Sir Hew Strachan
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Sir Hew Strachan, I would like to ask you about the meaning of the centenary of WW1
That’s a big question. I think there are two meanings in what we are doing here, what we celebrate. The first one is the remembrance because actually very few of us have any remembrance, except possibly in my generation for some people, but in your generation you don’t remember anything about the war. So what are we doing? We are remembering on how to remember, which can be achieved with patterns of collaboration. The British are very fortunate because they did not have the levels of disruption like the rest of Europe. For Britain it was easy to fall into a pattern of remembrance because of their history. For other countries, this is very different. And of course what the war means to the Balkans is very different and there are others, like the Austro-Hungarians in whom the sense of victory and independence is particularly important. Their foundations, fast forward a century, were made upon the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The other aspect which is much more international, this is a war which is so complicated, so different in many ways that the people could not expect it to be. The actions are a much more instructive tool and the war is viewed in different angles. On the contrary, the Second World war, for example about the USA, is the war of justice, the right war to fight and many other countries have adopted that idea and gave the necessary justification for that point of view. The First World War causes deep controversy between countries, it is extraordinarily difficult to bring to an end what has began. Despite having losses, the numbers continued to grow, especially in 1915-1917, and then the peace settlement which begun so optimistically, also did not work. This war is a really interesting one, especially for students in international studies to explore because it shows how complicated some issues are and how often the decision to engage to war is one for the lesser or the greater evil.
Do you believe that the First World War gave birth to new fields of science, like international affairs and political science?
Firstly, the First World War did that. The shock of the war was sufficiently great. In the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth, war is mostly studied only by professional soldiers, like Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France who had said that “matters of war should be left to the generals”. Absolutely international affairs rowed out from this war. So, it’s really an attempt to establish international organizations and the League of the United Nations is an attempt of this procedure. And that’s how the meaning of ‘international war’ grew, especially after 1918. In political sciences, as also in other part of human sciences have been enhanced by the war. For instance, some other sectors of science have been improved by the war such as engineering, aviation and of course war industry. In fact, some of those practices today that are applied in Afghanistan and Syria in areas of combat, have their origins here in First World War.
The last few years, some historians strongly believe that we have to review the history of World War One. To my mind, the latest book of Mr. Christopher Clarke under the title “Sleepwalkers” constitutes an excellent example of this new trend in historiography. What is your opinion about this revisionist trend?
Let’s see the things generally; revisionism is in the nature of history. Each generation of historians revises the judgements of the previous generation or is in need of this revision. And in many aspects what Clark is doing in the “Sleepwalkers”, was taking us back to the 1930’s where Germany in contrast to the 1920’s was not the only guilty party. In 1930’s the prevailing theory was that the First World War was a collective failure of international affairs. For many historians, Clark is obviously revising the motion of “German guilt” and this is something which has been tackled in the last 25 years. Also, some others historians argue that we have to see what happened to the other Europeans capitals. For example, I support the idea in which there is a need of information about what happened in Vienna. To my mind, and documents also showed that Austria wanted a limited war with Serbia, not an extended war with Russia. The reason was quite simple, that Austro-Hungarians knew that they could not win that war. If you observe Conrad’s mobilization, you may see that he was preparing for a war against Serbia and at the same time was giving time to Germany to keep Russia neutral. Of course, we are speaking of an extraordinary miscalculation. Clark supports the idea which is based on a logical assumption, that Russia wanted the war more than Germany and more than France. Christopher Clark subscribes to this argument going as far as saying that the Russian Empire desperately needed to control Constantinople and the Straits and they went to war in order to do that. But, I don’t see direct evidence of that at all. You need to distinguish between the positions of the states before the war started and after it broke up. Actually, the challenge here is that we have no significant new evidence to produce further results, so there are just theories. Cristofer Clark had not given new evidence, so as I said those theories are just that and the conversation about that stops here.
Allow me a supplementary question, Christopher Clark in his book supports that today’s situation globally is similar to the situation in which Europe was in 1914. What is your opinion?
I think that all the stories move upon the parallels but history itself is not repeated. History gives you the benefits of experience and of course gives you judgement. If I see similarities between today and 1914, I do. But this is because as in 1914, today there are many factors in international play. There are so many moving parts which are so difficult to control. Albertini in the 1940’s said about the origins of the WW1, that there was no Bismark, a strong statesman to take control of this crisis. He supported that the diplomats on July 1914 were pygmies. To my mind, we are in a similar situation. In previous decades, we had an international order which was based on two pillars and a collective responsibility through the United Nations. But now, the UN are not functioning well and the American supremacy is in question and the US itself wants to keep a distance from Europe and Middle East. So, this situation creates a very complicated environment. Now, if we want to see the parallel with 1914, I think that we have to focus on the capacity of small actions to engineer a crisis between major factors of the international system. Today, we have some regions, some small actions – crises like South China Sea. So do China and US has to challenge each other? I believe that they can possibly do that. But the factor which is much more significant is who has the capacity to manipulate the US and its strength to engineer a crisis like in 1914. Take Syria, for example, how many actors participate in the crisis each of them stronger than the Syrian state. So Syria has the capacity to generate an international crisis To sum up, what the WW1 offers us today, is exactly the experience of a similar international environment. The value of history is exactly in this point.
What was the position of the Salonika front at World War One? Specifically, I would like to ask you about its importance for the outcome of the Great War?
The very nature of a World War and especially of the First World War is that everything matters, each one interacts with everything else. There is also the matter of the ‘bad questions’ which many times we ask ourselves. So the bad question would be: “Is Salonika the decisive theatre for the end of the War?” The answer is no it’s not, but that is as bad as the question “Is the Eastern front decisive for the end of the War?” But I would say it’s both of them. Both the Western Front and Salonica Front had determined the course of war. Let’s think about Germany. Germany was in the Centre of Europe, Germany had to deal with the east and west, the north and south. What happened to the South East is equally important to what happened to the North West. Salonika is not irrelevant since there is a sequence of armies coming in and particularly in 1918 the Germans are where still trying to open up in Asia, through the Ottoman Empire in order to get close to the oil in Baku. They wanted to change the war and to take it to Britain’s colonies like India. All that going on in August 1918 is extraordinary. But as a result of all these events and expectations, war lost dramatically what unity it had. The Germans expectations in summer of 1918 in the East were falling apart due to the events of the Salonika Front.
To conclude, our last question Sir Hew. What is the position of Salonika front in the international historiography?
Well, Salonika’s front has been massively neglected and I think that’s partly a linguistic question. The main reason in my point of view is that in order to treat well the history of Salonika Front, you have to be in command of several languages. Even if you see it from the part of the Ottoman Empire you need to know Greek, Italian, French and English. Thus, when you try to view it from the side of Austria, Bulgaria and Serbia, there is the other problem because all the sides have a strong interest for this Front. So to do it properly, you need to know all these languages and this is something extremely difficult for one person accomplice. The other reason is how the science itself does encourage those particularly who are outside of Balkans to understand the history of this forgotten part of the First World War. So, some important aspects of the war are neglected and this absence has created a gap in historiography. To conclude, the final reason is that also the Greek historians are in difficulty to approach the history of the War. We have to consider that the First World War occupied a very complicated position in Greece’s history mainly due to the situation between King Konstantine and Venizelos. Moreover, the war didn’t end for Greece in 1918 like the other countries. It ended in 1922. This is actually a very small episode for Greece in a war which began in 1912. Greece was in war for more than a decade, so was the Ottoman Empire as well and they were neighbors.
H συνέντευξη παραχωρήθηκε στον Νίκο Μισολίδη και τον Κώστα Γιαννακόπουλο, μέλη της συντακτικής ομάδας της Clio Turbata στο περιθώριο του Διεθνούς Επιστημονικού Συμποσίου » Το θέατρο επιχειρήσεων της Θεσσαλονίκης στο πλαίσιο του Α΄ Παγκοσμίου πολέμου», το οποίο έλαβε χώρα στη Θεσσαλονίκη, 22 – 24 Οκτωβρίου 2015 – http://www.hist.auth.gr/el/macedonianfrontconference