DOUGLAS NEWTON. The Slide to World War I. Shades of 1914 today?

Oct 28, 2016


Are there shades of 1914 in today’s international collisions? So much is different. Talk of ‘parallels’ is probably overstatement. But there are disturbing continuities.

The setting in 1914

In 1914, the ‘Hobbesian’ fatalists who believe that nation states are always natural enemies, and that warfare is more or less inevitable, held sway in many nations.

The megafauna in the jungle of vested interests, that is, the ‘defence’ industries and their bankers, were extremely powerful. They funded the lobby groups, the ‘think-tanks’ of the pre-1914 world, the army leagues, navy leagues, universal service leagues, and so on. These were filled with sombre-faced ‘realists’, shunning ‘sentimentalism’, briefing journalists about the challenge of ‘inescapable geo-strategic realities’ to be met with ever more arms spending.

Most decision-makers knelt before the great God Deterrence. Supposedly, only superior armed force could guarantee peace.

It had not always been so. From 1850, the progressive Liberal idea of peace through free trade was influential. Cobden and Bright had preached that ‘Commerce is the grand panacea’. Surely no one wished to slaughter a customer. In the decade before 1914, forward-looking economic internationalists, such as Norman Angell, updated these ideas. Angell’s bestseller The Great Illusion argued that conquest could never enrich the aggressor in an increasingly economically integrated world. War could never ‘pay’.

But the advocates of the New Imperialism and protectionism fought back. ‘I would annex the planets if I could,’ declared Cecil Rhodes. Like-minded imperial fantasists advanced the right of the nation to make war. Wars were supposedly necessary, for the conquest of territory and markets, in the ‘national interest’ – but in fact, often in the interests of a fragment of the economy, at the expense of the rest. Pre-emptive strikes were necessary, to stop a rival from gaining a lead in armaments. Or war might become necessary, to boost the prestige of the traditional governing class and deflect reform.

We must remember also what was not there in 1914. International security structures were frail. The ‘hawks’ among the Great Powers had hobbled the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907. They sought to marginalise the elementary machinery created there, such as the Court of International Arbitration. They regarded arbitration as entirely optional.

For fifteen years before 1914, a string of crises had been successfully navigated by the ‘old diplomacy’. Sometimes war had been localised, for example, the British Boer War (1899-1902), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), the Italian War in Libya (1911), and the two Balkan Wars (1912-13). Sometimes the threat of war had been negotiated away, for example, the Franco-German rivalries over Morocco (1905-11). Sometimes colliding ambitions were settled by dividing the spoils, such as the Anglo-French Entente of 1904 (Britain to swallow Egypt while France swallowed Morocco) or the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 (Russia to swallow northern Persia and Britain southern Persia).

Thus, the class-bound diplomatic establishments came to believe that a handful of men could manoeuvre through all crises. They would mix brinkmanship and gentlemanly compromise, with everyone getting their ‘compensation’, as they horse-traded territories periodically to gratify allies and appease rivals.

The crisis of July-August 1914

And then it all came apart, so suddenly, in 1914. There was systemic failure.

How swiftly it happened! The Austro-Hungarians declared war on Serbia on Tuesday 28 August 1914. Only one week later, on Tuesday 4 August, Britain declared war on Germany, completing the string of declarations of war. Catastrophe – in a week!

At the outset, the Serbs did indicate they were willing for the dispute to be settled at The Hague. None of the Great Powers seriously pursued this. It was overtaken by bi-lateral private diplomacy between Austrian and Russian ambassadors in Vienna and St Petersburg – which collapsed.

Secret commitments, expectations, and obligations – the glue of alliances – cramped the freedom of action of the decision-makers.

In every state, reckless military advisers pressed the civilians into authorising premature military steps, for fear of their rivals stealing a march upon them.

In every state, a segment of the press, steered by ultra-patriotic press barons, sought to whip up popular opinion in favour of war.

In every state, diplomats advised unwavering loyalty to allies as the only way of ensuring deterrence. And like hitched pigs, they all slid down the Gadarene slope.

None of the Great Powers allowed their parliaments to make a decision for or against war. In spite of big anti-war demonstrations, especially in Berlin but also in London, the people were simply stampeded into war by handfuls of men. War arrived, as a fait accompli.

During the crisis, the decision-makers came under pressure from pro-war ‘hawks’. All were gripped by fear of abandonment by their allies, if they hesitated. Even in London. For example, it was Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, who was bombarded by notes from the pro-war clique at the Foreign Office, urging instant war, in support of Russia. ‘The theory that England cannot engage in a big war means her abdication as an independent state,’ wrote Sir Eyre Crowe on Friday 31 July. ‘Should we waver now we shall rue the day later,’ wrote Sir Arthur Nicolson on Saturday 1 August. Both urged intervention before Belgium or France were involved. And when Grey eventually chose war, at the Foreign Office, as Sir Charles Marling recalled, ‘every face was beaming.’

President Wilson of the USA cabled the leaders of all the Great Powers on the first day of the World War, on Tuesday 4 August. He urged them to use US diplomacy to take the dispute to The Hague. The war was, of course, still revocable. Full mobilisation would take weeks. All the leaders politely spurned the US offer over the next fortnight. All the leaders wanted the issues resolved by war.

Sleepless decision-makers, dancing on the edge of the abyss, in thrall to the dogmas of deterrence, bewitched by nationalist faiths, deploying gigantic arsenals, willing to risk everything, contemptuous of internationalism, and looking to deliverance – by war.

As ever, the alternatives spring from a great abiding consciousness of human solidarity, building a rational public opinion and culture, deploring war and determined to achieve negotiated outcomes, all in the context of respected international structures.


Assoc. Prof. Douglas Newton is a retired academic. He is the author of a number of studies of war and peace, including most recently, The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914 (London, Verso: 2014) and Hell-bent: Australia’s Leap into the Great War (Melbourne: Scribe, 2014). He is currently writing a book tentatively entitled, Ending Armageddon: The Search for a Negotiated Peace during the Great War, to be published by Scribe in 2017.

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