Friday, January 12, 2007

On "ethical imperialism".

A bit of historical minutiae. The phrase in the title isn't mine, nor is it a reworking of Robin Cook's call for a foreign policy "with an ethical dimension" - it's from 1918, a memorandum by Kurt Hahn that contained the cri de coeur of a group of liberal imperialists around Prince Max von Baden. The liberal imperialists formed an editorial committee who ran the periodicals Deutsche Politik, Hilfe and Preussische Jahrbucher, and who corresponded routinely with the political and military leadership of Germany during the war. They wanted them to abandon the war aims of heavy industry, the Pan German League and the army supreme command who tended to annexationism. They composed several memorandums, variously written by Alfred Weber (brother of Max, the sociologist), Kurt Hahn (a propaganda bureau functionary), and the reputed Swiss military author Hermann Stegemann. These they despatched to General Erich von Ludendorff, or to Chancellor Graf von Hertling, and anyone else they could get to listen. They were worried by the prospect of revolution, by the financial burden of the war, by the daily diminution of Germany's powers. They urged that if Germany's power was to be conserved in a central European customs union (the Mitteleuropa idea), they would have to engage in a peace offensive. This meant guaranteeing Belgium's independence, thus leaving Britain to fight only on the Alsace-Lorraine front, which territory alone they might be unwilling to continue the war over.

The Hahn memorandum itself was addressed to the Kaiser by Prince Max. In it, Germany's "glorious" successes and "mighty trumps" are espoused, the withdrawal of Russia from the war and the end of "encirclement" is celebrated, and it is suggested that in the event of peace negotiations, "people would not understand if we were expected to put up with a peace settlement which ignored our military successes. Even the social democratic masses would oppose the grotesque demands of our enemies with anger and a willingness to fight." It suggests that Germany can achieve peace on its terms by forcing Lloyd George to concede Alsace-Lorraine, since the "English workers" would not be willing to fight for these territories. They could gain the assent of the "French workers" with a declaration of autonomy, it is asserted.

Further, to reach a peace settlement that recognised "Germany's supremacy in the East and in Central Europe and of our international standing regarding the seas", it would be essential to cause one of the biggest military powers to withdraw from Entente - and it would have to be England. This would involve a peace offensive with an implicit appeal to a "new humanitarian movement among English workers", and to those interests worried about England being "hypothecated to America" if the latter directed a peace settlement, and finally to the ruling class fear that a continuation of war would lead to a pure workers' administration. But most of all, it would appeal to the fear that what they do to Germany's property in Alsace-Lorraine may one day happen to British property in India. Further, since he who achieves peace "rules in the aftermath" (a reference here to the Russian Revolution), the German monarch could defend itself from the threat of popular rule and "rescue the leadership principle" by making a creditable peace.

Finally, after prolonged (and quite callous) strategic perorations, the document begins to elaborate the basis for "ethical imperialism". The British Empire, it notes, rules with a "moral claim of acting with the consent or for the protection of the established population or endangered British minorities", so that "in exactly the same way, we must try to bring the newborn peoples on the borders of Russia under German influence." Further, "England has never based its claims in the world solely on use of arms, but has consciously shaped world opinion: England's power stands in the service of justice and freedom." "While England went out pillaging, the opposition preserved its world conscience. While England was committing an injustice, men and groups who were possible heirs to power continually protested loudly in their role as the representatives of a better England, and fought and suffered for their beliefs." "Lord Cromer spoke up for Egypt, as only someone could who loves the country for its own sake. The odd Englishman has often even felt obligated to protect the rights of oppressed peoples, even where his country did not have supremacy
and he did not have any authority."

Finally, this declaration: "England's ethical imperialism has now collapsed during the war. If we operate correctly, it may come to the point where the world bursts into derisive laughter, if England once more gives itself airs as the protector of the small nations ... For the sake of the same necessity of war, England has renounced its historic role as protector of the prestige of the white race ... but up to now we always intended to fight only for our own existence, and not for a better world ... But we are in the happy position of being able sincerely to take up the cause of the idea of justice. We do not need to be unjust, in order
to extend our power."

And so on and on, Germany fighting for justice by smashing the Russian empire and guaranteeing "national freedom" to "the liberated peoples". Germany fighting for justice by laying claim to a colonial empire. Germany fighting for justice by promoting the "abolition of militarism" in Africa. Germany using its naval power to protect freedom of the seas "in the service of this aim of humanity". To advance this outstanding commitment to humanity, justice and the "public cause", Germany must develop an imperium embodying its "national ethos". "If German imperialism is to stand up to the onslaught of democracy with its claim to improve the world, it must be ethically grounded ... we must incorporate general human goals into our national will." Well, they didn't get too far at that point with that "ethical imperialism". But others did.