The 100 Years War

It’s 100 years since a political assassination in the Balkans set in motion the Great War which, in one form or another, has continued ever since. In destroying themselves, and millions of their subjects, the German, Austrian and Russian empires brought forth Nazism and Bolshevism, which killed in the tens of millions. After 1945, the killing mostly stopped in the developed world, replaced by the threat of instant nuclear annihilation, which remained ever-present for decades and has by no means disappeared. Instead, the War moved to the Third World, and a multitude of proxy conflicts. The fall of the Soviet Union saw the renewed outbreak of the War in Europe, most bloodily in Yugoslavia and more recently in Georgia and Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the British and French imperial War plans, embodied in the (secret) Sykes-Picot treaty and the contradictory assurances offered to Jews and Arabs in the Balfour declaration and the McMahon-Hussein correspondence[^1], continue to work their evil consequences long after all the original participants have gone to their graves. Syria, Iraq and Israel-Palestine are all products of the Great War, as is modern Iran (the product of a revolution against British and later American suzerainty imposed after 1918).

And, after 100 years, nothing has been learned. The architects of the most recent catastrophe in Iraq are still respected commentators, as are the many historians and others who defend the conduct of the British-French-Russian imperial alliance in the 1914-18 phase of the Great War (most British and French apologists ignore or explain away the alliance with the most oppressive European empire of the day, but I imagine there are now Putinist historians hard at work producing defences of Tsarist war policy).

More fundamentally, despite 100 years of brutal and bloody evidence to the contrary, the idea that war and revolution are effective ways to obtain political ends, rather than catastrophic last resorts, remains dominant on both the right and the left.

Perhaps in another 100 years, if we survive that long, the world will have learned better.

[^1]: In addition to these, there was the secret Constantinople agreement with the Tsarist empire, and the Treaty of London and Agreement of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne with Italy, none of which came into effect. These secret deals (and similar agreements made by the Central Powers) make it clear that all the major participants in the Great War were committed to the pursuit of imperial expansion, even as they all pretended to be defending themselves against aggression and pointed to the crimes of their enemies as justification for their own.

91 thoughts on “The 100 Years War

  1. @malthusista
    Malthusista’s arguments about the failure to protect the Italians or the Greeks seem good ones to me. And it seems that the Americans (Trueman particularly) were really able to string Stalin along, so that he just didn’t stop Hitler when he could and should have. Sometimes I wonder if Stalin was working for the allies and served them well by stuffing up the communist revolution.

  2. @Tapen Sinha
    My response to Tapen Sinha, for what it’s worth. I agree. And the war against nature always abrogates democracy and land-tenure at a local level. So one way of combating this is relocalisation, which is the new name for anarchy – or absence of distant government and imposed hierarchies. The use of massive reserves of fossil fuel has permitted industrial activities and government on a scale hitherto never experienced. I feel that we should act locally to preserve trees to combat heat islands and protect local humidity. (I’m thinking of Makarieva and Gorshkov’s theory on the biotic pump). I think that global action is largely inefficient, agreements difficult to follow, and tend to be captured by corporate actors. So we need to dig our heels in where we live.

  3. Pr Q said:

    Meanwhile, the British and French imperial War plans, embodied in the (secret) Sykes-Picot treaty and the contradictory assurances offered to Jews and Arabs in the Balfour declaration and the McMahon-Hussein correspondence[^1], continue to work their evil consequences long after all the original participants have gone to their graves. Syria, Iraq and Israel-Palestine are all products of the Great War, as is modern Iran (the product of a revolution against British and later American suzerainty imposed after 1918).

    In addition to these, there was the secret Constantinople agreement with the Tsarist empire, and the Treaty of London and Agreement of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne with Italy, none of which came into effect. These secret deals (and similar agreements made by the Central Powers) make it clear that all the major participants in the Great War were committed to the pursuit of imperial expansion, even as they all pretended to be defending themselves against aggression and pointed to the crimes of their enemies as justification for their own.

    after 100 years, nothing has been learned. The architects of the most recent catastrophe in Iraq are still respected commentators, as are the many historians and others who defend the conduct of the British-French-Russian imperial alliance in the 1914-18 phase of the Great War…most British and French apologists ignore or explain away the alliance with the most oppressive European empire of the day,

    I see Pr Q is dragging out Trotsky’s musty old “Secret Treaties” interpretation of the causes of the Great War for another airing. Somehow I don’t think this exposure will breath life into that rotting corpse. The phrase “imperial war plans” is not helpful as it can be parsed in a number of ways to suit a variety of ideological purposes – the nastier “plan for imperialist war” serves as bait to mobilise partisans, easily switched for the more neutral “empires plan for war” when scholars arrive on the scene.

    Trotsky’s revisionism is misleading and tendentious (like most of what that mass-murdering egg-head wrote) because it gets everything backwards, mendaciously substituting the blatant causes of the War for its secret effects. But thats what you would expect coming from a man who beleived that “Imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism”, who secretly treated with the enemy to betray his own country and then turned police state guns to crush a workers uprising. It’s disappointing to see a scholar of Pr Qs stature slumming it with such a low-life.

    The evidence shows that the war spoils promised by the Secret Treaties were not even a gleam in statesman’s eyes until the trench-lines had been dug. The Allies negotiated them because the War had stalemated, with the Teutonic powers very much holding the upper hand, which made them desperate to defray its ruinous cost and to lure more allies into the fray.

    This is clear from both the historical time-line and the geo-political laterality of the Secret Treaties: Sykes Picot (May 1916), Constantinople Agreement (March 1915), Treaty of London (April 1915), Balfour Declaration (November 1917) and, Pr  Q,  lets not forget the Treaty of Bucharest (August 1916). The promised annexations were more or less a form of in-kind indemnities and irredentism to the newer Allies. With a bit of Great Game opportunism thrown in for good measure. Well, they had to have something to show for all this blood and treasure squandered. (Although subsequent experience has shown that the whole of Iraq is “not worth the bones of one single” Marine.)

    The stalemate explains why all of the war-time Secret Treaties were signed by the Allies. By contrast the dominant Germans seemed anxious to both shed coalition partners (the Austrian treaty was like being “shackled to a corpse” and the Turks were still “the sick man of Europe”) and get new enemies, such as the US. This suggests a certain myopic megalomania, no?

    I am the last person to “defend the conduct of the British-French-Russian imperial alliance in the 1914-18 phase of the Great War”. The Allies war-time diplomatic machinations were cynical and aggrandizing. FWIW, my view is that the Central Powers started the war for no good reason whilst the Allied Powers were guilty of extending the war beyond any reasonable calculus. Back in NOV 2009 I wished a plague on both houses but insisted that the burden of War Guilt lay on the shoulders of the Teutonic aggressors:

    Pr Q’s scathing characterization of Europe’s WWI leaders looks fair and reasonable in the post-1915 period. It was then that individual leaders conspicuously failed to do their duty…They made little serious effort to stop the carnage. Quite the opposite they mostly looked to profit from it with the proliferation of secret treaties and plans to extend post-war empires…[But] it is unfair to make the Allied powers morally equivalent to the Central powers. The Central Powers were planned and primed for aggressive war from the get-go

    No doubt it was wicked of the Entente Cordiale to truck with the “the most oppressive European empire of the day” (abolition of serfdom?, the Duma? Stolypin? Witte?). But you can hardly call Russia’s romantic pan-Slavic promise of military aid to its Serbian brother, after its gruesome monstering by Austria, an “imperial crime”.

    In any case, the “Willy-Nicky correspondence” clearly shows that Tsar was desperate to avoid a confrontation with Germany and even offered a partial mobilization to allay German fears of the “Russian Steam Roller”. But the Kaiser had already issued his “blank cheque” to Austria and nothing was going to stop its presentation.

    Germany amused itself by mischief-making with the Mexicans (Zimmerman Telegram) before coming up with the brilliant plan of financing the Bolshevik revolution in Russia (the Parvus Memorandum). Fortunately the Mexican overture came to nothing although we all know how well the Russian scheme turned out. It sealed Germans victory on the Eastern Front, a classic example of the cure being worse than the disease.

    More generally, the imperialist interpretation of the Great War suffers from fatal ideologically blinkering. The Triple Entente’s main aim was national security, not imperial hegemony. It was never formed with the aim of picking up more colonies, in fact it suspended the Great Game. It was designed to contain German militarism which was obviously ramping up with the advent of Wilhelm II who was the world heavy weight champion at offending and apprehending all and sundry.

    The germ of the European catastrophe was formed when that strategic genius Wilhelm II decided ditch Bismark’s sensible balance-of-power Realpolitik for an aggressively expansionist Weltpolitik. Although Willy could never quite decide whether he wanted a “place in the Sun” in Mittelafrika or more Lebensraum in Mitteleuropa. In the end he compromised and went for both, as laid out in the Septemberprogramm and somewhat accomplished at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

    The Allies formed alliances and entered the War to counter Teutonic militarist aggression, not to pick up more colonies, The Franco-Russian Alliance (1892), the Franco-Anglo Entente Cordiale (1904) and the Anglo-Russian Entente (1907) were drawn up to ease imperial rivalry between the Great Powers so that they could join forces and turn their attentions to stopping the Prussian military-industrial complex from turning into a juggernaut.

    Not that it did them much good. the Central Powers started the War on every front: Austria invaded Serbia creating the Eastern Front, Germany invaded Belgium creating the Western Front and the German-inspired and armed Young Turks attacked Russia creating the Southern Front. That’s not counting von Tirpitz’s completely unforced error in ordering the Kriegsmarine to start a naval arms race with the Royal Navy which created the nautical “Northern Front” that nearly brought both Germany and Britain to their knees.

    Only one “major participant in the Great War” was “committed to the pursuit of imperial expansion” prior to the start of the War and that was Germany. And its main territorial ambitions lay in the East, that is intra-, rather than extra-, European. Which is completely contrary to Lenin-Trotsky agit-prop. Although bleedin’ obvious to anyone with a European race memory.

    Every school boy used to know this narrative. And it was long ago proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, by nationalistic German scholars no less. The “Fischer Thesis” revealed the smoking gun of German two-front war plans which were drawn up von Schliefen in 1905, approved by the Cabinet in 1912 and executed by von Moltke in 1914. These observations fitted well with Weber’s more general “Sondeweg” theory which correctly predicted the pathological evolution of the Prussian military-industrial complex. But, after all, what would Weber know in comparison to Trotsky?

    Needless to say the Prussian Junkers left the job half-done and it was left to a certain Austrian corporal to properly execute the dead Field Marshall’s strategic conception. It should not be too hard to see a pattern emerging when drawing a simple line between those two rather large dots. But our age is noted for not noticing.

    This is par for the course with ideological historiography where social causality is often conflated with moral culpability. We are going to see a lot of this over the next six months and scholars need to be at battle stations to contest the “History War over the War”.

  4. after versailles, germay & austria both opened their entire national archives to scholarly research without restriction. this is how fischer gained access to the documents he used to make his case that germany was, as Jack Strocchi wrote, “committed to the pursuit of imperial expansion prior to the start of the war.”

    the problem with using the findings of fischer’s research into german national archives to conclude that only germany was “committed to the pursuit of imperial expansion prior to the start of the war”, is that no comparable study has been done on british or french national archives for the same period.

    until unrestricted research can be carried out, on the british or french national archives, as was done by fischer on the german national archives, it cannot be known for sure whether britain and/or france was or was not “committed to the pursuit of imperial expansion prior to the start of the war”. -a.v.

  5. @alfred venison
    Thanks for the recommendation, AV. A fine dramatisation. A bit hard on the Austro-Hungarian envoy to Berlin I thought, but then I don’t know the history intimately enough to judge.

  6. @Sheila Newman
    It has been pointed out to me that I named Truman (as well as misspelling his name) as if he were president during the second world war. I am hopeless at presidents’ names. Sorry. He influenced Stalin after the end of the second world war, apparently.

  7. Another mistake. I failed to log James out when I posted the correction re-Truman. We don’t usually use the same computers.

  8. @malthusista
    The collapse of Mussolini’s government caught everybody by surprise. The Nazis started out as conspiratorial and opportunistic street fighters; they were good at thinking on their feet as late as 1944, in the skilful suppression of the July plot by Goebbels. German officers had also been trained since Moltke to show initiative. Neither group were half so good at thinking ahead: Sea Lion, Barbarossa.

  9. @malthusista

    That opportunities were lost during the war is, by default, a virtual certainty. Human beings are fallible and make mistakes. Generalship is a difficult job. It is beyond credibility to suppose that either side fought a war on the scale of the Second World War without substantial strategic errors. In general, major military blunders, where they took place (and they probably took place in all major wars and many minor ones), are easy enough to explain without supposing a deliberate intention to prolong the war by avoiding winning it.

  10. Re #9 and # 15, the Italians didn’t liberate Italy in 1943, and the Germans didn’t invade it. The Germans were there already, and when the Italians changed sides the Germans just disarmed them and fought on.
    The British (and Australians) were thrashed a number of times in Greece, and got back in only when the Germans withdrew under Soviet pressure. There wasn’t really any scope for hot pursuit.
    Saying things like “their retreat could easily have been cut off on the ground” ignores the proven fact that there was never in the entire war any easy victory over German forces. It simply didn’t happen.
    If the allies hadn’t made any mistakes the war would have been over quicker, and if the allied soldiers had fought as well as German soldiers the war would have been over quicker, and if the allied generals had been as good as German generals the war would have been over quicker, and if Churchill and Stalin and FDR had been as bad at strategy as Hitler was the war would probably have been lost, but in no case was it for want of trying.

  11. I think that JQs thesis here can be legitimised to a degree by linking Nazism and Bolshevism into a wider context – the rise of militarism and totalitarianism. Europe had plenty of 19th century wars but they had far lower death tolls, because most of the deaths happened to the soldiers. They might steal food from civilians, and kill a few, but they had not ravaged entire countries since the end of the Thirty Years War. The great war was the start of industrial scale warfare. It had been preceded by an industrial scale armes race. France lost more men in one battle – Verdun – than Napoleon lost invading Russia. World War One all but bankrupted England, then the most powerful nation on earth.

    I think in World War One France and England deserve at least a slarge a billing in the list of guilty parties. They had a large military establishment and arms industry that wanted war. Peace overtures were ignored. Haig concealed information about the true extent of losses from not only the British public, but his own government. Read Barbara Touchman’s books, or the excellent recent history “A World Undone”.

    BTW Malthusista, A World Undone mentions Keith Murdoch’s attempts to remove Sir John Monash from command of the Australian army, as late as 1917/18, because of his Prussian Jewish background. He simply made up claims that Monash was unpopular with subordinates, despite hsi excellent staff work adn success. You can see where Rupert got his modus operandi (and attitudes) from.

  12. Moz of Yarramulla :
    June Tabor’s version of “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is quite haunting. Especially in response to people who are pro war. Even more so than the other versions I’ve heard.

    once some itinerant undesirables
    camped by what was left of a billabong
    under what would have been the shade of a dead coolibah tree
    and they sang as they watched and waited til the billy boiled

    you’ll come a’walzing Matilda with me
    chorus

    out came the stash bag rolled themselved a thin doobie
    sat back and shared a joke with nice mug of tea
    better watch the mull,mate,it’s a bloody long way to fill up
    yair yair,we’ll be right, I’m, going easy

    chorus

    down came the ranger mounted in his four wheel drive
    down came the troopers on their harleys
    “what the hell do youse stupid bastard think you’re doing ,don’t you know it’s a total fire ban”
    and what’s that you’re smoking?
    you’re gunna go a row.”

    up jumped the itinerant undesirables
    sprang into what was left of the billabong
    stood sinking just outside of reach
    in mud up to their knees.
    “come and get us ranger,
    be dirty hero, capturing the stranger”

    gloop.

    and their ghosts may be heard as you pass by what was left of that billabong

    who’ll come a’walzing Matilda with me?

    doesn’t scan & i think i’ve spelled walzing wrong but never mind.

  13. is it a good idea to say i own the copyright on those words?

    yes?

    i own the copyright on those words.

    New Scientist has an interesting take on historical data this week.

  14. The Great War was generally horrific but if it did not happen then the European imperial system would have continued for many, many decades ahead. Prof Quiggin, as a well-known left-wing academic, would surely not support that!

    On the Skyes-Picot treaty; while it lumped together various sects and religions together, the sectarian strife is not due to Skyes-Picot but due to millenia-old hatreds. Skyes-Picot may have lumped them together within a border but it is not the cause of their conflict.

  15. millenia-old hatreds is a tired old trope & doesn’t answer anything. the people subject to sykes-picot in the 20th century were at peace in the ottoman empire in the 18th & 19th centuries and earlier. they were not at each other while in the ottoman empire. -a.v.

  16. Before Italy entered the First World War in 1915, the Allies agreed to endorse its claims on territory to be seized from Austria-Hungary, and after the war Italy received a large part of what had been promised, although not the whole because of US intervention. Clearly Italian territorial ambitions were the whole or a large part of the motives for Italy to enter the war. But they weren’t any part of the motives of the Allies for going to war in 1914.

    Similarly, the Central Powers forced Romania to surrender territory in 1918 after defeating it; but desire to seize Romanian territory was no part of the motives for the Central Powers going to war in 1914.

    There are many examples where the historical evidence shows that territorial ambitions motivated conquerors and would-be conquerors to go to war, but the evidence needed to demonstrate that is something more than the seizure of territory after a war, or even the formulation during a war of plans to seize territory. That kind of evidence is also consistent with the alternative hypothesis that once a war has already started it gives people ideas about how they might look for profit from victory.

    The First World War resulted in territory in New Guinea passing from German control to Australian, and territory in South West Africa passing from German control to South African, but I don’t think that’s enough to show that those were motives for the Allies going to war in the first place. Likewise, once the Ottoman Empire had entered the war the Allies made plans for its partition, but I don’t think that’s enough to show that such plans were part of their motives for war with the other Central Powers in the first place.

    How big a part did French desire to recover Alsace-Lorraine from Germany play in bringing about the war? I don’t know, but I do know that the bare fact of the transfer of control after the war is not enough to settle the question, and also that talk about it during the war isn’t enough either.

    And so on. The Allies took territory from the Central Powers after the war, and not the other way around, but what that demonstrates is not that the Allies bear sole or even primary responsibility for launching the war, only that they won it; just as the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk don’t demonstrate anything about who launched the war, only that the Germans beat the Russians.

    On the other hand, the complexities of the question don’t justify concluding that nobody started the war, or that everybody did. Wars are started by human beings, and that means they’re started by some particular human beings and not others.

  17. @alfred venison

    Much like saying Iraq was a happy and peaceful place before the 2003 invasion… if you exclude the torture by a murderous regime that kept everyone in place.

  18. @alfred venison

    millenia-old hatreds is a tired old trope & doesn’t answer anything. the people subject to sykes-picot in the 20th century were at peace in the ottoman empire in the 18th & 19th centuries and earlier. they were not at each other while in the ottoman empire. -a.v.

    I know it’s not your intention a.v., but you’re essentially making an argument for imperial rule. The different nationalities in the region were at peace during the Ottoman period because the imperial authority enforced a peace. Arguably the British and French mandates did the same thing until they withdrew. The Ottomans were certainly no more benign or enlightened than the Western empiral powers, as events such as the Armenian and Assyrian massacres in the 19th Century attest.

    Internecine conflict and disorder is a fairly predictable result whenever an imperial order collapses or withdraws – the historical examples of it are countless. None of which excuses the French or British for their role in the specific chaos in the Middle East, of course.

  19. Professor Quiggin, I read “Zombie Economics” and found it very learned and informative, not least for confirming the harshness I suspected – so many at the time were saying that the economic rationalism of Keating was necessary and actually visionary.

    Thanks again for such an authoritative blog.

    Any history books you’d recommend on the Great War and its consequences?

  20. @alfred venison

    What makes you so sure that the different communities of the Ottoman Empire were at peace with each other in the 18th and 19th centuries and earlier? It’s not something I’ve ever thought about before, but as soon as I started looking into the subject I found references to violent clashes between Maronites and Druze in the 1840s and 1850s culminating in the killing of thousands of people in 1860. Would I find more examples if I looked further? I don’t know. Do you?

  21. don’t know where you get that, Tim Macknay.

    the argument that they fight each other now because they have fought each other for millennia is racist & ahistorical – it fails as an explanation of the present because it cannot account for periods in the past when in different circumstances they have not fought each other. -a.v.

  22. @faust

    A failed gotcha. Perhaps you missed the reference to revolution in the OP

    I would very much have preferred the continued survival of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires to the actual outcome. Hopefully, they would have become stable democracies in less than the near-century it actually took them (and Russia is scarcely there yet). But regardless, I would advocate peaceful agitation for democracy in preference to bloody revolution.

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