As we approach the centenary of the 20th century's calamitous pivot, the struggle to impose dominant, commonsensical frame on the conflict and the part played by Britain is sure to intensify. Which, in a way, is why the BBC's choice to bookend a week with what is essentially a debate between conservative views of the Great War is an interesting one. While not naive apologists for the British Empire, Hastings and Ferguson would certainly count themselves among its critical friends. Hence both approach the question of war in 1914 from the point of view of Imperial realpolitik.
Ferguson's position is that Britain's entry that August was a catastrophic mistake. By declaring war on Wilhelmine Germany it was responsible for the abomination of trench warfare that dragged the struggle on for four bloody years, fatally weakening the Empire to the extent it had barely recovered in time for round two in 1939. Honouring its treaty obligation to defend Belgium's neutrality was so much a piece of paper that should have been cast aside by harder heads. Instead, if Britain was to wage war it should have waited for a time of its choosing. Last of all, had Britain stayed out the overall outcome would have been very similar - a continent dominated by German economic power and, perhaps, the avoidance of Hitler and Stalin. The world would have been different, but in all likelihood more benign.
Hastings, in my opinion, put a more convincing case. His presented an informed, and carefully reasoned appraisal of the government's motives and imperial interests. He argued that a war avoided by Britain in 1914 would have been a war delayed. Had Germany and Austria defeated France and Russia, which was likely in the UK's absence, it was inevitable that the Central Powers' domination of European markets and - who knows - redrawing of colonial frontiers at France's expense - would have posed the Empire a continued security risk. Plus Britain would be facing Germany without the benefit of a continental alliance, making the prospects of winning such a conflict more remote than the one that actually took place. Hastings was also concerned about the moral dimension. Despite Germany possessing universal suffrage and parliamentary formalities, this masked an absolute monarchy that paid the comings and goings in the Reichstag little mind and which, by 1916, had effectively become a military dictatorship under Hindenburg and Ludendorff. If that wasn't bad enough the atrocities carried out by the German army in occupied Belgium and France towards civilians were a deliberate weapon of war, part and parcel of official doctrine. It was nowhere near the barbarism of their Nazi successors, but represented a regime qualitatively worse than the British and French both (unsurprisingly, Hastings overlooks the far worse situation pertaining in Tsarist Russia - an accidental omission, I'm sure). For all these reasons, Britain could not remain neutral. To do so was fundamentally against its interests.
Historians claim not to like counterfactuals because it involves extrapolation in the absence of facts. But it's a fun parlour game, and can draw attention to indeterminacy and contingency in history. Like Ferguson and Hastings, it's difficult to see how the Central Powers would have been defeated without Britain - especially when Germany forced an armistice on Russia despite concentrating its resources on the Western front. Likewise, once the combined French and British army forced a severe reversal on the German armies at the Battle of the Marne it's hard to see how Germany would have won. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps the only opportunity it had of winning in the West was not the great spring offensives of 1918 but the initial phase of the slaughter at Verdun. Set up as a limited operation that would "bleed the French army white" over a protracted period, the initial attacks were so successful that had the Germans massed reserves for it in the way the British had for the Somme a real breakthrough could have happened, affecting the war's outcome.
The problem with Ferguson's counterfactual is its deficiency. Ferguson writes as if only state interests matter, that they and the man/men at the top have agency. Incredibly, for a historian who has spent a career examining political and economic systems, systems of international relations, and picking at chains of causation his notion of imperial interests are not backed up with a sociological imagination. For instance, Ferguson notes that the British cabinet in July 1914 were more worried about possible civil war in Ireland than a continental conflict. But that was not all. Like the rest of Europe, Britain's working class movement was militantly intruding onto the political stage. Before the outbreak of war, those seven month saw approximately 40 million working days lost to strikes - the third highest annual total in the 20th century, and more intense than the struggles of the 1980s. This isn't to say Britain was staring revolution in the face, but labour unrest inevitably has political consequences.
The war derailed that. But once it was over the strike wave resumed - even the police went on strike in 1919 - and Britain was forced to concede independence for Catholic Ireland. What would have happened had the empire kept out? Class war at home and national liberation in the near abroad would have played themselves out with who knows what consequences. Ferguson assumes everything would have been fine if Britain had remained aloof. Clearly not.
Then there's the small matter of a German victory over Russia and France. The Russia of 1917 was exhausted by the war and coming apart at the seams. Had Germany and Austria-Hungary forced a decision earlier, how would that have affected the unfolding revolutionary dynamics that brought down Tsarism? Revolution was still likely, but without a continued war bearing down on a new bourgeois-republican regime as was the case, would it have passed over into its second more radical phase? There is France too. Defeated Germany underwent revolutionary upheavals, so what is to say France wouldn't have? The victorious French emerged from the war with a mass communist party and a radicalised working class, intelligentsia and peasantry. If that was in victory, it's reasonable to assume the short-lived soviets, the soldiers' mutinies and councils, militias of the extreme left and right, all this would have been played out on a French canvas with much deeper revolutionary traditions than Germany. I doubt Ferguson would have appreciated having the danger - to him and his like - of a socialist revolution happening right across the channel. Especially when Britain's domestic situation could hardly be described in terms of class peace.
What of a victorious Germany? Undoubtedly, the Hapsburg and Hohenzollern monarchies would have had a boost. German militarism would likely be strengthened too. But if things returned to 'business as usual' in Britain after the war, the same tendency would be present in Germany too. The social democrats - the party of the working class - would unlikely have split during a shorter war and be in a position to demand a 'land fit for heroes'. Quite possibly, as Wilhelm II's autocracy was enjoying unrivalled popularity and prestige processes were in train to wrest significant political and economic concessions from German capital and its semi-feudal junker class.
That much we can discern on the basis of social trends and analogies from our own historical experiences. Beyond that we cannot know whether a defeated France would have embraced revolutionary socialism, succumbed to fascism, be consumed by civil war. Nor can it be answered whether the alternative European war Ferguson pines for prefaced a second, larger and immeasurably more destructive conflict - just as our Great War did. A different First World War may have been better in the long run, but we're still dealing with the ramifications of the one that did happen. And with the worrying gathering of war clouds over Ukraine, a lot of work still has to be done to bend history consistently toward justice and happiness.