Friday, May 6, 2011
As this week marks the anniversary of King Edward VII’s death on May 6, 1910, an opportunity presents itself to review James Anson Farrer’s book England under Edward VII, published in 1922. This book provides an outstanding factual account of the political treaties and intricate alliances that defined the positions of European powers in the Great War. Edward’s reign marked the sunset of the glories of patriotic aspirations in the Western World.
Farrer claims in his book that Edward VII began a policy of interference with the Continental Powers in contrast to Gladstone's Victorian policy of abstention from Continental politics (Farrer 187). This new projection of Great Britain set Europe along two opposing lines: the already existing Triple Alliance and the newly formed Triple Entente (218). Farrer relates an era when the minutest movements of monarchs had global consequences, and because court pageantry was the basis for creating alliances, the royal families of Europe with their foreign ministers could define the course of history almost singlehandedly. King Edward's repeated visits to the Continental monarchs cemented friendships that birthed the pledges of entire armies to the mutual assistance of the nations involved. The result was that Germany's attempts at maintaining the loyalty and expanding the influence of its Triple Alliance were foiled. Due to Edward's brilliant diplomacy, by 1910, Britain, France, Russia, Spain, and Belgium, had entered into friendly agreements with one another to the exclusion of German, and both Germany and Austria-Hungry were virtually encircled. Further, Italy's loyalty to its alliance with Germany seemed unstable. Edward had not only succeeded in disrupting Germany's treaty, but had created an alliance system of its own. Both England and Germany in their efforts to rally Europe to one side or the other claimed they were securing peace for Europe; and both got war in the end.
According to Farrer the real source of anti-English sentiment in Germany was from the Pan-German press, and not from Wilhelm II (45). Farrer references Wilhelm's statements for cordial respect of the intents of other European nations, and points out the disconnect between the motivations of the German and English presses verses the intentions of monarchs. Remember, Wilhelm was Edward's nephew, and cousin to Czar Nicolas II of Russia. These European monarchs were family, and all their international meetings reflected commonality of identity. Yet, the Times and other English papers recorded every move of Germany's as a threat. Wilhelm himself even sent a letter to Great Britain asking the government to restrain the falsehoods. Edward later assured Wilhelm that the view of the press was laughable. Yet, transportation and communication were such that the views of the English press could now fan public opinion into war.
Farrer relates how the systems of alliances were shifted during the Edwardian era to fit their pre-World War I arrangement. First, Germany's protests of England's continued attempts to suppress African resistance in the Boer War set England and Germany at odds (36-62). Then, Edward traveled to Italy which, much to Germany's suspicions, began the unraveling of Italian relations with Germany and Italian affinity for England. On the same trip, Edward visited Paris and began initiated the Dual Entente between France and Britain (66). Next, England excluded Germany in partitioning Morroco between Spain and France (90). Somehow everyone knew they were preparing for a "coming war" between Germany and England (178). Finally, Edward visited Czar Nicolas and guarantied a Triple Entente between England, France, and Russia, dashing any real chances Germany had for gaining a Russian alliance (217-218). The stage was now set for indefinite diplomatic imbalance between the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance, or a more probable war. However, Edward died before seeing the fruition of the new international arrangement.
Perhaps Farrer dismisses a real, historic threat of German aggression given the Franco-Prussian War that would justify Edward in his sudden involvement in the diplomacy of Continental Europe. However, Farrer relies on much primary source work to relate a history of the details of international treaty making during Edward's reign. These details suggest the conclusion that international politics in Edwardian Britain may be viewed in light of World War I rather than as a continuation of Victorian norms. Was Edwardian Britain the end of an earlier Victorian age, or the beginning of the modern international construct? I can do nothing more than to recommend my readers to read Farrer's book and decide for themselves.
Image of Edward VII in coronation robes from Wikipedia