In London, at the beginning of each November, people wear a red poppy in their lapel, and nowadays this has to be explained to foreigners. On the part of France where the British fought in the First World War, the area between the two front lines was studded with poppies, and these became the symbol of the war. On the anniversary of the armistice that ended the fighting, 11 November, there is a ceremony in London, to remember the dead of all modern British wars, but the First World War remains the great catastrophe: a million dead, as against the 250,000 of the Second World War. But 1914 marks more than that. Up until that date, there had been a long peace, and the Pax Britannica stood for a world of stable progress. The British could imagine themselves heir to Rome, and though their empire did not really last for long, it has indeed left behind a language and a legal system that spread throughout the world. Especially in the troubles of the 1930s, people looked back on 1914 as if through a golden glow – the king on his throne, the empire at peace, passportless travel with a bag of gold sovereigns, and “sleek reviews financed by coolie labour”, as Orwell called them. Of course the last years of Edwardian England were not really like that, but in comparison with the 1930s they stood out. The First World War ended Victorian England, and the Colleges of Oxford and Cambridge have long war memorials, commemorating the very young men who had once played cricket on their grounds (to the credit of J. M. Keynes, King’s, Cambridge included Ferenc Békássy). The Second World War did not have the same significance. 1914 was commemorated in a very dignified way, with hundreds of thousands of porcelain red poppies poured slowly into the moat of the Tower of London. No other country matched this, and in the case of Russia, where the catastrophe was unimaginably greater than elsewhere, the powers that be do not really know what to do. In Germany, the book that the world knows is Fritz Fischer’s fifty-year-old Griff nach der Weltmacht, in which, with immense documentation, the government of Kaiser Wilhelm II is accused, not just of causing the war, but of prolonging it, for the sake of a proto-Hitlerian empire.

But there have been some challenging British books. On the military-historical level, we owe much to Sir Max Hastings, who writes, every year or two, big books on aspects of the Second World War, which will generally tell you what you want to know. His work on the British bombing campaign against Germany, though written as early as 1963, is still in print and anticipates all the arguments that have since been played out in several later books (he condemned the bombing campaign on moral and practical grounds, but understood the context in which it was fought). He has turned his formidable attention to the campaigns of 1914, especially the grand dramatic events leading up to the battle of the Marne early in September, when Paris was saved. The early battles of 1914 were anomalous, as the various armies had no idea what to expect from modern war. If you compare photographs of 1914 and 1918, it is as if you moved straight from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 to Hitler’s Blitzkrieg of 1940. And this is the most bewildering question about 1914. Here was a civilisation of extraordinary education and knowledge. For the past thirty years it had been coming up with technological marvels – frozen food, the telephone, even the aircraft. Why did the generals get the war so wrong? They behaved as if cavalry would win battles, whereas a horse could be knocked out by a rifle one kilometre away. They relied on huge fortresses for defence, whereas heavy artillery could destroy them in twenty-four hours. Their mass-charge infantry tactics amounted to a death trap in the age of the machine-gun. But the civilian planners were no better. They said that the war would have to be short, because if trade stopped for six months, there would be unemployment and social disaster: the Prince of Wales opened a fund for men who lost their jobs. The bankers said that the war would have to stop when governments ran out of credit and the Hungarian finance minister claimed that the Habsburg Empire would run out of credit after three weeks. It is very strange. Hastings writes about the military aspects of this with his usual aplomb and eye for the key details; he has the same dramatic sweep as Churchill, in his World Crisis. He is particularly good on the disasters of the French in their attempt to recover Alsace, and in their subsequent attempt to strike at the Germans emerging from eastern Belgium – disasters that ought to have broken the French army, but somehow did not. Through efficient use of railways, troops were moved to the open German flank northwest of Paris, the decisive move that led to French victory on the Marne. It is all very well handled, and has become a considerable and multi-translated best-seller.

Max Hastings deals with the start of the war, and is firm as to its origins – the Germans did it. There is after all considerable evidence that the murder of the Archduke in late June was used as an excuse for the German army to challenge Russia, and Hastings lists the proofs. After 1918, the men responsible for decisions in July 1914 destroyed their own papers and much of the Prussian military archive was bombed in 1945. Butcenough evidence survived. The appalled ambassador in London, Prince Lichnowsky, had been told in the Foreign Office in Berlin that the aim was preventive war – war before Russia became the “super-power” that everyone expected her to become. The private secretary of the Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, kept a diary which revealed him as saying much the same on 7 July. And there are other bits and pieces, found in trunks in attics decades later. Of course the plan needed very careful management: it is quite difficult to start a war and to appear innocent. The Austrians had an essential role, to demand satisfaction from Serbia with a document, the ultimatum, that was designed to be unacceptable. Would an Austrian declaration of war then provoke intervention by Russia, Serbia’s protector? The Austrian War Minister, Krobatin, told a Crown Council in 1916 that no one had any illusions as to this. Berlin was infuriated by delays and excuses on the Austrian side, but on 23 July the ultimatum was served, and (again with delays that annoyed the Germans) war was declared on Serbia on 28 July. Russia duly intervened, and Germany declared war on 1 August. It is true that towards the end of it all, Kaiser Wilhelm II somehow guessed that it would end in terrible tears, and tried to stop the process, but by then the generals were in charge, and they insisted on war, not just with Russia, but with France, her ally.

Of course the German decision made sense in terms of the various illusions (or rather hallucinations) of 1914 – a short war, in the style of Bismarck. In 1870, France had been defeated in six weeks (though there was a long aftermath) and Germany had become the leading continental power. Had Bethmann Hollweg had an inkling of what was to happen, he would of course not have started it at all: his post-war protestations of innocence suggest that, maybe, he had somehow convinced himself that he was not to blame. But there was, as shown by a document prepared just as the Germans imagined they would take Paris, some long-range thinking. France would be reduced to the condition of Belgium. There were plans for Russia to become “a sort of pre-Petrine Muscovy”. This latter came to pass in March 1918, when, with a treaty signed at their headquarters town of Brest-Litovsk, the Germans forced the (now, Bolshevik) Russians to evacuate the Baltic States, Ukraine and Trans-Caucasia. A spectre stalks modern Europe, though it is a rather tame spectre these days. It is the ghost of a certain Baron von Kühlmann, whose starring role occurred early in 1918 when, at Russia’s expense, he negotiated for the creation of a German empire in Eastern Europe. Russia had collapsed with the Bolshevik Revolution. Lenin was desperate to offer Peace, as a prelude to Bread and Land, and in any case the Russian soldiers were just deserting in droves – “voting with their feet” as Lenin said. Russia was at Germany’s mercy. The military argued for direct annexation of territory. Baron von Kühlmann was more subtle. President Wilson of the now-combatant USA had stated that the “self-determination of peoples” was a war-aim of the western alliance. But there were peoples between Germany and Russia, from Finland to the Caucasus, who might also determine themselves in a manner convenient for Germany.

The map of Eastern Europe today is strangely similar to that of Brest-Litovsk, especially given the existence of Ukraine (in frontiers less extensive than today’s: at Brest-Litovsk, her eastern borders were left undecided; Crimea certainly did not belong to it, was instead considered as a possible separate Tatar state). German princes had a wonderful time dreaming of thrones – a Hesse for Finland, a (rather camp) Habsburg for the Ukraine, a Duke of Urach as “Grand Prince Mindaugas II” of Lithuania. It is an enormous pity that, to this day, we do not have a proper Russian account of all this, though perhaps it would require the black humour of a Bulgakov, as distinct from the contortions of an ex-Communist turned Russian nationalist, trying to come to terms with the fact that a Russian army had met defeat.

But beyond Brest-Litovsk, there were other German imperial ideas. The British had control of Egypt, and were proud of their achievements there – damming of the Nile, countering disease, promoting archaeology, etc. Germans had their eye on Turkey as an equivalent. Sean McMeekin, a young American with good German, Russian and Turkish (and English: he is a very good writer, author of The Berlin–Baghdad Express) has considered Germany’s plans to ally with the Moslem world. Germans forced a rather unwilling Sultan to proclaim Holy War, the cihat, while German (and Austro-Hungarian) engineers constructed a railway through central Anatolia, designed to tie Turkey to Berlin. If Germany had won the war, there would have been a politico-economic bloc, something not altogether unlike the present-day European Union, and in May 1918 there was even an attempt at a sort of common agricultural policy. There was a conference in Budapest. It speedily got lost in details, as the Hungarians made objections to this and that. This whole plan was associated with a best-seller, Friedrich Naumann’s Mitteleuropa. This was not bare-faced German imperialism, far from it: Naumann was a liberal, giving his name to a very well-meaning German Foundation. He merely stated the truth: that Germany was by far the leading power, and should sort out the problems of lesser peoples, whether Czechs, Poles or Turks. With that unfailing German tactlessness, he pointed out that Czechs and Poles owed a huge amount to Germany – in the case of the Poles, their culture had really fallen off the back of a Teutonic Order cart. The Germany of today falls over backward to do and say the right things, but she is still somewhat in the position of Brest-Litovsk. The Germans of 1918 were not very good at satellitology: they arrested their own régime and a Baron Mumm von Schwarzenstein informed a young enquirer that he should be considered as equivalent to a British Resident in one of the princely states of the Raj. Troops had to be moved in to extract grain from peasants at bayonet-point, in return for fancy bits of paper.

The real question in all of this is: why, in March 1918, was there not a knock on the door of the officers’ casino building in Brest-Litovsk, and why, in answer to the question: who’s there? the answer did not come, my name is Arthur James Balfour, and I am His Majesty’s Principal Secretary for Foreign Affairs. I have come to sign this treaty. There were voices late in 1917 who suggested something of the sort – Beatrice Webb, the technocratic socialist who later worshipped Stalin, or Lord Haldane, translator of Schopenhauer, who had been a great War Secretary. The idea is: England rules the waves, Germany rules the messy peoples of the East. Why was England fighting Germany – first over Belgium, which in one interpretation is just a useful fiction of a state, designed to stop France from reaching the Scheldt, and then over the whole future of Europe?

There is one very interesting book on this, Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers. The writer is very considerable indeed. Australian by origin, he knows German to the point at which he can hold his own in any circumstances – he has been a popular television participant, has sold greatly in Germany (and elsewhere) and can hold his own with Schubert’s Lieder. He starts his book on the origins of the First World War with a lengthy and very readable account of pre-war Serbia. It has echoes of the Serbia that the world came to know only too well in the days of Milošević: barbarism all around. A king is slaughtered in a cupboard, his former-actress queen’s body mutilated and thrown out of the palace window. In 1914, these people organised the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and although you can say this and that against him, he did indeed represent a higher civilisation. Why would England go to war at the side of these people? Enter Russia. She was setting herself up as protector of the small Balkan Slav peoples, and her aim was Constantinople: she, not Germany, would take over the Ottoman Empire. She encouraged Serbian nationalists, or at least turned a blind eye towards them. In 1914 the Austro-Hungarian government wanted an end to these problems and presented demands designed to stop them. It wanted German support, and got it. However, the Russians held out protection to Serbia, and mobilised forces surreptitiously for the event of a war. These led to general mobilisation on 31 July, and with a Russian army getting ready for war, the Germans had no choice but to respond with general mobilisation as well. The same interpretation comes in Sean McMeekin’s book, The Russian Origins of the First World War. It probably is true that Russian mobilisation was declared just as second thoughts were mounting in Germany, but the crisis had started there, and the military, with unanswerable arguments as to security, were following their own logic.

The real question underlying Christopher Clark’s book is: why did the British not just accept Mitteleuropa, a German-dominated Europe? Why end up in alliance with Tsarist Russia and semi-barbaric Serbia, for the overthrow of a Habsburg Empire that did represent considerable civilisation and solved so many problems for Europe? And why not come to terms with a Germany which, in 1914, was the most progressive country in Europe? This question is also explicitly stated in another British classic, Niall Ferguson’s Pity of War, which is especially good on war finance but has much of interest to say on other matters. Ferguson says straightforwardly that England should have stayed out of the war, that it damaged the country irreparably; it created a new world order in 1919–1920 that was almost as short-lived as President Bush I’s version of 1990. Ferguson had trouble in, of all places, Berlin, given that a substantial part of the German academic establishment regards Imperial Germany as an anticipation of the Third Reich; he had hostile audiences. But he was addressing a most serious question: why not accept Mitteleuropa?

Applying today’s version of common sense to the past is a futile exercise, and the First World War is almost as remote from today’s values as is the Thirty Years War. There were of course British people who argued against going to war but once the German army violated the neutrality of Belgium they were few in number; and the momentum of war was such that, by 1917, the British Prime Minister could accept as a British war-aim the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France, a demand to which the Germans would never agree. In the end, we come back to 1914 as a German problem. After all, Germany had France as an enemy from 1871 onwards. After 1891, Russia was also alienated, largely because of German support for Austro-Hungarian aims in the Balkans, and latterly because of German designs on Constantinople, the essential port for Russia’s trade. In this situation the last thing that Germany needed was enmity with England; and yet that was precisely what she created, when she developed a great navy capable of damaging the British in the North Sea. These great ships had more armour than the British ones, because they were designed only to sail in European waters and did not need capacity for coal, whereas the British had world-wide duties and needed it. Weaker in armour, they were more easily damaged. The German decision (1897) to challenge British naval supremacy was vastly popular, and led to an Anglo-German rivalry that made Germany’s position inherently unstable. It also weakened the military spending on which Germany, in a two- front war, depended. Christopher Clark defends the German navy, on the grounds that it was within the Kaiser’s rights to build one. No doubt: but it was still the greatest mistake of modern times, and it was part of a German behaviour-pattern that meant, in the end, war with the United States and with most of the rest of the world. An Austro-Hungarian foreign minister, Count Czernin, famously remarked in his memoirs that “we were bound to die. We were at liberty to choose the manner of our death, and we chose the most terrible”. Imperial Germany was not at all bound to die, but she still chose a terrible suicide.

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