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Thomas Otte's superb biography changes the roles of Sir Edward Grey's critics
Sir Edward Gray (1862-1933) was Secretary of State from December 1905 to December 1916, for 11 years to this day, the longest uninterrupted period anyone has done in that great office, established in 1782. He is remembered as the man who failed to avert World War I.
Its outbreak drew from Gray one of the most famous political quotes of all time. The famous words were uttered in front of the windows of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when the lamp lighter did its work at dusk on August 4, 1914: “The lamps go out all over Europe. We will not see them burn again in our lifetime. "
His critics said that if he had been a more experienced politician, the lights might not have gone out. They saw him as a decent but unimaginative English landowner outwitted by the crafty, saber-rattling leaders of continental Europe. He is still being denigrated. Andrew Adonis, my historian friend on the Labor benches in the Lords, considers him "perhaps the most incompetent foreign secretary of all time".
In this new biography, Professor T.G. Otte, an outstanding diplomatic historian, turns the roles of the critics. In 700 pages of crisp, smooth prose, he restores Gray's reputation, drawing on more than a hundred collections of private papers and all relevant official documents from the period.
Gray emerges from this doorstop as a diplomat of quite exceptional skill. He managed to defuse a series of acute crises in North Africa, the Near East and the Balkans which, without his agility, could have led to catastrophe before 1914. While retaining his entents with France and Russia, he avoided strong alliances with anyone. .
He played the great powers of Europe against each other for peace with great acumen. His talents were widely admired in Germany. In June 1914, just weeks before the outbreak of war, he wrote that "we are on good terms with Germany and we want to prevent friction with her from flaring up again".
Gray emerges from this doorstop as a diplomat of quite exceptional skill
His work was done behind closed doors, out of sight of crabby parliamentary critics, who completely misjudged him. Thomas Otte & # 39; s detailed examination of the documents recording his movements on the intricate diplomatic chessboard has finally revealed the true scale of his achievement.
It sometimes seemed like he was married to the State Department. His wife died shortly after accepting the post, plunging him into endless grief that eased long hours of work. She had refused to have sex with him shortly after their marriage. Rumors circulated about his affairs with other women and the children he fathered. Otte rejects the gossip. He sees no reason to doubt that Gray had a blissfully happy, chaste marriage.
What went wrong in 1914? Austria's decision to severely punish Serbia after the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand angered Russia, the self-appointed guardian of the Slavic peoples. Only German intervention to restrain his boisterous Austrian ally could have saved the situation.
Gray used every diplomatic ploy imaginable with Germany until his armies marched against France, leaving Britain with no choice but to fight. If it had been possible, Gray would have stopped the lights from going out, as Thomas Otte shows in this wonderful book.
Lord Lexden is a conservative colleague and historian
Statesman of Europe: A Life of Sir Edward Gray is published by Allen Lane