The Future of Anglo-German Rivalry

By Bertrand Russell

[The Atlantic Monthly Magazine, April 1915]

If the Germans are to be believed, their only implacable and unappeasable enmity in the war is against England.

Toward France they express a kind of brutal, contemptuous liking. As providing opportunities for military glory in 1870 and again last August, France has deserved well of the Fatherland. Toward Russia they have the tolerance of merely momentary hostility, with the consciousness that the grounds of quarrel are finite and capable of adjustment. But toward England they express a hatred which nothing can satisfy except the utter destruction of England's power. Portugal, Spain, Holland, were once great maritime and colonial empires, but they are fallen from their high estate; so England is to fall, if Germany in its present mood is to have its way.

This attitude is not confined to journalists or the thoughtless multitude; it is to be found equally in the deliberate writings of learned men. Very instructive from this point of view is an article by the historian Eduard Meyer, in the Italian periodical Scientia, on England's war against Germany and the problems of the future.* [*'Englands Krieg gegen Deutschland und die Probleme der Zukunft'; March, 1915, pp. 286-300.] The erudite professor, following Mommsen, considers Germany as the analogue of Rome and England as the analogue of Carthage. He hardly hopes for a decisive victory now, but looks forward to a succession of conflicts like the Punic Wars, ending, we are to suppose, in an equally final triumph. 'Especially in America,' he says, 'but also in Europe, above all in the neutral countries, there are not a few well-meaning people who believe that this tremendous war will be the last for a long time to come, that a new era of peaceful development and of harmonious international peace will follow. I regard these views as a Utopian dream. Their realization could be hoped for only in case we should succeed in really casting England to the ground, breaking her maritime dominion, and thereby conquering the freedom of the seas, and at the same time in so controlling our other enemies that they would lose for ever the desire to attack us again. But so high our hopes can hardly rise; it seems far more probable that we shall have to be content with much less, even if we remain victorious to the end. But then, so far as one can foresee, this peace will only be a short truce; England will use the first opportunity of beginning the fight again, better prepared, at the head of a new coalition if not of the old one, and a long series of difficult and bloody wars will follow, until at last the definite decision is obtained.' He adds that modern civilization, from now on, is to decline, as ancient civilization declined; that the era of attempts at international friendship is definitely past, and that 'the characteristic of the next century will be inconquerable opposition and embittered hate between England and Germany.'

Very similar sentiments are expressed by English professors, except that their military hopes are less modest, and they expect to achieve in this war that crushing victory which, like Eduard Meyer, they regard as the only possible road to a permanent peace. They hope, at any rate, to crush German militarism, and Professor Meyer assures us that 'whoever intends to destroy German militarism must destroy the German nation.'

Are the professors of England and Germany in the right? Is it certain that these two nations will continue to fight and hate each other until one of them is utterly broken? Fortunately, no country consists wholly of professors, not even Germany; and it may be hoped that more sanity is to be found among those who have not been made mad by much learning. For the moment, both countries are wholly blind to their own faults, and utterly fantastic in the crimes which they attribute to the enemy. A vast but shadowy economic conflict has been invented to rationalize their hostility, which in fact is as irrational and instinctive as that of dogs who snarl and fly at each other in the street. The cynic who said, 'Speech has been given us to conceal our thoughts,' might well have added, 'Thought has been given us to conceal our passions from ourselves.' At least I am sure that this is true of thought in war-time.

In this article, I wish to examine, in a neutral spirit, the causes and supposed justifications of Anglo-German enmity, and to suggest ways by which it may be possible hereafter to avoid the appalling consequences contemplated by Professor Meyer.

The first thing that must strike any impartial observer of England and Germany in war-time is their amazing similarity in myth and melodrama. France and Russia each has its myth, for without myth no great national upheaval is possible. But their myths are different from ours, whereas the myths of England and Germany are all but identical. Each believes itself a great peace-loving nation, powerful, but always using its power to further worthy ends. Each believes that the other, with an incredible perfidy inspired by the basest jealousy, suddenly stirred up the war, after many years of careful preparation, military in the one case, diplomatic in the other. Each believes that only the utter humiliation of the other can secure the peace of the world and the ordered progress of civilization. In each, a pacifist minority urges moderation in the use of victory, while yielding to none in the conviction that victory is the indispensable preliminary to any future reconstruction. Each is absolutely confident of victory, and prepared for any sacrifice, however great, in order to secure victory. Each is quite unable to believe that the other is sincere in the opinion which it professes: its own innocence and the other's guilt are as clear as noon-day, and can be denied only by the most abject hypocrisy.

Both cannot be right in these opinions, and a priori it is not likely that either is right. No nation was ever so virtuous as each believes itself, and none was ever so wicked as each believes the other. If these beliefs survive the war, no real peace will be possible. Both nations have concentrated their energies so wholly on making war that they have rendered it almost impossible to make peace. In normal times civilized and humane people find a difficulty in believing that they do well to butcher each other. In order to overcome this feeling, journalists have filled the minds of their readers with such appalling accounts of the enemy's crimes that hatred has come to seem a noble indignation, and it has grown difficult to believe that any of our opponents deserve to live. Yet peace, if it is to be real, must be accompanied by respect, and must bring with it some sense of justice toward rival claims. What these claims are, and what justice demands if they are to be reconciled, must be realized in some degree before the peace, if the peace is to heal the wounds which the war is inflicting.

Apart from accusations of crime connected with the war, what have been the grounds of England's opposition to Germany in recent years?

Far the most important ground has been fear of the German navy, not as it has hitherto been, but as it may become. It is said on the Continent—not only by Germans—that jealousy of Germany's economic development was an equal cause of hostility; but I believe this to be an entire mistake. America's economic development has been quite as remarkable as that of Germany, but it has not produced the slightest ripple of political hostility. The government in power, as free traders, do not believe that the prosperity of one country is economically injurious to that of another, and in this opinion a majority of the nation agree with them. Most Germans think of trade in nationalist terms, but in England this habit is not very common. And whatever may be thought abroad, it is contrary to British political instincts to allow trade rivalry to cause diplomatic opposition—largely, no doubt, because we realize that a nation's trade is not necessarily injured by defeat in war.

But whoever threatens our naval supremacy touches a sensitive nerve, awakening an instinctive movement of self-protection in all classes, even the most uneducated and the least conscious of international complications. When the Germans, with their usual incautious explicitness, made the announcement, 'Our future is on the sea,' most Englishmen felt, almost without conscious thought, that the Germans might as well have announced that their future lay through the death of England's greatness and the starvation of our population. In vain the Germans protested that their navy was purely defensive, and was not intended to be as strong as ours. As we watched the carrying out of their Navy Law, as we realized how the era of dreadnoughts had diminished our superiority, something not far removed from apprehension began to be felt; and in a proud nation apprehension inevitably shows itself in hostility. Because the apprehension was real and deep-seated, the hostility was rather blind and instinctive; although, in the region of conscious thought, the hopes of an understanding were not abandoned, yet in that deeper region out of which effective action springs, the belief in a future conflict had taken root and could no longer be dislodged.

At the same time Germany's growing friendship with Turkey produced uneasiness in our governing classes, with whom the consciousness of Indian problems has become almost as much part of the texture of everyday thought as the need of naval supremacy. Our traditional policy of protecting the Turk, while it had caused untold misery in the Balkans, had been maintained chiefly on account of the Mohammedan population of India. When the Kaiser supplanted us at Constantinople, and announced himself the protector of all Mohammedans, we dreaded the effect on the most warlike races of India; and our dread was not diminished by the Bagdad Railway, with the prospect which it opened of German colonization in Mesopotamia and a German naval base on the Persian Gulf. But this motive, although it affected our government and that small section of the population which is alive to Indian problems, did not, like the challenge to our sea-power, affect all classes or attain the status of a question to be discussed at general elections. Moreover, this whole problem was in its nature capable of diplomatic adjustment by mutual concessions; indeed, we are told that an agreement had almost been concluded when the war broke out.

Let us now try to see the history of the past fifteen years from the German point of view. Before speaking of their supposed grievances, I wish to say that I regard the whole theory out of which they spring as wholly mistaken: I do not believe that it is of any real importance to a nation to possess colonies or to develop either its military or its naval forces beyond the point which is necessary to prevent invasion. This, however, is not the official English view; and the official German view seems, apart from questions of method, merely an echo of the principles by which English policy has been governed for centuries. It is only this similarity—not absolute validity—that I wish to exhibit in stating the German case.

The Germans are commonly regarded as an exceptionally aggressive nation. This is no doubt true of their spirit, but when we come to inquire into their actual acquisitions, we find that in recent years their gains of territory have been insignificant in comparison with those of England, France, and Russia. Since 1900, we have gained the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, we have consolidated our position in Egypt, and we have secured a protectorate over Southern Persia and its oil-wells. The French meanwhile have gained Morocco, and the Russians, though they have lost a small portion of Manchuria, have gained more than half of Persia. The Germans, in the same period, have gained only a not very large or very valuable colony in West Africa.* [* The following figures are not without interest: Total area of colonies: Great Britain 11,429,078 square miles; France 4,512,543; Germany 1,027,820. Increase in area of colonies since 1900: Great Britain 324,500 square miles; Germany 100,820; France 92,180. The British increase consists almost wholly of the Transvaal, the Orange Free State, and the British sphere in Persia. The French increase consists almost wholly of Morocco, less the portion of the Congo ceded to Germany in 1911; and the German increase consists wholly of this portion of the Congo, less a small area in the Cameroons ceded to France in 1911. The Russian sphere in Persia contains 305,000 square miles and 6,400,000 inhabitants. —THE AUTHOR.] Their designs in Morocco and Mesopotamia have been thwarted, largely by England's efforts. Yet they feel that their economic progress and their growing population make the need of colonies far greater for them than for the French.

I am not for a moment denying that we had weighty reasons for our opposition to German expansion, though perhaps weightier reasons could have been found for not opposing it. I am only concerned, for the moment, with the way in which our actions impressed the Germans, not with the justification of our actions. The Germans, in spite of their progress, their energy, and their population, are very inferior in colonial possessions, not only to England and Russia, but also to France. This seems to them unjust; but wherever they turn to try to acquire new colonies, England and England's navy block the way, because of our friendship with France, or our sensitiveness about India, or some other interest in the complicated web of our foreign policy.

German aggressiveness, real and obnoxious as it has become, is the result of experience. Germany cannot, as we do, acquire colonies absent-mindedly, without intention, and almost without effort. When colonies were easier to acquire than they are now, Germany had not yet entered into the competition; and since Germany became a great power, it has been handicapped by naval inferiority and by the necessity of defending two frontiers. It is these accidents of history and geography, rather than innate wickedness, which have produced German aggressiveness. The aims of German policy are closely similar to those which we have always pursued, but its methods cannot be the unobtrusive methods which we have usually adopted, because such methods, in the circumstances, would achieve nothing.

Colonial ambitions are no doubt one reason why Germany has developed a navy; but another and still more imperative reason is the necessity of safeguarding foreign trade.

In the time of Bismarck, Germany had not yet become a great industrial nation: it was independent of foreign food, and its exports of manufactures were insignificant. Its industrial expansion dates from the introduction of the Bessemer process in 1879, by which its supplies of iron became possible to work at a profit. From that time onward, German industrial progress has been extraordinarily rapid; more and more, Germany has tended to become dependent, like England, upon the possibility of importing food and exporting manufactures. In this war, as we see, Germany is just able, by very painful economy, to subsist upon the stock of food in the country; but another ten ears of such development as was taking place before the war would have made this impossible. High agrarian protection, which alone could have retarded the process, was naturally disliked by the manufacturers and the working classes, and could not be carried beyond a certain point for fear of leading to a triumph of Socialism.

It thus became obvious that, in a few years' time, Germany would be liable to defeat by starvation in any war with a superior naval power. In 1900, when the Germans decided to build a great navy, the Triple Alliance was weaker than France and Russia on the sea. The wish not to be inferior to France and Russia is enough to account for the beginnings of the German navy; the rivalry with us may perhaps have been no part of the original intention, but merely a result of the suspicions produced in England by the German programme. However that may be, it ought to have been obvious to the Germans that a strong navy was sure to make us hostile, and would therefore not serve the purposes for which it was intended unless it was stronger than our navy. But it could not be supposed that we should submit to the existence of a navy stronger than our own, unless we had first been utterly and hopelessly defeated; and there was no way of defeating us except by first having a navy stronger than ours. For these reasons, the German policy was inherently incapable of success. And yet, without success, all industrial progress and all colonial expansion remain perpetually at England's mercy. If we ask ourselves how we should feel if we were similarly at the mercy of Germany, we shall perhaps begin to understand why the Germans hate us. And yet we can hardly feel any sense of guilt, because a supreme navy is for us a matter of life and death.

This dilemma must be faced, if we are to understand the conflict of England and Germany, and not regard it as merely due to wickedness on one side or on the other. After the war, sooner or later, exactly the same problem will have to be faced again. The native energy of the Germans cannot be permanently checked by defeat: after a longer or shorter period of recuperation, they will again feel that commercial safety and colonial expansion demand a strong navy, if they are not to be content to live on sufferance and to be compelled to bow to England's will on all occasions of serious dispute. The problem is a new one, since hitherto England has been the only nation dependent for subsistence on food imported by sea, and England has had unquestioned naval supremacy. But if we are to avoid the century of internecine warfare contemplated by Eduard Meyer, we must find some solution of the problem, and not be content merely to hope that, whenever war comes, we shall be victorious. Germany's industrial ambitions, at least, are entirely legitimate; and they alone make some security for German trade an imperative necessity. It is not only justice that makes it necessary to find a solution, but also self-preservation. It is impossible to know how submarines may develop; perhaps, in future, no degree of naval power will be sufficient to protect sea-borne trade. Even now, our position might be precarious if all the men and money which Germany has devoted to useless dreadnoughts had been devoted to the multiplication of submarines. After the war, our own future safety, as well as the peace of the world, will demand some new and statesmanlike development in our naval policy.

No solution will be possible until it grows clear to the Germans that they cannot reasonably hope to become superior to us at sea. So long as that hope remains with them, they will go on struggling to acquire that complete world-dominion which they believe would result from possession of both the strongest navy and the strongest army in the world. It is to be expected that the present war will persuade them of the futility of their hopes. They speak to neutrals of their wish to secure for all nations 'the freedom of the sea,' but the neutrals remain deaf to all their blandishments. The neutrals do not see how there would be more freedom under German supremacy than under that of England, and they do see that, so long as any nation has naval supremacy, it is better that it should be a nation without a strong army or the means of invasion. This will enable us to avoid hostile coalitions, and to make a German victory over us at some future date exceedingly unlikely. But it will not, by itself, prevent Germany from hating us, or from seeking every possible means of injuring us. And if Germany's industrial development continues, it will leave Germany increasingly dependent upon us for its means of subsistence in any war in which Russia is on our side.

Such a situation will be full of danger to the peace of Europe and of possible harm to ourselves as well as to Germany. For the sake of the progress of civilization, and also for the sake of our security as well as Germany's, both nations, if they have any statesmanship, will be driven to seek some means by which food-supply can be secured from the menace of attack by a hostile power.

Before this war, many would have thought that abolition of the right of capture at sea would achieve this object. But it is now evident that no reliance can be placed upon paper guaranties which are not backed by force. If it could be expected that a nation which resorted to capture at sea would have to face a coalition of neutrals, the practice of capture might be effectively abolished. But so long as neutrals do not intervene by force of arms to protect international law, it cannot be expected that its provisions will be observed; nor would they be observed if neutrals should intervene, unless they were sufficiently powerful to turn the scale. If Germany's submarine blockade could have been made effective, all the neutrals in the world would have been powerless to prevent it.

In this matter, as also in regard to armies, the future of civilization depends on the discovery of means which will make nations strong for defense but weak for attack. The naval problem is particularly urgent, because, if submarines develop as may be expected, navies will become strong for attack and weak for defense, 'attack' being understood as including the capture or destruction of merchant ships. There is one obvious solution, which would be adopted if any large section of mankind were actuated by humanity or reason or even self-interest. If this were the case, national armies and navies would be abolished, and only an international army and navy would be retained, for police purposes. But among all the great powers, pride is, stronger than self-interest: men prefer the risk of death for themselves and their sons, the certainty of impoverishment and the possibility of national disaster, to loss of the opportunity for bullying which is afforded by an army and navy. Under these circumstances, there is probably no chance of a theoretically complete solution of the problem. The best hope is that through the experience of the present war, men will acquire a more firm resolve to preserve the peace, and neutrals will realize that war is a disaster even to those who do not take part in it. It may be that, in time, the powers not directly interested in a quarrel will insist upon its being always submitted to an international tribunal, and will make their insistence effective by threatening war if it is disregarded. In that case, any power could secure safety by merely abstaining from aggression. At present, no great power wishes to make aggression impossible. But experience of war, the progress of democracy, and the growing economic interdependence of different countries, are causing rapid changes in public opinion. It is at least as rational to expect that the next hundred years will see the growth and victory of an international council for the settlement of all disputes between nations, as it is to expect, with Eduard Meyer, that they will see civilization engulfed in a futile contest for supremacy between England and Germany.

The learned historian, I am confident, does injustice to his compatriots; I know that he does injustice to the English. Without hope, nothing will be achieved; but with hope, no limits can be set to what may be achieved toward realizing the ideal of international cooperation.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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