What is History?

Television documentaries can be a wonderful way of learning about history but sometimes you need to be careful about assuming you are being given the facts. A documentary is often angled to suit a particular premise and anything that doesn’t quite fit is missed out or glossed over. Still, that’s not simply a practice of television documentary makers. I think we all do it!


A while back during the lead-up to the commemoration of the centenary of the First World War, a programme appeared on TV about the “royal cousins” who it was claimed might have prevented war breaking out. The cousins were of course the British king, George V, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. The word “cousins” was stressed at every available opportunity in the commentary and the impression you had was that the close family relationship between these men could and should have stopped the world sinking in the abyss.


One inconvenient fact cleverly avoided in the discussion was that Nicholas II was not a first cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm II; they were only distantly related. Yes, George V was a first cousin of both of them, but one through his father, Edward VII, the other through his mother, Queen Alexandra. Edward VII’s sister was the mother of Wilhelm, and the Danish Queen Alexandra was the sister of Nicholas’s mother, the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna.


However, the Tsar’s wife, Alexandra was a first cousin of Wilhelm II. The Russian people had always disliked her because she was “German”, even though her mother was English and she had spent a lot of time in England after her mother died. She had found life difficult as Tsarina – in part because the hostility of her mother-in-law – and she despised Russian culture, which did little to improve her popularity. However, she was absolutely devoted to her husband, the Tsar, and supported him as absolute monarch, ruling by divine right.


Tsarina Alexandra’s cousin Wilhelm, but not her husband’s cousin

Nicholas may have been all-powerful as a ruler, although he was considered rather a weak man, but the same could not be said of the two other “cousins”. George V was a constitutional monarch and reigned but did not rule, and Wilhelm II was certainly not as powerful as might have liked to think he was. When the ambassador of Austria-Hungary asked him if Germany would support Austria-Hungary if it declared war on Serbia, he replied in the affirmative but added that he would have to consult his Chancellor, Bethman-Hollweg. George V could not say anything at all without consulting his ministers.


So even if they had been all first cousins, or Tsarina Alexandra had been more friendly towards her first cousin, Wilhelm II, it’s unlikely they would have been able to prevent war breaking out. In any case, there was a complicated series of alliances in force that pitted the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary, against France and Russia. That Britain would be drawn in was certainly considered a possibility, even likely. The First World War was a terrible event and we tend to view it as a tragedy that could have been avoided if the main players in the conflict had had more foresight. But it’s fair to say that few people realised it would be so devastating or else perhaps those threatening positions might not have been adopted.


Germany’s Schlieffen Plan to defeat France had existed for a number of years by the time it was put into operation at the beginning of the War. It was activated when France declared war on Germany in support of Russia, with which it had an alliance. But the Plan had clearly envisaged war with France, arguably a defensive one, on the principle that attack is the best form of defence. The German leadership was aware that the French had always been motivated by re-taking the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine lost to Germany in 1870. The Germans thought a surprise attack as envisaged by the Schlieffen Plan would be mean a quick defeat for France and then they could concentrate on Russia.


But the details of this Plan are immaterial. What’s clear is that nobody expected the war to drag on like it did. There was a general belief that it was possible to inflict a decisive blow on another country and thus defeat it in a relatively short time. Germany may have been alone in having a plan like the Schlieffen Plan but similar viewpoints existed in other countries. We view the War now with the benefit of hindsight and think that somebody or some people – the royal “cousins” or whoever – would have wanted to stop it. This is far from true. The Socialist leader in France, Jean Jaurès, was a pacifist and wanted to prevent war but in doing so, he was viewed as unpatriotic and assassinated for his trouble. His was a voice in the wilderness.


There had been a huge military build-up in the years preceding the War. If nobody had intended to use the weapons, what were they for? It was a matter of competition, an arms race, but it certainly suggested considerable belligerence. It seems they were all spoiling for a fight, or at least they wanted to test out their military capability. And yet when the War actually broke out, nothing quite worked out as had been anticipated. Germany did not decisively defeat France, and Austria-Hungary probably even more surprisingly suffered considerable reverses against Serbia. If they had known this, perhaps war could have been avoided. But the point is, nobody did know how things were going to develop over the four years. So there’s little point in speculating about who could have or would have prevented the War.


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