Still fighting over the Great War

National Archives and Records Administration

Article Highlights

  • Americans once had a day reserved for the commemoration of the Great War.

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  • There remains a profound disagreement about whether those lives were sacrificed on behalf of liberty or wasted in pursuit of an empty cause.

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  • The troubling lesson of Britain's centenary is that history may never vindicate difficult choices on behalf of either war or peace.

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Americans once had a day reserved for the commemoration of the Great War. From 1919 through 1953, Americans celebrated Armistice Day on the eleventh of November, the day on which the guns fell silent on the Western Front in 1918. The United States sent more than 2 million men to fight alongside the Allies and sacrificed more than 100,000 lives in a few short, ferocious months. Yet today, these events barely register in the public memory.

In Britain, however, the war not only is the focus of elaborate commemorations, but has become the subject of an intense, sometimes vitriolic debate that has embroiled the prime minister. More than 720,000 Britons died in the war, at a time when the inhabitants of the U.K. numbered only 40 million. While the human cost of the war explains much of the resonance it has a century later, there remains a profound disagreement about whether those lives were sacrificed on behalf of liberty or wasted in pursuit of an empty cause.

Having fought alongside the British in two world wars and for the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans should take note of how their comrades-in-arms are marking this occasion. The divisions within the U.K. cast new light on the American habit of dividing conflicts into wars of choice and wars of necessity, a distinction whose superficiality becomes apparent when it collides with the unending British debate about World War I.   

A wealth of commemorations

The British government will spend £55 million to commemorate the centenary, of which £40 million has been spent on the transformation of the Great War exhibits at the Imperial War Museum. The museum has set up a special website, 1914.org, where visitors can learn about the vast array of memorial events taking place. Currently, one has to click through 144 pages on the site to see the complete listings, although there is a helpful search engine that can pare down the menu.

At a cost of £5.3 million, the government will also send two students from every state-funded secondary school to visit the battlefields of the Western Front. On the evening of August 4, which marks precisely 100 years since the British declaration of war on Germany, the lights will go out at landmarks across the nation, as well as millions of homes and businesses.

A year and a half ago, Sir Hew Strachan, Britain’s preeminent historian of the Great War, declared that despite the scale of the planned commemorations, they remained “conceptually empty.” Sir Hew remarked that Britain already has an annual and appropriate ritual of mourning in the form of Remembrance Sunday. To avoid becoming “sterile,” the centenary would have to educate the public about the meaning of the war, rather than dwelling on inchoate feelings of sadness.

No, Prime Minister

The explosive potential of talking about the war became apparent when Michael Gove, the Conservative secretary of state for education, published a column in the Daily Mail blasting the “left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths” about the war that result in the denigration of “virtues such as patriotism, honour, and courage.” The main target of Gove’s barrage was Cambridge historian Richard Evans, who had previously attacked the “narrow, tub-thumping jingoism” of the new curriculum Gove had proposed for history classes. Evans responded to Gove by denouncing his “ignorance of history” and telling him to be “ashamed of himself.”

It is not surprising that Gove’s combativeness resulted in an outpouring of scorn and condescension from his adversaries. Yet the best efforts of Prime Minister David Cameron to say nothing offensive did not prevent withering attacks from either left or right. Following a carefully tailored address at the Imperial War Museum in which Cameron announced his government’s plans for the centenary, the editorial page of the Guardian warned the prime minister not to “use these events to wrap himself in the flag.” Going further, the paper said “the commemorations should not be about honouring those who fought,” nor should they result in “another clutch of needless memorials” scattered around London. Rather, the centenary presented a valuable opportunity to promote reconciliation with the Germans.

The apogee of conservative criticism arrived several months later in the form of a full-throated attack by Sir Max Hastings, the war correspondent, newspaper editor, and author of acclaimed military histories. The editors of the Daily Mail ran Hastings’s column under the headline “Sucking up to the Germans is no way to remember our Great War heroes, Mr. Cameron.”

The text of the article itself never rises to that level of vituperation, yet Hastings does not mince words. The government “does not plan to utter a word about the virtue of Britain’s cause, or the blame that chiefly attaches to Germany for the catastrophe that overtook Europe,” wrote Sir Max. “Those planning the commemoration feel almost embarrassed that we won the war, and are determined to say and do nothing that might upset Germany.” As if on cue, German diplomats soon recommended that Britain’s commemoration have “no celebratory element” and focus instead “on the shared loss of the combatant nations.”

Alongside his role as an influential commentator, Hastings has also become one of the chief contributors to the more substantive but no less heated debate among historians. Anticipating a surge in public interest, a legion of historians from Europe and the Commonwealth timed their publications to coincide with the centenary.

Amidst this welter of scholarship, three books have stood out. The first is Sir Max’s Catastrophe 1914: How Europe Went to War. The second is The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, by Margaret Macmillan, a Canadian-born scholar at Oxford who also happens to be the great-granddaughter of Prime Minister David Lloyd George, the second of Britain’s wartime heads of government. Despite her heritage, Macmillan prefers to be a chronicler, not a combatant, respected by all sides for her erudition. In contrast, the Australian-born Cambridge professor Christopher Clark is no less determined than Sir Max to mobilize decisively for intellectual warfare.

In The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Clark sets out to demolish the view that Germany and Austria-Hungary bore primary responsibility for the war. In a flourish of relativism, Clark rejects the very idea of asking who is to blame, because “the question is meaningless.” “Prosecutorial narratives,” Clark writes, “narrow the field of vision,” resulting in “conspiratorial narratives” that reduce targeted decision-makers to “velvet-jacketed Bond villains.” This argument might carry greater weight if Clark’s own narrative were less focused on exonerating the Central Powers while indicting the Allies. According to Clark’s final judgment, “there is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character.”

Which of these accounts should an open-minded person believe? Is there a defensible middle ground in this historical debate, or only empty compromises to be had? Ideally, readers will reach their own conclusions after a thorough review of Macmillan’s, Clark’s, and Hastings’s tomes. However, even the most avid consumer of serious non-fiction will struggle to find the time required. Including footnotes, each of the books weighs in at around 700 pages.

Dueling Documentaries 

For the millions who do not have time for 2,000 pages of pleasure reading, the BBC has commissioned a pair of dueling documentaries scripted by top historians. The Necessary War is a 60-minute adaptation of Sir Max’s lengthier work. The Pity of War is a 90-minute affair presented by Niall Ferguson, the Glaswegian historian now resident at Harvard.

The selection of Ferguson tempered the ideological tenor of the BBC’s contending portraits, because Ferguson is the rare conservative who condemns the war as an unmitigated disaster. His right-of-center credentials include vocal support of Michael Gove’s proposed reforms to the history curriculum. When the Guardian learned of Ferguson’s role as an adviser to Gove, it described him as “the British historian most closely associated with a rightwing, Eurocentric vision of Western ascendancy” whose oeuvre is “considered to be an apology for imperialism.”

Hastings and Ferguson themselves serve as the protagonists of their respective documentaries. The visual contrast is striking. Hastings is lanky, pale, and rumpled, with graying hair that turns up into cowlicks at the temples. He wears oversized glasses that would mark him as a retro-hipster, if one didn’t suspect he has been wearing them since the 1980s. Despite his razor-sharp pen, Sir Max carries himself in a hesitant, avuncular manner.

Ferguson has the bravado of a Silicon Valley chief executive who has sold off more than one start-up for an eight-figure sum. He wears an all-black suit with an open collar and a second button open beneath it. His hair is a black wave. Whereas Hastings films himself alone or in quiet conversation with a single fellow scholar, Ferguson assembles a studio audience, whose attention he clearly relishes. Hastings places himself outdoors or in well-appointed rooms. Ferguson employs special effects to make it seem as if he can walk offstage into a cosmic void, where gigantic colored bars and lines materialize from the ether, becoming charts that display the vital statistics of the war.

A just cause?

Hastings makes a traditional and straightforward case for German and Austrian culpability. After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb, Vienna chose to embark on a war against Serbia as soon as possible, despite the risk of drawing in Russia and other European powers. This plan depended on unconditional support from Berlin, since Vienna was no match for Moscow. Shortly after the assassination, Kaiser Wilhelm II lent Vienna the unflinching support it requested. Austria-Hungary then delivered an offensive ultimatum to Serbia, designed to ensure its rejection. Furthermore, the Austrians demanded a response within 48 hours.

The Serbian government responded that most of the demands were reasonable, but not all of them. Three days later, on July 28, 1914, Vienna declared war. When Russia mobilized its forces, Germany declared war on Russia. Before attacking Russia, the Germans invaded Belgium and France. Thus Britain faced an agonizing choice. Should it fight alongside the French to prevent the Germans from dominating Europe? Or should it remain on the sidelines until there was a direct threat to the British Isles?

Ferguson begins by calling on his audience to reject the caricature of pre-war Germany as “an ultra-militarist society hell-bent on conflict.” In fact, France spent the greatest percentage of its GDP on armaments, whereas Germany had the strongest anti-war movement in Europe. According to Ferguson, “the archival evidence actually makes it clear that the Germans’ . . . main motivation for going to war was a sense of weakness” vis-à-vis Russia.

Yet rather than retrace the process of decision-making in various European capitals, Ferguson opines that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand “was the butterfly that flaps its wings in the Amazonian rainforest and causes a hurricane on the other side of the world.” Like Christopher Clark, Ferguson argues that the war was the fault of everyone and no one in particular. Yet Clark spends hundreds of pages assembling the evidence required for a plausible defense of his hypothesis. In contrast, Ferguson’s butterfly analogy is likely to disappoint those who expected a more substantive counterpoint to Hastings’s film.

War of choice or war of necessity?

In the first days of August 1914, Great Britain found itself at a strategic crossroads. Regardless of whom it held responsible for the war, it now faced the prospect of a single adversary dominating Europe in a manner reminiscent of Napoleon. Hastings and Ferguson agree wholeheartedly on two points essential to determining whether the British were wise to fight or had better options at their disposal. First, they agree that a German victory was imminent if the British refused to fight. Second, Hastings and Ferguson agree that the wisdom of the decision to fight depends on the implications of a German victory. Ferguson spells this out more clearly. He explains:

"It’s always illuminating to think about what we historians call the “counterfactuals,” the “what ifs” of history. What if the British cabinet had decided not to intervene in 1914. . . . What would Europe look like today if the Germans had indeed won that limited continental war?"

To answer his question, Ferguson gestures to a screen behind him that rolls stock footage of a German auto plant. Answering his own question, Ferguson continues, “A Europe dominated by the German economy. What’s more, the German chancellor’s proposal for a European customs union [during the war] . . . was to a remarkable extent an anticipation of our own European Union.”

Ferguson made this same point 15 years ago in an influential book also entitled The Pity of War. The argument drew heavy fire then and is no more persuasive now. Midway through Hastings’s film, the eminent historian Sir Michael Howard tells Sir Max, “If the Germans had won the war, I see no way in which they would not have used their dominance of Europe to bring the British down. So we would not have avoided a war, we would only have postponed one.” In September 1914, when it still seemed that the Germans might achieve the rapid and decisive victory they hoped for, their chancellor composed a list of concessions Germany expected in exchange for peace. It included the seizure of large tracts of land from France and Russia, while Belgium and Holland would become vassal states.

Had the Reich actually prevailed, it is difficult to identify any potential constraints on its ambitions. The Germans might have resumed their decades-long naval arms race with the British, this time with Belgian and Dutch ports under their control. Furthermore, actual German atrocities in Belgium and Eastern Europe during the war suggest a mindset not conducive to a pacific future.

While it may be fascinating to speculate about what might have been, there is simply no way to confirm that one projected future is more plausible than another. When Ferguson and Hastings address the implications of a German victory, they step outside their role as scholars and become educated guess-makers. This is not a condemnation. In the first days of August, 100 summers ago, the British cabinet had no choice but to make an educated guess about whether the consequences of fighting would be better or worse than the consequences of passivity.

The same is true for every government that confronts the prospect of war. For this reason, the effort to distinguish wars of choice from wars of necessity is inherently flawed. To argue that a war is necessary is to argue that the consequences of not fighting would be intolerable. Yet the decision to fight renders the consequences of inaction unknowable. Conversely, the decision not to fight renders the impact of a hypothetical conflict unknowable.

Even resistance to a direct attack on one’s homeland does not amount to a war of necessity. The decision to resist aggression always has a strong ethical component. After Pearl Harbor and 9/11, Americans overwhelmingly supported going to war because our enemies violated our most deeply held notions of justice and freedom. In both instances, there were strong reasons to believe that a refusal to fight would result in further attacks. Yet no one will ever know for sure what would have happened if America chose not to fight. The Japanese sought to pre-empt the projection of American power into the Western Pacific. They had no interest in California. The United States could have pursued al-Qaeda by means of law enforcement, not war, an alternative embraced by some on the left.

In the aftermath of 9/11, there was good reason to ask whether the United States should have done more, sooner to prevent the attacks. If invading Afghanistan was the right choice, it would have made more sense to do so before the devastating attack that cost the lives of 3,000 civilians. Similarly, the best time to declare war on Japan was before Pearl Harbor. Yet the imperative to act became visible only in hindsight. Americans believed they had a choice. Perhaps more important, going to war early would have been far more difficult to justify. What one perceives as choice or necessity depends in no small part on moral considerations.

The future of history

A hundred years from now, the British may remain no less divided than today about the wisdom of the Great War. The threat posed by the Second Reich will never match the malevolence of the Third. The human cost of the First World War will never seem tolerable, especially when the magnificent victory of 1945 demanded so much less.

Today, after lengthy and divisive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is profound skepticism in the United States of any assertion that enemies must be confronted abroad so they do not strike us at home. Yet the fading memory of 9/11 reminds Americans that sometimes, such warnings are valid. If only there were a clear standard against which to judge the necessity of fighting. The troubling lesson of Britain’s centenary debate is that history may never vindicate difficult choices on behalf of either war or peace.

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