In the beginning there was Article 231. It stated:
"The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies."
But the release and publication of official diplomatic documents after 1918 - initiated by Austria and Germany - produced two trail-blazing books by two American revisionist historians, Barnes and Fay, that permanently consigned Article 231 to the historical dustbin and no respectable historian dares refer to it today except with contempt. In succeeding decades as the battle for history raged, the war-guilt question (kriegschuldvrage) inhabited a shadowy no-man's-land between allied propaganda and the ever-growing pressure of historical truth. In October, 1961, German historian Fritz Fischer launched an all-out assault on the revisionists with his book "Germany's Aims in the First World War." (German title: "Griff nach der Weltmacht: Die Kriegzielpolitik des kaiserlichen Deutschland 1914-1918") Fischer claimed that Germany had started the War in order to gain hegemony in Europe and then the world. Referred to as the "Fischer Thesis," it caused a sensation in Germany and was enthusiastically embraced by the blame-Germany-first crowd. Fischer was soon refuted by other German historians - most notably Gerhard Ritter - who pointed out that Germany already had hegemony in Europe, won, not by boots, bullets, and battleships, but by the industry and talent of her people. This was amply underscored by a veritable mountain of economic statistics which prove beyond any doubt that in the summer of 1914, Germany was first among equals by every conceivable measure. Why then would Germany risk a war against a numerically superior opponent in order to gain hegemony - something she already possessed in spades? But the "Fischer Thesis" was the only remaining game in town and historians clung to it like a drowning man to a life preserver.
Nevertheless, the times they were a-changing. In 1998, Oxford historian Niall Ferguson published "The Pity of War" to rave reviews. The back cover of the book states:
"The Pity of War makes a simple and provocative argument: the human atrocity known as the Great War was entirely England's fault. According to Niall Ferguson, England entered into the war based on naïve assumptions of German aims, thereby transforming a Continental conflict into a world war, which it then badly mishandled, necessitating American involvement. The war was not inevitable, Ferguson argues, but rather was the mistaken decisions of individuals who would later claim to have been in the grip of impersonal forces."
This was followed by similar volumes which disputed German war-guilt. In 2011 came "The Russian Origins of the First World" War by Sean McMeekin, and in 2012 came "The Sleepwalkers, How Europe Went to War in 1914" by Cristopher Clark. These books contain valuable information and have the virtue of further destroying the stubborn canard that the Central Powers started the War, but they lack in some respects the finality which the published documents fully support.
Comes now "Hidden History: The Secret Origins of the First World War" by Gerry Docherty and James Macgregor. This is the very first volume that states the case straightforward and unapologetically: It was Great Britain - not Germany and Austria - who started the Great War of 1914-18. Why would Great Britain do such a thing? British leaders sensed that Germany, given her growing economic/military hegemony in Europe, might soon be in a position to challenge the world hegemony wielded by the mighty British Empire. Britannia had grown quite used to ruling the waves and waving the rules, and the notion that it was England's destiny to instruct the "lesser races" was common in Elizabethan and Victorian England. Thus the frightening possibility that an upstart Germany could upset the Albion applecart had to forestalled and the sooner the better.
Messrs. Docherty and Macgregor begin by telling us about one fateful wintry day in February 1891: "The three staunch British imperialists who met that day, Cecil Rhodes , William Stead and Lord Esher, drew up a plan for the organisation of a secret society that would take over the control of foreign policy both in Britain and, later by extension, the United States of America: a secret society that aimed to renew the Anglo-Saxon bond between Great Britain and the United States, spread all that they considered good in the English ruling-class traditions, and expand the British Empire's influence in a world they believed they were destined to control."
The "Secret Elite" - the name chosen by the authors to avoid the profusion of names under which the "Group" operated - gave an early and convincing demonstration of their strength and influence by causing two hitherto independent, sovereign nations - Transvaal and the Orange Free State - to be annexed by the British Empire.
On February 8, 1901, Edward VII informed the German representative, Baron Hermann von Eckardstein that "For a long time at least there can be no more any question of Great Britain and Germany working together in any conceivable matter" (Massie, Dreadnought, p. 309). With this, the British ship of state began slowly to steer in the direction of Paris and St. Petersburg and away from Berlin. From this point forward, British foreign policy left little doubt as to its intended goal. First came the 1904 Entente Cordiale in the wake of the British King's diplomacy. Then came a similar understanding with Russia in 1907. This last completed the transformation of the moribund Franco-Russian alliance into the very potent Triple Entente and the Austro-German Press began to mutter darkly about einkreisung (encirclement). Further German objections came in the form of the two Moroccan crises in 1905 and 1911 when German diplomacy attempted to drive a wedge between Britain and France. But the hostile 1911 Mansion House speech by Lloyd George made it clear that there were no prospects for success in this direction.
When the July crisis threatened war and a forthright exposition of the British attitude would have preserved the peace, Sir Edward Grey played his cards close to the vest. Having already given a verbal promise of a 120,000-man expeditionary force to Poincare and Sasonov in 1912, Grey now hinted to a worried Cambon that the concentration of the British fleet should answer his doubts, whilst whispering into the Austro-German ear that England would remain neutral. With the deftness of a carnival huckster, Grey subtly encouraged both sides to interpret the British position according to their own preferences, thereby coaxing the opposing alliance systems onto a collision course.
Governmental and public opposition to the war in England bordered on unanimity but Sir Edward had an ace up his sleeve. He knew that the German plan of campaign called for a lightening thrust at France through Belgium. This enabled him to use the treaty of 1839 to circumvent the opposition and send Tommy Atkins to line up outside the recruiter's office.
But was Great Britain wrong or even unique? After all, some two-thousand years ago the Romans made an analogous decision that resulted in the Punic Wars and the disappearance of Carthage from the world map. Other empires made similar decisions for similar reasons. But however we choose to judge Great Britain, the fact remains that it was she - not Germany - who was responsible for the Great War and this is forcefully presented in this trailblazing, first-of-its-kind volume - highly recommended and indispensable for any student of the First World War. In summary, it may be said that King Edward VII discovered the moribund spear of the Franco-Russian alliance. Sir Edward Grey felt its heft, polished and sharpened it, and used the Sarajevo crisis to hurl it at Germany. The rest, as they say, is history.