There has been a growing consensus among historians in recent years that the First and Second World Wars were not separate events. They were two acts in a 31-year drama that began in 1914.
Indeed, there are reasons to argue that this war was followed by a third act, set up by the collapse of the old order in the First World War – the rise of Communism, which was not resolved by the Second World War and led to the Cold War. That did not end until 1992. These events defined the society, politics and economics of the twentieth century; and it is for these reasons that Eric Hobsbawm has argued that this century – in those terms – was a ‘short’ century, beginning in 1914 and ending in 1992.
I’m inclined to agree. As far as the two World Wars are concerned there is little doubt about the integration between them. Briefly the argument is this. In 1918, the German state collapsed, but the advancing Allies were still – certainly by George Patton’s estimate – a few weeks off being able to beat the German army. The result was that Germany essentially retained an unbroken field army. This was dispersed by Versailles, but the soldiers, brought up like the rest of Germany on the notion of ‘Reich’, felt cheated. Into the breach leaped a shell-shocked veteran of the Ypres front, sporting the Charlie Chaplin moustache he’d devised for gas-mask wear.
It wasn’t difficult for Hitler to whip up support based on the popular sense of injustice and denied destiny, drawing power from disaffected former soldiers who formed a significant demographic group. It was also not hard for him to find a sub-culture within Germany who could be blamed. All of this was wrapped in the guise of a ‘new order’, but actually it was not – the Nazis, in short, did not come out of a vacuum; they merely re-framed an idea that already existed. This connection was realised by the British as the Second World War came to an end and they wondered how to avoid repeating the mistakes of 1919. As early as 1943, Sir Robert Vansittart argued that Hitler was merely a symptom. The deeper problem was that Versailles hadn’t broken eighty-odd years’ worth of Bismarckian ‘Reich’ mentality.
This perspective demands a different view of the First World War. So far, non-military historians in New Zealand – working in ignorance of the military realties – have simply added an intellectual layer to the cliche of the First World War as a psychologically inexplicable void into which the rational world fell as a result of mechanistic international systems, the pig-headedness of stupid governments and the incompetence of Chateau-bound general officers. There has even been an attempt by one New Zealand historian to re-cast Britain and the Allies as the aggressive, evil villains of the piece. Military historians have not been seduced by such fantasies, but have still been captured by a pervasive framework of sadness, remembrance and sacrifice. Into this, again for New Zealand, has been stirred mythologies of nationalism, of the ‘birth’ of today’s nation on the shores of Gallipoli in 1915. The result of this heady mix has been a narrow orthodoxy and an equally narrow exploration of events in terms of that orthodoxy.
I question this framework, not least because of the argument that the Second World War was a specific outcome of the First. The implication of the two being different aspects of a single struggle is clear; there are questions yet to be investigated about the ‘why’ of the First World War. The issue is the extent to which the ‘Reich’ mentality was perceived as a genuine threat in 1914 when Britain (in particular) debated whether to enter the conflict, and whether and how that answer drove the Allies to persist even after available offence (infantry) had proven itself inadequate against the defence (wire, machine guns and trenches). We have to remember that fear of German imperialism had already driven Europe’s alliance structures from the 1880s. And, for New Zealand, the question is how did that intersect with – and potentially drive – the sense of pro-British imperialism that did so much to define our mind-set in the generation before 1914?
These sorts of questions are beginning to be asked in British historical circles now. I keep being invited to symposia at various universities over there, where these matters are being discussed. Unfortunately we are a long way off being able to properly pose such queries in New Zealand. Yet, realistically, that interpretation needs to be explored. Perhaps I should do it. What do you think?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014