OVER A century ago, a talented British newspaperman sent a manuscript on the irrationality of war to numerous London publishers. It was uniformly rejected on the grounds that the public was uninterested in the topic. After he paid a well-known firm to print his opuscule, it quickly garnered praise, and then, a few months later, an expanded edition became a publishing sensation. It sold several million copies and was almost immediately translated into twenty-five languages. At a moment when a highly nationalistic imperial Germany was arming itself to the teeth and Edwardian England was, in turn, bolstering its naval program, the book’s thesis was as revolutionary as it was sweeping—that growing economic interdependence among nations rendered renewed conflict a thing of the past.
Norman Angell’s triumph was not adventitious. Much of it was owed to the unstinting efforts of Lord Esher, a close friend of King Edward VII and chairman of the war committee, who touted Angell’s The Great Illusion as a profound work. Others agreed. The volume became the subject of a cult following, and study groups and societies in England and Europe were formed to discuss and propagate its views. Reviews in the popular press were seldom less than adulatory. The New York Times declared, “The author is enjoying the almost unlimited praise of his contemporaries, expressed or indicated by many men of eminence and influence, by countless reviewers who have lately hungered for a hero to worship.” The Boston Herald stated, “This is an epoch-making book.” A French economics journal called it “profound,” and it was hailed in Germany as “an invaluable contribution.” Edward VII read the book and an institute called the Garton Foundation was established to disseminate its message. Lord Esher wrote the author, “Your book can be as epoch making as Seeley’s Expansion of England or Mahan’s Sea Power. It is sent forth at the right psychological moment, and wants to be followed up.” Esher himself did just that: he lectured at the Sorbonne as well as to a group of high-ranking military officers, which included Sir John French, the chief of the General Staff, to explain that growing economic ties meant that armed conflict “becomes every day more difficult and improbable.”
Yet only four years after this volume appeared, the improbable occurred, severing the very economic ties that were supposed to render conflict among nations nugatory. In August 1914, Europe plunged into World War I. By war’s end, the Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian monarchies had been toppled. Dictatorships emerged. And so the heady acclaim that Angell had experienced on the eve of the Great War was replaced by withering scorn. Perhaps the most lasting verdict came in 1962 with Barbara Tuchman’s popular history, The Guns of August:
By impressive examples and incontrovertible argument Angell showed that in the present financial and economic interdependence of nations, the victor would suffer equally with the vanquished; therefore war had become unprofitable; therefore no nation would be so foolish as to start one.
Angell enjoyed a career that included writing a total of forty-one books, winning the Nobel Peace Prize and becoming a member of Parliament—“It is the only gate before which I have ever stood filled with envy,” wrote Anthony Trollope in Can You Forgive Her?, “sorrowing to think that my steps might never pass under it”—but his popular reputation never really recovered. Instead, his name became a synonym for naive utopianism. Shakespeare’s description in Julius Caesar of Casca as belonging to the kind of men who “construe things after their fashion, / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves” comes forcibly to mind when considering Angell’s posthumous reputation. As the Canadian writer Dan Gardner sympathetically observed in his study of expert opinion, Future Babble, “No one has ever suffered more for a prediction that failed.”
But as the hundredth anniversary of World War I looms large—and a spate of books arguing about its real origins appears (was Germany the culprit? Russia? England? Austria?)—a fresh look at Angell, too, is surely warranted. Indeed, his remarkable life has attracted fresh scholarly scrutiny. Perhaps no one has done more to rescue Angell from the condescension of the past than Martin Ceadel in his punctilious study, Living the Great Illusion, which this essay draws upon. What emerges is an intriguingly contradictory character with a flair for self-promotion. A canny operator, he steadily sidled toward realist principles, abandoning some of his own illusions, even if he never quite explicitly acknowledged his transformation. He embarked upon a prolonged intellectual journey—from opposition to war to an appreciation of the centrality of power in international relations—that indicates he was a restless and, more often than not, insightful student of world politics.