Britain’s 20th century wars

The British Empire and the Fifty Years War

by Gwydion M. Williams

Britain, France and Tsarist Russia were lined up against Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1914.  Britain, France and Poland were lined up against Greater Germany in 1939.  Adolph Hitler probably saw it as the same war begun again, except that he’d cleverly postponed the anti-Russian war for a few years, until he could win in the west.  He had an admiration for the English, but also he wanted to establish German supremacy over England, reversing the outcome of the 1914 war before he might get conciliatory.  The Soviet Union might be the great ideological enemy, but with Britain and France it was personal.

But why was it personal?  How was Germany pushed into such an odd state that a vagabond artist could become its apparent saviour?  How did Britain in 1914 get the notion that ‘Prussia’ was the hereditary enemy?

If you tallied up the wars fought by Britain before 1914, Britain was at war with Sweden or Denmark more often than it was at war with Prussia.  I’m far from sure you’d even find a major battle in which the two country’s troops were on opposite sides.  In wider European wars. they were allies rather more often than they were enemies.  There had never been the sort of bitterness that there was between Britain and Spain, Britain and France, France and the small German states that France overran in the 17th and 18th centuries, France and Prussia after Prussia reversed the balance in 1870-71.

Prussia was Britain’s key ally in the Seven Years War, which gave Britain control of India and North America.  In the struggles against the Jacobins and then Napoleon, Spain changed sides twice, Russia switched four times and the USA started its own anti-British war in 1812.  Meantime Prussia was normally an ally, technically an enemy after their massive defeat at the Battle of Jena, but back again as the key supporter at Waterloo.

Nothing in British history explains the 20th century notion of Prussia or Germany as a traditional foe—despite which, everyone believed it.  Even George Orwell seems to have accepted it: he could ridicule other people switching sides and rewriting history, but was unable to notice it when his own country did it.

Not only did Britain in the 1900s suddenly decide that its old ally Prussia was something monstrous: Britain also reversed this position twice between the two World Wars, feeding Hitler concessions of the sort that they had refused to the previous democratic governments of Germany.

Quintin Hogg, embarrassed after World War Two at having been the ‘pro-appeasement’ candidate in a once-famous Oxford by-election in 1938, was good enough to document how many Tories then still saw Hitler’s Germany as a ‘friendly power’.  You can find this detailed in ‘A Sparrow’s Flight’, his modest second autobiography.  You can find similar evidence in dozens of other places and it is really very hard to miss.  It takes astonishing determination by our current crop of ‘Post-Truthful’ historians to avoid it, and Hogg himself gets erased from history in the process—he is absent from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, unlike his worthy but much less important grandfather, also called Quintin Hogg.

The first half of the 20th century was not an a continuous struggle against Germany.  ‘Jingoism’ that was initially anti-Russian.  Russia, Germany, France and the USA were all plausible threats to the global hegemony of the British Empire.  The trick was to set them fighting each other—but it was a trick the USA played much better.  As indeed did the Soviet Union under Stalin, but from Khrushchev onwards they blundered their way into weakness.  This gave a Cold War victory to the USA: Britain’s own chances as an independent global power had perished in the 1940s.

The roots of the two World Wars go back at least as far as Britain’s ‘Boer War’.  It was the British Empire that sanctified the idea of applying the same methods to white people that all of the empires had been applying to non-whites.  That’s where the name and idea of ‘Concentration Camps’ comes from.  There was nothing as systematically brutal as Hitler’s system, but Britain contributed a lot to the long spiral downwards into wars waged on helpless non-combatants.

What was the issue?  ‘German expansion’ is the normal British explanation, supposedly a challenge that had been building up since 1871.  But what had this to do with the Boers?  Why was Tsarist Russia the original target of ‘jingoism’?  Why did Britain make a treaty with Japan, giving Japan the green light to attack Russia and seize a chunk of China?  Why did Britain refuse to partition Germany in 1919, as France desired?  Why was Britain quick to restore West Germany as an ally when the Cold War started?

If you see it as a 50-year struggle to save Britain’s global hegemony, then it makes much more sense.  Germany was only one threat.  Using Hitler’s Germany against World Communism was no more bizarre than the USA using Islamists against the Soviet Union, without thought of the possible ‘blowback’ until it hit them full in the face on 9/11.

The Great War is blamed on ‘Prussian Militarism’—which had done little between 1871 and 1914, a few small colonial wars.  Between 1899 and 1914, the British Empire had broken the two independent Dutch republics in South Africa and invaded Tibet.  Britain also made a treaty with Japan that encouraged the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5.  This paved the way for the ‘Triple Entente’ that linked France, Russia and Britain in 1907.  Covertly, a clique within the British ruling class made additional secret arrangements with France that encouraged the French to think a war with Germany was winnable.

Between 1899 and 1949, Russia was three times the main enemy of Britain and twice a major ally.  The first two instances under Tsarism, the last three under Bolshevism.  Just what principle was being upheld?

Was it about ‘extending liberal-democracy?  In Russia, a brief interlude of liberal-democracy in 1917 was ruined by Britain’s insistence that the war must continue.  Both the German Empire and Austria-Hungary had been liberalising and extending parliamentary power up until 1914.  The Versailles Peace, inflation and the Wall Street Crash discredited the Weimar Republic, composed of people who were quite close to the British and US viewpoint.  They agreed an armistice in 1918, at a time when Germany faced defeat but had not actually been beaten or invaded.  Germans thought they were getting a peace on the basis of President Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’.  Instead Britain with US support maintained a starvation-causing blockade until Germany agreed to be treated as defeated and guilty.

Short-sighted?  Only if you suppose that Britain and the USA in the 1910s were aiming at the world that emerged in the 1950s, or maybe the 1990s.  The alternative it to suppose that Britain’s ruling class wanted to keep up Britain’s hegemony after Britain lost the huge industrial advantage that the Victorians had inherited from the Georgians.

It was not a ‘Thirty-One Years War’, an idea which I’d briefly found plausible.  The two World Wars were not at all the same.  In 1914, the Kaiser’s Germany in 1914 was maybe closer to the 1950s world-order than the British Empire; they had a better welfare system and a state-supported system of science that Britain and the USA only acquired much later.  Hitler was something else; Hitler moved a long way in a completely different direction.  The Kaiser’s Germany was happy with the status quo and got dragged into war by a chain of alliances; Hitler continuously upset the status quo, with each concession becoming the basis for a fresh demand.  The USA declared war on the Kaiser’s Germany; Hitler declared war on the USA after Pearl Harbour, despite Japan’s failure to join in his war against the Soviet Union.

Up until 1914, the Kaiser and the Austro-Hungarian Emperor had mostly defused and damped down the widespread hostility to Jews existing in their realms.  Whereas the final Tsar can at best be said to have done nothing to discourage the general anti-Jewish policies of the Russian state.  France had had the anti-Jewish Dreyfus affair, an unresolved issue until the heirs of the anti-Dreyfus faction sided with Hitler after his conquest of France.

In World War One, Jews were relatively safe under German rule, whereas advances by the Tsar’s army was accompanied by massacres and looting that shocked even those who had no fondness for Jews.  (See Manus O’Riordan’s James Connolly Re-Assessed for more details – it comes into the issue because there were Jewish refugees in Ireland.  And because crude anti-Jewish sentiments were part of British patriotic fervour at the time, notwithstanding the patriotic views and actions of most British Jews.)

The Boer War of 1899-1902 started a chain of events that led on to the 1914 war.  It was an innovation in British politics, an attempt to conquer a white nation.  It also indicated an ambition to spread the Empire further, with no obvious limits.  And though it was much more costly than expected, the ruling class failed to draw the obvious lesson.  Wars are usually uncontrollable, and they should have suspected that the next war they fought might also be much worse than the previous norm.

The British Empire found itself isolated in the Boer War, and so made a treaty with Japan in 1902.  It was predictable that Japan would go to war with Russia once it had the British Empire as its ‘roof’ (to borrow a phrase from the vocabulary of post-Soviet Russian gangsterism).  Japan wanted to conquer China and had defeated China in 1895, but been balked by the ‘Triple Intervention’ of Russia, France and Germany, with Britain standing neutral at the time.  Japan fought the war but Russia occupied the Liaodong Peninsula and fortifed ‘Port Arthur’, the immediate prize that Japan had been after.  ‘Port Arthur’ is properly Lushun city or Lushunkou, and the war of 1904-5 gave back Japan its foothold in Manchuria.  It also discrediting Tsarism and sparked the revolution of 1905, which paved the way for the successful revolution of 1917.

Japan’s defeat of Russia also sent a signal to East Asians – the ‘yellow races’ were not in fact inferior to whites, not if they modernised determinedly.  The process started in 1899 and culminated half a century later in 1949, with Mao Zedung restoring functional independence to an ancient civilisation.  Mao had celebrated Japan’s victory back in 1905, when they seemed like champions of Asian values.  Their later policies played into his hands: he was competant to fight them and the Kuomintang were not.  The Kuomintang were not proper nationalists or modernisers: they couldn’t even run a useful airforce, having to rely on US pilots during the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45.

1949 was the start of a new era, setting a pattern that didn’t shift enormously until the Soviet collapse in 1989.  The substantive end of Britain’s attempt to remain a major world power had happened in 1947, when its Indian empire was abandoned.  Without India, the rest of the Empire made much less sense, though winding it up was slow and costly.  1949 saw the first Soviet atomic bomb, the foundation of NATO and a general hardening of the USA’s anti-Soviet position.

In 1945 the Cold War was not inevitable: many in the USA had seen themselves as occupying the middle ground between radical Russia and Europe’s old colonial empires with their privilaged elites.  But Europe’s privilaged elites were scared of both the Soviets and their own people, and most of them capitulated to US values.

Meantime the Soviets came to be seen as more of a rival to the USA’s global misson.  The defeat of the Kuomintang ended the US dream of remaking China in its own image.  Mao’s victory was seen (wrongly) as a Russian expansion into the USA’s sphere.  It was a major contributor to ‘McCarthyism’ – a much wider purge of US leftists that included the Kennedy brothers as major persecutors.  Blame for the purge was later dumped on the loud-mouthed Senator Joe McCarthy, who was no innocent but also not a political ‘heavyweight’.

A whole series of events began with the Boer War and the subsequent Russo-Japanese War, that then flowed into both world wars, regardless of West European rivalries.  Defeated by Japan, Russia turned back from Asia, ceased to be a possible threat to British India.  Russia once again became a competitor with Austria-Hungary for control of the Balkans. Republican France had earlier made an unlikely alliance with Tsarist Russia, with no logic except a view of Germany as an enemy.  A clique within Britain began preparing for a world war in which they would suddenly and unexpectedly join the anti-German side.  The dubious neutrality of Belgium was neither affirmed or rejected: the clique probably wanted to keep the issue as a useful pretext for war.

The war happened in 1914 thanks to drift and indecision and factions in each country that did want a war.  The question is not so much why it started, as why it was not ended when it bogged down.  Germany wanted this, but Britain refused it, rather foolishly even from a selfish imperial viewpoint.  An indecisive War of 1914 might have preserved the status quo for many more decades.  A sensible calculation would have been that this was best for Britain, since Britain no longer had the industrial dominance it had had in the early-to-mid 19th century.

The anti-German war was fought, and in the end broke Germany.  But only thanks to the USA, and at a gigantic cost to Britain, shortening the life of the Empire.  Also it left France too strong, by British reckoning.  At Versailles, Germany was kept as a potential foe of France, a guarantee that France would never feel safe without Britain.  Meantime the long-standing Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up and replaced by a set of completely new states, places that had had no independent existence since mediaeval times.  Some sort of ‘Danubian Commonwealth’ would have been much better for the ethnic mix that existing, but it would also have been a substantial state. and the victors maybe preferred to see weakness.  ‘Divide and rule’ – this had been practiced overseas against non-whites all through the 18th and 19th centuries, but in the 20th century these same methods were applied to everyone.

The 1880s were a natural hiatus.  The most significant war was the First Anglo-Boer War, which ended with the British Empire accepting defeat.  Britain also completed its conquest of Burma (Third Anglo-Burmese War), but this could be seen as rounding off the Empire.  Even the Second Anglo-Boer War could be seen as a ‘rounding-off’ of an empire that could then be content to keep what it had.  But with both Germany and the USA catching up with British industry, to have stopped would have meant a long, slow but inevitable decline.

Britain had written the rules of World Trade, but Britain was losing the game.  Rather, the advantage gained in the first few decades of Industrial Revolution was being eroded.  Britain had India, potentially the basis for a gigantic English-speaking empire, but only if Britain would allow India to modernise in the way it has since independence.  Or as the Republic of India has managed: Pakistan and Bangladesh remain a mess.  But developing India was unlikely to happen without accepting that at least some Hindus and Muslims should join the white elite.  That was not acceptable in Britain until much later, until after the Empire had gone, in fact.  Racial hierarchies died hard: it was traditional for the captain of the West Indian cricket team to be white.  It was only in the early 1960s that Frank Worrell became the first black cricketer to captain the West Indies cricket team for an entire series.  The brown peoples of India were viewed as slightly higher in the racial hierarchy, but still not fit to be on a level with even the lowest whites.

Gandhi and other Indian nationalists felt entirely neutral during the Second World War.  They were non-citizens in their own land, dominated by a foreign elite whose children were educated in Latin, Greek and possibly Hebrew, with very few bothering to learn ‘Hindustani’, the language of the majority people of the global British Empire.

Smashing Germany in 1918 was not enough—it left France dangerously strong, in the British view.  Germany had only been unified since 1871 and might have accepted a division into East, West and South.  Instead Germany was left intact but insulted, with ethnic-German territories given to the newly created states in Eastern Europe.  Democratic Germany was insulted and oppressed, but when Hitler took over, he was allowed to overturn treaties that no one felt like dying for.  The hope was that Germany would destroy Soviet Russia—there was also a reluctance to fight another war, but the majority of the nation supported the Spanish Republic, and the chance to demoralise and tame Fascism in Spain was missed.

In 1938, Britons were unhappy at a war to defend Czechoslovakia, but were ready to fight when Hitler refused a reasonable compromise, added new demands when his original terms were met.  Hitler’s generals were very unhappy at the notion of having to fight their way into Czechoslovakia, across a well-defended mountain barrier.  Hitler assured them that they would not need to, and was proved right.  Chamberlain gave Hitler exactly what he wanted.

In 1939, Hitler went too far, annexing the Czech lands after allowing the Slovaks to secede.  Chamberlain had public support in giving a guarantee to Poland, but a majority of Britons also wanted a treaty with the Soviet Union.  If this were bad for the Baltic Republics, they too were ‘far-away states of which we know little’, and in the event were to suffer much more.  Chamberlain’s government delayed and delayed on the idea of a Soviet alliance.  There was every reason for Stalin to think that they were stalling until Hitler should compromise and the Soviet Union could be attacked by a unified block of Britain, France, Germany and Poland.  This probably was the intention in ruling-class circles.  What they’d overlooked was that Hitler and Stalin could both gain a lot by a temporary non-aggression pact.

Britain was fighting for a continued British hegemony.  Both Hitler and Stalin wanted this hegemony overthrow, after which they could fight over the prize.  Rather, they could exhaust each other until the USA chose to join the fray, but that is another story.  A story involving Japan, whose ambitions in China had been re-started by Britain after the Boer War.  Roosevelt might not have been able to get the USA involved in the World War without the Japanese attacking him, and the Japanese would not have attacked if he had not been undermining their war in China.  Imperial Japan also went outside the role that Britain had planned for them, attacking and discrediting the European empires.  Of course they also treating their fellow Asians very badly: they have still not been forgiven in the territories they briefly occupied.

The British Empire was not sustainable after the fall of Singapore – the humiliatingly quick loss of what had been supposed to be an enormous stronghold.  Singapore fell in a week to the Japanese, who before the war were rated no higher than the Italians, maybe below them.  That was in February 1942, and 1942 also saw the prolonged defence of Stalingrad, beginning in June and ending with a massive German defeat in January-February 1943.  Driving back Rommel at El ‘Alamein in October 1942 was a small consolation for Britain: Rommel was outnumbered and dependent on a vulnerable supply line across the Mediterranean.  The wonder was that Rommel had achieved so much, not that he was eventually defeated by much bigger British forces.

If the British Empire was doomed after 1942, it could still have staggered on for a couple more decades, as the French Empire did, ending substantively with the withdrawal from Algeria in 1962.  Britain’s Labour Government of 1945-51 made an imperfect job of giving independence to the Indian subcontinent, but mostly because of the division between Hindu and Muslim, encouraged by die-hard colonialists in previous decades, but also reflecting a basic split in the diverse territories of the British Indian Empire.  Muslims had tended to be rulers and the Mughul Empire was their realm, but democracy must give power to the Hindu majority.  The British rulers of India helped induce a split with separate voting lists for Muslims, but something of the sort would have been likely regardless.  British democracy expressed through the Labour Party set India free.

And that was the end of the Fifty-Years War, orchestrated by the British ruling class but repeatedly damaging their interests.  Like losing gamblers, they did not learn from their errors, but instead repeated them until their own people had had enough.

Macmillan in the 1960s remembered the real history of his times and had the sense to keep Britain out of the Vietnam War.  Thatcher and Blair believe a fairy-tail version of that same history and dragged us into the needless wars in Iraq.

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