‘With others of my own contemporaries,’ Denys Hay once wrote, ‘I certainly found myself in the years after 1945 still preoccupied with aspects of warfare in other times (in my case the later Middle Ages) which would not, I believe, have caught my attention if I had not experienced life between 1939 and 1945.’ Another distinguished Medieval and Renaissance scholar, Hans Baron, first sketched his thesis about the early Florentine Renaissance being triggered by the threat of invasion from other Italian states while he was in London during the Blitz. Medievalists have always been aware of war and society as a continuum: modern studies, however, for long remained remarkably resistant to the pervasive, if not cataclysmic resonances of war. The first serious study of 20th-century Britain, Charles Loch Mowat’s Britain between the Wars (1955), neatly managed, as the title indicates, to steer between the century’s two total wars. Liberal British historians found wars very nasty and preferred either to avoid them altogether or to keep them in carefully compartmentalised sections of their books. How far things have changed can be seen from the title of Max Beloff’s Wars and Welfare: Britain 1914-1945, an excellent textbook, if you like that sort of thing, of political and diplomatic history.
The great boom in studies of war and society did not come till the mid-Seventies. Even then it was far from clear that a fully consummated marriage had been achieved between the two parents: military history was ‘softened’ by a concern for social relations, and social history ‘toughened’ with an awareness of war’s impact. The social history of modern war was very much a creation of the soft Sixties, although it drew on still earlier work in social science (Sorokin, Andreski and Janowitz), social policy (Richard Titmuss’s rather naive equation of ‘the Dunkirk spirit’ with social reform, for example, is now very familiar) and Medieval studies. In the early Sixties at Edinburgh University, I launched special subjects on ‘The War and the Welfare State in Britain 1939-1950’ and, later, ‘War and Social Change in 20th-century Europe and North America’, as well as publishing a couple of books. A.J.P. Taylor’s English History 1914-1945, which came out in 1965, was the first general history of its period to give proper emphasis to the effects of two world wars on British society; a few years later, Professor J.R. Western at Manchester University organised a course on war’s impact on society (it is from the essays in his honour, War and Society, 1970, edited by M.R.D. Foot, that the remark by Denys Hay is taken), and in 1969 Angus Calder published The People’s War. In the meantime, Michael Howard and Brian Bond, at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, widened the dimensions of the military history taught there.
In 1970 the ‘Fontana History of War and Society’ was launched (‘society’ meaning British or English society, rather as, before the days of commercial sponsorship, the Football League meant the English Football League – the ‘Fontana History of War and European Society’ did not appear for another dozen years). It was a false dawn: asked, according to the blurb-writer on the jacket of Britain and the Second World War, to deal with the question ‘what effect did the Second World War have on the life of this country,’ Henry Pelling insisted on writing a very straightforward (and very useful) textbook which made only the faintest show of engaging with the interrelationship between war and society. In 1973 (its third year in business) the Open University offered ‘War and Society’. This course (now defunct – at the Open all courses are as grass) set out to cover four topics: the causes of wars; the consequences of wars (including the debate over war and social change, and the relationship between war and literature and the arts); the different types of wars, as determined by the historical and technological environment – including the relationship between civil and military authorities (this was something of an afterthought and might well have merited a separate heading); and attempts to control or abolish war. As Open University materials could be fairly readily bought, borrowed or pinched, a flash-flood of ‘War and Society’ courses struck many of the polytechnics and other institutions of higher education. During the high of the mid-Seventies a seminar on ‘Armed Forces and Society’ met regularly in desirable spots under the benign aegis of Professor Janowitz, flown in specially from Chicago; Brian Bond and Ian Roy edited two volumes of the yearbook War and Society; the Anglo-Dutch Historical Society devoted an entire conference, as well as one of its annual volumes, to the same subject; and the War and Society Newsletter made its appearance. Much of the heady spirit, and all of the profit, has gone by now, of course: but Brian Bond’s War and Society in Europe, 1870-1970 is the third volume in the new Fontana series to appear since 1982, and last January the annual conference of the Social History Society had ‘War and Society’ as its topic. It did not begin, as it almost certainly would have done had it been held across the Channel, with some pedant asking: guerre et société, est-ce-que ça existe?
Not a bad question, all the same. The boom has not been without its crashes: there is said to be a particularly awful ‘War and Society’ course at the University of Durham, unspecific in its objectives and unstructured in its teaching. It is worth noting that the war and society publication with which Brian Bond was associated was subtitled ‘A Yearbook of Military History’; and Geoffrey Best, himself the author of the brilliantly original Humanity and Warfare (1980), states in his general preface to the new Fontana series that ‘war and society’ comes to much the same thing as ‘war in history’. While the Social History Society Conference discussed such topics as ‘the social processes of demobilisation’, ‘war, peace and technical change’, ‘women, war and social change’, and ‘the European family and the Great War’, it is clear that the ‘Fontana History’ remains essentially military history broadened, as Best puts it, by being subjected to ‘more critical inquiry than military men and their myriad admirers seemed likely to undertake, and with a recollection that war and peace were, after all, two sides of the same medal.’ In adhering to the policies set for the series, therefore, Brian Bond has inevitably written narrative history, though certainly narrative with all the strengths of drama, drive and clarity. Indeed, there is a natural storyline to his chosen period, with just enough hidden twists and moments of optimism to spice a tale of which the outcome would otherwise be oppressively clear. Was Europe in 1870, with the unification of the German Empire, already set on a course for war, with military operations more destructive and less respectful of civilian rights than ever before? Bond’s perceptive answer is that a kind of conservative internationalism was still an important force for peace even if the mid-century wars had threatened a new era of aggressive nationalism; he notes the ruthlessness of Germany’s suppression of any French civilians who might be francs-tireurs (though the worst barbarities were perpetrated by Frenchmen on Frenchmen in the systematic massacres of the Communards), but also the continuing initiatives to humanise warfare.
In Chapter Two, ‘The Arming of Nations, c. 1880-1900’, the pace intensifies, yet, as Bond rightly stresses, ‘faith in material progress and optimism about the future of European civilisation remained buoyant for another decade.’ ‘The Approach to Armageddon, c. 1900-14’ emphasises what today would be accepted by most scholars – the special responsibility of Germany in giving total support to Austria-Hungary in her quarrel with Serbia. While patiently insisting that military planners are not invariably and at all times buffoons, Bond shows how faith in the offensive led to miscalculation and a dismissal of the possibility of a war of entrenchments. The scene in 1914 was one of ‘a strange combination of psychological preparedness and material unpreparedness’. The French made no special plans to protect the Briey area, which produced 75 per cent of their iron ore, and this fell to the Germans without fighting in the first week of August 1914. There is little cheer to be found in ‘The Twenty-Year Truce, 1919-39’: ‘Britain’s central dilemma was strictly insoluble; she was a declining economic power with world-wide responsibilities faced by three potential enemies in Germany, Japan and Italy.’ The tragedy on the outbreak of war was that the Allies’ ‘unpreparedness to wage a limited war in the short term meant that they could only hope for victory in a long and total war.’ But for Bond, there was no alternative to that long and total war: ‘the Second World War drives home the lesson that there are causes worthy of such sacrifices.’ Furthermore it is ‘cynical or careless’ to say that wars settle nothing: the Nazis and their Fascist allies were beaten. Since the final chapter, on ‘Post-War Europe’, ends at 1970, it does not engage with the new debate over nuclear weaponry which the unsettling of earlier assumptions by technological innovation has instigated in the last few years. The European powers have reached a kind of civilisation, in that the calculations which all of the powers were prepared to make in 1914 simply would not obtain today; unhappily that is not true for vast sectors of the rest of the world.
Bond feels that for the Second World War the distinction between war and society can scarcely be maintained. He suggests ‘war in European society’. I believe that the distinction which should be drawn is between ‘society at war’ and ‘society not at war’; only by a careful analysis of the pressures, necessities and circumstances operating on ‘society at war’ which do not operate on ‘society not at war’ can we begin to understand the social consequences of war. Bond recognises that there are social consequences, but goes into little detail. This may be a drawback for some ‘War and Society’ syllabuses, where the issue is still very much on the agenda. Feminist and socialist historians, recently, have been very active in denying any great significance to war in, say, bringing about any alleged emancipation of women or movement towards social welfare. In effect, Bond has nothing to say on these issues.
To go back to the four topics featured in the 1973 ‘War and Society’ course, it would be proper to recognise that Bond deals with the causes of the two total wars (though, perhaps wisely, he doesn’t go into any general theories), with consequences (though more in geo-political than in social terms), with the technological context of war, with civil-military relations, and with attempts to control war. To these topics he adds excellent material on strategic and military planning, and on the relationship of armies to their host societies. I still crave a more analytical and a more social approach: but if Geoffrey Best is the Schlieffen in this case, Dr Bond has proved infinitely more successful than the younger Moltke.
The non-military historians of war and society aimed at a total history which would bring out the social consequences of war. Yet, sitting on the edge of nuclear holocaust, do we really care about the precise significance of modern war in challenging the patriarchal family or dislocating existing social structures? Michael Howard, with that clean self-deprecating wit, the authentic méthode champenoise he applies to all his writings, admits, when speaking of his essay on ‘The Causes of Wars’, that ‘no one can describe the topic... as a neglected and understudied one.’ Clearly, in our current predicament, it is a vital one; and this paperback reprint of The Causes of Wars, and Other Essays, a collection of lectures and articles first published last year, is very welcome, not least for the additional essay ‘Weapons and Peace’ which effectively challenges the facile analogue, much in fashion today, between our situation and the arms race of the years before 1914. From his specialist standpoint in military history, Professor Howard shows that only by grappling with the totality of history can we attempt to understand the problems which currently face us. I’d make him set reading for any course on War and Society or on the Nuclear Debate.
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