The Great War that ‘killed Christendom’

World War One leaders from left, Kaiser Wilhelm II, King George V, Czar Nicholas II and Emperor Franz Joseph.
World War One leaders from left, Kaiser Wilhelm II, King George V, Czar Nicholas II and Emperor Franz Joseph.

by Dr Jack Binns

The Great War which started in the Balkans in July 1914 and by November 1918 had encompassed the whole world was an unprecedented catastrophe. It engaged 65 million soldiers and sailors, claimed the lives of 20 million combatants and civilians, and mutilated the bodies and minds of millions more. It destroyed four empires, Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian and Ottoman Turk; it led to the creation of many new states, such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and revived an old one, Poland; completely redrew the map of the Middle East; and revealed the USA as the greatest world power in the 20th century. Without it Lenin would have remained an obscure, failed, exiled revolutionary.

In the words of the professor of church history at Oxford, the war also “killed Christendom”. Kaiser William II, supreme bishop of the Prussian Protestant evangelicals; George V, supreme governor of the church of England; the Orthodox Tsar of all the Russians, his cousin, Nicholas II; and Franz Joseph, the secular champion of the world’s Roman Catholics – all invoked God as their protector and guardian. The war of 1914-18 changed the history of mankind and destroyed the faith of millions of Christians.

At the end of it all, in Paris in 1919, in the terms of the infamous treaty of Versailles, article 231, the so-called “war-guilt clause”, pinned the blame entirely on German premeditated aggression. The victorious allies demanded compensation from the German people for all the colos-sal damage that had been done to their property, livelihoods, limbs and lives. Since there was no Russian signatory present to make claims, most of the reparations were to go to war-damaged France and Belgium.

As a result, no event in human history has been more thoroughly researched in as much painstaking detail by so many historians as the causes of the Great War. For this year’s centenary, dozens more have been added to the mountains of books on this highly controversial subject.

The post-war Germans published 57 volumes of documents to prove their innocence and the injustice of Versailles; the French, Austrians and British submitted their own self-justifying versions; and the Russian Soviets blamed the Tsar and his French allies. The memoirs of key decision-makers of 1914, the German chancellor, the Russian foreign minister, the French president and the British foreign secretary, all added their own autobiographical special pleading. Their selective memories and in some cases total amnesia have frustrated historians ever since. Relevant documents have been doctored and even deliberately destroyed.

Historians are time-travellers who carry their own mental baggage with them into the past; and every new generation of scholars looks back with a different perspective and prejudice from its predecessor. A century later, it still seems impossible to liberate understanding of the events of 1914-18 from contemporary politics.

A second world war, which broke out in Europe only 20 years after the first had ended, altered perceptions of its predecessor. In 1914, Germany’s unprovoked invasion of Belgium dragged Britain into the slaughter; in 1939, Hitler’s invasion of Poland had the same effect. For the Kaiser, now read the Fuhrer; for the Tsar, now read Stalin. Since the combatants were mostly the same – Germany versus France, Great Britain, Russia and the USA, with only Italy and Japan changing sides – nearly all the issues as well as the participants looked similar. The freedom and independence of Europe’s smaller nations were menaced by, and for a time lost to, the military might of Germany, first the Second Reich, then the Third. The Great War no longer looked so great and was certainly not the war to end all wars, as HG Wells had hoped. It had to be fought all over again and at even greater cost. No wonder the belief gained credence that the 1914-18 war had been prodigiously futile and that the appalling sacrifices it had caused had been entirely in vain.

By the 1950s, after the verdicts of the Nuremberg trials, nearly everyone accepted without question that Hitler and the Nazis had been chiefly responsible for the European holocaust of 1939-45 and Japan for the Far Eastern tragedies of 1933-45; and both nations had paid a crippling price for causing them. Guilt and innocence, criminal and victim were clearly identified. The Allies had fought a necessary and just war in self-defence; but was the moral case as clear and indisputable for the 1914-18 war?

Then, in 1961, the Hamburg historian, Fritz Fischer, came forward with the argument that in 1914 the German military and political leaders had been wholly to blame for launching a pre-emptive strike against France and Russia. They did not slide, stumble or mistakenly fall 
into war; they planned it in 
advance and waged it ruthlessly to win continental domination. This was the considered retrospective verdict of a German scholar, not that of a contemporary Frenchman hungry for revenge.

Not surprisingly, the Fischer thesis was bitterly rejected by many German historians and during the next half century attacked and discredited by others of different nationalities. Serbian recklessness, Austrian vindictiveness, Russian revenge, French inflexible arrogance and even British prevarication have all been blamed as well as German warmongering. It seems that the sources of massive primary evidence still permit a wide assortment of verdicts.

As the volume of historical analysis of the events of 1914 shows no signs of evaporating, by 2014 if there is a consensus it must be that there can be no consensus. In his convincing and exhaustive treatment of the never-ending controversy, Christopher Clark settled for trying to answer the question “how” rather than “why”. The title of his book The Sleepwalkers (2012) summarised in one descriptive noun the conduct of diplomats, monarchs, soldiers and sailors who took their countries into the cauldron. Miscalculation and misunderstanding rather than malevolent intention he found evident amongst all of the leaders who were ignorant of or blind to the horrors that war would bring to their peoples.

Since 2001 interest in the events that led to the 1914 war has increased. The Black Hand that devised and armed the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was a secret, terrorist, underground group, more familiar to us since the attack on New York’s World Trade Center. Both sets of murderers intended to kill themselves as well as their victims. Also, the shootings at Sarajevo irrevocably changed the course of world history, while the massacres of September 11, 2001, led straight to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with results still unforeseen.

Those of us who are old enough, remember exactly when we heard or saw the news of the death of President John F Kennedy in November 1963. And so it was for many after June 28, 1914, when another leader was shot to death at the back of an open car in a motorcade while visiting what seemed to be a friendly city.

But one of the key differences between these two moments is that the sudden murder of Kennedy was not a decisive turning-point in world affairs, though at the time it might have looked so. In retrospect, we now know that, though his death was shocking and tragic, it made no fundamental difference to the American conduct of the Vietnam war, the narrative of the Cold War, or the campaign for racial justice in the USA. So that interest in the President’s assassination has focused on its author(s), rather than its outcome.

In Franz Ferdinand’s case there never was any doubt about the identity and purpose of his killer, but the consequences of his murder were cataclysmic. As events during the next five weeks proved, the death of the archduke was not a minor episode in an obscure, distant province, but the crucial catalyst that set the juggernaut in motion.

Here in Britain, controversies about the Great War’s causes, purposes and conduct have continued to exercise the prejudices and consciences of a multitude of poets, playwrights, novelists, film-makers and philosophers, as well as amateur and professional historians. The arguments have swung violently backwards and forwards for a century.

Between the two world wars, the pacifists seemed more persuasive than the patriots. The bitter powerful poetry of veteran officers, notably Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, gradually gained more public favour than the Romantic idealism of Rupert Brooke. And almost before the ink of the treaty of Versailles was dry, John Maynard Keynes, the distinguished economist, denounced the burden of reparations on Germany as unjust and self-defeating in his Economic Consequences of the Peace.

All Quiet on the Western Front and Goodbye to All That, a German and a British anti-war account by former soldiers, were both very influential and both were published first in 1929. A year later, the film version of the former, was arguably the most powerful pacifist work ever shown on the screen.

During the 1930s, military historians, particularly the highly respected Liddell Hart, who had served with the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLIs), and politicians, notably Lloyd George in his War Memories, were strongly critical of British military leadership. They argued that on the Somme in 1916 and at Ypres in 1917 there was no justification for persistent, futile and hugely costly attacks launched against heavily defended German positions.

In February 1933, the resolution at the Oxford University Students’ Union that “this House will in no circumstances fight for King or country” was carried by a big majority, which suggested that pacifism had taken hold of the younger members of the upper class.

After the patriotic surge of 1939-45 had subsided, critical and satirical reaction to the Great War was resumed in the 1960s. In 1961, Alan Clark published a scurrilous attack on British military commanders and their misconduct with the title The Donkeys. Later, he alleged that his chosen title was derived from the phrase “lions led by donkeys” used by a German general to describe his British opponents on the Western Front.

Two years later, Joan Littlewood’s production of the play Oh! What a Lovely War made fun of the generals, particularly the commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Haig, and was soon turned into a very popular film. By 1988, John Laffin had called his investigation of the army’s senior officers British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One. The knives were out and razor sharp. When Earl Haig had died in 1928, 100,000 mourners filed past his coffin in Edinburgh; 70 years later, a national newspaper mounted an unsuccessful campaign to demolish his equestrian statue in Whitehall. By that time, “Butcher Haig” had won a definitive place in the national vocabulary.

By 2014, with the rapid approach of the centenary commemoration, the battle of words and insults has intensified. In his Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War in 1914 (2013), Sir Max Hastings argued emphatically that Britain’s intervention was entirely necessary, vital and wholly justified. Far from “futile”, the war had to be fought no matter what the cost to save Europe from Prussian militarism and the Allied cause was as morally sound as it was in the Second World War.

This was in part an answer to Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, in which the Cambridge historian had questioned the demonisation of Germany and demonstrated that Britain’s allies, Tsarist Russia and Serbia, had also expansionist, colonial aims. If the British Tommy volunteer thought that he was fighting for freedom, he was misled by his own government’s propaganda.

Even the party politicians have now climbed on to the bandwagons. Education Secretary Michael Gove has condemned the First World War episodes of “left wing” Blackadder for satirising the upper-class British military, denigrating patriotism, and depicting the war as a pointless tragedy. His opposite number, Tristram Hunt, a Cambridge historian, says that Gove is making a party-political point on doubtful historical evidence. To describe the war as a struggle between self-sacrificing patriotism and evil oppression is myth-making, not history. Blackadder did not laugh at heroic patriotism: it derided the self-perpetuating, smug, incompetent establishment of church and state, public school and class privilege.

So the Great War has long been a suitable subject for historians, but it has also once again become fertile fighting ground for the politicians with one eye on the 2015 general election.