We are delighted to welcome John P Cafferky, the Canadian author of Lord Milner’s Second War to contribute to our Blog.
In January 2013 I published Lord Milner’s War, a theory of the Great War’s origins blaming the catastrophe on a secretive alliance of British imperialists and international bankers. I expected to be a lone voice in the wilderness offering a radically different interpretation. However, some months ago I discovered that Gerry Docherty and Jim Macgregor had published Hidden History (2013), independently proposing essentially the same theory—what a surprise; what a delight! Might this be a case of “an idea whose time has come”? A case, in other words, where the “assault of an idea” might be difficult to resist; might tear down the façade of innocence so carefully nurtures and constructed by those responsible for the disaster—for catastrophe and disaster are words that can barely do justice to a conflict that slaughtered and maimed ordinary people by the millions and established the foundation for a second and even more calamitous war.
The historical instances of “an idea whose time has come” hold me spellbound. In mathematical history, the most celebrated case was the independent discovery of the Calculus by Newton and Leibniz in the late seventeenth century, leading to over a century of rancour over who had priority. However, the most startling instance of this phenomenon was the sudden, independent development of non-Euclidean geometry in the early nineteenth century by Gauss, Bolyai and Lobachevsky respectively, an achievement preceded by two thousand years of fruitless mathematical effort, a critical mathematical foundation that enabled Einstein to express his ideas on Relativity, an idea whose time had truly come. Above all else, what counts is the idea, not the messenger, for like Bolyai the messenger might just disappear, but the idea lives on, having the power to undermine the status quo, to alter perceptions, to topple the ruling paradigm. I am quietly hopeful that our “idea” will spark a reassessment of the 1914 narrative.
Both Hidden History and Lord Milner’s Second War accuse Lord Milner and his associates of bringing about the Great War, but we built our arguments from substantially different sources. When I read Hidden History I was surprised at how few quotes we shared in common: I estimate that we cited only 25% of the same authorities in our respective works. Given the different sources, it is remarkable that our theories have as much as 80% agreement, suggesting our Milner thesis offers a valid, effective and fruitful rubric for interpreting the events of 1914. The central and dangerous idea uniting our work is that the origin of the Great War requires both a detailed analysis of the Milner Group’s responsibilities for the catastrophe and a study on how that Group may have influenced and propelled Britain to take part in the war.
Once I made the decision to investigate Britain’s complicity in precipitating the Great War, my first step was to review German scholarship—after all, the war guilt clause of Versailles lays the blame squarely on Germany. In his landmark book, Germany’s Aims in the First World War, German historian Fritz Fischer accused Germany of belligerent war aims in 1914, indicting her of bearing the principal rensibility for the outbreak of hostilities, effectively agreeing with the Versailles verdict. He further asserted that there was demonstrable continuity between the foreign policy/militarism of Imperial Germany and Nazi Germany, a contention that inflamed his more conservative colleagues. One such colleague, Gerhard Ritter, answered Fischer’s accusations in his four–volume set The Sword and the Sceptre.
For me, the Fischer/Ritter debate provided both enlightenment and liberation so I concluded it did not matter which scholar won the debate because the exercise and the process involved illuminated the history and benefitted everybody. For the record, I thought Ritter had the better argument in that he adhered to the facts, but he comes across as outmoded, a man from a different era. Fischer, while not so strong on the facts, appeared more in tune with a modern democratic Germany so he probably communicates well with the present generation. Of greater importance, a healthy democracy needs to debate its history and a debate presupposes opposing sides, a pro and a con, a prosecutor and a defender. Fischer attempted to slay every sacred cow, to shake up every comfort zone and to challenge every reassuring presumption of German innocence. Ritter responded with a vigorous defense, questioning and confronting Fischer at every turn. In the end, the reader got to make an informed judgment on who had the better argument and an informed reader is a worthwhile prize.
Exhilarated with my Fischer/Ritter readings, I expected to find the same level of vigorous debate among English scholars, a debate that would include all-out attacks on British sacred cows met by an uncompromising defense. Nothing could be further from the truth. British history consists of a one-sided debate with all the participants on the side of the defense, and with none of the participants willing to take on Fischer’s role of prosecutor, a role that may not win many friends and influence people, but a role that is, nonetheless, supremely important. In one hundred years, British scholarship has failed to produce even a little “Fritz Fischer” so Hidden History and Lord Milner’s Second War, perhaps naively—even foolishly—have taken on the role of Devil’s Advocate, challenging the idea of British Foreign Office innocence of the war.
At Jim and Gerry’s invitation, I plan to mark the anniversary of the outbreak of hostilities with a series of short guest blogs outlining an idea whose time, I hope, has come.