- 1Richard Evans on Causes of WW1
- 2Challenging WW1 Myths, by History teacher John Blake
- 3Nigel Biggar: WW1 was a just war
- 4Review and explanation of Christopher Clark's "The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914"
- 5Review and comparison of Clark's "Sleepwalkers" and McMeekin's "July 1914"
- 6Review of three books, by MacMillan, McMeekin and Hastings: How recklessness, unstable alliances and bad luck plunged Europe into crisis
- 7Niall Ferguson: WW1 was unnecessary. Interview about his book "The Pity of War"
- 8The first world war was far from futile, by Historian Gary Sheffield
- 9Antony Beevor on the left/right wing debate
- 10Russel Tarr's worksheet on Historians Debate on Twitter
- 11For (IB) History students
- 12Storify of Tweets: Historians discuss Causes of WW1
It promises to be a great year for World War One Historiography. In the first week of 2014 UK’s Tory Secretary of Education Michael Gove started a heated debate about the way the centenary of WW1 should be commemorated. Gove attacked the “Left-wing” and “the Blackadder” interpretations WW1. Twitter erupted in response and soon many respected historians weighed in on the debate. I found all of these viewpoints fascinating so I collected some of the recent articles and summarised them. Below you will find key excerpts of articles by Richard Evans, Gary Sheffield and Nigel Birrar. I outlined book reviews of Christopher Clark, Sean McMeekin and Margaret McMillan and there is a great article by History teacher John Blake. I included an old interview (YouTube) with Niall Ferguson on his book “The Pity of War” and there is a fantastic Twitter discussion between History teacher Russel Tarr and Historians Simon Schama, Tom Holland and Gary Sheffield.
It is vital for any society to discuss historical interpretations so we should be thankful to Michael Gove for igniting this debate. It also highlights the importance of good History teachers, they should present students with different viewpoints and let them arrive at their own well-informed and well-substantiated conclusions.
Download a Word version of the WW1 historiography dinner party. The sheet contains student tasks and all information in this post.
Richard Evans on Causes of WW1
- Nobody has ever been able to demonstrate convincingly that the German government went to war in August 1914 with authoritarian, militarist, expansionist aims in mind.
- Had Germany won, the rigid imposition of a monolithic German dictatorship would not have been on the cards.
- Agrees with Christopher Clark: Should move away from the blame game.
- WW1 was the seminal catastrophe of the entire period, from which all the evils that plagued Europe in the following decades sprang.
- WW1 was not a just war. Disagrees with Nigel Birrar, Michael Gove (Education Secretary)
Full article here: Michael Gove’s history wars | Books | The Guardian
My highlights of the article:
- “Sucking up to the Germans is no way to remember our Great War heroes, Mr Cameron
- In Max Hastings’s view, there was little difference between the Kaiser’s war and Hitler’s, except that in the former case “there was no genocidal programme against the Jews”
- Another military historian, Gary Sheffield, says that “most modern scholarship” agrees that Britain’s war aims in 1914 were the same as in 1939: “to prevent an authoritarian, militarist, expansionist enemy achieving hegemony in Europe … If the allies had lost”, he says, “it would have meant the end of liberal democracy on mainland Europe”
Yet modern historical scholarship says nothing of the kind.
Hastings, Sheffield and their allies rely on the work of Fritz Fischer, a German historian who in 1961 published a justly celebrated book, based on painstaking research in the German archives, about Germany’s aims in the first world war. Fischer showed that official German policy in September 1914 did indeed aim at subjugating a large part of Europe to the political and economic domination of the Reich. But nobody has ever been able to demonstrate convincingly that the German government went to war in August 1914 with these aims in mind
- Moreover, Fischer himself showed that there was widespread opposition to annexationist aims within Germany, and the opposition grew as the war went on. Far from being a ruthless dictator, the Kaiser, who changed his mind on an almost hourly basis in the runup to the war, was a flighty, indecisive leader who was quickly pushed aside by the generals once the war began. Wilhelm II was no Hitler. And Germany’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, joined with the Catholic Centre, the second largest party, and the leftwing liberals while the war was still going well for the Reich to prepare for parliamentary democracy once the war was over; a democracy that the Kaiser, faced with growing internal dissent, was forced to concede in principle in his Easter message of 1917. Nobody can say with any certainty what would have happened had the Germans won the war, but it is safe to say that the rigid imposition of a monolithic dictatorship on Germany and the rest of Europe by the Kaiser would not have been on the cards.
- Scholarship has also moved on in the half-century or more since Fischer’s day. Nowadays, with few exceptions, historians take a more nuanced view. Christopher Clark has argued in his magnificent study of the war’s origins, The Sleepwalkers, that it’s time to get away from the blame game, and he is right. Every country had its strategic and ideological reasons for going to war in 1914; none was entirely without blame.
- More important, the end of the war in 1918 was a victory for no one. The major issues were left unresolved until they were taken up again in 1939. Not without reason do historians nowadays refer to the whole period from 1914 to 1945 as “the Thirty Years War of the 20th Century”. As for the first world war itself, modern scholarship regards it as the seminal catastrophe of the entire period, from which all the evils that plagued Europe in the following decades sprang: fascism, communism, racism, anti-semitism, dictatorship, extreme violence, mass murder, genocide and the wholesale abandonment of civilised values across the continent. Only from a narrowly British perspective, and in ignorance of modern scholarship on the period, is it possible to view the end of the war in 1918 as a victory for Britain. The men who enlisted may have thought they were fighting for civilisation, a better world, a war to end all wars, a war to defend freedo m: they were wrong.
- Propagating inaccurate myths about alleged British victories is no way to create a solid national identity. The current debate on English identity goes back to the 1990s, when the rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalism posed the question of who exactly the English are – a question tackled by many authors who published on the subject throughout the decade, from Jeremy Paxman to Roger Scruton. National identity isn’t something that can be manufactured or imposed on a people by a government. It has to emerge organically, by popular consent. It can’t be created by generating historical myths, if only because these will always be contested. What’s more, nowadays historians are too numerous and too well trained to let myths pass uncommented on.
Challenging WW1 Myths, by History teacher John Blake
- Imperialist injustice, incompetent commanders and the horrors of the trenches: these are the lessons of the First World War. But are they the whole story?
- The causes of the war were much more complicated than a narrative of imperialist states seeking expansion suggests.
- The war poets were wrong. Soldiers and citizens knew about the horrors but it wasn’t all horrific all of the time.
- To say that the war was “a total disaster that was unnecessary and destroyed a generation”, is not supported by the historical record.
Full article here: The first casualty: truth – feature – TES
My highlights of the article:
- Imperialist injustice, incompetent commanders and the horrors of the trenches: these are the lessons of the First World War. But are they the whole story? John Blake argues that we must abandon our unthinking acceptance of such facts and teach the conflict as it really was
- if the centenary is to be truly historical, the First World War needs to be considered in far greater depth, and the myths that have grown up around it challenged
- first, that it was, without question, an unjust and imperialist war;
second, that war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen provide a representative response of soldiers to the conflict; and
third, that the generals of the First World War were ignorant and callous butchers who had no regard for their men. All three of these myths appear to be deeply embedded in too many of our schools and in too much of our culture.
- In Clark’s book, the traditional villains of the piece – Austria-Hungary and imperial Germany – are re-evaluated, set against not “tiny, helpless Serbia” but an aggressive, posturing, expansionist Serbia, heavily influenced by a shadow government drawn from the intelligence services.
- The foreign policy of all the major powers, Clark argues, was conducted by competing mishmashes of factions, with misunderstanding so built into the system that the people apparently in charge of these nations watched in horror as they accidentally went to war.
- But his thesis does imply that the causes of the war were much more complicated than a narrative of imperialist states seeking expansion suggests.
- Few British children can have made it through school without at least one English or history lesson on “the war poets”, the teacher sonorously intoning Owen’s immortal phrase, “you would not tell with such high zest/to children ardent for some desperate glory/the old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est/Pro patria mori”.
- interviewed hundreds of First World War veterans in the 1970s and found not one who had a copy of work by the famous war poets or endorsed the views in that poetry.
- In fact, Stephen suggests, many young men serving on the Western Front were happy with their lot.
- Many of the men Stephen interviewed were outraged by the patronising attitude of later generations that they had been mere cannon fodder, ignorant of the causes of the war and maltreated. They were clear why they had fought and satisfied that the war had been worthwhile. Nor had their experience been as unremittingly dreadful as some historians and polemicists claimed: 80 per cent of enlisted men came home again, and although most communities in the country bore some loss, there are villages in England where there is no war memorial because every man returned.
- Stephen concluded that the Owen and Sassoon view took hold not because it represented real Tommies but because it reflected the shock of a middle class unused to war. Taking Owen as the “average” British soldier is like assuming that the Guardian letters page of 2003 provides an authentic representation of life in the armed forces in Iraq.
- Men did die in the war, and the blame for this is most often laid at the feet of the generals: the donkeys leading lions.
- Much of the negative image of Haig and his generals was created by a small group of historians, beginning with Basil Liddell Hart, who served under Haig in the war but later turned on him.
- This view has been challenged, and challenged strongly. Gary Sheffield wrote Forgotten Victory more than a decade ago, comprehensively deconstructing the myths of the Great War. Yet the group of actors, writers and musicians behind the No Glory in War campaign seeking to influence the centenary celebrations can still get significant play with their views, unchanged from that 1960s liberal consensus. When Brian Eno says that the war was “a total disaster that was unnecessary and destroyed a generation”, he speaks for many, even if the historical record simply does not support such a claim.
- The reason the infantry was asked to walk across the Somme battlefield was to ensure that they arrived at the German lines together and thus were not slaughtered one by one as they climbed into the enemy trenches.
- What Haig and the other commanders lacked was experience with the new weapons of war. These increased the killing power of an individual soldier to such an extent that offensive tactics that had previously been relatively safe became lethal: jogging in a pack across an open field in the face of machine gun fire is quite a different proposition from doing it against single-cartridge Martini-Henry rifles.Haig was slow to appreciate this in the days of the Somme, but although that battle looms large in the collective memory of the conflict, it is not the defining example of British tactics and strategy.
- The First World War was an infinitely more complex historical phenomenon than British popular memory makes it. Instead of being approached with caution and examined – and learned from – as a multilayered event, it has become almost a “fixed point” in the historical calendar, a vision of war not as it was but as we think it should be taught.
- The centenary of the First World War must not be a chauvinistic cavalcade but nor should it be a pacifist’s parade
- Challenging received wisdoms and raising uncomfortable truths. If it does, that may be the most suitable commemoration of the fallen we can make.
- Comment 1: Over the last 30 years Australian and New Zealand historians such as Robin Prior, Trevor Wilson, Jeffrey Grey, Peter Dennis, Ian McGibbon, etc, have, like their UK counterparts, Gary Sheffield, Ian Beckett, Hew Strachan, et al, have done much to debunk this and other myths re the First World War.
- Comment 2: The views in this article echo those of Gove who is currently locked in a skirmish with a Cambridge professor. Needless to say, Gove’s knowledge of World War 1 is infinitely superior.
- John Blake teaches history at a comprehensive school in London and is chairman of Labour Teachers. @johndavidblake
Nigel Biggar: WW1 was a just war
- Disagrees with Richard Evans and Christopher Clark. Biggar believes that WW1 was a just war, caused by Germany. Michael Gove (UK Educ Secretary, Tory) agrees with Biggar.
- It was the German government, and especially its military leadership, that first risked and then caused continental war in August 1914
- Germany was unprovoked, it launched a European war to assert and establish its own military and diplomatic dominance.
- There are tactical explanations for the war of attrition and the “lions led by donkeys” myth is misplaced.
Full article here: Was Britain Right To Go To War In 1914? | Standpoint
My highlights of the article:
- Richard J. Evans, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, made his view robustly clear in the Guardian (“Myth-Busting”, July 13, 2013). Brushing aside the likes of Hew Strachan, Gary Sheffield and Max Hastings, he wrote that “the men who enlisted in 1914 may have thought they were fighting for civilisation, a better world, a war to end all wars, a war to defend freedom: they were wrong”.
- Evans accuses those who would celebrate 1918 as a British military triumph of “narrow, tub-thumping jingoism” and asks, “Do we want a narrow, partisan, isolationist national identity where . . . other countries are regarded as inferior, and triumphalist myths are drummed into our children?”
- During its 1,500-year history, the “just war” tradition — originally fostered by Christian theologians, but now enshrined in international law and adopted by moral philosophers — has developed two sets of criteria, one regarding the justice of going to war in the first place (ius ad bellum) and the other regarding justice in the course of fighting (ius in bello).
The six criteria of ius ad bellum are: just cause, legitimate authority, right intention, last resort, proportionality, and prospect of success. Those of ius in bello are proportionality and discrimination. In the case of Britain’s belligerency in 1914-18, criticism has focused on three criteria: just cause, right intention and proportionality (both ad bellum and in bello).
- Since the late 1920s it has been fashionable to attribute the outbreak of the war not to the morally accountable decisions of individuals or governments, but to the effects of impersonal systems or forces. Thus in 1928 Sidney B. Fay wrote that “the War was caused by the system of international anarchy involved in alliances, armaments and secret diplomacy” and that “all the powers were more or less responsible”. This is the morally indiscriminate view taken by Evans, who invokes Christopher Clark‘s “magnificent” and indicatively titled 2012 book, The Sleepwalkers.
- Other contemporary historians, however, are more inclined both to credit human agency and to apportion moral responsibility. Thus, Hew Strachan on 1914: “What remains striking about those hot July weeks is the role, not of collective forces nor of long-range factors, but of the individual.” Thus too, David Stevenson: “The European peace might have been a house of cards, but so meone still had to topple it. It used to be argued that 1914 was a classic instance of a war begun through accident and error: that no statesmen wanted it but all were overborne by events. This view is now untenable.”
- So who caused it and why? A dominant, if not universal, view has now settled around a modified version of Fritz Fischer‘s 1960s interpretation. (Evans confidently denies this; Clark, undercutting him, admits it.) The Fischer thesis, according to Stevenson, is that “it is ultimately in Berlin that we must seek the keys to the destruction of peace . . . Germany willed a local war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, deliberately risked a continental war against France and Russia, and finally actually started one.” Whereas “all the European powers contributed to the growth of tension in the pre-1914 decade…the fundamental contention of the Versailles ‘war-guilt’ article was justified…” While it is untrue that Kaiser Wilhelm II and his chancellor, Theobold von Bethmann-Hollweg, were intent upon a continental war in July 1914, they were nevertheless prepared to risk it in giving Germany’s full support to Austro-Hungary’s invasion of Se rbia, with a view to isolating Russia diplomatically. Britain, France and Russia had all made it quite clear that a local Balkan war would escalate into a major continental conflict; but it was only after hostilities against Serbia had begun that Bethmann-Hollweg, finally persuaded that Russia would not stay out, sought to prevent escalation by restraining Austro-Hungary.
- It was the German government, and especially its military leadership, that first risked and then caused continental war in August 1914. Why did they do it? Because they took it for granted that war is the natural way of deciding the balance of international power; because they foresaw that the longer the next war was delayed, the longer the odds against Germany’s victory would be; because they were determined at least to maintain Germany’s ability to back its wishes by credible military force and therefore its status as a Great Power; and because (to quote Stevenson) the memory of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War “still nurtured through annual commemorations and the cult of Bismarck, had addicted the German leaders to sabre-rattling and to military gambles, which had paid off before and might do so again.” Germany’s leaders were not sleepwalkers, but fully conscious moral agents, making decisions according to their best lights in a volatil e situation of limited visibility. Error was forgivable. Not forgivable, however, was their subscription to the creed of Darwinist realpolitik, which robbed their political and military calculations of any moral bottom line.
- It is natural for a nation not to want to see its power to realise its intentions in the world diminished. But if social Darwinism thinks it natural for a nation to launch a preventive war simply to forestall the loss of military and diplomatic dominance, just war reasoning does not think it right. Just cause must consist of an injury and Germany had suffered none. Nor was it about to: there is no evidence that Russia, France, or Britain intended to attack. On the contrary, Russia mobilised only after Berlin had already flirted with general war and then decided upon it. As for France, it had deliberately kept one step behind Germany in its military preparations so as to make its defensive posture unmistakable, and as late as August 1 France reaffirmed the order for its troops to stay ten kilometres back from the Franco-Belgian border. Notwithstanding this, Germany declared war on France on August 3 on the false pretext that French troops had crossed the border and French aircraft had bombed Nuremberg.
- In Britain a majority of the Cabinet was against entering the fray until August 2. The Entente Cordiale only obliged the British to consult with the French in case of a threat to European peace, and not automatically to activate their joint military contingency plans. What eventually decided the Cabinet in favour of war on August 4 was Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality. In British minds “Belgium” conjured up a variety of altruistic just causes: honouring a treaty to guarantee Belgian independence, punishing a violator of the treaty, and defending the rights of small nations. It also involved British national security, however, since the Belgian coast faced London and the Thames estuary, and it had therefore long been British policy to keep that coastline free from hostile control to prevent invasion and preserve command of the sea. It is true that, in rising to Belgium’s defence, the British also sought to forestall a German do mination of Europe that they found menacing. Nevertheless, Britain did not initiate a war to maintain a favourable balance of power, nor would it have intervened to maintain it without the invasion of Belgium.
- Germany had suffered no injury, nor was it under any immediate or emergent threat of suffering one. Unprovoked, it launched a European war to assert and establish its own military and diplomatic dominance. In response, Britain went to war primarily to maintain international order by upholding the treaty guaranteeing Belgian independence and by resisting its violator, and to fend off a serious threat to its own national security. In so doing it sought, secondarily, to prevent the domination of Europe by a power that had shown itself willing to unleash war on its studiously unprovocative neighbours.
- But given what we now know of the terrible cost of resistance, it is reasonable to wonder whether it would not have been proportionate — in the sense of “prudent” — for Belgium, France, Russia and Britain to suffer domination by Germany instead. How bad would that really have been?
- Judging by the “Peace Programme” of war aims framed by Bethmann-Hollweg in September 1914, and by the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1917, German domination would have been seriously oppressive. According to the programme, Germany would annex Luxembourg; Liège and Antwerp in Belgium; and the Briey-Longwy iron ore field; the fortresses of the Hauts de Meuse; the western Vosges mountains, and possibly the Channel coast from Dunkirk to Boulogne in France. In addition, France was to be subjected to a crippling indemnity that would prevent rearmament for 20 years, and to a commercial treaty that would make it economically dependent on Germany. Belgium was to become a vassal state under military occupation and economically a German province. Although the September programme was not an authoritative policy statement, it was moderate in comparison with the more extreme annexationism of the military and the circles around the Kaiser. Certainly, the peace terms it envisaged for France were less harsh than those imposed on Russia in 1917: at Brest-Litovsk Russia was made to sign away over a third of its population, much of its heavy industry and coal production, and its best agricultural land.
- In addition, we can assume that the brutal relentlessness of the German military toward civilians in 1914 would have also characterised postwar German domination, especially in those regions subjected to military occupation. As John Horne and Alan Kramer have recently shown, it was German military policy to use civilians as human shields in combat, to burn villages in collective reprisal for resistance, and to shoot local irregulars who were caught bearing arms. Between August and October 1914 well over 6,000 civilians were deliberately killed by German troops in Belgium and France, and a further 23,000 were forcibly deported to German prison camps.
- Had Russia, France and Britain not resisted in 1914, therefore, there is good reason to suppose that Germany would have dominated western and eastern Europe in such a rapacious and ruthless manner as to have stoked widespread resentment among its newly subject peoples and high alarm among the newly menaced British. Domination of this kind would have ushered in an era of civil unrest and even more acute international tension. Moreover, as Stevenson says, in 1914 given the cult of Bismarck and the crushing success of the victories of 1866 (against Austro-Hungary) and 1870 (against France), “if Germany had again won quickly (as it probably would have done if Britain had stayed out) the temptation for further gambles would have been stronger than ever”. In short, non-resistance in 1914 would have produced neither a just peace nor a stable one.
- A good case can be made that Britain had just cause for going to war against Germany in 1914. But was this cause in fact the reason it went to war? Did it fight with the right intention of reversing Germany’s unjust aggression? Or did it use the just cause as a pretext for waging its own aggressive war of continental domination? This was the substance of Siegfried Sassoon’s famous protest in 1917 — that Britain’s original war aims of self-defence and Belgian and French liberation could have been achieved by negotiation, and that what had begun as a war of self-defence was being deliberately prolonged into a war of conquest.
- Was Sassoon correct? Could Britain have negotiated a sufficiently just peace and stopped the dreadful slaughter before 1917? Apparently not. Germany showed no sign of being willing to return Belgium or France to the status quo ante until October 1918. In the winter of 1915-16, when it was clear that the war was not going to end any time soon, there was an informal diplomatic exchange between Germany and Belgium, in which the former demanded the latter’s alignment with German foreign policy, Belgian disarmament, German occupation and transit rights, a coastal naval base, and German majority shareholding in Belgian railways. At the end of 1916, instead of being chastened by the summer’s military emergency, Hindenburg and Ludendorff chose to expand their annexationist claims. In April 1917 the Kaiser and the German high command endorsed the secret statement of German war aims known as the Kreuznach Programme, according to which Germany would annex Briey-Longwy and Luxembourg and hold Liège and the Flanders coast for at least a century. Even as late as September 1918, Germany still resisted surrendering Belgium. Only in early October 1918 did it offer to enter peace negotiations on the basis of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the seventh of which required Belgium to be evacuated and restored.
- In sum, then, there is no evidence that Britain could have secured satisfactory peace terms before October 1918. Siegfried Sassoon himself admitted in 1945 that “in the light of subsequent events it is difficult to believe that a peace negotiated in 1917 would have been permanent”. It is even more difficult to believe that remotely acceptable peace terms were actually on offer.
- Let’s start with the numbers. The war against Wilhelmine Germany cost Britain and its empire 1,114,914 military deaths. This was a dreadful, unprecedented, and (mercifully) unsurpassed cost; and when compared to the 568,200 British and imperial deaths in the longer-lasting Second World War, it looks profligate. But appearances deceive. The casualties suffered by the other major combatants in the First World War were far higher than Britain’s; and its casualty figures in the war of 1939-45 were flattered by the fact that it never fought on the front that was decisive in breaking Hitler’s armies. That was in the east, where the Soviet Union suffered the deaths of 10,700,000 troops (and a further 11,500,000 civilians).
- Nevertheless, Britain’s losses in 1914-18 were appalling. Why? This is a highly controversial question, to which the most popular answer since the late 1960s is simple: military incompetence and callousness. Military historians today, however, tend to be more forgiving. A measure of incompetence was inevitable when British officers, trained to command small colonial forces, found themselves having to learn to manage millions. What is more, they were compelled to take the offensive against an invader at a stage of technological development that gave advantage to defence, coming after the mass production of machine-guns but before the mass production of tanks and, more importantly, the development of the creeping artillery barrage, of sound-ranging techniques in counter-battery fire, and of wireless communications. The United States was very fortunate indeed to stage its Civil War in the 1860s. Fifty years later, technology alone would h ave raised its 600,000 fatalities into the millions.
- Without doubt, the feature of military conduct during the First World War that most excites moral indignation is attrition — the tactic or strategy of wearing down the enemy’s forces faster than they wear down one’s own. To some this seems a boneheaded way of waging war, and immorally profligate in sacrificing the lives of one’s own troops. But appearances deceive here, too. Wearing down the enemy is a reasonable aim of military endeavour in situations where a decisive breakthrough cannot be achieved, and this need not be done carelessly. It can be done efficiently, in a manner least expensive to one’s own side.
- During the First World War, British generals and government ministers strove to find ways to break the stalemate on the Western Front and overcome the need for prolonged attritional warfare. That is why the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign was launched in 1915-to try and open up a new, more mobile front in south-east Europe. That is why Douglas Haig was so quick to champion the development of the tank. And that is also why Haig persisted in planning for a dramatic breakthrough on the Western Front in July 1916, long after others had concluded that it could not be achieved.
- Besides, those who damn British generals for waging attritional war and tolerating high casualty rates for months on end, must reckon with the fact that the undisputed turning-point in the later war against Hitler — the Battle of Stalingrad — was horrifically attritional, its human cost rivalling that of the Great War battles. They must also take on board the fact that on the mercifully few occasions in the Second World War when British troops found themselves bogged down in near-static fighting-hill-to-hill in Italy and hedge-to-hedge in Normandy — they reverted to the attritional tactics of 1917, and that casualty rates in the 1944-45 campaign in north-west Europe equalled, and sometimes exceeded, those on the Western Front in 1914-18.
- All things considered, then, Britain’s war against Germany in 1914-18 was morally justified. It had just cause: the unprovoked German invasion of Belgium and France. Its intention was right: to expel an invader who would not countenance voluntary evacuation until the very end. It was proportionate ad bellum, in that the failure to resist would have resulted in grave oppression in Belgium, Luxembourg and France; the entrenchment on the Belgian and French coasts of a direct threat to British security; Germany’s confirmation of ruthless military aggression; and a consequently fragile peace. Yes, it was sometimes disproportionate in bello, where the military strategy and tactics adopted were more expensive of troops’ lives than necessary. And yes, sometimes the generals should have known better. But war, even when just overall, is only ever waged by imperfect human beings; and strenuous efforts were made to render attrition ever more effic ient, and to overcome the need for it altogether by making a decisive breakthrough — as was eventually achieved in 1918. Meanwhile, the enormous costs in men and materiel were in fact affordable — because they were in fact afforded — and in that sense, the manner of Britain’s waging war was proportionate.
- It is absolutely true, as Richard Evans says, that Britain’s expensive efforts in the First World War failed to usher in perpetual peace. But no war can be expected to do that-not in 1918 or in 1945 or in 1989. At most a justified war can stop a particular manifestation of serious wrongdoing in its tracks and open up a space for something better. So while it doesn’t mark the end of history, November 1918 does mark an important, provisional victory of justice. For that it deserves our grateful celebration-alongside our lamentation that justice should ever warrant such dreadful costs.
Review and explanation of Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914”
- Clark places emphasis on international relations and the situation in the Balkans: “the loose network of the continental alliances became interlocked with conflicts unfolding on the Balkan peninsula”.
- Says there is no point in the blame game. “the Germans were not the only imperialists and not the only ones to succumb to paranoia”.
- Clarks points to importance of Russian mobilisation.
- Far from the statesmen and generals of any country moving deliberately towards a great conflict, Europe sleepwalked towards it. Among the states that went to war, there was no one really in charge.
My highlights of the article:
- Strategy, bellicosity, blunder? A.W. Purdue weighs a fresh look at the Great War’s deadly genesis
- Great questions are posed: was early 20th-century Europe an essentially stable society or one riven by dissension and dissatisfaction; was the war an accident with the guns, already primed, going off by themselves as politicians and monarchs ceded control to generals, who themselves found their actions dictated by war plans and mobilisation timetables; were one or more nations particularly culpable in willing a war that was to prove so destructive; was there an appetite for war among the populations of the European states or was the supposed enthusiasm for war a myth; or did, as the title of Christopher Clark’s book suggests, the great powers of Europe sleepwalk into catastrophe? The crisis of 1914 is a complex subject and it is a virtue of this comprehensive study that no attempt is made to provide a simple answer.
- The traditional approach to the origins of the war has been to distinguish between long-term or structural reasons for the conflict, primarily the ambitions and fears of the great powers and the dangers of opposing alliances, and the immediate or contingent causes, the events of June-August 1914. Thus the tension between Austria-Hungary and Serbia and the crisis caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand can be seen as simply the spark that set off a small Balkan powder keg, which in turn ignited a major war. Clark changes the balance between the structural framework of great power dissension and the disputes on Europe’s fault line, the Balkans, by placing the latter centre stage. He maintains the scenario by which international relations and the rivalry of the great powers formed the context – allowing the Austro-Hungarian reaction to the assassination to set off a chain reaction that led to a catastrophic conflict – but integrates the context and the particular crisis by demonstrating the centrality and sensitivity of the Balkans to European politics.
- Pre-1914 Europe was, Clark argues, increasingly unstable. He describes the shift from the late 1880s, when there was a “multi-polar” system in which the great powers’ interests and rivalries were in precarious balance but there was a degree of fluidity, to what had become, by 1907, a bipolar Europe divided between two alliances. His argument follows the consensus of diplomatic historians in seeing Germany’s decision in 1890 not to renew the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia as a crucial step in this process as it paved the way for the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894. In 1914, the Franco-Russian Alliance, to which Britain had become loosely committed, faced the alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary to which Italy, an unreliable partner, was tenuously attached. The two opposing alliances were not ordained to go to war with each other, although the military conventions attached to both added a febrile dimension, and previous crises to that of the summer of 1914 had been resolved. What gave Sarajevo the seismic implications that led to a European conflict was the way in which, Clark observes, “the loose network of the continental alliances became interlocked with conflicts unfolding on the Balkan peninsula”.
- Serbia, as Clark describes it, was a failed state: essentially a peasant economy without either an aristocracy or a middle class, it lacked the social or economic structure to support its governmental and parliamentary institutions. Incompetent, dictatorial and unsavoury as King Alexandar had been, the successor regimes lacked positive or responsible direction as the new monarch, King Petar, the army, militias, secret societies and political leaders struggled for control in an atmosphere in which none dared question extravagant pan-Serbian nationalist aims. The Serbs looked to Russia for support in their aim of a greater Serbia, an aim that could be realised only at the expense of Austria-Hungary. The road to Sarajevo was open and two Balkan Wars and the formal incorporation of Bosnia-Herzegovina into Austria-Hungary were to provide its milestones.
- Which power, statesman or general was to blame for allowing or willing a Balkan assassination to lead to general European war? Clark eschews the blame game and, with a snipe at David Fromkin’s Europe’s Last Summer (2004), refuses to follow an Agatha Christie trope and discover a “smoking gun”. He also braves Paul Kennedy’s charge, in The Rise of Anglo-German Antagonism 1860-1914 (1980), that “to dodge the search for a culprit by blaming all or none of the belligerent states” is “flaccid”.
- The consensus since the 1960s has been to see Germany as the culprit. While Clark accepts the dominance of a diluted version of the thesis in which the German Empire deliberately chose war as a means of escaping isolation and making a bid for world power, he comments that “the Germans were not the only imperialists and not the only ones to succumb to paranoia”. His Balkan emphasis and sympathy for Austria-Hungary’s predicament do move the debate towards Russia’s policies and actions, which Sean McMeekin’s The Russian Origins of the First World War (2011) has highlighted, but for Clark there are no guilty parties. The search for blame, he argues, leads to an assumption that there were culpable decision-makers who had coherent intentions while, in fact, the problem was the lack of men with the power or capability to make decisions.
- Far from the statesmen and generals of any country moving deliberately towards a great conflict, Europe sleepwalked towards it. Among the states that went to war, there was no one really in charge. Policy and decision-making were fractured as “competing voices” fought and conspired in support of different policies. The military competed with civilian governments, who were themselves divided, while there were factions within foreign offices, and ambassadors often pursued their own agendas.
- The democracies had no more of a coherent direction than the autocratic states, with French governments notoriously unstable. Meanwhile, if Britain was guided towards its decision to go to the aid of France and Russia, the guidance came from Sir Edward Grey and a group of Foreign Office officials, and the momentum from an Anglo-French military understanding kept secret from most members of the Cabinet, rather than from the decided policy of government. Historians have too often assumed a purposefulness and sense of direction that did not exist.
- This is a brilliant contribution to the study of a subject that, the author argues, is relevant to the modern world and its tensions. Clark concentrates on how, rather than why, the war happened and his conclusion that the protagonists of 1914 were “sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world” is more worrying than any scenario of men deliberately planning war.
- Australian-born historian and “very poor bassoonist” Christopher Clark studied in Sydney and Berlin before undertaking a PhD at the University of Cambridge, where he is now professor of modern European history.
Review and comparison of Clark’s “Sleepwalkers” and McMeekin’s “July 1914”
- Both McMeekin and Clark point to Russia’s mobilisation as a key factor in the outbreak of war.
- Great quote by Clark: “The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol.” Clark makes a case for the war as a tragedy, not a crime: in his view there is a smoking pistol in the hands of every major character.
- Austria’s ultimatum was reasonable in face of Serbian separatism. Serbian response is traditionally marked as conciliatory but Clark labels it as diplomatic equivocation (use of ambiguous language to conceal the truth or to avoid committing oneself)
- The men involved were keeping up a typically “stiff upper lip” style of militaristic masculinity, “sure of their own moral compass, but unknowingly impelled by a complex interaction of deep-rooted cultures, patriotism and paranoia, sediments of history and folk memory, ambition and intrigue.” They were, in Clark’s term, “sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.”
Full article here: ‘The Sleepwalkers’ and ‘July 1914’ – NYTimes.com
My highlights of the article:
- “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans” that Otto von Bismarck in 1888 had predicted would one day trigger a great European war.
- In “The Sleepwalkers,” Christopher Clark, a professor of modern European history at Cambridge, describes how within 10 days czarist Russia’s ministers had created a narrative to justify Russia taking up arms for its “little Serbian brothers” should Austria-Hungary try to punish them.
- Austria-Hungary in turn had by July 4 sent an envoy on the night train to Berlin, where the Kaiser had just rebuked an official urging calm: “Stop this nonsense! It was high time a clean sweep was made of the Serbs.” So Austria-Hungary got its famous “blank check,” and 37 days after Sarajevo the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire later in the year and eventually Bulgaria) were at war with the Entente powers (Russia, France, the British Empire and also Japan, as well as, in months or years to come, Italy and Romania).
- The historiography of World War I is immense, more than 25,000 volumes and articles even before next year’s centenary. Still, Clark, and Sean McMeekin, in “July 1914,” offer new perspectives.
- We get an indication of the ambiguities at a crucial point on the evening of July 29. Czar Nicholas II, having just agreed to general mobilization, is handed a telegram, appealing to him not to do just that. It is to “Nicky” from his third cousin in Berlin, Kaiser “Will.” Nicky instantly rescinds the order: “I will not become responsible for a monstrous slaughter.” Less than 24 hours later, kinship and prudence succumb to patriotic rhetoric and inflated estimates of Austrian military power.
- Both authors put a stake through the heart of a common narrative that has Germany mobilizing first so as to spring the preventive war its generals had long advocated. It didn’t. Clark documents how Berlin’s political and military leaders stuck to their blithe belief that any conflict could be localized. Russia’s mobilization, he says, was “one of the most momentous decisions of the July crisis. This was the first of the general mobilizations.” McMeekin says that Russia’s crime was first in escalating a local quarrel by encouraging Serbia to stand up to Austria-Hungary and then accelerating the rush to war. He faults Barbara Tuchman in her classic “Guns of August” for misdating Russia’s mobilization two days later than it was ordered. He is no apologist for Germany. In “The Berlin-Baghdad Express” (2010), he nailed the Kaiser as a half-crazy jihadist inciting Muslims against Anglo-French interests in the falter ing Ottoman Empire, but his 2011 book “The Russian Origins of the First World War” lived up to its title.
McMeekin is intent on indicting the men and nations he considers guilty. He could have entitled his book “J’accuse.” It’s his third with a polemical thrust. Clark declines to join McMeekin in what he calls “the blame game,” because there were so many participants. He argues that trying to fix guilt on one leader or nation assumes that there must be a guilty party and this, he maintains, distorts the history into a prosecutorial narrative that misses the essentially multilateral nature of the exchanges, while underplaying the ethnic and nationalistic ferment of a region. “The outbreak of war in 1914,” he writes, “is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol.” Not having a villain to boo is emotionally less satisfying, but Clark makes a cogent case for the war as a tragedy, not a crime: in his telling there is a smoking pistol in the hands of every major character.
- Still, his objectivity does not equate with a bland neutrality. By a stringent line-by-line analysis of the terms of Austria’s 48-hour ultimatum to Serbia and the Serbian reply, Clark demolishes the standard view that Austria was too harsh and that Serbia humbly complied. Austria demanded action against irredentist networks in Serbia. It would have been an infringement of sovereignty, yes, but Serbian tolerance of the terrorist networks, and its laid-back response to the Sarajevo murders, inhibit one’s sympathy with its position. Clark describes Austria’s ultimatum as “a great deal milder” than the ultimatum presented by NATO to Serbia-Yugoslavia in the March 1999 Rambouillet Agreement for unimpeded access to its land. As for Serbia’s reply, so long regarded as conciliatory, Clark shows that on most policy points it was a highly perfumed rejection offering Austria amazingly little — a “masterpiece of diplomatic equivocation.”
- In sketching the characters of the key players, Clark makes a fascinating point I’ve not seen before: not simply were all the political players in the drama male, but they were men caught in a “crisis of masculinity.” He cites historians of gender who argue that at this particular time “competition from subordinate and marginalized masculinities — proletarian and nonwhite for example” accentuated assertiveness. You’d expect the military men to exude testosterone, and they do, but Clark is struck by how ubiquitous in memoir and memorandums are pointedly masculine modes of comportment, and how closely they are interwoven with their understanding of policy. “Uprightness,” “backs very stiff,” “firmness of will,” “self-castration” are typical modes of expression.
- The brilliance of Clark’s far-reaching history is that we are able to discern how the past was genuinely prologue. The participants were conditioned to keep walking along a precipitous escarpment, sure of their own moral compass, but unknowingly impelled by a complex interaction of deep-rooted cultures, patriotism and paranoia, sediments of history and folk memory, ambition and intrigue. They were, in Clark’s term, “sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.” In conception, steely scholarship and piercing insights, his book is a masterpiece.
Review of three books, by MacMillan, McMeekin and Hastings: How recklessness, unstable alliances and bad luck plunged Europe into crisis
- McMeekin’s is controversial, arguing that Russia and France were more bent than Germany on war in July 1914.
- Most historians nowadays regard the Fischer thesis about a pre-1914 German plan for world domination as too extreme.
- MacMillan speaks for many historians today when she writes that the greatest responsibility lies with “Austria-Hungary’s mad determination to destroy Serbia in 1914, Germany’s decision to back it to the hilt [and] Russia’s impatience to mobilise”.
- Good explanations on AJP Taylor and Fritz Fischer.
- Books reviewed:
- The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War, by Margaret MacMillan
- July 1914: Countdown to War, by Sean McMeekin
- Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914, by Max Hastings
Full article here: The causes of the first world war – FT.com
My highlights of the article:
- On the war’s causes the outstanding recent study is Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers (2012), whose carefully textured arguments and deep understanding of the sometimes neglected Balkan context set the bar high for everyone else. The three books reviewed here are stimulating and enjoyable, but they are of varying quality. Sean McMeekin’s is controversial, arguing that Russia and France were more bent than Germany on war in July 1914. Max Hastings’s book is less good on the causes than on the course of the war between August and December, on which he writes fluently. Only Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace matches Clark’s work – which by no means implies that she fully subscribes to his explanation of why the war broke out.
- Until the 1960s there was a sort of consensus on what had caused the war. One year after the Allies insisted on the “war guilt” clause of the 1919 Versailles treaty, which placed all the blame on Germany and its associates, David Lloyd George, the British premier, observed that Europe had “glided, or rather staggered and stumbled” into war.
- Historians of later decades pointed the finger at pre-1914 military planners, especially in Berlin, Vienna and St Petersburg. As AJP Taylor memorably put it, the generals launched a “war by timetable” because their mobilisation plans, once set in motion, allowed no room for diplomacy to stop the slide into disaster.
- Everything was turned upside down in 1961 when Fritz Fischer, a German historian, published Griff nach der Weltmacht, known in English as Germany’s Aims in the First World War. This book showed that, one month after the war’s outbreak, the German government had drawn up a plan for large-scale territorial annexations and economic hegemony in Europe. Fischer earned the opprobrium of many of his peers by blaming the war squarely on a German bid for world power. FL Carsten, a fellow historian, commented drily: “We had really fixed it all so well, and then this stupid ass must come along and spoil it.”
- Some of Fischer’s followers refined his argument by contending that Germany’s leaders had provoked a war in an effort to prevent internal political and social tensions from destroying their regime. MacMillan and Hastings mention this line of inquiry and should perhaps have devoted more space to it. “A key factor in Berlin’s original decision to fight had been a desire to crush the perceived domestic socialist menace, by achieving a conspicuous triumph over Germany’s foreign foes,” Hastings writes.
- As Hastings, MacMillan and McMeekin point out, most historians nowadays regard the Fischer thesis about a pre-1914 German plan for world domination as too extreme.
- Instead it is more usual to blame the war’s outbreak, in descending order of culpability, on Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Serbia, France and Britain. Germany stands accused of practising an abrasive diplomacy in the prewar years, and of offering rash, wholehearted support for Austria-Hungary’s insistence on punishing Serbia after Franz Ferdinand’s death on June 28 1914 at the hands of a Bosnian Serb terrorist.
- Austria-Hungary’s leaders are deemed guilty of reckless behaviour from the start of the July crisis. Russia was willing to risk war and ordered early mobilisation in the knowledge that this would expand the conflict beyond the Balkans.
- All in all, MacMillan speaks for many historians today when she writes that the greatest responsibility lies with “Austria-Hungary’s mad determination to destroy Serbia in 1914, Germany’s decision to back it to the hilt [and] Russia’s impatience to mobilise”.
- MacMillan places less emphasis than Clark on the Serbian role in destabilising Austria-Hungary. Still, she reminds us: “It is one of the smaller tragedies of the summer of 1914 that in assassinating Franz Ferdinand the Serb nationalists removed the one man in Austria-Hungary who might have prevented it from going to war.” A year before his murder the archduke, heir to the Habsburg throne, criticised in no uncertain terms Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, Austria’s military commander, commenting that he stood for “a great Hurrah-Policy, to conquer the Serbs and God knows what”.
- MacMillan escorts the reader skilfully through the military, diplomatic and political crises that framed the road to war from 1870 to 1914. Europe’s state system suffered from the problem that Prussia, having defeated France in 1870, united Germany and annexed Alsace-Lorraine, had guaranteed the lasting enmity of Paris. Otto von Bismarck avoided trouble for 20 years by aligning Germany with the conservative monarchies of Russia and Austria-Hungary, but his successors were more careless in their diplomacy. In particular, they allowed Germany’s Reinsurance treaty with Russia to lapse in 1890, a step that opened the door to the Franco-Russian alliance of 1894, heightening German fears of encirclement.
- Then the kaiser and Alfred von Tirpitz, his grand admiral, started a naval arms race with Britain in 1898, failing to see that this was the worst possible way to persuade London to cede Germany the “place in the sun” for which its leaders clamoured. It is curious to recall, as do MacMillan and Hastings, that Tirpitz appreciated Britain enough to send his daughters to Cheltenham Ladies’ College, a renowned English private school, and that Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, Germany’s chancellor from 1909 to 1917, sent his son to Oxford university. The children of today’s Chinese and Russian leaders likewise receive the most privileged US and British educations.
- Events in the decade before 1914 pushed Europe closer to war. After Britain and France settled their colonial disputes in the Entente Cordiale, Germany tried to exploit the first Moroccan crisis of 1905-06 to drive a wedge between them.
- Rivalry between Vienna and St Petersburg intensified thanks to diplomatic duplicity and incompetence on both sides over Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908. Arguably, the second Moroccan crisis of 1911 and two Balkan wars in 1912-13 inured politicians, generals and the European public to the idea that war was becoming inevitable.
- Yet why did Europe’s leaders, having prevented earlier crises from triggering a general war, fail to do so in 1914? McMeekin, a US historian based at Koç university in Istanbul, contended in The Russian Origins of the First World War (2011) that Russia bore far more responsibility than once thought because it aimed to break up the Ottoman Empire, conquer the Turkish straits and seize Constantinople.
- July 1914 (by McMeekin) plays down this argument. At times it adopts the more established view that a decisive moment came on July 5-6, when Germany gave Austria-Hungary its infamous “blank cheque”. This allowed Vienna to intimidate Serbia with an ultimatum in the knowledge that, if war came, Germany would fight at Austria’s side. “Austria’s diplomatic isolation and military weakness meant that German backing was indispensable. The Germans gave it unambiguously,” McMeekin writes.
- Germany’s Schlieffen Plan dictated that, in the event of a Russian mobilisation, the kaiser’s armies should attack France via Belgium. The violation of Belgian neutrality, acknowledged by Bethmann Hollweg as a breach of international law, was what brought Britain into the war.
- On these matters McMeekin has little to say. Its main weakness, though, is that it tries to build a case that Russia’s military preparations in the July crisis were possibly more important than the actions of Berlin and Vienna in causing the war. “In 1914 France and Russia were far more eager to fight than was Germany . . . So far from ‘willing the war’, the Germans went into it kicking and screaming as the Austrian noose snapped shut around their necks,” McMeekin writes. It is a questionable conclusion to an otherwise well-written book.
- Could the immense tragedy of 1914-18, in which 65m men fought and about 8.5m were killed, have been avoided? By July 1914 most of Europe’s political and military leaders felt the defence of national power and honour was worth the risk of war. Yet as MacMillan concludes, those who were against war could have stood up more firmly against those who denied there were other choices. “There are always choices,” she writes.
Niall Ferguson: WW1 was unnecessary. Interview about his book “The Pity of War”
Oxford historian Niall Ferguson reviews the world’s oldest motives for war, and concludes in his book, “The Pity of War” , that World War I was unnecessary. (Originally aired November 2000). He also engages in “What if” History. What if Germany had won? Ferguson argues it would not have been that been that bad. Richard Evans shares that view, but people like Nigel Birrar and Michael Gove say that WW1 was a just war for freedom against German aggression.
The first world war was far from futile, by Historian Gary Sheffield
- Britain went to war with Germany in August 1914 for similar reasons to those for which the country fought Hitler’s Germany in the second world war: to prevent an authoritarian, militarist, expansionist enemy achieving hegemony in Europe and thus imperiling British security.
- Most historians argue that Germany and Austria-Hungary were primarily responsible for initiating the war (recent attempts to blame Russia are not wholly convincing). Sheffield disagrees with Clark and McMeekin.
- Niall Ferguson’s argument that Germany was essentially benign and victory would have led to “the Kaiser’s European Union” has failed to convince the academic mainstream.
- WW1 was a just war. War poet Wilfred Owen was right in assessment of war (Pity of war).
- He is against the “Blackadder” view of WW1 (Also see this article in History Today)
My highlights of the article:
- the government would simply “set out the facts” about the origins of the conflict without any interpretation. I am not the only historian to be uneasy about this. The government, through its silence, is tacitly endorsing the popular view of the war as a futile one, a belief that is sharply at odds with most modern scholarship, and with how it was perceived at the time.
- Britain went to war with Germany in August 1914 for similar reasons to those for which the country fought Hitler’s Germany in the second world war: to prevent an authoritarian, militarist, expansionist enemy achieving hegemony in Europe and thus imperilling British security.
- Most historians argue that Germany and Austria-Hungary were primarily responsible for initiating the war (recent attempts to blame Russia are not wholly convincing).
- Whoever started it, the fact is that in 1914-18, Germany waged a war of aggression that conquered large tracts of its neighbours’ territory. As has often been pointed out, there were distinct continuities between the policy and strategy of imperial Germany and its Nazi successor. In the first world war, German refusal to seriously contemplate handing back the fruits of its aggression rendered null any attempt to bring about a negotiated peace. Not until Germany was clearly losing on the battlefield in 1918 did Berlin show any flexibility over this issue, and by then it was too late.
- This was not a “cabinet war”, remote from the concerns of ordinary people. Niall Ferguson’s argument of the late 1990s that Germany was essentially benign and Berlin’s victory would have led to “the Kaiser’s European Union” has failed to convince the academic mainstream.
- Rather, the first world war was an existential struggle, just as much a war of national survival for the British as the second world war. If Britain and its allies had lost, it would have meant the end of liberal democracy on mainland Europe. As it was, civilians were kept docile in German-occupied France and Belgium by the routine use of terror. Forced labourers were deported to Germany under terrible conditions. Unlike Hitler’s regime, the Kaiser’s was not consciously genocidal, but it was aggressive and brutal enough. In 1918 the British army was fighting a war of liberation.
- There is plenty of evidence that most ordinary British people understood what was at stake and, just as in 1939-45, more or less willingly committed to the struggle. The idea of mass war enthusiasm in August 1914 has been shown to be something of a myth.
- The juxtaposition of the harsh terms imposed by Germany on Russia in March 1918, far harsher than those of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, and the major German offensive of the same month, which seemed to bring the Allies to the brink of defeat, stiffened resolve among the industrial working classes. The war was seen as terrible, but defeat was worse.
- Today, horrified by the casualties of 1914-18, (which were consistent with losses of other belligerents), we tend to see the conflict in terms of what the war poet Wilfred Owen called the “pity of war”. This is right and proper, but we should not lose sight of why the war was fought and the significance of the fact that it was Britain and its allies, and not Germany, that emerged victorious. Like all wars, it was tragic, but it was certainly not futile.
Antony Beevor on the left/right wing debate
- Agrees with the interpretation that Germany is largely to blame. Disagrees with Clark.
- Thinks Gove made a mistake in putting the debate in terms of “left” and “right” wing interpretations.
- Believes that most history teachers are “anti-militarist”
The revisionist version of First World War history began in 1961
- But what Clark and all the subsequent anti-Establishment and anti-militarist caricaturists did was to create two major distortions regardless of the facts. First, they implied that the First World War was totally unnecessary for Britain. Yet we could hardly have stayed out of the European conflict once the Germans invaded Belgium, whose neutrality we had guaranteed.
- Second, they gave the impression that massive casualties could somehow have been avoided even when the opposing sides, having created trench systems from the Channel to the Swiss border, had no opportunity for subtle manoeuvre.
- The antis of course concentrate on the horrors of the Somme while ignoring the considerable achievement under Field Marshal Haig of the great counter-offensive that finally brought the war to an end.
- The debate over the origins of the war has raged for years. Was competition between the great powers bound to come to a head? Was it Germany’s fault, as the German historian Fritz Fischer argued in 1961? How large a part did the decline of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires play? Tristram Hunt seems to support Christopher Clark’s argument in The Sleepwalkers that Serbia was a rogue state, and Austria-Hungary was thus justified to go to war after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.
- Yet Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Austrian chief of the general staff, had long been determined to go to war at the first opportunity to impress his mistress. The tragic irony was that the only person who could have stopped him was the Archduke himself.
- Whether or not one agrees with either Clark or Margaret Macmillan’s more balanced version of events in The War that Ended Peace, there can be no doubt that Austria-Hungary, the Kaiser and Tsarist generals were far more responsible for the outbreak of the war than either France or Britain.
- And the Kaiser’s desire to starve all Russian prisoners of war to death, an idea not lost on Hitler, clearly demonstrates that such a regime had to be resisted.
- Michael Gove rightly recognises that the war was “an unspeakable tragedy”, but he goes too far in trying to portray it as an entirely just war. It may have been seen as “a noble cause” in the opening weeks — but that was not to defend democracy, as he claims, but to fight German aggression. And the basic rule, which he seems to have forgotten, is that history should never be an exercise in patriotism. That is simply nationalist propaganda.
- His other mistake is to believe that the distortions and myths are fostered uniquely by “Left-wing academics”.
- In the past 20 years especially there has been a far greater emphasis on the individual. But at the same time there has also been a certain element of sentimentalisation, generalising tragedy from individual cases. The demands for a sweeping pardon for deserters overlooks the fact that a few were hardened criminals, not just sufferers from shellshock.
- Tristram Hunt, on the other hand, is perfectly justified to say that the Left needs no lessons on “the virtues of patriotism, honour and courage”.
- But the anti-militarists certainly need some on the teaching of history. I was appalled when I heard from a historian who is a First World War battlefield tour guide that he had heard a teacher tell her school group that officers stayed in their trenches and forced the men forward. As a recent article in the New Statesman acknowledged, young officers died at twice the rate of ordinary soldiers. Such deliberate distortions tend to underline the way that intellectual honesty is the first casualty of moral outrage.
- I have come across both inspiring teachers of history and deplorable ones over the years, so one cannot generalise, except perhaps to observe that the profession seems to encourage anti-militarist sentiments.
- School-leavers unfortunately will come away thinking the First World War consisted simply of “going over the top” on the Western Front to slaughter in no-man’s-land, when the conflict extended so much further, to the collapse of four empires and numerous civil wars.
- Politicians are often tempted to deploy history as a weapon against each other. Ironically, in this case we see an almost total reversal of the received truth, with war becoming the extension of politics by other means. I welcome the clash, not just because an intense historical debate is stimulating: on this occasion it might at last broaden our understanding of the terrible conflict away from the narrow focus of the trenches.
Russel Tarr’s worksheet on Historians Debate on Twitter
Russel Tarr, a UK History teacher working in France has been in the centre of the History wars when Michael Gove singled out one of his worksheets on his popular history site activehistory.co.uk. The worksheet used Mr Men to retell the rise of Hitler.
Historians Gary Sheffield, Simon Schama, Tom Holland and Sir Richard Evans all participate in the tweet chat. Below is a worksheet with a Twitter conversation regarding the causes of WW1.
Download the conversation and worksheet here: ww1_on_twitter
For (IB) History students
- For IB History students: Paper 2 questions on causes of WW1 and markschemes: Paper_2_questions_on_Causes_of_WW1. Interesting to see the fairly traditional approach to the causes of WW1 shine through in these questions. I would recommend my students to challenge some of these interpretations and incorporate some of the more recent historiography presented here.
- A handy resource for all things World War 1:
Collected WW1 links on Diigo: https://www.diigo.com/user/vanweringh/ww1
- This is a very detailed and interesting document that outlines the historiography of WW1. This information is vital in understanding the different viewpoints on and interpretations of the causes of World War 1: All historians views ww1 IVS
Storify of Tweets: Historians discuss Causes of WW1