Armageddon is generally supposed to be the first recorded battle of history, fought between Thutmose III, Pharaoh of Egypt, and some of his rebellious subjects near the site of modern Haifa in 1469 BC. By analogy, and thanks to the Apocalypse of St. John, it has come to stand also for the last battle, which will precede the Day of Judgment. It says something for the ethos of the First World War that Allenby’s victory over the Turks in northern Palestine in 1918 was hailed as the Second Battle of Armageddon—no doubt without prejudice, as the lawyers say, to the prerogative of the Lord of Hosts. Today the name is much in circulation again, since it is toward Armageddon that the tide of nuclear armaments is supposed to be sweeping mankind. And who, heaven knows, shall say that it is not?

Agadir is an altogether more obscure spot, a tiny port on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, momentarily celebrated in 1911 as the focus of a German foreign policy initiative and scarcely heard of before or since. What connects the two? Professor Geoffrey Barraclough sees the Agadir crisis as prefiguring and epitomizing the crisis that engulfs us today. Agadir set against each other the powers that, three years later, took up arms in the First World War. Agadir was supposed, at the time, to represent a conflict of the interests which each country held to be essential to its well-being. Agadir, in retrospect, seems a storm in a teacup. The crisis, in short, is an awful warning of the consequences of small-mindedness and short-sightedness. Contemplated and pondered upon, its history may help us to get outside ourselves and so to a safer distance from the disaster that otherwise impends.

The idea is an arresting one, since the First World War remains the prime example of unintended tragedies—despite the far greater suffering which the Second inflicted—and it is now widely accepted that the string of crises that preceded it were each a potential instance of its outbreak. The period, in short, presents us with a case study of general instability, highlighted by flashpoints that failed, between 1908 and 1913, to supply the fatal spark. Stumbling about like blind men in a powder magazine, the European powers succeeded more by good luck than by judgment in avoiding war between the Bosnia-Hercegovina crisis and the assassination at Sarajevo. We, with hindsight, may now succeed in plotting where the powder barrels stand and learn to avoid them. So, at any rate, the conventional interpretations of the last years of the belle époque seem to imply.

Professor Barraclough is more exacting. In his view, the powers were not blind but stupid, with the stupidity of those too selfish to calculate anything but their short-term advantage. Nationalism, long the favorite of Jeremiahs bemoaning the perverted moralities of that lost world, is not his target. His is a class enemy—the class of the bourgeoisie within the European states, and of those states themselves as the vehicles of bourgeois values in the wider world. As he sees it, France, Britain, and Germany (Russia and Austria-Hungary scarcely figure in his scheme of things) had become by the first decade of this century essentially rentier societies. The middle classes, forgetful of the revolutionary role they had played in breaking open the claustrophobic systems they had been born into a hundred years before, were as set on limiting the circle of privilege in 1900 as they had been on enlarging it in 1800. At home that policy meant restricting the franchise, holding down wages against the trend of inflation, and institutionalizing monopoly in industry and the professions. Abroad it meant extending the frontiers of empire, since only through empire might markets be assured for the commerce that the underpaid multitudes at home could no longer afford, and resources extracted at a price the rentiers were prepared to pay.

Colonies had therefore become, by 1900, as much commercial necessities as strategic prizes (that distinction, it must be said here, begs many questions) and almost no patch of the globe had escaped colonization in some guise or other. But just as the have-nots at home were beginning to organize for serious class war, so too were the subject and threatened peoples abroad stiffening their necks against the press of driving imperialism. The Chinese, the Mexicans, the Boers had each recently shown that resistance to imperial encroachment could mobilize popular energies—independently, in the first two cases, of the lassitude and defeatism of their own governments. A new technique—or an old technique revived—had therefore come to commend itself to the expansionists: the destabilization of native governments, so that they might be captured and then used against their own peoples. The British tried this in 1895, through the Jameson Raid, against the Boers of the Transvaal (an illustration of his point Professor Barraclough overlooks). In 1905, the French used the same technique against Morocco.


Morocco, ruled by a royal house which descended from the early caliphate, was one of the last two states on the southern shore of the Mediterranean not under European tutelage. Egypt, technically part of the Ottoman Empire, had been ruled by the British since 1882. Algeria and Tunisia had been French since 1848 and 1881 respectively. Libya was about to become Italian (though that was not yet foreseen). France was eager to add Morocco to its slice of North Africa because to do so would round off its campaign of conquest, tidy up the map, bring economic advantage, and—perhaps most important—cut out Spain, Britain, and Germany.

There would be a price to pay. Professor Barraclough, if he spreads his condemnations pretty widely, does at least hit the target with his strictures on “compensation.” This was a dual doctrine. A European power with a “forward” policy, “obliged” to intervene in some as yet uncolonized territory—protection of nationals or of investment was the usual excuse—would commonly seek to make the victim pay the costs of the intervention. If the victim found the bill difficult to pay, it could be lent the money; default on the debt would then become the pretext for deeper intrusion, usually control of the treasury and tax collection; this in turn required a military presence to protect the tax collectors. It was by a variant of this means that Egypt had fallen under British occupation in 1882. But acquisition of a colony (here used in the loosest sense) let “compensation” in by another door. The instance of Egypt is a good example: France, resentful of the British coup, sought “compensation” by the acquisition of territory elsewhere. Whose it was did not really matter. A suitable target eluded the French for nearly twenty years, when they found one in the Sudan. The resultant “Fashoda Incident”—though it left the Sudan in British hands—nearly brought Britain and France to the brink of an entirely pointless war.

Morocco would therefore be France’s compensation for Egypt, however long delayed. But, in the nature of prevailing imperialist ethics, French success there would entail compensation to others. That was really what the Agadir crisis was about. Nevertheless, it must be said that the powers had been to some pains to exclude Morocco from the “compensation” circus. As early as 1906, France, Britain, Spain, Italy, and Germany had agreed that the European states should enjoy equal rights in commerce and investment in Morocco. All should, therefore, have been well. But the 1906 agreement had conceded control of the police—who were to protect European businessmen—to France, and it was thence that trouble stemmed. The Moroccans objected to the interventionism that the police concession represented; they revolted against their weak sultan, Abd el-Aziz, and provoked the French into landing troops.

Enter Germany, industrially and militarily the strongest power in Europe, colonially the least well endowed. Under the rules of “compensation” it felt itself entitled to support the new sultan whom the rebels had set up against the French puppet. Temporarily the French bought the Germans off, by promising them a free hand commercially in exchange for the same politically. But when a heightening of popular revolt inside Morocco prompted France to reinforce its military stake in the country, the Germans thought again. French troops surrounded Fez, the Moroccan capital, on May 21, 1911. Five weeks later a German gunboat, the Panther, anchored off the southern Moroccan port of Agadir; the government in Berlin announced that it had arrived to protect German nationals.

A.J.P. Taylor, in his characteristically hilarious analysis of the crisis, alleges that there was no German present in Agadir, and that “the nearest…at Mogador…was instructed to go to Agadir in order to be endangered.” Professor Barraclough, a more straight-laced historian though a contemporary of Taylor’s at school, omits the German in Mogador, which certainly does not mean that the story is not true. His account of what followed is worthy of his schoolmate at his most caustic. The Panthersprung was not what it seemed. “Compensation” was on the table, but not of the sort which the world had come to know so well. Sordid commercial interests, almost indistinguishable in Barraclough’s analysis from imperialism itself, were in play. Chief man at the table was the French minister of commerce, Joseph Caillaux, who seems to have escaped into history from a Feydeau farce. But his part in the Agadir crisis was not as adulterer or journalistic reptile—though both were in his repertoire. Instead he represented the interests of the rentiers who were anxious for Franco-German commercial cooperation in general and for the building of a railway between their West African colonies in particular. Caillaux had gone behind the back of the French foreign minister to suggest to the German foreign minister, Kiderlen-Wächter, that something like the dispatch of the Panther would be just the thing to persuade Paris to offer “compensation” of the sort he and his cronies were seeking.


But he did not, of course, reveal all his cards to Kiderlen, nor did Kiderlen reveal his different cards to Paris. Franco-German negotiations subsequent to the Panthersprung were therefore destined to be confused, and confusion was compounded when, unexpectedly, the British and the Spanish suddenly announced that they saw their interests compromised also. Spain had longstanding territorial rights in the country. Britain feared that its control of the Straits of Gibraltar was threatened; worse, that Germany was seeking Atlantic bases for its growing navy. To the discomfiture of everyone, the powers found that they had a war scare on their hands. To the acute embarrassment of the French, they found that the British, as always when their naval predominance was menaced, were taking their own line, and might not back them up.

There was an urgent need for a quick resolution. The Kaiser, when Kiderlen was able to explain his hopes for “compensation” to him, was not amused. The French, when some lucky decoding revealed Caillaux’s duplicity to them, were not amused either. Both foreign ministries decided to talk turkey and, over the next weeks, cobbled together an agreement by which the French got a free hand in Morocco in return for trading a few oddly shaped strips of territory—“half a duck’s beak in exchange for two elephant tusks”—lying between the French Congo and the German Cameroons in West Africa.

End of story. But not for Professor Barraclough. The tale of “compensation” he has exposed seems to him to reveal not only the nature of the diplomacy that led to the outbreak of the First World War, but also the nature of great-power attitudes toward the third world that threaten world peace today—the Iran crisis of 1979 is a case in point. The idea is not new. Indeed, as elaborated in the theory of “economic imperialism,” it supplied Lenin, by way of the works of Brailsford and J.A. Hobson, with his explanation of how capitalism would finally explode. That alone should raise doubts whether this account of the Agadir crisis is the object lesson the author claims it to be. There is other cause for doubt.

The first is supplied by the story of the French conquest of Morocco, written by Douglas Porch, which fortuitously appears at the same time as Professor Barraclough’s essay. It is, in its own right, a thoroughly good book, scholarly, expansive, entertainingly written, and wholly original. It will be read entirely for pleasure, both by those who enjoy a good story well told, and by the aficionados of Beau Gestery, to whom the author supplies their fill of small white desert forts, sweating legionaries, glistening Senegalese, cafard, absinthe, and women lost but not forgotten. Its relevance to Professor Barraclough’s version of the Agadir crisis, however, is in its demonstration that the Moroccan-European relationship was not a simple one. There was much to blame in European policy. But the blame for it belongs partly to the Moroccans also.

Historically, Morocco had been a pirate state, at least since the expulsion of the Moors from Spain. A similar tradition of piracy in Algiers had preceded the French invasion of 1830 (and, indeed, had prompted the American punitive expedition of 1815, in which Stephen Decatur made his reputation). Moroccan piracy provoked the war with Spain in 1860, and that war upset the traditional balance of forces in the country; this in turn stimulated European penetration, on the push me-pull you principle, during the rest of the century. Much of this penetration was selfish. But some at least was benign and “improving.” European advisers to Sultan Abd el-Aziz, Mr. Porch writes, were “sickened and outraged…by the brutality of his government.” They “encouraged him to rule through justice and kindness….” But this “leniency was badly understood in a country where…kindness was the luxury of the weak, generosity a defect to be exploited.” Abd el-Aziz fell in the resulting turmoil of 1907, which, to diplomatic historians of the traditional sort, looked the result of European cynicism but was something more complex. Porch’s account of local practices gives an important insight into the “police question” over which France and Germany originally differed.

Secondly, the turmoil was not merely internal. The sultans had never fully controlled the interior, inhabited by tribes who were Moroccan in a sense only understood by European diplomats. In their own eyes they were free as air, and free in particular to amuse themselves by raiding into French Algeria. Now, it may be that Algeria should not have been French; but in view of the piracy against French ships of seventy years before, that was a complex issue. And, by 1900, it was beside the point. The French army had a military problem on the Algerian-Moroccan border, which it thought had to be solved by military means. “Pacification,” which means “imperialism” in Barraclough’s version, was its answer.

Thirdly, to take Barraclough up on his own ground, “pacification” does not translate into “imperialism” by any full interpretation of what followed. The process was certainly harsh, and its fruits were profitable to the extractors of commodities in London, Brussels, Paris, Hamburg, and elsewhere. But they were not the only beneficiaries. Taking Africa by itself, there unquestionably was a period, roughly between 1920 and 1950, when the European empires conferred on the Africans themselves advantages, both economic and social, that deserve to be weighed against the financial profit won by those who are now called expatriates.

Roads, bridges, and the like were among these advantages as were assured markets; internal peace was perhaps the most important. Between 1920 and 1950 Africa was a continent that virtually did not know war, and where peace was maintained by a few tens of thousands of soldiers, at negligible cost. Independent Africa is today the most war-ridden region of the world and, though it shames West and East alike that Africans fight each other with European weapons, they do so for motives which often antedate the arrival of the Europeans in the first place.

Moreover, they feel free to do so because war promises results that do not include the end of civilization. War seems a useful medium of political exchange, which is what Clausewitz said it was, and it is in that light that we should compare the years preceding the First World War and our own times. War already seemed terrible enough to the European statesmen of 1914 for them to shrink from it even when they were at the brink. But its risks appeared calculable. We know today that the risks of any policy that threatens nuclear war defy calculation. That is the difference. Caillaux, Kiderlen, and the rest of them were no doubt distasteful figures. Had Professor Barraclough contented himself with arguing that the 1900s produced some of the nastiest operators known to diplomatic history one would not have quarreled with him. But it is unthinkable that their mean cunning would lead them today where it did then. The instinct for “compensation” is an intensely self-protective one. Caillaux, were he allowed near the levers of power, would therefore be the first to think of ways of securing Middle Eastern oil without rocking the nuclear boat. In some ways there are grounds for thinking him a more reassuring manipulator of motives than the zealots, moralists, and ideologues who, with Professor Barraclough, would find in him a representative villain of modern history.

This Issue

August 18, 1983