No one doubts that the war against the Nazis was a necessary war – the closest thing there has ever been to a just war – but argument still rages as to responsibility for World War One.
Our prime minister wishes that all state school children should not be allowed to forget that 100-year-old conflict which took nearly a million of our brightest and best and scarred the psyche of the generations which followed, including our own. He wishes all of them to visit the battlefields of Flanders and is putting up £50 million to commemorate the tragedy.
Was this a war that could have been avoided – at least by us? In my view absolutely not.
It all began with an assassination in distant Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital besieged in the recent Balkan wars. That pistol shot triggered a chain of events very like a line of dominoes, the first of which that assassination had pushed over. Each domino represented a Treaty which bound this country to that. All Europe was locked into a web of alliances of immense complexity. It was quite unlike the simple NATO v Warsaw Pact confrontation of the Cold War.
We alone of the great European powers had wriggle room enough not to get involved. Our sole commitment was to tiny Belgium which we had been instrumental in setting up a hundred years before, after the defeat of Napoleon. So why did we do it? Why did we risk not only our own defeat but the survival of our worldwide empire? The answer lies, I believe, in the threat which we believed militaristic Prussia posed to the entire world order. Prussian-led Germany was not like any ordinary state. Its closest historical parallel was to be found in ancient Sparta. The whole state revolved around the military.
Statehood had come late to Germany and it was militant Prussia which led the drive for unification of the patchwork of German principalities. Once this had been achieved it launched itself on tiny Denmark, then Austria and finally on France on which it inflicted a crushing defeat in the Franco Prussian war of 1870. Strange as it might now seem, Prussia’s greatest friend and ally had been Britain. She had stood with us on the field of Waterloo and had never stopped admiring us. Then she set about copying our industrial success and this she achieved brilliantly. So now you had a militarily powerful Germany allied to a mighty industrial machine and the largest, by far population and land mass in non Russian Europe. ‘Time for an empire’, thought the Germans. Trouble was that because of the lateness of Germany’s arrival on the international scene and despite her now great power status, she had missed the bus; the world had been carved up between all the other European states. Even tiny Belgium had a great empire in Africa. Germany was left with the scraps.
Huge resentment festered in the German body politic. Their deserved place in the sun had been denied them. But the Prussian military were more upbeat. If the world could not become their oyster then Europe certainly could. They reckoned that if they struck hard and early they could deliver a knock out blow. So Germany would have its empire, after all: the whole of continental Europe. France, Germany’s arch enemy, would certainly have gone down to defeat without us. Russia did. And what would Europe have looked like under a Kaiser jackboot?… an army barracks with occupying Teutons from the Atlantic to the Urals. Next in line would have been Britain and its empire.
Apart from an obsession with all things military, what other aspects of a German-dominated world should we have had to worry about? In a far off corner of Africa – a part which none of the other colonising powers were interested in (Namibia) – they were already practising genocide against the gentle, hapless Herero people. It was a grim precursor of what was to come 21 years later against European Jews. Interestingly, the German governor of the colony responsible for the genocide was none other than the father of Hermann Göring, Hitler’s No.2, and founder of the Luftwaffe and dreaded Gestapo.
So while argument continues to rage as to who was responsible for the Great War, I personally have no doubt that it must be laid squarely at the door of militaristic Prussian-led Germany. It was gagging for a fight. None of the participants had any idea of the horrors which the first war of science was about to unleash. They all marched off with gay abandon and trumpets blaring into a maelstrom of bullets, machine guns, barbed wire, poison gas, incredibly big gunned artillery, tanks and strafing aircraft. And they dug a line of trenches 600 miles long from the English Channel to the Swiss border and hunkered down for four terrible years amidst the vermin, lice, lashing rain, mud and freezing ice. Time after time they were ordered out of those trenches into a withering fire that killed them on an industrial scale.
No one knew what they were letting themselves in for, least of all the supremely confident Brits. Their attitude could be summed up by their recently dead Queen Victoria who when questioned about the possibility of defeat by the South African Boers, replied “It does not exist”. We thought we would be in Berlin by Christmas, four months away. It took four years. Germany’s second attempt at European conquest, 21 years later, was because Hitler managed to convince it that they had not been soundly beaten, first time round, which in fact they had. A more fanatic, ideologically driven effort backed by even better weaponry, he considered, would change the verdict of WWI. He was almost right. So toxic and malign was the very idea of Prussia considered to be by the victorious Allies after WWII that, at the stroke of a pen they abolished it – the only state ever to be so dealt with.