The structure of great-power relations through the 19th century was unipolar, shaped by British global hegemony, but this began to be challenged around 1900, leading to the emergence of a bipolar system of alliances. World War I was essentially a bipolar conflict.
Sir Richard John Evans is a British historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe with a focus on Germany. He is the author of eighteen books, including his three-volume "The Third Reich Trilogy". Evans was Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge from 2008 until his retirement in 2014, and President of Cambridge's Wolfson College from 2010 to 2017. He has been Provost of Gresham College in London since 2014. Evans was appointed Knight Bachelor for services to scholarship in the 2012 Birthday Honours.
ILNA: What were the economic factors of the outbreak of World War I? In your opinion, what were the economic consequences of the war for the victorious and defeated countries?
The English writer Norman Angell famously argued in a book published before the outbreak of World War I that the belief that the economic interdependency of the major European power, which was indeed very intense, would prevent a war between them, was a ‘great illusion’, and so it proved. The war broke out in spite of economic factors, not because of them. The economic consequences of the war however were disastrous. The global economy did not recover until the 1950s. The break-up of the multinational Habsburg Empire brought into being new or enlarged states such as Poland and Yugoslavia that set up tariff barriers, causing huge problems for international trade. Russia had undergone a revolution and civil war that virtually destroyed the economy, causing widespread famine in 1921-22. In many countries, especially those on the losing side, there was postwar inflation on a huge scale, notably Germany, because these countries had expected to pay the costs of the war by foreign conquest. Currency stabilization was achieved only by US loans, which were withdrawn after the Wall Street Crash in 1929, causing a deep depression, mass unemployment, and political crisis. Reparations for war damage in France and Belgium were forced from Germany, worsening the situation. The victorious countries, including France and Britain, fared better, but did not escape the consequences of the depression in the 1930s.
ILNA: What was the role of nationalism in the World War I? Given the increasing growth of nationalism in today's world, can we assess that we live in the "age of extremes"?
The war was fought not between nation-states but between multinational empires – not only the British and French, and, to a lesser extent, the Germans with their overseas territories, and the Russians, with their huge colonies in central Asia, but also the multinational Habsburg Empire. Nationalism played a role in small countries like Serbia, where it triggered the war through the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, and other Balkan nations, and was important for Germany, where it was widely seen as a war for German values. The war ushered in an ‘age of extremes’, to quote the British historian Eric Hobsbawm in his survey of the period, but those were extremes not only of nationalism but also of communism, i.e. extremes of right and left. That age continued through the confrontation of the Cold War, though fascism largely disappeared from the scene after 1945. So we no longer live in an age of extremes in the sense in which he meant the term. However, we are seeing the rise of a new, ultra-right politics, in Europe, America, and other parts of the world (e.g. the Philippines) that is in many cases nationalist in expression but is also directed against minorities such as immigrants, and attacks the core values and institutions of democracy, often with widespread public approval.
ILNA: Given the multipolarity of the world during the First World War, can the current approach of the President of the United States to the monopoly of the power be seen as a danger to our world?
The structure of great-power relations through the 19th century was unipolar, shaped by British global hegemony, but this began to be challenged around 1900, leading to the emergence of a bipolar system of alliances. World War I was essentially a bipolar conflict (the Entente Powers versus the Central Powers). Only after the war did the system become multipolar, with the withdrawal of the USA from international affairs, the fragmentation of Europe into a collection of small to medium sized states, and the gradual ending of British domination of the seas. After 1945 the international system became bipolar again, but the nuclear standoff between the USA and USSR during the Cold War, and the widespread horror at the destruction of World War II, prevented this becoming a ‘hot’ war except locally, as in Korea and Vietnam. The determination to avoid repeating the mistakes of 1919-1945 led to the creation of a dense web of international agreements and institutions, such as the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank, and the like. The end of the Cold War and the deep crisis of the Russian society and economy ushered in a period of unipolarity in which the USA was the world’s dominant power, predating Trump by over two decades. What Trump is doing is attacking this postwar international order, attempting to dismantle the international institutions and agreements that underpinned it. In doing so, he is also undermining the USA’s international position, which was exercised through co-operation with its allies. So he is making America weaker, not stronger.
ILNA: How do you evaluate the status of refugees in WWI and the approach of the countries involved? Given the current crisis of refugees, has Europe been able to improve its position?
There were large-scale movements of refugees during World War I, some voluntary, others not. Millions of people fled the fighting in Europe, while the Russian Tsar deported over a million ethnic Germans and Jews to Siberia, away from the front. After the war, there were forced population exchanges on a huge scale, for example between Greece and Turkey. The situation was even worse before World War II, when many countries were reluctant to receive Jewish refugees from Germany, Romania and Hungary, during the war, when Stalin deported millions of Poles and ethnic Germans to Siberia, and above all after the war, when 11 million ethnic German refugees fled, or were expelled, from Eastern Europe to Germany with heavy loss of life. The current crisis of refugees has two causes – people escaping civil war and oppression (Syria, parts of north Africa) and people escaping poverty (Africa). The response of European nations has been deeply divided. Germany has welcomed refugees, partly because it feels a burden of historic humanitarian responsibility in the light of the crimes of German Nazism, partly because it has a labour shortage, as it has always had. Other countries such as Austria and Hungary are not affected by these factors, and racism and nationalism have brought anti-immigrant politicians to power. Across Europe anti-immigrant parties have become more popular, but the EU in particular has been unable to find a unified response to the problem of mass immigration from the south and east.
ILNA: Many believe that the First World War provided the platform for the formation of the idea of communism. Can the catastrophe of World War I be a source for radical and opposing ideas?
The Tsarist regime in Russia repeatedly failed the test of war: the loss of the Crimean War in 1856 forced it to reform itself under Alexander II, the loss of the Japanese War sparked the (ultimately unsuccessful) 1905 Revolution, and the stress of World War I caused the regime’s downfall in 1917, leading to the creation of the Communist regime which lasted until 1990. But Communism failed to export itself successfully except to China and one or two small countries like Cuba and Albania. Certainly it helped prompt the radical anticommunist ideas of fascism and Nazism, but these had separate roots in World War I as well, notably the brutalization of politics which legitimized the widespread use of extreme violence against political opponents. Since 1990 the world has moved on, however, and the extent to which the experience of World War I is directly relevant in the present is very limited.
Interview: Kamran Baradaran