Conference 2014

'How Wars Begin'

This year's Cambridge History Forum conference took place on Saturday 1st March at Selwyn College. The conference looked at 'How Wars Begin' and the three lectures examined the outbreak of the English Civil War, the outbreak of the American Civil War and, in this centenary year, the outbreak of the First World War. The lectures were then followed by a forum discussion with all three speakers taking part.

The first lecture was given by our President, Dr. David Smith, on the outbreak of the English Civil War. Dr. Smith began by saying that recent historiography of the period has moved towards looking at high politics and the relationship between Charles I and Parliament. In 1640 England was still a long way from Civil War and, when the Short Parliament was called, there was no way that parliament would vote to support Charles financially until the grievances from the previous years had been addressed. Following the closure of the Short Parliament, Charles went to Scotland with the army, but secret links were already in existence between the Scottish leaders and the English Parliament. When the Long Parliament was called in November 1640, there was still hope that the problems between the King and Parliament could be solved. There was a feeling amongst some parliamentary leaders that Charles' advisers were the main problem and if they were removed the situation would improve. Dr. Smith said that the reforms of 1640-1, to which Charles agreed, were important in the developing relationship, as they ensured that there would be no return to Charles I's personal rule. Charles also reluctantly agreed to the execution of his adviser, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. However, the situation changed in the summer of 1641 when the debates started on the future of the Church of England. This was an important moment because it saw some support swinging in favour of Charles, but it also began to forecast the sides that people eventually took in the Civil War. The Irish Rebellion in 1641, when thousands of Protestants were massacred, was a turning point as the Irish rebels claimed to be acting on a commission from Charles I and the question was then raised as to whether Charles could be trusted to lead an army against the Irish rebels. Parliament was then divided, as evidenced by the passing of the Grand Remonstrance by just 11 votes. In January 1642 Charles entered the House of Commons in an attempt to arrest five Members of Parliament. The Members had already left, but Charles' attempt further served to increase the opposition towards him. Charles then left London, leaving a split between Crown and Parliament. By June and July 1642 the two sides had emerged and they were fairly equally balanced. Dr. Smith concluded by saying that the tragedy was that as both sides had an equal level of support and they both thought that they had a good chance of winning if a war happened quickly. However, to look for the roots of the problem, he argued, it is not necessary to look any further back than the personal rule of Charles I.

Dr. Adam Smith of University College, London gave the second lecture on the outbreak of the American Civil War. Dr. Smith began his lecture by outlining the premise that when the American Republic was set up the intention was that it would be peaceful. However, he went on to point out that, as there were no structures at the centre to hold this together, the Republic was bound to fail at some point and that the idea of all men being created equal was an absurdity. He went on to examine the issues in three sections: how and why slavery caused political problems despite the relative marginalisation of abolitionists; why sectional conflict over the future of slavery led to secession and why secession led to war. Dr. Smith talked about how the publication of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" had created a cultural sensation when it was published in the 1850s and it highlighted slavery as a moral problem. In addition, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 gave the federal government the power to seize runaway slaves in free states which created a large amount of opposition in the north. The subsequent emergence of the Republicans, an anti-slavery party in the north, which had the ability to win national elections was a significant development which brought the situation to a full scale crisis. The secession of some states led to a majority in the north to refuse to allow the Union to be broken up which led to the outbreak of civil war. President Abraham Lincoln, who had been elected in 1860, was strongly in favour of maintaining the Union and the war brought to a conclusion the whole question of slavery. Dr. Smith concluded that it had been the slave holders' rebellion and it had challenged the beliefs of the founding fathers.

The final lecture was given by Professor Chris Clark on the very topical issue of how Europe went to war in 1914. Professor Clark began by noting what a well-known narrative the outbreak of the First World War is and he asked how the narrative could be refreshed. He noted that the events of 1914 are old, but some of the interpretations are new and more relevant than they have been for many years. If the events of 28th June 1914 are looked at from a 21st century perspective, you can see the attack on the cavalcade of cars and compare it to the events of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the Black Hand were a group of suicide bombers who had an underground group behind them. He continued by noting that our view of the events of 1914 has changed since the Yugoslav Wars and issues in the Balkans, events like 9/11 remind us how events can impact on an international scale and we also view the world differently since the end of the Cold War. Professor Clark suggested that the narrative could be refreshed by swapping the 'why' questions and the 'how' questions around which then leads to different conclusions. By asking the 'how' question, it can be seen that war was chosen by people and that Europe went to war because of the decisions being made in different capitals: that premise then challenges the popular perception of the 'blame game' that Germany was solely responsible for the war. He went on to examine three key issues in the outbreak of the war. Firstly, that there were genuinely interactive great powers where interests were being balanced with attitudes towards other powers and the Alliance systems complicated this still further. Secondly, there were disunified decision-making structures within different countries and empires and the personnel in these governments were often changing in the lead up to the war. Finally, there were short-term unpredictable changes such as the Balkan Wars which further unsettled the balance of power. Professor Clark concluded by noting that there is certainly enough complexity about the causes to keep the debate going for some time to come.

The final part of the conference was an opportunity for all three speakers to answer questions and draw comparisons across the different conflicts as to how wars begin.

The conference provided a stimulating and interesting morning and was followed by a buffet lunch, over which conversations about the lectures continued.