On August 1, 1914, as dreadful war was breaking out in Europe, the German ambassador Prince Lichnowsky paid a visit to Britain’s Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey. Dr Rudolf Steiner commented as follows upon this meeting – in a 1916 lecture which he gave in Switzerland:
‘A single sentence and the war in the West would not have taken place.’
At that meeting, he averred that, with just one sentence, ‘this war could have been averted.’
To examine that outrageous-sounding claim, we delve into what is a bit of a mystery, that of the first conflict between Germany and Britain for a thousand years: two nations bound by the same royal family, with every statesman in Europe loudly proclaiming that peace is desired, that war must at all costs be avoided; and then the bloodbath takes place, terminating the great hopes for European civilization and extinguishing its bright optimism, as what were set up as defensive alliances mysteriously flipped over and became offensive war-plans.
The ghastly ‘Schlieffen plan’ became activated, as the master-plan of Germany’s self-defense, which as it were contained the need for the dreadful speed with which catastrophe was precipitated. France and Russia had formed a mutual defense agreement (everyone claimed their military alliances were defensive). While Bismarck the wise statesman who founded Germany had lived, this was avoided, such an alliance being his darkest nightmare. But Kaiser Wilhelm did not manage to avoid this, and so Germany’s neighbors to East and West formed a mutual military alliance. The Schlieffen plan was based on the premise that Germany could not fight a war on two fronts but might be able to beat France quickly; so in the event of war looming against Russia in the East, its troops had to move westwards, crashing though Belgium as a route into France. It all had to happen quickly because Germany’s army was smaller than that of Russia.
The timing over those crucial days shows its awful speed: Russia mobilized its army on July 29th, in response to hostilities breaking out between Austro-Hungary and Serbia; two desperate cables were sent by the Kaiser to the Tsar on the 29th and 31st, imploring him not to proceed with full mobilisation of his army because that meant war; the French government ‘irreversibly decided’ to support Russia in the war on the evening of 31st, cabling this decision to the Russian foreign minister at 1 am on August 1st; then, on the afternoon of that same day Germany proceeded to mobilise and declared war on Russia, and two days later went into Belgium. Britain’s House of Commons voted unanimously for war on 5th August, viewing Germany as the belligerent warmonger.
Kaiser Wilhelm’s Nemesis
The Kaiser had enjoyed the reputation of a peacemaker:
Now … he is acclaimed everywhere as the greatest factor for peace that our time can show. It was he, we hear, who again and again threw the weight of his dominating personality, backed by the greatest military organisation in the world – an organisation built up by himself – into the balance for peace wherever war clouds gathered over Europe. ‘(‘William II, King of Prussia and German Emperor, Kaiser 25 years a ruler, hailed as chief peacemaker,’ New York Times, 8 June, 1913.)
A former US President, William Howard Taft, said of him: ‘The truth of history requires the verdict that, considering the critically important part which has been his among the nations, he has been, for the last quarter of a century, the single greatest force in the practical maintenance of peace in the world.’ (,). That is some tribute! In 1960 a BBC centenary tribute to the Kaiser was permitted to say: ‘Emphasis was placed on his love of England and his deep attachment to Queen Victoria,’ his grandmother.
Kaiser Wilhelm II enjoyed a reputation as a peace maker. Shown in a photo from 1890. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R28302 / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA
A lover of peace …. skilled diplomat … deep attachment to Queen Victoria .. so remind me what the Great War was for, that took nine million lives?
Might the war have been averted if the Kaiser had, perhaps, focussed a bit more on the art of war – how to refrain from marching into Belgium? There was no ‘plan B’! In later days the Kaiser used to say, he had been swept away by the military timetable. Who wantedthe war which locked Europe into such dreadful conflict? Did a mere sequence of interlocking treaties bring it on?
On the night of 30-31st of July, feeling entrapped by a seemingly inevitable march of events, Kaiser Wilhelm mused to himself doomily:
Frivolity and weakness are going to plunge the world into the most frightful war of which the ultimate object is the overthrow of Germany. For I no longer have any doubt that England, Russia and France have agreed among themselves – knowing that our treaty obligations compel us to support Austria – to use the Austro-Serb conflict as a pretext for waging a war of annihilation against us… In this way the stupidity and clumsiness of our ally [Austria] is turned into a noose. So the celebrated encirclement of Germany has finally become an accepted fact… The net has suddenly been closed over our heads, and the purely anti-German policy which England has been scornfully pursuing all over the world has won the most spectacular victory which we have proved ourselves powerless to prevent while they, having got us despite our struggles all alone into the net through our loyalty to Austria, proceed to throttle our political and economic existence. A magnificent achievement, which even those for whom it means disaster are bound to admire.’
‘Those dreadful fields of senseless carnage’
Did hundreds of thousands of young men, the flower of England, want to go out to muddy fields, to fight and die? Shells, bayonets, gas, machine guns – what was the point? In no way were they defending their country or its Empire – for no-one was threatening it. No European nation benefitted: it spelt ruin for all of them. Do we need to fear the imbecility of the poet’s words:
If I should die, think only this of me
There is some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England’? (Rupert Brooke)
A leading British pacifist, E.D. Morel, was widely vilified for the views expressed in his book Truth and the War (1916), and had his health wrecked (as Bertrand Russell described) by being put into Pentonville jail. In haunting words of insight, his book described how: ‘Those dreadful fields of senseless carnage’ had been brought about by ‘futile and wicked Statecraft’ – by ‘an autocratic and secret foreign policy’ carried out by those ‘who by secret plots and counter-plots … hound the peoples to mutual destruction.’ Of the war’s outbreak, Morel wrote: ‘It came therefore to this. While negative assurances had been given to the House of Commons, positive acts diametrically opposed to these assurances had been concerted by the War Office and the Admiralty with the authority of the Foreign Office. All the obligations of an alliance had been incurred, but incurred by the most dangerous and subtle methods; incurred in such a way as to leave the Cabinet free to deny the existence of any formal parchment recording them, and free to represent its policy at home and abroad as one of contractual detachment from the rival Continental groups.’ A total analogy exists here with Blair taking Britain into the Iraq war, making a deal with Bush while continually denying back home that any such deal existed. Two Cabinet members resigned in August 1914, once the central importance of this concealed contract became evident: Viscount Morley and John Burns.
A more orthodox, deterministic view was given by Winston Churchill: ‘the invasion of Belgium brought the British Empire united to the field. Nothing in human power could break the fatal chain, once it had begun to unroll. A situation had been created where hundreds of officials had only to do their prescribed duty to their respective countries to wreck the world. They did their duty’. That necessary chain leading to ruin began only after the crucial discussion alluded to by Dr Steiner, we observe.
Considering that Germany went into Belgium on the 3rd of August, whereas Churchill and Mountbatten, the First and Second Sea Lords, had ordered the mobilising of the British fleet over July 26 -30th, so that by days before the 3rd much of the world’s biggest navy was up north of Scotland all ready to pounce on Germany – his words may appear as some kind of extreme limit of hypocrisy. The mobilising of the British fleet was a massive event which greatly pre-empted political discussion, a week before Britain declared war.,
A Secret Alliance
Britain was obliged by no necessity to enter a European war, having no alliance with France that the people of Britain or its parliament knew about, and having a long indeed normal policy of avoiding embroilment in European conflicts. However, ministers especially Grey the Foreign Minister had covertly made a deal with France. To quote from Bertrand Russell’s autobiography: ‘I had noticed during previous years how carefully Sir Edward Grey lied in order to prevent the public from knowing the methods by which he was committing us to the support of France in the event of war.’ Would Britain be dragged into a European war on the coat-tails of France – for centuries, its traditional enemy – given that France had signed a treaty obligation to enter war in consequence of a German-Russian conflict? France was keen to avenge past grievances over the French-German border, aware of the superiority of troops which it and Russia combined had against Germany – and convinced that it could drag Britain into the fray.
On 24 March 1913, the Prime Minister had been asked about the circumstances under which British troops might land on the Continent. He replied, ‘As has been repeatedly stated, this country is not under any obligation not public and known to parliament which compels it to take part in any war’ – a double negative which concealed a hidden but then-existing accord!
Last Hope of Peace
We turn now to the question put, on August 1st by Germany’s ambassador to Britain’s Foreign Secretary, normally omitted from history books on the subject. If war and peace did indeed hinge upon it – as Dr Steiner averred – it may be worth quoting a few judgements about it. Here is Grey’s own letter, written that day:
Grey’s letter to the British ambassador in Berlin: 1 August, concerning his meeting with Prince Lichnowsky:
‘He asked me whether, if Germany gave a promise not to violate Belgian neutrality we would engage to remain neutral. I replied that I could not say that: our hands were still free, and we were considering what our attitude should be….I did not think that we could give a promise on that condition alone. The ambassador pressed me as to whether I could formulate conditions on which we would remain neutral. He even suggested that the integrity of France and her colonies might be guaranteed. I said that I felt obliged to refuse definitely any promise to remain neutral on similar terms, and I could only say that we must keep our hands free.’,
Swiss author George Brandes summarised this meeting:
‘Now Prince Lichnowsky, the German Ambassador in London, asked whether England would agree to remain neutral if Germany refrained from violating Belgium’s neutrality. Sir Edward Grey refused. Britain wanted to retain ‘a free hand’ (‘I did not think we could give a promise of neutrality on that condition alone’). Would he agree if Germany were to guarantee the integrity of both France and her colonies? No.’
The US historian Harry Elmer Barnes: ‘The only way whereby Grey could have prevented war, if at all, in 1914 would have been by declaring that England would remain neutral if Germany did not invade Belgium…,’ but Grey ‘refused to do’ this: ‘After Grey had refused to promise the German Ambassador that England would remain neutral in the event of Germany’s agreeing not to invade Belgium, the German ambassador asked Grey to formulate the conditions according to which England would remain neutral, but Grey refused point-blank to do so, though he afterwards falsely informed the Commons that he had stated these conditions’. Barnes commended the editorial of the Manchester Guardian July 30th – opposing the pro-war jingoism of The Times – which declared: ‘not only are we neutral now, but we are and ought to remain neutral throughout the whole course of the war.’
The British judge and lawyer Robert Reid was the Earl of Loreburn as well as the Lord Chancellor of England from 1905 to 1912, so he should know what was going on. His book ‘How the War Came’ described how it was the secret deal with France which wrecked everything:
The final mistake was that when, on the actual crisis arising, a decision one way or the other might and, so far as can be judged, would have averted the Continental war altogether … The mischief is that Sir Edward Grey slipped into a new policy, but without either Army, or treaty, or warrant of Parliamentary approval … This country has a right to know its own obligations and prepare to meet them and to decide its own destinies. When the most momentous decision of our whole history had to be taken we were not free to decide. We entered a war to which we had been committed beforehand in the dark, and Parliament found itself at two hours’ notice unable, had it desired, to extricate us from this fearful predicament… If the government thought that either our honour or our safety did require us to intervene on behalf of France, then they ought to have said so unequivocally before the angry Powers on the Continent committed themselves to irrevocable steps in the belief that we should remain neutral. Instead of saying either, they kept on saying in the despatches that their hands were perfectly free, and told the Commons the same thing. The documents show conclusively that till after Germany declared war our Ministers had not made up their minds on either of the two questions, whether or not they would fight for France, and whether or not they would fight for Belgium. Of course Belgium was merely a corridor into France, and unless France was attacked Belgium was in no danger.
After it was over, US President Woodrow Wilson in March of 1919 summed up its avoidability: ‘We know for a certainty that if Germany had thought for a moment that Great Britain would go in with France and Russia, she would never have undertaken the enterprise.’ (p.18, Lorenburn). That was the sense in which Britain precipitated the dreadful conflict. Clear words of truth could have avoided it – had that been desired.
We remind ourselves of Dr Steiner’s comparison: that the British Empire then covered one-quarter of the Earth’s land-surface; Russia one-seventh; France and her colonies one-thirteenth; and Germany, one thirty-third. (Karma, p.11)
Upon receiving a telegram from Prince Lichnowsky earlier in the day of August 1, the Kaiser ordered a bottle of champagne to celebrate, as if there might be hope of reaching a deal with Britain. Even though he was just that afternoon signing the order for mobilisation of the German army, he could in some degree have recalled it … but, it was a false hope, and a telegram from King Edward later that day explained to him that there had been a ‘misunderstanding’ between Britain’s Foreign Secretary and the German ambassador.
On the 26th or 27th, Grey told the Cabinet that he would have to resign, if it did not support his initiative to take Britain into war in support of ‘our ally,’ France. He would not be able to go along with British neutrality. Over these days up until the 1st, or 2nd, when the war was just starting, all the Cabinet of Britain’s Liberal Party government except for Churchill and Grey favoured British neutrality. It was those two who dragged Britain into war. Grey did not yet know whether the Belgian government would say ‘no’ to the German request to be allowed to pass through. To get his war, Grey had to swing it on the ‘poor little Belgium’ angle. Once Belgium had said ‘No’ and yet Germany still went in – as its only way to enter France – a cabinet majority would then became assured.
On August 2nd, Grey gave to the French ambassador what amounted to British assurance of war-support. On August 3rd, Grey gave the Commons an impassioned plea in favour of British intervention on behalf of France – making no mention of the German peace-offer. The MP Phillip Morrell spoke afterwards in the sole anti-war speech that day, and pointed out that a guarantee by Germany not to invade France had been offered, on condition of British neutrality, and spurned. As to why Grey did not mention the German offer, the view was later contrived that the German ambassador had merely been speaking in a private capacity!
The supposed neutrality of Belgium was a sham, as ministers of that country had secretly drawn up detailed anti-German war-plans with Britain and France. No wonder the Kaiser had a sense of being ‘encircled’ by enemies, because ‘“neutral” Belgium had in reality become an active member of the coalition concluded against Germany’ – i.e. it had plotted against a friendly nation. Quoting the commendably insightful George Bernard Shaw, ‘The violation of Belgian neutrality by the Germans was the mainstay of our righteousness; and we played it off on America for much more than it was worth. I guessed that when the German account of our dealings with Belgium reached the United states, backed with an array of facsimiles of secret diplomatic documents discovered by them in Brussels, it would be found that our own treatment of Belgium was as little compatible with neutrality as the German invasion.’
Rudolf Steiner’s judgement in his December 1916 lecture (during which Britain was declining a peace offer from Germany) was:
‘Let me merely remark, that certain things happened from which the only sensible conclusion to be drawn later turned out to be the correct one, namely that behind those who were in a way the puppets there stood in England a powerful and influential group of people who pushed matters doggedly towards a war with Germany and through whom the way was paved for the world war that had always been prophesied. For of course the way can be paved for what it is intended should happen. ..it is impossible to avoid realising how powerful was the group who like an outpost of mighty impulses, stood behind the puppets in the foreground. These latter are of course, perfectly honest people, yet they are puppets, and now they will vanish into obscurity ….
Grey and Churchill were the two consistently pro-war cabinet ministers. The Conservative Party was solidly pro-war, and Churchill was ready to offer them a deal if perchance too many of the Liberal-party cabinet were going to resign rather than go to war. Steiner here remarked:
‘Anyone [in England] voicing the real reasons [for war] would have been swept away by public opinion. Something quite different was needed – a reason which the English people could accept, and that was the violation of Belgian neutrality. But this first had to be brought about. It is really true that Sir Edward Grey could have prevented it with a single sentence. History will one day show that the neutrality of Belgium would never have been violated if Sir Edward Grey had made the declaration which it would have been quite easy for him to make, if he had been in a position to follow his own inclination. But since he was unable to follow his own inclination but had to obey an impulse which came from another side, he had to make the declaration which made it necessary for the neutrality of Belgium to be violated. Georg Brandes pointed to this. By this act England was presented with a plausible reason. That had been the whole point of the exercise: to present England with a plausible reason! To the people who mattered, nothing would have been more uncomfortable than the non-violation of Belgian territory!’
Could powers behind Grey have wanted war, and steered events towards that end? Steiner argued against the widespread view of an inevitable slide into war: ‘You have no idea how excessively irresponsible it is to seek a simple continuity in these events, thus believing that without more ado the Great World War came about, or had to come about, as a result of Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia. (p.82)
We are here reminded of Morel’s account, of how secret plotting had paralysed debate:
‘The nemesis of their own secret acts gripped our ministers by the throat. It paralysed their sincere and desperate efforts to maintain peace. It cast dissention amongst them…They could not afford to be honest neither to the British people nor to the world. They could not hold in check the elements making for war in Germany by a timely declaration of solidarity with France and Russia, although morally committed to France.. In vain the Russians and the French implored them to make a pronouncement of British policy while there was still time.’
On August 4th, Britain declared war, and that same night cut through the transatlantic undersea telephone cables coming out of Germany, enabling British atrocity propaganda to work largely unchallenged. Quoting a recent work on the subject, ‘The hallmark of Britain’s successful propaganda efforts were alleged German atrocities of gigantic proportions that strongly influenced naive Americans yearning for a chivalrous war from afar’.
Such consistent, intentional mendacity was fairly innovative, which was why it worked so well: ‘In that war, hatred propaganda was for the first time given something like organised attention’. Thus, a nemesis of what Morel described as ‘futile and wicked statecraft’ here appeared, in that British soldiers were motivated to fight, by a nonstop torrent of lies – from their own government.
In conclusion, can we agree with Dr Steiner? Quoting Barnes, ‘It is thus apparent that the responsibility for the fatal Russian mobilisation which produced the war must be shared jointly, and probably about equally, by France and Russia.’ This was because of the French cabinet’s general encouragement, then its final decision to embark upon war on the 29th July, of which Barnes remarked: ‘The secret conference of Poincaré, Viviani and Messimy, in consultation with Izvolski, on the night of 29th of July, marks the moment when the horrors of war were specifically unchained in Europe.’ (pp.328, 242) This had to be the time, it was the only opportunity, because these war-plotters would have known of the mobilisation of the world’s biggest navy, that of Great Britain, over these fateful days, all ready for war. The Russian generals browbeat the Tzar into signing the documents giving his assent – for a war he didn’t want. On the 31st one more desperate telegram arrived from the Kaiser about how ‘The peace of Europe may still be maintained’ if only Russia would stop its mobilisation, but the Tzar no longer had that ability. Germany placed itself at a military disadvantage by refraining from declaring war or taking steps to mobilise until the afternoon of August 1st, much later than any of the other great powers involved. Had a deal been reached in London on that afternoon, a conflict in Eastern Europe would presumably still have taken place, but it would have been limited and diplomats could have dealt with it: yes, a world war could have been averted.5 Years After Crimea, European Nations Come Crawling Back to Putin One by One