World War I: Britain’s share of Guilt

For mainstream historians Britain’s declaration of war to Germany hundred years ago was driven by dire necessity. But two recently published books are critical of this notion. The first one posits, that the war was indeed consequence of the conscious encirclement of Germany; a move that was executed by Whitehall, but masterminded by a shadowy élite in the UK. The second book does not share this point of view, but maintains that the British entry to the War was no forgone conclusion at all.

100 years after the starting shot for the XX century, hundreds of books have been published and no one stll is paying attention to Article 231 of the Versailles Treaty, which was a political fabrication from the start.

Most of today’s observers have come to rather nuanced conclusions. In their view the war was result of an exceedingly complex situation. And while each and any of the european powers had contributed to such an instable system not one of them was able to manage it. Christopher Clarks “Sleepwalkers” illustrates this line of thinking.

Gerry Docherty und James Macgregor try to draw a different picture. In their “Hidden History: The Secret Origins of the First World War” they say, that a certain faction of Britain’s upper class is to blame. In essence Docherty and MacGregor concur with the so called encirclement doctrine, which became popular in Germany beginning in 1907 – and again after the German surrender in 1918 and the horrible consequences of the defeat.

Of course Docherty and Macgregor, both Scotsmen, do not have to rely on the word of german leaders, who after the war had every motive to deflect attention from themselves. They try to make sense of what has been unearthed during the last 100 years. That is the strongest point of the book. The weakest point is, that they are not able to produce something like a “smoking gun” for their main argument. Theirs is a new and old narrative of what had been happening before the start of the war. In this regard, it does not differ from the accounts, which are given by the mainstream historians. Much of their narrative can’t be referenced either.

The secret élite came into being during the last 20 years of the 19th century. It was an offspring of the traditional english upper class, mainly consisting of aristocrats, manufacturers and top level civil servants. Caroll Quigley, an American history professor, calls the clique in question “Milner group”, after one of the trustees for Cecil Rhode’s legacy. Cecil Rhodes and Lord Salisbury were the “departure points”, from where the band had started out. Both of them died after the turn of the century. They cannot be counted as players in the years leading up to 1914.

The Milner group in itself for sure has to be considered. Writes Quigley: “To be sure, this secret society is not a childish thing like the Ku Klux Klan, and it does not have any secret robes, secret handclasps, or secret passwords. It does not need any of these, since its members know each other intimately.”

The conspirators must have become convinced that their own business, even the very existence of the british empire, was endangered by Berlin. Thats why they ushered in a long term policy to isolate and destroy their continental enemy No. 1.

After a landslide election defeat in 1906 the Tories, to which the Milner group had a natural leaning, lost power. But for various reasons this did not affect the political clout of the cabal.

Although almost all members of the bloc had been conservatives, the “chief exceptions were the four leaders of the Liberal Party after Gladstone, who were strong imperialists: Rosebery, Asquith, Edward Grey, and Haldane. These four supported the Boer War, grew increasingly anti-German, supported the World War in 1914, and were close to the Milner Group politically, intellectually, and socially.”

So ironically whig governments turned out  to be the ones, that let Britain side with detested czarist Russia. They prepared the war against the central powers. To conceal that to liberal MPs, his political base, Grey had to resort to permanent obfuscation and disinformation. The crucial year came in 1907, when a British-Russian convention was signed, thereby giving birth to the Triple Entente. This change of sea was accompanied by Alaxander Isvolsky on the Russian side, whom Docherty and Macgregor suspect to have been an asset of their hidden élite.

“The growth of national resentments across the Balkans against Turkey and Austria-Hungary”, they write, ” was deliberately stirred by the agents of the Secret Elite”.

“Serbia was groomed for a very special role. She was perfectly placed as the epicentre for a seismic explosion, that would blow away  the old order.”

“(But) As far as the secret élite was concerned, the raison d’etre for the Balkan crisis was to get Austria to react to severe provocation in order to draw Germany in. It was about Germany. It had always been about Germany.”

In the previous crises in the Balkans and North Africa Germany had reacted in a rather defensive mode and the only blame that could be attached to Berlin in july 1914 was, that it did not urge more restraint from Austria Hungary. But Germany’s geostrategic position was already set at this point in time and could not have been altered.

This angle is very much contrary to what German students were told in high school and the opposite of what their mainstream professional historians have taught (at least after Fritz Fischer’s Germany’s aims in the First World War in 1961).

Douglas Newton, the author of the second book, is not an academic outsider like the Scotsmen, but he is not english either. He is Australian and he is much more mainstraam than Docherty/Macgregor. His recently published “Darkest Days” deals with what happened in London the week before the British declaration of war in London. Newton doubts that UK has had no choice but to enter the war.

He concentrates on how the war party in the Asquith government managed to have its will, although many liberal MPs objected to a war.

“The minority of Cabinet interventionists eventually ‘jockeyed’ the neutralist majority into a rushed choice for war on Sunday 2. August, in the shape of a pledge of naval assistance to France. The pledge locked Britain into any war before news of the German ultimatum to Belgium.”

“Throughout the crisis, the Cabinet’s pro-Entente leaders were manipulative and deceptive. They made crucial decisions outside the Cabinet, which steered the neutralist majority toward war. There was no democratic decision for war.”

But neither Asquith’s deception tactics during the july crisis nor the (un)democratic character of its decision are at the core of the issue. The english politicians might have acted hesitantly then and they might have squandered opportunities to preserve peace in doing so.

But all in all London cannot be blamed to have jumped the gun or to have acted as a fire accelerant – not in july 1914. Of course the same can be said of Kaiser Wilhelm and his chancellor Bethmann Hollweg at the time.

This is true, although there had been powerful lobbies both in England and Germany, pushing their respective country onto a path to war.

It was prior to july 1914, that Asquith, Haldane, Churchill, Grey and Lloyd George had been at the service of the war party in UK: by their massive naval rearmament (which, admittedly, can be seen as a response to german action); by their plans to strangle Germany by a naval blockade, by the creation of an expeditionary force and their secret diplomacy with France and Russia, as well as  their help in corrupting the belgian neutrality. The whole Triple Entente was not a defensive scheme to boot.

One can regard this as the natural foreign policy of liberal imperialists. Or you can concur with Docherty/Macgregor in saying, that those politicians have helped in fulfilling the wish of an all powerful secret group, the destruction of a competing world power by all means necessary.


Gerry Docherty, Jim Macgregor, Hidden History. The secret Origins of the First World War. 2013

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers. How Europe went to war in 1914. 2013

Douglas Newton, The Darkest Days: The Truth behind Britains Rush to War 1914. 2014

Sidney Fay, Origins of the World War, 1928

Caroll Quigley, The Angloamerican Establishment. 1981

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