The second part of John Molyneux’s extensive essay on WW1 and what led to one of the deadliest wars in human history. Here, John looks back at the events leading up to the war to dispel the notion that WW1 was a ‘chapter of accidents’. Part 1 is available here.
It was a chapter of accidents
There are many historians, politicians and journalists who like the idea that history is basically a chapter of accidents. They favour, as they often put it, the notion of a cock-up to a conspiracy. In this case the argument that no single country or group of countries was to blame, but rather the various governments of Europe sleepwalked into war, almost against their best intentions, enjoys considerable currency and support.
One famous historian who popularised this view was A.J.P.Taylor with his 1963 book The First World War. ‘The statesmen’, he argued, ‘were overwhelmed by the magnitude of events. The generals were overwhelmed also … All fumbled more or less helplessly… No one asked what the war was about.’1
More recently, John Keegan, probably Britain’s most eminent military historian, maintained that ‘The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice.’2
And Niall Ferguson in The Pity of War claimed that, ‘It was something worse than a tragedy…It was nothing less than the greatest error of modern history.’3 The error, he argued, was on the part of the British government which should have stood aside and allowed Germany to dominate Europe (including defeating France). This would have produced a ‘continental Europe …not wholly unlike the European Union we know today – but without the massive contraction in British overseas power entailed by the fighting of two world wars’.4 He also suggests that this might have spared the world the Russian Revolution and Hitler.
Most recently, Christopher Clark, in The Sleepwalkers –how Europe went to war in 1914, has produced a sustained polemic against the idea of German war guilt and any blame centered approach: ‘
…the quest for blame predisposes the investigator to construe the actions of decision-makers as planned and driven by a coherent intention. You have to show that someone willed war as well as caused it…the view expounded in this book is that such arguments are not supported by the evidence.’
The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol. There is no smoking gun in this story; or rather there is one in the hands of every major character. Viewed in this light, the outbreak of war was a tragedy not a crime. 5
The ‘Sleepwalkers’ Thesis
The ‘sleepwalkers’ thesis clearly cuts across those who would seek a militaristic or nationalistic ‘celebration’ of the war as a war for ‘democracy’ or ‘freedom’ or those, like the victors at Versailles, who wanted to pin all the blame for terrible slaughter on Germany. Beyond that, however, it can sit with a range of political standpoints. For the right wing Niall Ferguson, it goes along with presenting the War as an error from the point of view of preserving the British Empire. For the military historian, John Keegan, who was actually a supporter of the Vietnam War, it permits an air of resigned neutrality and objectivity. At the same time it can be linked to a more radical perspective which condemns the war as the responsibility of stupid and unaccountable crowned heads – of the main protagonists only France was a republic – or depicts it, as in the famous Blackadder series, as the fault of a foolish, out of date class of aristocrats wedded to a mindless jingoism of king and country for which they were quite happy to sacrifice the great unwashed.
But regardless of the politics with which it is associated, the ‘sleepwalkers’ thesis is unconvincing history. Like the idea of it all being Germany’s fault, it fits some of the facts of the immediate outbreak of war: the almost accidental character of the assassination in Sarajevo (the Archduke’s carriage took on a wrong turning into the path of Princip); the fact that British Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, probably did not want to go to war at that time and tried to avoid it; that to some extent the same was true of both the Kaiser and the Tsar; that many, though not all, of the leaders on both sides appear to have anticipated only a short war, and so on. However, like the German war-guilt analysis, the ‘sleepwalkers’ thesis shows its inadequacy when we look at the bigger picture.
For a start it is reasonable to ask why, if the war was somehow a mistake, the respective governments – on finding themselves caught up in an ongoing catastrophe – did not extricate themselves from it by making peace. Even in late 1916 after the terrible slaughters of Verdun and the Somme, and even in 1917 after the Russian February Revolution and the fall of Tsarism, these rulers were determined to fight on regardless of the human cost. When, after the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks took Russia out of the war, the Entente powers denounced them bitterly.
But the main point is one that has much wider implications for historical method. It is possible to sleepwalk over a cliff only if there is a cliff in the vicinity available to be walked over. It is possible for kings, emperors and politicians to stumble blindly into a catastrophe provided that a catastrophe is waiting to happen, that the necessary conditions for it have been prepared.
A War Expected
In the case of the First World War it is abundantly clear that it was a war which had been prepared over a considerable period and that informed people were well aware that it was coming. The division of Europe into two antagonistic power blocs had developed over decades. The Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy had been formed in 1882 (and survived, at least nominally, until Italy’s defection in 1915); the Triple Entente between Britain, France and Russia was initiated by the entente cordiale signed in 1904 and formally established in 1907. There was a prolonged naval arms race between Britain and Germany from 1906-1914 which involved Britain in the construction of 29 Dreadnoughts (battleships) compared to the 17 built by Germany. And well before the Sarajevo assassination there was a series of ‘international incidents’– the Tangier Crisis of 1905/6 , the Agadir (in Morocco) crisis of 1911 and the first and second Balkan Wars in 1912 – each of which had the potential to spark a war.
Above all there is the fact that anti-militarists across Europe were acutely conscious of the approach of war and repeatedly warned against it. By far the most important anti-war force at the time was the Second (or Socialist) International including the mass German Social Democratic Party with its one million members. In 1907 the congress of the Second International at Stuttgart passed a lengthy anti-war motion stating that:
The Congress confirms the resolutions adopted by previous international congresses against militarism and imperialism …
Wars between capitalist states are, as a rule, the outcome of their competition on the world market, for each state seeks not only to secure its existing markets, but also to conquer new ones. In this, the subjugation of foreign peoples and countries plays a prominent role…Wars are favoured by the national prejudices which are systematically cultivated among civilized peoples in the interest of the ruling classes….
The Congress, therefore, considers it as the duty of the working class and particularly of its representatives in the parliaments to combat the naval and military armaments with all their might..
If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, supported by the coordinating activity of the International Socialist Bureau, to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective,.
In 1910, at the 8th congress in Copenhagen, ‘a resolution was made on the International’s position on war and struggle, firming up the proposals made… at the congress in Stuttgart.’ 6 And then in 1912 at Basel:
“The discussion mainly centred on the threat of world war which was hanging over Europe; not only did the congress urge the Balkan states to band together in resistance to Austro-Hungarian imperialism, it also identified that “the greatest danger to the peace of Europe is the artificially cultivated hostility between Great Britain and the German Empire,” which was a reference to the arms race and growth of petty nationalism in these two countries…
Essentially, the congress was called at Basel to reinforce the International’s firm stance of “war on war” which had been declared in Stuttgart and Copenhagen, and a call to Socialists to “exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective.” 7
The war, therefore, was anything but accidental or unexpected. If it had not broken out it in August 1914 it would most probably have done so in 1915 or 1916. If we are to understand what the First World War was really about and answer our initial question of what the sixteen million died for we need to examine how and why this international situation developed; in short we need to look at the big picture.
The Big Picture
By looking at the big picture, I mean first of all examining the system of state rivalry that developed in Europe over about five centuries along with the relationship of those rival states to the rest of the world. World War 1 was both a culmination of that long process and a product of significant shifts and developments within it.
Let us take 1492 – Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas – as a point of departure. Obviously this is partly arbitrary – there can be no single ‘starting point’ in processes of this kind; nevertheless it is a significant milestone not because Columbus ‘discovered’ America (a falsification from several points of view) but because his occupation of Hispaniola (St.Domingo/Haiti) inaugurated the European conquest of all the Americas and indeed the epoch of European domination of the whole world. As Karl Marx noted in the Communist Manifesto, it ‘opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie’ and ‘gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known’. 8
For much of the 15th century Portuguese explorers had been inching their way down the west coast of Africa and in 1488 Bartolmeo Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope. At the same time the Portuguese began to come into conflict with Spain regarding the ownership of the Americas. In 1494 Pope Alexander VI intervened to draw a dividing line through South America, with Spain being granted everything to its west and Portugal everything to its east. 9
Before long a new rival appeared on the scene: England, in the shape of Francis Drake and other pirates/ explorers/ heroes (depending on your point of view) preying on gold-and-silver laden Spanish galleons along the Spanish Main (the Spanish controlled coast of Central and South America). This, along with English support for the Dutch Revolt against Spain in the Low Countries, evoked as a response the unsuccessful Spanish attempt to invade England by means of the Armada in 1588.
What happened with the Dutch is interesting here. The English supported the Dutch Revolt, which began in 1556, in order to weaken its main enemy, Spain. But as soon as the Dutch Republic established its independence from Spain in around 1600, becoming Europe’s first fully bourgeois state in the process, it set about acquiring its own global empire. This stretched from New Amsterdam (New York) and Pernambuco (part of Brazil) in the west to Batavia (the Spice Islands or Indonesia) in the east, and from Spitzbergen in the far north to the Cape of Good Hope in the far south. It then came into sharp conflict with its erstwhile supporter, England, and the result was four Anglo-Dutch Wars in the mid-17th century, largely over control of trade routes, which included a Dutch attack on the Thames estuary and the naval Battle of the Medway in 1667.
The 18th century began with two major wars: the Great Northern War (1700-1721) which was essentially between Russia and Sweden (with minor British and other participation) and which established Tsarist Russia, under Peter the Great, as a major power at the expense of Sweden and Poland-Lithuania; the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) which pitted Britain against France over who should rule Spain but also included what was known as Queen Anne’s War fought in North America. This ended in a compromise at the Treaty of Utrecht with the French nominee getting the Spanish throne but France ceding territory to Britain in North America.
The rivalry between Britain and France continued and, after a series of minor conflicts, resulted in the Seven Years War (1756-63) which drew in Prussia, Russia, Austria, Spain and others and was fought in Europe, North America, South America, Africa, India, and the Philippine Islands. Britain emerged successful establishing its dominance over France in North America and India.
But this was rapidly undermined by the American Revolutionary War (1775-83) which saw the establishment of the United States. Then came the French Revolution of 1789. The European Monarchies – Britain, Prussia, Austria, followed by Russia – responded to this in 1793 with the French Revolutionary Wars ending in French victory and the Peace of Amiens of 1802. With France now ruled by Napoleon, war soon broke out again and eventually a grand coalition of all the European powers defeated Napoleon and France at the Battles of Leipzig and, finally, Waterloo and secured the (temporary) restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. These wars were fought on an international scale with battles, especially naval battles, from the West Indies to Egypt to India.
The 19th century, after Waterloo, proved relatively peaceful in Europe. There were a number of wars between specific states such as the Crimean War (1853-56) between Russia and Britain, the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 (the last two of which established a united Germany). And there was also the particularly devastating American Civil War (1861-65). However, between 1815 and 1914 there was no major European war involving all or most of the major powers.
This overview is, by its nature, incomplete and selective. Not only does it omit numerous minor European conflicts it systematically omits the innumerable, virtually continuous wars of colonial conquest being waged by European powers, and especially Britain, throughout this period, from Cromwell in Ireland to the Opium Wars in China via many ‘Indian wars’ in North America, ‘Zulu Wars’ in Africa and so on. Nevertheless the purpose of the overview is to enable us to see a pattern which will be of assistance in understanding the First World War, and this it does.
The pattern is simple and clear: it is that with the emergence of the system of nation states and the development of the capitalist economic system the principle European states repeatedly fought each other for the purpose of acquiring territory both in Europe itself and throughout the rest of the world.
Of course, from time to time, religion, patriotism, honour, glory and such like were invoked to justify these wars and, perhaps, sincerely believed but the main driver of the process as a whole was the acquisition of land, labour, raw materials, trade and markets which, in combination, formed the basis of political power. In short, they were empire building and by the time we get to 1914, all the main players held substantial empires and, apart from France, openly described themselves as such.
Continued in Part 3…
- A.J.P.Taylor, The First World War, p.11, p.62
- Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War, Penguin, 1998 p.462
- Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War, Penguin, 1998 p.460.
- C. Clark, The Sleepwalkers – How Europe went to war in 1914, Penguin, 2013, pp.560-1.
- Which is why, to this day, Portuguese is spoken in Brazil but Spanish in most of the rest of the continent.
[…] Continued in ‘What did they die for? – Part 2’ […]
[…] Part 1 is available here. Part 2 is available here. […]