2014 is upon us and with this comes an important anniversary in the history of humanity but also in the history of the Anglo-German relations. With it there will be a lot of coverage about the history of the conflict, its causes and consequences. It is important to keep the focus as otherwise writing about the Great War turns into a repetition of old stereotypes and thus a prolongation of those, which is certainly not wanted.
Simon Jenkins, distinguished writer for the guardian newspaper has issued an apology to the Germans. He argues, it will be the Germans who will suffer an avalanche of often sickening Great War memorabilia, largely at their expense and once more show the British at their worst:
sanctimonious, self-congratulatory, worshipping at the tomb of the unknown, awful German
According to Jenkins there are 8000 titles on the subject on the bestseller lists. Jeremy Paxman, normally reliable anchor man of Newsnight has gone ‘over the top’ as he excluded some important features of his narrative in his TV programme Britain’s Great War. He was first with his show, yet at the price of a superficial account. Jenkins labelled those engaging in the debate war horses. And there are quite a few.
Jenkins seems to be desperate as this is only the beginning by stating: ‘And there are four years of it to come.’ British culture he says, is obsessed with war: ‘the second world war as much as the first.’ Further, 80% of all books written on Hitler, originate from the UK and Jenkins concludes that a nation trapped in nostalgia for past military triumphs is not healthy but weak and Ruritarian.
A contrast to Germany will bring an equal shock: Since 1968 not 1 major work on the First World War was published. This neglect was finally ended in 2013 when Herfried Münkler published ‘The Great War.’ This shows an omission of historical research into one of the most important periods in German history of the 20th century. Ever since Fritz Fischer has published his theses that the German Empire planned the war in 1961, there was no new study to question this. In German historical writing that is. The British historian Christopher Clarke argues against this in his new study The Sleepwalkers. Previous research has focussed on Germany’s guilt and taken this for granted for 40 years. Clarke meanwhile argues that it all parties involved have been guilty and could have avoided any conflict had they acted differently. Of course this is an easy statement to be made 100 years later, yet it a welcome change from the omnipresent reminder that the German Empire was the main culprit in this conflict.
The British are not alone
While it has become customary that the British indulge in reminiscing in their history, they are not alone this time. The German weekly Der Spiegel out fought its rivals at the beginning of January with a big issue on the conflict that started in 1914. The magazine contained a lot of stories about the conflict as well as a dvd. The magazine is not alone; Die Zeit, also based in Hamburg have created an online diary which recounts every day of the year 1914 and each of the following years of the conflict. Besides the historical context that is portrayed, it is interesting to see the content presented not only in a flat manner but in a way that is appealing to the so-called digital natives. These 2 won’t stay alone, surely as this topic is of interest for the wider public as well as it will generate publications and debate from the academic sector. This is laudable and certainly will lead to a better understanding of the history of the conflict, its roots and causes and its consequences.
Unfittingly, the German Federal President Joachim Gauck spoke at the Munich Security Conference about an increasing involvement of Germany in future conflicts, i.e. more wars to be fought for dubious intentions – some say the security of Germany needs to be defended at the Hindukush – and more money invested in weapon technology. This is a sign of things to come for Germany. Germany will walk into more conflicts to ‘re-assure’ its status in the world Gauck argued.
War Horses indeed everywhere.
Herfried Münkler: Der Große Krieg: Die Welt 1914 bis 1918
Christopher Clarke: The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914