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
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 2 How to turn off/stop 'seen by' on Facebook: Disable it to make your chats seem less passive aggressive
- 3 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 4 'We're not heroes, just tourists': Swedish police officers on holiday stop vicious assault on New York subway
- 5 Buckingham Palace guard who attacked passers-by in 'most most violent piece of CCTV footage' police officer had seen walks free
MasterChef, TV review: The final climaxed in a frenzy of herbs and hyperbole
Male student sues Columbia University for 'gender-based harassment' after alleged 'Mattress Performance' rape victim Emma Sulkowicz went public with claims
MasterChef 2015: Simon Wood named winner
Black Mass trailer: Johnny Depp might have started making good films again
London Marathon: Best running songs from Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to 'Uptown Funk'
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Katie Hopkins on LBC: Listen to caller taking The Sun columnist to task over migrant comments
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
Rupert Murdoch berated Sun journalists for not doing enough to attack Ed Miliband and stop him winning the general election