If most of what this book contains is true, I’d say it is more about history that’s buried than hidden. If this is the case this is a very important book, and for that reason, please forgive the length of this review.
A few years ago I read Andrew Roberts’ biography of Lord Salisbury, reviewed by me on this site. Salisbury had been Disraeli’s foreign secretary before he became PM himself. When he did he continued to act as foreign secretary, combining the roles. He was a consummate diplomat, and for a number of years ran Europe like a train in partnership with Bismarck.
In his last few years, things went awry a little, notably in the Boer war which was at best mismanaged. The official histories I had read talked about the difficulties of governing via the new device of telegraph, and headstrong behaviour by our people in Cape Town, but there was something odd to me particularly about the behaviour of Joe Chamberlain which seemed to bring a new element, a brashness into politics which had not been there before.
Salisbury retired and Balfour took over and a lot of changes in the style of politics occurred and some to me puzzling incidents occurred in the lead up to the First World War. I felt that I did not understand what was going on and none of the books I read seemed to speak to this new politics that led us into dangerous negotiations over crises that sprang out of nothing.
The someone recommended ‘Hidden History’ to me.
Docherty and McGregor tell a story about the lead-up to the war which is utterly different to the narratives in any other book on the period that I have read. I have some issues with the way they tell their story, which I’ll go into later, but their version of history is the only one I have heard which makes sense to me, which explains so many things I had not understood about the war, a war which still puzzles historians and causes endless arguments. Who was responsible?
D&M answer unequivocally that the prime responsibility was with a cosy cabal they call the Secret Elite, (hereafter the SE), who were initially Milner, of Boer War fame, Lord Esher, Haldane, and subsequently Balfour, Asquith, Lloyd George, Churchill, and crucially Nathaniel Rothschild. Allied to these were important diplomats in France and Russia, and a number of bankers in the USA as time went on.
D&M argue that these men largely directed the course of history in those years, deliberately manipulating and misinforming not only Parliament but the cabinet as well as the public in Britain and other countries.
Their object was to promote the ongoing hegemony of the British Empire, and to do that by knocking out Germany, then beginning to overtake them economically, from the equation.
The two crises in Morocco were set up by France behaving in a rash imperialist manner and then with Britain putting all the blame on Germany. The SE managed the press – sound familiar? – in both countries to assist with this.
Edward VII, far from being the vacant playboy posterity prefers to remember, was a suave and accomplished diplomat, whose lifestyle was an excellent cover for his diplomatic forays.
Rothschild, who D&M claim controlled many major banks in the US and Europe bankrolled monarchs and governments all over Europe at the request of the SE.
Britain amazed the world by allying itself with Japan in 1902. This was to pressurise Russia and soften them up prior to making an alliance with them against Germany.
Sir Edward Grey, who in his biography claimed to have forgotten to mention to the cabinet his secret alliance with the French a number of years before war broke out, and who lied repeatedly to Parliament and almost everyone else on this matter, acted as a man only wanting peace in public, all the time committing his government without their knowledge to Machiavellian intrigue all with the design of making Germany look bad and crucially engineering France and Russia to force Germany into a position where she had to look the aggressor.
To do this Belgium, who knew exactly what was going on years before war broke out, had to be neutral and refuse to allow German troops to cross their borders, to give Britain the pretext for war of defending them.
According to D&M Germany until the very last minute held out for peace, and at no stage wanted war.
Germany pleaded with Russia to call off their mobilisation, and when the Tsar seemed to relent at the last minute and sent an envoy with conciliatory messages to Berlin, the SE’s man in Moscow had him arrested before he could get on a train.
How has all this been concealed for so long?
Published books have been suppressed, and tons of documents have been shredded, memoirs ruthlessly edited.
The SE operated across parties, and ignored the cabinet and parliament except when they had to face them.
This may all seem pretty unlikely, but I had always thought, well, the war happened because there were some pretty dodgy diplomats around who never got their act together.
The Tsar may not have been the world’s greatest politician, and the Kaiser may have been naïve – although according to D&M not nearly as neurotic and temperamental as public legend has it – but the evidence is here that they were on the case. The war was not an accident.
Now for my reservations.
This book has been well researched, relying heavily on a number of publications written in the several decades after the war by a series of eminent historians, most of which were apparently rubbished or even suppressed by the publishing industry for some time. However these books have now resurfaced and a lot of people are reading them.
However when you read ‘Hidden History’, in many places you see the numbers for notes, but exactly how the referred text backs up the points made you are rarely told. And there are long passages where the authors say ‘The SE did this, and said that…’ with no notes or reference at all. I wondered whether in some of these passages the authors were relying on a crucial work by a man called Quigley, who had supposedly once been part of the SE, but this is not stated.
However the narrative is put together very carefully and frankly is very convincing. Its just that given the controversial nature of the story I would have preferred a book that adopted a more conventionally rigorous academic approach, even if it meant adopting a less certain position on some points.
Almost as a digression, mention is made of Churchill’s escape from prison in South Africa at the time of the Boer War. It is strongly suggested that Churchill lied about his experiences, his escape is referred to as a ‘myth’. The authors present no evidence for this whatsoever except that Churchill has no corroborative witnesses.
In view of the fact that after Churchill’s dismissal form the cabinet in 1915 he went and fought very bravely according to William Manchester in the trenches for six months I don’t find D&M’s criticisms helpful and they detract from the book.
Another criticism is that D&M may be correct in asserting that Germany didn’t want war, but the narrative is very much London centred, and looks quite closely at what was going on in Paris and Moscow, but sheds very little general light on the desires of the Austrian and German governments.
If you had read nothing else you could come away from this book thinking the Germans saints. There is much criticism in this book of British behaviour in South Africa. Germany’s record as colonists in Africa is worse than Britain’s by tenfold – see Pakenham’s ‘The Scramble for Africa’.
Despite these criticisms this is an important book, most of what they say is evidenced, and should be read by anyone who can’t understand exactly why the twentieth century turned into a horror story.