Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy 
by David Stevenson.
Basic Books, 564 pp., £26.50, June 2004, 0 465 08184 3
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The Great War seems far off, the world before 1914 even further. We find it hard to believe that men and women cheered in the streets as Europe lurched towards war that July, that the men who poured onto the battlefields in their millions talked the language of duty, and that Canadians, New Zealanders and Australians travelled across the world to help the ‘mother country’. Perhaps that is why the books and documentaries spill out and so many tourists make the trip to the cemeteries and battlefields of the Western Front.

There is more to it than that, though. The war marks a break in the history of the West, although not in the form of a simplistic comparison between the sunny Edwardian age and the dark 1920s and even darker 1930s. For George Kennan, it was ‘the great seminal catastrophe’. The world before 1914 was no doubt doomed to change: social pressures and nationalisms challenged the old order and even, in the case of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, their existence. The great Western empires, which depended on the consent of the governed, faced demands for self-government. Yet without the war, the changes might have taken different, less violent directions. European society would not have been brutalised by four years of slaughter and hatred. Russia might well have avoided Bolshevism. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed in the 1990s, one historian wrote that the First World War was finally over.

It continues to haunt Europe – and continues to draw historians. We now know a lot more about the Eastern Front or about the experiences of ordinary men and women, thanks to the work of historians such as Norman Stone, Hew Strachan, Annette Becker and Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau. With Cataclysm, David Stevenson draws on much recent work to provide a comprehensive account of the war, with a welcome interest both in the non-European theatres and in the home fronts. His book is also part of a more general attempt to rethink the meaning of the Great War and situate it in the history of the 20th century.

Like many of his fellow historians, Stevenson challenges much of the accepted wisdom – for example, that the generals had no ideas about how to break the deadlock – yet the prevalent view of the war remains under the influence of the highly critical literature of the late 1920s and early 1930s, with its emphasis on the horrors of the trenches and its portrayal of a futile struggle for obscure or ignoble ends, managed by inept political leaders and unimaginative generals. How many of us saw Oh! What a Lovely War with a slight sense of superiority to the people of the past, so easily duped?

Stevenson argues persuasively that we must believe that men and women meant what they said when they talked about duty and sacrifice, that they accepted the war, even willingly. In France, where the authorities expected 13 per cent of their reserves to refuse mobilisation in 1914, the actual rate was 1.5 per cent, so few as to be almost meaningless. We remember the mutinies in the French army or the housewives’ protests, but we overlook the fact that in virtually all the nations involved, support for the war and discipline in the military held year after year. It was not merely the result of official propaganda, which was usually inept. Propaganda often came ‘from below’, in the form of posters and postcards, sermons and poems.

Soldiers did not fight just because they were afraid of their officers. The toughest discipline was in the Italian army, which had the highest rate of desertion among the Allies. Soldiers fought for something. Indian soldiers, as their letters reveal, for honour, the British for king and country. As one French soldier said simply, ‘I do not want to become a Boche.’ His fellow soldiers who mutinied in 1917 did so more because they did not want to die in futile attacks than to stop the war itself. For Germans, the war was about saving their land from the Slavic menace to the east or, as many intellectuals maintained, for the deeper spirituality of Germany and against the arid ideas of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. As Hew Strachan rightly says in The First World War, ‘the fact that other ideas and ideologies now seem foreign to us does not deny their charge for those who went to war in 1914. Hindsight of this sort fosters arrogance, not understanding.’*

The consensus, dating back decades, that no one was really to blame for the war is also now under attack. The Germans, it was once said, had been quite right to resent the ‘war guilt’ clause in the Treaty of Versailles which laid the responsibility on Germany. In the 1960s, however, Fritz Fischer caused an uproar by arguing that the German government was indeed responsible for starting the war. He pointed to Germany’s war aims as evidence to confirm that the government and High Command were engaged in a determined bid for dominance in Europe. He was attacked from both the left and the right. More recently, Strachan and David Fromkin in his book Europe’s Last Summer have repeated and amplified the charges against Germany, first for allying itself to Austria-Hungary, with all its internal weaknesses and external quarrels, and, second, for giving it a blank cheque to finish off Serbia after the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne.

Stevenson comes down firmly on their side, while admitting that the atmosphere in Europe had much to do with creating the conditions in which war became possible. The arms race, nationalist passions, the endless crises, in the Balkans and elsewhere, fears that the other side might be pulling ahead, formed a ‘reinforcing circle’ and the statesmen, worn down by it all, were eventually ready to think that a short sharp war might solve something. (There was always a danger that something similar would happen in the Cold War: fortunately ‘thinking the unthinkable’ required an even greater leap of faith.) In the vivid German word – Selbstentmannung – used by the then chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, a great power which refrains too long from acting castrates itself. The infamous ‘war guilt’ clause was right: Germany together with Austria-Hungary took the decision to start a war in the Balkans and to accept the risk that war in the Balkans would set off a wider European one.

At the time, and in retrospect, it was folly. Russia had made it clear that, having backed off on earlier occasions, it would support Serbia this time around. If Russia came in, Germany’s war plan meant that it must knock out Russia’s ally, France, by first attacking through neutral Belgium. It was likely that Britain would come to France and Belgium’s defence. And Germany’s only sure ally was Austria-Hungary, with an army half the size of the French. Later allies were either liabilities (Bulgaria) or too fragile to endure the strain of a drawn out war (the Ottoman Empire). It is surprising that Germany fought as well as it did and for so long. Yet it could never fight well enough to win. Nor, until very near the end, could its enemies.

It was Europe’s misfortune that it had reached a point by 1914 where it was rich enough and organised enough to sustain a long and costly war. The figures are staggering. Thirty British shells to kill one German during the Battle of the Somme. Two million shells fired in eight hours on one day at Verdun. Eighty-five per cent of German men between 17 and 50 mobilised. Advances in medicine meant that more than 80 per cent of wounded British soldiers were returned to some form of duty. Governments discovered that they could squeeze far more out of their economies than they had ever suspected. European nations had spent an average of 5 per cent of their GNP on defence before 1914: during the war they spent between 18 and 76 per cent. In the end, the strain proved too much for already shaky societies such as Russia’s, but that should not overshadow the fact that most armies and most societies held together for three years or more.

It was also Europe’s misfortune that the technology of war had reached the point where it was very much easier to defend than to attack. The railways could deliver the mass armies with their supplies to the railheads, but after that it was back to horses, mules and human legs. Armies could hunker down in trenches, some of which went forty feet below the surface and were hard to get at. But aircraft weren’t big enough to carry the attack over the defences and tanks not reliable enough to break through them. Communications, in the shape of dogs, pigeons or human runners, did not allow the generals to co-ordinate their forces on the battlefields.

The generals, far from being complacent, tried desperately to come up with ways to break the deadlock. That was the reason for ill-fated expeditions like Salonika and Gallipoli. Douglas Haig, so often held up as the prime example of the unimaginative general, enthusiastically supported the development of tanks. Advances in technology and technique were not scorned; but rather, as in the case of artillery barrages, seized on.

Once in, the war was not easy to get out of, partly because death and violence take on their own dynamic. Losses must be paid for and what seemed reasonable in August 1914 no longer did so by December, much less by 1917. On both sides, public opinion made it difficult for leaders to contemplate ending the war with nothing to show for it. ‘If Germany,’ Ludendorff said, ‘makes peace without profit then Germany has lost the war.’ And he and his fellow generals feared for themselves as well if a disappointed German public turned to revolution. The Allies would not talk peace until all their occupied territory was cleared; the Central Powers could not bring themselves to contemplate such a withdrawal. And both sides kept hoping that they would have a breakthrough and be able to dictate the peace terms.

Neither side had comprehensive peace terms in mind in 1914. Those were to come as the months went by. The Allies were fighting a largely defensive war, although France wanted Alsace-Lorraine back and Britain Germany’s colonies and the destruction of its navy. Lesser allies, Italy and Japan for example, chose to enter the war for territory. The United States alone among the Allies (it insisted that it was merely an ‘associate’) wanted nothing for itself. That did not, however, stop American bankers and political leaders from dreaming of capturing British markets. Yet as Stevenson points out, Woodrow Wilson was determined on defeating Germany (or, as he often preferred to see it, ‘Prussian militarism’) as a precondition for a lasting peace.

Austria-Hungary was fighting for its survival against the threat of nationalism represented so clearly by Serbia’s appeal to the empire’s South Slavs. By 1918, in a curious way, it had won: Serbia and Romania were defeated and Russia had disintegrated. Time had run out, however, for the monarchy and its empire. By the autumn of 1918, as its economy collapsed and its nationalities demanded their freedom, it was a question of which would end first – the war or Austria-Hungary.

Germany felt that it was fighting for security but German definitions of what that meant were to expand during the war. Belgium annexed or at the very least under German control with German bases; the Netherlands as well; perhaps some choice pieces of the north of France. But it was in the east that the imaginations of the German elites were really let loose. Even Bethmann-Hollweg, usually seen as a moderate, planned to annex a large strip of Russian Poland and deport the local inhabitants, Jews and Poles alike, to replace them with good German stock. By 1917, the German government was looking to annex much of Lithuania as well as most of present-day Latvia and a large part of Poland. Kaiser Wilhelm hoped to place one of his sons on a throne in Finland. The defeat of Russia raised even greater hopes, of Germany dominating, directly or indirectly, Russian territory far to the east and south down to the Crimea. There are clearly similarities if not continuities with Hitler’s policies.

Some historians – Niall Ferguson is one – have asked whether Britain would have been wiser to stay out of the war. Perhaps Europe would have been better off if Germany had won a quick victory but what, one wonders, would such a victory have entailed. The Germany of 1914, much less the one of 1917, was not the peaceable democratic Germany of today. Allied propaganda in the First World War acquired a bad reputation, but not everything that was said was a lie. German soldiers may not have bayonetted babies in Belgium as the popular press had it, but they did commit atrocities. According to recent studies, German soldiers shot civilians in occupied Belgium and France, they raped women, and they deliberately destroyed cultural landmarks like the great library at Louvain. Belgium was stripped bare of its resources and Belgians were rounded up to do forced labour in Germany. When the war was lost and German troops evacuated the occupied parts of Belgium and France, they destroyed much of what was left of the infrastructure.

Stevenson treats the statesmen who assembled in Paris in 1919 to make peace with more understanding than many previous writers, following John Maynard Keynes, have done. The sudden end of the war surprised most Allied leaders, who had anticipated fighting well into 1919. Victory seemed fragile and the state of the world in 1919, with the break up of empires, revolution, unrest and widespread epidemics, put huge pressure on them to come up with a settlement quickly.

The German treaty, in Stevenson’s view, which I share, was not deeply unfair. Germany lost territory, but largely that inhabited by non-Germans. It remained the largest country in Europe west of Russia. On reparations, Germany’s burden was much less than met the eye. Its delegates to Paris had initially offered to pay 100 million gold marks (in return for keeping much of its prewar territory). In 1921 it ended up with a bill for 132 million, of which it was only obliged to pay 50 million to start with and that over a 36-year period. Germany in fact paid only a portion of what was due before Hitler unilaterally cancelled the whole arrangement. What made reparations and the treaty as a whole so contentious was the growing opinion that the war had been a mistake, started by accident, and that Germany was as much an innocent victim as anyone else. These were views assiduously fostered by the German Foreign Ministry which set up a special War Guilt Department to attack the treaty. Stevenson, again rightly in my view, debunks the idea that the peace settlements were an unmitigated disaster which led inevitably to the Second World War a mere twenty years later. As he puts it, the first war produced many of the preconditions for the next but that is not the same as saying that it was the cause.

This book, with its attention both to detail and the big picture, will make a wonderful textbook for a course in 20th-century history. Students will appreciate it because it provides both a solid one-volume history and a guide to the historiography. I suspect they will also find it heavy going. It is short on what Barbara Tuchman called the ‘corroborative detail’, the one which makes history come alive. What was it like to be in the trenches? In five brief pages in his recent short history, Strachan makes the experience horribly real. The cataclysm of Stevenson’s title remains on the page.

For all its many virtues, Cataclysm fails as well to give a sense of the personalities who pass through its pages. Yet time and again, Stevenson cites crucial turning points, where individual choices mattered. The decisions to go to war in 1914, for all the popular enthusiasm, were taken by very few men. Thinking about personalities at the centre of such events is not merely indulging in gossip. We need to understand why they acted as they did. The chief of Austria-Hungary’s general staff, Conrad von Hötzendorff, pressed for war against Serbia in 1914 but Stevenson gives us no hint as to why. I had to turn to Strachan to learn that von Hötzendorff was not only a Social Darwinist who believed that war was inevitable sooner or later for his country: he hoped that victory in war would enable him to obtain a divorce for the woman who was the great love of his life. And why did he have such bad relations with his German counterpart von Falkenhayn at the end of 1915 that the two men did not communicate directly for a month, and what did that mean for the war effort? When Stevenson does touch on personalities, he moves too cautiously. With his majority in Parliament and a fairly solid cabinet, Lloyd George ‘probably’ could have over-ruled Haig in June 1917 as the general planned the great offensives which were to culminate in Passchendaele. Why didn’t he?

We need to know more about the mentality of such people, about the ways in which they saw the world. Why did so many of the German elite remain determined on expansion even after it was clear that the war could not be won? Why were key figures on the German naval staff determined to sacrifice the German fleet in one last suicide mission rather than surrender it? The past is often so very different a country that we need guidance from those who have already explored it. Stevenson is an impeccable guide but I longed for him to cut loose and help us imagine that vanished world.

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Vol. 26 No. 24 · 16 December 2004

Before 1914, starting a war was neither a crime in international law nor a sin against morality, and there was no principle that said that a country which started a war had to make amends afterwards. Both these ideas were retroactively introduced in the Treaty of Versailles. It doesn’t matter whether Germany started the war or German policy caused it, both of which are beyond dispute: at issue is the word ‘guilt’ itself – a point which Margaret MacMillan seems to have missed (LRB, 2 December).

Oliver Pretzel
London E8

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