'Hidden History. The Secret Origins of the First World War' by Gerry Docherty & Jim MacGregor
If you read one book about the origins of the First World War this year, it must be this one. On the surface you might believe it is a conspiracy theory book. The bombastic language of the authors rather contributes to that impression. However, this book has been thoroughly researched and is referenced throughout. It builds on work in the 1970s of US academic Professor Carroll Quigley. It shows that rather than Britain being a rather hesitant entrant into the First World War, leading politicians and businessmen had been seeking a showdown with Germany since the early 1900s. It is known that empire-builder Cecil Rhodes had ambitions for British dominance and established groups to foster connections between the USA and Great Britain to secure on a racial basis the leading position of the Anglo-Saxons. This work was continued by Alfred Milner. Recognising the growing strength of Germany, the men who shared Milner's interests went to great efforts to establish situations to weaken Germany. As is known anti-German feeling was fostered through fiction and newspaper stories in the 1900s even when Germany had given up on its attempts to build a superior navy.
Though the sense of a group of politicians, civil servants and businessmen building a path to war, may seem incredible, it is on different to what is often seen as being the case in the groups around the Kaiser. In addition, we know that arms companies had a vested interest in provoking war, so the involvement of businessmen comes as no surprise. The book certainly helps to explain many things that appear pretty strange in the two decades before the First World War. How was it that Britain with a German royal family, ended up in alliance with Russia and France which had been Britain's prime rivals in the late 19th century? Why was so much fuss made over the Moroccan Crises of 1905 and 1911 only for them to be resolved quickly? Why did the British switch for sympathising with Austria-Hungary over the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to emphasising the need to go to war against the country within the space of a month? Why was foreign policy kept in the hands simply of Sir Edward Grey? Why were military plans made with both Belgium and France kept from many ministers let alone parliament? Why was there no real Cabinet discussion on going to war let alone a vote in parliament?
All these things are known facts of British history at the time, but are not questioned or excused with statements which seem irrational. The book highlights how many documents were removed from the archives of the Entente states at the end of the war and how many ended up locked up in Stanford University. Again these are known facts often overlooked, but which have meant histories of the origins of the war have only been able to access a limited number of documents portraying a particular story. This book needs much wider coverage and to be addressed by academic historians. While it does not excuse Germany for its part in the war, it certainly puts it in a broader context and shows that rather than sitting on the sidelines in the lead-up to the war, a very limited number of British politicians with friends in Russia, France and Serbia were thoroughly involved in leading Europe down the path to war. I highly recommend this book.
'The Confession of Brother Haluin' by Ellis Peters
This is the fifteenth Brother Cadfael book and differs from the ones I have recently as it goes outside Shrewsbury into eastern Shropshire, near to Litchfield. Cadfael goes on a mission to aid a monk, Haluin, who is doing penance in thanks for surviving a fall which severely injured him. In going to the tomb of a young woman whose death he believes he caused, Haluin triggers off a process of the unravelling of lies and misunderstanding between two families. The murder in this novel is actually a side issue. It is more focused on Haluin seeking redemption and the impact on a range of people, particularly a number of women that his presence and the subsequent revelations bring about. There is quite a lot of travelling in this book, but its focus on a smaller number of people and on the nature of rural rather than urban England at the time, still affected by the Harrying of the North, adds a different dimension to this book. Less is wrapped up by the end in this book than in some others and the outcomes for a number of the leading characters will not seem satisfactory for modern readers though they might have seemed so in the time when the novel is set.