The Great War Of Words

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Invasion and atrocity in 1914 transformed Britain's entry into the war into a moral cause.

On August 4th 1914 German forces entered neutral Belgium. A decision that brought Britain to war in defence of international law bound by strategic interests and moral force.

The subsequent atrocities committed in Belgium & Northern France in those first weeks transformed many people's understandings of what was now at stake. The war now defined as a great moral cause, civilization versus German Kultur.

The 'rape' of Belgium caused international outrage and created a long propaganda war for the hearts and minds of millions overseas. At home ordinary Briton's identified strongly with the Belgian plight with hundred's of thousands of refugees arriving on our shores. The German policy of civilian bombing raids and later unrestricted submarine warfare brought the shock of war to people's homes and further shaped our ideas of the bestial Hun.

The greatest atrocity of war was war itself. In the turbulent years of peace after 1918 the wartime motivations and meanings of the war for millions was refracted through the prism of post war disillusionment. So much so that a powerful counter myth set in by the late 1920's that has largely persisted. Many now felt that the British public and millions more were essentially manipulated by their governments to wage a pointless war of slaughter. That the atrocities were at best hysterical stories ruthlessly transformed into motivational propaganda.

Michael Portillo explores the true history of those events in Belgium, the impact on people during wartime and the battle for meaning that followed.

Producer: Mark Burman.

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Responsibility for the Great War has been a fierce battle for meaning ever since 1914.

The arguments over who began the Great War have raged since the first shots were fired. Michael Portillo examines a fierce battle for meaning with high stakes.

All governments needed to convince their public that they had not begun this war of the world. Historians were immediately pressed into the national cause. Documents of state became weapons of propaganda but it was the coming of peace that transformed the issue of responsibility into the burning question of war guilt.

Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles assigned responsibility for the war to Germany and its allies essentially as way of making the case for reparations but the defeated people of the new German Weimar Republic saw the clause as a terrible judgement and bitterly resented it and the issue of reparations.

Defeat and horrific loss fostered powerful myths that would later become central to Hitler's appeal. Even before the war ended the myth of the 'stab in the back' was born in Germany. The idea that the war had not been lost on the battlefield but by betrayal at home. This & the inability to consider the role their nation had played in the outbreak and prosecution of the war would become corrosive narratives.

In the interwar years the German government and its historians devoted themselves to finding a way to revise history and undermine the Treaty of Versailles. A race to release documents and control the truth began. Across Europe and America others began to question these issues of responsibility. A new understanding of the causes of the war grew- no one had been to blame.

Then, in the 1960's, the work of German historian Fritz Fischer blew any consensus apart. And now, a century on, can historians agree and should the issue of responsibility for the war have any residual power?

Producer: Mark Burman.