Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Countdown to War: the Postscript – what did World War One achieve?

What struck me most as I was preparing the Countdown to War series was how little ordinary people, of the time, must have known about the impending catastrophe.

I based myself on two newspapers: for weekdays the Manchester Guardian, now simply the Guardian; for Sundays the Observer, now the Guardian’s sister paper, though then entirely independent and with a distinct stance: much less friendly towards the Liberals, to say nothing of Labour, much friendlier towards the Conservatives, and, as war approached, as firmly convinced that Britain had to join in on the Russian and French side as the Manchester Guardian was convinced the country should stay out.

For quite a time, those papers gave little indication of what was coming. For a week or so after the assassination in Sarajevo of the Austrian Grand Duke on 28 June 1914, there was much talk about it – but mostly as a tragedy in itself and a sign of the terrible chaos in that part of the world. Between the 6th of July and the 21st, there was little mention of any consequences, which is one of the reasons I was able to spend so much time talking about other matters: the descent towards civil war in Ireland, suffragette agitation vote (and the cruelty of the authorities towards those they arrested, including force feeding), trouble in Mexico, trouble in the Balkans, but well to the south of Sarajevo: Turks massacring Greeks or being massacred by them.

Even from the 21st, when it first emerged that Austria-Hungary was going to present a Diplomatic Note to the Serbs demanding action over the assassination, it was only gradually apparent where events were heading: the increasingly bitter tone of exchanges between Vienna and Belgrade, then war, and only in the last few days, the mobilisation of Russia followed by that of Germany, and finally German military action against both Russia and France.

Clearly, those in political power had a much clearer idea of what was happening. They knew of the pressure that Germany was putting on Austria-Hungary to push its quarrel with Serbia towards war: Germany felt that it needed a war to change the balance of power in Europe, to loosen the stanglehold it felt Russia and France had over it, and to emerge as the leading power of the Continent, which it believed was its rightful place.

Even in government, though, I’m sure the realisation of the extent of the calamity to which they were heading only slowly became apparent. Both at the top and the bottom of society, Britain and the other powers sleepwalked into war. And I hope that came through from the series.

A catastrophic war
Slowly, then, and as though unconscious, Britain drifted with much of Europe into a war of unprecedented ferocity. 

What did the war achieve? And, in particular, what did Britain’s involvement achieve?

Germany had clearly gambled on Britain remaining neutral. With Britain on the sidelines, Germany might be able to knock out France quickly, as had happened in the previous war of 1870-71. That would leave it free to take on Russia, much the larger power, but with forces that were no match for the Germans. The war might have lasted a short time and ended in German victory.

Germany would have emerged as the dominant power on the Continent.

British involvement made that dream impossible. As a result, Germany was defeated and forced to accept humiliating and punitive conditions. That made the Second World War almost inevitable, as none of the conflicts that had pushed Germany into war in the first place had been resolved. In 1945, after defeating Germany for the second time, the Allies, this time dominated by the United States, insisted on a different kind of settlement. Instead of having to pay reparations to the victors, Germany received huge volumes of aid from them. Germany rebuilt, and structures grew up in Europe which far from denying German aspirations, gave them the opportunity to achieve them by peaceful means.

Leading to Germany emerging as the dominant power on the Continent.

Had Britain stayed out, that dominance would have been achieved more quickly. It might, indeed, have been a great deal harsher, enforced by military might. But – a hundred years on? Might the authoritarian aspects of German rule not have softened? Might the defeated nations not have risen again and obtained autonomy within some kind of European grouping of the nations? A kind of European Union?

What that different history would have done is avoid the millions of deaths of the two world wars. A quick defeat of Russia might have avoided the Russian revolution. We might never have seen a Nazi regime take power. We might have seen no Holocaust. And if the foundation of the state of Israel was a response by Western powers to the failure of Europe to accommodate its Jews, there might have been no Israel and the Middle East might have looked profoundly different today.

However, that isn’t what happened. Speculating about what might have been, playing with counterfactuals, is fun but ultimately fruitless. You know the story of the traveller in Ireland asking the way to Dublin and being told, “oh, if I was going to Dublin, I wouldn’t start from here.” We are where we are, we got here the way we got here, and we have to find a way forward from where we really are, not where we’d like to be.

Still. It does leave me wondering whether the Manchester Guardian might not have been right. Getting involved in that catastrophic war was perhaps one of the most disastrous decisions Britain ever took.

Remember that, during all the celebrations of victories and defeats in the next four years.


Anonymous said...

Just imagine! Had there been no war, Europe today would have been dominated by the Germans! Terrifying thought!


David Beeson said...

That's what makes the sacrifices worthwhile