Friday, March 11, 2016


Britain’s handling of many issues, particularly those raised by Japan, was the product less of London’s wishes than of those of its dominions. Billy Hughes, Australia’s prime minister, reflecting his white population’s fear of the ‘yellow peril’, rejected Japan’s summons for racial equality. In trying to act as broker between two Pacific powers, the prime minister of a third, Canada, had to grapple with his own uncertainties. Canada, Robert Borden said, was ‘a nation that is not a nation’. For those who had been at Vimy Ridge such reticence seemed ill-placed; the war had made Canada a nation, as it had made Australia, New Zealand and South Africa nations. These were developments the peace settlements were being asked to confirm. Within Europe, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Finland and Lithuania had all achieved independence and a measure of definition before Woodrow Wilson even landed at Brest. The challenge he confronted was therefore a somewhat different one from that to which his speeches were directed. In Central and Eastern Europe war had effected change, and for those who sought such changes it continued to do so. Indeed, the United States’s own decision to intervene was confirmation of the same point. War could work.

For that reason the First World War did not end as neatly on 11 November as the celebration of Armistice Day suggests. ‘One year and three days’ later, Henry Wilson wrote to Lord Esher, ’we have between 20 and 30 wars raging in different parts of the world‘. Russia was engaged in a civil war to define its revolution, a war in which the allies had intervened. It included war in and for Poland. To the south Turkey’s war hero, Mustafa Kemal, was exploiting the support of the Bolsheviks to enable him to take on the Greeks and British in order to re-found the Turkish nation. And the example set by Europe spread. On 27 February 1919 the French pacifist Romain Rolland wrote to the socialist Jean-Richard Bloch, to tell him of a young Japanese friend who had just returned home after two years observing the war in Europe and America. ’My greatest surprise‘, the Japanese had said, ’has been that there are among you men who, truly, believe in the idealism that they profess. We others, we Japanese, think: “Idealism is for the Europeans a political means”. And we do not blame them; we are now going to act like them.‘

The notion of war’s utility was not just transmitted across continents. It spanned generations. Children who had grown up in the thrall of war had seen it permeate their schooling, their reading and their games: they, too, expected to defend their nations as their parents had done. Anna Eisenmenger, a Viennese grandmother, had three sons and a daughter. One son was killed, one blinded, and the third lost his reason; he killed his sister’s husband. One day in March 1920, Anna found her grandson playing with a schoolfriend. Both ‘were wearing soldiers’ caps … made for them out of newspaper. They had pokers in their hands and were sitting behind the backs of armchairs “in the trenches”. Wolfi was an “Austrian”, his friend a “Frenchman”. They were shooting at each other. Wolfi … was playing at war.’ Boys were told of an intensity of experience whose loss their fathers still regretted. From it came the adventures of Biggles, written by a pilot, W E. Johns, and of Bulldog Drummond. The latter’s creator, H. C. McNeile, wrote under a pseudonym, ‘Sapper’, which reflected what he had done in the war. ‘Cementing everything, crowning everything, the spirit of camaraderie, of good fellowship’, he wrote in the preface to the collected edition of his war stories: ‘No nightmare that, but a dream one would only willingly repeat today.’

The war memorials and the war literature that today can seem the war’s most pervasive legacy in Western Europe did not necessarily carry the messages of waste and futility that are now associated with them. The biggest memorial in Germany, erected at Tannenberg in 1927, trumpeted a victory. For many Entente veterans, Armistice Day was a focus for reunions and drinking, for celebration as well as commemoration. Wives and mothers were scandalised, unable to comprehend any response except overwhelming grief. About 10 million soldiers died in the war. Twice that number bore the scars of wounds _ some so mutilated in body or mind as to be unfit for further work and unable to lead fulfilled lives. Calculations of civilian dead remain inadequate, partly because so many deaths were indirect, the result of starvation or disease rather than of bullets or shells, and partly because they were forgotten in the war’s immediate aftermath. Globally up to 20 million succumbed in the influenza epidemic which swept from Asia through Europe and on to America in 1918-19. But the bereaved were not forgotten, because one of the purposes of mourning was to remember. ‘Every day one meets saddened women, with haggard faces and lethargic movements, and one dare not ask after husband or son’, Beatrice Webb wrote in her diary on 17 November 1918.

Those who mourned needed to find meaning in their loss. When the British struck their Victory Medal for issue to all those who had served, they provided one answer: ‘For Civilisation’, it said. It was a theme which linked the ideas of 1914 to the war’s outcome, and it was repeated throughout the British Empire and in France. In Germany the city of Hamburg commissioned Ernst Barlach to design a memorial to its 40,000 ‘sons’ killed in action. A stele, it has on one side another recurrent image in war memorials, the mother and child, equating the grieving mother with the Madonna. Five years later, in 1936, the 76th Infantry Regiment responded to Barlach’s memorial with one of its own: erected near that commemorating Hamburg’s dead of 1870, it linked the past to the future, declaring on its oblong block, ’Germany must live even if we must die.‘

By then the allies’ memories of victory were fading. ‘Armistice Day ceased to exist as a restaurant orgy: the Two Minutes Silence took its place’, as Ian Hay noted with irony. The trophies that had stood by the memorials, the captured guns and trench mortars symbolic of triumph, were removed, and only the memorials remained. The idea that the war had purpose languished. In 1926 Lance-Corporal John Jackson, who had served on the western front between 1915 and 1918, wrote his memoirs. ‘Let it ever be remembered’, he prefaced his story, that, but for British intervention, ‘German “Kultur” would dominate us all, and only those who saw it in force, in parts of France and Belgium occupied by German forces, can understand the humiliation such a situation would have entailed.‘ It was a plea which fell on increasingly deaf ears. A year later, in 1927, the dead of his regiment, the Cameron Highlanders, were commemorated with the opening of the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh Castle, in itself evidence of another nation which used the war to shape its identity. In the memorial’s guide-book, Ian Hay noted with bemusement the change in attitudes over the years since the armistice. ’War has become a monstrous, unspeakable thing‘, he acknowledged. However, he insisted, there was more to its comprehension than that. ’Our reactions and emotions upon the subject of recent history are at present too fluid to have any lasting value. We must leave it to Time to crystallize them.

In 1929 Erich Maria Remarque published Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front), a book which at a stroke revived the by-then flagging market for war literature. Within a year Remarque’s book was translated into twenty-eight languages, sold nearly 4 million copies, and became an academy-award winning film. And yet it was less about the war than about the problems of a generation unable to reintegrate itself with post-war society. Its message was one of shattered illusions, a theme often echoed in what Ian Hay called ‘the new style War novels’. In the 1920s there had been many interpretations of the war; thereafter one increasingly dominated over the others. It created a barrier between our understanding of the war and that of those who fought in it. Even those who survived came to see it in terms different from those which they embraced at the time. Hindsight bred arrogance, and _ worse _ misconception. Many of the ideologies which had given the war meaning became loaded, larded with later connotations.

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 1914-18 but at the same time condemned those who embraced appeasement, the logical corollary. War literature and appeasement both derived their appeal from the same basic liberalism which had underpinned the ideals of the peacemakers at Versailles. Liberalism’s comparative failure in the inter-war years was in large part due to its own fundamental decency. It lost the determination to enforce its own standards, a quality it possessed in 1914 and 1917, and it was reluctant to assert itself in the internal politics of states that deviated from democratic norms.
The issues of course did not present themselves in such clear-cut fashion. One reason why Adolf Hitler could appeal to the German people in 1933 was precisely because many genuinely convinced themselves that they had been wronged in 1919. But that of itself does not explain the Second World War. Hitler was able to play back some of the themes of German popular mobilisation in the First World War – the ideas of the Burgfrieden in 1914, the Fatherland Party’s appeal to national unity over party loyalty, OberOst’s notion of Germany’s mission in the east, the expectation that a Second Punic War might be necessary to complete the agenda of the First. Above all, the Kaiser’s failure as supreme warlord generated a belief that a real leader would have delivered a German victory. But by 1918 Germans had also learnt what modern war entailed. They did not take to the streets to show their enthusiasm when war broke out in 1939. The Second World War is inexplicable without knowledge of the First, but there is no inevitability linking Versailles and the ambitions of the peacemakers to its outbreak.

The First World War broke the empires of Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. It triggered the Russian Revolution and provided the bedrock for the Soviet Union; it forced a reluctant United States on to the world stage and revivified liberalism. On Europe’s edge, it provided a temporary but not a long-term solution to the ambitions of the Balkan nations. Outside Europe it laid the seeds for the conflict in the Middle East. In short it shaped not just Europe but the world in the twentieth century. It was emphatically not a war without meaning or purpose.

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