WWI: The Final Hours – BBC 2

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This was an interesting programme, but it was focused entirely on the Armistice and eventual peace deal between the Western Allies and Germany. Obviously it is that Armistice of which we’ll be marking the centenary this weekend, but we’re still dealing with the fallout from the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, and it was a shame that none of that even got a mention.  It was also a bit too ready to criticise the Allies.  Horrendous mistakes were made in the agreements that ended the Great War, but a bit more understanding of why that was could perhaps have been shown.  And it completely missed the point that the events of 1918-1919 were deliberately misinterpreted in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s – fake news is hardly anything new.

Incidentally, I don’t think it’s very appropriate to call a programme “WWI”. It’s bad enough when people refer to “World War I” rather than “the First World War” – it makes it sound like a film – but “WWI” is just ridiculous.  Show a bit more respect, please, BBC 2!

The programme was largely about the negotiations which took place between Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss of the United Kingdom, Marechal Jean Marie Foch of France, and Herr Matthias Erzberger of Germany.  The titles say a lot – the British representative was a naval man, the French representative an army man, and the German representative a civilian.

I don’t think it was mentioned that it was Wemyss who made the decision that the ceasefire should come into force at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – partly because it sounded poetic, but also because, had it been delayed until the afternoon as Lloyd George wanted, even more men would have been killed. Lloyd George was apparently rather narked about it, because it meant he missed the chance to make a big announcement in the House of Commons.  Pretty much all the politicians were given short shrift in this: it was suggested that they were all more concerned about their own images and, to use the modern term, legacies, than in anything else.  A bit harsh, maybe.

The only ones who came in for any real praise were Woodrow Wilson – a progressive American president who wanted to promote peace and understanding between nations, free trade and a reduction in armaments, and showed respect for all nationalities (those were the days!) – and the German representative at the Armistice talks, Matthias Erzberger. It was hard not to feel sorry for Erzberger, who was in an impossible position, especially with all hell breaking loose in Berlin.  He eventually became a victim of the false theory that Germany didn’t really lose the war but was betrayed by internal factions, and was assassinated.

Going back to the subject of what wasn’t mentioned, the decisions made regarding the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires are, as I’ve said above, still causing issues today.  The South Tyrol question’s reared its head again of late.  Every so often, there’s a row over the linguistic rights of all the ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine, Serbia, Romania and Slovakia.  As for the mess in the Middle East, don’t even go there.

This was all about Germany, and I assume that the idea of the programme was to show that the excessively harsh treatment of Germany by the victorious powers played a large part in the rise of Nazism. It’s a fair point.  Well, it’s more than a fair point – there isn’t really any arguing with it.  Right from the start, the attitude of the Allies was very harsh.  They refused the German request that a ceasefire be put in place whilst negotiations were taking place.  And the naval blockade of Germany was not fully lifted until July 1919: thousands of German civilians died of malnutrition between the Armistice and the lifting of the blockade.  It’s not in any way disrespectful to those who fought on the Allied side to say that that was completely inappropriate.  Shameful, in fact.

Then there were the reparations. Germany would have been paying reparations until 1988 if things had gone ahead as originally agreed.   There’s an ongoing argument about this: some economic historians claim that Germany could have afforded the repayments, whilst others say that, had the reparations been made in accordance with the original schedule, the German economy would have been destroyed.  Austria, Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria were all supposed to pay reparations as well, but that wasn’t mentioned.  The programme did make the point that demanding reparations of the defeated sides was an established principle of warfare at that time.  It also pointed out that France (although it didn’t mention poor Belgium) had suffered severe damage, and that all the countries involved had large numbers of wounded service personnel and the dependants of the fallen who were in need of financial support.

It is generally agreed that the terms were harsh, though. As well as being economically harsh, they were seen as a humiliation – along with the occupation of the Rhineland, which was intended both to make sure that reparations were made, much of Germany’s heavy industry being concentrated in that area, and to stop Germany from invading France again.  The programme laid the blame for all this very much on France.

Just to go on to something else for a moment, the programme said that, and it was a reasonable enough point, Britain was more concerned with what might happen on sea than what might happen on land. Germany was made to agree to disarming its battle fleet and sailing many of its ships to Scapa Flow – where the German Admiral von Reuter decided to scuttle the fleet rather than hand it over to the Allies.  British ships managed to save some of the ships, but most of them sank.  The fact that the German sailors scuttled their own ships just shows how humiliated they felt.

Back to the issue of the programme blaming France over the question of reparations and the occupation of the Rhineland. It was another a fair point.  Marshal Foch was all for France occupying the Rhineland permanently; and the French – along with the Belgians, it should be said – occupied the Ruhr in 1923, despite British opposition.  Then again, France had been humiliated by Prussia in 1871, and French territory had been ravaged during the Great War.

You can go on and on with this, tracing things backwards and forwards. The Second World War.  The Franco-Prussian War.  The Napoleonic Wars.  But the humiliation of Germany … that was something that hadn’t really happened before, not to that effect. Austria and Hungary both came off far worse, really, losing so much territory, but it was Germany that had to sign the war guilt clause.  The infamous Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles.

OK. It had been arguably the most terrible war in human history. Everyone wanted someone to blame. But making Germany accept full responsibility for the war?  Arguments about who and what was responsible for the outbreak of the First World War will probably go on for ever, but no one country was to blame.  The general view is that the war guilt clause was seen by Germany as a national humiliation.  Well, that is how it was seen by Germany.  But it didn’t actually use the word “guilt”.  It didn’t even say that Germany had started the war.  It said that Germany accepted responsibility for the damage caused by herself and her allies.  It was the way it was represented in Germany that caused such a mood of anger.

And, as much as the Allies behaved badly towards defeated Germany, the anger of the inter-war period wasn’t really directed at the Allies. It was directed at the mythical forces within Germany who were supposed to have stabbed the German army in the back.  Basically, it was fake news.  There was an awful lot of it about in the inter-war period.  The Zinoviev Letter springs to mind.  There was an awful lot of it about during the First World War, come to that.   And I don’t feel that this programme got that at all, other than saying that Erzberger was very badly treated.

I’m not entirely sure what this programme was actually getting at. Well, it had an agenda: it wasn’t just presenting the facts relating to the Armistice and the Treaty of Versailles, it was making the point that the harsh terms imposed on Germany helped to create the environment that led to the Second World War.   But, then, why call it “the Final Hours”, which made it sound as if it was going to be about the last elements of the fighting?  That was probably a bit of deliberate misleading as well: BBC 2 probably didn’t want to sound too negative, at such a sensitive time.  Some good points were made.  But a lot of important points were missed.

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