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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Great War Centenary Should Bring us to our Knees

'The protagonists of [the First World War] were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the horror they were about to bring into the world.'

This is how Christopher Clark's book on the origins of the Great War ends. I have been reading The Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914 over the summer, aiming to reach the fateful last week of July during the centenary of those days in 2014. It has been a vivid experience, reading about the events that shaped the 20th century in real-time 100 years later. 

I knew of course what it would all lead up to on 4 August, when Britain declared war on Germany. But I now see how vague I was about the causes of the events that would change for ever the course of European history. Thanks to this extraordinary (and readable) book, I realise better than before how very complex it all was, the shifting alliances, the economic leverage that locked nations into preferential relationships, the personalities of national leaders, their inability to read correctly their neighbours' intentions and assess risks accurately, the obscure processes by which momentous decisions were often taken. All this Clark examines carefully in the light of evidence not all of which was available to earlier historians.

Pace some writers on the Great War, Clark refuses to lay blame in any one European quarter, whether it is Austria-Hungary for its peremptory ultimatum threatening war unless Serbia complied with its conditions; Russia for raising the stakes by resorting to general mobilisation in support of Serbia and the pursuit of pan-Slav unity; Germany for entertaining the idea of war before Russian forces grew to overwhelming strength; France for uncritically associating with Russia's intentions as a way of keeping Germany in check and winning back the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine; or Britain for being so distracted by the Irish question that it failed to notice what was happening on the continent until it was almost too late. 

Clark concludes that the outbreak of the war was a tragedy not a crime. It was not inevitable, and indeed, it took many of its protagonists by surprise. There is 'no smoking gun in this story, or rather, there was one in the hands of every major character'. He says that we must understand that the Great War might easily not have happened, & why; equally we must understand how & why it did happen. 

All our churches will be commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War next week. Some of us will be required to preach about it. What to say that does justice in a theologically and spiritually intelligent way to this bewildering history? That is my challenge right now as I prepare to give a sermon at Sheffield Cathedral on Sunday morning at a requiem in memory of those who went to war and never came back.

What I am clear about is that the rhetoric of 'dulce et decorum est pro patria mori' needs to be put into a bigger context than was normal at the time. This is inevitable: we see things from the vantage point of history that our forebears, immersed in that awful conflict, could not see so clearly. If the Geat War was a tragedy, not a crime, then there were no winners or losers, for all of us were and still are its victims. Anyone who has walked among the military cemeteries of Northern France cannot fail to see how this attrition afflicted all the war's participants equally terribly. 4 August is truly a day for lament. It puts a question mark against the nationalisms that still define relationships between the world's peoples, where the idea of patriotism still has not acquired a genuinely global context.

The question is, what if anything can we learn from our history? Here it would be fatally easy to draw simplistic lessons, as if the world of 1914 is comparable to that of a century later. But the past is another country; they do things differently there. Perhaps the differences between then and now can help show us how far we have advanced in developing global and continental institutions that can at least broker negotiations between nations in conflict even if they cannot (yet) prevent wars. In important ways, the Europe of today is less febrile, more safe, because of the United Nations, NATO and the European Union. This is something to celebrate.

Yet our world is still an incredibly dangerous place, as the events of summer 2014 have made clear. Across the globe, war is still pursued as 'the extension of politics by other means' as Clausewitz famously defined it. Historians will no doubt go on arguing about the causes of the First World War for a long time to come. But what is not in doubt is that this is a centenary that should drive us to our knees. The prayer for peace was urgent enough 100 years ago. It has not grown less urgent since. 

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