Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War

Robert K. Massie

Pimlico 1993
A book review by Danny Yee © 1995 https://dannyreviews.com/
Dreadnought is ostensibly about the relationship between Germany and Britain in the years before the First World War, with a focus on the naval arms race between them. The bulk of it, however, consists of narrative accounts of the major political and diplomatic events in the two countries, mostly presented through biographical sketches of their politicians, diplomats and admirals. These range from short paragraphs on minor figures to extended essays on the more important, and often become ends in themselves: they are largely independent of the broader themes of the volume and in many cases could stand alone.

Dreadnought almost completely ignores economic and social history. There is nothing at all about the working class movements in either country, for example, and at only one point are comparative population and coal/steel production figures for France, Germany and Britain provided. And only once in the entire volume does Massie step away from simple descriptive narrative: after describing the breakdown of Anglo-German alliance negotiations in 1901, he states, rather baldly, that Chamberlain's idea of an alliance with Germany was "ill informed by history".

Massie begins, in part one, with Queen Victoria and the dynastic links between Germany and Britain, then traces the history of the German naval challenge to Britain's supremacy. Here the figures of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Bismarck — the architect of modern Germany — and grand-admiral Tirpitz — the architect of her fleet — loom largest; others described in detail include Holstein ("the monster in the labyrinth") and chancellors Caprivi, Hohenloe, and Bülow. Part two describes British politics and foreign policy up to 1905: sketches of politicians such as Salisbury, Balfour, Joseph Chamberlain and Landsdowne are accompanied by accounts of the "Khaki election" and the dispute over Imperial preference which split the Unionist government. Massie highlights the diplomatic ruptures with Germany — over the Jameson raid and the Krueger telegram, Samoa, the Boer war and the Boxer rebellion — and their culmination in the breakdown of Chamberlain's tentative Anglo-German alliance negotiations, the creation of the Anglo-French entente (despite the dispute over Fashoda), and its first test during the Morocco crisis.

Part three will have the most appeal to those interested in matters naval, who were perhaps drawn by the title and have been suffering through more biography than they expected. It describes the revitalisation of the British navy, the building of the Dreadnought and the other innovations, both technical and strategic, introduced into the British fleet under the aegis of admiral Fisher. Very little information about the German fleet is provided (for example, while the problems with inadequate armour on the British battle-cruisers are mentioned, the far superior ability of German ships to withstand damage is not). The primary focus is still biographical, with Fisher and, to a lesser extent, his rival Beresford claiming most of the stage. (Illustrating this, just one of the book's thirty two pages of photographs is of a ship; the rest are of people.)

Parts four and five continue the story up to the outbreak of war. In Britain the ascendancy of the Liberals, leading up to the Reform Bill and the breaking of the power of the House of Lords, is described through portraits of Campbell-Bannerman, Asquith, Haldane and Grey. The other major figure is Churchill, who played an important role at the Admiralty in the planning and production of further dreadnoughts (and whose exciting early life is also described at length). In Germany Massie narrates the fall of Holstein, the Eulenberg scandal, and the resignation of Bülow. The increase in hostility between the two countries (the popular dimensions of which are explored in a chapter on invasion stories in Britain) was a result of both global diplomatic events — the Anglo-Russian entente and the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria — and more direct ones — the 1909 navy scare, the Daily Telegraph interview with the Kaiser, and the Agadir crisis. Attempts — involving chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, Ballin, successive German ambassadors to Britain, and a mission by Haldane to Berlin — to slow the ship-building race proved fruitless, but the war was probably inevitable anyway. Massie finishes with an account of the London conference and the final progress of events in Berlin and London leading up to the British declaration of war, where Dreadnought comes to a tantalising end. I immediately reread Tuchman's The Guns of August and went and looked up an account of Jutland. A brief account of that battle would have made a good epilogue, balancing the description of Trafalgar used as a prologue.

Naval history buffs will find much of interest in Dreadnought, as will anyone interested in the general history of the pre-war period. For those fascinated by British or German political history and biography during the period, however, it will be a real treat. Massie has produced an outstandingly readable volume; though it contains some nine hundred pages of text, it didn't feel too long at all.

October 1995

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Related reviews:
- books about Britain + British history
- books about Germany + German history
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- more naval history + fiction
- books published by Pimlico
%T Dreadnought
%S Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War
%A Massie, Robert K.
%I Pimlico
%D 1993
%O paperback, b&w photos, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0712653686
%P xxxi,1007pp,32pp b&w photos