Most works on the World Wars are generally focussed on the strategy and tactics employed by the various participants. They cover in-depth details of troop movements, and how some brilliant commanders led and flourished while some others floundered and led to the destruction of their men. Furthermore such books also explore at length the question of ‘Fault’ and who was entirely responsible for the human savagery. Rarely do the discussions and depiction of human tragedy move beyond the trenches.
David Reynolds, the celebrated Cambridge University Professor of International History and the Winner of 2005 Wolfson Prize for his book ‘In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War’, takes an entirely novel approach to recounting the events of 1914-1918, and sidesteps the general war details covered by others. Reynolds gives an account of the events pre and post the First World War, the lead up to the Second World War, the Cold War, and discusses briefly some of the current world crises in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, etc., and show how all of them were actually unleashed as a direct consequence of the First World War, making for a very busy Twentieth Century.
David has strongly attempted to refute the charge on the War that it was a wasted effort, even when the conflict involved an unprecedented level of human sacrifice that is unmatched even to this day. This is hard to achieve considering the huge amount of popular films, poetry, writings, paintings, etc., all denouncing the evils of war and how it led to human misery. Undoubtedly the war was evil for humanity but it wasn’t all gloom as it had some positive outcomes too. This is what Reynolds has tried to show and thereby attempt to correct the general perception that we have derived from the popular anti-war literature. Reynolds argues that the anti-war works are detached from its moorings in the historical events and placed everything on individual human tragedy. Reynolds seeks to broaden our horizons of discussions by placing the Wars in the larger context where sufferings indeed led to stability and peace.
Reynolds dismisses the common conception that the outbreak of the First World War was out of blue. He convincingly puts together arguments that show that there were signals which suggested that a conflict was imminent. Consider the fact that Yugoslavia’s Great War Memorial on the hill above Belgrade dates 1912-1918, portraying the idea that 1914 was actually the Third Balkan War following on from the earlier rounds of 1912 and 1913. So, as much as the assassination in Sarajevo of Franz Joseph’s heir to the throne of Habsburg Empire on 28th June 1914 triggered the July crisis, the simmering tensions were already there as for long Habsburg had wanted to quell the threat of Serbia and the assassination was a perfect reason to begin that quest.
All the belligerents went into the First World War with the aim of a quick decisive victory, however as it became a long protracted engagement the war settled into clear conflict lines marked by trenches on both sides. Even though the war lasted 4 years most public memories in each country are generally centred on some key moments, which have gone on to become the vantage points of the War through which future generations remembered the war. For instance the British reference point is generally the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the 1st of July 1916, which was the bloodiest day in the British war history that resulted in nearly 57000 casualties by the end of the day through German artillery power.
The internal war narrative and its experiences differed across countries, the primary reason for this were the different motivations that led each belligerent to join the fight. For instance Britain was not directly fighting for the homeland, either to protect it from invasion or add to its territory. Britain joined the struggle only when Belgium whose neutrality Britain had pledged to protect had been violated by Germany. In contrast Belgium, France, and Serbia were fighting to ward off invasion. The French were also fighting to reclaim Alsace and Lorraine. Whereas the Kaiser of Germany, the Habsburg of Austria-Hungary, and the Tsar of Russia were fighting as an act of pre-emptive action to prevent invasion.
Against this backdrop the 2.5 million strong volunteer British army which was the second highest volunteer army in history (interestingly the highest was the Indian Army in 1939-45) gains huge significance as this suggests that the country believed in the noble cause of protecting the smaller country against evil Germany. The Battle of the Somme is therefore poignant in the British memory as young (often inadequately trained) men faced German cannons and died. The public memory is heavily focussed on the Somme losses, and this seems to neglect Britain’s ‘finest hour’, the decisive victory achieved in the last 100 days under Field Marshal Douglas Haig who led nearly sixty divisions, the largest army ever deployed by Britain.
The American experience was very different. They had maintained a strong stance of neutrality all through the episode except when they were forced to join forces to protect their commercial interests. In 1917 the British relied heavily on American supplies brought by raising funds in American banks. The Germans were desperate to cut off this supply route across the Atlantic and so initiated the U-Boat warfare which led to the US join the war. The American losses were only 116000 out of which nearly 50% casualties were due to the Influenza pandemic, compared to this the American Civil War of 1861-65 claimed 620000 lives. So for the US the First World War was a vague forgettable experience, besides having lived through the Civil Wars they had better developed Veterans’ welfare programs in place and this meant the lives of the returning soldiers and their families were far better than that in Europe.
On the domestic front, especially on the social side the war experience transformed countries in many different ways. For instance Britain was better off at the end of the war than it was before it, in fact it can be said that Britain’s moment of crisis was just before the outbreak of the war and not at the end or in between. In 1914 Irish Home Rule had been signed and Scottish Home Rule was on the cards, in fact Churchill had plans to have 7 different parliaments. The war brought about a great sense of nationalism and united everyone together and the Irish even contributed a Catholic Irish Army to the British war efforts. The newly emerged nationalism sidelined the Scottish independence question (only to be revisited throughout the century). Mass democracy came to see the light of the day and the long fight for women suffrage was finally given a limited age-based go-ahead. In addition to this property ownership rights were altered to give the common public a share in the national property. Expanded democracy and property rights were the rewards given for enduring 4 years of hardships.
In the arena of International Politics the period between the last one year of the War and the lead up to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, can be said to be the most defining as it set the stage for international relations, politics, and even the state of the civilization for the rest of the Century and beyond. In 1914 there were only 3 Republics in Europe – Switzerland, France, and Portugal, and the rest of the Central, Eastern, and South-eastern Europe was ruled by 4 great dynastic empires for centuries. These were the Romanovs in Russia, the Habsburg in Austria-Hungary, the Hohenzollern in Germany, and the Ottoman in Turkey. By the end of the war all 4 dynasties were completely overthrown and replaced by 13 new republics, out of this 9 were states that did not even exist in 1914, among them were Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Yugoslavia.
The sudden collapse of these empires in a span of months led to a huge power vacuum which was often filled by ruthless opportunist dictators. In addition to this, even though the Germans lost the war their victory over Russia in 1917 unhinged the entire Eastern Europe, and lead to a turmoil that we often grapple with even today. The Central and Eastern European states had a highly diverse composition of various ethnic groups. Sample this, for every 100 men in the Habsburg army there were 25 Germans, 18 Magyars, 13 Czechs, 11 Serbs and Croats, 9 Poles, 9 Ruthenes, 6 Romanians, 4 Slovaks, 2 Slovenes, and 2 Italians. In the border states of Europe the Poles, Czechs and Croats, even Serbs and Italians – fought on both sides, as they had very little choice as conscription was the norm.
Under these circumstances in the aftermath of the War when several of these states were given independence, by drawing country borders (often arbitrarily), it inadvertently initiated an era of hatred and killings that marred the rest of the century. Most of the newly carved states had several minorities and in due course conflicts between the various groups led to massive bloodshed of the minorities at the hands of the majority unleashing a vicious cycle of violence, a prime example of this were the hostilities in Croatia, Serbia, etc. The influential former Harvard Politics Professor Samuel Huntington covers a lot of this ground in-depth in his book, ‘The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order’.
The outcome of the War was definitely positive for the British Empire that reached its territorial zenith at the end of the War. The Crown now had newly captured territories on the Eastern front of the Old Ottoman Empire which included Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Transjordan, as well as the former German colonies in Africa and Pacific. Once again the politicians and policymakers had very little choice in the way the states of Iraq and Syria were to be created from the erstwhile Ottoman regions, the result turned the regions into a hotbed of violence of unprecedented scale that we see today. The ISIS has the stated objective of establishing the Caliphate (meaning the Ottoman Empire), highlighting once again how some of the decisions at the end of the War in splitting regions into countries without due comprehension of the ground realities continues to have horrific consequences for the World.
The inter-war period initially referred to as the post-war period till The Second World War happened was generally a period of economic hardships for nations as the war time profligacy met with the harsh economic realities. Germany for instance faced hyperinflation to begin with that led to the devaluation of its currency this was followed by deflation that led to high employment. Ordinary Germans were reduced to surviving on 1000 calories per day, less than half the recommended value, even searching for scraps of meats in rubbish heaps. Likewise France faced huge hardships too, however comparatively the British experience was better as the affect of economic recession on the people in the early 30s was brief (partly due to government intervention) and also the British economy came out of the Economic Depression sooner as they had already implemented some sound policies and had abandoned the Gold Standard 2 years prior to the French.
The War also altered the position of US in the World Politics. America was catapulted into the role of a Global Leader, although it was reluctant. At the peace conference Woodrow Wilson the American President had several nice ideas but he struggled to get them passed in his own Congress and in the Global political arena some of his high ideals proved to be rather ineffectual. Wilson’s idea of the ‘The League of Nations’ never really took off. Likewise the exercise of re-drawing the Map of Europe and Far and Near East in the longer run proved to be counterproductive and led to more war than peace, contrary to its stated objective. Nonetheless the War set America on stage to take on future international conflicts such as the Vietnam War, The Gulf War, The Iraq engagements, and the Afghanistan efforts, in line with its position as a global leader.
One of the other lasting legacies of the War was the political systems that it gave to the Continent and to the world, eventually. Clearly democracy gained ground and the numbers of those allowed to practice it were significantly expanded, and it was finally introduced to the common man and woman (though for women the age restrictions were higher). However, Communism and Fascism also gained strong grounds. The Century saw all these different political ideologies being experimented with before most countries in Europe settled down for Democracy, the exception being East Germany which joined the league the democratic league after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The Century to a large extent turned out to be a clash between the ideals of Wilson of self-determination as seen in a democratic set-up versus the Communist philosophy of Lenin.
The after effects of war on Germany were rather disastrous, and in turn they turned out to be disastrous for the world. In 1919 the International Political community managed to place all the blame of the war on Germany, and France exacted some very punitive economic penalties from Germany for waging the war. All this led to a crippled German economy that was very difficult to correct in a short span of time, and the ensuing hardships eventually led to the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Adolf Hitler at its ultimate Fuhrer. As the cost of the war had been too high for all countries none were prepared for another conflict even when it was brewing, taking Churchill’s phrase ‘The Gathering Storm’. Hitler, however, was undeterred by the cost and went ahead with his war preparation agenda to avenge for the shame inflicted on Germany last time by having a decisive victory this time. The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain bent over to appease Hitler and diffuse another conflict as that would be catastrophic. Unfortunately six months after Neville’s fateful meeting with Hitler in Munich which he thought was a diplomatic coup, as Chamberlain managed to get Italy (Benito Mussolini), Germany (Adolf Hitler), France (Edouard Daladier), and UK (Neville Chamberlain) to sign the Munich agreement, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, making the agreement meaningless and essentially signalling the imminence of war.
The Second World War was rather a less deadly affair compared to the previous one and all the belligerents seemed to have learnt their lessons. Air attacks were highly feared of in most countries and it was felt that infantry’s role wouldn’t be so significant and victory will be achieved by airborne attacks. The mere thought of hundreds and thousands of hapless civilians getting killed suddenly by bomb drops obviously terrorized governments, but in the end victory was achieved by the well coordinated efforts of all the forces together and not just air force. This time around it was also clear to the Allied forces that nothing short of complete defeat of the enemy would be acceptable. In the end that’s what happened with the death of key players such as Hitler, the enemy was totally annihilated.
Soon afterwards when the evidence of the horrors of the concentration camps began to emerge, something that the Allied forces chose not to believe during the conflict period despite mounting evidence, the entire narrative of the War and its end took a completely new meaning. This was now a War of Good against Evil, in which the evil was finally completely crushed. One of the only problems with this story was the complicity of lot of common Germans not just the Nazi party machinery in the systematic and industrial scale annihilation of a race. This moral guilt remained on the German conscience for the rest of the Century, leading to generations of Germans being silent and ashamed of what happened, something that only the current generation seems to be coming out of.
On the social side, the Second World War had devastating effects. Consider the case of Britain. The victory was achieved by the heroic Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who more than any other politician hovers over Britain’s Twentieth Century, however the elections held just towards the end of the war in 1945 led to a landslide victory for the opposition labour party, the first such victory in the party’s history. Churchill was replaced by the new Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. All this happened due to the growing disillusionment coming from the high unemployment in the Coal, Textile, and Shipbuilding industries in Scotland and Northern parts of the country. Attlee implemented a radical agenda of nationalization and welfare that all successive governments followed only to be challenged in the 80s by Margaret Thatcher. However as per Reynolds, the legacy still lives on, not the least in the form of National Health Services (NHS) often perceived as inefficient.
International Politics got transformed irreversibly as a result of the Second War. President Roosevelt championed the formation of a Global Guardianship comprised of a select strong group of nations at its highest level with other nations being its members. This led to the formation of the UN in 1945, ironically just after Roosevelt’s death, following mostly what Roosevelt had proposed in terms of the structure of the organization such as the Security Council comprising of 5 Permanent members. So, evidently in the end Wilson’s ‘League of Nations’ did get realized on an effective and larger scale through the creation of United Nations.
In just about a decade after the end of the Second World War the horrors of the war and the losses incurred made Germany and France come really close and partner to establish the European Economic Community (EEC) a precursor to the modern day EU. This association led to growing prosperity and commerce across mainland Europe, and it baffled the UK to see staunch enemies who had fought each other just 10 years ago come together so soon and work so cohesively. The US backed the German development by pumping in its dollars. The UK however remained steadfast in not joining the EEC, till much later in 1973 when its own economic clout had come down significantly, by then the European club was already well established and the UK never achieved the same level of closeness as the original members – Germany and France had among themselves. And, once again interestingly in just about a decade the best War time Allies – US and Russia entered into a Cold War with each other, once again polarizing the World, eventually leading to the break-up of the Soviet Union, which unhinged a different set of problem in erstwhile USSR.
This is a brilliantly researched and highly insightful and thought provoking book by Reynolds. It covers a wide range of areas such as Economics, Society, Culture, Literature, Arts, etc., and in that context Reynolds’s near complete rejection of the works of Anti-war movement artists, as being too narrow and diverting from the real debate, seems a bit too harsh. While there were surely lots of positives that came from the War and we need to have a more broad and balanced view of the war than just looking at individual human tragedies, however famous works by renowned artists such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon did contribute to the discussion and therefore need to be considered, as discarding the human suffering angle totally might not complete the discussion either and will rather negate the hollowness of the need for war.
The First World War set lot of things in motion for the rest of the century and we see its affects existent in our world even today. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine, or the relation of the Northern Ireland with South, or even the demand for referendum for independence by Scotland all have a precursor in those fateful years of the last century. It was indeed Wilson’s idea of ‘making the world safe for democracy’ that led to some of the turbulence that the world witnessed in past hundred years. As Francis Fukuyama argued after the end of the Cold War in his book, ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ that with the spread of democracy and free market economics, humanity has reached the end point of the development of history (a position he has since revised), something which we see as surely still developing in different parts of the world be it Middle East or Arab. So indeed ‘The Great War’, dubbed as, ‘The War to end all Wars’, which set the ball rolling for all these events actually ended up being, ‘The War that ended all Peace’, and it is in this interesting reflection that some of the lessons can be taken to potentially avoid future conflicts.
David Reynolds is a British historian. He is a Professor of International History and a Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge.
This book is available in many formats. So go ahead and read it!