Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001; 251pp.
London School of Economics
Date accessed: 29 September, 2023
The aim of Roderick McLean's book is to assert the continuing importance of monarchs in European politics in the decades immediately before 1914. His choice of diplomacy as the sphere in which to test this proposition is of course "unfair", since of all areas of governmental activity foreign policy was the one in which the monarchs played the most active role. On the other hand, in these pre-war years foreign policy was immensely important, so if monarchs played a major role in its making then their overall political significance cannot be denied. McLean chooses Britain, Germany and Russia as his case studies on the principle that all three were monarchies and great powers. In addition, since these three countries span the whole range of European monarchy from the most constitutional (Britain) to the most absolutist (Russia), they provide a balanced view of royalty's overall significance.
This book is written against historians who deny the importance of personalities and politics in history, and who stress instead the significance of long-term structural factors. A more specific target are historians of modern Europe dismissive of the continuing importance of pre-modern elements in politics down to 1914 and even beyond. This is to support the argument first put forward twenty years ago by Arno Meyer in his Persistence of the Old Regime. An additional target are those historians who more or less deny the importance of foreign policy or diplomacy, seeing them as merely the domestic class war waged by other means.
McLean's book is divided into four chapters. The last covers royal visits in Anglo-German relations between 1906 and 1914. The chapter's title, "the limits of dynastic diplomacy", accurately conveys the author's sensible view that these visits had little impact on the relations between the two countries. The surface amiability of these visits, and the pomp and circumstance that surrounded them did, however, give a false impression to the politically naïve (in other words most of the British population) that Anglo-German relations were not too dangerously strained and that the concert of royal cousins remained a bulwark of European peace. In that sense these visits were quite useful to the key ministers in the Liberal government as they strove to build an anti-German coalition while assuaging their back-benchers' dislike of Realpolitik (e.g. the alliance with tsarism) and fear of war.
Another conclusion of this chapter is that whatever historians may have felt on the subject, William II had no doubts about the overwhelming importance of monarchs in the making of foreign policy. His wild and sometimes hysterical over-estimate of the role played by Edward VII meant, for example, that the failure of Buckingham Palace to send birthday greetings to the German Empress could spark off panic in William's mind about an impending British attack on his beloved fleet. A foreign policy influenced by someone with so very skewed an understanding of political realities was bound to be dangerous. Nicholas II overestimated the power and misjudged the views of some of his fellow monarchs but never to William's grossly exaggerated degree.
McLean points out in his chapter on Anglo-German dynastic antagonism that at the beginning of his reign Edward VII was actually less anti-German than British public opinion, just as William was far less Anglophobe than most of his subjects. Though Edward's views changed, above all during and after the first Moroccan crisis, he usually tried to ensure that his poor personal relations with William did not further complicate the already dangerously strained relationship between the two countries. The King mattered because of his role in top diplomatic appointments and because he alone had automatic access to his fellow monarchs, and above all Tsar Nicholas. His tact and diplomatic skill helped to reassure both the French and the Russians of Britain's commitment to the entente.
In contrast to his relatively modest and surely realistic view on Edward's role, McLean asserts the overwhelming importance of Emperor William in the decline of Anglo-German relations. In his view, the creation of a formidable navy was the key to this antagonism and the Emperor was both the fleet's main backer and the greatest obstacle to any agreement with Britain on the limitation of naval armaments.
Here one comes to the core of the debate about monarchical power before 1914. Most historians see Germany as the greatest threat to European stability in these years and as the country most responsible for turning the July 1914 crisis into a European war. If, as is surely right, the navy was the key issue in Anglo-German antagonism, to what extent was the navy the outgrowth of the Kaiser's personal policy and perceptions rather than of deeper structural factors? To come to a conclusion on this issue, however, one needs a broader perspective than that of purely diplomatic history.
It seems to me that the enormous growth of German overseas trade in itself made some degree of naval expansion likely. A very important element in German wealth was now vulnerable to interdiction by the Royal Navy in any crisis when London wished to bring pressure on Berlin. Belief in the overwhelming importance of colonies for a great power's survival was very widespread in Europe and the United States before 1914. From Herzen and de Tocqueville in the first half of the century to Leroy-Beaulieu and Seeley at its close, it was very generally believed that only states of continental scale had any chance of holding their own as great powers in the twentieth century. Mahan put a fashionable naval twist on this common view but it was in any case clear from the history of the last two centuries that it was far easier to build empire outside Europe than within it. That was why the great empires had been created by Europe's peripheral powers, Spain, Britain and Russia.
At the turn of the century, as the Americans grabbed the remnants of the Spanish empire, Britain seized the geopolitical and economic core of southern Africa and Russia moved forward seemingly inexorably in east Asia, the Germans had good reason to feel hard-done-by. The calm cheek with which the British and French then proceeded to carve up North Africa, throwing tasty morsels to Spain and eventually Italy while largely ignoring Germany, could justifiably be seen as an affront. Germany's peers seemed to have no inhibitions about using naked force and aggression to grab control of key areas of the globe. Why should she act differently and how could she assert her right to a place in the carve-up of the world unless she had a formidable fleet?
In my view these arguments were at least as important as domestic politics in explaining the building of the German fleet. Nevertheless, it is clear that the navy did play a very useful domestic role from the perspective of Germany's rulers. Since the ruling classes were (by Russian, Spanish or Italian standards quite unnecessarily) unprepared to come to terms with Social Democracy and Germany itself was also fractured along confessional and regional lines, the navy was a very handy means to gain legitimacy for the regime and create a powerful coalition in support of conservative and liberal-conservative governments.
As regards the fleet, it therefore seems to me that there were powerful structural reasons to build it, though I would place rather more weight on international factors than has generally been done by historians in the last four decades. Nevertheless, the unrealistic assumptions about British reactions and German financial possibilities which lay behind the fleet's creation have in part to be blamed on William. Both he and Bulow simply ruled out the possibility of an Anglo-Russian rapprochement because both men were seemingly blind to how Germany's actions might appear to others. Moreover, once the Triple Entente had become a reality William did remain a key obstacle to coming to terms with Britain on naval expansion, despite the increasingly obvious fact that Germany could not afford to match the British construction programme.
Certainly German public opinion was often xenophobic and hysterical, and society was harder to manipulate and lead than had been the case under Bismarck. German society too must take responsibility for the Reich's increasing isolation in Europe. This does not mean, however, that the Kaiser had no room for manoeuvre or that he can be absolved of responsibility for the disaster that he brought on his own people and Europe in 1914. McLean's basic point, namely that William's personality and role deserve careful study, therefore seems to me correct.
The same is true as regards Nicholas II. The obvious example of the tsar's importance as regards foreign policy is the Tsar's personal role in the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War. As McLean rightly points out, by 1902-3 the ministers of foreign affairs, war and finance would all have settled for a deal with Tokyo that balanced concessions over Korea for pre-eminence in Manchuria. It was Nicholas who overruled them, partly because he underestimated the strength and determination of Japan. In addition, although the Emperor denied his ministers the possibility to run policy towards Japan, he did not fill the resulting gap himself. The result was delayed and incoherent policy-making which persuaded the Japanese that the Russians were merely playing for time. Since Japan's programme of naval construction was complete by January 1904 while Russia's required another year, this suspicion was natural and was an additional spur to action for the Japanese government.
The hole in the centre of government in Nicholas's reign applied to much more than the run-up to the war with Japan. Throughout his reign the Emperor remained unable to play the coordinating and policy-initiating roles of chief executive officer while refusing to allow anyone else to do the job for long. In this he was reminiscent of Louis XVI. The situation in Germany was not as serious because the chancellor was in a position to coordinate all branches of the civilian government. Even in Germany, however, the emperor's position as supreme warlord, together with William II's inability to play this role responsibly, did mean that military and civilian policy was not properly coordinated. This was very important in July 1914 and even more so in the winter of 1916-17.
The Japanese Meiji constitution was modelled on that of imperial Germany and shared its weaknesses. Before 1914 coordination and leadership was exercised informally by an extra-constitutional body, the so-called Genro, or council of Meiji-era elder statesmen. Once the latter had died out, the army, navy, diplomatic and domestic political leaderships went their own ways, with disastrous consequences in the 1930s. Given the political traditions of the Hohenzollern dynasty and the great political acumen of some Hohenzollern monarchs, it was not wholly unrealistic to expect the Kaiser to act as chief executive officer of his government. Japanese political culture and the traditions of the Japanese monarchy made it inconceivable that a Japanese emperor should do so.
Even a Frederick II might have found it hard to serve as lifelong head of state and chief executive officer of government under modern conditions, however. Part of the problem lay in the growth of a large, vocal and impatient public opinion, together with parliaments, newspapers and other aspects of civil society through which it could express itself. Both Nicholas II and William II fell victim to this aspect of modernity in rather similar fashion. Politicians who wished to drive the monarch out of active politics used press and parliament to expose scandals at court. The Rasputin and Eulenberg affairs had much in common. If the Rasputin affair proved more fatal, that was above all because in Russia political stability rested more completely than in Germany on the monarchy alone.
By the turn of the twentieth century government was far bigger and more complicated than had been the case even half a century before. Even if monarchs had been surrounded by the sort of secretariats which support a contemporary head of government, they would have found lifelong service in this role to be more than the human frame is designed to bear. Contemporary heads of government are professional politicians who prove their capacity to bear the rigours of executive office by years of survival and advancement in public life. Even so, very few serve more than a decade in top office. By contrast, not merely was a monarch chosen by fate and brought up in the very rarefied world of the imperial palace, by the late nineteenth century rules of succession were strict and palace coups no longer existed (save in Serbia) as a means to correct accidents of heredity.
An interesting sidelight on this issue is presented by the history of imperial China. There a mature monarch might be able to choose the most competent of his many sons to succeed him on the throne, as the Emperor Kangxi chose Yongzheng in the 1720s. As Beatrice Bartlett makes clear in her splendid study of Ching government (Monarchs and Ministers. The Grand Council in Mid Chhing China 1723-1820), few monarchs have equalled either Yongzheng's competence or his devotion to duty. The Emperor faced many decisions of great technical complexity, such as for example the difficulties of projecting and supplying military power in Central Asia, a thousand miles or more from the empire's core. Not coincidentally, Yongzheng died relatively young, commenting that 'one man's strength is not sufficient to run the Empire'.
The point about China was that here developed the world's oldest and most complicated system of bureaucratic government. All the frustrations experienced by the last Romanov tsars as they battled with a growing bureaucracy had long since been encountered by their Chinese counterparts. However much they hated their bureaucracy, no Romanov ever went on strike against it as the Ming Emperor Wanli did for decades in the sixteenth century. So perhaps for Nicholas II and William II the problem in this case was less modernity than bureaucracy. In fact, parliaments, public opinion and the rule of law offered a monarch of great political skill and flexibility weapons for managing bureaucracy that a Chinese emperor could not possess. But neither William II nor Nicholas II were men of great political skill or mental agility. Moreover, to do them justice, the sheer volume and complexity of government business, not to mention the strain of managing increasingly literate and demanding civil societies, made their task even more difficult than that of Yongzheng.
Where foreign policy was concerned, however, a monarch could hope to manage the volume of paper and the officials, and might well feel himself competent to play a leading role. Is Roderick McClean right therefore to assert that Nicholas II was the key figure in the making of Russian foreign policy, and specifically policy towards Germany?
One way to answer this question is to think counter-factually. Could Nicholas II have got away with shifting foreign policy decisively away from the French alliance and towards agreement with Germany? Such a policy would undoubtedly have further isolated the regime from educated society, in which Germany was disliked and the French alliance was popular. A shift would have been opposed by most diplomatic and military leaders. The diplomats saw the French alliance as an essential source of leverage in a continent overshadowed by German power. The generals viewed it as the foundation of Russian security in the event of war. A pro-slav and pro-entente foreign policy was one plank in Stolypin's effort to build bridges to educated society after 1906. But the Russian army was basically loyal and apolitical. The public cared far more about internal than foreign policy in peacetime. Able diplomats and politicians could have been found who would have supported a rapprochement with Germany.
Therefore it seems plausible to argue, especially before 1905 but probably even afterwards, that Nicholas could have shifted Russian foreign policy back towards Germany for a time at least and survived. Certainly he could have tried to do so. This was after all a man who obstinately refused to grant constitutional concessions to public opinion and in the process, by 1916, had isolated himself not just from society but also from the majority of his own leading civil and military officials. Convinced that autocracy was the only possible system of government capable of avoiding social revolution and the empire's disintegration, Nicholas clung to this belief in the face of enormous pressure to change his mind. A major shift in foreign policy would certainly not have required more obstinacy or moral courage than this.
The last tsar's critics would no doubt argue that obstinately clinging to his father's line on autocracy was one thing, possessing the initiative and intelligence fundamentally to change Russia's foreign policy quite another. But one should not over-stress the stupidity of Russia's last monarch. There was a perfectly rational (though maybe mistaken) argument that until the socio-economic foundations of liberalism were stronger the weakening of the autocratic police state was very dangerous. Nor are huge, multi-ethnic empires created by conquest easily preserved by the free consent of their many nationalities in the modern age.
Equally rational and comprehensible to Nicholas II were the bases of Russian foreign policy bequeathed by his father, which rested above all on the alliance with France. In fact Nicholas never wavered in his support for the alliance. In the first years of the twentieth century, when relations with Germany were good and Anglo-Russian relations at their nadir, Nicholas dreamed at times of turning the Franco-Russian alliance into a continental league which would include Germany. Serge Witte among other Russians dreamed the same dream. The abortive Treaty of Bjorkoe was the highpoint of this tendency. But when it was pointed out to the Tsar that hopes of a continental league were for the moment a chimera and that the price of alliance with Germany would be the collapse of the link with Paris, he gave way.
It seems to me therefore that there is much truth in Roderick McLean's view of the crucial importance of the monarch to Russian foreign policy in general and Russo-German relations in particular. In negative terms, Russia's defeat by Japan, for which Nicholas bore major responsibility, undermined the European balance of power and was responsible for many of the tensions that underlay international relations between 1906 and 1914: Russia's humiliation allowed the Central Powers the opportunity to throw their weight around for a time, and then encouraged an enormous and de-stabilising Russian effort to rebuild its armed forces and re-assert its international position.
In more narrow terms, Nicholas was crucial to maintaining the French alliance and then strengthening the Triple Entente because he kept in power ministers of foreign affairs who supported this policy. Of course the Emperor played a smaller day-to-day role in policy-making than his foreign minister. But no major policy was initiated without his consent and a monarch capable of sacking and overruling powerful domestic ministers would not for a moment have hesitated to do the same when his own views and those of his foreign minister diverged. Where the foundations of foreign policy in Europe were concerned this never happened between 1894 and 1914. As is usually the case in this very interesting and well-researched book, Roderick McLean is right to argue that while Nicholas wanted good relations with Germany and put up with the often insufferable William II in the hope of furthering this goal, his basic conception of Russian interests committed him, and therefore Russia, to the French alliance.
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.