Saturday, 1 March 2014

Britain's Sonderweg

Some reviewers of Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War on BBC2 last night were surprised that his claims were comprehensively dismissed by the panel of invited historians, as if he'd miscalculated and shot himself in the foot. This is like criticising a showy lion tamer for provoking roars (the studio layout was pure circus). The 90 minute discussion cum slideshow, rehashing his counterfactual (i.e. speculative bollocks) 1998 book of the same title, was largely an advert for his public-speaking business, though it did also have a role to play in the BBC's World War One coverage by ticking off "heterodox" and "provocative" on the checklist.

The Beeb has so far presented three right-wing views of the war. Jeremy Paxman might appear more centrist and "balanced", but his core position in Britain's Great War was conventional Tory: the Germans were the bad guys, Britain was right, the rest of Europe was marginal (the Corporation may struggle to sell the series beyond the Anglosphere). Max Hastings is not merely conventional but echt establishment: the blame lies with a half-mad Kaiser and Prussian militarism, and  subsequent doubts were the work of nancy poets and communist fellow-travellers. Ferguson's isolationist argument is presented as oppositional and daring, but crucially without explicating his views about empire or America - i.e. that Britain's interests lay outside Europe. This is a debate between species of conservative.

The fundamental difference between Hastings and Ferguson is the former's acceptance of the Sonderweg ("special path") theory of German history, which sees both world wars as the culmination of something "abnormal" in the development of the German state, stemming from the time of Bismarck if not Martin Luther. The view originally had positive connotations, suggesting a "third way" between the decadent democracy of France and the backward absolutism of Russia in the late nineteenth century. The corruption of this idea under Nazism led post-WW2 historians, particularly on the left, to repurpose the Sonderweg as a critique of German society and culture, and a contextual explanation of the Final Solution. This approach has fallen out of favour since 1989 (the "uniquely evil" claim was the antinomy of the conservative equation of Nazism with Soviet totalitarianism), but popular histories in Britain still seek to keep it alive, if only because it reflects greater glory on Our Finest Hour.

Ferguson focuses more on the Sonderweg of Britain (and later the USA), as the cradle of modern finance capitalism and the intellectual powerhouse of classical (and neo) liberalism. The wider cultural resonance concerns the question: is Britain part of Europe? Given that the locus of this contemporary debate has been manoeuvred onto the right, as a conflict between different varieties of capitalism, there should be little surprise at the absence of any "left" analysis of the war on the BBC beyond safe cultural studies about Tommy Atkins, the contribution of women or (I kid you not) horses. The nearest to a dissenting voice has been the repeats of the ten year old series based on the work of Hew Strachan, which provided a more nuanced explanation of the mix of calculation and stupidity that led to war and the global aspects normally ignored in the British focus on Flanders (in part the product of modern embarrassment at the imperial concerns that compelled Britain's involvement and her stance at Versailles).

Ferguson made a point of praising AJP Taylor as his hero, which might appear odd given the distance between them on the political spectrum, not to mention the old troublemaker's fondness for the Sonderweg theory (he traced the roots of German aggression all the way back to Charlemagne), but they share a common Little Englander tendency and a willingness to use history for ideological purposes. Taylor's "railway thesis" - that WW1 was the result of an arms race and a system of military deterrence (i.e. mobilisation timetables) - had a contemporary parallel with concerns over nuclear deterrence and missile deployments in the 1960s (Taylor was an executive member of CND). Where they differ is in their view of the US, which Taylor saw as a greater destabiliser of Europe than the USSR, and a hegemon that would happily betray Britain in furtherance of its own interests. For Ferguson, the US is the "manifest destiny" of Anglo culture. You suspect he would sooner vote for a union of the UK and US (plus Canada, Australia and New Zealand), than a union with Europe.

Hastings' The Necessary War framed the debate as a dichotomy between an "informed" view of the pragmatic necessity of conflict and a "sentimental" misrepresentation that runs from the war poets to Blackadder. There were lots of calm chats in book-lined studies where the official line was presented as unarguable. One shot even had a Union Jack fluttering beyond the window. It was the metaphorical (and possibly literal) Whitehall view. Hastings noted that the caricature of the British high command, safely behind the lines sipping champagne while moving flags on a map, ignored the prosaic reality that modern war and field communications required a rear position. He didn't seem to appreciate that popular revulsion was less about the drink and assumed cowardice and more about the treatment of soldiers as mere chess pieces.

The word that repeatedly crops up in the popular discussion of the war is "waste". This is a concern not just with the conduct of the war, i.e. the competence of the generals and politicians, but the objective purpose of the conflict (a sarcastic soldiers' song was "We're here because we're here because we're here ..."). What did Britain gain, or prevent the loss of? Some of the contemporary frustration with the Versailles Treaty was that it was incapable of providing a clear answer to this question. In contrast, WW2 was seen as more objectively worthwhile, even before popular recognition of the Holocaust and the catharsis of the Nuremberg trials. Try as they might, proponents of the "necessary war" thesis are unable to convincingly paint a Wilhelmine Europe as Nazis in pickelhaubes.

The argument, both in 1914 and now, is an extension of the hegemonic paradigm of great power relations that arose in the nineteenth century. This saw diplomacy as the highest form of politics (the refuge of the aristocracy in the face of creeping democracy), and international relations as a game of chess: the "great game" of Rudyard Kipling's Kim. This idea continued into the twentieth century and was given a second-wind after WW2 with "game theory", MAD and an obsession with dominoes. It leads to a focus on pre-emptive action to counter the future intentions of the enemy, hence the centrality of alliances and mobilisation plans in 1914, and the insane risks flirted with over the Cuban crisis in 1962. It's proponents are particularly vulnerable to counterfactual delusion (if we don't do X, they will do Y), hence the popularity of Ferguson among neocons. Hastings, as befits an establishment figure, is less indulgent of counterfactual flights of fancy, but he is equally obsessed with moving chess pieces in contemporary geopolitics.

One thing shared by Hastings and Ferguson is a thinly-veiled homophobia. The former referred to JM Keynes as a "German sympathiser", hinting at the persistent canard that his opposition to the Versailles Treaty stemmed from a homosexual attraction to Carl Melchior, one of the German negotiators. This is a favourite theory of Ferguson, who has more recently claimed that the economist's supposed disregard for large government deficits ("a burden on our children") can be explained by his lack of offspring. William Rees-Mogg, a former editor of The Times, even claimed that Keynes's antipathy to the gold standard was a product of his immorality (aka, "buggers reject bling").

There is a place for revisionism and challenging shibboleths, but too much of the current "patriotic" case for WW1 centres on denigration of the opposition. Michael Gove's "Blackadder" sneer is from the same stable as the snidery about Keynes. This is, of course, a tactical consequence of the belief that the herd are incapable of sharing the sophisticated understanding of the chaps in Whitehall. The rabble must be roused by appeals to patriotism and revulsion at real or imagined atrocities (the parallel with the current Daily Mail smear against Harman et al is instructive). However, it also suggests a lack of confidence in your own case, or at least your ability to make it.

The BBC's approach to the WW1 centenary has been timid. This is understandable at one level - the need for "balance" and "respect" would always militate against too much heterodoxy - but it has been disappointing to see (as yet) little attempt to integrate WW1 into wider European or World history, while the ramifications for Britain's attitude towards the EU (our own Sonderweg debate) have been largely ignored - Ferguson's counterfactual what-ifs can provide no lessons for current dilemmas, just empty propaganda. Perhaps the Beeb's caution is explained by the fact that the centenary of a war supposedly fought to defend the rights of small nations occurs in the year of a referendum on Scottish independence. World War One remains, in many ways, too sensitive a subject.

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