A world War 1 Historians Dinner Party



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Richard Evans on Causes of WW1


Richard Evans, Regius Professor of History, Cambridge President of Wolfson College

Key points:



  • Nobody has ever been able to demonstrate convincingly that the German government went to war in August 1914 with authoritarian, militarist, expansionist aims in mind.

  • Had Germany won, the rigid imposition of a monolithic German dictatorship would not have been on the cards.

  • Agrees with Christopher Clark: Should move away from the blame game.

  • WW1 was the seminal catastrophe of the entire period, from which all the evils that plagued Europe in the following decades sprang.

  • WW1 was not a just war. Disagrees with Nigel Birrar, Michael Gove (Education Secretary)

Full article here: Michael Gove’s history wars | Books | The Guardian



My highlights of the article:

  • “Sucking up to the Germans is no way to remember our Great War heroes, Mr Cameron

  • In Max Hastings’s view, there was little difference between the Kaiser’s war and Hitler’s, except that in the former case “there was no genocidal programme against the Jews”

  • Another military historian, Gary Sheffield, says that “most modern scholarship” agrees that Britain’s war aims in 1914 were the same as in 1939: “to prevent an authoritarian, militarist, expansionist enemy achieving hegemony in Europe … If the allies had lost”, he says, “it would have meant the end of liberal democracy on mainland Europe”

  • Yet modern historical scholarship says nothing of the kind.

  • Hastings, Sheffield and their allies rely on the work of Fritz Fischer, a German historian who in 1961 published a justly celebrated book, based on painstaking research in the German archives, about Germany’s aims in the first world war. Fischer showed that official German policy in September 1914 did indeed aim at subjugating a large part of Europe to the political and economic domination of the Reich. But nobody has ever been able to demonstrate convincingly that the German government went to war in August 1914 with these aims in mind

  • Moreover, Fischer himself showed that there was widespread opposition to annexationist aims within Germany, and the opposition grew as the war went on. Far from being a ruthless dictator, the Kaiser, who changed his mind on an almost hourly basis in the runup to the war, was a flighty, indecisive leader who was quickly pushed aside by the generals once the war began. Wilhelm II was no Hitler. And Germany’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, joined with the Catholic Centre, the second largest party, and the leftwing liberals while the war was still going well for the Reich to prepare for parliamentary democracy once the war was over; a democracy that the Kaiser, faced with growing internal dissent, was forced to concede in principle in his Easter message of 1917. Nobody can say with any certainty what would have happened had the Germans won the war, but it is safe to say that the rigid imposition of a monolithic dictatorship on Germany and the rest of Europe by the Kaiser would not have been on the cards.

  • Scholarship has also moved on in the half-century or more since Fischer’s day. Nowadays, with few exceptions, historians take a more nuanced view. Christopher Clark has argued in his magnificent study of the war’s origins, The Sleepwalkers, that it’s time to get away from the blame game, and he is right. Every country had its strategic and ideological reasons for going to war in 1914; none was entirely without blame.

  • More important, the end of the war in 1918 was a victory for no one. The major issues were left unresolved until they were taken up again in 1939. Not without reason do historians nowadays refer to the whole period from 1914 to 1945 as “the Thirty Years War of the 20th Century”. As for the first world war itself, modern scholarship regards it as the seminal catastrophe of the entire period, from which all the evils that plagued Europe in the following decades sprang: fascism, communism, racism, anti-semitism, dictatorship, extreme violence, mass murder, genocide and the wholesale abandonment of civilised values across the continent. Only from a narrowly British perspective, and in ignorance of modern scholarship on the period, is it possible to view the end of the war in 1918 as a victory for Britain. The men who enlisted may have thought they were fighting for civilisation, a better world, a war to end all wars, a war to defend freedo m: they were wrong.

  • Propagating inaccurate myths about alleged British victories is no way to create a solid national identity. The current debate on English identity goes back to the 1990s, when the rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalism posed the question of who exactly the English are – a question tackled by many authors who published on the subject throughout the decade, from Jeremy Paxman to Roger Scruton. National identity isn’t something that can be manufactured or imposed on a people by a government. It has to emerge organically, by popular consent. It can’t be created by generating historical myths, if only because these will always be contested. What’s more, nowadays historians are too numerous and too well trained to let myths pass uncommented on.


Challenging WW1 Myths, by History teacher John Blake


John Blake – History Teacher, Head of History Dept, editor of Labour Teachers

Key points:



  • Imperialist injustice, incompetent commanders and the horrors of the trenches: these are the lessons of the First World War. But are they the whole story?

  • The causes of the war were much more complicated than a narrative of imperialist states seeking expansion suggests.

  • The war poets were wrong. Soldiers and citizens knew about the horrors but it wasn’t all horrific all of the time.

  • To say that the war was “a total disaster that was unnecessary and destroyed a generation”, is not supported by the historical record.

Full article here: The first casualty: truth – feature – TES



My highlights of the article: 

  • Imperialist injustice, incompetent commanders and the horrors of the trenches: these are the lessons of the First World War. But are they the whole story? John Blake argues that we must abandon our unthinking acceptance of such facts and teach the conflict as it really was

  • if the centenary is to be truly historical, the First World War needs to be considered in far greater depth, and the myths that have grown up around it challenged

  • first, that it was, without question, an unjust and imperialist war;

  • second, that war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen provide a representative response of soldiers to the conflict; and

  • third, that the generals of the First World War were ignorant and callous butchers who had no regard for their men. All three of these myths appear to be deeply embedded in too many of our schools and in too much of our culture.

  • In Clark’s book, the traditional villains of the piece – Austria-Hungary and imperial Germany – are re-evaluated, set against not “tiny, helpless Serbia” but an aggressive, posturing, expansionist Serbia, heavily influenced by a shadow government drawn from the intelligence services.

  • The foreign policy of all the major powers, Clark argues, was conducted by competing mishmashes of factions, with misunderstanding so built into the system that the people apparently in charge of these nations watched in horror as they accidentally went to war.

  • But his thesis does imply that the causes of the war were much more complicated than a narrative of imperialist states seeking expansion suggests.

  • Few British children can have made it through school without at least one English or history lesson on “the war poets”, the teacher sonorously intoning Owen’s immortal phrase, “you would not tell with such high zest/to children ardent for some desperate glory/the old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est/Pro patria mori”.

  • interviewed hundreds of First World War veterans in the 1970s and found not one who had a copy of work by the famous war poets or endorsed the views in that poetry.

  • In fact, Stephen suggests, many young men serving on the Western Front were happy with their lot.

  • Many of the men Stephen interviewed were outraged by the patronising attitude of later generations that they had been mere cannon fodder, ignorant of the causes of the war and maltreated. They were clear why they had fought and satisfied that the war had been worthwhile. Nor had their experience been as unremittingly dreadful as some historians and polemicists claimed: 80 per cent of enlisted men came home again, and although most communities in the country bore some loss, there are villages in England where there is no war memorial because every man returned.

  • Stephen concluded that the Owen and Sassoon view took hold not because it represented real Tommies but because it reflected the shock of a middle class unused to war. Taking Owen as the “average” British soldier is like assuming that the Guardian letters page of 2003 provides an authentic representation of life in the armed forces in Iraq.

  • Men did die in the war, and the blame for this is most often laid at the feet of the generals: the donkeys leading lions.

  • Much of the negative image of Haig and his generals was created by a small group of historians, beginning with Basil Liddell Hart, who served under Haig in the war but later turned on him.

  • This view has been challenged, and challenged strongly. Gary Sheffield wrote Forgotten Victory more than a decade ago, comprehensively deconstructing the myths of the Great War. Yet the group of actors, writers and musicians behind the No Glory in War campaign seeking to influence the centenary celebrations can still get significant play with their views, unchanged from that 1960s liberal consensus. When Brian Eno says that the war was “a total disaster that was unnecessary and destroyed a generation”, he speaks for many, even if the historical record simply does not support such a claim.

  • The reason the infantry was asked to walk across the Somme battlefield was to ensure that they arrived at the German lines together and thus were not slaughtered one by one as they climbed into the enemy trenches. 

  • What Haig and the other commanders lacked was experience with the new weapons of war. These increased the killing power of an individual soldier to such an extent that offensive tactics that had previously been relatively safe became lethal: jogging in a pack across an open field in the face of machine gun fire is quite a different proposition from doing it against single-cartridge Martini-Henry rifles.Haig was slow to appreciate this in the days of the Somme, but although that battle looms large in the collective memory of the conflict, it is not the defining example of British tactics and strategy.

  • The First World War was an infinitely more complex historical phenomenon than British popular memory makes it. Instead of being approached with caution and examined – and learned from – as a multilayered event, it has become almost a “fixed point” in the historical calendar, a vision of war not as it was but as we think it should be taught.

  • The centenary of the First World War must not be a chauvinistic cavalcade but nor should it be a pacifist’s parade

  • Challenging received wisdoms and raising uncomfortable truths. If it does, that may be the most suitable commemoration of the fallen we can make.



  • Comment 1: Over the last 30 years Australian and New Zealand historians such as Robin Prior, Trevor Wilson, Jeffrey Grey, Peter Dennis, Ian McGibbon, etc, have, like their UK counterparts, Gary Sheffield, Ian Beckett, Hew Strachan, et al, have done much to debunk this and other myths re the First World War.

  • Comment 2: The views in this article echo those of Gove who is currently locked in a skirmish with a Cambridge professor. Needless to say, Gove’s knowledge of World War 1 is infinitely superior.

  • John Blake teaches history at a comprehensive school in London and is chairman of Labour Teachers. @johndavidblake


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