Monday, November 1, 2010
History, Remberance Day and Myths
History Remembrance Day and Myths
Good day all, I hope this latest missive finds you in good health? Since November is fast approaching I thought we’d examine one of the most important days in that month’s calendar and no I don’t mean the Melbourne Cup, the horse race that stops a nation. If that’s what you where expecting then I suggest you go to a racing website.
Like many Australians I have a family connection to the Great War, My paternal grandfather Harry House served in the First AIF as a pioneer. He landed at Gallipoli two weeks in and was evacuated suffering from severe dysentery a few weeks before the withdrawal. After recuperating he joined his battalion in France in time for the AIF assault on Pozieres, were he went down seriously injured in an artillery barrage. I remember meeting him three times as a lad, once in a veteran’s hospital, he was by then completely blind having lost one eye in the explosion. He however was relatively fortunate, on my wife’s side her family lost Cecil McIntyre, died aged twenty three in the sleet and mud of Armentieres. (See photo below)
While his brother Sidney McIntyre was promoted to captain via battlefield commission and awarded the Military Cross. I think two more relatives may have been seriously wounded but haven’t had the time to track down their records. That I may add is just the First World War, as for the later conflict I will deal with them in time for ANZAC Day.
Since we are getting close to the one hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War I believe it is important to look at and explode as it were a number of myths and misconceptions that have grown up around that terrible war. Having recently reviewed my sons’ history textbooks I found that they were full of the most basic mistakes and erroneous assumptions that appeared to ignore a lot of the modern research of the past thirty years. Even worse I found myths and suppositions had magically transformed into solid historical fact. For me that was too much to accept. Considering that history shapes us and our world every day I found that sloppiness disturbing. I am not after a jingoistic or nationalist version or as they call it a black armband revisionism.
One of the fondest habits of historians is reviewing the past, it is an essential part of their nature and/or profession. So it should came as no surprise that our view on the tragedy of the First World War has changed, due to the discovery of new information or the reconstruct of the jigsaw puzzle of the past. Unfortunately with the gems also come the dross and a growing tendency to misrepresent the past. Some books I personally have found to be pathetically puerile while others like Dreadnought shine searchlight like on our common history.
I do not want to white wash the errors and play up the glories, my research and the conversations with veterans tells me it was grim past imagining. Having talked to them I feel it is my responsibility to give to my children the opportunity to look at their past in as clear a rational light as possible, to see the triumphs and errors of their ancestors and hopefully learn from them. In this series of articles I am trying for impartiality, though I suspect that evidence and upbringing sway me against the blind forces of history theory.
First; The Cause
Yes we all know that a young Serb nationalist was coincidentally in the right place at the right time to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That simple fact is covered adequately in most recent recountings in print and in moderately accurate TV programs. After that dramatic event the whole situation becomes very murky as competing agendas and ambitions come into play. The Serbian Black Hand society who arranged the assassination attempts had links back to the head of the Serbian Secret Service. This gentleman had his own plans and had organised matters in the fond hope that the Balkan parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire would spontaneously revolt leaving the area ripe for Serbian intervention. Whether the Serbian government officially knew of this is difficult to tell, however they appeared ill prepared to capitalise on the event. Nor had they engaged the pre-emptive support of Russia, the usual patron of Slavs in European and Balkan affairs.
First let us disregarding the theories of Illuminati and secret cabals of armaments moguls or others who apparently we are informed conspired to bring about a war that would lead to a New World Order. That is just absolute nonsense. It may work in the unreal world of thriller novels or fantasy adventures but such long term commitment, organisation, communication, dedication and secrecy is impossible in any secret society that includes humans. The First World War was started by a perfectly human collection of sins and foibles by those in positions of absolute authority. At this stage I will point out that while the forces of Imperialism, Nationalism and Militarism had a lot to do with the creation of the political tensions and cultural backgrounds for the conflict they did not in themselves create the irresistible tidal flow that swept away all the old nations and their ruling hierarchies. It was the action of individuals that utilised these forces for their own needs, ambitions or self interest.
Now as we have recently seen the Balkans is a mess of conflicting and competing nations and ethnic minorities. Its very geography makes this so, with regions carved up by mountain ranges and river valleys. A modern French historian Ferdinand Braudel spells this out in great detail in his book The Mediterranean, after a few chapters you begin to see how environmental determinism really did shape the conflicts and ethos of the Balkan tribes and kingdoms and especially why they naturally reached out to the surrounding great powers for alliance and aid in their disputes with their neighbours. The unfortunate fact of Realpolitik was that that these great powers included the Russian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, both bitter rivals themselves in the Balkans. So bringing the interest of larger patrons did little to calm any situation and made the most minor inter-clan banditry across a border into a ready excuse for an all encompassing war. (Bulgarians charging Turks 1912)
Added to this set of tensions was the last surge of colonial expansion, from 1880-1912 the European powers were in a race to snap up the last unclaimed patches of territory or acquire parts of crumbling empires. Britain gained Egypt and the Sudan thus protecting their route to India, France acquired Morocco as a ‘protectorate’ and in the disintegration of the crumbling of the old Ottoman Empire Germany made a dangerous bid for the Western Sahara, prompting the Agadir Crisis. This was seen as a threatening and aggressive act made deliberately provocative by the sabre rattling of Kaiser Wilhelm. The crisis set both Britain and France on edge and coupled with the increase of the German High Seas fleet created real fears of German military expansion and aggression.
Any good political squabble always throws up opportunities, and the Italians in 1911 used the both the growing Balkans crisis and the fragile situation in North Africa to launch an invasion of Ottoman Libya. It had mixed results and teetered on the brink of disaster thanks in part to the military leadership of Mustapha Kemal (Ataturk). When the Italians latter seized the Aegean islands of the Dodecanese the weakness of the Ottomans encouraged Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece to attack the Ottoman European possessions in the First Balkan War. After the success of the first round the victors then savaged each other in the Second Balkan War in a battle for the spoils.
Accepting that the Balkans and North Africa were a vulnerable flashpoints, especially so after the recent bloody round of internecine Balkan warfare. The great powers of Europe had tried to set up a congress of consultation in an effort to defuse rivalries and tensions. Now, you know what they say men of good will gathering together can solve any problem. However that does depend on everyone wanting a continuation of peace to start with. By 1914 that was not the case.
At this stage we can introduce the ‘blind forces of history’ concept and get it out of the way. Some historians love to talk about inevitability and the inexorable sweep of social, economic or political tides. In this they claim the actions of an individual to alter the flow of ‘history’ are irrelevant as it is it path is predetermined. I.e. the war was caused by the surge of rising German economic and industrial growth versus the stagnant French or waning British. It looks good in print as a title header doesn’t it? Quite a few historians have made their reputations on claims like that. The problems is that if that was the factor then all Germany had to do was wait a decade or less and they’d be wealthy enough to buy out the French economy or out compete British mercantile trade. That wasn’t the case, while economic historians love figures and market forces it is leaders of governments and military commanders who dictate their use.
On this line of leadership now is the time to introduce the key figure of the First World War; Kaiser Wilhelm of the house of Hohenzollern, emperor of Germany and grandson of Queen Victoria. If any real blame for that dreadful conflict lies with any single person, then I would have to say it had to be Wilhelm. He held a position of supreme authority and power as the monarch of the strongest military nation in Europe. While Germany in theory had a constitutional monarchical government in the representational Reichstag, its form did not match substance. Wilhelm had complete control over all facets of the military, including promotions and funding, he most importantly had an iron grip on the upper echelons of government, all officials were subject to his appointment. In the entire German Empire there was no person or organisation who could legitimately say no to Wilhelm without being accused of treason.
In a benevolent ruler such overwhelming powers tend to be ignored in the general peace and prosperity, while in a tyrant they are emphasised as justification for rebellion and overthrow. It is a pity that Wilhelm didn’t fit either of these extremes or his rule would have been less fraught with disaster. Instead he was prey to more perilous foibles and ambitions. Wilhelm the man, was driven by obsessions, he loved military uniforms and the grandeur of parades. In that theme he also believed himself to be the supreme warlord and military genius, often taking charge of the General Staff exercises where he always ‘won’. Worst of all he had such a massive inferiority complex that it would have kept a battalion of Freudian psychologists employed for decades. As an example he deeply resented that he hadn’t been born Prince of Wales regarding his Uncle Edward and Cousin George as unfit and ill suited to inherit the British Empire. It was a grudge and canker that gripped the Kaiser’s soul. Wilhelm also suffered a number of other dangerous delusions, first that he was brilliant and clever and secondly that he was possessed of a political acuity that would rival Machiavelli.(Bismark)
That was not the case Wilhelm was easy to manipulate by stronger more ruthless figures like Bismarck, Bethmann-Hollweg and Tirpitz. Each of those encouraged his fantasies to further their own ambitions. This I suspect is the true source of the First World War. Bismarck encouraged military distractions to keep Wilhelm away from government. Tirpitz promised him a navy to rival that of Britain’s causing fear and apprehension were there had once been friendship. Finally Bethman-Hollweg prompted the Kaisers’ grandiose and bellicose proclamations threatening war on those who stood in the way of ‘Germany’s place in the sun’.(chancellor Bethman-Hollweg)
So we move away from blind forces to individuals. Gavrilo Princep shoots Archduke Ferdinand, his uncle emperor Franz Ferdinand asks Wilhelm for support in punishing Serbia for the terrorist crime and active subversion. Wilhelm seeing an opportunity to grandstand issues his infamous ‘blank check’ to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg backs it to hilt as well as suggesting to Wilhelm, he take his summer cruise, so as to look ‘innocent’ during the crisis, giving his chancellor sole control of the situation. At this point the German General Staff usefully advise that if war is to come, this year would be best before the Russian rearmament is completed. Thus the great European wide war moved a step closer. The Austro-Hungarian chancellor seizes hold of the ‘blank check’ as a lifeline to a drowning man. Conrad von Hotzendorf believed passionately that a short sharp shock was the only solution to the strains and stresses of growing national identity by the empires’ disparate regions, threatening the imminent dissolution of the dual monarchy. For him it proved a god sent opportunity to crush the upstart Serbia.
At the this moment of growing crisis in international affairs two major players had already determined on the course of war, for what now can be seen as personal motives. It could even be said that between this small group of individuals and their advisors a conspiracy had sprung up to lull the concerns of a worried Europe shocked by the assassination, but otherwise unprepared for war. Well unprepared except for their respective plans of mobilisation and strategy.
At this stage trembling on the brink of cataclysm we end part one.
As the good doctor says; ‘Take the damned pills!’