Sir Edward Grey on the Cause of the War and the Peace Conditions

By Sir Edward Grey
(British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs through Edward Price Bell of the Chicago News)

[The New York Times/Current History, June 1916]

Prussian tyranny over Western Europe, including these islands, our people will not stand. The pledges given by Mr. Asquith as regards the restoration of Belgium and Serbia shall be kept. We have signed a pact to make peace only in concert with our allies. This pact, I need not say, we shall honor strictly and to the end." Thus spoke Sir Edward Grey. He continued:

"What we and our allies are fighting for is a free Europe. We want Europe free not only from the domination of one nationality by another, but from hectoring diplomacy and the peril of war; free from the constant rattling of the sword in the scabbard, and from the perpetual talk of shining armor and war lords.

"In fact, we feel that we are fighting for equal rights, for law, justice, and peace, and for civilization throughout the world, as against brute force, which knows no restraint and no mercy."

"What do you mean by the destruction of Prussian militarism?" was asked.

"What Prussia proposes as we understand her," replied Sir Edward, "is Prussian supremacy. She proposes a Europe modeled and ruled by Prussia. She is to dispose of the liberties of her neighbors and of us all.

"We say that life on these terms is intolerable. This also is what France, Italy, and Russia say. We are not only fighting Prussia's attempt to do in this instance to all Europe what she did to non-Prussian Germany, but we are fighting the German idea of the wholesomeness, almost desirability, of ever recurrent war. Prussia under Bismarck deliberately and admittedly made three wars.

" We want settled peace throughout Europe which will be a guarantee against aggressive war. Germany's philosophy is that settled peace spells disintegration, degeneracy, and the sacrifice of the heroic qualities in the human character. Such philosophy, if it is to survive as a practical force, means eternal apprehension and unrest. It means ever-increasing armaments. It means arresting the development of mankind along the lines of culture and humanity.

"We are fighting this idea. We do not believe in war as the preferable method of settling disputes between nations. When nations cannot see eye to eye, when they quarrel, when there is a threat of war, we believe that the controversy should be settled by methods other than those of war.

"Such other methods are always successful when there is good-will and no aggressive spirit. We believe in negotiation. We have faith in international conferences. We proposed a conference before this war broke out. We urged Germany to agree to a conference. Germany declined to do so.

"Then I requested Germany to select some form of mediation—some method of her own for a peaceful settlement. She would not come forward with any such suggestion. Then the Emperor of Russia proposed to Germany to send the dispute to the tribunal at The Hague. There was no response.

"Our proposal of a conference was rejected by Germany. Russia, France, and Italy all accepted it. Our proposal that Germany suggest some means of peaceful settlement met with no success, nor did the Czar's proposal. No impartial judgment of any kind was to be permitted to enter. It was a case of Europe submitting to the Teutonic will or going to war.

"If the conference in London in the Balkan crisis of 1912-13 had been worked to the disadvantage of Germany or her allies, the German reluctance for a conference in 1914 would have been intelligible, but no more convincing pledge of fair play and a single-minded desire for a fair settlement than the conduct of that conference in London has ever been given.

"And in 1914, after Serbia had accepted nine-tenths of Austria's demands, a settlement of the outstanding questions would have been easy. Russia ordered no general mobilization till Germany had refused the conference and till German preparations for war were far ahead of Russia's. Germany declared war on Russia when Austria was showing every disposition to come to terms, and Germany was in fact at war with Russia four or five days before Austria was, though the quarrel at that time was one that primarily concerned Austria and not Germany.

"These two methods of settling international disputes—the method of negotiation and the method of war—I ask you to consider in the light of this struggle. Do we not see the disaster of the war method conclusively shown?

"How much better would have been a conference or a reference to The Hague in 1914 than what has happened since industry and commerce have been dislocated; the burdens of life heavily increased, millions of men slain, maimed, or blinded; international hatred deepened and intensified, and the very fabric of civilization menaced? These have come from the war method.

"The conference we proposed, or The Hague reference proposed by the Czar, would have settled the quarrel in a little time. I think a conference would have settled it in a week, and all these calamities would have been averted. Moreover a thing of vast importance we should have gone a long way toward laying the foundations of international peace."

"Do you think the neutrals ever will be able to help toward peace?" he was asked.

"The injustice done by the war has got to be set right. The Allies can tolerate no peace that leaves the wrongs of this war unredressed. When persons come to me with pacific counsels I think they should tell me what sort of peace they have in mind. They should let me know on which side they stand, for the opponents do not agree. If they think, for example, that Belgium was innocent of offense, that she has been unspeakably wronged, that she should be set up again by those who threw her down, then it seems to me that they should say so. Peace counsels that are purely abstract and make no attempt to discriminate between the rights and wrongs of this war are ineffective, if not irrelevant."

Sir Edward was reminded that desire for conquest, lust for revenge, and jealousy of an economic competitor in the world market were suggested by Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg as the three driving forces of the "coalition against Germany before the war."


"There was no coalition against Germany before the war," answered Sir Edward. "Germany knew there was no coalition against her. We had assured her in the most formal and categorical way that in no circumstances should we be a party to any aggression against her. She wanted us to pledge ourselves to unconditional neutrality, wanted us to declare that, no matter what she did on the Continent, we should not interfere.

"It is true that she always referred to a possible war being forced on her. The trouble was that she gave us no test of a war forced on her. She remained free to claim that any war was forced on her. Now she claims that this war was forced on her. I need hardly remind you that Italy, the third member of the Triple Alliance, at the outset definitely refused to accept that view of it.

"No one thought of attacking Germany. There was not a measure taken by any power that was not purely defensive. The German preparations were for attack and were far ahead of the others on the Continent."

"You have observed the German Chancellor's recent reference to Belgium as a bulwark," the interviewer suggested.

"Belgium was a bulwark," answered Sir Edward. "Defensive of Germany, of France, and of European peace. This bulwark, until Germany decided to make war, was in no danger from any quarter. In April, 1913, we had given a renewed assurance to Belgium to respect her neutrality. When war threatened, we asked France if she would adhere to her pledge to respect the neutrality of Belgium and she said 'yes.' We asked Germany the same question, and she declined to answer. Immediately afterward, in scorn of her signature, she assaulted and destroyed the bulwark.

"Von Bethmann Hollweg acknowledged the wrong, pleading that necessity knows no law, and promised that as soon as Germany's military aims were realized she would restore Belgium. Now he says there can be no status quo ante either in the east or the west. In other words, Belgium's independence is gone as Serbia's and Montenegro's independence is gone unless the Allies set it up again.

"To all this we say to Germany: 'Recognize the principle urged by lovers of freedom everywhere and give to the nationalities of Europe real freedom, not the so-called freedom doled out to subject peoples by Prussian tyranny, and make reparation as far as it can be made for the wrong done.'"

"Would you mind indicating the object of Britain's rapprochements in recent years," Sir Edward was asked.

"Good relations and an end to quarrels with other powers. Going far back we had working relations with the Triple Alliance, but we were habitually in friction with France or Russia. Again and again it brought us to the verge of war, and so we decided to come to an arrangement with France and then with Russia, not with any hostile intent toward Germany or any other power, but wholly to pave the way to permanent peace. So, instead of preparing for war, as Germany asserts without a vestige of truth in support of the assertion, we were endeavoring to avoid war, and German statesmen knew we were endeavoring to avoid war and not to make it."


"German statesmen assert that England is the only real obstacle to peace," the interviewer remarked.

"Nobody wants peace more than we want it, but we want a peace that does justice and a peace that re-establishes respect for the public law of the world.

"Presumably Germany would like the neutrals to think that we are applying pressure to keep France, Russia, and Italy in the war. We are not. France, Russia, and Italy need no urging to keep them in the war. They know why they are in the war. They know they are in it to preserve everything that is precious to nationality. It is this knowledge which makes them determined and unconquerable.

"It is impossible for me to express to you our admiration for the achievements of our associates in this struggle. And as is the measure of our admiration, so also will be the measure of our contribution to the common cause.

"There are two statements that come from German sources: One is that we are preventing the Allies from making peace; this goes to the address of the neutrals. The other is that we are advocating a separate peace with the Allies. This goes to the address of one or other of the Allies. Each statement is absolutely untrue."

"You have noted that Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg affirms that Britain wants to destroy united and free Germany."

"We never were smitten with any such madness," answered Sir Edward. "We want nothing of the sort, and von Bethmann Hollweg knows that we want nothing of the sort. We should be glad to see the German people as free as we ourselves want to be free, and as we want the other nationalities of Europe and of the world to be free.

"It belongs to the rudiments of political science. It is abundantly taught by history that you cannot enslave a people and make a success of the job; that you cannot kill a people's soul by foreign despotism and brutality. We aspire to embark upon no such course of folly and futility toward another nation. We believe that the German people, when once the dreams of world empire cherished by Pan-Germanism are brought to naught, will insist upon the control of its Government. And in this lies the hope of a secure freedom and national independence in Europe, for a Prussian militarism has plotted war to take place at a chosen date in the future."


In the midst of war Sir Edward's great vision remains a vision of peace not a peace vulnerable to political and militarist intrigue and ambition, but a peace secured by a unified and armed purpose of civilization. Long before the war Sir Edward hoped for a league of nations that would be united, quick and instant to prevent, and, if need be, punish violations of international treaties of public right and of national independence, and would say to the nations that came forward with grievances and claims:

"Put them before an impartial tribunal; subject your claims to the test of law or the judgment of impartial men. If you can win at this bar you will get what you want; if you cannot, you shall not have what you want; and if you start war we shall adjudge you the common enemy of humanity and treat you accordingly. As footpads, burglars, and incendiaries are suppressed in a community, so those who would commit these crimes, and incalculably more than these crimes, will be suppressed among the nations.

"Unless mankind learns from this war to avoid war," said Sir Edward in conclusion, "the struggle will have been in vain. Furthermore, it seems to me that over humanity will loom the menace of destruction. The Germans have thrown the door wide open to every form of attack upon human life. The use of poisonous fumes or something akin to them was recommended to our naval and military authorities many years ago and was rejected by them as too horrible for civilized people to use.

"The Germans have come with floating mines in the open seas, threatening belligerents and neutrals equally. They have come with the undiscriminating and murderous Zeppelin, which does military damage only by accident. They have come with the submarine, which destroys neutral and belligerent ships and crews, in scorn alike of law and mercy. They have come upon blameless nations with invasion, incendiarism, and confiscation. They have come with poisonous gases and liquid fire. All their scientific genius has been dedicated to wiping out human life. They have forced these things into general use in the war.

"If the world cannot organize against war; if war must go on, then all the nations can protect themselves henceforth only by using whatever destructive agencies they can invent, till the resources and inventions of science end by destroying the humanity they were meant to preserve. The Germans assert that their culture is so extraordinarily superior that it gives them a moral right to impose it upon the rest of the world by force. Will the outstanding contribution of the 'Kultur,' disclosed in this war, be such as to lead to wholesale extermination?

"The Prussian authorities apparently have but one idea of peace an iron peace imposed on other nations by German supremacy. They do not understand that free men and free nations will rather die than submit to that ambition, and that there can be no end to the war till that aim is defeated and renounced."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —


A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury