Speaker: Sir Max Hastings, Author and Journalist


Niall Ferguson wrote in perfect seriousness a few years ago that a German victory in World War I would simply have created something like the European Union half-a-century earlier—oh, yes, he did—that we the British, not to mention the United States, could have remained rich and unbloodied bystanders.

More serious historians, however, including some of the best German ones, see the 1914 Kaiserreich as a militarized autocracy whose victory would have been a disaster. I suggest that Western civilization has almost as much reason to be grateful that German ambitions were frustrated in 1918 as in 1945, despite the appalling costs and even if the outcome of the first clash proved to have a tragic impermanence, because Germany, this time under Hitler, had to be fought all over again a generation later.

It must be wrong to attribute exclusive responsibility for what happened in 1914 to any one nation, but in considering what happened, I'm driven back again and again to a simple truth: scarcely any decent historian thinks the British, the French, or even the Russians wanted a European conflict. The Germans, on the other hand, although they did not want the big war they got, certainly willed a Balkan one, which led to everything else, and which they could have prevented at any moment during July by telling the Austrians to stop. That's why they seem to me most blameworthy.

What followed in the ensuing four years was so appalling for mankind that some people suggest that Germany's triumph would have been a lesser evil. But the Kaiserreich's record abroad was barbarous, even by contemporary standards. Berlin mandated in advance, and applauded after the event, the 1904-07 genocide of the Herero and Namaqua peoples of German South-West Africa, an enormity far beyond the scope of any British colonial misdeed and responsible for 100,000 deaths. Though some German socialists denounced the slaughter, the Kaiser decorated the senior officers who carried it out.

Many British people were at first uncertain whether they had entered the war on the right side. But opinions hardened fast when reports emerged about the conduct of the German invaders of Belgium.

One among many German diarists, an officer named Count Kessler, wrote on the 22nd of August: "The inhabitants of Seilles attacked our pioneers building a bridge across the Meuse, killing 20 of them. As a punishment, approximately 200 citizens were court-martialled and shot." The story of the attacks was a fantasy, but the executions were cold fact.

It's not necessary to persist in detailing such episodes. The latest research catalogues 129 major atrocities during the first weeks of the war, a grand total of 6,427 civilians deliberately killed. While it's mistaken to compare the Kaiser's regime to that of the Nazis a generation later, its conduct in 1914 scarcely suggests that its victory would have been a triumph for European civilization.

Transcript of entire lecture

Lecture based on discussion of Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War.