I’m watching ITV News, and the word Przemyśl jumps out at me from the bottom of the screen. It is one of the places where Ukranian refugees are being welcomed to Poland. But the name strikes memories, of course. This is not the first time it has been in the news.

In the autumn of 1914, the town was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of course. It was besieged by a huge Russian army that was poorly equipped, poorly trained and poorly managed. In time, though, force of numbers told, and in March 1915, the fortress surrendered, because of starvation and exhaustion. It was a grim business. The besieging Russians then, of course, were Britain’s allies.

This is far from the only reminder of 1914 in the past week.

In August 1914, the Kaiser’s army swept remorselessly through Belgium, on the way to France. Like the Russians in Ukraine this week, they expected minimal resistance, and were surprised to find a whole population fiercely opposed to them. They responded with brutality, deliberately creating terror, using artillery on civilian targets, destroying buildings of national significance, and shooting hostages.

In Britain, the attack on Belgium created the sort of national disgust that in the past week has been directed at Russia. Statesmen, churchmen and journalists denounced what was happening; celebrities who thought their voices should be heard added them to the chorus, just as Prince Harry and Piers Morgan have done this week. All kinds of people responded to charity appeals with generosity, Some later historians wrote scornfully about the war fever that the rape of Belgium inspired; I think we can understand it better after last week.

Both wars are media wars. In 1914, the press made the running. They have been criticised since for taking all atrocity stories at face value – but many of them were absolutely true. In 2022 the newspapers matter less. They dig out their biggest headline font – the one they used a month ago to be indignant about a slice of cake and a glass of prosecco – and probably they are selling copies. But it is the TV images that strike home, and especially the phone videos made by civilians. The Russians are doing their best to stop these from being distributed in Russia; I don’t think that will work. Meanwhile the British are banning Russia Today, which I think is a mistake. Few Britons are going to be persuaded by their increasingly fragile interpretation of the conflict; meanwhile we show the world that we too prefer censorship to free speech.

Refugees in 1914 were made welcome, even by countries which had expressed strong anti-immigrant sentiments before. Just as Poland, which was hostile to Syrian immigrants, has welcomed Ukranians generously, so Britain, which had not been welcoming to Jewish immigrants before the war, made room willingly for Belgians.

There was a revulsion then against all things German. I was reminded of that when I heard a local story; last weekend at Huddersfield Town Hall, the conductor of the excellent Opera North orchestra felt that he needed to apologise for the fact that they were playing Russian music in the concert (Shostakovitch and Galina Ustvolskaya) as advertised and rehearsed. To make up for the faux pas, they played the Ukranian national anthem before the concert. Similarly in 1914, German composers became an embarrassment.

My favourite story about this is that George the Fifth, not a terribly musical man, was at a concert and heard the lively Merrie England suite. He asked an aide who the composer was. The man replied, ‘Actually, Your Majesty, he’s German.’ ‘Yes,’ replied the King, ‘most of them are.’

There is an understandable urge to boycott Russian goods, in an attempt to add to the pressure on Putin and his government, but surely this should not mean that we miss out on Shostakovitch, or Tolstoy, or Pushkin or Solzhenitsyn. A sign of how things are going is the sacking of Valery Gergiev the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra because he refused to denounce Putin. Well, I hope that Samoyeds and Borzois won’t be ostracised in the way that Dachshunds were in 1914.

All over the country, people who would have been hard-pressed to place Kiev (or Kyev) on the map a month ago are now obsessed by the attack on it – and rightly so, since the implications and possibilities of the war are appalling. As in 1914, people have responded to the courage and determination of the defenders, and have been appalled by the brutality of the attackers. The awful truth is that, apart from retreat, brutality is now the attackers’ only option. And one senses that even if Russia wins control of the huge country of Ukraine, brutality will be the only way in which they will keep any sort of control there.

Very soon in the First World War, after the Battle of the Marne, maybe, the Kaiser must have realised that his plans for a quick victory were in ruins. He kept on, hoping to win by attrition. It didn’t work. Similarly, Putin now must realise that after a week of aggression his plan of speedy conquest is impossible. The attack has been marked by incompetence and lack of planning. His only hope of anything that looks like victory means pulverising and depopulating city after city. It’s hard to see any possibility of all this ending well for anybody.

One Comment

  1. rawdoncrawley
    Posted March 6, 2022 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    … people who would have been hard-pressed to place Kiev (or Kyev (or Kyiv)) on a map..

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