WWI at 100: Commemoration and “Political Correctness”

A few days into this centenary year of its beginning, the First World War is already prompting controversy:

Yesterday New York Times Europe correspondent Alan Cowell checked in with an update on what remains an open question among historians: Was the outbreak of war primarily due to the reckless, cynical ambitions of German military and political leaders? This view has been challenged ever since it received new life in the 1960s through the research of Fritz Fischer and his students, as a leading German newspaper recently reported:

Fischer, Griff nach der Weltmacht
The 1961 book by Fischer (“Bid for World Power”) that restarted the debate over Germany’s role in the origins of WWI. It was published six years later in English as “Germany’s War Aims in the First World War”

“Historians no longer look simply to Berlin to explain the causes of the Great War, but increasingly to Berlin and Vienna, to St. Petersburg and London,” a group of German experts wrote recently in the newspaper Die Welt. As one of the authors, Sönke Neitzel, said in an interview, “You can’t break it down into the bad guy is this one or that one.”

(That’s via Cowell; here’s the Die Welt article itself, for readers proficient in German.)

While some Germans regard August 1914 as “the hour of the birth of the European Union,” an organization in which Germany exercises increasing influence and leadership, Cowell reports that these scholarly debates have important political implications in Britain, especially among those of its political and cultural elites most skeptical of the EU:

By casting Germany’s militarism as the sole cause of the conflict, history laid the foundations of the view, strengthened mightily by the Hitler era, that Germany must forever be locked into a supranational web of alliances and partnerships — now represented by the European Union and NATO — if its primal urges were to be restrained.

Without that logic, Europe would look very different. Yet, by positing a broader set of causes, historians risk stirring the jingoism that defines the relationship between some Britons and their history, coloring their view of Germans to this day and offering a source of pride as a wartime bulwark against what London’s Conservative mayor, Boris Johnson, called Germany’s “deranged ambitions”….

That mention of London’s Tory mayor hints at what’s become a fairly fierce debate in British politics and media:

At the beginning of the week, Max Hastings used his Daily Mail column to defend comments by education secretary Michael Gove and condemn the Labour Party for attempting to impose a “politically correct” view on the centenary commemoration that ignored German militarism:

Hastings, Catastrophe 1914There is a Left-wing template for the two World Wars, as for everything else. World War II is seen as Britain’s ‘good’ struggle against Hitler, especially after 1941 when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and Stalin was obliged to abandon his earlier alliance with the Nazis.

But World War I is regarded by Socialists as our ‘bad’ conflict: morally quite distinct from World War II and the fault of aristocratic elites across Europe rather than of the Germans.

There was no cause at stake, the Socialist school claims, worth a single life.

Some of us, however, take a very different view. I have a special interest, because last year I published a book about 1914, Catastrophe [already mentioned here last month as appearing on numerous “Best of 2013” lists — I’ve also praised Hastings for his one-volume history of WWII, Inferno], which told the story of the early months on the battlefield.

I argued that the British could not safely or responsibly have stayed neutral while Germany secured hegemony over the Continent.

Response from the Left came swiftly — e.g., from Seumas Milne in his column in Wednesday’s edition of The Guardian: (which published a mixed, but not uncomplimentary review of Hastings’ own WWI origins book last fall)

This is all preposterous nonsense. Unlike the second world war, the bloodbath of 1914-18 was not a just war. It was a savage industrial slaughter perpetrated by a gang of predatory imperial powers, locked in a deadly struggle to capture and carve up territories, markets and resources….

Fortunately, the revisionists lost the argument among the public long ago – just as Gove has largely lost his battle to impose a tub-thumping imperial agenda on the school history curriculum. They will keep trying though, because history wars are about the future as much as the past – and so long as imperial conflict is discredited, future foreign military interventions and occupations will be difficult to sell.

For the rest of us, this year’s anniversary should be a reminder that empire in all its forms, militarism and national chauvinism lead to bloodshed and disaster. It also contains a warning about the threat from the rise and fall of great powers. China is no imperial Germany, but the US – allied with Japan – is a declining global power in a region in which it is tightening its military grip. It’s not 1914, but the dangers are clear.

Langemark Cemetery
The German WWI military cemetery at Langemark, Belgium

British commemoration has also been accused of political correctness by critics upset that the contributions of Australia and New Zealand are being minimized (in their view) to make room for an emphasis on “New Commonwealth” countries like India, Bangladesh, and Nigeria.

But, however it spends them, the British government has pledged £50 million in public funds for commemoration. By contrast, The Mail complained in late December that Germany seems disinterested in marking the centenary: “…visits by officials to Germany to discuss the centenary have provoked little interest, with academics accusing their leaders of adopting a ‘stupid’ and ‘inappropriate’ reluctance to participate, according to reports.” (For more on German commemoration of WWI, and why it can seem muted, see parts three and four of my 2012 series on European commemoration.)

Stay tuned for more on what promises to be a well-discussed 100th anniversary…

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