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When intellectuals are clueless about the first world war

Frank Furedi's First World War: Still No End in Sight gathers commentary from academics and sociologists. How wrong some of them were

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

First World War: Still No End in Sight Frank Furedi

Bloomsbury, pp.272, £18.99

No one alive now has any adult experience of the first world war, but still it shows no sign of respectable ossification; no armistice of opposing historians seems in prospect. It maintains a terrible, vivid, constantly mutable life. Like the French Revolution, its meaning shifts from generation to generation and according to which politician happens to be speaking at the moment.

In 1989 Mrs Thatcher took the opportunity to deliver a highly tactless speech to the French on the real origins of political liberty. In recent weeks, Michael Gove, Sir Richard Evans and Tristram Hunt have embroiled themselves in an argument about the significance of the war which showed none of the abstruse nature of most discussions about history. This was a living, violent argument about facts which are intensely present to us. The Great War has never gone away, though its meaning is not quite what it was 100 ago, or for that matter 20 years ago. There is, indeed, still no end in sight.

The traditional historical debate is on the question of what caused it. In the best and most recent study of its origins, Christopher Clark in The Sleepwalkers made a persuasive case that, with six great powers simultaneously pursuing incompatible interests, it was beyond anyone’s capability to ‘cause’ anything in any meaningful sense. He pointed out that almost every other historian seemed to begin from the assumption that the war had to be caused by one great power or another, and to go on to make the case against Germany, Britain, Russia or any of the others. Inevitably, Clark’s sane but faintly absurdist case was greeted by some critics as a cunning ploy to let the favourite villain, Germany, off the hook.

The arguments about the causes are extraordinarily involved and have led to a huge historical and metaphysical library. But what about the consequences of the war? After all, it demonstrably shaped the world we live in, and it is arguable that the suspicion of authority, the breakdown of social order and questioning of the nature of society which have periodically erupted in the last 100 years all could be seen as springing directly from the experiences of the trenches.

There is, too, a much more direct and consequential line of events which follows on from the November armistice, through Germany’s economic collapse to the rise of the Nazi party; did those conditions go on to create, in some clear way, the situation of the Cold War, the 1950s economic miracle in the west and  growing stagnation in the east? Was ideology forged in the battlefields of the first world war and tested against the economic and social circumstances that the catastrophe engendered?

It’s an interesting case. It is true that the longer the historian of ideas proceeds, the more tenuous and ingenious his case becomes. Does it really make sense to regard Tony Blair as a grandchild of the Great War schisms? Were the horrors of 1914–1918 really behind the motivation of the players in the Cold War nuclear game, or was there something more immediate in their sights? But there is a direct chain of events and habits of thought that follow on from the armistice in rather an unfashionably teleological way. It might be interesting to see where these events led.

Frank Furedi is a professor of sociology, and his study focuses sharply on the ideas and consciously expressed attitudes of the period. His witnesses are almost entirely social commentators, even contemporary academics and sociologists, attempting to make sense of the world around them. Thomas Mann enters into the argument as the author of the essay ‘Confessions of an Unpolitical Man’, but his novels, especially Royal Highness and The Magic Mountain which reveal so much about prevailing attitudes and habits of thought at the time, go unmentioned. Furedi is not a man, either, to delve into the expressed thoughts of ordinary people; we might find out a lot about what individuals were thinking over this long period by looking at a range of diaries and letters, but this falls outside Furedi’s remit.

However, the thoughts of historians and sociologists on these matters, rather than more informal witnesses, is not without interest. What, after all, did highly intelligent people think was going on? Their opinions have to be treated with more scepticism than Furedi allows, and surprisingly often they are just plain wrong. A good example is the postwar German historian who, on considering the consequences of mass slaughter for German culture, remarked on the loss of the ‘self-sacrificing elites, of the creative talents … it opened the realm of silence in which the usurpers of 1933 could speak and act.’ Is he saying that August Macke would have had good arguments that Paul Klee could not command? What about Joseph Roth, Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig? There was no ‘realm of silence’. The author of the study that concludes, Furedi says, that German liberals refused to challenge Hitler because they ‘saw nothing to fight about’ would be demonstrably, completely wrong, and deserves to be told so if that was his complete conclusion.

Some of these commentators are comic in their total lack of comprehension. It is nice to learn that in 1933 the President of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler, told his students in a speech that the new dictators were ‘men of far greater intelligence, far stronger character and far more courage than the system of elections’. Another witness provides an amusing lack of perspective from the academic groves by observing that after 1945, the Soviet Union ‘played an important role in the stabilisation of Europe’. By doing things like invading half of it, I suppose.

This is quite an engaging book about the sequence of political thinkers on liberalism, authority and power since 1914. Sometimes one does reflect that the real after-effects of the Great War were not a mere sequence of ideas. Though the lesson of the century is that men would always sacrifice their interests for their intellectual passions, it is true that the most urgent consequences of the war were in low politics and brutal economics rather than in a battle of ideas aiming to discredit one another.

I would have found this book’s argument more convincing if it had been backed up with some hard details of how people lived, and how their lives changed in the decades after 1918, in addition to how sociologists argued that their lives were changing. Furedi is perhaps not very worldly in his outlook, too, and his conclusion that ‘very few movements or people describe themselves as “right wing” because of the negative connotations they convey’ seems to me to suggest that he might like to get out a little more.

Still, this is an interesting exercise, though ultimately somewhat unconvincing in the way it follows a complex event through very different sequences of cultural and intellectual moods. Historical events are slippery and unpredictable facts in our lives, and don’t tend to stay still. I mean, we haven’t made up our minds about the Emperor Claudius yet, so it’s very early for this book even to be contemplated.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16.99. Tel: 08430 600033

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