Why World War I Was Britain’s Fault | Avoiding the British Empire 5

With today’s video we begin to get into the meat of it… This Avoiding the British Empire series does, in fact, have a point that it is getting to, beyond clever comparisons. This video represents the first half of the main thesis. Considering what we now know about Britain’s power in the 19th century, and how much less power everybody else had… one conclusion becomes inescapable:

World War I was Britain’s fault. I am already getting some pretty shell shocked comments on the video, but not many who dispute the point. I’d love to hear what you think!

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Video Transcript after the jump…

So if you ask people in the US and Britain who started World War I, the answer will be obvious. Germany started it. They’re the bad guys. Because Hitler! Well the weird thing about Hitler is that he wasn’t in charge of Germany until the 1930s, and World War One started back in 1914. Failed painters from Austria were not in fact making decisions for the German Empire back then.

In researching my book on the British Empire, I noticed that there is something much more important about Germany in this period than Hitler. It’s the fact that at the beginning of the period of British world dominance in 1815, Germany didn’t exist. It was an unwieldy collection of 39 different States, many of whom hated each other. It was Prussia, a big state to the North that would lead the way to German unification in 1871. Prussia owed its survival, its growing borders, and it’s eventual success to British subsidies and protection.

Most histories of the first world war get super bogged down in the months leading up to it, or at best the decade or so before it. Even those studies are now conceding that it’s not as straightforward as we used to think it was. Yeah the German Kaiser was a prick, but it turns out that there was a lot of guilt to go around.

Recent books like Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers emphasize that the Serbian government the Allies were defending really did sponsor the assassination of that Austrian Archduke. And it wasn’t just the Germans who were looking for a war. In the first flush of mass literacy and hyper nationalism leaders in every European country really thought war was good and glorious and that it could serve their ends.

So even the studies focused on the direct lead up to the war aren’t as anti German as they used to be. But if you open your focus to the century before the war the country with the most war guilt becomes starkly clear. It was Britain’s choices more than anyone else’s that led to war. First off, Britain basically built the modern German state, protecting and promoting Prussia at every turn.

Prussia survived the 1700s and the Napoleonic wars mostly as a heavily subsidized British client. In the aftermath of those wars, Britain made sure Prussia got the Rhineland far to the west of their traditional territory, setting up the next century of French German rivalry. The Rhineland also ended up being one of the cores of industrial Germany.

In 1815 this move made sense, the Prussians had always been a weapon against France, but as the century wore on, and France became more and more of a 2nd class power, the British moves made less and less sense. They kept focusing on the nonexistent threats from the Russians and French, while building up the Germans.

If you have studied world war one, you know that it was Germany’s violation of the sacred neutrality of Belgium that convinced the British to join World War One. What isn’t often noted is that that sacred Belgian sovereignty existed because the British created it with their gun boats in 1831, carving it out of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The British created a trap for themselves, or a red line, if you will, that got them into the war that ended their empire.

During the first half of the 1800s, the British had an excellent tool for informal empire management in Europe. The Russians. The fanatically counter revolutionary Tsars were bad for European liberals, but they also kept a lid on Nationalism. There was no way the Prussians with a P could found a centralized German state, with the Russians playing Euro cop. It was an amazing deal for the British. So what did the British do in the 1850s? They invaded Russia.

The Crimean war was the only great power war Britain was involved in between 1815 and 1914. Before the first world war replaced it in popular consciousness by being even worse, Crimea was mostly known for idiocy mismanagement, and horrific waste. The Russians had already been defeated by the Ottomans, so the French and British invaded Russia, and beat the Russians, though only in territory within easy reach of the sea. What isn’t focused on enough is the way that the Crimean war ended Russian influence in Europe for the crucial decades that Prussia needed to found Germany. There is a lot more to this story, but you will have to buy the book to find out more about the ways Britain was essential to the founding of a unified Germany.

After the German empire was created in 1871 you would think that British leaders would have focused on managing that vital relationship. Nope. They spent most of the next 40 years continuing to worry about nonexistent threats from France and Russia. They focused on protecting an Empire that didn’t need protecting, and ruined their relationship with the European natives that really mattered, the Germans.

In the early years of the 20th century, the British made themselves very unpopular in Europe by briefly picking on some white Africans called the Boers. Strangely the endless crimes the British committed against black Africans weren’t a problem for Europeans. Regardless the expensive victory against the Boers made the British feel insecure about the empire, so they formed diplomatic relationships with the French and Russians that quite justifiably made the Germans feel insecure, eventually leading to war.

So looked at in a small frame, World War One is hard to blame on anyone in particular. Every European country was led by bloodthirsty aristocratic scum, and tragedy happens when the people in charge are idiots. But if you zoom the frame out to look at the prior century it becomes clear that it’s the British who were the most responsible. They ran the world before 1914, and they managed the European part of it criminally badly. It’s a cautionary tale the United States should pay much more attention to.

If you want to learn more about this check out chapter 6 of my book Avoiding the British Empire, which tells the whole sorry tale. And come back next time, when we will begin to lay out how badly the US Empire is failing to learn from Britain’s mistakes.