We should remember the lessons of how we stumbled into war in 1914

Opinion: Contemporary Western leaders are fixated on notion of ‘appeasement’ and are looking at the wrong world war


Few can be unaware of the current commemoration of the outbreak of the first World War, the calamity from which all other 20th century disasters sprang.

A host of books has already appeared discussing the war’s origins and attributing blame. None of the protagonists emerge entirely unscathed but the one common theme is that the political leadership – including crowned heads of state, on continental Europe at least – allowed their military to dictate the pace of events. Austria-Hungary waited for a month before formally reacting to the assassination at Sarajevo, then presented a 48-hour ultimatum to Serbia of such an extreme nature that Churchill described it as “the most insolent document of its kind ever devised”. Diplomacy hardly got a look in.

Admittedly, British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey tried to summon a meeting of the great powers, but it was all too late: the military machines were in motion and unstoppable. The British government was at the time seriously distracted by discussions of the Irish Home Rule Bill, with Asquith and Redmond in intensive negotiations (with Bonar Law, the Conservative leader, and Edward Carson), which had just broken up as news came in of the Austrian ultimatum. The British were also diplomatically at fault in not making it crystal clear to the Germans and Austrians that, while its commitments to France were less than cast-iron, it would without question intervene militarily if Belgian neutrality was breached.

For once at least, the British could not be accused of bellicosity. Austria-Hungary wanted to settle Serbia’s hash once and for all, and annex it to the Dual Monarchy. Russia couldn’t let its small Slav cousin be swallowed up in this way; France was compelled to side with Russia, given its alliance commitments and in the hope of recovering Alsace-Lorraine from Germany. And Germany fatefully gave Austria- Hungary a blank cheque.

Empires swept away
Thus the events of the summer of 1914 were a perfect storm in which diplomacy was sidelined while military ambition and arrogance took over. The expectation was that the war would be short and sharp and that Europe would more or less assume its tranquil path by Christmas 1914. Irish Home Rule, suspended for the war years, could have been expected to have been implemented then. Four years later when an armistice was

negotiated, Europe was in ruins and four empires had disintegrated: the Hohenzollerns, the Habsburgs, the Romanovs and the Ottomans.

The lesson one would have thought was clear: again in Churchill’s words, jaw-jaw is better than war-war. Modern politicians, however, have tended to remember instead what they see as the lessons of the second World War. Here, the primary blame falls on Nazi Germany but Britain and France are often criticised for failing to stand up to Hitler earlier, despite the fact that in the mid-1930s both were far too weak to do so; that an isolationist Congress would never have allowed US intervention; and that Hitler had entered into a devil’s pact with Stalin.

And so, since Anthony Eden and Suez , Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam war, through to Bush and Blair in Iraq and Afghanistan, the mantra has been that it is better to be anything than an appeaser. The word appeasement itself has gone through a semantic shift. In the early interwar years it was a respectable term to mean the pursuit of peace or, later in the 1930s, a crisis management strategy to contain Hitler. Of course knowing what we know now about Hitler, this was a policy doomed to failure. But it did buy time and what the appeasers were attempting had its own rationale and logic. Yet appeasement has continued to get a bad press and this has infected the political thinking of those born too young to have fought in wars and too ignorant of history to absorb its lessons.

Like the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914, the events of 9/11 have been used to justify ruinous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We escaped another war in the Middle East when political pressure injected a note of common sense into otherwise disastrous adventurism in Syria and, who knows, possibly Iran.

While Syria at one stage seemed a self-contained problem, it now looks to have the ability to drag in other regional players, notably Iran and Saudi Arabia, who are fighting a proxy Shia-Sunni war on its soil. China-Japan tensions have seen rhetoric rise to new heights. China and the US are likely to square off over this dispute, while Russia-US relations, far from having been reset, are now at a new nadir after the events in Ukraine. Unlike other countries of the Soviet empire, Ukraine is Russia’s very cradle: for its first four centuries it was Kiev not Moscow which was the centre of the lands of Rus, as Russia and Ukraine were then called.

Historic intermingling
While democratic leaders now look likely to succeed the hated Yanukovich, the real question is whether anyone is capable of unifying a country which, Janus-like, looks

east and west. Russia, given its historic intermingling with Ukraine, will not be a disinterested observer. Not for Mr Putin the politics of appeasement.

We are, in short, at a critical moment, with the possibility of war spreading far beyond its immediate battlefields and capable à la 1914 of involving other major players as they sleepwalk to disaster.

John F Kennedy had famously read Barbara Tuchman’s seminal book on the outbreak of the first World War, The Guns of August , shortly before the Cuban missile crisis and decided, against the advice of his military, not to risk a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. We need more absorption of the same lessons. The alternative, not to strain every sinew to find peaceful outcomes, leads us directly to the brink of wars as surely as Sarajevo did 100 years ago.

Sir Ivor Roberts, president of Trinity College, Oxford, was British ambassador to Ireland from 1999 to 2003

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