The First World War: A crime so colossal that it simply overpowered the imaginations of those who lived through it and after it.
IF YOU WERE ASKED”: What emotion is appropriate for Anzac Day? How would you answer? Pride? Respect? Gratitude? My answer has always been, and continues to be, Anger. Bitter, searing, righteous anger at the waste of so many young lives, and at the lies told to justify a crime so colossal that it simply overpowered the imaginations of those who lived through it and after it.
For more than a hundred years those lies have transformed the terrible losses of the First World War into a perverse source of pride, respect and gratitude. Not only have they kept the truth about the war’s origins and objectives hidden, but they have also made it practically impossible to challenge the official version of events. This is no small achievement when the consequences of those events are still shaping our lives.
At the heart of the darkness that sent millions of young men to their deaths was Great Britain’s determination to destroy the thriving German economy and seize the strategic resources of the decrepit Ottoman Empire.
Unchecked, the German economy would have dominated the whole of Europe by the second or third decade of the twentieth century (much as it dominates Europe today). Even more worryingly, the German Empire’s increasingly close economic, diplomatic and military relationship with the Ottoman Empire would have ensured its privileged access to the strategic super-fuel of the twentieth century – oil. From the early years of the century, therefore, the reduction of Germany became the idée fixe of British foreign-policy.
Great Britain’s natural ally in this policy was France. Decisively defeated by the Germans in 1871, France was acutely aware that its influence in Europe was steadily being eroded by Germany’s dramatic economic growth. It’s only hope of remaining a major player in world affairs was, therefore, to strike its neighbour a crushing blow.
France’s key strategic problem, however, was that it could not deliver such a blow on its own – it needed allies. The first of these, the Russian Empire, was made available by the German Emperor, Wilhelm II’s, failure to renew his country’s crucial Reinsurance Treaty with Russia. The French were only too happy to fill the diplomatic vacuum created by the German Emperor’s strategic blunder.
This new Franco-Russian “understanding” suited British interests extremely well. Not only was Germany now faced with a war on two fronts, but, by drawing the Russians towards Europe, the French were relieving Russian pressure on the borders of the “jewel” in Britain’s imperial crown – India.
All that Britain required to unleash a devastating conflict upon its most dangerous economic rival was a plausible pretext. This it acquired by allowing the French and the Russians a free hand in the Balkans.
Europe’s flashpoint, the Balkans were the point of intersection of multiple imperial interests: Austro-Hungarian; Russian; Ottoman; and Serbian. Any move by the Austro-Hungarian Empire against its ultra-nationalist neighbour, Serbia, was bound to draw in the latter’s Russian protectors. A Russian thrust against Germany’s ally, Austria-Hungary, would, likewise, draw Germany into the conflict. German involvement would activate the Franco-Russian alliance – immediately plunging Germany into a strategically perilous two-front war.
Britain knew that if Germany was to avoid being caught between the French hammer and the Russian anvil, it would have to deliver a knockout blow to the French before the full weight of Russia’s vast army could be brought to bear on its eastern front. The only effective means of delivering such a blow was to direct Germany’s army through neutral Belgium and come at Paris from the north-west.
In other words, to enter the war with “clean hands”, Britain had only to give France its head in the Balkans. It was pretty sure that the French, with Russian connivance, would find a way to set Austria-Hungary at Serbia’s throat – thereby initiating a general European war. The assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in the little Bosnian town of Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 by Serbian terrorists proved to be an admirably serviceable trigger.
Once the Germans detected the preparations for a Russian mobilisation against not only their Austro-Hungarian ally, but also themselves, the die was cast. Germany mobilised pre-emptively, her armies smashed their way through neutral Belgium, and Britain was supplied with the morally unassailable excuse for doing what she had been planning to do for the best part of a decade – unleashing war on Germany.
It was in pursuit of these blunt imperial objectives that more than 12,000 young New Zealanders were sent to their deaths. Not for democracy: our allies, the Russians, were governed by an absolute monarch; and our enemies, the Germans, boasted a more inclusive franchise that Britain’s. And certainly not for freedom: imperialism and liberty do not mix. As for the “values” New Zealanders were supposedly defending on the slopes of Gallipoli. I’d like to think that these: extreme racism, unthinking obedience to those in authority; and the extension of British power across the globe; would be rejected out-of-hand by the vast majority of modern New Zealanders.
As I note in, No Left Turn:
A patriotic painting from the depths of the war says it all. Entitled “The Casualty List”, it depicts a grief-stricken mother, her head bowed before the framed photograph of her soldier son on the mantelpiece, a copy of The New Zealand Herald dangling limply from her hand. In the top left-hand corner of the painting we see the moment of his death – the young hero’s body reeling backwards as his comrades press on towards the foe. It is a sombre work, and skilfully rendered, but it does not tell the truth about the war. Captured instead is the sense of loss; the awful ache that clawed at the hearts of practically every New Zealand family in the aftermath of the carnage. That much – but no more – was all the nation was permitted to feel. Questions about what it had all been for were met with the palliative care of capitalised nouns: Justice, Honour, Liberty, Country, Democracy. The unbearable reality – that they had died to preserve the prosperity of those who stayed behind – had to be, and was, suppressed.
It is still being suppressed. And if none of the arguments advanced above are sufficient to rouse your indignation, then the ongoing and deliberate suppression of the truth about the origins and objectives of the First World War should make you very angry indeed.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 25 April 2016.