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"Gassed", 1919, by John Singer Sargent: To commemorate victims of war adequately we must understand why they were fighting

The year is 2114 and we are commemorating the centenary of what has become known as the New Europe. "The brilliant and much applauded book by Professor Smith, holder of the Putin chair of modern history at Oxford, demonstrates that in the Second Crimean War a century ago, Russia was in fact adopting a defensive position by annexing Crimea. It was responding to Nato expansionism, to disproportionate American military expenditure and related cultural militarism, and to the threat that nationalism spreading from a fascistic Ukraine would disrupt peace and stability in Russia and in nearby areas where it understandably had strong interests. Smith's work refutes a long tradition of narrow scholarship and vindicates Russia's role within the New Europe."

An unlikely scenario, we hope. However, a career in British academe has taught me not to be surprised at anything. Moreover, the specific character of the politics and practices of the discipline are compounded by a more widespread cultural tendency to relativism. This is linked to the intellectual tendency to focus on the supposed faults of "the system", rather than of particular actors and groups within it. As a consequence, transferred responsibility is a key element in commentary on the past. As a prominent example, Anglo-French appeasement is somehow made responsible for Hitler's expansionism and for Stalin's decision, under the Nazi-Soviet Pact, to join in himself.

As far as the First World War is concerned, the weight of recent publication (dropped from my office window, the books will kill, several times over) has added relatively little. Indeed, much of the publishing world, and the associated claims to novelty or supposed definitive status it offers for its wares, emerge with scant credit from the current beanfeast. In particular, there is far less novelty than is frequently claimed in the sales pitch for books. In practice, some of the current literature essentially refights the battles of the 1920s when war guilt was a prime topic for discussion. As a separate issue, there is also a general tendency to underplay the insights from work by political scientists in recent decades on the causes of war, including the First World War. More recently, excellent studies, such as Strachan on the early stages of the war, Mombauer on German military planning, Sondhaus on the Austrian Chief of Staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, and the Hamilton and Herwig collection on the causes of the war, have covered the ground very well.

In light of such work, it is unclear how much is to be gained from reading many of the books published over the past year. The key element in the weeks leading to war remains the fact that Austria and Germany chose to fight and Russia to respond. All three were continental empires in which (unlike Britain and France) constitutionalism was held in check by imperial direction, the latter providing characteristics that were autocratic and that ensured that small coteries of decision-makers had great influence.

These states were ready to see war with other major powers as a necessary tool of policy and, indeed, to frame and implement policy in terms of real or apparent strategic exigencies. The significance of the latter suggests that Simon Heffer's recent claim in Standpoint about the necessary marginality of military historians in understanding the move to war in 1914 is seriously flawed. In practice, policy — notably, but not only, in Germany and Austria — was greatly affected by strategic assumptions and military culture.

Germany's decision to attack in the West was the key element in spreading the conflict to include Britain. The decision was justified by Bethmann-Hollweg, the German Chancellor, on the basis that "necessity knows no law", an argument that has repeatedly been a particular burden on Germany's historical legacy. "Necessity" had ensured that the German army had equipped itself with heavy howitzers and mortars before the war specifically to deal with the Belgian forts.

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R B Wilson
August 5th, 2014
6:08 PM
A most thoughtful article. I have been dismayed by recent material on Britain's entry to the Great War. The campaign from Mons through Le Cateau to the Marne, Aisne and 1st Ypres and the preventing of the Germans getting to the Channel ports have been totally ignored - indeed the Daily Telegraph's recent interactive map didn't even have the places of the 1914 battles, and thus where the on it. And the interpretation that the defence of Liege gave time to the allies to dig in for later struggles, instead of saying it allowed the BEF to get to the lines at Mons and thus slow down the German advance I found quite disturbing. It is good to read a proper appreciation of the BEF's contribution to the early phases in Belgium/France.

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