Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


One Hundred Years Since the War


Do not despise the diplomatic documents.” Gilbert Murray (1915)

It appears to me to be from its very nature an impossibility even to determine from documentary evidence the question of who was responsible for the outbreak of the war.Victor Naumann (1919)


At the end of June 1914, the young Oxford historian E. L. Woodward was spending part of his summer vacation at a resort in the Black Forest. In the late afternoon of Sunday, 28 June, the polite tinkling of cosmopolitan teacups on the long terrace of the Badenweiler spa hotel was interrupted by some startling news: the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne and future ruler of some forty-five million people in central and south-eastern Europe, had been assassinated in Sarajevo. The hotel crowd excitedly dispersed to form separate groups according to nationality: ‘I knew that something very grave had happened’, Woodward reflected many decades later. Something grave had indeed happened, though Woodward was perhaps reading back into the past a fancy of foresight.

When viewed at the distance of a century, there is a paradox about 1914: it should have been an unremarkable year. After years of turmoil, especially in south-eastern Europe, the short-term indicators pointed towards peace. European diplomats spoke of a new era of détente. But the two recent Balkan conflicts in 1912 and 1913 had left unexploded ordnance in their wake, one being Albania, now independent but without agreed frontiers. Under the rule of a German princeling, the Prince of Wied, the country was on the verge of becoming a failed state: ‘les caisses sont vides, le thrône est Wied, tout est vide [the coffers are empty, [on] the throne is Wied, everything is empty]’, as some unkindly soul put it in the spring of 1914. But whilst there were problems in the periphery of Europe, relations between the Great Powers appeared relatively free of friction, especially when compared with previous years. To explain how and why the Powers found themselves in a world war, then, poses a significant challenge to the student of the past.

When viewed at the distance of a century, there is a paradox about 1914: it should have been an unremarkable year.

To say that the First World War transformed the modern world is to state the obvious. The conflict was, as George F. Kennan observed, ‘the great seminal catastrophe’ of the twentieth century: from it flowed many, if not all, of the vicissitudes of that century. Even outwardly, it has left its scars on the surface of Europe’s landscape and social fabric. In Britain, but also in many Commonwealth countries, this war, the bloodiest in these nations’ histories, has remained something of a national obsession. Commemorated sombrely and formally once a year, it continues to provide a stimulus for soul-searching. And no-one can drive through the flat fields of Flanders or the rolling hills of the Champagne and not be struck by the endless rows of white tombstones and crosses in the Commonwealth war cemeteries, or in the jardins de funèbre and the Heldenhaine that pockmark those landscapes.

Countless participants in the war wrote on the profound impact of the conflict; legions of later writers have amplified on it and have reflected on the origins of the war. The 1914–18 conflict has never ceased to attract the attention of scholars and the wider public alike. Its origins have furnished enough nutritious matter for generations of historians to feed on. The debate surrounding the origins is, as John Langdon’s aptly named historiographical study suggests, ‘the long debate’. This prolonged preoccupation with the immediate, and the longer-term, structural origins of the war is easily understandable. Three considerations help to explain it. For one thing, as the Swiss historian Werner Näf observed in 1930, for all the loose pre-1914 talk of a ‘coming war’, the reality of the world war shook European civilization. There it was, noted the Austrian novelist Arthur Schnitzler in his diary: ‘The world war. The ruin of the world. Tremendous and frightful news.’ The war rocked the sense of security, prosperity and progress that had sustained the confidence of the nations of Europe. Until the summer of 1914, most Europeans, certainly those of the comfortable middle and upper classes, led a ‘relatively privileged life . . . confident that . . . frontiers would always be open, that intellectual and scientific progress would continue, without disturbing the habitual course of life’. After 1919, confronted with the realities of war, and with the many limbless and otherwise mutilated ex-soldiers a daily reminder of its horrors, the European and North American publics were driven by an almost psychological need to come to terms with what had occurred.

The profound transformation of European society and culture, indeed of world politics, is the second consideration that helps to explain the enduring fascination with the First World War. In many ways, that conflict ushered in the short twentieth century. It is a pleasant diversion to speculate that, without the war, the balmy summer’s afternoon of 1914, so powerfully invoked in the novels of Henry James and others, could have been perpetuated and the later horrors averted. Without the war, one Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov may well have been destined to eke out a meagre living as an abstruse dialectician in the emigré circles of Zürich.

From 1914 flowed many, if not all, of the vicissitudes of that century.

A certain, moderately talented, postcard painter might well have continued to dream dreams of improbable greatness in the dank dosshouses on the banks of the Danube, never to develop his mesmeric evil powers. And he and Messrs Dzhugashvili (better known by his nom de guerre Stalin), Bronshtein (Trotsky) and Broz (Tito), all living within a few streets of each other in the Habsburg capital in early 1913, would have remained habitués of the city’s coffee houses, four faceless fringe figures among the polyglot crowds of the city, of no great concern to later generations. And the idea of an ‘iron curtain’ might have been something dreamed up by very avant-garde interior designers. But the after-effects of the war continue to reverberate to the present day, nowhere more so than in the Middle East. Thus, Osama bin Laden sought to justify the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States with reference to the Muslim community ‘tasting this humiliation and contempt for more than eighty years’, by which he meant the dissolution of the caliphate in the aftermath of the First World War. If this statement betrayed a somewhat uncertain grasp of history, it nevertheless highlighted the continued political relevance of the First World War and its outcomes.

The third factor helping to explain the longevity of the debate about the origins of the war is political. For the half-century after 1919, much of the debate surrounding 1914 was influenced by political considerations. The Paris peace treaties, foisted on the vanquished Central Powers, all contained a ‘war-guilt clause’ that attributed joint or, in the case of Germany, sole responsibility for the war. The clause justified the stipulations of the peace treaties which were imposed on the defeated nations. From the perspective of the vanquished, disproving individual war guilt or asserting some form of collective, and thus individually exculpating, responsibility on the part of all the Powers had a political point to it: it was meant to knock aside the intellectual props on which the 1919 peace settlement rested. Thus in the aftermath of the peace conferences, historians – many government-appointed – began to fill the trenches barely yet vacated by the exhausted troops. On the war itself there now followed what the German staff officer-turned-historian Bernhard Schwertfeger called the ‘world war of the documents’. Governments published prewar despatches and telegrams in an effort to refute their ‘war guilt’ or any share in it. The wave of weighty document collections soon unleashed a revisionist tide. This was especially marked in Germany, anxious to prove her innocence, but also in the United States, aggrieved at having been dragged into a seemingly senseless overseas conflict. Political passions had by no means evaporated by the middle of the century, as was demonstrated by the vitriolic controversy triggered by Fritz Fischer and his disciples in the 1960s. They placed the sole responsibility for both world wars squarely on Germany, while orthodox revisionists sought to absolve her from at least the responsibility for the 1914 conflict. To no small extent the explosive nature of this debate was rooted in a wider debate about a German ‘Sonderweg’, a special, abnormal path of development since the nineteenth century, a faintly masochistic, Teutonic variant of A. J. P. Taylor’s controversial Course of German History.

Much of the poison has been drained from not just that particular debate, but also the debate surrounding 1914. Even so, the origins of the Great War still have the potential of generating intense passions, as was underlined by the often heated discussions in the United Kingdom in the summer of 2013 on the appropriate ways of commemorating the centenary of the war.

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