Berghahn Books Logo

berghahn New York · Oxford

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Youtube
  • Instagram

How the ‘Legacies of Two World Wars’ Compare to Current Conflict

In an excerpt from the Introduction, the editors explain the point of origin for The Legacies of Two World Wars: European Societies in the Twentieth Century. In the volume, published last month in paperback, contributors follow the European zeitgeist as the continent was plunged first into one war, then a second. Editors Lothar Kettenacker and Torsten Riotte pit the public feeling surrounding these World Wars with that of the U.S. people when the government invaded Iraq in 2003.




The aim of this book is to trace the moods and attitudes of the people of four Western countries before, during and after the First and Second World Wars. The contributions examine public opinion in Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy during the crucial moments of the two major conflicts of the twentieth century (in their differences and similarities). The inspiration to look again at the attitudes of ordinary Europeans to the two wars came from the controversy surrounding the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.


That decision, if one is to believe US policy at the time, was taken mainly to liberate the people of Iraq from the yoke of a dictator. In many ways, the language and arguments used to justify Operation Iraqi Freedom were in keeping with the Wilsonian tradition, according to which it is the responsibility of the USA to bring democracy and civilisation to suppressed and misgoverned people. However, the many protest marches – according to BBC reports, two million Britons marched against the war in London on a single day alone – imply that the policy of ‘making the world safe for democracy’ was, certainly in the UK context, essentially undemocratic. Government ministers ignored the people in the streets. Great Britain was, of course, only one of forty-eight governments who joined the ‘coalition of the willing’ despite massive global protest – not least from the populations of those countries.


The question therefore arises as to whether governments can legitimately – or effectively – conduct a war without the backing of a majority of their people. It would certainly be far too simplistic to view the historic relationship between societies and war as one in which warmongering governments on the one hand are pitted against peaceful populations powerless to prevent conflict on the other. As Jost Dülffer, one of the most distinguished experts on deescalation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries argues, popular acceptance of a military solution is a necessary prerequisite, though not a sufficient explanation, for the outbreak of a war. Similarly, historians have looked at peaceful periods in history to determine how war was avoided. While scholars have argued that on some occasions, wars are inevitable, the question remains why they occur at particular moments in time. A recent publication lists thirty-three incidents between the end of the Crimean War in 1856 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 in which a multi-lateral military conflict of global dimension seemed a possible option (or danger) and was discussed amongst contemporaries. The number alone illustrates that the decision to go to war in 1914, after it had been avoided for so long, was a challenging one for the governments involved.


It is against this background that the present volume takes a closer look at how society responded to the outbreaks and the conclusions of the First and Second World Wars in order to examine the relationship between the conduct of wars and public opinion. Three hypotheses are implied. The first of these is that, in the case of the First World War, conflict did not come ‘out of the blue’. The threat of military conflict had been almost palpable during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the final decision to engage in a war was predated by several occasions on which war was avoided.


Governments of the day decided to go to war on various grounds and the attitude of the people as expressed in the political press or in public demonstrations played into the decision to declare an active state of war.


Secondly, the population was aware of the danger that war might break out. It will be established that it was less the active wish for war than a perceived lack of alternatives that shaped the attitude of many. Enthusiasm for war was often accompanied by a degree of anxiety, fear, concern or uncertainty. Hence, historians who argue that a great deal of support existed for military conflict are often challenged by evidence of more cautious or alarmed voices. The distinction between enthusiasm for war, and concern about its consequences, is therefore rarely clear-cut, and more a question of shifting balances.


Thirdly, war was experienced not only as an individual and personal encounter but also as a collective experience. The present volume examines the latter with a particular focus on public demonstration, public debate and public discourse. Opinion polls are preferred to individual biographical narratives. Writers have emphasised that people experienced the outbreak and the end of war in different circumstances at different times. As Richard Bessel demonstrates, many German privates were far from the frontline when fighting ceased in late 1918. The experiences of people on the home front varied just as much.




The First and Second World Wars changed public attitudes towards military conflict. Scholars have rightly stressed that the particular characteristics of total warfare and its impact not only on the military but also on other aspects of life gained a new quality after 1914. However, the divide between traditional cabinet wars and total warfare should not imply that governments before the outbreak of the First World War were indifferent towards international efforts at peace-keeping. In 1899, fifteen years before the July Crisis, representatives of almost thirty nation states met at the peace conferences at The Hague seeking a multi-lateral agreement to resolve conflict peacefully. Most of today’s accounts emphasise the shortcomings of the conference. In 1899, a text for the creation of a Permanent Court of Arbitration was adopted. However, the court did not receive coercive power over individual nation states and dealt only with minor political issues. The next conference in 1907 proved equally unsuccessful in establishing binding regulations to resolve international conflict. The leading powers refused to accept significant infringements of their national sovereignty. The two conferences at The Hague (a third was scheduled for 1915 but was never convened) were unsuccessful in securing peace internationally. So were their successors. The League of Nations, the Briand-Kellogg pact and finally the United Nations seem, at first glance, to have done little to avoid war.




The experience of the societies in France, Germany, Great Britain and Italy before and after the two world wars should be examined in their own right and without broad generalisation. However, the difficulties in coming to terms with the results of the First World War affected the way in which all four entered the Second. The collective experience of the atrocities of the events from 1939 to 1945 when all four were immediately affected left a further legacy. War may have remained the ultima ratio of politicians but for the populations of the four Western countries of Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy, previous experiences were too strongly embedded in the public memory to allow them to view wars as anything but disasters. Inevitably, such attitudes also influenced politicians, though to different degrees, in all four states. This could be the reason for the formation of the opposition to the war in Iraq in 2003 by what has been termed ‘Old Europe’. Britain only proved to be an exception to the rule inasmuch as the government felt bound by its loyalty to the United States which had twice come to the rescue of the former mother country. Generally history tends to tune down its verdict on horrendous events of the past. Not so in the case of the two World Wars: they appear more appalling, more incomprehensible with every decade gone by. The Hague conferences, the League of Nations, the Briand-Kellogg pact, the charter of the United Nation – all those attempts at solving conflicts peacefully or at least to limit the fallout-out of wars – may not have proved an entire success. Nevertheless, combined with the suffering and death of so many people, they changed the mind-set of the European nations for good. After all, the efforts to create a European Union have been inspired by the resolution to make wars on the European continent a thing of the past.




Lothar Kettenacker was deputy director of the German Historical Institute London (1975– 2004) and held an adjunct professorship at the Goethe University Frankfurt. He did his PhD on Nazi occupation policy in Alsace. He has published on the history of the Third Reich, Anglo-German relations and the history of the Federal Republic. His most recent book is Germany 1989: In the Aftermath of the Cold War (2009).


Torsten Riotte is a lecturer in History at the Goethe University Frankfurt. Educated at Cologne and Cambridge Universities, he worked at the German Historical Institute London (2003–2007) where he edited the multi-volume edition British Envoys to Germany, 1815–1866. He is the author of a number of articles on British and European history and co-editor of The Hanoverian Dimension in British History, 1714–1837 (2007) and The Diplomats’ World. A Cultural History of Diplomacy (2008).