The History, Tragedy, and Centenary of WWI

“The politicians are frightened of saying that we fought a great evil and they are afraid of saying who started WWI”, Sir Max Hastings is reported to have said in The Telegraph. With the centenary of WWI only a year from being commemorated in Britain, it is understandable that the politics of history and national memory are going to be fiercely contested.

John Bull, Marianne, and Germany

However, how are we going to remember WWI in Britain? Was it a national struggle to stop aggressive expansion by the Central Powers – chiefly Germany? Perhaps it was two imperial alliances intending to check the ambitions of the other to keep a balance of power, both in Europe and across the world? Perhaps Britain, and the Triple Entente, really were the “Good Guys” and defended liberty against authoritarian empires?

Many focus on whom to blame for the war. The fault probably does lie with just about everyone. Pro-imperialist and colonial arguments won the day far more often than not, and jingoism was a byword for late nineteenth-century politics. Kaiser Wilhelm II surely holds much of the blame. His chauvinistic desire to increase Germany’s stature led to the development of a huge navy which threatened both the British and Japanese, colonial ambitions which antagonised the already-opposed French, and support for the Austro-Hungarian Empire which Bismarck already warned against. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was at loggerheads with a Pan-Slavic Russian Empire over the Balkans following the Balkans Wars. Likewise, the British and French empires sought to protect their sprawling territories from the encroachments of newcomers. Someone – somewhere – was going to make a critical error.

Academics and enthusiasts spend their entire lives debating the fascinating and horrific accounts of WWI to try and gain a better understanding. As we commemorate these events though, do we really need to point the finger once more? The ideological conflict that was waged in WWII was not nearly as apparent in WWI. There was no black and white morality – no “axis of evil” or “arsenal of democracy” to contend good and bad – only two opposed blocs that fought for the same reasons – status and power in an imperialistic world. In the modern day, should we not focus instead on what is truly important – remembering and regretting all those lives lost fighting a bloody silly war when, instead, those people could have been living rich, full, and peaceful lives as they intended?

This is the key message of this post. Churchill stated, “history will be kind to me for I intend to write it”. Although not a favourite quote of mine, he was right; history is what you make it. Historians attempt to argue objectively about events of the past: the wheres, the whos, the whats, the whys. By all means, I encourage any reader to be involved and take a great interest in all things history. You should – it’s your history.Christmas Day football - 1915

However, in the context of the emotional and subjective commemoration of WWI, we need to keep our eye on the ball. People died in the trenches. They died in the fields. Some of us met survivors and heard stories of the blood that was spilt and the lives lost because of the pride of empires. Many fought because they believed in their country. Many died because they had to.

I hope that we remember that the war is not to be glorified, but condemned, and that we remember the pain that war brings to those we love most. Not merely applicable to those of Britain, we should use the centenary to remember all those who lost their lives, and were affected by the horrors of WWI; lets remove our focus on borders and remember that the horrors endured were both on the war front and at home. Even on the front, the Tommy and Hun kicked the ball about and sang carols during the Christmas Truce of 1914, despite the commands of their superiors. It wasn’t a soldier’s war, and executions for cowardice reinforced that. That’s how I see WWI: a tragedy that we should always remember and a mistake we should never forget.

Finally, a quote by Bismarck on the foresight of a war for the Balkans, may leave us with a little understanding of the lack of meaning behind WWI:

“Bulgaria, that little country between the Danube and the Balkans, is far from being an object of adequate importance … for which to plunge Europe from Moscow to the Pyrenees, and from the North Sea to Palermo, into a war whose issue no man can foresee. At the end of the conflict we should scarcely know why we had fought.”

Further reading:


9 thoughts on “The History, Tragedy, and Centenary of WWI

  1. Wonderful post. I’ll be interested to see what our PBS will steal from the BBC in remembrance of the war. In the US, the laws enacted to force a nation behind the War were very scary. Small wonder my German grandmother remarried to get an English name.

    • Oh, I expect the PBS will take quite a bit; the BBC will be covering it with some zeal! I heard about how families of German/Austrian heritage changed their family names to assimilate, following the First World War. It’s sad that they felt compelled to in an attempt to avoid social or political persecution. It reminds me of the Aliens and Sedition Acts of 1798 (under John Adams), which authorised deporting any persons in the US who were of a nationality belonging to an enemy nation of America. Quite inhumane …

      • PBS will only take from the BBC if Ken Burns hasn’t already produced something:D
        Wilson revived something similar with The Alien Act of 1918 that allowed the deportation of non citizens suspected (love that, not even convicted) of actions and beliefs hostile to the government, and the Sedition Act (1918) banned uttering, printing, writing or publishing anything against the government of military. And to top it off groups of volunteers formed The American Protective League and spied on friends and neighbors to report them. And I thought HOAs have a bad rap. There were quite a few reported lynchings of German-Americans and absolutely no one was punished for the crimes.

      • You really know your stuff! It’s sad that the US projects itself as a land of opportunity, but has on many occasions pursued more intrusive and invasive methods, such as all the Alien and Sedition Acts (thank you for the 1918 one!), the recent PRISM surveillance program, the PATRIOT Act, etc. The last attempt that I can think of was the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007. Horrible, isn’t it, when American citizens with dual citizenship, a strong ethnic or religious background, or migrants seeking residency, can be treated so, past or present!

      • Never underestimate the power of fear and stupid people’s willingness to give up their rights for the illusion of safety:). But the actions of the government explains why when bad things happen in the US, we purchase more guns and ammo.

  2. Pingback: What would have been the result for Britain’s history had we stayed out of WWI – Dave B. |

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