We have reached the Centenary of the Easter Rising. On this day it is fitting we remember North Antrim’s Roger Casement who not only gave up his life for Irish freedom but did so much, in his writings, to give Ireland independence of mind. This represented the beginnings of a Foreign Policy – an essential component of all independent states – the right to determine your own position and attitude to world events.
The Crime Against Europe is a collection of articles by Roger Casement containing his view of British Foreign Policy, which he saw as leading to the Great War on Germany. Casement saw the Great War as primarily Britain’s responsibility and he hoped that Germany would win it. The articles were begun in 1911 and were initially only intended for a close circle of friends in Britain and Ireland to warn them of the impending War. Later parts were published anonymously as was the norm for diplomats in those days wanting to comment on current affairs.
Casement wrote a foreword to the collection in September 1914. In it he presented the case for a German-Irish alliance he had made prior to the War on the basis that, “the vital needs of European peace, of European freedom of the seas and of Irish National life and prosperity were indissolubly linked with the cause of Germany in the struggle so clearly impending between the country and Great Britain.” Casement argued that “Once the chief factor governing the conflict is perceived, namely, the British claim to own the seas and to dominate the commercial intercourse of the world, then the cause of Germany becomes the cause of European civilisation at large.” He emphasised that “A German victory must bring, as one of the surest guarantees of future peace and sea liberty for all an Ireland restored in Europe and erected into a sovereign European State under international guarantees.”
So Casement saw the unipolar world that Britain dominated through her powerful Navy as a bad thing and wanted to bring about a new multi-national order based on a German victory and international treaty.
Sir Roger argued that “England fights as the foe of Europe and the enemy of European civilisation. In order to destroy German shipping, German commerce, German industry, she has deliberately plotted the conspiracy we now see at work. The war of 1914 is England’s War.”
Casement was an insider, close to the British ruling elite, and his understanding of its plans and intrigue was well-informed and based on personal knowledge of the people who counted in the Imperial state. He had the ear of Lord Salisbury (Prime Minister), Lord Milner (Proconsul in South Africa and leader of the Round Table group), and James Bryce (Ambassador to the U.S. and Chief Secretary in Ireland). He was close to Lord Lansdowne (Viceroy of India and Minister in Unionist governments), and Sir Edward Grey, who in 1906 persuaded Casement to come out of retirement and return to work in the Foreign Office.
He was proved right. We now have the diaries and letters and journals of the men who planned the War – Admiral Fisher, Lord Esher, Maurice Hankey etc. – and the files of the Committee of Imperial Defence to prove it. And we know that to break Germany Britain was prepared to place the European continent under a blockade that resulted in the deaths of a million people, most of them women and children. That fact is recorded in the Royal Navy’s official history of the Blockade written by A.C. Bell and suppressed for 40 years. It continued for 6 months after the Armistice against defenceless people to force the Germans to sign the Versailles Treaty.
Casement dissented from John Redmond’s unilateral support for Britain’s War on Germany in August 1914 and his direction to the Irish Volunteers to join the Imperial forces in the interests of Irish Home Rule. Sir Roger, who had been a moving spirit in the formation of the Irish Volunteers in 1913, instead gave a German orientation to the Volunteer minority who refused to join Redmond’s blood sacrifice. What marked Casement out, along with James Connolly, from the other leaders of 1916 was that he had a reading of international affairs that placed him in sympathy with Germany before the War. He was not an “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” man but a thinker who having sized things up saw Germany as the force of social and economic progress in Europe.
The case Casement made for Germany may have been influenced by his disenchantment with how Britain had treated Ireland but it was in no way dependent on how England had behaved toward the Irish.
This marked both Casement and Connolly out for the severest treatment after the Rising. Neither had acted out of blind patriotism but from a different view of the world that was intolerable. Casement was commonly called “deranged” and Connolly was a dangerous socialist who had to be shot in cold blood from a stretcher.
Casement collaborated with the anti-German propagandist, Erskine Childers (Riddle of the Sands), in gun-running of arms for the Volunteers before the War. But when the War broke out Childers went off to do his duty for the Empire whereas Casement joined the enemy.
Casement had an international stature as the diplomat who had exposed the Belgian atrocities in the Congo as well as the murderous brutality of international capital in South America. He saw through Redmond’s plea for Irish mobilisation on behalf of “Little Catholic Belgium”. He knew it was bogus. Belgium was the organiser of a brutal slave state in the Congo and the centre of the arms industry in Europe. Casement knew that intimately because he had compiled a report on it for the British Foreign Office. That report was a sensation that blew over quickly. Belgium promised to reform its slave labour practices and it was forgiven, perhaps because Britain now had something of use on it that could be employed at a future date. Anyway, Belgium played the game for England in August 1914 and it was rewarded with vast amounts of African territory after the War. Casement knew it was Britain’s pretext for a War it had been planning for a decade and was hardly innocent.
Casement believed that Britain had organised an unholy alliance – along with France – with Tsarist Germany to destroy German commerce and industry, in a Balance of Power War. There is little doubt that Casement was right. This exchange in 1910 between Arthur Balfour, British Prime Minister and founder of the Committee of Imperial Defence, which planned the Great War and the U.S. Ambassador confirms as much:
“Balfour: We are probably fools not to find a reason for declaring war on Germany before she builds too many ships and takes away our trade.
“White: You are a very high-minded man in private life. How can you possibly contemplate anything so politically immoral as provoking a war against a harmless nation which has as good a right to a navy as you have? If you wish to compete with German trade, work harder.
“Balfour: That would mean lowering our standard of living. Perhaps it would be simpler for us to have a war.
“White: I am shocked that you of all men should enunciate such principles.
“Balfour: Is it a question of right or wrong? Maybe it is just a question of keeping our supremacy.” (Henry White and Allan Nevins, Thirty Years Of American Diplomacy, p.257)
Neutrality in war was a position made impossible for Ireland by Britain. When Britain went to war, Ireland, as part of the Union, did so to. And John Redmond abandoned the position the Irish Party had held until recently of opposition to British wars and the supplying of cannon fodder for them. So Casement and Connolly had no choice in opposing the War but in going over to the enemy. Initially neutrality was advocated by Republicans, but this was a necessary equivocation until the moment insurrection could be launched in alliance with “our gallant allies in Europe”. By 1916 it was clear that Britain was going to sweep up neutral countries like Greece to fight their War for them. It was “you are for us or against us”. Neutrality was no longer an option.
Casement had put forward a position anonymously in reply to an article by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in ‘Ireland, Germany and the Next War’ (1913) that seemed inconceivable to the Home Rulers, who had become overwhelmed by the experience of Imperial power and could not imagine anything but British domination of Ireland and the world. It was within this mindset that they strove for the small concession of devolution called Home Rule rather than independence. Casement challenged this mental confinement by suggesting that Ireland’s position could be no worse following a British defeat and probably be far better, as an independent state bearing no threat to Germany. The assumption was that Britain was preparing to make war on Germany.
Casement, in the ‘The Keeper of the Seas’ observed that Britain’s control of the seas was the basis of its control of Ireland:
“To compel the trade of Ireland to be with herself alone; to cut off all direct communication between Europe and this second of European islands until no channel remained only through Britain; to impose the most abject political and economic servitude one people ever impressed upon another ; to exploit all Irish resources,lands, ports, people, wealth, even her religion, everything in fine that Ireland held, to the sole profit and advancement of England, and to keep all the books and rigorously refuse an audit of the transaction has been the secret but determined policy of England.”
So the breaking of Britain’s control of the seas was a vital part in the freeing of Ireland from English control.
In his foreword to The Crime Against Europe Casement argued that the cause of the Great War was nothing to do with the assassination at Sarajevo or the independence of Belgium, it was all to do with the unnatural alliances England made with France and Russia in preparation for War on Germany. The so-called “German militarism” cited as a cause of war in England was nothing compared to the militarism and Imperial aggression and expansion displayed both by Britain and its two allies of convenience. The unnatural alliance of former enemies with different political characteristics and interests was all about the encirclement of Germany. Germany had broken the golden rule of taking to the sea to defend its maritime commerce and there could not be a toleration of any challenge to Britannia’s ruling of the waves and its Navy’s control of world trade.
For England the War was about the crippling of German competition in the markets of the world and the destruction of its maritime trade. For France it was the irredentist desire for the recovery of the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine – which it had lost over its invasion of German territories in 1870. For the Tsar it was all about the taking of Constantinople/Istanbul from the Turks.
Casement pointed out that the military alliance formed with France since 1904 had been concealed by the British State from Parliament. It had made secret preparations for a decade to wage War against Germany and the Ottoman Empire, plunging the world into disaster – the Crime Against Europe.
Another aspect of Casement’s writings that deserves mention is his attitude to the vast array of war propaganda Britain had fabricated against its enemies through respected historians and literary figures organised by the shadowy organisation of Wellington House (whose files and source lists were mysteriously destroyed at the end of the War). During 1915 and 1916 Lord Bryce, the former Irish Secretary who was a Belfast born Liberal, made highly-reported speeches in Parliament and helped document and publicise official reports about German and Ottoman atrocities. Sir Roger Casement, Bryce’s former colleague in investigating actual atrocities in South America, took a very hostile view of Bryce’s war work in his article ‘The Far Extended Baleful Power of the Lie’, published in Continental Times, 3.11.1915. Casement condemned Bryce, a respected historian, for selling himself as a hireling propagandist. According to Casement, Lord Bryce, had presided over a government body “directed to one end only”:
“the blackening of the character of those with whom England was at war… given out to the world of neutral peoples as the pronouncement of an impartial court seeking only to discover and reveal the truth.”
Casement particularly criticised Bryce’s methods of reporting atrocities. He noted that in relation to the reporting of Belgian atrocities in the Congo he himself had investigated these reports “on the spot at some little pain and danger to myself” whilst Bryce had “inspected with a very long telescope.” Bryce acted as a propagandist and did not deserve his reputation as an exposer of atrocities.
Casement continued with a point that is very relevant to any estimation of the validity of the British propaganda directed against the Germans and Ottomans:
“I have investigated more bona fide atrocities at close hand than possibly any other living man. But unlike Lord Bryce, I investigated them on the spot, from the lips of those who had suffered, in the very places where the very crimes were perpetuated, where the evidence could be sifted and the accusation brought by the victim could be rebutted by the accused; and in each case my finding was confirmed by the Courts of Justice of the very States whose citizens I had indicted.”
Casement added: “It is only necessary to turn to James Bryce the historian to convict James Bryce the partisan…”
Casement himself was a victim of this same black propaganda after his trial – propaganda used to ensure he was executed (see here). The mysterious Black Diaries employed for this purpose are shrouded in secrecy to this day, with seeming little appetite to get at the truth (see here).
After the Rising Casement was convicted of High Treason for doing what Britain was encouraging others to do in the world. England encouraged subjects of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires to join forces with the enemy and called them patriots. It hanged Casement for doing the same. General Maxwell, who had participated in an armed insurrection against the Boer Republics during the Jameson Raid, and been captured, was generously released by the government he attempted to overthrow. He showed no mercy himself and had the insurrectionists in Dublin in 1916 shot.
Of course, Casement was a traitor to Britain, on two counts.He had accepted pension and the Honours of the Crown and when the Empire made War he went over to alliance with the enemy. He was England’s Traitor and Ireland’s Patriot, blasting apart the Redmondite insistence that it was possible to be both Imperialist and Irish Nationalist.
Casement’s assertion of an independent world view was crucial in forming the basis of future Irish independence. The Crime Against Europe is the most important book on Foreign Policy written in Ireland, to this day. The right to a distinct foreign policy beyond the dictates of the neighbouring island was what 1916 and independence was all about. Without it Ireland would have remained West Britain.