Sunday, September 5, 2010

But what was it like at the time?

At university I studied the causes of the First World War, and at one time I could have itemised all the telegrams that bounced back and forth between the various embassies and foreign ministries in August 1914.  But forget the telegrams, the First World War was “inevitable” because of imperialist rivalry, mutually antagonistic European alliances, war by timetable, French politics and all that.  But what was it like at the time? To what extent did people (both the élites and others) see it coming? I don’t remember studying this. Or maybe this aspect of the matter didn’t engage my interest then. But it does now.  
Insofar as people did see it coming, WHAT did they see coming?  Something like the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, I suppose.  Imagine the First World War had been over by the Spring of 1915, which I'm sure in August 1914 was a widespread supposition. It wouldn't have been the First World War. The 20th century wouldn't have happened. No Russian Revolution, no Irish War of Independence, no sudden break-up of the Austrian and Ottoman empires, no Hitler, no Second World War, no Holocaust, no Hiroshima, no State of Israel, no 9/11.  Some of those no’s are questionable but you get the point. It was the war’s unforeseen military history that made it into a cataclysmic event. 
But what about "the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime "?  British foreign secretary Edward Grey is supposed to have said this staring out upon St James Park as lights were being extinguished on the dawn of August 4, 1914.  So maybe here’s at least one key player who actually foresaw the First World War’s dreadful consequences.  I should be interested to know if he really did utter these immortal words, and really was that prescient.
Left: British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey in 1914. Did he really say the lamps were going out ?  Right: The sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410 AD, Joseph-Noël Sylvestre, 1890.  The naked savages are probably unhistorical. Both images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
So that’s one sort of what-was-it-like-at-the-time question, “did they see it coming?”  Here's another sort of what-was-it-like-at-the-time question.  “Did they realise it was happening?”  What was it like when the Western Roman Empire ended?  In the first place, did anyone know that it had ended? In the second place, did they care?  When you investigate history’s turning points closely, they always disappoint. (But I said the First World War was a turning point … so I’ve contradicted myself!)

Talking of turning points that weren’t, when I was at school the Renaissance was meant to have occurred in the 15th century. Now historians talk of the 12th century Renaissance.  Last year I heard of an 11th century Renaissance, and I think I may even have come across a 10th century Renaissance.  Just take it back a century or two, and there won't be any need for a Renaissance at all.  And at the time? Did anyone know the Renaissance was happening?  The OED says that in English the word was used first in 1845.

These musings began 10 days ago when I heard the historian Philipp von Rummel interviewed on the BBC’s Today programme. He suggested that the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 may not have been the cataclysmic event that is usually portrayed, or that Saints Jerome and Augustine took it to be (neither of whom were there).  No naked savages as in the Sylvester painting.  In this interview von Rummel didn’t call it a turning point; though since it was viewed as one at time, and we still think of it as one, does that make it one?  Does thinking make it so? 

An historical conference will be held in Rome 4-6 November 2010, dealing with the event, its context and its impact.

As to the Visigoths, in 2006 I went looking for them in Spain and found that far from barbarians who had destroyed the Roman Empire, as I learnt at school, modern historians regard them as “late Romans”. Another turning point which wasn’t. See a note I made at the time


  1. Fascinating stuff Pete - I must brush up on 20th century history as we never studied it at school. Have you seen the Andrew Marr programmes (more British-centric admittedly)? They are really good, informative and entertaining at the same time.

  2. What a fascinating blog entry this was to read. Noggin, if you want to "brush up on 20th century history" I can highly recommend "The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991" by Eric Hobsbawm. I think it was actually Peter who bought it for me, about 10 years ago. It's one of the most fascinating, and eye opening books I've ever read.

    In terms of WWI and, if it hadn't happened there would have been "no a, no b and no c"... Well, there would instead have been "d, e and f" of course. Hitler would still have existed. From what I know of him, he was an incredibly intelligent, evil genius - a miscreant and a malefactor one could say! But his motives and goals were shaped by what he experienced during and after WW1. He was such a persuasive character that even without WW1, I'm sure the name Adolf Hitler would still be in our history books today, but for what reason? Who can tell.

    I also find all your "what was it like at the time?" speculation fascinating, because I'm very interested whenever I talk to my grandma and great aunt, who lived through WWII, to find out what it was like at the time for them.

    But in terms of specifically whether people knew how important, and how world changing these events were, I'm made to think of 9/11. I recally speaking to you and also to my mum at the time. I recall saying "this is the single most significant day of my life, and the world will never be the same again". I'm not sure which one of you it was, but at least one of you were surprised by how quickly I was to assert that this incident would prove so world changing. So, for all such events there will be people who immediately realise its significance, and also people for whom only hindsight brings this realisation. And, as you go on to say, it's not always so easy to pin a satasfactory year, never mind an actual day, to a world changing occurance.

  3. Thanks Alb - I'll look out for that book.

    Not sure that Hitler was a genius, I suppose it depends on your definition. Apparently he had a great talent for speaking and motivation and used these talents to take his country in the direction he did. He was ruthless and massively ambitious with a matching ego but he also had the right circumstances for his hateful ideology to thrive. So - what constitues a genius?

    Your point reminds me of the old moral dilemma chestnut - If you could go back in time and kill Hitler before he was known, would you do it? Apart from the moral question of killing someone, as you and Pete allude the consequences for all of us would be massive. In fact most of us probably wouldn't be around now (but other, different people would). Hmm, I can't quite get my head around this because if I wasn't around I couldn't go back in time and kill Hitler, in which case history would be as it is now so I would exist so I could........think I need a lie-down!

  4. The reason you need a lie-down Noggin is that you have stumbled upon the time travel paradox. But that’s physics. Returning to history for a moment, my point was that without the First World War, and the humiliation Germany was supposed to have suffered there, and the great depression, Hitler’s view would have had no traction, and we wouldn't have heard of him.