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Response to Review no. 121

In her review of my 1998 book on German South African policy, Dr Annika Mombauer provides a succinct summary of my main arguments and then offers some comments as to their merits. The summary is, in my view, an entirely fair and accurate one, and I am grateful to her both for her generous praise as well as for her mild, but penetrating, criticisms.

Let me begin my response by concentrating on some of those areas where we concur. Foremost amongst these is the question of the political power structure of Wilhelmine Germany and the manner in which this impacted on policy-making. This is an area in which we clearly share some common assumptions. Dr Mombauer’s own work on the role and influence of the younger Moltke has tended to substantiate the idea that, at least in the realm of military policy, the Reich government was led/misled by a small coterie of soldiers and bureaucrats. Thus, she rightly believes that the mental horizons of these individuals, their personal fears, desires and interactions are the vital ingredient to any understanding of how decisions were taken by the Reichsleitung. My own work strongly suggests that the same conclusions apply with respect to the formulation of German foreign and colonial policy. Some readers might argue that her own research predisposes Dr Mombauer to my point of view; others might say that the fact that we reached such similar conclusions from such different avenues shows the soundness of the perspective. As the saying goes: ‘You pay your money, you take your choice.’

Another matter on which we agree is the centrality of Kaiser Wilhelm II to Germany’s foreign relations. South Africa is a case in point. British diplomats in 1894 interpreted Germany’s sudden interest in the Transvaal as proof that the Reich government had decided to go ‘full steam ahead’ in colonial matters to please their All-Highest royal master. Equally, many German officials were aware that the abandonment of Germany’s South African interests in 1897/8 reflected, in part, Wilhelm’s growing preoccupation with Flotten- und Weltpolitik, as naval expansion and world policy had turned the country’s South African engagement into an undesirable complication. Of course, in respect to the Transvaal, the Kaiser’s name is indelibly associated with the infamous and ultimately ill-fated Kruger telegram. The evidence for the precise origins of this document is anything but unambiguous and straightforward. My opinion, which Dr Mombauer finds convincing, is that Wilhelm was one of many players in its creation – the State Secretary at the Foreign Office, Adolf Freiherr Marschall von Bieberstein, also having a major role – and that the telegram was not merely a manifestation of the impulsiveness of the aptly-named ‘William the sudden’, but actually broadly reflected the policy and goals of the so-called ‘responsible’ government. As the Kruger telegram will, doubtless, receive attention in the next instalment of Professor John Röhl’s multi-volume biography of the Kaiser, it will be interesting to see the extent to which this judgement is accepted when seen in the context of the Kaiser’s life rather than as a facet of German South African policy.

Dr Mombauer’s principal criticism of my views concerns my dismissal of the idea that the Kruger telegram was part of a strategy of co-opting Britain into an alliance. My attempts to show that it could not have succeeded in this purpose are accepted, but Dr Mombauer rightly points out, using the very apt example of the Tirpitz plan, that Wilhelm and his government never let logical objections stand in the way of bad policy decisions, particularly those aimed at influencing London. This is a fair point and I am glad that I had other arguments deployed on this issue.

This brings me to the main argument of the book, which is that German government interest in the Transvaal was not based on ulterior motives (the way in which it is so often explained), but reflected genuine, albeit brief, interest in the Transvaal as a field for the expansion of German political influence in the colonial world. As it might appear somewhat self-congratulatory for me to run through some of the ways in which Dr Mombauer concurs with this point, I thought I might conclude this commentary by making instead a few observations about some of the new evidence for this perspective which has appeared since my book was written. Most interesting in this respect is the work done in the Russian archives. In the book, The Russians and the Anglo-Boer War (1998), Apollon Davidson and Irina Filatova cite some revealing Tsarist government documents that shed some light on what the Russians thought the Germans were doing in the region. One report from the time of the founding of German South-West Africa, runs: ‘What benefits can Germany expect from a colony so deserted and devoid of any means of communication, water and every other basic necessity? Evidently, Germany does not intend to limit itself to the Land of Lüderitz only. It hopes … to penetrate into Central Africa [including the Boer republics] …. The present acquisitions may be only a step to further developments.’ One from after the Kruger telegram states: ‘German support … has lost the greater part of its significance. The readiness with which this nation puts forward the most decisive declarations is equalled only by the speed with which it withdraws any real support for its views.’ The Russians showed insight on both occasions. Prior to the Kruger telegram German statesmen saw the potential of political penetration into this part of central Africa; after the Kruger telegram, they began to look elsewhere. It seems that Dr Mombauer, contemporary Russian observers and I, are essentially in agreement on this point.