On Saturday June 28th, the Centenary of the assassination in Sarajevo that led directly to the outbreak of World War One, we held a conference, led by Revd Ken Walker of Kingston-upon-Thames. These are the notes of that conference, plus some other relevant resources:
Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) have published reflections on WW1 “We Will Remember”, written by Keith Clements. You can download the pdf here – but remember that the document is large (1.4 MB).
War in 1914 – whose madness?
A two-part guided discussion for the 28.6.2014 centenary of “Sarajevo” on perspectives from then and now.
Where we’re heading: Using the anniversary of the assassinations in Sarajevo to explore the past, and as a tool to reflect on now.
We began by asking participants who had brought family mementoes of WW1 to read them:
One read telegrams reporting the deaths of three brothers (out of seven from the same family who had joined the forces). One told of her father who had been a Jewish lawyer in Vienna in 1914, joined the Austrian cavalry and rode into battle brandishing a sword. Another told of his father who had been in the Royal Navy, but only saw action once near the beginning of the war. Another read from her grandfather’s diary from the trenches, describing how much he hated what was happening (he had died a year after the war ended). One participant explained later that he had been unable to bring anything to read, because he had been placed in Barnados as a young boy and knew very little about his family- subsequent research through ancestry.co.uk has traced his mother’s family back two generations (so far) and his father’s family back to 1800.
Part 1: What comes to mind when we think about WW1? – “Your country needs you”, poems, trenches, mass deaths, Christmas truce, poppies, war memorials, Versailles etc.
Our understanding changes at different times because of changing circumstances. Our perspective affects our views, and what we see and understand. Might we now begin to talk of 1914 to 45 as another Thirty Years’ War? Do we now tend to read WW1 in light of WW2? – one view along these lines is Germans were/are always like that. Another is that it was the bad “peace” of WW1 that led directly to WW2. One friend in his 90s remembers being taught at school of the great British victory. He hears little of that at the centenary. (And in 2014 it’s difficult to think of the Germans as “losers”!)
Reflecting at 28.6.2014 knowing the losses, it’s difficult to see why Britain allowed itself to get involved – or why any country beyond the Balkans thought it was in their interest to have the war.
Perspectives were varied at the time: – Don’t get involved – not important to us – Our entente with France (who were in alliance with Russia) didn’t stop people having sympathy with Austria-Hungary over their “Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall” being shot in Sarajevo – Relations with Germany had been improving, and we and they had not particularly been enemies in any case, despite being rivals – Professional diplomats were one thing, parliament quite another – Tories favoured hardening entente with France into an alliance and were ready to go to war, Liberals instinctively for balancing power pragmatically – Imperialists/empire officials advocated standing up to Germany – Kipling may be taken to embody this – But many British scholars had great admiration for German culture
So what happened? 28.6.1914 – 4.8.14
We can trace events starting in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a former part of the Ottoman Empire, affecting in order Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Russia, France, Germany, Belgium, Great Britain and Empire, and eventually the USA.
What were the underlying factors in Britain? – big issues – balance of power – maintaining its top place with its global empire – seaways must be kept free for trade and empire- Channel, Suez Canal, Dardanelles etc – personal issues – manliness, as in Kipling’s “If” – methods of recruitment played on manliness and heroism, led by Kitchener, King, and eg women, clergy and peer pressure
Factors in Germany: – expected British neutrality, improving relations – the country was surrounded so got in pre-emptively – the triumphalist history taught in schools in 19th century
Newspapers: Manchester Guardian, Daily News, Standard were against the war until it started, as opposed to the pro-war The Times. Truth is the first casualty of war – censorship, propaganda.
Side issues/contributory factors: The Irish question dominated the British Cabinet agenda as late as 24th July. Caillaux trial was grabbing public attention in France. The holiday season made for poor communication.
And still today the debate is hot/contentious: – Christopher Clark, Max Hastings, Niall Ferguson, Vernon Bogdanor, Michael Gove and Blackadder – many different views are currently held. – David Reynolds “1914-18 is a conflict that Britain more than any other nation is still struggling to comprehend”. – Hew Strachan “The First World War was pre-eminently a conflict between England and Germany over control of the sea, and consequently of European trade – a clash of Weltpolitik and Empire, as it were.” (Odd because both powers were only secondarily involved, and not overly enthusiastically until it got going, when events took over.) – Questions of blame, shame, responsibility- War guilt and apologies. Scholder writes about fate and guilt
Theologians reflect: The Viennese Cardinal Piffl preached passionately in support of Austria’s righteous cause, advocating turning “ploughshares to swords and pruning-hooks to spears”! Adolf von Harnack was a popular liberal theologian in Germany, well-known for “The Essence of Christianity”, but was identified with the Manifesto of 93 intellectuals who gave support to the war. He was involved in the drafting of the ill-fated Weimar constitution. Karl Barth was very critical of such theologians, and he propounded dialectical theology: re-inventing theology in a new direction – God’s revelation to humankind rather than our quest for God. The Confessing Church and its Barmen Declaration (1934) under Barth’s influence sought to provide solid ground to stand on in uncertain times as the storm clouds gathered again in the 1930s. But in Friedrich Gogarten this dialectical theology in fact shared the new nationalism/conservative revolution’s criticism of the rational, ordered, bourgeois humanitarian world of the 19th century.
So our question is “Whose madness?” People we may assume weren’t actually foolish, but quite unexpectedly found themselves in a war that turned out to be utter folly, arguably solving nothing, creating a vastly bigger agenda for future history.
Are people rational? Duncan Grant of the Bloomsbury Set unfashionably wrote of “the foolish thoughts and passions” that led to war. Described going to war as madness, in letter to his father. The collective madness of war.
Basket cases – our traditional whipping boys: Ottoman empire/Turkey – the sick man of Europe. Austria-Hungary – another one. Balkan nationalism. Russia – flexing its increasing muscles, but soon to collapse. France – belligerent/ready to lock horns after disaster of 1870-71 War. Kaiser Bill?
Do we blame..? – Rulers – autocratic, democratic, professional diplomats or military – The Press – Public opinion – followed prolonged time of peace in Europe
Other issues loosely grouped under madness! Military Tactics in the field. Shell shock. Loss/disruption to families which is ongoing
Part 2: Ongoing issues – perspectives from now – What do we think of the Germans? – And their football!? And their towels by the pool? – And our schoolchildren who don’t want exchanges? – German as a language dwindling in schools and universities – Yet Michael Schumacher, Boris Becker, Jürgen Klinsmann, car brands – War Memorials and their current militaristic/nationalistic use – Is war ever proving to be the way to solve disputes?
Did anything change? – Balkans/Eastern Europe as a tinder-box – Empire – traditional empire has given way to economic imperialism – Ottoman issues – Islamic world now centre of attention – Second class races – attitudes to people in E Europe and further east – Isolation or meddling – What is Britain’s place in the world? – What about British foreign policy generally? (I usually find myself against it! eg current vogue for interventions in Arab lands.) – Dependence on US to sort issues out – Integrity of UK – Ireland was an issue then and now, Scotland is now – British attitude to mainland Europe – Europe centred on wealthy west – Brussels, London, Frankfurt, Strasburg and The Hague – but what about the margins?
Progress: End of Empire – within a few decades independence was the norm. Australia, New Zealand and Canada achieved national identity through WW1 participation, and the climate changed in India. Powers of European Monarchs – diminished. Nationalism taken more seriously. Place of women/suffrage – WW1 saw extension of suffrage. Social mobility, scientific progress, medicine