I recently read Time and Time Again by Ben Elton. It’s about a time traveller who returns to 1914 Europe, aiming to prevent the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and, therefore, the Great War. Of course, the war isn’t prevented, and it turns out that there are vast numbers of timelines flowing from the summer of 1914, all more or less disastrous. This has inspired me to draft an alternate history I’ve long had in mind, where the War starts in 1911, as a result of the Agadir crisis.
I’ve changed the dates of some actual events, and the outcomes of some internal political debates, to bring more aggressive leaders and policies to the fore. I’ve also borrowed one improbable event from an earlier war. Still, the result seems to me no more improbable than the actual genesis of the War, beginning with the fatal wrong turn by Franz Ferdinand’s driver. Feel free to disagree, or to fill in some details of your own.
The Great War of 1911
Looking back at the Great War raises lots of questions. Was it, as most observers concluded in the aftermath of the war, the inevitable product of a clash of rival imperialisms, or of rising class tensions. Or should we prefer the views of the revisionists who stress the war guilt of the Entente powers, and particularly of France? Or was it, perhaps, a tragic and avoidable accident?
Starting with the now-dominant revisionist case, there’s no doubt that French aggression against Morocco, going back to the first Moroccan crisis of 1905-06, was the proximate cause of the war. Not content with the effective control over Moroccan affairs gained in that episode, France used the rebellion against the Sultan to establish a formal “protectorate”. The contemptuous dismissal of the Algeciras conference agreement as a “scrap of paper” presaged the entire French war strategy. Most notable was Joffre’s invasion of Belgium (doubtfully accepted as necessary by Poincare, who had just displaced Joseph Caillaux as Prime Minister). The postwar emergence of an anti-Semitic dictatorship, headed by Marshal Petain, is seen as representing an inherent French tendency to authoritarianism and aggression, reflected in everything from the Bonapartes to l’affaire Dreyfus
The other Entente powers come off little better on this account. Lloyd George was already the dominant figure in the British government and signalled his aggressive intent with the Mansion House speech. The fall of Herbert Asquith as a result of a sex scandal propelled Lloyd George into the Prime Ministership at a crucial moment. His ascension ensured that there would be no negotiated peace. The Entente with the Czarist empire adds weight to the indictment. The aim of encircling and crushing the nascent democracies of the German-speaking world could scarcely be more obvious.
But it is the documents unearthed from wartime archives that are seen by revisionists as sealing the case. The Sykes-Picot agreement, carving up the Middle East, the Constantinople Agreement handing the centre of the Islamic world to Russia, and the offers to Italy under the Treaty of London make the case for Entente war guilt seem unarguable.
Nevertheless, many historians continue to argue that the Central Powers, and Germany in particular, were just as aggressive and expansionist, and would have been equally keen to start a war, given the right pretext and timing. The massive reparations imposed on the defeated Entente powers, and the conversion of much the Russian empire into German-ruled kingdoms and principalities (seen by revisionists as both necessary to prevent another two-front war and justified on the basis of Entente aggression) are viewed very differently by this school.
Whatever the guilt of their leaders, it is hard to see that the people of Eastern Europe had done anything to deserve the brutal terms of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Nor was German rule any improvement in the colonies stripped from the British empire. And of course, the Germans had signed secret treaties of their own, not to mention plans for an invasion route through Belgium. Perhaps, given a few years to build up its military position, Germany would have found its own pretext for war in one of the never-ending series of crises in the Balkans. The imperialist system, on this view, was primed for catastrophe, and the spark would have come sooner or later.
Finally, there’s the possibility that the whole tragedy was the result of avoidable bad luck. We will probably never know what caused the explosion on the SMS Panther that sent it to the bottom of the Agadir harbor with the loss of all 130 on board. But the resulting outrage certainly helped to foreclose any possibility of a negotiated agreement.
The German decision to send all available squadrons of the High Seas Fleet out to sea, if an over-reaction, was unsurprisingm as was the British decision, following the Dogger Bank incident to order the Royal Navy into action. Surprisingly heavy British losses in the (strategically inconclusive) Battle of Jutland produced a popular demand for vengeance, and emboldened the French to adopt an aggressive strategy on land. In the fervid atmosphere that resulted, concerns about the violation of Belgian neutrality were largely quieted by the public declaration of “The Ninety Three” leading French and English intellectuals supporting the war.
If the Panther had not been destroyed, its mission might have been seen, in time, as a needless provocation. And if Germany had secured a negotiated peace that checked French colonial expansionism, perhaps anti-war arguments like those of Jean Jaures in France, Keir Hardie in Britain and Wilhelm Foerster in Germany would have prevailed over the forces of revanchism, jingoism and nationalism.