The Sorrow of 'The Pity of War'

A recent televisual account of the First World War leaves Paul Lay feeling underwhelmed.

Paul Lay | Published 13 March 2014

Imperial Night: a satire on Kaiser Wilhelm II by Sandy Hook, 1914Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, the Australian-born Cambridge historian’s scholarly account of the origins of the First World War, is nearing sales of almost 200,000 copies in Germany. That is an extraordinary achievement for any history book, especially one that, despite the clarity of its prose, no one can pretend to be an easy or a short read. Its popularity may owe something to the German appetite for challenging writing: compare the content and form of Germany’s heavyweight newspapers – Die Zeit, Die Welt – with even the broadest of British broadsheets. Yet it may also, in part, be due to the fact that Clark paints a more positive account of the role of Germany and Austria-Hungary than that which descends from Fritz Fischer’s 1961 study Germany’s Aims in the First World War and lays the blame for the outbreak of the Great War (interestingly, the term Germans have recently adopted for the conflict) firmly with the Central Powers.

Fischer’s case certainly appears to remain the orthodoxy among British academics, if The Pity of War, a programme broadcast on BBC2 in February, is anything to go by. It featured Niall Ferguson, the Harvard historian, reviving the arguments of his 1998 book of the same name: that Britain and its Empire should have stayed out of the war to leave Europe to be dominated by the economic giant that was the Kaiser’s imperium, much as the EU is now led by the wealthy, democratic Germany of Angela Merkel. After having spent almost an hour outlining his argument, Ferguson’s thesis was then quickly shot down by a phalanx of historians of the First World War, including Gary Sheffield, Heather Jones and Hew Strachan.

The Pity of War was a strange programme; flashy, lopsided, inconsequentially contrarian. At one point it ran a brief clip of A.J.P. Taylor, doyen of television historians, in his 1977 series How Wars Begin. The BBC don’t tend to produce programmes like that anymore – a single academic historian, addressing the audience with complex arguments in real time to camera – except that they do. The best, the most instructive and original television offering so far on the outbreak of the war is that of the constitutional historian Vernon Bogdanor: his lecture entitled Diplomacy: Sir Edward Grey and the Crisis of 1914, originally broadcast last year on the BBC Parliament channel and therefore, sadly, seen by few. It can be listened to on YouTube and occasionally turns up on the BBC iPlayer,  though it is unavailable as we go to press. The BBC should make it so: it is a major contribution to the ongoing debate.

Paul Lay is the editor of History Today

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