The Flood of Remembrance – 100 Years Since the Great War

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With the recent turn of the calendar to 2014, we find ourselves closing in on August 4, 2014.  That date records a civilization-shaking anniversary. On that date 100 years ago the European powers went to war – to be joined by the Ottoman Empire and Japan and then later, the United States.  August 4th thus marks the commencement of World War I. Not surprisingly there is a growing flood of historical analyses and reflections on the ‘War to End All Wars’.

Over the next 8 months or so, I hope to examine from time to time some of those works and the efforts by these authors to draw historical lessons from the approach to war some 100 years ago.  In this post I will take note of a number historical publications that have drawn wider attention.  But in addition I will identify a recent instance of a politician getting into the act and referencing the War and its presumed lessons for an identified situation today.  This episode I believe only heightens the danger of experts and politicians appropriating the long ago War and analogizing to contemporary circumstances.

First, the historians.  The initial work worth noting is The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan, the Warden of St. Antony’s College at Oxford and an international historian at both Oxford and the University of Toronto.  In another post I shall take this volume and another by Cambridge’s Christopher Clark,  The Sleepwalkers:  How Europe Went to War in 1914. The latter in particular has drawn praise including identification as one of “The 10 Best Books of 2013″ by the NYT.

As any historian will tell you, the historiography of the approach to this War, the War itself, and then the War’s conclusion is immense – Clark points out that twenty years ago there were already 25,000 books and articles on the War.  The historical examination splits into two large camps.  The first camp is an effort by many experts and researchers to chronicle the approach to war and the explanation for its outbreak in early August 1914.  The second camp, and related to the first, is the study of responsibility for the war’s outbreak. Particularly because the victors “fingered” Germany for its responsibility – the ‘war guilt clause’ in the Versailles Treaty  – all governments following the War’s conclusion put out volumes and volumes of diplomatic documents – ofter selectively – determined to show that they were not responsible for the War and the carnage that followed the War’s commencement.  Thus saying something new 100 years later is difficult indeed.  Furthermore, to draw lessons that are appropriate in a vastly altered international system 100 years later is a quite delicate task.

As Margaret Macmillan suggests, in her The Brookings Essay, “The Rhyme of History: Lessons of the Great War”, the war continues to haunt us.  In part this is so because notwithstanding we are 100 years on “we still cannot agree why it happened.”  And for MacMillan the urgency of better understanding the war is as apt today as it has been for the last 100 years:

The one-hundredth anniversary should make us reflect anew on our vulnerability to human error, sudden catastrophes, and sheer accident.  So we have good reason to glance over our shoulders even as we look ahead.

In that regard Margaret has penned several articles – The Brookings Essay identified above but also an op-ed in the NYT entitled “The Great War’s Ominous Echoes” –  that attempt to draw out some of the lessons of the past and how these actions might bear upon the contemporary international relations scene, most notably but not only the US-China relationship.  In that regard many have focused on the German-British rivalry to draw parallels with the current US-China relationship.  It was Wilhemine Germany that sought a ‘place in the sun’ turning its effort to building a colonial empire just as the French and British possessed.   Wilhelmine Germany challenged Britain’s naval supremacy with a dreadnought program under Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. As Margaret Macmillan suggested these efforts added to the “unease in Britain about Germany’s growing commercial and military power [and turned] into something close to panic.”  She then concludes:

It is tempting  – and sobering – to compare today’s relationship between China and America to that between Germany and England a century ago.  … Increased Chinese military spending and the buildup of its naval capacity to suggest to many American strategists that China intends to challenge the United States as a Pacific power, and we are now seeing an arms race between the countries in that region.

But the comparisons with the circumstances in Europe 100 years ago are not confined to experts.  Just this past week at the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, in Davos Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sought to draw a comparison between Britain and Germany 100 years ago and China-Japan today. After the comment was made by the Prime Minister, the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshhihide Suga clarified his remarks saying:

Suga told a news conference that Abe – noting that this year is the 1ooth anniversary of the start of World War One – said Britain and Germany clashed despite their deep economic ties.

And as for the Prime Minister, he was reported as saying:

Abe had told reporters that China and Japan were in a “similar situation” to Britain and Germany before 1914, whose close economic ties had not prevented the conflict.  He also said China’s steady rise in military spending was a major source of regional instability, ….

The Chinese – here the Foreign Minister Wang Yi  – was quick to respond and firmly reject Abe’s comments:

In an interview with the Financial Times, Wang Yi, acknowledged that the Sino-Japanese relationship was “very bad”. He described Shinzo Abe’s remarks as “total disorder of time and space”, saying they were a misjudgment that bore no relevance to modern China or the situation in the region.  “I was rather baffled by his remarks. This is my first reaction,” Mr Wang said. “China is a country committed to peace. If the Japanese leader cared to have a close look at his country’s record, it would be made clear to all who has been the troublemaker. And who has been the aggressor.”

“I was rather baffled by his remarks. This is my first reaction,” Mr Wang said. “China is a country committed to peace. If the Japanese leader cared to have a close look at his country’s record, it would be made clear to all who has been the troublemaker. And who has been the aggressor.”

It is difficult, very difficult, for historians and international relations specialists to draw effective comparisons from actions drawn almost 1oo years ago.  It is even more hazardous for politicians to do it.  The real lesson may be not to undertake it without considering fully the lesson to draw from a distant contextual setting.

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