Wednesday 11 November 1998
The greatest French historian of the war, Jean-Jacques Becker, has shown on the basis of exhaustive research that the popular reaction to the outbreak of the war in France was consternation, followed by resignation. Jeffrey Verhey has comprehensively demonstrated that the "community of August" in Germany was a propaganda construct; pictures were cropped and faked, the widespread anti-war demonstrations were censored.
Work on this subject in Britain is in its infancy, but early indications suggest that when local communities are studied, the "cheering crowds" begin to disappear from view. It is in fact quite possible that the "handful of principled and far-sighted pacifists" invented popular war enthusiasm to glorify themselves.
Historians for years have been misled by the writings of avant-garde intellectuals and artists on this subject. These were the segment of society which wished to escape from "materialism". To take their views on war as typical of popular opinion is similar to using Damien Hirst as evidence for contemporary British attitudes to animal rights. The whole point of the avant garde was their rejection of "normal" societal attitudes. The most striking case is in Italy, where Futurist glorification of war contrasted deeply with the widespread anti-war sentiment in society as a whole.
To suggest that the Europeans of 1914 were too stupid to grasp the benefits of peace and prosperity is an insult to the dead. The victims, military and civilian, of the Great War were not the architects of their own disaster. On this 80th anniversary of the end of the war, we should not promulgate the myth that this war was a punishment for the sin of popular war enthusiasm. The men who caused the war, the statesmen and generals, with their calculations and miscalculations, have been spared condemnation by this argument of "inevitability".
I agree with Dr Mazower that we find it hard to grasp the pre-war world. We find it hard to grasp precisely because we fail to understand the genuine optimism about the elimination of war which was so widespread. Ours is a far more belligerent age.
Dr ADRIAN GREGORY
Tutor in History
Pembroke College, Oxford
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