Monday, January 11, 2010

The decision to go to war in 1914 and the decision to go to war in 2003

Perusing David Stevenson's brilliant book on the first world war, '1914-1918: The History of the First World War' , it wasn't long before I found myself looking at one particular synthesis. On page seven Dr Stevenson writes: "France's Third Republic, established in 1870, had probably the most progressive constitution in Europe, but even here parliamentary scrutiny over diplomacy and military planning was feeble. In Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia, the ruling Habsburg, Hohenzollern, and Romanov dynasties exercised wide discretionary power over foreign affairs. Moreover, if public opinion did exert an influence it might not be a peaceful one. Most continental countries had socialist parties which (in common with middle-class progressives) opposed war except in self-defence. Centrist and right-wing parties, however, normally called for firmness in asserting national interests, and most newspapers and a plethora of pressure groups supported them. In 1914 most politicians and military chiefs recognised that a major war needed public support, but neither globalisation nor democratisation made hostilities unthinkable."

In the first instance one might wonder what happened to those socialists and middle-classs progressives who opposed the war? Well, as far as their representatives were concerned, in France we had the "union sacrée", in Germany the "Burgfrieden" and in the United Kingdom the Labour Party became part of the coalition war government. Nevertheless, this does not indicate, as Dr Stevenson suggests implicitly in his book, that the democratisation of society was less developed than it is now.

Whatever the nature and extent of the debate in the French, German and British parliaments in 1914, we do know that a number of deputies in those parliaments and ministers in the different governments did resign and the evidence would appear to suggest that it is safe to conclude that the debates and opposition to the war in all three countries were at least as lively as the farcical debate in the House of Commons, on the 18th of March 2003, when the government decision, which had in fact been made months before, to de facto go to war was endorsed with 412 member of parliament voting in favour of the resolution and only 149 against. Moreover, if Dr Stevenson highlights that most newspapers supported the "war parties" in 1914, we can only emphasise that by march 2003 the British press, and indeed, the press in all other so-called "western democracies", had long since been "gleichgeschaltet".

The point that has to be made here is that the process of democratisation that was proceeding apace in 1914 was dealt a crippling blow from which it never really recovered. This meant that those parties which betrayed their ideals and became "Salon Fähig" in 1914 invariably came to power after the war. However, those parties were to increasingly represent business and industry at the expense of the workers. Of course, there was still some effort to pay attention to thesocialist agenda and, there were even times when real promise seemed afoot. For instance, with the coming into existence of social welfare states in Western Europe after World War II. Nevertheless, there is evidence to suggest that the socialist parties compromised themselves out of existence and our so-called "democracies" were to at least develop into the sham that they are now and from today's perspective it would be quite wrong to assert that democratisation in 1914 was less developed than it is now. Indeed, it would not be wrong to contend that it is virtually those same forces and same interests that dictated the decisions of the day in 1914 who do still do so today and to further assert that the challenge to those forces was at least as great prior to 1914 as it is now.

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