Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Were they right to fight?

One of the more aggravating features of this time of the year is the rush of journalists to write articles in which they decry the First World War as pointless, contemporary British politicians criminal and British generals stupid.  George Monbiot has one such in the Guardian today. 

Like most people of my generation, I grew up with a mystery. I felt I understood the second world war. The attempt to dominate and destroy, to eliminate the people of other races, though raised to unprecedented levels by the Nazis, is a familiar historical theme. The need to stop Hitler was absolute, and the dreadful sacrifices of the second world war were unavoidable.

But the first world war, which ended 90 years ago today, seemed incomprehensible. The class interests of the men sent to kill each other were the same. While Germany was clearly the aggressor, the outlook of the opposing powers - seeking to expand their colonies and to dominate European trade - was not wildly different.

I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure what Monbiot means by the class interests of the respective Central and Allied armies – if indeed he means anything.  But the idea that the First World War was a pointless and unnecessary war is pernicious and false.  The war was escalated, deliberately, by Germany in order to knock out France and Russia as Great Powers.  Their expectation was that Britain would not intervene, as Monbiot seems to be retrospectively advocating, and that they would be able to defeat the French army in ample time to swing round and defeat Russia as well.  The war grew out of the German fear of encirclement.

Was it worth Britain intervening to prevent German domination of the continent of Europe?  It has been suggested that it would not have made much difference to Britain one way or the other, and that in opposing German ambitions Britain bankrupted her finances and slaughtered her youth to little purpose.  However, the Germany of the Kaiser was not so very different from the Germany of the Fuhrer.  And there is, in fact, excellent evidence of what a German victory would have entailed for Western Europe.

After the internal collapse of Russia and the Bolshevik coup, the Germans, in spite of Trotsky’s attempted delaying tactics, imposed brutal conditions in return for ‘peace’.  The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk is a model for what German aims and methods were in the First World War, and a cursory look at it is enough to give the Allies a good reason to fight.  A third of Russia’s farmland; a quarter of her population; a huge amount of her industrial production: Brest-Litovsk tore the heart out of Russia.  Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic States were not given independence under the Treaty – they were simply transferred to a German rule that was intent on recovering her wartime losses.

There is more to be said about the wisdom of British policy leading up to the First World War – namely the procuring of binding alliances that would guarantee British involvement in a continental land war without concomitant expansion of the regular army – but to suggest that the war was unnecessary and that there was no moral difference between the sides is to be obtuse.

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