Why we go to war

Ferdinand Mount

You can see the twin slagheaps from almost every corner of the battlefield. If there is one memorable emblem of the Battle of Loos, it is these double crassiers, a little altered in outline since 1915 but as dominant as ever over the mournful plain. For British soldiers then, the other landmark was the huge pithead lift they nicknamed Tower Bridge, used as an observation post by the Germans, and then, after the Allies had at terrible cost secured the necessary few hundred yards, by the British for the same purpose, the terrain now honeycombed by the trenches and mines of warfare as well as by those of the prewar coal pits. Tower Bridge has been demolished, but a couple of other winding gear structures survive, for this whole landscape was once the heart of the French coal industry. The nearby town of Lens, today best known for its spunky football team, was formerly the greatest coal town in the country. Now the country is ploughland, interspersed by white gravefields containing the remains, among thousands of others, of my great-uncle Frank and Kipling’s son Jack, though who can be sure exactly where they lie? (The identification of Jack’s grave in the cemetery at St Mary’s Advanced Dressing Station is still contested.)

Twenty-five years before I went to Loos for the centenary of the battle, I drove over the hills five hundred miles to the east, from Dresden to Prague. After crossing the Czech border, you reach a weird half-barren landscape of stunted trees and harsh ravines. This is the Erzgebirge, the Ore Mountains, which run for miles along the frontier between Saxony and Bohemia, and contain some of the richest iron deposits in Europe. Then you come down into the Most Basin. Even before you have left the hills, you can smell that unforgettable smell of Central Europe, acrid, damp and somehow sweaty too, the smell of brown coal, or lignite, this also one of the richest seams in the region and mined for centuries. What you are coming into is the Sudetenland.

The Führer’s rhetoric was all about reuniting the millions of Germans in the Sudetenland with the main body of the Volk. But it was also about reuniting the region’s coal and iron ore with a Reich rich in human energy but poor in the other sort. Wotan’s Forge might have been the powerhouse of Europe, but it was chronically short of raw materials. The quest for Lebensraum was always a quest for Grabensraum too. Living space would bring digging space along with it. Even today, you can see and smell some of those scarce resources which drove trade wars over the edge.

Throughout the Second World War, Germany remained energy-starved. In 1943, the United States produced two-thirds of the world’s oil – to which Britain had unstinted though perilous access via the Atlantic convoys. The USSR produced another 10 per cent. By contrast, Germany controlled only the declining oilfields of Romania, less than 2 per cent of the world’s supply, plus a few old pumps in Hungary and Galicia. As for coal, the captured French and Belgian coalfields were a declining asset, as absenteeism grew among hostile French and Belgian miners. Daily output in the French pits dropped by 39 per cent between 1938 and 1944.

The control over such resources had been a key point in the programme for a Greater Germany in the run-up to both world wars. Here the industrialists were in total agreement with the politicians. Only a couple of weeks after the Great War broke out, August Thyssen sent the chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, a memo demanding the incorporation into the Reich of Belgium and the French departments of Nord and Pas-de-Calais, plus the Don Basin and the Caucasus. What he had his eye on were the iron ores of Longwy-Briey, the Belgian coalfields, the iron of the Don Basin and the manganese deposits of the Caucasus, among much else. Bethmann-Hollweg agreed with almost every word of this memo, although, as he later confided, ‘we are keeping all the cards in our hands hidden from the enemy’s eyes,’ and in watered-down form Thyssen’s proposals were echoed in his September Programme.

Our understanding of all this was made possible by Fritz Fischer’s trailblazing Griff nach der Weltmacht (1961), more decorously titled in English Germany’s Aims in the First World War (1967). What Fischer told us was not simply that German aggression was the principal driver of the Great War but also that this aggression was fuelled by resentment about its critical shortage of natural resources, mineral and agricultural as well as human. The French were painfully aware of their own fragility in this respect. As de Gaulle put it in The Army of the Future (1934),

a large part of the necessities of our existence is found concentrated quite close to the worst part of our frontier … Of the coal produced by France, two-thirds comes out of the earth at Lens or at Valenciennes. Our rich iron ore comes from Longwy, Briey, Nancy. The small amount of oil that we can extract gushes from the soil of Alsace. Of 150 blast furnaces, 120 are situated in Lorraine or in Champagne … hardly has one crossed the Belgian frontier when one is in the centre of the industrial districts of Roubaix, of the mines of Denain-Anzin or of the Meuse forges. It is but a day’s march from Sierck to the Thionville blast furnaces. From Germany, Pechelbronn is within gunfire and Strasbourg is within rifle-fire.

Fischer’s version of events held the field for quite a few years, but more recent historians have sought to push him aside. Niall Ferguson in The Pity of War (1998) argued that ‘no evidence has ever been found by Fischer and his pupils that these objectives existed before Britain’s entry into the war … All that Fischer can produce are the prewar pipedreams of a few pan-Germans and businessmen, none of which had any official status, as well as the occasional bellicose utterances of the Kaiser.’ He dismisses as unlikely the possibility that such plans ‘were never committed to paper, or that the relevant documents were destroyed or lost’. On the contrary, it seems to me highly likely that a man as clever as Bethmann-Hollweg would keep such indecent ambitions off the record. In fact, as we have seen, he later boasted that he was doing just that. So it really isn’t surprising that Margaret MacMillan should conclude in The War That Ended Peace (2013) that ‘the evidence is simply not there to support’ the idea ‘that Europe’s tensions were the product of economic rivalry’. To adapt the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies, they wouldn’t say that, would they? At the very least, it is remarkable that, the moment war broke out, Bethmann-Hollweg and Thyssen and many others should have had these very similar war aims piping hot and ready to go.

Instead, more recent historians have revived the mad-rush-to-war thesis, the idea that its outbreak was precipitated by frantic diplomatic misunderstandings and miscalculations, not a million miles from A.J.P. Taylor’s thesis that inflexible railway schedules were to blame. In War by Timetable (1969), Taylor argued airily: ‘the Germans had no deliberate aim of subverting the liberties of Europe. No one had time for a deliberate aim or time to think. All were trapped by the ingenuity of their military preparations.’ He had earlier, in Origins of the Second World War (1961), argued a not dissimilar thesis about Hitler, whom he presented as an improviser without any carefully worked out plan. He pooh-poohed Fischer’s argument that Germany had given serious thought to its war aims in the run-up to the Great War: ‘It is more likely that German statesmen, like others, did not know what they were doing.’ Something similar is argued by Christopher Clark in The Sleepwalkers, a book whose title says it all.

I don’t think this is just an academic spat, a Historikerstreit, with little application to modern political debate. On the contrary, I think it has had a damaging knock-on effect on our attitude to the causes of war and how to stand in their way. What has happened is a strange dematerialising of our explanations, a de-linking of trade wars from blood wars. Even when modern wars seem, to the casual observer, to be driven by a struggle for access to natural resources, most flagrantly and often, to oil, we are told they are all about democracy versus dictatorship, or race, or religion – Shia v. Sunni, for example, or the West v. the East.

In our own day this separating-out has even come to colour the Brexit debate. Brexiteers see trade wars as risk-free enterprises which are not prone to slide into actual fighting. President Trump has told us that ‘trade wars are good and easy to win.’ This is not, I think, simply one of his puckish tweets, emitted only because he knows it teases. The basis of his worldview is a partiality to the state of nature in the Hobbesian sense, in which the uninhibited competition of all against all is invigorating and progress-driving. And yet with what unnerving speed these tariffs and economic sanctions mutate into military threats and manoeuvres, from which only the most costly and ungainly extrication is possible.

This dangerous insouciance is egged on by the prevailing tendency of historians (I am talking here of general political and diplomatic histories, not specialist economic studies which focus on material factors) to sideline the brute economic drivers of conflict and to concentrate on the diplomatic cock-ups and the non-economic, sentimental motives. Perversely, even the most anti-German historians seem to swallow some of the German rhetoric about fighting for the honour of the fatherland and the destiny of the Reich. Yet at Loos and in the Sudetenland and plenty of other places across Europe you can see and smell the other, physical causes of war. This wasn’t two bald men arguing over a comb, to quote Borges’s view on the Falklands War (Dr Johnson had much the same view, though the islands have turned out to be more valuable than people thought). This was men going to war for valuable stuff, notably ‘black diamonds’, as coal, or at any rate anthracite, used to be called.

Where is Karl Marx now we need him? Marx should have taught us that imperialist wars, like most other human events and processes, are largely driven by material motives. Well, he did teach us that, but his overall thesis required him to downgrade wars between nations as mere interruptions in the far more significant historical processes of class formation and class conflict. Wars between nations might produce horrendous slaughter and destruction, but for Marx the important thing was that after them the historical processes resumed more or less where they had left off. Except for a few small conflicts which have been indelibly tagged with the name of the commodity that provoked them – the Opium Wars with China, the Cod War with Iceland – historians have tended to weave their narratives around more high-flown themes: the struggle to maintain the balance of power, the struggles against fascism and communism, against the French Revolution or German militarism.

In reality, most large wars have contained within them a violent and persistent economic conflict. The War of the Austrian Succession, for example, could be more grittily described as ‘the war for the coal and iron resources of Silesia’. The Seven Years War was a contest for the riches of Canada and the Indies, East and West. The Napoleonic Wars were increasingly driven by Napoleon’s hopeless quest to enforce his total trade embargo on England, a quest that took the Grande Armée from Portugal to Moscow. For my great-great-grandfather, the Napoleonic Wars didn’t mean charging across the plains of Waterloo but trudging through the pepper vines of Java in order to seize the riches of the Dutch East Indies from Napoleon’s ragtag defenders. Even more than sugar and spices, the British were after the amazing tin deposits on the island of Belitung, whose name is still preserved in the title of the world’s biggest mining company, BHP Billiton.

Imperial exploitation was not based only on explicit military threat or deployment. In Ireland, for example, the cattle trade had been crippled by a British embargo from the days of Charles II. As well as the denial of religious and political rights, Burke inveighed against the restrictions on the export of linen, wool and beer which the Irish Parliament had been strong-armed to pass into law. Such impositions remind us of the ‘Unequal Treaties’ which China, Japan and Korea were to complain of in later centuries. As for the failure to protect or nurture the Indian textile industry against the competition from Lancashire, Lord William Bentinck lamented that ‘the misery hardly finds parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of the cotton weavers are bleaching the plains of India.’

It is of the essence of imperial power, old-style or new-style, that it accepts no formal restraints on its exercise. President Trump’s loathing of international institutions and treaties is nothing new. Hitler took only nine months to drag Germany out of the League of Nations. Within another couple of years, he had torn up the Treaties of Versailles and Locarno. You can hear unpleasant echoes in Trump’s recent speech to the National Rifle Association in Indianapolis, in which he announced America’s withdrawal from the UN treaty regulating the global arms trade: ‘Under my administration, we will never surrender American sovereignty to anyone. We will never allow foreign bureaucrats to trample on your Second Amendment freedoms.’ The Donald may be no Adolf, but he sings the same Song of the Will.

After the worst of wars, there has to be a winding down, a settlement of outstanding grievances, insisted on, whether brutally or charitably, by the victors, and resisted or grudgingly accepted by the losers. After the Napoleonic Wars, the Dutch East Indies went back to the Dutch. After 1945 the Sudetenland went back to the Czechs, and millions of Sudeten Germans were vertrieben from these ever contested borderlands.

But these postwar readjustments do not always dispel old resentments. Only four years after the Treaty of Versailles, the French and the Belgians reoccupied the Ruhr, because the Germans were persistently defaulting on reparations. What drove the ever pugnacious Poincaré to exasperation in January 1923 was the 34th German default on coal deliveries. The French continued to squat in Düsseldorf and Duisburg until they were finally persuaded in the summer of 1925 to accept the Dawes Plan for rescheduling war debts (softened for the Germans by a juicy loan from Wall Street). But German resentment lingered on.

Less well remembered perhaps (though more recent) is the French seizure of the Saar after the Second World War. This was part of the 1946 Monnet Plan. The area did not return to Germany until 1957, and France continued to exert its right to mine from the Saar coalfields until 1981. It was the conflict over these scarce and valuable resources that prompted Jean Monnet to dream up the European Coal and Steel Community, and thence the EEC. In a more junior role after the First World War, he had been involved in similar initiatives, but these had been rejected by the Allies. Thus Monnet was at once ‘the Father of a United Europe’ and a ruthless agent of French economic interests. The ECSC was not a pilot project chosen at random, it was the intrinsic prelude to any sort of European union.

In his Declaration of 9 May 1950, Robert Schuman, the French foreign minister from 1948 to 1953, proposed in words drafted by Monnet, Pierre Uri and others, that ‘Franco-German production of coal and steel as a whole be placed under a common High Authority, within the framework of an organisation open to the participation of the other countries of Europe’. This was only a first step:

Europe will be born from this, a Europe which is solidly constructed around a strong framework. It will be a Europe where the standard of living will rise by grouping together production and expanding markets, thus encouraging the lowering of prices … In this Europe, the Ruhr, the Saar and the French industrial basins will work together for common goals, and their progress will be followed by observers from the United Nations.

And the keystone in that framework was to be a European Court of Justice to uphold the laws governing the new coal and steel community.

Within France, this first step towards some sort of supranational Europe was fiercely resisted by de Gaulle and his supporters, as it was by the communists. On the other side of the Channel, the Attlee government boycotted the Paris conference on the Schuman Plan, and Labour’s NEC issued a pamphlet that rejected economic integration as incompatible with a socialist planned economy. Churchill attacked Attlee for the Paris boycott. But this was humbug. Churchill was equally hostile to Britain joining any supranational Europe. The UK might smile on such an initiative, but from a distance: ‘our first object is the unity and consolidation of the British Commonwealth … We cannot subordinate ourselves or the control of British policy to federal authorities.’ In old age, both Churchill and Attlee opposed Britain’s entry into the EEC. Thus Boris Johnson no less than Jeremy Corbyn can claim an illustrious party ancestry for his hostility to Brussels. Brexit was not born yesterday.

This enmeshing of economics and politics (it was dubbed the théorie de l’engrenage) remained distasteful to substantial wedges of opinion in Britain, on the left as well as the right. When the Conservatives came round to the idea that it was in Britain’s interests to join the EEC, the political aspect of membership was, if not entirely skirted around, definitely soft-pedalled. Which gave the early Brexiteers the space to argue that the British people had been duped into signing up to a potential United States of Europe in the guise of a ‘mere’ trading agreement. This was a wilful missing of the point. To have any chance of lasting success, a Common Market had to have regulations and laws, and courts and commissions to frame and enforce them. Without affecting ultimate sovereignty, the powers required to make the thing work and go on working had to be identified, agreed and pooled.

Suppose, for example, that the European Court of Justice had not in 1979 handed down its landmark judgment in the Cassis de Dijon case, that a member state should not refuse entry to any product that had been ‘lawfully produced and marketed’ in another member state, unless there was an overriding national interest at stake. Without such mutual recognition of legitimate products, the Federal Branntweinmonopolgesetz (federal monopoly on spirits) could have gone on banning, for the next forty years, that succulent blackcurrant liqueur as having too weak an alcohol content to qualify as a spirit for the hard-headed Germans. Dodges for keeping out foreign competition in services – which now constitute 80 per cent of the market in most advanced economies – would be even easier to devise than for goods.

Yet the most ingenious Brexiteers have always seemed remarkably blithe or indifferent to this problem. I did, though, once come across a surprising admission from Enoch Powell, just as Mrs Thatcher’s labours on the European Single Market were coming towards fruition. Powell told the readers of the Spectator in July 1990:

If a distinction is now to be drawn, as a matter of settled policy, between on the one hand the surrender of political independence – by way of monetary union by Britain to Europe, and on the other hand the continuation and extension of freedom of trade with that continent – in the breaking down of tariff barriers by 1992 – then a great deal of tough intellectual work lies ahead. This work has been neglected during almost twenty years when freedom of trade and political imperialism were allowed and encouraged to be mistaken for one another. The work will involve a closer understanding and definition of freedom of trade than has previously been called for during perhaps the whole of the present century.

Or to put it more bluntly, how the hell do we keep trade flowing freely across Europe without some sort of supranational arrangements to police it? I cannot say that, in the thirty years since Powell in old age made this oblique admission, any of the Brexotic think tanks, let alone the ludicrously misnamed European Research Group, have stirred themselves to carry out this ‘tough intellectual work’. By de-linking the business of settling economic quarrels peacefully from the political structures of the EU, the Brexotics have sought to bring off a further rhetorical trick: it has been a recurring theme of theirs that the EEC/EU can take no credit for keeping the peace in Europe for seventy years; that credit properly belongs to Nato. It is collective security, not political institution-building, which deters wars from breaking out. Brexotics simply refuse to engage with Monnet’s core argument that European political structures would evolve to keep economic quarrels from reaching a flashpoint at which Nato might need to become involved. Any major disagreement – over tariffs, industrial protection, pipelines, mineral rights, water management, intellectual property, dumping and a dozen other things – is far better settled within the EU and its attendant institutions. It is these unlovely compromises that keep us ‘secure’ in a far fuller sense than the purely military. One thing that the past three otherwise fruitless years have taught us is the intense complexity of social and economic relations between the UK and the rest of the EU. ‘No man is an island, entire of itself.’ And no island is an island either.

It was only when we peered over the cliff edge – first on 29 March and then on 11 April – that most of us realised something that should have been obvious from the start: a ‘no-deal Brexit’ was not so much a nightmare as a fantasy. The day after the UK finally leaves the EU, if there is no withdrawal agreement in place, everyone in government, business and the professions will be frantically opening negotiations of every description, to build on the huge corpus of EU law and regulation which has already been passed into British law. At first glance, that may not seem such an unthinkable prospect, however exhausting. We would simply be reinventing the wheel hundreds of times over, but with the old designs already stored on our databases. Of course the process would not be quite like that in reality. There would be every incentive for our Continental competitors to tweak the regulations to deter or exclude British competition. Taken singly, each negotiation could be ruinously drawn out, lacking the institutional impetus that our membership of the EU imparted to break down impasse after impasse. And this does not fully measure the resentment that may be felt against a recent defector that had made life a misery for everyone for three years and more.

An early hope of the Brexiteers during the referendum campaign, and even more after the result, was that Britain’s heroic lead would inspire other EU nations to imitate it; Brexit would be followed by Grexit, Frexit etc. After the unforced solidarity shown by the other 27, we hear rather less about that scenario now. The EU, it is generally agreed, will be with us still, and we shall be with or alongside, if not in or of it – choose your own preposition to describe the future.

When the get-out date was further postponed to Halloween, which meant that the UK would be forced to take part in the European elections, a funny thing happened. Some extreme Brexiteers threw off their cloak of good manners and announced that if elected to the new European Parliament, their mob would set about roughing it up. Jacob Rees-Mogg warned that ‘if a long extension leaves us stuck in the EU, we should be as difficult as possible. We could veto any increase in the budget, obstruct the putative EU army and block Mr Macron’s integrationist schemes.’ Nigel Farage has promised to put the fear of God into the Eurocrats. A sour ill-will that previously had been rarely voiced has bubbled up to the surface, with ominous consequences for public life. This free speaking comes from a rooted hostility to the whole European project and a loathing of those who manage it. But it also comes from a freaky light-heartedness, an unconsidered confidence that there are no risks to stirring things up, that they can do and say pretty much as they please. Indeed, they will argue that, in doing so, they represent buccaneering Britain at its best. Not for one second do they pause to think how hard-won it has all been. They are the feckless children of seventy years of peace.