Monday, January 27, 2014

The first world war, 100 years on

By Peter Clarke - Fianacial Times

It may be passing from living memory but 1914 still divides us

A memorial to the first world war in the French town of Fouilloy, near Amiens, located in the battlefields of the Somme©Reuters
A memorial to the first world war in the French town of Fouilloy, near Amiens, located in the battlefields of the Somme

The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century, by David Reynolds, Simon & Schuster, RRP£25, 544 pages

First World War: Still No End in Sight, by Frank Furedi, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99, 288 pages

Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! A World Without World War I, by Richard Ned Lebow, Palgrave Macmillan RRP$17.99 / RRP£27, 256 pages

Men, so the reproach goes, often fail to remember anniversaries. Not so with publishers, as is shown by the torrent of books marking the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war in 1914. How to commemorate this anniversary has itself become a fraught political issue in Britain. Publicity was assured not simply by Michael Gove’s call, as Conservative education secretary, for a patriotic celebration that battled “leftwing myths”. Nor by the response from Tristram Hunt, his Labour shadow, who evinced some indignation but also offered a rather more nuanced discussion, betraying his own status as an accredited historian.

What really stole the headlines was the intervention of Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, who asserted – with unsinkable aplomb – the “sad but undeniable fact” that the war was “overwhelmingly the result of German expansionism and aggression”. Is this really the case? We have surely moved beyond 1914 and All That – the sort of simplistic account that calls Kaiser Wilhelm II “A Bad Man” or, at any rate, “A Bad Thing”. For there are some alleged facts which, however sad their consequences, may fall some way short of the undeniability test. Three very different recent books are, at any rate, agreed on the open-ended nature of the questions thrown up by 1914.Richard Ned Lebow is a prolific political scientist who uses counter-factual hypotheses to illuminate the possibilities of a far from simple situation in Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! 

Suppose the heir to the Austrian emperor had not, through various accidents on the day, become the victim of a Serbian assassin in Sarajevo in June 1914: what then? Well, no Austrian ultimatum to Serbia, no Russian support for its Slav client-state in resisting, no mobilisation in eastern Europe pitting Russian troops against Austrian, no intervention by the kaiser in support of his Austrian ally, no cause for belligerent French support of its Russian ally, no German mobilisation in western Europe, no violation of Belgian neutrality and thus no cause for Britain to intervene. In fact – or rather, in counter-fact – there would have been no European war.

So far, so plausible. But Lebow is concerned with projecting the consequences far into the future, along lines of causation that then become increasingly tenuous, since each fork in the road is premised on not having taken some previous forks. The author is well aware of this. Not only does he imagine a “best plausible world” – no Soviet takeover, no Nazi regime, no Holocaust – but he also gives us worst-case scenarios. Either way, we soon lose sight of the immediacy of the first world war itself and plunge into some far-reaching speculations, great and small alike. Thus Adolf Hitler, the unsuccessful artist, eventually “sets up a successful mail-order business that sells quack products”. Maybe; and yet again, maybe not. 

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