England or Germany ?

Author: 
Year: 
1915

This was one of Harris' least popular and successful books. It was portrayed as 'taking the German side' in the then raging First World War, and gained him the enmity of Arnold Bennett and others. In a more accurate view, Harris' purpose was to persuade America to stay out of the conflict. But his stated motives were different: he felt that the Germans were being unfairly depicted as militaristic brutes, and that a simplistic view of the conflict as 'good' (the British) versus 'evil' (the Germans) was being generally propagated. He wanted to promote a more balanced and sane view.

What he did not say, but which is apparent to anyone knowing something of Harris' life at this time, was that he had another, deeper, motive: his disillusionment with England. He had served six months in Brixton prison for contempt of court; not long after his release he was declared bankrupt and had to leave the country to avoid his creditors: he made for Paris and then had to flee again for the United States when Germany invaded France.

Thus born out of his feelings about England and the war, this book is a most personal and emotional account. His bitterness about British society and its legal system lends his argument an engaging vehemence and directness. In the first third of the book he barely mentions Germany. His 'pro-German' tract is in fact little of the kind: he had a remembered fondness for Germany from his youth, he felt that in many ways German society was fairer to its poorest and weakest members, but he confessed that his knowledge was limited (he was right to hold up the German aristocrat as typically less greedy than his British counterpart of the time, but the Kaiser's court was corruptingly sycophantic in a way that would have horrified him). He asserted that he knew more of German ways and values than many critics who were almost proud of their ignorance, but he made no claim that the German actions leading up to the war were justified, simply that they were hardly worse than those of their antagonists, who claimed moral justification but had their commercial interests more in mind.

After he finishes attacking English society and has made some attempt to justify Germany, he describes his experiences in the siege of Paris. What bearing this was supposed to have on his argument, unless the mere fact of his direct involvement should lend strength to his cause, I do not know, but it is welcome all the same for its vividness and interest. Harris' direct, muscular prose is often at its best in the service of scenes of action and strong feeling, and these passages are no exception.

As well as the excitement of the Paris chapter, what strikes one about this book is how accurately Harris saw what would happen if Germany lost the war:-

...if she be defeated and forced to accept conditions of peace, she will spring again to power quicker than before and will then be unable to make any mistake as to her real foe : sooner or later Germany and England must fight their quarrel out or reach a settlement by agreement.

What a shame that this fascinating book was only ever published in one cheap edition and now is so hard to find. Anyone who has an interest in popular perceptions of the First World War would find it worth their trouble, indeed I would recommend it to a wider readership. Harris' description of Winston Churchill as an "arriviste ... without reading or genius" is priceless in itself.

Selected editions: 
Publisher: 
The Wilmarth Press
Year: 
1915
Format: 
small 8o
Country: 
US
Pagination: 
4-187
Binding: 
Cloth.
Notes: