It’s a little weird if you tune into a British TV show around this time. Everyone is wearing red paper poppies in commemoration of soldiers killed by wars in general, and what is still sometimes called the Great War in particular. Strange, not just because they happen to be fighting one even as they mourn the tragedy of it all, but because debate rages over this conflict even today. Was it, as some argue, a stupid and pointless waste of human lives? Or as others say, an utterly mindless massacre of innocent people? We may never know for sure.
There really have been attempts recently to rehabilitate this war. It was once common to explain it as a tragic chain of circumstances. Surely such a terrible tragedy could only have been unintentional.
But it is becoming more common now to hear that, far from being accidental or tragic, it was a necessary and even heroic action to curtail the ambition of a warmongering Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Is that true? It certainly is a more positive way to see it.
The only problem is, it differs from the British propaganda of the time in almost no respect.
Yes, Germany had been getting more belligerent. Wilhelm was indeed a war-happy idiot, childishly envious of his cousin’s ships. His empire had been growing in wealth and strength rapidly since its formation nearly half a century before, and was eager for opportunities to flex its muscles. That opportunity came with what might otherwise have been a local Balkan conflict, as the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires scrambled for the territory of the (even more) moribund Ottoman one. Turning it into a Europe-wide conflict gave Germany a chance to elbow aside France and dominate the continent.
True enough. The only problem with this narrative is that the British in their turn were only too happy to escalate a European conflict into the first ever global war.
Having pioneered industrial manufacturing Britain was still the greatest power on Earth. It had however watched the rise of German industry, technology, and military might with trepidation. The imitator looked like it would one day outstrip the master. An arms race had being going on for over a decade and some believed that war with Germany was inevitable – and that therefore the sensible (if Machiavellian) choice would be to have one sooner rather than later. This is really the only way to explain why the largest empire in the world went to war over the invasion of Belgium. I mean think about it. They couldn’t have liked chocolate that much. Britain was eager for war. We often hear that they kept saying it would “all be over by Christmas”. What we forget is that they said this because they liked to think of the Germans as a bunch of primitives they could crush without much effort.
Without the entrance of history’s largest empire into the conflict, what would have happened? We can never know of course – hell, we can barely know things in the past that did happen, never mind ones that didn’t – but it seems more likely at least that France would’ve fallen and Germany would have been able to concentrate on a war with Russia that might have continued for years. I’m not sure if it’s even technically possible to defeat Russia. How would you know you had?
But eventually Germany probably would have gained hegemony in continental Europe. Big deal. And without its population devastated, Britain would have continued as a global power for much longer. The Russian revolution wouldn’t have happened, the US wouldn’t have had its first taste of global military intervention – or experienced the boom that turned into the Great Depression either. The conditions that gave rise to the Second World War would never have been in place. And of course, millions fewer would have died.
I think there are a couple or lessons here. One is that war is always inevitable if you want it to be. The other is that, it tending to have vast and profoundly unpredictable consequences, it might be better to hold off on war until you really do have no other choice. But that wouldn’t be a welcome message just now.