The Struggle for the Mediterranean

By Frederic C. Howe

[Scribner's Magazine, May 1916]

When the story of the European war comes to be written by an impartial historian, its ultimate causes will be found far back of the murder of the Archduke Ferdinand in Bosnia, the alleged mobilization of the armies of Russia, or the invasion of Belgium. They will not be found in the "White Books, the Blue Books, or the Orange Books. They will not be found in the utterances of foreign offices or the accidents that precipitated the cataclysm in the summer of 1914.

Just as the mines which exploded the Civil War were planted by the Missouri Compromise and the Fugitive Slave Act, so the causes of the present European war are traceable back to a merger of financial, economic, and political conflicts that began with the occupation of Egypt by England in 1882. And one of the hidden, unofficial explosives is the struggle for the Mediterranean, a struggle whose record is only to be found in the diplomatic correspondences and conventions of the last twenty years and the national hopes and fears that the struggle involved.

Access to, free passage through, or control of the Mediterranean is the permanent objective behind the foreign policy of all the greater European powers. It is an objective by its very nature so diffused and covering such a wide geographical area that it cannot be expressed in state papers, even had the nations in conflict dared to declare their ultimate policies. It is an objective, however, that lies at the very industrial and commercial life of Great Britain and Russia, that is bound up with all of the ambitions of Germany, and that underlies the industrial and financial aspirations of Italy and the Balkan states. For the Mediterranean is the greatest trade route in the world. It is the gateway from the Occident to the Orient. Through it a large part of the maritime commerce of England and Germany passes. In the Orient are hundreds of millions of non-industrial people, offering an almost limitless market for the output of the mills and factories of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, and Lancashire in England, and of Essen, Barmen, Elberfeld, Düsseldorf, and the lower Rhine regions of Germany. For centuries Russia has looked with unsatisfied eyes toward the Bosporus as an outlet from the Black Sea, through which her wheat would find a market—a market necessary for the payment in gold of the interest upon her public debt to France. The Balkan states were moved by the same urge to gain access to some port upon the Mediterranean; otherwise their exports and imports must pass through hostile territory. Austria, like Russia, desired free access to the Mediterranean, unchecked by Italy. The new industrial forces which have revolutionized Europe during the past fifty years were all crowding against the barriers which, in one way or another, shut them out from free contact with the outside world.

At the outbreak of the present war England was mistress of the Mediterranean, which is in fact a British sea. Its western and eastern entrances are controlled by Gibraltar and the Suez Canal. The Straits of Gibraltar are narrow. The British fortress is impregnable. It commands the narrow passageway as do the guns which guard the entrance to a harbor. The shipping of all other nations is under this menace, a menace recently brought into action to compel Greece to permit the landing of the Allies at Salonika. At the opposite end of the Mediterranean Great Britain controls Egypt and the Suez Canal. She secured possession of the canal by the secret purchase of a controlling interest in the stock by Disraeli in 1875. The purchase was made through the house of Rothschild. It has proven a brilliant financial investment, for the shares now yield 25 per cent dividends annually. Since that time British capital has flowed into Egypt in immense sums. The protection of these investments and the prevention of internal disorder were responsible for the bombardment of Alexandria and the occupation of Egypt in 1882. This was the beginning of British imperialism, an imperialism that resulted in the friction with France which continued until 1903. It was in part responsible for the loss of British influence in Turkey and the subsequent alliance of Germany with Turkey. It marks the beginning of the struggle for colonial possessions on the part of all the greater powers and the identification of their governments with the bankers and concession-seekers that has since brought a great part of the uncivilized world under the dominion of Great Britain, France, and Germany.

The Mediterranean has since been the storm centre of Europe. The colonial policies of England, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia have, in the main, revolved about the control of the lands bordering upon it. Crowded out of Egypt by Great Britain, France turned to northwest Africa. She had possessed Algeria since 1830. Following the Franco-Prussian War France was encouraged to expand her possessions into Tunis as a means of satisfying the desire for revenge for the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. France recovered from her losses quickly. She expanded eastward from Algeria into Tunis, over which she soon acquired a protectorate. To the west, in Morocco, her task was more difficult. Morocco covered an immense stretch of territory bordering upon the Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean. Here Great Britain, Germany, and Spain claimed interests, all more or less fictitious but all loaded with potential controversies. The interest of England was political. Her chief concern was that the shores of Morocco should not fall into the hands of a hostile power that would menace Gibraltar and her exclusive control of the western entrance to the Mediterranean. The claims of Germany were based upon concessions from the Sultan, while those of France were those of the nearest colonial power fearing a dangerous neighbor, Germany also possessed mining concessions granted to the Krupps and Mannesmanns. She had banking, dock, and other concessions granted by the Sultan. She was assured of an open door for her trade and commerce by the Sultan.

These were the explosives nearly ignited into war in 1911 by the landing of French troops in Morocco, the bombardment of Casablanca, and the penetration of French troops into the Moroccan capital. Germany sent the Panther to Agadir to present her claims and as a protest against the destruction of the autonomy of Morocco, which had been guaranteed by the Algeciras Act of 1906, an act which insured the open door to all of the powers and guaranteed all of the rights and financial concessions previously granted by the Sultan. Great Britain backed France in her claims. Lloyd George in his famous Mansion House speech announced that Great Britain would support the French people in the control of Morocco, a control which was inspired by the French bankers who had invested millions of dollars in the country and who desired greater protection for their concessions than the Sultan was able to give.

In this controversy Germany was further actuated by a desire to preserve her standing with the Sublime Porte at Constantinople, whose protector in Europe Germany had undertaken to become. Only a miracle saved Europe from war as a result of the Morocco incident. But the seeds of hatred between Germany and England were laid, and in the minds, of many the Morocco imbroglio was the prelude to the present war.

Germany increased her naval armament; her imperialists insisted that the dignity of the empire required a navy able to enforce recognition of German claims in the subsequent partition of the world. From 1911 dates the tension, the aggravated suspicions, and the irritation of peoples among the warring nations of Europe.

As a result of the Morocco settlement, France, a nation friendly to Great Britain, gained control of all the lands bordering upon the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, to the east of Egypt and Tripoli. England's trade route to the Orient was made further secure, while France obtained possession of a country rather rich in minerals but with small purchasing power for goods and commodities.

Balked in the west, German activity turned even more feverishly to, the Near East—to Turkey and Asia Minor. As early as 1889 the Deutsche Bank had obtained concessions for certain railroad-building in Turkey. In that year the Kaiser made a trip to Constantinople to bring about a commercial and financial rapprochement between Germany and Turkey. Ten years later the Kaiser made a second visit as a means of converting the commercial relationship into a political one. As a result of these visits Germany became the protector of Turkey in Europe—a protectorate in which the Deutsche Bank was the pioneer, and through whose activities the political penetration of Germany was promoted.

And one of the terms of the German-Turkish understanding was a concession for the building of the Bagdad Railway, which began at the Bosporus and extended through to the Persian Gulf at Koweit. About this stretch of steel, which crossed Asia Minor and continued through the Mesopotamian Valley and down through Bagdad to the sea, the new imperialism of Germany was developed. It was partly financial, partly commercial, and largely political. As viewed by German statesmen, it was a transcontinental railway beginning at Hamburg and continuing through Berlin, Vienna, Nish, and Constantinople, and then on to the Far East, over which German goods and German merchandise would find an unmolested route to the Orient. By means of this all-rail route Germany would free herself from the British control of the Mediterranean; she would avoid Gibraltar and the Suez Canal. She would be able to place her surplus products in the markets of the Orient far more expeditiously than would Great Britain, compelled to follow an all-sea route.

This was the German Drang nach Osten, a drive which ignored all of the costly Gibraltars which Great Britain had erected during a century, to insure her control of the trade routes to the Orient. And this was the desire of the German trading classes; of that great group of industrials located about the lower Rhine, whose achievements have placed the German merchant marine and "Made in Germany" in every market in the world. But this drive to the East was also a drive of imperial proportions. It opened up a new empire, comparable to that of ancient Rome in the time of Trajan. It was an empire of easy defense. It was an empire that satisfied the historical mind of Germany. It appealed to the sentiments of the historian and the militarist. And, quite as important, it was an empire that threatened to split the British Empire in twain. For the Bagdad Railway concessions included branches from the main line to Smyrna on the Aegean Sea. There were other branches from Adana, which menaced Cyprus. There was a line from Aleppo, through Damascus, down through Palestine to the Gulf of Arabia, which threatened the Suez Canal and British control of Egypt. Beyond lay India, Australia, and the British Chinese ports.

Endless obstacles were placed in the way of the building of the Bagdad Railway by England, France, and Russia. Great Britain and France insisted that the railway should be under the joint control of all of the European powers; they insisted on this as a condition to aiding in its financing. For Germany was unable to finance the road herself, despite the colossal profits which it promised. She desired that its shares should be listed on the Bourse and invited French, English, and Russian participation into the control, but with Germany always as the predominant partner. But this did not satisfy the other powers, and France and England endeavored to create a vacuum of capital around the project. They endeavored to thwart its building by these means. The negotiations and diplomatic intrigues covered a period of ten years. But despite the obstacles the building of the railroad progressed; the menace loomed larger and larger in British eyes. Finally Great Britain demanded that the last stretch of the Bagdad Railway reaching to the Persian Gulf should be internationalized or placed under her exclusive control. This Germany refused to concede, for the outlet on the Persian Gulf was of the very life of the railroad itself. Then England took matters into her own hands. She abandoned diplomacy and by some means or other induced the sheik whose possessions bordered upon the Persian Gulf to disavow allegiance to Turkey and accept a protectorate from Great Britain, One morning European foreign offices were electrified by the news that a British gunboat had entered the harbor of Koweit and that the British flag was flying over this port. Great Britain had again balked Germany in her ambitions about the Mediterranean: she had balked the dream of years of a drive to the East and a free, unimpeded highway from the North Sea to the Indian Ocean. Possibly even more important—the plans for a great German hinterland in the form of a semi-colonial dependency running from the Balkans to Persia and Arabia, equal in its possibilities to the richest of Great Britain's colonial dependencies, were menaced by the control of its eastern terminus by the power which had become Germany's implacable industrial foe.

Coincident with the negotiations over Morocco and the diplomatic negotiations and financial strategy for the blocking of the Bagdad Railway, Great Britain erected further safeguards to her control of the Near and Far East by the partition of Persia through conventions with Russia. This process covered a period of five years, from 1907 to 1912; it involved the segregation of Russian influence in northern Persia and of British influence in southern Persia. In this process Persia, like Morocco, lost her independence. The dismemberment of Persia diverted Russian ambitions from the Persian Gulf; it gave England an additional bulwark against Russian and German advance to the East and protected her control of the Persian Gulf. It also opened up valuable opportunities for new railroads to be built by British capital as well as opportunities for other financial concessions.

The recent shifting of the seat of war from the French and Russian frontiers to the Balkans and Turkey is a shifting from assumed centres of conflict to the actual centre of conflict, a conflict which, under diplomatic conversations and conventions, has been going on for the greater part of twenty years. And this is a struggle almost as old as the world. It is a struggle for the historical centre of civilization. To Great Britain it involves not only Egypt and the Suez Canal, it involves the life-cord that unites the empire. It involves the free passage of her ships of war, of her merchant marine, of raw materials and food supplies. Were this life-cord severed, the eastern colonies and dependencies would be open to attack or severance from the mother country. But the struggle has even wider significance than this. The financial fabric of Great Britain is erected upon the control of the seas. This is endangered, as is her great merchant marine and the clearing of the trade of the world through her ports of London, Liverpool, Bristol, and Glasgow. Great Britain is the world's market-place; her shipping is the distribution agency; her banking institutions support these industries as well as supply the credit for the development of the empire. And over $20,000,000,000 has been invested by Great Britain in different parts of the world. From this source she derives one-fourth of her annual income. Into these colonies and dependencies she pours $1,000,000,000 a year in new investments. And the breaking of her control of the Mediterranean through the building of the Bagdad Railway threatens the financial and commercial structure which Great Britain has erected during the past hundred years. It threatens her maritime and trading supremacy. For the maintenance of this supremacy every diplomatic move of a generation has been directed, as has the expenditure of untold wealth. For the British navy on its present basis came into being with the conquest of Egypt, the control of the Suez Canal, and the financial imperialism which had its origin at this time. The German Drang nach Osten is far more than a drive at Egypt or even the acquisition of a great colonial empire, it is a drive at the financial and imperial heart of the British Empire. It would be difficult to overestimate the consequence to the industrial and commercial life of Great Britain if the substantial monopoly of the shipping and financing of the Orient, and with it the industrial structure identified with this control, were subject to the competition of a rail route from Germany and Central Europe to the Indian and Pacific Oceans and the trade of the Near East and Africa, Asia, India, and the Pacific islands as well.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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