"AND how," inquired a visitor to Sans Souci in 1768, "how would Your Majesty define the English system?"

"The English," snapped Frederick the Great, "have no system."

The events of the last six months might appear to confirm this apophthegm.

Yet is it reasonable to suppose that the greatest Empire which the world has ever known has in fact been maintained, as well as created, in a mood of absent-mindedness? Can it be seriously contended that this little dot of land to the west of an Asiatic peninsula has, by mere unconscious cerebration, spread and consolidated one of the few enduring civilizations in human history? Is it really credible that responsibilities as vast as those which have been inherited by the present generation of islanders have not imposed some theory of policy, some habit of extroverted mind? These habits may be little more than congenital instincts. Yet what are those instincts? Are they as valid today as they were before the war? Has the establishment of democratic control of foreign policy rendered these instincts sectional and confused? Is Great Britain abandoning her former directives? Or is the present stage of volatile confusion merely transitional and occasioned only by sudden shiftings in the balances of European power?

Such are the questions which impose themselves today and which, in this article, I shall endeavor to examine.

I am well aware that it would be more expedient for me to postpone what I write until the very last moment before it must go to press. The events of the next few weeks may well disprove my analysis. Yet wisdom after the event is a penurious form of wisdom. It is more stimulating, and in fact more useful, to choose a date (let it be this tenth of May 1936) at which the future of British policy is still obscure; and to examine that obscurity in terms of the probable. What, in other words, are the elements of the present confusion and into what pattern of policy is the present jumble of shapeless factors most likely to fall? The course of the next two months may, or may not, give a conclusive answer to that question; let us examine our uncertainties as they stand today.

As a basis for such an examination I shall take one of the most considered and intelligent definitions of British policy ever made. On January 1, 1907, Sir Eyre Crowe -- at that time head of the Western Department of the Foreign Office -- wrote a confidential memorandum upon Anglo-German relations. This memorandum has since been published.[i] It embodies a careful definition of the historical principles of British policy as well as an acute analysis of German intentions. Let me summarize the main points of the Crowe memorandum and then consider to what extent the fundamentals which he discovered are valid in this postwar world.

II

Sir Eyre Crowe took as his axiom the incontestable premise that British policy was determined by geography. On the one hand you had a small island situated on the exposed flank of Europe. On the other hand you had a vast Empire stretching tremulously across the world. The law of self-preservation necessitated the maintenance of the food supplies of the island and the safety of its communications with its overseas Empire. This dual necessity in its turn implied preponderance of sea-power against any possible enemy.

This maritime preponderance would, if abused, arouse feelings of resentment and jealousy throughout the world. It must therefore be exercised with the utmost benevolence and with the minimum of provocation. It must be "closely identified with the primary and vital interests of a majority of other nations." What were these primary interests? The first was independence, the second was trade. British policy must therefore maintain the open door and free trade, and it must at the same time show "a direct and positive interest" in the independence of small nations. Great Britain must thus recognize herself as the "natural enemy" of any country threatening the independence of smaller countries. The doctrine of the "Balance of Power" thus assumed for Great Britain a constant form. It meant that she must be "opposed to the political dictatorship of the strongest single State or group of States at any given time." This opposition Crowe defined as "a law of nature."

Having in this way laid down the basic principles of British policy, Sir Eyre Crowe then examined how those principles applied to Anglo-German relations as they stood on that January 1, 1907. He started from the assumption that since 1871 the "Prussian spirit" had been the directive force in German politics. He defined that spirit as follows:

In no other country is there a conviction so deeply rooted in the very body and soul of all classes of the population that the preservation of national rights and the realization of national ideals rest absolutely on the readiness of every citizen in the last resort to stake himself and his State on their assertion and vindication.

He then traced the development of the German national ideal from the conception of a United Germany as a strong Power in Europe to the later conception of Germany as a World Power with "her place in the sun." He indicated that this latter conception took two forms. The first was that contained in the formula the "Ausbreitung des deutschen Volkstums," which he defined as "vague and undefined schemes of Teutonic expansion." The second manifested itself in "self-assertiveness" and in the theory that Germany, by acquiring what we now call "nuisancevalue," could secure that no great international problem could be settled without her consent.

Sir Eyre Crowe then passed to the consideration whether Germany was aiming at that political hegemony which, as a "law of nature," would incur the opposition of Great Britain. He doubted whether that could be her conscious intention, since a prerequisite of any such policy would be initial good relations with Great Britain. "Its success," he wrote, "must depend very materially on England's remaining blind to it and being kept in good humor until the moment arrived for striking the blow fatal to her power." Yet Germany, in 1907, so far from conciliating Great Britain, was doing everything within her power to outrage British opinion. Sir Eyre Crowe concluded, therefore, that Germany's policy "is in reality no more than the expression of a vague, confused, and unpractical statesmanship, not fully realizing its own drift." Germany, he argued, "does not really know what she is driving at" and this, in his view, explained the "erratic, domineering and often frankly aggressive" spirit which the policy of the Wilhelmstrasse displayed. Only by her blind ignorance of her own course could he account for "the impetuous mobility, the bewildering surprises, and the heedless disregard of the susceptibilities of other people" so characteristic of German prewar policy.

Students of the Bülow memoirs, of the "Grosse Politik," or of such works as Haller's "Die Aera Bülow" or Theodor Wolff's "Vorspiel," will realize how brilliantly correct was Sir Eyre Crowe's diagnosis. I propose to take this diagnosis as the basis for my examination of British, as of German, policy some thirty years later.

III

Let me begin with Germany. How far is Sir Eyre Crowe's diagnosis applicable to the Third Reich?

It would be agreed, I suppose, that the "Prussian spirit," as defined by Sir Eyre Crowe, is still the dominant emotional impulse in Nazi Germany. "It is an axiom," he wrote in 1907, "of the Prussian faith that right must be backed by force." The whole of Hitler's policy is based upon this assumption.

It would be agreed, again, that Teutonic expansion is still an aim of Berlin policy, nor would any observer of the German idea question the general applicability to modern times of Sir Eyre Crowe's definition of that faith:

But the vague and undefined schemes of Teutonic expansion ("die Ausbreitung des deutschen Volkstums") are but the expression of the deeply rooted feeling that Germany has by the strength and purity of her national purpose, the fervor of her patriotism, the depth of her religious feeling, the high standard of competency, and the perspicuous honesty of her administration, the successful pursuit of every branch of public and scientific activity, and the elevated character of her philosophy, art, and ethics, established for herself the right to assert the primacy of German national ideals.

It would be accepted also that the old nervous mobility, the old undue suspiciousness, the old passion for dramatic trials of strength ("Kraftprobe") and the old national touchiness are still features of German foreign policy.

Must it be contended, therefore, that Germany has learnt nothing from the ordeals of the last twenty years and that for all purposes of policy we find ourselves back in 1907 and faced again with the alternatives of German hegemony or of a second German War?

The pessimist would argue that all the factors which contributed to the conflagration of 1914 are present in modern Germany and in an even more extravagant form. The directors of German policy are today every whit as irresponsible as were Bülow or William II and far more ignorant. Public opinion is every whit as gullible and every whit as subject to mass hallucinations. Criticism is stifled as never before. The old self-assertiveness, the old gestures of provocation to right and left, are again beginning to make their appearance. The appalling unreliability of German honor has been emphasized rather than diminished. Germany still claims to be a law unto herself. "Nobody except the German people," exclaimed Göring at Dortmund, "have the right to decide whether Germany has acted correctly or not." Nor is there any diminution of the former disregard of ultimate consequences which brought the Second Reich to so sudden a doom. "I go the way which fate has shown me," screamed Hitler recently, "with all the certainty of a somnambulist." This "nacht-wandlerische Sicherheit" on the part of a dictator is not a reassuring symptom. Germany of today has, moreover, far less to lose and far more to gain. And behind it all is the dread destiny of all dictatorships which can only succeed by excess. There is thus some justification for the pessimist's contention.

It might be argued also that the main difference which distinguishes the policy of Hitler from that of Bülow is in itself a proof of sinister intention. It will be remembered that Sir Eyre Crowe dismissed the theory that Germany was consciously aiming at European and ultimately at world hegemony on the ground that if that were her purpose she would strain every nerve to lull Great Britain into quiescence until the time was ripe. Bülow omitted nothing which was calculated to render the British Empire hostile and alert. Hitler, for his part, omits nothing which can attract British sentiment. His every gesture, his every speech, is calculated to flatter British vanity and to reassure our anxieties regarding his intentions. The pessimist would argue that this proves that the Third Reich has learnt at least one lesson from the war -- namely, that Germany must firmly establish her hegemony over Europe before she can hope to challenge Great Britain for the leadership of the world.

The German plan, according to this pessimist, is fully apparent. She has occupied the Rhineland zone and so soon as (with the assistance of British opinion) she has forced France to consent to the construction of a German "Maginot Line," she will be safe upon her western border. She will then turn to the East. A Nazi rising at Vienna will be the prelude for the absorption of Austria and for the encirclement of Czechoslovakia. Hungary will be forced into the system and German influence will then become paramount over the Czechs, the Rumanians and the Jugoslavs. Poland will then be obliged to come to a decision and could look for but little help from France. Having thereby achieved Mittel-Europa, Germany would think again of the Drang Nach Osten. Bulgaria would be glad to assist her. Greece would be too weak to protest. From such a position Germany could gather within her reach the Dardanelles, the Bosphorus and the rich grainlands of the Ukraine. It would be only when she had entrenched herself in such a position that she would turn westwards and deal with England and France. And then, in its unutterable horror, would come the Second German War.

It would be unwise to dismiss this nightmare as a mere fantasy of a distressed mind. That such a scheme is at the core of present German policy is the firm conviction of the French. This conviction is passionately shared by France's Eastern associates. Only in London is it regarded with a certain cloudy skepticism. Are we in fact too optimistic?

A perusal of "Mein Kampf" would furnish some grounds for such a theory. In that strange work (the English edition of which has been shorn of its more menacing passages), Hitler lays it down that the aim of German policy is to acquire more "Grund und Boden," more "earth and territory," in Eastern Europe. This area for the expansion of the German people can be found "in the first place in Russia and the subject states upon her borders." Yet how can such expansion be carried out unless Germany acquires protection for her rear ("Rückendeckung") as against France? France is defined in "Mein Kampf" as our "mortal enemy." "The pitiless and undying enemy of Germany," writes Hitler, "is, and remains, France." Now France can only be neutralized by acquiring the support of England and Italy. To obtain that support Germany should be prepared to endure any sacrifice or humiliation. She must lull England and Italy into a sense of security and obtain their support. "In this way," writes Hitler, "Germany would be given a chance of preparing without interference for a final settlement with France." Having in this manner disposed of France, Germany could then turn to the East and acquire the necessary "Grund und Boden." True it is that such territory belongs to other people. Yet Germany must be conscious of her destiny. "Above all," writes Hitler, "we are not policemen charged with the duty of protecting poor little nations; we are the soldiers of our own nation." And as the ultimate justification remains the terrible old formula of "Weltmacht oder Niedergang." "Germany," proclaims Hitler, "must either become a World Power or cease completely to exist."

These pronouncements are disturbing enough. Yet there is something to be said on the optimistic side.

Even supposing that Herr Hitler's "destiny" assumes such shapes in his more somnambulistic moments, the scheme is one of such gigantic implications that it would take many years to complete. Nor would it fail to meet with active opposition from Russia, the smaller states and possibly France and Belgium. Before we accept such a course as inevitable it is well to glance at the proportions of power which could be arrayed against it. Even if we assume that Great Britain could remain isolated, these figures represent great power. France, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Rumania, Jugoslavia and Soviet Russia could place nearly seven million men in the field and provide some six thousand five hundred front line aëroplanes. Germany could scarcely equip an army of much more than half a million, and even at the highest estimate her front line aëroplanes would not number more than one thousand five hundred. It is doubtful whether Hitler, even in moments of extreme somnambulism, would openly challenge such a coalition. The Reichswehr, who still hold the trump cards in Germany, are determined not to expose the German army to a second defeat. Nor is it necessary even now to eliminate the League of Nations as a factor in the slow but progressive compulsion of the rule of law.

Were we dealing with rational people it should be possible, therefore, to dismiss the idea of immediate German hegemony as a mere daydream on the part of certain French and German publicists. But Germany is not today a rational country. Allowance must always be made for the mass hysteria of the modern German, and of his infinite lust for self-immolation. Suicide can never be ruled out when one is dealing with suicidal maniacs.

Yet in all probability the course of German policy will be less torrential than that indicated above. German concentration on the Drang nach Osten will be diluted by other desires. There will be the desire to include all "Germans" (even Danish or Swiss citizens) within the orbit of the Reich. There will be the desire for colonial prestige and the place in the sun. To some slight extent these desires will cancel themselves out.

Nor should one underestimate the fact that Europe (even Great Britain) is far more aware of what constitutes the Prussian spirit than it was in 1913. Hitler, in so far as British opinion is concerned, has succeeded with his Rhineland coup and will probably succeed with his amalgamation of Austria; but a series of such trials of strength will in the end arouse to a sense of danger even the placid optimism of the British. Should that happen, our public (which is becoming conscious that Germany can in the last resort be restrained only by force) may unwillingly be stirred by instincts of self-preservation. And once again Germany, by her arrogant fault, will have created her own encirclement.

IV

If, then, the spirit of German policy has in effect changed but little since Sir Eyre Crowe made his famous diagnosis of 1907, can it be said with equal certitude that his definition of the principles of British policy has today lost none of its validity?

The axioms remain the same. Geography is still the determining factor and self-preservation the determining instinct. The Channel is still but twenty-five miles wide. Sea-power coupled with resistance to any hegemony in Europe are still the two main foundations upon which British policy should be based. How comes it, then, that a policy founded upon such clear and unvarying necessities has of late appeared to vacillate and lose its sense of direction? The answers to these questions can, I think, be grouped under two main headings. In the first place there has occurred, since 1907, an alteration in the national will. In the second place certain new factors have obtruded since 1907, the exact force of which we are still unable nationally to estimate. Thus on the one hand we are less positive than we once were regarding the validity of our own purposes; and on the other hand the pursuit of these purposes has become infinitely more difficult. At the very moment when our desire has diminished, our obstructions have increased.

Let me first consider this alteration, or this shift of incidence, in our national will.

When in 1907 Sir Eyre Crowe composed his memorandum, he could count upon certain generally accepted fundamentals. He would have assumed, for instance, that the majority of the British electorate were what was then called "patriotic." This meant that the government could count upon an ultimate national determination to defend, not only our soil and our imperial communications, but also what was known as "our rights and interests." This vague expression was at that time the British equivalent of what the Nazis now term "national honor." It was a most elastic formula, and therefore a most dangerous one.

Nor was this the only assumption upon which Sir Eyre Crowe based his memorandum. He would have taken it for granted that in the event of war our home-lands and our capital were to all intents and purposes unassailable. And he would have assumed that the British Navy, by sheer force of tonnage and gun-power, would in the end enforce the capitulation of our enemies. Which, indirectly and most protractedly, was what in the ultimate event occurred. Yet our victory entailed upon the electorate a strain which they had not expected. And today they are fully conscious that in the next war this strain will be infinitely more acute.

Nor is this the only change. It is not only that the enhanced influence of left-wing opinion has caused the old ideals to be associated in many minds with aristocratic government; it is that the upper classes themselves have to some extent lost the old imperial habit in their fear of social disturbance. Nor, in these days of submarines, mines and aircraft, is our reliance on the Navy as an immediate protector and an ultimate victor as unquestioning as it was before the war.

To these symptoms of an alteration (it would be a mistake to call it a decline) in national will-power has been added since the war a deep and wide current of pacifism. In 1907 the majority of the British people regarded war as a final solution which, however unpleasant it might be, affected only a prepared section of the population, and furnished opportunities for heroism and glory. Today, there is scarcely a man or woman who suffers from any such illusion. On the one hand we now know that war, even for the victorious, is almost unbearable; on the other hand we are all too conscious that in the next war it will be the whole people, and not only the armies, who are exposed to danger and suffering. It may be said without question that in England today the very conception of war is execrated even as it is execrated in the United States. This feeling, which cannot be disregarded by any government, unsettles the whole foundation of Sir Eyre Crowe's assumptions, since in the last resort his principles depended for their execution upon the employment of national force.

These dual tendencies, on the one hand towards a lessening of imperial ambition, and on the other to an enormous increase of extreme pacificism, have been encouraged by two factors which were not seriously operative in 1907.

On the one hand, the emergence of Oriental nationalism, added to a general increase in humanitarian ideas, have rendered the exercise of Empire at once more difficult and less popular. On the other hand our sense of insular security has, since the war, largely disappeared. The public are dimly aware that in April 1917 the German submarine campaign almost brought us to the verge of starvation. Although they also know that the submarine peril can nowadays be kept within bounds, yet they have a very vivid consciousness that today the predominance of big battleships is by no means certain or swift. At the same time they have come to suspect that London is, of all great capitals, the most vulnerable to air attack, and they no longer look upon the Channel as a moat of safety but regard it as a vital area which, owing to its liquid condition, provides no basis for aërial defense. Their idealistic pacifism is thus fortified and increased by a perfectly vivid consciousness that our own island is no longer immune from attack.

V

It will be seen, therefore, that that skepticism, that sense of relativity, that disbelief in the absolute, which has shifted the former firm foundations of religion and ethics has also dislocated the basis upon which Sir Eyre Crowe's principles rested. British democracy demands today a greater control over foreign policy than it ever expected to exercise in 1907. It is fully conscious of the rights of sovereignty but it is not as yet fully aware of those duties of thought and responsibility which those rights imply. It thus endeavors to influence policy in terms of momentary emotion without troubling overmuch to translate that emotion into terms of thought. And in this process it is encouraged and at the same time misled by the sensationalism and wayward theory of the popular press.

The foreign observer may be tempted to exaggerate these symptoms. He may incline to interpret our pacifism as a purely negative defeatism of the "peace at any price" form. He may deduce from our present aversion from all European entanglements a general and lasting desire for isolation. He may be so impressed by the present wave of "pro-German" and "anti-French" feeling that he will mistake this for a strong tide of public opinion leading to some new orientation. He may imagine that the increasing independence of the Dominions, the increasing difficulty of administering alien races, our extreme preoccupation with internal social problems, mean the approaching end, not of imperialism only, but also of Empire. And he may conclude that Great Britain, having at long last become a complete democracy, is no longer strong-willed or even interested enough to maintain her vast responsibilities. Such a judgment would, in my opinion, be superficial or at least premature. For behind all the oscillations of recent opinion, behind the haze of our incertitudes, one can still detect the slow but steady beat of our hereditary principles. These principles are no longer identical with those laid down in 1907 in the Crowe memorandum. They are less ambitious and less extensive. How far can they be traced through the inconsistencies and fluctuations of the last six months?

Let us shortly recall those inconsistencies. In September last Sir Samuel Hoare, then Foreign Secretary, pledged us publicly to the whole-hearted support of the League of Nations. The General Election of November proved that in this policy the National Government had the practically unanimous support of the country. In December came the Hoare-Laval agreement, which was interpreted by public opinion as an abandonment of League principles. The ensuing outburst of indignation was so immediate and universal that Mr. Baldwin was forced to apologize and Sir Samuel Hoare was forced to resign. To many of us this demonstration of public will was a remarkable event; it has been characterized by Sir Alfred Zimmern in the pages of this review as "a turning point in the history of the democratic control of foreign affairs." It appeared to the whole world that British opinion was prepared to face any sacrifice in order to demonstrate that the rule of violence in international relations had been replaced by the rule of law.

On March 7 last Hitler committed a violent and unprovoked attack upon the rule of law. He tore up a Treaty which Germany had signed of her own volition and for which, at the time of signature, she had received great benefits. Yet in the face of this aggression the British public remained unmoved. When the French claimed that on this occasion also the rule of law must be reëstablished by collective action, the British public accused them of being "legalistic." It was due solely to the courage and integrity of Mr. Anthony Eden that Great Britain, during those anxious days, was saved from an actual breach of faith.

On this May 10, 1936, it seems plain that Mussolini will succeed in imposing upon Ethiopia a capitulation far more onerous than anything suggested in the Hoare-Laval proposals. Will British opinion continue to manifest the same righteous indignation which it manifested in December last? The provocation, owing to Mussolini's use of poison gas to effect his victories, is more flagrant than before. But the wave of fury that burst in December appears today to have spent its force.

These fluctuations within a short period of six months would seem to indicate that British opinion has lost all sense of direction and is guided only by the squalls of momentary passion. Yet behind all this oscillation there lies a certain instinctive judgment, which, although almost inarticulate, is not wholly selfish and not wholly unsound. What is that instinctive judgment?

VI

The British people have for long realized that the world is divided between those countries which believe in the rule of law and those which believe in the rule of force. Until quite recently they hoped that the former, in that they were more numerous and powerful, would be able to restrain the latter. They believed also that these restrictions could be imposed by the pacific pressure of economic sanctions applied collectively under mandate from the League of Nations. The Japanese, and above all the Abyssinian, episodes have now convinced them that when dealing with a strong and audacious country something more than pacific pressure must be applied.

What is that "something more"? The British people realize today that in our endeavor to set an example of disarmament we weakened ourselves to a point where our physical authority became insufficient to support our moral authority. They recognize, although most unwillingly, that we must rearm against the aggressive countries, and that such rearmament represents a step backwards. They are determined, however, that Europe shall not fall back into the old system of armed alliances leading to war. They thus regard our rearmament as a temporary expedient to reinforce our moral or pacific authority. And they insist that the League idea and the principle of collective security should be maintained. Beyond these vague hopes they have not the mental energy or courage to imagine further.

Obviously it is for the rulers of British opinion to lead the public towards that further conception. Several different roads now present themselves. Shall we adopt isolation, sever ourselves from all League entanglements, and merely proclaim a "Monroe doctrine" to the effect that an unprovoked attack upon French, Belgian or Dutch territory will be taken as an attack upon themselves? Shall we adopt a "realistic" policy and contend that the League must be reformed on a basis of areas of certainty applying to regional interests? Under this system every Great Power would pledge itself to use force in defense of the League only over a certain limited area coincident with its own national interests. In all other areas it would merely pledge itself to render to the League moral and economic support. Or shall we endeavor to recreate collective security by building up a real striking force at the disposal of the League and by ear-marking for such a force a certain proportion of our navy, army and air force?

The first alternative would in fact mean that we surrendered Eastern Europe to German hegemony and thereby secured peace, perhaps only for a single generation, with the certainty of an eventually disastrous war. The third alternative would not furnish that certainty in international affairs which is the basis of any feeling of security. How, for instance, could we be positive that in the event of a German attack upon Memel, the British public would really send detachments to fight for Lithuania? It is thus, in all probability, upon the second alternative that general opinion in this country will concentrate. Under that alternative we promise nothing that we should, when the moment came, be unlikely to perform. And from such a basis of comparative certainty we might be able to reconstruct a new temple of sanity and peace.

Let it be assumed, as we must I think assume, that in this Italian venture we have failed miserably. Clearly there have been mistakes of intention and of action. It would be an error, none the less, to suppose that this failure will lead to a completely new course. As a whole, the public realize that our failure was due to no serious diplomatic fault of our own. They fully appreciate the fact that Mr. Eden has been wise, courageous and consistent. And they are comforted by another even more important fact. We, being a democracy, can stand this humiliation with but a blink of our left eyelid; no dictatorship could survive such a diplomatic defeat; we are, therefore, stronger in the end than any dictatorship.

And can it be questioned, in the last resort, that France and Great Britain stand together, not merely geographically, but spiritually? Surely it must be generally recognized that whatever our faults and differences we do, in fact, stand for a type of human theory higher than that of Mussolini or Göring. The dictators may, by the use of violence, triumph temporarily. Yet, with all our muddle-headedness, we know that the conscience of mankind will, if we remain calm and generous, be overwhelmingly upon our side.

[i] Cf. Gooch and Temperley, "British Documents on the Origins of the War, 1898-1914," V. III, p. 397-420. The memorandum has also been published as a pamphlet by "Friends of Europe," 122, St. Stephen's House, Westminster, London, S. W. 1.

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  • HAROLD NICOLSON, M.P., formerly in the British diplomatic service, author of "Peacemaking 1919," "Curzon: the Last Phase, 1919-1925," "Dwight Morrow," and other works
  • More By Harold Nicolson