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Britain Should Not Have Fought in the First World War

Was Britain’s involvement in the First World War a vital crusade to prevent an oppressive German-dominated Europe? Or a mistake which brought Communism to power in Russia and left a festering sense of resentment that would fuel the rise of Nazism?

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 Charmley

Professor of Modern History


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 Sandbrook

Historian, columnist and broadcaster


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.
Against the motion

Max Hastings

Historian, journalist and former newspaper editor


Historian, journalist and former newspaper editor. Author of twenty books, his latest publication is Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914.

Margaret MacMillan

Historian and author


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 Lucas

Senior editor at The Economist


International Section Editor; he has also covered the central and east European region for over 20 years. His postings included stringing for The Economist in communist-era Czechoslovakia and later in the Baltic States, as well as being editorial director of the Economist Intelligence Unit in Vienna. Lucas is a regular broadcaster on international and British outlets, including the BBC’s Today programme, Start the Week and Newsnight. He is the author of Deception, and The New Cold War.