Lest we forget, history has lessons to teach

 Scraps of paper matter, from red poppies to international treaties

This is the time of year when I get the paper-flower question. Living in California, but born in Britain, I am one of a tiny number of people here who wear a poppy in the week before Remembrance Day. Hence the question: “Hey, Niall, what’s with the red paper flower?” I don’t mind explaining. I wear it in memory of my grandfathers, John Ferguson and Tom Hamilton.

The former fought the Germans on the western front for most of the First World War. The latter fought the Japanese in Burma during the Second World War. Both survived — otherwise, there would be no me — but each had his life shortened by the damage war did to his lungs. And I wear the poppy to commemorate the tens of millions of people — not only the British servicemen — whose lives were cut much shorter.

Sometimes I also point out that this is not some British eccentricity. It was an American woman, Moina Michael — a professor at Georgia University — who originally suggested wearing a poppy as a symbol of remembrance. She in turn was inspired by a Canadian, John McCrae, whose 1915 poem In Flanders Fields still resonates. Beginning in 1919, a Frenchwoman, Anna Guérin, sold artificial poppies in America to raise money for orphans in the war-torn regions of France. The tradition may have died out in America, but it is alive and well in Australia and New Zealand too.

If my interlocutor has not fled by now, I add that I would not have become a historian without such symbols of the past. For poppies, like the stone war memorials that were so numerous in the Scotland of my youth, prompted the earliest historical question in my mind: why did that happen? Why did my grandfathers, when they were still such young men — a mere teenager, in the case of John Ferguson — end up in mortal peril so far from home? It’s a version of Tolstoy’s more profound question at the end of War and Peace: “What is the power that moves nations?” It is the question I have spent my adult life trying to answer.

Remembrance, in short, has never been enough for me. We also need to learn from history. Here is one of the lessons that is too seldom learnt. Scraps of paper matter, and I don’t mean paper flowers.

What became the Great War — only later renamed the First World War after the Second had begun — might simply have been the Second Franco-German War if Britain and its empire had not joined it on August 4, 1914. Why did that happen?

Formally, Britain went to war because the German attack on Belgium violated the 1839 Treaty of London, which — under article VII of the annexe to the treaty — bound all five of the great powers of Europe to uphold Belgian neutrality. There were other reasons for intervening, naturally: the geopolitical calculation that a German victory over France, unlike in 1871, would pose a strategic threat to Britain, and the domestic political calculation that if the Liberals did not go to war, their government would fall and the Conservatives would go to war anyway. But Belgium mattered.

On August 6, the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, explained to the House of Commons “what we are fighting for”. His speech focused on Britain’s “solemn international obligation” to uphold Belgian neutrality in the name of both law and honour, and “to vindicate the principle that small nationalities are not to be crushed”. The evidence suggests that this casus belli did indeed resonate with the British public.

The German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, lamented that “England should fall upon them for the sake of the neutrality of Belgium” — for “un chiffon de papier”. But scraps of paper count, even if the 1839 treaty was only (as one cabinet minister observed) a convenient “plea . . . for intervention on behalf of France”.

How many Britons in 1914 knew the terms of that treaty? Not 16-year-old John Ferguson, I’ll be bound. And yet the commitment to Belgium, along with a sustained emphasis on German atrocities towards Belgian civilians, became central to British war propaganda.

Are there any similar commitments today, forgotten by the general public and yet capable of plunging the world into war? I can think of two. In each case, they exist on paper. In each case, they have lost or are losing credibility, so that potential foes might be forgiven for dismissing them as mere scraps of paper.

The first is article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty of April 4, 1949, which binds each signatory to consider “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America . . . an attack against them all”, and, in that case, to take “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area”.

The second is the Taiwan Relations Act of April 10, 1979, which states that America will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States” and that America “will make available to Taiwan such defence articles and defence services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defence capabilities”.

With respect to Nato, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, last week gave a damning interview. “To my mind,” he told The Economist, “what we are currently experiencing is the brain death of Nato.”

The Economist: Do you now believe that article 5 doesn’t work either; is that what you suspect?

Macron: “I don’t know, but what will article 5 mean tomorrow? Will [Donald Trump] be prepared to activate solidarity? If something happens at our borders?”

With respect to Taiwan, a similar question could easily be asked. Would Donald Trump feel bound by the 1979 act if China sought to end Taiwan’s autonomy and force it to submit to rule from Beijing? That is no remote scenario. Last Wednesday, Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, warned that China might resort to military aggression towards Taiwan as a means of deflecting internal political pressure as the mainland economy slows down.

So, go ahead, ask me why I am wearing a poppy. Commemoration is about more than showing respect to past generations. It is also about being alert to future dangers: red flags, as well as red flowers.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

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