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Belgian Neutrality:  The "Scrap of Paper" That Served
As the Pretext for British Entry into the War



      Thus, in Grey's speech to Parliament on August 3 asking for its support for the war, he successfully appealed to British honor in defending Belgium, without hiding the fact that Britainís interest in maintaining France was also at stake.  After first describing the nature of the naval agreement with France, he stated that ìif the German fleet came down the Channel and bombarded and battered the undefended coasts of France, we could not stand aside and see this going on practically within sight of our eyes, with our arms folded, looking on dispassionately, doing nothing!î[1]   And again drawing out the notion of British honor, he borrowed a line from Gladstone from 1870 in referring to the question of Belgian neutrality, saying, ìCould this country stand by and witness the direst crime that ever stained the pages of history and thus become participators in the sin?î[2]   Yet even in Greyís impassioned speech, he referred to the Belgian Treaty only in terms of ìthe obligations of honor and interest,î never claiming that Britain was bound to intervene. 

       Few politicians or commentators, if any, insisted that Britain had no choice but to fight to defend Belgian neutrality, and in fact, many notable British emphasized that their countryís intervention in the war was to protect its interests on the continent, not because of Germanyís invasion of Belgium.  Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, leader of the Labor Party, called it a ìpretty little game of hypocrisyî for his government to pretend that England was going to war to protect the sanctity of treaties and ìlittleî Belgium.[3]   Germany also tried to convince its own people and the world that Belgian neutrality was the British pretext to claim its intervention in the war was just.[4]   Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg made the now infamous speech in which he bitterly criticized Britain for ìstriking a man from behind while he was fighting for his life against two assailants Ö all for just a wordóëneutralityíójust for a scrap of paperÖ.î[5]   He was adamant that Britain was not going to war just to defend Belgium, but rather because that was a moral excuse to protect its other interests involved in 1914. 

       Nonetheless, the debate over intervention was couched in such terms, and though the British clearly had varied over time in their interpretations of the guarantee of Belgian neutrality, in 1914 they made a perfectly valid interpretation which allowed them the right to intervene to preserve Belgian neutrality.  British intervention was clearly motivated by Britainís interests in restraining German aggrandizement of power as well as preserving France as a continental power to counteract Germany, but the issue of Belgian neutrality was the only means to unite British public opinion in support of the war effort.  In the end, it seems most probable that even without the German violation of Belgian neutrality, Britain likely would have intervened on behalf of France in order to restore the equilibrium of power the alliance system had tried to create.  Thus, the German Chancellor was probably correct in his belief that Britain was not really fighting for Belgium, but rather for itself; however, his characterization of the treaty of 1839 as a ìscrap of paperî has gone down in history as compelling evidence of Germanyís utter disregard for international legal obligations.

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Footnotes

1.     Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, 1962, p. 117. 
2.     Id.
3.     Alexander Fuehr, The Neutrality of Belgium, 1915, Ch. 5,  (http://raven.cc.ukans.edu/~libsite/wwi-www/belgneut/BelgTC.htm#TC). 
4.     See, e.g., Bethmann-Hollwegís speech in the Reichstag on Dec. 2, 1914, quoted in Fuehr at Appendix E (http://raven.cc.ukans.edu/~libsite/wwi-www/belgneut/BelgA.htm#E).
5.     Tuchman, supra note 1, at 129.