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Dec 1, 1975

Neilson, “How Diplomats Make War”

There are many ways in which statists do their dirty business.

How Diplomats Make War was first published late in 1915, and with its appearance Francis Neilson became the first in a remarkable procession of writers who were later to be known as the “revisionists.” It is the first work to disrupt the offical explanation of the Allies as to how the Great War of 1914 began, an enterprise in which Neilson was to be later joined by several of his British countrymen, notable Earl Loreburn, E.D. Morel, G. Lowes Dickinson, Raymond Beazley, and G.P. Gooch.

Neilson was a Member of Parliament from January 1910 through the crisis days of July-August 1914, and as such, he is a primary source on British politics leading to involvement in the war, as well as a polished historian of the times. He resigned a month after his book was published. It went into several printings thereafter, the one under discussion bearing a worthy introduction by the doughty opponent of American participation in both world wars, John Haynes Holmes.

This volume involves far more than Neilson’s frustrations as an M.P. during the critical pre-war days and his heated criticisms of the British Foreign Secretary, Earl Grey. Its significance is heightened by being the product of the actual moment by a disaffected member of the British government whose objections and strictures are aimed at his own government’s policy makers and not at the enemy—making it unique in the literature of the wartime era. Neilson had far fewer documents to work with than the post-war scholars who advanced the revisionist cause to formidable dimensions, but his conclusions are remarkably close to theirs.

His basic case involves an attack on “secret” diplomacy as the main factor in precipitating hostilities, though one might observe in retrospect that the hazards of “open” diplomacy are fully as bad—and probably worse—as Neilson’s erudite journalist countryman Sisley Huddleston demonstrated in his superb but fightfully neglected book Popular Diplomacy and War (1954). Neilson expertly disclosed how the secret accords of 1906 (among the Russians, French, Belgians, and British) were masked and the part they subsequently played in spreading an isolated local dispute between the Austrian and Serbian governments into a world war. Then came the superb propaganda ploy of balming the entire course of events upon the Germans, a line which is embalmed in the history taught to most Americans to this very day. (In Neilson’s estimates of eagerness for combat, the Germans rank last among all the powers that ultimately became involved.)

Neilson was also the first to stress the decisive importance of the mobilization of the Russian armed forces as the spark which started in motion the war machines of the rival coalitions of European states. But Neilson was convinced by much evidence that, had British policy made clear during July 1914 that the Russians and French would be supported by British action, no general war would have resulted, that the Germans would have applied more pressure to their Austrian partners to continue negotiations with the Russians over the Serbian crisis, and that the dispute would have remained localized.

Neilson was very critical of the Russian’s involving themselves in the Austro-Serbian affair. And he could not figure out the reason for the eagerness of their military commanders for war, since, of all the powers, Russian was the least threatened by the circumstances of 1914.

With respect to purely British affairs, he maintained that, had the House of Commons had access to all the diplomatic traffic of the Foreign Office in the fateful last week of July 1914, Britain might never have entered the war. He was especially unsatisfied with the government’s use of the violation of Belgian neutrality by the Germans as an excuse for the declaration of war on Germany, when the real reason for the declaration was the secret treaty agreements with the Russians and French.

Neilson, despite his particular hostility to the diplomats and their works, actually expanded the circle of responsibility to include the parallel secret military agreements and their makers. Both gravely undermined the subsequent peace-seeking diplomacy all around, and Neilson cites, among several other examples of this, the determination of the Russian military leaders to circumvent the Czar’s hesitance to order mobilization and the futile efforts of the British foreign secretary to remain neutral while “bound hand and foot by the [1906] plans of the French and British General Staffs,” And so, as Neilson puts it, “the war-weary world rose again, like the phoenix, from the ashes of a million battlefields, to giver her best blood and bone to the insatiable god of war.”

Neilson’s book remains one of the half dozen most important English language revisionist works on the immediate origins of the War of 1914. Reviewed by James J. Martin / History / C. C. Nelson, 1940 (originally published in 1915), out of print