DOUGLAS NEWTON. Armistice Day – narrow nationalist naiveties and voodoo vindications of war

Nov 11, 2017

Every year, in the days leading up to Armistice Day, a little crop of opinion pieces appears urging Australians to do more than merely remember the dead of war. Various writers argue that we should also recognise the justice of the cause. These frankly nationalist opinion pieces are based on a naïve understanding of the Great War.

In essence, such opinion pieces seek to rehabilitate the First World War as a “good war”. They argue that the war was righteous and necessary. It was worth it. Our men fought on the side of freedom against tyranny. Victory ultimately redeemed their sacrifice. Thus, the men did not die “in vain”. Ours was essentially a defensive war, fought in a good cause. We should shout it out on Armistice Day.

The case put in such articles can be quickly summarised. First, the Germany enemy was singularly evil: Germany launched the war; Germany was a tyranny, bent on world domination; there was a moral gulf between Germany and her enemies. Second, the war of 1914-1918 was Australia’s war, fought in her own interest; a German victory would have harmed Australia; therefore, we definitely did not fight “other peoples’ wars”. Third, it was a war for high ideological goals: democracy, and civilisation itself.

Familiar rhetorical devices add spice. The name of a relative killed in the conflict is thrown in, adding emotional weight, so that critics of the war can be depicted as insensitive. Some writers accuse any critic of the war as insulting the soldiers. Name-calling is common: it is “the left” who refuse to see the justice of the cause. Supposedly, all critics are “left-wing”, dewy-eyed, pacifists, ignorant of the peril posed by German militarism.

Let us test these arguments.

First, is there really a historical consensus that the German enemy represented a singular evil that explains the war? Certainly, historians of Germany reveal her leaders as reckless and rapacious. But historians of wartime Russia, France, Italy, Serbia, and Britain, also highlight the recklessness and rapaciousness of their leaders. There is no truth that ends all strife. Marc Trachtenberg, a very eminent American historian of the Great War, commented recently on a major conference on Sir Edward Grey in 1914, that he was “struck above all by the lack of consensus of all the key issues”. (See Trachtenberg, introduction to H-Diplo Article Review Forum 713, and Trachtenberg, “New Light on 1914?” in H-Diplo/ISSF Forum 16, both published on-line, September 2017).

Indeed, the search for the one true cause of 1914 is fruitless. Crucial documents have vanished. For example the private papers of Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, and of Bethmann Hollweg, the German Chancellor, were lost in fires in 1917 and 1945. The private papers of key French figures, such as Paléologue and Poincaré, have been weeded. Document collections produced initially by Soviet Russia on the Tsarist elite’s machinations during 1914 remain incomplete.

Moreover, it is simply illogical to imagine that an incontrovertible case against a handful of German and Austrian decision-makers of 1914, showing duplicity and mendacity on their part, would exonerate the decision-makers of Belgrade, Petersburg, Paris and London. Proof – or not – of who launched the war scarcely explains its escalation and prolongation. Those who widened war aims and prolonged the war are just as responsible for its destructiveness as those who launched it. Perhaps more so.

Was Germany uniquely a tyranny during the Great War? Germany was a semi-parliamentary monarchy. In common with every combatant, the government became more and more authoritarian during the war. But the nation was deeply divided. The left denounced the “annexationism” of the right. Germany’s powerful socialist parties opposed militarism and urged democratisation. If Germany’s enemies had credibly maintained moderate war aims, the left would have been further emboldened. It made the revolution of 1918. The result of the first post-war election of January 1919 is instructive: Germany’s liberals, democrats, and socialists of various stripes, gained an overwhelming victory at the expense of nationalists and conservatives. It had been coming for decades.

Was there a moral gulf between Germany and her enemies? Was Germany’s war aggressive and ours defensive? Germany’s wartime “tyranny” certainly aimed to grab territory and resources. But so too did the ultra-nationalists who increasingly dominated in wartime Petersburg, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, and London. Plans to carve up vast swathes of territory, and to exclude German commercial enterprise from those territories, produced the treaties that bound together the anti-German coalition. Annexations on a grand scale were contemplated in the Straits and Persia Agreement (March 1915), the Treaty of London (April 1915), the Sykes-Picot Agreement (May 1916), and in a dozen lesser colonial treaties.

Second, was the Great War really Australia’s war? Or was it a case of our fighting “other people’s wars”? If this last jibe is stretched to mean that Australia should never have fought in the war at all, but rather should have remained neutral, then indeed it misfires. For Australia simply had no constitutional power to choose neutrality. It was politically and emotionally impossible. Our belligerency was decided by London. In addition, the Australian people felt themselves to be transplanted Britons. Given this reality, some participation in the war was inescapable.

But was it therefore “Australia’s very own war”? This stretches the truth even further. Of course, a German victory would have hurt Australia’s interests, because we were bound up in the Empire. But this scarcely means that Australians died solely in Australia’s interests. We fought the war in places determined by others, and for sordid objectives decided upon by others. Australia was seldom consulted on high diplomacy and war aims. But our government’s recklessness contributed to this. We offered men at the outset, for any campaign, for any objective, under British leadership, anywhere on the imperial globe. This meant that Australians were far more deeply immersed in the war than was necessary, and that our government threw away opportunities to carefully weigh objectives and costs.

Third, was it a war against tyranny and for democracy? This is very naïve stuff. Everywhere, as the war escalated, Liberal leaders and values were smothered. Tyrants were among our allies. Britain fought alongside Tsarist Russia for the first 32 months of the 51 months of war. Tsar Nicholas, Sazonov, his foreign minister, Goremykin, his first wartime prime minister, not to mention the next prime ministers, Stürmer and Trepov, fought for territory, orthodoxy, and the “Russification” of conquests? Massacres and deportations of Jews and minorities were common behind Russian lines. From March 1917, London, Paris, and Rome then treated Russia’s new democratic government contemptibly.

There were few democrats among the “Allied” decision-makers. The nationalist leaders in Rome who took Italy into the war, Salandra, and Sonnino, his foreign minister, were reactionaries. Similarly, reactionary Tories swiftly eclipsed Britain’s Liberal war-makers of 1914, Asquith, Grey, and Haldane. Bonar Law, Curzon, and Milner, eventually dominated Lloyd George’s improvised coalition after December 1916. These men had been prominent in the struggle against democratisation in Britain before 1914. In America, Woodrow Wilson’s government became remarkably despotic in 1917-1918, using the Espionage Act to silence critics. War overwhelmed Wilson’s progressive internationalism.

But, in the end, some might ask, was the world not “made safe” for democracy? It was a severely dented democracy that hobbled on into the future. For example, the victorious powers showed no interest in consolidating Germany’s new democracy in 1918-19. Germany had elected socialist leaders who talked about nationalising mines, the eight-hour day, and the recognition of trade unions by employers. The victors gave the Germans the message: their revolution and their new democracy were unwelcome. The new Weimar Republic was starved; the economic blockade was continued after the armistice. Democracy was scarcely safe in Germany.

Russia descended into dictatorship. Civil wars and ethnic conflicts raged across Eastern Europe and the Middle East for years after the armistice.

In the West, authoritarianism jostled with democracy. Ultra-nationalism, xenophobia, and protectionism had all been boosted. Small incidents point to the larger truth. For instance, in France in 1919, the assassin of Jean Jaurès, the great advocate of peace in 1914, was freed; Joseph Caillaux, a former prime minister, who had urged peace in 1917, was charged with treason and remained under arrest. In the USA in 1919, Eugene Debs, the socialist presidential candidate of 1912, still languished in prison, for having criticised the war. Many of the new eastern European states swiftly descended into despotisms. Even in Australia, democracy limped. The nationalist government of W. M. Hughes expelled a Labor member of the Federal Parliament, Hugh Mahon – for criticising British policy in Ireland. Italy succumbed to Fascism within five years. Many of those who had preached war for democracy’s sake, such as Winston Churchill, then lavished praise on Mussolini.

Such was the low quality of the democracy made safe by the long war.

Did the soldiers die “in vain” therefore? The “in vain” card must be one of the most contemptible cards played in politics. We are told that only victory can save the dead. It is a voodoo vindication. People die needlessly in war – “in vain” – in every conflict, every day. The idea that victory will redeem their deaths is preposterous. Wars must go on, the parents and survivors are told, lest the dead have died “in vain”; the truth is that wars must end, lest more men die for the vanity of politicians.

There is indeed much to remember on Armistice Day. But we can do without the narrow nationalist naiveties.


Assoc. Prof. Douglas Newton is a retired academic. He has taught history at Macquarie University, Victoria University of Wellington, NZ, and Western Sydney University. He is the author of a number of studies of war and peace, including most recently, The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914 (London, Verso: 2014) and Hell-bent: Australia’s Leap into the Great War (Melbourne: Scribe, 2014). He is currently writing a book on the history of diplomatic efforts to end the Great War.

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