War—what is it good for?

Published in Editorial, Issue 4 (July/August 2014), Volume 22

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Now that the centenary is upon us, isn’t it time that we stopped congratulating ourselves on rediscovering our First World War heritage? Isn’t it time to assess what that heritage actually amounts to? For all the pain, sacrifice and heroism of individual soldiers, not to mention the profound bereavement suffered by their families, the First World War was a disaster on a monumental scale for which the political leaders of Europe—and of Ireland, nationalist and unionist—stand indicted. This is an unremarkable and widely held view in the successor states of the belligerents. Why should Ireland be any different?

While the rediscovery of our First World War heritage has been a necessary and positive experience (and we offer our own modest contribution with this special issue), some sort of moral appraisal cannot be entirely absent. This was not a ‘war to end all wars’, it was not fought ‘in defence of small nations’, and it certainly was not fought ‘in defence of civilisation’. True, the ‘Fischer thesis’ of the early 1960s, that Germany’s war aims were aggressive and expansionist, was solidly based on archival evidence. But that was inevitable given that Germany, only unified a generation before, was a late arrival in a world already carved up between the other imperial powers, France and Britain in particular. And in the light of the latter’s imperial history, with its flagrant disregard for the rights of other peoples, its moral justification for entering the war in defence of neutral Belgium (with its own imperial, genocidal, legacy in the Congo) rings rather hollow. Imperial Germany should not be conflated with Nazi Germany; while there was undoubtedly a democratic deficit at executive level, in other respects it was a more progressive society than the UK, with a broader franchise and a more developed welfare system.

In his ‘Platform’ piece in this special issue (pp 14–17), commissioning editor Edward Madigan (and a big ‘thank you’ for all his hard work in compiling it) argues persuasively that the First World War and the 1916 Rising should be seen as ‘a seamless robe of Irish experience’. One could go further and see the Rising not just as an integral part of a wider European crisis but as part of a wider anti-imperial movement, as a blow against the system that had given rise to the war in the first place. Surely that is something worth not just commemorating but celebrating.

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