The centenary of the First World War is upon us, and it has been marked by a slew of books, articles, remembrances, and commentary. The origins of one of civilization’s greatest catastrophes are still disputed. Was German aggression the cause of the war, or should blame be more widely spread?
Richard Evans, the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, is the author of many books about Europe (including a trilogy about the Third Reich), and is one of the most prominent intellectuals in the United Kingdom. This week, he has a cover story in the New Statesman looking back at the war, and comparing 1914 to today. We spoke over the phone about who caused the disaster, the best books to read on it, and whether the modern Middle East will spark the next World War.
Isaac Chotiner: What is the major difference between 1914 and 2014? Are you worried about another major conflict breaking out anytime soon?
Richard Evans: I think we have to recognize that the instability and violence of the Balkan states in 1914 was the trigger for the war. It was not an excuse used by the Germans or anybody else. The region was pretty much out-of-control. I think the obvious parallel here is with the Middle East today, where again you have a number of smallish states, heavily armed, with religious differences, political differences, and instability. The situation is very difficult for the major powers to control.
IC: You say that it was not just an excuse to start the war, but don’t you think other events, like the crisis in Morocco in 1911, or something else, could have been the spark to start the war?
RE: Well, the Moroccan issue was settled, the Middle East was more or less settled by 1914, and the naval arms race was settled because Britain had won and everyone recognized that, including the Germans. So I think it really had to be the Balkans.
It was a multipolar world in the late 19th century, which then became a bipolar world, split between two camps in Europe itself. That mirrors the cold war, but the cold war is over, and we now have once more the multipolar world that you had in Europe in the 1880s and 1890s. And also, you have institutions of collective security now, just as you had then—the United Nations may not be all that effective but it is better than nothing.
I think the major difference now is that we’ve had two World Wars, and we’ve had the nuclear age. Whereas in 1914, states, and for that matter most of the public in most nations, had what we now think of as a very irresponsible attitude toward war. They went into it in a gung-ho way. Now I think we are much more afraid of a major war, and we are much more cautious about it. I think the attitude of politicians today is very different from what it was in 1914.
IC: There’s been a huge scholarly debate about the degree to which the Germans were to blame for the First World War. This has been going on for decades, all the way back to the historian Fritz Fischer, who in 1961 essentially blamed Germany.
RE: The debate has actually been going on since the War itself.
IC: Fair enough. What do you think the state of that debate is right now?
RE: I think that the state of debate, interestingly, is different in different countries. I think there’s enormous reluctance in the United Kingdom, particularly amongst military historians, to accept that the distribution of responsibility was quite wide over Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Britain, France, Russia, and Germany. In Germany, however, Christopher Clark’s book is number one on the bestseller lists—it’s an enormous hit and it’s made him into a media star. And he argues for this diffuse responsibility.
IC: Where do you fall on that spectrum?
RE: Well, I would incline towards Christopher Clark’s view. I think you have to start with the breakdown of the nineteenth-century Concert of Europe, the end of the multipolar world, and the splitting of Europe into two armed camps by about 1906. That made the danger of a small war leading to a bigger one much more serious. You also had the French desire for revenge for Alsace-Lorraine, and Russia turning away from the Far East after its defeat by Japan in 1905 and looking towards Europe with a forward policy. Austria-Hungary was absolutely paranoid about the Serbs, because there were many Serbs within its borders, and insisted on a hard-line course toward them, and you had Serbia wanting to expand in the Balkans. You had Germany afraid that if Russia beat Austria-Hungary, it would be greatly weakened. So you had a lot of fear coupled with a general willingness to go to war. Britain was very confused and the government was deeply divided. Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, vacillated this way and that. But he moved toward an anti-German course. I think his views were influenced by the naval arms race, which had come to a stop but had strongly stoked his suspicions of Germany.
IC: It seems like you think responsibility should be divided, but let me just ask you about a line in your piece. You write, “For all the Marxists’ convoluted attempts to prove that the driving forces behind the First World War were economic, the logic of capitalism told against war rather than for it.” The Leninist interpretation of the war was that basically it was a stupid war about imperialism. I realize that at some level that’s too simplistic, but it also seems to me that it was fundamentally an imperial war, and that if these countries were not interested in overseas possessions, then the war never occurs.
RE: Yes, I mean, these are wars not between individual countries, they are wars between empires. So it’s the British Empire, the French Empire and the German Empire, then the Russian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which did not have overseas possessions, but had many nationalities within their borders. I don’t think that the economic explanations work at all, however. Nearly every part of the globe that was going to be annexed by European powers was already annexed. There were parts that were too difficult to annex, like China, because the resistance was too great there, essentially, or a few places like Ethiopia, which proved too hard to conquer.
IC: But if you define imperialism as about more than economics….
RE: Exactly, it’s an ideology. It’s an ideology of power. And the more precise arguments put forward by Lenin or by Rosa Luxemburg arguing that economic factors, the profit motive or the need to export surplus capital, were crucial, simply don’t work. The colonies cost the European powers money, they did not bring in money, they had no discernible function in terms of the capitalist economy, and there were many close financial and business links between the rival European powers in 1914.
IC: WWI is always interesting to me because—and correct me if you think this is wrong—it seems like one of these events that basically went as horrifically wrong as it possibly could have. The war itself was horrible, and the way in which the Allies won was horrible, because you end up with Stalinism and Nazism. What could have possibly gone worse? Give me a counterfactual.
RE: Well, as it happens, on February 4 my book on counterfactuals will be published in the United States. It’s called Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History and it’s published by Brandeis University Press.
IC: We’ll include a link.
RE: Of course the First World War is generally recognized as the seminal catastrophe of 20th century Europe and the 20th century world. But I don’t think historians can or should say what would have happened had it been avoided, because that eliminates contingency altogether. If you look at the arguments about what would have happened had there been no first World War, or had Britain not entered the First World War, you simply cannot say that there would have been no Holocaust, or no second world war, because you can’t account for chance happenings along the alternative timeline you’re constructing.
IC: There’s been a push in the United Kingdom to celebrate the war a little bit more. Lord Kitchener, the famous imperialist and war supporter is on some new bill, correct?
RE: It’s a commemorative coin worth two pounds sterling. I and others are arguing that it should be Nurse Edith Cavell who should be on it, and not Lord Kitchener. She was a British nurse who was executed by the Germans for helping wounded British soldiers escape back to the front line. But she nursed both German and British soldiers in hospital, and nursed them in Belgium. She thought she had a general duty to care for the sick. ‘Patriotism is not enough’ was her best-known statement. And that is the sort of spirit I think we should commemorate, and not the militarism of someone like Kitchener.
IC: You have also gotten into a skirmish with Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, about whether World War I was a war for the Brits to be proud of.
RE: There are those who think it was basically a war between Britain and Germany, and Germany was an evil dictatorship run by the Kaiser. People who read back Hitler into the Kaiser, the Third Reich into the Kaiserreich—those people argue it should be celebrated by Britain as wonderful triumph for British values.
IC: Gove is conservative, but A.J.P. Taylor famously wrote something similar, and he was a leftist historian. Didn’t he essentially argue that you can read Hitler as sort of a traditional German leader?
RE: He did say that, but he also said that the First World War wasn’t anybody’s responsibility; he said it was war by timetable, by railway timetable; once the powers began to mobilise, there was no stopping it.
IC: Right, that it was almost an accident…
RE: As you say, however, it is not left vs. right. I pointed out in a piece I did for The Guardian that it was Niall Ferguson, who describes himself as right-wing, who said that Britain should not have entered the first World War. As for Michael Gove, this goes back to the fact that last year I was very prominent in the public criticism of his draft of a new school history curriculum in this country, and he was forced to withdraw it, and I don’t think he’s forgiven me for that. We can surely salute the courage of the soldiers who fought while criticizing the view that they were fighting for British democracy, liberal values and so on: they thought above all they were fighting for the Empire.
IC: There has been a ton of books on the origins of the war in the last year, and there are going to be many more. What is the best one?
RE: I still think Christopher Clark’s book is the one to beat on the origins of the war, though I think Margaret Macmillan comes fairly close to it—she is better on the longer-term origins, he has broader and deeper research on the immediate origins. I don’t think we yet have a very good book on the war itself.
IC: And overall, what is the greatest book written on the war?
RE: Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That. That is the best book I’ve read.
IC: It’s interesting you say that because I just finished rereading Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, which talks a lot about Graves. Fussell’s is an amazing and beautiful book.
RE: That’s excellent as well. But these are not of course, conventional academic history books.
IC: So what’s the best conventional history?
RE: David Stephenson’s 1914-1918 is the best.
This interview has been edited and condensed.