good argument in favour
of the grain tariff, particularly when one remembers its political
and social significance."
was widely claimed that tariffs were needed to spur industrialization,
but Germany had begun industrializing decades before high tariffs
were enacted in 1879. Prussia had previously promoted modernization
by enacting what was probably Europe's lowest tariff, in
1816. This formed the basis of the Zollverein that evolved into
central Europe's largest free trade area. It stimulated growth by
vastly expanding the market for central European companies. German
railroad construction accelerated in the 1840s, cutting the cost
of Ruhr coal shipments 65%, and this certainly gave an important
boost to German industry. Germany's main rail lines were completed
by 1876, by which time tariffs had been reduced to less than 5%.
Economic historian David Landes described how "the industrial
centres of west Germany — Krefeld, Monschau, the Wuppertal in textiles,
Solingen and Remscheid in metalwork — grew rapidly without assistance
and gave rise to large firms of international reputation."
1878, the British amateur chemists Richard Thomas and Sidney Gilchrist
developed an ingenious process for removing phosphorus from iron,
making it possible to produce significantly stronger steel; suddenly,
the high-phosphorus iron deposits in Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium
had enormous value. Alert German entrepreneurs licensed the Thomas-Gilchrist
patents to begin production within a year. British steel companies
continued using the Bessemer process that suited the non-phosphoric
British iron ores and non-phosphoric ores imported from Spain. So
Germany didn't owe its industrial strength to high tariffs.
any case, as Massachusetts Institute of Technology economic historian
Charles P. Kindelberger noted: "Germany overtook Britain in
real income per capita only in the 1960s, and not at all in the
19th century. A crude measure of growth is the percentage
of employment in agriculture. By this yardstick Britain is still
 far ahead of Germany. Or perhaps one ought to measure not
output so much as consumption; this favors Britain in the short
run because of her smaller portion of income used for investment.
One can take overall or per capital measures, or rates of exchange…or
the growth of productivity per weighted index of factor inputs.
Or capacity to transform, that is, to adapt to changes in economic
variables. A less subtle measure would relate to economic power
defined in some sense such as [R. G.] Hawtrey used — the ability
to deliver firepower at a distance, a definition that peculiarly
favored the insular position of Britain with her big navy. Or steel
production. Or the rate of growth in competitive export markets.
Or foreign lending. On each of these measures there will be somewhat
different results. Germany never caught up with Britain in agriculture,
textiles, shipping, or overseas banking."
wars proliferated during the 1890s. Germany waged a five-year trade
war with Spain. Off and on, Germany slapped tariffs on Canadian
goods. The U.S. retaliated repeatedly against Brazil and Cuba as
well as European countries.
1900, more and more nations adopted higher tariffs, partially to
appease their own interest groups clamoring for protection and partially
to use as bargaining chips when negotiating tariff reduction deals
with other nations. By 1904, according to economic historian John
H. Clapham, average tariffs were 25% in Germany, 27% in Italy, 34%
in France, 35% in Austria, 73% in the U.S. and 131% in Russia. All
this generated ill will that undoubtedly figured in political and
ultimately military conflicts.
only nations disregarding the protectionist trend were Britain,
Belgium and the Netherlands. Free trade Britain remained enviably
strong in 1914. Britain dominated global shipping and insurance.
Germany as well as other industrializing countries bought more goods
directly from suppliers and depended less on Britain, yet Britain's
re-export trade continued to grow. Despite a challenge from France,
Britain remained the world's most important securities market. Income
from foreign investments rose steadily, as British investors poured
capital into the United States, India, Japan and South America.
was apparent to some people that trade wars provoked hostility and
could lead to violence. In The
Great Illusion, first published in 1909, British businessman
Norman Angell denounced economic nationalism whose "method
is to secure the advantage for one country by killing the prosperity
of some other through the exclusion of that other's products; to
cure unemployment on one side of the frontier by increasing it on
the other…According to that doctrine, it is economic wickedness
to buy of the foreigner, but virtue to sell to him. But the foreigner
cannot buy from us unless he sells to us. We want to be sure that
he does not sell more than he buys. To ensure the result there must
be regulated quotas, state barter: Socialism in the field of international
economist Ludwig von Mises reflected, "The outstanding method
of modern nationalism is discrimination against foreigners in the
economic sphere. Foreign goods are excluded from the domestic market
or admitted only after payment of an import duty. Foreign labor
is barred from competition in the domestic labor market. Foreign
capital is liable to confiscation. This economic nationalism must
result in war whenever those injured believe that they are strong
enough to brush away by armed violent action the measures detrimental
to their own welfare."
the defeat of Napoleon, no country rivaled the dominance of the
British Navy. But it had become big, bloated and tradition-bound
— which is why dramatist William S. Gilbert satirized it in the
hugely successful comic operas H. M. S. Pinafore (1878) and
Pirates of Penzance (1879), with music by Arthur Sullivan.
British had coasted on their laurels for a century and had grown
complacent and careless in their dominance," observed historian
James L. Stokesbury. "The late nineteenth-century Royal Navy
was a comfortable club ruled over by a group of old fuddy-duddies
who thought God had ordained what their grandfathers had fought
to achieve. There were on record captains who threw overboard their
annual allotment of practice shells rather than have the powder
smoke dull their paint-and-brass work."
rivalries provoked fears that led European powers to expand their
navies — a policy, incidentally, urged by Friedrich List. In 1888,
three British admirals recommended a "two-power standard":
their navy should be expanded until it's as strong as the combined
forces of its two principal European rivals — at that time, France
and Russia. The following year, Parliament passed the Naval Defense
Act, appropriating funds for naval budgets.
Kaiser Wilhelm II, who came to power in 1888, decided his country
should have a great navy, and he launched an armaments program.
The German Reichstag — its legislature — enacted a succession of
Navy Laws. Why did Germany, a land power, need a navy? Probably
for prestige more than anything else. Since Germany didn't have
a vast overseas colonial empire, it didn't need ships capable of
going long distances. Germany's fleet would be concentrated in the
spurred the British to expand and modernize their navy. In 1892,
John Arbuthnot Fisher was appointed Third Sea Lord, and he soon
became the most dynamic personality pushing to reform the British
Navy. He was named First Sea Lord a dozen years later.
appearance," wrote Robert K. Massie, "this naval titan
was short and stocky; an average Englishman, perhaps, until one
looked at his face. It was round, smooth, and curiously boyish.
His mouth was full-lipped and sensual and could be merry, but as
he aged it tightened and the corners turned down with bitterness
and fatigue. The extraordinary feature was his eyes. Set far apart,
almost at the edges of his face, they were very large, and light
gray. Heavy eyelids, which tended to droop, gave them an almond
shape. When he looked at a person, Fisher's gaze was fixed and compelling
and gave no clue to the patterns of thought or emotion behind the
added that compared with the aristocrats who had dominated the ranks
of naval officers for decades, Fisher was "barely a gentleman
by birth and not truly one in behavior. He owed nothing to family,
wealth, or social position and everything to merit, force of character,
and sheer persistence…He brought to the fight an exceptional inventory
of qualities: Herculean energy, burning ambition, towering ego and
self-confidence, and fervent patriotism. He was bold, quick-witted,
and original, and in everything he did he was passionately involved."
1907, Britain introduced the H.M.S. Dreadnought, the most
powerful ship on the seas. The name meant "dread nought but
God." Powered by quiet turbine engines, it had ten turreted
12-inch guns, all the same caliber, compared with four 12-inch guns
on conventional battleships. Each of these guns shot an 850-pound
explosive shell more than 6,000 yards. The Dreadnought was
also designed with a top speed of 21 knots (about 24 miles per hour),
fast for a big ship. The ship that could fire the heaviest shells
the longest distances was bound to prevail, particularly when such
a ship was faster than its adversary.
British didn't actually originate the idea of an all-big-gun ship
— credit belongs to an Italian designer named Vitorio Cuniberti.
But it was the British who started a race to see who could build
the largest number of these ships, and they became known as dreadnoughts.
Rather than attempt a sophisticated analysis of comparative naval
strength, newspapers simply counted the number of dreadnoughts.
London crowds chanted, "We want eight, and we won't wait!"
By 1914, Britain had 20 dreadnoughts, Germany had 13, and other
nations had smaller numbers.
the race for a bigger navy was a sign of the trend away from laissez
faire, it wasn't a reason for war between Britain and Germany,
because Britain had decisively won the race. As military historian
J. F. C. Fuller explained, "the Triple Entente [Britain, France,
Russia] was spending on new construction two and a half times the
amount spent by the Triple Alliance [Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy],
and France and Russia spent approximately two and a half times as
much as Germany. How anyone could say that German naval expansion
threatened England is difficult to understand; yet from 1909 on
it was said again and again."
J. F. C. Fuller, A Military History of the Western World,
From the Seven Days Battle, 1862, To the Battle of Leyte
Gulf, 1944 (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1956), p.
out that Germany had concerns other than Britain: "Her naval
situation in a war against France and Russia was overlooked, yet
it was this situation which was, and had been, the governing factor
in her naval policy since 1900." Germany's Admiral Alfred
von Tirpitz remarked, "We should be in a position to blockade
the Russian fleet in the Baltic ports, and to prevent at the same
time the entrance to the sea of the French fleet."
partially by Captain Alfred Mahan's book Influence
of Sea Power Upon History (1890), a United States naval
committee urged building a fleet of 100 ships, including 20 first-class
battleships. Japan followed with its own naval development. A succession
of books and advocacy groups encouraged a steady military build-up
during the next two decades.
the late 19th century, with the Napoleonic wars
a distant memory, many people seem to have viewed Napoleon as a
hero and found it easier to imagine that war might be a good thing.
For example, the "progressive" American journalist Ida
M. Tarbell — who wrote a famous muckraking biography of John D.
Rockefeller and became a passionate admirer of Woodrow Wilson and
Benito Mussolini – wrote a worshipful biography of Napoleon, first
published in 1894.
"Progressives," it seemed, had a blind spot for the perils
of political power. "No man ever comprehended more clearly
the splendid science of war," Tarbell gushed about Napoleon.
"He cannot fail to bow to the genius which conceived and executed
the Italian campaign, which fought the classic battles of Austerlitz,
Jena, and Wagram. These deeds are great epics. They move in noble,
measured lines, and stir us by their might and perfection. It is
only a genius of the most magnificent order which could handle men
and materials as Napoleon did…It is only a mind of noble proportions
which can grasp the needs of a people, and a hand of mighty force
which can supply them…He was the greatest genius of his time, perhaps
of all time…" One of Tarbell's most ghastly lines dismissed
those like Lafayette who courageously dissented from Napoleon's
tyrannical rule: "It was only selfish, warped, abnormal natures,
which had been stifled by etiquette and diplomacy and self-interest,
who abandoned him."
Europe continued to be at peace during the late 19th
century, Bismarck anticipated the possibility of war and began negotiating
alliances. In October 1879, he concluded a defensive treaty known
as the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary. Two years later, France
sent troops into Tunisia, aggravating the Italians who were late
to the game of acquiring colonies and coveted African territory.
The following year, Italy secretly joined Germany and Austria-Hungary,
forming the Triple Alliance. Then, in 1887, came the Reinsurance
Treaty with Russia — a juggling act, since Russia and Austria-Hungary
German emperor Frederick III died in June 1888 and was succeeded
by Wilhelm II of Hohenzollern who was the grandson of Britain's
Queen Victoria. "He was an excitable, impulsive, and headstrong
man, industrious, pious and patriotic," observed historian
J. F. C. Fuller. Wilhelm II, the new German Kaiser, proclaimed:
"There is only one master in the country, and I am he."
He fired Bismarck in 1890, and the alliances he had developed began
to fall apart.
alliance with Russia expired, and in 1894 French officials — heirs
of the French Revolution – swallowed their supposedly radical principles
and formed the Dual Alliance, a defensive alliance with Czarist
Russia against Germany and Austria-Hungary. That French republicans
and Russian autocrats could come together had been considered a
political impossibility. The Napoleonic wars had climaxed with the
French invasion of Russia.
1895, Kaiser Wilhelm II celebrated a quarter century of the German
Empire by describing a realm that extended beyond Europe, around
the world — a rather inflammatory topic. Three years later, he bragged
about his navy: "even for the greatest sea power [Britain],
a war with it would involve such risks as to jeopardize its own
began to reconsider its policy of going it alone, not allied with
anybody, protected by its mighty navy. Britain had fought France
in many wars, and France was still widely viewed as a potential
threat. In 1894, British naval guru John Fisher wrote: "The
French, no doubt, sincerely desire peace with England, provided
they can replace England in Egypt and the Nile Basin and elsewhere.
To obtain peace on these terms they would not shrink from trying
a fall with England, if they thought there was a fair chance of
success. The deadlock that ends in war can only be avoided by one
of two means. Either the French may abandon their claims, or the
English may strengthen their sea power to such an extent that the
probable chances of an international struggle would leave France
worse off than she is today."
French, who had been humiliated by Germany in the brief war of 1870
(started by the French ruler Napoleon III), were anxious for British
help if they ever again found themselves fighting Germany. Concerned
about the German navy, Britain agreed to forget past hostilities
with France and reach a general understanding known variously as
the Entente Cordiale, or the Franco-British Declaration,
or the Declaration between the United Kingdom and France Respecting
Egypt and Morocco, Together with the Secret Articles Signed at the
Same Time, April 8, 1904. According to historian Niall Ferguson,
the British were interested in reducing colonial conflicts, and
there were more possible tradeoffs with a country like France that
already had a lot of colonies than with Germany that aspired to
have colonial possessions. Because of French ties to Russia, the
agreement suggested the possibility that Britain might improve relations
with Russia. The agreement was signed by French Foreign Minister
Paul Cambon and British Foreign Secretary Henry Lansdowne.
the Entente Cordiale specified that Britain would provide
diplomatic support for French control of ports in Morocco, French
and British military staffs had secretly met to discuss joint operations
in the event of a war. French Foreign Minister Théofile Delcassé
reported that Britain had agreed to deploy its navy against Germany
in the event of war between France and Germany, but Lansdowne denied
was Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary from 1893 to 1895 in
Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone's last government, and from
1905 to 1916 in the governments of Henry Campbell-Bannerman and
Henry Asquith, who secretly transformed Britain's general understanding
into an alliance with France and thereby played a critical role
in the outbreak of World War I.
approved continued secret meetings between British and French military
staffs who discussed joint action in a possible war with Germany.
The only other members of Parliament who knew about these meetings
were Campbell-Bannerman, Asquith, and Richard Burdon Haldane, who
was the minister of war.
believed goodwill with France was so important that Britain couldn't
risk it by trying to improve relations with Germany. He seemed to
adopt an anti-German view to placate the French. "The danger
of speaking civil words in Berlin," Grey wrote in October 1905,
"is that they may be…interpreted in France as implying that
we shall be lukewarm in our support of the entente [with France]."
the British had mixed feelings about Russia. Some influential Englishmen,
including member of Parliament Joseph Chamberlain, talked about
a possible alliance with Germany. This idea was abandoned when Germany
began to expand its navy in the name of achieving "greatness"
and protecting its overseas colonies.
1907, two years after the Russian navy had been destroyed by Japanese
in a brief war — and after French lenders had helped to rebuild
the Russian navy – the Anglo-Russian Convention was signed: Britain
and Russia resolved their colonial differences, recognizing each
other's spheres of influence in Afghanistan, Persia, the Balkans
and elsewhere. The agreement wasn't intended as a balance against
German power, but it blossomed into the Triple Entente, an alliance
facing the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy.
Meanwhile, Russia received French funds to modernize its military
and make possible a faster mobilization in the event of war.
1911, British Prime Minister Asquith became uncomfortable about
continued meetings between British and French military staffs, and
he wrote Grey on September 5: "Conversations such as that between
[French] General Joffre and [British] Colonel Fairholme seem to
me rather dangerous; especially the part which refers to possible
British assistance. The French ought not to be encouraged, in present
circumstances, to make their plans on any assumptions of this kind."
September 8, Grey replied, defending secret support for the French:
"It would create consternation if we forbade our military experts
to converse with the French. No doubt these conversations and our
speeches have given an expectation of support. I do not see how
that can be helped."
Britain, there was growing suspicion that Grey was scheming to involve
Britain in a continental war. F. W. Hirst, editor of The Economist,
denounced the idea of "asking millions of his innocent countrymen
to give up their lives for a continental squabble about which they
know nothing and care less."
Churchill, who had become First Lord of the Admiralty, was among
the few members of Parliament aware of Grey's secret dealings, and
he defended them: "we were morally committed to France…No bargain
had been entered into. All arrangements were specifically preluded
with a declaration that neither party was committed to anything
further than consultation together if danger threatened…[if in 1912]
the Foreign Secretary had, in cold blood, proposed a formal alliance
with France and Russia…the Cabinet of the day would never have agreed
to it. I doubt if four Ministers would have agreed to it. But if
the Cabinet had been united upon it, the House of Commons would
not have accepted their guidance. Therefore the Foreign Minister
would have had to resign. The policy which he had advocated would
have stood condemned and perhaps violently repudiated; and upon
that repudiation would have come an absolute veto upon all those
informal preparations and non-committal discussions on which the
defense power of the Triple Entente was erected." In other
words, Churchill believed that if Grey had operated openly, Britain
might not have been able to get into the war!
alliance had the potential to draw Britain into a war with which
France became involved yet didn't have the value of deterring aggression
by other nations — in particular Germany — because it was secret.
Churchill acknowledged as much: "An open alliance, if it could
have been peacefully brought about at an earlier date, would have
exercised a deterring effect upon the German mind, or at the least
would have altered their military calculations."
one of the ministers, the Earl of Loreburn — who had served from
1905 to 1912 – complained: "We were brought into the war because
Mr. Asquith and Sir Edward Grey and their confidents, by steps some
of which are known while others may be unknown, had placed us in
such a position toward France, and therefore also toward Russia,
that they found they could not refuse to take up arms on her behalf
when it came to the issue, though till the end they denied it to
Parliament, and probably even to themselves…We went to war unprepared
in a Russian quarrel because we were tied to France in the dark…In
effect [Grey's secret dealings] left the peace of Great Britain
at the mercy of the Russian Court."
Grey operated in a parliamentary system, he had arrogated to himself
supreme power over Britain's foreign policy. He wrote, "I did
not regard anything except my own letters and official papers as
Ferguson pointed out that by 1912, there was a greater risk of war
with Germany than with France or Russia, and therefore it would
have made more sense to seek some kind of accommodation with Germany.
Instead, Ferguson explained, "in his determination to preserve
the Entente with France, Grey was willing to make military commitments
which made war with Germany more rather than less likely, sooner
rather than later. By a completely circular process of reasoning,
he wished to commit Britain to a possible war with Germany — because
otherwise there might be war with Germany. Appeasement of France
and Russia had once made sense; but Grey prolonged the life of the
policy well after its rationale had faded."
these alliances increased the risks of war two ways. First, they
reduced the incentives for government officials to be cautious.
Backed by allies, the participants were more likely to figure they
might prevail and therefore to believe that the risks of war were
worth taking. Government officials were less likely to risk war
if they knew they would have to fight on their own and bear the
costs themselves. In a 1911 speech to Parliament, Grey acknowledged
the danger by emphasizing that Britain's "friendship"
with France and Russia didn't involve alliances.
alliances increased the number of nations likely to become involved
in a war. As historian Sidney B. Fay explained, "The members
of each group felt bound to support each other, even in matters
where they had no direct interest, because failure to give support
would have weakened the solidarity of the group. Thus, Germany often
felt bound to back up Austria-Hungary in her Balkan policies, because
otherwise Germany feared to lose her only thoroughly dependable
ally. Similarly, France had no direct political (only financial)
interests in the Balkans, but felt bound to back up Russia, because
otherwise the existence of the Dual Alliance would have been threatened,
the balance of power destroyed, and the best guarantee to French
safety from a German attack would have been lost. Likewise, the
officials of the British Foreign Office became increasingly convinced
that England must support France and Russia in order to preserve
the solidarity of the Triple Entente as a check to the Triple Alliance."
intervention in domestic policy inflamed national hatreds that eventually
spread across European borders, increasing the likelihood local
conflicts might activate alliances and spread across Europe.
the multi-national Ottoman Empire, the Sultan's repressive policies
sparked rebellion. Serbs and Romanians gained their independence
in 1878. Albanians and Bulgarians became independent in 1912. Though
all opposed the Turks, they also fought each other and manipulated
political power to terrorize their own subject nationalities. They
agitated against adjacent powers — Russia and Austria-Hungary —
in the name of helping their compatriots across the borders. Meanwhile,
Turks slaughtered Armenians and waged war with Greeks.
used their power to suppress dozens of nationalities within their
borders. The most restive were Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Finns,
Ukrainians, Georgians and Armenians. Revolts were brutally put down
by Czar Alexander III, and he used government control of schools
to suppress unofficial languages. He seized the funds of dissident
churches. Not all anger was directed at Russians, though; Polish
nationalists, for instance, clashed with Lithuanian and Ukrainian
nationalists. Many nationalities persecuted Jews. The more government
interfered with various nationalities, the worse the conflicts that
disrupted the economy and undermined the government itself.
was a cauldron of nationalities. Austria had Germans and Poles.
Hungary had Magyars, Slovaks, Serbs, Croats and Romanians. Galicia:
Poles and Ukrainians. Silesia: Germans, Poles and Czechs. Czechs
dominated Bohemia and Moravia, but many Germans lived in those provinces,
too. Italians were in South Tyrol. There were Serbs in Bosnia and
Herzegovina, Serbs and Croats in Dalmatia, Slavs in Styria and Carinthia,
Carniola and Istria. If permitted to go about their business without
interference, the various nationalities would have been more likely
to get along peacefully, as different nationalities have generally
done in Switzerland and the United States.
governments increasingly dominated their respective economies, and
as a result whichever nationality controlled government could inflict
its will on everyone else, thereby escalating potential conflicts.
As historian A. J. P. Taylor wrote: "the Austrian state suffered
from its strength: it had never had its range of activity cut down
during a successful period of laissez-faire, and therefore
the openings for national conflict were far greater. There were
no private schools or hospitals, no independent universities; and
the state, in its infinite paternalism, performed a variety of services
from veterinary surgery to the inspecting of buildings. The appointment
of every school teacher, of every railway porter, of every hospital
doctor, of every tax-collector, was a signal for national struggle.
Besides, private industry looked to the state for aid from tariffs
and subsidies; these, in every country, produce u2018log-rolling,' and
nationalism offered an added lever with which to shift the logs.
German industries demanded state aid to preserve their privileged
position; Czech industries demanded state aid to redress the inequalities
of the past. The first generation of national rivals had been the
products of universities and fought for appointments at the highest
professional level: their disputes concerned only a few hundred
state jobs. The generation which followed them was the result of
universal elementary education and fought for the trivial state
employment which existed in every village; hence the more popular
national conflicts at the end of the century."
enacted schooling laws to extend the political power of the dominant
German-speaking minority. "Schools were designed to send forth
obedient subjects, not critically-minded citizens," according
to historian Arthur. J. May. "The object of Austrian elementary
education, above all other objects, was to contribute to the preservation
of the state." National minorities had less money available
for education, because they paid taxes that were distributed among
the politically powerful. More government money spent on German
schools meant less government money for Slovene schools, and less
after-tax money for Slovenes to spend on their priorities.
Hungary, politically powerful Magyars — a minority — expanded government
control over schools in 1879, 1883 and 1907. Their official mission
was to produce Magyar patriots. They taught Magyar history, culture
and language. Only people who spoke Magyar could serve on a school
board. The government mandated low teachers' salaries at non-government
schools, so they'd have to apply for subsidies, thereby extending
government influence over these schools as well. Although Slovaks
and other non-Magyars had to pay taxes, the government didn't provide
any financial support for non-Magyar schools.
Magyar monopoly of schools enabled Magyars to monopolize government
jobs and the professions. According to A. J. P. Taylor, "At
the beginning of the twentieth century, 95 per cent of the state
officials, 92 per cent of the county officials, 89 per cent of the
doctors, and 90 per cent of the judges were Magyar."
power was all-important as Magyars used it to promote their interests
at the expense of other people. Hungary annexed Transylvania in
1865 and rescinded the traditional rights of national minorities
there. Romanian deputies weren't permitted to speak their own language
in the legislature. Magyars harassed the Romanian press. They packed
juries with non-Romanians. Magyars suppressed Slovak educational,
literary and scientific societies. They did what they could to prevent
Croats from pursuing their lives freely.
Oszkár Jászi maintained that rolling back government
power in Austria-Hungary would have reduced potential conflicts
among the nationalities. "There can be no doubt," he wrote,
"that, if all the possibilities of free trade policy had been
utilized in the right way, the centrifugal and particularistic tendencies
could have been checked by the growing economic solidarity of the
various nations and countries."
interventionist policies continued, nationality conflicts raged
across borders. The flashpoint turned out to be Macedonia, a hilly
land flanked by Albania, Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia. All these
nationalities and more were represented in Macedonia, and memories
of past oppression confirmed their hatred for one another as well
as the nationalities ruling Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey.
Britain, France and Russia used economic means to maneuver for political
influence in the Balkans and Ottoman Turkey. For instance, in the
spring of 1914, Ottoman Turkey was broke, and both France and Germany
were eager to give away their taxpayers' money, extending loans
that might never be repaid. France won the deal. Germany wanted
Bulgaria as an ally, so it gave away money there. Britain and Germany
competed to influence construction of the Baghdad Railway, and the
resulting arrangement favored Britain.
over the course of five decades, the relentless attacks on laissez faire,
the expansion of government power, Bismarck's willingness to seize
territory, his system of military alliances, the scramble for colonies,
the trade wars, the arms race and national hatreds, had subverted
the great peace of the 19th century and transformed
Europe into a powder keg.
European opinion had swung away from a generally laissez faire,
non-interventionist foreign policy, nobody seemed to consider that
an interventionist foreign policy is more complicated to manage.
One never knows how different people might react to interventions,
so there are more likely to be unintended consequences. Such a policy
requires people with considerable knowledge and the ability to anticipate
developments and make sound judgments. Nobody has figured out a
way to assure that an interventionist foreign policy will always
be managed by such people.
1914, many Europeans expected war. There was a war spirit in France.
Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the German General Staff, expressed
fear that Britain, France and Russia left Germany "in a condition
of hopeless isolation which was growing ever more hopeless,"
and there was support among German strategists for a preventative
war. "The sooner it comes, the better for us," Moltke
Foreign Secretary Grey told Cabinet members that the government,
"concerned to maintain some balance between groups of Powers,
could under no circumstances tolerate France being crushed."
But on June 11, in response to war fears, Edward Grey told the House
of Commons: "if war arose between the European Powers, there
were no unpublished agreements which would restrict or hamper the
freedom of the Government or of Parliament to decide whether or
not Great Britain should participate in a war. No such negotiations
are in progress, and none are likely to be entered into as far as
I can judge." So he lied about his commitments to France, and
he eliminated any potential value they might have had deterring
Germany from going to war.
war began with an assassination and a series of miscalculations.
On June 28, 1914, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian
Empire, was shot while driving through Sarajevo. The assassin was
Gavrilo Princep, a Serbian nationalist student. Princep was involved
with the Black Hand, a terrorist group promoting Greater Serbia.
The Black Hand was directed by Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević,
head of Serbian military intelligence.
the 1912–1913 Balkan Wars, Serbia had doubled its territory.
Officials in Vienna believed that the Serbs coveted some of their
territory, that Serbs had plotted the assassination, and that they
must be stopped. But what was Austria-Hungary to do?
Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia, Russia might back Serbia, because
Slav nationalists were agitating for Russia to be the protector
of fellow Slavs. The Russian army was about twice the size of the
Austro-Hungarian army, so Russian intervention would spell trouble.
Since Russia had an alliance with Britain and France, it was possible
that Russian intervention might draw in those countries as well.
Russia's Czar Nicholas II knew that war meant risks for his regime.
He had been humiliated just a few years before, in the Russo-Japanese
War (1904–1905) that triggered the Revolution of 1905 and brought
the regime close to collapse. Russia certainly wasn't prepared for
a major war. Russia seemed unlikely to go into a war alone.
July 3, Woodrow Wilson's principal advisor Edward House reported
that Foreign Secretary Grey let the Kaiser know about his desire
for peace, but "Sir Edward said he did not wish to send anything
official or in writing, for fear of offending French and Russian
sensibilities." Apparently Grey's commitments to these nations
were such that he couldn't function as a peacemaker.
deciding to take action against Serbia, Austria-Hungary needed help,
and the most likely ally was Germany. On July 5, the Germany's Kaiser
Wilhelm II gave Austria-Hungary his famous "blank check"
— supporting Austria-Hungary in its view that Serbia must be dealt
with firmly. The conflict looked like another Balkan War — no big
deal. Officials in Austria-Hungary expected that German backing
would deter Russia from entering the conflict and help recruit Bulgaria
as an ally. The Germans didn't appear to be planning a general war,
because when the Kaiser issued his "blank check," Moltke,
Wilhelm Groener (head of the army's railroad department) and Walther
Nicolai (head of military intelligence) were all away on a summer
could Germany and Russia fight each other? Kaiser Wilhelm II was
a cousin of Czar Nicholas II and — one might add — an uncle of Britain's
King Edward VII. Surely, royals ought to be able to talk with one
another and avoid a war.
July 23, Austria-Hungary's ambassador to Serbia presented an ultimatum:
Serbia must eliminate terrorists based in the country and suppress
publications critical of Austria-Hungary. Furthermore, representatives
of Austria-Hungary must participate in the investigation of the
assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.
wasn't ready for war, because it was still rebuilding its military
forces after the recent Balkan Wars that had resulted in 91,000
Serbian casualties. In many Serbian infantry units, about a third
of the soldiers lacked rifles. Accordingly, Serbia tried to defuse
the situation, saying it would go along with Austria's demands as
much as possible. Serbia promised to suppress terrorism and publications
critical of Austria-Hungary. The only point it couldn't go along
with was the idea of having foreigners involved with the investigation.
ordered the mobilization of its army on July 23. Serbia ordered
its army to mobilize two days later. Mobilizing an army didn't mean
war was inevitable, because it had served as a tool of diplomacy,
to step up the pressure in a negotiation. But Austrian officials
felt it was crucial to stop nationality conflicts from escalating
before they blew apart their multi-national empire. On July 28,
Austria-Hungary declared war against Serbia.
following day, Foreign Secretary Edward Grey told the Austrian Ambassador:
"I did not wish to discuss the merits of the question between
Austria and Serbia." Grey later confirmed his disinterest in
the dispute: "The notion of being involved in war about a Balkan
quarrel was repugnant. Serbia, to British people, was a country
with which a few years ago we had severed diplomatic relations,
because of a brutal murder of the King and Queen; and though that
was over, and we were now on good terms, there was no sentiment
urging us to go into a war on Serbia's behalf."
Ambassador Friedrich Szápáry asked Russian Foreign
Minister Sergei Sazonov not to mobilize the army, but then came
reports that Austrian forces were bombarding Belgrade, the Serbian
capital. On July 30, with the implicit support of Britain and France,
Czar Nicholas II decided to order a mobilization of the Russian
army against Austria-Hungary and Germany. Such a mobilization had
long been viewed as an act of war. Presumably Russia's ally France
would soon join the war, and Germany would find itself fighting
on two fronts. Germany's best bet, militarily, seemed to be a quick
victory over France in the west so it could focus on the much larger
Russian armies in the east. Historian S. L. A. Marshall declared,
"The news of full mobilization by Russia fixed Europe's fate."
August 1, Kaiser Wilhelm II supported his ally Austria-Hungary by
declaring war against Russia. French war minister Cambon recalled
demanding that Grey commit Britain to the defense of France, if
France should enter the war. When Grey replied that the British
government hadn't decided what it would do, Cambon fumed: "After
all that has passed between our two countries, after the agreement
between your naval authorities and ours by which all our naval strength
has been concentrated in the Mediterranean so as to release your
fleet for concentration in the North Sea, so that if the German
Fleet sweeps down the Channel and destroys Calais, Boulogne, and
Cherbourg, there can be no resistance, you tell me that your Government
cannot decide upon intervention? How am I to send such a message?
It would fill France with rage and indignation. My people would
say you betrayed us. It is not possible. It is true the agreements
between your military and naval authorities have not been ratified
by our Governments, but there is a moral obligation not to leave
3, Germany declared war against France. How could Britain enter
the war, since there wasn't an official alliance with France? British
officials had discussed a naval blockade of Germany, and Chief of
Staff John French expressed the view that "to bring the greatest
pressure to bear upon Germany, it is essential that the Netherlands
and Belgium should either be entirely friendly to this country,
or that they should be definitely hostile, in which case we should
extend the blockade to their ports." British officials contemplated
violating the sovereignty of Belgium, yet the rationale for fighting
Germany on behalf of France turned out to be the German invasion
of Belgium on August 4. Britain cited it as an excuse to declare
war against Germany.
the belligerents expected war would be brief. None had plans for
a long military campaign. Officials throughout Europe were shocked
when, in the fall of 1914, it became apparent that the killing might
go on for a long time.
of this was inevitable. If the horrors of the Napoleonic wars had
remained fresh in people's minds – rather than having conquests
glorified by "progressives" – and if the laissez faire
policies of Richard Cobden and John Bright had been continued, there
never would have been a world war. Maintaining a separation of the
economy and the state would have prevented politicians from turning
business competition into political and military conflicts. There
wouldn't have been nasty trade wars and empire building, contributing
to paranoia and the arms race. If governments had let people live
their lives as freely on one side of a border as on the other, there
wouldn't have been much political support for war. What would have
been the point?
discussion about World War I origins has focused on immediate factors.
Barbara Tuchman, for example, chronicled the incompetence of the
personalities who headed the belligerent governments. Her points
were well-taken, but there have always been incompetents in government.
Nobody has devised way to keep them out. Why did incompetents do
more harm in 1914 than, say, in 1860 or 1850 or 1840? By minimizing
the power of government, laissez faire policies minimized
the harm that might be done by incompetent or evil rulers.
there has been the debate about the war guilt of the belligerents.
The Allied Powers blamed everything on Germany, and it was hit with
monstrous reparations bills. Later, revisionist historians like
Sidney Fay and Harry Elmer Barnes insisted that there was plenty
of blame to go around. German historian Fritz Fischer, after examining
German archives, renewed the debate by presenting his case that
after Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, German officials urged
Austria to send Serbia an ultimatum that was so strong, the Serbian
government would have defy it. German officials, Fischer reported,
pledged to back Austria for provoking war — the policy that became
known as "Germany's blank cheque." Fischer documented
how German officials later expanded their war aims. As with Tuchman,
one might acknowledge points but note that he's discussing one of
the last steps in a long sequence of developments. Why didn't any
of a number of 19th century provocations result
in a general war? Other factors, such as trade wars, alliance systems
and national hatreds, weren't present during the mid-19th century.
Also war horrors were a more recent memory, and 19th century
political leaders were probably much more anxious to avoid war.
laissez faire policies could have been continued, once they
were abandoned, and more governments pursued aggressive interventionist
policies, it would have been hard to avoid a general war.
Powell, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of
War, How Woodrow Wilson's Great Blunder Led To Hitler, Lenin, Stalin
And World War II (2005), FDR's
Folly, How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression
(2003), and The
Triumph of Liberty, A 2,000-Year History Told Through The Lives
Of Freedom's Greatest Champions (2000).