How not to remember World War I

Letter to the Editor submitted to The Guardian, Nov. 16, 2008 • Some wars are controversial. There is a huge debate, for instance, about World War II – which may have been the most destructive war in history, but is nonetheless justified by many as a “necessary evil” – the war to stop the Nazis. That is a debate that should be had. But about World War I there is little debate. It was a senseless slaughter, poor boys dying for the greed of the rich, fighting over the imperialist carve-up of what today we call the “Global South”.

Apparently not. British academic Gary Sheffield was given the honour of kicking off a week-long retrospective on World War I, by the usually “progressive” editors of The Guardian.[1] Sheffield – a professor of war studies at the University of Birmingham – tells us that “this war was no accident.” But to make his case, he throws the study of the “Great War” back several generations – returning to the oldest argument in the book – that it was a war by the civilized democracies against expansionist Germany.

Sheffield discusses the “world policy” of the Kaiser of Germany, his Weltpolitik which “was an attempt to gain colonies and expand German power and economic influence.” Well, that is true. Germany was trying to gain colonies. But the “civilized powers” – Britain and France – didn’t have the same imperative. They already had their colonies. Sheffield glosses over this detail.

Sheffield warns us that the Kaiser was “mentally unstable.” Perhaps that is true. But why no mention of the interestingly limited mental capacities of the Czar of Russia – key ally to Britain and France? Or perhaps a long discourse on Rasputin the very interestingly unstable “adivsor” to the Czar’s wife Alexandra. Not a whisper.

The war professor tells us that the German parliament was “largely toothless” – to make the point that this was a war of democracies (England and France) against autocracies. But what teeth did the Russian Duma (parliament) have? About this not a word.

The method is an old one – the use of selective information to reinforce an idée fixe. This was a war of democracies against autocracy. So we will ignore the fact that the biggest army on the side of the democracies was that of the autocratic Russian Czar. This is a war of good against evil, so we will emphasize the instability of the German Kaiser, and stay mute on the capacities of the Russian Czar and one of his principal advisors.

“Britain entered the war because it, too, could not afford to see Germany triumphant.” That is true. It couldn’t bear another imperialist power encroaching on its territory in Africa and Asia. The world was already divided up – Germany was not allowed into the party.

Most outrageously, Sheffield tells us that “the drafters of the Versailles treaty had it broadly right after all” when it stated that “ ‘the aggression of Germany and her allies’ was responsible for the war.” So as well as showing us that the war was necessary, he is rehabilitating a treaty that many analysts see as laying the basis for World War II – a treaty so punitive toward the German people in the war reparations demanded, that it created fuel for the racist nationalism that would lead to the creation of the Nazis.

This is no way to remember the ten million who died in the horrible slaughter of the “Great War” – including 65,000 Canadians. Their deaths should remind us of why we need to build an anti-war movement. Their deaths are dishonoured when used for articles that amount to pro-war apologetics. For a more balanced account, Sheffield and others should study Marc Ferro’s sobering and authoritative The Great War 1914-1918.[2]

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] “First World War,” insert in The Guardian, November 8, 2008
[2] Marc Ferro, The Great War 1914-1918 (Routledge, 2002)

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