This year we will mark the start of an event that changed the world in ways we are still coming to terms with. The question being raised by many taking a fresh look at the events of 1914, is could it have been avoided? If it had not happened, what sort of world would we now inhabit?
Growing up in an English speaking environment, the son of an ex-serviceman, and grandson of other ex-servicemen, I grew up with the 'British' version that it was all caused by the Kaiser. That it was his ambitions, his desire to rule the world, and his desire for conquest that caused it all. As ever, the truth is a lot more complex, and a whole lot more convoluted than that. Sure this is what the British and Empire press pushed in a frenzy of patriotic fervour, but we must also remember that certain strong elements of that same Press had been whipping up anti-German sentiments since around 1890 when the Kaisers first began building an oceanic navy to defend their interests in Africa and the Far East. It spurred a naval building arms race that more or less made a war against Germany inevitable.
Recently published letters and memoirs of the British Prime Minister reveal that the Cabinet was split, and that the small government majority in Parliament meant that he couldn't afford to lose a single seat. So the 'War Party' within the Cabinet were able to hold him to ransom. What is seldom taught in the lesson I have encountered on this period, is the fact that the Kaiser, perhaps seeing the danger more clearly than those who thought a war would be quick, dashing and commercially advantageous, desperately telegraphed all the potential protagonists urging restraint. He undertook to refrain from military support of Austria if everyone else stayed out of the squabble - which Austria unwisely tried to settle by attacking Serbia. Unfortunately, the Tsar ignored the offer and mobilised his army.
I have often wondered why the Germans, with a war on the Eastern border, attacked France in the West, invading through Belgium and Luxembourg (the latter was actually an independent Grand Duchy of the Kaiser's Empire) which gave the British 'War Party' the excuse they needed. I have now learned that the attack was triggered by the French mobilising and threatening an invasion of Germany's southern states. As the Germans knew the French cherished ambitions of 'avenging' the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, they couldn't afford to leave that unchallenged. Interestingly, and despite latter Britsih and French historians putting it about that the Germans had been amassing weaponry and preparing for the war for ages, Germany was actually very unprepared. There was sufficient ammunition available for only a six week conflict, and it took an almost superhuman effort on the part of their industries to meet the demand once that was expended. Even their navy had so little ammunition available at the outset that a single engagement could have depleted their stopcks disastrously.
As ever, when you take a look at the history from both sides there is a lot of information revealed that makes obvious that there were a number of 'eminence grise' in the background on all sides. Britain did not need to get involved, but there were powerful voices within government, and in commerce and industry that wanted a war. Why? Some for altruistic reasons, believing it would strengthen the Empire to stamp firmly on the 'upstarts' in Europe who dared to challenge the British hegemony, others who were losing trade to German industries and hoped a war would give them an advantage, and there was the anger at the fact that, in Africa, Germany had prevented the creation of a continuous British presence "from the Cape to Cairo" with their colonies in South West Africa and Tanganika.
There were those in France who wanted to bring down the power of Germany, and restore French dominance on the Continent, and others, who, like their British counterparts, wanted German industry and trade restricted. And then there was Russia. The last despot in Europe, the last real Emperor responsible to no one. Unfortunately, also a man given to whims of the moment who failed to see the danger of the beast he unleashed.
We have always been taught, by the history written by the 'winners' that the whole conflict was caused by 'German ambitions' and 'German aggression', but, as I said in opening, this isn't the whole truth. The 'War Parties' on all sides expected a quick and mobile war, the slogan 'all over by Christmas' was popular, but sadly ill-informed and based more on propaganmda than reality. And like most propaganda, it led to tragedy on a massive scale. In June we will mark the assassination that triggered the whole sorry mess - and launched a century of war that has all but destroyed the world and the society the men who marched across Europe in 1914 thought they were fighting to preserve.
The only victors, as ever, seem to have been those 'dark figures' in the background who saw profit in a conflict, and who are still present, at least in spirit, in our world today. It is something we should reflect on deeply.