This is the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War–and it is making Europe think. Are we organising international society correctly to prevent regional conflict turning into a 1914-style full scale global war? And–something that all Europeans now have to consider–how do racial and national stereotypes stoke the hatred that leads to bloody confrontation?
So far Turkey is the only European country to be directly drawn into the Syrian crisis. The European Union has imposed sanctions on the Assad regime but for most Europeans the war is far away: it is worried chiefly about jihadis returning to kill on our own streets. The British agonise about whether to send more than night vision binoculars to the rebels–but in the end do nothing. The Germans, who consider that the most important lesson from their history is that they should avoid a fight, also do nothing. It does not occur to either country that they should give more support to their NATO ally Turkey which with its long porous border is directly involved–sheltering the Free Syrian Army, housing refugees, nervous about the radicalised and displaced Syrian Kurds.
The First World War was about how alliances and armies inter-connect, how the action of one state can drag in others, how empires—the Hapsburg, the Ottoman, the Russian–can collapse together. That is also the danger posed by Syria today. And, as I write this article, there is a similar destructive process underway in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Like a century ago, these are menacing times: an old order is giving way violently to a new. Force is the midwife of change says Karl Marx and you don’t have to be a Marxist to see it that way.
Britain and Germany, arch-enemies for the first half of the 20th century, are now trying to understand how their relationship went wrong in case it gives some lessons for how to deal with the changing world. For decades Britain blamed the Germans for the First World War although the causes were never as straightforward as for Hitler’s war; many English and French wanted to hang the Kaiser, the Royal Family changed its name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor.
The Germans meanwhile were not quick to blame themselves. After 1918, there was still a conviction that Germany could have won–if the army had not been stabbed in the back (die Dolchstosslegende) by unpatriotic politicians, Marxists and Jews. That of course became the motto of the Nazis as they tried to reclaim German national pride. But the reluctance to accept defeat or blame, the resentment at the Versailles treaty which imposed financial costs on Germany for a war that, in the German view, had been sparked as much by London as by Berlin, formed part of the history-telling in universities and schools too. Early German histories of the war blamed the arms race between the powers, the railway system, Balkan nationalism–everything apart from German aggression.
That changed with Fritz Fischer’s “Griff nach der Weltmacht” in 1961 which claimed that German elites had wanted war since 1902, if not earlier. The book caused a mini-cultural revolution. Until then the West Germans had argued that Hitler was an aberration, an exceptional event. But Fischer demonstrated that there was a continuity in German foreign policy that stretched from 1914 to 1939. The British naturally celebrated the book–for them it showed that Germans and war naturally complemented each other, like gin and tonic.
If you go through the archives of The Times however you will see that the origins of the First World War went back even further, perhaps fifty years earlier when the first stereotypes were taking shape. In 1864 Otto von Bismarck threatened to grab Schleswig-Holstein from Denmark. That was part of his long term plan to unify Germany under Prussian control–and he was clear that a future united Germany would need Kiel if it was going to have the kind of fleet it needed to create a world power. The British were alarmed–its fleet was the most powerful in the world, the essence of its empire–and seemed ready to help the Danes fight off the Prussians and the Austrians. But perhaps because of Queen Victoria( whose family had married into the royal houses of Europe, including the Hohenzollerns), or simply because Schleswig-Holstein did not seem worth a fight, Britain decided not to go to war.
Berlin newspapers immediately depicted”John Bull”–the cartoon symbol of Britain–as a fat boastful figure, lazy and with no guts for real action. Other German cartoons showed the British lion as a moth-eaten tiger without teeth. These were the first hostile cariacatures of the English who had previously been respected as pleasant if slightly stupid fox-hunting gentlemen. Now it was a power afraid to use force–just as it is afraid today to use its airforce against Assad.
The British stereotypes of the Germans, or at least the Prussians changed the following year. Queen Victoria visited Bonn in 1865 to unveil a statue to her late husband Prince Albert and to introduce one of her sons, Alfred of Saxe-Coburg to the Germans. All went well until the evening when the Queen’s personal cook went for a walk in the streets of Bonn. A group of young aristocratic students blocked the cook’s path on one of Bonn’s narrow pavements, demanding that he cross to the other side of the street. Before the cook could reply one of the students, Count von Eulenberg, had slashed the young man twice with his sabre. The cook died of his wounds. The Count(who would later become the fiance of one of Bismarck’s daughters) was not punished.
Britain was outraged. “The humblest Prussian,” wrote Llod’s Weekly in London, ” cannot keep clear of the police. He must have police permission for every movement. He cannot paint his name over his shop, or let his first floor, or have a meeting of his friends, or set out on a journey, without having obtained the grace of the police. He then is taught from his cradle to be the slave of all the petty officials, or representatives of might, who surround him. What kind of moral man can grow under such influences as these? He becomes a tyrant in his turn.”
And so it was that fifty years before the fatal shot was fired in Sarajevo, that the stereotypes were fixed. The Germans were convinced that Britain was a declining power unable to exercise its will or use force. And completely opposed to unification under Prussian leadership, The British were convinced that the Germans were not only aggressive but also, as a nation, unable to resist or question authority. Many of those national cliches are still in circulation. The British mock the Germans for their readiness to obey orders, to stand at pedestrian traffic lights on an empoty street at two o clock in the morning. The Germans, in private, will criticise the laziness and the inefficiency of the Britsh, their sloppiness with money. Naturally there is some mutual admiration too nowadays but the old fears and suspicions established a full half century befor the First World War still lurk.
There is no question of course that these stereotypes will turn now into a war-like temperament. But they will underpin Britain’s future referendum on whether to stay in the European Union or leave it. It is still, for many English people, a “German Europe”, over regulated and over controlled just as the Prussian police of the 19th century kept its citizens under the thumb.
The economic rivalry made it worse. The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently warned that relations between Japan and China were beginning to be like that between Britain and Germany in 1914. The Chinese were furious so Mr Abe had to explain what he meant: even countries that have a strong economic dependence on each other can stumble into war. Look at the Japanese cartoons of the Chinese today, he said, and you will see how similar they are to the Anglo-German cartoons of the late 19th century. Rivalry, envy–that has been part of the Anglo-German discourse since Germany’s late industrial revolution. At first the British tried to stop the flow of cheap German goods coming into its shops. All German companies were forced to put “MADE IN GERMANY” on their products so that innocent English consumers could see that they were cheap imitations. As Germany tried to catch up with the world in the 1890s it became a great imitator, like the Chinese of the 1990s. Soon enough though the English realized that the German goods were not just cheaper–they were better. “MADE IN GERMANY” became a sign of quality.
The race was on: for new markets, for colonies, for prestige. That turned into an arms race–how else would Germany be able to defend its future colonies if it did not have warships to match those of the British? Wars came and went but Germany, apart from the crisis of the 1920s, was notably more efficient than the British. So our stereotypes all have an undercurrent of resentment. Germany was successful because its industry invested more of its profits in modern technology and in training the younger generation. The British chose to believe that they were only superficially better, that their secret was military discipline, that they worked like mindless ants. In fact they were better because they understood their customers better and were able to react more quickly to change.
None of this misunderstanding leads to war, just a sense of mystery and bafflement. In this centenary year, German diplomats in Briain have been trying to distract British attention from the bloody battles of the Somme. It was they say a war that showed the need for mulitnational cooperation. We believe that the anniversary is something else: a moment to celebrate war heroes. Here’s the difference: Britain has a sense that its best years were in the past and wants to hang on to the memories; Germany is obliged to repress its memories or mould them into lessons for the future.