The Causes of World War I 

The Causes of World War I

It's a bit late to do anything about it now, of course, but we might learn something...

I've had my eye on a pair of books in a local used book store, literally for years: Twent-Five Years: 1892-1916, by Lord Grey of Fallodon. I finally got the two volumes for Christmas.

He was British foreign minister at the outbreak of World War I, and for some years before. There has been a kind of two-bit criticism of him in circulation: if he had persuaded the Germans that Britain would fight, they would have backed down; if he had persuaded the Russians that Britain wouldn't fight, they would have backed down.

It's obvious as he writes that the war horrified him, and he is concerned as to whether he and his Cabinet colleagues made the right decisions or not. On the whole, he points to a long-developing German militarism as the real cause of the war. The Kaiser and various political leaders in Germany were certainly capable of saying and doing provocative, somewhat crazy things. Generally they would find a way to back down, or settle for one specific gain in the "balance of power." But for decades the military kept growing, and making plans to conquer Europe. By 1914 they were confident that they could do so, and they were much more in the driver's seat than people who were nominally in charge.

There's lots of interesting stuff in these volumes. I've just come to the part about how Grey is still convinced that "side shows," including Gallipoli and Antwerp (both involving Churchill) were a waste of time and effort--Britain should have simply concentrated everything it had on the trenches in France. I have tended to be pro-Churchill on this: it made sense to try something daring, and different.

The most sobering part may be when Grey, still in Volume I but clearly anticipating his story of the war itself, reflects on how Bismarck would have judged the German leaders who led their country to war.

The Franco-Russian agreement was signed in January 1894, partly in response to the "Triple Alliance" of Germany, Austria, Italy. Grey has Bismarck say:

[blockquote]After the Franco-Russian Alliance was made I should have foreseen that, in spite of an English Minister's boast about 'splendid isolation,' the discomfort of England's position must bring her to Germany, and when the offer came, as come it did to you [in a speech by Joseph Chamberlain in November 1899], I would have made sure that it did not come to nothing. [There would either have been no Anglo-French agreement, or none that would have prevented Germany from building a fleet greater than France's].[/blockquote]

Then, if I thought the time had come for war, I should have remembered how, in 1870, the British Government required me, as a condition of neutrality, to sign an agreement to respect Belgium, and what English statesmen said about it at the time. I should have made sure whether English feeling was still the same, and have told the General Staff that they must have a plan that did not involve Belgium, or else they must have no war. With England neutral, I should have been sure of Italy; with France and Russia unable to maintain supplies of munitions, or even to purchase them from abroad, the war would not have been long and victory would have been certain. Then easy terms for France and Russia, as for Austria in 1866, and Germany would have been supreme on the Continent. England would, meanwhile, by the development of modern weapons and aircraft, have lost much of the safety she once had as an island: she would have had no friend but Germany, and Germany could have made that friendship what she please.

Grey says: "The result would have been German predominance and British dependence, but this would not have been foreseen in London till too late."

Of course it seems to us now that World War I severely weakened all the old European powers, and finished some off; the Second War finished off the rest. Grey may be right that there was a smarter strategy available for Germany to dominate all of Europe. Was a smart strategy available for Britain to stop Germany before either German predominance or a disastrous war came about?

Should Britain have acted earlier, perhaps even after Germany's small, apparently local victories in the 1950s and 60s--and the more significant victory over France in 1870?

The growing German threat may have been simple human nature; success breeds desire for even more success. It was natural to envy and resent the Brits for their freedom of all the world's oceans, and their tremendous wealth from trade. Churchill often said the Germans were a great people, and their ambitions were natural. Still, their ambitions led to disaster--especially when, to the old sore of militarism, the huge tumour of the Holocaust was added. If British leaders had seen any of this coming decades earlier, should have they have taken preemptive action? Something like this seems to be the Bushie argument--not only was Chamberlain wrong in 1939, but a lot of bright people sleep-walked through the decades before that.

Grey seems to take it for granted that there was little support for war among the British public until World War I was almost underway. There would have been no way to persuade them to send an army into continental Europe before that.

At the other end of World War I, there is the whole Woodrow Wilson argument. Did Wilson assume that all disagreements could be settled diplomatically, so he simply had to stop the fighting in Europe somehow. Was this the fateful decision, above all, that brought Germany back as a threat so quickly?

Also: "national self-determination," Wilson's phrase from the 14 points, gave at least some support to Hitler's emphasis on uniting all German-speaking peoples; many minorities who had a home in either the old Austria or even the old Germany found themselves displaced or worse between the wars, and Wilson's words, if they had any effect, gave some support to these actions.

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