The greatest of crimes

by John Quiggin on November 11, 2004

November 11 marks the armistice that was supposed to bring an end to the Great War in 1918. In fact, it was little more than a temporary and partial truce in a war that has continued, in one form or another, until the present. Hitler’s War and the various Cold War conflicts were direct continuations of the first Great War, and we are even now dealing with the consequences of the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot agreement.

The Great War was at the root of most of the catastrophes that befell the human race in the 20th century. Communism, Nazism and various forms of virulent nationalism all derived their justification from the ten million dead of 1914-18. Even the apparently hopeful projects that emerged from the war, from the League of Nations to the creation of new states like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia ended in failure or worse. And along with war, conquest and famine came the pestilence of the Spanish Flu, which killed many more millions[1].

And yet this catastrophe was brought about under the leadership of politicians remarkable for their ordinariness. Nothing about Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Bethmann Holllweg or the other leaders on both sides marks them out for the company of Attila or Tamerlane or Stalin. How could men like these continue grinding their populations through years of pointless slaughter, and what led people to follow them? In retrospect, it is surely clear that both sides would have been better if peace had been made on the basis of any of the proposals put up in 1917 on the general basis of of “no annexations or indemnities”. The same was true, in reality, at any time from the outbreak of war in 1914 until the final collapse of the Central Powers, and even then the terms of 1917 would have been better for all than those of Versailles. We should think about this every time we are called to war with sweet-sounding slogans.

War is among the greatest of crimes. It may be the lesser evil on rare occasions, but it is always a crime. On Remembrance Day and always, this is what we should remember.

fn1. It’s not clear whether the War exacerbated the pandemic, for example through massive movements of people and widespread privation. But it seems right to consider them together when we remember the War.

{ 66 comments }

1

Dan Hardie 11.11.04 at 1:57 pm

‘How could men like these continue grinding their populations through years of pointless slaughter, and what led people to follow them?’

A question which you need to ask yourself is rather: once the war had begun, did the people oblige the politicians to continue fighting the war? Certainly there was no major curtailment of dissent within Great Britain in the Great War (Catholic Ireland, with approximately one-twelfth of the UK’s population, was repressed only after an armed rebellion- Redmond and his Nationalist Party had supported the war). Conscription was only introduced in 1916 and most British soldiers were actually volunteers right until the end of the war. British electors were free to vote in 1918 for those who had opposed the war (approximately 20 out of 40 Labour MPs, a few Asquithian or old Radical Liberals, the odd High Tory) or to stand themselves- and yet the 1918 election was a crushing victory for the most bellicose politicians in Britain, the Lloyd George-led, largely Tory coalition. The Asquithian Liberals were turned out of office not for opposing the war (they supported it strongly) but for being seen as insufficiently ready to intervene in business and introduce measures like co-ordination of industry, or conscription. The point is even clearer in an Australian context: all Australian soldiers were volunteers, without a single exception. Again, the Australians kept on fighting despite four years of awful casualties, and the clear majority of the Australian electorate backed this.

I think that we do all like to imagine that evil- and the First World War was evil in its course and in its consequences- is always largely the result of powerful men telling the rest of us what to do, lying to us and inciting our worst passions.

Certainly there was plenty of lying and incitement in the First World War. But when I read the history of Britain’s part in the First World War, it strikes me that this evil was at least as much the result of the freely-expressed will of the people. Whipped up by propaganda, hemmed in by a certain amount of censorship, yes- but that can’t account for the apparent determination of the British people to go on fighting through four unprecedentedly bloody years. Analogously, Daniel Ellsberg has always said that he thinks one of the main reasons that every US President from Truman on supported some form of war in Vietnam was that they didn’t want to be the man who ‘lost’ Vietnam- the popular backlash would have been as bad as that which met the ‘loss’ of China. We have met the enemy, and sometimes he is ourselves.

Another point is that the ‘no annexations or indemnities’ offers never came from governments themselves, but from the likes of the Vatican, second-rank Budapest politicians, Lord Lansdowne (a third or fourth rank British High Tory), the UDC, etc. All official peace offers from one side or the other involved the confiscation of land or materials or both, which wouuld have seriously weakened the other side in the likely event of a resumption of hostilities. So when we ask why no government ever offered peace on the basis of ‘no annexations or indemnities’, I’m afraid we go back to looking at the influence of popular opinion on the politicians.

Of course I agree that we should only go to war as a last resort, but you’re preaching to the converted on this site. I suggest you mail this advice to Norman Geras and the chickenhawk chorus at Harry’s Place…

2

willchill 11.11.04 at 2:01 pm

When judging the statesmen behind the extraordinarily disproportionate slaughter of WW1 (and the ACW) we have to remember that the model they were all working to was the rapid victory at (relatively) low cost as achieved several times by Bismarck’s Prussia and pre-1809 Napoleonic France. The temptation for the quick victory by statesmen in posession of what they see as a predominant war machine will never go away. And the bitternesses and ‘patriotism’ engendered by a bogged-down war make a step back from it virtually impossible. At least now, thanks to institutions like Remembrance day in part, western populations have no stomach for massive casualties (of their own side). But fear, revanchism and bitterness at a demonised enemy can all work to ratchet the pain threshold back up again.

3

Don Quijote 11.11.04 at 2:02 pm

It has always been relatively easy to start the machinery of war, but in this century with the industrialization & marketting involved it has become practically impossible to stop the machinery.

4

Dubious 11.11.04 at 2:05 pm

But was not the Great War a continuation of the Franco-Prussian war? And was not the Franco-Prussian war a direct consequence of Prussia beating Austria, thus clearing the way for the unification of Germany? And wasn’t the Austro-Prussian war a direct consequence of the war for Slesvig-Holstein? And weren’t German paranoia and yearnings for strength through unification a logical consequence of Germany being made the battlefield of Europe from Richelieu through Napoleon?

I write this not to dump on Prussia/Germany. After all, if none had opposed Napoleon, we would likely have had the EU founded in 1830 or so, and that would surely be a good thing for peace.

My point here is that
A) it’s pretty tenuous to talk of one historical event following as an inevitable consequence of another.
B) If we are willing to play historical determinism, how far back do we go to find the first cause?

If we are going to lay blame for the misery of mankind, better to lay it at the feet of totalitarianism than war.

5

Dan Hardie 11.11.04 at 2:12 pm

I’d add that at one of the European belligerents, Russia, was an autocracy very little restrained by a small, largely powerless, restricted-franchise Duma; and that another belligerent, Austria-Hungary, had a lively Hungarian Parliament and whose other provinces were ruled in manners varying from the semi-Parliamentary to the outright dictatorial. These two countries (excluding tiny Serbia, a monarchy where the war was seen as a matter of national survival) were the first to suffer military collapse.

But- noting the almost complete absence of female suffrage outside the Antipodes- Britain was a parliamentary democracy with some property qualifications on the franchise; France was a democratic republic; Italy had a middle-class franchise, a strong Parliament and a weak monarchy; Germany had a slightly weird system of imperial and national parliaments, but also had a more-or-less democratic franchise and parliamentary control of fiscal policy, plus immensely strong trade unions. Australia was pretty much the kind of democracy we recognise as such today. All these countries were dependent on huge numbers of citizen-soldiers, and on the massive transfer of labour into war-related industries. If there had been a majority, or even a large minority, in any major belligerent in favour of peace, the war could not have been continued for long.

6

Giles 11.11.04 at 2:16 pm

I don’t think Communism derived its justification from the great war – only its first opportunity.

Secondly, while the war might have seemed pointless from an Anglo, Italian or Russian perspective – for the French and Germans it was a very significant continuatation of a conflict over their borders that they had already fought three wars over – the first world war was just the biggest battle in this conflict and, they both hoped, the last. For Central Europeans and the Middle East, it was a battle for freedom from the Austro Hungarian and Ottoman Empires.

So there were real issues at stake and conflict at some time between the respective parties was probably inevitable– the problem was just the way the conflict turned out – lots of participants at a time when war technology was gridlocked. If the war had been fought perhaps 10 years earlier or 10 years later, it may have been quicker, less bloody and the peace fairer. We might then be remembering it as a the Great War of Liberation for Central Europe or the last war between France and Germany.

As it is, its still worth thinking about its achievements – Attaturk and Turkey, decolonization in the Middle East and Central Europe, the beginnings of a very real movement for peace in the west, aero planes, Poland etc.

7

Dan Hardie 11.11.04 at 2:25 pm

‘the problem was just the way the conflict turned out – lots of participants at a time when war technology was gridlocked. If the war had been fought perhaps 10 years earlier or 10 years later, it may have been quicker, less bloody…’

I’ve heard this before, but I’m dubious about it: yes, the Franco-Prussian war ended quicker, as did Bismarck’s earlier attacks on the Danes and Austrians, but the French had no great industrial base in 1870 and were not able to mobilise any particular weight of weapons to oppose the Prussians. The American Civil War, 1861-65 had far more primitive technology than the First World War, but had almost exactly the same duration, and actually killed a higher proportion of the combatants’ populations. Basically, any time after 1890- with serious economic growth and capital accumulation occurring in France and Russia and a consequent reduction of Germany’s crushing military superiority- you were looking at the likelihood of any European war being long and bloody.

8

George Williams 11.11.04 at 2:26 pm

“War is among the greatest of crimes. It may be the lesser evil on rare occasions, but it is always a crime. On Remembrance Day and always, this is what we should remember.”

Well said. Thank you.

9

Cranky Observer 11.11.04 at 2:41 pm

> the problem was just the way the
> conflict turned out – lots of
> participants at a time when war
> technology was gridlocked. If the
> war had been fought perhaps 10
> years earlier or 10 years later, it
> may have been quicker, less bloody
> and the peace fairer.

The final year of the US Civil War gave all the clues that were necessary to understand what would happen when WWI broke out, technologically speaking. The Russo-Japanese war added in heavy use of the machine gun (only introduced at the very end of the Civil War in the West) and long-range artillary. But the facts were there for knowledgable people to see. They chose not to.

Sort of like an administration I know of…

Cranky

10

raj 11.11.04 at 2:49 pm

Europeans had been fighting over this-and-that for a millenium before the Great War. Belgian historian Henri Pirenne opined that the history of Europe after Karl der Grosse partitioned northern Europe in three was a battle between the eastern (largely Germany) and western (largely France) portions for the middle. That might be a little difficult to square with the various religious wars, but he generally seems to have been accurate.

11

Mrs Tilton 11.11.04 at 2:56 pm

Catholic Ireland, with approximately one-twelfth of the UK’s population, was repressed only after an armed rebellion

I don’t know about that, Dan; catholic Ireland (not to mention protestant Ireland) was pretty well repressed in those days even before armed rebellion.

Mind you, the aul Gaels might have been a swingin’ lot (Brehon law allowed divorce, after all, so clearly they were all wife-swapping sodomites). But that’s going pretty far back.

12

Richard 11.11.04 at 2:57 pm

“but the French had no great industrial base in 1870 and were not able to mobilise any particular weight of weapons to oppose the Prussians”

This would be the French who went to war with a considerably superior rifle, and the world’s first operational machine gun, right?

Their artillery was state of the art only ten years previously; the Prussians had expensively reequipped theirs only after some close shaves in the Austro-Prussian war.

(That said, French mobilisation was unfortunately dependent on Systeme D.)

13

Zizka 11.11.04 at 3:22 pm

Reading literary accounts of the prewar period, you have to be struck by the number of talented and learned people from all nations who welcomed war for some reason they weren’t able to explain. Bertrand Russell went around asking people for reasons and then opposed the war because he couldn’t find any. Quite an eccentric!

I have had bitter disputes with an old friend (an American, now an expatriate) who frames his opposition to the American militarism in terms of the superiority of European culture to American. WWI and WWII are my counterarguments; the US is unlikely to do anything worse than that.

I think that WWI especially points to there being something missing or defective in high bourgeois culture. Theories abound as to what that might have been, and I have my own, but (unless it is decided that war is just a fated, inescapable universal, like gravity, metabolism and air) but it’s hard to refrain from concluding that something was terribly wrong.

14

Dan Hardie 11.11.04 at 3:24 pm

I do know about that, Mrs Tilton – in 1914 Catholic Ireland, not to mention Protestant Ireland, had all the freedoms of England, Wales and Scotland, had precisely the same Parliamentary representation on precisely the same franchise as an equivalent population in England, Wales or Scotland, and was policed by two rather lax constabularies (the Royal Irish Constabulary plus the Dublin Metropolitan Police) under the leadership of one extremely lax Irish Secretary, the dilettante Augustine Birrell. Ireland was pretty thoroughly repressed throughout the eighteenth century and for much of the nineteenth, and British rule again turned vicious after 1916.

If you mean ‘a majority of Irish voters wished for Home Rule but were subordinate to the Westminster Parliament’, that is true, and it is also true that the Home Rule bill had passed the House of Commons and had been suspended for the duration of the war with the full and public consent of Redmond’s Nationalist Party, for whom the Irish electorate outside the North-east had voted. Frankly there is no need to make up tales of oppression where none exist. I come from an Irish Catholic family and I am sick to the back teeth of this ‘Most Oppressed People Ever’ rhetoric. Ireland from 1914 to the outbreak of the Easter Rising was not oppressed, and indeed because of the need to keep Redmond on board was policed rather more sensitively than industrial areas of England and Scotland. Saying otherwise has a basis in self-pity rather than in history.

15

belle waring 11.11.04 at 3:29 pm

following up on zizka’s comment, it’s certainly odd to read Proust and have the Great War materialize out of this nebulous haze of military posturing that is half-ignored by society at large. ditto the end of The Magic Mountain. wait, does he get blown up, or what?

16

Matt McGrattan 11.11.04 at 3:32 pm

“I have had bitter disputes with an old friend (an American, now an expatriate) who frames his opposition to the American militarism in terms of the superiority of European culture to American. WWI and WWII are my counterarguments; the US is unlikely to do anything worse than that.”

I thought the whole point of these kinds of arguments is that the reason to be worried about American militarism is precisely that the US has no real experience of catastrophic near-national annihilation in military conflict on the scale that pretty much all of the European countries have.

It’s not that there’s something intrinsically superior about Europe and Europeans, rather it’s that having already made these bloody stupid mistakes we are much less likely to do so again.

So, in that sort of context, WW1 and WW2 are hardly counter-arguments but precisely premises on the side of those that fear/oppose US militarism.

[I’m not necessarily endorsing that argument — I think it gives humans rather too much credit for the capacity to learn from their mistakes — but there is at least something to be said for the view that losing a truly huge proportion of your population in catastrophic warfare does tend to shape military and foreign policy a little…]

17

Dan Hardie 11.11.04 at 3:41 pm

‘This would be the French who went to war with a considerably superior rifle, and the world’s first operational machine gun, right?’

This would be the French who went to war with 400,000 troops as opposed to 1.2million Prussians plus allies, right. This would be the French that would be incapable of supplying their troops and moving them to enemy territory as quickly as the Prussians, despite fighting on home territory and having only one third as many men to supply, right. It would be the French who went to war with the world’s first operational machine gun that was deployed so badly that it had no effect on the outcome of any battle, right. It would be the French whose artillery ‘was equipped with somewhat less modern muzzle-loading bronze 4-pounder cannons little changed from Napoleonic times’ as Wikipedia puts it, whilst the Prussians fired ‘6-pounder breech-loading cannons’ with hugely superior explosive charges and 4,500 metre range, right. It would be the French who failed to make effective use of railway and telegraph networks and the Germans who incorporated these and other forms of modern capital good into their war planning, right.

Sir Michael Howard’s book on the Franco-Prussian war is still the best place to start, right. And let’s face it, if you’re going to pronounce on something, it’s as well to have done a little reading first, right.

18

Fergal 11.11.04 at 3:44 pm

War is among the greatest of crimes. It may be the lesser evil on rare occasions, but it is always a crime. On Remembrance Day and always, this is what we should remember.

Thanks for the homily, but what in hell is it supposed to mean? “The greatest of crimes” because many people die, or is there something about soldiers killing other soldiers, or civilians, that is somehow more “criminal” than your everyday, peacetime killing? So fighting Hitler was (presumably) a lesser evil? Unless you’re a strict pacifist, why was it criminal? And if it were possible to avoid innocent casualties — still a “crime”?

19

Cranky Observer 11.11.04 at 3:46 pm

> It’s not that there’s something
> intrinsically superior about Europe
> and Europeans, rather it’s that
> having already made these bloody
> stupid mistakes we are much less
> likely to do so again.

If so, it took a long time to learn that lesson – Napolionic Wars through WWII. Plus the unknown efficacy of MAD and the Force de Frappe.

That doesn’t give me a lot of comfort, truthfully.

Cranky

20

Andrew Boucher 11.11.04 at 3:56 pm

“It’s not that there’s something intrinsically superior about Europe and Europeans, rather it’s that having already made these bloody stupid mistakes we are much less likely to do so again.”

Nah, too long ago. The Europeans who actually made those stupid mistakes are dead and gone. The paper said there were less than 20 French veterans of WWI left…

Besides much of Europe (individuals here) *did* learn from WWI; it was never to fight such a war again. Hence, according to the standard history anyway, WWII. And then European individuals *did* learn from WWII; hence the Cold War.

I guess I’m objecting to what you say, because you’re trying to be modest (no, Europeans aren’t superior) when you’re actually being the contrary (well yes, Europeans have superior wisdom, because they have had the benefit of a learning experience Americans have not had). Typical European, I’d say.

21

Richard 11.11.04 at 4:05 pm

As it happens, I have read Michael Howard’s book. What I took from it was that the French army’s main weakness wasn’t so much technological, but social. An army well capable of fighting the small wars of peace on the cheap disintegrating under the pressure of full-scale mobilisation; a hideously flawed system of conscription; the absence of any proper general staff; and a penny-pinching government.

22

Dan Hardie 11.11.04 at 4:13 pm

My original point: (The French lost because they were) ‘not able to mobilise any particular weight of weapons to oppose the Prussians.’

Your current response: (The French lost because they were’ well capable of fighting the small wars of peace on the cheap (but) disintegrating under the pressure of full-scale mobilisation; a hideously flawed system of conscription; the absence of any proper general staff; and a penny-pinching government.’

To be honest, if that’s your line I can’t see we’re disagreeing about anything substantial. I should probably have said ‘not able to mobilise any particular weight of weapons *and men*’; you should have noted that I used the phrase ‘mobilise any particular weight of weapons’, which refers to quantity of weapons across a broad range, not French superiority in one particular type of weapon.

23

paul 11.11.04 at 4:18 pm

On the pandemic, I think there are direct links between the demobilization and transport of troops at war’s end — with the attendant crowding and poor sanitation — and the spread of the virus. But that’s a side note to this interesting comment thread.

I think there’s something to the argument about the European nations knowing a bit about the destruction of war that is missing in US policy thinking. It came up during the early stages of the current war that you only had to walk down the streets of Berlin or Dresden or Paris to see the aftermath of urban warfare and that understanding, in the bones of the people, informed their opinions on the war in Iraq.

24

Richard 11.11.04 at 4:18 pm

Fair enough. It’s worth noting that only four years before the Prussian artillery was about the same technological level as the French cannon in 1870 – the poor performance of the Prussian gunners against the Austrians forced a complete revamp…

25

Dan Hardie 11.11.04 at 4:22 pm

Yes, good point; although being able to revamp artillery for an army over a million strong in *four years* is the kind of policy available only to a rich country with a helluva lot of engineering capacity.

26

Matt McGrattan 11.11.04 at 4:40 pm

Paul:

“I think there’s something to the argument about the European nations knowing a bit about the destruction of war that is missing in US policy thinking…”

I think there’s a great deal of truth in that although it can be overstated.

And contra Andrew Boucher, I don’t there’s anything objectionable in the idea that Europe may, and this is clearly a generalisation with many exceptions, have a different perspective on military action and this perspective may be conditioned by direct experience of war that the US lacks.

Or is the idea that people learn from experience now considered some kind of dangerously elitist idea?

27

Zizka 11.11.04 at 4:54 pm

Matt McGrattan — I don’t disagree. My disagreement with my friend isn’t about the American imperial plan, it’s just his interpretation of it in anti-American cultural terms — he reads his rejection of the American war policy back into XIXc American literature, which he also rejects. When people talk about anti-Americanism in Europe, they may mean him.

Bush’s reelection has actually made me reconsider the argument. You end up asking if the cheerful activism, openmindedness, and optimism of Emerson, Whitman, or William James might have led to this. (Melville is safe, though).

28

Jackmormon 11.11.04 at 5:16 pm

Andrew,

While yes, the lesson took an incredibly long time to learn, I disagree with you that the lesson hasn’t been learned. And while the veterans are dying, the memories haven’t.

Haven’t you ever been to those dinky towns, in either France or Germany, where the memorial statue to the dead of the Great War seems to list more names than possible, given the current population of the town? It’s almost like every French and German town has a little Vietnam memorial at its center.

And John Quiggan, thanks for posting this. I’ve always felt that Americans needed to pay more attention to WWI, which is one of those historical train wrecks that everyone should study to figure out how to prevent in the future.

29

ajay 11.11.04 at 5:23 pm

Here’s my tuppence-worth:

The reason that we have so much difficulty in understanding the 1914 mindset is that WW1 did actually change the way we think about war in most of Europe – and in most of the US as well. Now we think of war as a price to be paid. War is fought for an end in view – whatever the end (we must retain French Indochina! we must defeat Communism in Greece! we must retake the Falklands!) it is generally judged to be worth the price in terms of war. Of course, you can have arguments about whether it was or not – but we all agree that this is the right sort of argument to be having. Maybe I don’t think that, say, the Falklands were worth 253 British lives, and you do; or you think that retaking the Falklands was a worthy aim, but one that could have been achieved diplomatically – the point is that, almost everywhere, we think that war is a costly means to an end.

I don’t think most people thought like that in 1914 Europe. For them, war was a means to an end – we must defend Belgian neutrality! – but it was also an end in itself, a way of renewing national spirit. In a sense, the worse the war got, the better, because it allowed the nation to demonstrate its moral superiority by enduring. That, I would argue, is why the war continued to attract public support for so long. And it’s this attitude, which is, fortunately, completely alien to most of us, that makes WW1 so difficult to understand.

30

Zizka 11.11.04 at 6:10 pm

Ajay — unfortunately, at this moment, I think that too many Americans think of war as having an improving quality.

31

Mrs Tilton 11.11.04 at 6:11 pm

Och, Dan, relax now. My comment meant to do nothing more than play on your word ‘repressed’.

Though if it makes you feel better, I have no tolerance for MOPEry myself, and less than none for republicanism. (American readers, please note the small ‘r’. Context is everything.)

32

Dan Simon 11.11.04 at 6:27 pm

In retrospect, it is surely clear that both sides would have been better if peace had been made on the basis of any of the proposals put up in 1917 on the general basis of of “no annexations or indemnities”. The same was true, in reality, at any time from the outbreak of war in 1914 until the final collapse of the Central Powers, and even then the terms of 1917 would have been better for all than those of Versailles.

This would appear to be based on the “theraputic” interpretation of World War II–that Germany embarked on its six-year monumental killing spree out of pique at the hardships imposed upon it at Versailles.

There is, however an alternative view of German motives–that is, that from before World War I, and right through World War II, the German nation was motivated by militaristic imperial expansionism, salted with a good deal of national chauvinism that eventually hardened into murderous racism. According to this view, the great blunder of the powers opposing Germany was not to have failed to make peace with Germany sooner, under more accommodating terms, but rather to have failed to enforce the terms–particularly, the disarmament conditions–that were won at Versailles.

I believe that a recent, well-respected history of World War I has embraced this latter view. As further evidence, I would point readers to the memoirs of Henry Morgenthau, American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The memoirs make for absolutely fascinating reading–not least for Morgenthau’s description of the German diplomatic and military personnel he encountered. It was his firm conviction, based on his conversations with German diplomats and military attaches, not only that Germany deliberately instigated World War I, and fully intended to win it, with dolorous consequences for the rest of Europe, but also that it intended, should it somehow be defeated, simply to try again in another decade or two, having learned from whatever mistakes it had made on its previous try.

Morgenthau was writing, I should add, in 1918.

33

Uncle Kvetch 11.11.04 at 6:38 pm

Ajay — unfortunately, at this moment, I think that too many Americans think of war as having an improving quality.

I agree, sadly.

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Dan Simon 11.11.04 at 6:43 pm

Besides much of Europe (individuals here) did learn from WWI; it was never to fight such a war again. Hence, according to the standard history anyway, WWII. And then European individuals did learn from WWII; hence the Cold War.

I’d elaborate a bit on this history: the lesson learned from WWI was, indeed, never to fight such a war again, and the result was the bloodiest war in human history. The lesson learned from WWII, on the other hand, was that refusing ever to fight such a war again, even in the face of ruthless militaristic expansionism, only exacerbates the risks and costs of an eventual war. The result of learning this lesson was the Cold War–one of the most casualty-free forty-five-year wars in European history.

I find it strange that Crooked Timberites seem today to be embracing the disastrous lesson Europeans drew from WWI, even after the Cold War’s spectacular vindication of the rather different lesson drawn from WWII.

35

Dubious 11.11.04 at 6:49 pm

I think a good fraction of ‘irrational’ conduct in war generally and of WWI in particular comes back to the concept of honor. Even when a war’s potential benefits seem far in excess of potential costs (e.g. Falklands), wars are often fought for honor. I think this is also a reason why warring nations are so reluctant to recognize that there is a stalemate and everyone should go back to the status quo. Honor does not believe the sunk-cost fallacy is a fallacy. Victory must be attained so the previous sacrifices were not in vain, etc.

Now, in one way, this is a bunch of macho BS. But in another way, it’s very rational. Diplomatic protests are ‘cheap talk’ in game theory terms. War is a costly signal. Standing up for one’s honor can be rational for the fact that it maintains future reputation, even when the cost-benefit analysis of the moment indicates that a war is stupid. It can be rational to seem crazy, even if one has to hurt oneself to send the signal. It deters future aggression.

As a sidebar: Interestingly, the American South has had the most experience suffering the devastation (in both human, property, and humilitation terms) of war of any US region. It does not seem to have kept the South from being the most pro-military region in the US. I suspect this has to do with the southern culture of honor.

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Dubious 11.11.04 at 6:54 pm

Urk. In previous post, I swapped benefits and costs in the 2nd sentence. I mean to say

“Even when … costs seem far in excess of potential benefits … ”

37

nic 11.11.04 at 7:27 pm

_Haven’t you ever been to those dinky towns, in either France or Germany, where the memorial statue to the dead of the Great War seems to list more names than possible, given the current population of the town? It’s almost like every French and German town has a little Vietnam memorial at its center._

In Italy too. Lots of memorials, statues to the unknown soldier. Not just in the small towns.

Some years ago I visited the scenes of WWI battles in the Dolomites, between Austrians and Italians, there’s an entire area with signs of warfare still visible, holes in the rocks from cannons, caves and tunnels. Rather high up too, you had to climb with some effort, it was hard to imagine battles taking place there, in winter, to boot. Then the cemeteries and memorials. One of which was a large solitary bulding on two floors whose walls consisted entirely of marble plaques with names and dates of the fallen soldiers, most of them no older than 18. It was surreal and very real at the same time, impossible not to be affected.

I don’t think it’s a matter of superiority, it’s just a fact that Europeans have that recent history whose traces are still there, and it does tend to make most people natural pacifists, in a sense. It’s something apart from the question of whether a war’s motives and purposes were/are right or wrong, or even debates and political positions, past and present. It’s the reality of something that you’d like to think of as exceptional and not the rule. Something that should only be a very very last resort for clearly defensive purposes, and not a matter of policy. Anyway. I never thought it would become controversial even just to say that war is a horrible thing.

38

Giles 11.11.04 at 7:57 pm

Sure Germany may have been piqued but why? Population may be the answer.

Well in 1820 is population was 24 million to France’s 31 million – it was thus about 75% of the size of France and therefore clearly the junior partener in Europe– especially given that its GDP per capita was also about 15% lower. But the 1800’s were a time of great expansion For Germany – by 1914 its population was 64 million to France’s 41 million and its GDP per capita was $3600 to France’s 3400. This massive expansion in Germany population and economy is probably the route cause for it to throw its weight around and attempt to overturn the old order of Europe.

Interestingly the coming 50 years will see similar changes in the relative sizes of many European countries with some, such as Germany and Italy shrinking considerably. Maybe its Frances or one of the other less slowly shrinking countries turn to do the aggressing this time?

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Giles 11.11.04 at 8:00 pm

Sure Germany may have been piqued but why? Population may be the answer.

Well in 1820 is population was 24 million to France’s 31 million – it was thus about 75% of the size of France and therefore clearly the junior partener in Europe– especially given that its GDP per capita was also about 15% lower. But the 1800’s were a time of great expansion For Germany – by 1914 its population was 64 million to France’s 41 million and its GDP per capita was $3600 to France’s 3400. This massive expansion in Germany population and economy is probably the route cause for it to throw its weight around and attempt to overturn the old order of Europe.

Interestingly the coming 50 years will see similar changes in the relative sizes of many European countries with some, such as Germany and Italy shrinking considerably. Maybe its Frances or one of the other less slowly shrinking countries turn to do the aggressing this time?

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Jeff 11.11.04 at 8:05 pm

There is something to Europeans’ having learned the destructiveness of war, and the influence that has on their current thinking, but I cannot get around the aptness of at least one part of Bush and Co.’s relentless analogizing between the present and WWII– and that is the reluctance of Europeans to confront a cancerous belief system in their midst. Europeans thought they could whistle past the Nazi graveyard, and they could not. Right now it seems many European countries hope that some form of accord can be reached with militant Islamists. Part of the problem is undoubtedly that the only “get tough” option in town is the Bush Plan, which unfortunately involves attacking just about everyone, and not necessarily the right ones– and naturally this approach does not appeal to a lot of Europeans. But I still cannot help but think, when I read about European reactions to Islamist threats and attacks, that the lessons of appeasement have failed to sink in.

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Andrew Boucher 11.11.04 at 9:08 pm

“Haven’t you ever been to those dinky towns, in either France or Germany, where the memorial statue to the dead of the Great War seems to list more names than possible, given the current population of the town? It’s almost like every French and German town has a little Vietnam memorial at its center.”

And have you ever been to New England? In my home town (Northampton) they built an entire building, still standing next to the Town Hall, to commemorate the dead of the Civil War. From that you would conclude what about the present mindset of New Englanders -? Hopefully nothing, because nothing follows.

My point was this: the devastation of WWI does not explain the current attitude of Europeans towards war. There was, for one thing, WWII and the Cold War in between. For another WWI was – I guess I have to state the obvious – a very long time ago. It’s as if, in the middle of the Korean War, someone brought up the Civil War. Sorry, it just doesn’t work. .

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Fenton the Beaver 11.11.04 at 9:19 pm

I agree with the sentiment of many of the commenters above that looking at “the great war” as the cause of all modern war is a bit strained.

You can look at anyone point in history as a ray, the starting point of all thing, but you’d realy be better served to look at everything before it. All of history is interconnected. You could make a case for any war being the genisis of all subsequent wars.

Anyway: Happy Veterans Day and HAPPY BIRTHDAY WASHINGTON STATE

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paul lawson 11.11.04 at 11:02 pm

Maybe, Scott Fitzgerald got it right about WW1 in ‘Tender As the Night’. WW1 was, Dick Diver thought, “a war of middle class love.”

And the volunteer thing? Hard to work out. My Irish-generated, Xavier boy, maternal grandfather, a fierce Mannix (“a trade war”) man, rushed off to Gallipoli, of which he could never bring himself to speak, backed up, more understandably, for WW2, and persuaded his essentially timid, only son, to sign up for New Guinea.

And in 1965, as a beardless youth, a fraction too old for the draft, (thank you mum and dad) I put the tape together of the first draft’s views of what was happening.

I led with a kid, at Site 17 Seymour, saying: “It’ll make a nice change from the bank.”

Which bank? Any bank. Perhaps it is innate. Sad to think.

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Errol 11.12.04 at 12:11 am

From my sig file:
“War is waged by men; not by beasts, or by gods. It is a peculiarly human activity. To call it a crime against humanity is to miss at least half of its significance; it is also the punishment of a crime.” Frederic Manning, _The Middle Parts of Fortune_

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Iain J Coleman 11.12.04 at 1:44 am

The Great War was a massively dislocating event in European culture, the consequences of which can readily be seen to this day. In cultural terms, it had a more profound effect than the Second World War, despite the greater loss of life in the latter conflict. The profound and lasting effect the Great War had on Europe – and continues to have, ninety years later – can only be belittled by people who have no idea what the fuck they’re talking about.

If you want to get a handle on how I feel about Americans who dismiss the lasting effects of the Great War on my society, just imagine if I wrote some fatuous post about how the Vietnam war was a long time ago, lots of stuff has happened in the meantime, and there’s no way it can have anything much to do with how Americans view warfare. It’s not that Europeans have longer memories than Americans: it’s that these major cultural shocks don’t happen very often, and their lasting effect depends on all kinds of contingent factors, not just the raw bodycount.

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Meteor Blades 11.12.04 at 3:47 am

Mr. Morgenthau, unfortunately, had a view of Germans not totally unlike certain Germans’ view of Jews, assigning them “incurable” national traits. This perception led to his proposal of the Morgenthau plan, which, after World War II, would have broken Germany into a handful of agricultural mini-states. I read the memoirs of such men with a shaker of salt at the ready.

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Dan Simon 11.12.04 at 5:48 am

Mr. Morgenthau, unfortunately, had a view of Germans not totally unlike certain Germans’ view of Jews, assigning them “incurable” national traits. This perception led to his proposal of the Morgenthau plan, which, after World War II, would have broken Germany into a handful of agricultural mini-states. I read the memoirs of such men with a shaker of salt at the ready.

Perhaps Morgenthau’s negative views of Germany had ossified to that point by 1944 (and if so, then I am certain he was in that respect, though clearly mistaken, nevertheless also far from alone in his error). But writing in 1918, he shows every indication of being entirely able to distinguish between a ruthlessly aggressive German imperial regime and the German national character, which he appears to consider quite mutable indeed. From the first chapter of his memoir, in which he describes the German ambassador in Constantinople, Baron von Wangenheim:

When I was a boy in Germany, the Fatherland was usually symbolized as a beautiful and powerful woman—a kind of dazzling Valkyrie; when I think of modern Germany, however, the massive, burly figure of Wangenheim naturally presents itself to my mind. He was six feet two inches tall; his huge, solid frame, his Gibraltarlike shoulders, erect and impregnable, his bold, defiant head, his piercing eyes, his whole physical structure constantly pulsating with life and activity—there stands, I would say, not the Germany which I had known, but the Germany whose limitless ambitions had transformed the world into a place of horror. And Wangenheim’s every act and every word typified this new and dreadful portent among the nations. Pan-Germany filled all his waking hours and directed his every action. The deification of his emperor was the only religious instinct which impelled him. That aristocratic and autocratic organization of German society which represents the Prussian system was, in Wangenheim’s eyes, something to be venerated and worshipped; with this as the groundwork, Germany was inevitably destined, he believed, to rule the world. The great land-owning Junker represented the perfection of mankind. “I would despise myself,” his closest associate once told me, and this represented Wangenheim’s attitude as well, “if I had been born in a city.” Wangenheim divided mankind into two classes, the governing and the governed; and he ridiculed the idea that the upper could ever be recruited from the lower. I recall with what unction and enthusiasm he used to describe the Emperor’s caste organization of German estates; how he had made them non-transferable, and had even arranged it so that the possessors, or the prospective possessors, could not marry without the imperial consent. “In this way,” Wangenheim would say, “we keep our governing classes pure, unmixed of blood.”

You can judge for yourself whether this description bespeaks distaste for its subject’s ethnic or political characteristics.

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nic 11.12.04 at 7:04 am

Iain Coleman, you took the words right out of my mouth.

Besides I don’t really know why some people feel the need to always make comparisons instead of considering something in its own context. What does WWI have to do with the Civil War? Why not compare it to the Napoleonic wars then?

Jeff, that argument would perhaps be a bit less ideological and less flawed if the “Bush get tough plan” was really a “get tough plan” and was really the only option around, neither of which it is.

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Andrew Boucher 11.12.04 at 10:33 am

“If you want to get a handle on how I feel about Americans who dismiss the lasting effects of the Great War on my society, just imagine if I wrote some fatuous post about how the Vietnam war was a long time ago…”

There are many people alive who fought in the Vietnam War, many more who lost loved ones, and many more still who remember living through that period. It’s forty years against ninety, which makes a big difference, given the human life span.

“The consequences of which can readily be seen to this day…” Certainly there are consequences. There are also consequences of the Roman Empire. That wasn’t the point. The point was whether the Great War explains Europe’s so-called pacifist outlook, because Europeans “learned” while Americans did not.

“What does WWI have to do with the Civil War? Why not compare it to the Napoleonic wars then?”

Why not indeed?

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nic 11.12.04 at 11:56 am

Why not indeed?

You cannot be serious.

Oh, and for the sake of precision, I personally didn’t say “Europeans learned while Americans did not”, I’m not even making any comparisons. I’m just noting the reality of memories of war for Europeans, something which I wouldn’t be able to deny even if I wanted to because I grew up with it. I also don’t think WWI alone “explains” the tendency to pacifism among Europeans. I’m sure there are other factors contributing to that. I just observed from personal experience that traces of recent world war history – physical traces, memories, memorials, places, family history, stories told by the older folk, etc. not just history classes – inevitably leaves strong impressions about how it is to live in the middle of war.

What exactly can anyone’s problem with that be? It baffles me.

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Matt McGrattan 11.12.04 at 12:35 pm

Andrew:

[Everything Iain Coleman said and…]

The point isn’t just whether people personally remember some event but whether the event resulted in a radical shift in an entire culture.

That can be through personal memories and experiences but also through education and the wider artistic, social and political culture. We, in the UK, are brought up reading the ‘war poets’ in our English literature classes, learning about the scale of destruction at Ypres, Verdun, the Somme and Paschendale in our history classes, etc. to take a couple of minor examples. It’s continually emphasised that millions of our young men died in that war.

Further, it’s really NOT the case that there are no personal connections with the Great War. I’m a child of the 1970s but 3 of my grandparents remembered the end of the Great War and all of them had relatives who fought in it. People older than me are bound to have more direct links.

Furthermore, the claim isn’t that the Great War (in isolation) led to less militaristic attitudes but rather the combination of the Great War and WWII. And you can hardly claim there are no current personal connections to that.

Both of my grandfathers (one deceased but one very much hale and hearty) fought in it — as I imagine did many US reader’s parents and grandparents. My wife’s grandfather was taken to Germany to work as a forced labourer in a labour camp, etc. The Pinkasova synagogue in Prague lists the names of at least 3 jewish people — people her grandparents knew — from her village who died in the Holocaust, etc. etc.

There’s probably not a family alive in Europe that doesn’t have some connection to WWII and not just in the sense of something that happened over there and where the menfolk went off to fight in it. But also very much in the sense of “this village right here is where hundreds of people were killed”. There’s nothing bloody remote about it.

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Reply 11.12.04 at 1:30 pm

Matt: Um you do know that when most people speak of Europe, the English aren’t included ? Anyway…

I think the English people’s attitude towards war is not markedly different than the American’s. You did, after all, fight for the Falklands, were one of the prime movers behind the ex-Yugoslavia war, are besides the U.S. in Iraq, … There seems more of a difference between the current continental European and English views, than the English and American.

England didn’t suffer the devastation of some continental countries in WWI, so your point could have been that the lesser damage explains why England is as militaristic as the U.S. But it isn’t. So anyway I’m left a bit confused.

You brought up the Holocaust. I ask you not to do it again. I don’t think there are many people with an actual connection to the Holocaust – who lost family – who would take it as evidence that wars should not be fought.

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Nicholas Weininger 11.12.04 at 2:31 pm

dan: what “dolorous consequences”, exactly, would have ensued for Europe had Germany won WWI? The Germans of that time were, a few grandstanding Junkers aside, quite civilized and not at all tyrannical. There were a lot more Social Democrats among them than Prussian aristocrats. Moreover, a German victory then would have meant no Nazism and not nearly as much, if any, Communism. Sounds like a good deal to me.

If the Germans’ actions in WWI showed them to be motivated by militaristic jingoism and a lust to rule, so too do the US’s actions in the Iraq war. Their rationale for attack was a preventive one, same as ours. Look, they said, our enemies haven’t attacked us *yet*, but they’re clearly building up capabilities they could use to do so in the future. We’ve fought them before and we know their intentions are hostile; to wait too long to respond could be catastrophic. Better to strike now and beat them once and for all before they can do us real damage.

The main difference is that the Germans’ fears were much more justified. (And surely for every Baron von Wangenheim you can find a General Boykin).

All this “the war didn’t work because we didn’t beat them hard enough” stuff strikes me as the mirror image of the Leftist tendency to claim that, whenever a social program fails to achieve its intended objective and/or causes a bunch of unintended consequences in its train, the cause can’t be that the program was a dumb idea to begin with, but must be that not enough money was spent on it to do it properly. To paraphrase Thomas Sowell, it’s self-congratulation as a basis for foreign policy.

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Matt McGrattan 11.12.04 at 2:58 pm

reply wrote: “Matt: Um you do know that when most people speak of Europe, the English aren’t included ? Anyway…”

Two points.

One, I’m Scottish, not English, so be wary of making bloody stupid assumptions.

Second, who are these ‘most people’ you speak of? Because most people I know (whether from the continental part of Europe or the UK) think of the UK as being part of Europe.

“I think the English people’s attitude towards war is not markedly different than the American’s.… There seems more of a difference between the current continental European and English views, than the English and American.”

Fair enough, I think that’s correct. The UK suffers from the partly mistaken view that it ‘won’ the world wars and as a result probably is inclined to be less anti-militarist than some of the continental European countries.

My point in this context was just that even here in the UK the destruction and devastation of the 1st World War is something that is continually emphasised to us growing up and both world wars are something to which we, like other Europeans, have a direct and often personal connection.

“You brought up the Holocaust. I ask you not to do it again. I don’t think there are many people with an actual connection to the Holocaust – who lost family – who would take it as evidence that wars should not be fought. “

I wasn’t citing it was evidence that wars shouldn’t be fought. It’s just a specific example of a way in which the events of WWII have a direct impact on people.

[I also think you’ve got no right to be telling me what I should or should not discuss and in what context. But in the interest of civility I won’t express it in the way that first came to mind…]

Anyway, I’m not even arguing that wars shouldn’t be fought. The only thing, and it’s hardly a huge or controversial point, I wanted to say was that direct experiences of military conflict that are present in Europe but absent in the US may partly explain differing attitudes to militarism. That’s it!

Of course there are loads of contingent factors and ‘Europe’ and the ‘US’ are hardly homogenous places and generalisations like that will have exceptions. But it hardly seems controversial.

[I’m not even trying to make some normative claim that one perspective or other is the correct one… there are, arguably, circumstances where a military response is correct and profoundly anti-militaristic attitudes may hinder such a response.]

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reply 11.12.04 at 3:10 pm

“Because most people I know (whether from the continental part of Europe or the UK) think of the UK as being part of Europe.”

Well the French I know don’t consider the UK part of Europe. Which continentals consider the UK part of Europe ?

“My point in this context was just that even here in the UK the destruction and devastation of the 1st World War is something that is continually emphasised to us growing up and both world wars are something to which we, like other Europeans, have a direct and often personal connection.”

“The only thing, and it’s hardly a huge or controversial point, I wanted to say was that direct experiences of military conflict that are present in Europe but absent in the US may partly explain differing attitudes to militarism.”

Well your first paragraph diminishes the point in the second. The UK had the direct connection, yet the UK has largely the same views towards war as America.

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digamma 11.12.04 at 3:14 pm

Last summer, I did indeed visit several dinky towns in southern France, and the number of names on the WWI memorials did indeed make me shudder. I remember my dad muttering under his breath, “It was a god damn meat grinder.”

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Matt McGrattan 11.12.04 at 3:22 pm

reply wrote:

“Well the French I know don’t consider the UK part of Europe. Which continentals consider the UK part of Europe ?”

Well, most people I know who aren’t French. :-) There may be Euro-sceptic politicians in the UK who wish we weren’t part of Europe but I don’t think that there is any doubt that we are — historically, politically, socially and culturally — even if we ignore political questions about the nature and future of the EU.

reply wrote:
“The UK had the direct connection, yet the UK has largely the same views towards war as America.”

Indeed, why is why i wrote:

“Of course there are loads of contingent factors and ‘Europe’ and the ‘US’ are hardly homogenous places and generalisations like that will have exceptions.”

and

“The UK suffers from the partly mistaken view that it ‘won’ the world wars and as a result probably is inclined to be less anti-militarist than some of the continental European countries.”

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Giles 11.12.04 at 3:49 pm

“There may be Euro-sceptic politicians in the UK who wish we weren’t part of Europe but I don’t think that there is any doubt that we are — historically, politically, socially and culturally — even if we ignore political questions about the nature and future of the EU.”

Matt I’d sugguest that the [hraseoogy “eurosceptic” indicates that most of the british dont consider themselves Euoropean either – as does the use of phrases like “take us into Europe” put us at the heart of Europe”

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Matt McGrattan 11.12.04 at 4:13 pm

Giles:

I think you are confusing two senses of European here.

One sense refers to Europe in it’s broad socio-geographical sense and in this sense is what I have had in mind in most of my comments above. In this sense I think the UK always has been European.

The other sense refers to integration into a particular political and economic project i.e the European Union and the single currency.

In the UK there are lots of people quite happy with the former sense of ‘Europe’ but not with the latter.

Phrases like “put Britain at the heart of Europe” intentionally play with the equivocation between these two sense of Europe and European. By associating one with the other politicians hope to persuade people that part of being European (in the socio-cultural sense) involves necessarily being European (in the political union sense).

Eurosceptic is just a term invented by the press to label a particular political school of though – i.e. those who are sceptical about the process of further political integration. Europhobe is usually used to refer to those who not only want to halt further unification but actively want to roll back the amount of unification that has taken place before.

[For what it’s worth I’m on the Europhile side of the fence… I like the idea of closer political and economic ties with the other countries in the EU – but that’s irrelevant here.]

Most European countries contain politicians who are of a broadly ‘Eurosceptical’ political outlook. Even France. I wouldn’t read too much of significance into the labels themselves.

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Jeff 11.12.04 at 6:05 pm

nic–
I agree, which is why I used quotation marks around “get tough.” My point is simply that as a result of Bush’s “with us or against us” stance and his insistent conflation of the Iraq war with the broader war on Islamist terrorism, along with Europeans’ natural resistence to both positions, the debate has polarized to a choice between what the US does and…something else. That something else, in many cases, has smacked of appeasement, or at a minimum, benign neglect in the hopes that the evil passes by. I think Europeans need to think more and more in terms of a third way, and I am encouraged that the recent horrible events in the Netherlands have stirred the fire in this regard. Europe’s secular but inclusive culture is worth defending.

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Giles 11.12.04 at 6:15 pm

sure matt but as you say the labels “intentionally play with the equivocation” – so there is some equivocation out there to be played with – in other words there are enough British people who do not consider the UK to be part of Europe to make the word play worthwhile.

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serial catowner 11.12.04 at 7:32 pm

Seems that some people espouse the “train wreck” theory and view the Great War as a really bad result of things that went wrong. Others seem to ignore the origins of the war and regard the war itself as an origin for numerous subsequent ills.

I’ll say the stuff that went wrong after the war was probably strongly related to what was going wrong before the war.

Whatever the cause or issue, the effects in America did not involve widespread destruction by artillery sheels or bombs. Forests were mowed down, and then left to rot as the markets for wood evaporated as quickly as they had arisen, but this was done with saws and axes. Hundreds of thousands died, but that was a result of the “Spanish” flu, ironically named for a nation that stayed neutral in the conflict.

In Europe, faced with the task of reconstruction, the power of labor and the socialists grew. In America, war-inspired German bashing weakened the radical and socialistic German speakers, while prohibition banned the beer garden and turned many good German-American brewers to the manufacture of soda pop.

It seems that, in reality, WW I caused a great deal of damage in America too, but we’ve never admitted it or started rebuilding. Over time this is becoming evident in our lower quality of living.

So maybe we’re doing well if we can even remember a fraction of what happened.

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Dan Simon 11.13.04 at 7:57 am

what “dolorous consequences”, exactly, would have ensued for Europe had Germany won WWI? The Germans of that time were, a few grandstanding Junkers aside, quite civilized and not at all tyrannical. There were a lot more Social Democrats among them than Prussian aristocrats. Moreover, a German victory then would have meant no Nazism and not nearly as much, if any, Communism. Sounds like a good deal to me.

No doubt there were many social democrats in Germany in 1914–but then, if I’m not mistaken, there was no shortage of them in 1933, either. The problem was that Wilhelmine imperialists, not social democrats, ruled Germany during World War I. (Otherwise, World War I might never have started in the first place.) And the plans of the “grandstanding Junkers” for the countries they intended to defeat in battle were far from benign.

If the Germans’ actions in WWI showed them to be motivated by militaristic jingoism and a lust to rule, so too do the US’s actions in the Iraq war.

And the Saddam Hussein of 1914 was….who? Rene Viviani? Herbert Asquith? Even Kaiser Wilhelm’s regime was a far cry from Saddam’s–but it was certainly less peaceful and democratic than those of Britain or France (to say nothing of that of Belgium–arguably the Kuwait of 1914).

All this “the war didn’t work because we didn’t beat them hard enough” stuff strikes me as…..self-congratulation as a basis for foreign policy.

Actually, all I suggested was that the disarmament provisions of the Versailles treaty, had they been enforced, would most likely have prevented World War II. It’s not even clear that Nazism could have survived the elimination of the crucial “world conquest” plank of its platform. And even had it ravaged Germany for many years, the rest of the continent would have been spared.

Of course, the means to keep Germany disarmed were there, as was the justification, in the form of the treaty of Versailles. They were not used only because the allies learned the same lesson from World War I that John Quiggin appears to draw from it–that war is “always a crime” (and treaties presumably not worth honoring, if doing so requires actual fighting). On the other hand, if the Entente had learned John’s lesson even earlier–as he apparently would have preferred–and made unconditional peace, then there would have been no obstacles whatsoever to German rearmament, and the opportunity to avert the horrors of World War II would never even have existed.

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Nicholas Weininger 11.13.04 at 4:23 pm

Dan: you’re assuming that the absolute worst and most extreme tendencies in German society would have prevailed in every respect had Germany won WWI. This is, to put it mildly, not an especially dispassionate or uncontroversial assumption. You have at least read Ferguson on this point, right?

On the Germany 1914-US 2003 parallel you completely miss my point, which is

(a) the security-threat justifications for “preventive” war were essentially the same

(b) the Germans had good reason to believe that their enemies were, in fact, encircling them and building up for an attack.

The relative degrees of evilness or democratic-ness of the regimes in question have nothing whatsoever to do with the analysis. Though on this point it’s worth noting that the British Empire at the time was hardly a peaceful nation and not terribly democratic either esp. with respect to its nonwhite subjects, and furthermore it contained plenty of folks of the Wangenheim “crush the wogs under our civilizing bootheel” type.

And as to your last statement: given that the harshness of Versailles was a major factor in the rise of Hitler, why is it not at least as plausible that a status-quo-ante peace without reparations would have stood a better chance of averting WWII entirely? Oh, I forgot, those Germans were just inherently eeeeevil.

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Nicholas Weininger 11.13.04 at 4:30 pm

Nor, I should note, do you need to be some sort of lefty pacifist to think pre-WWI Germany relatively benign. George Kennan, for example, said that:

“Today if one were offered the chance of having back again the Germany of 1913 — a Germany run by conservative but relatively moderate people, no Nazis and no Communists — a vigorous Germany, full of energy and confidence, able to play a part again in the balancing-off of Russian power in Europe, in many ways it would not sound so bad.”

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Dan Simon 11.14.04 at 12:04 am

you’re assuming that the absolute worst and most extreme tendencies in German society would have prevailed in every respect had Germany won WWI. This is, to put it mildly, not an especially dispassionate or uncontroversial assumption.

It’s merely a straightforward extrapolation from the Germany immediately preceding and during WWI. The “tendencies” that “prevailed” then may not have been the “absolute worst and most extreme”, but they were pretty darned authoritarian, militaristic and imperialist. Why would a draw (let alone a victory) in WWI have changed that?

The relative degrees of evilness or democratic-ness of the regimes in question have nothing whatsoever to do with the analysis.

I’m afraid I disagree. Saddam Hussein, as well–pretty much throughout his career–has “had good reason to believe that [his] enemies were, in fact, encircling [him] and building up for an attack.” Hence, his “security-threat justifications for ‘preventive’ war were essentially the same”. That may provide abstract realpolitik justification for his string of ruthless deeds, but it certainly doesn’t provide moral justification for any of them.

And as to your last statement: given that the harshness of Versailles was a major factor in the rise of Hitler, why is it not at least as plausible that a status-quo-ante peace without reparations would have stood a better chance of averting WWII entirely? Oh, I forgot, those Germans were just inherently eeeeevil.

If you’re not going to bother even to try to understand a single word I say, why bother to respond?

1) Right from the start, I’ve taken issue with the (in my opinion, hopelessly naive, “theraputic”) claim that the harshness of the Versailles treaty led to World War II. In fact, the only thing that distinguished Hitler’s program from that of the Kaiser was its racial components. Surely you’re not blaming those on Versailles, are you?

2) I’ve made it clear that I don’t subscribe to any theories about the innate good or evil of ethnic groups. However, I do believe that certain governments–particularly non-democratic ones–can be inherently evil. I wouldn’t have thought it uncontroversial, for example, to characterize the Nazi regime as evil, however many good, decent subjects it may have had. Why, then, are you so eager to conflate my attributions of evil intent to Kaiser Wilhelm’s government with the ludicrous assertion that “those Germans were just inherently eeeeevil”?

Perhaps you are the one having difficulty separating the notion of national political characteristics from the notion of ethnic traits–and therefore feel the need to deny the former, for fear of conceding the latter?

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