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Did Frank Harris Cause the First World War?

A somewhat facetious question, perhaps, to which the answer is firmly in the negative, yet Frank Harris was at one time numbered among those who agitated for a war against Germany. Articles he published in the Saturday Review in the 1890s were so virulent that Wilhelm II himself was perturbed by them. Harris's later opposition to the war, as expressed in his 1915 book England or Germany? is rather better known, and it has not often been noted how radical a change of position it was for him.

Hugh Kingsmill's Frank Harris describes how anti-German the Saturday Review was under Harris, and attributes this to hero-worship of Bismarck. Harris tremendously admired Bismarck and identified with him, so when Wilhelm forced him to resign in 1890 Harris was outraged and moved to attack Wilhelm, whom he adjudged vain and stupid. Even so, if one reads the articles that Wilhelm was most alarmed by, those he lists in his Vergleichende-Geschichtstabellen (translated as Comparative History, 1878-1914) , one cannot help but be struck by the alarming sabre-rattling on show, a horrifying foretaste of what would come two decades later.

Kingsmill implies the articles referred to by Wilhelm were all written by Frank Harris, though one at least was not. Nevertheless, Harris was proprietor and editor at the time and would not have printed such inflammatory matter if he did not largely agree with it.

Ironically, these articles have been quoted by the antisemite Steffen Werner and other defenders of Hitler as evidence of a semi-secret "War Party against Germany" amongst the British upper class. There is no doubt they reflect the sentiments of a reactionary strand of Englishman, but to make them the voice of a conspiracy rather than a breed of crank is to mightily overstate their importance. It is especially a stretch to use some pieces that Harris printed between 1895 and 1897 to support a picture of Hitler as the victim of aggression rather than the perpetrator, four decades later.

So what did these articles actually say? In August 1895 the first appeared, an argument against those who advised allying with Germany against France:

[...] we English have always made war hitherto upon our rivals in trade and commerce; and our chief rival in trade and commerce to-day is not France but Germany. In case of a war with Germany, we should stand to win much and lose nothing; whereas, in case of a war with France, no matter what the issue might be, we stand to lose heavily.

Then in February 1896, there was an article by "a biologist" - said by the Hitler-defenders to be Sir Philip Chalmers Mitchell - that, starting from a Darwinian notion of species competing for resources, stirs in a large measure of racism to form a specious argument that war with Germany was inevitable, being determined by biology. That being the case, we, the British, should arm ourselves and prepare. Germany must be destroyed.

Finally, in September 1897, there came the third of these articles, this one by its style almost certainly written by Frank Harris:

Prince Bismarck has long recognised what at length the people of England are beginning to understand - that in Europe there are two great, irreconcilable, opposing forces, two great nations who would make the whole world their province, and who would levy from it the tribute of commerce. England, with her long history of successful aggression, with her marvellous conviction that in pursuing her own interests she is spreading light among nations dwelling in darkness, and Germany, bone of the same bone, blood of the same blood, with a lesser will-force, but, perhaps, with a keener intelligence, compete in every corner of the globe. In the Transvaal, at the Cape, in Central Africa, in India and the East, in the islands of the Southern sea, and in the fair North-West, wherever - and where has it not ? - the flag has followed the Bible and trade has followed the flag, there the German bagman is struggling with the English pedlar. Is there a mine, to exploit, a railway to build, a native to convert from breadfruit to tinned meat, from temperance to trade gin, the German and the Englishman are struggling to be first. A million petty disputes build up the greatest cause of war the world has ever seen. If Germany were extinguished to-morrow, the day after to-morrow there is not an Englishman in the world who would not be the richer. Nations have fought for years over a city or a right of succession; must they not fight for two hundred million pounds of commerce? 

[...] Our work over, we need not even be at pains to alter Bismarck's words to Ferry, and to say to France and Russia 'Seek some compensation. Take inside Germany whatever you like: you can have it.' 

[...] 'Germania esse delendam.' [Germany must be destroyed]

It is incredible that this was written by the same hand as England or Germany?, which was a forthright response to the ubiquitous British propaganda of the time, propaganda which crudely painted Germans as savage brutes. In his book Harris reminded the reader that Germany had produced Goethe, Heine and Beethoven, and pointed out how uncultured British society could be. 

At some point in the intervening years one assumes he must have regretted making the Saturday Review the voice of such extreme anti-German sentiment, and England or Germany? is perhaps to some extent an atonement.


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