Saturday 1 March 2014

Niall Ferguson's Alternate Great War

This last week has seen two interesting programmes about the First World War broadcast. On Tuesday we had conservative journalist and historian Max Hastings making the case for Britain's entry into the conflict in The Necessary War and Niall Ferguson fielding the argument against in The Pity of War last night. Both are well worth watching.

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.


asquith said...

I watched Hastings, but I found Paxman's series more profitable viewing. (didn't watch Ferguson at all).

Did you see right at the end of Paxo's last episode, he mentioned Robert Roberts and quoted him several times on the theme of what life was like after the war? I would definitely recommend "The Classic Slum" and "A Ragged Schooling" for a record of life in an old-school slum in Manchester before and after the war (Engels went there too and said it was the worst place he'd ever seen).

Phil said...

I watched one of Paxo's and found it irritating in the extreme. He's alright on Newsnight but anything else?

There is a very interesting late night WW1 series on at the moment that I wanted to somehow squeeze in. Simply called 'The First World War' the two episodes broadcast so far are dealing with the bits of war that are seldom covered, such as Serbia's war with Austro-Hungary and occupied Belgium under the Kaiser's army. Both are on Iplayer and I very much recommend them.

asquith said...

I will see whether I can watch that one: tomorrow, perhaps, as Sunday afternoons tend to be a bit of a fallow time once I'm back from my walk (and even that might not happen if it rains too much).

I am also considering watching that "37 Days", though that begs the question whether I've got 3 hours to spend watching TV. Naturally, I made the decision to enter the war with some misgivings, and I am curious as to how that feller Lloyd George came to be such a keen prosecutor of the war. I've heard speculation that, proud Welshman as he was, he naturally identified with small countries, so he managed to keenly take the side of both the Boers and the Belgians. That is why he didn't have the same qualms as an English Liberal would have had...

... and like you, I am deeply interested in what Britain and the world would have ended up like if this country had stayed out. Actually for the most part I am trying to listen more than I talk, though that was never an easy task for me.

stephen marks said...

what channel is this 'First World War' series on?

Anonymous said...

I didn't watch it for obvious reasons.

But how much was mentioned concerning the African and Asian/pacific theatre's of world war one?

I say this because this would obviously alter the tone of this article immensely.

For example, this would appear laughable and actually quite profoundly racist and insulting to the countless victims in those theatres (one white life = 1000 dark skinned lives):

"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"

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

I picked up a book by Niall Ferguson once and was greatly disappointed. The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700–2000 seemed to me to ignore the role of arms manufacturers and banksters in creating the conditions for a world continually at war, and to entirely ignore the drug trade (including Prohibition, as well as contemporary traffic).

Speedy said...

The main theatres of ww1 were western and eastern front plus turkey and middle east. I think everybody's life was pretty cheap.

William boyd wrote an interesting novel the ice cream war about ww1 in africa but your point seems a bit whatabouteresque anon. It wasnt where the main action was and i dont believe there was anything like the slaughter.

The british probably did more atrocities in kenya in the 1950s than against africans during ww1.

Off topic but if anyone topically wants to read a great novel about what the crimean war was really like id highly recommend flashman at the charge. GMF was the best historical novelist of the 20th c imho.

richard said...

I found your account of Hastings's position far more compelling than the argument he gave himself. His argument as I understood it rested on pinning the blame for the war itself entirely on Germany, and insinuating that German WWI expansionary ambitions were on the same scale as the Third Reich's.

asquith said...

What were these obvious reasons then, anon? Not obvious to me.

Naturally, as we're Britons watching British TV, the perspective will be skewed. They'll be talking about what British soldiers did, in Europe, and what their families did in Britain.

But you are right, and I disagree with what Speedy seems to be saying, there were other theatres of war and a significant number of fighters were from the white dominions and the empire.

One of the few valid things that Sayeeda Warsi has ever said was along these lines: that blacks and Asians shouldn't be made to feel as though Remembrance Day wasn't for them when their own forefathers fought too. And I'd like to think they knew why the struggle against fascism was theirs too, even if World War 1 can't have made much sense to them.

(This, I recall, prompted a throb of outrage from Maily Express/Hellograph commentators and from none other than Craig Pond, but I agree no one should feel left out).

I know less about other theatres of war than I might, but it's a valid interest to take.

Speedy said...

Actually asquith one of my grandads was in the trenches with the gurkhas, so i wasnt belittling the asian contribution if you read what i said more carefully.

Robert said...

I tend to agree with General Flashman in George Macdonald Fraser's book Mr American:

"Mr Franklin asked the General what he thought of the war situation. The old man shrugged.

"Contemptible - but then it always is. We should stay out and to hell with Belgium. After all it's stretching things to say we're committed to them and we'd be doing them a favour - and the Frogs too."

"By not protecting them you mean? I don't quite see that"

"You wouldn't - because like most idiots you think of war as being between states - coloured blobs on the map. You think if we can keep Belgium green, or whatever colour it is, instead of Prussian blue, then hurrah for everyone. But war ain't between coloured blobs it's between people... Imagine yourself a Belgian - in Liege say. Along come the Prussians and invade you. What about it? - a few cars commandeered, a shop or two looted, half a dozen girls knocked up, a provost marshal installed and the storm's passed. Fierce fighting with the Frogs, who squeal like hell because Britain refuses to help, the Germans reach Paris, peace concluded and that's that. And there you are, getting on with your garden in Liege. But" - the General waved a bony finger. " Suppose Britain helps - sends forces to aid little Belgium - and the Frogs - against the Teuton horde? What then? Belgian resistance is stiffened, the Frogs manage to stop the invaders, a hell of a war is waged all over Belgium and north east France, and after God knows how much slaughter and destruction the Germans are beat - or not as the case may be. How's Liege doing? I'll tell you - it's a bloody shambles. You're lying mangled in your cabbage patch, your wife's had her legs blown off, your daughters have been raped, and your house is a mass of rubble. You're a lot better off for British intervention aren't you?" He sat back grinning sardonically.

"By that reckoning," said Mr Franklin, "no one would ever stand up to a brute or a bully"

"Course they would - when it was worth while. You don't remember the war of 1870 - when those same Germans marched on Paris. Smallish war- but suppose we'd been helping the Frogs then? It wouldn't have been over half so quick, and God knows how many folk would have died who are still happily going about their business in Alsace and Lorraine. Same thing today - we should simply tell the Kaiser that if his fleet puts its nose out of the Baltic we'll send it to the bottom - that satisfies the Frogs up to a point, since it guarantees ther northern coast, it satisfies the Kaiser who'll swallow his pride for the sake of keeping us out of the war, and it save his pretty little ships as well. And five years from now, Liege will be doing rather well - whether it's got a German provost marshal still or not. And that won't matter a damn, to people whose main concern is eating, drinking, fornicating, making money and seeing their children grow up safe and healthy"

Speedy said...

Hear hear Robert, although one can take cynicism too far.

Having been personally involved in a couple of "walkovers" there's no confusing the gratitude of the liberated.

The trick is to choose battles you can't lose ... ;-)

Phil said...

Stephen, it was on BBC 4. The previous two are still available on iplayer. I strongly recommend them and I hope it will keep taking "unconventional" viewpoints throughout the 10-part series. This week it will be looking at the African campaigns.

Robert said...

No argument there Speedy.

Like you I'm a big fan of GMF. I met him once at a book signing. He told me that the story in McAuslan, Night Road to Palestine, is true. He actually did tell the half colonel to sod off.

GMF was at least as deserving of a knighthood as Salman Rushdie in my view but the literary establishment don't like him because of his politically incorrect views. This is one of the few things where I agree with Boris Johnson.

Phil said...

Mistah, I think Ferguson is profoundly wrong by all sorts of things but among his virtues is media savvyness (is that even a word) and an ability to get his ideas across to a lay audience. I don't read his books but his shows are always interesting, even when mistaken.

Phil said...

Perhaps I was too generous to Hastings, Stephen. As it happens I do agree that WWI's primary responsibility lies with Imperial Germany in that it had the power to halt the slide, BUT you cannot divorce that from the context of colonial competition. And yes, anon, you'd have to be the most blinkered relativist to think there's nothing separating the 3rd Reich on the one hand, and Imperial Germany and the British Empire on the other.

Gary Elsby said...

I've pondered Ferguson's point for days now and I just can't agree his point.
My belief is that he mixes WW1 with WW2 in his belief that Britain could enter a conflict with Germany at a point of our choosing.
How would the UK (inc the USA) entered mainland Europe in a conquered France and Russia?
My belief is that air power would be absent in WW1 to aid any landing by force which we did have in WW2.
The wider point of a 1916 pro EU(ish) militaristic autocratic Germany being the equivalent of todays liberal democracy operating throughout mainland Europe is self flawed as it would have only served one aggressor Nation.
Britain was always going to enter early due to Belgium being occupied which has been the key point for a few hundred years.
His points though stretched through the normal historical views and were very good.

asquith said...

Returning to this theme, did anyone end up watching 37 Days? I've just watched it on demand but I've yet to meet anyone else who has. I found it fascinating, it accorded with the facts (inasmuch as I know them anyway) and the ommissions were as interesting as what was included.

We got a good going over what the Kaiser was thinking and why he was so keen to sort Russia out while he was still capable of overwhelming them, and fascinating bits such as how thoroughly Germany dominated Austria, the divisions in the British government, Lloyd George's thinking, and what exactly it was about Belgium that bothered people so much. (And that the German leadership felt it necessary to win round socialists, which I never bothered to do, and the means by which they- successfully- did so).

What we didn't hear from was America (presumably not a force to be reckoned with in European politics), what the subject peoples in Europe, African and Asia thought (no one in power cared, not even me), any women in positions of anything approaching power (except possibly my wife). And it didn't occur to anyone that gallant little Belgium didn't seem like a plucky underdog to any Congolese (who would have died laughing at the thought, if they hadn't already been killed by, erm, Belgians).

All of this was, of course, in full accordance with what powerful men in 1914 thought. But what caused me some bewilderment was that the Ottoman Empire got so few references, even though it ended up as a signifiant axis power and theatre of war.

Roger McCarthy said...

The BBC WW1 series which is on iplayer - but somewhat confusingly can be listed by episode name and not the series name - is based on Hew Strachan's books which are (or rather would be if he could get his finger out and complete some more volumes) probably the definitive general academic history.

And their strength is indeed that he gives vastly more space to the Balkans, Eastern Front, Turkish, Sea and colonial wars than is typical in such surveys.

Other than a nice segment on he Glasgow rent strike and on women's mobilisation Paxman's series was utter crap.

Ferguson's I didn't watch as I have read the Pity of War of which it is clearly but a summary (which actually I do recommend as the last relatively decent book he published before becoming a very well paid US right-wing lecture circuit whore).

Surprised they are not repeating the Judi Dench-narrated series from a few years ago which was a good narrative.