Friday, December 23, 2016

Propaganda as History

So, earlier this week I was startled to come across a piece on Talking Points Memo claiming that it was now well-known that the fault for bringing about World War I was all Germany's.

here's the link.

And here's a string of quotes that more or less sum up the author's thesis:

"our collective understanding of what happened 
during the so-called 'July Crisis' of 1914* 
is basically wrong"

far from being "a ruinous war that none of the powers 
actually wanted but were unable to avoid", 
Marshall claims that "World War I was 
engineered deliberately by Germany"

"the actual war . . . happened because 
Germany wanted to go to war"

a little later he muddles his point somewhat 
by claiming of the Germans that 

"they did not want a war with Great Britain 
[but] were willing to risk it"

This seems to me demented. I'm not a WWI scholar, but I have read a good deal of material relating to the war (or as they used to call it, The War) over the years -- the kind of things everyone with a Ph.D. in twentieth century British literature shd know as the general background to the period and a specific major element in the lives of many of the writers of the period, such as Ford Maddox Ford, Hemingway, Dunsany, and of course Tolkien.**

Contemporary propaganda presented it as a war to end all wars (a concept Tolkien personally scoffed at) or a war to save democracy from Der Kaiser (a rationale seriously compromised by England's alliance with Czarist Russia, the most repressive Great Power of its time).

As far back as the mid 1930s, revisionist history was swinging round to the idea that England had played a large, if not the largest, role in seizing upon the crisis and deliberately turning it into a war.
There is ample evidence that the British Empire (which we shd remember was the largest, most powerful country in the world at the time) saw in Imperial Germany a rival who had to be destroyed while there was still time (exactly the motives Marshall ascribes in his post to Germany). So widespread was this notion that there was a thriving sub-genre of literature in England of England-conquered-by-Germany stories in the years just before the outbreak of the war (for a famous example, see Saki's WHEN WILLIAM CAME). Combine this with the thesis presented by George Dangerfield in his seminal 1935 work THE STRANGE DEATH OF LIBERAL ENGLAND -- that Britain seized upon the continental crisis as a way out of an internal crisis -- and a v. strong case can be made for England's being in exactly the position Marshall claims for Germany.

Of course, it's extremely unlikely it was a simple either/or (good England/bad Germany OR good Germany/bad England). The truth is probably something resembling Geoffrey Wawro's well-argued thesis for both combatants in the Franco-Prussian war a generation before: that both Napoleon III's empire and the rising Prussian state had excellent internal motivations for going to war with each other -- to divert attention away from a failing imperial state in France's case, and to bring independent small German states (Bavarians, Hessians, Saxons, etc) into the fold in Prussia's case -- and were seeking pretexts to trigger that war. Add in France's desire to take back some border provinces annexed by the Germans in 1871, Russia's longterm plan to control the Balkans, Austria's fighting back against what they saw as state-sponsored terrorism on the behalf of Serbia, and you have a case where most of the combatants wanted the war either as a milestone on long-range plans or as offering an opportunity to seize some immediate benefit. None of them had any idea what they were doing, how many millions upon millions they were sending to their deaths. And I'm not sure that knowledge would have stopped them if they had.

Still, it's a fascinating and complex issue, and I'd be interested in hearing what others thought of the It-Was-All-Germany's-Fault thesis.

--John R.

WorldWar I: "It was a group effort".

*i.e., Tuchman's thesis that an interlocking system of alliances more or less inexorably propelled the various nations into war

**not to mention its biggest impact, the death in the trenches of writers like the great poet Edward Thomas, short story writer H. H. Munro ("Saki"), fantasist Wm Hope Hodgson, and too many others to mention


Paul W said...

I think you are refering to the Fischer thesis.

For myself, I don't think you can go wrong on WWI history if you start with Holger Herwig's work:

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Paul

Yes, the article I link to explicitly calls out revisionist historian Fritz Fischer as his source. I'm a bit bemused to find, with just a little digging, that Fischer also believed that the Lutherans were a major contributing factor to the start of World War II).

My own suspicion is that despite Marshall's certainty we're dealing in his piece with something more like the blind men and the elephant.

Thanks for pointing me in the direction of the Holger Herwig book, which looks like just the sort of thing I was looking for.

--John R.

Paul W said...

Fischer found a lot of primary source material that was very damning. The linked article was far more sensationalist than you would fine at the Society for Military History conference, but most would not completely disagree.

Myself, I think blame definitely can go around, the French were eager for Alsace-Lorraine, the Russians eager to reverse losses in the Balkans.

I think the simple explanation is best. Acting on direct orders from Serbia, Gavrillo Princip lit the fuse that blew up Europe.

And it worked for the Serbs, they did get Yugoslavia out of it.