January 24, 2014 7:02 pm

The first world war, 100 years on

It may be passing from living memory but 1914 still divides us
A memorial to the first world war in the French town of Fouilloy, near Amiens, located in the battlefields of the Somme©Reuters

A memorial to the first world war in the French town of Fouilloy, near Amiens, located in the battlefields of the Somme

The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century, by David Reynolds, Simon & Schuster, RRP£25, 544 pages

First World War: Still No End in Sight, by Frank Furedi, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99, 288 pages

Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! A World Without World War I, by Richard Ned Lebow, Palgrave Macmillan RRP$17.99 / RRP£27, 256 pages

Men, so the reproach goes, often fail to remember anniversaries. Not so with publishers, as is shown by the torrent of books marking the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war in 1914. How to commemorate this anniversary has itself become a fraught political issue in Britain. Publicity was assured not simply by Michael Gove’s call, as Conservative education secretary, for a patriotic celebration that battled “leftwing myths”. Nor by the response from Tristram Hunt, his Labour shadow, who evinced some indignation but also offered a rather more nuanced discussion, betraying his own status as an accredited historian.

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What really stole the headlines was the intervention of Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, who asserted – with unsinkable aplomb – the “sad but undeniable fact” that the war was “overwhelmingly the result of German expansionism and aggression”. Is this really the case? We have surely moved beyond 1914 and All That – the sort of simplistic account that calls Kaiser Wilhelm II “A Bad Man” or, at any rate, “A Bad Thing”. For there are some alleged facts which, however sad their consequences, may fall some way short of the undeniability test. Three very different recent books are, at any rate, agreed on the open-ended nature of the questions thrown up by 1914.

 

Richard Ned Lebow is a prolific political scientist who uses counter-factual hypotheses to illuminate the possibilities of a far from simple situation in Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! Suppose the heir to the Austrian emperor had not, through various accidents on the day, become the victim of a Serbian assassin in Sarajevo in June 1914: what then? Well, no Austrian ultimatum to Serbia, no Russian support for its Slav client-state in resisting, no mobilisation in eastern Europe pitting Russian troops against Austrian, no intervention by the kaiser in support of his Austrian ally, no cause for belligerent French support of its Russian ally, no German mobilisation in western Europe, no violation of Belgian neutrality and thus no cause for Britain to intervene. In fact – or rather, in counter-fact – there would have been no European war.

So far, so plausible. But Lebow is concerned with projecting the consequences far into the future, along lines of causation that then become increasingly tenuous, since each fork in the road is premised on not having taken some previous forks. The author is well aware of this. Not only does he imagine a “best plausible world” – no Soviet takeover, no Nazi regime, no Holocaust – but he also gives us worst-case scenarios. Either way, we soon lose sight of the immediacy of the first world war itself and plunge into some far-reaching speculations, great and small alike. Thus Adolf Hitler, the unsuccessful artist, eventually “sets up a successful mail-order business that sells quack products”. Maybe; and yet again, maybe not.

 

The sociologist Frank Furedi is likewise concerned with distant as well as immediate consequences, in a process that we still cannot declare finished; hence his title First World War: Still No End in Sight. In a broad-ranging survey, he takes 1914 as the starting-point in a series of interlinked and ongoing crises that successively fashioned the 20th century. The first world war, far from being a “war that will end war”, as HG Wells had hoped, was to be succeeded within a generation by a second; and then the cold war, in Furedi’s analysis, itself led to the culture wars of the late 20th century.

The clash of ideas, rather than war in any military dimension, is Furedi’s focus. Though there is an intriguingly wide sweep to his arguments, his discussion remains at a high level of abstraction. In this reckoning, “the end of ideology” that sociologist Daniel Bell perceptively identified in 1960 was to be out-trumped by “the end of history” that another American, Francis Fukuyama, proclaimed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. A lot of endings, then; and some of them more easily postulated than substantiated. But unfortunately, Furedi does not test his suggestive hypotheses in the kind of concrete historical situations that might have satisfied more empirically minded readers.

 

The historian David Reynolds, in choosing the title The Long Shadow for his study of the impact of the Great War, hints that his concern too is with far more than the years 1914-18. Indeed, his canvas is the whole century that has since elapsed. He guides us in Part One through the legacies of the war itself, during a peace that lasted (nominally, in Europe at least) up to 1939. Then in Part Two – “Refractions” – he discusses some crucial aspects of the way that the experience of the second world war readjusted perspectives on the first, in ways still relevant to our own knee-jerk reactions today. We are still emotionally captive, almost subliminally, to graphic images and chains of association – “Oh, what a lovely war”, the Somme, the trenches, Blackadder, poppies . . .

The point is to understand how conflicting perceptions have been generated over time, not to stage a judgmental Punch-and-Judy contest of our own. Reynolds’s achievement is simultaneously to retrieve the experience of those who lived through the war, with all its moral hazards as well as physical ones; and then to trace the many lineages that link contemporary views with our own. This is a masterly study in every sense: by an historian at the top of his game, deploying wide-ranging research in important arguments, sustained alike with rich detail and with dry wit.

It is one of Reynolds’s central themes that the British experience of the two world wars was highly distinctive, not only in immediate ways but also with effects that have been long-lasting, not least on perceptions. Of course, this point can only be argued by adopting a comparative perspective. Thus in the first world war it may be true that Britain nobly declared war to protect Belgium; but the British got off relatively lightly in never experiencing invasion, nor even the serious threat of it, and the civilian population was largely out of the line of fire. This was in obvious contrast with the Belgians. Far from being rescued by British intervention, they quickly found most of their country occupied. Some Belgians became the victims of German atrocities – which certainly took place, and were also certainly used in British propaganda, and were equally certainly widely disbelieved after the war, in a cycle that itself illustrates changing perspectives and perceptions.

Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, who has asserted that the war was ‘overwhelmingly the result of German expansionism and aggression’©Solo

Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, who has asserted that the war was ‘overwhelmingly the result of German expansionism and aggression’

Our tendency to accept the second world war as “the good war” inevit­ably colours perceptions of the first, often slighted in retrospect as a bad war in which hapless armies were doomed to countless pointless deaths. It remains shocking that more than 700,000 British troops died – a million if we count the whole of the British empire. The war dead of the Canadians at Vimy Ridge, or the Australians at Gallipoli, became the focus of purposeful forms of commemoration in which the facts of these engagements were subsequently subordinated to the imperatives of nation-building. This was, for Britain, an imperialist war – how could it have been otherwise? But the Dominions too were rallied by the morality of the cause.

One of the most significant wartime speeches was given by David Lloyd George in September 1914. He was then chancellor of the exchequer in the Liberal government that had taken Britain into the war; yet his own image was that of a radical with pacifist leanings – until he gave the speech. He now made the moral case for war, in the tradition of Gladstone, with rhetorical tropes about small nations rightly struggling to be free. Lloyd George identified Belgium and Serbia alongside his native Wales as the “little five-foot-five nations”, now “fighting for their freedom”, thus making it personal. Lloyd George’s own height sealed the argument. What he could not know at this time was that nearly a quarter of all Serbian males aged 15-49 were to die in a war that plainly did not “save” nor “protect” them.

The view from 1914 was thus to be modified by the view from 1918. But what about the view from 2014, now that historians have been so busy in rewriting their accounts of how the whole thing began? Were the Serbs quite so guiltless? Not if we follow the analysis in Christopher Clark’s groundbreaking book The Sleepwalkers (2012). With an impressive command of the relevant sources in many languages, Clark develops the cogent argument that the events in Sarajevo were invested with an altogether more sinister significance, once we appreciate the full force of Serbian irredentist nationalism. For us today, with our own memories of more recent Balkan conflicts, the unspoken name is surely that of Slobodan Milosevic – another ghost at the feast. Back in 1914, Clark deftly demonstrates the implication of the Serbian government in the Sarajevo assassination – no mere trivial, random act – and to this extent shows the reasonable grounds for Austria’s response.

This is not an open-and-shut case. The traditional Anglocentric view – that responsibility for the war rests primarily with Germany in recklessly abetting its Austrian ally – has recently been reframed in the course of Margaret MacMillan’s copious narrative, The War That Ended Peace . And Clark, it should be said, has a problem in dealing with the combative way that Germany raised the bidding and the bluffing – a problem with which, as an author of rare literary talent, he deals brilliantly. He reinvents Kaiser Wilhelm II as a character who could well inhabit an operetta by, say, Franz Lehár, who actually set The Merry Widow in the Balkans. So the Kaiser becomes, in this narrative, simply a buffoon, whom nobody could take seriously.

Such rival scenarios remain argu­able in the double sense of that term: capable of being reasonably asserted and also open to dispute. That the debate can easily take an unreasonable turn is testament to our own emotional investment in particular views of the past – not as rival interpretations of history, perhaps, so much as rival myths. For the British, the first world war still bulks larger than for either former allies or enemies. More so than for the Americans, who had their own trauma of mass slaughter and barbed wire in their civil war, half a century before the western front. More so than for the French, agonised about the Occupation and the Resistance after the shame of 1940. More so than for the Germans, understandably preoccupied with the Hitler era and the subsequent division of Germany. A complex skein of history has unwound in different ways for different people in the century since 1914. Understanding this today, surely we should resist the temptation to reanimate our own illusions.

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Peter Clarke is author of ‘Mr Churchill’s Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer’ (Bloomsbury)

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Letter in response to this article:

Most interesting ‘what-if’ of all / From Mr Colin Blackwell

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