Posted tagged ‘First World War’

War – and when memories become history

November 13, 2018

As absolutely everyone knows, we have just marked the centenary of the armistice that ended the First World War. We saw or heard about the various commemorations and ceremonies, and once more the Great War became alive. Peter Jackson’s extraordinary film, They Shall Not Grow Old, has added a new dimension of immediacy, a sense that we can see and hear and almost smell the trenches and the men who served in them.

I belong to the generation of people who remember talking with those who lived through the First World War. When I was a schoolboy in Ireland I occasionally got a lift by car from a local gentleman, appropriately called Mr Pickup, who fought in the war and was fascinated to meet a German. He had, as he told me, shot many Germans (and was nearly shot on some occasions by Germans), but had never spoken to one. I devoured his fascinating and compelling accounts of the fighting in France.

Both my grandfathers fought in the Great War, but I never knew either of them because they had died before I was born. One of my grandmothers told me stories of life in Berlin during the war. And there was Mr Pickup. But time moves on. Generations who could tell of their lives in the war passed away, leaving those like me who weren’t there but heard about it from those who were. And eventually there will not be anyone alive who was there our who heard directly from people who were. And at that point the war passes from memory to history.

Memories are precious, and provide rich materials for historians. But they are also personal, and carry with them the anguish and terror, as well as the pride and glory, of the experience. They keep all this alive, but also keep alive the impressions of contemporary politics, in which objectivity was not a huge concern. I grew up with the view, stated as fact, that the Great War was started by Germany in unprovoked aggression. More recent historical analyses (for example The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark) offer a more complex view. Whatever the judgement might be, it is better offered from evidence than from experience.

It is right, indeed it is crucial, that we remember and honour those who sacrificed themselves or were sacrificed in war. But these are experiences we must hope will not be repeated. To achieve that, history needs to take over where memories once dominated.


A hundred years on, lest we forget

August 5, 2014

A few years ago I needed some emergency dental treatment while on a visit to Germany. As I was waiting for my turn in the dentist’s surgery I picked up an old book from the shelves there and was immediately engrossed in it. It was the autobiography of a major scholar who became Rector (Principal/President/Vice-Chancellor) of an Austrian university in 1913. In June 1914 he was about to preside over a graduation ceremony for 52 graduands. As he was entering the aula maxima, an assistant whispered to him that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, had just been assassinated in Sarajevo.

In his autobiography he wrote that he had an immediate sense of the potentially awful consequences of this act, but he continued to conduct the ceremony, and gave a short speech in Latin on the benefits of education. What he did not know then was that, of his 52 graduands, 40 would die during the 1914-18 Great War. He himself (a Jew) would spend much of the Second World War in a concentration camp (although he survived it), while one of the twelve surviving graduands would be tried for war crimes in 1946. He himself wrote his autobiography in 1947, and he died two years later at the age of 86. He wrote of that day in 1914: ‘The waves and torrents of history were about to engulf us, and I knew it. But I could only say a few platitudes about the civilising power of education.’

As we reflect on the events of 1914 and all that follows, it may be worth remembering that a reference to the civilising power of education is not a platitude. It is, sometimes, all that we have, and it is everything.

Perhaps I can end this post with a short family note. The photo below is of my grandfather, a Lieutenant in the German army during the Great War. He made history by being the first in the history of warfare to drop a bomb from a plane; it landed in the Vicarage garden in Dover, thankfully hurting nobody. On 10 November 1918, just before the war ended, he was hit in the face by shrapnel. The somewhat basic treatment available at the time involved the insertion of a metal alloy to replace parts of his broken jaw. This subsequently proceeded to poison his blood and he died a few years later of the complications. May we all heed the lessons of that terrible war, and of all wars.

Lieutenant Alfred von Prondzynski

Leutnant Alfred von Prondzynski

Getting to grips with history

January 3, 2011

What strong opinion did Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler have in common? They both emphatically disapproved of the Versailles Treaty, which set out peace terms after the end of the First World War.

Negotiations for the Treaty began 92 years ago in January 1919, and it was eventually signed on June 28, 1919. Under its provisions Germany had to accept sole responsibility for the War; it lost substantial territory in both the West and the East, had restrictions imposed on its armed forces, and was obliged to pay compensation (‘reparations’); the latter amounted to 132 billion Marks (over €300 billion in today’s money), and the final payment was not made until September 2010.

The Versailles Treaty continues to determine the borders of what we might call Western Europe; the East was set by the Potsdam Treaty after World War 2, and by the post-Communist re-arrangements after 1989. But beyond that, Versailles is the basis, good and bad, for what became of Europe. It became the issue on which Hitler built his career, and in turn the actions of the ‘Third Reich’ and their consequences determined pretty much everything that followed. Indeed if, as some argue, Europe is in terminal decline, Versailles is possibly also connected with that.

Versailles clearly did not excuse the terrible things Hitler did, but did it create the conditions whereby he was able to do them? This issue is still debated by historians, and there are two schools of thought: those who argue that the Treaty’s excessively harsh and unreasonable terms set up the disasters that were to follow; and those who believe that the Treaty’s terms were rather mild and could, if anything, be faulted in that they didn’t dismantle German power enough. And then, did Germany alone cause the First World War? Or could it be said that all the original combatants were equally responsible?

Whatever version of history may be right, it seems to me to be clear that the Treaty of Versailles is one of the most important documents of recent European history, and I am regularly amazed at how few people know anything at all about it. Maybe it is felt that the European Union put an end to the tensions and currents that made Versailles significant. But as the European project comes under stress, it may be important for us to understand how we all got here, and what dangers and risks are out there should everything fall apart. It is time for Versailles to get a little more attention.

What we learn from history

August 1, 2010

Today, August 1, is the 96th anniversary of the effective outbreak of the First World War. On this day in 1914, Germany declared war on Russia, in implementation of one of the complex alliances that had been formed in Europe over the early years of the 20th century. As most readers will know, just over a month earlier a Serbian nationalist had assassinated Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Hapsburg throne in Austro-Hungary; the latter country eventually initiated hostilities against Serbia, which prompted Serbian supporter Russia to mobilise, which prompted the German declaration of war on Russia, which prompted French mobilisation against Germany – you get the idea. Before long 2-3 million troops from various countries (including Ireland) were sitting in trenches in France and Belgium in a mad war of attrition, while in the East bloody battles raged.

The First World War was a war of failed politics, military stagnation, and new military technology. It ended with the Treaty of Versailles, the ill-judged terms of which helped to prompt the Second World War.

Politically, the Great War put in place the building blocks that were to find their fullest development in the second half of the century: the emergence of the United States as the dominant western power (largely on the back of the major war debts that the old colonial powers had to the US); and the emergence of new ideological politics flowing from the establishment of the Soviet Union. The War might also have taught that while technological warfare can be very effective in battle, it does not solve problems arising from the political fall-out.

The First World War was one of the great defining moments of history. The lessons from it need to be repeated regularly and re-learnt.

Historical complexities

June 4, 2009

Today, June 4, marks the anniversary of the death in 1941 of the last German Kaiser (Emperor), Wilhelm II. Born in 1859 of a German father (Prince Friedrich Wilhelm) and an English mother (Princess Victoria), he was the grandson of Queen Victoria of Britain – apparently her favourite grandson, at her bedside when she died. He became Kaiser in 1888, and ruled Germany until his abdication at the end of the First World War in November 1918. For the rest of his life he lived in exile in the Netherlands, where he died in 1941, ironically when the Netherlands were under Nazi German occupation.

The view of Wilhelm in European history is not flattering. Acknowledged as intelligent and skilled, he was however regarded as weak and, on the whole, unequal to the task that fell on him due to his birth. Shortly after becoming Kaiser he dismissed the wily Bismarck, and what followed in German politics was often confusing and sometimes belligerent. In most European history books Wilhelm, with his craving for German naval power in particular, is portrayed as a warmonger who caused the First World War. He lost power when the German people, tired of a war they were not winning, started to rebel, after he had already lost real power to the generals.

It would not occur to me to suggest an alternative view of history, and I am certainly no advocate for German monarchy or imperialism. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Wilhelm was not the cartoon villain as which he was portrayed during and after the First World War. He was almost certainly out of his depth, but not evil. Some of his early actions, for example, included the repeal of Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws, and during the 1930s he made clear his dislike of the Nazis after they had assumed power. On the day of the anti-Jewish pogroms of of the Kristallnacht in 1938 he expressed his shame at being German. In 1940, as the German army was advancing into the Netherlands, he was offered (and after consideration turned down) asylum in Britain by Churchill, declaring that as the Dutch had been good to him he would not desert them in their crisis.

The events of the early 20th century were more complex than popular history sometimes claims, and it may perhaps be argued that a failure to recognise those complexities contributed to the climate in which fascism in Europe could grow and flourish. The need to bathe history in propaganda, which is often felt just after crisis points in international relations, should subside over time. It may be good to review the life and times of Wilhelm II more dispassionately., without of course overlooking the things he did which caused or contributed to human suffering; but in the latter he was certainly not alone.