05 January 2014

A hundred years on – how do we face our legacy of war?

The right-believing and passion-bearing Tsar Saint Nicholas II of Russia

The recent back-and-forth between Michael Gove and Tristram Hunt over the legacy of the Great War should prompt careful reflection and – in light of the horrific carnage of that symbol, standing in the very midst of our history, of the inhuman excesses of mechanised modern warfare – prayer, in a spirit of penitence.

One cannot look at a conflict which destroyed nearly twenty million lives without falling to one’s knees with tears in one’s eyes and a prayer in one’s throat for the dead and for the families of the dead – and in this, I believe Tristram Hunt is right that we (whether Americans or British or French or Russians) should not now or ever succumb to a spirit of glib self-congratulation. Yet despite all the self-serving whig-historical nincompoopery he puts on display in his Daily Mail op-ed, Gove makes two valid points: nobility, bravery and loyalty have their own worth, and the cause of WWI itself was not altogether unworthy.

Consider the bullying one-sidedness with which the Austro-Hungarian Empire, assured in its alliance with the German one, first threatened its weaker neighbour, the Orthodox kingdom of Serbia, after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Consider that, in response, the Austro-Hungarians essentially demanded policing and judicial rights on Serbian soil, and that the Serbians assented to each and every one of the Austro-Hungarians’ unreasonable – even tyrannical! – demands save this last one. Consider that a great contingent of the Austro-Hungarian élite had been planning a war long before Gavrilo Princip gave the trigger-happy shysters an excuse to start one. Consider that many of them were hoping for a ‘shock-and-awe’ campaign to cow Serbia into submission, with German military might in the north scaring off any possible Russian retaliation as it did so.

Suddenly GK Chesterton’s theme throughout the Great War from its inception that the German civilisation, however advanced are its art and music, is in truth barbarian and requires a response, begins to make sense. And remember that it was Chesterton himself in his Autobiography with particular reference to the Great War who said that ‘the only defensible war is a war of defence; and a war of defence, by its very definition and nature, is one from which a man comes back battered and bleeding and only boasting that he is not dead.’

Thus we can praise as worthy and just the impulse – that chivalrous impulse which seeks to defend and preserve those who cannot defend themselves from robbers and murderers and perverts (or barbarians, in Chesterton’s usage) – which led first Russia, then France and Britain, then America, to leap to the defence of the Serbian kingdom and people. But we mustn’t forget that without the encouragement of these national-revolutionary sentiments of which Princip was representative, such a war might never have been made necessary. And we mustn’t forget the total, technological horrors that were visited upon all of Europe as a result – and all those horrors, spiritual and material, that followed.

What followed the war was a supply-side driven mini-Gilded Age in the United States accompanied by a concomitant social revolution (the ‘Roaring Twenties’), and its equivalent on the continent: everywhere capital and techno-fetishism were triumphant, everywhere the wealthy and the idle ‘bright young things’ indulged in licentiousness and decadence, everywhere ideology was gaining adherents, and everywhere tradition (including the tradition of organised labour) was on the retreat. The internationalists with their grand schemes to outlaw war were everywhere in the ascendant, with the ears of justly war-weary populaces everywhere eager to listen. And in the shadow of internationalism and of the victory of Western capital, the grimy worms of nihilism and fascism gnawed and festered, particularly in the wake of the inevitable economic collapse…

The Orthodox Church teaches that all war is defacement of God’s image, and of God’s intentions for humanity – even if it becomes necessary in cases of defence against aggression or oppression, it is never to be glorified. As this coming new year begins, we should remember with gratitude and ask for the intercession of our saints – and yes, this includes the Royal Passion-Bearer Tsar Nicholas II – but we must all the more intensely study our own faults, both individually and collectively, and pray God’s forgiveness if we succumb to the same worldly passions which led to the Great War.


  1. Great piece. While I agree that the Great War should be viewed as a tragedy for all participants, I also agree that people in the Allied nations should not feel that their cause was unjust. If Germany would have won the war, the Germans would have completely dominated Europe and exploited other nations and peoples for their own gain.

    It is also quite possible that Imperial Germany would have annexed territories in Eastern Europe and expelled the native Slavs or Balts to make way for German settlers, so basically a smaller precursor to what the Nazis were planning.

    I write this as somebody with German-Prussian ancestry who had family members living in what are now Eastern European countries, but the truth is the truth. Many Germans were anti-Slav long before Hitler.

  2. Thanks, John, for your comments!

    I completely agree - as bad as Versailles was (and it was horrific, not only for Germans but also for non-whites in places like China and Indochina), a postwar peace favouring the Germans would likely have been much worse.

    Also, I think there may have been a fair argument for a certain degree of autonomy for, for example, the Sudeten Germans in the interwar period, but that was quite quickly overridden when the German nationalists used the dissatisfaction with the post-war settlement to encourage resentment of and violence against the Czechs. When compared with the largely peaceful (one might even say Metternichian!) way the Czechs had comported themselves under the Austro-Hungarians since 1526, the behaviour of the Sudeten German nationalists begins to look all the more appalling.

    Again, thanks! I hope you had a very Merry Gregorian Christmas, and that the coming year treats you and yours well!

  3. Thank you very much Matthew! Have a Merry Christmas and a great 2014!