The government’s promised launch of a four-year long commemoration of World War One kicked off with a salvo from Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. He set the tone of what we may expect by shooting down the popular TV satirical/historical spoof of the 1980s, “Black Adder”, which parodied several hundred years of British history, culminating in in a final episode with the whole cast “going over the top” to collective annihilation on the western front. He then had a go at Joan Littlewood’s popular musical of the 1960s “Oh What a Lovely War”, which charted the course of the conflict and its impact on the participants through the changing nature of soldiers’ songs from the naïve music-hall jingoism of 1914 - “Belgium’s put the Kibosh on the Kaiser! Britain didn’t want to go to War” - to the cynicism, anger and disillusionment of the later years. Then he let fly at “leftist historians”, reserving his most vitriolic bombardment for Regius Professor of Modern History, Richard J. Evans, who is one of the world’s leading historians of modern Germany. Lumping them all together, Gove charged them with lack of patriotism. By concentrating excessively on the mass slaughter of the trenches they besmirched the heroism and the honour of “our brave soldiers” who “gave their lives for King and Country”. They fought, and died, he averred, to defend democracy and freedom against a tyrannical aggressor - imperial Germany.
The debates that have raged and the volumes that have been written in the intervening years discussing the origins of the war might just as well never have been undertaken as far as Gove and his acolytes are concerned. In similar vein, a recent television documentary dealing with the outbreak of war and its impact on the home front in 1914, began and ended its explanation for Britain’s involvement, with the observation that in August 1914 the Kaiser suddenly decided to attack France and Russia. That was it. All the signs are that we can expect more of the same for the next four years. Since the beginning of the century there has been a noticeable increase in militaristic propaganda in Britain. This is connected to the deployment of British armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, both wars that were and remain very unpopular. Official attempts to justify these wars have failed to convince a skeptical public. The present government and its New Labour predecessor have claimed that British forces are fighting to protect the country from terrorist attacks on our streets. The claim has failed to convince. This is potentially very problematic for the government because bereaved relatives of those killed, and the wider public, need to be persuaded that they did not die in vain for a cause that was not worth fighting for, or indeed for an unjust cause.
As the anniversary of August 1914 looms closer, the industrialized slaughter of the trenches which shattered the old European world to its foundations, needs to be seen as a noble sacrifice in a just cause. On every anniversary of the armistice of November 11th 1918 the nation is supposed to observe a two minutes silence “in remembrance” of those who died. The second Sunday in November is “Remembrance Sunday”. It is the occasion for a national ceremony at the Cenotaph in London, with a huge march past and a wreath-laying. This solemn event, staged by the Royal British Legion, is attended by the “great and the good” from the armed services, the government and the opposition. It is a state occasion with a wreath-laying by the queen. Everyone in public life is expected, as a sign of respect, to wear a poppy. So de rigueur has this ritual become that refusal to wear the poppy is not only seen as disrespectful, but as unpatriotic. A few public figures who have chosen not to comply have been pilloried in the tabloid press. But what is supposed to be remembered, and how should it be remembered? What, if any, lessons are to be learned from the carnage into which Europe was plunged in 1914? The armistice of 1918 which ended a war which was supposed to end all wars, turned out to be a twenty year truce between the 1919 peace treaty of Versailles and the resumption of war in 1939.
So, how should we remember the war of 1914–18? Although it is usually referred to as the First World War, it was not a world war in the sense that the war of 1939 – 1945 was, and even the Second World War did not become a world war until 1941. 1914 - 18 was primarily a European war, although very large numbers of British colonial forces took part in it. Can its outbreak be put down simply to aggression by Imperial Germany? That is the explanation that was given at the time and that is the explanation we are expected to accept now. Accordingly, the war fought by Britain and France was a just war to resist aggression by a predatory, autocratic imperial power whose victory would have stamped out the freedom and democracy for which Britain was fighting. And, indeed, those who wish to accept this simple explanation might draw some support from the work of German historian Fritz Fischer, who, in the far from simple interpretation in his book Griff nach der Weltmacht.1961 (Germany’s Aims in the First World War), demonstrated convincingly on the basis of a wealth of documentary evidence that the German ruling elites did indeed aim to dominate the European continent and make a bid for world power in the years leading up to 1914. But – and it is a big but – this has to be seen in the context of the time, not to excuse German imperialism, but to place it in relation to the inter-imperialist rivalries that had been growing ever more intense from the last decades of the nineteenth century. Put simply, but accurately, all the major powers were engaged in imperialist domination, protecting their empires, and expansion between the 1890s and 1914. Some were stronger than others. The Ottoman Empire had long been in decline. The Habsburg Empire faced deepening and intractable crises, not least of which arose from the determination of its numerous subject nationalities to break free from their subject status. The decrepit Tsarist autocracy ruling over the vast Russian empire had been in a state of permanent and intensifying decay since the revolution of 1905. The British empire was the largest of all. Since the end of the Napoleonic wars one hundred years earlier, Britain’s rulers had based their foreign policy on maintaining a “balance of power” in continental Europe while placing the defense of their overseas possession in the hands of the Royal Navy. France, since it suffered defeat at the hands of the newly united Germany in 1870/71, had lived in a state of permanent apprehension about, and hostility towards, its powerful eastern neighbor, determined to avenge the humiliation and loss of territory it had suffered. Italy, the weakest of all the states with claims to “great power” status, awaited whatever opportunity might arise from an upset to the European applecart.
But imperial Germany was the single most powerful player amongst the European rivals. Its industrial strength outstripped that of Britain and was surpassed only by that of the United States, which before 1914 continued to occupy the isolationist stance it had adopted towards Europe since the foundation of the Union. Only a perceived existential threat from one or more of the European powers would induce the US to change its stance. German imperialism was a late-comer on the world scene. Its staggering industrial advance after 1871, fed by a highly educated, highly skilled population, had produced a mentality amongst its ruling class that mixed vaunting ambition with deep resentment at having been denied its “place in the sun” – a dominant role in Europe and an overseas empire. Germany’s political system was profoundly anachronistic. The Bismarckian compromise had saddled the united Germany with a nominally democratic electoral system subordinated to a semi-feudal authoritarian monarchy. This reflected the uneasy alliance between a dynamic industrial bourgeoisie and a reactionary agrarian class of militaristic Prussian Junkers whose power was personified by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Between the late nineteenth century and 1912 the rise of the industrial working class in Germany had, despite its systematic persecution, also seen the rise of the world’s largest nominally Marxist party, the Social Democratic Party of Germany. By 1914 it seemed only a matter of time before the SPD would win political power and sweep the authoritarian monarchy into the dustbin of history. In 1914 the Kaiser was fully aware that the political system that sustained him in power faced the prospect of collapse. His statement on the outbreak of war to the effect that from then on he would recognize no political parties, but only Germans, was his attempt to play the nationalist card – waving the flag to obliterate class divisions and class conflict. The whipping up of nationalist fervor and hatred of “the enemy” in the name of patriotism was rampant in every combatant country on the outbreak of war in 1914.
From the beginning of the twentieth century the European powers had been engaged in a feverish arms race. Europe had become a tinder-box which needed only one spark to ignite it. All the powers were aware of the growing danger of war, though few perhaps had any notion of just how catastrophic such a conflict would turn out to be. By 1912, apart from a handful of pacifists, only the socialist parties of the Second International had taken a firm stand against a coming war. The war that they saw coming would, they believed, be an “imperialist war” for the re-division of the world, in which the ruling classes would call upon the working classes to be its cannon-fodder. In the event of such a war they pledged to call upon the workers to refuse to fight, and should it break out, to urge them to turn war into revolution against their own ruling classes who had dragged them into it. In the event, nearly all the parties of the Second International supported their governments’ call to arms. Only the Bolshevik party stood firm to its pledge and they were to have little impact until 1917. All had seriously underestimated the power of nationalism to sway the masses. The arguments in favour of war are worth recalling.
Germany had realized early on that a war in which France was allied to Russia would necessitate fighting on two fronts – something that Bismarck had warned must be avoided at all costs. The “Schlieffen Plan” was designed to deal with this by launching the German army against France first, delivering a knock-out blow quickly (pretty much what had happened in 1870) and then using its still enormous strength to deal with Russia, which, it was assumed would take longer. It was, in fact, Russia’s mobilization in August 1914 that led to Germany putting the Schlieffen Plan into action. Tsar Nicholas II had ordered a general mobilization (which threatened Germany) in support of Serbia to whom Russia had pledged its assistance as soon as Austria-Hungary declared war on the Serbs in response to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Germany had pledged its support to Austria-Hungary. The German SPD voted for war credits. They believed that Germany was threatened by the hated Tsarist autocracy, in their view the greatest enemy of socialism. Only the left of the party, represented notably by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, opposed the SPD’s capitulation.
Russia went to war in support of Serbia on the basis of “Pan Slavism”. This was part of the appeal to the peasant masses. Actually, Russian imperialism had long had its eyes on Constantinople and an access route to the Mediterranean. Imperial Germany struck an alliance with the Ottomans and hoped and expected to use its leverage over them and the Hapsburgs to dominate the Balkans after the expected defeat of Russia.
British policy after 1870 had sought to prevent any one power becoming dominant on the European continent. By the end of the century it had become clear that the one power moving in this direction was Germany. Ostensibly, Britain went to war in 1914 because of the German invasion of Belgium. The 1839 Treaty of London promised Britain’s support to defend Belgium’s neutrality. There was no obligation on Britain under the Entente Cordiale to go to France’s assistance in the event of war. Obviously inter-imperialist rivalry was at the root of Britain’s decision for war with Germany in August 1914, as it was in every other case. It had little or nothing to do with the defense of “western civilization”, “liberal values” or democracy. Only about 40% of the male electorate in Britain had voting rights – far fewer than in Germany. Women’s suffrage campaigners were still fighting for their rights and going to jail for their principles. German control of the Channel ports was perceived as a threat to trade and Britain’s imperial interests. The war that started in 1914 was initiated by the ruling classes of the powers involved to defend and/or extend their various empires. It was an imperialist war.