29 August 2010
The seeds of the Second World War?

I’ve always been rather disappointed by 50-years-ago, 100-years-ago-type columns.  They always seem to be compiled by someone who just doesn’t like history.  Or just doesn’t get it and so can’t put it into context.  Or, maybe, does get it but can’t put it into context because in point of fact that particular day’s edition didn’t have anything particularly poignant.

So, I’ve always tended to think of it as a pointless exercise.  Until, that is, a bored few moments a few days ago when I thought it might be fun to look at the world of a century ago through the pages of the Times.  Even if it was the silly season.  A worthwhile exercise as it turned out.

In the silly season of 1910 there was none sillier than the Kaiser.  Here he is inspecting the German colonies in Poland.  The what!?  Colonies.  Sounds awfully like an early version of Lebensraum.

And here (warning: you may need to hit zoom to read it) he is appearing to proclaim the divine right of kings.  In NINETEEN TEN FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE!  Remind you of anything, like the Führerprinzip, for instance?

And here is a by-election in Germany in which the socialists defeat the anti-semites.  Yes, that’s electable anti-semites.  Long before Hitler got going.

Which makes me think you may not be able to see the seeds of the First World War in August 1910 but you can certainly see the seeds of the Second.

PermalinkFeedback (3)NazismGreat WarOld Times Cuttings


  1. I don’t like this “seeds” metaphor - it’s just sloppy. At what point should you stop in tracing the causes of historical events and why? For example, why trace the welfare state back to Bismarck and stop there, when you could go on to cite the French Revolution? Historical “tracing” is just question-begging unless you have good contextual reasons to delimit aspect and thus restrict how far back you want to go.

    Posted by mike on 30 August 2010 at 08:36am

  2. These events of 1904-7 in German South-West Africa are sometimes seen as a chilling precursor of what was to come, too.


    I think I am with mike though, in that one should really be careful one is not cherry-picking narratives and ignoring evidence that does not support them. One can find awful acts from most colonial powers, and stupid remarks from many kings and leaders, and anti-Semitism and other kinds of prejudice in many places, most of which were not the precursor of something as horrible as Nazism. And one can probably find “seeds” in other countries for similar things that never actually happened.

    If Hitler had never lived, I don’t think Germany history of the 1930s and 1940s would remotely resemble what actually was. It may still have been ghastly, although it would almost certainly have been less ghastly, and the “seeds” would look less prophetic.

    Posted by Michael Jennings on 01 September 2010 at 01:53am

  3. ”“..the “seeds” would look less prophetic.”

    Surely the problem lies with what scale of human action our historical “seeds” are supposed to bring about. The particular decisions of Hitler cannot be accounted for by the pre-existence of anti-semitism (though that surely helped to make those decisions possible) precisely because they were the particular decisions of one individual, whereas the inflationary policy of the Weimar Reischbank together with Britain’s demand for reparations in gold, are a far more likely explanation of the general hyperinflation of the Reischmark – because they are an account of human action and outcomes at an institutional level.

    Posted by mike on 02 September 2010 at 11:54am

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