Howling Down Lord Lansdowne

April 19, 2011 Topics: HistoryPublic Opinion Regions: Europe

Howling Down Lord Lansdowne

Mini Teaser: Our risk-averse culture regards the Great War with pity and horror. Adam Hochschild too adopts this war-is-hell view. But nationalism, patriotism and camaraderie motivated Europe’s citizens to take up arms.

by Author(s): Margaret MacMillan

Adam Hochschild , To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914–1918 (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 480 pp., $28.00.

[amazon 9780618758289 full]IT IS hard today, as Europe fusses ineffectually over what to do about the murderous Colonel Qaddafi, or a host of other problems—from the Greek financial collapse to the challenges of immigration—to remember that only a hundred years ago the Continent was the undoubted center of the world. European countries dominated much of the globe either through direct or indirect empires; European capital financed the world’s trade and development; European science and technology, Europe’s military capabilities—all were more powerful than any others known. And Europeans mostly felt that the world was as it should be, that they had the skills, the advanced civilization and indeed the moral right to rule it for their own benefit and, so it was assumed, for that of the lesser peoples.

The picture was more complicated than that of course, and the Europe of that golden last summer of peace was uneasy and uncertain about the future. Many European countries were deeply divided between rich and poor, old aristocracies and new middle classes, or between different languages and religions. The elites feared revolution; the oppressed classes, that it would never come. And there were nationalisms—both old and new—demanding their places in the sun, threatening the very existence of the long-lived multinational empires, Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Intellectuals, so often the canaries in the mine, were questioning the very notions of reason and civilization that had sustained European self-confidence during the long nineteenth century (a time which had been largely peaceful for Europe—if not for much of the rest of the world). The war, when it came in August 1914, was not entirely unexpected. Indeed, in some quarters it was welcomed as a clearing of the air after a series of crises in the Balkans and elsewhere.

It is easy in retrospect to point to the inevitability of the conflict, but formidable counterforces existed as well: a growing middle-class pacifist movement—or at least the hope that disarmament and nonviolent ways of settling differences could make war unnecessary; the powerful Second International, an association of working-class organizations, which said repeatedly that its millions of members would go on strike rather than to war; or the conviction of bankers that the costs to economies of modern fighting made it simply unsustainable beyond a short period. Most of the military plans assumed too that there would be decisive confrontations within months and then the usual business of making peace and readjusting borders. Few realized how great was the capacity of European economies and how many resources governments were going to be able to mobilize.

And though many military thinkers were concerned about the growing power of defense—rapid-firing guns, trenches and barbed wire that made it increasingly difficult and costly to attack well-defended positions—with that human capacity for unreasoning optimism (which we have seen demonstrated so clearly in the lead-up to the recent financial crisis), they argued away their fears. Soldiers would simply have to be better trained and more highly motivated to triumph in the face of greater odds.

The effects of the Great War are still with us. The graves still dot northern France and Belgium, their rows almost unimaginable in their multitude. People still die on the old battlefields when unexploded shells suddenly come to life. Yet, the Great War remains a puzzle to later generations. How could that self-confident and self-satisfied Europe with so much to gain from peace have gone over the precipice into an all-out war which gobbled up the lives of its men, destroyed much of its wealth and its inherited riches from the past, brought to an end so many old regimes and hastened Europe itself toward the irrelevancy of today? And once started, how could they—the statesmen, generals, politicians, bankers and ordinary citizens—not see that the war had to be ended? How could the British howl down former–Foreign Secretary Lord Lansdowne when he suggested, after three years of battle, that the government should investigate a negotiated peace?

WE ARE nearly at the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of WWI, and American journalist Adam Hochschild’s new book, To End All Wars ,is a harbinger of what will undoubtedly be a major retrospective. His aim, he says, is to look at the people caught up in the conflict, particularly in Britain, at those who supported it and at those who opposed it. What were they loyal to? Family, friends, nation, ideals, principles? He has assembled a rich and varied cast of characters: on the pro-war side the writer Rudyard Kipling, whose heart was broken when his only son was killed; the general and first commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Sir John French, better at seducing other men’s wives and spending money than directing the battlefield; or the statesman Alfred Milner along with the love of his life, Violet Cecil. Among the antiwar figures are philosopher Bertrand Russell, the great Labour leader Keir Hardie and French’s sister, Charlotte Despard, already a radical before 1914, who became a leading opponent of the war. (She continued to enjoy all the privileges of her class, of course, although she called her chauffeur Comrade Tom.)

Pullquote: How could that self-confident and self-satisfied Europe with so much to gain from peace have gone over the precipice into an all-out war?Image: Essay Types: Book Review