1 – The Impact of the First World War
BSSB.BE boell.de 11.08.2016
The First World War was a calamity for Germany and Europe. The Second World War was an even bigger calamity for Germany and Europe. But without both World Wars there would be no European Union (EU) today. The EU has provided the essential infrastructure to deal with ‘the German Question’ – the role of the largest and most powerful state in Europe. When Europeans commemorate the Great War of 1914-18 this summer they should be reflecting not only on the diplomatic blunders and the enormous waste of lives but also the beginning of a new approach to international relations epitomised by the EU.
- The First World War destroyed empires, created numerous new nation-states, encouraged independence movements in Europe’s colonies, forced the United States to become a world power and led directly to Soviet communism and the rise of Hitler.
- Diplomatic alliances and promises made during the First World War, especially in the Middle East, also came back to haunt Europeans a century later. The balance of power approach to international relations was broken but not shattered. It took the Second World War to bring about sufficient political forces to embark on a revolutionary new approach to inter-state relations.
- After both wars Europe was exhausted and devastated. The difference was that the second major internecine war in Europe in a generation led to a profound change in political thinking, at least in Western Europe, about how states should conduct their relations.
- Die Stunde Null was the backdrop to the revolutionary ideas of the EU’s ‘founding fathers,’ statesmen such as Robert Schuman, Alcide De Gasperi, Jean Monnet who developed the novel idea of a community of states establishing a political system based on sharing sovereignty. This system has brought many benefits to Europeans but in recent years the system has been under challenge by the rise of Euroscepticism, populism and nationalism.
- As Europe reflects on the titanic struggle of 1914-18 it is important to recall the advances made since 1945 through European integration and redouble efforts to combat nationalist and extremist forces.
Responsibility for the Great War remains hotly debated today with very different dimensions of the war accentuated by the various combatants. What is incontestable, however, is the number of advances in science, technology and medicine, as well as the revolutionary changes in social behaviour that occurred as a result of the 1914-18 conflict.
The aristocracy was overthrown or its role greatly diminished. The socialist and labour movements seized the opportunity to make considerable advances; but so too did communism and fascism. Germany was at the centre of both failed experiments and was unable to achieve a peaceful unification as a democratic state until 1990.
But Germany’s neighbours have not forgotten Germany’s role in both World Wars and hence the burden of history weighs more heavily on German shoulders than for any other nation in Europe. Yet Germany has dealt with Vergangenheitsbewältigung better than any state in history; certainly much better than Japan or the Soviet Union/Russia.
Europeans should contrast and compare today’s Germany with that in 1914 or 1939 when they look back on the two calamitous wars of the twentieth century. Today’s Germany, embedded in the EU, is the most successful, progressive, democratic state in its entire history. All Europeans thus have a stake in the continued success of the EU as it provides a safe anchor for the most powerful state in Europe.
This paper considers how the 1914-18 war led to fundamental changes in European politics, economics and society, paving the way after 1945 for a historic new way of dealing with inter-state relations in Europe. It suggests that the horrors of the Great War remain alive in Europe today and colour the reluctance of most Europeans to resort to war to achieve political ends. It argues that the process of European integration has been extremely beneficial to Germany and that the German Question may finally be put to rest.
Who caused the War?
Part of the debate in today’s Europe about Germany goes back to the origins of both world wars. Many believe that because of Germany’s role in both World Wars it is too big to act as an independent nation state and has to be embedded in structures such as the EU and NATO for its own good.
Thousands of books have been written about the 1914-18 conflict with many seeking to apportion responsibility for the outbreak of war. The renowned German historian, Fritz Fischer, caused a sensation in the 1960s when he published a book Griff nach der Weltmacht claiming that Germany was primarily responsible for starting the war as it had secret ambitions to annex most of Europe.
In more recent times, historians such as Margaret Macmillan The War that Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War and Christopher Clark The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 have adopted more nuanced arguments. Macmillan agrees that Germany should bear much of the responsibility as it had the power to put pressure on its Austria-Hungary ally and stop the drift to war.
Clark argues that Germany, like the other major powers, sleep-walked into the war. Another famous historian, Neil Ferguson, has argued in The Pity of War that Britain should not have become involved as the stakes were too low and the ultimate costs too high.
What is perhaps more interesting is how the major powers involved have presented different narratives about their involvement in the Great War. In Germany the shame of the Nazi period including the Holocaust has meant that there has been little appetite to reflect about the 1914-18 conflict. For Russia, it is has always been the heroism and sacrifice of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45 that remain uppermost in the national psyche rather than the disasters of the First World War, including defeat and revolution.
Hungary still finds it difficult to accept the injustice of the Treaty of Trianon. Czechoslovakia gained its independence only to be swallowed up by Germany twenty years later. France views the war as a tragic but massive endeavour to save the motherland from Les Boches. The First World War certainly plays better in the French national memory than the defeat in 1940 followed by occupation and collaboration.
For Britain, the Second World War was the ‘good war’ whereas the rights and wrongs of Britain’s participation in the First World War were less clear – and are still debated today. Each year millions of Britons wear red poppies to commemorate Armistice Day and hold memorial services around war memorials on which the names of the dead in the First World War vastly outnumber those of the Second.
The controversies about the causes, strategies and consequences of the Great War remain matters of contemporary concern. In March 2014, the British education secretary, Michael Gove, tried to reclaim this year’s commemorations for those for whom the war was a just cause fought for liberal values. He complained that for too long the conflict had been portrayed as a series of catastrophic mistakes by an aristocratic elite.
The impact of the two world wars has been such that in other parts of the world politicians have been competing to draw analogies. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in February 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speculated that the Sino-Japanese territorial disputes over tiny rocky islands in the East China Sea might be analogous to the various crises that led to the outbreak of the First World War. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both likened Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimea to Nazi Germany’s annexation of the former Czechoslovakia in 1938.
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* Youtube – Noam Chomsky – Optimism. Avram American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, logician, social critic, and political activist. Sometimes described as “the father of modern linguistics”, Chomsky is also a major figure in analytic philosophy, and one of the founders of the field of cognitive science.
* Youtube – The Mike Wallace Interview: Erich Fromm (1958-05-25).
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