What Role Should History Play in the Centenary of the First World War?

In a recent article that appeared in the British daily newspaper, The Guardian, historian Gary Sheffield reacted to details the British government released about the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Great War. Nervous about the government’s plans for the commemoration of the conflict, Sheffield contested the popular view that the war from 1914 to 1918 was a futile one. Instead, he claims, Britain—and by extension all of its colonial possessions, including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—fought Imperial Germany for many of the reasons the Allies waged war against Hitler’s Germany in 1939: “to prevent an authoritarian, militarist, expansionist enemy achieving hegemony in Europe and thus imperilling British security.”

But here is where a critical understanding of history is important. One of the problems with historians’ views of the war is that an understanding of what the Great War meant often changes as subsequent generations of politicians and writers try to come to terms with the past. We might ask what exactly was at stake in 1914 and jeopardized British security?

There is a degree of hubris displayed by many English-language scholars regarding the First World War. In particular, that the British "civilizing mission" or "process" was somehow justified because Great Britain operated on the theory of a liberal democracy. We'd be curious to see whether contemporaries in mining towns like Swansea or industrial cities like Manchester and Glasgow enjoyed all the benefits associated with such a glorious democracy. Let's not begin to consider Africa, Indo-China, and elsewhere across the globe. Only until very recently have historians, like Adrian Gregory, bothered to reassess some of these comfortable certainties.

This is where history and memory collide. Some claim that by 1918 the British army was fighting a war of “liberation,” to rid Belgium and northern France of its German occupiers. While this might have been true by 1918, the idea that this sentiment was widespread in August 1914 is specious at best. But, for historians critical of the “pipe and drum” interpretation of Britain’s involvement in the Great War, trying to reconcile the differences in Germany's plans for expansion and Britain's attempt to maintain what had been for some time the result of an aggressive and expansionist enterprise is extremely problematic.

As early as 1971, Joachim Remak, who fled Nazi Germany in 1938 and eventually taught history at Stanford, put things into perspective. He claimed,

there had taken place, in the half century or so before the war, a tremendous expansion of British power, accompanied by a pronounced lack of sympathy for any similar ambitions on the part of other nations. If any nation was compensation-conscious it was Great Britain...If any nation had truly made a bid for world power, it was Great Britain. In fact, it had more than bid for it. It had achieved it. The Germans were merely talking about building a railway to Baghdad. The Queen of England was the Empress of India. If any nation had upset the world's balance of power, it was Great Britain.

This type of argument doesn’t win over the hearts of people in those countries that fought alongside Great Britain, but it does offer an important and different way to look at the past that doesn’t make it into school curricula. While perhaps exaggerated, Remak makes a good point. Other aspects of the past are also ignored in the majority of First World War interpretations. Consider, for example, the Chinese labour corps (numbering some 130,000) brought over to Belgium and France during the conflict, many of whom died as a result of disease or maltreatment and have been interred at Commonwealth cemeteries in Europe. Is this much different from the stories of maltreatment under Imperial Germany?

Britain’s involvement in the Great War had more to do with maintaining worldwide dominance and a fear of relatively rapid German growth, than trying to create a better world in which liberal democracy could be spread. Look no further than the peoples of colonial territories subjugated by the British (and French and Belgians) and try to identify where the benefits to involvement in the Great War fell. Great Britain greatly contributed to the imbalance in twentieth-century politics.

These issues raise a number of questions about how “history,” as far as a critical reading of the past is concerned, fits into any type of Great War centennial event. What role do historians play in all of this if we are to be honest in dealing with our past? Did going to war in 1914 ensure global stability and security?

It’s not wrong to commemorate the immense loss of life during the war, but laying out the details and reasons behind why so many young men died should be left to historians who can offer a critical interpretation of the past, not government officials operating on an agenda, nor journalists who often lack historical sensitivity and methodology. Near the end of his article, Sheffield says "we should not lose sight of why the war was fought and the significance of the fact that it was Britain and its allies, and not Germany, that emerged victorious." While stinking of the adage “history is written by the victors,” we should be most cautious of where the emphasis is laid. Did Britain’s victory lead to a better and more stable post-war world? Historians like Niall Ferguson would certainly disagree, and so would many historians with the ability to read beyond the English-language literature. 

In the end, we agree with Sheffield and many who share his conviction: the Great War was not at all futile. Britain’s involvement and eventual victory ensured that no European power could play “catch up.” No other European power could seriously threaten Britain’s global economic dominance, at least immediately following the war. This was just one fruit born out of victory. As we approach the Great War centennial, we should not forget the millions of soldiers and civilians who lost their lives in the conflict, but let’s also be honest with the past and be open to grappling with difficult questions about such a defining feature in European and global history.