G. Ledebour September 1909

The Limitation of Naval Armaments

Source: Social Democrat, from “Neue Zeit,” Vol. XIII No. 9 September, 1909, pp. 413-421;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

For years the Governments of all the great Powers have been vieing with each other in assurances that all they have in view is the preservation of the world’s peace, while at the same time they continue from year to year to increase their armaments on land and sea, here also competing with each other, because not one of them imputes any value to mere assurances on the part of the others. One cannot build, say the Powers, on the peaceful words of one’s neighbours, when they are accompanied by increased eagerness in the preparations for war. Thus speaks C, and then after all D cannot remain behind, until in the course of the circulation of the feverish pressure to arm, A, in its turn, receives an impetus towards additional armaments. This is the endless screw in which, without a fixed goal each tries to out-do the other in armaments, until, finally, if it is not put a stop to within a measurable space of time, it will end either in the bankruptcy of the individual States or in the catastrophe of a universal war.

This is already the position with regard to the armaments on land. But these are bounded to a certain extent by the possibility of recruiting troops and of the development of the technical auxiliaries. In Germany and France the possibility of recruiting the land forces will soon have reached its limits; it is only the development of the technique which is continually urging onwards towards new armaments and increased expenditure. But the latter applies to a much greater extent to the competition in naval armaments, for the development is more rapid and the field of action less limited. For pitted over against the effects of the continual improvements in the technique of weapons are the still more important improvements in the shipbuilding technique. A warship, be it battleship, cruiser, or torpedo, which to-day suffices the utmost demands of technique, may in five years have become of less value and have to be relegated to the second-class warships, and in another five years it may have no further value than that of scrap iron. And yet how costly are these “passing phenomena"? A first-class battleship involves to-day the expenditure of about 50 million marks, whereas two decades ago it only amounted to 20 million marks at the highest.

But the German Empire has lately started out at full steam to compete with the other naval Powers in naval armaments. Not enough that the German taxpayers have to keep up the largest land force in the world, the ambition of the mighty and the operations of capitalists who have interests in a boundless world policy, have also burdened them with the tremendous and ever-increasing expenditure for a first-class navy.

While demanding more supplies for this purpose, the representatives of the Government did nothing but give assurances of peace, which were echoed by the bourgeois parties in the Reichstag while they gave their consent to these demands. Many of them, especially those members of the “Bloc” who are of the Radical persuasion, managed to take part in this competition and yet to blow the trumpets of peace, and to offer incense to the ideal of disarmament at the International Peace Congress. With the help of these warfleet-upholding peace-apostles, the expenditure on Germany’s glorious navy has in the last twelve years been nearly quadrupled, increasing from 92 million marks in 1896 to 339 million marks in 1908. This increase is one of the principal causes of the chronic financial distress of the Empire. It will continue to exercise its injurious influence in spite of all so-called financial reforms.

In face of this the question forces itself into the fore-ground: Can no way be found for people so enthusiastic for peace as our Government and Reichstag members to stop this ruinous competition of armaments?

An opportunity for this offered itself; it was not made use of. The English Government suggested to the German Government a mutual arrangement for the limitation of naval armaments; the outstretched hand was refused. The German Social-Democracy tried to move the Reichstag to take a decision in favour of an international agreement to limit naval armaments and to abolish the right of seizing property at sea; their demand was scoffed at by the Imperial Chancellor, and refused unanimously by the bourgeois parties. But their refusal does not kill the idea. It continues to exist, and must force its way through if Europe is not to be involved in a world-wide war, which would destroy its welfare and its culture for many decades to come.

Through the rapid growth of fleet-building, especially through the Navy Bill of 1906, the German Government has placed the question of disarmament in the forefront. This was expressed in the communications made by the English Ministers, Asquith and McKenna, to the House of Commons on the occasion of the introduction of the Naval Budget for this year. The starting-point of their considerations and demands was the fact that in Germany the building of a number of warships is provided for, ships of the newest and largest type, so called Dreadnoughts, which when completed will raise the German navy, in so far as this particular and most important kind of ship is concerned, to the level of the English, or even perhaps above it. Therefore, the English Government demanded the power to put in hand four new Dreadnoughts at once if Germany carried out her present intentions for the enlarging of her fleet; then to the 13 German Dreadnoughts ready for service in 1912, England could oppose 16 Dreadnoughts. But for the case of Germany’s accelerating the pace of her fleet-building so that she should have no less than 17 Dreadnoughts ready for service in 1912, then the English Government wished to be enabled to put another four Dreadnoughts in hand in 1910, so that in the year 1912 they could put to sea 20, as against Germany’s 17.

The desire of the English Government to be unconditionally superior, if possible to the extent of two to one, to every other power at sea is explained by the insular position of England and her economic conditions, which make her defence against attacks dependent on a superior fleet. That is the guiding thought of English policy, whatever party is at the helm. In the course of the debate an agreement was arrived at; in the Lower House the only quarrel was as to whether the Government’s shipbuilding programme should be adhered to, or whether, according to the demand of the Conservative Opposition, eight Dreadnoughts should at once be put in hand. The question as to whether Germany would have 13 or 17 Dreadnoughts ready for war by 1912 played a great part in the debate, but this point is quite of secondary importance, for the principal question is, namely, as to whether England need take precautionary measures at all against a possible attack at sea on the part of Germany. The fact is conclusive on this point that, on the one hand, the great productivity of the German dockyards, are now capable of launching 14 Dreadnoughts simultaneously, while three more are in construction; and, on the other hand, the political attitude of the German Government.

For what made the deepest impression, in the first instance, on the House of Commons, and then all over England, was the communication by the Prime Minister Asquith concerning the failure of the attempts at disarmament. He said on March 16:-

“Why, some of my Radical friends will doubtless ask, is a mutual understanding not possible? I will answer this question at once. The question has been raised more than once by the British Government, with the intention of determining if the German Government would accept any proposition with regard to a mutual limitation of naval expenditure. But we have received the assurance, more than once, and in the most formal manner, that Germany’s naval expenditure is only arranged with regard to her own needs, and that Germany’s programme in no way depends on ours. That is the answer we received. The German Government tells us quite candidly that if we were to build a hundred more Dreadnoughts they would not, on that account, increase their building programme; but also that, if we were to build no Dreadnoughts, they would still adhere to their programme just as it now stands. If that is the position, it is perfectly clear that there is no possibility of a mutual understanding with the object of reducing expenditure on naval armaments.”

This statement by the English Prime Minister was confirmed in substance by the representatives of the German Government, after a few evasions.

The fact, therefore, stands: The English Government (it is true in an informal manner, which is the diplomatic custom in such matters) offered the German Government an agreement regarding the mutual limitation of expenditure on naval armaments, but the German Government refused in the most formal manner. The only reason given by the Imperial Government for this refusal is threadbare enough. They maintain that they are only led by their own needs in the building of warships. As though the Imperial Government’s own needs did not depend entirely on the shipbuilding of other Powers! The English Government is here more candid, in that it declares: Our needs are determined exactly by the building programme of Germany, as of that Power, which, in the position of things, we have to reckon with as with our most dangerous enemy.

The attitude of refusal on the part of the German towards the English Government had, as the later debates in the Reichstag showed, acted very agreeably on the patriotic feelings of the members of the bourgeois parties. It flattered their pride that Great Britain, the ruler of the waves, should be anxious concerning the growth of the German fleet. The refusal of the English offer of an agreement met with no unfavourable criticism from the bourgeois parties in the Reichstag. It need hardly be said that their attitude found no echo among the Social-Democrats. The Social-Democratic Party, in itself on principle an opponent of wars in the interests of capitalism, recognises the frightful results which must follow for the German people from a naval war with England, even if it ended victoriously for the German navy. Even the capitalist development of Germany would thereby be severely injured. The advantages which a few pan-German imaginative politicians promise themselves from a victorious war with England are quite illusory, and it is certain that a serious interruption of economic development would result, not only in Germany, but in the whole of Europe, from such a war, however it ended. Only the United States of America, and perhaps Japan, would have any advantage from it if the two largest industrial and commercial States of Europe were to tear each other to pieces and drag other European Powers with them into the whirlpool of such a universal war on sea and land.

But even if the arming competition between Germany and England should not at once lead to a great war, still the enmity with England would, even in time of peace; be disastrous for Germany’s commerce and industry. From the debates in the House of Commons on the Naval Budget and the want-of-confidence vote of the Conservative Opposition which was discussed on March 29, it is clearly to be seen that the fact of the steady increase of German naval armaments is arousing among the ruling classes in England the deepest distrust of the German Government, has strengthened the long-since budding feeling of enmity to Germany, and made the way clear for jingoism. As the parties are situated in England it is without decisive weight that the English Socialists and trade unionists have refused to let themselves be carried away by this stream of jingoism, but like the German Social-Democracy sharply emphasise the international solidarity of the working class of both countries. A strong proof of the force of the prevailing jingo mood was given in the Croydon bye-election, where the Conservative votes went up by about 4,000. Should a general election soon take place, the result would be an overwhelming Conservative majority in the House of Commons, and the downfall of the Liberal Ministry. But the new Conservative Ministry, with Balfour at the head, would not only go in for increased naval armaments of a decidedly anti-German foreign policy, but would also introduce protection on the Chamberlain pattern, and try to persuade all the self-governing colonies to institute protective tariffs in favour of the Mother Country. On this account the Unionists, as the united Conservatives and Imperialist Liberals now call themselves, confident of victory, are already suggesting that the House of Lords should be got to throw out the Budget, by this means forcing the Liberal Government to resign, and appeal to the country by dissolving the lower House.

The prosperity of the English people would indeed be severely injured by the change from Free Trade to Protection. But it is certain that it would also be a heavy blow for Germany’s commerce and industry. Therefore, however one looks at it, any enmity with England would evolve the most fatal disadvantages for the German Empire and the German people.

In view of all these circumstances, the Social-Democratic Party in the Reichstag decided to take the initiative towards an understanding with England, by bringing in the following resolution on the vote for the Imperial Chancellor’s Office:-

“That the Reichstag agree: to urge the Imperial Chancellor, in view of the decisions of the Hague Conference in 1899 and 1907, which were agreed to by the German delegates, to take the necessary steps towards initiating an international agreement among the Powers for mutual restriction of naval armaments, and abolition of the right of capture at sea, as soon as possible.”

The allusion to the Hague Peace Conference brings to mind the fact that the German Government did, in principle, give their adherence to the idea of disarmament, for in the minutes of the Conference in 1907 it says:

“The Conference also agreed unanimously to the following decision:

“The Second Peace Conference confirms the decision taken by the Conference of 1899 regarding the limitation of military burdens, and, in view of the fact that since that year these have increased considerably in almost every country, declares it to be highly desirable that the Governments should take up the serious study of this question.”

The attitude of the Imperial Government towards the English suggestion to bring about an understanding regarding the limitation of naval armaments, proves, however, that the “serious study” of the disarmament question has, so far as the German Government is concerned, as yet led to no happy results, and, therefore, is in urgent need of a new impetus.

The combination of the disarmament question with the demand to abolish the right of capture at sea, was desirable because the latter demand was made unsuccessfully by Germany at the Hague Conference and refused by England. The combination of the two questions would, therefore, have made it easier for the German Government to accept the Social-Democratic motion, for the resolution, by pointing out also to the English Government that they might give way to a demand formerly made in vain by Germany, lost the character of a one-sided warning to the Imperial Government.

But the abolition of the right of capture at sea would already be of such great importance, because this privileged sea robbery constitutes one of the principal reasons for keeping large navies. At present a belligerent Power has the right to seize on the open sea the private property in ships and goods of the subjects of the State opposed to it, while, as is well known, in wars on land private property is protected from being captured. If it were protected in the same way at sea, that is, with the exception of contraband of war, secured against capture, the excuse of a great fleet being needed for the protection of trade would become obsolete.

Against the reasons brought forward by the Social-Democrats on March 30, in favour of the disarmament resolution, the Imperial Chancellor limited himself to the following declaration:-

“The general attitude of the United Governments towards the idea of disarmament is determined by the points of view which the Imperial Chancellor demonstrated to the Reichstag before the meeting of the Hague Conference, and on December 10, 1908. No formula has as yet become known which would do justice to the greatly varying geographical, economic, military and political positions of the different peoples, and have a unified basis for negotiation. But as long as there is no workable basis, the Imperial Government must remain of the opinion that negotiations upon the limitation of shipbuilding promise no real success, whether they are carried on between two or between more Powers. The United Governments claim for themselves that their point of view in this question is determined by peaceful and humane motives, and is quite in keeping with the peaceful direction of the whole German policy which has for decades been found satisfactory.

“If we, therefore, continue to hold back it is nothing extraordinary and does not imply any unfriendliness towards another Power, especially as we are therein only making use of the self-evident right of not discussing internal German affairs with foreign countries.” (“Bravo” on the Right and from the National Liberals.)

Relying upon the oft proved distaste of the bourgeois parties of taking up a Social-Democratic proposal, the Chancellor went on to try and cover over, by the most petty personal attacks, the fact that he did not know how to get over the important reasons for passing the resolution, especially just at the present time.

The hollowness of Bülow’s excuse that the Imperial Government cannot commit itself to a limitation of naval armaments as long as a suitable basis was wanting, is brought into the right light by the fact of Herr v. Schön having previously, in the Budget Commission, expressly emphasised that in communications between friendly Powers it is customary to avoid putting formal motions, the success of which appears doubtful. On that account the English Government restricted itself to informal questions. But it was just at that stage in the preliminaries that the German Government made an end, in the most formal way, of the question. And then Bülow comes to the Reichstag with the excuse that the Imperial Government must remain in its attitude of refusal because a workable basis for negotiations had never been suggested!

Equally lame is the excuse that the Imperial Government is but making use of its self-evident right not to discuss internal German matters with foreign countries. As though every arrangement with a foreign State did not in some way or other affect the internal conditions of one’s own country! Besides, the Imperial Government has, by agreeing to the above-mentioned decision of the Hague Conference, already quite given up this maxim. That Bülow should still parade it in the Reichstag shows his low standing as a statesman as well as the want of backbone of the bourgeois Reichstag majority who rewarded such untrue assertions with patriotic applause.

The Imperial Chancellor will make no impression abroad with his assurances of peace and friendship, for in international relations a statesman is valued not according to his polite phrases, but by his deeds and omissions.

But Bülow judged rightly his Mameluke majority. A few Radicals salved their consciences by remarking that though they were on principle friends of the limitation of armaments, the Social-Democratic demand was not opportune. And then the whole of the bourgeois parties, with the exception of Pfarrer Naumann, voted against the resolution with a “Pooh, it comes from Social-Democrats.”

How opportune, how urgently necessary the resolution was, might have been seen, even by those who had not seen it before, in the debates which were taking place at the same time in the English House of Commons upon the vote of want of confidence. This was shown distinctly in the utterances of the English Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sir Edward Grey, who among other things said:-

“If I were asked to name a measure which would give to the world, or to Europe throughout, the conviction that peace were assured, it would, I think, be this: that the expenditure of Germany on naval armaments were lessened, and that England could follow suit and diminish her own. If the competition in naval armaments could be diminished, public opinion everywhere would consider it as a safeguard of the mutual good intentions of both nations, and the effect cannot be estimated.”

Further, Grey gave his opinion on the effect of this increased competition of armaments in the words: “Sooner or later if it goes on in this way, we are heading towards State bankruptcy.”

And his words expressed also that for the English Government the psychological moment has just now come when they would be open to consider the previously repudiated idea of the abolition of the right of capture at sea.

He said concerning this:

“We have never received a hint, it has never even been whispered to us, that if we altered our opinion on this point, it would have an effect on Germany’s naval armaments. Therefore, when members of this House blame the English Government for not bringing forward this question, it is only a waste of time. In such a matter it is the business of the German Government to express itself.”

Can a diplomat express more distinctly that he is ready to be approached if the Imperial Government, in the spirit of the Social-Democratic motion, were to suggest simultaneously the limitation of naval armaments and the abolition of the right of capture at sea as the subject of an international convention?

We thus have the English Minister for Foreign Affairs as a witness to show what good fruit might be borne by the Social-Democratic suggestion to unite these two questions.

Still more energetically, even with a hint against the English Government, is our double demand supported by the leading paper of the Liberal Party in England. The “Daily News” wrote, namely on April 1, in a leading article: –

“There is a way to make an end of the panic in England, and to spoil the sport of the passions and interests which have given rise to it, and that is, to come to an understanding with Germany. Sir Edward Grey is pessimistic on this point. But has he tried every means? .... Is there no basis for discussion with Germany about any question in the world? He tells us that Germany has not even whispered a suggestion in his ear about making the right of capture at sea the basis for an agreement. But has he “whispered” his willingness to listen? At the Hague he took up an attitude of complete refusal when Germany declared in favour of the abolition of this legalised sea robbery. They will build their twelve Dreadnoughts in the year – for that is Balfour’s demand for next year. But long before the ships are built they will have stirred. up a conflict and provoked a European war, the war regarding which Mr. Arthur Lee prophesied as long ago as 1895, that we shall strike the first blow long before the Germans have even had time to read our declaration of war.”

These remarks of the leading organ of the Government party in England are striking also by reason of their open allusion to the danger to which the writer of this had pointed two days previously in the Reichstag, namely, that a jingo Government in England, in the conviction that Germany had bad intentions, might suddenly aim a blow at Germany while she still feels sure of her superior power at sea.

It is an unpardonable mistake that the Imperial Government, by their brusque repulse of the English attempt to approach them, has given full play to the anti-German, war-desiring jingoism in England.

Never has the necessity of any Social-Democratic demand been so quickly and thoroughly justified by subsequent events as in the case of this proposition of an international understanding as to the limitation of naval armaments and the abolition of the right of capture. All the more irresponsible is the attitude of refusal on the part of the Imperial Government and the Reichstag majority. It will be the business of the Social-Democracy to help on their demand to victory in public opinion, before the frivolous policy of the Bülow Cabinet can conjure up more serious results for Germany. An understanding with England, and the bringing about of an international agreement regarding the limitation of naval armaments and the abolition of the right of capture, that is now the demand of the day for Germany’s foreign policy.

G. Ledebour in “Die Neue Zeit.”