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Rundle: ever returning the guns of August can’t give WWI meaning

On the 100th anniversary of World War One, the world revives a fundamental forgetting of what the war was — a failure to find a way to act out of humanity.

One hundred years ago, the guns in Europe swung around, and the troop trains began filling en route for the border. Across the world, the outpost of a half-dozen European empires were put on alert. From Mitteleuropa to India to Papua New Guinea, territories became frontiers, and the world started on a way that would end with the the gas mask, the trench and the iron of tanks, in 5000 or 10,000 or 20,000 deaths a day — horrifying, pitiful deaths, known for days or weeks or months beforehand, by young men who had barely had lives.

The horror of it, when it became known in the post-war years, was enough to start a worldwide pacifist movement and a resistance to being marched to war that was then faced — as a bitter reversal of fortune — with the one incontestably, genuinely, radically evil movement of the century.

For a few decades, while World War I was in living memory, there was some separation between the two. It was easy to see that World War II was a conflict with a meaning attached to it, while its predecessor was one whose meaning, gift to the world, was to underscore the futility and ignobility of conflict.

It is impossible to recall from the 1970s and ’80s — the last years when WWI diggers were around in any numbers — anyone trotting out the official lines that had mobilised them in the first place. They had faded away into the sepia records of the time. It was only when they had all gone, the actual witnesses to the thing, that people felt once again free to sell World War I as some sort of meaningful and moral event.

That effort is partly driven by that punier conflict — the culture wars and the attempt to revive unthinking patriotism — but it has also been put in service of the Atlantic alliance and the idea that the United Kingdom and the United States somehow represent the soul of Western freedom and purpose. This has been particularly so since the Iraq War, when continental Europe by and large refused to be mobilised, and the UK and the US represented themselves as those that would wearily, once again, retrieve the laurels of peace, etc, etc.

By this argument, WWI was a struggle against a bestial and otiose enemy, Germany, which had for decades been let off the hook because propaganda against it over the invasion of Belgium  had been taken as the perfect example of public manipulation. Now, we are told, stories of Germans bayoneting babies was less untrue than we had thought — and fitted in with notions of German supremacy and plans for world conquest. The new model of the war was that the Kaiser’s Germany was proto-Hitlerian in its bounding ambition and notions of racial destiny.

Any fair reading of the period leading up to the war has to conclude that it is Britain that is a principal culprit in turning imperial rivalries into actual conflict.”

Much of this judgement is true; it is also irrevelant to the actual drift to war and its eventual ignition. Sections of the German government may have had plans in their drawer for world domination, but these had always been unreal fantasies. There was no real prospect of keeping France for any length of time, even had they won it; no prospect of expanding indefinitely eastwards against Russia; and Germany’s ability to colonise had been restricted by the British navy. The war was sparked in part by German defensiveness and a notion that it was being encircled by the Anglo-French-Russian alliance, whose combined industrial might and manpower far outreached that of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Indeed, any fair reading of the period leading up to the war has to conclude that it is Britain that is a principal culprit in turning imperial rivalries into actual conflict. It was Britain that, from the 1880s onwards, used its navy and its newly established colonies in an obvious attempt to control world trade and the expansion of other colonial empires. The British stymied much of Germany’s expansion in Africa, sabotaged business dealings between German commerce and the Ottoman Empire, and started the second Boer War largely over Germany’s financial involvement with the Boer republic.

The revisionist histories of the conflict ignore all of that — and that is their purpose. They serve the time-honoured role of presenting Western or US-UK activity as purely neutral in character, when its overwhelming strategy is encirclement. Thus, the Russia-Ukraine issue is a tiny replay of WWI. Our manifold attempts to encircle Russia with NATO are left out of the equation, and foreign policy heads speculate grimly on the Russian bear. Does it want the Middle East? Does it want Alaska? Is Putin a weird, psychotic cultist against whom we must mobilise?

Fortunately no one is quite crazy enough to mobilise anymore. But in 1914 they were. In trying to give the war a one-sided morality, the revisionists then ignore any moral question about what you do when the war you have started becomes a catastophe. That the German army behaved more brutally than the British is without question. But the British were allied with the Russians, and their march westward resulted in the the creation of a massive, rolling anti-Jewish pogrom that left thousands of civilians murdered and nearly a million refugees on the march.

Furthermore, and most importantly, to take a de-moralised view of WWI is to abandon any notion of humanity for the soldier, whether conscript or voluneteer — to see them as no more than khaki units to be numbered and spent. But this is to simply conform morality to military strategy. By 1915, it was clear that the Allied High Command had instituted a strategy of attrition on the western front. They’d done the sums and realised they could beat Germany in a game of mutual slaughter. And that is exactly what they practised year-on-year.

How is it that in all the discussion of the bloody century that followed, this does not join the tally of radical evil? It was a strategy drawn from imperialism — where native troops could be spent without compunction — and turned on the working class of one’s own country, seen as an indefinite supply of machine-gun fodder. Why are Field Marshal Douglas Haig, Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George not enrolled in those guilty of crimes against humanity on a vast scale? The moral course open to the British, when it was clear what the war had become, was a staged withdrawal. To say there was no real political chance of that happening  does not absolve anyone from a choice that was there.

It’s a reckoning that never appears in the writings of the ergonomic chair generals who now re-fight it for a new generation — a fundamental forgetting of what the war was, an opportunist political game gone wrong, that became quite another order of events. The true meaning of it is the failure of anyone within high command to find a way to act out of humanity, rather than locked in an inherited servitude to nation. It is that unthinking, unreflective patriotism — for the West, for Christians, for Israel — that they are trying to revive now, ever turning and returning the guns of August, and marching as tourists over the mass graves of Passchendaele.

17
  • 1
    DF
    Posted Monday, 4 August 2014 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Too simplistic Guy. Read “A World Undone” by GJ Meyer. Germany was the last of the Euro powers to mobilise.

  • 2
    Pamela
    Posted Monday, 4 August 2014 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Once again Guy you have nailed an unpalatable truth- now that the old soldiers have passed on the war is getting the glorification treatment.
    My Grandfather was one of the lads who went off to war full of bravado from a sheep property out in the mulga.
    He wrote very briefly about it when he was 90 years old. It was not pretty. He wrote too of the broken lives of men who returned and took up the grog as a means of living with the demons which possessed them.
    Then of course the way was built for WW 11- another bastard of a war.

  • 3
    wayne robinson
    Posted Monday, 4 August 2014 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    DF,

    I agree that it’s too simplistic. And I agree that that ‘a World Undone’ is worth reading for its coverage of the entire war, not just the outbreak.

    Germany bears a lot of the responsibility though in making it absolutely clear to France that a Russian mobilisation was equivalent to a declaration of war - but didn’t tell Russia, which then blithely mobilised. And Germany had just the one plan in case of war- the von Schlieffen plan, which was predicated on rapidly defeating France before having to deal with Russia.

    It had no plans for mobilising just against Russia.

    Germany was terrified - wrongly - about the Russian steamroller.

  • 4
    j.oneill
    Posted Monday, 4 August 2014 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    DF and WR: I agree. Germany is too easily painted as the chief culprit here when much of the blame really lies at the feet of the British and the French who were determined to suppress German economic growth at the expense of their own position in the world (complete with colonies).

    It is also worth noting among the hoopla of remembering 4.8.1914 that on 4 August 1964 (50 years ago) the americans claimed (falsely) that their warship the UUS Maddox had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin. That lead to the carte blanche resolution in the US congress and the launching of a real war against Vietnam. That we don’t even note that incident in the media today is a measure of how inured we have become to endless false flag incidents providing justification for yet another American war.

    That is significant because (a) Australia is always too willing to jump in boots and all just like in 1914, and (b) the stage is being set in Ukraine with the MH17 incident (which curiously Crikey won’t examine further) for yet another blunder into war. This time however, it is likely to be a nuclear war, and that will have no winners, notwithstanding the insane plans of the neo-cons.

  • 5
    jmendelssohn
    Posted Monday, 4 August 2014 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    The book to read is surely Erich Maria Remarque’s I’m Westen nichts Neues, aka All Quiet on the Western Front. Perhaps also a visit to Remarque’s home town of Osnabruck which celebrates the value of peace and the folly of war - and strips bare the lies told to soldiers so that they kill.

  • 6
    jmendelssohn
    Posted Monday, 4 August 2014 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Autocorrect text typo! Im Westen nichts Neues.

  • 7
    Observation
    Posted Monday, 4 August 2014 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    I am not sure if the Germans were more brutal or inhumane during WW1. At least they buried the allied dead and recorded their where abouts. The British on the other hand made no such effort.

  • 8
    Lubo Gregor
    Posted Monday, 4 August 2014 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Nailed it. And eloquently as always.

  • 9
    Lubo Gregor
    Posted Monday, 4 August 2014 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Oh, just read the other comments. Memories of Remarque’s novel send shivers down my spine even after some 20 years when I read it as part of my compulsory reading list at high school.

    “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” ― Edmund Burke

  • 10
    Gratton Wilson
    Posted Monday, 4 August 2014 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Why aren’t John Howard, Tony Blair, George Bush, Linden Johnston, Robert Menzies and Harold Holt enrolled with those guilty of crimes against humanity? They lied to us to force us into wars of devastating acts of inhumanity waged on people who had done us no harm.

  • 11
    The Cleaning Lady
    Posted Monday, 4 August 2014 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    The motto chosen by the veterans of WWI for their membership organisations (RSL) in 1918 was “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom” (variations thereof). I find myself considering the contemporary applications of that.

    Senator Scott Ludlam has reintroduced a bill to put the decision to go to war in the hands of the parliament, not the government of the day. Worth considering. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/17/the-australian-parliament-must-have-the-power-to-decide-if-we-go-to-war and http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Bills_Legislation/Bills_Search_Results/Result?bId=s970

  • 12
    Jaybuoy
    Posted Monday, 4 August 2014 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    brace yourselves for eight months of complete anzac glorification by people who have never been closer to a war than reruns of saving private Ryan on television..the late governor of Tasmania will be sorely missed..if you thought Abbott grandstanded over the planes you aint seen nuthin yet…

  • 13
    DF
    Posted Monday, 4 August 2014 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Wayne - I agree the Schlieffen Plan locked Germany into attacking France because that was the only course for their mobilisation but that is because they feared if they mobilised against Russia alone then France would come at them from behind. They figured Russia would take 6 weeks to mobilise and gambled on a blitzkreig to Paris within that time, so they could neutralise the threat from France and concentrate on the four millions strong Russian Army. HItler followed a similar strategy 25 years later.
    With regard to France not informing Russia that Russian mobilisation would force Germany to mobilise and mobilisation meant first the invasion of France via Belgium, it was my understanding that the fault for not informing the Russians lies with the French Ambassador in St Petersburg, whose personal view was that it would be in France’s interests for Germany to be weakened and thus did not pass along messages Paris was sending. In addition, first cousins Tsar “Nicky” and Kaiser “Willy” were writing to each other personally in trying to find a way around the stupid, stubborn, devious and vainglorious politicians and military leaders, in particular the real villains of the piece in Vienna, especially War Minister Conrad von Hotzendorf.

  • 14
    Posted Monday, 4 August 2014 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    GUY: Most informative article.

    Who, apart from the sponsors of every known product to be thought of; politicians who stand next to a badger if it meant a photo opportunity, and lord mayors of provincial towns, benefits from these orgiastic drum-rolling and bugle playing occasions?

  • 15
    rhwombat
    Posted Tuesday, 5 August 2014 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    …Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
    But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
    And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

  • 16
    RoseL
    Posted Tuesday, 5 August 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Exactly, wombat. Wilfred Owen should be required reading. “Dulce et Decorum Est”.

  • 17
    Mick Handcock
    Posted Tuesday, 5 August 2014 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    The thing that bothers me about reporting of WW1 is that we never seem to hear the full story. Yesterday’s ABC story on the commencing of commemorations mentioned the 60,000 Australians killed - but not one mention of the millions lost from the combined other forces and civilians in Europe. Why is that? Are they frightened we cannot handle the truth? the war was a tragedy for Australia and this cannot be underestimated, but so it was for all countries involved and many of these countries lost far more in deaths of soldiers an civilians….

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