I’ve just finished watching the BBC three part series ‘37 Days‘. It is about the 5 weeks leading up to the First World War, and is portrayed from the British, German, Russian, Austrian and French sides. The drama is primarily set in the Cabinet Room of the British government, and mainly following the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey.
The drama highlights the muddle of different treaties that various European countries had with each other, and I was left with a slight impression that these treaties did more harm than good in some circumstances, at least in guaranteeing a war not just in the Balkans but across the globe. It also made clear the importance of Belgium, both in the 1910s and in the century preceding it. As a character states in the last part of the series: “Waterloo was supposed to be the last battle fought on Belgian soil.” After the bloody Napoleonic wars the major powers in Europe had pledged to protect the country on the border of both Germany and France. Any attack on Belgium automatically brings everyone into the fray. Whereas parts of the Anglo-French ‘Entente cordiale’ were enforceable only through honour, the British guaranteed Belgium’s neutrality under law.
The programmes also show that the war in 1914 was not inevitable; that it could have been stopped had the warmongering Kaiser been curtailed. As it turned out, nationalist army generals such as the Chief of Staff von Moltke influenced and weak politicians failed to influence the Kaiser, and every effort was made to avoid a peaceful settlement of the crisis in the Balkans started by the assassination of Franz-Ferdinand. A recent set of interviews with historians on the BBC almost unanimously agreed that the Kaiser and his staff were to blame for the conflict that ensued. The drama makes this crystal clear.
It makes you realise that the course of events that caused the two World Wars were sewn in the century or more prior to the outbreak of the first one. The Kaiser envied the empires of the French and the British, empires built over two hundred years of brutal colonialism. The belligerent European powers in the 20th Century had a profound impact on the entire world.
I thoroughly recommend a viewing to anyone interested in history. This is a brilliant set of programmes.