From Bismarck to the World War: A History of German Foreign Policy, 1870-1914

by Erith Brandenburg. Translated by Annie Elizabeth Adams. New York: Oxford University Press. 1927. 8vo. xiii+542 pp. $7.00.
ALL histories dealing with the period here described naturally focus on an ethical issue — responsibility for the World War. Since the facts of the period, seen in this relation, are still highly controversial, and many of them remain inferential pending the publication of complete and unsophisticated diplomatic records, the temper in which they are approached is even more important, if possible, than it ordinarily is in historical writing. At least it is the first thing we want to know in addressing ourselves to a book like the present one. Bearing in mind that when it was written Germany and Russia (through the joyful labors of scandal-scenting Soviet rummagers in Tsarist archives) were the only countries involved in the war that had given the public anything like a full and candid documentary account of the information relating to its antecedents and origin in the possession of their foreign offices, the sentences from the preface that follow help us to a first impression of the author’s mind: ‘It is the historian’s duty in a case where official materials on the one side are meagre, not to attribute a motive unless he can supply an actual proof of it.... It is as incumbent on us as on our enemies to avoid prejudices formed under the obsession of war. . . . This book has been written, often in anguish of heart, in the belief that it is necessary. The readers I desire, be they in Germany or elsewhere, are those who seek earnestly to see things as they really were.’
The professor of modern history at Leipzig University who wrote these words has no known antecedents or earlier professional commitments that would give his work what would have been called a few years ago a Treitschke bias. Neither is he, on the other hand, an emotional cosmopolitan. His reputation as an historian and the present book bespeak a well-balanced, painstaking, objective-minded scholar. Naturally he arranges his data in a Berlincentric pattern, for he is describing the foreign policy of his own country primarily for German readers, but his work is by no means conventional Kriegsschuldfrage literature.
It is impossible to deal critically in the compass of an ordinary review with the author’s evidence and conclusions. That would necessitate going behind his documentation, which is ample though not burdensome. He does not challenge dissent from the ordinary reader, although he may irritate uncured war neurasthenics and he conceives some phases of his subject differently from other historians both in his country and elsewhere. He would be classed at home as of the Bismarck school. That is, he sees in the Old Chancellor’s diplomacy a sincere effort, though exerted in rather devious and complicated ways, to preserve the peace of Europe. He is not an admirer of William II, whose impulsiveness and instability prevented Germany’s pursuing a consistent foreign policy and helped to drive Russia into the arms of France. During the quarter of a century while the war was incubating, Anglo-German cleavage, beginning with Britain’s jealousy of Berlin’s new colonial ambitions, aggravated by her fear of Germany’s commercial expansion, and widened to the danger point by naval competition, is represented as the most decisive of many powerful forces moulding the contours of the international landscape,
Professor Brandenburg evidently Considers the Kaiser and his entourage largely responsible for the failure to find a solution for the naval issue.
Indeed the alienation of England was the cardinal blunder of Germany’s post-Bismarckian diplomats. Nevertheless, ‘so far as we can learn from the sources at present available,’ he writes, ‘no one in England really wanted war. The view so widely held in Germany that Britain engineered the war in order to destroy our economic competition . . . has little justification.’ Furthermore, ‘ there is no indication that the Entente was originally intended as an instrument of war.’ On the other hand, while Germany’s foreign policy ‘can justly be accused of short-sightedness,lack of method, want of forethought and of understanding the psychology of other peoples,’ and ‘we can blame Germany’s vacillation and her sudden recklessness, as in the Morocco question . . . no one can maintain with any show of reason that at any given time she either wished for war or strove to bring it about.’ In France and Russia likewise ‘the great body of the people . . . was desirous of peace,’ but each country had a war party in its ruling circles, the Petersburg PanSlavists and the Paris revanchists. Jsvolski, embittered by his personal reverse in the Bosnian crisis, actively promoted Pan-Slav projects at the French capital, with the friendly aid of Poincaré. ‘So far as guilt can be brought home to individual personalities in the World War, these two men stand convicted.’ Of course the Tsarist archives, whose secret documents have been published from the housetops, supply the evidence cited to support this charge. If the Bolsheviki were given equally free run of the other foreign offices of Europe, we might enlarge the circle of criminals. But the author does not simplify the genesis of the war as much as this brief quotation suggests. Although the ‘clever and unscrupulous tunneling operations’ of comparatively small groups prepared the way for that disaster, it was in its larger perspectives the result of new political and economic tensions caused by the race to grab the earth’s undeveloped territories, the fierce fight of rapidly expanding industries for markets, and the growth of national sentiment among the peoples of Europe, which made them rebel against the old and ethnically irrational frontiers that kept kinsmen apart and yoked together discordant races.