To say that that the First World War was the greatest cataclysm in human history since the fall of the Roman Empire is to put it mildly. The war destroyed so many good things and killed so many good people that civilization has not recovered and probably never will. Long after it officially ended, it continued to cause millions of deaths and tragedies, most obviously during its encore performance of 1939-45. But it did not stop even then. Many of its worst consequences came during official periods of peace and are unknown or forgotten, or remain unconnected with it in the public mind.
The loss cannot be measured in cash because it was paid in the more elusive coin of faith, morals, trust, hope, and civility. The war is the reason why Europe is no longer a Christian continent, because too many churches supported it. Pointing to the poverty and scientific backwardness of the pre-1914 world is a false comparison. Who is to say that we could not have grown just as rich as we are now, and made just as many technological and medical advances, had we not slain the flower of Europe’s young men before they could win Nobel Prizes, or even beget and raise children?
The astonishing thing is that so many conservative, Christian, and patriotic people have yet to understand the damage this event did to their causes. It is at least partly because we can barely begin to imagine the world that we lost.
Stefan Zweig’s ambiguous description of a “Golden Age of Security” in his curious memoir of Austria-Hungarian twilight, The World of Yesterday, is one of the few attempts. But the civilization that Zweig portrays as stifling and repressed seemed to many who lived in it to be safe, calm, and free. His own mixed feelings, as he describes the woebegone departure of the Imperial Habsburgs from their domains, and the shocking sense of pain which beset him at the sight, are the truest thing in the book—a realization, far too late, of what has been lost forever and of what was now coming: unthinkable inflation, turning the modest life savings of the gentle into dust, along with the destruction of every known landmark and of all customs and manners, ending in the pit of tyranny, racial mass murder, and yet more war.
If they could hold a parade of the twentieth century’s war dead, how long would it take these dark, hollow-eyed battalions to march, night and day, trundling their enormous guns behind them, through the once-tranquil capitals that ordained their deaths? Could anyone bear to watch? And yet the argument is still advanced in histories of the world before 1914, that the great nations viewed war as a release, as a door opening from a stuffy room into fresh, clean air, and so they rushed toward their deaths with smiles of joy on their faces. It was not so.
One of the many good things about Max Hastings’s new book about the First World War, Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War (Knopf, $35), is that it at last dispels the belief that the ordinary people of that age were fools who thought the war would be either quick or joyful. He has looked more deeply into the truth, and into newer sources, than other writers. The peoples of Europe knew, as war began, that evil and loss were being unleashed into the world. They feared what was to come. As the French mobilization proceeded, announced by the urgent jangle of church bells, Hastings tells us misery spread though that most beautiful of countries:
Nobody spoke for a long while. Some were out of breath, others dumb with shock. Many still carried pitchforks in their hands. “What can it mean? What’s going to happen to us?” asked the women. Wives, children, husbands—all were overcome by anguish and emotion. The wives clung to the arms of their husbands. The children, seeing their mothers weeping, started to cry too.
There is far more weeping than cheering in this account. In Germany, Peter and Hans Kollwitz, patriotic sons of leftist artistic intellectuals, departed for war leaving their parents “weeping, weeping, weeping.” Nor were they mistaken when they wept. As Hastings continues: “Peter left for the front, and a grave, bearing in his knapsack his mother’s parting present, Goethe’s Faust.”Perhaps most unbearable of all is the scene he describes a thousand miles to the East in the immense, remote peace that then enfolded rural Russia. As Ivan Kuchernigo was summoned to mobilization, his five-year-old daughter sat in his arms, pressing against him and saying, “Daddy, why are you going? Why are you leaving us?”
Why indeed? What gain, what hope, what conceivable thing justifies tearing a father from his child and sending him off to kill other fathers of other small children? We seem anxious to avoid this question, for fear that the answer will not suit us. I think this is why so much time and ink is still expended over the worn-out and settled question of how and why it all started. Oddly enough, the argument is now mostly pointless. Since Fritz Fischer’s great and damning account of his own country’s undoubted attempt to seize world power by shock and force, the truth has been quite clear.
Germany started the war because she wanted and hoped to gain enormous prizes through a swift victory, first over France and then over Russia. She encouraged Austria to be inflexible toward Serbia in the hope that this would happen, and the plan worked. It was not the first time that a country had carefully fostered a pretext for war, and it will certainly not be the last. Most readers in Britain and the U.S. will be able to think of recent examples.
There is a strong argument for saying that it was reasonable for Germany to want what she wanted, and that it was and is a great pity that no peaceful way could be found of reaching a sensible compromise over her legitimate demands.
There is an equally strong argument for wondering why the main critics of the Great War have been those of the anti-capitalist or socially liberal Left, while conservatives have tended to defend it, even to stand up for its dreadful generals and its unspeakable carnage, as some kind of necessity or patriotic duty.
The opposite should be the case. Those on the Left should defend it and rejoice over it. It was the fulfillment of their dreams. No single event has done more to advance the power of the state and of state socialism. Britain barely had a state before 1914. By 1918 it was one of the most tightly governed and bureaucratized patches of soil in the world. The Russian revolution would never have happened had there been no war in 1914. The great Christian and conservative empires of the world would probably all still exist. War also brought about the sexual, social, and cultural revolutions that are still convulsing what used to be Christendom.
The person who saw this most clearly was not a conservative but a radical: Aldous Huxley. He wrote in his 1946 preface to the tenth anniversary edition of Brave New World:
For the last thirty years there have been no conservatives; there have only been nationalistic radicals of the right and nationalistic radicals of the left. The last conservative statesman was the fifth Marquess of Lansdowne; and when he wrote a letter to The Times, suggesting that the First World War should be concluded with a compromise, as most of the wars of the eighteenth century had been, the editor of that once conservative journal refused to print it. The nationalistic radicals had their way, with the consequences that we all know—Bolshevism, Fascism, inflation, depression, Hitler, the Second World War, the ruin of Europe and all but universal famine.
All this is absolutely true, though it is barely mentioned in most school histories, with their wearisome accounts of the various bloody offensives, which churned the narrow battle zones of the Western Front. The offensives were militarily almost entirely useless, but were politically essential for a simple reason, prophetically stated by Winston Churchill in 1901: “Democracy is more vindictive than Cabinets. The wars of peoples will be more terrible than those of kings.”
The Marquess of Lansdowne, who sought to end a war that was costing far more than might be gained, was not some marginal pacifist, but a mighty figure in the pre-1914 British ruling class, a former foreign secretary, viceroy of India, and secretary of state for war. But a conflict styled “The Great War for Civilization” (words actually inscribed on my great uncle’s campaign medal, awarded to him and hundreds of thousands of others in 1918) could not be called off just because it was going badly and had no military, diplomatic, or economic purpose.
The demagogues of London and Paris had summoned up the popular will, proclaimed the war a crusade for justice and goodness against black evil, and were now controlled by the very force they had called into being. And so it went on, leading directly to the Bolshevik Revolution—financed and encouraged by Imperial Germany, without whose help Lenin’s putsch could never have taken place. Erich Ludendorff, whose work this mainly was, probably had no idea what he was unleashing, though it is worth noting that this odd, brave, clever, and evil man was personally opposed to Christianity. He wanted only to remove Russia from the war but succeeded in releasing a terrifying political plague into the world.
It seems to be a mere matter of chance that the Russian peace did not lead to the defeat of Britain and France in early 1918. But because the great final German offensive did fail, the Brest-Litovsk Treaty that Lenin made with the Kaiser was canceled before the world had a chance to see in practice what Germany really wanted in the East—a hold on what is now Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, the Crimea, and Georgia. What the Kaiser really desired all along was a diminished and weakened Russia, a clear road to Turkey and the Middle East, the great wheat fields and coal mines of Ukraine, and the oil fields of Baku. It is what the great German liberal thinker, Friedrich Naumann, believed Germany needed to secure its future.
Alas, most British historians of World War I look almost entirely at the Western Front, where our own troops were mostly engaged. This is understandable, since the poets of the trenches forever fixed the war in the Western imagination amid the shell-holes and blasted tree trunks of Belgium and Northern France. It is the landscape we see when we read Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce and Decorum Est,” which opens with the lines:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge
And it is evoked still more strongly in Siegfried Sassoon’s boiling denunciation of the great memorials we built afterward with their “intolerably nameless names,” in which he imagines the dead who once “struggled in the slime” rising to “deride this sepulchre of crime.”
Owen first described, then denounced. Many do not realize that his “Anthem for Doomed Youth” is a miserable recognition of the absence of all the great comforting rituals of Victorian death: the ringing of church bells, the lowering of blinds in the street, the singing of candle-lit choirs at stately funerals—tokens of the value of each individual life. But now the corpses were flung crudely into pits or left unburied to be devoured by rats, in violation of one of the most enduring rules of civilization.
Yet to begin with few realized it would be like this. Max Hastings described the elaborate and respectful funerals given to the early dead. But rapidly it became clear that this could not continue. By Easter 1915, that very gentle poet Edward Thomas could write (in a few small words which explode slowly in the mind, becoming vast as the reader grasps their actual meaning):
The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.
He was right. No Englishman gathers flowers for his sweethearts in the woods any more. That world is dead. Everyone who lived in it is dead, having had no time to pass on its customs to his sons and daughters.
This concentration on Flanders Fields, where Owen and Thomas died, has been a powerful unacknowledged influence on historians, always less interested in the Eastern struggle, which was just as feral, and which was fought over lands that Germany genuinely hoped to conquer, rather than against countries it wanted to keep from interfering in its private quarrel with Russia.
Germany in 1914 hardly cared about Britain at all, and quite reasonably could not understand why London entered the war. It was more or less incomprehensible. To this day it is hard to see any British interest that was served, and dozens that were damaged. The British Cabinet had never been consulted about the secret military and naval pacts that were the true reason for London’s declaration of war. Had it been asked, it would have forbidden them. The violation of Belgian neutrality, the populist pretext, was of no real importance. Lord Palmerston, one of Britain’s most warlike and cocksure national leaders in modern times, slithered out of a much more specific commitment to Denmark in the Schleswig-Holstein crisis of 1864. Britain worried over Alfred von Tirpitz’s powerful new navy, which as it turned out played hardly any part in the conflict, because the empire Germany sought was reached by land, not by sea—and as the Kaiser himself was fond of joking, “Dreadnoughts have no wheels.” In one of the great paradoxes of our age, it would be the U.S. Navy that eventually supplanted British sea power, and America that wound up the British Empire and dethroned the Pound Sterling, while the two countries were fighting on the same side.
What in fact caused the whole problem was France, still refusing to recognize the unpalatable truth that she did not have the men or the industrial strength to prevent Germany’s dominating Europe.
After 1870, this was what needed to be resolved. France, in her pride, would not do the sensible thing and accede to reality. Only by pulling Russia into combat, or later by dragging the U.S. into the war, could Germany be prevented from asserting its natural dominance. It was a hopeless and dangerous delusion of Napoleonic grandeur, well-symbolized by the absurd scarlet and blue uniforms, perfect targets for German guns, in which legions of French soldiers rushed to their deaths in mad, suicidal attacks in August 1914. Max Hastings rightly reminds us of these forgotten battles, at least as wasteful of life as the more famous butchery on the Somme. They achieved absolutely nothing important against Germany’s modern, camouflaged army. Nor did the gallantry of the Belgians who held on to their forts at Liege under the most terrifying bombardment yet inflicted on human beings. Nor did Britain’s tiny, colonial field force, whose supreme commander was one of the most pitiful incompetents in military history. What saved France in 1914 was the simple fact that it is virtually impossible to win a quick war on two fronts. The diversion of important units to the east, to fight a Russian advance, prevented a German triumph.
The question we must ask, over and over again, is whether this was a pity. Max Hastings argues that a German-dominated Europe in 1914 would have been grim and oppressive, and would have threatened Britain (and so the rest of the world).
It is hard to see why. The Hohenzollern empire was far from free, but it was certainly not an insane despotism. The “September Program,” its plan for European domination drawn up when victory seemed certain in 1914, is not in reality very different in shape or nature from the European Union. A thoroughgoing German victory over France in 1914 would have saved millions of lives and—still more important—preserved European Christendom, culture, and civilization, all of which perished somewhere amid the mud, slime, rats, and corpses of the endless battlefields. If Britain had had the sense to stay out of continental squabbles (as she did in 1864 and 1870), there is no reason to believe that she would have undergone the descent into poverty and irrelevance that swiftly followed, exposed by her terrible defeats at Dunkirk and Singapore, and her actual bankruptcy in 1940.
The war was re-fought in 1939 largely because the 1918 outcome was not a true reflection of the real balance of forces. In 1918, Russia was prostrate and ablaze with civil war, Britain had for the first time in her history created a vast conscript army on the continental pattern, and the U.S. was prepared to send men and lend money to Britain and France without worrying too much about when and how she would be paid back. By 1938, Britain and France were passive, weak, and fearful of war, and the U.S. once bitten and very much twice shy. When the USSR agreed to allow Germany a war on one front, German victory in the West was more or less assured, and if Britain would not make peace, she could be left for later. Again, British and American historians tend to concentrate on this part of the war, not realizing that for most Germans the true conflict, and the true aim of the war, did not begin until 1941. And when it did, Germany lost.
But the truly extraordinary thing is that now, in 2014, one-hundred years after Tannenberg, ninety-six years after Brest-Litovsk, seventy-two years after Stalingrad, and following forty years during which Germany was partitioned and neutralized by the Cold War, Western Europe has now taken on almost exactly the shape that Berlin dreamed of in 1914.
The old eastward impulse is still taking the old eastward paths across the Oder and the Bug, the Dniester and the Dnieper, toward the Don and the Caucasus, even perhaps the Caspian sparkling on the far horizons beyond Georgia, and the magic, mysterious lands (and oil fields) that lie beyond. Russia’s equally ancient dislike of such incursions is likewise stirring again. But this time, the eastward impulse has the support of the United States, which twice did so much to restrain it.
People have come to associate Germany’s drive eastward with Hitler and Nazi fanaticism because it was spectacularly demonstrated and defeated in the Nazi era. But it was not Hitler’s idea. Like many—but not all—of his policies, it was standard German establishment thinking. It has its origins among enlightened democrats. Friedrich Naumann is the direct ancestor of the modern Free Democrat Party, an unimpeachably respectable grouping devoted to that enlightened modern project, the EU. To adapt and reverse Clausewitz: The European Union is the continuation of Germany by other means.
What is it that prevents us from seeing this? Does the Union’s bland, bureaucratic, bespectacled face make us view it as a gigantic if officious charity, or an annoyingly large but essentially harmless corporation, something like AT&T? Or perhaps we confuse it with an international sporting event such as the Olympics, or one of those obscure branches of the United Nations, a large building with lots of colorful flags fluttering outside? It often seems so. Yet in this century no political unit in the world, not even the People’s Republic of China, has so aggressively absorbed its neighbors and so rapidly extended its external frontiers in one relentless direction. The unsatisfactory official outcome in 1918 has been utterly undone by the 1985 Schengen Agreement, which finally reversed Woodrow Wilson’s Versailles Treaty without anyone even noticing. Many of President Wilson’s borders are still on the map, but they no longer exist in reality. This has been peaceful only because the EU’s new vassals—exhausted, poor, and in many cases glad of any ruling power that is not the USSR—have acceded to its sovereignty with a sigh, and hoped for a large check to ease the mild pain.
France and Britain are neutralized. Central Europe is happily subjected. The southern flank in the Balkans is almost settled. Here we go again. But this new post-modern offensive is waged not with howitzers or tanks or Zeppelins or U-boats, but with people power, and civil-society organizations, and foreign politicians openly intervening in other countries’ internal affairs, and little flags, and dim, sheep-like TV reporters taking what they see at face value. And it is also waged with referendums and unmarked uniforms and telephone intercepts. Instead of the Guns of August, we have U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland handing out cookies to the Kiev crowd, which later oh-so-democratically drives the elected president out of office and replaces him with someone more acceptable to Washington and Brussels.
Yet the real vicious battle over the limits and nature of German power in Europe is flickering into life again as I write, in the shabby, weedy, concrete towns of Ukraine, repeatedly ruined by the same unceasing contest. Thuggish, drunken men ambush each other in ignorant, savage encounters, terrified non-combatants die in burning buildings or are slain pointlessly by stray bullets. They do not even realize that they are re-enacting the sepia conflicts of a century ago. Who has even heard of the Peace of Brest-Litovsk?
The Ukrainian quarrel has been the work of young, inexperienced men who have not seen war and who enjoy posturing, and pushing things as far as they will go, assuming wrongly that there is a limit.
Old men know better. Helmut Schmidt, West German Chancellor from 1974 to 1982, actually saw combat (on the wrong side) in the 1940s, and is one of the few major Cold War statesmen still living. He knows some history and can read a map. He warns of “megalomania” and points out, correctly, the rather obvious fact that Georgia is not in Europe, and that it is therefore rather odd to consider making it a member of the European Union (it is also nowhere near the North Atlantic, so it is not an obvious candidate for membership in NATO). Nobody paid any attention, nor did they when he also said that the Ukraine crisis is all too reminiscent of 1914, when the great powers sleepwalked into war. Did they sleepwalk? Or is that an excuse? It is truer to say that they were greedy and stupid, and unwilling to believe that they could ever do as much harm as they actually did. But this explanation is more disturbing than “sleepwalking.” For it is equally true of the leaders of today, who (as we know) are quite capable of idiocy while wide awake.