Friday, March 28, 2014

The Necessary War

Historian Niall Ferguson has been peddling the line for many years now that WW1 was a strategic blunder from a British perspective because 1 million men died, the economy was destroyed, WW1 led to WW2 and here we are 100 years later with German domination of Europe anyway. Its a neat argument but I think fallacious. Andrew Roberts has written about what a German victory in WW1 would have meant for Europe and this documentary below by Max Hastings also presents a good counter argument. The BBC ran it the same night as Ferguson's documentary arguing his case (alas that one isn't on youtube otherwise I would have included it here too). ... I find Hastings' argument not just more convincing but also, naturally, more personally significant. My grandfather (my mum's dad) fought on the Western front for 4 years and saw dozens of friends killed around him. It would be unnerving to think that all of that death and destruction was ultimately for nothing. Maybe it was, but I'm not convinced.

40 comments:

John McFetridge said...

My son is studying WWI in high school and he showed me this:

http://themetapicture.com/if-wwi-was-a-bar-fight/

I guess the question is, is all domination the same?

Dana King said...

I'm about 2/3 of the way through Max Hastings's history of World War II, INFERNO. A wonderful book, with many things I, as an American, had no idea of. (Such as how England treated the non-white nations of its Empire.)

That has little to do with the topics ta hand, but I saw Hastings's name and, given what I've read so far, am given to accepting his point of view. No one gets a pass from him in INFERNO.

Alan said...

Adrian,I read Hastings tome "Catastrophe"and I agree a "Greater Germany "stretching from the Ukraine to France would have end the dream of the French Revolution i.e. "Liberty,Equality and Fraternity."It would have relegated the Anglophone "Democracies" to small limited trade nations.If one looks at the German extirpations in Southwest Africa we get a taste of the Kaiser's plans for a "Greater Reich." Germany's plan to invade via a neutral Belgium was laid out quite early and clearly. Furthermore German eyes on Austro-Hungary's lands were clear to all. Revisonism sells books and tends to make Hitler merely an anomaly of history.Best Alan

Brendan O'Leary said...

My mum's father was in WW1 as well. Got a medal at Passchendaele for killing Germans got wounded, sent back to the front, then killed more Germans and got another medal. Lived to be 93 so I knew him quite well - but we only found out about the medals after he died. He was saving us from this apparently: http://www.migrationheritage.nsw.gov.au/cms/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/New-Australia-Map-3.jpg - g'day there in Zeppelinburg.

My dad's mother's father's side was German-Australian. His uncle was interned by Australia in WW1 and then taken prisoner by the Japanese in WW2 so he claimed to be the only person imprisoned by both sides.(probably not)

I've read Ferguson's booklet on WW1. It's well-argued. I just don't know enough to take sides with him or Hastings.

I visited Passchendaele with a military historian. She knew exactly where my grandfather would have been on each day he won a medal - the positions hardly moved more than a metre a day at that point.

Contrary to popular belief, she said, they knew what they were doing there. They were stopping the Germans getting to the sea.

Liam Hassan said...

I watched both programmes - they were both brilliantly made. Ferguson has made a living out of contrary views, but not in a bad way. He always has facts and figures to back up the arguments. What is surprising is his point of view given he is (like Roberts and Hastings) - right wing historian.

I have been quite surprised by the WW1 coverage. I was of the view that the war was a massive blunder and waste of life. But I was very much convinced by Hastings argument (unless you take the lefty view that it was all a product of the capitalist-imperialist system, which may also arguably be true).

Cary Watson said...

I read Catastrophe and watched the doc, but I'm still not totally convinced. As one of the historians in the show admits, Britain would have gone to war eventually against Germany to defend its empire, which argues for the case that the war as much about defending commercial interests as it was defending democracy. And the bloodiness of the war also argues for the anti-democratic nature of all the combatants. In Alan Sillitoe's book Raw Material about his grandfather's experiences in WWI and as a worker, he makes it clear that the carnage of the war was a direct result of the ruling classes seeing the lower classes as nothing more than raw material for war and industry. Military technology dictated the style of battle, but it was generals and politicians who decided it was OK to keeping pouring millions of lives down the drain. The US, France and Britain were far more careful with the lives of their soldiers in WW2, probably because the rise of unions and socialist parties between the wars had put the fear of God in the ruling classes. Having said all that, the idea of a mildly deranged Kaiser Wilhelm in charge of Europe isn't very appealing.

seana graham said...

I'm well out of my depth here, as I know WWI first through All Quiet On the Western Front, next, Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, parts of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and most recently the play Warhorse, which mainly said that it was pretty bad for horses. However, from Brittain's testimony, it wasn't just the working classes that got slaughtered in the trenches, as half the boys she knew at Oxford were killed as well.

But I'll watch the documentary.

seana graham said...

Oh, and I liked that WWI as a barfight riff, John.

adrian mckinty said...

John

I liked that.

adrian mckinty said...

Dana

I liked Hastings account of the Pacific War too.

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

I dont think anyone really knows what the German Victory plans would have actually been but the Treaty of Brest Litovsk gave us a good clue didnt it?

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

My grandad was also at Passchendaele and Ypres. If he'd been at the Somme too (he wasnt) I'm sure that I wouldnt be here today typing this.

Ferguson definitely has a point and its argued well.

adrian mckinty said...

Liam

I too was convinced by aspects of the Hastings programme. Especially the lions led by donkeys stuff. I had no idea that that quote was just made up.

adrian mckinty said...

Cary

I liked that bit in Hastings where the historian said that for Germany the time to strike was 1914 before the country became democratic and socialist. I wonder if they'd somehow avoided war in 1914 and for the next few years if a big conflagration might have been entirely skipped. Or if a triumphant Kaiser wd just have scrapped all the democratic reforms...

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

The Generals might have avoided trouble but the junior officers were slaughtered in their thousands and tens of thousands so I dont think the class analogy quite works as tempting as it is...

Matt said...

Did you ever read Charley's War, Adrian? That's one of the greatest comics of all-time, there, and illustrates how WWI was, as one of my students put it, a 'messed-up war.' Whether it was necessary or not goes beyond my powers.

One fact I wasn't aware of until recently was that more than 100,000 Chinese worked with the allies and some of them later stayed in Paris and built the Chinatown there.

Bren said...

This is off -topic on the Ferguson-Hastings debate, but the day my grandad got one of his medals, his cousin was killed about a kilometre away. But he didn't know of him, because his own grandfather was secretly bigamous with a wife & family in Melbourne and a wife & family in Dunedin during the goldrush days.

It's amazing what we can know these days that would have been thought buried forever in the past by previous generations.

Which I guess means that the potential for revisionism is infinite.

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Cary Watson said...

Yes, it's interesting to speculate that if war had been avoided both the Kaiser and the Czar might have been replaced by moderate socialist regimes in the fullness of time.

Joe Velisek said...

Without being too simplistic here in the limited space – the quandary of WWI depends on perspective, i.e. from which end of the 20th Century tunnel one views it. Ferguson looks back on the Great War judging the subsequent result(s) with 20/20 hindsight after coming out of the tunnel.

Hastings’ analysis, on the other hand, is based on contemporary, i.e. early 20th Century/late 19th Century information/knowledge/mindset – which starts with the simple fact no one understood there was a tunnel.

If that’s too esoteric to contemplate over the upcoming weekend – then I agree with Dana concerning Hastings.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Here’s what C.V. Wedgwood wrote in an introduction to The Thirty Years War about eighteen years after the book’s initial publication:

I no longer think that all wars are unnecessary, but some are, and I think that the Thirty Years War was one of these.
=================================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
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adrian mckinty said...

Matt

I remember Charley's War very well. Quite the antidote to Victor, Warlord etc. It was also around that time that they started hinting that Judge Dredd might be the bad guy which messed with my head.

adrian mckinty said...

Bren

I've always been impressed by those people who have a secret family in another part of the world. I just dont know how they do it. It seems exhausting.

adrian mckinty said...

Cary

I wonder if both World Wars cd have been avoided and Europe wd look more or less the way it does now but without all the death...

adrian mckinty said...

Joe

I like what Hastings says about the British cabinet in 1914. Faced with what they were faced with then: an invasion of Belgium, atrocities, a Germany on the cusp of dominating Europe (and hence the world) it wd have been almost impossible for them to keep out...

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Some wars are definitely necessary. Have you read Human Smoke? Its a pacifist case for the UK and US remaining out of WW2. Its not convincing at all. (And it plays fast and loose with the facts too.)

seana graham said...

My impression from school about WWI, and we didn't really study it that much, was that the nature of the alliances that had been formed guaranteed that war was almost certain to start once some incident had flared up and triggered a chain reaction. So I have always felt it was simply tragic, rather than the culpability of one side or the other. Which is not the way I think about WWII at all.

Alan said...

Adrian,I think far worse than delving into graded culpability for the "Great War" were the divergent lessons learned and drawn from the remorseless bloodletting.Great Britain appeared to feel the immense futility of the experience with Socialists feeling they had been lured into a Capitalist cabal.France saw its youth bled and felt it could hide from war behind its fixed Maginot line.Germany however felt that it had been robbed of victory and stabbed in the back by traitors and left wing plotters and defeatists.It staggers the imagination that such a conflict would lead to such divergent mind sets.Best Alan

.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

The Guns of August unpacks the alliances line in a very convincing way.

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

Exactly. Especially guilty I think is Keynes which meant that the Brits were vulnerable and weak when they should have been strong and confident. If Hitler had been stopped in 1936 in the Rhineland...

seana graham said...

I remember my dad reading Guns of August when I was maybe ten. I guess it's high time I put it on my reading list.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Shit, you've got to read The Guns of August!

I'd say the 10 essential books WW1 era books are:

1. The Great War and Modern Memory
2. The Guns of August
3. The Strange Death of Liberal England
4. Goodbye to all that
5. The Ghost Road
6. Testament of Youth
7. A Farewell to Arms
8. All Quiet on the Western Front
9. The First World War (Keegan)
10. Into the Silence

But if you're only going to read 1 book its gotta to be the Fussell or possibly the Robert Graves.

seana graham said...

Okay, well, two down. I did read the Fussell book on World War II, though. For better or worse, I read it as the first Gulf War was breaking, which was great, as long as you didn't mind being totally alienated from the rest of the country for awhile.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I don't know Human Smoke, but I'm immediately wary of such a title. What noxious sensationalism straining mightily for gravity.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Its a vulgar title and a vulgar, rather silly book from a writer I used to respect.

http://www.amazon.com/Human-Smoke-Beginnings-World-Civilization/dp/1416572465/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1396124879&sr=8-1&keywords=human+smoke

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

That Fussell WW2 book is good, but The Great War and Modern Memory is an all time classic.

seana graham said...

I've heard it's great and I like his style, so I probably will get to it sooner or later. Actually, my interest is piqued, so it might be sooner.

Brendan O'Leary said...

I'm pathetically unread compared to you lot, having read AQotWF as a youngster and not really understood it, and the Pat Barker trilogy out of Adrian's list.

The book that helped me most understanding Germany's lead up to, and conduct during, WW2 was Michael Burleigh's "The Third Reich: A New History" . I suspect most of you have read it already. I think it's a modern classic.

One trivial detail from the Belgian battlefield tour that also shed some light on WW2: Hitler's little moustache was a deliberate signal to show he'd had to trim his moustache to get a seal on gas masks, in the manner that many WW1 soldiers did.

Joe Velisek said...

Seana -

One addition I'd make to Adrian's list.

A World Undone by G J Meyer

(One book and all that ...)


seana graham said...

Thanks, Joe. I'll add it to the list.