Von Hötzendorff’s Desire

Margaret MacMillan

  • Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy by David Stevenson
    Basic Books, 564 pp, £26.50, June 2004, ISBN 0 465 08184 3

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.’[*]

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[*] Simon and Schuster, 350 pp., £15.99, October, 0 743239 60 1.

[†] Heinemann, 349 pp., £20, September, 0 434 00858 3.