Neoconservative 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.
But wars have proven to be the most volatile, unpredictable and dangerous of all human activities. They often have terrible unintended consequences.
For 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.
World 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.
The Great Peace Before The Great War
World 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.
The 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.
Napoleon 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.
The 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.
Napoleon 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."
Some 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.
When 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.
There 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 throughout Europe.
The 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."
The 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."
Napoleon's 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.
According 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."
Although 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.
French 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."
The 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 rebellious nationalities.
One 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."
Altogether, 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.
Laissez Faire & Peace
Vivid 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.
These 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 people down.
Throughout 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 people.
Ironically, 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."
It 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."
During 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).
Support 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.
Cobden 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.”
Meanwhile, 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 retained restrictions.
In 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 of travel.
The 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.
Britain 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."
Classical 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 Motors.
Intellectuals Attack Laissez Faire
There are always intellectual counter-currents, and attacks on laissez faire began before it was at a peak.
The most explicit, influential case for government interference in the economy came from the German political activist Friedrich List (17891846). 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 in 1856.
In The 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 itself."
British 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."
Sidney 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 Weal."
Imperialism & War
Otto 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.
Bismarck was the Prime Minister of Prussia (18621890) and founder and first Chancellor of the German Empire (18711890). 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."
He 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.
In 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 France.
Meanwhile, 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.
He 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 German armies.
When, 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."
The 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.
Apparently, 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.
Britain's 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.
Disraeli 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.
The 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.
Advocates 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."
Socialists 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 with Japan.
Trade Wars & Political Conflicts
The 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.
The 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.
When 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 goods.
In 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."
By 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%.
Ill 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.
During 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 about 45%.
Meanwhile, 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."
The 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.
Germany's 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."
It 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."
In 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.
In 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."
Trade 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.
After 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.
The 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.
It 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 trade."
Austrian 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."
Following 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.
"The 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."
Economic 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.
Germany's 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 North Sea.
This 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.
"In 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 façade."
Massie 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."
In 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.
The 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.
Although 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."
Source: 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. 177.
Fuller pointed 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."
Influenced 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.
By 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.
American "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."
Although 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 were adversaries.
The 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.
The 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.
In 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 supremacy."
Britain 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."
The 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.
Although 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 it.
It 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.
Grey 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.
Grey 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]."
Meanwhile, 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.
In 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.
In 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."
On 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."
In 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."
Winston 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!
The 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."
Later, 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."
Although 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 deciding policy."
Niall 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."
All 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.
Second, 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."
Government 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.
In 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.
Russians 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.
Austria-Hungary 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.
But 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."
Austria 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.
In 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.
The 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."
Political 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.
Historian 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."
Since 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.
Germany, 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.
Imperceptibly, 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.
As 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.
By 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 reportedly remarked.
Britain's 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.
The 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.
During the 19121913 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?
If 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.
Moreover, 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 (19041905) 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.
On 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.
Before 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 vacation.
How 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.
On 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.
Serbia 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.
Austria 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.
The 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."
Austrian 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."
On 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 us unprotected."
August 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.
All 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.
None 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?
Much 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.
Then 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.
Although 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.
June 8, 2005
Jim Powell, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of Wilson's 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).