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Response to Review no. 194

Professor Lieven has provided a fair-minded and generous assessment of my book and I would like to thank him for it. His studies of the Russian monarchy and Russian foreign policy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a major influence in shaping my views on the role of monarchy in European diplomacy and it is gratifying that he has found merit in my own contribution to the debate.

I do not dispute Dominic Lieven’s contention that my decision to choose diplomacy as the sphere in which to test the proposition that monarchy mattered politically before 1914 is unfair. A study of the role of the British monarchy in domestic policy during the same period would no doubt come to the conclusion that the head of state’s influence was extremely limited, aside from at moments of constitutional crisis, such as that which occurred between 1909 and 1911. While much better cases can be, and have been, made for the contention that Wilhelm II and Nicholas II had a decisive voice in German and Russian domestic policy respectively, it is also clear that the influence of these two autocrats was even more conspicuous in the fields of foreign policy and diplomacy. As Lieven points out, the business of government had become so complex by the early twentieth century that monarchs had no option but to concentrate their energies in particular spheres of activity. Foreign policy and diplomacy, along with military policy, were the obvious areas for them to expend their energies. These were the spheres in which the power of monarchy was least limited and least subject to democratic pressures. Foreign affairs and military policy were also more prestigious than domestic policy and, ultimately, more significant. This was because the survival of dynasties depended on a successful policy in both areas. The fates of the last Kaiser and the last Tsar proved this to be the case.

There are other reasons why it is appropriate to examine the political role of monarchy through diplomacy. Historians who seek to deny that monarchy mattered often concentrate on the domestic sphere, despite the fact that it is in diplomacy and foreign affairs that the power of monarchy was most conspicuously manifested. That choice is often deliberate. One target in my book, as Professor Lieven points out, was the school of historians, most prominent in Germany, who deny the independent existence of foreign policy, seeing it as being purely an outgrowth of domestic policy, and also denigrate the ability of individuals, including monarchs, to influence historical processes. This methodology, in my judgement, places Weberian and Marxist theory above empirical evidence and therefore results in misleading history. Mercifully, the ‘primacy of domestic policy’ school is in retreat, even in Germany, and more sensible views on the links between domestic and foreign policy and the significance of both structures and individuals now tend to prevail.

My book is, however, also written against the many historians of foreign policy, from A.J.P. Taylor onwards, who have tended to deny that monarchs continued to play a prominent role in foreign policy and diplomacy before 1914. This has, at times, been a result of a Whigish preference for accentuating the new at the expense of the old. It may also have been a consequence of a degree of intellectual snobbery among professional scholars towards the history of monarchy, as being a field best left to royal biographers and other ‘amateurs’. I was amazed when I started my research by how little had been written by professional historians (a few honourable exceptions, such as Dominic Lieven, John Röhl, Isabel Hull and David Cannadine, aside) on monarchy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The main reason that my book is based primarily on archives and printed primary sources is that much of the secondary literature was of limited value for my chosen topic. The British monarchy, in particular, has almost certainly been the subject of neglect by academic historians for political reasons. Those on the Left had no interest in studying it, and those on the Right did not want to disturb the distorted received view that the monarchy had, by c. 1900, become an institution preoccupied with ceremonial and devoid of political significance. A major theme of my book is that for monarchs, including British ones, there was no real distinction between the private and the public spheres. All their actions, including, as Professor Lieven points out, decisions on whether or not to send birthday telegrams to other European courts, could have political consequences. My aim therefore was to reclaim early twentieth century monarchy as a legitimate area of study for political and diplomatic historians.

I agree with most of what Professor Lieven writes in his review. The main areas where I would like to take issue with him are in relation to questions of nuance. My chapter on royal visits and Anglo-German relations does indeed argue that the pomp and circumstance of such occasions was used by both the British and German governments to disguise from their populations that all was not well and that both powers were arming themselves to the teeth in the expectation of an eventual military confrontation. However, I also emphasise in the chapter that the British Liberal government, and particularly Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, deliberately placed constraints on the importance of the visits exchanged by Edward VII and George V with the Kaiser because they were concerned that if the visits generated too much goodwill they might destabilise the government’s chosen policy of co-operation with France and Russian against Germany. Paradoxically therefore the apolitical character of such visits was emphasised for political reasons.

His review might also mislead readers as to the order in which I deal with particular issues. While I place considerable emphasis on the role of Wilhelm II in the deterioration of Anglo-German dynastic and political relations, this is done primarily in my long chapter on the Kaiser’s feud with Edward VII, rather than in my shorter one on royal visits. Similarly, while Lieven is accurate in his assessment of my argument in relation to Edward VII’s attitude towards the Kaiser, the reader might reach the conclusion that I deal with the King’s political role in the same place. Again, this is not really the case. The book contains a whole chapter on Edward VII and British diplomacy, which concentrates on the King’s, in my view, undervalued, contribution to the formation and maintenance of Britain’s ententes with France and Russia. It also stresses Edward VII’s contribution to the promotion of a vigilant policy towards Germany, notably through his role in the appointment of individuals such as Sir Charles Harding and Sir Francis Bertie, who were suspicious of German aspirations to Weltmacht, to senior ambassadorial posts.

Professor Lieven takes a different view on the origins of German navalism from that which I advance in my book. He believes that I exaggerate the significance of Wilhelm II’s role in initiating the expansion of the German navy in the late 1890s. Instead, he advances the view that international factors were at least as important. That is his right and no doubt his recent immersion in the history of European imperialism has contributed to this assessment. I do not deny that a desire for colonies and anxiety to protect overseas commerce played a role in the German leadership’s decision to pursue Flottenpolitik. However, for Germany, building the second largest navy in the world represented a tremendous break with the Continental foreign and military policies that she had pursued under Bismarck. While international pressures no doubt played a role, much of the contemporary evidence indicates a lack of enthusiasm for navalism, both among the influential East Elbian aristocracy and the German people at large. Tirpitz, for example, wrote in 1903, several years after the launch of the navy building strategy, that public opinion still did not appreciate why Germany required a fleet and suggested that a propaganda campaign be launched. This does not indicate that popular enthusiasm was a decisive factor.

The evidence points strongly to Wilhelm II’s own central role in the decision to build a battle fleet. Influential figures such as Friedrich von Holstein, the ‘grey eminence’ of the German foreign office, emphasised in the 1890s that the pressure for naval expansion was coming to a large extent from the Emperor. Tirpitz himself admitted that without the Kaiser’s support, the fleet would never have been built. Historians such as Paul Kennedy and John Röhl have also isolated the decision to build a battle fleet as the most conspicuous example of a policy where Wilhelm II’s personal inclinations had a decisive impact. The fact that the fleet that was built consisted of battleships, with a limited range, concentrated in the North Sea, also leads me to question Professor Lieven’s view that international factors were of central importance. If the defence of colonies and trade had been the main aims of German navalism, then a cruiser fleet would have built. Such a fleet would have had a greater geographical range than the fleet of battleships that was actually constructed and would therefore have been in a better position to defend such interests. Historians still debate the long-term aims of German navalism. However, it seems clear that in the short-term at least it was built as a power political instrument against Britain, designed to extract concessions from the British, the most important of which, from 1910 onwards, was a guarantee of British neutrality in a future continental war. Attempts to reach agreement on a naval arms limitation agreement foundered because the British would not give such a guarantee because they appreciated that it would give Germany a free hand to secure dominance in Europe. Edward VII was among those who understood this.

The other area where my views differ from Dominic Lieven, at least in nuance, is in his assessment of Nicholas II’s ability to determine the course of Russian foreign policy. While I argue that Nicholas was the decisive political actor at St Petersburg, and that his commitment to the alliance with France was always a major stumbling block to the revival of the traditional alliance between Russia and Germany, I am sceptical that the Tsar could have abandoned France in the last years of peace before 1914 had he chosen to do so. Lieven, to an extent, makes the point himself. To have chosen Germany instead of France, at least after the 1905 Revolution, Nicholas would have had to overcome the opposition of educated society, many of his generals, ministers and diplomats. Educated society could have been ignored and the Tsar could have used his control over appointments- a crucial component of his power- to effect changes of personnel in the bureaucracy and army. However, the regime was weak after 1905 and the Russian economy ever more dependent on loans from the Paris money markets. There were also signs that public opinion in general was becoming very hostile to Germany and Austria, particularly during and after the Bosnian Crisis of 1908-9. While I accept that Nicholas could have ditched the French in favour of the Germans such a course would have been fraught with risk. As Lieven says, this particular counter-factual is superfluous in that Nicholas never showed an inclination to abandon France and to align Russia with Germany instead. It seems to me that if Nicholas had wished to reverse his father’s policy of co-operating with France against Germany, he would have had to do so in the first decade of his reign, when the obstacles to such a diplomatic revolution, both internally and externally, would have been less formidable. In the last years of peace, the ties between the Prussian and Russian courts served to temper the growing antagonism between the two Empires. However, neither Wilhelm II nor Bülow had any illusions after 1905 that an alliance between Berlin and St. Petersburg could be resurrected. Dynastic co-operation was no longer sufficient to mask the incompatibility of German and Russian vital interests.

I am indebted to Professor Lieven for his kind words about my book. It was based on eight years of research and writing, broken up by teaching and other commitments. I believe that my study of the role of monarchs in European diplomacy will contribute to the reassessment of the political importance of monarchy before the Great War that is currently taking place. It is a process that Professor Lieven, through his own research, has played a major part in initiating.