A speculative rewriting of our history

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Splendid Isolation? Britain and the Balance of Power 1874-1914 by John Charmley, (Hodder & Stoughton, £25)

Splendid Isolation? Britain and the Balance of Power 1874-1914 by John Charmley, (Hodder & Stoughton, £25)

HISTORIANS COME in all sorts and sizes. But there is one vital distinction among them: their approach to their human subjects. One school regards these subjects as lay figures or tailor's dummies, to be moved around and have various qualities draped around them, to fit a thesis that the historian has embraced. A common quality among such historians is that their subjects are usually divided into the clever and wise, and the stupid and innocently (if not criminally) silly.

This group includes some great figures. Sir Lewis Namier was one such; so was AJP Taylor. The public like being told who was guilty and unheroic, and whom to admire and respect. For a long time now Churchill and Lloyd George in war, the Liberals in 1906 and the Labour leadership in 1945 have figured among the latter figures - but not with John Charmley!

There is an opposite type of historian. This type approaches the evidence of the past not with a mind unalterably decided, but with a wish to understand why participants chose one path rather than another, especially when that path ended in disaster. This type wants to understand what pressures and priorities, what ethical code, what information and misinformation, what calculations, led - for example - a reluctant Liberal cabinet to declare war on Germany in August 1914.

Both types tell stories. But this second type cannot be sure what the story may be until the evidence has been exhausted. The first type, in contrast, is apt to stop investigating the evidence at the point where it has yielded enough to make the case required.

Professor Charmley's new book is a roman a thÿse. It continues the message of his two earlier books on Chamberlain and Churchill: that Chamberlain should have avoided any intervention in European politics against Hitler, and that Churchill should have accepted the peace Charmley thinks that Hitler offered in 1940. Historians of the second type have a gut feeling that those who write the first kind of history are trying to fix the acceptance of a view of the past from which deductions about the present and future can be drawn.

Splendid Isolation? is redolent of much of the German and American historiography of the inter-war period, in which British policy was blamed for the "encirclement" of Germany and the frustration of German aspirations - a frustration that led to her behaviour in the decade before 1914. Unfortunately, it is also redolent of a manner of writing about international history that we might have hoped had been abandoned. That is the history, in the words of the great and long-departed George Peabody Gooch, of "what one clerk said to another".

Charmley's thesis, here as in his earlier books, rests on two hypotheses that he never examines, since he is resolutely a historian of British rather than German foreign policy. The first is that, had Britain behaved in a different manner, then Anglophobia in Germany, militaristic and racist forces, and the pressure generated by the Junkers' conviction that liberal and socialist agitation to reduce their power could be satisfied only by nationalist victory, would all have been reduced. Second, he maintains that British imperial and diplomatic fears of Germany were wrong to think that German domination over France would have been followed by German, and not only German, pressure on British interests and wealth overseas.

This thesis is speculative. Lord Salisbury, as Tory Prime Minister, did not accept it. And it may be that the revived interest in him among younger Conservative historians has been roused by Salisbury's lack of interest in Europe. But that is to accept that his calculations in 1902 would have remained valid 10 years later, when naval power had been revolutionised by the Dreadnought battleship, and Germany's rulers were not trying so desperately to achieve that "place in the sun" to which German public opinion felt the nation was entitled.

John Charmley assumes that Germany would have behaved differently to a less antagonistic set of British reactions to German policy, rather than regarding them as a sign of British weakness and irresolution. If his readers are to accept his case, then his contentions should be based on a re-examination not of the British but the German evidence. That re-examination Professor Charmley has yet to supply.