On first blush this is an impressive work. Unlike many in its genre, its authors cite sources and add fifteen pages of bibliography—all camouflage.
Like heritage, its non-malignant half-sibling, conspiracy theory draws on history but is not constrained by scholarly discipline. Thus one looks in vain for either “Docherty” or “Macgregor” in their own bibliography, which one assuredly would find if “The history of the First World War [truly] is a deliberately concocted lie”, as they claim (p 11); War in History, Past and Present and other journals would have been eager to publish a paper exposing this lie, and the book would have the endorsement of historians. Its authors’ “explanation” for the absence of such endorsement is that the conspiracy to suppress the truth extends to academia. More on this later.
Docherty & Macgregor’s thesis is that Great Britain engineered the Great War in order to destroy Germany. This dead horse has been flogged intermittently for a century now, ever since Roger Casement’s The Crime Against Europe. While no historian would claim that Germany was solely responsible, the notion that Britain was remains risible.
Along with speculation and outright nonsense presented as fact, there’s a good deal of truth in Hidden History, for all conspiracy theory needs this to lend it plausibility. Cecil Rhodes indeed dreamt of a British-dominated world that would “render wars impossible and promote the best interests of humanity”. The immense power of the Milner-Rothschild group was typical of the time—across the Atlantic JP Morgan sorted out the Panic of 1907, if not quite literally out of his own pocket, by his wealth and the power that always goes with that. This was a paternalistic age, that of the great oligarchs but also the great philanthropists, an age that fostered a deep sense of duty in which men like Milner had to “choose between public usefulness and private happiness” (Carroll Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, p 11). It was also an age of secret diplomacy.
Eric Hobsbawm observes: “The most usual ideological abuse of history is based on anachronism rather than lies.” Docherty & Macgregor bring both ideology and anachronism to their treatment of the past and if they don’t tell lies, they don’t tell the whole truth. They omit to mention that Rhodes was an admirer of Germany and that the Rhodes Scholarship was open to Germans as well as Americans. Rhodes’ belief was that “a good understanding between England, Germany and [the USA would] secure the peace of the world” (Heather Ellis and Ulrike Kirchberger [eds], Anglo-German Scholarly Networks in the Long Nineteenth Century, p 214). The Milner Group’s opposition to the Second Reich was “concerned with upholding against the despotic state” and after the war it worked toward reconciliation and German recovery (Quigley, A-AE, pp 83, 60, 146, 242-45, passim).
Along with selectivity of truth goes shameless bias. The British are presented as the most heinous imperial oppressors; in fact the Germans make them look like altar boys—see David Olusoga and Casper W Erichsen, The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide.
Paranoia was rampant across Europe by 1914, something historians ascribe to the secret diplomacy instigated by Bismarck and, far more so, the disastrous policies of Kaiser Wilhelm. Docherty & Macgregor blame the fiendish machinations of a “Secret Elite” of Perfidious Albion. Both they and historians date the change to about 1891 when “the formation of the secret society was agreed” (D&M p. 19). Historians see the change rather in terms of the Reinsurance Treaty being allowed to lapse, and the displacement of Bismarck’s kleindeutschland policy by the Kaiser’s weltpolitik. Through 1891 the Russians appealed for the treaty’s renewal in vain; after issuing the blunt warning that they would not be friendless in Europe, the following year they opened negotiations with France, scuppering Bismarck’s policy of securing the Reich as “one à trois” among the Great Powers, and exposing it to a war on two fronts, the old chancellor’s nightmare.
From the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894 stems the division of Europe into two increasingly paranoid camps, which eventually went to war. Was this a consequence of malice or of blundering, bombast and diplomatic failure? Deliberate malice, Docherty & Macgregor claim, drawing on the work of Carroll Quigley in support. They give ostentatiously respectful credit to Quigley, “one of the twentieth century’s most highly respected historians” (ibid, p. 13). Their analysis “goes far deeper than his initial revelations” (ibid, p 16) and they convey the impression that Professor Carroll is nodding benevolently down on their endeavour from whatever heaven good historians go to. This takes some chutzpah, given that the late professor took great umbrage to his work being hijacked to support far-fetched notions with which he definitely would not agree.
According to Quigley, the Milner Group (Docherty & Macgregor’s “Secret Elite”) “had great influence but not control of political life”; while it “directed policy in ways that were sometimes disastrous” its aims were “largely commendable”. Quigley gives credit to Bismarck’s “diplomatic genius” and “masterful grip” and describes his successors as “puppet chancellors” and “incompetents” (A-AE, p 115; Tragedy and Hope, p. 211). It was incompetence and arrogance that destroyed the balance of power that had been sedulously fostered by Bismarck toward European peace and common prosperity, and led to the disaster of the Great War, not the machinations of any “Secret Elite”.
Though he doesn’t seem to have ever used the word, Professor Quigley effectively endorses the sonderweg hypothesis: Germany achieved unification by “repudiating the typical nineteenth century values ... the rationalism, cosmopolitanism and humanitarianism of the Enlightenment”, a repudiation that left Germans “ill at ease with equality, democracy, individualism, freedom and other features of modern life”. Yet their very envy of all this in other countries left them susceptible to totalitarian manipulation toward anything that could be presented as their due (T&H, pp 413-15). In an almost elegiac passage Quigley describes how diplomacy degenerated from Metternich’s dictum that “a diplomat ... never permitted himself the pleasure of a triumph” to “polishing one’s guns in the presence of the enemy” (ibid, p 223). Bismarck maintained that even a declaration of war should be couched in courteous language, and while his “blood and iron” speech undoubtedly marked a watershed between these two positions, it was under Wilhelm II that bombast and bluster displaced negotiation, fear squeezed out wary trust, and the word of a gentleman could no longer be relied upon.
The outcome was “a precarious and dangerous balance of forces which only a genius could manipulate. Bismarck was followed by no genius. The Kaiser, Wilhelm II, was an incapable neurotic.... As a result, the precarious structure left by Bismarck was not managed but was hidden from view by a facade of nationalistic, anti-foreign, anti-Semitic, imperialistic and chauvinistic propaganda of which the emperor was the centre” (ibid, pp 416-17).
With friends like Quigley, what conspiracy theorist needs enemies? These statements are so congruent with historical orthodoxy that Docherty & Macgregor’s invocation of their author to support heretical views seems less like chutzpah than bare-faced robbery.
Given their misrepresentation of the views of a bona fide historian, imagine the damage these fellows can do with the works of, for example, Harry Elmer Barnes, long exposed as having been in the pay of Zentralstelle für Erforschung der Kriegshuldfrage, established by Weimar to exonerate Germany of any responsibility for the Great War?
To support their notion that the “Secret Elite” engineered the Great War Docherty & Macgregor purport that Belgium had made a secret alliance with Britain. This is an extraordinary claim so one looks for extraordinary support for it. What evidence that Belgium abandoned its internationally-guaranteed constitutional neutrality without anyone in the Brussels parliament or indeed across Europe managing to notice? Why, the unassailable testimony of Alexander Fuehr in his majestic tome, The Neutrality of Belgium (D&M, p. 108, f/n 41, e.g.), which he presented to a New York publisher in 1915. Though the other works of this august historian and political analyst seem to have become as lost as the poetry of Sappho—doubtless through the dastardly depredations of the “Secret Elite”—his magnum opus survives and may be admired for its objectivity and a few other things by anyone with access to the internet. How the “Secret Elite” could have let this disastrous giveaway slip by them must baffle anyone so intelligent as to overlook the possibility that, coming up to an American election year, Herr Fuehr might, just might, have been a German stooge.
As historians know, the Conventions Anglo-Belges, on which the Germans, after invading a neutral country, based their claim that Belgium had abandoned its neutrality, were consultative and focused on defence of the 1839 treaty. A letter by General Ducarme to the Belgian Minister of War, cited perhaps to back up the integrity of Herr Fuehr should any suspicious soul doubt this (ibid, p 107, f/n 38), gives the game away when one takes the trouble to check it out: “The entry of the English into Belgium would take place only after the violation of our neutrality by Germany”.
Curses!—another toe shot off. But never mind, we’ve got eighteen left and the reassuring knowledge that most people don’t check footnotes, but take them as evidence of scholarship and good faith. They rather can serve to give “semblance of worth, not substance” (to borrow from Milton). As a professional witness in Irving -v- Lipstadt, Dr Richard Evans exposed how another conspiracy theorist, David Irving, “created” evidence with footnotes, some of his “sources” being entirely fictive. Denis Winter’s creative use of footnotes in Haig’s Command helped expose that book as cheap character assassination and permanently discredited its author. Guess who cites it? Our intrepid duo.
Their neutrality the Belgians rightly had perceived as under threat from the Schlieffen Plan—though until August 1914 it was assumed that invasion would be limited to buttressing of the German armies’ right wing and restricted to east of the Meuse; occupation and rape of almost the entire country had not been foreseen. Since at least 1905 it was known that Belgium lay in the German warpath, hence the Conventions, and hence the “enormous expansion of armed forces in a supposedly neutral nation” (ibid, p. 237). Perhaps Docherty & Macgregor don’t understand that meaningful neutrality must be defended, as the Swiss and Swedes understood. The Belgian field force of 150,000 was pitifully small, not the sinister menace to Germany and its millionenheer armies that Docherty & Macgregor pretend.
The many crises that punctuated the years leading up to 1914 were cunningly engineered by the “Secret Elite”, who made them all appear Germany’s fault and managed to hoodwink historians, Professor Quigley included. “The first Moroccan crisis arose from German opposition to French designs on Morocco.... The Germans insisted on an international conference in the hope that their belligerence would disrupt the Triple Entente and isolate France”. “The danger of ... war [after the 1908 Balkan crisis] was intensified by the eagerness of the military group in Austria ... to settle the Serb irritation once and for all” (Quigley, T&H, pp 219-25).
Many of the claims made in this book are bizarre—at best—and the authors repeatedly go far beyond what evidence supports. Indeed, they come close to endorsing Ché’s dismissal of evidence as “unimportant bourgeois detail”: “Those who consider that the only true history is that which can be evidenced to the last letter necessarily constrain their parameters” (D&M, p 360).
This line chimes with those from one of the most dangerous books of the twentieth century, The Courage to Heal, by Ellen Bass & Laura Davis (still, like Mein Kamf, readily available): “If you think you were abused, and your life shows the symptoms, then you were” (p 22); “demands for proof are unreasonable” (p 137). In the “witch hunt” of the 1990s this book gained sanctity, even in courts of law. Evidence? An unimportant detail. Corroborative testimony? Are you accusing this poor woman of lying? One man was convicted of an historic murder solely on the testimony of his volatile daughter, whose mental instability was presented to the court as evidence of the trauma she had witnessed as a child. This is what happens when we refuse to be constrained by parameters. If you think the Brits started the war, and your mind shows the symptoms, then they did. In a postmodern dystopia of “competing narratives” it’s as good a yarn as any.
Docherty & Macgregor give an example of what “not constraining parameters” presumably means when they point out that the Parliament Act of 1911 did not reduce “the powers of the aristocracy ... at all” (D&M, pp 169-70), a claim that goes against both evidence and commonsense (seldom a conspiracy theorist’s strong suit). There’s grim hilarity in the notion that the Boers’ “moral code ... was far better than that of Rhodes and the British” (ibid, p 34), given that Die Groot Trek was prompted by Britain’s abolition of slavery and the “outrageous” Ordinance 50 of 1828, which gave equal rights to all subjects of the British Empire, regardless of race. In the Boer Republics “kaffirs” faced legal discrimination and the Boer “moral code” eventually gave post-colonial South Africa apartheid.
Queen Victoria, we are told, was “a favourite cousin” of the odious Leopold II (ibid, p 107). In fact, while Leopold I had been Victoria’s favourite uncle, she thought her cousin “‘very odd’ and in the habit of ‘saying disagreeable things’” (Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost, p 35). Honest error? Perhaps—but as the Royal Family was among the “Secret Elite”, a little guilt-by-association can do Docherty & Macgregor’s thesis no harm.
The Schlieffen Plan just possibly could be regarded as defensive, as Docherty & Macgregor claim, in that attack is an effective defence; but when we look at the September Programme, and its proposal to dismember Belgium and annex whole provinces of France, and impose a zollverein on most of Western Europe, we perceive a whimsical interpretation of “defensive”. When we look at how a million square miles was annexed at Brest-Litovsk we know that Germany wanted hegemony, not security. When we look at “the Kaiser’s jihad”—the plan to foment Moslem rebellion across the British Empire toward German control from the English Channel to the Bay of Bengal—we know that any presentation of the Reich as hapless victim of British machinations is nonsense.
Given that it more than anything else contradicts their own hypothesis, Docherty & Macgregor pass over the Fischer Hypothesis with suspicious haste, in a bare half page. It was, we are assured, “demolished” by Professor Marc Tractenberg (D&M, p 355).
To dissect what Fischer wrote and take lawyerly issue with semantics is hardly demolition. “Evidence that the Germans were pressing for a war in the Balkans ... cannot be taken as evidence that [they] were really trying to engineer a European war”, says Tractenberg (The Craft of International History: A Guide to Method, p 72). This may be true in a legal sense, but in July 1914 legal considerations had gone by the board. In the face of world opinion after the Sarajevo outrage, Russia could have done little had Austria launched a punitive expedition and “the Serbian problem could be brought to a head without provoking a general war” indeed (ibid, p 71). But the Austrians were not interested in punishing Serbia but in destroying it, dismembering it among its Balkan enemies, thereby getting rid of the troublesome Serbs while buying the allegiance or at least the benevolence of the territorial beneficiaries. This Russia absolutely would not allow and everyone knew that, so in this indisputable light “Evidence that the Germans were pressing for a war in the Balkans” actually can be taken as evidence that they were determined to engineer any Third Balkan War into European war. The Fischer Hypothesis isn’t even dented by this pedantic nit-picking, far less “demolished”.
But hey, let’s not be constrained by parameters!
The collective of anecdote and accusation is not evidence. Scientists, historians and commonsensical people know never to impute to malice or conspiracy what can be accounted for by incompetence, foolishness, stupidity or chance. Conspiracy theorists have a different world view. Rather than use Occam’s Razor to shave assumptions to a minimum, they see this as a weapon deployed against them, concealed by historians under the cloak of reasonableness in order to cut their throats. Will any of them be swayed by this review? Of course not! The reviewer is one of the “Secret Elite”, isn’t he?
Something that looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck is unlikely to be an ostrich in disguise. Something so loaded with overstatement (it’s got feathers: it’s an ostrich), so contradicted by its own sources and so demonstrably wrong cannot be history. Even when on relatively firm ground Docherty & Macgregor undermine their case by overstatement. That Edward Carson “continued to keep Ulster in close check” is doubtful (D&M, p 317); by July 1914 he had lost full control of the UVF he had helped create. Given Cabinet reluctance to accept even invasion of Belgium as a casus belli, the idea that a Liberal government would go to war with Germany over a few smuggled rifles and some provincial outrage is pathetic (ibid, p 318); the Milner Group was supportive of Irish Home Rule, not hostile (Quigley, A-AE, pp 83, 177-78). Yet Henry Wilson was an arch-intriguer, there were others like him and certainly more went on in Ireland, and indeed elsewhere, than has yet come out in the historical wash so here’s a suggestion:
“The Secret Elite controlled the writing and teaching of history [notably through] Oxford University” (D&M, p 353); but Oxford no longer holds the sway that it did, there are far more universities than in Rhodes’ time and history departments are more likely to be dominated by Anglophobic Marxists or PoMo ideologues than by Imperialist conservatives, so why don’t either or both of these gentlemen enrol and get academic imprimatur on their work? Just down the road from them is the University of Dundee, where they will find Dr John Regan, not renowned for his Anglophilia, and he will be happy, I’m rather sure, to get any genuine dirt on Henry Wilson and Perfidious Albion. “History”, he says, “is about challenging the past and historians” (http://www.dundee.ac.uk/history/staff/profile/john-regan), and Docherty and Macgregor certainly do that. They say they look forward to when their work is “perhaps” taught in schools and universities; this is not going to happen unless it gets academic endorsement.
Until it does it’s just conspiracy theory; merely more plausible than the paranoid postings of twitching lunatics holed up in cabins and caves, with enough assault-rifles to defend a small republic and more bullets and beans than brains.