Monday, January 06, 2014

Tribal warfare

The current spat over the origins and nature of the First World War is remarkably odd. While Michael Gove was definitely being both overly confrontational and a bit broad-brush by describing as left-wing the view that the First World War was a mismanaged shambles, his overal thesis that the popular view of the war is shaped by Blackadder and Sherriff and is both inaccurate and unfair is, I think, pretty much right.

If you want to see, however, what a truly slap-dash historical argument looks like then let me direct you to Professor Richard Evans' less than magisterial response. Leaving aside the common-or-garden rudeness ("Perhaps Gove should attend some history lessons taught by the professionals he so belittles so that he can learn how to read and cite sources properly," "Gove has again shown his ignorance of history and his preference for mythmaking over scholarship," and so on), Evans seeks to demonstrate why Gove was wrong in claiming that Britain's war against Germany was a "'just war', a 'noble cause', fought by men 'committed to defending the western liberal order'" on the following grounds:

1. Britain was allied with Imperial Russia.
He seems to forget that one of Britain's two main allies was the Russia of Tsar Nicholas II, a despotism of no mean order, far more authoritarian than the Kaiser's Germany. Until Russia left the war early in 1918, any talk of fighting to defend "western" values was misplaced.
There are two points to make here. The first is that if being in alliance with a despotism automatically prevents any war from being "just", then the Second World War wasn't a just war either. The second is that being in alliance with Russia did not, in any event, prevent the war from Britain's perspective being about defending Western values. The key is to look at what the combatant nations' war aims were. Germany's were set out in Bethman Hollweg's September Program: large scale territorial annexations and economic dominance over Europe (there are objections to this interpretation, as it was never formally adopted. However, seen in conjunction with the implemented Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which was even harsher on Russia than the September Program anticipated, it looks almost modest in scope).

2. Germany was more democratic than Britain.

Britain wasn't a democracy at the time either: until the Fourth Reform Act of 1918, 40% of adult males didn't have the vote, in contrast to Germany, where every adult man had the right to go to the ballot box in national elections.
It's fairly astonishing to see this argument being made by a Professor of German history. Britain was certainly not a perfect democracy - very far from it. But it had elected executive Governments. Germany was an absolute monarchy (and was to become a military dictatorship), with an ancillary Reichstag, devoid of real power. The Kaiser appointed the Chancellor personally, and had exclusive jurisdiction over foreign and trade policy. He also had personal direct control of the Army.

The really good thing about this argument is that just after Evans rebukes Gove for overlooking the fact that Germany was more democratic than Britain, he goes on to say that there was overwhelming popular opposition to the war in Germany:

The largest political party, the Social Democrats, was opposed to annexations and had long been critical of the militarism of the elites. By the middle of the war, the Social Democrats had forged the alliance with other democratic parties that was to come to power at the war's end.
If only the opposition to the war of the majority of the Reichstag had mattered eh? There's a truly democratic state for you.

3. Germany wasn't really that bad.

German atrocities in the first phase of the war, in France, and the last phase, in the east, were real enough, but you can't generalise from these to say this is how the Germans would have treated the whole of the rest of Europe had they won. Imperial Germany was not Nazi Germany; the Kaiser was not Hitler.

I think we can be reasonably sure of how Germany would have treated the whole of Europe if they'd won - certainly it makes more sense to extrapolate from what they actually did do when they won in the East than to just pretend that a victorious military dictatorship, tempered by an absolutists monarch would have become magically become woolly liberals. Also, I'm not sure that there was such an uncrossable gulf between Imperial and Nazi Germany - after all a deliberate and orchestrated genocide of a group dismissed as untermenchen had already taken place, under German control, in South West Africa, not to mention the slaughter of some 30% of the total population of German East Africa.

There are good arguments to make about why Britain was wrong to fight the First World War, but Richard Evans has managed to ignore them all. Impressive really.


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