‘What?’, I hear you ask. Publication of a raft of new books about the ‘Great War’, the ‘First World War’, ‘World War I’, the ‘War to End All Wars’ – take your pick – since August this year marks the centenary of the start of that war. I recently wrote about a couple of these that discussed the events leading up to the outbreak of war, and how and why it came to end as it did in November 1918 after years of stalemate. Although a ‘student’ of history, I normally avoid the many books about military history and especially the First and Second World Wars. But since these must make up at least 50% or more of those on the history shelves, I guess it was inevitable that my attention would be drawn to these, especially in this centenary year. But, if you follow the thesis of James Hawes latest offering Englanders and Huns, then conflict between Great Britain and Germany was inevitable from the 1860s onwards. And in an innovative way, Hawes (a German scholar and academic at Oxford Brookes University) has used articles and editorials, and – most interestingly – cartoons, from both German and English newspapers and magazines (Punch, in the case of the UK) during the 50 years leading up to August 1914.
Germany was a country that lacked confidence, envious (jealous, even) of Great Britain, a country it thought should be its natural ally. It was envious of Great Britain’s empire, its navy and perceived that its imperial aims were being thwarted. With Bismarck in power – reflecting a dichotomy in German society between the conservative and Protestant north and northeast (Prussia) and the liberal and Catholic south, German society was also very rigid and hierarchical: the ‘vons’ versus the ‘non-vons’ in Hawes’ terminology. The tensions between Germany and Great Britain were not helped by the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, being half-English – his mother Victoria, the Princess Royal, was the eldest child of Queen Victoria. The Kaiser’s apparent fondness, at times, for all things ‘English’ (much resented in Germany), his dislike of his uncle, the future Edward VII, and his apparent mental instability all contributed towards growing animosity between the two countries.
I also learned a new term after reading this book: ‘Manchesterism’ (symbolizing free trade and consumerism) that was coined by a German socialist in the 1870s as a term of abuse. By the end of the 19th century and Germany’s support for the Boers in South Africa, it was surprising that Germany had not already come to blows with Great Britain. Everyone expected it – and were already planning how new technology could be used to curtail the power and influence of the Royal Navy, as this cartoon clearly illustrates, even before the Zeppelin had been ordered for the German military. Englanders and Huns is not a particularly easy read – but it’s a worthwhile one, opening up a new window on Anglo-German relations in the decades before 1914. It also says a lot about what came after the First World War and the rise of Nazi Germany. It was published in February this year by Simon & Schuster (ISBN: 0857205285, 9780857205285).