When it began

Posted by Helen Monday, December 16, 2013 ,

As we approach a year that will be full of contentious and paralyzingly dull books, articles, celebrations, analyses and other suchlike events of the First World War (indeed, the process has started already) I feel it appropriate that I have just finished reading Marina Soroka's extraordinarily detailed account of the  last Russian Imperial Ambassador's career in London.

Count Benckendorff was an interesting person and I shall be writing more about him but first some paragraphs about the beginning of the war that was not supposed to happen. This is what Dr Soroka writes (pp. 258 - 259)

No one as yet had blamed the war on "the old diplomacy". In fact, no one had ever blamed diplomats for wars, for it was common knowledge in Europe that governments led nations into wars for various reasons, some honourable and some not, but diplomats patched up the quarrels which governments started and armies fought. Diplomats were the most civilized and pacific representatives of their nations.

In the summer of 1914 they had not done anything different from what they had always done in crises, and their responsibility for what happened was no greater than for the Crimean war or the Franco-Prussian war or the Italo-Turkish war. During the Anglo-Boer war there was a moment, in 1900, when Germany, Russia and France seemed to be on the verge of intervening to make Britain sign peace, But, as a French government official wrote: strategic interests, humanitarian considerations and public opinion sympathetic to the Boers failed to outweigh the three powers' political interests, prudence and expediency. Much as their public opinion sympathized with the Boers, the governments backed away from a confrontation, resigning themselves to the fact that "England will swallow the two poor nations without being disturbed or distracted". [Abel Combareieu] A major conflict was avoided.

In July 1914 the inability to think beyond the status and strategy considerations deprived the European cabinets of real alternatives and diplomacy  was pushed aside while the military advised the heads of governments. When the unforeseen duration and the scope of the war became clear the nations fell on their governments, which sought the most plausible scapegoats and deftly passed the blame on to the diplomats. By 1918 the "old diplomacy", roundly condemned for its undemocratic, secretive and inefficient character, had been demoted to the rank of a handmaiden to the pure-minded monarchs, prime ministers and presidents of the powers whose inherently pacific intentions had been so poorly served by their elitist and hawkish foreign offices.
And another myth was born. I may add that the heavy-handed irony of the last sentence is most uncharacteristic of Dr Soroka.


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