January 21, 2022 - 1:00pm

Dominic Cummings has compared the situation in Ukraine to the Prussian invasion of Schleswig-Holstein in 1864: “hope some in Ukraine have also read re London encouraging a small country to resist vs a Great Power, then abandoning…”. In that case, Britain promised to defend Schleswig-Holstein, failed to do so, and let Prussia invade. The West’s rhetoric of support today may turn out to be just as reliable.

Britain was the great power in the 1860s. The richest, strongest country in the world. In a matter of months, their position eroded from strong liberal internationalism — promising to defend Schleswig-Holstein against German invasion — to pacifism in the face of aggression. Historian John Prest calls it “one of the most significant failures of British foreign policy during the nineteenth century.”

Britain’s failure to follow through gave the Prussian leader Bismarck a pretext for war. Britain was supporting Italian and Greek nationalism. Why then, patriotic German-speaking peoples asked, was Britain hostile to burgeoning German nationalism? This was Bismarck’s chance. Prussia invaded Schleswig-Holstein to unite German patriotic feelings, thereby leading to the rise of Bismarck and a Prussian-dominated German federation began.

This harks back to Palmerston’s famous line, “Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business — the Prince Consort, who is dead — a German professor, who has gone mad — and I, who has forgotten all about it.” He was right. The British Cabinet was susceptible to the pacifist argument, largely from Queen Victoria, historian Keith Sandiford said, “because they made no effort to study the details of the Schelswig-Holstein puzzle.” She played on their fear of war, and their fear of France. These factors were far more significant, Sandiford says, than the merits of the case.

The Prime Minister, Palmerston, had promised Parliament in 1863 that Britain would defend Schleswig-Holstein against German invasion. Meanwhile, Prussia and Austria told Denmark to revoke their position or they would invade Schleswig also. Eventually, Cabinet decided to defend Denmark, responding to German hostility, but only with support from France or Russia. No such support was forthcoming. And no-one wanted to encourage France to expand, the ultimate no-no of mid-nineteenth century British policy. Parliament was as divided as Cabinet — so Schleswig-Holstein was left to its fate.

Today, despite German indifference and international ambivalence from Biden, the UK has sent weapons to support Ukraine. The Defence Secretary is promising more. How far will Britain go? “I do not rule anything out within helping Ukraine deliver self-defence”, the Secretary said. His words may be a hostage to fortune.

As the West plays politics with the future of Ukraine, we might wonder what will dominate the final decisions. Fears of war with other powers — or the merits of the case?

Henry Oliver is a writer. His work can be found at The Common Reader.