Friday, 15 August 2014

An Exercise in Power: The Great War

What do you think of Europe now, Mr N? 

The affairs of man have changed little over time. War and power politics are the province of human nature writ large. Nothing of the contemplation of a general, or statesman, of the Great War would have been incomprehensible to a Roman general two thousand years earlier. Only the scale and technology have changed; human nature has not.

At the outbreak of the First World War the Germans disregarded British power both on land and sea. This was from the narrow perspective of the 'quick war.' Traditionally Britain was not a great power in the continental sense, although its presence could not be disregarded. Britain had long had a privileged position when it came to continental war. It could partake as much, or as little, of the war as suited national policy. Shielded by its large navy, Britain, if it so desired, could act as a spectator and watch Europe burn; this was about to change.

Immediately prior to the first First World War, British policy changed. With a resurgent Germany, both military and economically, Britain could no longer watch and cynically meddle in Europe to maximise national advantage. Britain rightly surmised that the next war would be driven by Germany. Germany sported a magnificent army backed by an equally impressive economic infrastructure. This vigorous, proud, powerful and belligerent nation was a danger to British national interest. The best diplomacy decreed that she should be an ally. Now that would have been an interesting alliance. An alliance that could have taken on the world. But the German, or at least the Kaiser's insistence on a vainglorious German navy scuppered that route to world peace or domination.

At the outbreak of the war with Russia, and then France, the Germans hoped to contain the war and naively thought the British would stick to their old policy of watch and wait. After the expected quick, but violent war, the British would be left vacillating impotently on the periphery until intervention was futile. Not a bad plan but for one small point. The British also expected the Germans to win, whether the war was short, or prolonged, the eventual outcome would be the same; a Europe under German orders. The Germans saw this as their right, the British could not allow this to happen. A united Europe, albeit one coerced under German military power, represented a threat to the very survival of Britain itself. The Germans never appreciated this political fact, until it was too late.

Ostensibly Britain went to war with Germany over the violation of neutral Belgium. This was in accordance with a treaty, signed by Prussia, Britain and France after the Napoleonic wars in 1839. Britain did not go to war because German troops entered Belgium in August 1914; this was but a pretext. Britain could have easily ignored this old treaty, just as the Germans did. Interestingly, both France and Britain violated Greek neutrality later in the war because it was expedient to do so. Treaties after all, are only paper. Britain went to war to prevent Europe being dominated by German power, with all that entailed.

If Germany had truly appreciated the extent its vigorous foreign policy would affect the British then perhaps the Great War would have remained a figment of popular literature. But much of German policy, both national and international, remained in the hands of the intelligent but mercurial Kaiser. By temperament this man was unfit to rule. When William's rule was coupled with a compliant German political and war machine, the First World War was inevitable.        

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