Keith Locke: There’s nothing great about Great War

WWI was a disastrous struggle for imperial power rather than a fight for freedom — and we must share blame

[On 5 August 2014, on the 100th anniversary of New Zealand’s entry into World War I, I had this opinion piece carried in the New Zealand Herald.]

Read this article on the NZ Herald website

Over the next four years we will learn much about World War I and the suffering that went with it.

The war was a major disaster for this country. One in every 20 New Zealanders was killed or wounded. We experienced the second highest casualty rate among the protagonists, after Serbia.

Because so many New Zealanders died there is a natural tendency to believe they died for a good cause and that the war had something to do with preserving freedom and democracy. I don’t believe that’s true.

At the time, Germany had a more vibrant Parliament than New Zealand, including a large component of social democrats. Germany was not a traditional enemy. Both Britain and New Zealand had strong cultural ties with Germany, stronger than those we had with either France or Russia.

Given this connection, Britain was at first reluctant to enter the continental war. It sympathised with Austria-Hungary in its dispute with Serbia over the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Britain entered the war only at the last moment, primarily to stop Germany from becoming too influential on the European mainland. Britain saw Germany as the main challenger to its own status as the dominant imperial power.

This war between the European great powers was a disaster for all its participants, with more than 16 million people killed. Far from being the “war to end all wars” WWI helped lay the ground for WWII. Reparations imposed on Germany by the victor nations assisted the rise of Nazis, who presented themselves to the German people as agents of a national reawakening.

While there is this link between the two world wars, in other respects the wars were quite different. Unlike the first war, the second pitted the democratic nations against an expansionist dictatorship, Hitler’s Germany. WWI was simply a contest between great powers, each in their perceived national interest.

It is deeply ingrained in the New Zealand psyche that our soldiers in the Great War fought with self-sacrifice and bravery at Gallipoli and elsewhere. We will remember that on this 100th anniversary. But we can do that without glorifying the war, or defining it as a just war.

The main way we should remember those who died is to work out ways to prevent such bloodshed in our time. The wars currently waging in the Ukraine and Gaza show we still have some way to go.

To draw the right lessons from WWI it is useful to look at how Germany – our main adversary at the time – is remembering the conflict. On July 3, the Bundestag marked the event with a special session. Bundestag president Norbert Lammert concluded that “military measures are not an adequate means of political change. If at all, they can only be the very last resort to solve conflicts.” He noted that Germany had put the right to conscientious objection in its constitution.

The German Government is not sponsoring big commemorations or visits to war graves.

Rather it is using the occasion to promote reconciliation and make progress on European integration.

It is interesting the Bundestag invited as its keynote speaker a renowned French political scientist, Alfred Grosser, who said that blame for the war fell not only on Germany, but also the other protagonists.

Will we be honest enough during our 100th anniversary to attribute to New Zealand some of the blame for the war, even if it was only because of our loyalty to the British Empire and trusting Britain to get it right?

This time, 100 years later, some Britons are getting it right. A “No Glory” open letter signed by many prominent citizens says that “it is important to remember that this was a war driven by big powers’ competition for influence around the globe”. They propose British “activities to mark the courage of many involved in the war but also to remember the almost unimaginable devastation caused”.

In New Zealand it might be a time to remember those conscientious objectors and peace advocates who resisted participation in a war they believed was wrong and in some cases served prison time for doing so.

Let there be no glory in our commemoration of WWI.

– NZ Herald