How England Helped Start the Great War

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by Paul Gottfried: League
of Acceptable Nations

A vastly
underexplored topic is the British government’s role in greasing
the skids for World War I. Until recently it was hard to find
scholars who would dispute the culturally comfortable judgment
that “authoritarian Germany” unleashed the Great War
out of militaristic arrogance. Supposedly the British only got
involved after the Germans recklessly violated Belgian neutrality
on their way to conquering “democratic“ France.

But British
Foreign Secretary Lord Edward Grey had done everything in his
power to isolate the Germans and their Austro-Hungarian allies,
who were justified in their concern about being surrounded by
enemies. The Triple Entente, largely constructed by Grey’s
government and which drew the French and Russians into a far-reaching
alliance, encircled Germany and Austria with warlike foes. In
July 1914 German leaders felt forced to back their Austrian allies
in a war against the Serbs, who were then a Russian client state.
It was clear by then that this conflict would require the Germans
to fight both Russia and France.

The German
military fatalistically accepted the possibility of England entering
the struggle against them. This might have happened even if the
Germans had not violated Belgian soil in order to knock out the
French before sending their armies eastward to deal with a massive
Russian invasion. The English were anything but neutral. In the
summer of 1914 their government was about to sign a military alliance
with Russia calling for a joint operation against German Pomerania
in case of a general war. The British had also given assurances
to French foreign minister Théophile Delcassé that
they would back the French and the Russians (who had been allied
since 1891) if war broke out with Germany.

Grey spurned
attempts by German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg to
woo his government away from their commitments to Germany’s

German concessions
in 1912 included:

  • The
    acceptance of British dominance in constructing railroads and
    accessing oil reserves in what is now Iraq
  • Investments
    in central African ventures that would clearly benefit the English
    more than the Germans
  • Meekly
    following England’s lead in two Balkan Wars where Austria’s
    enemy Serbia nearly doubled its territory.

The Russians
and French were also vastly expanding their conscription to outnumber
the German and Austrian forces, but neither German concessions
nor the saber-rattling of England’s continental allies caused
the British government to change direction. Lord Grey, who remained
foreign secretary until 1916, never swerved from his view that
Germany was England’s most dangerous enemy.

the rest of the article

2, 2012

Gottfried [send him mail]
is Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown
College and author of Multiculturalism
and the Politics of Guilt
, The
Strange Death of Marxism
in America: Making Sense of the American Right
, and Encounters:
My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers
His latest book, Leo
Strauss and the American Conservative Movement: A Critical Appraisal
was just published by Cambridge University Press.

Best of Paul Gottfried

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