England and Germany's family fallout
Long before 1914, Teutonophilia had come to define who we are
When Britain and Germany went to war on August 4, 1914, it brought the old world crashing down. It soured Anglo-German relations for decades. But it also subtly changed the way the English had come to see their history and themselves.
As the European crisis had worsened, the British cabinet grew divided between those who wanted a place on a world stage and those who wanted the country to remain that English ideal, the quiet neighbour who keeps himself to himself — the Liberal Imperialists and the Little Englanders.
The latter had a suspicion of foreign entanglements, but the divide also reflected attitudes towards Germany and France; the Little Englanders, in Barbara Tuchman’s words, ‘tended to regard France as the decadent and frivolous grasshopper and would have liked to regard Germany as the industrious, respectable ant had not the posturings and roarings of the Kaiser and the Pan-German militarists somehow discouraged this view.’
Before Prussian militarism had become an overwhelming obsession, British opinion had long favoured Germany over France — and for many the feeling was mutual. Prince Lichnowsky, Germany’s ambassador in London, was a man who ‘belonged to that class of Germans who spoke English and copied English manners, sports and dress, in a strenuous endeavour to become the very pattern of an English gentleman. His fellow noblemen, the Prince of Pless, Prince Blucher and Prince Munster were all married to English wives. At a dinner in Berlin in 1911, in honour of a British general, the guest of honour was astonished to find that all forty German guests, including Bethmann-Hollweg and Admiral Tirpitz, spoke English fluently.’ And yet ‘Lichnowsky differed from his class in that he was not only in manner but in heart an earnest Anglophile.’
Anglophiles tended to be attracted to the British form of government, and its dominant liberalism. The big ‘what if’ of modern European history remains the Emperor Friedrich not developing cancer and dying in 1888, months after inheriting the Prussian-dominated German Empire. Friedrich, married to Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, admired the English parliamentary government, but instead the throne soon passed to his son Wilhelm, afflicted with an inferiority complex towards his mother’s country.
Yet of course his mother’s people were really German, products of that great Teutonic 19th-century export, excess royalty, with figureheads and consorts sent off to Greece, Russia, Belgium, Norway, Romania, Bulgaria and Britain. Edward VII had a slight German accent when it came to certain words; the English upper classes and some of their middle-class imitators spoke German and holidayed in Germany or German-speaking Switzerland. German was the dominant language of high culture, and required for an understanding of most disciplines, from chemistry to Egyptology to music. It’s hard to overstate just how central German culture then was, with German urban elites dominating now-monoethnic cities across eastern Europe.