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Who Started It?

Now
boys, who started the First World War?

Please,
Sir, it was the Germans.  They invaded Belgium.

Quite
right Higginbottom, well done.

I
seem to remember a classroom exchange along those lines from my school
days.  And back then, if the history
teacher thought Higginbottom’s answer was the correct one, then that was the
end of the matter. No one argued with teacher. 
He had probably taken a history degree at Oxford
or Cambridge
and the books he had read there could not be wrong, could they. 

Nowadays,
the teacher might attract a few arguments, and for that matter so would the
printing presses of Oxford and Cambridge, if indeed they had been peddling what
some observers would now call jingoistic nonsense.  

Historian
Max Hastings would have agreed with the teacher, but only sort of.  I have just finished reading Catastrophe, his book about the origins
and the opening battles of what we’ve come to call the Great War.  In it, the author blames the Germans, not so
much for starting it – for which the fault, he asserts, lays squarely with the
war-mongers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, itching for a fight with troublesome
Serbia
– but merely for allowing the conflict to escalate for their own purposes. 

But
there are plenty of historians and politicians prepared to take issue with
him.  Michael Gove, Britain’s education
secretary, has parted company with him by depicting Britain’s fight as a ‘noble
cause’, lambasting those expounding more complex theories exonerating Germany,
or at least spreading the blame, as the work of unpatriotic Lefties.  The prime minister and the mayor of London rushed with great
fanfare to his defence. 

Today,
a Guardian columnist, Seuma Milne,
counter-attacked with a vigorous fusillade of revisionist rhetoric.  “This is all preposterous,” he wrote of the
minister’s defence of the realm.  “Unlike
the Second World War, the bloodbath of 1914-18 was not a just one.  It was a savage industrial slaughter
perpetrated by predatory imperial powers, locked in a deadly struggle to capture
and carve up territories, markets and resources.”

There
will be more, much more of this. 

Political
battle lines are being drawn because this year marks the centenary of the start
of the war that was supposed to end all wars, and the government is struggling
to determine how Britain should recognise the event in the most appropriate and
tasteful way.  In other words, should whatever
ceremonies emerge from this process be joyful celebrations for a victory won by
the forces of good against the forces of evil, or sad commemorations for an
awful event in which millions died and from which no nation emerged with much
credit?

Underlying
official thinking, perhaps, is a desire not to offend the Germans, who in
popular, if unexamined legend, were responsible for both World Wars but who
have since redeemed themselves and must now be counted as our friends, allies
and commercial partners.      

I
intend to read more books on the subject before venturing a firm opinion.  But whatever I might deduce on the origins of
the war, my favoured position will probably remain steadfast, namely that the
less said by politicians and the less done by politicians, the better. 

The
causes of the war are complex and arguable. 
I agree with Mr. Milne that there were imperialistic and mercantile
interests at work on both sides of the European divide.  And if Germany was as much to blame for
these as any country, which I believe, none of the others can escape a share of
responsibility either.  

Meanwhile,
every November 11, the date of the Armistice of the Great War, we solemnly and
with dignity honour the dead of that and all other wars.  We will do the same this year.  That, surely, ought to suffice.    

History
is never an inviolable truth, and the arguments will rumble on.  And so they should.  But not because of some overwhelming impulse
triggered by an anniversary.    

More
research and less posturing is my recommended course of action for all
concerned.

 

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