One hundred and six years ago this week, war clouds loomed close across Europe. Austria-Hungary’s 28 July declaration of war on Serbia ended four weeks of tension and posturing. By 4 August the continent was at war – a moment that has gone down in history as a demonstration of the way in which pride, arrogance and folly lead humanity into darkness.
In that ‘golden summer’ of 1914, of course, few guessed that the struggle might last four years and provoke slaughter to a scale never before seen in warfare. The nature of late-industrial age weaponry had led some military thinkers to understand the difficulties of an expanded battlefield swept by machine-guns and protected by wire, mines and dugouts. But such thinking was not shared by the public or, it seems, many of the politicians who failed to back away when war loomed.
It is easy to portray the start of the First World War as a bar brawl – a succession of events framed by alliances. However, the surface narrative, as always, merely proxied deeper issues. The common vision of a world led helter-skelter into war on the back of pride and iron-clad mobilisation timetables – which, the story goes, meant nobody could back away without compromising their position if things went sour – has been shown to be incorrect. Politically, it was possible to back away from the crisis of July 1914 at any time. Nobody did; and the ‘revisionist’ view – explored by historians such as Max Hastings – generally points the finger at a militaristic Germany.
By this argument, war offered politicians in Berlin a way to resolve the pressing issues of the day, in which – essentially – a rising ‘Reich’-minded Germany was confronted at global level by older Empires. The race for territory in Africa had proxied Europe’s rivalries away from their own soil. But the practical fact remained that Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary were confronted there on two sides by allied powers – France and Russia. War could resolve it, and – it was thought – do so relatively quickly.
The scenario of a ‘high-tech’ war in which the vast conscript armies of the day could be whisked to the battlefield by the railway networks – all at a speed unheard of in Napoleon’s day – and then supplied by the same systems – was appealing. So, the argument goes, Europe fell into war. Not because it was necessarily wanted. But because it offered a logical and rational answer to Germany’s geo-political and economic constraints.
To me the scenario painted by the ‘revisionist’ argument is compelling. And it begs questions about humanity. Time and again, it seems, humans fall into folly not through stupidity or mistake, but by rational, logical processes that seem impeccable at the time. It does not necessarily mean warfare: such thinking – followed by disastrous outcomes that nobody anticipated, however obvious they become in hindsight – can be found in many aspects of human endeavour.
The First World War was neither the first, nor the last, such experience. It was, however, the first industrial-scale demonstration of how humanity can – by all due rational process – fall into wider folly. It happened again on even larger scale in the Second World War. Today – well, society is on an even larger scale again. Have we learned? Of course not. Humanity’s rational logic has led us into folly of a different kind, one in which nobody imagined the outcomes of the neo-liberal shifts of the 1980s, nobody imagined the outcomes of social media – and where the human condition, again, has been revealed.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021