Last night I watched Sir Max Hastings ask perhaps the greatest question in British history for the last 100 years - should we have gone to war in 1914? His answer was a resounding 'Yes' - and so was mine! Of course, that answer is predicated on the belief that had we not entered the war the Germans would have won, first against France, then against Russia. War is the most unpredictable of human activities so one is forced to rely on the 'law'(!) of probability which in this case is overwhelmingly in favour of a total German victory. If you were a prudent British statesman of the time you would have to make your decision based on the likely outcome, or at least, on the 'worst case' scenario.
A triumphant Germany ruling the roost on mainland Europe was not just a 'worst case' scenario, it was the stuff of nightmares for the British. I was glad last night that Hastings emphasised just what a deeply peculiar and nasty group of people were the Prussian aristocracy who ran Germany in 1914. As a group whole they were summed up in the character of their leader, the Kaiser, who was himself a classic case study of a typical bully. That is, a combination of bombast and fear, of aggression and cowardice, and all of it 'controlled' - if that is quite the word - by a truly third-rate intelligence. Above and beyond all things, the mighty Prussian leadership of pre-war Germany was constantly fearful, it was scared of the rising socialist power of its own people, it was scared of the rising power of an industrialised Russia, it was scared of a French attempt to seize back their lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, and it was scared of global British sea power. This perpetual fear was off-set by a pathetic belief in the total invincibility of their superior war machine. Hastings described the Kaiser as a psychotic and I would widen that description to include the whole in-bred, provincial, short-sighted lunatics who formed the German leadership in 1914.
At this point it is necessary to imagine how matters might have developed had we stayed out and the Germans by, say 1916, had beaten France and Russia. In 1914, the German fleet was almost as big as the British fleet and assuming that it would have taken over French naval assets that would make it the largest fleet in the world. Again, it is necessary to assume that they would have demanded control of the French Atlantic and Mediterranean ports from which they could have threatened our critical trade routes and brought us to ruin and surrender in a matter of months. In this context, it is worth remembering that one huge advantage for us in 1914 was that the German fleet was bottled up inside the North Sea at its base in Willemshaven where it was stuck for the entire war!
As Hastings, and several of the historians whom he interviewed, made clear - not going to war in 1914 would not have kept us at peace, it would merely have postponed the inevitable, except that going to war in 1916 would have been undertaken at odds a hundred times worse than 1914. According to Keith Lowe in The Telegraph, who has written an interesting review of Hasting's programme, there is to be another on Friday night by Niall Ferguson arguing the opposite and as Ferguson is a historian of considerable merit I will make sure to watch it.