10 per cent of the local population.
But despite all the abuse and violence heaped upon them, the outcasts were never entirely eliminated, their ranks constantly replenished by a regime that for political reasons needed dark revisionist forces to be lurking in the background, ready to overturn power. During the Cultural Revolution, it was a call from Beijing to eliminate counter-revolutionary f actions that fuelled the pogroms, which were particularly g ruesome in the mountainous areas of Guangdong and Guangxi, regions where traditional clan feuds were now justified on ideological grounds. The campaign directives, as the author points out, were always vague, and they never called for collective killings – although Andrew Walder has shown in his Fractured Rebellion how by 1967 news of Red Guard killings in Beijing and other cities was widespread. As the methods of execution were left up to the people on the g round, Mao’s willing executioners stepped forward and took it upon themselves to organise
GENERAL I NCOMPETENCE
WITH OUR BACKS TO THE WALL: VICTORY AND DEFEAT IN 1918
By David Stevenson (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 688pp £30)
IT IS OFTEN said that the Germans came nearest to winning the First World War twice – at the start in 1914 and near the end in 1918. In his new book, David Stevenson turns this on its head. He contends that the huge German offensives in the west that began in March 1918 set off a process that led to Germany’s defeat later that year. He also makes clear that when, with their ally Austria–Hungary, the Germans started the war in 1914, they took a ter r ific gamble the odds of which were already against them. So a predictable result was merely delayed by four years and the deaths of millions. The predictability, however, was obscured by the often poor generalship of Germany’s enemies. What happened on the battlefields was only one part of the war. Stevenson’s detailed examination of each belligerent in 1918 makes it plain how much was owed to the efficiency of the factories and transport systems, the morale on the home fronts and the character and abilities of the politicians and administrators. Economic power was also vital: Britain and its empire financed much of the war, even after the entry of the United States in 1917. With Our Backs to the Wall, with its mass of statistics and its methodical tracing of often shifting decisions, is witch-hunts against ‘traitors’, ‘spies’, ‘capitalist roaders’ and other ‘class enemies’. As the author puts it: ‘There was no systematic bureaucratic machinery of genocide; rather, neighbors killed neighbors. Days of rage in the squares brought rivers of sorrow that still flow through the villages today.’
Yang Su has written a long-overdue study that leaves behind the well-trodden ground of the Red Guards in Beijing to focus unflinchingly on the violence of the countr y s i de. The author a l so p l aces the Cultural Revolution squarely where it should have been all along, namely in the area of genocide studies. At long last such classic works as Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland and Ben Kiernan’s The Pol Pot Regime are being invoked to understand the chains of interests and complicities that extended all the way down to the village. As the saying goes, ‘it takes a village’ – to kill collectively. To order this book for £15.99, see LR bookshop on page 22
not always easy reading. It is, however, an immensely useful study, emphasising the crucial importance of morale, political stability and trust. The title comes from Haig’s famous order of 11 April 1918, when a huge German offensive had led another general to predict ‘a decisive defeat’ for Britain unless the French gave more help. ‘With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause,’ the British commander declared, ‘each one of us must fight on to the end.’ There is something bleak, unimaginative and unsympathetic about Haig, and his mistakes were often catastrophic. But those words impressed many. Vera Brittain, then nur s i ng a t t he f ront and not a f an o f t he High Command, wrote after reading them: ‘I knew I should go on, whether I could or not.’ National will was vital. It crumbled in Russia in 1917 and in Germany and Austria–Hungary in the last half of 1918. This never happened on a mass scale in Britain or France, although collective despair threatened both, particularly the French, in 1917. The greatest challenge to the Allies was to keep going against a background of grim news from the battlefields. For much of the war France and Britain faced military disappointment, often defeat; the fact that they had no serious civil disorder shows their political stability. Even though some senior French politicians were in the pay of the enemy and Britain’s democracy was limited, with a more restrictive franchise than Germany, the home front held in both countries. Another point that Stevenson brings out is that not until food shortages and obvious military failure did the different nationalities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire start to desert in significant numbers. The only serious revolt from within a belligerent nation until 1918 was the 1916 Easter rebellion in Ireland, the Ottoman Empire having started to break up before 1914.
LITERARY REVIEW May 2011
Germany produced some supreme technocrats – military commanders, strategists, field officers and NCOs, weapon designers, industrialists – but laboured under unwise, even wild, political direction. At least two of the German war leaders, Wilhelm II and Erich Ludendorff, were unstable, quite possibly mad. This led to decisions like the one that allowed unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, which brought the United States into the war. German failure of judgement caused this, overr iding powerful Amer ican i solationist feeling and instinctive distrust – particularly felt by those of Ir ish and German stock or with progressive views – of the Allies, especially the British. Surely one of the most extraordinary developments of the twentieth century was the entry of the United States into the First World War, an essentially imperialistic quarrel that was no real threat to it.
unimpressive Br i t i sh High Command. When the German commander Ludendorff, bolstered by troops returning from the eastern front, planned his offensive of March 1918, he aimed it at the British, judging them to be the weakest force on the western front.
Stevenson analyses this offensive in great detail. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, ostensibly a huge German victory over the Russians, was f atal, adding to the hubris that led to the attacks in the west later that month. Germany, strangled by an Allied blockade, gambled ever ything on the offensive of March 1918. The quick German gains are well-known; less f amiliar, and brought out by Stevenson, is the fragility of such military success since it was mitigated by drawn-out supply lines and an enemy that had not only found a new defensive mobility but coordinated its strategy at last.
The German misjudgements began early on. The German assault on Verdun in 1916 completely underestimated the French power of resistance. A much better course would have been to have renewed their advance in the east and take Russia out of the war earlier, before the Americans arrived. But early German successes – the quick advance in 1914, the conquest of large parts o f nor t her n F r ance, t he defeat of the Russians a t Tannenberg – had l ed to hubr i s and i ncreased t he influence of the generals. Soon the country fell under the vir tual dictatorship of Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who dominated a weak Emperor.
German morale, high after the first successes, crumbled fast after the Allies, beginning with the French, staged a ser ies of successful counter-attacks; it was known that the Americans were coming across in large number s , making defeat inevitable. The offensive galvanised the Allies. The French Marshal Foch was appointed t he s upreme Al l i ed commander, t he reduction in the mistrusted Haig’s role making it easier for Br i t i sh politicians in particular to accept military advice. The collapse of the central powers began with the Bulgarian surrender. It ended with revolution in Germany and the break-up of the Habsburg Empire. Much of the story of the First World War is desperately
Gas-blinded men, France 1918
At f i r st i t seemed to be working. The Ger mans forced the British and the French into a series of costly offensives in the west – such as that on the Somme in 1916 – which, although cumulatively effective, brought no quick result. In 1917, after the French assault on the Chemin des Dames (which led to mutiny) and the slaughter of Haig’s offensives in Flanders, it seemed that the Allies might lose the war, particularly when Russia’s new Bolshevik regime began peace negotiations with the Germans.
The British Prime Minister Lloyd George distrusted his generals. He was reluctant to sanction one of Haig’s mass offensives again after the slaughters of the Somme and Passchendaele. There is a strong case to be made that Haig should have been sacked at the end of 1917; the problem lay in finding a successor from among an depressing, including what came out of it. Stevenson’s last chapter is grim. The Allies’ mutual distrust deepened, leading to not enough collaboration against a resentful, volatile Germany obsessed by the myths of an undefeated army and political betrayal. Against the wish of President Wilson, the United States retreated from Europe. The British recalled how near the French had come to defeat in 1914; French soldiers like Maxime Weygand – who opted for Vichy in 1940 – and the increasingly Anglophobic de Gaulle remembered the British collapse and cry for help of March 1918. Appeasement of a reviving Germany, a potential bulwark against communism, seemed preferable not only to another war but also to fighting alongside each other again. To order this book for £24, see LR bookshop on page 22
LITERARY REVIEW May 2011