In the latest issue:

An Ordinary Woman

Alan Bennett

Anglo-America Loses its Grip

Pankaj Mishra

Short Cuts: John Bolton’s Unwitting Usefulness

Mattathias Schwartz

Smells of Hell

Keith Thomas

Mrs Oliphant

Tom Crewe

Tippett’s Knack

Philip Clark

At Tate Modern: Steve McQueen

Colin Grant

Catherine Lacey

Nicole Flattery

Churchill’s Cook

Rosemary Hill

The ‘Batrachomyomachia’

Ange Mlinko

On Dorothea Lange

Joanna Biggs

Paid to Race

Jon Day

Poem: ‘Traveller’s Tales: Chapter 90’

August Kleinzahler

The Soho Alphabet

Andrew O’Hagan

Old Tunes

Stephen Sedley

Victor Serge’s Defective Bolshevism

Tariq Ali

The Murdrous Machiavel

Erin Maglaque

Diary: Insane after coronavirus?

Patricia Lockwood

War in our TimeA.J.P. Taylor

In one way or another I have now been teaching Modern European History for at least fifty years. When I looked back I realised with some embarrassment that most of the time I had been dealing with one war or another, or wars in general. I can’t claim any expert knowledge of war: in fact, the nearest I have come to war was in 1940, when I and other members of the Home Guard patrolled round Oxford gas works. We foresaw with a flash of strategical penetration that the entire German parachute force would land on Oxford, if only because Oxford was supposed to be in those days a seat of learning. Why it should concentrate on the gas works I never understood. However, there we were on summer evenings, plodding round the gas works with unloaded rifles, waiting for the enemy who never came. That is the nearest I have been to a military experience. And yet war has dominated my life. The first book I published was about the Austro-Sardinian war of 1848, a war no doubt somewhat obscure to most of you: the last of my books, published in 1976, was a history of the Second World War, so I have kept moving. But I have rarely reflected on the general character of war. I do not propose to do so now: rather, to make some personal comments on how I and other historians have treated the subject.

War is one of the most admired and yet one of the most deplorable activities of human beings: its function is to get your way by killing other people. It is one of the oldest activities of the human race. By the 19th century it had become more formal – one could almost say, more civilised. In the last thirty years of the 19th century Europe hardly experienced war at all. The Victorians and their immediate successors attributed this long peace to the Balance of Power if they were feeling cynical about it, or to the Concert of Europe if they were feeling more high-minded. Europe had peace for so long that people began to take it for granted: maybe that was one of the causes of it ending. It would, however, be entirely wrong to suppose that people did not continue to admire and even to idealise war. The literary enthusiasm for war was at its height and such wars as there were, all outside Europe, received constant attention and applause.

Nineteenth-century England is often presented as the most pacific and sensible of European countries: but some units of the British Army were engaged in war during every year of the reign of Queen Victoria. The British Army was an experienced army: nearly all its generals of 1914 had served in the Boer War. Most of the German generals of 1914 with their high repute and prestigious names had never experienced battle at all: their theories, their strategy had been entirely developed on paper or on the drill ground. This unparalleled period of peace made the shock of war in 1914 all the more shattering. It was universally felt that the First World War, as it came to be called, must have had causes that were both obscure and profound. When I was a young university teacher we ran whole courses on the origins of the First World War and if we could find some new little cause we felt we had arrived in the academic profession.

When I look back again I am very doubtful whether the so-called causes of war before 1914 had much to do with the actual outbreak of war. Take, for instance, the great stress laid on the territorial disputes outside Europe: colonial or imperialist rivalries, as they were called. There certainly were such conflicts. In 1885, there was a conflict between England and Russia over some scrap of territory in Afghanistan and the British Government asked the House of Commons for a vote of war credits – the only such vote asked for between 1864 and 1914. But no war followed. In 1898, Great Britain delivered an ultimatum to France during the Fashoda crisis. No war followed. By 1914 all the colonial disputes had been settled or were on the point of being settled. When the war of 1914 broke out, Great Britain and Germany had drafted agreements partitioning the Portuguese colonies and sharing out the Baghdad railway. As late as 23 July, ten days before the outbreak of war, Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer, actually said that the two great powers, England and Germany, were drawing closer together in friendship.

I very much doubt whether the long-term estrangement between the two countries really counted for much. Though there was some anti-German feeling in England, there was pro-German feeling also, particularly among the more enlightened classes. The war crisis of 1914, in my opinion, grew out of nothing. It was not planned, it had not been foreseen, except in the sense that a crisis could always occur. The actual outbreak of war did not derive from any prolonged policy nor did it centre on any burning issue. The prime cause of the war lay in the precautions that had been taken to ensure that there would be no war. The deterrent dominated strategical planning before 1914. When one great power had threatened war, the other country had climbed down, as in the Bosnian crisis of 1908-09. But if all the powers used the deterrent simultaneously war followed automatically. This is what happened in August 1914. The deterrent did not prevent war: it made war inevitable.

The other factor that led to war in 1914 was the strategical dogma held by all the European general staffs, and shared more modestly by the British general staff, that attack was the only means of defence. By 1914 all the European armies were geared for an immediate offensive and each army was eager to get its blow in first. As with the deterrent, every army, in order to prevent war, had to take the offensive which brought the war on. No offensive achieved a decision. On the contrary, the two decisive victories after the outbreak of war were defensive victories: the Anglo-French victory on the Marne which arrested the German offensive, the German victory at Tannenberg which arrested the Russian offensive. Thereafter, the generals on every side repeatedly tried to achieve the offensive victory which had escaped them in 1914. None succeeded. The Germans who had invented the doctrine of the decisive offensive were more cautious than the Allies in practising it. In 1918 Ludendorff lost patience and launched a great offensive which brought final defeat to the German Army. Indeed, it is hardly too much to say that Ludendorff was the main author of the Allied victories which ended the war in 1918.

The First World War, or, as it was called at the time, the Great War, will long be remembered by posterity. Every town, every village has its war memorial, whereas you will seek in vain for war memorials of the Second World War. All you will find is a few names added as a sort of postscript to the memorials of World War One. The only exception is Russia, where there are no memorials of the First World War and many of the Second.

The First World War commanded, I think, a greater degree of enthusiasm and devotion than did any of the wars later in the 20th century. In this country, three million men volunteered for war before compulsory military service was introduced. In all countries there was passionate patriotism and an intense hostility towards the other side. Germany was presented as a barbaric country, though on the whole the German record was as civilised as those of her enemies. There was universal indignation in England when Germany violated the neutrality of Belgium at the outbreak of war. When Great Britain and France violated the neutrality of Greece two years later, not a mouse squeaked. Again, the German attacks on the civilian British population – the bombardment of Scarborough and Whitby, the bombing raids by Zeppelin or aircraft – were regarded as evidence of German barbarism. Before the end of the war that high-minded figure, Field Marshal Smuts, presided over a committee on strategy which laid down that the most effective method of waging war was the indiscriminate bombardment of civilian population from the air. Already before the end of the First World War Trenchard was hoping to assemble a force of a thousand bombers with which to bomb Berlin. The war came to an end before Trenchard could apply his doctrine, but it later became the foundation policy of the RAF.

The First World War had no purpose, except to defeat the other side. The powers involved had to run around trying to discover what they were fighting for. Fritz Fischer established a deserved reputation by writing a book on German war aims, but these aims, when analysed, simply turn out to be the retention of the Belgian and French territory that the Germans had occupied. They were not war aims formulated before the war despite what Fischer says to the contrary. Again it never occurred to the British Colonial Office before the war that the German colonies were an enviable prize. No sooner had the war started than the Colonial Office laid down the doctrine that as Great Britain had always acquired colonies in previous wars, she must do so in this war. Thereafter she was saddled with a string of German colonies in Africa that she later strove to give away. Even more extraordinary, Great Britain emerged from the First World War with an empire which stretched from Egypt to Singapore – and which no one had foreseen.

Apart from the expansion of the British Empire, the First World War was a great destroyer of empires: the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Monarchy, the Russian Empire of the Romanovs all crumbled under its impact. None of these had been included in the original war aims. The Ottoman Empire had few mourners. The dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy was widely hailed at the time. Later it was deplored by such differing authorities as Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and Ernest Bevin. The transformation of Russia into a Soviet Empire ranks, I suppose, as the most significant change caused by the First World War. The enthusiasms which the war generated at first faded before the war ended. There was much talk of its being a war to end war. Little was done to achieve this. The League of Nations was set up primarily to please the Americans but as the Americans took no part in the League this aim was not achieved.

The Second World War used to be regarded as a series of aggressive steps, long planned by Hitler. Further research and the decline of wartime legends have changed the picture and the Second World War now appears, in the words of a Swiss historian, as ‘one of the most gigantic improvisations in history, far above the usual measure’. Wars that had been expected, such as a prolonged campaign in Flanders and Northern France, did not take place. Instead, there were wars in areas that had not been foreseen. In the early period of the Second World War Hitler surprised everyone including himself by the rate of his success: three weeks to defeat Poland, a fortnight to subdue Norway and a month or so to conquer France. By the end of June 1940 Hitler had a more complete domination of Europe than Napoleon ever had and at a trivial expenditure of men and munitions. Indeed, in the year between June 1940 and June 1941 Europe was united under a single ruler as it had never been before.

There was a sharp contrast between the spirit of the two wars. The idealism and romanticism which marked this country during the early months of the First World War were totally lacking. Instead there was a hard determination to defeat Hitler and Nazi Germany, however long it took. ‘Victory at all costs’ was not merely a piece of Churchillian rhetoric. It truly expressed the national will. Anyone who lived through the Second World War as an adult must recall that there was then a greater combination of patriotism and social idealism than at any other time of his life. We, the generation who had that feeling, have failed to communicate it to those who came after us. I finished my short history of the Second World War with the words: ‘Despite the killing and destruction that accompanied it, the Second World War was a good war.’ A younger colleague whom I greatly esteem as a historian wrote to me that a war in which thirty million people were killed could not be called a good war. I think we were both right. The Second World War was an appalling war. The genocide practised by the Germans was wicked and so was the indiscriminate strategical bombing of Germany practised by the British – not only wicked but mistaken into the bargain. Nevertheless there was an inspiration which spread to the conquered peoples. At the end of the Second War we believed that the inspiration would last and that there would be a new world. Our expectations have been disappointed.

Instead of a new world we have had the Cold War, a war that has now lasted nearly forty years. In fact, the origins of the Cold War go back much further, to the early days of the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1918, when the Allies were still wrestling with Germany, they conducted wars of intervention to overthrow the Bolsheviks and continued these wars until 1920. What was left was a suspicion that was dispelled or at any rate weakened only with the assistance of Hitler. Once he was defeated and his empire destroyed, the Cold War was resumed. The other day I was reading a book on British foreign policy derived from the records of the Foreign Office and there were the clerks speculating, as the war drew to a close, which side we should take as an ally afterwards, Germany or Russia. Churchill in one of his wilder moments told Montgomery to allow the Germans when they surrendered to keep their rifles, because we should soon need them for use against the Russians. Yet, after all this talk of Soviet aggression, the territory included in the Soviet Union remains less than that ruled over by Czar Nicholas II before the Russian Revolution.

As a matter of fact, estrangement between allies is usual after a war. In 1923, for instance, British statesmen denounced Poincaré as the new Napoleon. In 1815, at the Congress of Vienna, Castlereagh and Metternich made an alliance with Talleyrand, representative of their former enemy France, against Russia, their former ally who had done most of the fighting against France and had liberated Paris. In 1945, a similar alliance was projected against Soviet Russia, who had liberated Eastern Europe. No one in my opinion can discuss this subject with detachment. The Kremlinologists, the so-called experts on Soviet Russia, are in fact propagandists for a policy of hostility towards Soviet Russia: Soviet historians and political advisers are propagandists the other way round. I was once simple-minded enough to believe that the two sides could be reconciled by reason. At the cultural congress at Wroclaw in 1948 I said that the Cold War was the work of two over-mighty powers, each of them regarding the other with unjustified suspicion or, if you like, justified suspicion – it comes to much the same thing. No one took the slightest notice, and it looks as though no one ever will. Each side imagines that it has a moral superiority. The United States and their associates are devoted, however halfheartedly, to the principles of political democracy. The Soviet Union has two terrible characteristics which give great offence to the Western World. One is that there are no capitalists in the Soviet Union, the other that there are no landlords. Do you wonder that there is a Cold War?

Instead of wasting my time and yours in trying to solve the insoluble problem of the Cold War I prefer to discuss the only question that matters about war in our time, and that is the transformation of war which has followed the use of atomic bombs in August 1945.

In my opinion, one of the greatest opportunities in the history of mankind was lost in the last days of 1944, lost probably for good and thus bringing the possibility, I think the likelihood, of doom. In the autumn of 1944, Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist who had led the way in developing nuclear science, urged President Roosevelt that the Russians should be told of the discoveries in nuclear power made by the British and Americans. Roosevelt in his usual way agreed with Bohr and as usual did nothing. Churchill declared that Bohr was a traitor and should be imprisoned. Bohr was not sent to prison but his advice was ignored. The opportunity once lost never came again. The American scientists supposed that they would have the secret for ever. By 1951 Soviet scientists had done quite as well as the Americans and the nuclear arms race has gone on ever since.

When Professor Lindemann, Lord Cherwell, first heard about the development of nuclear weapons, he refused to believe it would be possible. When, however, it was demonstrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki that they worked, Lord Cherwell expressed a sardonic pleasure at the certainty that now mankind would be destroyed and an even greater pleasure that British hands would play some part in pressing the nuclear button. This was perhaps some consolation for an elderly scientist. It is less consolation, or should be, for scientists of less mature years who have dedicated their lives to preparing the destruction of mankind. I also deplore the historians who, against all past experience, declare that this time the deterrent in the shape of nuclear weapons will preserve peace for ever. The deterrent starts off only as a threat, but the record shows that there comes a time when its reality has to be demonstrated – which can only be done by using it. So it was in August 1914 and so it will be again. So far we have done very well. We have lived under nuclear terror for forty years and are still here. The danger increases every day. Without the abolition of nuclear weapons the fate of mankind is certain.

Can nothing be done to avert this fate? We can expect nothing from the nuclear scientists, the political experts, and, least of all, the statesmen. But for ordinary people there still remain standards of right and wrong. One of these is that no country, no political system, is entitled to employ mass murder in order to maintain itself. We are often told that the renunciation of nuclear weapons by a single country – I hope our country – would expose it to nuclear destruction once it could not retaliate. I believe that the reverse is the truth: if we do not possess nuclear weapons there is no point in destroying us. In any case, is it not morally better to face, perhaps to experience, nuclear obliteration than to inflict this obliteration on others?

These weapons of mass destruction are designed and manufactured by human beings. Politicians and military leaders may initiate the preparations for nuclear warfare but the actual manufacture is in the hands of scientists whose devotion should be to the future of mankind. For that matter, every citizen of a free country has a responsibility to help in ridding the world of nuclear weapons. This will not be easy, but it must be done.

I give you some final words of consolation. When the holocaust comes and destroys us nearly all, have no fear. Shelters to withstand nuclear weapons are already in existence for the members of the Cabinet, for the Chiefs of Staff, for the senior civil servants, and for the outstanding scientists, who have directed the mass slaughter. When the nuclear storm has passed, these superior persons will emerge from their shelters and will be able to contemplate, I hope with satisfaction, the destruction which they have brought on their fellow men.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 4 No. 16 · 2 September 1982

SIR: A.J.P. Taylor’s remark (LRB, 5 August) that, ‘after all this talk of Soviet aggression, the territory included in the Soviet Union remains less than that ruled over by Czar Nicholas II before the Russian Revolution’ is what he himself would call ‘a yoke’. It is true that the Russian Empire lost much territory for a few years after the Revolution, but it is also true that it regained most of it and gained still more for many years after that, and that it was the only country which actually increased in size during the Second World War, so that it is now larger than ever before – indeed, much larger, if one counts the satellites which Taylor ignores. Net losses since 1917 are most of Finland and some of Poland; net gains since 1917 are Tannu Tuva, part of East Prussia and part of Sakhalin; and satellite gains since 1945 – Outer Mongolia already setting the pattern – are Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria and now Afghanistan. Some victim of aggression!

Arthur Freeman
London El

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences