The real truth of the First World War

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.

Ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles on the Somme, probably 1 July 1916. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons
Ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles on the Somme, probably 1 July 1916. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

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.

SMS Baden, one of the last of Germany's First World War super-dreadnoughts.
SMS Baden, one of the last of Germany’s First World War super-dreadnoughts. Public domain.

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.

Wright_Shattered Glory coverThis 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.

Landing at D-Day. Photo by Chief Photographer's Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard. Public Domain.
Landing on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard. Public Domain.

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


5 thoughts on “The real truth of the First World War

  1. How long has this “Thirty Years War” aspect of WW1-WW2 history been around? I remember reading something to that effect in Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance, forty-odd years ago. So unless Wouk came up with the idea independently, it has to have been around for longer than that.

    I’m trying to read, for about the fourth time, H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come. I realize that it’s speculative fiction or alternate history or what have you, but I doubt that Wells wrote much without multiple objectives in mind. The relevant point here is that Wells has interesting things to say about the causes of WW1, in Shape and in a lot of the essays he wrote during the war itself. They’re worth a look, especially because Wells, although writing in 1933, ties a lot of things together regarding events of the seventy-odd years after the war that bear curious similarities to actual events. One might think of it as an alternate timeline, if you’re into that sort of thing, which might be the point.

    1. Yes, the ‘Great World War’ concept isn’t new of itself, but it’s not been well known. Mind you, isn’ that typical of academia? I recall attending a symposium at which a university staff member was busy explaining the interpretations he was trying to explore, as if they were new. All I could think was ‘Hey, I already published that in my general history… and that… and that…!’ Academia hadn’t noticed my contribution…figures…

      I’m convinced that the way we’ve named the wars goes a long way towards explaining why we artificially divide the two. As I understand it the name came out of an intellectual spat in 1919-20 between Wells and Charles A’Court Repington, when Wells insisted it was the ‘war to end all wars’. A’Court Repington, cynically (but, to my mind, realistically) retorted that it was merely the ‘first’ world war. Even that was tendentious – as Churchill noted, the real ‘first’ world war had been in the mid-eighteenth century. But the term floated around and I believe the popularity use as a name for the 1914-18 war came out of US journalistic use of the term once the Second World War had begun. I can’t help thinking that the fact they’re numbered lends weight to their separation. But realistically, as you point out, plenty of people at the time – and later – knew they weren’t.

      I must check out Things To Come. I haven’t read it – or seen the later movie.

  2. For me, based upon what I’ve read for years, it’s been clear that ww1 and 2 are closely linked. The reasons, from my understanding were different, though. At the Armistice, Germany was blamed for the whole thing, a notion I believe is preposterous. Political treaties and familial relations, intertwined throughout Europe, were triggered by the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand. How that makes it all Germany’s fault is beyond me. So it was the Armistice which demanded hefty reparations from Germany that threw the nation into a crippling economic depression. With Germans down and depressed and wondering “why me?” a suitable environment was fostered for a twisted mind to take over. I blame the Armistice as much as anything for beginning the second world war.

    It seemed to me we learned that lesson after ww2, and thereby formed the Marshall Plan, which aimed at rebuilding Germany. Now the West has a strong, and economically viable ally in it’s former enemy, Germany. A brilliant turnaround from the failures of the Armistice.

    1. Yes, in the direct narrative sense this is true, and certainly the conditions of the Armistice were the issue in the 1930s. Hitler went to special lengths to explicitly humiliate the French, in 1940, framed around the Armistice. What I’m getting at, though, is the historical layer beneath that – the sense of destiny infused by Bismarck into Germany from the 1870s as a device for unification under Prussian hegemony, coupled with their growing economic power in the late nineteenth century. Into this was infused the sense of German aggression effectively triggered by the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, which set the scene for the First World War alliance systems by establishing a point of dispute between France and the suddenly massive power of a unified Germany, over Alsace-Lorraine. There was no question about the fear of German ambition in Europe, though the British were more sanguine. It was this sense of destiny that made the Armistice such a severe blow for Germany.

      You’re right that the Marshall Plan worked. I read a book on the ‘de-Reichification’ process a little while ago – basically, the Allies learned from the failure of the Armistice and the Marshall plan was the response. Supremely successful. The book I read (title escapes me just now) argued that Germany was not fully clear of the old mentality until the generation of the 1960s, which would figure. These things ARE generational.

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