27 May 2014

Britain and 1914

Professor Vernon Bogdanor

 

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. He is the nephew of the Emperor of Austria-Hungary and the heir to the throne, and is likely to succeed very soon because the Emperor is 84. He is with his wife. It is on June 28th 1914, nearly 100 years ago. It is a very sunny day in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, which is a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Archduke and his wife are paying an official visit. It is a Sunday. On the Saturday, the day before, they had paid an unnoticed visit, an unofficial visit, to Sarajevo to enjoy the shopping and were warmly greeted by the crowds and they were looking forward to today. 

 

But there was a problem because the 28th of June was Serb National Day and commemorating something that happened a long time ago, the Battle of Kosovo in 1318, when the Serbs had defeated the Muslims, and the Serbs were still celebrating that day as a great national day, rather like the Protestants in Northern Ireland celebrate – perhaps they do not anymore, I do not know – the Battle of the Boyne in 1689. It commemorated a great victory.

 

The Archduke had been advised not to go, that this was a provocation to the Slavs in the Empire.  It is a bit as if George V had visited Ireland at the time of the Black and Tans or the Troubles – he might expect difficulties.

 

On this trip, you can see him a few minutes before the fatal event… There were seven terrorists waiting, and they were Bosnians, but they had been trained in neighbouring Serbia, which was an independent country, and they had been given their arms there. They had been given revolvers and bombs. They had also been given cyanide pills because they were to kill themselves after killing the Archduke. They were suicide-bombers who had been trained in Belgrade, not, I should, say by the Government of Serbia - the Government of Serbia were not, I think, involved – but by dissident elements in the Army.

 

Now, these were very young men. The oldest was 27, but two of them were 17 and still at school.  Two had been expelled from school and were now students. They wanted Bosnia to be united with Serbia and the other south Slave states to form Yugoslavia, which means the Kingdom of the South Slavs. Six of the seven were Christians, either Orthodox or Catholic, and one was a Muslim. They were very like modern suicide bombers. None of them drank, none of them gambled, and none of them had relationships with women. They were members of an organisation known as Young Bosnia, which was loosely affiliated with a secret Serbian organisation known as the Black Hand.

 

As the cars moved at a fairly slow pace in those days, one of these conspirators threw a bomb at the car, and the driver accelerated, and the bomb exploded under the third car, causing injuries to the spectators and those in the car. The conspirator threw himself into the river and took his cyanide pill. But, it being a very warm summer, the river was fairly dry and he did not drown, and the cyanide pill which he had lodged in his possession for some time did not work – I gather they get degraded after a certain time, though I’ve never tried it myself… But it did not work, and so he was apprehended by the authorities.

 

The Archduke carried on with his official visit and reached the Town Hall, and there was a speech of welcome from the Mayor, and the Archduke, who was notoriously ill-tempered, interrupted the speech and said “You invite me here and greet me with bombs!” The Mayor then continued his speech, and there was a reception, and the Archduke’s wife had a separate reception with Muslim wives of senior officials, and they decided that, as a result of the bomb, they were going to cut short their visit and go straight out of Sarajevo. But, the driver of the car was either not told, it is not clear, or if he was told, he forgot, and when he reached a junction by the river, he turned right instead of going straight on, and was then told he had taken a wrong turning and had to back to get to the main road again. He did that. It was very slow, the cars of those days, and one of the conspirators, a 19 year old youth called Gavrilo Princip, was sitting in a café, a delicatessen, Moritz Schiller’s delicatessen, on the corner of the junction where the car was turning, and I think, rather to his surprise - I think he thought the conspiracy had failed - he saw the Archduke at point-blank range, and took out his revolver and shot him dead. His second shot, which I think was aimed to kill the Governor of Bosnia, killed the Archduke’s wife instead. 

 

He too took a cyanide pill, but that did not work either. It is possible, some people say, had it worked, war might have been avoided because people would not have known about the connection with Serbia – I am not sure that is true.

 

The assassination was on the 28th of June 1914, and five weeks later, Austria, Serbia, Germany, Russia and France were at war, and two days after that, on the 4th of August, the day after a sunny August bank holiday in Britain, Britain declared war on Germany. 

 

Now, how did this happen? First, how did a Continental war break out, and secondly, how did Britain come to join it? I think, whether you agree with what I am going to say or not, I think you would agree it is an important question because many believe that the outbreak of the War is the most important event of the twentieth century. Some people say that, without the First World War, you would not have had a Russian Revolution, you would not have had Communism. Perhaps you would not have had Hitler or a Second World War, and some might argue the Second World War was, in a way, a consequence of the First.

 

As I am sure you know, the Europe of 1914 was very different from the Europe of today, and even Britain had different boundaries because, at that time, the whole of Ireland was part of Britain.

 

Even France had different boundaries. She had lost the two eastern provinces of Alsace-Lorraine in 1871 to Germany in the war. 

 

The Russian Empire included the whole of the territory of the old Soviet Union, including the Baltic States and Ukraine and so on, but also much of what is now Poland – that was all part of the Russian Empire, and also, in the north, Finland. Russia and France were allied countries.  They had signed a treaty of alliance in 1894, a treaty of mutual assistance.

 

The German Empire also included much of what is now Poland, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a multinational empire, perhaps a bit like the European Union, a kind of roof over a huge number of nationalities. There were ten official languages in that Empire. In particular, many Slavs lived under the Empire, the Slavs in what is now the Czech Republic, Slovakia, part of Poland, part of the Ukraine, and part of what became Yugoslavia after the First World War.

 

Now, Germany and Austria were allied, and they were allied with Italy, which actually does not play much part in the story, in the so-called Triple Alliance. They were allied, and France and Russia were allied. 

 

Britain, at the beginning of the twentieth century, had no allies at all and did not feel she needed them. She had a grand Empire, covering about a fifth of the world, and such Army as she had, Britain was distinguished from the Continental countries by having a small Army, no conscription, and she relied on the Navy for her security, an insular maritime country. The main use of the Army was to garrison India, which of course is off the map, but part of the British Empire. Britain had no alliances until 2002, when she signed an alliance with Japan – that was meant to contain Russia; and then in 1904, she signed the famous Entente Cordiale with France; and in 1907, a further Entente with Russia. But they were not alliances; they were ways of settling colonial disagreements and, in British minds, they did not commit Britain to anything at all. So, Britain was different from the other major powers, in my opinion, in having no alliance structures, and no commitments to go to war. 

 

I think there were two main causes of the War. The first one was the clash between Austria-Hungary and the force of Slav nationalism, which was of course represented in extreme form by the assassins who killed the Archduke, because the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as its name suggests, was dominated by two groups, the Germans, the Austrians, and the Hungarians. It was a dual structure. And the Austrians and Hungarians were pushing eastwards, and they came up against the force of Slav nationalism because the Slavs, both inside and outside the Empire, wanted to unite together, as previously the French and Germans and Italians and so on had done.

 

The second cause of the War, in my opinion, was the increasing power of Germany, and the difficulty the other powers found in containing it. Germany came to be united after the war with France in 1870, which, as I said a few moments ago, enabled it to annex Alsace-Lorraine. 

 

A rather far-sighted British statesman noted the significance of that. I am talking about Disraeli, who told the House of Commons in 1871, he said this, a very prescient comment I think, he said: “Let me impress upon the attention of the House the character of this war between France and Germany. It is no common war, like the war between Prussia and Austria, or the like the Italian war in which France was engaged some years ago, and nor is it like the Crimean War.” He said, “This war represents the German revolution, a greater political event than the French Revolution of the last century. Not a single principle in the management of our foreign affairs, accepted by all statesmen for guidance up to six months ago, any longer exists. There is not a diplomatic tradition which has not been swept away. You have a new world, new influences at work, new and unknown objects and dangers with which to cope at present, involved in that obscurity incident to novelty in such affairs. We used to have discussions in this House about the balance of power, but what has really come to pass? The balance of power has been entirely destroyed and the country which suffers most and feels the effects of this great change most is England.” A very prescient remark I think…

 

The unification of Germany was probably inevitable, but the form which it took was not. Germany was unified by a great conservative statesman, Bismarck, or perhaps better to say Germany was partitioned by Bismarck because the form in which it was left many Germans outside Germany, primarily in Austria, but also to the east of Germany. Germany was not fully unified, in the sense of bringing all Germans together in one state, until Hitler’s time in 1938.

 

The form which German unification took was determined by Bismarck, who put great value on political stability, and he tamed German nationalism and kept it within bounds. He was a master of restraint, and he gave Europe a generation of peace which, by 1914, had come to be taken for granted. It is often said that if Bismarck had been Chancellor of Germany in 1914, there would not have been a war. But perhaps a system which depends on one man’s genius is not a very stable one, and Bismarck’s legacy was rather harmful I think to Germany in that it gave the impression that foreign policy could be left to a leader of genius, because his methods were later to be adopted by those who lacked his genius, or indeed his sense of restraint.

 

Britain was, in one sense, an opponent of Germany – I do not mean in a military sense, but in an ideological sense, in that Britain was a parliamentary state. When there was talk in the late-nineteenth century of an alliance between Britain and Germany, the British Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, said to the German Chancellor our system was entirely different from that of other nations – it was parliamentary in a fuller sense. Parliament could remove the Government. Now, Parliament could remove the Government in France as well – France was also a parliamentary state, but France was rather hampered by her multi-party system which made political responsibility difficult to secure. But in Germany, and even more in Austro-Hungary and Russia, Parliament could not remove the Government, and that was of great importance because it meant that policies in Britain were going to be scrutinised by Parliament much more closely than they would be in the Continental countries. In particular, it was much more difficult for Britain to adopt a secretive course in foreign policy or to conceal military plans from Parliament for very long, whereas, in the non-parliamentary states, the military had a great deal of autonomy.  For example, in Germany, the Army was responsible not to the Government and to Parliament through the Government, but to the Kaiser. Many people in Britain did not understand that. They thought the position of the Army in Germany was very similar to that in Britain. They thought the position of the German Chancellor was very similar to that of a Prime Minister – it was not. They were responsible to the Kaiser and not to Parliament. Parliament could not remove the Government. And that was even more so in the authoritarian state of Russia and in Austria-Hungary, and I think that played an important part.

 

So, Britain was a parliamentary government, and Britain, in 1914, was governed by the Liberals, though, as you can see, it was a Hung Parliament, and Liberals were dependent on the Irish Parliamentary Party and the small Labour Party. The Liberals were a Government of the moderate left, a bit like the Labour Party today.  

 

The Foreign Secretary was Sir Edward Grey. He was Foreign Secretary from 1905 to 1916, eleven years, the longest continuous period of a Foreign Secretary in the twentieth century. He was an odd choice, in a way, for Foreign Secretary because he spoke only one foreign language and that was French, and he spoke French very badly. He did not use French in diplomatic conversations. French was then the diplomatic language. He went abroad just once before the War, and that was on an official visit with the King to Paris in April 1914. He never visited Germany, for example, or Russia, or any of the other countries involved. He was, as I said, a Liberal, but he was a Liberal of the right, and was attacked much more by his backbenchers, most of whom were on the left, than by the Conservatives. His backbenchers attacked him because they said he divided Europe into two armed camps, that he aligned Britain too closely with France and Russia, and in that way, he made war more likely. It is often said Europe was divided into two armed camps.

 

Grey, as a Liberal of the right, had been aligned with a group which had been called, before the Liberals came to office, had been called the Liberal Imperialist. Now, Grey was not an imperialist in the sense he wanted to expand the Empire, but what he meant was the Liberals should not appear to be the unpatriotic party, and he had supported, against many on the left, the Boer War against the South African Dutch. He said it would be fatal for any left-wing party to appear unpatriotic – we must not do, and the left, if you belonged to a left-wing party, you must show that you can be as patriotic as if you are a Conservative.

 

But Grey did continue with the policies of the previous Conservative Government because he supported the Anglo-French Entente of 1904, which the Conservatives had negotiated, and he extended this by an Entente with Russia, which many people on the left did not like because they said, rightly really, that Russia was not a parliamentary state but a state whose policies were disfigured by officially-inspired anti-Semitism and an authoritarian state, though people did believe, or hope, that Russia was moving towards parliamentary government.

 

But I think it is important to stress, as I have already, that these Ententes were not alliances and they did not commit Britain, other than in very limited ways, to support of France or Russia. But they did commit Britain to supporting France in any dispute in Morocco because the basis of the Entente was that we would support the French if they got into trouble in Morocco, which was their imperial position, and they would support Britain if they got into trouble in Egypt.

 

There were two Moroccan crises before the First World War, which people thought might lead to war, but in the end were settled peacefully, and there, we had to support France. 

 

But the French said, shortly before Edward Grey came to office, the French said, look, if you are going to support us, we need to consult and discuss how you can make this support effective because if we find ourselves in a war with Germany over Morocco, how precisely are you going to help us? Will you begin conversations with us about naval matters? The Conservatives said, yes, we will do that, we will talk to you about naval matters, but only on condition that you accept there is no British commitment. No Foreign Secretary can make that commitment without the support of the Cabinet or Parliament.

 

When Grey came to office, he continued these naval conversations, and he extended them to military conversations. He told the Prime Minister about them, and he told two of his friends in the Cabinet. He did not tell the rest of the Cabinet, who were left in the dark about it. I think anyone who thinks prime ministerial government began with Blair or even with Margaret Thatcher needs to read a bit more history!

 

Grey’s excuse, he said he was not telling the rest of the Cabinet because, a rather feeble excuse I think, because the country was in the middle of an election campaign. His real excuse, or real reason rather, was that he was frightened of leaks to the press about these conversations. But I think the justification, and he has one, is that the conversations did not commit Britain to anything.  They were contingency plans for a possible eventuality. If it came to war, you would need the approval of the Cabinet and Parliament.

 

In November 1912, at the insistence of the Cabinet, there was a public exchange of letters between Sir Edward Grey and the French Ambassador, making it absolutely explicit that there was no commitment. The only commitment was the two countries would consult if they were threatened by a third party. When war broke out in 1914, the French never suggested that Britain was under any legal obligation to help them, only that it would be in Britain’s interests to do so and would be a matter of honour for Britain, but not a legal obligation. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Entente was, in one sense, ambiguous, because, after all, if Britain was committed to support France diplomatically in Morocco, what did that mean if it was not backed up by military support? The French most certainly wanted to convert the Entente into an alliance. So, the Entente meant something different to the British from what it meant to the French. But I think it was absolutely clear, for example, that if France was drawn into a war because of her alliance with Russia, suppose France got involved in the Balkans and got involved in War with Austria, as she did in fact, and France then helps Russia, Britain would be under no obligation to do anything about the Balkans – she had no commitments there at all and that was made absolutely clear. Indeed, I think it is fair to say Britain could only go to war if the Cabinet supported it, if Parliament supported it, and public feeling supported it, but there was some ambiguity.

 

The Moroccan conflict was solved peacefully. Some people have said, well, these imperial conflicts were what led to war. I do not think that is true. They could be easily resolved, and the Germans were compensated for not getting Morocco with a bit of Africa, a bit of tropical Africa. There were all sorts of areas in those days in Africa and Asia and so on, and you could pass it out amongst the great powers, but what you could not contain, what you could not resolve were conflicts between the great powers in Europe. The World War was caused not by conflict outside Europe, but conflicts by rival nationalisms in Europe and particularly in the Balkans, and the problem, as I have said earlier, was that the Slavs were seeking what other countries, Germany, France, Italy had got before – they were seeking national self-determination, and that search for national self-determination threatened the south-eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so the Austro-Hungarian Empire stood in the way of Slav aspirations.

 

Many people feel nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian Empire because it was, as I said earlier, like the European Union, a kind of roof over the nationalities and its purpose was to contain national conflict. I once had a conversation with the late Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, who asked me really a very pertinent question. He said: “Has any part of Europe benefited from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire?” because of course the independent countries first moved under fascism between the wars and then communism, a good question but perhaps not relevant because the Empire was, as I say, dominated by two groups. 

 

Paradoxically, and I think this was one of the reasons why the Archduke was a target for assassination, the Archduke wanted to create a trialist empire in which the Slavs had equal power with the Hungarians and the Germans, and although the Archduke was very far from being a socialist, that policy was supported by the Austrian Socialist Party. They were drawing up schemes of that sort in 1914. Of course, we will never know whether they would have succeeded.  But as it was, it was clear the Empire stood in the way of the Slavs and it became even more of an obstacle in 1908 because, until then, the province of Bosnia had been administered by Austria but the sovereignty was still with the Turkish Empire, with the Ottoman Empire, which you can see on the map. This had happened at the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, that Austria was allowed to occupy Bosnia until peace and prosperity returned, when it would be returned to Turkey. Austria ruled this, as I say, after 1878, and many people have praised Austrian rule in Bosnia, but I always feel it is rather like those who praised British rule in Ireland in the nineteenth century, of which someone once said it was a model form of government if you excluded the fact that the Irish people did not consent to it. In 1908, for example, there were just twelve high schools in Bosnia, 90% of the population was illiterate, and just 30 Bosnians proceeded to higher education, so there were limitations on the benefits that Austrian rule brought.

 

But, in 1908, there was a dress rehearsal for the Sarajevo crisis when Austria-Hungary converted her occupation of the two provinces into an annexation. This was a breach of the Treaty of Berlin, a breach of international law, and had very fundamental consequences. The first was that it made non-Slav rule in Bosnia appear permanent because the Austrian Empire had much more staying power than the Ottoman Empire, which was really on its last legs, so this was a permanent obstacle which would make Slav unity more difficult and a blow to the independent south Slav state of Serbia in particular.

 

Secondly, the annexation converted the south Slav issue into an international problem because the Russians saw themselves as the protector of the Slavs, and they protested and there was a threat of war. But in March 1909, Austria demanded, under threat of war, that Serbia recognise the annexation, and Germany said to the Russians, if there is a war and you join Serbia, we will join Austria and fight you, and the Russians backed down and the annexation was recognised by the powers of Europe. The Kaiser boasted, perhaps rather unwisely I think, in Vienna in 1910, that he had come to Austria’s side as a knight in shining armour.

 

The annexation of Bosnia clearly pitted these two nationalisms against each other, and I said that 1908 was a dress rehearsal for 1914 because of the great similarities. In 1914, as 1908. It had seen Europe divide into two camps: the Slavs, protected by Russia, supported by France; and the Austria and Germany. There was just one great difference: that in 1914, Russia did not back down.

 

In 1908, Russia backed down partly under British pressure. Britain, although she had an entente with Russia, made it clear that she would not support any military action on the part of Russia.  Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, said to the British Ambassador in St Petersburg, he said, “If war were to take place, it would probably, in the end, embroil the greater part of the Continent,” which of course is what happened in 1914. So he said: “Even Russia must see that such a risk for the sake of Serbia’s demands for territorial compensation is utterly disproportionate to the end in view.”

 

In 1914, Russia did not back down because she thought, and I think she was right, that the Austrians were threatening the very existence of Serbia as an independent state, and many people blamed Russia as largely responsible for the War. But of course, if the recipient of the threat of force always backs down, you can avoid war – it is called appeasement.

 

But the next crisis in the Balkans ended more happily, from the point of view of the great powers because, in 1912, the Slav States joined together with Greece to remove the Turkish presence in Europe in the first Balkan War, and that almost ended Turkish rule in Europe. You can see there was then, as there is now, just a small sliver of Turkey in Europe, and you had the increase in the territory of the Slav states in the south-east.

 

Sir Edward Grey said “No British interests are involved in this, but we must try and get a peaceful agreement,” and he called an ambassadors’ conference in London, at which the various disputes were settled. A remarkable feature of what Grey did, which has not I think been sufficiently noticed, is that on almost all of the contentious issues, he took the Austrian, that is the German, side, and not the side of his French and Russian allies. There were two issues in particular.

 

The first was that the Austrians wanted to create a non-Slave state called Albania, on the Adriatic, so as to deny Serbia access to the Adriatic and make her more dependent on Austria. Grey supported that, against the wishes of Serbia and Russia, and once again, Serbia and Russia backed down. 

 

Then, after this settlement, the ally of Serbia, a small, rather comic opera state called Montenegro – I hope there are no Montenegrins here... The capital of Montenegro then had a population of 5,000. It was the model, for those who like Viennese operetta, Montenegro was the model for the principality of Pontevedro in Lehar’s opera “The Merry Widow”, written in 1905. But the Montenegrins, small as they were, attacked Albania, and they occupied a strategic city there called Scutari, now called Shkoder, in Albania, which the powers had allocated to Albania. Grey made it absolutely clear that he would support Austrian action to remove the Montenegrins from Albania, and there was a naval demonstration by the powers, with the exception of Russia, which compelled Montenegro to withdraw. 

 

Now, Grey defended his policy in Parliament in this way. He said the Albanian population of Scutari were mainly Catholic and Muslim, not Orthodox or Slav, and that Albania had exactly the same right of self-determination as the Slavs, but I think there were other reasons, which he could not admit in public, or did not admit in public. 

 

The first was, if you were going to keep the peace, Serbia and Montenegro had to make concessions, that the Serbs and also Russia had gained prestige from the victories of the Balkan League, and you now had to have a balance, so a counter-balance of gains for Austria, and therefore Germany, that the needs of peace were more important for Grey than the needs of the Entente.

 

I think his second motive was to show to Germany that her fears of being encircled were base-less, that the Ententes did not commit Britain to action against Germany, and that she would be perfectly prepared to take the side of Austria-Hungary and Germany to keep the peace. The idea that Grey was putting forward was the idea of a concert of Europe, by which the powers could meet together and peacefully settle their problems. It is no accident that, after the First World War, Grey was one of the leading supporters of the League of Nations, and that was what he was trying to achieve in Europe in the London conference. The French Ambassador was rather annoyed with Britain for not giving greater support and Russia felt she had had a further humiliation. But Grey was distancing himself from the Entente, and I think he was becoming much less pro-French than he had been, partly perhaps because France was growing stronger than it had been. But the main reason, I think, was his critics were wrong in thinking he favoured a Europe divided by alliances – he did not. He favoured a concert Europe, a kind of proto-League of Nations, by which matters could be peacefully settled. Grey’s radical critics, the left and the Liberal Party, understood that and were moving towards him in that period, when it seemed there was a détente with Germany. 

 

At the end of the London conference, a radical journal, the predecessor of the New Statesman, called the Nation – the New Statesman used to be called the New Statesman and Nation, and before the War, it was called the Nation. It said this: “The credit for the conference belongs in equal parts to the statesmen of German and Sir Edward Grey. They have found at last a consciousness of their common duties. There might evolve from this temporary association some permanent machinery of legislation.”

In December 1913, Grey said to the German Ambassador in London that “Nothing more than a memory is left of the old Anglo-German antagonism.”  

 

At the beginning of June, in 1914, my old university, Oxford, held its honorary degree ceremony, and it honoured two Germans – this is two months before the War, the German Ambassador, who was only the second Ambassador to be so honoured, and the German composer, Richard Strauss. There was a détente, it seemed, with Germany.

 

But, on the Continent, very different voices were heard, unknown to Britain. After the Balkan Wars, the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, who was Count Berchtold, he asked his allies, Germany and Italy, if they would attack Serbia. He said that Serbia had increased its population from three million to 4.5 million and was a danger. The allies refused to do that. But in November 1913, Count Berchtold told a diplomatic colleague departing to a post in Romania, he said this: “The solution of the South Slav issue, subject to the limitations of human wisdom, and in face of the tenacity and confidence with which Serbia is pursing the idea of a greater Serbia, can only be by force. It will either almost completely destroy the present state of Serbia or it will shake Austro-Hungary to its foundations.” In the end of course, it did both. It did both…

 

Now, at first, it seemed that the assassination was not going to lead to war because, in Britain, nothing happened for a month, and nothing seemed to happen publicly at all. On the 17th of July, nineteen days after the assassination, and eighteen days before Britain declared war on Germany, Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, speaking at the Mansion House, said that relations between Britain and Germany were better than they had been for a long time, and he urged disarmament. For Britain, the War seemed to break out of a near-cloudless sky.

 

It was not known to the British Government but, on the 5th of July, the Austrians sent an emissary to Berlin to ask, to say – they were not asking, they were saying they were intending to use military force against Serbia, and they wanted German support, but the Austrian emissary was surprised to find that not only the Kaiser, who I think has been too much fingered as the villain, but the Chancellor, Bethmann-Holleg, not only said they would support them but actually encouraged them and said it’s time you dealt with Serbia pretty firmly and we will support you.  They gave what is generally known in the literature as a blank cheque to Austria to do what she liked with Serbia.

 

I think people do not ask enough why Austria needed that blank cheque because, after all, Serbia was a very small state and would be fairly easy to crush. The blank cheque was needed in case Russia came to the aid of Serbia, as she had threatened to do in 1908. The German presumption was that, if Germany threatened her again, she would again back down, but they were well aware that she might not. On the 7th of July, Bethmann said to his secretary “An action against Serbia can lead to a world war.”

 

Now, there was then a further gap, until the 24th of July, when the Austrians sent a note, with various demands on Serbia, with a  48-hour time limit, demanding unconditional acceptance – in effect, an ultimatum. Of this note, Grey said to the Austrian Ambassador in London that it was “…the most formidable document that was ever addressed from one state to another”, and at that point, it was clear there might be a war in the Balkans and it might not be localised. 

 

It was at this point the European crisis first came before the British Cabinet, but it came at the end of a long Cabinet meeting devoted to the problems – how little changes - of Northern Ireland, and they were discussing, the British Cabinet was discussing which part of Northern Ireland might be excluded from Home Rule to Ireland and how the boundaries were going to be drawn and what the time limit for exclusion would be. 

 

The discussion, the atmosphere had been very graphically described by Winston Churchill, who was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time. He said this: “The discussion had reached its inconclusive end and the Cabinet was about to separate when the quiet, grave tones of Sir Edward Grey’s voice were heard, reading a document which had just been brought to him from the Foreign Office. It was the Austrian note to Serbia. He had been reading or speaking for several minutes before I could disengage my mind from the tedious and bewildering debate which had just closed. We were all very tired, but gradually, as the phrases and sentences followed one another, impressions of a wholly different character began to form in my mind. This note was clearly an ultimatum, but it was an ultimatum such as had never been penned in modern times.  As the reading proceeded, it seemed absolutely impossible that any state in the world could accept it, or that any acceptance, however abject, would satisfy the aggressor. The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland, and a strange light began immediately, but by perceptible gradations, to fall and to grow upon the map of Europe.”

 

So people thought there was going to be a war, but at first, it did not seem it should concern Britain at all. That night, the Prime Minister, Asquith, wrote a letter. He wrote many letters from Downing Street to his girlfriend in the East End of London, Venetia Stanley. The postal service was much better in those days: they got there the same day. Much of the letter was about the seemingly intractable Ulster problem, but at the end of the letter, Asquith said there was some real danger of a European war, but he ended: “Happily, there seems to be no reason why we should be more than spectators.” 

 

The Manchester Guardian, as the Guardian was then called, said, on the 30th of July, just five days before we declared war, “We care as little for Belgrade as Belgrade cares for Manchester”.

 

Grey adopted the same policy as he had adopted after the Balkan War. He says that European peace had weathered many worse storms and the same methods which had preserved peace then would preserve peace now, and he proposed another ambassadors’ conference, perhaps not necessarily meeting in London, but somewhere else, and perhaps not necessarily under his chairmanship. Now, the Russians said they would prefer direct talks with Austria-Hungary, but if that were to be rejected, she would accept a conference. The Austrians rejected both direct talks and the conference proposal – they said this was solely a matter between Austria and Serbia. Germany rejected the conference proposal on the ground that it would be a court of arbitration against Austria because she would have no friends except for Germany. But I think that is mistaken because I think Grey would in fact have taken the Austrian side – he would have said that great concessions by Serbia were needed to keep the peace, and that she should make them. Indeed, he produced a formula to the effect that the powers would, and I quote, “...examine how Serbia can fully satisfy Austria without impairing Serbia’s sovereign rights or independence”.  I think he would have insisted on Serbia making those concessions, and it would have been very difficult  I think for the Russians not to go along with that.

 

The rejection of the conference proposal took away from Grey’s hands a lever with which he could have persuaded Russia not to support Serbia militarily. Churchill wrote that “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 relieved the tension.”

 

Now, the Russians proposed that the dispute be given to the Court of Arbitration at The Hague, and Britain supported that, but, again, it was rejected by Austria and Germany. This seems to me fairly conclusive, in any discussion of the origins of the War, that Germany and Austria took risks which might, and in fact did, lead to more than a local war but a continental war.

 

Grey’s mistake, a natural one in the light of what happened in 1912, was to think that Germany was acting to restrain Austria, when, if anything, she was acting to push her on.

 

On the 29th of July, the German Chancellor, Bettmann-Hollweg, made a bid for British neutrality.  He said he would guarantee the territorial integrity of France and Belgium. But Britain asked would you guarantee the French colonies, and he said no, and that was important at that time because French power depended on the colonies. But the Chancellor said he would guarantee the integrity and neutrality of the Netherlands, but only the integrity of Belgium, which pointed to the fact that he would not guarantee the neutrality of Belgium.

 

After the war had broken out, Asquith, the Prime Minister, told the Commons that for Britain to have accepted that would have been contemptible. She was being asked, behind the back of France, her friend, to allow disposal of her colonies, which it was then thought would weaken her as a great power, and she was being asked to bargain away Belgian neutrality, thus becoming, in effect, an accomplice to a German invasion. So, if, as proved to be the case, the British asked Belgium for help, we would have to say we have already signed your neutrality away, and what would we get in return for this? What we would get was a promise by Germany to respect British neutrality and independence, at a time when she was violating the neutrality and independence of another power which she had also promised to respect.

 

When Grey rejected this proposal, he wrote a further letter laying bare his hopes for a new concert of Europe if the crisis could be overcome. He said to the German Ambassador: “You should add, most earnestly, that the one way of maintaining the good relations between England and Germany is that they should continue to work together to preserve the peace of Europe. If the peace of Europe can be preserved, and the present crisis safely passed, my own endeavour would be to promote some arrangement to which Germany could be a party, by which she could be assured that no aggressive or hostile policy would be pursued against her or her allies by France, Russia and ourselves, jointly or separately. I have desired this and worked for it as far as I could through the last Balkan crisis and, Germany having a corresponding object, our relations sensibly improved. The idea has hitherto been too utopian to form the subject of definite proposals, but if this present crisis, so much more acute than any that Europe has gone through for generations, be safely passed, I am hopeful that the relief and reaction which will follow may make possible some more definite rapprochement between the powers than has been possible hitherto.”  

 

And he said, at a conference, he would tell the Austrians that he would undertake to see that she “…obtained full satisfaction of her demands on Serbia, provided they did not impair Serbian sovereignty and the integrity of Serbian territory.” He said, “I said to the German Ambassador that, if Germany could get any reasonable proposal put forward, which made it clear that Germany and Austria were striving to preserve European peace, and that Russia and France would be unreasonable if they rejected it, I would support it at St Petersburg and Paris, and go to the length of saying that if Russia and France would not accept it, Her Majesty’s Government would have nothing more to do with the consequences. But, otherwise, I told the German Ambassador that if France became involved, we should be drawn in.” That was a clear warning.  Some people say Grey did not give a warning – you can see he did, and the Ambassador passed it on, but, very sadly, people in Berlin took no notice of the German Ambassador. They thought he was too anglophile, which perhaps he was, but he was reporting accurately.

 

But, at this point, we come to the Liberal Cabinet, and they were, perhaps as often happens with left-wing Governments, they were deeply divided. Now, Grey, and some of his senior colleagues, like Asquith, and the Lord Chancellor, Lord Haldane, the Indian Secretary, Lord Crewe, who was a close friend of the Prime Minister, and Winston Churchill, who was the First Lord of the Admiralty, they believed that Britain was bound, not by alliance, but in honour, to support France; but the majority of the Cabinet did not believe that, and nor did many Liberal backbenchers. 

 

The invasion of Belgium transformed Liberal opinion. Grey has a very interesting passage in his memoirs. He says this: “About this time, a very active Liberal member came up to me in the lobby and told me he wished me to understand that, under no circumstances whatever, ought this country to take part in the war if it came. He spoke in a dictatorial tone, in the manner of a superior addressing a subordinate whom he thought needed a good talking to. I answered pretty roughly, to the effect that I hoped we should not be involved in war, but that it was nonsense to say there were no circumstances conceivable in which we ought to go to war. “Under no circumstances whatever!” was the retort. “Suppose Germany violates the neutrality of Belgium?” For a moment, he paused, like one who, running at speed, finds himself suddenly confronted with an obstacle, unexpected and unforeseen, and then he said, with emphasis, “She won’t do it!” “I do not say she will, but supposing she does?” “She will not do it!” he repeatedly confidently, and, with that assurance, he left me.”

 

Now, I think, had Belgium not been invaded, I think the Liberals could not have led Britain into war. That is the situation in the House of Commons at the time, and the Liberals, without an overall majority, relied, as I say, on the Irish and Labour. Neither would have supported a war before the invasion of Belgium, and nor would most Liberal MPs.  

 

On the 2nd of August, two days before the outbreak of war, Asquith, again writing to his girlfriend – they are a wonderful historical source so I think more Prime Ministers should have girlfriends to whom they write letters. All his letters have been published now. He said, “A good three-quarters of our own party in the House of Commons are for absolute non-interference at any price” – that is three-quarters of the Liberals. 

 

So, it is often said the outcome would have been a Conservative-dominated Government, coalition that would have led Britain to war. I doubt that. If you take a quarter of the Liberals, if you are saying they are prepared to break with their party and join the Conservatives, against majority opinion in their party, and there were a few Conservatives who were against fighting, who were for non-involvement, as much of the City was for non-involvement, and could you take Britain into a continental war with half of the House of Commons, and therefore presumably half the country, against it? I do not think you can. My own view is the outcome would have been anti-war Liberal Government led by Lloyd George, who I think was waiting to see which way the wind was blowing before committing himself. I think it is very difficult to imagine leading the country into war without the invasion of Belgium.

 

But when Asquith learnt of the German ultimatum to Belgium, he wrote to his girlfriend, again, rather flippantly, you may think, “This simplifies matters, so we sent the Germans an ultimatum, to expire at midnight.”

 

Now, Belgium had been recognised by treaties of the 1830s which had been signed by Prussia, the forerunner of Germany, as an independent and perpetually neutral state. In 1870, at the time of the Franco-Prussian War, Gladstone had asked both France and Prussia whether they would respect Belgian neutrality, and both had said that they would. In 1914, France said she would respect Belgian neutrality, and Germany said she would not. Very interestingly, in France, the military had drawn up plans to invade Belgium on the outbreak of war, but this is an example of a parliamentary government – the civilian government said we cannot do that, we cannot break an international law, even if it would benefit France to do so. That is the difference, in my view, between a parliamentary country and an authoritarian country.

 

The guarantee of Belgium was a collective one, and every legal signatory had the right to enforce it, but they were not under a duty to do so. So, the matter, as the Liberal Cabinet recognised, was one of policy and not an obligation. They were not legally obliged; it was a question of policy. But, in practice, in 1914, no possible government could have accepted the breach of Belgian neutrality. One has to work one’s way back into this time in the twentieth century because, of course, there have been numerous atrocities in the twentieth century which perhaps have dulled people’s sensibilities, so it is difficult to understand the sense the sense of moral outrage in Britain, because it was not just an unprovoked breach of a treaty, but an act of unprovoked aggression against a small power, which had not interfered with anyone, and there was a general feeling that, if a great power could simply ignore the neutral status of a small country to which it had pledged its word, Europe would not be safe. I think, in 1914, any government that had failed to help Belgium, I do not think such a government could have survived in Parliament.

 

The House of Commons was almost unanimous because the left Liberals who were in favour of non-intervention had said that Germany was not as bad as she was painted, that Britain should make more effort to secure détente, and Grey had come to agree with that view, but the invasion of Belgium seemed to show that Germany was worse than she was painted.

 

An academic, on the left-wing of the Liberal Party, Gilbert Murray, who had been a strong critic of Grey, wrote a book in 1915 defending him, in which he said: “I have never till this year seriously believed in the unalterably aggressive designs of Germany, and I also felt, with some impatience, that though, as an outsider, I could not tell exactly what the Government should do, they surely could produce good relations between Britain and Germany, if only they had the determination and the will. Now I see that, on a large part of this question, I was wrong, and a large number of the people whom I honour most were wrong. One is vividly reminded of Lord Melbourne’s famous dictum: “All the sensible men were on one side, and all the damn fools were on the other,” and the damned fools were right!”

 

On the 3rd of August, after Grey spoke in the Commons, the Conservative opposition spoke in support of the war, and that was no surprise, but what did surprise people was the speech which followed from the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond, in support of the war.  He said the British could withdraw all their troops from Ireland, the Nationalists were in support of the war, because it was a war to defend small nationalities – that he believed was the universal sentiment of Ireland – and he said “There never was a juster war or one in which higher and nobler principles and issues were at stake.”

 

But then two people spoke against the war, from the Labour Party, Ramsay MacDonald, who was the Leader of the Labour Party, and Keir Hardie, one of the founders. But they were repudiated by the rest of their Party, and of the 37 Labour MPs, only four, including MacDonald and Hardie, took the position of being against the war. The others favoured the war, and MacDonald had to resign leadership.

 

The King saw the American Ambassador, and the King generally reflected what might be called the common-sense view. Asquith, rather condescendingly, referred to him as “the man in the tube”, but he said to the American Ambassador, “My God, Mr Page, what else could we do?!”

 

It is often said that Grey should have made it clearer to Germany that the invasion of Belgium would bring Britain into the war, but, as I said, he did warn the Ambassador, but it had no effect.  But anyone who had the slightest familiarity with British opinion could be in no doubt, and in 1912, a German correspondent in Britain asked a British editor whether Britain would join in a war if France were threatened. The editor replied: “My dear Sir, you have lived in England for ten years, and you know the English people. Can you really see them sitting still while the German Army wiped out the French and planted itself on the French coast?”

 

So, Germany hoped that Britain might remain neutral, but discounted it, partly because Britain had such a small Army. 

 

But the decision to go to war for Belgium was not just a decision based on morality but also on self-interest because most British politicians, and I think the British people, felt that if Germany conquered France and Belgium, this would compromise British independence so that she would become a vassal state of Germany. 

 

Let me quote Disraeli again. In 1870, he said this to the Commons, at the time of the Franco-Prussian War: “It has always been held by the Government of this country that it was for the interests of England that the countries on the European coast, extending from Dunkirk to Ostend, to the islands of the North Sea, should be possessed by free and flourishing communities, practising the arts of peace, enjoying the rights of liberty, and following those pursuits of commerce which tend to the civilisation of man and should not be in the possession of a great military power, one of the principles of whose existence necessarily must be to aim at a preponderating influence in Europe.” Of course, that was more important in 1914 than in 1870, because of the advent of long-range artillery, large warships and submarines.

 

I think Britain would have made the same decision even if the ententes had not existed, even if there had been no military or naval conversations with Britain, and whoever had been Foreign Secretary. Now, in a recent book on the First World War, Max Hastings writes: “How and why Britain joined the war, what was essentially a European war, was largely down to one man, Sir Edward Grey.” That seems to be absurd. Grey could nothing without the assent of Cabinet, Parliament and the people. Grey’s great achievement, I think, was to bring a united country into the war, which would have been difficult to do with a Conservative Government because it might have been opposed by the left.

 

The left-wing critique of Grey had few supporters by 1914, but shortly after the War, some of the opponents of the War in the Labour and Liberal Parties, led by Ramsay MacDonald and Bertrand Russell, formed a movement called the Union of Democratic Control, the UCD, and that view became the orthodoxy in the 1920s and 1930s, when it coincided with the publication of books saying the War had been a mistake because, people said, the arms race, competition in building up armaments, had led to the War, and that opportunities for personal diplomacy had been lost, that Grey should have gone to Germany to meet his opponents face-to-face to dispel suspicion through personal contact. You could then settle disputes by personal and peaceful negotiation because no one in their senses really wants war, but, in any case, Britain should not involve herself in these continental matters because we were an imperial, and not a European, power, and what happened in Serbia, or even in Belgium perhaps, was no concern of ours. Now, that was the critique of the left in 1914, and you can see, today, it is the kind of critique of the Euro-sceptic right – you see, it links up with my lectures on Europe, are we part of Europe. 

 

Niall Ferguson, in his recent book, “The Pity of War”, says: “If only we had not fought, we could have been honoured members of the Kaiser’s European Union, instead of being, as we are now, subordinate members of Angela Merkel’s European Union.”

 

But, between the Wars, the left-wing critique of Grey became the main theme, the light motif of appeasement, because, in 1914, Grey had proposed a conference to settle the problems of Europe – that was rejected by Germany. In 1938, Neville Chamberlain proposed a conference to settle the future of Europe, the Munich Conference, and that was accepted by Hitler and resulted in a settlement, which postponed, although of course it did not avoid, war. 

 

Chamberlain, interestingly, was opposed by Churchill, who had been a hawk in the Cabinet of 1914, and was a hawk in the late-1930s, because he believed that Germany was fundamentally an aggressive power and that, to resist her, we needed an alliance with Russia, however much we might dislike her political system. 

 

The appeasers said we were not part of the Continent, we are not part of Europe, we are basically an imperial and maritime power and Neville Chamberlain, of course the son of the famous Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, referred to Czechoslovakia as “a faraway country of which we know nothing”. But of course, in 1914, a faraway country called Serbia brought us into the War, and in 1939, another faraway country called Poland brought us into the War.

 

In the 1930s, the appeasers said do not make the mistakes of Sir Edward Grey, so they made different ones instead! The historian, A.J.P. Taylor, once said “We learn from history not to make the old mistakes, and that leaves us free to make different ones.”

 

I conclude that Grey was alone amongst the diplomatists of 1914 in seeking to achieve peace by making concrete proposals that might have prevented war, and of course it was easy for him to do because we had no territorial claims, and no one had territorial claims on us, and we were not involved in the quarrel between Austria and Serbia. But there was - the conventional criticism of him is simply wrong, but I think there was a deeper criticism, which was that there was a disconnection between British foreign policy and defence policy because if Britain could not afford to allow France to be defeated, might it not have been sensible to convert the entente into an alliance?

 

In his book, “The Pity of War”, Niall Ferguson criticises Grey for turning a continental war into a world war, the implication being that we were not part of the Continent, but if we could not allow France to be defeated, we were part of the Continent, because your security depended not only on mastery of the seas but on what happened on the Continent, and if we wanted to influence what happened, we needed not just a strong Navy but a strong Army. Instead, we had a very small Army, what Lord Kitchener contemptuously called “a town clerk’s army”. A strong Army would have meant, of course, conscription, which was probably politically impossible, but a strong British Army might have deterred the Central Powers, and the same is true I think in 1939. 

 

Ernest Bevin, Labour’s Foreign Secretary after the War, once said, “If you ask me who was responsible for the War, I would say all of us – we would cut down the Army to save sixpence on the income tax.”

 

The Governments, both before 1914 and 1939, followed a policy of limited liability because they did not believe that Germany was an aggressive power, and that policy was abandoned finally in 1939, when conscription was introduced, and then after the War, when we agreed to continental alliances and to station troops on the Continent.

 

I think Grey was mistaken to pursue a concert of Europe because, as the League of Nations and the United Nations show, a concert of Europe requires a community of interest amongst the powers, countries with a similar moral outlook. Gladstone had felt there was such a concert in Europe, based on Christianity, but if it is not there, the concert cannot create it. 

 

If I can quote AJP Taylor again, he said: “It would be as though a man and a woman who did not care for each other got married in the hope they would then fall in love.” This sometimes happens between individuals, not, I think, in the world of international relations, and when that concert does not exist, war can only be avoided by an effective policy of deterrents. That was a policy which Grey, as a Liberal, found abhorrent, and as Neville Chamberlain found abhorrent, but both in 1914 and 1939, British Governments, and I suspect they reflected the views of the people, were not prepared to accept German domination of Europe, but because they were so ill-prepared to resist it, they found it could only be resisted by war, and because, as Disraeli had noticed, the balance of power had been so irretrievably altered, resistance to German domination required the intervention of two world power, one, Russia, which was partly extra-European, and another which was wholly extra-European, the United States. 

 

These two powers met together in Central Europe in 1945, in April 1945, at Torgau in Germany, when they ended the second German bid for supremacy in Europe, cutting Hitler’s Reich into two, and that also ended the era of European supremacy in world affairs, so that, of these countries, perhaps only Russia, and possibly Britain, are great powers – the others certainly are not. So, it ended the era of European supremacy in world affairs, and so we are still living with the consequences of what happened in 1914. 

 

Thank you.

 

 

© Professor Vernon Bogdanor, 2014

27 May 2014

 

Britain and 1914

 

Professor Vernon Bogdanor

 

 

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. He is the nephew of the Emperor of Austria-Hungary and the heir to the throne, and is likely to succeed very soon because the Emperor is 84. He is with his wife. It is on June 28th 1914, nearly 100 years ago. It is a very sunny day in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, which is a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Archduke and his wife are paying an official visit. It is a Sunday. On the Saturday, the day before, they had paid an unnoticed visit, an unofficial visit, to Sarajevo to enjoy the shopping and were warmly greeted by the crowds and they were looking forward to today. 

 

But there was a problem because the 28th of June was Serb National Day and commemorating something that happened a long time ago, the Battle of Kosovo in 1318, when the Serbs had defeated the Muslims, and the Serbs were still celebrating that day as a great national day, rather like the Protestants in Northern Ireland celebrate – perhaps they do not anymore, I do not know – the Battle of the Boyne in 1689. It commemorated a great victory.

 

The Archduke had been advised not to go, that this was a provocation to the Slavs in the Empire.  It is a bit as if George V had visited Ireland at the time of the Black and Tans or the Troubles – he might expect difficulties.

 

On this trip, you can see him a few minutes before the fatal event… There were seven terrorists waiting, and they were Bosnians, but they had been trained in neighbouring Serbia, which was an independent country, and they had been given their arms there. They had been given revolvers and bombs. They had also been given cyanide pills because they were to kill themselves after killing the Archduke. They were suicide-bombers who had been trained in Belgrade, not, I should, say by the Government of Serbia - the Government of Serbia were not, I think, involved – but by dissident elements in the Army.

 

Now, these were very young men. The oldest was 27, but two of them were 17 and still at school.  Two had been expelled from school and were now students. They wanted Bosnia to be united with Serbia and the other south Slave states to form Yugoslavia, which means the Kingdom of the South Slavs. Six of the seven were Christians, either Orthodox or Catholic, and one was a Muslim. They were very like modern suicide bombers. None of them drank, none of them gambled, and none of them had relationships with women. They were members of an organisation known as Young Bosnia, which was loosely affiliated with a secret Serbian organisation known as the Black Hand.

 

As the cars moved at a fairly slow pace in those days, one of these conspirators threw a bomb at the car, and the driver accelerated, and the bomb exploded under the third car, causing injuries to the spectators and those in the car. The conspirator threw himself into the river and took his cyanide pill. But, it being a very warm summer, the river was fairly dry and he did not drown, and the cyanide pill which he had lodged in his possession for some time did not work – I gather they get degraded after a certain time, though I’ve never tried it myself… But it did not work, and so he was apprehended by the authorities.

 

The Archduke carried on with his official visit and reached the Town Hall, and there was a speech of welcome from the Mayor, and the Archduke, who was notoriously ill-tempered, interrupted the speech and said “You invite me here and greet me with bombs!” The Mayor then continued his speech, and there was a reception, and the Archduke’s wife had a separate reception with Muslim wives of senior officials, and they decided that, as a result of the bomb, they were going to cut short their visit and go straight out of Sarajevo. But, the driver of the car was either not told, it is not clear, or if he was told, he forgot, and when he reached a junction by the river, he turned right instead of going straight on, and was then told he had taken a wrong turning and had to back to get to the main road again. He did that. It was very slow, the cars of those days, and one of the conspirators, a 19 year old youth called Gavrilo Princip, was sitting in a café, a delicatessen, Moritz Schiller’s delicatessen, on the corner of the junction where the car was turning, and I think, rather to his surprise - I think he thought the conspiracy had failed - he saw the Archduke at point-blank range, and took out his revolver and shot him dead. His second shot, which I think was aimed to kill the Governor of Bosnia, killed the Archduke’s wife instead. 

 

He too took a cyanide pill, but that did not work either. It is possible, some people say, had it worked, war might have been avoided because people would not have known about the connection with Serbia – I am not sure that is true.

 

The assassination was on the 28th of June 1914, and five weeks later, Austria, Serbia, Germany, Russia and France were at war, and two days after that, on the 4th of August, the day after a sunny August bank holiday in Britain, Britain declared war on Germany. 

 

Now, how did this happen? First, how did a Continental war break out, and secondly, how did Britain come to join it? I think, whether you agree with what I am going to say or not, I think you would agree it is an important question because many believe that the outbreak of the War is the most important event of the twentieth century. Some people say that, without the First World War, you would not have had a Russian Revolution, you would not have had Communism. Perhaps you would not have had Hitler or a Second World War, and some might argue the Second World War was, in a way, a consequence of the First.

 

As I am sure you know, the Europe of 1914 was very different from the Europe of today, and even Britain had different boundaries because, at that time, the whole of Ireland was part of Britain.

 

Even France had different boundaries. She had lost the two eastern provinces of Alsace-Lorraine in 1871 to Germany in the war. 

 

The Russian Empire included the whole of the territory of the old Soviet Union, including the Baltic States and Ukraine and so on, but also much of what is now Poland – that was all part of the Russian Empire, and also, in the north, Finland. Russia and France were allied countries.  They had signed a treaty of alliance in 1894, a treaty of mutual assistance.

 

The German Empire also included much of what is now Poland, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a multinational empire, perhaps a bit like the European Union, a kind of roof over a huge number of nationalities. There were ten official languages in that Empire. In particular, many Slavs lived under the Empire, the Slavs in what is now the Czech Republic, Slovakia, part of Poland, part of the Ukraine, and part of what became Yugoslavia after the First World War.

 

Now, Germany and Austria were allied, and they were allied with Italy, which actually does not play much part in the story, in the so-called Triple Alliance. They were allied, and France and Russia were allied. 

 

Britain, at the beginning of the twentieth century, had no allies at all and did not feel she needed them. She had a grand Empire, covering about a fifth of the world, and such Army as she had, Britain was distinguished from the Continental countries by having a small Army, no conscription, and she relied on the Navy for her security, an insular maritime country. The main use of the Army was to garrison India, which of course is off the map, but part of the British Empire. Britain had no alliances until 2002, when she signed an alliance with Japan – that was meant to contain Russia; and then in 1904, she signed the famous Entente Cordiale with France; and in 1907, a further Entente with Russia. But they were not alliances; they were ways of settling colonial disagreements and, in British minds, they did not commit Britain to anything at all. So, Britain was different from the other major powers, in my opinion, in having no alliance structures, and no commitments to go to war. 

 

I think there were two main causes of the War. The first one was the clash between Austria-Hungary and the force of Slav nationalism, which was of course represented in extreme form by the assassins who killed the Archduke, because the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as its name suggests, was dominated by two groups, the Germans, the Austrians, and the Hungarians. It was a dual structure. And the Austrians and Hungarians were pushing eastwards, and they came up against the force of Slav nationalism because the Slavs, both inside and outside the Empire, wanted to unite together, as previously the French and Germans and Italians and so on had done.

 

The second cause of the War, in my opinion, was the increasing power of Germany, and the difficulty the other powers found in containing it. Germany came to be united after the war with France in 1870, which, as I said a few moments ago, enabled it to annex Alsace-Lorraine. 

 

A rather far-sighted British statesman noted the significance of that. I am talking about Disraeli, who told the House of Commons in 1871, he said this, a very prescient comment I think, he said: “Let me impress upon the attention of the House the character of this war between France and Germany. It is no common war, like the war between Prussia and Austria, or the like the Italian war in which France was engaged some years ago, and nor is it like the Crimean War.” He said, “This war represents the German revolution, a greater political event than the French Revolution of the last century. Not a single principle in the management of our foreign affairs, accepted by all statesmen for guidance up to six months ago, any longer exists. There is not a diplomatic tradition which has not been swept away. You have a new world, new influences at work, new and unknown objects and dangers with which to cope at present, involved in that obscurity incident to novelty in such affairs. We used to have discussions in this House about the balance of power, but what has really come to pass? The balance of power has been entirely destroyed and the country which suffers most and feels the effects of this great change most is England.” A very prescient remark I think…

 

The unification of Germany was probably inevitable, but the form which it took was not. Germany was unified by a great conservative statesman, Bismarck, or perhaps better to say Germany was partitioned by Bismarck because the form in which it was left many Germans outside Germany, primarily in Austria, but also to the east of Germany. Germany was not fully unified, in the sense of bringing all Germans together in one state, until Hitler’s time in 1938.

 

The form which German unification took was determined by Bismarck, who put great value on political stability, and he tamed German nationalism and kept it within bounds. He was a master of restraint, and he gave Europe a generation of peace which, by 1914, had come to be taken for granted. It is often said that if Bismarck had been Chancellor of Germany in 1914, there would not have been a war. But perhaps a system which depends on one man’s genius is not a very stable one, and Bismarck’s legacy was rather harmful I think to Germany in that it gave the impression that foreign policy could be left to a leader of genius, because his methods were later to be adopted by those who lacked his genius, or indeed his sense of restraint.

 

Britain was, in one sense, an opponent of Germany – I do not mean in a military sense, but in an ideological sense, in that Britain was a parliamentary state. When there was talk in the late-nineteenth century of an alliance between Britain and Germany, the British Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, said to the German Chancellor our system was entirely different from that of other nations – it was parliamentary in a fuller sense. Parliament could remove the Government. Now, Parliament could remove the Government in France as well – France was also a parliamentary state, but France was rather hampered by her multi-party system which made political responsibility difficult to secure. But in Germany, and even more in Austro-Hungary and Russia, Parliament could not remove the Government, and that was of great importance because it meant that policies in Britain were going to be scrutinised by Parliament much more closely than they would be in the Continental countries. In particular, it was much more difficult for Britain to adopt a secretive course in foreign policy or to conceal military plans from Parliament for very long, whereas, in the non-parliamentary states, the military had a great deal of autonomy.  For example, in Germany, the Army was responsible not to the Government and to Parliament through the Government, but to the Kaiser. Many people in Britain did not understand that. They thought the position of the Army in Germany was very similar to that in Britain. They thought the position of the German Chancellor was very similar to that of a Prime Minister – it was not. They were responsible to the Kaiser and not to Parliament. Parliament could not remove the Government. And that was even more so in the authoritarian state of Russia and in Austria-Hungary, and I think that played an important part.

 

So, Britain was a parliamentary government, and Britain, in 1914, was governed by the Liberals, though, as you can see, it was a Hung Parliament, and Liberals were dependent on the Irish Parliamentary Party and the small Labour Party. The Liberals were a Government of the moderate left, a bit like the Labour Party today.  

 

The Foreign Secretary was Sir Edward Grey. He was Foreign Secretary from 1905 to 1916, eleven years, the longest continuous period of a Foreign Secretary in the twentieth century. He was an odd choice, in a way, for Foreign Secretary because he spoke only one foreign language and that was French, and he spoke French very badly. He did not use French in diplomatic conversations. French was then the diplomatic language. He went abroad just once before the War, and that was on an official visit with the King to Paris in April 1914. He never visited Germany, for example, or Russia, or any of the other countries involved. He was, as I said, a Liberal, but he was a Liberal of the right, and was attacked much more by his backbenchers, most of whom were on the left, than by the Conservatives. His backbenchers attacked him because they said he divided Europe into two armed camps, that he aligned Britain too closely with France and Russia, and in that way, he made war more likely. It is often said Europe was divided into two armed camps.

 

Grey, as a Liberal of the right, had been aligned with a group which had been called, before the Liberals came to office, had been called the Liberal Imperialist. Now, Grey was not an imperialist in the sense he wanted to expand the Empire, but what he meant was the Liberals should not appear to be the unpatriotic party, and he had supported, against many on the left, the Boer War against the South African Dutch. He said it would be fatal for any left-wing party to appear unpatriotic – we must not do, and the left, if you belonged to a left-wing party, you must show that you can be as patriotic as if you are a Conservative.

 

But Grey did continue with the policies of the previous Conservative Government because he supported the Anglo-French Entente of 1904, which the Conservatives had negotiated, and he extended this by an Entente with Russia, which many people on the left did not like because they said, rightly really, that Russia was not a parliamentary state but a state whose policies were disfigured by officially-inspired anti-Semitism and an authoritarian state, though people did believe, or hope, that Russia was moving towards parliamentary government.

 

But I think it is important to stress, as I have already, that these Ententes were not alliances and they did not commit Britain, other than in very limited ways, to support of France or Russia. But they did commit Britain to supporting France in any dispute in Morocco because the basis of the Entente was that we would support the French if they got into trouble in Morocco, which was their imperial position, and they would support Britain if they got into trouble in Egypt.

 

There were two Moroccan crises before the First World War, which people thought might lead to war, but in the end were settled peacefully, and there, we had to support France. 

 

But the French said, shortly before Edward Grey came to office, the French said, look, if you are going to support us, we need to consult and discuss how you can make this support effective because if we find ourselves in a war with Germany over Morocco, how precisely are you going to help us? Will you begin conversations with us about naval matters? The Conservatives said, yes, we will do that, we will talk to you about naval matters, but only on condition that you accept there is no British commitment. No Foreign Secretary can make that commitment without the support of the Cabinet or Parliament.

 

When Grey came to office, he continued these naval conversations, and he extended them to military conversations. He told the Prime Minister about them, and he told two of his friends in the Cabinet. He did not tell the rest of the Cabinet, who were left in the dark about it. I think anyone who thinks prime ministerial government began with Blair or even with Margaret Thatcher needs to read a bit more history!

 

Grey’s excuse, he said he was not telling the rest of the Cabinet because, a rather feeble excuse I think, because the country was in the middle of an election campaign. His real excuse, or real reason rather, was that he was frightened of leaks to the press about these conversations. But I think the justification, and he has one, is that the conversations did not commit Britain to anything.  They were contingency plans for a possible eventuality. If it came to war, you would need the approval of the Cabinet and Parliament.

 

In November 1912, at the insistence of the Cabinet, there was a public exchange of letters between Sir Edward Grey and the French Ambassador, making it absolutely explicit that there was no commitment. The only commitment was the two countries would consult if they were threatened by a third party. When war broke out in 1914, the French never suggested that Britain was under any legal obligation to help them, only that it would be in Britain’s interests to do so and would be a matter of honour for Britain, but not a legal obligation. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Entente was, in one sense, ambiguous, because, after all, if Britain was committed to support France diplomatically in Morocco, what did that mean if it was not backed up by military support? The French most certainly wanted to convert the Entente into an alliance. So, the Entente meant something different to the British from what it meant to the French. But I think it was absolutely clear, for example, that if France was drawn into a war because of her alliance with Russia, suppose France got involved in the Balkans and got involved in War with Austria, as she did in fact, and France then helps Russia, Britain would be under no obligation to do anything about the Balkans – she had no commitments there at all and that was made absolutely clear. Indeed, I think it is fair to say Britain could only go to war if the Cabinet supported it, if Parliament supported it, and public feeling supported it, but there was some ambiguity.

 

The Moroccan conflict was solved peacefully. Some people have said, well, these imperial conflicts were what led to war. I do not think that is true. They could be easily resolved, and the Germans were compensated for not getting Morocco with a bit of Africa, a bit of tropical Africa. There were all sorts of areas in those days in Africa and Asia and so on, and you could pass it out amongst the great powers, but what you could not contain, what you could not resolve were conflicts between the great powers in Europe. The World War was caused not by conflict outside Europe, but conflicts by rival nationalisms in Europe and particularly in the Balkans, and the problem, as I have said earlier, was that the Slavs were seeking what other countries, Germany, France, Italy had got before – they were seeking national self-determination, and that search for national self-determination threatened the south-eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so the Austro-Hungarian Empire stood in the way of Slav aspirations.

 

Many people feel nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian Empire because it was, as I said earlier, like the European Union, a kind of roof over the nationalities and its purpose was to contain national conflict. I once had a conversation with the late Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, who asked me really a very pertinent question. He said: “Has any part of Europe benefited from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire?” because of course the independent countries first moved under fascism between the wars and then communism, a good question but perhaps not relevant because the Empire was, as I say, dominated by two groups. 

 

Paradoxically, and I think this was one of the reasons why the Archduke was a target for assassination, the Archduke wanted to create a trialist empire in which the Slavs had equal power with the Hungarians and the Germans, and although the Archduke was very far from being a socialist, that policy was supported by the Austrian Socialist Party. They were drawing up schemes of that sort in 1914. Of course, we will never know whether they would have succeeded.  But as it was, it was clear the Empire stood in the way of the Slavs and it became even more of an obstacle in 1908 because, until then, the province of Bosnia had been administered by Austria but the sovereignty was still with the Turkish Empire, with the Ottoman Empire, which you can see on the map. This had happened at the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, that Austria was allowed to occupy Bosnia until peace and prosperity returned, when it would be returned to Turkey. Austria ruled this, as I say, after 1878, and many people have praised Austrian rule in Bosnia, but I always feel it is rather like those who praised British rule in Ireland in the nineteenth century, of which someone once said it was a model form of government if you excluded the fact that the Irish people did not consent to it. In 1908, for example, there were just twelve high schools in Bosnia, 90% of the population was illiterate, and just 30 Bosnians proceeded to higher education, so there were limitations on the benefits that Austrian rule brought.

 

But, in 1908, there was a dress rehearsal for the Sarajevo crisis when Austria-Hungary converted her occupation of the two provinces into an annexation. This was a breach of the Treaty of Berlin, a breach of international law, and had very fundamental consequences. The first was that it made non-Slav rule in Bosnia appear permanent because the Austrian Empire had much more staying power than the Ottoman Empire, which was really on its last legs, so this was a permanent obstacle which would make Slav unity more difficult and a blow to the independent south Slav state of Serbia in particular.

 

Secondly, the annexation converted the south Slav issue into an international problem because the Russians saw themselves as the protector of the Slavs, and they protested and there was a threat of war. But in March 1909, Austria demanded, under threat of war, that Serbia recognise the annexation, and Germany said to the Russians, if there is a war and you join Serbia, we will join Austria and fight you, and the Russians backed down and the annexation was recognised by the powers of Europe. The Kaiser boasted, perhaps rather unwisely I think, in Vienna in 1910, that he had come to Austria’s side as a knight in shining armour.

 

The annexation of Bosnia clearly pitted these two nationalisms against each other, and I said that 1908 was a dress rehearsal for 1914 because of the great similarities. In 1914, as 1908. It had seen Europe divide into two camps: the Slavs, protected by Russia, supported by France; and the Austria and Germany. There was just one great difference: that in 1914, Russia did not back down.

 

In 1908, Russia backed down partly under British pressure. Britain, although she had an entente with Russia, made it clear that she would not support any military action on the part of Russia.  Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, said to the British Ambassador in St Petersburg, he said, “If war were to take place, it would probably, in the end, embroil the greater part of the Continent,” which of course is what happened in 1914. So he said: “Even Russia must see that such a risk for the sake of Serbia’s demands for territorial compensation is utterly disproportionate to the end in view.”

 

In 1914, Russia did not back down because she thought, and I think she was right, that the Austrians were threatening the very existence of Serbia as an independent state, and many people blamed Russia as largely responsible for the War. But of course, if the recipient of the threat of force always backs down, you can avoid war – it is called appeasement.

 

But the next crisis in the Balkans ended more happily, from the point of view of the great powers because, in 1912, the Slav States joined together with Greece to remove the Turkish presence in Europe in the first Balkan War, and that almost ended Turkish rule in Europe. You can see there was then, as there is now, just a small sliver of Turkey in Europe, and you had the increase in the territory of the Slav states in the south-east.

 

Sir Edward Grey said “No British interests are involved in this, but we must try and get a peaceful agreement,” and he called an ambassadors’ conference in London, at which the various disputes were settled. A remarkable feature of what Grey did, which has not I think been sufficiently noticed, is that on almost all of the contentious issues, he took the Austrian, that is the German, side, and not the side of his French and Russian allies. There were two issues in particular.

 

The first was that the Austrians wanted to create a non-Slave state called Albania, on the Adriatic, so as to deny Serbia access to the Adriatic and make her more dependent on Austria. Grey supported that, against the wishes of Serbia and Russia, and once again, Serbia and Russia backed down. 

 

Then, after this settlement, the ally of Serbia, a small, rather comic opera state called Montenegro – I hope there are no Montenegrins here... The capital of Montenegro then had a population of 5,000. It was the model, for those who like Viennese operetta, Montenegro was the model for the principality of Pontevedro in Lehar’s opera “The Merry Widow”, written in 1905. But the Montenegrins, small as they were, attacked Albania, and they occupied a strategic city there called Scutari, now called Shkoder, in Albania, which the powers had allocated to Albania. Grey made it absolutely clear that he would support Austrian action to remove the Montenegrins from Albania, and there was a naval demonstration by the powers, with the exception of Russia, which compelled Montenegro to withdraw. 

 

Now, Grey defended his policy in Parliament in this way. He said the Albanian population of Scutari were mainly Catholic and Muslim, not Orthodox or Slav, and that Albania had exactly the same right of self-determination as the Slavs, but I think there were other reasons, which he could not admit in public, or did not admit in public. 

 

The first was, if you were going to keep the peace, Serbia and Montenegro had to make concessions, that the Serbs and also Russia had gained prestige from the victories of the Balkan League, and you now had to have a balance, so a counter-balance of gains for Austria, and therefore Germany, that the needs of peace were more important for Grey than the needs of the Entente.

 

I think his second motive was to show to Germany that her fears of being encircled were base-less, that the Ententes did not commit Britain to action against Germany, and that she would be perfectly prepared to take the side of Austria-Hungary and Germany to keep the peace. The idea that Grey was putting forward was the idea of a concert of Europe, by which the powers could meet together and peacefully settle their problems. It is no accident that, after the First World War, Grey was one of the leading supporters of the League of Nations, and that was what he was trying to achieve in Europe in the London conference. The French Ambassador was rather annoyed with Britain for not giving greater support and Russia felt she had had a further humiliation. But Grey was distancing himself from the Entente, and I think he was becoming much less pro-French than he had been, partly perhaps because France was growing stronger than it had been. But the main reason, I think, was his critics were wrong in thinking he favoured a Europe divided by alliances – he did not. He favoured a concert Europe, a kind of proto-League of Nations, by which matters could be peacefully settled. Grey’s radical critics, the left and the Liberal Party, understood that and were moving towards him in that period, when it seemed there was a détente with Germany. 

 

At the end of the London conference, a radical journal, the predecessor of the New Statesman, called the Nation – the New Statesman used to be called the New Statesman and Nation, and before the War, it was called the Nation. It said this: “The credit for the conference belongs in equal parts to the statesmen of German and Sir Edward Grey. They have found at last a consciousness of their common duties. There might evolve from this temporary association some permanent machinery of legislation.”

In December 1913, Grey said to the German Ambassador in London that “Nothing more than a memory is left of the old Anglo-German antagonism.”  

 

At the beginning of June, in 1914, my old university, Oxford, held its honorary degree ceremony, and it honoured two Germans – this is two months before the War, the German Ambassador, who was only the second Ambassador to be so honoured, and the German composer, Richard Strauss. There was a détente, it seemed, with Germany.

 

But, on the Continent, very different voices were heard, unknown to Britain. After the Balkan Wars, the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, who was Count Berchtold, he asked his allies, Germany and Italy, if they would attack Serbia. He said that Serbia had increased its population from three million to 4.5 million and was a danger. The allies refused to do that. But in November 1913, Count Berchtold told a diplomatic colleague departing to a post in Romania, he said this: “The solution of the South Slav issue, subject to the limitations of human wisdom, and in face of the tenacity and confidence with which Serbia is pursing the idea of a greater Serbia, can only be by force. It will either almost completely destroy the present state of Serbia or it will shake Austro-Hungary to its foundations.” In the end of course, it did both. It did both…

 

Now, at first, it seemed that the assassination was not going to lead to war because, in Britain, nothing happened for a month, and nothing seemed to happen publicly at all. On the 17th of July, nineteen days after the assassination, and eighteen days before Britain declared war on Germany, Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, speaking at the Mansion House, said that relations between Britain and Germany were better than they had been for a long time, and he urged disarmament. For Britain, the War seemed to break out of a near-cloudless sky.

 

It was not known to the British Government but, on the 5th of July, the Austrians sent an emissary to Berlin to ask, to say – they were not asking, they were saying they were intending to use military force against Serbia, and they wanted German support, but the Austrian emissary was surprised to find that not only the Kaiser, who I think has been too much fingered as the villain, but the Chancellor, Bethmann-Holleg, not only said they would support them but actually encouraged them and said it’s time you dealt with Serbia pretty firmly and we will support you.  They gave what is generally known in the literature as a blank cheque to Austria to do what she liked with Serbia.

 

I think people do not ask enough why Austria needed that blank cheque because, after all, Serbia was a very small state and would be fairly easy to crush. The blank cheque was needed in case Russia came to the aid of Serbia, as she had threatened to do in 1908. The German presumption was that, if Germany threatened her again, she would again back down, but they were well aware that she might not. On the 7th of July, Bethmann said to his secretary “An action against Serbia can lead to a world war.”

 

Now, there was then a further gap, until the 24th of July, when the Austrians sent a note, with various demands on Serbia, with a  48-hour time limit, demanding unconditional acceptance – in effect, an ultimatum. Of this note, Grey said to the Austrian Ambassador in London that it was “…the most formidable document that was ever addressed from one state to another”, and at that point, it was clear there might be a war in the Balkans and it might not be localised. 

 

It was at this point the European crisis first came before the British Cabinet, but it came at the end of a long Cabinet meeting devoted to the problems – how little changes - of Northern Ireland, and they were discussing, the British Cabinet was discussing which part of Northern Ireland might be excluded from Home Rule to Ireland and how the boundaries were going to be drawn and what the time limit for exclusion would be. 

 

The discussion, the atmosphere had been very graphically described by Winston Churchill, who was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time. He said this: “The discussion had reached its inconclusive end and the Cabinet was about to separate when the quiet, grave tones of Sir Edward Grey’s voice were heard, reading a document which had just been brought to him from the Foreign Office. It was the Austrian note to Serbia. He had been reading or speaking for several minutes before I could disengage my mind from the tedious and bewildering debate which had just closed. We were all very tired, but gradually, as the phrases and sentences followed one another, impressions of a wholly different character began to form in my mind. This note was clearly an ultimatum, but it was an ultimatum such as had never been penned in modern times.  As the reading proceeded, it seemed absolutely impossible that any state in the world could accept it, or that any acceptance, however abject, would satisfy the aggressor. The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland, and a strange light began immediately, but by perceptible gradations, to fall and to grow upon the map of Europe.”

 

So people thought there was going to be a war, but at first, it did not seem it should concern Britain at all. That night, the Prime Minister, Asquith, wrote a letter. He wrote many letters from Downing Street to his girlfriend in the East End of London, Venetia Stanley. The postal service was much better in those days: they got there the same day. Much of the letter was about the seemingly intractable Ulster problem, but at the end of the letter, Asquith said there was some real danger of a European war, but he ended: “Happily, there seems to be no reason why we should be more than spectators.” 

 

The Manchester Guardian, as the Guardian was then called, said, on the 30th of July, just five days before we declared war, “We care as little for Belgrade as Belgrade cares for Manchester”.

 

Grey adopted the same policy as he had adopted after the Balkan War. He says that European peace had weathered many worse storms and the same methods which had preserved peace then would preserve peace now, and he proposed another ambassadors’ conference, perhaps not necessarily meeting in London, but somewhere else, and perhaps not necessarily under his chairmanship. Now, the Russians said they would prefer direct talks with Austria-Hungary, but if that were to be rejected, she would accept a conference. The Austrians rejected both direct talks and the conference proposal – they said this was solely a matter between Austria and Serbia. Germany rejected the conference proposal on the ground that it would be a court of arbitration against Austria because she would have no friends except for Germany. But I think that is mistaken because I think Grey would in fact have taken the Austrian side – he would have said that great concessions by Serbia were needed to keep the peace, and that she should make them. Indeed, he produced a formula to the effect that the powers would, and I quote, “...examine how Serbia can fully satisfy Austria without impairing Serbia’s sovereign rights or independence”.  I think he would have insisted on Serbia making those concessions, and it would have been very difficult  I think for the Russians not to go along with that.

 

The rejection of the conference proposal took away from Grey’s hands a lever with which he could have persuaded Russia not to support Serbia militarily. Churchill wrote that “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 relieved the tension.”

 

Now, the Russians proposed that the dispute be given to the Court of Arbitration at The Hague, and Britain supported that, but, again, it was rejected by Austria and Germany. This seems to me fairly conclusive, in any discussion of the origins of the War, that Germany and Austria took risks which might, and in fact did, lead to more than a local war but a continental war.

 

Grey’s mistake, a natural one in the light of what happened in 1912, was to think that Germany was acting to restrain Austria, when, if anything, she was acting to push her on.

 

On the 29th of July, the German Chancellor, Bettmann-Hollweg, made a bid for British neutrality.  He said he would guarantee the territorial integrity of France and Belgium. But Britain asked would you guarantee the French colonies, and he said no, and that was important at that time because French power depended on the colonies. But the Chancellor said he would guarantee the integrity and neutrality of the Netherlands, but only the integrity of Belgium, which pointed to the fact that he would not guarantee the neutrality of Belgium.

 

After the war had broken out, Asquith, the Prime Minister, told the Commons that for Britain to have accepted that would have been contemptible. She was being asked, behind the back of France, her friend, to allow disposal of her colonies, which it was then thought would weaken her as a great power, and she was being asked to bargain away Belgian neutrality, thus becoming, in effect, an accomplice to a German invasion. So, if, as proved to be the case, the British asked Belgium for help, we would have to say we have already signed your neutrality away, and what would we get in return for this? What we would get was a promise by Germany to respect British neutrality and independence, at a time when she was violating the neutrality and independence of another power which she had also promised to respect.

 

When Grey rejected this proposal, he wrote a further letter laying bare his hopes for a new concert of Europe if the crisis could be overcome. He said to the German Ambassador: “You should add, most earnestly, that the one way of maintaining the good relations between England and Germany is that they should continue to work together to preserve the peace of Europe. If the peace of Europe can be preserved, and the present crisis safely passed, my own endeavour would be to promote some arrangement to which Germany could be a party, by which she could be assured that no aggressive or hostile policy would be pursued against her or her allies by France, Russia and ourselves, jointly or separately. I have desired this and worked for it as far as I could through the last Balkan crisis and, Germany having a corresponding object, our relations sensibly improved. The idea has hitherto been too utopian to form the subject of definite proposals, but if this present crisis, so much more acute than any that Europe has gone through for generations, be safely passed, I am hopeful that the relief and reaction which will follow may make possible some more definite rapprochement between the powers than has been possible hitherto.”  

 

And he said, at a conference, he would tell the Austrians that he would undertake to see that she “…obtained full satisfaction of her demands on Serbia, provided they did not impair Serbian sovereignty and the integrity of Serbian territory.” He said, “I said to the German Ambassador that, if Germany could get any reasonable proposal put forward, which made it clear that Germany and Austria were striving to preserve European peace, and that Russia and France would be unreasonable if they rejected it, I would support it at St Petersburg and Paris, and go to the length of saying that if Russia and France would not accept it, Her Majesty’s Government would have nothing more to do with the consequences. But, otherwise, I told the German Ambassador that if France became involved, we should be drawn in.” That was a clear warning.  Some people say Grey did not give a warning – you can see he did, and the Ambassador passed it on, but, very sadly, people in Berlin took no notice of the German Ambassador. They thought he was too anglophile, which perhaps he was, but he was reporting accurately.

 

But, at this point, we come to the Liberal Cabinet, and they were, perhaps as often happens with left-wing Governments, they were deeply divided. Now, Grey, and some of his senior colleagues, like Asquith, and the Lord Chancellor, Lord Haldane, the Indian Secretary, Lord Crewe, who was a close friend of the Prime Minister, and Winston Churchill, who was the First Lord of the Admiralty, they believed that Britain was bound, not by alliance, but in honour, to support France; but the majority of the Cabinet did not believe that, and nor did many Liberal backbenchers. 

 

The invasion of Belgium transformed Liberal opinion. Grey has a very interesting passage in his memoirs. He says this: “About this time, a very active Liberal member came up to me in the lobby and told me he wished me to understand that, under no circumstances whatever, ought this country to take part in the war if it came. He spoke in a dictatorial tone, in the manner of a superior addressing a subordinate whom he thought needed a good talking to. I answered pretty roughly, to the effect that I hoped we should not be involved in war, but that it was nonsense to say there were no circumstances conceivable in which we ought to go to war. “Under no circumstances whatever!” was the retort. “Suppose Germany violates the neutrality of Belgium?” For a moment, he paused, like one who, running at speed, finds himself suddenly confronted with an obstacle, unexpected and unforeseen, and then he said, with emphasis, “She won’t do it!” “I do not say she will, but supposing she does?” “She will not do it!” he repeatedly confidently, and, with that assurance, he left me.”

 

Now, I think, had Belgium not been invaded, I think the Liberals could not have led Britain into war. That is the situation in the House of Commons at the time, and the Liberals, without an overall majority, relied, as I say, on the Irish and Labour. Neither would have supported a war before the invasion of Belgium, and nor would most Liberal MPs.  

 

On the 2nd of August, two days before the outbreak of war, Asquith, again writing to his girlfriend – they are a wonderful historical source so I think more Prime Ministers should have girlfriends to whom they write letters. All his letters have been published now. He said, “A good three-quarters of our own party in the House of Commons are for absolute non-interference at any price” – that is three-quarters of the Liberals. 

 

So, it is often said the outcome would have been a Conservative-dominated Government, coalition that would have led Britain to war. I doubt that. If you take a quarter of the Liberals, if you are saying they are prepared to break with their party and join the Conservatives, against majority opinion in their party, and there were a few Conservatives who were against fighting, who were for non-involvement, as much of the City was for non-involvement, and could you take Britain into a continental war with half of the House of Commons, and therefore presumably half the country, against it? I do not think you can. My own view is the outcome would have been anti-war Liberal Government led by Lloyd George, who I think was waiting to see which way the wind was blowing before committing himself. I think it is very difficult to imagine leading the country into war without the invasion of Belgium.

 

But when Asquith learnt of the German ultimatum to Belgium, he wrote to his girlfriend, again, rather flippantly, you may think, “This simplifies matters, so we sent the Germans an ultimatum, to expire at midnight.”

 

Now, Belgium had been recognised by treaties of the 1830s which had been signed by Prussia, the forerunner of Germany, as an independent and perpetually neutral state. In 1870, at the time of the Franco-Prussian War, Gladstone had asked both France and Prussia whether they would respect Belgian neutrality, and both had said that they would. In 1914, France said she would respect Belgian neutrality, and Germany said she would not. Very interestingly, in France, the military had drawn up plans to invade Belgium on the outbreak of war, but this is an example of a parliamentary government – the civilian government said we cannot do that, we cannot break an international law, even if it would benefit France to do so. That is the difference, in my view, between a parliamentary country and an authoritarian country.

 

The guarantee of Belgium was a collective one, and every legal signatory had the right to enforce it, but they were not under a duty to do so. So, the matter, as the Liberal Cabinet recognised, was one of policy and not an obligation. They were not legally obliged; it was a question of policy. But, in practice, in 1914, no possible government could have accepted the breach of Belgian neutrality. One has to work one’s way back into this time in the twentieth century because, of course, there have been numerous atrocities in the twentieth century which perhaps have dulled people’s sensibilities, so it is difficult to understand the sense the sense of moral outrage in Britain, because it was not just an unprovoked breach of a treaty, but an act of unprovoked aggression against a small power, which had not interfered with anyone, and there was a general feeling that, if a great power could simply ignore the neutral status of a small country to which it had pledged its word, Europe would not be safe. I think, in 1914, any government that had failed to help Belgium, I do not think such a government could have survived in Parliament.

 

The House of Commons was almost unanimous because the left Liberals who were in favour of non-intervention had said that Germany was not as bad as she was painted, that Britain should make more effort to secure détente, and Grey had come to agree with that view, but the invasion of Belgium seemed to show that Germany was worse than she was painted.

 

An academic, on the left-wing of the Liberal Party, Gilbert Murray, who had been a strong critic of Grey, wrote a book in 1915 defending him, in which he said: “I have never till this year seriously believed in the unalterably aggressive designs of Germany, and I also felt, with some impatience, that though, as an outsider, I could not tell exactly what the Government should do, they surely could produce good relations between Britain and Germany, if only they had the determination and the will. Now I see that, on a large part of this question, I was wrong, and a large number of the people whom I honour most were wrong. One is vividly reminded of Lord Melbourne’s famous dictum: “All the sensible men were on one side, and all the damn fools were on the other,” and the damned fools were right!”

 

On the 3rd of August, after Grey spoke in the Commons, the Conservative opposition spoke in support of the war, and that was no surprise, but what did surprise people was the speech which followed from the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond, in support of the war.  He said the British could withdraw all their troops from Ireland, the Nationalists were in support of the war, because it was a war to defend small nationalities – that he believed was the universal sentiment of Ireland – and he said “There never was a juster war or one in which higher and nobler principles and issues were at stake.”

 

But then two people spoke against the war, from the Labour Party, Ramsay MacDonald, who was the Leader of the Labour Party, and Keir Hardie, one of the founders. But they were repudiated by the rest of their Party, and of the 37 Labour MPs, only four, including MacDonald and Hardie, took the position of being against the war. The others favoured the war, and MacDonald had to resign leadership.

 

The King saw the American Ambassador, and the King generally reflected what might be called the common-sense view. Asquith, rather condescendingly, referred to him as “the man in the tube”, but he said to the American Ambassador, “My God, Mr Page, what else could we do?!”

 

It is often said that Grey should have made it clearer to Germany that the invasion of Belgium would bring Britain into the war, but, as I said, he did warn the Ambassador, but it had no effect.  But anyone who had the slightest familiarity with British opinion could be in no doubt, and in 1912, a German correspondent in Britain asked a British editor whether Britain would join in a war if France were threatened. The editor replied: “My dear Sir, you have lived in England for ten years, and you know the English people. Can you really see them sitting still while the German Army wiped out the French and planted itself on the French coast?”

 

So, Germany hoped that Britain might remain neutral, but discounted it, partly because Britain had such a small Army. 

 

But the decision to go to war for Belgium was not just a decision based on morality but also on self-interest because most British politicians, and I think the British people, felt that if Germany conquered France and Belgium, this would compromise British independence so that she would become a vassal state of Germany. 

 

Let me quote Disraeli again. In 1870, he said this to the Commons, at the time of the Franco-Prussian War: “It has always been held by the Government of this country that it was for the interests of England that the countries on the European coast, extending from Dunkirk to Ostend, to the islands of the North Sea, should be possessed by free and flourishing communities, practising the arts of peace, enjoying the rights of liberty, and following those pursuits of commerce which tend to the civilisation of man and should not be in the possession of a great military power, one of the principles of whose existence necessarily must be to aim at a preponderating influence in Europe.” Of course, that was more important in 1914 than in 1870, because of the advent of long-range artillery, large warships and submarines.

 

I think Britain would have made the same decision even if the ententes had not existed, even if there had been no military or naval conversations with Britain, and whoever had been Foreign Secretary. Now, in a recent book on the First World War, Max Hastings writes: “How and why Britain joined the war, what was essentially a European war, was largely down to one man, Sir Edward Grey.” That seems to be absurd. Grey could nothing without the assent of Cabinet, Parliament and the people. Grey’s great achievement, I think, was to bring a united country into the war, which would have been difficult to do with a Conservative Government because it might have been opposed by the left.

 

The left-wing critique of Grey had few supporters by 1914, but shortly after the War, some of the opponents of the War in the Labour and Liberal Parties, led by Ramsay MacDonald and Bertrand Russell, formed a movement called the Union of Democratic Control, the UCD, and that view became the orthodoxy in the 1920s and 1930s, when it coincided with the publication of books saying the War had been a mistake because, people said, the arms race, competition in building up armaments, had led to the War, and that opportunities for personal diplomacy had been lost, that Grey should have gone to Germany to meet his opponents face-to-face to dispel suspicion through personal contact. You could then settle disputes by personal and peaceful negotiation because no one in their senses really wants war, but, in any case, Britain should not involve herself in these continental matters because we were an imperial, and not a European, power, and what happened in Serbia, or even in Belgium perhaps, was no concern of ours. Now, that was the critique of the left in 1914, and you can see, today, it is the kind of critique of the Euro-sceptic right – you see, it links up with my lectures on Europe, are we part of Europe. 

 

Niall Ferguson, in his recent book, “The Pity of War”, says: “If only we had not fought, we could have been honoured members of the Kaiser’s European Union, instead of being, as we are now, subordinate members of Angela Merkel’s European Union.”

 

But, between the Wars, the left-wing critique of Grey became the main theme, the light motif of appeasement, because, in 1914, Grey had proposed a conference to settle the problems of Europe – that was rejected by Germany. In 1938, Neville Chamberlain proposed a conference to settle the future of Europe, the Munich Conference, and that was accepted by Hitler and resulted in a settlement, which postponed, although of course it did not avoid, war. 

 

Chamberlain, interestingly, was opposed by Churchill, who had been a hawk in the Cabinet of 1914, and was a hawk in the late-1930s, because he believed that Germany was fundamentally an aggressive power and that, to resist her, we needed an alliance with Russia, however much we might dislike her political system. 

 

The appeasers said we were not part of the Continent, we are not part of Europe, we are basically an imperial and maritime power and Neville Chamberlain, of course the son of the famous Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, referred to Czechoslovakia as “a faraway country of which we know nothing”. But of course, in 1914, a faraway country called Serbia brought us into the War, and in 1939, another faraway country called Poland brought us into the War.

 

In the 1930s, the appeasers said do not make the mistakes of Sir Edward Grey, so they made different ones instead! The historian, A.J.P. Taylor, once said “We learn from history not to make the old mistakes, and that leaves us free to make different ones.”

 

I conclude that Grey was alone amongst the diplomatists of 1914 in seeking to achieve peace by making concrete proposals that might have prevented war, and of course it was easy for him to do because we had no territorial claims, and no one had territorial claims on us, and we were not involved in the quarrel between Austria and Serbia. But there was - the conventional criticism of him is simply wrong, but I think there was a deeper criticism, which was that there was a disconnection between British foreign policy and defence policy because if Britain could not afford to allow France to be defeated, might it not have been sensible to convert the entente into an alliance?

 

In his book, “The Pity of War”, Niall Ferguson criticises Grey for turning a continental war into a world war, the implication being that we were not part of the Continent, but if we could not allow France to be defeated, we were part of the Continent, because your security depended not only on mastery of the seas but on what happened on the Continent, and if we wanted to influence what happened, we needed not just a strong Navy but a strong Army. Instead, we had a very small Army, what Lord Kitchener contemptuously called “a town clerk’s army”. A strong Army would have meant, of course, conscription, which was probably politically impossible, but a strong British Army might have deterred the Central Powers, and the same is true I think in 1939. 

 

Ernest Bevin, Labour’s Foreign Secretary after the War, once said, “If you ask me who was responsible for the War, I would say all of us – we would cut down the Army to save sixpence on the income tax.”

 

The Governments, both before 1914 and 1939, followed a policy of limited liability because they did not believe that Germany was an aggressive power, and that policy was abandoned finally in 1939, when conscription was introduced, and then after the War, when we agreed to continental alliances and to station troops on the Continent.

 

I think Grey was mistaken to pursue a concert of Europe because, as the League of Nations and the United Nations show, a concert of Europe requires a community of interest amongst the powers, countries with a similar moral outlook. Gladstone had felt there was such a concert in Europe, based on Christianity, but if it is not there, the concert cannot create it. 

 

If I can quote AJP Taylor again, he said: “It would be as though a man and a woman who did not care for each other got married in the hope they would then fall in love.” This sometimes happens between individuals, not, I think, in the world of international relations, and when that concert does not exist, war can only be avoided by an effective policy of deterrents. That was a policy which Grey, as a Liberal, found abhorrent, and as Neville Chamberlain found abhorrent, but both in 1914 and 1939, British Governments, and I suspect they reflected the views of the people, were not prepared to accept German domination of Europe, but because they were so ill-prepared to resist it, they found it could only be resisted by war, and because, as Disraeli had noticed, the balance of power had been so irretrievably altered, resistance to German domination required the intervention of two world power, one, Russia, which was partly extra-European, and another which was wholly extra-European, the United States. 

 

These two powers met together in Central Europe in 1945, in April 1945, at Torgau in Germany, when they ended the second German bid for supremacy in Europe, cutting Hitler’s Reich into two, and that also ended the era of European supremacy in world affairs, so that, of these countries, perhaps only Russia, and possibly Britain, are great powers – the others certainly are not. So, it ended the era of European supremacy in world affairs, and so we are still living with the consequences of what happened in 1914. 

 

Thank you.

 

 

© Professor Vernon Bogdanor, 2014