A study of British historical treatment of the origins of the First World War, 1918-1939
Best, Richard Albin
Rath, R. John
Master of Arts
The connection between historical literature and public opinion relating to foreign policy is the primary concern of this thesis. It deals with British historiography on the origins of the First World War as it evolved in the years 1918-1939. Similarly it traces changing attitudes toward the conduct of foreign policy in the same period. By pointing to close analogies between these two situations, it is possible to suggest the crucial influence which the community of historians, had on the consensus underlying the foreign policy of the British, government in the interwar years. During the War and immediately thereafter the historians laid heavy emphasis on primary German responsibility for the outbreak of hostilities. There was also a contemporaneous desire to recover the costs of the War by forcing the Germans to make reparations payments for the damage they had inflicted on the Allies. From 1919 to 1922 historians were confronted with evidence demonstrating that the Germans had not intended to unleash a European war. This first wave of documentary revelation coincided with a period in which the hopes of peace were wrecked by the widespread turmoil and continuing warfare throughout Europe. Both the historians and the politicians suddenly came to realize the limitations of the positions they maintained at the time of the Paris conference. In the following decade historians and politicians both worked for international understanding and cooperation. The revisionist contention that all European powers shared responsibility for the outbreak of the War became the established historiographical position. Likewise, it was fondly hoped that by avoiding the practices of prewar diplomacy the nations of the world might escape war. This expectation was doomed by the rise of the militaristic fascist states. Nevertheless the politicians in power endeavored to continue the policies of the preceding decade, even though they now served only to strengthen the German position. Some of the historians did, however, come to realize at this time that the best way to deal with aggressive powers is by reliance on the ancient balance of power. Historians, therefore, prepared the way for the foreign policy of the interwar years, but in the end they were among the first to criticize its inherent weaknesses. They did this by demonstrating the essential validity of the approach taken by Sir Edward Grey during his tenure at the Foreign Office.