No Victory In The Peace To End Peace

The Times Higher Education Supplement
August 6, 2004

No Victory In The Peace To End Peace

by Annette Becker

The Origins of World War I. Edited by Richard F. Hamilton and Holger
H. Herwig. Cambridge University Press, 537pp, Pounds 45.00 ISBN 0 521
81735 8

Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany and the Winning of the Great War
at Sea. By Robert K. Massie. Cape, 865pp, Pounds 25.00 ISBN 0 224
04092 8

The Great War: An Imperial History. By John H. Morrow Jr. Routledge,
352pp, Pounds 25.00 ISBN 0 415 20439 9

The First World War: A New Illustrated History. By Hew Strachan.
Simon and Schuster 350pp, Pounds 25.00. ISBN 0 7432 3959 8

Trench Art: Materialities and Memories of War. By Nicholas J.
Saunders. Berg, 254ppPounds 50.00 and Pounds 15.99. ISBN 1 85973 608
4and 603 3

The great diplomat and historian George Kennan, who celebrates his
100th birthday this year, called the First World War “the great
seminal catastrophe of this century”. Certainly, from beginning to
end it was a tragedy, in which different ages of war came together:
the old way of fighting with industrial-scale killing, soldiers and
home front populations who consented to their nation’s cause together
with the victimised civilians of invaded and occupied territories. At
the time, it was thought that the horror culminated on the
battlefields of Verdun, the Somme and Gallipoli. Then the 1915
Armenian massacre (called retrospectively genocide after the
industrial mass killing of the Jews during the next war) came to play
a significant role in the way people thought about the savagery of
the 20th century as a whole.

The Great War has come to be studied more and more as a laboratory of
horror. These books follow this pattern, bringing different ages of
historiography to the intellectual field. Some of the books stick,
sometimes brilliantly, to the old way of telling stories, and offer a
history of military events led by presidents, emperors, prime
ministers, generals and diplomats, without mentioning ordinary
people, mentalities and representations; others look at public
opinion and war culture – from the culture of mobilisation and
sacrifice to that of rejection; some try to take in the twists of
race and gender; and some speak of a total war – or more accurately a
totalising war – using the tools of total history.

Writing this review in summer 2004, on the 90th anniversary of the
outbreak of the war in August 1914, it seems more important than ever
to understand its origins. There has long been talk about the
discrepancy between this war’s causes and the infernal tragedy it led
to. Richard Hamilton and Holger Herwig, who argue persuasively that
this discrepancy is false, have asked 11 authors to address the
question of causes. Although the book is sometimes a good summary of
the diverse known explanations, the attempt to synthesise is
difficult, probably because the various contributors have tried to
answer country by country, and are not always the best specialists in
the countries they describe; it is surprising to see an exclusively
English bibliography in a discussion about France or Italy, for

Drawing on research carried out over the past 20 years, the book
ignores earlier archives – strange for a book published by Cambridge
University Press that aims to be a textbook. Moreover, if historians
today widely accept the argument about a universal fear of aggression
at the time, and consequently the need to attack to prevent attack,
the book still prompts the question: are the usual suspects the real
suspects? Must we go back to Sarajevo and the Black Hand, back to
Gavrilo Princip, back to the escalation of the third Balkan War into
a European war?

Asking why the war started is not enough. The question belongs to a
dated historiography, where it was logical first to blame the enemy,
then war itself. It is the “how” that we need to explore. The process
of decision-making by rulers is one thing, but what of the process
that leads people to go to war, and to continue it for weeks, months,
years? Now that historians have nearly killed the idea of “1914
enthusiasm” – except when it refers to “Gallant little Belgium” and a
few members of the elite among the various aggressors – the real
historical task is to explain how it was resolved to go to war for a
short time, then to hold on for such an incredibly long time amid all
its horrors. How was it possible for the people involved to consent
to this and to suffer so much and to go on suffering when they were
more and more convinced of the absurdity of their sacrifice?

At least Robert Massie, a popular historian since the publication in
1992 of his Dreadnought, the story of the arms race between Britain
and Germany between 1890 and 1914, claims not to explain but to tell
a story. With Castles of Steel, he prolongs his story of the British
and German navies at war. He follows every ship and every submarine,
forgetting no section of engine or cannon, nor any of the men who
served in them, from the admiral to the last seaman; he sits with
Winston Churchill in the War Room at the Admiralty, and knows
everything about Admiral Holtzendorff sending in his U-boats in a
last gamble to win the war by starving Britain into surrender.

This is not a history that asks hard questions about the conflict but
it is, nevertheless, highly researched. The theme is particularly
fascinating because during this war – paradoxically considering the
fantastic arms race described by Massie in his book – there was
nearly no real naval battle, except at Jutland. But unlimited
submarine warfare led to the declaration of war by the US and,
ultimately, to the defeat of Germany. While the Allies did not secure
the victory at sea, it was because they did not lose at sea – notably
as a result of the convoys they organised – that they were able to go
on feeding their war effort and their populations when the Central
Powers could not because of the blockade.

A blockade was an old-fashioned way to win a modern armed conflict
involving the entire world, beginning with the colonies. If Hamilton
and Herwig treat the old imperialist mono-causal reason offered for
going to war with contempt, it does not mean that once the war was
engaged, the colonies played an insignificant role – on the contrary.
It is this story that John Morrow tells in The Great War: An Imperial
History. His argument is that to be a great power in 1914 you had to
have colonies, and that Germany wanted to be as great as Britain and
France. Indeed, Germany lost because of this lack of colonies – a
thesis again arguing for the success of the blockade. But the
colonial question became more complicated – with racism, social
Darwinism and eugenics probably the “fittest” winners of the war.
These surfaced again in the next war, when Nazi Germany would look
for vital space in Eastern Europe – another method of colonisation –
with brutal consequences.

The First World War was global from the start, three years before the
US entered the conflict. As Morrow says, “Prior to August 1914,
Europeans had presumed to control the world; they were now to learn
that they could not control themselves.” The “European civil war” was
not understood as such at the time, since everything was seen in
terms of race; there was nothing civil – nothing shared with the
enemy – about it.

While Morrow’s overall thesis is perfectly accurate and well put, his
book does not entirely keep the promise of its title and
introduction. Morrow is an excellent military historian who follows
quite strictly the war’s events on the various fronts, revealing the
colonial effort in troops and economics, but his is not a full
“imperial history”. Such a book – putting together the prewar
colonial practices of the European aggressors and the war racism of
Germany as seen, for example, in the September 1914 manifesto of 93
German intellectuals – is still to be written.

The text describes how the Germans’ horror of British and French
colonial troops, combined with supposed Russian inferiority, was used
both to hide German atrocities on the Western Front and to give
simultaneously a war aim to the German populace. Morrow is right: the
Great War was a war of race, a war of the self-appointed “superiors”
against the “inferiors”, and they all needed the “inferiors” to win.
Because Germany had very few colonies and did not engage colonial
troops on the European fronts, it used racist propaganda to overcome
what it lacked and show the inferiority of the enemies. It probably
worked enough to pour the poison of racism into Europe for a very
long time, a Europe already infiltrated by 19th-century race
classifications and colonial atrocities.

Hew Strachan forgets none of these points in his book The First World

It was published as the companion to a Channel 4 series. But it is
much more than that. This Oxford historian has been able to put the
most recent scholarship into a clear and readable form, while using
research from his three-volume work, of which the first volume, To
Arms – also the title of the first chapter of this book – was
published in 2001. The two other volumes will follow soon. The book
is also extremely well illustrated, thanks to Gregor Murbach, who did
the research for the television series.

The match between one of the major international experts on the Great
War and a historian of photography skilled at discovering new and
fresh resources – especially in beautiful autochromes – has been
perfect; the subtitle, “A New Illustrated History”, is entirely
accurate. This is not a coffee-table picture book, but a work of very
serious scholarship, in which photographs and text enhance each other
and give meaning to the whole enterprise. In one photograph, a little
girl in Reims looks tenderly at her doll near two rifles and a
haversack, left as if by accident. It looks similar to C. R. W.
Nevinson’s famous painting, Taube, except there is a light of hope in
the photograph; Nevinson’s child is dead. Another photograph depicts
two mutilated soldiers on their beds, with bandages covering their
legs; the war turned them into mummies.

The autochromes show the poppies of Flanders’ fields in all their
beautiful and horrifying red. The choice of colour photos also
highlights the presence of colonial troops. The front photographers
took numerous photographs of the Senegalese, Indian and Indo-Chinese
soldiers and workers – probably because they were exotic for those
who had never been to Africa or Asia; Strachan and Morrow share the
thesis about globalisation of war even before it was total.
Black-and-white photos are also all extremely well chosen, with some
that will be new to readers. An Austro-Hungarian soldier smiling
behind the gallows of a “traitor”, for example, reveals the extreme
brutality and cruelty of the Eastern Front, including the brutality
against civilians – something often overlooked both at the time and
by historians. It is the attention to every front, including an
interesting chapter called “Jihad” about war in the Ottoman Empire
and the extermination of the Armenians, that adds value to Strachan’s

If the home fronts are treated a little marginally in the first
chapters, they come into their own with the blockade and its
consequences for the Central Powers and, ultimately, for the outcome
of the war and engagement of the next. The author states very well
the series of contradictions involved: “The Second World War
irrevocably demonstrated that the First World War was not, after all,
the war to end all wars. But it also enabled posterity to have it
both ways. It venerated the writers who condemned the war of
1914-1918 but at the same time condemned those who embraced
appeasement, the logical corollary.” On top of the millions of dead
and wounded, on top of the grief and mourning, on top of the
destruction of the old political order and national boundaries, the
First World War had broken old illusions and brought new ones: no
more universal rights – or universal anything – more than a “victory
without peace”, a “peace without peace”, or, as a British officer
quoted by Morrow stated in 1919, a “peace to end peace”. What was
left were conflicting memories and their counterparts, silence and

By his unique ability to mix anthropology and the study of material
culture, Nicholas Saunders has invented a field that attempts to look
for and explain all kind of traces of the war fronts. The name Trench
Art appears a little restrictive, but it is how curators and
collectors refer to these front relics. With his book, Saunders
proves that through sites commemorating battlefields, and the home
front, through the objects touched, created and discarded by
societies at war, the anthropologist can get to the roots behind the
thinking of aggressor societies. The objects speak of a time that
seems near yet remote, of people who are nearly our contemporaries –
our grandparents, our great-grandparents – yet are at the same time
distant. Further, he helps us to understand other wars and the entire
scope of violence and suffering in modern times. Going beyond George
Mosse’s idea of the trivialisation of war through kitsch objects, he
proves that these front or home-front productions are, in a way, the
essence of modern war: the more you produce, the more waste you have;
the more people are engaged in war, the more they carve metal, wood,
stone or bone, to fight against boredom or express their love for
their families or their gods and their desire, in times of hardship,
to live.

It is a fascinating book that puts the Great War at its centre, with
its “unimaginable technologies of destruction”. The author includes a
few pages on earlier and later conflicts too: the picture on the
jacket shows a Vietnam War sculpture called “dressed to kill” – a
“beautiful” woman of steel with bullets for hair. Trench art could be
seen and studied today as a category of “Raw Art”; the surrealist
Andre Breton already considered the rings he saw soldiers polishing
at the front amazing. Another of the book’s pictures shows a
metalsmith decorating an artillery shell case fired by the Bosnian
Serbs into the city of Sarajevo during the war of 1992-1995. Does the
name sound familiar? Take a look back at June-July 1914.

Annette Becker is professor of modern history, University
Paris-X/Nanterre, France, and a director of L’Historial de la Grande
Guerre, Peronne, Somme.