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7 December 2021

From the NS archive: GBS and the New Statesman

16 April 1938: A playwright in the right about the First World War.

By George Bernard Shaw

The playwright George Bernard Shaw was one of the founders of this magazine and during its early years he was a regular contributor. In this piece, written 25 years later, Shaw looked back at his role in Fabianism, at the First World War, and the many ways it undermined his political project. Most of all, however, he recalled the statesmen of the time and how their maladroitness led to the slaughter in the trenches. His writings, especially an essay in the magazine entitled “Common Sense About the War”, had been prescient, he claimed, if ineffectual. He remembered too the wartime act, the sinking of the liner the “Lusitania” by a German submarine, that had brought his regular association with the “New Statesman” to a close.

The first issue of the “New Statesman” appeared 12 April 1913, almost exactly twenty-five years ago. Mr Bernard Shaw, who was closely associated with Mr and Mrs Sidney Webb in the foundation of the paper, sends us these characteristic recollections of the period.

When the New Statesman was founded in 1913 as an organ of Fabian Socialism nobody in the Fabian Society or in the Labour Movement had ever given a moment’s attention to European foreign policy. One might say that foreign policy had never been mentioned in the Fabian Movement were it not that the South African war had crashed into this vacuum in 1898, and, after producing a pro-Boer secession which included Ramsay MacDonald, forced the Fabian old gang, of which I was a member, to pontificate on the subject of Fabianism and the Empire. But South Africa did not then count in the Balance of Power game which the Power diplomatists were playing in Europe; and when the war was over the reaction from it was so violent that in the general election of 1906 almost anybody could get into Parliament by shaking his fists at the Tory Government which the war had kept in power for thirteen years.

The Lib-Lab majority being obviously quite ignorant and indifferent in diplomatic matters, three Imperialists, Haldane, Asquith and Grey, were thrown quite thoughtlessly into the Cabinet to conciliate militarist opinion. Haldane knew German and Germany; he also knew about the Labour Movement, being, as a Scot, able to see England objectively and even, within his limits, philosophically; so he told the Germans that Germany was his spiritual home and reorganised the army. Asquith could not bring himself to take any interest in the Empire, though as a Liberal sufficiently up to date to admit that Cobden’s recipe for world peace had to compromise with the dreams of Cecil Rhodes, he passed as an Imperialist. He left the Foreign Office to Grey.

Grey was an appalling calamity. He was a pleasant fellow and a keen naturalist and fisherman; but on any other subject he was incapable of telling the truth because he was incapable of apprehending it, and therefore enjoyed the reputation of being in veracity a modern George Washington and in character a perfect English gentleman, which indeed he was in the most disastrous sense. European foreigners he regarded simply as people who must not be allowed to build fleets as big as the British fleet; and Asiatics were governable only by terror inspired by atrocities which it was the business of the Foreign Office to defend.

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He began in 1906 with the Denshawai horror [a dispute in 1906 between British officers and Egyptian villagers that resulted in three deaths and 26 floggings], which in any civilised country should have put him out of office for ever. In England, preoccupied with Labour Politics, which had at last ousted the Irish question in Parliament, Denshawai would have passed unnoticed if I had not, in the manner of Voltaire, made a row about it which led to the release of all the survivors, and left an impression that it had all been settled in the most good-natured British way. Later on the Russians imposed on Grey a partition of Persia, celebrated with picturesque atrocities; but it passed unnoticed.

The end of it was that Grey, with his instinctive feeling that we must fight Germany to stop her from building battleships, landed us in what Dean Inge called a foolish and unnecessary war, though Providence finally took a hand in it and, in spite of the warning of Lord Lansdowne to his party to stop it, used it as a broom to sweep out the obsolete empires which had seemed immovable four years earlier.

Now the Great War, as it was called, crashed into the Fabianised Labour world just as the South African war had done. In articles published eighteen months and again a year before, I had urged a diplomatic scheme to avoid it; but nobody took the least notice. When the catastrophe came I fled to Torquay with all the available documents, and wrote my “Common Sense About the War”, which the New Statesman published to its eternal honour, as a supplement. The sale reached 7,000 copies; and the supplement, very surprisingly, had a good press.

The truth of the matter was that nobody as yet understood enough about the war to know exactly what to say about it. People who thought that the word Junker meant a German sergeant, with his pouch full of eyes gouged out of Belgian women and children and wounded British soldiers, were shocked when I explained that Sir Edward Grey was a typical Junker; but that did not hurt me, and the New Statesman allowed me a free hand in the controversies that followed. But, though the war was so horrible then that the expectation of life at the front in Flanders had dwindled to six weeks, and our troops were fighting without ammunition our batteries having come down to one shell a day whilst the Germans were raining high explosives on us, the public simply could not take it in, and twaddled patriotically about our gallant fellows in the trenches as if the affair were the latest Hollywood film.

Suddenly something occurred which was within public comprehension. A German submarine sank the Lusitania. That brought the horrors of war home to us as the slaughter of thousands of soldiers in the trenches had failed to do. Saloon passengers had been drowned! The strongest-headed Englishmen lost their heads at once, including the then editor of the New Statesman. I could not ask him to go on with my cold-blooded contributions. I never offered him one again, though our personal relations remained quite friendly. By the time the war was over and everybody agreed with my “Common Sense” and my Peace Conference Hints (totally disregarded at the Foreign Office) I had lost the habit of writing for the New Statesman and being a creature of routine I never resumed it. And that was how the German submarine commander fired me out of the paper which began by being the natural organ of my pontifications as a Fabian leader.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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