Or, an essay on why 2014 should be a year of Remembrance, not scoring points
How best to teach of the Great War?
I am a graduate of history, not to say that my perspective on the terrible events of 1914 to 1918 hold more or less merit than another’s, but if you were to ask me how best to teach how an assassination of an Arch Duke in Sarajevo led to a war which tore the world order apart, unleashed the forces of Communism and Fascism in some countries and propelled the march of Democracy in others, led to class struggle and establishment resistance, drove the acceleration of technology, rewrote maps and the book on the conduct of nations, encouraged civil and human rights and led to Great Nations embarking on the folly of total war, I would suggest that you look at it from every perspective you could without dismissal of those opposed to your own.
Germany was no Evil Empire
The causes which led to the war are many, varied, interwoven and complicated.
It has been claimed by some that Britain waged war for freedom, and that Germany was not only to blame for the war, but was barbaric and autocratic in a way which offended Britain’s world view at the time as much as today.
The truth is marred by the black propaganda of the time and rose tinted insight into Britain’s supposed, superior, past. Some have claimed for instance, that the German Kaiser was all but a dictator, that Germany lacked a Parliament, that the German people and leader were barbaric and desired only to annex its neighbours.
It depresses me that the Germany of 1914 and 1939 are so confused, or seen in the same prism. The German Reichstag had free and fair elections, last held before the war in 1914. Suffrage in Germany was universal for men over the age of 25 – the widest and most progressive franchise in Europe at the time. Trade unions operated freely and a multi party system existed.
The Bundesrat – upper house – whose members were elected as part of the Reichstag had the power to restrict the Kaiser’s ability to declare war – not that it was used, but it stands against the powers of the parliament of the UK at the time, or even today, which cannot prevent the executive from making war and did not vote to declare war.
By contrast the UK House of Commons had only just achieved supremacy over the Unelected Lords in 1911, only 60% or so of men in the UK could vote and only if they owned property, land or paid a land rent, to say nothing of the lack of female suffrage or a representative political establishment.
Freedom, and democracy in Britain, let alone her colonial possessions, was embryonic compared to what it would later become. Whilst Germany was far from perfect, to discount it as uncivilised or lacking the freedoms of other European Countries is to buy into the anti German Sentiment of the time and discredit a nation more comparable to Britain in 1914 than most are willing to consider. The Germans were as proud of their society and civilization as the British and enjoyed comparable freedom and democracy.
To say that the Germans were in some way barbaric or morally inferior to the British is to pander to the cheap racism of the time, to say their tactics or honour was lacking is to employ a double standard.
For every use of German chemical weapons, it is forgotten that the French deployed them first and the British used them as well, for anecdotes of German Brutality there are examples of British, the sinking and summary execution of the crew of U-27 was hushed up, for example. German unrestricted Submarine Warfare was itself a response to the British blockade of Germany which caused as many as 500,000 German civilian deaths through starvation.
It is a common thought that the Germany army was particularly harsh, but little thought is given to the British Army’s attitude toward the 306 British Personal executed by their commanders, some as young as 16, for crimes such as sheltering outside of the trenches or who suffered from ‘cowardice’ in the face of shell shock. The brutal reality is that all sides have questions to answer.
Nor is it fair to suggest that Germany’s militarism or desire for Great Power status or territory was unique or even remarkable. Germany sought to obtain the same status, through the same means as any of her rivals in Europe and the Pre War years were marked by the Scramble for Africa, the Dreadnought Battleship Arms race and a half dozen crises around the world which could have led to war.
It is quite something for the descendants of the British Empire, which had the greatest Navy by far, standing armies on five continents, the greatest extent of territory of any power, the greatest number of people under one banner and territorial ambitions from the Sudan to Afghanistan and China to point at Germany and call it out for its militarism, desire for territory or imperial pretensions.
France desired the return of Alsace-Lorraine, Austria-Hungary desired the Balkans, Russia desired expansion to the Mediterranean. Britain sought in its foreign policy to contain Germany and ensure the status quo in order that her own power was maintained.
Had it not been for the invasion of neutral Belgium, Britain would still have intervened to ensure France did not fall. Asquith, in his statement to the Commons on the 6th August spent as much time outlining the threat to France and her colonies and the fear of German domination of Europe for Britain’s position as he did the violation of Belgian Territory, war would still have come and it was in Britain’s self interest to fight it.
All of these competing interests were reasons the war came about as important as Germany’s motivations, which stemmed as much from fear of the other powers as her desires to extend her own power.
Moreover, to suggest that a German Infantryman and a British Infantryman were fundamentally different is fundamentally wrong. Men on the front lines had families, jobs and the same motivating desires, to fight for Flag, King and Country, nationalism and pride. The absence of competing political ideology as a driver for war is what sets the First World War apart from the Second.
A German soldiers’ desire to fight, in defence of their country and their way of life, was no different from a British or French Soldiers’ motivation and no less keenly felt, The Germans fought for ‘freedom’ too. These were people, and I place an emphasis on ‘people’ who, in the first Christmas of the war, put down their rifles and played football in no man’s land. The Germans were no more or less evil, barbaric or civilised than anyone else who fought.
‘Necessity’ and Realpolitiks
This is not to say there is moral equivalence between all acts by all sides of the war. The Invasion of Belgium at the outbreak of hostilities by Germany violated all international norms for the respect of neutrality – something the German Chanceller, Bethman-Hollweg, told the Reichstag at the time – and gave a just casus belli for Britain to enter the war – but at the same time his government saw it as a necessary evil to avoid Germany’s defeat in a two fronted war.
The Schlieffen Plan, which had origins ten years before the war, was not a plan for conquest and territorial expansion, as most claim it to be, but a desperate and flawed defensive contingency on the basis that offense is the best defence and that conflict was now inevitable.
This confusion between defensive contingency and expansionist design in contemporary British views of Germany’s offensive leads politicians like Boris Johnson to ask “Why was it necessary to follow up some rumpus in Sarajevo by invading France?”
I find it hard to understand Boris’s seeming inability to comprehend what led up to that decision, something most learn during their GCSE’s. By August 1914 Germany faced a war on two fronts between Russia and France on account of Germany’s alliance with Austria-Hungary, Russia’s decision to mobilise against Austria following Austria’s declaration of war against Serbia and France’s assumed and promised military support for Russia in the event of war with Germany.
Germany faced a choice, to take the initiative to avoid a war on two fronts which might meet some success, or delay, and succumb to a defensive war against two or three powers it could not possibly win.
You can disagree that the means justified Germany’s ends, and I do, but I’m not sure Britain could say that, in the same situation, it wouldn’t have prioritised expedience over defeat.
Indeed, as Field Marshall, Sir Douglas Haig put it, explaining why the British ‘Attacked Whenever Possible’ at the wars conclusion:
“the object of all war is victory, and a purely defensive attitude can never bring about a successful decision, either in a battle or in a campaign. The idea that a war can be won by standing on the defensive and waiting for the enemy to attack is a dangerous fallacy, which owes its inception to the desire to evade the price of victory”
For the Germans, knocking out one of her two enemies early and avoiding defeat was a matter of survival not of design, the common myth is that Germany thought a war against France would be ‘easy’ If that were true Germany would not have considered the need for an elaborate pincher movement to defeat France early on, and if it was a matter of design, you’d have to believe that the most professional and best trained Army in Europe would go against 2000 years of military wisdom and deliberately plan a war on two fronts they knew they would lose.
This idea Germany wanted a war of conquest further disregards the Kaiser’s appeal to Russia to demobilise which was eventually ignored, his appeal to France to abandon its alliance with Russia which was rebuffed, his well know views that he was outplayed by his cousins, the Tsar of Russia and King of Britain, his fear for Germany’s survival, German Frustration that Austria-Hungary overplayed her hand, and her campaign aims to militarily defeat France, not occupy her (the Schlieffen Plan specifically forbade the taking of Paris, for instance) and then defend herself against a Slow to mobilise Russia.
For those who think Germany ‘war mongered’ by standing by and giving her full support to her Ally, Austria–Hungary over Serbia after the assassination of a member of the Austrian Heir, even in the face of war with Russia, might reflect what Business was the Balkans of Russia, what role France’s commitment to her treaty partner in Russia and motivation to regain territory lost in 1871 had on escalating tensions, or why the only possible response to a violation of Belgium’s neutrality by Germany for the British was war?
That is not to say that Germany’s Belgian folly, borne of the desperation to avoid the encirclement and slow death on two fronts she eventually suffered should be disregarded or downplayed, but it is to appeal for thought on the whole circumstances of a war fought across an entire continent, not just on the Western Front.
All must share some blame
To lay the blame solely and squarely at Germany’s door for the folly of a 6 strong great power conflict, to pretend that German Militarism, Imperialism or desire for expansion and great power status was exceptional or unique in the company of the Great, Military, Colonial and Imperial powers of Russia, France, the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary and yes, the leading Naval power of the day, the largest Empire of all time and the originator of modern imperialism itself, Great Britain, her empire and dominions, is to ignore both the context of the period and to continue the great folly of Versailles, that there were good empires and bad ones.
France wished to settle accounts over Alsace-Lorraine, Britain had been motivated for decades to maintain her power and contain Germany as her rival, Austria-Hungary saw an opportunity to extend her influence in the Balkans and failed to show restraint, Serbia failed to show some contrition and Russia wished to expand her own influence in the Balkans and deny it to others.
The circumstances of the outbreak of the First World War are complicated and must be understood through the power plays of all its protagonists. Germany, as Much as France and Britain found herself entangled in a web of their own making perched on a brink no one would back away from.
The general feeling in London, Paris and Berlin was some relief that war was underway and would be over soon and in the main, a great desire for war and for a decision on the battlefield.
From Germany’s point of view, there was no alternative. Her decisions and presumptions, led by a fear of the consequence of delay which would lose her her advantage, inflamed the situation, but Germany did not cause a war which, by the time the first German troops marched into Luxembourg on the morning of the 2nd August 1914 was already underway in the east and inevitable in the west.
To seek to blame just one country for the outbreak of war is to avoid scrutinising the shortcomings of others, a general failure to draw back, the circumstances which led to the assumptions which led so disastrously to war and to display not just an anglo-centric view of events, but a partial one at that.
It is to peddle the great myth, that there is an easy answer to a very complex and complicated question.
The truth is, all must share some blame, to some degree or other, for the outbreak of World War in August 2014, be it through paranoid assumption, reckless desire, nationalistic fervour, or a desire to settle scores of blood repaid.
And that terrible price was paid, in blood, by men the world over, by men from Lancashire, and Baden, Burgundy and Galicia, Delhi, Gondar, Wellington, Darwin, Moscow, Turkey, Iowa and Belgrade and a thousand other places, nations, towns and villages. All blood ran red.
You can pontificate about who was to blame the most, whose generals were quickest or careless to grasp the terrible tempo of modern warfare and the Orchestra of new weapons available, who suffered the most, and pivot about for party political or national pride if you wish but it will never change the fact that those men who fought for King and Country, or mere Survival, are united in death and mud thanks to the follies of leaders the world over.
It would be to our political class’s credit if they were to mark the centenary of the Bloodiest Conflict the world had yet seen with dispassionate sober reflection, and not chest thumping pride. The men who fought on Flanders field, who died in trenches east and west, who landed on Gallipolis’s shore and fought on sea and in air are all but gone, their memory deserves better than a blame game.
And we are skipping the key point. That we should make sure it never ever happens again. This centenary is not about national pride, but humanity itself squandered for the sake of national pride. There is an important difference.