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Beastly to the Hun

William Mulligan

Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914, by Max Hastings, William Collins, £30, ISBN: 978-0007398577

Even before the mobilisation orders had been dispatched and the declarations of war issued in late July and early August 1914, the forthcoming conflict had been invested with moral significance. Following the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo on June 28th, Austro-Hungarian diplomats framed Serbia as a criminal state. “We have no plans for conquest,” Oskar von Montlong, the head of the ministry of foreign affairs press bureau told a leading newspaper editor, “we only want to punish the criminals and protect the peace of Europe.” Serbian diplomats framed their defence in legal and moral terms, promising to extradite any of their citizens who were proved to have been complicit in the assassination. They also reminded the European public that Serbia had made concessions during the Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913 in the “exclusive interest of European peace”. What it meant to be European was at the core of the First World War, as each side sought to bend conceptions of the continent to its own national interest. Raw talk of the reason of state, ungarnished by a wider political sensibility, was surprisingly rare in a war in which states struggled for their very existence. Power was constituted not only by military force, but also by ideas, ideas that would inform the future settlement of Europe.

This moral fervour, the sense that the stakes in this war went beyond the conventional quarrels and conflicts of nineteenth century power politics, only increased with the outbreak of fighting and has continued to frame the debate about the war, its origins, and its significance down to the present day. The forthcoming centenary of1914 – though those on the periphery of Europe, in the Balkans and Turkey and Ireland, know that the transformation of Europe began at least two years before the assassination at Sarajevo – provides an occasion for historians to connect to a wider public debate. And while the intense passions that accompanied debates in the 1920s over the “war guilt” article, holding Germany solely responsible for the outbreak of hostilities, or in the 1960s over the “Fischer thesis”, which pinned the blame on Germany’s political and military leadership, have ebbed somewhat, the embers remain.

Today the dominant register in public discussion and commemoration of the war is one of mourning and pity, predominantly centred on the soldiers who died, but also remembering the injured and shell-shocked men who returned and the miseries of civilians on the home front. Suffering on this scale raises the question of whether the war was worth it. This is not really an historical question but rather a moral and political one to which historians can contribute. Any answer depends on time and place. The French president, François Hollande, at the opening of the French centenary commemorations on November 7th, declared that the victory of the Allies, and France in particular, marked a triumph for civilian control of the military, democracy and peace. His certainty was undoubtedly assisted by the fact that German armies invaded France in 1914. Participation in the war was hardly a choice for the French Third Republic.

In Britain there has been less consensus about the decision to enter the war. After all, the prime minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, and his cabinet colleagues, had a degree of choice in the summer of 1914. Was this Britain’s quarrel? Was Germany really a threat to British security and political values? What did it mean to be allied to Russia, an autocratic regime with fragile representative institutions? Could Britain stay aloof from events on the European continent or were its vital interests affected by European political developments? Behind this last question lurks the issue of Britain’s relationship with Europe and the European Union today. Historians have not always interpreted Britain’s participation in the war according to their views on Anglo-European relations, but some of the most interesting, trenchant, and contentious answers have been come from the pens of Eurosceptics, notably Niall Ferguson and John Charmley. Both argued that Britain could and should have stayed out of the war in 1914, that in entering it it sacrificed much of its strength and began to see its world power status ebb away. Ferguson, in his 1998 book The Pity of War went so far as to claim that British entry led to the failure of the German military plans and foiled the Kaiser’s plan for a European union, in that sense merely delaying the establishment of a German-dominated Europe at great human cost.

Max Hastings, who recanted his Europhile heresies in one of his regular Daily Mail columns in 2011, has now entered the lists in this debate. Yet his newly found Euroscepticism does not lead him down the same path as Charmley and Ferguson. Rather he defends Britain’s participation in the war on both political and moral grounds, denounces German militarism and condemns the ineptitude of every belligerent’s military leadership. It is a heavy volume, weighing in at 563 pages of text, excluding the endnotes and bibliography. But as readers of Hastings’s previous works will appreciate, it is leavened with clear arguments, barbed asides and telling anecdotes. On occasion there is a tendency to pile anecdote upon anecdote, as though the author is seduced by the rich material available to him. For example the series of vignettes about popular reaction to the outbreak of the war establish the variety of responses throughout Europe, but there is little attempt to assess how representative a person, say, like Itha J., a schoolteacher in Graz, was.

For the most part, however, Hastings deploys these anecdotes in the service of his arguments, which can leave the reader in little doubt about his view of his war, its outbreak, and the initial conduct of military operations. The book defends the decision of the British government to enter the war in 1914 on both political and moral grounds, as it faced an enemy, Germany, that was determined to extinguish democracy in Europe and prepared to flout the norms of civilised behaviour. The first part of the book examines the origins of the conflict, concentrating on the July crisis but placing it in the context of international relations in the early twentieth century. Though Hastings only briefly refers to other recent works, it is instructive to compare his argument with theirs. Christopher Clark showed how Europe went to war in 1914, focusing on the interaction of decisions taken in European capitals in the summer of 1914. To that extent, leaders in all belligerent states were responsible, though Clark places more emphasis than most other historians on the recklessness of French policy, the complicity of the Serbian government with the Black Hand plotters who assassinated Franz Ferdinand, and the destructive assertiveness of Russian policy. Sean McMeekin argued that Russian leaders exploited the July crisis to bring about a war in which they hoped to capture the prize of Constantinople. These works are highly revisionist, moving away from a consensus that stressed German and Austro-Hungarian responsibility.

Hastings rejects these new arguments and pins the blame first and foremost on Kaiser William II and the political and military leadership in Berlin. He depicts the Kaiserreich as a militarised autocracy that sought dominance in Europe before spreading its power around the globe. The naval build-up of the early twentieth century was part of this project for German world power status. On this reading German leaders were the troublemakers, while the sated imperial powers of Britain, Russia, and France were simply defending what they held. Moreover the expansionist instincts of William II and others were compounded by the militarised character of German foreign policy. Hastings draws on the work of Fritz Fischer, who published important monographs in the 1950s and 1960s, claiming that German leaders had planned for war and adopted grandiose war aims. In this narrative the other great powers were primarily defensive. While Fischer argued that German leaders planned war from December 1912, Hastings take a slightly more moderate view, noting that German leaders were “strikingly untroubled” by the prospect of a general European war. In other words, William II, his chief of general staff, Moltke, and others were willing to risk a general European war for several years before 1914. They viewed war as an opportunity, rather than a catastrophe to be avoided. In the July crisis, William II and his chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, not only failed to restrain the hawks in Vienna, they exploited the crisis with a view to establishing German dominance in Europe, either through a striking diplomatic victory or a successful war. British leaders sought to defend their empire, while the Tsarist regime’s support of Serbia was entirely justified. Hastings claims that there is no evidence that the Serbian government was complicit in the plot to assassinate the archduke, although his own evidence shows that sections of the Serbian military provided weapons and other support for the conspirators.

Hastings’s account of the origins of the war is central to his larger claim – that this was a war, from Britain’s perspective, worth fighting. The weight he places on German militarism and autocracy is to emphasise that the Kaiserreich posed not only a threat to Britain’s security but also to a wider set of liberal and humanitarian European values. Yet the Fischer thesis, on which Hastings rests so much weight, has been pulled apart in recent decades. Historians have shown that before 1914 the Kaiser was an impulsive figure, prone to bellicose language, but so opposed to war that his own generals mocked him as the “peace Kaiser”. Indeed, as Hastings shows, senior figures in Berlin in early July 1914 believed that a conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia would be localised. The desire for a limited local conflict, in which victory would bolster their Habsburg ally, hardly fits the picture of a German leadership bent on exploiting the crisis to initiate a war of conquest. Moreover the German empire’s bid for world power before 1914 was remarkably unsuccessful. While France established a protectorate in Morocco, Britain administered Egypt, and Russia dominated northern Persia, German colonial officials were much less economically or strategically significant. Were German leaders any less justified, from the perspective of the norms of late nineteenth century international politics, in seeking world power than British, French, and Russian leaders were in preserving or even expanding their colonial gains? In addition, recent research has emphasised that Germany had a vibrant civil society, participatory politics, and an embryonic welfare state that complicate long-held notions of an autocratic militarist state. Nor was the German brand of militarism unique in Europe. As Hastings himself shows, one of the most prominent challenges to civilian authority occurred in Britain, during the Curragh mutiny at the height of the Home Rule crisis, while soldiers shot civilians on Bachelors Walk in Dublin days before the outbreak of the war. Militaristic excess was not uniquely German – or British for that matter.

The German invasion of Belgium and northern France and the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia were accompanied by numerous atrocities against civilians. John Horne’s and Alan Kramer’s remarkable study of German atrocities in 1914 provides further grist for Hastings’s argument about the moral stakes in the war. He also documents the summary execution of Serbian civilians by Austro-Hungarian forces. Austro-Hungarian officers considered that civilian resistance to armies was illegal, even uncivilised, and that this justified extreme reprisals, such as the shooting of 120 inhabitants of the town of Šabac on August 17th. The issue, as Hastings explains, was that Serb forces had not tried to defend the town and only women, children, and the elderly remained ‑ remained to be executed. Austro-Hungarian conceptions of warfare as an affair of conventional military forces and negative images of Serbs transformed the whole Serbian nation into an enemy, which in turn justified these atrocities. He recounts similar atrocities, and rationales, amongst German officers in western Europe. These were “unmatched” in western Europe during the early twentieth century and “make it more difficult”, he claims, “to accept the indulgent view of some historians that a German victory in the conflict of 1914-18 would have been the triumph of a nation and a cause morally indistinguishable from those of the allies”. Hastings buttresses his argument by pointing out that Russian soldiers committed only a small number of atrocities during the invasion of East Prussia.

Russian forces, however, conducted pogroms against Jews in the borderlands of the Russian, German, and Habsburg empires, a story from which Hastings does not shy away. Here he makes the interesting case that this was a “colonial region”, with imperial masters ruling over minorities. He also notes the “consistently appalling” record of Belgian rule in the Congo, the “excesses” of British and French imperial rule, and the “sometimes deplorable” behaviour of British forces during 1920 and 1921 in Ireland. He provides the reader with sufficient context and evidence to arrive at their own conclusions. His argument can be amplified in two distinct ways. First the conduct of German armies in Belgium and northern France violated the moral order underpinning European politics in 1914. Violence against civilians within Europe was considered barbaric, whereas violence in the colonies was considered a product of particular social and geographical circumstances that removed moral and ethical restraints. On the eve of the war, imperial reformers and humanitarians were challenging this distinction between two moral geographies, one in Europe and one beyond, but undoubtedly the shock of violence and the German atrocities in 1914 led many Europeans to question whether Germany was part of a European moral order. It was no accident that the language of civilisation and barbarism, so pervasive in colonial discourses, came to frame the moral debate over the First World War. That said, it is not always clear whether Hastings is condemning German conduct from today’s point of view or making the point that German conduct outraged opinion in Europe in 1914. Second, though this lies outside the chronological framework of his book, it is significant that the Lloyd George government ultimately shied away from the unfettered use of military force to prevent the creation of the Irish Free State. Given the overwhelming military power available to Britain in 1921, it is worth asking not only why there were so many atrocities, but why there was not even greater repression. There was widespread criticism in Britain of the atrocities carried out by army and paramilitary forces in Ireland in 1920 and 1921. The condemnation of German barbarism during the First World War created a normative environment that restrained the use of military force in Ireland after 1919.

While Hastings’s account of German responsibility for the war and brutal conduct in the early months of the war provide the central arguments, his analysis of the military confrontations provide the narrative dynamism. His description of the battles are deft, while his assessments of the outcomes of the major confrontations are sound and measured. For example he shows how German forces transformed the situation in East Prussia in August 1914 to engineer victory over the Russian army at Tannenberg. Yet he notes this victory was not strategically decisive. Even a succession of victories in the summer of 1915 that led to the German and Austro-Hungarian occupation of Poland did not knock Tsarist Russia out of the. The German failure to win a quick victory in western Europe was confirmed by the French victory at the battle of the Marne. It was, as Hastings notes, a “turning point, a decisive moment” in the war, which transformed it into an attritional confrontation in which the superior resources of the Allies would eventually –together with considerable American support – prove decisive.

In general Hastings is very critical of the European military leadership in 1914. He dismisses Sir John French as a “poltroon”. He is particularly harsh on Moltke, one of the leading warmongers in Berlin before 1914, who lacked the character to see the conflict through. He had a nervous breakdown and was replaced after the defeat of the German army at the battle of the Marne. The French army suffered for its pre-war practice of promoting elderly or incompetent officers, though Hastings’s claim that the French army never really recovered from the initial battles in August 1914 seems to overstate the case, given their performance at the Marne, not to mention their leading role in defeating the German army in 1918. In Hastings’s view these military disasters resulted from a failure of imagination, from men wedded to outdated conceptions of warfare, including cavalry and bayonet charges. The gentlemanly mores of the upper classes and the fatal transfer of the ethos of sports field to the battlefield were among the reasons for the heavy casualties in 1914.

The optimism that had informed progressive politics in Europe and the United States persisted into the world war. One articulation of this was the notion that this was the war to end all wars. While HG Wells coined that particular phrase, Lloyd George gave substance to it in a speech in September 1914, promising “the emancipation of Europe from the thraldom of a military caste” and a “new Britain”. Such promises, Hastings argues, inflated popular expectations of the postwar settlement, leading to inevitable bitterness. Thus was borne the idea of the futility of the First World War, which, according to Hastings, was compounded by the experience of the second, in which there was no moral ambiguity and, for good measure, a host of postwar social reforms in Britain that rewarded the sacrifices made between 1939 and 1945. Hastings’s account of the moral purpose of Britain’s effort in the first major war of the century is forceful, often compelling, and occasionally too close to the perspectives of the participants on the Allied side. Most of all it marks an important contribution to our contemporary debate about the significance of the Great War.


William Mulligan is a lecturer in modern history at University College Dublin and a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin in 2013/4. His most recent book is The origins of the First World War (Cambridge UP, 2010).



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