The First World War ended a relative – though certainly not absolute – century of peace, global economic growth and European world hegemony. Conflict had been detonated by aggressive acts from states determined to make themselves stronger and more secure; but it destroyed those primarily responsible – the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russia empires – and weakened all the combatant countries except America, which only joined the struggle in 1917.
War imposed huge strains on the societies involved, and all felt the consequences, including the United Kingdom: Ireland broke away, and the empire began to fissure. Infinitely more traumatic were the fates of central and eastern Europe and the Middle East, where the collapse of the empires that had ruled them gave opportunities for independence to new nations, but caused years of bloody conflict and revolutionary violence that destroyed many millions of lives and led to mass ‘ethnic cleansing’. Some of the consequences still fester today.
The human cost for Britain, though less than for several other countries, had been immense: the line of mourners for the inauguration of the Cenotaph in Whitehall stretched for seven miles. People wanted victory to be for more than selfish reasons: in the novelist H.G. Wells’s phrase, they wanted it to be “a war to end war”. Only this seemed to make the terrible sacrifice bearable.
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Although there was anger against the enemy, and a popular demand to ‘make Germany pay’, there was a countervailing desire for reconciliation and a new peaceful world – an aspiration that earlier generations would have thought impossible, but which we have never abandoned. A League of Nations was created to keep the peace. King George V declared that war should be consigned to “a dead past“.
Many progressives, with the economist John Maynard Keynes as their spokesman, deplored what they saw as excessively harsh treatment of the now democratic Germany, which was made to pay economic “reparations”. Here was the origin of the policy of “appeasement” – to satisfy German grievances – which was generally accepted in Britain. Support for the League and for general disarmament was strong in all parties and sections of society. The Oxford Union famously voted in 1933 that “this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country“.
Our modern political landscape was created by the war. The once dominant Liberal Party split, and Labour replaced it as a major party. Wartime solidarity led Britain to take its final steps to democracy, giving the parliamentary vote to all adult men and eventually all women. The then prime minister, David Lloyd George, promised “homes fit for heroes“. Welfare benefits rose faster than ever before or since, despite the huge public debt created by the war.
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But the British economy had been severely damaged. Vast overseas investments had been liquidated. Industry had slashed exports to supply the war effort, and overseas customers had turned to other suppliers such as America and Japan. Postwar markets for textiles, steel, ships, and coal collapsed, plunging whole regions into depression – something that still scars our society today. The short 1926 General Strike was one of the consequences. Worse was to come. Global economic crisis from 1929 onwards created mass unemployment, caused serious political instability in much of Europe, and brought Adolf Hitler to power in Germany.
For all these reasons, disillusionment with the outcome of the war began in the late 1920s. It seemed that “the war to end war” had been a mirage, and that life had got worse. Books, plays, poetry, paintings and films appeared in every country highlighting the horrors of the trenches. The British public clung, during the 1930s, to the “no more war” ideal, opposed spending on armaments and placed its hopes in the League of Nations.
Mounting aggressiveness by fascist regimes in Italy and Germany met with a redoubled desire to ‘appease’ Germany, and to keep Britain out of European conflicts. “Do not compete with the fascists in arms and they will not rearm”, declared the Labour leader Clement Attlee. By a tragic irony, fear and hatred of war born out of the sufferings of 1914-18 thus made another war more likely; and it materialised in 1939.
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To have to fight a second war against Germany and its allies might seem final proof that the First World War had been for nothing; indeed, that it had sown the seeds of even worse horrors. Or – as many at the time believed – that victory in 1918 had been wasted by the politicians. But whether this was due to treating Germany too harshly or by “appeasing” it was a matter of debate. It is a question that can never be resolved.
Britain had fought, in 1914, to prevent the dominance of the Continent by an aggressive Germany and its allies, and to ward off a potential threat to its own security. Victory meant the temporary removal of this threat. What if Britain had been defeated? It is impossible to gauge all that was at stake in the war, and how a different outcome might still have been affecting us today.
But defeat would surely have meant severe impoverishment, economic and social disruption, insecurity, and dangerous political division and bitterness. The prospects for a democratic future for Europe would have been bleak. In short, while the First World War did not bring the utopian future that idealists hoped for, it staved off an immediate danger, and gave peace and democracy a chance. So the Europe we live in has as its matrix the victory of 1918.
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Was Britain changed in ways that still affect us? The belief that the carnage of the trenches somehow destroyed national solidarity, confidence and trust is fanciful. The funeral in 1922 of Field-Marshal Earl Haig, the former Commander-in-Chief, brought huge crowds of mourners into the streets.
Only since the 1960s has the First World War become a byword for futility and an easy way of bashing the Establishment and ‘militarism’ – though ironically, ‘militarism’ was what people in 1914 thought the war was against. The truest symbol of the legacy of the First World war is the poppy, which has no parallel in any other combatant country. The poppy combines a sense of national solidarity with consciousness of human suffering – very different from the heedless jingoism of the late Victorian age, which the First World War destroyed for ever.