The Genesis of the "A.B.C." Memorandum of 1901
Who wrote the A.B.C. memo? What was its influence, and was that influence confined to Great Britain? It so clearly describes not only the ambitions but the practice of aggressive imperialism that one assumes key cabinet ministers in government in August, 1914 must have kept it as their bedtime reading....
The following is offered as a reply:
An article entitled 'British Foreign Policy' appeared in The National Review, a monthly journal under the editorship of Conservative publicist Leo Maxse, in November 1901. It was presented to the public as the work of 'A.B.C. etc.' Advocating a policy of hostility towards Germany and friendship with Russia (and by extension, France), the article created something of a sensation at the time, and foreshadowed the so-called 'Diplomatic Revolution' which saw Britain emerge from 'Splendid Isolation, ' first with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of January 1902, then the Anglo-French Entente of April, 1904 and finally the Anglo-Russian Convention, negotiated by Sir Edward Grey in 1907.
The first year of the twentieth century was an important one in the history of Great Britain and the rest of Europe. The Boer War continued to rage in South Africa and the course of events there made Britain as unpopular abroad as she had ever been. Beginning with the abortive Jameson Raid in 1895, the Boer Republics had become a particularly dangerous sore-spot in the traditionally close relationship between the British and German Empires. It is important to realize that the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894 (also called the Dual Alliance) was not perceived at this time as being directed so much against Germany as against Britain. British and Russian interests clashed in China (Manchuria, Port Arthur, Sinkiang and Korea), Tibet, Afghanistan, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire; Britain and France had been on the brink of war in November 1898 because of Fashoda on the Upper Nile.
Faced with increasing Franco-Russian hostility throughout most of the 1890's, the makers of British Foreign Policy, and in particular, the influential Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain (Neville
Chamberlain's father), advocated closer ties and perhaps a full alliance with the German Empire. In two major speeches, one in Birmingham in 1898 and the other in Leicester (December,1899), Chamberlain spoke in favor of an Anglo-German and even an Anglo-American-German Alliance of the Teutonic Peoples. But Britain's war with the Boers (who were of perceived Germanic descent) made an Anglo-German Alliance extremely unpopular with patriots in Germany. This did not prevent high-level behind-the-scenes conversations between German and British leaders aiming towards an alliance between 1898 and 1901. Aiding these negotiations was the fact that there were unusually close relations between Queen Victoria (who was both Russophobe and Germanophile) and her grand-son, Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Queen Victoria died in January of 1901; the Kaiser had rushed to her sick-bed. The British Foreign Secretary, Lord Lansdowne, continued to negotiate with the Germans about a possible Alliance throughout the year. But the Germans were difficult; they wanted an agreement which
would include the whole of the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy), and in this, Lord Lansdowne was not interested. German policy during this time was based on the principle of what was called 'The Free Hand;' believing that a war between Great Britain and Russia
was inevitable, the Germans (the actual architect of this policy seems to be Baron von Holstein) determined to commit themselves to neither side and thereby gain concessions from both. The construction of the German Fleet, so often seen as the cause of conflict between Germany and
Britain, was actually undertaken in order to increase Germany's 'Alliance Value' to both sides. It must have seemed successful at the time, because particularly intense conversations between the British and the Germans closely followed the passage of the first two Naval Bills by the Reichstag. Germany's greatest point of leverage in these negotiations was undoubtedly Britain's fear that the Triple and Dual Alliances would combine in a formidable anti-British 'Continental League.'
It is in this context that the impact of 'A.B.C. etc.' must be gauged. Germanophobia was not new; the Kaiser's Kruger Telegram following the Jameson Raid had gotten that sentiment going; attempts to conciliate Russia had been tried (albeit without the least success) by the Conservative Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, as recently as 1898. But the combination of the two in an information-packed, eloquent, and anonymous article created something of a sensation, especially given the fact that the Boer War was continuing and the Old Queen had died. The German Embassy immediately made attempts (only partially successful) to identify the author or authors. 1901 proved to be the last year in which an attempt was made to create an alliance between Great Britain and the
Only recently has the fact been published that one of the insiders who had a hand in 'British Foreign Policy' was Sir Edward Grey, who became Foreign Secretary in the new Liberal Government of December, 1905 at the height of the First Morocco Crisis. The Germans might have expected
much less from Britain during this period had they known of Grey's involvement with A.B.C. Although Grey negotiated the Anglo-Russian Convention (which prepared the way for the Triple Entente) and authorized secret military conversations with the French as early as 1906 (the Cabinet was informed of these only in 1911), he is still best known for his elegiac remark about "the lamps are going out all over Europe" on August 3, 1914. His involvement with 'British Foreign Policy' casts his subsequent actions in a new light and invites a reinvestigation of the Origins of the Great War.
A partial Bibliography (in reverse chronological order) follows:
Hutcheson, John A. Leopold Maxse and The National Review, 1893-1914.
Garland Publishing Inc., New York, 1989.
Morris, A.J.A. The Scaremongers; The Advocacy of War and Rearmament 1896-1914, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1984.
Halevy, Elie. Imperialism and the Rise of Labour (1895-1905). Barnes and Noble, New York, 1961.<pr> Langer, William L. The Diplomacy of Imperialism, 1890-1902. 2nd edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1951.
Hale, Oron James. Publicity and Diplomacy, with Special Reference to England and Germany, 1890-1914. Appleton-Century, New York, 1940.