World War One & The Ukraine Crisis – ‘The Pity of War’ Reconsidered

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Words by Joshua Hill

Four images from World War One and current conflict in Ukraine

Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War became strikingly relevant last week as, nearly 100 years after the outbreak of the First World War, Russian troops advanced into Ukraine, a move the Ukrainian government described a declaration of war. But while the former escalated into a global conflict,
the latter has so far remained largely bloodless and contained. The Pity of War, adapted from Ferguson’s book of the same name, aired on Friday 28th February as part of the BBC’s centenary look at World War One, alongside The Necessary War presented by Max Hastings. The opposing historical argument to Ferguson has already been argued much more strongly than I could here, however one of the key questions raised was ‘when is it right to intervene?’. A question that is particularly relevant to today.

Ferguson’s argument rests on the idea that what was sold to the public as a ‘war for civilization’ was in fact no more than a war to preserve the status quo in Europe. One that he feels, in light of Germany’s domination of the EU today, has failed drastically. It is true that the propaganda depicting the ‘barbarian Hun’ served to dehumanize the Germans, but Ferguson’s depiction of a benign, economically minded Germany seems wistful at best. More importantly today, perhaps, is whether a war fought to maintain the sovereign rights of European nations was really an unworthy cause. The human cost was undoubtedly huge, and some would say unjustifiable – but is self determination not something worth fighting for? The alliance system of 1914, which served to escalate the conflict, was designed to prevent war, and had until that point worked. While it is important to learn from history’s mistakes, we must be careful when looking at situations where there is no clear right or wrong choice. War, undoubtedly, has terrible consequences, but can refusal to go to war not sometimes create worse ones? There is a very strong argument to be made that the current unwillingness of the EU and UN to deploy troops is one of the key reasons why Russia feels free to use its own armed forces without fear of military reprisal.

Book cover for Niall Ferguson's book

Ferguson’s The Pity of War

How the assassination of an Austro-Hungarian Duke led to the involvement of British troops in a global war is still debated by historians. The Pity of War surmised that war was the result of mutual fear and feelings of weakness amongst the European powers. Germany felt surrounded and Austria-Hungary was desperate to end its period of decline by expanding into the Baltic. I would argue that the weakness of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires was a direct result of the outdated idea of empire as a system of rule, and that Germany’s diplomatic isolation was in no small part due to its attempts to acquire colonial possessions.

Ferguson laments the damage done to the strength of the British Empire during World War One, but I would argue that that the cracks in the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires would have soon emerged in the British Empire too, as a result of the rise of nationalism, with or without the war. More importantly, the days in which people could maintain that the Empire was a force for good were long gone. The Empire had been revealed as little more than an embarrassing hypocrisy. How could Britain fight for the sovereign rights of France and Belgium, while suppressing those same rights throughout the Empire? Yet how could Britain survive as a viable world power without the economic advantages of her Empire? Are Russia’s actions today not the result of the same fears that compelled the Austro-Hungarians to try to acquire Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1914? Are they not the same motives which caused the British to cling onto an oppressive empire long after 1918? Is it not the desperate attempt of an increasingly isolated Russia to hold on to interests on her own border?

Russian Soldiers

Russian Troops in The Crimea -c/o

However, while the First World War was a clear-cut invasion, the powerful pro-Russian sentiment in the Crimea does serve to chip away at the moral high-ground. How can EU intervention, supportive of the self determination of a nation, be justified if it has to delegitimize a popular referendum in doing so? Clearly, the withdrawal of Russian troops is a prerequisite for a legitimate referendum on the subject, but have we already left it too late?

With Russian troops firmly in control of the Crimea and its pro-Russian government claiming it has the support of the people, it is hard to see a situation in which Ukraine will regain political authority over the Crimea without direct military support from Europe and the US.

It seems that – rightly or wrongly – Britain’s intervention in European wars will be far more limited in the future. Will diplomatic and economic pressures prove to be strong enough to preserve the balance of power in Europe?
Or will a non-interventionist standpoint, similar to the one advocated by Ferguson, usher in an era of diplomatic impotency?

About the author / 


aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

1 Comment

  1. Николай Тодоров 19th March 2014 at 9:07 am -  Reply

    1.”Are Russia’s actions today not the result of the same fears that compelled the Austro-Hungarians to try to acquire Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1914? “
    No. The Austrian (German) game was far more complex (and misguided). One compelling reason for the acquisition of Bosnia was to ballance off other nationalities in the empire, namely the Hungarians, and the Slavs.
    Moreover, the Austro-Hungarian empire was a mishmash of different sub-groups – ethnic, linguistic and religious, it was very cosmopolitan and diverse. Russia, despite the different peoples it encompass, is very nationalistic, with large nucleous of orthodox Russians. Their reasons for wanting Eastern Ukraine ( and Ukraine as a whole) is that this is a natural territory for expansion, full of orthodox, Russian speaking slavs.

    2. No.
    “Are they not th’e same motives which caused the British to cling onto an oppressive empire long after 1918?” Basically, Russia have no non-imperial identity. You could argue that Britain existed long before it acquired its empira. Russia’s raison d’etre was to be an empire and to expand. If Russia cease to be imperial mentaly, that would mean the end of the state, and will probably lead to enormous bloodshed and internal conflicts – in the Caucasus, maybe in Siberia, in Central Asia. Moreover, the territories that will leave the Russian state won’t end as viable countries but as centres of instability, which would probably become semi-vassal states of and emerging China.

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