Was Britain right to enter the Great War?

Journalist Max Hastings says yes, while historian Niall Ferguson disagrees...

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Was Britain right to enter the Great War?
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Max Hastings and Niall Ferguson

The case for war – Max Hastings

It has become part of modern British folklore to think of the 1939 – 45 conflict as our “good” war, and 1914 – 18 as our “bad” one.

This is partly because the First World War cost this country twice as many dead as its successor; partly because posterity finds Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany’s figurehead leader in that struggle, a ridiculous figure rather than one remotely matching the evil of Hitler.

No one nation deserves all the blame for the disaster that overtook the continent in July 1914, following the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. But Germany seems to deserve most, because it alone had the power to halt the descent to disaster, had it chosen to use it.

Austria-Hungary, which started the whole business, would never have dared to invade Serbia – knowing that it was under Russian protection – without the Kaiser’s promise of Germany’s backing. At any moment in July, Berlin could have telegraphed Vienna to say: “Hang on – this is getting more serious than we thought. Maybe you’d better not mobilise.” Such a message would have stopped the looming crisis in its tracks.

I believe – as do such distinguished historians of this period as Michael Howard and Hew Strachan – that the German invasion of Belgium made it inevitable that Britain must fight: to uphold international law and the rights and freedom of small nations. Moreover, those who try to argue that the Kaiser’s Germany was not really a malevolent force must justify its behaviour in Belgium and northern France during the first weeks of war.

In 1914 the German army murdered, in cold blood, 6,427 Belgian and French people of all ages and both sexes as part of a systematic campaign to impose its will, show its might and suppress imaginary guerrilla resistance. It is mistaken to compare the Kaiser’s Germany with that of the Nazis a generation later. But its behaviour scarcely suggests that its victory would have been a triumph for the forces of civilisation.

Few, even among those historians who doubt Germany’s responsibility for starting the continental war in 1914, believe that Britain could have stayed neutral once it started.

Although Germany had the largest Socialist party in Europe, the power of its parliament was entirely eclipsed by that of a half-mad emperor and his generals and ministers, committed to aggressive and expansionist policies abroad.

If in 1914 Germany had been victorious on the continent, who can sensibly suppose that its rulers would then have been content to live at peace with a neutral Britain as its only remaining serious rival?

The Kaiser’s regime did not go to war with a grand plan for world domination, but it quickly identified massive rewards as its price for peace.

On 9 September 1914, when Germany saw victory looming, its chancellor drafted a “shopping list”: huge chunks of Russian and French territory would have to be surrendered; Luxembourg annexed to Germany, which would also take control of Holland and Belgium.

While other German leaders proposed different demands – some even more draconian – all took it for granted that they should not stop fighting until their nation had secured hegemony over Europe.

Some people today suggest that the Germans were not really serious about such demands; Niall Ferguson argues that their victory would “simply have created something like the European Union” half a century early. To some of us, this is incredible.

Consider the brutal peace that Germany forced upon Russia after it defeated her: the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 confiscated great swathes of Russian territory. Why should the Kaiser’s men have treated France any more generously?

Professor Michael Howard declares in our film that, if Britain had remained neutral in 1914, this country would nonetheless have been forced to fight Germany within a few years. Had that happened, we would have been forced into war on far less favourable terms.

The world would have seemed to the British people a lonely place, with little or no chance of the American aid that saved us in the Second World War. To believe that Britain could realistically have remained neutral in 1914, it is necessary to cherish a faith in the decency and moderation of Germany’s rulers, which seems wildly fanciful.

A wise historian, Kenneth O Morgan, who is neither a conservative nor a revisionist, delivered a 1996 lecture about the cultural legacy of the two World Wars, in which he argued that “the history of the First was hijacked in the 1920s by the critics”. These critics were much influenced by the economist Maynard Keynes, an impassioned German sympathizer who castigated the supposed injustice of the 1919 Versailles Treaty.

But Keynes never considered the draconian peace a victorious Germany would have imposed. The contrast is striking, and wildly overdone, between the revulsion of the British people toward the First World War, and their triumphalism about the second.

No sane person could suggest that 2014 should become an occasion for celebration. But I should like to hope that our politicians and the media will break free from the weary, sterile “utility” clichés, and acknowledge that Britain played a tragically necessary part in the “Great War”. 1914 Germany, as ruled by the Kaiser and his generals and ministers, represented a malign force, whose victory had to be frustrated. More than 700,000 British soldiers who perished between 1914 and 1918 did not die “for nothing”. The only credible alternative to the huge sacrifice made by the Allies was that forces of tyranny prevailed.


The case against war – Niall Ferguson

Max Hasting’s own grandfather reported the words of one of his First World War comrades in 1923: “Some of us can’t help thinking that we fought the war for nothing.” Some of us historians are inclined to agree.

The consequences of the First World War were out of all proportion to its causes. Around ten million men – for it was nearly all men who fought – died premature, violent deaths because of it. In Serbia, the extreme case, nearly a quarter of males aged between 15 and 49 lost their lives. But even in Britain the death toll was devastating; one in 16 men in that age group died.

Officially, they were fighting a “Great War for Civilisation”: those were the words engraved on my own grandfather’s Victory Medal. Technically, Britain had gone to war in 1914 because Germany had violated the neutrality of Belgium, guaranteed by Britain under the 1839 Treaty of London.

The neutrality of Belgium is not self-evidently a cause worth the lives of more than 723,000 Britons. So the argument has to be that something more was at stake.

During the war, British – and later American – propaganda did a very good job of arguing that men were fighting and dying to preserve freedom from the “mad brute” of German militarism. Posters depicted Germany as a monstrous ape. Cartoons portrayed the German Emperor, Wilhelm II, as a crazed despot bent on the conquest not just of Europe but the world.

Then, in 1919, the victorious powers insisted that the new German Republic sign a treaty “accept[ing] the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage”.

A hundred years after the war’s outbreak, it is mildly depressing to read new versions of these old stories. According to Max Hastings, in his book Catastrophe, “The case still seems overwhelmingly strong that Germany bore principal blame [for the war]... Germany remained more of a militarised autocracy than a democracy.

If Britain had stood aside while the Central Powers prevailed on the continent, its interests would have been directly threatened by a Germany whose appetite for dominance would assuredly have been enlarged by victory... European freedom, justice and democracy would have paid a dreadful forfeit. Germany adopted territorial war aims in the course of the First World War which were not much less ambitious than those favoured by its ruler in the Second.”

This is wrong on every count. First, the evidence is overwhelming that nearly all the European great powers bore some share of the blame for the escalation of a crisis in the Balkans into a world war. It was not only the Germans who gambled on war.

The Serbs started it by encouraging their countrymen in Bosnia to carry out a terrorist attack on the heir to the Austrian throne. The Austro-Hungarians wrongly thought the right time had come to reckon with the Serbs. The Russians wrongly thought that standing by the Serbs would be advantageous for them. The French thought that an offensive into Germany would be the best form of defence. And the British government decided that letting Germany beat France was not in the British national – or rather imperial – interest. Second, Germany was in some ways more democratic than Britain, where the right to vote was still based on a property qualification that excluded two fifths of men, and in every way more democratic than Tsarist Russia, on whose side Britain fought.

Third, it is far from self-evident what Germany’s aims would have been in a limited continental war from which Britain had stood aside. The notorious “September programme” of war aims was drawn up after British intervention. If Britain had stayed out and Germany had defeated France and Russia, it would have made no sense to make territorial claims (eg against Belgium) that might have caused the British to change their minds.

Germany’s main concern was to defeat Russia. A break-up of the Tsarist empire would have been a boon for “freedom, justice and democracy”, especially from the point of view of the many ethnic minorities oppressed by Russian rule.

Finally, it is profoundly misleading to equate the imperial Germany of 1914 with the Third Reich of 1939. Among the most disastrous consequences of the First World War was the rise of Hitler. In Mein Kampf Hitler repeatedly contrasted his dream of “living space” in Eastern Europe, not to mention racial “cleansing”, with the very different goals persuaded by Germany in 1914.

The war of 1914 was avoidable. A more intelligent British policy might have deterred the continental powers from fighting altogether. At the very least, the war could have been contained – confined to Europe and shortened. Because all the combatant powers blundered, however, it dragged on into late 1918.

Its unintended consequences were catastrophic: the Russian Revolution replaced the Romanovs with the murderous Bolsheviks; the breakup of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires left both central Europe and the Middle East in a chronically unstable condition; hyperinflation led to economic chaos and disillusionment with democracy.

As for the victors, the US preached the gospel of “self-determination” and “collective security”, but in practice Britain and France shamelessly seized the colonial spoils in Africa and the Middle East.

So it wasn’t quite true that my grandfather and his generation “fought the war for nothing”. In many ways, they fought for the traditional goal of imperial expansion. It was just that the territorial gains of 1919 would be wiped away by another world war that broke out just 20 years later.

You don’t have to be a Blackadder-watching Cambridge lefty to think all this. After his own son’s death on the Western Front, the great poet of empire Rudyard Kipling summed up his own disillusionment: “If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

With the passage of a century, it is about time the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who died faced the historical truth.

The Necessary War, Tuesday 9:00pm, BBC2


 


Picture credit: BBC/Blakeway Productions and BBC/Chimerica Media

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