WW1 – Causes and Consequences

“WW1 – Causes and Consequences”

Dr. Steven Loverage, Victoria University Continuing Ed course – March 2014

Dr. Loverage was enthusiastic, organized and articulate. The attendees were interested, consistently in attendance, and some eager to participate in discussion. (I myself contributed with e-mails to Dr. Loverage between classes.)  Still, the course missed the point of what is needed in a 100 year commemoration (over the next three or four years) of which it is a part. This was a short survey course incorporating what had been analysed over the years since the war with personal additions from Dr. Loverage. Instead, what is needed now is a broader view looking at 100 years before the war (or 200 or 500, or 10000 years if that is possible) through to our 100 years after in order to get at the broader cultural/ social historical influences which led to the circumstances of the time 100 years ago. This is particularly important in our time as we are going through a period of fundamental and fast change in which this sort of approach has become necessary.

Dr. Loverage was appropriate in observing that NZ’s participation in WW1 did not establish NZ as an independent nation as many have claimed.   Quite the opposite, the NZ government saw itself as having reached the status of equal partners in the Empire. The British Empire of course, not any of those other empires.   Empire was everywhere on the European continent. Some screaming questions needing to be asked now from a 100 year viewpoint are: what is empire? what were the sources of empire for that time in history? how far back did those origins go? what sort of empire is evident today?

In fact, it looks (to me) from the perspective of 100 years that continuation of empire was perhaps the main thing all the participants had in common. Did they fail to enhance or even preserve empire? It won’t be possible to properly evaluate that until we have a clear understanding of what empire was and what were its sources, and having had a look at today for other sorts of “empire”. That’s what the course should have been about.

What I will be watching during these years of commemoration here in NZ is to what extent this notion of emergent independent nationhood from WW1 is pushed. It may be used to guide present public policy back toward empire and away from reality (climate change, etc), symbolically crawling back into the pre-conscious state of the womb.

Post script:

Christopher Clark has written a book on ‘how Europe went to war in 1914’ entitled “The Sleepwalkers” (2012).   (Apology – I’ve cherry picked quotes from the book to illustrate the questions I’m trying to raise, but hopefully I’ve not misrepresented what he said.)

After 500 pages of detailed, disciplined and nuanced analysis of the nations, players, and events leading up to the war (400 of which I could only bring myself to skim mostly) he finally breaks free with a rousing conclusion. Actually making fun of those who seek to assign blame:

“Then there is the problem that the quest for blame predisposes the investigator . . . . . to show that someone willed the war as well as caused it. In its extreme form, this mode of procedure produces conspiratorial narratives in which a coterie of powerful individuals, like velvet-jacketed Bond villains, controls events from behind the scenes in accordance with a malevolent plan.”

If blame is the wrong thing to do, then look to something broader:

“But the Germans were not the only imperialists and not the only ones to succumb to paranoia. The crisis that brought war in 1914 was the fruit of a shared political culture. . . . . . . “

What I have come to understand about WW1, beginning way back with assigned reading in my US high school required literature class of “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque, is summed up I think by Dr. Clark:

“One thing is clear: none of the prizes for which the politicians of 1914 contended was worth the cataclysm that followed.”

(Any criticisms of Remarque’s book that it does not accurately enough reflect the war at the front miss the point of the book or are willing to be used as pro-war, pro- empire propaganda.)

Finally, Clark observes that many of the players realized, even though their war strategies all evidenced hope for quick success, that it:

“. . . . might drag on for years, wreaking immeasurable ruin. British PM Asquith wrote of the approach of ‘Armageddon’ . . . French and Russian generals spoke of ‘war of extermination’ and ‘extinction of civilization’. They knew it but did they really feel it? ”

“In this sense, the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.”

After that brilliant conclusion, I humbly raise these questions: what dreams (empire)?, what were the overriding cultural/historical influences at work to raise the requirements of empire so high and make the risks so easily accepted?, how are these influences still at work today in our historical context?

Richard Keller

01 April, 2014


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