Friday, September 15, 2006

From World War I to III (or IV?).

When I saw the title of an article in the London Socialist History Group newsletter 'Revisionism and the new imperialism' I thought they had pipped me to the post on some thoughts of mine. Not so but the article claims that conservative historians are proposing a more sympathetic view of World War, in particular of the western front generals such as Haig, and equating the current war on terror to that against the evil German Empire. In Australia the old Anzac mythology of incompetent British generals etc. is echoed in some criticisms of the US. It is partly the latest version of the old left nationalist position. However few of the war on terror's critics explicitly refer back to WW I. On the 'other side' John Hirst published two articles in Australian Historical Studies years ago defending a Hughesite position on the war (themes repeated by him here) and occasionally Gerard Henderson has defended our involvement in the war. I see more interesting parallels: 1) Those on the self-defined 'pro-war left', such as the signatories to the Euston Manifesto (in Australia Pamela Bone) echo to me the argument of those socialists who supported their home countries in WW I. The level of personal acrimony, division and accusations of betrayal is very like that among socialists after 1914. Although there were those now forgotten who tried to steer a middle course; 2) how to understand imperial Germany. For along time the left position tended to see Germany as wronged as or no guiltier than the other powers for the war (these debates were linked to the evaluation of the treaty of Versailles and are sometimes raised today in debates about culpability for fascism and terrorism). After 1933 this caused tensions on the left between anti-fascists and pacifists. Views on Germany were challenged by Fritz Fischer's work in the 1960s he stressed the culpability of the ruling class for the war linking German expansionism to the elite's anti-socialist struggle at home. This was developed in the theory of the 'sonderweg' (separate path) that Germany had not experienced a bourgeoisie revolution and remained dominated by an archaic feudal elite hostile to liberalism and democracy. Fischer's work was welcomed by the German left because he seemed to suggest continuity between Wilhemite imperialism and Nazism. The right preferred to see Nazism as a horrifying aberration. Are the Middle Eastern Islamic countries archaic in this sense? But Fischer's evaluation of German society was challenged by Marxists such as David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley they argued that Wilhemite Germany was by any reasonable standard bourgeois, in their view Wilhemite imperialism and later Nazism were the results of capitalism rather than the reflection of distinctive pathologies in German society. Might we see Islamic fundamentalism and fascism as aspects of modernity and late capitalism rather than archaic and backward-looking movements? 3) German political structures. Defenders of the current pro-war position often stress the fact of elections in Israel and Iraq, but Wilhemite Germany has elections, indeed more Germans had the franchise than in Britain and the Wilhemite electoral system was free of the fraud and racial exclusion that operated in the US. But the German parliament did not exercise effective control over the German government. Neither does the current Iraqi parliament; 4) German political evolution. World War I in Europe was a democratising force governments had to appeal to the working class as Geoff Eley argues, and in Germany there was a steady trend towards democratisation, German trade unions, in exchange for their support of the war as Gerard Feldman shows gained increasing political influence. Was it a war for democracy by 1918?


At 4:51 PM, Blogger Jim Belshaw said...

Geoff, I hadn't seen the Hirst material. I disagree with him on points. I don't see the defeat of conscription as a disaster, I think the sectarian division was greater and important than he allows. But he makes some interesting points that mesh with some of the arguments that I have been trying to develop on migration.

At 7:53 PM, Blogger Geoff Robinson said...

Hirst is a civic nationalist which I would agree with, or a soft multiculturalism as the Americans call it.

At 11:18 PM, Blogger Chris Williams said...

Hi Geoff, I like the blog. I'm about to help ladle a huge dollop of WW1 revisionism into the public sphere in the UK, but I'm no conservative. Surely it ought to be possible to argue that the BEF was not incompetent without also aruging that 1914-18 was any kind of progressive struggle. Conflating the two arguments is very sloppy.

I see it as my contribution to the debate that Orwell characterised as 'British ruling class - evil or stupid'. 'Lions led by Donkeys' implies stupid. 'Haig knew his work' implies evil.

At 7:32 PM, Blogger Geoff Robinson said...

Good point Chris. A friend of mine has a grandfather who is one of the very last Tommies and he doesn't think much of his commanders.


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