No victory in the peace to end peace

The Origins of World War I - Castles of Steel - The Great War - The First World War - Trench Art
August 6, 2004

The great diplomat and historian George Kennan, who celebrates his 100th birthday this year, called the First World War "the great seminal catastrophe of this century". Certainly, from beginning to end it was a tragedy, in which different ages of war came together: the old way of fighting with industrial-scale killing, soldiers and home front populations who consented to their nation's cause together with the victimised civilians of invaded and occupied territories. At the time, it was thought that the horror culminated on the battlefields of Verdun, the Somme and Gallipoli. Then the 1915 Armenian massacre (called retrospectively genocide after the industrial mass killing of the Jews during the next war) came to play a significant role in the way people thought about the savagery of the 20th century as a whole.

The Great War has come to be studied more and more as a laboratory of horror. These books follow this pattern, bringing different ages of historiography to the intellectual field. Some of the books stick, sometimes brilliantly, to the old way of telling stories, and offer a history of military events led by presidents, emperors, prime ministers, generals and diplomats, without mentioning ordinary people, mentalities and representations; others look at public opinion and war culture - from the culture of mobilisation and sacrifice to that of rejection; some try to take in the twists of race and gender; and some speak of a total war - or more accurately a totalising war - using the tools of total history.

Writing this review in summer 2004, on the 90th anniversary of the outbreak of the war in August 1914, it seems more important than ever to understand its origins. There has long been talk about the discrepancy between this war's causes and the infernal tragedy it led to. Richard Hamilton and Holger Herwig, who argue persuasively that this discrepancy is false, have asked 11 authors to address the question of causes. Although the book is sometimes a good summary of the diverse known explanations, the attempt to synthesise is difficult, probably because the various contributors have tried to answer country by country, and are not always the best specialists in the countries they describe; it is surprising to see an exclusively English bibliography in a discussion about France or Italy, for example.

Drawing on research carried out over the past 20 years, the book ignores earlier archives - strange for a book published by Cambridge University Press that aims to be a textbook. Moreover, if historians today widely accept the argument about a universal fear of aggression at the time, and consequently the need to attack to prevent attack, the book still prompts the question: are the usual suspects the real suspects? Must we go back to Sarajevo and the Black Hand, back to Gavrilo Princip, back to the escalation of the third Balkan War into a European war?

Asking why the war started is not enough. The question belongs to a dated historiography, where it was logical first to blame the enemy, then war itself. It is the "how" that we need to explore. The process of decision-making by rulers is one thing, but what of the process that leads people to go to war, and to continue it for weeks, months, years? Now that historians have nearly killed the idea of "1914 enthusiasm" - except when it refers to "Gallant little Belgium" and a few members of the elite among the various aggressors - the real historical task is to explain how it was resolved to go to war for a short time, then to hold on for such an incredibly long time amid all its horrors. How was it possible for the people involved to consent to this and to suffer so much and to go on suffering when they were more and more convinced of the absurdity of their sacrifice?

At least Robert Massie, a popular historian since the publication in 1992 of his Dreadnought , the story of the arms race between Britain and Germany between 1890 and 1914, claims not to explain but to tell a story. With Castles of Steel , he prolongs his story of the British and German navies at war. He follows every ship and every submarine, forgetting no section of engine or cannon, nor any of the men who served in them, from the admiral to the last seaman; he sits with Winston Churchill in the War Room at the Admiralty, and knows everything about Admiral Holtzendorff sending in his U-boats in a last gamble to win the war by starving Britain into surrender.

This is not a history that asks hard questions about the conflict but it is, nevertheless, highly researched. The theme is particularly fascinating because during this war - paradoxically considering the fantastic arms race described by Massie in his book - there was nearly no real naval battle, except at Jutland. But unlimited submarine warfare led to the declaration of war by the US and, ultimately, to the defeat of Germany. While the Allies did not secure the victory at sea, it was because they did not lose at sea - notably as a result of the convoys they organised - that they were able to go on feeding their war effort and their populations when the Central Powers could not because of the blockade.

A blockade was an old-fashioned way to win a modern armed conflict involving the entire world, beginning with the colonies. If Hamilton and Herwig treat the old imperialist mono-causal reason offered for going to war with contempt, it does not mean that once the war was engaged, the colonies played an insignificant role - on the contrary. It is this story that John Morrow tells in The Great War: An Imperial History . His argument is that to be a great power in 1914 you had to have colonies, and that Germany wanted to be as great as Britain and France. Indeed, Germany lost because of this lack of colonies - a thesis again arguing for the success of the blockade. But the colonial question became more complicated - with racism, social Darwinism and eugenics probably the "fittest" winners of the war. These surfaced again in the next war, when Nazi Germany would look for vital space in Eastern Europe - another method of colonisation - with brutal consequences.

The First World War was global from the start, three years before the US entered the conflict. As Morrow says, "Prior to August 1914, Europeans had presumed to control the world; they were now to learn that they could not control themselves." The "European civil war" was not understood as such at the time, since everything was seen in terms of race; there was nothing civil - nothing shared with the enemy - about it.

While Morrow's overall thesis is perfectly accurate and well put, his book does not entirely keep the promise of its title and introduction. Morrow is an excellent military historian who follows quite strictly the war's events on the various fronts, revealing the colonial effort in troops and economics, but his is not a full "imperial history". Such a book - putting together the prewar colonial practices of the European aggressors and the war racism of Germany as seen, for example, in the September 1914 manifesto of 93 German intellectuals - is still to be written.

The text describes how the Germans' horror of British and French colonial troops, combined with supposed Russian inferiority, was used both to hide German atrocities on the Western Front and to give simultaneously a war aim to the German populace. Morrow is right: the Great War was a war of race, a war of the self-appointed "superiors" against the "inferiors", and they all needed the "inferiors" to win. Because Germany had very few colonies and did not engage colonial troops on the European fronts, it used racist propaganda to overcome what it lacked and show the inferiority of the enemies. It probably worked enough to pour the poison of racism into Europe for a very long time, a Europe already infiltrated by 19th-century race classifications and colonial atrocities.

Hew Strachan forgets none of these points in his book The First World War . It was published as the companion to a Channel 4 series. But it is much more than that. This Oxford historian has been able to put the most recent scholarship into a clear and readable form, while using research from his three-volume work, of which the first volume, To Arms - also the title of the first chapter of this book - was published in 2001. The two other volumes will follow soon. The book is also extremely well illustrated, thanks to Gregor Murbach, who did the research for the television series.

The match between one of the major international experts on the Great War and a historian of photography skilled at discovering new and fresh resources - especially in beautiful autochromes - has been perfect; the subtitle, "A New Illustrated History", is entirely accurate. This is not a coffee-table picture book, but a work of very serious scholarship, in which photographs and text enhance each other and give meaning to the whole enterprise. In one photograph, a little girl in Reims looks tenderly at her doll near two rifles and a haversack, left as if by accident. It looks similar to C. R. W. Nevinson's famous painting, Taube , except there is a light of hope in the photograph; Nevinson's child is dead. Another photograph depicts two mutilated soldiers on their beds, with bandages covering their legs; the war turned them into mummies.

The autochromes show the poppies of Flanders' fields in all their beautiful and horrifying red. The choice of colour photos also highlights the presence of colonial troops. The front photographers took numerous photographs of the Senegalese, Indian and Indo-Chinese soldiers and workers - probably because they were exotic for those who had never been to Africa or Asia; Strachan and Morrow share the thesis about globalisation of war even before it was total. Black-and-white photos are also all extremely well chosen, with some that will be new to readers. An Austro-Hungarian soldier smiling behind the gallows of a "traitor", for example, reveals the extreme brutality and cruelty of the Eastern Front, including the brutality against civilians - something often overlooked both at the time and by historians. It is the attention to every front, including an interesting chapter called "Jihad" about war in the Ottoman Empire and the extermination of the Armenians, that adds value to Strachan's book.

If the home fronts are treated a little marginally in the first chapters, they come into their own with the blockade and its consequences for the Central Powers and, ultimately, for the outcome of the war and engagement of the next. The author states very well the series of contradictions involved: "The Second World War irrevocably demonstrated that the First World War was not, after all, the war to end all wars. But it also enabled posterity to have it both ways. It venerated the writers who condemned the war of 1914-1918 but at the same time condemned those who embraced appeasement, the logical corollary." On top of the millions of dead and wounded, on top of the grief and mourning, on top of the destruction of the old political order and national boundaries, the First World War had broken old illusions and brought new ones: no more universal rights - or universal anything - more than a "victory without peace", a "peace without peace", or, as a British officer quoted by Morrow stated in 1919, a "peace to end peace". What was left were conflicting memories and their counterparts, silence and forgetting.

By his unique ability to mix anthropology and the study of material culture, Nicholas Saunders has invented a field that attempts to look for and explain all kind of traces of the war fronts. The name Trench Art appears a little restrictive, but it is how curators and collectors refer to these front relics. With his book, Saunders proves that through sites commemorating battlefields, and the home front, through the objects touched, created and discarded by societies at war, the anthropologist can get to the roots behind the thinking of aggressor societies. The objects speak of a time that seems near yet remote, of people who are nearly our contemporaries - our grandparents, our great-grandparents - yet are at the same time distant. Further, he helps us to understand other wars and the entire scope of violence and suffering in modern times. Going beyond George Mosse's idea of the trivialisation of war through kitsch objects, he proves that these front or home-front productions are, in a way, the essence of modern war: the more you produce, the more waste you have; the more people are engaged in war, the more they carve metal, wood, stone or bone, to fight against boredom or express their love for their families or their gods and their desire, in times of hardship, to live.

It is a fascinating book that puts the Great War at its centre, with its "unimaginable technologies of destruction". The author includes a few pages on earlier and later conflicts too: the picture on the jacket shows a Vietnam War sculpture called "dressed to kill" - a "beautiful" woman of steel with bullets for hair. Trench art could be seen and studied today as a category of "Raw Art"; the surrealist André Breton already considered the rings he saw soldiers polishing at the front amazing. Another of the book's pictures shows a metalsmith decorating an artillery shell case fired by the Bosnian Serbs into the city of Sarajevo during the war of 1992-1995. Does the name sound familiar? Take a look back at June-July 1914.

Annette Becker is professor of modern history, University Paris-X/Nanterre, France, and a director of L'Historial de la Grande Guerre, Péronne, Somme.

The Origins of World War I

Editor - Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 537
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 0 521 81735 8

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