Ali Muirden and I know each other from both working for Pan Macmillan for more years than we care to remember. I cleared off at the end of 2006 to get on with a lifetime’s obsession – the study of military history through writing, lecturing and battlefield tour guiding. And then one day an e-mail appears from Ali saying she had been driving along listening to the news and started to wonder things like “What is all this ‘fussing and fighting’ in the Middle East about, and, oh, by the way, how come an archduke getting shot in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914 plunges the whole of Europe into a world-changing catastrophe that was even then known as ‘the Great War’?”
If she did not know, she knew a man who might. And I agreed to do my first audio book, on the origins of the First World War.
Despite Noel Coward’s admonition that ‘we must not be beastly to the Germans’, and how we are all firm allies now, it is almost impossible not to conclude that the German ruling-class was looking for an excuse for a war in Europe that was scheduled to start some time after the summer of 1914. The killings at Sarajevo were cleverly turned into a threat against Germany, but, if they had not happened, there would have been another excuse found before too long.
Germany had convinced itself that all its neighbours were consumed with jealousy of her, and were ganging up to bring about her destruction, first by strangling her legitimate bid to be a world power, and ultimately by all-out attack. Rather than sit and wait for her enemies to grow stronger year on year, Germany decided to risk everything on issuing clear ultimatums threatening war, and them delivering a knockout blow with all her strength. (And she would do it all again in 1939!)
This all left me wondering how the world has changed since 1945, arguably for the better. That might not be an immediately obvious deduction, but this is what I mean. Studying the run up to the First World War, I had been struck at how nations could decide that their ‘honour’ had been ‘fatally compromised’ and how war was the only possible solution. Nations were continually threatening each other with ultimatums, forming ‘defensive’ alliances while arming themselves with all the latest weaponry, and coolly laying plans for a war that was seen as utterly inevitable, and even desirable. There was all that psychobabble about war being the ultimate test of a nation’s fitness to strut upon the world stage, where ‘vigorous young nations’ had the right, and indeed the moral duty, to sweep older states into the dustbin of history.
We don’t get much talk like that any more (not even in the ‘Daily Mail’!) Do nations take umbrage at ‘insults’ these days? All the great colonial empires have been demolished, leaving every nation to make a mess of itself in its own way.
Now here is a scary thought. There have been many wars since 1945, and there are ongoing wars at this very moment, but can anyone envisage a great worldwide conflict like 1914-1918 or 1939-1945 ever again? Could you see modern youth queuing up at the recruiting offices like they did in 1914? Is that because we are increasingly comfortable, and connected (thanks to the digital age we live in, and all those foreign holidays), or is it because we have invented weapons so destructive that their use becomes idiocy. We all recognise now that the ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ of the nuclear age certainly deserved its acronym, MAD, though we are only just realising what terrible psychic damage the constant threat of that destruction may have caused. But the ‘final war’ never happened, and is looking increasingly less likely. Only because of the threat of nuclear annihilation? I sincerely hope not. Maybe the world is growing up at last. Looking at the nation-sized tantrums that led to the First World War, there might yet be cause for hope. - John Lee