A piece in the Indy by Matthew Norman on the UK’s plans to commemorate World War 1 has to be read quite carefully to register the satire against the (English) Culture secretary’s smiley moral equivalence approach to the vexed issue of war guilt. Were the Germans the clear aggressors or “were we all to blame?” The subject will never die.
In his magisterial “The Sleepwalkers,” written last year the Cambridge historian Christopher Clarke makes the case for shared guilt after an exhaustive study of the diplomatic record. The title gives the clue to the thesis, as the Times Higher Educational Supplement review states:
“The consensus since the 1960s has been to see Germany as the culprit. While Clark accepts the dominance of a diluted version of the thesis in which the German Empire deliberately chose war as a means of escaping isolation and making a bid for world power, he comments that “the Germans were not the only imperialists and not the only ones to succumb to paranoia”.
The Germans were no worse than anybody else. This Spectator review written at the time of publication, while properly respectful of Clarke’s authority, accuses him of neglecting evidence of Germany ‘s long laid plans to launch a two pronged war against Russia and France. But this factor was far from neglected, as we can read for ourselves. Indeed it’s integral to the thesis. Germany had the well advertised Schlieffen plan to knock out a revengeful France while holding the line against Russia in the east. An increasingly aggressive Russia was the other enemy which the German military elite feared would soon outstrip Germany’s military industrial complex within a few years. If there had to be a war, the time to pre-empt the rise of Russia was now.
The issue is not whether the Germans had a war plan; it is that all the others had one too. There is no doubt of imperial Russia’s ambition to challenge German leadership in central Europe as the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires declined and no doubt too of France’s determination with the support of Allies to win back Alsace Lorraine, the provinces ceded to Germany against Bismarck’s advice after France’s swift and devastating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.
And the Brits? Affronted that the Germans should dare to tweak the lion’s tail with gibes when they were making heavy weather of the war against the Boers and waging a naval arms race which the Germans nevertheless comprehensively lost, they conducted secret military conversations with the French to bar German access to the English channel in the event of war. They also chose understandings with the Russians as the better way to contain potential Russian threats to the Indian empire and British interests in the Middle East. War when it suddenly came, eclipsed the threat of civil war in Ireland and took the British and other establishments by surprise in a way that still boggles the mind. Only six weeks before the outbreak did it become clear to all the parties that if you factor war into complicated diplomatic games, real actual war can be the result. This does not mean that they were unswervingly committed to war on a pan-European scale,- the British most of all. On the whole the Powers of Europe fatalistically accepted that war was the logic of the clash of alliances that had boxed them in. War as an instrument of policy was acceptable. Their vision of war fell far short of the terrible reality that transpired.
The best way to commemorate 1914 will be attempted only on the fringe, to integrate our Germans allies into the whole thing. Sad to think that a century on, we cling so lovingly to the theory of German war guilt – influenced no doubt by WW2 in which Hitler makes the Kaiser seem like a Nelson Mandela by comparison.
And what of our own dear decade of commemorations? They will an intriguing exercise, as we strain for unity by rightly stressing the side by side fighting of the Ulster Division and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers but divide politely but firmly on the other subject of 1916. Otherwise we need no lessons from mainland Europe on the subject of whitewashing our own war guilt of the past fifty years.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London