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Winter Reading: Catastrophe – Europe Goes to War 1914

January 12, 2014

This year sees the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. So it’s not surprising that in Britain we are facing an avalanche of commemorations, TV documentaries and books to mark the event.

Predictably, much of the focus is on the run-up to the war. How did it happen? Why did it happen? In my country opinion tends to be polarised along political lines. On the left: it was the result of a collective miscalculation by politicians and generals on all sides, and therefore everyone and – and by implication no individual nation – was responsible. That there could be no justification for the four years of slaughter that followed. On the right: it was the inevitable result of German imperial and economic ambition. Germany had to be stopped – either then or later. Unfortunately for much of the world, it turned out to be both then and later.

When I was growing up, the more recent experience of the Second World War, in which a number of my teachers participated, tended to influence the debate in favour of innate German aggression. We weren’t encouraged to consider the innate aggression of other nations – the French under Napoleon, and Russia in the Caucasus, for example – and we didn’t spend much time thinking about the possibility that our own acquisition of an empire didn’t come about because we were a retiring, pacifist people who kept ourselves strictly to ourselves.

These days we are friends with Germany, and no phrase better sums up the sentiment amongst the political and professional classes than “don’t mention the war” – Basil Fawlty’s instruction to his staff upon the arrival of German guests. And if we do mention it, we put it in a box labelled “that was then, this is now”.

In fact we mention the war incessantly, through comedy, drama. TV, theatre and film and, of course, in books. So to an extent what’s in store for us in 2014 is not so much an avalanche, more the intensification of a torrent that has been rushing down on us since 1945.

Catastrophe – Europe Goes to War 1914 is Max Hastings’s contribution to the torrent. Though the bulk of the book is focused on the initial campaigns of the war, he starts by wading into the debate on the causes. He comes down firmly on the side those who claim that the war – at least from the perspectives of Britain and France – was a necessary and justifiable response to Germany’s ambition to be the dominant political and economic force on the continent.

He points out that Kaiser Wilhelm and his ministers were predisposed towards military rather than diplomatic means of overcoming obstacles to their ambitions:

“Germany’s rulers, like many men of their generation, accepted war as a natural means of fulfilling national ambitions and exercising power: Prussia had exploited this cost-effectively three times in the later nineteenth century. Georg Müller, head of Wilhelm’s naval cabinet, told his masters in 1911, ‘war is not the worst of all evils’, and this belief pervaded Berlin’s thinking. The Kaiser and his key advisers underestimated the magnitude of the dominance their country was achieving through its economic and industrial prowess, without fighting anybody. They were profoundly mistaken to suppose that European hegemony could be secured only by the deployment of armies on battlefields.”

Mistaken indeed. If the Kaiser had been able to travel in time to 2014, he would have seen conclusive proof of the last statement in the peaceful dominance of Angela Merkel’s Germany.

Hastings also highlights paranoia as one of the catalysts for German decision to go to war. Though Britain and France were the two best-equipped great powers standing in Germany’s way, Russia, the third member of the alliance – was coming up fast on the rails. It was industrialising rapidly, and a railway network that would vastly enhance the Tsar’s ability to make war was nearing completion. So the Kaiser’s strategists calculated that if there was to be a war with Russia, it was best waged before the rail system was complete.

Then there was the rising tide of socialism within the Kaiser’s realm, matched by similar movements in the remaining combatant nations. The Kaiser saw war as means of uniting his subjects behind him and the armed forces.

Once the final sequence of events was triggered by the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a weedy Bosnian teenager, the Kaiser’s carte blanche declaration of support for Austria-Hungary in its dispute with Serbia, as the alleged instigator of Gavrilo Princip’s act, virtually guaranteed that when Russia, Serbia’s ally, mobilised against the Habsburgs, Germany would go to war.

Catastrophe’s narrative of the conflict itself provides a panoramic view of the theatres of war rather than concentrating mainly on the Western Front. Hastings places equal emphasis on the Balkans campaign and the fighting in the East between Russia and its two opponents.

He makes clear that in the West, the bulk of the fighting in the first few months of the war was between Germany and France. Though Britain’s contribution in men and machines played a critical part in the remaining three year of the conflict, the British Expeditionary Force that sailed for France in 1914 was relatively puny, and not highly regarded by the French. In particular they had low opinion of Sir John French, the BEF’s commander, who suffered a crisis of confidence after the mauling his forces received at Mons, and did his best to avoid further engagement, to the frustration of the French generals.

Hastings also points out that Britain’s small professional army was virtually wiped out in the first year of the war, to be replaced by volunteers and subsequently conscripts. France suffered a similar fate – the greatest sustained period of slaughter of the whole war was not at the better known battles of Verdun or the Somme, but was suffered by the French within three weeks of the start of hostilities. On one day – August 22nd – the French lost 27,000 men, and many more wounded and missing.

Catastrophe, like the author’s earlier accounts of the Second World War, is a fascinating tableau of high-level analysis interwoven with the minutiae of individual experience. His argument for the greater culpability of Germany is well made, but of questionable value.

In the end, who caused the war and why it took place is of academic interest, but hardly relevant to the world we inhabit a hundred years on, except inasmuch as the qualities of the politicians and generals who led their troops into war – vanity, ambition, pride, complacency and chauvinism, are present in many of our leaders today.

Two world wars and the destructive power of the nuclear age make it unlikely that the combatants of 1914 will go to war again except in the knowledge that to do so will result in their total extinction as nations. Unfortunately there is still plenty of scope for lions led by donkeys, as the unfortunate people of the Middle East are learning to their cost.

For me and for millions of other Britons, the First World War has a personal meaning easily to be found on a trip across the Channel to the war graves, where three great uncles from both sides of my family lie buried within a few miles of each other. And in my family we have the diaries of my grandfather, who served on the Western Front and came home to a life foreshortened by his years among the gas, shrapnel and disease.

If there are any lessons to be learned from the events of 1914, it is not that the war was a catastrophe, but that the decisions that precipitated it only seemed foolish to any but a small minority of opinion until after it was too late to reverse them. Can we say with confidence that those who hold our fate in their hands today are any wiser than their counterparts a century ago?  Are the institutions and treaties designed to prevent another catastrophe sufficiently robust? Only as robust as our leaders, I suggest. And that’s a truly frightening thought.

From → Books, France, History, Politics, UK

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