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Build-up to war

04 July 2014


THE words of Sir Edward Grey will be often quoted as we mark the anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War: "The lamps are going out all over Europe." But Grey's premonitions of doom were by no means shared throughout the continent. "My libido is dedicated to Austria-Hungary," Sigmund Freud said in his excitement at hearing that Austria was to stand up for itself against the Serbs; although he knew, better than most, that the libido unleashed is a potentially devastating force.

We have been awaiting this anniversary a good deal longer than the antagonists, who, we are told, did not foresee war more than a month before it happened. And the schedules are full of material preparing us for the worst. Month of Madness (Radio 4, weekdays last week) stood out as having been written and presented by Professor Christopher Clark, whose prize-winning book The Sleepwalkers has become the go-to reference for those who, like me, know about the causes of the war only from the opening scene of Oh! What a Lovely War.

Professor Clark's approach here was to take us on a city tour - from Sarajevo to Vienna, Berlin to London - to give us a clear sense of the motivations that lay behind government action.

Although the initial shot was fired by Gavrilo Princip, smoking guns are to be found, Professor Clark concludes, in the hands of all the main players. The interactions have become no less complex for his analysis, but they were at least easier to follow. And yet, at the same time, there was an ever-present urgency to the tone, which owed nothing to the soundtrack of pounding strings and everything to the pace of Clark's account.

Similarly gripping is Margaret MacMillan's 1914: Day by day (Radio 4) which began on Friday and will be running every day for the next month, telling the story of the build-up to war through five-minute news chunks. Here is preserved the messiness and multiple ironies of history-as-lived, starting the day before the assassination in Sarajevo. Who would have thought, for instance, that while the Serb nationalists plotted, Edward Elgar was making the first recording of Pomp and Circumstance No. 1 (aka "Land of Hope and Glory")?

Between the Ears (Radio 3) on Saturday provided a counterpoint to the "chaps with maps" narrative of history, with a revised repeat of an edition featuring the poems of Wilfred Owen, read by British soldiers who have seen recent service. We will be hearing a good deal more of Owen, Sassoon, Brooke, and the rest over the next four years, but this may yet remain the most poignant of the memorials.

Striking was the fact that few, if any, of them wished to read into the poems the simple anti-war interpretation that most of us would regard as orthodox. The poems offered vivid accounts of experiences both physical and psychological; but most of all they were about "bonds of fellowship", "the soldier's covenant".

And, indeed, put this way, we get to hear afresh the multiple voices that Owen offers: the German soldier in "Strange Meeting", for instance, or the urgent warning in "Dulce et Decorum Est" of "Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!"

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