Nicky Campbell presents a special edition of The Big Questions from Goldsmiths College in London asking, did World War 1 change Britain for the better?
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Today on The Big Questions, the First World War. Did it change Britain for the better?
Good morning, I'm Nicky Campbell. Welcome to The Big Questions.
We're back at Goldsmiths University of London
to debate one very big question -
did the First World War change Britain for the better?
Welcome, everybody, to The Big Questions this morning.
Now, to debate that question,
we've assembled an extremely distinguished
array of writers, historians - from military to cultural -
experts on international relations, economists and campaigners.
And you can have your say via Twitter or online.
Just log on to...
..where you'll find links to continue the discussion online.
And there'll be lots of encouragement and contributions
from our very lively and knowledgeable London audience.
Did the First World War change Britain for the better?
Well, 16 million dead worldwide in the carnage.
800,000 British people died, but, Jeremy Paxman,
what were the main ways that...?
I mean, it changed Britain dramatically,
but what were the positive changes, do you believe?
Well, I think if you'd been a Victorian time-traveller
and come back to Britain in about 1912,
you'd have understood exactly how the country worked.
If you come back in 1922,
after the social changes caused by the First World War,
you wouldn't really have recognised it.
It was an entirely different sort of place.
A very small proportion of adult men and women
had the vote at the start of the war.
By the end of the war, the franchise was hugely extended,
including, for the first time, to some women.
The Government had got involved in setting wage rates,
in setting rents, it had got even involved in
ensuring that there was a roughly equal distribution of food.
These were all positive changes, I think.
So nothing can justify that massive loss of life,
but I would say Britain was a better place afterwards than before.
Did we see the beginning of the end of deference?
There's still a little bit of it about, perhaps,
and the rigidity of the class system, as well?
I think it did encourage social mobility, yes, of course.
Yeah. Well, Chris Nineham from the No Glory In War campaign,
as Jeremy says, the position of women in society, the class system,
maybe the decline in the unquestioning deference as well.
Greater power for and respect for the working classes
and, indeed, the rise of the Labour Party.
It was a fulcrum of change.
It was a catalyst for change.
-You've got to agree with that, haven't you?
-I'm not so sure.
I find it a slightly desperate and depressing argument
that we needed this carnage in order to get...
I didn't say that! I didn't say we needed
the carnage, I said it was unjustifiable.
but it did have positive benefits afterwards.
Well, but my arguments are, I suppose, first of all, that,
actually, these things were beginning to happen anyway.
If you look at history,
the suffragettes were already in the streets before the war.
There was huge labour unrest in Britain and right across Europe,
actually, demanding greater workers' rights, better wages.
There was the movement for...
you know, the Home Rule movement in Ireland.
And you could argue that
some of these changes were actually held back.
I mean, the suffragettes were destroyed by the First World War.
-It put it on hold.
-Yeah, it put it on hold, exactly.
I mean... I mean I take your point, Jeremy,
but I do think at the moment, there is around this argument
that somehow there's something naive
about just saying that the level of carnage,
the levels of death, the misery,
the hell of this war isn't in itself an argument
for saying it just should never have happened...
That's a different point!
We're talking about whether Britain was a better place...
But this isn't saying that the war wasn't wrong
-and the war wasn't absolute hell and horrific.
And catastrophic. It's saying, "What were the effects after the war?"
But one of the effects was to almost destroy and create...
decimate and traumatise a whole generation of people
in this country and right across Europe and parts of the world.
And I think you have to say that, in itself,
that experience has to be the one that dominates any serious
historical discussion, and just for that reason,
I think you have to say that Britain, Germany, France,
the other countries involved,
were a worse place because of the misery caused by the war.
-Well, I mean, you're confusing two things.
The question was, "Was Britain better after the war than it was before?"
Now, in many respects, I argue it was, as I'm sure do other people,
but what you're arguing is a conjecture.
You're saying all of these changes would've happened anyway.
Well, perhaps they would at some point, but it's a conjecture.
-We don't know.
-Sir Hew Strachan. Let me bring Sir Hew in.
-Well, look, Chris, there will be opportunities.
Sir Hew - catastrophic loss of life and, interestingly,
of course, there's a lot of myths, I think,
which we could be addressing
and some people are beginning to address.
There was a disproportionate loss of life
from the political and social elite, as well.
But what did it mean?
And later on, I want to discuss the geopolitical
implications in Britain and the world,
but let's look at the social consequences, if we may,
in this part of our discussion. What were they?
Well, I think you've already heard from Jeremy
some indication of what they were. In relation to that argument,
I would say one of the big changes here we're talking about
is the intervention of government
in some of these activities.
Before the war, conflict between employers and employees
was essentially regulated by them without the state intervening.
The necessity of prioritising the war means that, if you like,
"big government", as we might now term it,
becomes much more normal activity.
And, of course, it has, if you like,
progressive, positive consequences -
taxation, for example, works much more through society,
to the point that members of the working class
would also pay tax for the first time,
partly because their incomes are going up,
especially if they're in war-related industries.
But, obviously, the counter-factual point that these things
might've happened without the war is sustainable.
The question probably is the pace at which they would've happened,
and, self-evidently, the war is not, you know,
a satisfactory price to pay for such progress.
Where you probably also have to position yourself is,
"Are you judging this from the point of view, let's say, of 1920, 1921?"
-"Or are you looking at it from the point of view of 1930, '31?",
where a lot of people felt, "Golly, we did get all these benefits
"and now we've lost them all again because of the slump"?
And so at every point, your perspective on this change
would change and will change,
because that would've changed again in 1939 when, of course,
people were facing another war,
against their expectations and with the sense,
"We thought we had gained and yet, of course,
"here we are fighting another war
"with a possibility of further social change."
-And that, of course...
At that time, the social elites are very worried,
precisely because of the social change
that the First World War brought about.
There are certainly historians who used to argue -
it's now no longer fashionable for unsurprising reasons -
that one of the reasons for appeasement in the 1930s
were essentially domestic reasons -
concerns that war would generate so much social change -
and that notion that war WILL bring social change
is also one of the reasons, for example,
in Russia that the Bolsheviks are ready to welcome it.
They see, in 1914, that war is the engine of revolution.
That relationship between war and revolution
is something which I think we too often lose sight of.
But for many, in 1914, it's one of the reasons why Edward Grey,
if he ever said it,
thought the lights were going out all over Europe.
I mean, that is a reflection of domestic concerns
as much as it's concerned about international relations.
As far as our society is concerned, Professor David Stevenson,
what did we lose?
I was asked to talk particularly about the economic aspects,
other people may come in on other things,
-but if I can just take the economics.
First of all, three-quarters of a million, 800,000 dead.
That's not just a human tragedy,
it's also an enormous burden on the economy,
a loss of tremendous amounts of skilled labour.
Another half million permanently, seriously disabled.
Again, take that into account.
One looks at the absolute destruction of wealth in the country -
the estimate is probably about 15% of our national wealth was destroyed.
Cargo ships sunk, foreign investments lost,
wear and tear on capital not replenished.
So there are all these things to take into account.
You need also to look at the financial aspects of this.
Before the war, government debt was about 25% of gross domestic product
in the UK, which is very low.
By the end of the war, it's 125%, more than the total of GDP.
That's much higher than it is now, for example,
and that's a debt burden that has to be carried by a much smaller economy.
That in turn means that even if the state is more active
during the war, because it's got this debt burden,
it's unable to act very positively
when it comes to the emergency of the Great Depression
because these burden of debts weigh with it through the '20s -
not just domestic but also foreign -
so whether you look at the financial side
or whether you look at what economists call the real economy,
there are tremendous consequences, and nearly all of them damaging.
Look also at unemployment.
The unemployment rate goes up from about 4% before 1914
to about 8 or 9%, stays at that level,
the so-called intractable million of unemployed -
through the '20s and '30s.
Now, there are some benefits, just briefly.
Of course there are some offsetting gains.
Technological change sped up in industries like aircraft,
chemicals, optical glass.
That helps to raise industrial productivity
in the inter-war period.
There are some other things, as has been mentioned.
There's some redistribution of income in favour of women
and in favour of farmers and other groups.
Working-class living standards did rise during the war.
Infant mortality in the East End of London fell.
So it's not all bad. But if you look at the picture overall,
it seems to me that most of the gains are temporary
and the minus side on the economic side far outweighs the positive.
Just wondering... I mean, Jeremy, we could've been a far wealthier...
This is the counterfactual thing - if we hadn't gone to war,
we could've been a far wealthier country.
We would still have had our trading partners,
we would still have had our Empire. We'll talk more about that later on.
But did it change the way that -
and this relates to your very first point, I think -
did it change the way that we saw ourselves, you know, as a society?
Change the way we saw ourselves? I don't probably think it did.
-Maybe defeat would've changed the way we saw ourselves.
It's certainly, I think, although the British Empire was larger
at the end of the war, it was, I think, the beginning of the end.
The end had actually begun before the war.
We saw it as a glorious war.
Many people saw it as a glorious war, did they not, in 1914, 1915?
You know, let's not forget, this war was won by the Allies.
That is somehow overlooked in all of this.
I'm not saying it was a glorious thing,
it was a terrible, terrible loss of life,
but many times one hears the argument made
that the war was somehow absolutely pointless.
In the context of the time -
and we have to see it in the context of the time,
not in the context of 2014 -
this was a war that was embarked upon and was won.
We shouldn't forget that.
Chris, that's the danger, isn't it?
Looking back with the spectacles of 1914 -
very different values then.
And we should be making judgments accordingly, shouldn't we?
I don't know. I think we should make judgments according to
the things we think are right and the things we think are wrong.
-Well, I mean, the question is, you know, the Allies won the war
but in the name of what?
And it seems to me that, you know, it's hard, really, to say,
"This was a war for liberal values."
Britain, as Jeremy himself said, didn't have, you know, suffrage.
I mean, women didn't have the vote,
most men didn't have the vote in Britain.
So a lot of people were fighting for a vote they didn't have?
-And that's before you start to talk about the Empire.
A quarter of the world's population was run from this city.
None of them, barring the few who got the vote here,
had any kind of say in decision-making at all,
had any kind of rights,
so the idea that this was a war for democracy, it seems to me,
just doesn't wash.
Sorry, but you've just erected it as a war for democracy.
This wasn't the claim at the time.
Hew, you know this better than I do.
Well, what you find in 1914, and it's interesting,
if you look at the declaration the King-Emperor essentially
makes across the Empire at the time,
it absolutely encapsulates what we would see as an ambivalence.
I mean, he appeals to his subjects to fight in a war
that is essentially about freedom of democracy.
And we find that ambiguous - it is ambiguous -
but, of course, at the time,
given the Empire that most people were living in,
and in terms of most people's understanding of that Empire,
it was a contradiction to which people were accustomed.
That is the society for which they thought they were fighting.
And that notion, of course, that this is a war with purpose,
is something you will find throughout the war,
from the majority of those who take part in it.
And, of course, in a way, they have to say that, don't they?
Because only thus can they give meaning to what they're doing
and particularly, of course,
if your own relatives and loved ones are killed or wounded,
you need to explain that loss
in terms of achieving something substantive and worthwhile.
But it's very hard to go from what is said,
and privately said,
in letters from those at the front to home, and vice versa,
it's very hard to go from that
to constructing a total alternative picture which says
that people aren't convinced of the necessity of this
and don't believe it's a war for democracy.
You don't find that reflected in the majority of opinion at the time.
-On the point about the Allies winning...
I personally think it's more a case of the war ground to a halt,
and that's important.
On this subject of gains and losses,
it is true that there are some gains but, first of all,
in the fields of women's suffrage,
that's not something that required a war.
New Zealand gave women the vote in 1893, so no need for a war.
On the subject of welfare,
the Liberal government in 1906 introduced
the basics of pensions and social security, so no need for a war.
Of course, there were improvements in people's lives afterwards
but also, there was massive unemployment and poverty,
there was a Great Depression in the 1930s
and a General Strike in 1926.
So the idea that society was lifted up, I just can't buy.
-I want to speak to Bonnie and Maggie as well
on the issue of women's suffrage
and the situation of women pre-1914, post-1918,
but finish your point.
Final point is, when it comes to making cost-benefit analyses,
I just think that's a...almost morally vacuous point to try and do.
The ultimate point is that 800,000 people died as a result of that war.
This was a tragedy.
It is true that after the Black Death, people's wages went up
because there were less farmers so they could demand higher wages.
I think most people at the time would not conclude that that was something worth going through
-just for the sake of higher wages.
This fatuous point is the fatuous point in The Big Question.
We're not arguing this was a war that was desirable.
-No-one would argue that in their right mind.
No, no, but we are arguing...
-This is the fatuous question we are being asked to address.
But the question being raised is, on balance,
-was British society improved?
-The consequences of it.
We can sit here all day and we can raise very good qualitative
and quantitative examples of British society improving
or getting worse but, ultimately, people died as a result of this.
-And I'm not sure it was a cause worth dying for.
But the point is we were...
I mean, we were all in it together, weren't we?
That was kind of... Bonnie, if I may?
And I want to hear from Maggie as well.
The whole situation of women -
women were seen to be doing jobs that nobody
would ever have considered women would be doing.
Women were out there in the workplace,
they were part of the war effort
and people recognised that for the first time.
But I think the point was made either by Tim or by Chris,
this might have even delayed suffrage for all women
because, of course, when the men came home they got their jobs back.
And also, there was a worry that women would outnumber men
in the electorate and so all women didn't get the vote
until...I think it was 1928.
Well, Maggie is the expert on all of this
and can give you really very concrete examples,
but I just want to say something.
As a writer, someone who's not an historian,
someone who deals with I guess you would call the esoterics,
the fact is, is that when we encounter one another,
everyone knows that war's a failure.
Everyone admits it. We're all post-war generation.
There's no way anybody can say war is a success. We can't.
We're not brought up that way. We can't do it.
We know the First World War
largely because there were two or three brilliant poets
who came out of that war
and certainly coloured my generation's feeling about the war.
I'm talking about people who were at university in the '70s
and late '70s. That's how we felt about the war.
So it's a much more complicated situation.
And I can say that when you look at images of women from India
who came here and marched for suffrage
and also were in the streets,
when you start to see other human beings who are different from you,
it actually changes your viewpoint of the world.
Now, the situation that they're in - war -
it's the most horrific failure of any sort of human question,
but we also were able... especially in America,
it enabled people to be more mobile.
It enabled people to see - see what they hadn't seen before,
especially for people of colour,
to actually see white people in human situations.
-So it changed the ways that we saw each other?
Absolutely, and people went back home and said,
"I saw this, I saw that, I saw that."
So we're able now to do this or able to do that.
Because the Harlem Brigade, famously...
-That, and also what happened in Kenya. People went back home.
And they brought those messages. And the same with women as well.
People saw women doing things that we were not allowed to do before.
-And it made a difference.
And Maggie, though, what about the grief, the families torn apart?
The single-parent families that were all of a sudden
prevalent in society?
These things are rarely written about.
I think those are rarely written about.
I want to mention those but I also want to challenge a little bit
the notion that it actually improved women's lives.
Certainly, we don't talk about, I suppose,
the huge ripple there is around
those who died but also around those who came back
either emotionally or physically injured,
and the effects that that had on their families, their wives,
who had to do the emotional labour,
looking after them in the years to come.
I think that's certainly true.
We don't talk about the trauma, in a sense,
that many women who were mothers or who were wives
went through during the war, both trying to cope,
worrying about and attempting to look after their families
-at a distance.
You know, there are desperately poor women who are taking
out of their weekly wage to send food to their husbands
or their sons who are in the Army,
because they don't have enough money.
Or getting into debt to give their husbands things
because they don't get looked after enough properly.
There are women who are losing their homes
because the money is not coming through properly.
There is a really very difficult situation during that war
and, of course, it gets much worse as you get to the food queues
-and the food shortages.
-So would you struggle with this,
"Did World War I change Britain for the better?"
I would very much struggle with it.
I would also struggle because we tend to focus on the working women,
and the vast majority of women were not working.
They were domestic housewives.
They were still stuck at home with all the same problems.
The number of women who worked, and worked married,
was the same before the war as it was a couple of years after the war.
OK, there was a reduction in the number of domestic servants
but it was small. Domestic service was still
the majority employer of women during the war.
I think we tend to think that women never went into heavy industry
prior to the First World War. This is not true.
There are women working in Cradley Heath in chain-making
and what have you for years before the war.
So I think, yes, you saw the visibility...
-..of women working, and that is quite interesting -
they were photographed and they were part of the propaganda -
but the idea that women hadn't worked before
or hadn't worked in heavy, difficult jobs before
and did afterwards, this is wrong.
So are we still falling prey, if you like,
to some of the propaganda that was around 100 years ago?
It is very easy to fall into a process of looking
-at how they want people to behave...
-We give it our own narrative.
-..to imagine that's how people did behave.
Or that this is the experience of some women
and we imagine it's the experience of all the women, and it wasn't.
It's a small number of women for whom those changes occurred.
Now, I'm not denying that for individual women
it may have been an amazingly liberating experience.
That's absolutely true. There are some groups.
I'm not denying that there weren't groups that came out of it,
like the Women's Institute movement, which were great
and changed rural women's lives for years.
But overall, I would really want to challenge this notion that
it made a significant difference to the lives of women.
And I would also want to challenge that idea
that we got the vote because of the war.
That one makes me very uncomfortable.
There were 50 years of campaigning.
Certainly, women, there was a sense, by the time you reach 1912 or so,
that women should have the vote and it got caught in party politics.
Got caught in the Conservatives not wanting to give it
or wanting to give it just to some wealthy people,
the Liberals opposing that. It was caught up in that.
When women got the vote, the women who didn't get the vote,
because the property qualifications and the age restriction, were,
in fact, those idealised women -
the women who'd been in the munitions,
the women who'd been in the Land Army.
They did not get rewarded by getting the vote.
They had to wait till 1928 for it.
What on earth...? I mean, it's hard to imagine, isn't it?
800,000 people not there any more. 800,000 men not there any more.
And what was that like for, Jeremy, for society?
Well, it was obviously a huge, huge loss.
Fathers who weren't there, brothers, sisters, sons who were not there.
Of course, it had a huge impact.
I think the figure is - you would know this, Hew -
there was 16,000 villages in England and Wales
at the end of the First World War.
There were 40 to which all the men who had gone to war returned.
This is a huge loss of life and, you know,
an empty place at every dinner table in the...
Well, not every dinner table...
Every family knew or knew of someone who had not come back.
-So it had a huge impact.
There's contemporary resonance to this as well.
Over the last ten years, we've lost about 620 people in Iraq
That was a good average day's reaping on the Western Front.
-And throughout the world.
So if anybody watching knows anybody who's been killed
in the last decade of conflict,
you can multiply that by about a thousand.
The loss is literally inconceivable for us today.
-It is, yeah.
-But it's also, of course, in contrast...
I mean, to pick up Frank's point,
we're living in a society where, actually, for good or ill,
most of us are totally unaffected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This was a war which, of course, involved national mobilisation,
so everyone felt themselves to be part of it willy-nilly.
-Well, yes, and that's what they call it by the end.
It's not how they understood it to begin with.
So they were all swept up in it.
And, of course, when you think about, you know,
what the consequences to this are, part of our problem,
I think, here is that we're discussing
what is the effect of any war in terms of adverse effects,
and what is the effect particularly of this war?
And, very often, I think we're in danger of using this war
as a vehicle for every other war.
We don't have a comparable debate, interestingly enough,
about the Second World War, which we construct as a good war,
and as we construct it as a good war,
we sort of exempt it from all the same sort of criticisms
which we're now exposing the First World War to.
It's acceleration of the technological change within that war.
The loss of life for Britain is much less in the Second World War
but, of course, the destruction across the world is far greater.
And the length of the war is far greater.
So, you know, we do load this war up with a great deal
and, essentially, what we do load onto the war
and what we don't load onto the war because there's, you know...
The flu epidemic, you know, at the end of the war
kills more people than the war does itself.
So you're just as likely to have empty places at the dinner table
because somebody's been swept away by disease
rather than swept away by battle.
And that doesn't condone the loss by battle at all but, you know,
where does this loss come from?
And remember, also, when you aggregate the entire losses
for the war, for all the British Armed Forces,
it's just under 12% who die.
Now, that doesn't mean that those who come back
are all whole in body and mind, absolutely it doesn't mean,
and it doesn't mean that within certain cohorts,
you don't have massive loss of life much, much greater than that.
But still, you know,
it does mean that many families actually don't experience any loss.
You know, so this, again,
is not for a moment to say that this isn't tragic
in terms of what happens to some families,
and it doesn't mean to say that people go around saying,
"I don't know anybody who's been killed in the war."
Self-evidently, that is not true.
But there is a way in which, because the aggregate figure
-is so massive, that we remove any sense of scale from it...
-..that we fail to put it in proportion.
And Saul David, we kind of give it the narrative we want to give it
as well, and that is informed by our ideological position now, isn't it?
Our political position now.
Yeah, it's a war that appears from the outside,
certainly to the popular view in Britain today,
a war that wasn't worth fighting.
But that's really the key question here because, of course,
and it's appalling and we had to live with the consequences
of all those who came back broken in spirit and body.
But the question is, was it worth fighting?
Because that is the real key here. If we hadn't fought the war
and we hadn't lost those 800,000 people,
what would've been the consequences for Britain?
This is a pretty significant point.
Let's talk about Britain and the world in a second or two.
No, it's fundamental to whether or not we fought the war
in the first place. What were they hoping to achieve?
What wouldn't have happened, rather than what actually did happen,
and for what it was for.
OK, let's go with the flow. Talk about it now.
On the subject of comparing the two wars,
I find it interesting that whenever in a public debate about war
we want to say, "Don't go to war,"
we say that something's a Sarajevo moment.
Whenever we say we should be going to war,
we say it's a Munich moment if we don't.
And I think that that sort of speaks to how World War I
has become this big metaphor for war as a mistake,
whereas World War II is a metaphor for war as an idealistic project.
But if there is one good thing that comes out of it,
just to wrap up that last bit of debate, for me it has to be this.
It's that in the first two years of the war,
Britain survived on voluntary... people volunteering to fight.
I don't think that would necessarily happen any more.
I think as a result of World War I,
we've become a far more self-critical society than we were back then.
Some people see that as a loss of patriotism.
I don't. I think one good thing about the last two wars
is they developed us as citizens and as people
who are critical of our governments and of the decisions they made.
So that's one good thing that comes out of the Great War.
And does that tie in with the decline in deference?
It does, which is a good thing in a democracy.
A democracy in which you defer to the decisions made by leaders
is no democracy at all. We should always be critical,
especially when it comes to leaders
-deciding to send us to die on their behalf.
-Mike, I'm aware I haven't brought you in,
but just before we move onto the geopolitical and Britain's place in the world,
and Empire, and German expansionism,
I think you mention in your television series, Jeremy,
about this was the first war, you know, it was a revolution in media.
It was the first war that people actually saw images
up there on the big screen.
Not very much. I mean, there was some...
There was a feature film made about the Battle of the Somme,
for example. An amazing piece of logistical work, really.
It was actually screened in cinemas within
a matter of weeks of the offensive taking place.
But it was a pretty sanitised coverage.
There wasn't anything that we would recognise, I think,
as free and fair reporting.
There were very few photographs of British troops suffering.
You might say much the same now, of course.
The reporters were not just embedded but they were heavily censored.
So I slightly gainsay that.
I think it... It was impinging on everybody's life
but not through the mass media.
I think the big difference now is that we're accustomed
to seeing war in high definition, in colour,
and in our own sitting rooms.
And it was black and white, it was sanitised to some degree,
and it was static.
I think that was a big difference in the way it was seen.
I think you believe that this war was fought for Christian values
and the reasons for fighting it came from Christian values.
Explain more, please.
I think one of the big factors that differentiates our society
from British society 100 years ago
was the fact that British society in 1914
was self-consciously and often very articulately Christian.
And the idea of purposeless suffering that's been widely aired
in this discussion was something which that generation
-wouldn't quite have recognised.
For a society that was overwhelmingly Christian -
and not necessarily church-going, but Christian -
and which had an understanding
of the role of Jesus's death on Calvary
and the redemptive purposes of that death,
the idea that you could suffer and die for something
that was bigger than yourself,
for something that could actually improve the world,
was strongly ingrained in British society.
And that conviction was not lost by the war.
If you were to go round the Commonwealth War Graves
in France, in Belgium, Gallipoli, etc,
the number of inscriptions chosen by families for their loved ones
which invoke hymnody, which invoke texts from Scripture,
You very, very, very seldom encounter a headstone
which has neither a Cross or a Star of David.
The thing is, one of the things that we have lost in British society -
and this isn't a value judgment, I think it's a statement of fact -
is a sense of the importance of religion
and a knowledge of religious values,
a kind of basic theology that permeates British society,
which makes sense of these losses 100 years ago.
We've lost that, we're a more secular society now, etc,
and what that means is our ability to comprehend
how that generation saw the war...
There must be so many people questioning
that massive loss of life,
so many people must have asked that age-old question,
"Why? How can God do this?"
Well, the answer to that is quite straightforward.
-God isn't doing this.
-Human beings are doing this.
It's something we debate on a number of occasions
-and the answer isn't straightforward.
-We can work round questions of theodicy
until, you know, we're blue in the face.
And we have done every Sunday.
But the question is, Britain went to war...
or the issue is Britain went to war...
-Helping Belgium, was that seen...?
-This is fundamental.
I mean, if you think of, for example,
the parable of the Good Samaritan in Christianity
and how deeply entrenched that is in a Christian mind-set,
the idea that this smaller country
had been gratuitously invaded by this larger neighbour,
not simply invaded, but the invasion
was accompanied by wide-scale atrocities,
large-scale atrocities, committed not only against Belgian men
but against women and children and also against Belgian churches.
-This is very important.
-But there were Christian pacifists
-who disagreed with that interpretation.
-A very small number.
I know you don't want to make a value judgment
and I agree, but in the case of war,
governments don't just ask people to die on behalf of their country.
-They ask them to kill on behalf of it too.
But if you look at the rhetoric of chaplains at the time
and if you look at what churchmen are saying,
the onus is on the willingness to sacrifice oneself.
-One sec, one sec. Jeremy.
The Bishop of London was saying you were doing God's duty.
This is a nonsense. That is a parable.
-That is a myth, in actual fact.
-I can point you to the text.
I can point you to the scholarship
-which demonstrates conclusively that...
-Is there a German here? I would be really interested...
THEY TALK OVER EACH OTHER
One at a time, please. Just before you come in, Jeremy,
surely, it's a thought that occurs,
if a mother has lost two sons on the front
and she goes to the local vicar in...
I was in Wadhurst recently talking about this with the current vicar,
about how would - massive death toll in Wadhurst -
how would you have explained that to your congregation now?
He said, "I would have explained it as they explained it -
"it was for the greater glory."
Because the vicar's not going to turn around and say,
"Your sons are dead. What a total waste."
-No. I think what you're doing is you're...
-Can I just...?
The churches in every country, in all the combating countries,
were urging their populations to go to war.
Now, they can't all have been in direct contact with God, I'm sorry.
But also, on the question of Belgium, you see, it's interesting
if you look at the rhetoric that justified the Germans going to war -
it was Russian absolutism. The Russians were saying,
"We're going to war against the German yoke."
In every case, it was a war for democracy.
Each side said that they were fighting for democracy
and that was absolutely not the case. It was propaganda.
Going to the aid of a small, helpless neighbour, Belgium.
Do you buy it?
No, I don't.
And there is a famous parable from the trenches,
which may or may not be true, where one Tommy falls into a shell hole
and is faced with a German soldier
and the German soldier asks the Tommy, "What are you doing here?"
"Well, I'm here doing God's work."
And the Tommy says "Look, I see you've got a belt buckle,"
and every German soldier had on his belt buckle "Gott mit uns" -
"God with us". "What does that mean?" says the Tommy.
"It means 'God with us'," says Fritz.
"Ah, I thought God was with us," said the Tommy.
Now, the problem with your analysis is,
as has already been said by Chris,
this applied to every combatant nation.
Every solider in the trenches that was a believer felt he was doing God's work.
The problem with your analysis is you're ignoring the fact
-that there were two established churches...
-Not in Germany.
..established on the eve of the war. But just a second.
-There are two established churches...
-Make it quick.
..in 1914, the Church of Scotland and the Church of England.
They remain established to this day.
Basically, they were not discredited by the First World War.
What the churches represented in terms of the message
primarily couched in the need for sacrifice
was not rejected by the British population.
They were able to fill the churches
on Armistice Day services thereafter.
But church attendance declined during the war.
There is a real problem because the churches expect church attendance to go up,
which it does at the very beginning,
but then it declines and there is a real worry in the churches
that the war IS doing damage to faith as they would see it.
-And what I think is striking too...
-Well, why was that?
Well, there are people being disillusioned
and, of course, people... I mean, Michael's right -
people see spirituality in what they're doing.
But what I find striking is when people write last letters,
what they tend to refer to is the nation and, actually,
very often what is being constructed out of this,
out of the language,
out of religious language, absolutely,
out of the language of faith,
is an elision between faith and national cause.
And that becomes very much obscured.
If you look at French letters, particularly,
fighting on their own soil for their own country
in a war of national self-defence,
an utterly justified war in their terms,
a country that's been invaded,
they always come back to the nation.
Now, of course there's a problem there
because the Catholic Church is not a national church
in the way in which Michael is talking about
but there are real ambiguities here.
And the language, of course, of faith and of Christianity
transposes very quickly and very easily into other causes.
I want to talk... I want to talk about if I may...
Sorry, Tim. In the time available to us.
Russia had a Bolshevik revolution
so the idea that spirituality is not challenged as a result of the war
-is nonsense because...
-I didn't say that.
-OK, fair point. Please, please, please, please.
I want to talk about German expansionism and the decline of Empire.
Saul David, if this war had not been fought,
what would Europe have looked like?
It would've been dominated by Germany,
the central powers, but Germany in particular.
It would probably have, sooner or later,
led to the dismantlement of the British Empire.
Our position in the world would've looked an awful lot worse,
probably by the mid '20s, certainly by the 1930s.
We had to sacrifice 800,000 men to stave this off
but it's arguable that that price was a price worth paying.
But what kind of Germany would it have been?
Would it not have been a Germany
run by the Windsors as they then were - their cousins -
rather than a Germany run by Corporal Hitler?
No, it's a Germany that is...
We've got to assume the Hohenzollerns would've kept in power.
This was a militaristic, autocratic state
that bears no relation to the Germany of today.
It is a nation that had plans for Europe,
which it sets out very clearly in September 1914 and, of course,
we can see what it's planning to do,
it actually does in the east in 1918 with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
It is a regime bent on dominating Europe and that domination...
-Well, we sorted that out, didn't we?
-Yes, we sorted that out.
We sorted it out temporarily
-and it had to be fought again in 1939 to '45.
Yeah, there's an attempt to stop German domination of Europe.
It wasn't a great success, it has to be said.
But, I mean, I think one of the other great tragedies
of the First World War is that, actually,
it led to an extension of Empire.
What you saw at the end of the war
was actually the carve-up of further areas.
You saw the Middle East,
you saw the Ottoman Empire being re-partitioned between the victors.
You saw the German Empire being re-partitioned between the French...
That's a consequence of the war. It was not why the war was fought.
Well, I mean, this was a reality that was very much
on the minds of the leaders of the war and, actually,
look at the Balfour Declaration...
The war was fought in defence of Empire, not to augment it.
But one of the side effects of that defence of Empire,
which, in itself, that doesn't seem to me
a particularly virtuous reason in itself.
Britain was the Empire. The two were indistinguishable.
Well, they are. Exactly.
And what happened was that Britain and France
extended their Empire because of their victory in the war,
as well as imposing on Germany a victor's peace that
actually led to, arguably, a deep recession
-and the rise of...
-Professor David Stevenson.
There's a fundamental point here which has come out
from a lot of comments that have been made so far.
I think the key thing to understand is,
despite the enormous cost of this war,
human terms and economic terms, it was a British victory
or, I should say, an Allied victory.
The British made only one contribution to it.
The Americans and French were also absolutely crucial.
But as at the end of the war, the Allies were in a position
to dictate terms to Germany.
From the German perspective, it was unquestionably a defeat
and that's partly why the reaction that took place
in the Weimar Republic took the form that it did.
The Germans knew they'd been defeated.
They knew the difference between victory and defeat.
And whatever you may say about the Treaty of Versailles in 1919,
there is enough in it,
it's strong enough to keep Germany disarmed
and to make it impossible for the Germans to start a Second World War
if the treaty is enforced.
The key point in the early 1930s is that the treaty was not enforced,
particularly over the disarmament clauses.
When Hitler came to power in 1933,
he knew that he was in no position to stage a new war.
By 1939, he was in a position. And that's fundamental.
At the time, in the '20s and in the early '30s,
it did not seem to people that the war had been futile,
in spite of the enormous costs that had gone into it.
The real problem is of mistakes made later on,
that made it necessary and essential, unfortunately,
for us to have to do the whole thing again between 1939 and 1945.
Jeremy, you address all that in your book,
-the mistakes that were made and...
-Yeah. I think, personally, I think
in victory magnanimity is what's required,
and there was insufficient magnanimity...
virtually no magnanimity, I think, displayed.
My personal conviction,
and I don't want to be on the side that actually thinks
it was a disaster because the British Empire was dismantled.
Many of us believe it was great to dismantle the British Empire.
-It just came a little bit later than that for most of us.
But the great thing, I think,
would've been to have followed more precisely
the ideas that Woodrow Wilson had,
which strike me as being much more humane
than those which were eventually imposed upon Germany.
But that doesn't discredit the whole war!
No, I mean, can I just say, I'm one of the writers who's asked
to write a letter to an unknown soldier.
It's an imaginary letter held by the statue at Paddington Station.
He's standing there, reading.
We only have 500 words to put in there, each of us.
And I had to imagine what this guy would be reading
and I think what we're leaving out here
is the human capacity for transcendence.
People... If you had to go into a war,
you had to fight, you fought, but you made something out of it.
People, if you look at letters,
if you look at the way people lived on the ground, day to day,
they made some way to transcend it.
And in the transcendence, you change.
You make changes in a country.
And we can't overlook transcendence.
It is what people did.
It is what people do in war.
It is what people did in America when African-Americans...
-It's what people did it in Germany.
When they were brought here, coming from a country
where my ancestors couldn't vote, they couldn't carry a gun.
They came here, they were able, through war -
and I'm not condoning war because war's always a failure,
always a failure, as far as I'm concerned -
but through war, through the process of not war but interaction,
they were able to transcend the reality they'd been stuck in,
and they went back and agitated for their freedom.
And this is something that we shouldn't overlook.
We're also looking at war from our point of view.
We're looking at it from a generation of people
who've had dozens of wars, and we have been honed by that.
Sir Hew Strachan, we can still see...
German expansionism, how much of a threat was that?
How much was it, in 1914, seen as the absolute threat
that it became over the next two or three decades?
Well, as the other historians know perfectly well here,
there is great debate on exactly that issue.
There is a war aims programme produced after the war breaks out.
For my money, but I think David might well disagree with this,
the aims expand with the course of the war
rather than become a precipitant of war.
In other words, certainly, the German invasion of Belgium
is fundamentally important in terms of uniting the country
in what seems to be a cause that has moral and ethical justification.
-And it is evidence of German expansionism.
I mean, you know, the shock that anybody can behave like that towards
a small, you know, defenceless country becomes part of the rhetoric
not only here but in the United States for the rest of the war.
So it has a fundamental underpinning, and the question that really follows
from that is, you know, does the war itself generate its own momentum?
As Germany undoubtedly does, because there's a massive debate
within Germany as to what this war is being fought for,
just as there's a massive debate during the war in this country
as to what the war is being fought for.
It is not clear because the war broke out...
You have to remember how quick the crisis was
in the last few weeks in the run-up to the war.
Nobody is really sitting down and rationalising,
even to the level that we're having this debate,
about what the war is about.
They know the seriousness of the situation that they're encountering
but only then do they give it shape.
As far as Britain's concerned, if Britain - and this, of course,
we're using one counterfactual to answer another counterfactual
so we're in a very slippery position here -
but as far as Britain's concerned,
if it had not fought, then what are you imagining would have happened?
Would it have entered the war later?
Which is essentially what the United States does
because it realises that if it wants to take part
in the peace settlement,
if it wants to create a better international order,
it can do that only by being in the war rather than out of the war.
That would've been cheaper, wouldn't it?
Well, it would've been,
but you don't know how long the war's going to be or what the outcome is.
Would you stay right out of it,
retain neutrality, because Britain, after all, has profited
in previous wars from being neutral?
We forget that in 1914, Britain, in many ways,
seems the most obvious neutral power of all.
Even more obvious, in European terms,
than the United States.
If you stay out of a war, what then happens?
Well, one answer in the short term is Britain would've cashed in
on a trading boom because it would've taken
the place of the Low Countries.
Holland and the Scandinavian countries
no doubt shipped goods to Germany to sustain its war effort.
So we would've had a short-term economic boom.
It would then presumably have found itself,
essentially, without allies and without prestige
and without an international role after 1918.
And some might see that as a good thing,
but in the terms in which this was being debated
in Britain in 1914, that was absolutely unacceptable.
I know you want to come in, because I saw your body language.
I want to come in both in terms of the reasons that people fought,
and in terms of the possibility of transcendence,
and the reasons that there were for fighting as it went on,
that we have a tendency to make something unified
that was actually much more varied and mixed -
that, you know, people's motivations were very, very varied,
from, you know, "I work in an agricultural situation
"and I'm going to have no job
"for the rest of the winter," um, onwards.
So I think we have this real tendency to group together
in a way that we really need to avoid.
Some definitely transcended
and, individually, it was great for them.
Others, it destroyed them.
And it is that complexity,
just like it's the complexity of the political arguments
which weren't, it seems to me, static, if that makes sense?
It's almost like it's something slippery being reworked...
-Let's move on.
-..As the time goes on.
Let's move on to, and it's been mentioned,
the relationship with America, which took on a new complexion.
Tim Stanley - did the bulldog become a lap dog?
Oh, not immediately, not by any means.
And Britain's importance as a world power is still...
still remains in the '20s and '30s,
if in part because America surprises everyone
by having entered in order to be part of that peace process,
and then deciding to withdraw.
America goes into a period
of intense conservatism in the '20s and '30s.
All this discussion about the radical things
that happened in Britain,
it's actually quite the opposite in America.
The Klan is revived as a force.
It gets eight million members.
It's a national thing
by the middle of the 1920s.
You get the rise of religious anti-Darwinism.
You get the famous Scopes Monkey Trial.
So America, in many ways, actually withdraws into itself.
What it does do, however, is emerge financially fairly unscathed -
comparatively unscathed -
which means it's able to build itself up as an industrial power.
So in that sense,
our relationship slowly changes over time,
but on this, I just want to very quickly say something
about the point about Germany dominating the continent.
This is controversial within historiography,
but I don't like counterfactualism.
I think you have to judge things in history on what happened,
not speculate, because speculation is up to artists,
and it's science fiction, essentially.
And the reality of the state of the world after World War I
is there are two very significant consequences.
The first is the perceived humiliation of Germany,
which creates the context for the collapse of the Weimar Republic
and the rise of Nazi Germany.
And the pretext as well.
The second and the most important... The pretext.
The second and, perhaps in the longer term,
even more important and even more terrible
in terms of lives lost effect, is the rise of communism.
War radicalises Russia, and it creates Bolshevism.
And that is something...
Bolshevism - what about the 1905 revolution?
Which failed, and probably would've resulted, if it had succeeded,
in a more constitutional monarchy, more democratic kind of government.
-The first time a tragedy, the second time a victory.
The important thing about the Bolsheviks is that they opposed the war.
That's why they succeeded because no other...
"Peace, bread, and land."
This actually has some impact, some...
Sorry, Sir Hew.
They voted for war credits in 1914
precisely because they saw it as a revolutionary moment.
The socialist revolutionaries, the majority of them,
didn't support the war, for the reasons you would absolutely expect.
But precisely because they saw it as a revolutionary opportunity,
they supported the war.
So, publicly, they seem to be in a very ambiguous position.
That was their, if you want to call it, their extra ticket.
They said, "Peace, bread, and land. That's what we will give you."
And, of course, they gave them none of those.
On the facts, actually,
Lenin was someone who opposed the war in a way
that the rest of the socialist movement didn't, internationally.
But just this question about the sort of contradictory attitudes
that people had, that Maggie raised,
and I think this is very, very important,
because it's something that's kind of subsumed in the history.
As the war...
Actually, before the war, most people, I think you can say,
in Europe, actually, were against it.
They could see it coming and they opposed it.
There were huge demonstrations, huge movements right across Europe,
that kind of melted away in the... when the war actually began.
But, interestingly, the opposition to the war grew
as it progressed.
And we talk about transcendence,
but also people started - ordinary people -
actually started to mobilise against the war.
-Well, that's transcendence.
Let's go to Lenin. He saw the war as an opportunity.
Can I just finish?
Actually, the truth of it is
when Michael Gove and David Cameron and people say,
you know, that people actually...
that it was only the poets that opposed it,
the truth is the war was brought to an end by the soldiers.
The Russians walked away from the war.
The soldiers walked out of the trenches.
There were huge mutinies in Germany...
-BONNIE: The United States.
Even in Britain there were mutinies. There was a popular sentiment...
OK, Jeremy Paxman. Do you want to come back on this?
Well, I will yield to more learned figures
such as Professor Strachan here,
but it's certainly the case
that there was an anti-war movement in this country
throughout the war, as you well know.
But it grew. What my... I agree with you, but it grew.
What I'm saying is, the actual experience of the war
amongst the families, but also amongst the soldiers themselves,
and so you get to a situation by the end of the war...
And this - I'm arguing this just because this is being challenged -
this history's being challenged at the moment.
The people who actually were involved...
Who is challenging it?
Well, the Government...
The Government is challenging...? It's fact.
Well, Michael Gove, David Cameron, Maria Miller.
They've all been coming on and saying, "This is not the history."
Very kind - wonderful to be deferred to by Jeremy. But...
It's the end of deference.
I think what is very striking about the Government's message -
we're talking about the national position here -
is that what we might describe as some of the gains
and...for all the controversy that's around that,
are not so far, it seems to me, within the national understanding
of how we're approaching the centenary.
And I'm thinking particularly here
of the rise of the trades union movement,
the emergence of the Labour Party.
You know, the story from the Left is not as fully articulated
in any plan of national commemoration
as the story of the military profile.
And of course the argument for that is the presentation
of this as national unity,
and the responsibility of the government, quite reasonably,
not to engage in the controversy that might lie along that.
And I think that's entirely proper
that the government doesn't want to engage in controversy.
But it doesn't mean we shouldn't engage in that controversy,
and it doesn't mean that we should not also recognise
that there is, of course, a change over time -
this is a four-and-a-half-year war
and that people's opinions change as the war goes on.
If Bonnie doesn't come in now,
I hate to think what's going to happen.
Bonnie, go on.
I want to go back to what you originally asked
about the United Kingdom and the world,
Britain in the world, Britain and the United States.
-And the Empire.
-Tim is absolutely right.
The United States of America always believes itself
to be a reluctant ally to this country.
This whole idea about the "special relationship"
was actually something
Winston Churchill worked very hard to create.
Being half American, he felt he could, you know, he felt...
able to do that.
But Americans had no...
had no connection with the United Kingdom,
with what they called "England".
So when Pershing came over
and, Hew, please, if I'm wrong about this,
but he just completely...
It's like no way was the United States Army
going to be under the command of anybody.
So it was always the United States on its own, doing its own thing.
It came over in 1918.
The Germans knew the game was up when the Americans came into the war
because there were fresh troops coming in.
But the United States was fighting for the United States.
And that's part of why Woodrow Wilson got slapped down.
He got beat down over the League of Nations
because as far as the United States was concerned,
there was a threat possibly coming from Mexico, by way of Germany,
and they were going to stop it.
And that's how they saw it.
It was never sort of an idea about saving the world for anything.
That's what... that was Woodrow Wilson's idea.
I'm not saying he was wrong,
but I'm saying this myth that we think all of a sudden
the United States comes in and it's a big partner -
it's no way. No way.
-It is interesting...
One geopolitical consequence
-that's been totally ignored up to now...
The Middle East. A direct legacy of the...
Give me a chance!
-..tragedy of the First World War.
And one with which my comrades, myself,
and many thousands of other,
hundreds of thousands of other people, still suffer with,
to this day and today.
You're speaking as an ex-soldier?
As soldiers and civilians in Syria today -
Syria, a legacy of the First World War,
of the deceptions of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
Iraq itself - our tragic involvement in that place,
a direct consequence of the mistakes and the deceits...
..imposed upon that part of the world by us, as victors, in 1918.
I completely agree with you! I completely agree.
Inherently unviable states were created.
Clearly, Iraq being a case in point.
Syria being, perhaps, another one.
The whole Sykes-Picot Agreement is indefensible.
That was how the world worked in those days.
Nowadays, I guess you'd have
some United Nations commission or whatever.
-Which might work, Jeremy...
-It might work!
Unlike the Sykes-Picot.
Which is the purpose of the League of Nations, of course -
to deal with some of the problems
that arose subsequently and the fail...
You know, as David's already said, I mean, the tragedy here...
"Tragedy" is a loaded word, but the tragedy here
is really the reluctance to implement and enforce the settlement
after it is there.
And, of course, going back to Sykes-Picot,
we're talking about an agreement reached in 1916, not in 1918,
which reflects the pressure that the belligerent powers are under.
People are thinking how do they win this war first,
how do they settle it afterwards?
Of course, one argument would be
that they should have addressed the long-term consequences.
Of course they should. We can now see that very clearly.
But if you think of the immediacy of the pressures of 1916,
then I think expecting...
You know, are we any better at doing this -
at getting long-term second and third order consequences
out of some of our political positions?
-That's a very good question.
-Not very much better.
What you have to understand is there are two sides to this.
It's not just the British fighting within Europe -
the British Isles fighting within Europe -
it's also Britain as the head of a worldwide Empire
with imperial and strategic interests all over the globe.
So, coming back to the issue that's been raised several times
about what was this war for...
being fought for on the British side?
Yes, it's fundamental to look at Belgium.
I think that really did matter for British public opinion
and for part of the Cabinet.
It's not untrue to say it was a war for protection
of international law and, to an extent,
for democracy within Western Europe.
But it also, as it developed,
became a war to expand Britain's imperial possessions in Africa
and, more particularly, in the Middle East.
And that's part of the reason,
when that became published by the Bolsheviks -
the secret agreements that we'd reached with other countries
to carve up the Middle East -
the reaction against that from the Labour Party
and from British domestic opinion,
demanding that this should now become a war for democratisation
and national self-determination,
which clearly, in many ways, it wasn't.
So it's a kind of Janus-faced thing.
It's partly a war for democracy,
but it's also a war for imperial expansion.
You have to see - take both those things into account
in assessing this.
And, of course, the end of Empire
led to the emancipation of millions of people all over the planet.
In the very longer term, I mean, it took another World War,
a Great Depression, Cold War, all sorts of things
before that happened,
and it would be wrong to see the emancipation
of the millions of people in Africa and Asia
as purely a result of the First World War.
It's quite important as a catalytic stage in that process.
OK, well, listen, thank you all very much indeed.
Give yourselves a round of applause for that. Thank you.
The debate continues on Twitter, online.
Join us next time.
Goodbye from everybody here in London.
Have a really good Sunday. Thank you.
Nicky Campbell presents a special edition of The Big Questions from Goldsmiths College in London asking, did World War 1 change Britain for the better?
Participants in the debate include author of Great Britain's Great War Jeremy Paxman, professor of History of War at Oxford Sir Hew Strachan, Prof David Stevenson from the LSE and author of 1914-1918: The History of the First World War, Chris Nineham from the campaign No Glory in War, cultural historian professor Maggie Andrews from the University of Worcester, writer Bonnie Greer, professor Saul David, author of 100 Days to Victory: How the Great War was Fought and Won, Dr Mike Snape from the Centre for War Studies at Birmingham University, journalist and historian Dr Tim Stanley and Frank Ledwidge, barrister, former military officer and writer of Investment in Blood.