When the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife Sophie Chotek drove with a motorcade into the centre of Sarajevo on the morning of 28 June 1914, Europe was still at peace. And had the German delegates refused to accept the treaty imposed by the victorious allies five years later, war might have resumed with an Allied invasion across the Rhine.
There is an attractive symmetry in the idea of a conflict that began and ended on the same day. But while this conceit works nicely for the war fought on the western front, it makes less sense for the central, eastern and southern peripheries of Europe. For the Ottoman Empire, the war really began in 1911, with an unprovoked attack by the Italians on the three provinces that are today known as Libya. The Italian war in northern Africa – the first to see the use of aerial bombardments — triggered a wave of opportunist attacks on Ottoman territory in the Balkans. And the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, conflicts of stupendous ferocity, fundamentally destabilised the south-eastern periphery of Europe, drawing the continental powers into the antipathies of the region.
For the Ottoman Empire, the war really began in 1911, with an unprovoked attack by the Italians on the three provinces that are today known as Libya. – Christopher Clark
As for the peace signed at Paris on 28 June 1919, it was hardly the end of the story. In many places, the war spilled over into ultra-violent guerrilla conflicts. Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Finns, Ukrainians, Germans, Poles, Soviet Russians, Armenians, Greeks and Turks clashed in a sequence of bitter struggles over newly-drawn political borders. Political and ethnic hatreds fused to produce waves of ultra-violence that destroyed soldiers and civilians alike. Jews were especially vulnerable: over 35,000 perished in the pogroms that raked Ukraine during the fighting of 1919-1920.
For the Germans, the peace signed on 28 June 1919 was and remained an imposed peace. The delegates only agreed to append their signatures under the threat of an Allied invasion. Reparations were one bone of contention. The French occupation of the Ruhr area, imposed in 1923 when Germany failed to fulfil her payments-in-kind in wood and coal, was maintained until 1930. During these years, the Ruhr occupation was mentioned in almost every major Reichstag speech. But the source of deepest resentment was article 231, which grounded the German obligation to pay reparations in the assertion of German moral culpability for the outbreak of war and thereby turned every form of compliance into an implicit acknowledgement of guilt.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the Anglo-American decision-makers who had fought this war on the Allied side would impose a ‘guilt clause’. Men like Grey, Lloyd George, Wilson and Churchill, the historian Peter Clarke has argued, brought to the making of war a liberal morality in the light of which war must never be a quest for advantage, but always a struggle against political evil, a moral undertaking. And the tendency to saturate the arguments for war with moral imperatives has remained a salient feature of the geopolitical interventions of ‘the West’ into recent times.
The war did more than challenge the traditional global system; it unhinged it altogether, creating instabilities that would bear fruit in even worse horrors. – Christopher Clark
Article 231 was among the treaty stipulations most bitterly contested by the German delegates at Versailles. It represented a departure from the forgetting of past injuries that had been a feature of the most of the great European instruments of peace and it sat uncomfortably with what most Germans recalled of the events of 1914, which they, like most other Europeans, remembered as the inception of a ‘defensive’ war. The Versailles settlement was rejected by every political party of the Weimar Republic. Hostility to it was one of the few things that united the German partisan spectrum, from the Communists on the far left to the Nazis and other splinter groups on the far right.
In 1914, the modern world stepped through the looking glass. However ominous the presages of the pre-war years, they never came close to anticipating the carnage that would follow. The war did more than challenge the traditional global system; it unhinged it altogether, creating instabilities that would bear fruit in even worse horrors. The values of an old world were destroyed before new ones could be found to replace them. All of which leaves us with an unsettling tension between memory and history. In remembering the dead, we want – perhaps we even need – to encompass them in a narrative of redemption. But the history resists our best efforts, because it tells us a different story, about a war that – in many places – never really ended, the first catastrophe of the twentieth century, ‘the calamity’, as Fritz Stern once put it, ‘out of which all other calamities sprang’.
Christopher Clark is Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge. His most recent book is The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914.
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