Thursday 6 February 2014

First Thoughts on the First World War

This decade is going to see a lot of centenaries – the beginning and end of the First World War, the Spanish Influenza that killed so many afterwards, the rebellions and independence of so many European countries, the Russian revolution, the suffragette movement – and the commemorations will probably not only be about what we remember but how we remember it. Already there’s a debate in the UK over how the First World War is remembered: a time of patriotism, a disaster, a war that Britain never should have got involved in…

I’ve not had much patience with Michael Gove’s emphasis on patriotism (which seems to be more about deference to authority and the government of the day than anything), but I’ve been wondering if the debates and commemorations this year will change my view of the war. Like many people the First World War is an immense tragedy, and the horrors of trench warfare are unimaginable. The war need not have happened: sabre-rattling had been going on for a long time without war, and it did not necessarily have to break out in 1914.

However I have some understanding for how and why the war broke out. In a Europe ruled by the logic of the balance of power and bound up in alliance blocs, once the situation got out of hand and war started, it was hard to stop. Geopolitical and tactical considerations – whether Britain’s need to keep the Low Countries free to protect its coastline, or Germany’s aim to knock France out first via Belgium to prevent a war on two fronts – propelled the war forward, making it harder and harder to back down.

From today’s standards, it’s hard to see the First World War as just. We just don’t act like that in Europe anymore – our borders are virtually undisputed (and where they are disputed, war is unlikely), and it is not the empire-driven dog-eat-dog world out there anymore. Expansion and geopolitical positioning no longer drive our thoughts on our place in Europe, so it’s harder to think of going to war in the same circumstances. The shock of what the First World War actually cost pushed us away from the culture and assumptions of pre-war Europe, so it has become more of an alien concept to us today.

Before the First World War periodic Great Power wars were simply part of the balance of Europe: they happened when the other states felt that one country or another was getting too strong and threatening their strategic position, so there was a war to contain the growing power of other countries. The shock of the World Wars and the end of the age of imperialism has moved us to a stage where “just wars” are wars of defence or maybe of humanitarian intervention. So we should probably be a bit wary of projecting our values back on to the people of the time.

I wonder if our view of the war is not only coloured by the Second World War, but because the First may have straddled a shift in attitudes. The War of Spanish Succession, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the Franco-German War – we don’t seem to single out these wars out for being wasteful in the same way as the First World War, despite being similar Great Power wars in many ways. But the First World War did popularise the concept and phrase “never again”. The League of Nations was set up. Though the Second World War swept it away, the United Nations replaced it and the attitudes to war continued to shift from the pre-WWI outlook.

This is simply my impression at the moment and I wonder if this year of commemorations will bring new viewpoints and change my own. But there’s no question that it was a war that changed us.

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