Zara S. Steiner, Keith Neilson. Britain and the Origins of the First World War. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 341 S. $69.95 (gebunden), ISBN 978-0-333-73466-7; $33.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-333-73467-4.
Reviewed by Ian M. Brown (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-War (January, 2004)
Sarajevo? Revisiting Britain's Road to the First World War
Sarajevo? Revisiting Britain's Road to the First World War
This book is a revision of Cambridge historian Zara Steiner's 1977 work of the same name. With the assistance of the Royal Military College of Canada's Keith Neilson, Palgrave has published a worthy successor. The new monograph expands on the original by incorporating some of the vast literature that has deepened our knowledge of the social, political, and economic underpinnings of British society at the turn of the twentieth century. The resulting work explains convincingly how Britain found itself involved in a continental war in 1914.
Steiner and Neilson have done an excellent job of laying out all the contesting forces that combined to set the stage for Britain's decision to go to war. The book's greatest strength is an in-depth analysis of the competing economic, political, and social factors that shaped pre-War Britain. Unlike classic works such as Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England, this work argues that, while a sea-change occurred in the British political, social, and economic climate, the various parties to that change all agreed generally on Britain's imperial mandate. This broad agreement allowed Britain's diplomats, most notably Sir Edward Grey, to pursue a longstanding and largely bipartisan goal of maintaining the balance of power in Europe without being unduly swayed by domestic concerns.
Structurally, Steiner and Neilson have adopted a thematic approach with eight solidly researched and noted chapters leading to a chapter on the July crisis and then the conclusion. The first chapter, "The Conservative Watershed," begins with the death of Queen Victoria (22 January 1901) and looks at some of the forces at play, setting the domestic scene as late-nineteenth-century changes made their impact felt. Increasing prosperity, home rule, and the emergence of labor as a political force, to take three examples, all had ramifications in parliament. The economy, too, played a significant role. Britain's great depression of the nineteenth century coincided with increased competition abroad, particularly from America and Germay. Into this mix, the Boer War (1899-1902) and its prelude increased Anglo-German antagonism even while many continued to view France and Russia as Britain's traditional rivals. British politicians and diplomats faced a challenging situation.
The political response to these forces led to a diplomatic realignment. A failed bid for an American alliance and the recognition that British and German interests did not mesh drove Britain in other directions to secure its empire. These, along with the turns to Japan and France and the rise to prominence of Sir Edward Grey, are well covered in the second chapter, "The Diplomatic Response." Succeeding chapters (3 through 5) illustrate this in greater depth, illuminating Britain's worsening relations with Germany, and improved relations with Russia and France. The sixth chapter is a look at the Balkan situation. These chapters combine to show Britain's diplomatic position on the eve of war as a "shadowy edifice" made of "compromise and half-truths" poised to aid the Entente, but with a vagueness that left all parties uncertain as to her true commitment.
Perhaps the most interesting chapters in the book are chapters 7 and 8: "The Domestic Contest: Liberal Politics and Conservative Pressure" and "The Professional Influence: Diplomats and Officers." The British domestic political scene of 1901-14 makes for fascinating reading--labor discontent, strikes, scandals, economic prosperity, the arms race, the influence of the press or popular authors on public opinion. This is a look at the world that shaped the decision-makers, the "handful of men" who ultimately made the decision to commit Britain to war and is essentially a reconsideration of Dangerfield's classic work. The authors suggest that Dangerfield, while still germane to the discussion, overstated his case and underplayed the essential stability of Edwardian society--later stating this outright (p. 267). That said, it is also interesting to note that British foreign policy makers could remain largely untroubled by the mass media and popular culture. Chapter 8 explains why this was the case--foreign and defense policy proved more responsive to nationalist and imperialist ideals than did domestic policy, and the elements listed above aimed generally at domestic politics. The chapter also includes several very useful brief biographies of the major players at the Foreign Office.
"The July Crisis," chapter 9, covers well-worn ground, and the conclusion will surprise few readers. Nonetheless, three points are worth highlighting. First, as the conclusion states, Britain entered the war to maintain the balance of power in Europe (p. 258) but this could not have been accomplished without popular support (p. 252). Thus, Belgium provided the excuse that gained that support. Second, Grey played his cards comparatively poorly--hoping, but failing, to repeat his success during the earlier Balkan crisis. Finally, the authors lay a major share of blame to the German and the Austro-Hungarian empires.
The book's weakness is that, while expansive in its approach, it assumes a level of knowledge that limits its audience. Better editing might have improved this, and would have also helped with its minor stylistic flaws. Passive voice and split infinitives are flaws shared by most military and diplomatic historians. Having made a conscious effort to weed these out of my own work, I am probably far too sensitive about it in others' and most readers will be able to ignore them quite easily.
Of more concern is a disconcerting number of instances where acronyms or events have been dropped into the text with the implicit assumption that the reader will understand them. One example is the use, on page 94, of the acronym PUS to refer to the Foreign Office's Permanent Under-Secretary, which is typically spelled out in full elsewhere in the book. In a work that avoids most acronyms, this one seemed out of place, particularly since it is one that might be better avoided altogether. An example of an event used in much the same way is the "Liman von Sanders Incident," used on pages 128-129 as an example of the Foreign Secretary's (Lord Grey's) difficulties. The non-specialist reader would have been greatly aided had the incident been spelled out in a little more detail and many readers will be well served if they keep a copy of A. J. P. Taylor's The Struggle for Mastery in Europe handy as a reference for such examples.
A final irritant, and one that will prompt confusion for many readers, is a tendency to introduce actors fully after having used them to make a point. One example of this is Field Marshal Sir William Nicholson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), who is introduced fully on page 226, having been used to make a point on page 211. "Nicholson's" appearance on page 211 will leave a great many readers observing "but I thought Nicholson was Lord Grey's Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office." Indeed, Sir Arthur Nicholson served as Lord Grey's Permanent Under-Secretary at the time, while Sir William Nicholson served simultaneously as CIGS. The reader will be even more confused since the Foreign Office's Nicholson (Arthur) is the subject of an insightful section on his attitudes and capabilities on pages 193-195 and, with the exception of pages 211 and 226, is the Nicholson that the text refers to consistently. This is not uncommon and will leave many readers without a firm grasp of the period somewhat confused at several points in the work.
Readers need to be aware that this is not a work for those unfamiliar with the period and, in terms of where it might be used in course-work, it is best suited for graduate students. In the final analysis, the flaws noted above do not detract appreciably from the main themes of the work. Steiner and Neilson have produced a book that does a fine job of leading the reader to a better understanding of the myriad factors (political, diplomatic, economic, and social) that underpinned the decisions of 3 August 1914. Early in the work, they pose the question:
"Why should a state which had for over a hundred years preserved its distance from the European continent become involved in a war which many knew would be of unparalleled destructiveness because an Austrian archduke was assassinated in a place which Englishmen could not locate on a map?" (p. 4)
When one closes the book, one feels that the question has been answered admirably.
. George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (New York: Capricorn, 1961; first published 1935).
. A. J. P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954).
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