2018 12 – The BBC, the First World War and the Germans

The BBC and First World War Commemorative Programmes: what about the German side of things?

By Mark Cowling

This article was written during the BBC’s TV coverage of the First World War in November.

There have been a whole series of television programmes marking the end of the First World War. Virtually all of these have come from the BBC. Apart from coverage of the British Legion and the ceremony at the Cenotaph, there have been recordings of the last Tommies, programmes covering the Home Front, a series of programmes about the last hundred days of the war showing that the Allies finally won by developing a version of Blitzkrieg, and a programme is about to be broadcast on shell shock/PTSD. In one way these are all appropriate and informative and interesting. They are, however, extremely narrow. They present a British perspective, with some reference to the Americans, the Commonwealth countries and the French. A series of points taken from the Guardian letters column raises wider questions. What about Russia and Eastern Europe, where November 11, 1918 was by no means the end of armed conflict? Was the war worth it from a British perspective, given that it brought with it a massive loss of life, draining of resources and loss of global influence? The humiliation inflicted on Germany contributed substantially to the rise of Hitler. Opportunities for setting up a collective European security agreement were missed. The gradual development of what became the European Union following the Second World War displayed a much wiser political and economic vision than the reparations demanded following the First World War.

Virtually nothing has been said about the German side of things. This is absolutely ridiculous, as the German reasons for going to war, the nature of German society, the German experience of the war and the events in Germany in its aftermath are important, dramatic and interesting. Some long-term features of German history and geography need to be borne in mind. Germany was divided into a large number of states, principalities and independent cities, which together comprised the German Empire. The Reformation started in Germany with the writings of Luther, and led on to the bitter experiences of the Thirty Years War, the devastation of which led Germans to greatly value order. At the time of the First World War the United Kingdom had no land frontiers, whereas Germany has had up to eight depending on how its neighbours were divided up. Some of the dividing lines between Germany and other states were characterised by a population where Germans and Danes, or Germans and Poles or Germans and French people were mixed. Indeed, Königsburg, the most easterly German city is now Kaliningrad in Russia. Thus, while British identity and loyalty was generally straightforward, at least on the British mainland, German identity demanded much more reflection.

There was a widespread feeling in Germany that a greater degree of German unity offered major advantages. This was achieved under Prussian leadership notably by the extremely successful statecraft of Bismarck. Bismarck’s leadership was based on Prussia’s and his own advancement, and characterised by an absence of moral considerations. Between 1864 and 1870 Bismarck contrived to get Germany attacked first by Denmark, then by Austria and finally by France, each of which was easily beaten by the Prussian army. The defeat of Austria ensured that German unification was brought about under Prussian leadership not Austrian. The other possible rival was the large South German state of Bavaria. Fortunately for Bismarck this was led by the romantic Ludwig II, who bankrupted his Exchequer by building a wonderful series of castles and palaces.

Bismarck introduced manhood suffrage for the lower houses of both the Prussian and the German Imperial parliaments.  This compares reasonably well with Britain in the late 19th century.  An expanded electorate led to the growth of the Catholic centre party and to that of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The SDP became at least notionally a Marxist revolutionary party. Bismarck deplored this and responded by banning the SDP, which continued to flourish in spite of the ban. He also tried to take the wind out of the sails of the SDP by introducing the best welfare state in Europe. This included the best public education system, sickness and unemployment insurance. He eventually reversed the ban.

German ruling circles were strongly based on the Junkers, militaristic landowners based in East Prussia. With their custom of fighting duels with each other with sabres, their loyalty to the military unit in which they had served, and their rural background, The Junkers sound primitive and narrow, but they also valued university education and the development of science, including the application of science to agriculture on their estates and to warfare. They had a strong sense of public duty, which was vigorously reinforced by the Kaiser.

The SDP had a particular role at the beginning of the First World War. The socialist parties of Europe had pledged at the Basle Congress of the Second International that they would stop attempts by the ruling classes to start a war. However, the pledge was basically that they would not support aggression by their respective governments. Following the strategy of Bismarck, the Kaiser managed to persuade the SDP deputies in the Reichstag that Germany was being attacked by Russia, and they therefore virtually unanimously voted for war credits. This had the effect that other European socialist parties, notably in France and Britain, were easily swept along with the idea that they had to defend themselves against German aggression.

During the war increasing numbers of SDP deputies came to see the war as a war of German aggression and either abstained or voted against war credits. A substantial group of them left to form the Independent Social Democratic Party. Opposition also developed further to the left amongst the Spartacists under the leadership of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. They deplored the way in which the SDP had betrayed the pledges of the Basle Congress, and also the way in which the SDP leadership had moved from being a revolutionary to a gradualist orientation.

At the end of the war it became clear that the Kaiser could no longer go on ruling, and he abdicated in favour of a government led by the mainstream SDP under the leadership of Ebert, who had started life as a cobbler before he became a party official. Simultaneously Karl Liebknecht declared Germany to be a socialist republic. Liebknecht and Luxemburg were involved in turning the Spartacist League into the German Communist Party, which obviously had considerable sympathies with the Russian party, but which initially had a more liberal and Western orientation than the Bolsheviks.

In January 1919 some trade unionists began a badly planned socialist uprising in Berlin, which was supported by the Spartacists and Liebknecht and Luxemburg. This left the SDP government in a very difficult situation. The German army had essentially collapsed, the troops returning to Berlin ragged and depressed. The SDP government was committed to rule in Germany by constitutional means and needed to find some way of dealing with this challenge to its authority. One member of the government, Noske, turned to the Freikorps, who had remained in being after the war and comprised storm troopers. They put down the socialist rising brutally, and murdered Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Many members of the Freikorps became early supporters of Hitler. A period of instability right across Germany followed, with a whole series of socialist uprisings, all of which were put down fairly rapidly.

This is a very quick and sketchy summary of a series of events and issues. However, there are obviously many important questions which arise. If peace had been negotiated with Germany in, for example, 1916, would the Kaiser have ended up leading an evolving democracy in which the SDP played a central role? To what extent was communist revolution a realistic prospect in post-war Germany? Much more planned attempts were made in 1920 and during the currency crisis of 1923, but neither of these succeeded. The Allies could have continued or reinstituted the blockade of food, and, assuming that their armies would accept the use of armed intervention, have occupied Germany. The division of the German left between the socialists and the communists was a major factor in the rise of Hitler.

The current television coverage of the ending of the First World War is distinctly one-sided and parochial. More debate about issues such as those raised in this article is The current television coverage of the ending of the First World War is distinctly one-sided and parochial. More debate about issues such as those raised in this article is urgently needed.