Britain Should Not Have Fought in the First World War

Tuesday 15 April 2014, 2.47am | VIDEO NOW ONLINE

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The First World War is not called the Great War for nothing. It was the single most decisive event in modern history, as well as one of the bloodiest: by the time the war ended, some nine million soldiers had been killed. It was also a historical full stop, marking the definitive end of the Victorian era and the advent of a new age of uncertainty. By 1918, the old order had fallen: the Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia; the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires had been destroyed; and even the victorious Allied powers had suffered devastating losses. It was supposed to be the war to end all wars. And yet barely two decades later, the world was again plunged into conflict. Little wonder then that historians still cannot agree whether Britain’s engagement was worth it.

For some, the war was a vitally important crusade against Prussian militarism. Had we stayed out, they argue, the result would have been an oppressive German-dominated Europe, leaving the British Empire isolated and doomed to decline. And by fighting to save Belgium, Britain stood up for principle: the right of a small nation to resist its overbearing neighbours.

For others, the war was a catastrophic mistake, fought at a catastrophic human cost. It brought Communism to power in Russia, ripped up the map of Europe and left a festering sense of resentment that would fuel the rise of Nazism. We often forget that, even a few days before Britain entered the war, it seemed likely that we would stay out. H. H. Asquith’s decision to intervene changed the course of history. But was it the right one?

Speakers for the motion

John CharmleyJohn Charmley

Professor of Modern History at the University of East Anglia, and author of Splendid Isolation? Britain and the Balance of Power 1874-1914. Best known for his revisionist interpretation of British foreign policy in the mid-twentieth century

Dominic SandbrookDominic Sandbrook

Historian, columnist and broadcaster. He is best known for his acclaimed series of four books on post-war Britain, as well as his BBC2 television series on the 1970s and the Cold War. He is a regular book reviewer for the Sunday Times

 

Speaking against the motion

Max HastingsMax Hastings

Historian, journalist and former newspaper editor. Author of twenty books, his latest publication is Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914. He is also writing and presenting a BBC2 documentary on the outbreak of the war and will be a key figure in the centenary events in 2014

Margaret MacMillanMargaret MacMillan

Warden of St Antony’s College and Professor of International History at the University of Oxford. Author of numerous historical books, her latest publication is The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914

 

Chair

Edward LucasEdward Lucas

Senior editor at The Economist