March 26, 2014
Historian Max Hastings
The July crisis of 1914 is the most complex series of events in human history and can make you feel “a bit mad,” author and journalist Sir Max Hastings says.
“I can only give you my take on it but the evidence is so confusing and contradictory and the issues are so complex. I think you will find that virtually every student of 1914 is in a permanent state of confusion,” he told an invited audience at the National Archives, London.
After giving a lecture on his best-selling book Catastrophe about the beginnings of the First World War, he said: “When I started working on this three or four years ago I went to a conference of historians discussing the July crisis and I heard a German historian say: ‘So I think we all agree that the July crisis of 1914 is the most complex series of events in human history.’
“Actually I think he is not far wrong. “
He said he had discussed the difficulties of writing about the war recently with historian Margaret MacMillan.
“Margaret said to me when you were writing your book did you ever get the feeling you were going a bit mad at times and I said “absolutely” and she said: “So did I.”
Sir Max was asked what he thought about the BBC’s attempt to explain the events in the recent three part drama 37 Days.
“I thought it achieved the almost impossible feat of being unfair to everybody,” he said. “It wasn’t that 37 days wasn’t an honourable shot it is just that it is too difficult to cram it into three bits of television.”
Answering a question from Germany sent live on Twitter, on the “mess” of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, he said:
“They didn’t do as badly in 1919 as sometimes thought and they did not do as well in 1945 as sometimes thought.
“If one looks at what happens to Europe in 1945 and one sees vast ethnic cleansing on a vast scale in Eastern Europe and of German minorities, civil war in Greece, the Iron Curtain comes down. 1945 wasn’t perfect either. I personally think but the peacemakers of Versailles have been too harshly judged.
“Yes Versailles wasn’t terrific but peacemaking is very hard.
“I don’t think the Germans wanted a big war in 1914 but they were willing for one. That is a rather subtle nuance. They felt confident that they had a better chance of winning a war against Russia and France in 1914 than they would have in 1916.
“Of course in the light of what followed they could all have seen that nothing they could have hoped to get out of it could possibly have justified it but of course in 1914 they did not know that. They thought they were acting rationally.”
He rejected the idea that crisis in Ukraine in 2014 could echo the events of 1914.
“There is no will whatsoever in the West to have a war over all this. I think what is frightening for me about Putin is that he plays golf abroad with only one club in his bag which has caused all the threat.
“The one parallel with 1914 is that people thought war was a usable instrument of government in serving national purposes.
“In that sense I think Putin is very scary. I don’t think he wants a big war but I think he is perfectly happy to have a succession of small ones.”
After the lecture guests were invited to examine items from the Archives First World War collection including a map of the Battle of the Somme.
Centenary News review
To read the Centenary News review of Max Hasting's book Catastrophe:
Posted by: Mike Swain, Centenary News
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