More critical and informed studies like McMillan's are much needed if the cascade of the daily news is not to dull the edge of our critical thinking ahead in an increasingly tumultuous and yet ultimately liberating historical moment. She unravels with verve the clash of empires that preceded the violent dismantling of the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
But most importantly, she analyzes with clarity the contradictory principles and conflicting interests that were embedded in the new Middle East. Not only were borders drawn haphazardly at war's end, but also the Great Powers insisted that Middle Eastern peoples take on new identities. Enlightenment concepts such as nationalism, constitutionalism, and separation of church and state were imposed at the point of a gun.
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Protesting the First World War
Buy Softcover. FAQ Policy. About this book Offering a comprehensive, up-to-date examination of the complex web of wars and proxy wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions that are ripping the Middle East apart, this book puts these events in their historical context and leads readers through the labyrinth that is the new Middle East. Show all. Where to Begin?
Questions and Analysis in History
Pages McMillan, M. Epilogue Pages McMillan, M. Show next xx. Authors M. Although the majority of the British dead came from the working class, officers, drawn mostly from the upper classes, paid a disproportionately high price: for mobilized men overall the death rate was about 12 percent, but for graduates of Oxford and members of the peerage it was 19 percent, and for graduates of the fifty-three boarding schools where statistics are available it was 20 percent.
Not since the Wars of the Roses had the aristocracy suffered such losses. The tiny, intimate world of the British elite—members of which composed Woolf's social and intellectual circle, and largely determined how future readers would think about the war—truly lost a generation, and, not surprisingly, it assumed that the country as a whole was similarly devastated. Britain's horrendous losses were not extraordinary. Moreover, as dreadful as was Britain's experience, "the disturbing paradox" of the Great War was, according to the historian J.
Winter, that it was at once "an event of unparalleled carnage and suffering and the occasion of a significant improvement in the life expectancy of the civilian population, and especially of the worst-off sections of British society. And because of the economic, social, and political forces the war produced, the kind of poverty endemic in pre Britain—which gave British males almost the same life expectancy as that which Ecuadorians had in the early s—never recurred.
Yet if Britain's experience in the Great War was more complex than the popular mythology would have it, that experience was nevertheless just as crippling as Ferguson maintains—albeit as much for subjective and psychological reasons as for objective ones. The war is Britain's national trauma, and British and Commonwealth historians compulsively revisit it in the way that American historians revisit the Civil War.
The results have been glorious. Few other areas of British historical scholarship have inspired works of such range and quality. Ferguson, like most of his fellows, writes with verve and flair, with a sharp eye for detail and a blind eye to narrow specialization. A number of military historians have searingly elucidated the awful conditions and calculus of combat. Other scholars have inventively fused economic, military, and diplomatic history.
And still others—Winter, Barnett, Modris Eksteins, and Trevor Wilson, for instance—have synthesized such seemingly unrelated fields as education, industry, and literature, or demography and military tactics, or economics and art, or sociology and politics, to produce breathtakingly broad histories. Perhaps the most successful of these, Wilson's aptly titled The Myriad Faces of War , embraces in its densely packed pages nearly the totality of the experience of the British state and people during the Great War, and is perhaps the closest thing to a complete historical synthesis ever written of any war.
Ferguson, too, takes a broad approach, and his book—which has aroused enormous controversy in Britain since its publication there last year—seems to me an implicit response to Wilson's, for their basic arguments are diametrically opposed. To appreciate the nature of their differences, though, an American has to know something about the essential divide between contemporary British historians and British readers in how they think about the war.
From the war memoirs of the s and s to A. Taylor's illustrated history of the war almost certainly the most popular chronicle of the conflict to the recent novels of Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks and from the play Journey's End to the play Oh! What a Lovely War to the movie Gallipoli , the Great War has been portrayed as a meaningless and unnecessary slaughter, led by stupid generals and feckless politicians. Reviewing a war memoir in , one critic plaintively sought some purpose behind the conflict: "Nowhere will you find a period or a sentence of which you could say, 'There!
This view has largely failed to penetrate the popular mind, however, probably because the disillusionment of anti-war memoirs is so deeply embedded in the British psyche, and because the British public remains so overwhelmed by the price the war exacted. Thus, for instance, as long ago as the BBC showed a lengthy documentary that basically argued that although terrible, the Great War was a "necessary war.
Oddly, then, Ferguson has self-consciously written an iconoclastic book that attempts to tear down the prevailing scholarly view, but in the public's understanding he batters down a door already open.
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Wilson stated his position clearly at the outset of his book: "Britain's involvement in the Great War was not some deplorable accident. Nor was it a malevolent deed clandestinely accomplished by home-grown plutocrats and diplomats. To Ferguson, the answer is obvious: Britain's intervention in was "nothing less than the greatest error of modern history," because Germany in fact did not pose an essential threat to British interests. So Ferguson indicts London, because "it was the British government which ultimately decided to turn the continental war into a world war, a conflict which lasted twice as long [as] and cost many more lives" than it would have if only Britain had not stepped in the way.
At one level this is a difficult argument to make. Consensus among historians is rare, especially regarding the origins of the First World War, the search for which has swelled into one of the largest investigations into any historical subject. Nevertheless, historians do now generally agree that, as Ferguson acknowledges, Germany "forced the continental war of upon an unwilling France and a not so unwilling Russia. It's clear, however, that at least after the war began, German plans effectively called for along with the subjugation of much of Eastern Europe and Russia the permanent subjugation of France, the transformation of Belgium into a "vassal state," and the German navy's taking of French and Belgian Channel ports to use as bases—actions that would certainly threaten Britain's naval security, as Ferguson readily concedes.
The questions historians now debate are Why did Germany essentially force a war in ?
World War I: Overview
Some, including Ferguson, point to Berlin's deep-seated anxiety about Russia's rapid industrialization and growing military power, and thus see German actions as an attempt to pre-empt Germany's strategic deterioration relative to Russia. They further point to the belief, shared by many Germans, that the balance among the great powers of Europe—the crux of the diplomacy of the past two centuries—was giving way to one among "world powers.
For this reason, so the argument goes, Berlin pursued a comparable concentration of power through the destruction of its European rivals' independence and through arrangements that would guarantee to German industry a continental market and a raw-materials base. In short, the goal was, in the words of the historian Imanuel Geiss, whom Ferguson quotes approvingly, "German leadership over a united Europe in order to brave the coming giant economic and political power blocs.
Ferguson's interpretation of that policy, however, is usually simplistic and often clumsy. Central to his argument is the assertion that the causes to which other historians have ascribed the Anglo-German antagonism in the years leading up to the war—imperial and economic rivalry and Germany's naval buildup—did not menace the British. But this refutes an argument that historians don't make. In fact the British were often untroubled by German imperial expansion, since, as Winston Churchill argued in , "we should be rather glad to see what is now concentrated [in the middle of Europe] dissipated [overseas].
In its foreign policy Germany seemed, if not a definite menace, something resembling an increasingly powerful, at times sullen, at times boastful teenager; even the German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, described his country's international behavior as "strident, pushing, elbowing, overbearing. No such mystery surrounded Germany's naval expansion. Germany's naval rivalry with Britain demonstrated the fundamental incompatibility of the two countries' interests and aims.
By Germany's was the largest navy in the world after Britain's, and it was built as an offensive force with solely Britain in mind as its opponent. A rising world power, Germany understandably didn't wish to have its expanding overseas trade dependent on the good will of Britain, which by an accident of geography commanded the maritime approaches to Germany. For Britain's part, its foreign policy had long included the axiom that national security depended on its command of the English Channel and the North Sea. In other words, what one power wanted, the other would never voluntarily concede.
So although by the British felt sure that they had, at least in the near term, won the naval race, they had come to believe, as the diplomat Sir Eyre Crowe put it, that "the building of the German fleet is but one of the symptoms of the disease. It is the political ambitions of the German Government and nation which are the source of the mischief. Although at first Britain saw a German "threat" in the narrow terms of a naval rivalry, that rivalry provoked British statesmen and military planners to pay closer attention to the geopolitical consequences of Germany's booming population and industry and its military power.
World War I in Our Minds: A Historical View
London feared that were Germany to dominate France, through either political intimidation or military conquest, the resulting increase in its economic strength would permit it to outbuild the British navy. And a greatly enlarged German navy, with access both to the North Sea and to French ports, could strangle Britain. Citing the pace of Russian industrialization and strategic railway construction and the size of Russia's army while neglecting to emphasize how ill-trained that mass of peasant conscripts was , Ferguson asserts that although Britain looked at the Kaiser and saw a latter-day Napoleon, pre-war Germany in fact felt threatened by the czarist colossus and believed that its own relative advantage in Europe was slipping away.
Had Britain not suffered from a "Napoleon neurosis" but instead understood the true balance of power on the Continent, Ferguson argues echoing the complaints of Germany's pre-war statesmen , it would have realized that German ambitions in were preventive rather than offensive, and didn't call for a British response.
This position has some merit. Britain began to focus on the problem of the balance of power when France and Russia were at their weakest, and London was slow to recognize Russia's surprisingly rapid recovery from the disaster of the Russo-Japanese War. Berlin was more perceptive, and certainly there is considerable evidence that German doubt and pessimism about the future gave rise to the Germans' appetite for expansion and subjugation. To this day historians are debating whether, as Crowe framed the issue, Berlin was "definitely aiming at a general political hegemony.
Unlike Ferguson, who too crudely uses total numbers of soldiers as an index of the military balance, British statesmen rightly regarded the German army as the most technologically advanced and tactically innovative in Europe a judgment that was to prove accurate during the war. However legitimate Berlin's anxiety about the long-term rise of Russian power, London couldn't ignore the fact that Russia's ally, France, would almost certainly be overrun in the event of a Continental war.
For sound geopolitical reasons Britain's concern was with Germany's threat to France and Belgium rather than with a potential Russian threat to eastern Prussia. Germany, after all, was only one of three new great powers to embark on expansionist policies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the obvious difference for British calculations was that the other two—Japan and the United States—were a safe distance away.