Robert Beaken considers the causes of the First World War


I have been slightly dreading today, the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War in 1918. As a historian and author of a book about the Great War, it is a topic about which I know rather a lot, and care much. What has concerned me is the thought that some people in the media will say flippant things about the Great War. We have already endured yet another rerun of Blackadder Goes Forth. I daresay a television channel somewhere will screen Oh What a Lovely War. It worries me when I hear that these films are being used in schools to ‘teach’ the First World War. It seems to me that they convey an image—or rather, an illusion—of a Europe which in 1914 sleepwalked by accident or stupidity into a world war, in which millions of lives were thrown away to no purpose.

Well, no one in their right mind would say that the First World War was a good thing: we would all have been much better off if it had not happened. Nor could one dispute that the cost in human lives was atrocious; I am always concerned that we remember those who continued to suffer for years afterwards. But—and this is where illusion gives way to truth—it would be entirely wrong to say that all this suffering was to no purpose at all. To believe that is to believe something truly awful about the names inscribed on our war memorial.

To understand the First World War, we must first address the German concept of Lebensraum. This means ‘living space,’ and it is a concept we usually associate with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Lebensraum is in fact a much older idea. It first appears in a book published in 1897. Modern Germany was only united in 1871. Some influential German politicians, economists and military leaders soon felt that Germany did not have enough territory for her needs. They sought to expand west into France and east into Russia. More than that, they sought a German ‘hegemony’: they wanted, economically, politically and militarily, to dominate the whole of northern Europe.

We shall hear more of this in a minute, but for the present we need to address the fact that some important Germans sought to obtain Lebensraum through wars of expansion. Professor John Röhl, a distinguished historian who has spent fifty years studying the archives in Germany, has concluded that responsibility for the First World War lies with Kaiser Wilhelm II and about twenty senior politicians and military men.

It is sickening to read that a ‘war council’ presided over by the Kaiser on 8 December 1912 decided to go to war ‘in about a year and a half.’ Do the mathematics. In November 1913, the Kaiser and General Helmuth von Moltke, head of the German general staff, warned King Albert of the Belgians that a German attack on France would happen in the near future, and that Belgium had better grant passage to the German troops. In late May 1914, General von Moltke asked Gottlieb von Jagow, the German secretary of state for foreign affairs, ‘to conduct our policy with a view to bringing about an early war.’ General von Moltke later explained that had the war been postponed to 1916, Russia might have modernized too much to be easily overcome.

So we come to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian-backed terrorists in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. This played into the hands of the Kaiser and the German general staff. Whilst on 31 July 1914 the German chancellor, Theodore von Bethmann Hollweg, sent a telegram urging the Austrian government not to mobilize (German policy was to try to make Russia appear to be in the wrong), General von Moltke also telegraphed the same day to General von Hötzendorf, chief of the Austrian general staff, urging him to get on with the invasion of Serbia.

The Kaiser and the German general staff gambled that Great Britain would remain neutral because of its problems in Ireland, thus giving the German army enough time to follow the Schlieffen Plan and defeat France before turning on Russia. As we know, Great Britain was unable to remain neutral following the German invasion of Belgium, and so it is that we find ourselves today remembering the war dead of Great and Little Bardfield, and of many other communities across our country.

What was it that Germany wanted? In August 1914 the chancellor began preparing a statement of Germany’s war aims. France was to become permanently weakened and Russia thrown back as far as possible. France was to lose her army, her coal and iron fields, her colonies, and a coastal strip ‘from Dunkirk to Boulogne.’ Belgium was to become a German vassal state with her ports in the hands of the German navy. Poland and other satellite states under German control were to be established in occupied eastern Europe. The whole continent, from the Atlantic to the Urals, would come under German economic domination, and in Africa a German colonial empire would stretch continuously from east to west and include the Belgian Congo. These plans were extended by the Kaiser and German government in spring 1917: they now sought the capture of Malta, the Azores, Madeira, the Cape Verde islands, the annexation of considerably more land in the east and west, and war reparations from the defeated Allies. ‘Ethnic cleansing’ was also envisaged: Belgium was to be resettled by suitable German non-commissioned officers and their families, and there were similar plans for Poland. Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, believed that a Germany victory leading to the establishment of a German ‘hegemony’ would leave Great Britain in a very difficult position. It would also have meant the effective enslavement of millions of Europeans.

One of the things that shocked ordinary Britons at the start of the First World War was the brutality of the German troops, whose aim was to defeat France as soon as possible, at almost any cost. To this end they employed ‘deterrent terror’: Belgian civilians were sometimes used as ‘human shields,’ villages were destroyed and their populations deported, and the ancient university library at Louvain was deliberately destroyed by fire. Many Belgian and French civilians, including women and children, were assaulted and about 6,500 killed. These figures are modest by the standards of the Second World War, but deeply shocking to the generation of 1914. Accounts of German-occupied Brussels are eerily reminiscent of similar accounts from the Second World War. In the east, captured Russian soldiers were cruelly used as slave labourers and sometimes worked to death. If all this sounds like a slightly milder version of Adolf Hitler, the Third Reich and the Second World War, it is intended to. Suddenly, Blackadder Goes Forth and Oh What a Lovely War seem to have missed the point. The suffering and deaths of so many people in the Great War are awful beyond words and we all wish they had never happened, but we must always remember that those men died for something: to protect their nearest and dearest, to help ordinary people who were suffering oppression on the continent, and to preserve national freedom.

Having said all this, I want to make another important point very plainly. We need to remember that good men and women in Germany and Austria and in other countries also suffered because of the First World War. One of my most valued friends is German. I have never believed in national or racial guilt; Christians should not demonize anyone. I should not like anyone living in Germany today to feel wretched or to suffer in the slightest because of what happened a century ago. I applaud the decision of the Queen to invite the President of Germany to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph. As a Christian, I believe that the future is always more important than the past, but it behoves us to try to remember the past as honestly as we possibly can.

What are we as Christians to make of all the pain and suffering of the Great War? As I said at the start, I am anxious that we do not just remember the million men from Britain and the Empire who were killed in the war, but also the two million who were wounded, as well as all those from other countries. As a boy, I knew old men who had been gassed in the trenches, people who never got over the death of a brother, women who never married because all the local men of marriageable age had been killed.

We have to recognize that there are some things in life which simply cannot be sorted out here on earth, and the First World War is one of them. The only thing we can do—and indeed, the most natural thing—is to lift it all up to God our heavenly father, asking him in his love and mercy to sort it all out as best may be. We can do this in many ways—by praying quietly at home, for example—but for two thousand years, Christians have recognized that the best thing to do is what we are doing this morning: celebrating the Holy Eucharist. This service is not just about receiving Holy Communion, very important though that is. In the Eucharist, we spiritually join ourselves to Christ’s sacrifice at Easter. We are with him at Calvary on Good Friday as he hangs on the cross. We are with him at the empty tomb on Easter Day as he appears to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection. We frankly admit to God that it took this to put us right with Him; and spiritually we unite ourselves and all whom we hold dear with Christ’s saving death and resurrection. We can do this at the Eucharist for a happy occasion, such as a wedding or the completion of a new church. We can also do it for the sad and painful moments of life, such as illness and death. And so, as we celebrate the Holy Eucharist today, we enmesh or meld all the dead of the Great War, all the wounded, all the tears and sorrows, and all the lives changed unalterably for the worse, into the one, eternal sacrifice of Christ. In simple faith and trust, we place the war and all its pain into the loving hands of him who is both suffering servant and also risen lord. Lastly, we pray for ourselves, asking God that we may serve him more fully and lovingly during our time on earth.

You will forgive me if I give the last word to Nurse Edith Cavell, executed by a German firing squad in Brussels in 1915 for assisting Allied soldiers to escape to the Netherlands. Edith Cavell was a Norfolk vicar’s daughter. The night before she died, she received Holy Communion in her prison cell and had a talk with the chaplain. These are almost her last words. The voice is that of Nurse Cavell, but who can doubt that the sentiments are those of Jesus Christ: ‘I have no fear or shrinking. I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me. Life has always been hurried and full of difficulty. This time of rest has been a great mercy. Everyone here has been very kind. But this I would say, standing as I do, before God and the face of Eternity: I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.’


The Revd Dr Robert Beaken is the parish priest at St Mary’s, Great Barfield, and St Katherine’s, Little Barfield. He has published books on the Church and the First World War. This address was given during a Remembrance Sunday service.