Robert Fulford's column about the First World War

(The National Post, February 8, 2000)

Canadian history has lately been trying to regain its proper place in the national imagination, but that's not easily done when so much of our past remains unresolved and misunderstood. To this moment, for example, the First World War remains a monumental piece of unfinished business. Our national psyche has never truly assimilated this most momentous of all 20th-century disasters, and dealing with it in a fresh and honest way isn't even on our agenda.

The British have been talking for more than a year about The Pity of War, the book in which Niall Ferguson makes his radical claim that Britain's decision to fight in 1914 was "nothing less than the greatest error of modern history." Canada, meanwhile, remains content to stick with the cliches of the past.

All my life I have been reading that Canada became a nation on the battlefields of France; the 1914-1918 war was (the story goes) the making of Canada. The idea of a nation finding its destiny while fighting someone else's war on the other side of the Atlantic has always seemed dubious to me. Still, historians and publicists long ago made it the conventional wisdom.

In 1970, in Canada's First Century, Donald Creighton, the most famous Canadian historian of his time, wrote, "The War of 1914-18 was the greatest experience that the Canadian people had ever known, or would ever know." The late Gregory Clark, a renowned journalist for 50 years, wrote that when he fought with the Canadian army in the taking of Vimy Ridge in 1917, "I experienced my first full sense of nationhood." Today the Canadian War Museum Web site declares that at Vimy "Canadians earned their spurs and started to shape their own identity as a nation."

If we believe the propaganda, it was a time of profound national unity, the soldiers unified even (or especially) in death. Those who died, wrote Sir Arthur Currie, the general who commanded the Canadian Corps, "went out to their death with no provincial prejudices and no racial suspicion in their hearts." For them, he said, there was no Ontario or Quebec, just one great country.

In fact, the war did stimulate national spirit. Many soldiers came home determined to shape Canada as an independent nation, a process Sandra Gwyn brilliantly articulates in her 1992 book, Tapestry of War. But the war was the unmaking of Canada as much as it was the making. It killed a large part of what would have been the leadership class (which Gwyn also describes) and created an angry, permanent rift between French and English. Quebec fought bitterly against conscription in 1917, convinced that no Canadian should be forced to fight in this war. Our history books describe that controversy, but they don't mention the quite lively possibility that on this issue Quebec was absolutely right and the rest of Canada totally wrong.

In truth, English Canada during the 20th century was in no mood to admit that it might have been mistaken. Tragedy left us mentally and spiritually numb. As one English critic has written, the magnitude of the catastrophe paralyzed historical imagination. Canadian losses were so great (68,000 dead, 200,000 wounded or maimed) that it would have seemed shameful to question the cause. We could not entertain for a moment the idea that it was wrong-headed and foolish, not just in execution but in purpose.

That's the idea that Niall Ferguson has brought to the table. His richly detailed and intensely interesting book raises many other issues, but this is the one likely to be remembered. He emphasizes that the First World War not only cost nine million lives but stalled a century of movement toward liberal democracy. It created the chaos that made Communism and Nazism possible. If Europe had not gone to war in 1914, we might never have heard of Lenin, Stalin, the Holocaust, the Gulag, Hitler, Mao or the Cold War.

A young Oxford don and the most discussed historian of his generation, Ferguson is tough-minded and cool but definitely not objective. He takes seriously something that has become a cliche in the mouths of politicians -- "the judgment of history." He thinks historians should judge, and upon reflection he judges that Britain should not have entered the war in 1914. Maybe it was emotionally and politically impossible for British politicians to stay out, and certainly they couldn't have understood the consequences of declaring war. But that shouldn't prevent a scholar of today from analyzing their decision and gauging its effects.

Beyond question, Germany in 1914 wanted more power, a point Ferguson doesn't question. But Kaiser Wilhelm wasn't Hitler and his regime (socially the most advanced in Europe) wasn't the Third Reich. What would have happened if Britain had allowed the Germans to defeat the French?

Well, for one thing, as Ferguson says, "with the Kaiser triumphant, Adolf Hitler could have eked out his life as a mediocre postcard painter, and Lenin could have carried on his splenetic scribbling in Zurich, forever waiting for capitalism to collapse."

In the war, Britain lost much of a generation and much of its power in the world. And when all the results played themselves out, when Communism and Nazism were finally gone, Europe was where Germany had wanted it to be: in a customs union dominated by Germany. The British statesmen of 1914 believed above all in the balance of power, but in this as in everything else they defeated themselves. By spending their human and financial resources so promiscuously, the British weakened themselves for all time. When Germany finally established itself as the continent's commanding economic force, Britain was too feeble to function as much of a check on its power.

Does it matter what we think now about the judgments our grandparents and great-grandparents made? Of course it does. Understanding our own past is a requirement of citizenship. Still, in this case there's little to be done about it. It is now the modern tradition for states to apologize to those they have mistreated, but how does a nation apologize for a crime it perpetrated against itself?

Read two historians' reactions to this column (The National Post, Feb. 11, 2000): Read Robert Fulford's response to Jonathan F. Vance and David J. Bercuson (The National Post, Feb. 14, 2000).
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