The Pity of War

Niall Ferguson

Author Blames Britain for WWI
By David Lindsay

Back in the mid 1970s, when I was at school, there seemed to be two main theories on the origins of World War I. The German historian Fritz Fischer believed that Germany had deliberately instigated the war in an attempt to become a world power. AJP Taylor, a very influential British historian, argued that none of the statesmen of Europe wanted a world war, however the need to mobilize faster than potential rivals created an inexorable movement towards war. At the time I found neither theory particularly convincing. This book may appeal to people dissatisfied with the conventional wisdom. Ferguson's aim, in essence, is to demonstrate that Britain need not have fought against Germany in 1914. Ferguson also tries to expose the myths about why Britain went to war.

People have been trying to make sense of the war since 1914. Niall Ferguson takes a different tack and blames Britain. Ferguson argues that Britain's decision to intervene was "nothing less than the greatest error of modern history." He contends that Britain's participation turned it into a global conflict. If Britain had "stepped aside" the author believes that "continental Europe could have been transformed into something not wholly unlike the European Union we know today." Without the war there would have been no Hitler or Stalin and the history of the world would have been a lot different. Ferguson tries to prove that Germany was not interested in war and did not represent a threat to Britain. He also claims that Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, disliked Germans and did not do enough to stop the war.

Ferguson claims that if Germany really intended to dominate Europe military it needed a bigger military. The Germans were spending 3.5% of GNP on defense in 1914 which was less than Russia (4.6%) and France (3.9%) but more than Britain (3.1%). Both the French (827,000) and Russians (1,445,000) also had larger standing armies than Germany (761,000). The Royal Navy was over twice the size of the German navy.

In Ferguson's view Germany's leaders acted out of a sense of weakness. The troop numbers show why the Germans felt surrounded and vulnerable. They feared they would lose a two front war and would be crushed between the French and Russian armies. Their plan was to move quickly once the Russians mobilized and carry out a pre-emptive strike on France. The Kaiser pleaded with the Czar on July 31 not to mobilize. Once the Russians moved against Germany, the Germans decided they had to knock France out of the war.

The correspondence produced by Ferguson indicates that the Germans didn't want a war. The German chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, on July 29 offered to preserve the geographical integrity of France and Belgium, in return for British neutrality. The head of the German army, Moltke, said something similar on August 2. However, this was too late to stop the drift to war. Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, and on August 3 declared war on France. Britain declared war on Germany on August 4.

Ferguson claims that Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, was pro-French, and found the Germans rude and difficult to deal with. In siding with France and Russia he upset the balance of power in Europe. He should have befriended and reassured Germany, but he formed a secret alliance with France and didn't bother to tell his cabinet colleagues. Britain's close relations with France and later Russia just fed German paranoia. Ferguson shows that the British government did not feel itself bound by the 1839 treaty to protect Belgium neutrality. British lawyers had reviewed the treaty in 1905. However, Belgium became a convenient pretext later on.

Ferguson denies that the naval arms race between Britain and Germany caused the war. Most people agree that by 1912 Germany had abandoned its naval ambitions because of the cost. The naval blockade of 1914-18 helped defeat Germany. The allies could impose the blockade because they had more ships. The German Board of Public Health in December 1918 claimed that 763,000 German civilians died from starvation and disease caused by the blockade. The Germans actually needed a bigger navy for their own protection.

Ferguson claims there is a strong argument for Britain remaining neutral. In 1871 Prussia crushed France. In 1870 the then British prime minister, William Ewart Gladstone, did a deal with Bismark to keep the UK out of that war. The Germans seized the territory of Alsace-Lorraine and then went home. Ferguson suggests that Britain should have done something similar in 1914. Britain's participation in the war turned it into a world war and the country achieved at best a Pyrrhic victory and lost its superpower status. Ferguson argues that Germany's war aims did not pose a direct threat to the British Empire. One of the German war objectives was the creation of a customs union which looks a lot like the current EU.

Ferguson's views are controversial. Older more traditional historians, such as Michael Howard, have argued that Britain would have found it difficult to live with an all-powerful Germany run by the Kaiser. In their view it was a necessary war because the Kaiser's Germany was a threat to Britain's national security and political independence. After Germany defeated France and Russia it would have turned its attention on Britain. One advantage that Britain obtained by going to war in 1914 was the presence of allies who bore the brunt of the ground war against Germany for almost two years.

After German unification in 1871, Germany became the most powerful country in Europe. It had Europe's largest economy but also had its most efficient army. It can be argued that there has always been a need to get along with the Germans. The Versailles Treaty was an attempt to keep Germany in a subordinate position, but it just angered the Germans and the result was Adolf Hitler. Germany bounced back in the 1930s, more powerful than ever but "Britain was no longer strong enough to provide a check to it." Ultimately your view on whether the war was necessary depends on whether you believe that Germany was an existential threat to Britain in 1914. Many historians in Britain still believe Germany wanted to dominate Europe.

Ferguson believes that had Asquith's Liberal government not decided to go to war, Grey would have resigned, forcing a general election. Ferguson concludes that the Liberals voted for war mainly to remain in power and avoid an election which they were expected to lose. I do not find this a convincing argument, it seems too cynical for the era.

I have several problems with Ferguson's analysis. If you review the correspondence of those involved, Britain declared war because Germany invaded Belgium. Without that invasion, Britain would not have gone to war. Grey is often criticized for not making it clearer to Germany that the invasion of Belgium would mean war, but the German ambassador seems to have understood the British position. Back in 1914 the British people still believed in old fashioned concepts like honour and keeping your word. There was a sense of moral outrage in Britain about the invasion and a feeling that the country could not ignore a small country to which it had pledged its word. Public opinion supported the war and the vote for war in the House of Commons was almost unanimous.

The Germans did not seem to care whether Britain fought or not. Britain did not have a big enough army to deter Germany. While Germany hoped that Britain might remain neutral, she knew that it was unlikely, had discounted it, and was not prepared to alter her plans to secure it. The German army had the Schlieffen Plan which it could not or would not deviate from. This required the invasion of Belgium. The Kaiser told Moltke that he only wanted to attack Russia, but was told this was impossible, France had to be defeated first. Bethmann Hollweg, in his book on the war published in 1919 admitted that "Our military men had, as I had long been aware, only one plan of campaign." The German army's inflexibility was a major cause of the war.

It is not true that Grey did not try and engage the Germans in serious talks before the war began. Between 24 July and the outbreak of war Grey made six conference proposals to the the other great powers to resolve the issues diplomatically. Russia accepted but Germany and Austria-Hungary declined. Churchill wrote: "Had such a conference taken place there would have been no war. Mere acceptance of the principle of a conference of the Central Powers would have instantly relived the tension." The rejection of the conference proposal indicates that the Germans were not willing to negotiate.

Unlike a lot of history books, which often rely on interpreting the correspondence of long dead politicians. Ferguson has complied a lot of statistical information and tables to support his case. I found this very helpful. The book is well written and I would recommend it to anyone interested in obtaining a better understanding of the war. I found Ferguson's thesis fascinating, but ultimately I was not convinced by his argument. While agreeing that the war was a disaster for Britain, the Germans made it impossible for Britain to step aside.