World War I Debates

With the 100th anniversary of the start of the 1st World War looming (ominous given events in Ukraine!) this has led to the inevitable debates as to who started it? and was it worth it?

On the BBC last week there were two programmes, one by military historian Max Hastings and one by economist Neil Ferguson debating this issue. In particularly debating whether all the deaths and sacrifice of the Great War was justified.

Neil Ferguson, while not exactly my favourite person, did make an interesting case. He attacked many of the myths surrounding the justification for war i.e. German militarism (which was largely an invention of British tabloids), that there was little need for immediate British intervention (Britain was standing up for plucky Belgium neutrality…while Belgian troops were plucky defending British rubber and ivory interests in the Congo), that the German Military was vastly more effective at its pursuit of the war than the allies (its just they were outnumbered 2 to one that stopped them winning), or the notion put forward by the Nazi’s that Germany was “stabbed in the back” (actually the mass surrenders of German forces were often orchestrated by the German army’s own officers, once they realised the situation was hopeless).

While he did make some good points, his logic was a little dubious and he was inevitably roasted by all the experts afterwards, which was quite entertaining! Certainly his idea that had Germany won the result would have been something like the European union is stretching things a little. But that’s not to say he didn’t have a point.

My criticism was his failure to state the blindingly obvious – The real perpetrators of World War I was the European Aristocracy. The propaganda lie of the British trying to stop the UK being dominated by a German Kaiser falls flat when you realise that the UK already had a German King (of the Hanoverian dynasty), who was a blood relation of not just the German Kaiser but also the Austrian, Russian and Belgian Royal families.

Ultimately World War I was just the next round in the massive chess game otherwise known as “the great game” that they’d been playing with each other for centuries (one assumes so they could tot up the scores in the gentlemen’s club later and work out who got the last glass of sherry). WW1 was merely another of a long series of war related to this Aristocratic rivalry.

The problem with WW1 was that the aristocrats tipped their poker hand a little too far. Previous wars had tended to be short because it became obvious pretty quickly who was going to win and who was going to lose. The likely loser sued for peace, a treaty they quickly reneged on as soon as their rival’s back was turned. But in the case of WW1 they failed to appreciate that advances in technology had handed a massive technical advantage to the defender. Or that the system of alliances would lead to bloody stalemate.

Also the European powers became trapped by their own propaganda. After whipping the public into a bloody frenzy, then sending off millions to die, they could hardly do what they had in previous such situations and settle the matter in some smoke filled room. The result would have been revolution. And indeed in both Russia and Germany there was a revolution once it was obvious they were losing the war.

While I would question how Max Hastings can even try to argue the slaughter of WW1 could ever be justified, one has to admit it did have some positive, although unintended consequences. Many nations, such as Ireland, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, etc. gained independence. Countries like Britain or France, which were basically aristocracies pretending to be democracies suddenly began to behave a little more like a democracy. The US suddenly realised that they needed to stop acting like a British colony and more like an independent nation.

Of course these were countered by a lot of negative things. The Russian revolution led to the Communists coming to power, which eventually put Russia under the control of Stalin. While things started off rather positive in Germany and Italy, both soon fell under the sway of fascism…which led to World War 2.

But going back to Neil Ferguson’s key point, it was Britain’s decision to involve itself in what was a European war that made it a world war and led to a prolonged conflict. Is this so? Well superficially, yes. It’s likely (though not guaranteed) that the Germans would have won without British intervention. Although it should be remembered that it was largely a French force that turned the German’s back at the crucial battle of the Marne. However I doubt, even if he’s correct, that this would have prevented a future conflict. In the end WW1 was a train wreck waiting to happen. A perfect storm created by the incompetence of the governments of the time. Had Germany beaten France quickly, as Ferguson suggests, then I suspect a few years later another war would have kicked off and sooner or later this would have drawn in external powers such as Britain the US or Japan.

This would be particularly true if you consider the Kaiser’s desire for colonies and the implications of such projects as the Berlin Baghdad railway (otherwise known as “the orient express”). This would have almost certainly kicked off another war, if not in Europe, then somewhere else.

If there’s anything World War 1 proved it’s the dangers of aggressive nationalism and the short comings of any political system that relies on an autocratic style of control…is anyone in Russia reading this?


One thought on “World War I Debates

  1. Good, thought provoking post. I missed the Max Hastings argument. Imperial Germany behaving as a Merkel-like country in Europe is almost laughable though there were some interesting points made. I doubt whether Britain could have stayed out of it any more than it could have tolerated a Napoleonic empire in Europe a century before.
    The two historians aside, I liked the summing up by Jeremy Paxman of his 4 part series….that no-one in Britain had foreseen the scale and horror of the war but once involved, they pulled together as a nation to see it through.


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