Winston Churchill’s five-volume The World Crisis (1923-31), part memoir, part history, of the Great War and its aftermath, does not receive the attention of some of his better known writings. This may have to do with Churchill’s defense of his controversial role in the Dardanelles campaign of 1915. This operation, to force the Turkish Straits with a naval expedition, was designed to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war and open a secure line of communication with Russia. It is not regarded by most historians as Churchill’s finest hour (for a corrective, see Jeffrey D. Wallin, By Ships Alone: Churchill and the Dardanelles). It lacks the readership of his thrill-a-minute writings as a young soldier-journalist, or his more mature reflections in the biography of the first Duke of Marlborough.
The student of strategy should certainly read those things, but The World Crisis contains some of Churchill’s best prose and most astute strategic reflections. As we approach the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, it pays to consult Churchill’s account of the strategic causes and consequences of the war as a template for understanding the causes of war more generally.
Churchill, to be sure, does not attempt to offer a comprehensive or completely disinterested analysis of the war’s origins. The narrative perspective of the first volume is predominantly that of a man immersed in his, and the British government’s, response to the growing world crisis. He focuses on the deteriorating political-military relationship with Germany, highlighting the Anglo-German naval competition that began shortly after the turn of the century. This approach allows him—and the student of strategy—to explore one of the critical variables in the run-up to war. Was there anything that Britain could have done to head off the conflict, either by adopting a more muscular or more accommodating policy towards Germany? At the very least, Churchill asks, could Britain have done anything to see that the war did not become a global conflagration?
As to the general causes of war, Churchill prefaces his thoughts with a discussion of how the world had grown materially by the beginning of the 20th century; and thus “how terrific, how almost inexhaustible were the resources in force, in substance, in virtue, behind every one of the combatants.”
The vials of wrath were full: but so were the reservoirs of power…. And when the dread signal of Armageddon was made, mankind was found to be many times stronger in valour, in endurance, in brains, in science, in apparatus, in organisation, not only than it had ever been before, but than even its most audacious optimists had dared to dream.
The Victorian Age was the age of accumulation; not of a mere piling up of material wealth, but of the growth and gathering in every land of all those elements and factors which go to make up the power of States. Education spread itself over the broad surface of the millions. Science had opened the limitless treasure-house of nature. Door after door had been unlocked. One dim mysterious gallery after another had been lighted up, explored, made free for all: and every gallery entered gave access to at least two more. Every morning when the world woke up, some new machinery had started running. Every night while the world had supper, it was running still. It ran on while all men slept.
Churchill portrays the world on the verge of catastrophe as a brilliant one, the product of decades of peace among the great powers. And although two opposing alliance systems faced each other, “a polite, discreet, pacific, and on the whole sincere diplomacy spread its web of connections over both. A sentence in a dispatch, an observation by an ambassador, a cryptic phrase in a Parliament seemed sufficient to adjust from day to day the balance of the prodigious structure.” In a purely rational world, the next advance of human affairs seemed possible, almost inevitable—”to achieve world security and universal peace by a marvellous system of combinations in equipoise and of armaments in equation, of checks and counter-checks on violent action ever more complex and more delicate.” Europe would be “thus marshalled, thus grouped, thus related, [united] into one universal and glorious organism capable of receiving and enjoying in undreamed of abundance the bounty which nature and science stood hand in hand to give[.] The old world in its sunset was fair to see.”
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But looking back on what proved to be the sunset of the old world, rather than the sunrise of a new and even better one, Churchill recalls that
there was a strange temper in the air. Unsatisfied by material prosperity the nations turned restlessly towards strife internal or external. National passions, unduly exalted in the decline of religion, burned beneath the surface of nearly every land with fierce if shrouded fires. Almost one might think the world wished to suffer. Certainly men were everywhere eager to dare. On all sides the military preparations, precautions and counter precautions had reached their height. France had her Three Years’ military service; Russia her growing strategic Railways. The Ancient Empire of the Hapsburgs, newly smitten by the bombs of Sarajevo, was a prey to intolerable racial stresses and profound processes of decay. Italy faced Turkey; Turkey confronted Greece; Greece, Serbia and Roumania stood against Bulgaria. Britain was rent by faction and seemed almost negligible. America was three thousand miles away. Germany, her fifty million capital tax expended on munitions, her army increases completed, the Kiel Canal open for Dreadnought battleships that very month, looked fixedly upon the scene and her gaze became suddenly a glare.
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Why did things tip in the direction of war and destruction rather than peace and progress—a war made catastrophic by the vast reservoirs of power accumulated during peace?
Far more than their vices, the virtues of nations ill-directed or mis-directed by their rulers, became the cause of their own undoing and of the general catastrophe.
And these rulers, in Germany, Austria, and Italy; in France, Russia or Britain, how far were they to blame? Was there any man of real eminence and responsibility whose devil heart conceived and willed this awful thing? One rises from the study of the causes of the Great War with a prevailing sense of the defective control of individuals upon world fortunes. It has been well said, “there is always more error than design in human affairs.” The limited minds even of the ablest men, their disputed authority, the climate of opinion in which they dwell, their transient and partial contributions to the mighty problem, that problem itself so far beyond their compass, so vast in scale and detail, so changing in its aspect—all this must surely be considered before the complete condemnation of the vanquished or the complete acquittal of the victors can be pronounced. Events also got on to certain lines, and no one could get them off again. Germany clanked obstinately, recklessly, awkwardly towards the crater and dragged us all in with her. But fierce resentment dwelt in France, and in Russia there were wheels within wheels.
Churchill believes that, in trying retrospectively to untangle the complex knot of causation, it is critical to appreciate one critical, dynamic element—the deeply engrained Franco-German antagonism, a polarity that forced other nations, out of fear, opportunism, or both, to chose sides. Britain was the last and most reluctant great European power to do so, and even at the last moment it was not clear, to outsiders at least, whether that choice would hold.
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The Franco-German antagonism had ancient roots, but the creation of a German Empire in the Palace of Versailles in 1871, after Prussia’s defeat of France, opened a new volume of European history. “Europe,” it was said, “has lost a mistress and has gained a master.” France, stripped of Alsace and parts of Lorraine, was left beaten, impoverished, divided and alone, facing an increasing numerical inferiority with respect to its eastern neighbor. At the same time, a mighty state had come into being, with a bourgeoning population, the continent’s greatest industrial base, and first-rate science and learning. Germany, as Churchill put it, was organized for war and crowned with victory. Its more sensible leaders, most prominently Otto von Bismarck, recognized the tenuous nature of their success and the implacable resolve of their temporarily prostrate antagonist, France. (The Iron Chancellor, against his better judgment, had acquiesced in the pressure from his military to strip France of Alsace and Lorraine, thus guaranteeing that resolve.) Bismarck, realizing that he could afford no other great power enemy other than France, “devoted his whole power and genius to the construction of an elaborate system of alliances designed to secure the continued ascendancy of Germany and the maintenance of her conquests.” Above all Bismarck worked to prevent a counter-alliance between France and Russia. With France thus isolated, Germany was assured in her predominance on the continent and able to take full advantage of the immense industrial developments that characterized the close of the nineteenth century.
The Bismarckian system always included the principle of good relations with Great Britain. Britain, Churchill observes, had no objection to a united, powerful and satiated Germany that served, inter alia, as a restraining factor on France and Russia, then Britain’s rivals as the dominant colonial power.
Churchill notes that this rigid but peaceful arrangement ended with Bismarck’s fall from power in 1890, at a time of constant danger of conflagration in the Balkans, rising tides of pan-Slavism, and strong anti-German sentiments in Russia. All of these things would have threatened Bismarck’s system in any event but the lesser men who replaced him “began gaily to dispense with the safeguards and precautions by which the safety of Germany had been buttressed.” German ambitions grew with German prosperity. No longer content with the hegemony of Europe, she sought overseas colonies and a first-class global navy. Her ties with Russia, hitherto a partner in the grouping of conservative eastern monarchs, were allowed to lapse in favor of a stronger relationship with Austria-Hungary. As a result Bismarck’s nightmare—an alliance between France and Russia—was consummated. “Although the effects were not immediately visible, the European situation was in fact transformed,” Churchill writes. “Henceforward, for the undisputed but soberly exercised predominance of Germany, there was substituted a balance of power. Two vast combinations, each disposing of enormous military resources, dwelt together at first side by side but gradually face to face.”
Even so, in Churchill’s opinion, there was nothing in this alteration of circumstances that necessarily threatened Germany with war. The prevailing temper of France, though still stirred by memories of defeat in 1870-71, was pacific and not inclined to directly challenge the might of Germany. The French also could never be completely sure that the Russians would come to their aid in the event of a purely Franco-German showdown.
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At the turn of the century Britain still remained outside this “ponderous continental balance of power,” which had succeeded the unquestioned ascendancy of Germany. She felt secure in her overwhelming and unchallenged naval superiority and in the fact, evident to all, that the adhesion of the British Empire to either side would “decide the predominant strength.” Britain’s freedom of action surely had the effect of buttressing the pillars of peace on the continent. For its part, according to Churchill, London felt no need to exploit this situation for marginal strategic advantages but rather “maintained steadily the traditional friendly attitude towards Germany combined with a cool detachment from Continental entanglements.” Britain, after all, had a long-standing suspicion of Russian intentions in Asia and its own historic antagonisms with France, the latter then being played out in an intense competition over colonies in Africa and the Middle East. There were numerous happy relationships between Germany and England, including that of the royal families. Churchill insists that it was no part of British policy to obstruct Germany’s new-founded colonial aspirations.
In Churchill’s accounting, Germany unfortunately began successively to demolish those props of its security that were tied to the general friendly attitude of Britain and to British aloofness from continental affairs. German leaders no longer made any sustained effort to build good will; they practiced instead a petty, counterproductive diplomacy.
[E]ven before the fall of Bismarck the Germans did not seem pleasant diplomatic comrades. They appeared always to be seeking to enlist our aid and reminding us that they were our only friend. To emphasise this they went even farther. They sought in minor ways to embroil us with France and Russia. Each year the Wilhelmstrasse looked inquiringly to the Court of St. James’s for some new service or concession which should keep Germany’s diplomatic goodwill alive for a further period. Each year they made mischief for us with France and Russia, and pointed the moral of how unpopular Great Britain was, what powerful enemies she had, and how lucky she was to find a friend in Germany. Where would she be in the councils of Europe if German assistance were withdrawn, or if Germany threw her influence into the opposing combination? These manifestations, prolonged for nearly twenty years, produced very definite sensations of estrangement in the minds of the rising generation at the British Foreign Office.
Then there was the evident German hostility to Britain in southern Africa, manifested especially by the German Emperor’s telegram to President Kruger on the Jameson Raid in 1896, and the German outburst of rage against England during the Boer War, with corresponding attempts by Berlin to form a European coalition against London.
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Even with all this, Churchill asserts, “only a menace to the very life of the British nation would stir the British Empire from its placid and tolerant detachment from Continental affairs. But that menace Germany was destined to supply.” Beginning in 1900, Germany adopted a series of naval laws aimed at creating a strong battle fleet, ostensibly for the purpose of protecting its trade and colonies. But according to the first such law, “Germany must possess a battle fleet of such a strength that, even for the most powerful naval adversary, a war would involve such risks as to make that Power’s own supremacy doubtful.”
The most powerful naval adversary, of course, would be Britain. Churchill observes: “The determination of the greatest military Power on the Continent to become at the same time at least the second naval Power was an event of first magnitude in world affairs. It would, if carried into full effect, undoubtedly reproduce those situations which at previous periods in history had proved of such awful significance to the Islanders of Britain.” This threat forced Britain to reconsider fundamentally its global strategic position and eventually to reverse its policy of “splendid isolation” from the European system. The British needed friends. First, they squared things up with the Japanese and the Americans, so that Britain could consolidate its naval forces closer to home. Second, London, no longer able to afford to quarrel openly with France and Russia, began the process of mending fences with both, although (it hoped) without necessarily alienating Germany and without absolutely committing itself to aid Paris or St. Petersburg.
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What appeared to Britain to be prudent steps to shore up the European balance of power by reengaging on the continent and by buttressing the Royal Navy had the opposite appearance to Germany.
For the first time since 1870 Germany had to take into consideration a Power outside her system which was in no way amenable to threats, and was not unable if need be to encounter her single-handed. Up to this moment the Triple Alliance [of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy] had on the whole been stronger than France and Russia. Although war against these two Powers would have been a formidable undertaking for Germany, Austria and Italy, its ultimate issue did not seem doubtful. But if the weight of Britain were thrown into the adverse scale and that of Italy withdrawn from the other then for the first time since 1870 Germany could not feel certain that she was on the stronger side.
The question then was, would Germany find security in such a situation—a balance of power between two European coalitions?
Would the growing, bounding ambitions and assertions of the new German Empire consent to a situation in which, very politely no doubt, very gradually perhaps, but still very surely, the impression would be conveyed that her will was no longer the final law of Europe?
If Germany and her Emperor would accept the same sort of restraint that France, Russia and England had long been accustomed to, and would live within her rights as an equal in a freer and easier world, all would be well. But would she? Would she tolerate the gathering under an independent standard of nations outside her system, strong enough to examine her claims only as the merits appealed to them, and to resist aggression without fear?
The calculations of all the great powers, Churchill adds, were affected concurrently by “processes of degeneration [that] were at work in weaker Empires almost equally dangerous to peace.” Turkey, increasingly close to Germany, often seemed on the verge of destruction due to internal weakness. This created opportunities for Russia to achieve her centuries-long aims in the region, which clashed with those of Vienna. The independent Balkan states, some with close ties to Russia, looked anxiously to liberate their compatriots under Turkish rule and under the “uneasily knit and crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire,” Germany’s ally. The Balkan states also sought to aggrandize themselves at the expense of their local neighbors. Italy, formally a member of the German-Austrian alliance but with close ties to Britain, watched events there “with ardent eyes.”
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To Churchill’s mind, these unfavorable trends in international relations were largely, but not exclusively, the result of a shift in German policy. They pointed towards the possibility, although by no means the certainty, of a major European war. It still required “many acts of supreme unwisdom” on the part of German leaders to bring matters to a head. Churchill takes his reader through the roster of familiar events—what he terms the “milestones to Armageddon”—which hardened the perception on the part of Russia, France, and Britain that Germany was determined to use the threat of force, and quite possibly force itself, to reestablish her position of continental predominance and possibly obtain global hegemony.
In the Moroccan Crisis in 1905-06, involving the future status of Morocco, Germany initially used the threat of war to compel the French government to agree to an international conference. Foreign Minister Théophile Delcassé, who had been instrumental in bringing about the Anglo-French political entente, was effectively forced to resign under German pressure. This development naturally perturbed the British government; in response, they authorized military conversations between its general staff and that of the French, with a view to concerted action in the event of war. Churchill observes:
This was a step of profound significance and of far-reaching reactions. Henceforward the relations of the two Staffs became increasingly intimate and confidential. The minds of our military men were definitely turned into a particular channel. Mutual trust grew continually in one set of military relationships, mutual precautions in the other. However explicitly the two Governments might agree and affirm to each other that no national or political engagement was involved in these technical discussions, the fact remained that they constituted an exceedingly potent tie.
In the end Germany found itself diplomatically isolated and was forced to back down under pressure from Britain, Russia, and Spain. The Germans sought whatever solace they could by tying themselves even tighter to Vienna.
In 1908, Austria proclaimed the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, nominally Turkish provinces in the Balkans that had been administered by Vienna since the Treaty of Berlin of 1878. This unilateral proclamation essentially ratified the status quo but it preempted the possibility of negotiations with interested outside powers, notably Russia. Such negotiations, in Churchill’s opinion, probably would have achieved the same end but without the resulting political crisis. Germany backed Austria’s refusal to heed a Russian-British initiative for an international conference on the matter. “The bitter animosity excited against Austria throughout Russia became a penultimate cause of the Great War,” Churchill observed. Austria, again with German support, subsequently threatened war with Serbia unless Serbia recognized the annexation, and Vienna demanded that Russia consent to this action.
Russia, thus nakedly confronted by war both with Austria and Germany, collapsed under the threat, as France had done three years before. England was left an isolated defender of the sanctity of Treaties and the law of nations. The Teutonic triumph was complete. But it was a victory gained at a perilous cost. France, after her treatment in 1905, had begun a thorough military reorganisation. Now Russia, in 1910, made an enormous increase in her already vast army; and both Russia and France, smarting under similar experiences, closed their ranks, cemented their alliance, and set to work to construct with Russian labour and French money the new strategic railway systems of which Russia’s western frontier stood in need.
As noted above, Britain directly felt German pressure through a series of public and rumored steps to increase massively the size and capabilities of the Reich’s Navy. In a speech in 1904, the German Emperor styled himself, “the Admiral of the Atlantic.” Churchill records that, as late as 1908, while President of the Board of Trade, he was remained skeptical of the seriousness of the German naval threat. He and Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, did not want to override fiscal discipline in order to finance an expanded British response. However, as time went on, “the British nation in general became conscious of the undoubted fact that Germany proposed to reinforce her unequaled army by a navy which in 1920 would be far stronger than anything up to the present  proposed by Great Britain.” The result was a substantial expansion of the British shipbuilding program and, eventually, secret talks with the French, which involved an informal division of naval responsibilities in the event of a future crisis.
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In November 1909, in a memo to the Cabinet, Churchill calculated whether Germany could fiscally sustain such an ambitious program, along with everything else the Germans were attempting to do in the military realm. Churchill’s conclusion—in the short run, yes, but not in the long run. The shoe was already beginning to pinch:
The overflowing expenditure of the German Empire strains and threatens every dyke by which the social and political unity of Germany is maintained…. [T]he new or increased taxation on every form of popular indulgence powerfully strengthens the parties of the Left, who are themselves the opponents of expenditure on armaments and much else besides. Meanwhile the German Imperial debt has more than doubled in the last thirteen years of unbroken peace, has risen since the foundation of the Empire to about £220,000,000, has increased in the last ten years by £105,000,000, and practically no attempt to reduce it has been made between 1880 and the present year. The effect of recurrent borrowings to meet ordinary annual expenditure has checked the beneficial process of foreign investment, and dissipated the illusion, cherished during the South African War, that Berlin might supplant London as the lending centre of the world.
In this memo, Churchill argued that the Germans would soon be forced to make a choice: either retrench and negotiate, or fight. If they did not soon clearly show signs of domestic and foreign accommodation, then the British government should draw the appropriate conclusion about the probability of war. Churchill concluded:
These circumstances force the conclusion that a period of severe internal strain approaches in Germany. Will the tension be relieved by moderation or snapped by calculated violence? Will the policy of the German Government be to soothe the internal situation, or to find an escape from it in external adventure? There can be no doubt that both courses are open. Low as the credit of Germany has fallen, her borrowing powers are practically unlimited. But one of the two courses must be taken soon, and from that point of view it is of the greatest importance to gauge the spirit of the new administration from the outset. If it be pacific, it must soon become markedly pacific, and conversely.
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The Agadir crisis of 1911, involving another Franco-German dispute over Morocco, suggested strongly, although not yet conclusively, that Germany’s course would not be pacific. “It seems probable now that the Germans did not mean war on this occasion,” Churchill writes in The World Crisis. “But they meant to test the ground; and in so doing they were prepared to go to the very edge of the precipice. It is so easy to lose one’s balance there: a touch, a gust of wind, a momentary dizziness, and all is precipitated into the abyss.”
It is in this context that Churchill reflects on how shooting might begin even if neither party wanted war, but were merely “testing the ground” as part of the process of reaching “delicate rectifications in the great balance of Europe.” One side or the other “would step back or forward a very small distance or perhaps move slightly to the right or to the left.”
But even this process was not free from danger. One must think of the intercourse of the nations in those days not as if they were chessmen on the board, or puppets dressed in finery and frillings grimacing at each other in a quadrille, but as prodigious organisations of forces active or latent which, like planetary bodies, could not approach each other in space without giving rise to profound magnetic reactions. If they got too near, the lightnings would begin to flash, and beyond a certain point they might be attracted altogether from the orbits in which they were restrained and draw each other into dire collision. The task of diplomacy was to prevent such disasters; and as long as there was no conscious or subconscious purpose of war in the mind of any Power or race, diplomacy would probably succeed. But in such grave and delicate conjunctions one violent move by any party would rupture and derange the restraints upon all, and plunge Cosmos into Chaos.
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This brings us back to Churchill’s reflections about Britain’s responsibility, if any, for preventing Cosmos from plunging into Chaos. In his early years as First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill became convinced that if there was a war between France and Germany the German Army would probably win a crushing victory, even if Russia joined with France, so long as the French fought alone in the west. Churchill also concluded that if France was destroyed as a major power British security would be placed in immediate and grave danger. Germany, by occupying the French coast (and that of Belgium and possibly the Netherlands), would be at Britain’s throat. At the same time, left with a free hand to organize the resources of the continent, Berlin would dominate Europe and be in a position to threaten the British Empire in the Middle East and India. Churchill calculated that Britain had faced a similar danger and overcome the threat three times before in her history—from Philip II, Louis XIV, and Napoleon. He understood the looming world crisis in this context. It did not matter what specific event precipitated a general war or who actually fired the first shot. However the war started, Britain’s security and survival would be at stake.
Churchill was convinced that it was profoundly in Britain’s interest to prevent such a war through a combination of diplomacy and deterrence. He believed that the proper course for Britain, had it enjoyed complete freedom of action, would have been to link those two vital elements of statecraft by making it unmistakably clear that Britain would come to the aid of France in the event of German aggression. Churchill argued that this commitment should not be a bluff: it must be materially and politically credible. If there was actually to be a war, Britain must follow through with its military commitment to France.
Such a forward stand was politically impossible, however. The Liberal Party and the Cabinet were divided on the proper policy towards Europe. The majority preferred to remain relatively detached from the Continent and was unwilling to make the sort of public commitment to the defense of France that Churchill favored. Churchill had no doubt that this stand-offish view reflected the general sense of British public opinion. To be sure, certain elements in the British government, most notably a circle in the Foreign Office, had long been deeply suspicious of German intentions. It was they who had engineered the discussions with the French that had led to the various military understandings and tacit commitments noted above. All, or mostly all, of those measures occurred out of the sight of the British public—and of the Germans, where they might have exercised a deterrent effect. As a result British policy fell uncomfortably between two stools. It lost the leverage it might otherwise have possessed over Germany—and France. As Churchill writes:
It is true to say that our Entente with France and the military and naval conversations that had taken place since 1906, had led us into a position where we had the obligations of an alliance without its advantages. An open alliance, if it could have been peacefully brought about at an earlier date, would have exercised a deterring effect upon the German mind, or at the least would have altered their military calculations. Whereas now we were orally bound to come to the aid of France and it was our interest to do so, and yet the fact that we should come in appeared so uncertain that it did not weigh as it should have done with the Germans. Moreover, as things were, if France had been in an aggressive mood, we should not have had the unquestioned right of an ally to influence her action in a pacific sense: and if as the result of her aggressive mood war had broken out and we had stood aside, we should have been accused of deserting her, and in any case would have been ourselves grievously endangered by her defeat.
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Churchill explains the overriding political logic that governed British strategic affairs and the limits that politics placed on statesmen—thus the need to adopt less-than-optimal policies, even if they led to tragic outcomes.
Suppose after Agadir or on the announcement of the new German Navy Law in 1912 the Foreign Secretary [Sir Edward Grey] had, in cold blood, proposed a formal alliance with France and Russia, and in execution of military conventions consequential upon the alliance had begun to raise by compulsion an army adequate to our responsibilities and to the part we were playing in the world’s affairs; and suppose we had taken this action as a united nation; who shall say whether that would have prevented or precipitated the war? But what chance was there of such action being unitedly taken? The Cabinet of the day would never have agreed to it. I doubt if four Ministers would have agreed to it. But if the Cabinet had been united upon it, the House of Commons would not have accepted their guidance.
Therefore the Foreign Minister would have had to resign. The policy which he had advocated would have stood condemned and perhaps violently repudiated; and with that repudiation would have come an absolute veto upon all those informal preparations and non-committal discussions on which the defensive power of the Triple Entente was erected. Therefore, by taking such a course in 1912 Sir Edward Grey would only have paralysed Britain, isolated France and increased the preponderant and growing power of Germany.
Churchill himself did not disagree with the premise that Britain should retain a certain freedom of action and discretion. After all, it was impossible to define precisely what might constitute German “aggression” against France. Churchill believed that Germany and Austria had legitimate interests and grievances in North Africa, the Balkans and elsewhere, which could be accommodated if those powers were amenable to discussion. While a member of the Cabinet, he advocated engaging the Germans and Austrians on these matters, and not giving France or Russia the feeling that they had a blank check to behave provocatively. He proposed steps to moderate the Anglo-German arms race with a “naval holiday” or some sort of formal maritime agreement with Berlin. He judges in The World Crisis that his government followed this diplomatic track, prior to the war, sincerely.
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As Churchill portrays these matters, British diplomacy had rightly aimed to get the Germans off the hook—”Germany was, in fact, forging a coalition against herself, and Britain was seeking to save her from the consequences of her unwisdom.” Such diplomacy, even if it bought no more than time, was prudent, as long as it did not compromise vital interests.
It is customary for thoughtless people to jeer at the old diplomacy and to pretend that wars arise out of its secret machinations. When one looks at the petty subjects which have led to wars between great countries and to so many disputes, it is easy to be misled in this way. Of course such small matters are only the symptoms of the dangerous disease, and are only important for that reason. Behind them lie the interests, the passions and the destiny of mighty races of men; and long antagonisms express themselves in trifles. “Great commotions,” it was said of old, “arise out of small things, but not concerning small things.” The old diplomacy did its best to render harmless the small things: it could not do more. Nevertheless, a war postponed may be a war averted. Circumstances change, combinations change, new groupings arise, old interests are superseded by new. Many quarrels that might have led to war have been adjusted by the old diplomacy of Europe and have, in Lord Melbourne’s phrase, “blown over.”
Indeed, from the Agadir crisis until the summer of 1914, Churchill believed that the Anglo-German quarrel might blow over. The two powers had managed to cooperate diplomatically over the local Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913. Churchill thought that the naval arms race was beginning to stabilize as the Germans demonstrated restraint in the face of Britain’s planned naval program.
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Why, then, did the world plunge over the abyss in July and August of 1914? Was it a sudden gust of wind that caused all the great powers to lose their balance? Or had Germany deliberately decided upon war, come what may? Churchill does not make an explicit determination but he reiterates the critical factor in the strategic equation: the inability of Britain to make it clear to the Germans the degree of her commitment to the defense of France. The British government could not do so because it was itself undecided and divided on that point—even though it had allowed itself to be drawn secretly into morally—if not legally—binding defense obligations to Paris.
To make matters worse, in the summer of 1914, both Britain’s political parties and the country were convulsed by the question of Home Rule for Ireland. Although Churchill did not think this portended civil war many others did. Churchill recognized that among those who thought so—and who thought that British foreign policy would be paralyzed as a result—were Germany’s political and military leaders. The Germans had already developed a set of expectations about British behavior and had convinced themselves that London, after some bluster, would probably remain neutral in a European war. After a certain point during the Sarajevo crisis, Churchill writes that even a stiff British announcement would not have sufficed; “the knowledge which we now have of events in Berlin tends to show that even then the German Government were too deeply committed by their previous action,” overtaken as it was by “events” and “the contagion of ideas.”
As for his own country, Churchill says, “nothing less than the deeds of Germany would have converted the British nation to war.” That deed was the German invasion of neutral Belgian territory, which had been guaranteed by treaty. That event, not the invasion of France proper, tilted the British political balance decidedly in favor of war. “To act in advance of those deeds would have led to an exposure of division worse than the guarded attitude which we maintained, which brought our country into the war united…. By the time we could speak decisive words of warning, the hour of words had certainly passed forever.”