on 12 October 2013
[Explanatory Note: Due to the complexity of the arguments involved on both sides of the debate this review has undergone some expansion on account of which it may slightly exceed the average number of words encountered in Amazon book reviews. But I hope you will read it anyway.]
For fairness' sake, Hastings probably deserves at least one star for his literary effort. Unfortunately, his book purports to be a work of history and in my view this is where the trouble starts.
The fact that the book has been serialized by the Daily Mail - a tabloid dedicated to systematic and obsessive Jerry-bashing since the 1890s ("Under the Iron Heel," "The Invasion of 1910," etc.) - makes it legitimate to ask whether it might not be a work of propaganda.
As noted by other reviewers, Hastings hardly presents any new material, is selective in his choice of sources, while his interpretation of the evidence and his conclusions must, to say the least, be open to debate.
Briefly, there were two main aspects to the war. One was the Russo-German conflict which was about influence in the Balkans and clearly had nothing to do with Britain. The other was the Anglo-German conflict triggered by Britain's declaration of war against Germany, which led to world war proper.
To Hastings' argument that Germany encouraged Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia there is the counter-argument that alliances with France and Britain encouraged Russia to mobilize against Austria and Germany.
Moreover, even if Germany had been responsible for starting the Russo-German conflict (a European war), it wouldn't follow that Germany was also responsible for the conflict with the British Empire (a world war).
Hastings himself admits that Germany "did not enter the war with a grand plan for world domination," that it "didn't seek to contrive a general European conflagration" and that it "preferred not to fight Britain."
Yet he insists that Germany was "largely" to blame all the same. To Hastings' mind, it was entirely natural, prudent and wise for Russia to back Serbia, for France to back Russia and for Britain to back Russia and France, but not for Germany to back its ally Austria and oppose its adversaries Russia and France. He also appears to imply that it was alright for Russia to mobilize against Austria and Germany as it wasn't really intended as a sign of aggression, but not for Germany to mobilize in response.
Debunking the Belgium myth
Britain's central argument revolving on alleged obligations to Belgium, on which Hastings' narrative is based, is one of the most obvious and fatal flaws in the book. Due to the fact that France was allied with Russia, war with Russia meant war with France. To avoid fighting a two-front war, Germany had to try to knock France out of the war first for which purpose it was forced to advance through Belgium (the quickest and easiest route). This was duly pointed out to the Asquith government. Nevertheless, Britain chose to respond by declaring war on Germany.
The official establishment line - which, as we can see is backed by the media and by journalists-turned-historians like Hastings - is that Britain's declaration of war was in fulfillment of its obligations towards "neutral" Belgium.
The objective and impartial examination of the available evidence shows that this view is inconsistent with the facts.
First, although Belgium's neutrality had been established through the 1839 Treaty of London - signed by Britain, Austria, France, Germany (Prussia) and Russia - you don't need to be an expert on international law to see that the treaty did not put Britain under legal obligation to defend Belgium by military means (John F C Fuller, Kosiek & Rose, etc.).
Article 7 of the Treaty simply states: "Belgium shall form an independent and perpetually neutral State."
This is a deliberately vague document that far from being about the defence of Belgium by the five powers was in fact about them imposing neutrality on Belgium for their own agendas, as evident from the second sentence in the article stating
"It [Belgium] shall be bound to observe this neutrality towards all other States."
The emphasis is on Belgium to observe neutrality, not on the five powers to defend or enforce it.
As Niall Ferguson correctly points out, the British leadership itself acknowledged that according to the above treaty Britain at best had the right, not the obligation, to intervene (Pity of War, pp. 62-3).
Second, as openly admitted by Foreign Secretary E Grey in his Commons speech of 3 August (the day before Britain's declaration of war), the British government's position since 1870 had been that the Treaty of London was not binding on every party when it was against the interests dictated by the current situation (see Appendix A, below). Hastings mentions the speech and Grey's opposition to Germany's invasion of Belgium, but not his remarks regarding Britain's traditional (and true) position on the issue.
Similarly, as pointed out by Christopher Clark in The Sleepwalkers, it was accepted by the British government that it was strategically necessary for the Germans to pass through Belgium in the event of war with Russia and France (Belgium being the only way around the French frontier forts) and few had any objections. Again, Hastings is silent on this.
The inevitable result is that readers are denied vital information and the chance to ask why a long-held position suddenly changed or why the case was being grossly misrepresented by leading papers and other propaganda outlets with close links to pro-war elements in the establishment (e.g., posters showing the signatures on the treaty but not its contents, etc.).
Third, alternative views hold that when the Germans invaded Belgium it was discovered that in 1906 and 1912 secret agreements had been made between the British and Belgian military authorities. Although these agreements were euphemistically described by the British as "informal conversations", they clearly amounted to a military alliance between Britain and Belgium. Under accepted international law this meant that Belgium had ceased to be a neutral country (see Alexander Fuehr, The Neutrality of Belgium, 1915).
The Belgian archives' description of the above "conversations" as Anglo-Belgian Convention clearly betrays their true nature and shows that Belgium's neutral status had in fact already been violated by Britain itself.
Consequently, Britain's declaration of war was not motivated by any imagined legal obligations, but by its well-documented economic and military ambitions on the Continent and worldwide. This is confirmed by the fact that out of the main signatories Britain was the only one to declare war on Germany over Belgium and that in December 1914 Britain rejected Germany's offer to withdraw from Belgium in exchange for the Belgian Congo (see Appendix C).
It is also necessary for a balanced and objective analysis to consider the fact that Belgium itself was at the forefront of European imperialism and held extensive possessions in Africa which it subjected to brutal domination and exploitation. Even Hastings admits that the Belgians' behaviour in Africa was "consistently appalling" - though he conveniently spares us the details (like children having their hands cut off because their parents couldn't pay their debts to the Belgian rulers).
Adam Hochschild estimates that up to 10 million natives perished at the hands of the Belgian administration in the Congo (King Leopold's Ghost). Even a fraction of that would still exceed by far Germany's own atrocities in Belgium and France taken together.
Therefore even in moral terms the image of Belgium as an innocent victim in need of British protection can be safely dismissed as inaccurate and misleading, in other words, pure propaganda. None of this matters to Hastings who uncritically takes the "truth" of the establishment line for granted.
[Concerning alleged German atrocities in Belgium, it is worthwhile noting that Hastings has written a whole sub-chapter on "German Beastliness" where he states "Modern research shows that, while some press reports were fabrications, the German army in Belgium and France indeed behaved with systemic inhumanity" (p. 189). Curiously, Hastings fails to provide any reference for this mysterious "modern research," leaving the reader in the dark as to whether the source in question is reliable academic work or something sponsored by the Daily Mail.]
In the same vein, Hastings largely ignores the long-standing anti-German stance of sections of the British establishment and of media-influenced public opinion, as well as the fact that by 1905 the possibility of war with Germany was seriously considered by the Admiralty and the War Office.
J A Farrer in his England under Edward VII points out that in 1908 Sir John Fisher, the First Sea Lord, advised the King to back a policy of "Copenhagening the German Fleet a la Nelson." To his credit, the King didn't think that Copenhagening other people's fleets would have been a gentlemanly thing to do. Unfortunately, with advisers like Fisher and others, he came to believe that war against Germany was an immediate probability. Nor were Fisher and his clique isolated cases.
As Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert tells, Churchill himself (Fisher's friend and collaborator) had started to prepare the Royal Navy for war with Germany as soon as he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, had made up his mind that Britain would enter the war on the side of France by late July 1914, that is, before Germany even declared war on Russia, let alone invaded either Belgium or France, and pressured the Cabinet into entering the war.
Ignoring Churchill's activities and his declaration, in a memorandum to the Cabinet, that peace was the best time to prepare for war, Hastings claims that there was no preparation for war after 1911, except "precautionary steps" - like earmarking Oxford University's Examination School for use as a hospital.
Hastings says that on 3 August, Lloyd George, a pivotal figure, "at last overcame his own doubts," accepting the case for war, and that Asquith asked Lord Kitchener, who was on his way to Egypt, to return to London.
Hastings ignores the (not irrelevant) fact that the person who was instrumental in Lloyd George's change of mind in favour of war as well as in Kitchener's recall to London and in putting pressure on the Cabinet (through threats of a coalition government based on support for the war), was Churchill. He finds it more important to inform the world that the Austrian intelligence chief was a homosexual and to discuss Edward Grey's love life - as if such details had anything to do with the war or helped the reader to form a better understanding of it.
Another key point overlooked by Hastings is that as Churchill's (and the Asquith government's) main concern was the defence of France - towards which Britain had no obligation - Belgium couldn't have been the true reason behind Britain's war declaration.
Incidentally, British assurances to France, given years before the war, can only have served to encourage France to back Russia and to leave Germany with no choice but to aim to knock France out of the war once the Russo-German conflict got started.
Whitewashing key figures, downplaying or ignoring their role and masking ulterior motives behind the war are just some among the many propagandistic devices - of various degrees of subtlety - deployed in Hastings' book. For example, in a rather crude attempt to stamp the reader's mind with the idea of German aggression as the source of all ills, the front jacket sports a stereotypical image of German troops on the offensive, which conveniently contrasts with the image of the idyllic world of upper-class Britain depicted on the inside of the cover (front endpaper) and whose blissful existence is about to be disturbed by the "Huns".
Ordinary, working-class people are nowhere to be seen except as wretched foot-soldiers defending the clique that oppressed, exploited and manipulated them for its own agenda. And where are the Americans, the Indians and many others who fought and died for the Allied cause? Where are the Africans mining the gold shipped to America in exchange for war loans? Have they all been airbrushed out of the story so as not to spoil the myth of brave England's single-handed victory?
On a more subtle level, having drawn the reader's attention to the fact that WWI pictures are mostly posed or faked, the book proceeds to label German photographs ("The face of the Western Front, winter 1914") as "posed" whereas British photographs ("Men of the Middlesex under fire") are advertised as among the "few authentic photographic images" available.
The content of the above photographs is equally revealing. While the "posed" German one shows Germans looking over the parapet when nobody is shooting (suggesting cowardice), the "authentic" British one shows British troops under fire (suggesting bravery). Combined with the systematic description of the Germans as paranoid, barbaric and given to atrocities, such propagandistic tricks cannot fail to achieve the desired psychological effect on unsuspecting readers. Lord Northcliffe, the anti-German owner of The Times and the Daily Mail - who doubled as head of the Propaganda Ministry - would have approved.
Let us have a better look at two of Hastings' central arguments revolving on German "paranoia" and "barbarism."
Were the Germans really as "paranoid" as Hastings claims? Well, they were hemmed in by a revanchist France in the West and by an expansionist Russia in the East. They could not expand in the North Sea or the Baltic because Fisher and Churchill were there, waiting to "Copenhagen" them. They could not expand in Africa, the Mediterranean or the Pacific because all that was "British territory." On top of everything, the imperialist faction in the British establishment was pushing hard for British union with America. How "paranoid" would Britain have felt in that situation?
Was British rule really more "enlightened" that that of Germany? Didn't British rule lead to near extinction of Native Americans? Weren't Australian Aboriginals labelled "vermin" and used for shooting and "pig-sticking" practice? Weren't the Boers put in concentration camps? And what to say of India? Didn't its leaders from Tilak to Mahatma Gandhi describe British rule as the "kingdom of Satan"? If British rule was so enlightened, why were there uprisings - from America to Ireland to India - against it? By implying that it was alright for Britain to dominate Europe but not for Germany, Hastings seriously undermines his already shaky claim to objectivity.
And what about the wishes of the European people? Did Ukrainians, Poles, Bulgarians and Romanians want to be dominated by Russia? Did Italians and Spaniards want to be dominated by France? Did Europe want to be dominated by Britain?
Hastings appears to forget that Germany already dominated Central Europe by default, that being its established geographic location, as well as having a large population (twice the size of France) and a fast-growing economy. This may have been inconvenient to France, Russia and Britain. But what exactly was Germany supposed to do? Can we honestly expect it to have given up industry and trade and become a nation of shepherds and farmers under British rule - and go the way of Ireland?
It's a shame Hastings didn't find time for the conclusion and aftermath of the war, because if he had he might have noticed, among other things, that Lord Robert Cecil, a key supporter of Churchill's pro-war machinations, was also involved in the promotion and creation of the League of Nations (he chaired the Supreme Economic Council of the Allied and Associated Powers during the 1919 Paris Conference that established the League and co-drafted the Covenant) which conveniently put Germany's African colonies under British control after the war.
Together with other omitted data, this demonstrates that far from advancing the interests of the British people (who gained absolutely nothing from it) the war actually served the agenda of vested interests.
Hastings casually and cryptically notes that US industrialists identified a "strong interest in an outcome that weakened global competition from Germany." A word or two on their identities and connections with the Anglo-American interests involved in financing both the war and the League of Nations might have proved instructive. Or else, if they (or the interest in question) were unconnected with the war, why mention them?
In any case, US interests cannot be left out of the war equation, because if France was backed by Britain, as Hastings himself concedes Britain in turn was backed by America. And here, again, Churchill who was half-American and had close links to US financial and industrial interests, played a pivotal role together with fellow Atlanticists in his entourage who all were bent on uniting the British Empire with America in order to dominate the world.
At the very least, Hastings could have mentioned that it was America who saved Britain in 1917 when a desperate Foreign Secretary Balfour reported to Washington, hat in hand, that the Great British Empire was on the verge of bankruptcy and losing the submarine war (see Balfour cable to Col House, 29 June 1917, etc.). American readers won't be too pleased to find that Hastings dedicates 5 words out of 600 pages to their country's decisive contribution.
Throughout the book, the "military expert" Hastings remains strangely oblivious to the fact that wars cost money which Britain didn't have. He tells us that the French Rothschilds donated £40,000 to the poor, but not that their London cousins and their US agents J P Morgan (who were also acting for the British government) financed British, French and other Allied war loans amounting to billions of pounds; nor that the Rothschilds who owned the arms manufacturers Vickers served as advisers to the Ministry of Munitions which was run by their associate Churchill, whose friend Bernard Baruch was chairman of the US War Industries Board and its Central Purchasing Commission and filled all the various WIB committees with his banking and industrial associates, etc. (see Appendix B).
The story of press baron Lord Northcliffe, who was at the forefront of the anti-German propaganda campaign, is no less revealing. Northcliffe was created a peer on the recommendation of arch-intriguer Balfour and was later appointed head of the Propaganda Ministry and, as Balfour's successor, of the British War Purchasing Mission to the US. While in America, he was in close contact with financial leaders and urged the "massed battalions of finance" to smother the enemy with war subscriptions.
Otherwise said, if we put together the facts left out by Hastings, we get a totally different story that is both more interesting and closer to the facts.
In sum, the war cannot be properly analyzed or understood without a clear overview of the broader historical background as presented, for example, by Niall Ferguson's excellent Empire which, incidentally, identifies Belgium as a convenient pretext used by the imperialists in the British government for their own purposes.
For a much more balanced and objective treatment of the historical evidence than that offered by Hastings I would recommend Ferguson's The Pity of War and Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers, while Ioan Ratiu's The Milner-Fabian Conspiracy and Docherty & Macgregor's Hidden History are a refreshing attempt at looking into the true motives behind Britain's decision to enter the war.
These motives were to do with the insistence, on the part of elements of the British establishment, on imposing British economic and financial hegemony on Europe and the world - a view that is consistent with Ferguson's Empire though not, unfortunately, with history according to Hastings and the Daily Mail.
The world will never become a better place unless and until we stop believing in history according to politicians and the press and stick to history according to the evidence. Let us not make 2014 an orgy of jingoism and hate but a celebration of peace, friendship and understanding among all nations on earth.
"I am not able to subscribe to the doctrine of those who have held in this House what plainly amounts to an assertion, that the simple fact of the existence of a guarantee is binding on every party to it, irrespectively altogether of the particular position in which it may find itself at the time when the occasion for acting on the guarantee arises. The great authorities upon foreign policy to whom I have been accustomed to listen, such as Lord Aberdeen and Lord Palmerston, never to my knowledge took that rigid and, if I may venture to say so, that impracticable view of the guarantee" - Prime Minister Gladstone, 10 August 1870, quoted by Grey, 3 August 1914, Hansard vol. 65, c. 1819.
Sean McMeekin correctly points out that most ordinary Britons and even most members of parliament would have been astonished to learn that their country might go to war over a treaty dating to 1839 (July 1914, p. 73).
Moreover, as Hastings himself admits, there was strong public feeling against British involvement up till Monday 3 August, that is, the day before Britain's declaration of war on Germany (p. 95). This shows that the long-standing pro-war machinations of Churchill and associates were an undemocratic entreprise serving the agenda of a tiny faction within the ruling class.
In my view, it is clear from the text that Hastings is aware of the role played by a tiny clique (Churchill, Grey, Northcliffe, etc.) in pushing Britain into the war, but that he chooses not to put his facts (Churchill's bellicosity, Grey's speech, Northcliffe's machinations) together and draw the appropriate conclusions.
The involvement of Rothschild, J P Morgan and associated interests in financing the Allied war effort and the profits they made from the war have been dealt with by respected historians and scholars and ought to be beyond dispute.
Niall Ferguson in his The House of Rothschild has shown that a loan of £1.7 million to France was agreed through the Rothschilds in the first weeks of the war, followed by advances totalling £8 million between October 1914 and October 1917.
On 1 August 1914, the Rothschilds requested a loan of $100 million to the French government from their US agents J P Morgan & Co. In October 1915, J P Morgan arranged a $500 million Anglo-French loan, etc.
As Ferguson points out, the war boosted demand for Vickers guns, New Caledonian nickel, South African (De Beers) diamonds, etc., all of which meant gains for the Rothschilds who owned those and other companies and the same applies to Morgan and associated US banking and industrial interests.
Interestingly, in a 1915 speech, J P Morgan partner Thomas W Lamont declared that the war enabled America not only to make lots of money but to become a creditor nation which would replace the pound with the dollar as the international basis of exchange.
As Britain acted as banker and financier for France and other Allies, its total war expenditure came close to £10 billion the bulk of which came from America. In exchange for US loans, vast quantities of South African gold were shipped to London and then to Ottawa and other Canadian ports where it was made into bars and transferred to J P Morgan's accounts in New York and Philadelphia.
The direct result of these manoeuvres was to hugely increase America's gold reserves and expand its credit facilities, transforming it into a creditor nation virtually overnight and, eventually, into the world's new financial superpower - exactly as predicted by J P Morgan.
That US interests financed and profited from the war is indisputable. What remains to be established is whether they also had a hand in instigating the war. Suffice it to note for now that J P Morgan and associated interests on both sides of the Atlantic were heavily involved in a network of organisations set up for the purpose of drawing Britain and America closer together economically, politically and militarily. Notable among these was the influential Pilgrims Society whose New York branch had J P Morgan himself as vice-president, while the London branch was headed by Northcliffe's friend and collaborator Field Marshall Lord Roberts, a leading figure in the pro-war faction.
Admittedly, all this shows that there was much more to the story and it would certainly spoil the carefully-constructed war mythology. But this is no good reason for historians to suppress historical facts when their duty should be to inform, not mislead, the readers.
Memorandum by British ambassador to Russia, Sir George Buchanan, 15 January 1915, cited in A J P Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918, Oxford, 1954, p. 535 and note.
Also New York Times, 4 August 1915, "Von Jagow Planned Partition Of Congo":
"Certain German publicists ... [one of whom was a "well-known statesman"] ... have been quoted as saying that Belgium might preserve her territorial entirety in Europe provided certain commercial concessions were made, together with the cession of the Belgian Congo" ("Von Jagow Planned Partition Of Congo," New York Times, 4 August 1915).
And Hansard, vol. 90, c. 1241 - 20 Feb. 1917:
"... the Allies - if Germany were to buy the Belgian Congo - could get complete restoration, including Belgium, with Antwerp, and also Serbia ...".
This proposal was rejected, as was an earlier one (of 29 July 1914) to respect Belgian and French territorial integrity in exchange for British neutrality, which the British government chose to dismiss as "crude and almost childlike" (Hastings, Catastrophe, p. 77).
Similarly, in August 1914 the Belgian government requested the Spanish government to approach the Germans with a request for the neutralisation of the Congo basin during the war. The Spanish consulted the British ambassador who told them that the British government "could not entertain" such a proposal (Hansard, vol. 74, c. 1445 - 14 Oct. 1915).
The fact of the matter is that Britain's imperialist clique aimed to control Africa "from Cape Town to Cairo." Already in 1907, Churchill was busy building a gigantic railway system to "catch the whole Congo trade" (M Gilbert, Churchill: A Life, p. 190) and an Anglo-Belgian Cape to Cairo Railway was planned to pass right through the Belgian Congo.
But it gets even better. The imperialists' main concern was not trade but natural resources. Copper ore had been discovered in the area earlier and, in 1906, the British Tanganyika Concessions, which was run by Cecil Rhodes partner Sir Robert Williams, and the Rothschild-associated Société Générale de Belgique, Belgian's dominant bank, set up the Union Minière du Haut-Katanga to mine copper in a 15,000 square kilometers area containing the world's largest copper deposits. Large-scale production started in 1911.
In 1912 and 1913 diamond deposits and a gold field of "exceptional richness" were discovered in the Belgian Congo by Forestière Minière du Congo, a Belgian-American concern co-owned by King Leopold of the Belgians, the Société Générale and Guggenheim (the mining and smelting giant), Ryan (banking and industrial magnates) and other New York interests ("Diamonds Found In Congo," New York Times, 23 September 1912; "Gold In Belgian Congo. Field of Great Richness Discovered in Katanga Province," New York Times, 5 August 1913).
All the key imperialists in the pro-war faction (Churchill, Lord Milner, Daily Mail owner Lord Northcliffe, etc.) had close links to Rothschild, J P Morgan, Guggenheim, Ryan and associated interests who in turn had close links to the Belgian Congo and other African colonies.
On the US side, Edward R Stettinius, partner of Rothschild agent J P Morgan, was put in charge of American war purchases for the Allies.
John D Ryan, president of Anaconda Copper, became Assistant Secretary of War and head of the copper-buying committee.
Paul D Cravath, Thomas F Ryan's lawyer, was made legal adviser to the American War Mission to Europe.
Baruch, Churchill's friend and partner of J P Morgan, T F Ryan and the Guggenheims, became chairman of the all-powerful War Industries Board.
On the British side, Churchill was made Minister of Munitions, Lord Northcliffe was made head of the British War Purchasing Mission to the US (as well as of the Propaganda Ministry), etc., etc.
The fact is that while British politicians talked of going to war over "Belgian neutrality," their financial and industrial backers (and likely instigators) were motivated by their mining and other interests in the Belgian Congo, German South-West Africa (where diamonds had been discovered in 1908), South Africa (where the Rothschilds and associates held extensive diamond, gold and other interests), etc.
The more we look at the evidence ignored by Hastings and the Daily Mail the more difficult it becomes to believe that Britain went to war over "Belgian neutrality" and not over world supremacy (including Belgian colonial possessions controlled by the same tiny Anglo-American clique that financed and supplied the war).