Did A Newspaper Help Start The First World War?
In case you think the social panic leading to Brexit is new, here’s the story of an earlier one that had grave consequences.
In the months before war broke out in 1914, the United Kingdom underwent a social panic. People started imagining that British towns and villages were hotbeds of German spies. At that time our relationship with German was good; a great many Germans studied at British universities and worked in the UK. But fiction always needs a villain, and books were filled with the sinister Hun invading the shires and sending back secrets to Berlin.
One such book, ‘The Invasion of 1910’, became a smash bestseller. It was by William Le Queux, one of the country’s highest-paid pulp writers. He had written fiction about Britain’s lack of preparation should there be a war, and his book touched a nerve. It was translated into 27 languages.
Lord Northcliffe, the owner of the Daily Mail, serialised it, and persuaded Le Queux to have his fictional German villains pass through every major town where Daily Mail sales were high.
He sent out sandwich-men to advertise the Daily Mail and dressed as German soldiers, parading them through London – the sight of seeing war veterans shamefully dressed in the uniforms of their old enemy upset many.
Le Queux stoked the fires of suspicion by now writing about a civilian army of German spies disguised as everyday members of the public. He insisted that they recognised each other by a peculiar-shaped pin in their lapel.
Soon, fantasy and the truth were completely blurred together; MPs started campaigns to hunt down traitors, and a new Official Secrets Act was rushed through parliament when almost nobody was sitting. A register of aliens was created, and other books and newspapers now threw petrol on the flames, searching for hotbeds of enemy agents in quiet country towns.
The fervour whipped up out of nothing had taken on a life of its own. By 1914 it became the subject on everyone’s lips, and politicians feared it had damaged Anglo-German relations. Of course, the starting gun for the war was ‘the shot heard around the world’, from assassin Gavrilo Princep’s Browning revolver in Sarajevo.
But the UK had already been prepared for war by the foreigner-hating Daily Mail.