Myths of the Great War pt. 3

Here is the final installment of my musings on the First World War.  After  this, it will be back to little toy soldiers for a while.  I painted the camo green on all of my Egyptian vehicles today. Will try to get the tracks painted tomorrow and then a little weathering and they are finished.  First painting that I have done in a while, and with a week to go until the holidays, time to step up the production process.

The worst Possible Outcome

  • The British Empire was fundamentally weakened by the effects of the war.  World financial leadership passed to the USA.
  • France cemented its decline with irreparable losses in manpower and national treasure.  In return it was unable to dismantle Germany and assure its own security.
  • The US gained a voice at the peace conference leading to the triumphant realisation of Wison’s idealist views with no understanding of the realities of Europe.  The result of national self-determination was a power vacuum in Eastern Europe between Germany and the USSR.  The sponsorship of ‘democracy’ as the best form of government in unstable environments led to the great crisis of democracy in the 1930s.
  • Disillusionment with democratic governments dominated by traditional elites would lead to polarisation in politics between the left and the rights that would end in civil war, dictatorship or defeat.
  • Russia remained essentially intact with an aggressive totalitarian communist regime that would seduce intellectuals and workers in the west and undermine liberalism from the left.  It would go on to conquer Eastern Europe, creating an environment for cold war. Ironically the same outcome would have occurred had the allies been quickly victorious in WWI.  The only difference (and it is an important one) would have been that Russia would have been even stronger under a capitalist system that supported another noxious philosophy of government – absolute autocracy.  And in this case, Russia may have been victorious in the Cold War.
  • A League of Nations was formed that consisted of every nation except the most powerful – the USA; the defeated – Germany; and the largest nation on earth – the USSR.  It was doomed to failure from the beginning.
  • Versailles was a peace of victor over vanquished, but the victors were not draconian enough to make this work. Either Germany had to be partitioned and weakened so that it was no longer any possible threat. or it should have been accepted as an equal at a Congress like  that at Vienna in 1815.  The mobilistaion of hatred by the Allied propaganda machines would never allow the latter; the lack of realism amongst the US delegation prevented the former.

SO in summary, I believe that Russia was chiefly responsible for starting the global war in 1914, that Britain should not have intervened, that Germany did not represent evil, nor even a threat to democracy.  That  for the continental powers, the war was not pointless until around 1916 when sanity could no longer prevail due to the strength of the propaganda machines of which the politicians had lost control.  That the generals were unable to prevent high casualties no matter how good they were (and some were very good… and some were very bad).  That the peace settlement was the worst possible outcome in that it did not create security and indeed made a second war likely, and that the influence of Woodrow Wilson was largely to blame.

And that is all I have for now.  I would like to expand on a few of these points at some stage, but for now I am just happy to have put them in a place where they can be read and either scoffed at or thought deeply about.

Next… Egyptian Army 1973.



3 comments on “Myths of the Great War pt. 3

  1. If the German’s had stayed out of Belgium then Britain would not have intervened. However as Britain was a guarrentaur of Belgium neutrality, diplomatically we had no option. If we had failed then all the other promises would have been worthless.

    In the alternate universe there is a good possibility of a FPW rout of the French. Germany’s armies free to strike east mean the Russian revolution could still happen, for much the same reasons. However the map of Europe stays the same as in 1913, except a new ‘Cold War’ breaks out between Germany and Britain.

    If you saw Andrew Marr’s series, you will know German militarism was the bogeyman of Britain as early as 1910.

    Not sure what happens next – I think it depends on how weak Austria is.

  2. Hi LH, good to hear from you.

    I don’t share your idealism over Britain’s motives in WWI, I’m afraid. Grey himself was a bit of a Germanophobe, and I believe that they would have found some excuse to intervene in a fairly short timeframe with or without Belgium as a pretext.

    As to the possibility of a Russian Revolution, I agree it would still be likely, but the Germans would not have allowed the Bolsheviks to gain power if there was not still a a war in the west. At the most you would have had the KaDets and Kerensky in power, but I can’t imagine ‘Willy’ allowing ‘Nicky’ to lose his throne (or life) if he could have helped it. And there is no way that Germany would have allowed a Communist Bolshevik regime to take power and become a beacon for Social revolutionaries within its own borders.

    It is true that Germany had replaced France as the bogeyman in a lot of literature, but this had started happening since 1870, and was more the case of identifying an obvious potential threat – much as China is touted as an obvious military rival for the US today. There might be a kernel of truth in it, and it might pay to be wary, but the more that we talk about the possibility, the more likely we are to start to believe our fears.

    A lot of what I have written is based on thinking since my first year as an undergraduate examining the origins of WWI. I have never really shifted from my conviction that Russia was the key to the breakdown of a very successful period of peace. I’ve always been a political realist, and felt that the war truly went crazy when governments believed their own propaganda, thus transforming the war into an idealist struggle. Only there were no real ideals at stake, so some were made up about barbaric German militarism and the importance of democracy and we have dined off the myths ever since as a justification for all of the slaughter.

    I think that there are some sacred cows regarding the First World War that have to be examined in detail, especially from my viewpoint as a New Zealander because it was such a decisive moment in our history and there are many people perpetuating myths of ANZAC and Gallipoli to shape our national identity that I think are just plain wrong. Some of these people watch Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli and believe that New Zealanders (who aren’t in the film) were murdered by incompetent British generals and that this is why we don’t see ourselves as British anymore. On the other hand there are people in the academia who know much better, but still believe that the war was necessary to save the world from a German authoritarian militarist victory that would have destroyed our way of life. Both views are, quite frankly, a pile of steaming excrement. I’m probably fighting a losing battle, but as a history teacher I want students who will examine the events critically (even if they don’t come to the same conclusions as me) rather than repeat ad nauseum the ‘correct’ way to interpret history.

    Gosh, that was a bit of a rant. By the way, I enjoyed the Black Powder battle report on your blog. I even downloaded Battle Chronicler yesterday!


    • Forgot to add. This year The Origins of the First World War by William Mulligan was published by Cambridge University Press. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Mulligan takes the point of view that WWI was not inevitable, and the most fascinating thing about it was how peace did manage to break down despite being in quite robust form up to that point.

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