Listen: Professor Simon Tormey in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.
Main Photo Credit: Australian War Memorial
Has the world changed a lot since WWI? Well, yes and no. Society, culture and technology have obviously all advanced but some of the political issues that drove the world to the Great War are still apparent in global political tensions.
Professor Simon Tormey from the University of Sydney took ‘Open House’ on a whirlwind tour of one hundred years of politics and populism. He says the Armistice was the result of “..the complete exhaustion of all sides involved in the conflict.”
“What we’ve got is long drawn out, largely trench warfare on the European Continent. A final assault by Germany in 1918 which is incredibly destructive and a huge loss of men and materials and so on. and then a big push back towards November 1918 , and basically, German capitulation and hiatus that ensued in that country.” he says
A new kind of war
The world had never seen anything like the sort of conflict World War One turned out to be. While it seem quaint now that hot air balloons were deployed to get a long range view of opposing forces and to direct cannon fire, World War One was the start of a new type of warfare.
“There had been no trench warfare, no air power.” explains Professor Tormey.
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A tipping point
Asked to describe the elements underlying the First World War, Professor Tormey says the conflict was “Kind of an accident waiting to happen. It was a tipping point but no one could really predict it could get into the scale of the conflict that we saw from 1915 and 1916 on wards.
“There was no trench warfare to speak of before that period. There was no mechanisation of armaments and, of course, the bringing forward of the machine gun and the tank and air planes. So it was a first grade experimental technological war really. On the European continent ,in particular, it became a long drawn out affair with each side fighting from opposite trenches on the front.” he says.
European Imperial powers
“In the lead up to the First World War what we’ve got is an imperial competition between the major powers on the continent – being the British, French and German.”
“The minimalist reading of what’s going on here is of course, that Germany seeking to flex its muscles and is interested in expanding into areas that had previously been co-opted by the French and the British. Then you get a very kind of thrusting, new military environment in Germany which was really pressing Bismarck to use this kind of military might to expand its borders and to push into Poland and south into Austria and maybe even take on the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire – which was an ally of Germany in the First World War but which obviously formed part of the Germanic sphere of influence if you like.” he says.
The Von Schlieffen Plan
The military actions of Germany were unexpected and “Of course France was caught off guard and Germany thought Britain would not come to the defence of Belgium and France and there would be an opportunity to strike quickly.”
A confident Germany thought they had the ideal military strategy, based on achieving a swift and decisive victory. “The Von Schlieffen Plan, obviously, was meant to knock out these countries very quickly in the First World war but it quickly got bogged down, as we know in the fields of Flanders and the rest , as they say is history.”
Obviously it was a huge miscalculation to discount British involvement in the conflict, explains Professor Tormey.
“Britain was the major military power in Europe in 1914. Iit had a lot to protect globally. It also the had balance of power concerns as far as the continent was concerned. It could see that if Germany overpowered France then this would kind of create a superstate on the European continent and its always been a major objective of British foreign policy and military policy to prevent a European superstate coming together and posing a threat as far as British interests abroad were concerned.”
“So it was really a kind of balance of power set of issues that threw England into the conflict, I think in 1914”
“What we’ve got to think about is what going to war meant in 1914. There hadn’t been a major world war before that. The European continent had experienced a great many wars over the course of the 18th and 19th century. These are in the form of inflicting a bloody nose on an uppity neighbour. The last great Imperial expedition I guess was the Napoleonic campaigns at the start of the 19th century. so that was well beyond living memory of most of the policy makers as you come to the end of the 19th and into the early 20th century.
“We used to use this phrase ‘gunboat diplomacy’ where Britain often suppressed the inquisitive kind of military demands of its neighbours by sending a flotilla along and trashing a navel port or a medium sized town as a reminder of what it would be to take on the British sphere of interest.” says Professor Tormey.
Linking two World Wars
“The First World War starts the 20th century if you like. The Second World War is caused by a very different set of events- the rise of very militant very hostile ideologies, Fascism in Italy and National Socialism in Germany.” says Professor Tormey.
“Both those ideologies have their roots in the First World War so we have to see them as linked. Particularly in the case of Nazi Germany this is a response to the Weimar settlement which hived off great chunks of Germany to France on the one hand, Poland on the other, Sudetenland and so on, and really left the country in tatters with a great sense of having been betrayed.” he explained.
The ‘stab in the back’
“The ‘stab in the back’ theory of course was one of the key factors that explains the rise of Hitler. The fact that Germany was not defeated on its own soil.That it was let down by its own aristocracy and its own elites.” explains Simon Tormey.
“This kind of planted the seed for a sort of national resentment. We have a very similar scenario in Italy. Again the reading was that it had been let down by these bourgeois, decadent elites. That what was needed was a kind of strong authoritarian figure to get Italy back on its feet, and looking backwards towards Rome and the glorious years that were sort of articulated as a way of getting people mobilized behind a fascist project.” he says.
“What we’ve got is a kind of combination of resentment, a story of betrayal, new very patriotic ideologies which were feeding the sense of resentment but also this sense of power and the need to sort of inflict pain and suffering on the near neighbours who had done the same to them in the First World War.” says Professor Tormey.
“These [nationalist] ideologies have their origin in ideas in the 1870’s and 1880’s. In Germany you have a raft of far right ideologies; Oswald Spengler, Muller Van Den Broek, Friedrich Nietzsche is often mobilized in these things.” he says.
Sense of German destiny
“There was a sense of German destiny combined with German resentment that the Germans had somehow been hampered as developing fully as a country. Of course, too, you’ve got to think Germany and Italy were both new countries. They date from the 1870’s and so what we’ve got is a kind of nascent sense of countries that have been hampered in their development.” Professor Tormey explains.
“They have been defeated in the First World War. They need to re-build and re-stock and re-energize and project themselves forward. Britain had nothing like a British national ideology nor frankly did France.” says Professor Tormey.
“Other countries didn’t have the projection of ideology onto civil society in a manner which closed down pluralism, closed down debate, argumentation and really made society a mobilized factor behind a single figure or a single national party which would then project power abroad.” he says
Living in interesting times
“We are living through a very interesting time in the world. I’m a specialist on populism and really since 2016, it’s very difficult to put the phone down – enormous interest in what people see as the polarisation of politics now between a kind of the nativism of people like Donald Trump and the new regime in Italy and then the kind of cosmopolitanism and leftism which is kind of anti-austerity based as well. [Which we see] in countries like Spain, and the nascent leftist movement across the European continent.
The big kind of question mark is Britain and Brexit. That is kind of an interesting one from the point of view of Australia. Britain is looking forward to energising it’s Commonwealth links. It feels that it doesn’t need Europe as much as Europe needs it.” Britain is due to exit the EU in March 2019.
The ‘Trump Factor’
“Then we’ve got Mr Trump out there in Washington who seems on one level to want to find allies like Australia and New Zealand because of that common set of values, that common Anglo-Saxon heritage. But at the other end is really clearly very critical of the former international order. The rules based political order, pulling the US out of the troops agreements.”
Professor Tormey says the US president is “Looking like he is much more interested in a kind of the focus on the nation rather than the international. “A very contemptuous dismissal of the UN the WTO (World Trade Organisation), and so on.”
“These are awkward times for Australia in terms of trying to re-negotiate between these different messages. Of course we are having to really negotiate between China and US as we move on into the 21st century – not least because our economic interests are so closely tied with China’s.” he says.
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