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The Long Shadow The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds Book

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Overview: One of the most violent conflicts in the history of civilization, World War I has been strangely forgotten in American culture. It has become a ghostly war fought in a haze of memory, often seen merely as a distant preamble to World War II. In The Long Shadow critically acclaimed historian David Reynolds seeks to broaden our vision by assessing the impact of the Great War across the twentieth century. He shows how events in that turbulent century―particularly World War II, the Cold War, and the collapse of Communism―shaped and reshaped attitudes to 1914–18.

By exploring big themes such as democracy and empire, nationalism and capitalism, as well as art and poetry, The Long Shadow is stunningly broad in its historical perspective. Reynolds throws light on the vast expanse of the last century and explains why 1914–18 is a conflict that America is still struggling to comprehend. Forging connections between people, places, and ideas, The Long Shadow ventures across the traditional subcultures of historical scholarship to offer a rich and layered examination not only of politics, diplomacy, and security but also of economics, art, and literature. The result is a magisterial reinterpretation of the place of the Great War in modern history.

The Long Shadow The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds Book Read Online And Download Epub Digital Ebooks Buy Store Website Provide You.
The Long Shadow The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds Book

The Long Shadow The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds Book Read Online Chapter One


The Prussian Junker is the road-hog of Europe . . . If we had stood by when two little nations were being crushed and broken by the brutal hands of barbarism our shame would have rung down the everlasting ages.

DAVID LLOYD GEORGE, 19 September 1914

All well-defined national aspirations shall be accorded the utmost satisfaction . . . without introducing new, or perpetuating old, elements of discord and antagonism that would be likely in time to break the peace of Europe and consequently of the world.

WOODROW WILSON, February 11, 19181

During the Paris peace conference, the American president and his wife were housed in the Hôtel du Prince Murat—a splendid nineteenth-century palace in the rue de Monceau, full of mementoes from the era of Napoleon. Edith Wilson retained vivid impressions of the red, white, and blue sentry box at the gate, the “great sweep of the stairs” and the “liveried lackeys” in attendance—lamenting in her memoirs that “if only some of the costs of this sort of useless attention could be diverted to those who stand in need of the necessary things of life, this would be a better world.” Nor did she forget once entering one of the grand salons to find her husband and his advisers on hands and knees on the floor. They were poring over huge maps of Europe, trying to work out its new frontiers. “You look like a lot of little boys playing a game,” she laughed. The president turned to her gravely. “Alas, it is the most serious game ever undertaken, for on the result of it hangs, in my estimation, the future peace of the world.”2

Wilson and his fellow statesmen at Paris in 1919 have often been blamed for creating the mess of postwar Europe, but in reality, the problems were already beyond their control. Never had the map of Europe been redrawn so dramatically. The crisis of 1917–18 destroyed the great dynastic empires that had ruled central, eastern, and southeast Europe for centuries—the Romanovs, Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns, and Ottomans. In August 1914, Europe contained only three republics (Switzerland, France, and Portugal); by the end of 1918 there were thirteen. One of them was Germany itself, where the Kaiserreich had been shattered by defeat and revolution. The other nine were states that did not even exist at the start of the war, among them Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Yugoslavia.3

The challenge was to combine independence with interdependence—as Wilson put it on February 11, 1918, to promote “national aspirations” within a framework of peace and order. But to achieve such goals at the end of the Great War would have required an alchemist, not a statesman. Fractious new multinational states were cobbled together on the ruins of empire, often through brutal paramilitary violence. Their fragility would destabilize the Continent for much of the twentieth century.4

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was also an empire, albeit on a small scale—created by centuries of expansion by England—and it did not escape this tornado of empire breaking and nation building. The Irish experience of the Great War had many similarities with events on the Continent. Ravaged by brutal violence, Ireland shattered into two rival states, one fiercely independent, the other sheltering within the UK. But in England, Wales, and Scotland the conflict generated a renewed sense of British identity, which would endure for much of the twentieth century.

What is a nation? The French intellectual Ernest Renan posed that question back in 1882, and the debate still rumbles on.5 People’s sense of identity can take many forms, defined by gender or class or religion. In the past, identity was often very local and concrete, expressed through friendship groups, churches, or clubs. To feel that one is part of a nation requires a big imaginative leap, and national consciousness has often been sharpened, or even generated, by fear of a hostile “Other” against which to counterpose one’s own nation and its values. But nationalism also needs expression in a political structure—a state—in order to gain the legal and emotional leverage over people that is necessary to shape the sense of national identity. In 1800, Europe comprised some five hundred political units, varying hugely in size and viability; by 1900 there were only about twenty.6 During the nineteenth century, states were forged largely by people’s wars, fought in the name of the nation and involving mass armies raised by conscription, for which the prototype was France during the Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire. France’s wars aroused national consciousness elsewhere, especially in the lands that became Italy and Germany. To quote Thomas Nipperdey’s history of modern Germany, “in the beginning was Napoleon.” 7

From these nineteenth-century struggles scholars developed a distinction between a civic nation and an ethnic nation. The former signified a community of laws, institutions, and citizenship within a defined territory, whereas an ethnic nation was defined as a community of shared descent, rooted in language, ethnicity, and culture. France was seen as the embodiment of civic nationalism, forged by the ideology of the Revolution (liberté, egalité, fraternité), Germany as the classic example of ethnic nationalism, steeped in Romantic conceptions of the Volk. This stark contrast between civic and ethnic nations has been questioned by some recent scholars, yet the general distinction remains useful.8

Before the Great War, nation-states were mainly found in Western and Northern Europe. The late nineteenth century did, however, see a surge of nationalist feeling in central and eastern Europe, rooted in a heightened sense of ethnicity. Initial stirrings were largely cultural, through music and folk myths (sometimes fused together, as Smetana did for the Czechs, or Sibelius in Finland). Even more important was the process of systematizing a written national language and teaching it in schools. This “national idea” was then picked up as propaganda by small groups of politicized intellectuals and agitators before taking off as a genuine mass movement with political clout. By the 1900s, some nationalists were more “advanced” in this process than others—the Poles, say, compared with the Slovenes—but hopes of full national independence were largely utopian. In 1914 the big empires, though rickety, still seemed in control. It was the demands of total war that eventually brought them down.9

Consider the example of the Habsburg Empire. This was Europe’s third most populous state, with more than fifty million people, but they included eleven major national groups, several of which harked back to historic states that had been suppressed by the Habsburgs. Allegiance was essentially dynastic, in this case to the phenomenally long-lived Emperor Franz Joseph, who had ruled since 1848. The empire had never recovered from its catastrophic defeat by Bismarck’s Germany in 1866, which obliged Franz Joseph to concede what the British would have called Home Rule to Hungary, the largest kingdom in his empire. Henceforth he ruled over a “dual monarchy,” with separate Austrian and Hungarian parliaments and even separate armies alongside the imperial armed forces. Increasingly, Hungary proved a deadweight on the operations of the empire, reluctant to pay its share of taxes especially for the Army. In the Austrian domains of the empire, the Germans were the ruling elite—with Bohemians, Moravians, and other ethnic groups kept in their place. Within Hungary, Romanians, Slovaks, Slovenes, Serbs, and Croats—about half the population—were at the mercy of the Magyars, who tried with increasing brutality to impose their own language and culture while resisting demands for universal male suffrage. “The government will never be able to satisfy every national group,” sighed Franz Joseph wearily. “This is why we must rely on those which are strongest . . . that is, the Germans and the Hungarians.”10

The greatest challenge for the Habsburgs was the kingdom of Serbia, freed from Ottoman rule since 1878 and determined to bring all the Serbs into a Greater Serbia. Quite who constituted the Serbs was left extremely vague, and Serbdom potentially stretched from Macedonia to Hungary. This “mythscape” reflected a capacious definition of the Serbian language and a romanticized folk history dating back to the seminal confrontation between Serbs and the Ottoman “Other” in 1389 at Kosovo Polje (the Field of Blackbirds). Serbia’s expansive ambitions, promoted by the Karaimagejorimagejeviimage dynasty and by various terrorist groups, culminated in the assassination of the heir to Franz Joseph’s throne in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Vienna’s determination to deal once and for all with the Serbian menace ignited the July crisis.11

Before the war, some Croat and Slovene intellectuals within the Habsburg Empire had talked of sharing a common South Slav (Yugoslav) identity with the Serbs, but they were a minority. The striking point about 1914, however, was that imperial loyalties held firm. In the Habsburg campaign to crush Serbia in the autumn of 1914, many of the soldiers were of South Slav extraction. Notwithstanding occasional nationalist outbursts, for most of the war the Habsburg Army hung together and fought well, despite an ethnic diversity that seems ludicrous today. For every hundred men in the Imperial Army in 1914, there were on average 25 Germans, 18 Magyars, 13 Czechs, 11 Serbs and Croats, 9 Poles, 9 Ruthenes, 6 Romanians, 4 Slovaks, 2 Slovenes, and 2 Italians. The language of command was German, with a repertoire of eighty different orders, but officers were expected to know the Regimentssprache, the language or languages spoken by their men. Many units operated with two languages, some as many as five. Not so much an army, more a tower of Babel, one might think, yet this polyglot command hung together until 1918, when most soldiers effectively went on strike.12

A similar story may be told of the Russian Empire. In 1914 the Romanov dynasty ruled about 170 million people (nearly four times the UK population) across one-sixth of the world’s landmass, yet fewer than half of them were ethnic Russian. The regime failed to create a sense of overall imperial identity, or even a sense of nation among the core Russian population. Belated and often brutal attempts by the last two tsars, Alexander III and his son Nicholas II, to impose Russian language and Orthodox religion served only to inflame nationalist sensitivities. Then, after the abortive revolution of 1905, the government reversed itself with halfhearted political concessions that gave national groups a voice in the new parliament, the Duma. Particularly sensitive was the issue of Poland—a historic state that had been partitioned since 1772 and was now largely under Russian control. Yet despite a few anti-draft riots, war mobilization in 1914 proceeded relatively smoothly, with nearly four million men conscripted on schedule. In all 18.6 million men served in the Russian Army during the war, more than a tenth of the total population and from all ethnic groups.13

During the Great War, people from the borderlands of Europe—Poles, Czechs, and Croats, even Serbs and Italians—fought on both sides. As conscripts, they had little choice. Discipline was harsh and brutal, propaganda played up the threat from the enemy, and there were significant inducements for continued service. In the Russian Army, for instance, a soldier’s family would lose their allowance from the state if he deserted or “voluntarily” entered captivity. In any case, most troops from rural eastern Europe, where literacy was limited, did not conceive of their identity in clear-cut national terms. “Were one to ask the average peasant in the Ukraine his nationality,” scoffed a British diplomat in 1918, “he would answer that he is Greek Orthodox; if pressed to say whether he is a Great Russian, a Pole, or an Ukrainian he would probably reply that he is a peasant; and if one insisted on knowing what language he spoke, he would say that he talked ‘the local tongue’ . . . he simply does not think of nationality in the terms familiar to the intelligentsia.”14

The deepening conflict did help sharpen national consciousness. On the Eastern Front, prisoners of war were separated by nationality and then formed into special units to fight against the empire they had previously served. The Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) organized a Polish Legion, as well as special Finnish and Ukrainian units to fight against the tsar. The Russians formed their Habsburg prisoners into Polish, Czech, and Slovak units. Their Czech Legion was bloodied at Zborov in Galicia on July 2, 1917—in itself a minor engagement but elevated into a founding national myth because the Legion routed several Czech regiments that were fighting for the Habsburgs. The result of all this was a keener sense of national identities right across eastern Europe, as well as a brutalized soldiery who would eventually form the core of postwar paramilitary groups.15

Yet flirting with nationalism in this way did not signify any grand plan for a post-imperial Europe. The Entente powers (Britain, France, and Russia) wanted to preserve the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in slimmer form to balance Germany in central Europe. Neither did the British and French initially support Polish national aspirations, since that would infringe on the interests of their tsarist ally. After America entered the war, Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” in January 1918 envisaged “an independent Polish state” but proposed only “the freest opportunity of autonomous development” for the peoples of the Habsburg Empire. It was Lenin and the Bolsheviks who coined the radical phrase “national self-determination,” to encourage the breakup of empires in Europe and beyond. Wilson picked up the term but usually without the adjective “national”: for him, “self-determination” was almost a synonym for “popular sovereignty” or “consent of the governed.”16

By the autumn of 1918, however, statements by the Allies became irrelevant, as the Habsburg and Ottoman armies collapsed and Russia disintegrated in civil war. What exactly would replace them and fill the looming power vacuum depended on a mixture of local power and international influence.

A classic example was the new Czechoslovakia. For Tomáš Masaryk, 1918 was a spectacular payoff for earlier gambles. An imposing philosophy professor turned Czech nationalist politician, Masaryk already had a predisposition to the West: his academic work was on British and French empiricist philosophy (Hume, Mill, and Comte) and, having married the daughter of a wealthy New Yorker, he spoke fluent English. Masaryk fled Prague in late 1914, settling for two years in London, where he lived in Hampstead, catching the bus into town to teach Slavonic studies at London University and also to cultivate his contacts with the British officials and journalists. After the fall of the tsar, he traveled to Russia on a British passport to organize the Czech Legion and then in 1918 to the United States to mobilize American support. He met Wilson on several occasions in the White House and, in a brilliant propaganda coup, read out a declaration of the “Independent Mid-European Nations” from the steps of Independence Hall, Philadelphia—shrine of America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776. Thanks to this blend of influence in high places and shrewd public relations, Masaryk had already secured Allied recognition for an independent Czechoslovakia several months before Habsburg rule collapsed. The revolution in Prague at the end of October was “a bloodless, gentle takeover of power from officials who no longer wanted to be responsible for the administration of a Habsburg province.” Four years after he had fled Prague, Masaryk returned in triumph as president of a new republic—a position he would hold for seventeen years.17

Prague’s velvet revolution (strangely similar to another in 1989) was emulated across much of the former Habsburg Empire, with committees of local nationalist parties assuming power. By the time the peace conference convened in Paris in mid-January 1919, the shape of post-Habsburg Europe was clear on the ground. Independence had successfully been proclaimed for Czechoslovakia and for a kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (later renamed Yugoslavia), leaving Austria and Hungary as rump states. On the tsarist borderlands, however, the pattern was different. There nationalist movements had been weak or nonexistent before 1917, but the anarchy caused by the tsarist collapse and the Russian Civil War suddenly made possible the establishment of independent states in Poland, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland.18 These national revolutions were bloody rather than velvet, with wars and civil wars that rumbled on into the 1920s. For millions across eastern Europe, the Armistice of 1918, so important in the west, was of relatively little consequence.

Here the paradigmatic case was Poland, whose leader, Józef Piłsudski, had managed to play off both sides during the Great War. The son of an impoverished Polish-Lithuanian noble family, staunchly Catholic, Piłsudski had been forced in his youth to speak Russian and attend Orthodox worship. He joined the anti-Russian terrorist underground and organized paramilitary units that, when war began, he put at the disposal of Germany as a Polish Legion. In the summer of 1915, Piłsudski’s gamble seemed to be paying off as the Germans conquered most of Poland, but this reduced him to a virtual puppet. When he tried to bargain over the use of his troops, the Germans threw him into prison. Unlike Masaryk, who was free in the crucial months of 1917–18 to build international support for a Czechoslovak state, Piłsudski languished behind bars from July 1917 until the last days of the war. But what he lost in diplomatic influence he gained in political stature, being seen as a Polish patriot who had fought Russia and then stood up to Germany. When Piłsudski was released by the Germans in November 1918, he returned to Warsaw as a popular hero, and the Regency Council made him the provisional head of state. With his high forehead, drooping mustache, and magnetic eyes, invariably dressed in a simple gray Legionnaire’s tunic, Piłsudski was a commanding figure. “In appearance so striking as to be almost theatrical,” remarked one British diplomat. “None of the usual amenities of civilized intercourse, but all the apparatus of sombre genius.” By fair means and foul Piłsudski would dominate Polish politics until his death in 1935.19

But only after fighting for national survival: in the years 1918, 1919, and 1920, Piłsudski waged no fewer than six wars. Partly this was out of vaulting ambition: mindful of his own Lithuanian roots, he wanted to re-create the vast Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the late sixteenth century and to ensure an independent Ukraine under Polish influence. But any Polish leader in 1918 would have been forced to a fight in order to define a country that had virtually no natural frontiers. In the city of Lwów a Pole pointed out the war damage to an American visitor: “You see these little holes? We call them ‘Wilson’s Points.’ They have been made by machine guns . . . We are now engaged in self-determination, and God knows what and when the end will be.”20

For Piłsudski the vital struggle was against the Bolsheviks. In bitter fighting that ebbed and flowed dramatically during 1920, the Poles penetrated as far east as Kiev, only to be driven back three hundred miles to the edge of Warsaw. In mid-August foreign governments evacuated their embassies from the panic-stricken city. The “Polish Army seems for the time being almost to have ceased to exist as a coherent force,” reported the London New Statesman.21 But a desperate surprise attack by Piłsudski into the Russian rear, celebrated in Polish national mythology as the “Miracle on Vistula,” turned the tables again and routed the Bolsheviks. The Treaty of Riga in March 1921 left Poland with the western parts of Byelorussia and Ukraine—both hostages to fortune.

Elsewhere on the Russian borderlands state building was equally violent. Ukraine enjoyed a brief taste of freedom before most of it was absorbed into the new Soviet Union. The Baltic states did hang on to independence, albeit after bloody struggles in 1919–20 against various Russian armies. In Finland, formerly a grand duchy enjoying autonomy in the Tsarist Empire, independence was sealed after a savage civil war in the first half of 1918 where the real divisions were not ethnic or religious but along class lines. This pitted the Reds, backed by Bolshevik Russia, against the Whites, aided by Imperial Germany. Terror was ubiquitous and mutual animosity endured for decades after the White victory. Survivors from each side lived in almost separate communities, with their own newspapers, entertainments, and sports clubs.22

Whether peaceful or violent, this new spasm of European state building after 1918 was different from that of the mid-nineteenth century. Whereas Italy and Germany had been created through the unification of various local polities with similar language and culture, state building in eastern and southeastern Europe occurred through secession from dynastic empires that had hitherto controlled a volatile mix of ethnic groups in various stages of national self-consciousness and political mobilization.23 In the vanguard were shrewd nationalist politicians like Masaryk and Piłsudski, who harked back to an ancestral kingdom as the core of the new state. But because of the process of secession and fragmentation, they had to use what they could get from the imperial rubble heap, and their jerry-built new states were a mix of various ethnic groups who had previously lived cheek by jowl. Not so much nation-states as mini empires, with the ethnic tensions of prewar now exacerbated by four years of brutal fighting. A process of state building and national mobilization that had taken decades, even centuries, in Western Europe occurred almost overnight from the Baltic to the Adriatic, often with horrific violence.

The statesmen at Paris were not, therefore, architects of the new Europe—more like firefighters desperately trying to pour water on the flames. Maps and statistics were woefully inadequate, and the competing states dressed up the demographic evidence to their own advantage. As Wilson and his advisers began to realize, poring over their beautiful maps in the elegant Hôtel Murat, neat, clean lines could not be drawn through ethnically mixed regions whose inhabitants were now angrily self-conscious.

One small but revealing example is the small duchy of Teschen—less than nine hundred square miles in area, smaller than Rhode Island, but including part of the Silesian coalfield and a strategic railway junction. After the Habsburg collapse, the duchy became a bone of contention between Poland and Czechoslovakia. On ethnic grounds the Poles had a strong case, but the Czechoslovaks argued that coal from the mines was essential for their industries and that the railway was a vital link between the two halves of their new state. Although Polish-speakers constituted a majority of the population, relations between them and the Czechs, Germans, and Silesians had been reasonably tolerant before 1914, but in January 1919 troops from the rival countries moved in. Fighting ensued, followed by riots among the populace. With tensions too high to allow a plebiscite, the Allies partitioned the duchy in July 1920. The Czech state got most of the coalfield (even though the miners were largely Poles) while the city of Teschen was split in two with the old quarter allocated to Poland and the suburbs, including the railway station, to the Czechoslovaks. According to one frustrated American participant, “The electric light plant goes to the one state, but the gas works to the other, and I do not recall what was to become of the municipal water-works.” These disputes could have been resolved by economic and transit agreements but that would have required a modicum of trust between Poland and Czechoslovakia which simply did not exist after 1918. The Teschen settlement further poisoned relations between Poland and Czechoslovakia, two new states that should have felt a common interest in containing German revanchism.24

Germany maintained its identity when the Hohenzollern dynasty was overthrown, but the Reich had its wings severely clipped, losing 13 percent of its prewar territory and 10 percent of its population.25 On the southwest, Alsace and Lorraine, won in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, were handed back to France. To the east, Germany surrendered most of Poznan, West Prussia, and the Upper Silesian coalfield to the new Poland, plus a corridor allowing Poland access to the Baltic Sea but thereby separating East Prussia from the rest of Germany. Three million Germans remained in the new Czechoslovak state, while the peace treaty with Austria explicitly barred its now overwhelmingly German population from a union with Germany (Anschluss). None of this was easy to square with the principle of self-determination. Similarly, three million Hungarians lived outside the rump state of Hungary, half of them in Transylvania, which was occupied by Romania in 1918. The Allies duly ratified this land grab: their dislike of Hungarian autocracy was compounded by the country’s brief but alarming Bolshevik Revolution in 1919. The German and Hungarian settlements were reminders that the peacemakers had other objectives in mind apart from self-determination, especially punishment for the defeated and security for the victors.

The new states of central and eastern Europe had been able to emerge because of the vacuum created by the collapse of German and Russian power. But as those two countries revived in the 1920s and 1930s, they resumed their struggle for territory and influence, with Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states again the battleground. Although Russo-German antagonism ignited eastern Europe’s next war in 1941, its fuel was the ethnic animosities of the post-imperial era—the disputed borders and oppressed minorities. Consider some simple demographic statistics from 1930. In Poland, 65 percent of the population were Poles, 16 percent Ukrainian, and 10 percent Jews. Czechs constituted only 51 percent of the people of Czechoslovakia; 23 percent were German and 16 percent Slovak. In Yugoslavia the ruling Serbs (44 percent) were not even a majority, 30 percent of the population being Croats and 9 percent Slovenes. This was not the demography of stability.26

The peacemakers did require the successor states to guarantee minority rights, but these treaties soon proved a dead letter. Piłsudski’s Poland was unapologetically racist, while most Serbs regarded Yugoslavia as convenient disguise for Greater Serbia. Even Czechoslovakia, the most tolerant and democratic of these states, did not treat its minorities well. Masaryk, the Czech nationalist son of a Slovak father, was convinced that the cultural and linguistic differences between the two peoples were relatively insignificant. But for three centuries the Czechs had lived under German rule, opening them to Protestantism, the West, and industrialization. The Slovaks, by contrast, had lived even longer under the Hungarians: their Catholic, largely rural society was intertwined economically with Hungary and Ukraine. Such fundamental differences could not easily be bridged, and the Slovak nationalist leader Father Andrej Hlinka was soon clamoring for Slovak autonomy. The German question was handled even more autocratically by Masaryk and his inner circle. They moved quickly to break up the large estates, mostly German-owned, which Czechs applauded as long-overdue reparation for the Habsburg conquest of 1620. Foreign minister Edvard Beneš told a British diplomat bluntly: “Before the war, the Germans were here” (pointing to the ceiling) “and we were there” (pointing to the floor). “Now,” he declared, reversing his gestures, “we are here and they are there.” Land reform, Beneš insisted, was “necessary” to teach the Germans a “lesson.”27 But it was a lesson the Germans would not accept, as Beneš would learn the hard way in 1938.

The declarations of independence in 1918, validated at the Paris peace conference, made the so-called national principle the prime test of state legitimacy, rather than dynastic inheritance or imperial rule. Here indeed was a “seismic shift” in European history.28 Yet the principle of nationalism was an artificial construct, almost an anthropomorphic fantasy. Consider some of its cognate terms—national consciousness, national will, self-determination—in each case the nation is treated as analogous to an individual human being. But this postulates a unity and coherence that does not exist in any state, certainly not the new “national” states born in 1918. In any case, by the 1900s the person, the self, was understood in much more complex ways through modern psychology. Viewed in darker light, the national “self” seemed like a bundle of unconscious herdlike instincts that needed to be controlled through international institutions.29 Whether nationalism was a blessing or a curse lay at the heart of debates about peace and security in the 1920s and 1930s. Although nationalist frenzy was more consequence than cause of the Great War, the war makers had let the genie out of the bottle and the peacemakers could not put it back.

Where does the United Kingdom fit into these patterns? Essentially as a civic nation (Britain) with an ethnic Achilles’ heel (Ireland). Here the dynamics of nationalism were very different from central and eastern Europe where the explosion occurred in 1918. In the UK, ethnic nationalism was heating up before the Great War but then it simmered down—except in Ireland, where it came to the boil from 1916 with tragic and enduring consequences.

The UK originated as a “composite monarchy” on the pattern of Spain after the dynastic marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1469.30 Thanks to King Edward I, the English Crown was in control of most of Wales by the late thirteenth century; in 1542, after the English conquest of Ireland, the Irish parliament declared that Henry VIII and his heirs would henceforth be kings of Ireland as well; and in 1603 the childless Queen Elizabeth of England was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, who became James I, King of “Great Britain” (his preferred title was “Emperor”). In time, dynastic fusion was reinforced by political union. The Welsh had already been incorporated (unilaterally) in the English parliament in 1536; likewise the Scots after negotiating the Act of Union of 1707, and the Irish were included in panic after a major nationalist rising of 1798 that had been backed by an invasion force from Revolutionary France.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, which came into being on New Year’s Day 1801, was primarily a union of parliaments. Administratively there was much less uniformity. Wales had been brought completely under English law and administration by Henry VIII, but the Scots, even after 1707, preserved separate legal and educational systems and their own established Presbyterian Church. After 1801, Ireland also retained its own administrative structure but this was more analogous to the “pro-consular” regimes of the British colonies, with a viceroy, his court, and a tangle of government departments that coexisted uneasily with the Anglo-Irish landed elite imposed on Catholic Ireland as part of the Protestant Ascendancy.31

Providing some kind of cement for the Union was an ideology of “Britishness,” prefigured by James I but largely the product of a series of world wars against Catholic France, especially during the long reign of George III (1760–1820). This new British patriotism was expressed in various ways—through songs, prints, and cartoons; the iconography of Britannia; the cult of Nelson and new rituals of monarchy; not least the adoption of “God Save the King” as the “national anthem.” France became “the haunting embodiment of that Catholic Other” that the people of England, Wales, and Scotland had been taught to fear since the Reformation. “Confronting it encouraged them to bury their internal differences in the struggle for survival, victory and booty.”32 Booty reminds us of the other cement of the Union apart from Protestant faith and parliamentary government, namely the British Empire. Foreign trade, colonial administration, and the Army (one of the few truly British institutions) all depended disproportionately on non-English manpower, especially from Scotland. In part this reflected the superiority of Scottish universities—training grounds for doctors, lawyers, and engineers—but the British Empire had a special allure for adventurers who felt excluded from the London establishment. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that “England made the Union, but Scotland made it work.”33

Victorian stability and prosperity fostered the idea that Britain had become a “constitutional nation,” grafting onto the shared state structure a new sense of transcendent identity built around parliamentary government and Protestant religion. So “Britishness” was a form of civic nationalism, seeking to subsume conflicting ethnicities in larger political and ideological values, and this ideology helped mitigate the continued dominance of England, which accounted for three-quarters of the UK’s 45 million people in 1910. But Britishness never took hold across the Irish Sea, except among the Protestant elite for whom it became a vital prop of their supremacy. In largely Catholic Ireland, opposition to British rule had become increasingly vocal in the late nineteenth century. The catalyst was a cultural revival akin to the pattern in eastern Europe. The Gaelic League, founded in 1893, sought to rekindle a sense of Irish identity, through sports such as hurling and Gaelic football and also through language and literature. One of the League’s founders, Douglas Hyde, spoke of “De-Anglicizing” Ireland: he deplored the way Irish sentiment “continues to apparently hate the English and at the same time continues to imitate them.”34 Hyde’s campaign for a cultural renaissance was taken up by the Irish avant-garde writing in English—figures such as W. B. Yeats and J. M. Synge, pioneers of an Irish National Theatre in Dublin. The political expression of this cultural nationalism was the Sinn Féin movement (“We Ourselves”), founded in 1905. Its leader, Arthur Griffith, initially advocated a Hungarian-style form for Irish independence, modeled on the Habsburg dual monarchy of 1867.

This backlash against Britishness began to spread to the Celtic fringes of Britain itself. In the 1880s the Welsh revitalized the annual arts festival (eisteddfod); new University Colleges at Aberystwyth, Cardiff, and Bangor were fused in 1893 into the National University of Wales. In Scotland the tartan-clad Highlanders—once derided as primitives not just by the English but also by Lowland Scots—were now extolled and romanticized, while the poet Robert Burns and the medieval patriot William Wallace became cult figures. This pan-Celtic revivalism was part of a Europe-wide celebration around 1900 of rural traditions against urbanized modernity—evident even in England in the “Wessex” novels of Thomas Hardy or the folk songs embedded in the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams. But on the Celtic fringe, cultural pride had a political edge, sharpened by extensions of the UK franchise in 1867 and 1884–85 that made both local and national politics less easy for London to control. In the Habsburg domains, democracy had been kept on a leash; in the United Kingdom the fusion of democracy and nationalism helped to ignite a major political crisis.

The national question was most intractable in Ireland, which accounted for 101 of some 580 seats in the House of Commons. In the late nineteenth century four-fifths of the Irish seats were routinely won by the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), a tightly disciplined caucus bent on regaining Ireland’s self-governing Parliament. Gladstone’s Liberal governments responded with Home Rule bills in 1886 and 1893, neither of which became law. In April 1912, the Liberals, now reliant on the IPP for their Commons majority, introduced a third Home Rule bill. This drove party members who wanted to maintain the Union into alliance with the Conservative Party, now renamed the Unionist Party—reflecting Tory claims that the unity and identity of the kingdom were at stake.35

The Irish bill of 1912 rekindled the Home Rule movement in Scotland, championed by the Young Scots—a group of social reformers within the Liberal Party. Blaming English reactionaries and the packed parliamentary timetable for blocking their efforts, they argued that there was “not one single item in the whole programme of Radicalism and social reform today, which, if Scotland had powers to pass laws, would not have been carried out a quarter of a century ago.” Scottish radicals introduced their Home Rule bill in the Commons, and in May 1913 it passed its second reading with government support. In Wales, calls for a national parliament were less clamorous: the Young Wales movement (Cymru Fydd) had collapsed in the mid-1890s. Instead, passions were directed against the established Anglican Church in Wales, whose endowments reinforced the power of largely English landlords. A bill to disestablish the Welsh Church and take away its endowments was introduced in the spring of 1912. Devolutionists advocated what was then called federalism, or “Home Rule All Round,” envisaging parliaments in Wales and England. William Cowan, a leader of the Scottish Home Rulers, even predicted that from this “federation of the United Kingdom” would spring “a truly Imperial Parliament in which representatives of the Overseas Dominions” would sit “on terms of absolute equality.” Liberal enthusiasts, including Winston Churchill (whose elaborate scheme envisaged no fewer than seven parliaments for the English regions) believed devolution was essential in the modern world to preserve Union and Empire, whereas diehard Unionists regarded it as the start of the destruction of both.36

The stakes therefore seemed huge. What’s more, after a bitter political struggle in 1909–11, H. H. Asquith’s Liberal government had pushed through the Parliament Act, which removed the Lords’ veto over legislation. Bills passed by the Commons in three successive sessions would now become law whether the Lords approved or not. In response, Unionists in Ireland and England turned to extralegal means of opposition. Ulster Protestants, asserting that Home Rule meant “Rome Rule,” organized paramilitary units, the Ulster Volunteers, and nationalists responded in kind with the Irish Volunteers. Little was done by London to stop the growing militarization. The so-called Curragh Mutiny in March 1914 suggested that the British Army, many of whose officers were staunchly Unionist, could not be relied upon to impose Home Rule by force. Most alarming was the increasing bellicosity of political rhetoric. The Unionist leader Andrew Bonar Law warned ominously: “I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I should not be prepared to support them.” From the other side, Winston Churchill accused the Unionists of upholding the law only when this suited their “appetite or ambition.” The “veto of violence,” he thundered, “has replaced the veto of privilege.”37

A possible way out was to exempt Ulster, home to most of Ireland’s Protestants, from Home Rule, but the IPP rejected partition while Irish Unionists had covenanted to keep all Ireland within the UK. In any case, in Ulster as with Czechs and Germans in Bohemia, no neat dividing line could be drawn on the ground. Catholics constituted a majority in the counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone, while in working-class areas of Belfast and Londonderry the two communities often lived on adjacent streets. On May 25, 1914 the Irish Home Rule bill passed the Commons for the third and constitutionally final time. Asquith offered Ulster a six-year opt-out, but this was dismissed by Ulster Unionists: “We do not want a sentence of death with a stay of execution for six years,” declared their leader, Sir Edward Carson. In late July cross-party talks hosted by the king at Buckingham Palace broke up without agreement and jumpy British troops fired on a hostile crowd in Dublin, killing three people. The stage seemed set for civil war.38

What happened next was colorfully evoked in Churchill’s war memoirs. On July 24, the cabinet, still exploring the outlines of Ulster exclusion, “toiled around the muddy byways of Fermanagh and Tyrone” for much of the afternoon. As the meeting ended, the foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, read out a note that he had just received. Grey had been speaking for several minutes, recalled Churchill, “before I could disengage my mind from the tedious and bewildering debate which had just closed.” The note was Vienna’s ultimatum to Serbia following the assassination in Sarajevo. As Churchill took in its unyielding words, “the parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland, and a strange light began immediately, but by perceptible gradations, to fall and grow upon the map of Europe.”39

The Liberal government still forced the Irish Home Rule onto the statute book in September 1914, together with disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Wales, but implementation of both pieces of legislation was suspended for the duration of the war. The Scottish Home Rule bill failed to get a third reading through pressure of wartime business. In May 1915, Asquith formed a coalition with Unionist and Labour representation—an equivalent of the political truces in France and Germany and something that would have been quite inconceivable amid the political rancor a year before. This paved the way for a real government of national unity under David Lloyd George in December 1916.40 So Churchill’s account did prove poetically true: once war broke out, the map of Ireland and the general crisis of Britishness receded into the background as attention shifted across the Channel.

Hardliners in the cabinet like Grey and Churchill had little doubt that Britain must enter the continental conflict. Germany’s support for Austria-Hungary, which escalated rapidly into a preemptive war against the Franco-Russian alliance, could easily threaten the Channel ports and upset the balance of power. For them this was an echo of earlier struggles against Louis XIV and Napoleon, coming almost a century after the final defeat of Bonaparte in 1815. But their Liberal Party was deeply divided: for most of its MPs what tipped the balance on August 4, the day Britain declared war, was the German invasion of France via Belgium, whose neutrality Britain was pledged by treaty to uphold. “Little Belgium” became the defining ideological marker. The kaiser’s armies had flagrantly invaded a neutral nation and then flouted conventional distinctions between soldiers and noncombatants, burning the university town of Louvain and shelling the cathedral at Reims. Some 6,500 Belgian and French civilians were killed, often brutally and without provocation, by German troops during the invasion of 1914.41

Reports and pictures in those opening weeks of the war had a powerful effect on British opinion: “The Oxford of Belgium burnt by the German ‘Huns’” proclaimed The Illustrated London News; “Holocaust of Louvain,” screamed the Daily Mail. During the autumn there were real fears that the terror would spread across the Channel. The people of Essex dug trenches in preparation for possible invasion; Scarborough, Hartlepool, and other East Coast towns were shelled by German warships, killing women and children. Germany’s image as a nation of “baby killers” (Churchill’s phrase) was heightened in May 1915 by the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania, with nearly 1,200 dead. In the face of such evidence of “Hunnish” militarism and barbarism, there was a broad conviction that the British stood for freedom and civilization. In Britain the reason for war was presented as essentially an issue of morality rather than self-interest. As we shall see, this would have far-reaching consequences after 1918.42

Lloyd George provides an instructive example of this moral nationalism. Brought up as a Welsh-speaker in rural Caernarvonshire, he initially applied his sharp mind and silver tongue to the cause of Welsh nonconformists, attacking the privileges of the Anglican Church. Although he flirted with Cymru Fydd, asserting that the Welsh were treated like “the niggers of the Saxon household,” once he entered the Commons as Liberal in 1890, at the age of only twenty-seven, he became a supporter of Home Rule All Round and won national notoriety in 1900 as a critic of the way the Boer War in South Africa was being conducted, denouncing “this infamy which is perpetuated in the name of Great Britain” and proposing that after the war the Dutch settlers should be given “full local autonomy.” Lloyd George was neither a pacifist nor an anti-imperialist—he believed in the British Empire and its place in the world. But in 1914, as the July Crisis unfolded, his preference was to stay out of war. Yet he told his wife on August 3, “If the small nationality of Belgium is attacked by Germany all my traditions & even prejudices will be engaged on the side of war.”43

It was, however, several weeks before Lloyd George spoke out in public, partly because of his immersion as chancellor of the Exchequer in the financial crisis that followed the outbreak of war but also because of his own private turmoil. Eventually on September 19—feeling, as he put it, “about to be executed”—he gave a major speech at the Queen’s Hall in London, developing the moral case for war with all the fire and fluency of his youth as a lay preacher. The German chancellor had derided the Belgian treaty as only “a scrap of paper.” That reminded Lloyd George of the new £1 notes he had just introduced to prevent a run on gold coins. “They are only scraps of paper,” he declared. “What are they worth? The whole credit of the British Empire.” He lauded the resistance of Belgium and Serbia—like Wales “little 5 foot 5 nations” who were “fighting for their freedom” against the great big “Prussian Junker” storming along like “the road-hog of Europe.” This, he told his audience, was “a great war for the emancipation of Europe from the thraldom of a military caste” which was “now plunging the world into a welter of bloodshed and death.”44

Lloyd George was typical of millions across the country. Patriotic fervor was a consequence of the war rather than a cause, but as it swelled in those first months of fighting, so political debate was refocused. The national question that (unusually in early twentieth-century Europe) had exploded before the war in the UK thanks to the detonator of parliamentary politics, now seemed to fizzle out. Or rather, ethnic nationalisms were increasingly subsumed in a rejuvenated civic nationalism as the conflict pitted British values against a new and menacing Other—militaristic Germany.

In Wales, disestablishment and disendowment of the Anglican Church had satisfied the main demand of nationalists, and Lloyd George’s elevation to the premiership in 1916 showed that Welshmen as well as Scots could scale the summit of the British state. Welsh-language newspapers were overwhelmingly pro-war, many peddling what historian Kenneth Morgan has described as “a crude anti-Teutonic racism,” and war orders fueled an economic revival in the mines, factories, and ports of South Wales.45

In Scotland, too, coal, steel, and shipbuilding all boomed. By 1916, Dundee, home of the British jute industry, was producing six million sacks a month for sandbags in trenches along the Western Front. The war, crowed one manufacturer, had turned jute fibers into “strands of gold.”46 For such profits Scotland paid a big price. Proportionate to its population, the country had the highest rate of Army volunteering in the whole of the UK—one in six of the British soldiers of the war were Scottish—and also the highest death rate among those who enlisted. The city of Glasgow boasted the record for war loans, contributing a staggering £14 million in one “Tank Week” in January 1918, eclipsing the previous weekly record (£3.5 million) set by London. Scotland’s special fervor for the Great War is not easily explained—possibly a reflection of the country’s warrior past and competing martial traditions (Highland and Lowland)—but it showed that distinctively Scottish pride could be incorporated and expressed within the British war effort.47

In Scotland and Wales, the war boom followed by postwar recession would create real social and political tensions but these were seen as issues of class, not nation. The National Party of Scotland, precursor to the SNP, was founded in 1928, three years after its Welsh equivalent, Plaid Cymru, but neither had much impact. It is reasonable to suppose that, “had there been no war, some measure of Home Rule would have been on the statute book by 1920” for Scotland. Instead, participation in the struggle against Germany had strengthened a sense of Britishness in both Scotland and Wales. This would be reinforced by an even more titanic struggle in 1939–45. Only from the late 1960s, when Germany was no longer a threat, did the English Other become a bogey again and Scottish and Welsh nationalism start to revive as serious political movements.48

In Ireland, however, the story was very different from mainland Britain. There, 1914–18 had a profoundly divisive effect, generating a war for national independence and a civil war, both of which left deep and enduring scars.

In 1914 the omens had looked favorable: Britain’s declaration of war on Germany did have a pacifying effect in Ireland, as Churchill said. The leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond, was a committed federalist, aspiring to Ireland’s eventual place as a dominion within the British Empire, rather like Australia or Canada. Although a devout Catholic, his sense of Irishness was inclusive, embracing Catholic and Protestant alike, and he had not been caught up in the Gaelic revival. A stocky, serious man, Redmond was deeply affected both by the outbreak of the war and by Britain’s concession of the principle of Home Rule. In September 1914 he offered the British government the manpower of the Irish Volunteers—“not only in Ireland itself, but wherever the firing line extends.” In part this was a tactical ploy, emulating nationalist leaders on the Continent who hoped that fighting for their imperial masters would win them greater autonomy. But Redmond genuinely believed Britain was waging a struggle for civilization against Prussian despotism. For him, the passing of Home Rule and the decision to fight for Belgium showed that the British leopard had now changed its spots—standing up for the liberty of small nations rather than stamping on them, as it had done with the Boers in South Africa fifteen years earlier. Redmond also hoped that if Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants fought alongside each other, rather than against each other, “their union in the field may lead to a union in their home,” so that “their blood may be the seal that will bring Ireland together in one nation.” Dissident Irish Volunteers who broke away were dismissed by him as a bunch of “isolated cranks” with “no policy and no leader” who “don’t count to a row of pins as far as the future of Ireland is concerned.”49

Redmond might have been proved right if the war had finished quickly: Irish volunteering rates in the autumn of 1914 were better than in parts of England, such as the Southwest and East Anglia. But as the conflict dragged on and the carnage mounted, recruitment among Irish Catholics fell away and Redmond’s gamble seemed increasingly like a sell-out. “We’ve Home Rule now the statute book adorning,” ran one nationalist ditty. “We brush the cobwebs off it every morning.”50 Neither could Redmond cash in his political chips. When Asquith formed his coalition in May 1915, the Unionist members included inveterate foes of Home Rule such as Bonar Law and Edward Carson, a leading Ulster Unionist. Redmond was offered a post but, in line with hallowed IPP policy, he refused to serve—thereby forfeiting any chance of exerting a balancing influence.

Then, in April 1916, the “isolated cranks” cut the ground from under his feet. Their Easter Rising was intended as a desperate bid to keep the flame of Irish nationalism alive. Its principal leader, Pádraig Pearse—a tall, imposing orator, usually dressed in black, and a fervent apostle of the Gaelic revival—was described by the poet William Butler Yeats as “a man made dangerous by the Vertigo of Self-Sacrifice.” Some of Pearse’s colleagues represented the Rising as a serious military campaign—Joseph Plunkett, for instance, insisting that if the German spring offensive came off, tying down the British Army, the rebels might hold out for up to three months after which “the English would have to make peace”—but in reality the whole operation was a quixotic gesture, botched in many of its essentials.51 Vital heavy weapons from Germany were intercepted by the British; the Rising was delayed from Easter Sunday to the next day, throwing mobilization into chaos; and the rebels failed to seize such key points as the ill-defended Dublin Castle, establishing their HQ instead in the General Post Office, from where they proclaimed an Irish Republic. Their movement attracted little support outside Dublin itself and by the following weekend British troops had regained control of the city. Some 60 insurgents were killed, plus 130 troops and police, and another 300 civilians died, many of them caught in the crossfire.52

Seen within a European context, the Irish nationalists were not unusual in trying to play off one side against another: Piłsudski did the same for Poland. What made the Dubliners of 1916 unique was mounting a rebellion against the established government while the war was at its height.53 Initial reactions in Ireland were perplexed, even hostile. Some local women, married to soldiers in the British Army, were furious that they could not collect their normal “separation allowances” from the besieged Post Office. But there was much admiration for the courage of the rebels. The “poor foolish young fellows made a clean and gallant fight,” wrote one Redmondite clergyman in Kilkenny. “Hence a great wave of sympathy has gone out to their memory from every true Irish heart.”54 Admiration then turned to anger after the ineptly brutal treatment of the prisoners by British military commanders, who were left virtually to their own devices for several weeks until Asquith got a grip on the situation. In the interim martial law was declared, three thousand people were arrested, ninety sentenced to death, and fifteen executed, some of them minor figures in the Rising. James Connolly, one of the leaders, was so badly wounded that he was predicted to have only a day or two to live, yet his execution went ahead. Unable to stand before the firing squad, Connolly was tied to a chair and then shot. The executions turned “foolish young fellows” into national martyrs, hallowed in iconic photographs and mourning badges, while the rubble of Dublin was often likened in words and pictures to the ruins of Ypres. Pearse’s suicidal gesture had worked.

Finally grasping the magnitude of the disaster, Asquith tried to implement the Home Rule Act of 1914, putting Lloyd George in charge of the negotiations. Lloyd George, conscious of Britain’s growing dependence on American supplies and loans, feared that the Irish-American lobby could “force an ignominious peace on us,” unless the issue of “Irish freedom” was settled. But even more potent were fears that some diehard Unionists would resign from the coalition cabinet. The crunch point in July 1916 was the exclusion of Ulster from the provisions of Home Rule: Redmond would at most tolerate only a “temporary” exclusion, while diehards like Lord Lansdowne insisted this must be permanent. Ultimately Lloyd George and Asquith were not willing to face down the Unionists, further weakening Redmond’s position in Ireland.55

A major reason for their circumspection was that these negotiations coincided with the start of Britain’s great, hopefully war-winning offensive on the Somme. But there on the bloody slopes of Thiepval Ridge another Irish tragedy unfolded, very different from the Easter Rising but equally fateful. On July 1, the 36th (Ulster) Division lost a third of its 15,000 men—killed, wounded, or missing in courageous charges against the German lines. Many of the dead had been Protestant paramilitaries in the Ulster Volunteers in 1914. By the old calendar, July 1 was the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, which Ulster loyalists commemorated as a famous victory over the Catholic French, and the 36th went into battle tanked up on a heady cocktail of prayers, hymns, and liquor, with many officers wearing sashes of the Orange Order. Unionists contrasted the Ulster Division’s self-sacrifice for civilization (including four Victoria Crosses) with the Judas-like betrayal perpetrated in Dublin. For both Nationalists and Unionists, therefore, 1916 was a year of blood sacrifice but, contrary to Redmond’s hopes, the bloodshed drove them further apart. The Easter Rising and the first day of the Somme would become markers for the rival ideologies.

For many Irishmen and women, the suppression of the Dublin Rising unmasked the old Adam in their historic foe, proving, contrary to Redmond, that the British Empire would still stamp on small nations. “All changed, changed utterly,” Yeats marveled in his poem “Easter 1916”: “A terrible beauty is born.” Thomas Kettle, a prominent Redmondite and an officer in the 16th (Irish) Division, reflected gloomily that Pearse and his fellows “will go down to history as heroes and martyrs, and I will go down—if I go down at all—as a bloody British officer.” Kettle, a renowned barrister and writer, was killed on the Somme in September 1916.56 In June 1917, John Redmond’s charismatic brother Willie, a major in the 16th (Irish) Division although in his mid-fifties, also died leading his men at the Battle of Messines. Willie was still sure that the blood of war could heal Ireland’s wounds, and men of the Ulster Division did indeed form a guard of honor at his burial. But it was all too late. During 1917 the rejuvenated Sinn Féin trounced the IPP in a string of by-elections. One of the victors was Éamon de Valera, the most senior surviving commander from Easter Week, who won Willie Redmond’s vacant seat. De Valera’s conduct during the Rising remains a matter of controversy but, like Piłsudski in Poland, his name was made by incarceration in an imperial jail, and in 1917 he was elected Sinn Féin president. Gone was the old talk about a Hungarian-style solution to the Irish question, with separate parliaments but the same monarch: Sinn Féin was now committed to full independence as an Irish republic.

The crisis escalated in April 1918 when the British government, panicked by the great German offensive, decided that conscription, imposed on the mainland in 1916, should now be extended across the Irish Sea. The British authorities in Dublin warned that this would totally alienate Nationalist opinion—“we might as well recruit Germans,” declared the Army commander, who predicted “the loss of Ireland”—but the cabinet believed the move essential to convince British opinion that the burdens of the war were being fairly shared. The Irish Parliamentary Party had always claimed that by holding seats at Westminster, it could protect Irish interests, so passage of the new conscription bill destroyed its last shreds of credibility.57 Strikes and protests spread across Ireland, with most of the Sinn Féin leadership ending up in jail; even Catholic bishops came out openly against conscription. Although the crisis on the Western Front abated and Irish conscription was never seriously enforced, the political damage was irreparable. When the UK went to the polls in December 1918, the IPP was reduced to only seven MPs. Sinn Féin won 73 of Ireland’s 105 seats but declined to take them up, instead convening as a revolutionary assembly in Dublin (Dáil Éireann), which proclaimed an independent Irish republic on January 21, 1919, just after the peace conference had opened in Paris. Sinn Féin couched its case in a European context, arguing that Ireland should be treated on a par with other historic, now rejuvenated, nations such as Poland and Finland, but the peacemakers did not intend to apply self-determination within their own states. One Nationalist complained that “the blacks and yellows, all colours and races, may be heard before the conference, except the Irish.”58

So Irish independence, like that of countries across eastern Europe, was won not at the peace conference but on the battlefield, in a vicious guerrilla war against the British that lasted two and a half years. By violence and intimidation the IRA gradually undermined British administration across most of rural Ireland—tax collection, the jury system, and especially the Royal Irish Constabulary, the largely Catholic police force. The British government bolstered the Army and the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) with paramilitary units raised from former British soldiers: the Black and Tans and the Auxiliary Division. Named for their initially makeshift uniforms, the Black and Tans, some 9,000 in all, were “all English and Scotch people,” an RIC veteran recalled, “very rough, f-ing and blinding and boozing and all.” Many regarded service in Ireland as a continuation of the war. “It was the same ribaldry and the same give and take as in the trenches,” according to one Tan. But this was a different enemy from the one on the old Western Front—shadowy, elusive, and in civilian dress—so the paramilitaries soon treated all Irish as potential enemies.59

The 2,200 men who served in the Auxiliaries—supposedly an elite British unit recruited from ex-officers and including three Victoria Crosses (Britain’s highest award for courage in battle)—were not much better. After one shootout, a senior British Army officer noted: “They all had the wind up, blood up, and did what they used to do in the trenches in France. In the circumstances you cannot hold them criminally responsible, but they are not fit to be policemen—but are any Auxiliaries?” An examination of personnel records suggests that the Auxiliary Division was a haven for “psychological casualties: schoolboys who had become killers instead of going to university, working-class men disorientated by wartime promotion to the status of officers and gentlemen, fractured personalities whose childhood maladjustments had found temporary relief in the 1914–18 war and whose outward stability depended on the psychic reassurance of a khaki tunic on their back and a Webley .455 on their hip.”60

On the IRA side too, many of the activists were brutalized former British soldiers—men such as Tom Barry, an ex-sergeant in the Royal Munster Fusiliers, who declared that in 1915 “I was not influenced by the lurid appeal to fight to save Belgium or small nations. I went to the war for no other reason than that I wanted to see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel a grown man.” Ambitious and unstable, Barry used his Army training to execute some of the IRA’s most cold-blooded operations. The worst area was County Cork, where more than seven hundred people were killed between 1917 and 1923—a third of them civilians who had no involvement with police or guerrillas. “The political arena was transformed into a nightmare world of anonymous killers and victims, of disappearances, massacres, midnight executions, bullets in the back of the head, bodies dumped in fields or ditches.”61

In November 1920, the British government imposed martial law across much of the country—a propaganda disaster comparable to the executions after the Easter Rising. The conflict escalated that winter, with most of the casualties coming not in direct clashes between rival units but through ambushes and surprise raids on soft targets. This was a dirty war of terror and counterterror. The policy of reprisals was sanctioned by Churchill, now secretary of state for War, even though his wife, a staunch Liberal, deplored this resort to what she called “the rough, iron-fisted ‘Hunnish’ way.”62 It was an apt phrase: the British authorities were using methods never sanctioned on the mainland, including paramilitary mercenaries reminiscent of the German Freikorps in the Baltic states. Martial law was never applied in Britain itself, but it was in Ireland (1798, 1803, 1916, and 1920) and also in the colonies—another sign of underlying British attitudes toward the Irish question.63

The damage this policy was doing to Britain’s international image as well as its evident failure in Ireland eventually forced Lloyd George into a dramatic U-turn—accepting a ceasefire that led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921. This conceded dominion status to the twenty-six counties, putting them on a par with the white elite of the Empire—Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa—who remained subordinate to Britain only in foreign and defense policy. Irish supporters of the treaty argued pragmatically that this was the thin end of the wedge toward complete independence, but many IRA men were irreconcilable, not because the treaty “failed to provide a united Ireland, but because it failed to deliver the ‘republic’” and required them to swear fidelity to the hated British Crown. The rift over the treaty proved unbridgeable and led in June 1922 to a ten-month civil war during which more Irish died than in the conflict with Britain. The estimated figure of between 1,500 and 2,000 included 77 Republicans shot in cold blood by pro-treaty forces. Principle was involved here, but so were less elevated motives: personal animosities, gang rivalries, and a revolt by the young against a stratified society run by fathers, priests, and employers. The civil war “created a caesura across Irish history, separating parties, interests and even families, and creating the rationale for political divisions that endured.” Historically it has been very unusual for a war of independence to be followed by a civil war: the only European exception after 1914–18 was Finland, and that conflict also left enduring scars. Here is another parallel between the Irish experience of the Great War era and that of eastern Europe.64

There are continental parallels too, in Ulster—six counties of which were partitioned from the Irish Free State and, uniquely within the UK, given their own Home Rule parliament. The British government had hoped that partition would be a cooling-off device to allow an eventual all-Ireland Parliament, but nationalists remained committed to independence for the whole of Ireland and so temporary expedients hardened into durable realities. The new government was bankrolled by Britain, receiving four-fifths of its income direct from the Treasury in London. As in 1914, the precise border was still disputed, especially in the largely Catholic counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone, and a Boundary Commission agreed under the Anglo-Irish Treaty toured disputed areas rather like the investigations sponsored by the Paris peacemakers in hot spots such as Teschen. In the end, however, Dublin caved in and accepted the existing border in December 1925.

Nationalists within Ulster now had to come to terms with the reality of partition, but the new statelet of Northern Ireland was structured against them. The Government of Ireland Act in 1920 had imposed proportional representation (PR) in order to protect minority interests. This did have some effect: in the 1925 general election, for instance, official Unionists were down from 40 to 32 of the 52 seats at Westminster. But Nationalists continued to boycott Ulster’s own parliament, and this made it easy for Unionists to abolish PR, first for local elections and then for the UK Parliament. London acquiesced for fear of bringing down the Ulster government and provoking a new crisis. Unionists also had the constituency boundaries redrawn to suit their interests, bombarding the commission of inquiry with dubious maps and statistics of the sort concocted by eastern European nationalists for the Paris peacemakers. In Belfast, for instance, the Unionist constituencies each comprised fewer than 20,000 voters, whereas Nationalists were piled into one megaconstituency of more than 30,000. Catholics were also largely excluded from the police and civil service, under the beady eye of prime minister Sir James Craig, Ulster’s bull-necked political boss. As the South became what he called a “Catholic state,” with the Church’s special position enshrined in the Constitution, Craig boasted that “we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State.”65

In some ways the partition of Ireland had an air of historical inevitability about it, rooted in the seventeenth-century “plantation” of Scottish Protestants on the northeast of Catholic Ireland. Across the rest of the island, Britishness had never taken hold and partition was under discussion well before 1914. Nevertheless the Easter Rising and the conscription crisis entrenched existing divisions, turning a fraught debate about Home Rule into a bloody war for independence and the stalemate of partition. Craig’s Ulster was reminiscent of Masaryk’s Czechoslovakia, with one ethno-religious group abridging minority rights to keep itself on top. The victorious British state had not been able to stop Irish independence, but it did safeguard the position of Protestant Unionists, though also storing up huge problems for the future. It is interesting to imagine what could have happened if the British Empire had ended up on the losing side in 1918. Ulster Protestants, as in their worst nightmares, might then have been reduced to second-class citizens within a united Ireland, like Germans in the new Czechoslovakia. Idle speculation, perhaps, but it reminds us again of why the Great War is “the single most central experience of twentieth-century Ireland.”66

So the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with Britain more united than before 1914 but Northern Ireland an uneasy outpost of Britishness in a largely independent but fiercely hostile island of Ireland.

Ignoring the Irish question (which most people in mainland Britain were very happy to do after 1921), what strikes one most about the British experience of 1914–18 is the contrast with that of continental Europe. Despite the panic of late 1914, Britain was never invaded or in serious danger of invasion (unlike 1940). The British were also the only civilian population virtually out of the firing line: deaths from sea and air bombardment, including the notorious raids on London by Gotha bombers, were 1,266 (compared with 60,595 in 1939–45).67 In eastern Europe, however, countries such as Poland, Romania, and Serbia became killing fields—the Serb death toll of nearly a quarter of males between the ages of fifteen and forty-nine being the worst of any belligerent. Even France and Italy, Britain’s victorious allies, had to fight on their own soil: northeastern France was ravaged, while Italy’s failure to seize all the land that nationalists regarded as rightfully Italian—the so-called mutilated victory (vittoria mutilata)—caused a grave political crisis. Germany was not invaded, but after the war Allied troops occupied the Rhineland and the French took back Alsace and Lorraine, the spoils of 1870–71.

Britain’s relative immunity from the fighting had a potentially troubling side, however. The French lost 1.3 million (13 percent of males between ages fifteen and forty-nine) but this sacrifice could be “justified” as the cost of redeeming French territory, whereas the British and Irish death toll of 723,000 (6 percent of males between fifteen and forty-nine) was not linked in the public mind to any concrete national goals—only to abstract ideals such as civilized values and even the eradication of war. As those ideals soured in the 1920s and 1930s, so doubts were aired about the point of the sacrifice. These doubts intensified after 1939–45, which became enshrined in national memory as a true war of national survival—won, moreover, at roughly half the human cost.

Only one major belligerent was more detached from the conflict than Britain—the United States, three thousand miles from the battlefields of Europe. Although 4.7 million Americans were mobilized and half of them traveled to Europe, the US Army saw combat for less than six months. During that short time, however, its losses in proportion to the number of soldiers engaged were actually comparable to Verdun or the Somme. The US commander John J. Pershing was sure that American-style “open warfare”—bravura infantry attacks with rifle and bayonet—could break through where the plodding French and British had failed. The results were predictable. During the Meuse-Argonne offensive in October 1918, one American division was totally routed by a German counterattack; another lost 5,000 men from enemy artillery before even reaching the front; while a third attacked with 12,000 men and came back with only 2,000. By the time Pershing grasped the lessons his allies had painfully learned about close cooperation between infantry, artillery, tanks, and airpower, he had lost 26,000 dead in little more than a month—carnage far worse than the Civil War battles of Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Cold Harbor combined. Fortunately for Pershing the death toll never really registered at home, unlike in Britain after the Somme, thanks to a combination of tight military censorship, embedded reporters who maintained an “enthusiastic silence” about the body count, and a crescendo of front-page speculation about the impending armistice.68 So America’s Great War was as bloody as Britain’s but far shorter. As a result, the official death toll was only 116,516 (0.4 percent of males aged fifteen to forty-nine). Even that is a misleading figure, because combat deaths accounted for only 53,402 of the total. More Doughboys succumbed to influenza than to German bullets, and roughly half the flu victims died in the United States.69

For Americans, the Great War was “peculiarly an affair of the mind,” 70 evident above all in the country’s sense of national identity. Many Americans regard “nationalism” as a vice evident in others; some scholars of that “ism” even omit the USA from their analysis.71 Yet the United States exhibits a recognizable form of civic nationalism, akin to Britain’s though with distinctive twists. The essence of its identity lies not in common ethnicity but in shared civic values: Americans, to quote Eric Hobsbawm, are “those who wish to be.” 72 These values (for which a shorthand is “liberty”) were transplanted to the American colonies from England and then politicized by the spread of democracy, which embraced nearly all white males by the 1830s—far earlier than in Europe. Despite their English origin, these political values were trumpeted as preeminently American amid the anti-British frenzy that fueled two wars of independence (1776–83 and 1812–14). During the nineteenth century, the United States became a “nation of immigrants” originating from all over continental Europe, but the core of US citizenship remained these democratic liberties and also the use of English as the country’s official language.

The infant United States was not, however, a unitary state like France or Britain but a loose federal polity, wracked for its first eighty years by secessionist forces and shamed by the persistence of racial slavery in a so-called land of liberty. These tensions culminated in the Civil War of 1861–65. The South claimed to be fighting a war of independence, akin to 1776, for what in later Wilsonian parlance would be called “self-determination.” The North’s initial aim was to stop Southern secession from what it asserted to be an indissoluble union. But as the struggle deepened, this became for the North a war to free the slaves. At Gettysburg in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln redefined America as a single democratic nation now undergoing “a new birth of freedom” to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” His assertion that America’s democracy should be a model for the whole world would be taken up fifty years later by Woodrow Wilson.73

Wilson’s early career had been spent at Princeton—first as a professor of politics, then as president of the university—but his ambition was always to do politics for real. He was fascinated by the challenge of political leadership in an age of democracy, believing that presidents should listen to the public mood but not be constrained by it. Frankly contemptuous of Congress, which he regarded as a forum for small-minded local interests, he favored a British-style prime-ministerial approach in which the president led from the front, especially on foreign policy. Wilson was the son of a Presbyterian minister, and Calvinist religion helped shape his thinking, including a strong sense of Providence, especially where his own country was concerned. Although often depicted as an uptight academic, he was more exactly an intellectual—fluent with words (usually speaking from notes rather than a text) and often seduced by his own slogans. Nowhere was this more fatefully true than in foreign policy.

When war broke out in Europe, Wilson adopted a stance of studied neutrality. More than 8 million of America’s 105 million people had been born in Germany or had at least one German parent; conversely, many Czechs and Serbs in America sought the defeat of the Habsburgs to promote national liberation back home. “The people of the United States are drawn from many nations, and chiefly from the nations now at war,” Wilson observed. “Some will wish one nation, others another, to succeed in the momentous struggle.” To enter the war in Europe might therefore mean civil war at home, and the president did not wish rival ethnic nationalisms to imperil America’s overriding civic nationalism. He justified American neutrality by treating the war as a typical Old World feud, devoid of morality. One-liners about “nothing in particular started it” and America being “too proud to fight” did not go down well in London and Paris.74

When Germany’s desperate resort to unrestricted U-boat warfare in 1917 forced Wilson into war, he explained his policy shift in the language of civic nationalism. His war message of April 2 envisioned a world “made safe for democracy” (perhaps his most famous slogan), with peace “planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.” The enemy, Wilson insisted, was not the German people but “Prussian autocracy”; similarly, he welcomed the collapse of tsarism as the end of a “terrible” autocracy that had repressed the “democratic” instincts of the Russian people. So, Wilson declared, the United States would fight “for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations.” 75

In short, to recast the world in America’s self-image. There was, of course, more than a touch of self-deception here, given the racial discrimination endemic in the United States. When Wilson lectured Queen Marie of Romania about how her country should treat its minorities, she replied archly that of course the president must be well aware of minority issues because of the Negro and Japanese questions in the United States.76 But after a ruinous war in which ten million had died, Wilson and most Americans were more conscious of Europe’s defects than their own. He went to Paris in a position of great influence, yet he was venturing into uncharted waters. He was the first US president to leave the Western Hemisphere while in office, and none of his predecessors had been centrally involved in a European war. “Lacking adequate guidance from the American diplomatic tradition, he internationalized the heritage of his country.” His overriding aim in Paris was to create a new framework for international relations, based on a League of Nations that would reflect the reality of nationalism yet regulate its warlike tendencies within a world that was, he believed, moving inexorably toward the triumph of democracy.77

But in 1919, Wilson’s ideological sound bites collided with European realities. “When the President talks of ‘self-determination’ what unit has he in mind?” asked his frustrated secretary of state, Robert Lansing. “Does he mean a race, a territorial area, or a community?” The phrase, Lansing warned, was “simply loaded with dynamite”: it would “raise hopes which can never be realized” and “cost thousands of lives.” Rather plaintively Wilson told senators in 1919 that when he stated that “all nations had a right to self-determination,” he had spoken “without the knowledge that nationalities existed, which are coming to us day after day.” 78 He also backed off from the implications of his democratic slogans, telling journalists testily, “I am not fighting for democracy except for the peoples that want democracy. If they want it, then I am ready to fight until they get it. If they don’t want it, that is none of my business.” 79

Neither had Wilson thought through what he meant by a League of Nations. The idea originated among British Liberals, especially Sir Edward Grey. Haunted by the utter failure of diplomacy to halt the slide to war in 1914, the British foreign secretary advocated a forum for international discussion that would require nations to talk before they fought. This minimalist version of the League was always the preference in London. But on that foundation Wilson built a more elaborate edifice, whose heart was Article 10 of the League Covenant. This committed the League to “preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence” of all member states. Breaches of this principle could be met by economic sanctions and even military force. The British and French governments went along with Article 10 because it signified an unprecedented and vital American engagement in global affairs. The Foreign Office, however, was wary of such a rigid commitment to “territorial integrity” and “political independence” when the borders of the new Europe were so problematic, but it was unable to get an equally strong commitment in the treaty for the League to promote territorial revisions if these seemed desirable in the interests of peace. Wilson regarded Article 10 as “the key to the whole Covenant,” considering the pledge as essentially a deterrent, so strong that it would not need to be invoked, and he did not want its wording weakened in any way.80

The president’s intransigence became a major stumbling block when he tried to bulldoze the League through the US Senate, controlled by his Republican political opponents. They were not persuaded by his casuistic arguments about how League membership would allow America to shape world affairs without abridging its freedom of action. Wilson’s archrival, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, did not oppose specific commitments in Europe, for instance an Anglo-American guarantee of French security against future German aggression, but he objected “in the strongest possible way to having the United States agree, directly or indirectly, to be controlled by a league which may at any time . . . be drawn in to deal with internal conflicts in other countries, no matter what those conflicts may be.”81 In frustration, Wilson tried to whip up popular support through a whirlwind speaking tour across the American heartland, but his frenzied efforts eventually laid him low with a paralyzing stroke. The administration was unable to secure the two-thirds majority in the Senate necessary to ratify the peace treaty. So the League of Nations came into existence without the most powerful of the victor nations. This left the British and French to try to make it work despite a central principle that they had not wanted—committed now to a new map of the Old World designed not by reason in the salons of Paris but by blood across the battlegrounds of Europe.

Wilson’s underlying conviction, born of the tragedy of world war, was that the United States must now play a decisive role in shaping world affairs, breaking out of its isolationist tradition. He attempted to sell that to his skeptical people through the language of principle rather than interest—much as British leaders had presented the war to their own people, semidetached from the continental cauldron. In both these countries during the 1920s and 1930s the bright language of idealism would struggle against dark postwar realities. But Wilson’s seductive sound bites, expressing America’s distinctive civic nationalism, would echo down the twentieth century. And the most resonant, even more than “self-determination,” was “democracy.”

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