Saturday, 1 February 2014

English and German perspectives on the Great War

It's Saturday, so I'm going to mention something other than MPs' sense of entitlement, which is the common news thread bubbling away at the moment. This is about maps. I'm a map person; maps and charts tell you an awful lot about the people who make them and use them, and, in the case of maps marked up with human demographics, allow useful insights into all sorts of issues. Here for instance are two maps of the theatre of war of the Great War - the first from the BBC, but absolutely typical of those we will be drenched with over the next year or so, the second from Der Spiegel.  

You'll notice that our map is centred somewhere over Luxembourg and ends with the Balkans in the bottom right hand corner. Given our major effort was the Western Front, our focus on that area may be understandable. The German map is centred somewhere over Vienna, and paints a picture of Germany and Austro-Hungary surrounded by enemies - a picture that still colours German political perspectives today.

The German map also helps understand why Churchill was so focused on the Dardanelles. A junction between the Ottoman and German Empires - and remember the Berlin to Baghdad railway was a political statement, not an act of engineering bravura - would have immeasurably strengthened that alliance. In the event the two were kept apart by fierce fighting in Serbia and Romania.

We will view the Great War as a struggle between France and the UK against relentless German Westwards aggression - they will view it as the existential struggle for survival of a surrounded, blockaded Reich starved of food and war materials. This perspective, together with French vindictiveness at Versailles, allowed the 'stab in the back' meme that paved the way for Hitler. We must be aware that this perspective still exists, and that next year it will get another airing. This, I suspect, is why some German politicians who know their history are trying to play down the Great War centennial. After a century, we still see things very differently.

And that's a bit of historical perspective you won't get from John Craven's Dan Snow's War Round.


Sniper said...

True. As a former Warrior of the Cold I suggest you also look at a Moscow-centric map of the time.

Anonymous said...

This is just brilliant! We mustn't forget that WW2 was just the second half of WW1, but with a few player transfers and some teams having run out of reserves.From a future perspective, WW1 is probably the last coal war and WW2 the first oil war.

strawbrick said...

Why does the BBC map show Italy and Romania as being neutral when both fought the war on the side of the Allies?
If the map is intended to show the state of the nations at the start of the war then surely Belgium should be neutral? (They only "entered" the war because Germany invaded on the road to Paris, and that brought us into the conflict ...).

The Boiling Frog said...

Nice post Raedwald, seeing wars differently was brought home to me when I visted Moscow and St Petersburg 6 years ago. It's somewhat discombobulating to see endless war memorials with the dates 1941-1946 and the term the "Great Patriotic War" engraved on them.

Somewhat different to the terms we're familiar with like "WW2" and 1939-45.

Bill Quango MP said...

I thought Paxman's WW2 1st part documentary was pretty good.
A deliberate steer away from the poor conscripted Tommy forced to fight to earn munitions makers millions that is usual for WW1.

The only niggle I had with it was he described the panic that overtook the UK about a German invasion that was never going to come.

he was right there. But he didn't mention the 'cold war' naval arms race that had been ongoing since the turn of the century and the large German navy that was aimed solely at attacking the RN.

But that was minor. Catch it if you can. Iplayer probably.
it won't satisfy those that want depth but for those that want an overview it was perfectly acceptable.

Anonymous said...

If you look carefully at the map you can understand why the Brits wanted to strike straight up to Eastern Europe andGermany after taking Italy in WW2. Why did Roosevelt insist on restarting the whole thing with an assault on France when the road to Berlin was wide open from |Italy?

Jublet said...

I would guess the topography of the route from Italy to Berlin ruled that one out.

Bill Quango MP said...

Italian campaign was one of Churchill's less sensible ideas. The yanks were right to want to avoid it. British empire was wrong to insist on it.

Sebastian Weetabix said...

@anonymous "the road to Berlin was wide open from Italy". What utter balls. D minus. The soft underbelly of Europe was a tough old gut.

But BQ is wrong also. It was necessary to enter Italy in order to knock out the Italian navy/airforce, turn the Med into 'our sea' and free up shipping for the main event in France. The really stupid invasion was Operation Dragoon. An American idea, of course. Ships and materiel were wasted there.

Raedwald said...

Also I suspect Alexander lacked sufficient high-altitude elephants to cross the Alps, and the Septics blocked Churchill's plan to strike through the Ljublyana Gap and pre-emptively occupy Hungary ..