3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Thorough and insightful, but quite a challenge to the reader,
This review is from: Splendid Isolation?: Britain, the Balance of Power and the Origins of the First World War (Hardcover)Professor Charmley demonstrates great erudition and an easy familiarity with all the main players in this tremendous, though depressing, saga. Any doubts on that score would be dispelled by the 102 pages of notes that follow the 400 pages of actual text. Without any obvious bias, he lets each player speak with his own voice, and soon one knows just what to expect of Disraeli, Gladstone, Lord Salisbury, Lord Derby, Lord Lansdowne, Sir Edward Grey, and the other famous British ministers around whom the story revolves. Many lesser actors, too, have their own distinctive casts of thought and expression: Queen Victoria, Bismarck, and the three Emperors (Wilhelm II of Germany, Nicholas II of Russia, and Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary), with a huge supporting cast of politicians, diplomats, generals, admirals, and others.
The book is divided into three parts. Part 1, "High Politics" (1874-1878), deals mostly with the later career of Disraeli and the refinements of his cynical, pragmatic brand of realpolitik. It ends with the Congress of Berlin, a triumph of Bismarck's diplomacy which formalized the shrinkage of Ottoman Turkish possessions in the Balkans. During the Congress, Bismarck was on relatively affable terms with both Disraeli and Salisbury (then Foreign Secretary); he respected them and trusted them as much as he ever trusted anyone. Bismarck and Disraeli understood one another, as both practiced the same type of diplomacy: free from sentiment, moral outrage, and commitment. In this respect Disraeli, although a Conservative Prime Minister, differed markedly from the traditional Tory (Land Party) policy of avoiding foreign entanglements, remaining at peace if possible, and maintaining sound finances at a low level of spending. Disraeli understood the important role that public opinion could play, especially at times of crisis, and was always careful to keep the people (and the Queen) on his side. In 1874-8, according to Charmley, British foreign policy was pragmatic, amoral, and focused entirely on Britain's own interests. For this reason, Disraeli was careful to remain on good terms with Russia and France, the main threats to Britain's overseas colonies (especially India) without offending Germany.
In Part 2, "Isolation" (1878-1905), things change rapidly - and not for the better. Successive Liberal and Conservative governments followed strongly contrasting foreign policies, causing other nations to lose their trust in British promises and even good faith. Charmley is critical of the Liberals in general, but most especially of Gladstone, whom he accuses of vacillating between moral indignation (a precursor of the modern "ethical foreign policy") and unpleasant compromises that were eventually forced on him by reality. ("Gladstone's rhetoric raised expectations which an administration headed by the Archangel Gabriel might have found difficult to realise"). He ended up by occupying Egypt, which was to start a running sore in Britain's relationship with France, and also managed to antagonize practically everyone in South Africa. Lord Salisbury, who was Prime Minister from 1885 to 1902 (with the exception of 1892-5) ran British foreign policy directly or indirectly, and reverted to the traditional Conservative philosophy: "whatever happens will be for the worse", so it was "in our interest that as little should happen as possible". He fought a slowly losing battle to remain free from hampering alliances, often citing the principle that a democracy like Britain could not enter into any binding agreements as Parliament could always rescind them later. Nevertheless, Salisbury managed to play off the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) against the Dual Alliance (France and Russia) while trying to maintain the Ottoman Turkish power as intact as possible.
Part 3, "Balance of Power", sees the wheels come off. Charmley guides us through the gradual changes and events by which the ruling Liberals moved away from Salisbury's sophisticated disengagement and eventually fell into a fatal entanglement with France - and through her, Russia. When the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia, Russia supported Serbia, Germany supported Austria-Hungary, France supported Russia, and at that point German strategic plans demanded that Germany mobilize and attack France rapidly, before Russia could get its vast army ready for war. Grey and Asquith, the Prime Minister, agreed that Britain should not go to war over anything that happened in the Balkans, but that it would have to if Germany infringed the neutrality of Belgium - which it did, as part of its plan to knock France out of the war quickly. Many other factors came into play - for example, the advent of torpedoes, mines, and submarines reduced the importance of British naval power, and the writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan helped incite Wilhelm II to build up a fleet that posed a challenge to the Royal Navy. Yet it is hard to understand how the calm, even friendly relationship between Britain and Germany in 1905 so quickly changed into one of growing dislike, distrust, and eventually war fever. Even Winston Churchill changed from favouring social spending at the expense of new battleships in 1908, to energetically expanding the Navy a few years later when, at the Admiralty, he had already come to distrust Germany's intentions.
Charmley is far too good and honest a historian to push his own interpretations down our throats; instead, he relates the facts and leaves us to come to our own conclusions. To cover 40 years of such dense historical events in just 400 pages, he has to focus tightly on the leading ministers and diplomats and their interactions, leaving out many relevant military, naval, industrial and social developments. Even so, the tone sometimes seems rather breathless - an effect enhanced by the author's flattering habit of assuming that the reader knows all the people and events he discusses. Sometimes 20 or 30 pages go by without our being told which year is being discussed, and much else is taken for granted. There are also rather too many typographical errors - misspellings and the like. However, these are minor shortcomings, and hardly detract from this book's enormous value to anyone wishing to understand the origins of the First World War.
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