Letter: German intentions in 1914 are still far from clear

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The Independent Online
I AM usually a great admirer of John Grigg's historical writing and I do not doubt that he scores some valid points in his thinly veiled assault on Niall Ferguson. He is correct, for example, when he says that British youth went to war less unwillingly in 1914 than in 1939. How-ever, someone must take him to task for the premises on which his argument is based, what he calls "the general cause of freedom", "the national interest" and "self-preservation".

In 1914, the British government was an imperial body, not a national one, which ruled nearly a quarter of mankind but which gave no direct voice in its decisions to the majority of its subjects. One of the immediate casualties of our war policy in 1914 was the Irish Home Rule Bill, whose abandonment inexorably led to the partition of the United Kingdom. The great British decision of 1914 worked for the national interest of Ireland, but not of the UK. At the end of the First World War, the UK lost a greater proportion of its territory than Germany did.

The notion of "a general cause of freedom" in 1914 seems equally dubious. Freedom for whom to do what? The only possible answer would relate to freedom for the British, and particularly the English, to go on ruling their Isles and their Empire without interference.

In 1914, as in 1939, Germany did not harbour hostile designs against either Great Britain or the British Empire. What the German leaders wanted was a free hand to protect themselves from Russian expansionism and to curb French revanchism. Until the very last moment in August 1914, they felt assured that Britain would maintain its neutrality, respect its limited treaty obligations and refrain from active support for Russia and France. They calculated that the British would not risk turning a limited continental conflict into a major global war.

When London threw caution to the winds, Berlin felt it was unjust that the British refused to treat it as an equal partner whose continental hegemony would complement our own empire overseas. In 1914, the further concern of whether a victorious Germany would have been content with the equal status was hardly on the horizon.

The Great War transformed the strongest country in Europe from a would- be partner into a mortal enemy. It destroyed our fellow imperialist powers in Russia, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman realms, opening a Pandora's box of problems in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. And it ensured that, despite a nominal victory, our own right to govern other people's countries would soon be challenged. Worst of all, it unleashed the torrent of misery and hatred from which both Fascism and Communism were spawned. It made certain that the second round of Europe's fratricidal civil wars would be more horrific and murderous than the first.

No one can maintain that the British were the only bunglers in 1914. Yet there is more than enough evidence to suggest that "the national interest", "the general cause of freedom"and the preservation of the Empire were not best served by a war policy.