Would any of the Entente Powers have acted differently had they known of the profound complicity of the Serbian army, though not the government, in the murder of Franz Ferdinand? Almost certainly not, because this was not why the Austrians and Germans acted, or their opponents reacted. The Russians simply considered the extinction of a small Slav state as an excessive and indeed intolerable punishment for the crime of Princip, and for that matter Apis. Unless France had swiftly declared its neutrality and surrendered its frontier fortresses as Germany demanded, its alliance with Russia would have caused Moltke to attack in the West. The British were entirely unmoved by Serbia’s impending fate, and acted only in response to the German violation of Belgian neutrality and the threat to France. The various participants in what would soon become the Great War had very different motives for belligerence, and objectives with little in common. Three conflicts – that in the Balkans over East European issues, the continental struggle to determine whether German dominance should prevail, and the German challenge to British global naval mastery – accomplished a metamorphosis into a single over-arching one. Other issues, mostly involving land grabs, would become overlaid when other nations – notably Japan, Turkey and Italy – joined the struggle.
Many people in Britain have argued through the past century that the price of participation in the war was so appalling that no purpose could conceivably justify it; more than a few blame Sir Edward Grey for willing Britain’s involvement. But, granted Germany’s determination to dominate Europe and the likely consequences of such hegemony for Britain, would the foreign secretary have acted responsibly if he had taken no steps designed to avert such an outcome? Lloyd George in his memoirs advanced a further popular argument against the conflict, laying blame upon the soldiers he hated: ‘Had it not been for the professional zeal and haste with which the military staffs set in motion the plans which had already been agreed between them, the negotiations between the governments, which at that time had hardly begun, might well have continued, and war could, and probably would, have been averted.’ This was nonsense. What happened was not ‘war by accident’, but war by ill-conceived Austrian design, with German support.
Today, as in 1914, any judgement about the necessity for British entry must be influenced by an assessment of the character of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s empire. It seems frivolous to suggest, as do a few modern sensationalists, that a German victory would merely have created, half a century earlier, an entity resembling the European Union. Even if the Kaiser’s regime cannot be equated with that of the Nazis, its policies could scarcely be characterised as enlightened. Dominance was its purpose, achieved by peaceful means if possible, but by war if necessary. The Germans’ paranoia caused them to interpret as a hostile act any attempt to check or question their international assertiveness. Moreover, throughout the July crisis they, like the Austrians, consistently lied about their intentions and actions. By contrast, whatever the shortcomings of British conduct, the Asquith government told the truth as it saw this, to both its allies and its prospective foes.
The Kaiserreich’s record abroad was inhumane even by contemporary standards. It mandated in advance and applauded after the event the 1904–07 genocide of the Herero and Namaqua peoples of German South-West Africa, an enormity far beyond the scope of any British colonial misdeed. German behaviour during the 1914 invasion of Belgium and France, including large-scale massacres of civilians endorsed at the highest level, cannot be compared with what took place in the Second World War, because there was no genocidal intent, but it conveyed a profoundly disturbing image of the character of the regime that aspired to rule Europe.
It seems mistaken to suppose that neutrality in 1914 would have yielded a happy outcome for the British Empire. The authoritarian and acquisitive instincts of Germany’s leadership would scarcely have been moderated by triumph on the battlefield. The Kaiser’s regime did not enter the war with a grand plan for world domination, but its leaders were in no doubt that they required huge booty as a reward for the victory they anticipated. Bethmann Hollweg drafted a personal list of demands on 9 September 1914, when Berlin saw victory within its grasp. ‘The aim of the war,’ he wrote, ‘is to provide us with [security] guarantees, from east to west, for the foreseeable future, through the enfeeblement of our adversaries.’
France was to cede to Germany the Briey iron deposits; Belfort; a coastal strip from Dunkirk to Boulogne; the western slope of the Vosges mountains. Her strategic fortresses were to be demolished. Just as after 1870, cash reparations would be exacted sufficient to ensure that ‘France is incapable of spending considerable sums on armaments for the next eighteen to twenty years’. Elsewhere, Luxembourg would be annexed outright; Belgium and Holland transformed into vassal states; Russia’s borders drastically shrunken; a vast colonial empire created in central Africa; a German economic union extending from Scandinavia to Turkey.