Does the 1914 parallel make sense?

(Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

“A spectre is haunting the world: 1914.” So writes Harold James, a professor of history at Princeton in the latest edition of “International Affairs”. Professor James is certainly right that newspapers and learned journals are currently full of articles comparing international politics today with the world of 1914. I have written a few articles on that theme myself. Now, perhaps inevitably, there is a backlash. Joseph Nye, a professor at Harvard, has just published a piece on the 1914 analogy for Project Syndicate that notes: “Among the lessons to be learned from the events of 1914 is to be wary of analysts wielding historical analogies, particularly if they have a whiff of inevitability.”

So does the 1914 analogy actually make sense?

Harold James points to a long list of suggestive comparisons. He writes that:

The most obvious parallels between 2013–14 and 1913–14 may be summarized thus:

  • a fascination with the historical precedent of the decline of empires;
  • a global order underwritten by a Great Power/superpower (Great Britain/United States) which is less economically dynamic than the challenger (Germany/China) but which considers its political institutions more legitimate and more capable of being universalized;
  • concern on the part of the rising power in the aftermath of a major and system changing international financial crisis (1907/2007–2008) that the rules of the system privilege the old holder of power and disadvantage the challenger;
  • a focus in Asia on the growing power of China;
  • a focus in Europe on the growing power of Germany;
  • a (perhaps misplaced) confidence that the international economy is so complex and interconnected that it could not be disrupted by military conflict;

In the same edition of “International Affairs”, Margaret Macmillan of Oxford University has a piece entitled “1914 and 2014: Should we be Worried?” Her answer, to simplify rather a lot, seems to be “a bit”. Like James, Professor Macmillian sees a parallel between the current US-China rivalry and the UK-Germany rivalry of the pre-1914 period. She also argues that one parallel between then and now is sheer complacency, writing that

“The parallels between 1914 and 2014, while not exact – they never are in historyare unsettling. We too live in a time of rapid globalization; we have, still, a faith in progress and the ability of science and reason to solve problems, from the depletion of our natural resources to the sudden fluctuations in the economy; and we too think that large-scale war is impossible. The anniversary of 1914 is a good moment to think again about how complacency, the wrong decisions or sheer accident can result in sudden catastrophe.”

Macmillan and James, as professional historians, are very mindful of the fact that no historical analogy can ever be precise. But, according to Professor Nye, analogies can be dangerous. His main worry seems to be that simply comparing 2014 and 1914 can feed a dangerous sense that war is somehow inevitable. But, as well as counselling against that sentiment, Nye also points out some important ways in which 2014 is very different from 1914. In particular, he argues that there is a greater gap in power between the US and China, than there was between Germany and Britain. And he also points out that the belief that a war could be quick and limited in its consequences – an idea that was all too prevalent before 1914is much harder to maintain in a nuclear age.

Some colleagues of mine say that they are already sick of all these 1914 parallels. But personally, I still find them intriguing and have a (doubtless unhealthy) addiction to books about the Great War. If all these learned debates lead people to read more about the tragedy of 1914-18, I think that would be a good thing in itself.

Verdun, 1916 (Getty Images)

So let me finish this blog-post with a suggestion of good books to read about the conflict.

I would start with Margaret Macmillan’s new book on the outbreak of the war, The War That Ended Peace. I am told that Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, also on the origins of the war, is a great book – although I haven’t got round to it yet. As the FT recently reported, Clark’s book is particularly popular in Germany at the moment where it is being read as a debunking of the theory of German war-guilt, once popularised by Fritz Fischer. Two superbly readable classics that are still favourites of mine are Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower – a portrait of Europe from 1890-1914, as well as Tuchman’s The Guns of August.

I should acknowledge that my reading is probably overly concentrated on the British experience of the war. That is an issue because, as Professor David Reynolds points out , “The United Kingdom’s experience differed in significant respects from that of continental Europe… The UK was spared invasion or serious bombing; it was not engulfed by revolution or wracked by civil war.”

In The Long Shadow, a fascinating new book on the cultural and historical impact of the war, Reynolds shows how perceptions of 1914-1918 have changed from generation to generation and from country to country. That said, British perceptions of the war are also obviously still shaped by the writings of people who experienced the fighting such as the war poets and by memoirs that were written in its immediate aftermath, like Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, published in 1933, and Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That, published in 1929 – both of which I read as a schoolboy in the 1970s.

There has been a big political argument in Britain, recently, about whether the memory of the war is too coloured by the tragic view presented by the war poets. Yet the works of writers like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon surely remain indispensable for remembering what the war felt like for the ordinary soldier. One book that I am keen to read soon is a study of a slightly less well-known poet, Edward Thomas, whose last years are recorded in a new(ish) book called, Now All Roads Lead to France.

The classic German view from the trenches is Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. And Florian Illies’s 1913, The Year Before the Storm is a much-praised new book by a German journalist. To this day, one of the saddest sights in French villages are the war memorials with their long list of names of the fallen from 1914-1918, many of them from the same family. A shocking account of the toll that the war took on France is found in Alistair Horne’s book on Verdun – The Price of Glory.

Any further suggestions?