A world War 1 Historians Dinner Party



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Review of three books, by MacMillan, McMeekin and Hastings: How recklessness, unstable alliances and bad luck plunged Europe into crisis


Key points:

  • McMeekin’s is controversial, arguing that Russia and France were more bent than Germany on war in July 1914.

  • Most historians nowadays regard the Fischer thesis about a pre-1914 German plan for world domination as too extreme.

  • MacMillan speaks for many historians today when she writes that the greatest responsibility lies with “Austria-Hungary’s mad determination to destroy Serbia in 1914, Germany’s decision to back it to the hilt [and] Russia’s impatience to mobilise”.

  • Good explanations on AJP Taylor and Fritz Fischer.

Books reviewed:



  • The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War, by Margaret MacMillan

  • July 1914: Countdown to War, by Sean McMeekin

  • Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914, by Max Hastings

Full article here: The causes of the first world war – FT.com

My highlights of the article:



  • On the war’s causes the outstanding recent study is Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers (2012), whose carefully textured arguments and deep understanding of the sometimes neglected Balkan context set the bar high for everyone else. The three books reviewed here are stimulating and enjoyable, but they are of varying quality. Sean McMeekin’s is controversial, arguing that Russia and France were more bent than Germany on war in July 1914. Max Hastings’s book is less good on the causes than on the course of the war between August and December, on which he writes fluently. Only Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace matches Clark’s work – which by no means implies that she fully subscribes to his explanation of why the war broke out.

  • Until the 1960s there was a sort of consensus on what had caused the war. One year after the Allies insisted on the “war guilt” clause of the 1919 Versailles treaty, which placed all the blame on Germany and its associates, David Lloyd George, the British premier, observed that Europe had “glided, or rather staggered and stumbled” into war.

  • Historians of later decades pointed the finger at pre-1914 military planners, especially in Berlin, Vienna and St Petersburg. As AJP Taylor memorably put it, the generals launched a “war by timetable” because their mobilisation plans, once set in motion, allowed no room for diplomacy to stop the slide into disaster.

  • Everything was turned upside down in 1961 when Fritz Fischer, a German historian, published Griff nach der Weltmacht, known in English as Germany’s Aims in the First World War. This book showed that, one month after the war’s outbreak, the German government had drawn up a plan for large-scale territorial annexations and economic hegemony in Europe. Fischer earned the opprobrium of many of his peers by blaming the war squarely on a German bid for world power. FL Carsten, a fellow historian, commented drily: “We had really fixed it all so well, and then this stupid ass must come along and spoil it.”

  • Some of Fischer’s followers refined his argument by contending that Germany’s leaders had provoked a war in an effort to prevent internal political and social tensions from destroying their regime. MacMillan and Hastings mention this line of inquiry and should perhaps have devoted more space to it. “A key factor in Berlin’s original decision to fight had been a desire to crush the perceived domestic socialist menace, by achieving a conspicuous triumph over Germany’s foreign foes,” Hastings writes.

  • As Hastings, MacMillan and McMeekin point out, most historians nowadays regard the Fischer thesis about a pre-1914 German plan for world domination as too extreme.

  • Instead it is more usual to blame the war’s outbreak, in descending order of culpability, on Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Serbia, France and Britain. Germany stands accused of practising an abrasive diplomacy in the prewar years, and of offering rash, wholehearted support for Austria-Hungary’s insistence on punishing Serbia after Franz Ferdinand’s death on June 28 1914 at the hands of a Bosnian Serb terrorist.

  • Austria-Hungary’s leaders are deemed guilty of reckless behaviour from the start of the July crisis. Russia was willing to risk war and ordered early mobilisation in the knowledge that this would expand the conflict beyond the Balkans.

  • All in all, MacMillan speaks for many historians today when she writes that the greatest responsibility lies with “Austria-Hungary’s mad determination to destroy Serbia in 1914, Germany’s decision to back it to the hilt [and] Russia’s impatience to mobilise”.

  • MacMillan places less emphasis than Clark on the Serbian role in destabilising Austria-Hungary. Still, she reminds us: “It is one of the smaller tragedies of the summer of 1914 that in assassinating Franz Ferdinand the Serb nationalists removed the one man in Austria-Hungary who might have prevented it from going to war.” A year before his murder the archduke, heir to the Habsburg throne, criticised in no uncertain terms Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, Austria’s military commander, commenting that he stood for “a great Hurrah-Policy, to conquer the Serbs and God knows what”.

  • MacMillan escorts the reader skilfully through the military, diplomatic and political crises that framed the road to war from 1870 to 1914. Europe’s state system suffered from the problem that Prussia, having defeated France in 1870, united Germany and annexed Alsace-Lorraine, had guaranteed the lasting enmity of Paris. Otto von Bismarck avoided trouble for 20 years by aligning Germany with the conservative monarchies of Russia and Austria-Hungary, but his successors were more careless in their diplomacy. In particular, they allowed Germany’s Reinsurance treaty with Russia to lapse in 1890, a step that opened the door to the Franco-Russian alliance of 1894, heightening German fears of encirclement.

  • Then the kaiser and Alfred von Tirpitz, his grand admiral, started a naval arms race with Britain in 1898, failing to see that this was the worst possible way to persuade London to cede Germany the “place in the sun” for which its leaders clamoured. It is curious to recall, as do MacMillan and Hastings, that Tirpitz appreciated Britain enough to send his daughters to Cheltenham Ladies’ College, a renowned English private school, and that Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, Germany’s chancellor from 1909 to 1917, sent his son to Oxford university. The children of today’s Chinese and Russian leaders likewise receive the most privileged US and British educations.

  • Events in the decade before 1914 pushed Europe closer to war. After Britain and France settled their colonial disputes in the Entente Cordiale, Germany tried to exploit the first Moroccan crisis of 1905-06 to drive a wedge between them.

  • Rivalry between Vienna and St Petersburg intensified thanks to diplomatic duplicity and incompetence on both sides over Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908. Arguably, the second Moroccan crisis of 1911 and two Balkan wars in 1912-13 inured politicians, generals and the European public to the idea that war was becoming inevitable.

  • Yet why did Europe’s leaders, having prevented earlier crises from triggering a general war, fail to do so in 1914? McMeekin, a US historian based at Koç university in Istanbul, contended in The Russian Origins of the First World War (2011) that Russia bore far more responsibility than once thought because it aimed to break up the Ottoman Empire, conquer the Turkish straits and seize Constantinople.

  • July 1914 (by McMeekin) plays down this argument. At times it adopts the more established view that a decisive moment came on July 5-6, when Germany gave Austria-Hungary its infamous “blank cheque”. This allowed Vienna to intimidate Serbia with an ultimatum in the knowledge that, if war came, Germany would fight at Austria’s side. “Austria’s diplomatic isolation and military weakness meant that German backing was indispensable. The Germans gave it unambiguously,” McMeekin writes.

  • Germany’s Schlieffen Plan dictated that, in the event of a Russian mobilisation, the kaiser’s armies should attack France via Belgium. The violation of Belgian neutrality, acknowledged by Bethmann Hollweg as a breach of international law, was what brought Britain into the war.

  • On these matters McMeekin has little to say. Its main weakness, though, is that it tries to build a case that Russia’s military preparations in the July crisis were possibly more important than the actions of Berlin and Vienna in causing the war. “In 1914 France and Russia were far more eager to fight than was Germany . . . So far from ‘willing the war’, the Germans went into it kicking and screaming as the Austrian noose snapped shut around their necks,” McMeekin writes. It is a questionable conclusion to an otherwise well-written book.

  • Could the immense tragedy of 1914-18, in which 65m men fought and about 8.5m were killed, have been avoided? By July 1914 most of Europe’s political and military leaders felt the defence of national power and honour was worth the risk of war. Yet as MacMillan concludes, those who were against war could have stood up more firmly against those who denied there were other choices. “There are always choices,” she writes.


Niall Ferguson: WW1 was unnecessary. Interview about his book “The Pity of War”


Oxford historian Niall Ferguson reviews the world’s oldest motives for war, and concludes in his book, “The Pity of War” , that World War I was unnecessary. (Originally aired November 2000). He also engages in “What if” History. What if Germany had won? Ferguson argues it would not have been that been that bad. Richard Evans shares that view, but people like Nigel Birrar and Michael Gove say that WW1 was a just war for freedom against German aggression.

(See YouTube video: http://youtu.be/C9yNEvV6lI4)




The first world war was far from futile, by Historian Gary Sheffield

Gary Sheffield is Professor of War Studies at the University of Wolverhampton.

Key points: 


  • Britain went to war with Germany in August 1914 for similar reasons to those for which the country fought Hitler’s Germany in the second world war: to prevent an authoritarian, militarist, expansionist enemy achieving hegemony in Europe and thus imperiling British security.

  • Most historians argue that Germany and Austria-Hungary were primarily responsible for initiating the war (recent attempts to blame Russia are not wholly convincing). Sheffield disagrees with Clark and McMeekin.

  • Niall Ferguson’s argument that Germany was essentially benign and victory would have led to “the Kaiser’s European Union” has failed to convince the academic mainstream.

  • WW1 was a just war. War poet Wilfred Owen was right in assessment of war (Pity of war).

  • He is against the “Blackadder” view of WW1 (Also see this article in History Today)

Full article here: The first world war was far from futile | Gary Sheffield | Comment is free | The Guardian

My highlights of the article: 



  • the government would simply “set out the facts” about the origins of the conflict without any interpretation. I am not the only historian to be uneasy about this. The government, through its silence, is tacitly endorsing the popular view of the war as a futile one, a belief that is sharply at odds with most modern scholarship, and with how it was perceived at the time.

  • Britain went to war with Germany in August 1914 for similar reasons to those for which the country fought Hitler’s Germany in the second world war: to prevent an authoritarian, militarist, expansionist enemy achieving hegemony in Europe and thus imperilling British security.

  • Most historians argue that Germany and Austria-Hungary were primarily responsible for initiating the war (recent attempts to blame Russia are not wholly convincing).

  • Whoever started it, the fact is that in 1914-18, Germany waged a war of aggression that conquered large tracts of its neighbours’ territory. As has often been pointed out, there were distinct continuities between the policy and strategy of imperial Germany and its Nazi successor. In the first world war, German refusal to seriously contemplate handing back the fruits of its aggression rendered null any attempt to bring about a negotiated peace. Not until Germany was clearly losing on the battlefield in 1918 did Berlin show any flexibility over this issue, and by then it was too late.

  • This was not a “cabinet war”, remote from the concerns of ordinary people. Niall Ferguson’s argument of the late 1990s that Germany was essentially benign and Berlin’s victory would have led to “the Kaiser’s European Union” has failed to convince the academic mainstream.

  • Rather, the first world war was an existential struggle, just as much a war of national survival for the British as the second world war. If Britain and its allies had lost, it would have meant the end of liberal democracy on mainland Europe. As it was, civilians were kept docile in German-occupied France and Belgium by the routine use of terror. Forced labourers were deported to Germany under terrible conditions. Unlike Hitler’s regime, the Kaiser’s was not consciously genocidal, but it was aggressive and brutal enough. In 1918 the British army was fighting a war of liberation.

  • There is plenty of evidence that most ordinary British people understood what was at stake and, just as in 1939-45, more or less willingly committed to the struggle. The idea of mass war enthusiasm in August 1914 has been shown to be something of a myth.

  • The juxtaposition of the harsh terms imposed by Germany on Russia in March 1918, far harsher than those of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, and the major German offensive of the same month, which seemed to bring the Allies to the brink of defeat, stiffened resolve among the industrial working classes. The war was seen as terrible, but defeat was worse.

  • Today, horrified by the casualties of 1914-18, (which were consistent with losses of other belligerents), we tend to see the conflict in terms of what the war poet Wilfred Owen called the “pity of war”. This is right and proper, but we should not lose sight of why the war was fought and the significance of the fact that it was Britain and its allies, and not Germany, that emerged victorious. Like all wars, it was tragic, but it was certainly not futile.


Antony Beevor on the left/right wing debate


Key points: 

  • Agrees with the interpretation that Germany is largely to blame. Disagrees with Clark.

  • Thinks Gove made a mistake in putting the debate in terms of “left” and “right” wing interpretations.

  • Believes that most history teachers are “anti-militarist”

Full article here: Antony Beevor: A century on, this bloody war still divides us – Comment – London Evening Standard

Antony Beevor, British historian. A former officer who served in England and Germany for five years. He has published several popular histories on the Second World War and the 20th century in general.



  • The revisionist version of First World War history began in 1961

  • But what Clark and all the subsequent anti-Establishment and anti-militarist caricaturists did was to create two major distortions regardless of the facts. First, they implied that the First World War was totally unnecessary for Britain. Yet we could hardly have stayed out of the European conflict once the Germans invaded Belgium, whose neutrality we had guaranteed.

  • Second, they gave the impression that massive casualties could somehow have been avoided even opposing sides, having created trench systems from the Channel to the Swiss border, had no opportunity for subtle manoeuvre.

  • The antis of course concentrate on the horrors of the Somme while ignoring the considerable achievement under Field Marshal Haig of the great counter-offensive that finally brought the war to an end.

  • The debate over the origins of the war has raged for years. Was competition between the great powers bound to come to a head? Was it Germany’s fault, as the German historian Fritz Fischer argued in 1961? How large a part did the decline of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires play? Tristram Hunt seems to support Christopher Clark’s argument in The Sleepwalkers that Serbia was a rogue state, and Austria-Hungary was thus justified to go to war after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.

  • Yet Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Austrian chief of the general staff, had long been determined to go to war at the first opportunity to impress his mistress. The tragic irony was that the only person who could have stopped him was the Archduke himself.

  • Whether or not one agrees with either Clark or Margaret Macmillan’s more balanced version of events in The War that Ended Peace, there can be no doubt that Austria-Hungary, the Kaiser and Tsarist generals were far more responsible for the outbreak of the war than either France or Britain.

  • And the Kaiser’s desire to starve all Russian prisoners of war to death, an idea not lost on Hitler, clearly demonstrates that such a regime had to be resisted.

  • Michael Gove rightly recognises that the war was “an unspeakable tragedy”, but he goes too far in trying to portray it as an entirely just war. It may have been seen as “a noble cause” in the opening weeks — but that was not to defend democracy, as he claims, but to fight German aggression. And the basic rule, which he seems to have forgotten, is that history should never be an exercise in patriotism. That is simply nationalist propaganda.

  • His other mistake is to believe that the distortions and myths are fostered uniquely by “Left-wing academics”. 

  • In the past 20 years especially there has been a far greater emphasis on the individual. But at the same time there has also been a certain element of sentimentalisation, generalising tragedy from individual cases. The demands for a sweeping pardon for deserters overlooks the fact that a few were hardened criminals, not just sufferers from shellshock.

  • Tristram Hunt, on the other hand, is perfectly justified to say that the Left needs no lessons on “the virtues of patriotism, honour and courage”.

  • But the anti-militarists certainly need some on the teaching of history. I was appalled when I heard from a historian who is a First World War battlefield tour guide that he had heard a teacher tell her school group that officers stayed in their trenches and forced the men forward. As a recent article in the New Statesman acknowledged, young officers died at twice the rate of ordinary soldiers. Such deliberate distortions tend to underline the way that intellectual honesty is the first casualty of moral outrage.

  • I have come across both inspiring teachers of history and deplorable ones over the years, so one cannot generalise, except perhaps to observe that the profession seems to encourage anti-militarist sentiments.

  • School-leavers unfortunately will come away thinking the First World War consisted simply of “going over the top” on the Western Front to slaughter in no-man’s-land, when the conflict extended so much further, to the collapse of four empires and numerous civil wars.

  • Politicians are often tempted to deploy history as a weapon against each other. Ironically, in this case we see an almost total reversal of the received truth, with war becoming the extension of politics by other means. I welcome the clash, not just because an intense historical debate is stimulating: on this occasion it might at last broaden our understanding of the terrible conflict away from the narrow focus of the trenches.


Russel Tarr’s worksheet on Historians Debate on Twitter



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Russel Tarr, a UK History teacher working in France found himself at the centre of the History wars when Michael Gove singled out one of his worksheets on his popular history site activehistory.co.uk. The worksheet used Mr Men to retell the rise of Hitler.

Historians Gary Sheffield, Simon Schama, Tom Holland and Sir Richard Evans all participate in the tweet chat. Below is a worksheet with a Twitter conversation regarding the causes of WW1.


Download the conversation and worksheet here: ww1_on_twitter

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