Best of Enemies - Great Britain and Germany by Richard Milton

Review by Peter Kingdon Booker


I have often pondered on the seeming enmity between Great Britain and Germany in the first half of the twentieth century. The two countries were both Germanic and had similar outlooks, and certainly had more in common with each other than with any other country. And I have also pondered on the war aims of the German Empire during the First World War. I suspect that at root the aim of Emperor Wilhelm II and his Prussian supporters was to knock Great Britain off her top spot. Despite the fact that after the armistice in 1918 Germany was deemed to have lost the war, Britain has never again achieved her former pre-eminence. It has to be admitted that Germany therefore achieved her war aim, and in some sense at least, won that war. Sellars and Yeatman in 1066 and all that certainly thought so. For them, history came to a full stop in 1918 since England was no longer top nation.


Supporting my view (and indeed influencing it to a very large degree) was The Myth of the Great War by John Mosier (2001). His examination of the Western Front is cogent and remarkable in debunking the idea that the Allies won the war militarily, rather than by inducing a sense of exhaustion in Germany and in her armed forces and by threatening to overwhelm her with American numbers. When we consider the campaigns, the weapons and the modes of fighting and compare the casualty figures there is some basis for the view that the German Army was better at fighting than those of the Allies. The Armistice merely initiated a pause in the conflict. Despite Hitler´s outrageous strategic mistakes during WW2, Nazi Germany by 1945 had managed to complete the war aim of Emperor Wilhelm II at the cost of its own destruction. At least for Churchill the lesson of 1918 was stark – in another war with Germany, it was necessary to invade and occupy the country to make obvious a complete victory.


Now comes Robert Milton´s book Best of Enemies Britain and Germany, Truth and Lies in Two World Wars (2007). Milton argues convincingly that many Germans were envious of the position occupied by Great Britain in the world, and by extension of the style of life and habits of British people. It was this envy which drove the Prussian military state in to the catastrophe of WW1, and it was a peculiar kind of unrequited regard for Great Britain which stayed the hand of Hitler during the dark days of the summer of 1940, much to the frustration of his senior commanders.


The root of the problem was Britain´s Empire. How had it arisen? How had the British managed to hang on to it? Why was Germany alone of the Western European powers not endowed with a similar universal territorial heritage? The Emperor, despite being half British, was not able to see the truth from a historical perspective and reckoned that a superb war machine was required to forge a similar role for Germany.


Milton shows that he was half right because Britain´s Empire was maintained during the nineteenth century by continuous effort on the battlefields of the world and by an overwhelmingly powerful navy. Milton goes on anachronistically to talk of the British state of the nineteenth century being fascist. Aristocratic and rightist, certainly, but fascist? The term was not invented until 1922, and then could arguably be applied only to Italy.


The other half was the colossal lead in trade and manufacturing, which was built up by the British during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Although the German Empire itself had become the leader in manufacturing by 1900, there was still an element missing in the Germans´ perception of their own achievements. Milton analyses the role of the British upper classes and their education at superior public schools, and deduces that non-British people and particularly Germans were mesmerised by this social phenomenon. To the German mind, the class system of Britain was the foundation of the Empire, rather than the product of it. There is an argument that by despising trade and those who traded, the British upper classes looked down on the foundation of their own social standing.


Milton spends pages discussing the relative merits of the propaganda machines in both countries. His judgment is that during both conflicts, Britain won a resounding propaganda victory over Germany. He also shows that modern marketing owes a great deal to propaganda techniques learned during both wars, and that Americans have made the best use of these techniques. In particular, he shows how Edward Bernays (born in Austria in 1891 and died in Cambridge Massachusetts in 1995) managed the public image of Woodrow Wilson and went on to become the father of public relations and marketing. He wrote seminal works (Propaganda and Crystallising Public Opinion) in which he called his opinion-moulding “the engineering of consent.” His work was read and understood by Goebbels, who used Bernays´ techniques to achieve his successes in 1930s Germany.


There are some wonderful passages in the Milton´s book. Himmler prescribed a regulation diet of porridge for the SS on the grounds that the English aristocracy ate nothing for breakfast but porridge. The Hitler Jugend was based on the scouting movement and its military preparation for the young. The Boy Scouts for me were never attractive simply because of their quasi military constitution. Hitler was fond of taking tea at five o´clock, complete with cucumber sandwiches. He read the Tatler, and apparently drooled over the pictures of English aristocrats in their country homes. “Those are valuable specimens; those are the ones I am going to make peace with.” He was not far wrong, since there were many aristocrats who would have preferred peace with Germany even up to 1940. I was not aware that offers to make peace were being made under Churchill´s prime ministership. They came to nothing because Churchill would deal with anyone but Hitler and Hitler, returning the compliment, would deal with anyone but Churchill.


This book is thought provoking and very readable. For anyone interested in a fresh view of the twentieth century, and of the relative power plays between Britain and Germany, this book is immensely interesting.