The cause of the First World War has long been a source of controversy. Often the finger of blame for the war is pointed at a particular party, such as the Prussian military caste or French generals seeking revenge for the humiliation suffered in the war of 1870 and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Bismarck. Others locate the origins of the war in factors such as the arms race, nationalism, imperialism, or various nations’ domestic social pressures.
Current debates about whether or not Britain fought a just war and about the role of the Kaiser reveal more about the preoccupations of our times than they do about the patterns of the past. This anachronistic tendency has achieved its most caricatured form in the attempt to assign blame for the war to Serbia, which is now said to have inadvertently set in motion the forces that led to the slaughter of millions between 1914 and 1918. Reading history backwards, some historians have discovered that the ancestors of Slobodan Milošević were already busy back in 1914. The Serb nationalists who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand have been recast in the role of members of an international terrorist network, and in this recycled position as a state sponsor of international terrorism, Serbia circa 1914 is deemed a legitimate target for Austrian wrath.
For all the controversy surrounding the outbreak of the Great War, the fact is that this conflict is not reducible to a singular cause. The precarious balance of power that prevailed in the early twentieth century was clearly not up to the job of containing underlying conflicts of geopolitical and economic interests. The intensification of imperialist conflict from the late nineteenth century onwards always threatened to transform local disputes into global ones. One ominous consequence of imperial rivalries was the militarisation of international relations. The arms race did not simply mean expanded expenditure on weapons; it also encouraged a situation in which a militaristic and nationalistic culture could flourish and could have an influence on a significant minority of society. Chauvinistic attitudes were further consolidated by the emergence of the modern mass media, which thrived on promoting sensationalist nationalist propaganda.
This unstable international situation fostered a climate in which governments felt that the real question was not if but when a conflict would erupt that affected their national interests. However, governments’ behaviour was not simply a reaction to external pressures. It just so happened that the destabilisation of the global balance of power coincided with new threats within the domestic political sphere. By 1914, the rulers of most European societies found themselves confronted by a very new problem: the question of how to reconcile the prevailing political order with the aspirations of a new force – the public opinion of the masses.
The quest for legitimacy
The First World War coincided with a moment in history when, for the first time, governments were directly exposed to the scrutiny of public opinion and, in many cases, were subject to the pressures of a mass electorate. Wars could no longer be declared, fought or won without public support. Governments understood that they could no longer simply issue diktats. Policies needed to be publicly justified; they required the support, or at least acquiescence, of the people. So just as governments had to attend to a massive challenge thrown up by an increasingly unstable geopolitical environment, they were also hit with the realisation that the consent of the public had become essential to the maintenance of order.
In his influential essay on the domestic causes of the First World War, the historian Arno Mayer argued that it is precisely during periods of heightened social tension that calculations about the maintenance of order come to be intertwined with foreign affairs. Pointing to the high levels of internal strife faced by many nations in the period leading up to the Great War, Mayer says this was an important historical example of geopolitical tensions coinciding with domestic conflict. He argued that this ‘symbiotic growth of domestic and international tensions’ occurred at a time when, in the West, ‘government policies, including foreign policies, were shaped in the crucible of organised party pressure, and interest politics’. In other words, foreign policy and diplomacy, which had hitherto been mostly insulated from domestic pressure, now became increasingly exposed to the influences and forces that emanated from mass politics and public opinion. Consequently, political conflicts and debates about the future course of society influenced foreign policy and even military affairs. And when domestic issues become entangled with foreign ones, wars can become a medium through which political objectives and domestic concerns are played out.
‘War is merely the continuation of politics by other means’, said the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. In Clausewitz’s sociology of war, domestic pressures are seen as being meshed with foreign concerns. From this viewpoint, war is as much about domestic politics as it is a response to interstate relations. Mayer points out that Clausewitz ‘invariably opts for the comprehensive concept of politics which subsumes diplomacy, thus leaving open the possibility that recourse to war can be not only influenced but, in some instances, even determined by internal political considerations’. The emergence of so called ‘war parties’ in European societies during the early years of the twentieth century shows that domestic political rivalries were increasingly being refracted through conflicting attitudes to military affairs.
With the ascendancy of public opinion, modern media and a mass electorate, relations between states ‘ceased to be the private preserve of an encapsulated elite’, says Mayer. Pointing to the arms race in the run-up to the First World War, Mayer says that the 50 per cent increase in military spending in the five years before the war ‘may not have been exclusively a function of mounting international distrust, insecurity, and hostility’. No, the expansion of military spending was most likely also influenced by nationalist politicians who were playing the patriotic card to ‘maintain the domestic status quo’, he says. The immediate pre-war era was one in which ‘European nations experienced more than routine political and social disturbance’.
Even relatively stable Britain was not immune to the outbreak of domestic tension that was sweeping Europe. The Curragh Mutiny of March 1914 showed that at least a section of the military was prepared to defy parliament itself. Ulster had become a cause célèbre for many conservatives and nationalists. At the same time, employers and the British establishment felt threatened by the growing power of the labour movement and the influence of militant syndicalists. The Triple Alliance of railwaymen, miners and transport workers threatened a general strike in the autumn of 1914. The polarisation of public life placed great strain on Britain’s political institutions. ‘Indeed, historians have wondered whether if external war had not come in 1914, England might not have been caught up in civil strife, with fatal damage to her time-honoured parliamentary system’, says Mayer. In England, domestic tensions had by the summer of 1914 led some political figures to consider violence as a legitimate instrument for resolving political problems. Speaking of the unsettled domestic scene that confronted him, Winston Churchill asserted that ‘bloodshed no doubt is lamentable’, but ‘there are worse things than bloodshed, even on an extensive scale’.
Similar profound tensions existed on the continent, too. Political struggles between left and right and between labour and capital in France and Italy encouraged political polarisation and led to the strengthening of radical parties of all shades of opinion. In Germany, too, political and social tensions had intensified in the pre-war years. Russia faced a prolonged period of industrial strife in the first half of 1917, while the Austro-Hungarian Empire faced nationalist unrest. Only vestiges of the traditional order – monarchy, aristocratic hierarchy, customary deference – survived the upheavals of this period. At the time, social-democratic movements, whose divisions led to splits between moderate and revolutionary wings, seemed to be the first institutional victim of the Great War. But actually, the main casualty of the unravelling of European order was the politics of consensus and compromise represented by liberalism. Throughout Europe, liberalism was on the defensive and clearly in retreat.
That the First World War failed to resolve the international tensions that preceded it has been widely noted. What is far less appreciated, however, is that the war also failed to resolve the domestic political issues that confronted European societies in the pre-war years. On the contrary, one of the most significant legacies of the Great War was that it radicalised public life and called into question the legitimacy of the political categories and ideas that had emerged with modernity. As I argue in my new book First World War: Still No End In Sight, the battle of ideas provoked by the war continues into the twenty-first century.
The end of the old order
During the years 1914 to 1918, the political tensions that had preceded the war acquired new forms and a new intensity that frequently caught policymakers unaware. In particular, the metamorphosis of normal domestic conflict into more explicitly ideological clashes represented a significant departure from the pre-war era. ‘While the ascendancy of the nation state was a long-term trend, the explosion of an ideological conflict that would reshape national politics and the European balance of power in the interwar period was altogether more unexpected’, says one historian of the war. The language of the new ideologies often used the metaphor of a call to arms, through such concepts as class war, war for survival, race war, national war, and so on. These ideologies contained a seemingly constant implication of conflict - conflict that was to be fought over objectives that were irreconcilable and therefore not susceptible to diplomatic or pragmatic resolution.
This ascendancy of ideologies, and the concomitant hardening of political conflict, was a direct outcome of the corrosive effect of the war on the legitimacy of Europe’s old political order and rulers. It was a consequence of a war which, from the outset, was a deeply politicised conflict. The experience of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries shows that when wars are fought for political ends, they risk acquiring their own inner dynamic. In contrast, wars that are mainly diplomatic and have a specific external intent or aim do not ‘involve nor require the overthrow of the enemy’s regime’, and the ‘fabric of legitimacy, both international and national, tends to weather hostilities intact’, as one historian puts it.
Politicised from the very start, the Great War was not simply subject to geopolitical realities. Rather, regime survival itself, the maintenance of order and a way of life, became a key element, interweaving with nationalist ambitions that ultimately led to the tearing of the fabric of legitimacy that had once helped to maintain both inter-state conventions and national institutions.
In effect, the problem of order that predated the war had by 1919 turned into a crisis of legitimacy of the old order. At this crucial conjuncture, the ruling elites were confronted with the challenge of not only having to gain public consent but also to win it in circumstances in which their own authority had been seriously compromised. As the American professor of politics Jan Werner Mueller has pointed out, ‘Once traditional conceptions of legitimacy, as well as the principles of dynastic descent, had become widely discredited – as they had been after the First World War at the latest – the justifications for political rule had to become different’.
The point that Mueller emphasises is that after 1919, the necessity of public justification of a course of political or military action needed to be ‘both more extensive and more explicit’. Moreover, the justification for political rule had to be made differently to the claims of those rulers and traditions that had been discredited by the experience of the Great War. Politicians and movements associated with the pre-war order found it difficult to find a language with which to validate themselves. The old regime stood morally and politically compromised. That this moment represented the final demise of the monarchical principle of rule based on tradition was unsurprising. But none of the principles of government of the pre-war era were spared. Liberal constitutionalism and parliamentary democracy also had to justify themselves in new ways.
It is important to point out that the fact that legitimation through public consent became a far more pressing issue in this period than it had been previously did not mean that democracy as such became a powerful political force. Yes, the political elites understood that they needed to find ways to demonstrate that their rule was validated by public opinion, but because they were also very wary of what they saw as the disruptive effects of public opinion, they were really more concerned with managing the public than with providing greater scope for public participation in politics. Democracy was viewed instrumentally, as a source of validation rather than as an institution of genuine public engagement. Indeed, in the minds of numerous observers of the time, the act of gaining legitimacy was seen as being inconsistent with the working of a mass democracy, since the latter was, in their view, chaotic and unpredictable.
Rather than resolving the crisis of legitimacy facing various political forces in the early twentieth century, the First World War intensified it. Liberals, conservatives, royalists, socialists and communists all became preoccupied with gaining authority for their social and political outlooks. Some looked to the restoration of the monarchy, others to religion or traditionalism, while others claimed that reason or science was the true foundation for a legitimate political order. After a century of political conflict following the Great War, the challenge of developing a serious form of foundational political authority based on the legitimacy granted by popular consent still continues to haunt the Western world. For that reason, the discussion of the Great War is far more than just a debate about history.
Frank Furedi’s First World War: Still No End in Sight is published by Bloomsbury. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).)