The end of the Great War

by John Quiggin on October 8, 2010

A few days ago, Germany made the final payment on the reparations imposed in the Treaty of Versailles, bringing to an end the formal consequences of the Great War that began in 1914 and continued, in one form or another, throughout the 20th century.[1] Many of the new states that emerged from the war (the USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia) have now disappeared, though the consequences of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement are very much still with us. I don’t really have the basis for a post on this, but I thought this event deserved some kind of acknowledgement anyway.

Over time, the Great War has played a larger and larger role in my thinking about the world. It marked an end to a century of relative peace and to what seemed (at least to the people with whom I’m most in sympathy) like steady progress towards some form of internationalist democratic socialism. From 1914 until 1945 the world spiralled downward into one horror after another: militarism, Nazism and Stalinism, followed by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs and the threat of global annihilation that seemed imminent for much of my lifetime and remains a grave danger.

Despite the emergence of the ever-present nuclear menace, 1945 marked the low point of the 20th century in many ways. At least on the Western side, the peace settlement was far less draconian, and far more successful, than that of 1919. And, for several decades after the end of war, there was fairly steady progress towards a version (scaled-down in important respects, but more ambitious in some others) of those pre-1914 aspirations.

While that progress has stalled, there has, I think, been steady growth of a body of antiwar thinking and feeling that is making it harder, though sadly still not impossible, for governments to mobilise support for war. The horrors of the Great War represent, for me at least, the starting point of such thinking and feeling.

fn1. Hat tip. I saw this in various places, but first as a Facebook update by John Humphries.

{ 137 comments }

1

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.08.10 at 7:28 am

The word ‘imperialism’ is missing from the post. But war is just a symptom; imperialism (not the details of peace settlements, etc.) is the cause. And imperialism is still alive and well.

2

Hidari 10.08.10 at 7:54 am

‘It marked an end to a century of relative peace.’

Relative peace in Europe.

3

Phil 10.08.10 at 8:23 am

I see what you mean about the A-bomb, but all the same – 1945 marked the low point of the 20th century? 1945? The Defeat Of Fascism? I can’t think of a more hopeful moment in 20th-century history than the months around VE Day.

Victor Serge dated “Midnight in the Century” to 1940-1, and I tend to agree. Between the end of the Chatterley banPhoney War and Barbarossa: when Europe was united and at peace, from the Atlantic to the Urals, under Nazis, Nazi clients and Nazi allies.

4

Peter 10.08.10 at 8:49 am

I’d even dispute the “relative peace in Europe” claim. You might not have had one big “world” war involving all the Great Powers at once (a la WWI or the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars), but between 1854 and 1870 almost all of them fought each other in one combination or another: Britain, France, & Turkey against Russia; France and Italy against Austria; Germany against Austria; Germany against France. Cumulatively, that all adds up to a respectable spate of violence marking the middle of the 19th century.

5

ajay 10.08.10 at 9:16 am

From the Atlantic to the Pacific, actually, Phil, given that the USSR was a Nazi ally.

2 is an excellent point. Otherwise you’re looking at a hundred-year period that included the bloodiest war in human history and calling it a century of relative peace.

6

Jack Strocchi 10.08.10 at 9:23 am

Excessively long threadjack deleted

7

ajay 10.08.10 at 9:33 am

When a Palestinian mother (of 12) whose son has just been killed says that she is willing to give the lives of more sons to the cause, she means it; her emotional capital is diversified, not invested in one son (US) or 0.8 of a son (Germany, Italy).

Wow, the Lump of Maternal Affection Fallacy.

“Oh, well, plenty more where he came from, pass the marmalade” remarked five thousand British mothers every week from 1914 to 1918.

8

Z 10.08.10 at 9:35 am

“It marked an end to a century of relative peace”

That made me jump. This is the century where Europe ravaged the world.

“While that progress has stalled”

Has it really? It seems to me that on average (if this means anything), the world is a more progressive place than 20 years ago. But I am open to counter-arguments.

9

ajay 10.08.10 at 9:43 am

I would, incidentally, love to see a scatterplot of birth rate against number of wars. I rather doubt it would have much predictive value once you controlled for GDP percap.

10

Jack Strocchi 10.08.10 at 10:03 am

Deleted – nothing more on this thread from you, please Jack

11

ajay 10.08.10 at 10:15 am

4: and, of course, the US, annoyingly prevented from joining in by the intervening three thousand miles of ocean, did the next best thing and fought itself.

It was still, I’d guess, a bit quieter than the 20th century, the 18th century (basically Britain v. France almost the entire time) or the 17th century.

12

John Quiggin 10.08.10 at 10:19 am

I was thinking primarily about peace in Europe. But European empires and their client networks already controlled most of the world by 1815, and had worked many of their worst ravages (eg the Atlantic slave trade, the conquest of South America) by then.

And, although Peter is right to point to the occurrence of European wars in the late 19th century, they pale into insignificance compared to the endless stream of 18th century wars (the Second Hundred Years War), let alone the Napoleonic Wars and the Wars of Religion.

13

Z 10.08.10 at 11:45 am

“[They] had worked many of their worst ravages (eg the Atlantic slave trade, the conquest of South America) by then.”

Why, yes. But the conquest of Africa, the ravage of China, the invasion of Indochina and the starvation of India were yet to come.

14

Yusifu 10.08.10 at 12:39 pm

“But European empires and their client networks already controlled most of the world by 1815, and had worked many of their worst ravages (eg the Atlantic slave trade, the conquest of South America) by then.”

Hardly. The United States (and Haiti) were independent. Much of Asia and all of Africa were still independent. More than the simple conquest of much of the world, Europeans were going to start genocidal violence. Congo, Putomayo, Namibia. And the wars, wars, wars. The mfecane. India 1857. The American Civil War. The jihads of west Africa.

The only thing you can say about violence is the 19th century is that it was ultimately dwarfed by that in the 20th century.

15

Bill Gardner 10.08.10 at 1:53 pm

1945 marked the low point of the 20th century in many ways…

I would count that as the minimum. But perhaps we might put the inflection point to a better world at the end of the Great Leap Forward in 1961, counting that as the last great paroxysm of death?

16

ajay 10.08.10 at 1:54 pm

13: China was largely self-ravaging, Z. The minor wars and expeditions of the European powers along the coast, compared to the Taiping Rebellion.

17

Malaclypse 10.08.10 at 2:49 pm

While that progress has stalled, there has, I think, been steady growth of a body of antiwar thinking and feeling that is making it harder, though sadly still not impossible, for governments to mobilise support for war.

I’m sure that will come as a surprise to the people of (for example) Iraq.

18

Uncle Kvetch 10.08.10 at 2:51 pm

I’m sure that will come as a surprise to the people of (for example) Iraq.

That was my reaction as well. I’d like to believe that JQ’s observation holds for the rest of the world (or even parts of it), but as far as the US is concerned it’s wildly off the mark.

19

Malaclypse 10.08.10 at 3:08 pm

On further reflection, I’d argue that WW2 taught the US the following incorrect lessons:

Diplomacy = Chamberlain/Munich/appeasement

The entire world, but especially Europe, and most especially France, owes their freedom to the US military.

The US military are always the good guys.

We will be, or at least should be, greeted as liberators. If we are not, that points to a defect in the people we have liberated.

Battlefields should never be in US soil.

We learned no lessons at all from WW1, because we have pretty much forgotten that it happened. I still remember being home sick from school in 7th grade, and deciding that I would use my parents encyclopedia to find out about it. I only knew that WW1 happened because WW2 was #2, and that implied a #1.

20

someguy 10.08.10 at 3:16 pm

The default state is constant war.

Post 1945 is relatively speaking a golden era.

Post 1989 is relatively speaking a platinum era.

Iraq is an exception that proves the change.

Iraq isn’t ruled by a brutal strong man looting the nation for Exxon.

I am not endorsing the actual result in anyway. I am merely pointing out that even in this instance of war the results are different from the previous general default results.

The Imperialism in Iraq is much different from the Imperialism in Gaul or the Congo or Vietnam.

Maybe these years are just a concidental outlier. But they really do seem to be relatively different.

21

Irrelephant 10.08.10 at 3:24 pm

Perhaps I’m reading entirely too much SF lately, but I get the eerie feeling that this has all been just some type of massive merger and reorg, or capital accumulation recapture, and that the root cause of all this stems from the Armory Show of February 17th, 1913 in NYC. Something about TR trying to save the world, and failing… I don’t know, not quite a paranoid conspiracy fever dream, but when all the fish swim in the same direction…

22

Uncle Kvetch 10.08.10 at 3:34 pm

We learned no lessons at all from WW1, because we have pretty much forgotten that it happened.

True enough, but it’s interesting that in many ways WWI established the template for what Americans think of as “war.” Specifically, war is something that happens, as the old song goes, “Over There.”

23

Hektor Bim 10.08.10 at 3:58 pm

WWI isn’t discussed in American history because it doesn’t make the US look very good. We got involved for various reasons that weren’t that compelling*, and the major diplomatic efforts to create a peace sponsored by the US failed (League of Nations, anti-imperialism, etc.)**

And WWI didn’t settle the problems in Europe due to a rising Germany and Russia and falling France and Britain, merely postpone them.

I sometimes wonder how things would have turned out had Germany defeated France in 1916 and the war ended much sooner on the Western front. It’s hard to figure out the eventual trajectory of Russia, but since the next thirty years were so horrible, it’s by no means clear that an early Central Powers victory would have meant a worse world.

* The Brits almost certainly were smuggling arms on the cruise liners, and there weren’t any compelling reasons for the US to enter the war.

** The Europeans victors were much more interested in land grabs, blaming Germany, solidifying imperialism, and defeating communism than in a just peace, self-determination, or a stable international order, and the US realized it didn’t get much out of the war.

24

mpowell 10.08.10 at 4:19 pm

@23: Based on my understanding of the time period, it seems like Germany was vastly more aggressive than France or England. This is where the Fischer school of history comes from: Germany preferred fighting 3 opponents (France, England and Russia) to peace. That’s a pretty vile government and as distasteful as the French and British governments were at the time, I think you can make a pretty strong case that the US got involved on the right side. Versailles created a lot of problems, of course, and they were partially responsible for the lead up to WWII (there were other factors that contributed heavily as well), but I don’t think you can fault the US for getting involved on the ‘wrong’ side as a result. Even if there is a counter factual where the Central Powers force France to sue for peace and less human suffering through 1950 results.

25

ajay 10.08.10 at 4:24 pm

it’s interesting that in many ways WWI established the template for what Americans think of as “war.” Specifically, war is something that happens, as the old song goes, “Over There.”

Well, hadn’t this been the case before? Various interventions in Latin America, the Spanish-American War, etc? Even the Indian Wars happened mostly outside the states, strictly speaking – ie in recently settled frontier territories. The American idea of war has not really been “foreign troops come and try to take over our country” for a long, long time.
In fact, the most recent time this was a possibility was WW1 – the Zimmerman Telegram proposal.

26

ajay 10.08.10 at 4:31 pm

I sometimes wonder how things would have turned out had Germany defeated France in 1916 and the war ended much sooner on the Western front.

Well, IIRC, one of the main reasons for Germany wanting to start a war before 1914 was colonial rivalry (in particular, with Britain) – they wanted a place in the sun. They wanted attractive territories that they could send settlers to, and they wanted natural resources to exploit, and they wanted naval strength sufficient to protect all that from interference by the Royal Navy. And then they lost that war, and twenty-five years later they start another war, for more or less the same objectives, this time with an much more overtly racial slant, and going after Lebensraum and resources in Europe rather than in Africa and Asia.

If they’d beaten France in 1916 – and, presumably, taken a few French colonies as loot – I’m not sure that they wouldn’t have had another crack at it a little later on. In fact, wouldn’t it have made it all the more likely? Two successful wars of territorial expansion (Alsace-Lorraine in 1871, and then whatever they got in 1917) would make a third one seem rather tempting; this time, presumably, against a weaker France again, and/or against the arch-rival, Britain.

27

Jay C 10.08.10 at 4:31 pm

More exceptions to the “century of [relative] peace” trope which was (and probably still) such a staple of potted European History texts: (concentrating even just on, say “Napoleonic-era” Europe:

*Greek War of Independence 1821-30

* Civil conflicts in Spain throughout much of the 19th Century

* Prusso-Danish War of 1864

* Civil conflicts in Italy 1860-70

* Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78

*Balkan Wars of 1909-13

Yes, of course there was no general intra-European war until 1914, and that one vast and bloody beyond imagination, but it really is a stretch to call 1814-1914 an era of “peace”…

28

LFC 10.08.10 at 4:35 pm

1) It’s not controversial that 1815-1914 was a period of relative peace in Europe, “relative” being the key word and “in Europe” being an important qualification. (K. Polanyi in The Great Transformation exaggerated somewhat in calling the period “the hundred years peace”.)

2) Malaclypse, above, mentions the Munich analogy. See e.g. F. Logevall and K. Osgood, “The Ghost of Munich,” World Affairs, July-August 2010. (Specifically on Munich and Vietnam, one of the best discussions is Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War, 1992.)

29

Hektor Bim 10.08.10 at 4:53 pm

mpowell,

I never said that the US intervened on the “wrong” side. But there wasn’t a compelling reason for the US to get involved at all.

ajay,

Yes, but it is by no means clear that Imperial German colonialism was worse than Imperial British, Imperial French, or Imperial Belgian colonialism. And that is the real question for Africa and Asia colonies, resulting from a German victory in WWI. Education levels in German East Africa were substantially better than in the surrounding colonies, for example. And almost anyone would have been better than the Belgians or the Portugese.

The main expectations for colonial expansion was actually the annexation of the Belgian Congo by Germany.

It is also by no means clear that Britain would have remained an archrival. Imperial Germany got along reasonably well with Britain under Bismarck, and might have switched to an alliance with Britain against Russia.

Also, by the way, France started the 1871 war, declaring war on Prussia and anticipating territorial gains (Saar and other German areas up to the Rhine) and splitting the southern German states from Prussia. They failed of course, but the 1871 war was in many ways a war of French territorial aggression.

30

john c. halasz 10.08.10 at 5:33 pm

@12:

Actually, 18th century warfare was a relatively tame and ritualized affair, compared to the ravages of the Thirty Years War or the bloodiness of U.S. Civil War battles.

31

Matt 10.08.10 at 6:24 pm

Why exactly was Germany still paying reparations? Wasn’t that (incredibly punitive) treaty superceded and rendered void by the treaty in 1945?

32

mpowell 10.08.10 at 6:25 pm

@28: I don’t want to split hairs, but from a historical perspective it’s relatively easy to make the case that the Kaiser’s were the bad guys on the continent after all and isn’t that all it takes to justify the US getting involved? I think WWI is under studied by Americans for other reasons, mostly just because American high school history is terrible.

I’d agree that Africa might not have seen much difference under German rather than French or other colonial rule, but I think the German regime in the early 20th century (as opposed to under Bismarck) had an appetite for expansion that would not have easily been sated. I’m not sure whether an early end to WWI (which was already quite costly) would have scared them off further continental wars or not.

33

Anderson 10.08.10 at 7:02 pm

I sometimes wonder how things would have turned out had Germany defeated France in 1916 and the war ended much sooner on the Western front.

If you’re going to hypothesize, go all the way: 1914, First Marne becomes only Marne, 1940 avant la lettre (nombre?). The Brits, not faced with a demonic Hitler and led by Asquith not Churchill, sigh and bring home the remainder of the BEF. Russia sues for peace. German overreach, indigestion, perhaps even the triumph of its commercial class over the increasingly marginalized Junker/militarist class.

Would anything so terrible as Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, occur after that? Possibly, but hard to imagine. The Pacific is a harder call — does Japan go amok regardless?

34

Anderson 10.08.10 at 7:05 pm

So in the 20s and 30s the german industrialists rebuilt the…Wehrmacht in the Rhineland with Churchill’s tacit approval

Beauregard, why do you imagine that Churchill controlled the British government in the 1920s?

35

Andrew 10.08.10 at 7:08 pm

Gwynne Dyer’s book “War” (companion to the PBS television series in the mid 1980s) made an interesting historical argument: since the middle of the 17th century in Europe, the Great Powers had gone to war on a rough 50 year cycle (30 Years War, Spanish Succession, 7 Years War, Napoleonic Wars, Crimea/Austria/Prussia/France, WW1, WW2). The end of one cycle codified the Balance of Power at the end of the last conflict: over the next generation, one or more powers got significantly weaker, while others got relatively stronger, and then the next cycle began when opportunities arose or mistakes were made.

Dyer then suggested that we were likely due another one: lo and behold, in 1989 the post WW2 settlement in Europe was torn up, but without a major conflict involving the crumbling power (USSR). I always felt this was a tribute to Mikhail Gorbachev; not every leader of a great power would have been content with the Sinatra Doctrine.

36

AntiAlias 10.08.10 at 7:35 pm

I difer. As many people have remarked before, the pre-Great War world wasn’t exactly a peaceful one. And no, European empires did not control the greater part of the world until, I’d say, the Berlin Conference of 1885.

IMHO Germany rebuilding itself had more to do with the Allies’ greed and lack of strategical thinking. For instance, John Quiggin mentions the Sykes-Picot Agreement (which was publicly denounced by the Bolsheviks as they were denied, post-revolution, what the Allies had promised the Czar *). One of its consequences is the Greek-Turkish War (or Turkish War of Independence). We might say that the split among the Allies probably begins with this war (where mainly UK encouraged Greece to land grabs, using tools as shady as Basil Zaharoff, and then protested when France backed Atatürk). I’d like to argue that Ally disunion [over the enforcement of Versailles, which was diplomatically awful to begin with], not British approval, was behind Germany’s rearming.

* Fear of and reaction to the Russian Revolution being another major “distraction”.

37

Barry 10.08.10 at 7:36 pm

Anderson 10.08.10 at 7:02 pm

“If you’re going to hypothesize, go all the way: 1914, First Marne becomes only Marne, 1940 avant la lettre (nombre?). The Brits, not faced with a demonic Hitler and led by Asquith not Churchill, sigh and bring home the remainder of the BEF. Russia sues for peace. German overreach, indigestion, perhaps even the triumph of its commercial class over the increasingly marginalized Junker/militarist class.”

I think that the big thing would be that Germany would own, rule or simply dominate a huge swath of the former USSR – Poland, the Baltic states, Belorus, Ukraine, etc. Presumably to the Caucasus, enough to secure oil.

The question would be whether or not that would sate them, or give them an appetite for more expansion? I imagine that it would have bought Great Britain a few to several decades, because digesting that conquest would have occupied German energies.

38

Martin Wisse 10.08.10 at 8:19 pm


Yes, but it is by no means clear that Imperial German colonialism was worse than Imperial British, Imperial French, or Imperial Belgian colonialism.

Cold comfort for the Herero.

39

jon livesey 10.08.10 at 9:04 pm

One sidelight on this is that the story people are commenting on is actually incorrect. Germany did not in fact make the final payment on reparations. In total, Germany paid reparations only for three or four years out of the scheduled seventy. What Germany paid off this month was a loan they raised in the twenties to fund early payments. That loan was – of course – also defaulted on, and after the end of WWII the US and Germany came to an agreement that Germany would pay interest only on that loan. It is those interest payments that have finally come to an end, not reparations.

Kindleberger – “The World in Depression – estimates that in total, Germany paid roughly one fourteenth part of reparations, and even of that amount, part consisted of credits that were allowed to Germany for the loss of territories. He adds that Germany asked if they could also be given a credit for the loss of the battle-fleet.

Two other points. First, contrary to what’s often asserted, reparations were not intended to punish Germany or to make Germany pay for the costs of the War. Reparations were calculated on the basis of the damage Germany did to Belgium and Norther France. And of course, even though Germany defaulted on reparations, that damage still had to be repaired, so in the end reparations were actually paid by the French and Belgian taxpayer.

Second, reparations were not a new or unique phenomenon. In 1870 Germany imposed a reparations payment on defeated France equal to two years GDP of the entire French Empire, payable on Gold, and Germany left an army of occupation in France until the payment was made. The sum of gold was so large that Germany was able to transfer its currency from the silver to the gold standard.

I won’t call this story a “big lie”, but I can think it, and I expect to see this story repeated over and over until it becomes the accepted truth.

40

jon livesey 10.08.10 at 9:19 pm

“Neville Chamberlain and his faction were also involved and supportive of the Germans’ re-armament—and Churchill had shifted allegiances from liberal to conservative, and at least in early 30s said a few slightly flattering things about Hitler (and Blackshirts I believe). At any rate the conservative, pro-German forces in England—including Family Windsor itself—allowed the re-armament of Germany to occur and encouraged it.”

And the US encouraged German re-armament after 1950 why? And as a precaution towards what? And as a defence against whom?

41

jon livesey 10.08.10 at 9:34 pm

“Yes, but it is by no means clear that Imperial German colonialism was worse than Imperial British, Imperial French, or Imperial Belgian colonialism.”

I don’t know about “clear”, but if all you mean is that all colonialism is wrong in principle – curiously , you omitted the US colonial experience – then I suppose most people would agree. In practice, however, what is clear is that the UK, at least, currently enjoys very cordial relationships with its ex-colonies; there is an active Commonwealth which includes close cultural, legal, educational and even military relationships, and which celebrates itself each two years with a meeting of Commonwealth Prime Ministers and each four years with a Commonwealth wide Games. That’s going on in New Delhi right now, by the way, after being opened by the President of India and Prince Charles together.

I don’t recall anything similar for Germany, but perhaps I just missed it.

42

mpowell 10.08.10 at 9:40 pm


I won’t call this story a “big lie”, but I can think it, and I expect to see this story repeated over and over until it becomes the accepted truth.

If you read the actually linked article, it makes it quite clear within the first paragraph that these were simply the last of reparations related bond payments and that Germany repeatedly defaulted on payment. Do you have an axe to grind here?

That being said, I don’t see how you could make a case that the original reparation payments were based on any particular assessment of damages. They were a negotiated amount resulting from the preferences of a number of different actors with varying motivations. They were constrained by what some of those actors regarded as Germany’s ability to pay. Others wanted a higher number- whether they were tied in their minds to reconstruction costs or as punishment I couldn’t say. Whether they were affordable or not… well Keynes certainly didn’t think they were. If central banks of the time knew how to run a country and monetary system on something besides a gold standard that might have made things easier, though.

43

Anderson 10.08.10 at 10:08 pm

I think that the big thing would be that Germany would own, rule or simply dominate a huge swath of the former USSR

Well, of course we’re just bloviating counterfactually here, but I don’t see a Brest-Litovsk sort of settlement if the war ends in September 1914. There’s just not the accumulated hardship and resentment. The big result would “likely” be that Russia would be barred from Balkan adventures, maybe lose part of Poland or have a buffer state created (how’s that for irony?). Maybe the Easterners in the Russian gov’t come out on top, with who knows what effect on Chinese & Japanese history. Maybe the Romanovs manage to stay in power, tho it’s hard to see Alexei living to succeed or produce an heir.

But if the war ends in early 1917, I think you still get the same air of “there will be a rematch” as in 1918, just France and Russia become the main ones seeking it, and Germany stays insecure.

44

Hidari 10.08.10 at 10:33 pm

‘Cold comfort for the Herero.’

Yeah bet they were kicking themselves they hadn’t been born in Kenya.

45

John Quiggin 10.08.10 at 10:50 pm

@19 Macalypse and others on US forgetting of WWI. I had a go at this topic a couple of years ago

http://crookedtimber.org/2008/05/29/the-great-and-unrembered-war/

46

John Quiggin 10.08.10 at 10:56 pm

Andrew @34 I agree regarding Gorbachev, but it’s also important and significant that there was no German attempt to redraw borders or exact compensation for German assets seized in Poland and the Czech Republic, as was widely predicted.

47

EWI 10.09.10 at 12:33 am

In practice, however, what is clear is that the UK, at least, currently enjoys very cordial relationships with its ex-colonies

Bloody Sunday and Shoot-to-Kill notwithstanding.

48

y81 10.09.10 at 2:26 am

To defend our host, it certainly seems very fair to describe the century from 1815 to 1914 as one of “relative” peace, compared to what followed, notwithstanding various colonialist ventures and the Tai-Ping Rebellion. It’s not like the years from 1914 to 1945 were a good time to be a third world native, or Chinese either. And they were also a bad time to be an educated and cultivated European, which the preceding century hadn’t been.

Also, the commentators slight the point about how, in 1914, an educated person could reasonably believe in a democratic socialist future. Depending on one’s definition of “socialism,” that’s between hard and impossible to do now. Which is fine with me, but I would think it would move some people.

49

Malaclypse 10.09.10 at 2:47 am

Hector @23: “WWI isn’t discussed in American history because it doesn’t make the US look very good. “

You know, to this day I remember poring through that encylopedia, coming to this exact conclusion, and coming to the stunning (to a 12-year-old) conclusion that my history classes were deliberately not teaching anything that made the US look bad, and if I wanted to know things, I needed to read on my own. Shortly after that I came across Twain’s “To the Person Sitting in Darkness.” My relation to middle and high school history teachers really went downhill after that.

Y81 @ 48: “Also, the commentators slight the point about how, in 1914, an educated person could reasonably believe in a democratic socialist future. Depending on one’s definition of “socialism,” that’s between hard and impossible to do now.”

Sweden?

50

Donald Johnson 10.09.10 at 2:52 am

“To defend our host, it certainly seems very fair to describe the century from 1815 to 1914 as one of “relative” peace, compared to what followed, notwithstanding various colonialist ventures and the Tai-Ping Rebellion. “

Yes, exactly. If you ignore tens of millions dead from famine and war, the 19th Century was indeed relatively peaceful. For that matter, so was the 20th.

51

Hektor Bim 10.09.10 at 4:16 am

jon livesey,

Actually, as far as I know, Germany has pretty good relations with Namibia, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Cameroon, Togo, and Papua New Guinea. In fact, I think relations with Namibia are excellent, despite the Vernichtungsbefehl of the Herero, which interestingly enough, the German government formally apologized for in 2004.

I don’t think any colonial regime was good or praiseworthy, but it is hard to say that the Imperial German colonial enterprise was qualitatively worse than other European colonial enterprises in Africa.

52

Doug M. 10.09.10 at 7:12 am

John Livesay @40, thank you for pointing that out. Everybody seems to get this point wrong.

Joh Livesay @43, I’m sorry, but that’s idiotic. The Germans lost their colonial empire — mostly to the British — in WWI. By the time the colonies in question became independent, most links to Germany had been (quite deliberately) dissolved. The British in Tanganyika / Tanzania, for instance, shut down the large German investments, prohibited further immigration from Germany, replaced German with English as the official language, and shut down all school instruction in German. By independence, only a handful of old people still spoke German or remembered the German times.

Hektor @53, the only former colony that Germany has particularly close relations with is Namibia. That’s because it’s the only former German colony that (1) still has the descendants of German settlers living there in significant numbers, and (2) still sees the broad use of German as a second language.

(Trivia question: what former territorial possession of Imperial Germany is now part of the United States?)

Doug M.

53

Martin Wisse 10.09.10 at 8:36 am

Hidari in #46: ‘Cold comfort for the Herero.’

Yeah bet they were kicking themselves they hadn’t been born in Kenya.

Or the Belgian Congo for that matter. One of the secondary arguments made in Hitler’s Empire is that much of the horror visited by the Nazis on Europe can be seen as colonialism coming home, that for may of the Nazi outrages colonial precedents can be found in Allied colonies as well. The best known example being concentration camps of course. Not sure how enlightening this argument is, but it does give you that little flash of “oh yeah”…

John Quiggin, #48: there was no German attempt to redraw borders or exact compensation for German assets seized in Poland and the Czech Republic, as was widely predicted.

The Reconstruction of Nations by Timothy Snyder goes into that a bit, though it’s main focus is on untangling Polish, Lithuanian, Belarussian and Ukrainian nationalist claims and history, by comparing what happened after WWI and WWII with the end of the Cold War. It was not just Germany that behaved well then; Poland too had the opportunity to fuck things up by demanding compensation or pursuing land claims against the Ukraine or Belarussia and so on. One thing Snyder thinks why these sorts of claims and counterclaims never got really started there, unlike in e.g. Southwest Europe (Yugoslavia of course, but also the frictions between Hungary and Romania) is that that whole region had ethnically cleansed anyway: few Germans or Ukranians still lived on Polish land, few Poles lived in the Ukraine…. So there are no sizeable minorities to repress or come to the rescue of.

54

Chris Brooke 10.09.10 at 9:27 am

Doug M: Trivia question: what former territorial possession of Imperial Germany is now part of the United States?

Mariana Islands?

Martin W: One of the secondary arguments made in Hitler’s Empire is that much of the horror visited by the Nazis on Europe can be seen as colonialism coming home…

Didn’t Hannah Arendt argue this in Origins of Totalitarianism sixty years ago?

55

novakant 10.09.10 at 9:29 am

Regarding the tragedy of colonialism may I suggest watching “The Battle of Algiers”, if you haven’t already (the subject matter aside, it also happens to be a very, very good film).

56

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.09.10 at 9:59 am

Bloody Sunday and Shoot-to-Kill notwithstanding.

Also, since we are talking about wars, what about the Falklands war back in the 80s? Good thing they didn’t try to hold on to Hong Kong.

57

daniel waweru 10.09.10 at 1:11 pm

Hidari in #46: ‘Cold comfort for the Herero.’
Yeah bet they were kicking themselves they hadn’t been born in Kenya.

Or the Belgian Congo for that matter. One of the secondary arguments made in Hitler’s Empire is that much of the horror visited by the Nazis on Europe can be seen as colonialism coming home, that for may of the Nazi outrages colonial precedents can be found in Allied colonies as well. The best known example being concentration camps of course. Not sure how enlightening this argument is, but it does give you that little flash of “oh yeah”…

British treatment of Mau Mau as well as non-Mau Mau civilians in Kenya was all kinds of horrific: more or less everything from the colonial bestiary unleashed. Nonetheless, and despite a lot of ugly talk, there doesn’t seem to have been any systematic plan to exterminate a group, as there was in Namibia. Namibia is a clear case of genocide; Mau Mau isn’t a clear case of genocide, and is probably a clear case of not-genocide. Namibia was worse than Kenya, and German colonial expansion, at least in Africa, was almost always clearly worse than British.

(Also, The Kaiser’s Holocaust unearths some really useful evidence that seems to back up Mazower’s arguments.)

58

LFC 10.09.10 at 3:42 pm

Andrew @36:
Was it either surprising or a fortunate accident, as you imply, that the collapse of the USSR/eastern bloc in 1989-91 was not accompanied by a great-power war? IMO, no. One could argue, on the contrary, that the real surprise would have been if the collapse of the USSR had been accompanied by a major war, given the growing discredit into which the whole idea of great-power war had fallen since the end of WW2 (and the fact that the US and USSR had managed to avoid a direct armed conflict during the Cold War, though sometimes just barely). The collapse of the USSR was itself surprising, of course, in the sense that relatively few people, including professional observers and ‘experts,’ saw it coming (long-cycle and other theories notwithstanding), but the fact that that collapse occurred relatively peacefully (i.e., without a major great-power war) was not surprising.

59

Doug M. 10.09.10 at 6:27 pm

Northern Mariana Islands — Guam was never German.

Anyway. I think John’s original post just doesn’t stand up very well. “A century of relative peace” –

– unless you were Chinese, in which case it was a century of one disaster after another, including the Taiping Rebellion, whose death toll was in the tens of millions;
— or Indian, in which case it was an endless string of border wars and conflicts salted with state-created famines;
— or a native North American on the territory of what’s now the central and western United states, in which case you saw your numbers drop from an estimated ~20 million in 1800 to less than a million in the early 20th;
— or an African in the path of the Mfecane (estimated casualties 1-2 million)
— or an inhabitant of the Belgian Congo (estimated 10 million dead over 20 years)
— or a Muslim inhabitant of Serbia after 1820, Greece after 1830, or Bulgaria or the lower Caucasus after 1877 (over two million expelled, with several hundred thousand killed in the process)
— or a participant in the American Civil War (600,000 dead plus another 300,000 or so maimed);
— or an Australian aborigine.

In short, “century of relative peace” if you were western or central European. For the rest of the world, it was business as usual.

No offense, but it’s a very Anglocentric kind of a statement.

Doug M.

60

Memory 10.09.10 at 7:12 pm

Though the historians on this forum will surely point to its many inadequacies, my thinking about WWI was profoundly changed by reading Fischer’s Griff nach der Weltmacht (“Germany’s Aims in the First World War” in translation). The war was horrific and represented more or less the suicide of what contemporaries might have called western European civilization, Germany’s aims and the political processes that produced those aims are frightening to contemplate.

Even if one strongly disagrees with his conclusions, I do not feel that it is possible to make an informed evaluation of the progress of the war, the stakes of the combatant governments, or its outcomes without reading this text (and at least some of the scholarship it generated).

61

notsneaky 10.09.10 at 10:37 pm

“a native North American on the territory of what’s now the central and western United states, in which case you saw your numbers drop from an estimated ~20 million in 1800 to less than a million in the early 20th”

Where you getting this 20 million from? As far as I’m aware the upper bound estimate for the native population north of the Aztecs before European contact is about 18 million, with some estimates as low as a couple million. And that 18 million is circa 1500, before vast devastation and death due to smallpox and other diseases which might have killed as many as 90% of the population (though obviously incidence varied, with central North America more affected than the west). By 1800 the genocide – through warfare AND disease – had already been pretty much carried out.

62

gray 10.10.10 at 10:02 am

mpowell @ 44

The reparations determination were subject to an intensely political process , but livesay is correct to point out that the fundamental reason for them was to pay for the repair of France and Belgium. Payments in kind of coal, telephone poles etc, attest to this.

Just as Fischer is the go-to man if you want to know more about the criminal intent of the German regime before the war, Sally Marks is the person to read to about Germany’s utter bad faith concerning the reparations.

63

James Kroeger 10.10.10 at 11:52 am

Anderson 45,

But if the war ends in early 1917, I think you still get the same air of “there will be a rematch” as in 1918, just France and Russia become the main ones seeking it, and Germany stays insecure.

Really? Don’t you think it would have depended upon the details?

If the United States had stayed out of the war, Germany would likely have been more than willing to agree to status quo ante bellum (with the West) after the signing of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. They would probably have been happy to offer the French and British some additional inducements in order to bring the war to an end, e.g., the return of Alsace-Lorraine, and maybe even a token distant colony of dubious value.

Sure, Germany would have given up a fairly small parcel of land on their western border, but they would still have ended up roughly doubling the size of the German nation overall. To win Britain’s approval—perhaps not even necessary—Germany could have offered something like the southern portion of Angola. The territorial concessions would have given French and British leaders the opportunity to brag that they had succeeded in ending the war with honor.

Would this have prevented a future war between France and Germany? Probably. What is not known is the impact that the proletarian revolution in Russia would have had on Germany. Indeed, a future war between Germany and Revolutionary Russia would have perhaps been unavoidable, under the assumptions I’m making.

In my mind, World War I was the least justifiable war [relative to its cost] that America has ever been involved in.

64

mpowell 10.10.10 at 1:58 pm


The reparations determination were subject to an intensely political process , but livesay is correct to point out that the fundamental reason for them was to pay for the repair of France and Belgium. Payments in kind of coal, telephone poles etc, attest to this.

What about the reparation payments to the British? Maybe I should read Sally Marks though- sounds interesting.

65

gray 10.10.10 at 3:15 pm

Once Lloyd George saw the sums involved he wanted a slice to fund servicemen’s and survivor’s pensions.

Look at
Marks, Sally (September 1978). “The Myths of Reparations”. Central European History

The article is heavily cited in the wikipedia article on reparations. For what that is worth.

66

JJ 10.10.10 at 4:44 pm

Technology is employed to mitigate the general misery of human life. The population subsequently rises beyond its sustainable limits. Technology is then employed to mitigate the general misery of a surplus population of the unemployed, divided along competing utopian camps. The population subsequently drops below its sustainable limits. Technology is then employed to mitigate the general misery of a surplus population of survivors who combine their pragmatic efforts to recover from the formerly utopian conflict of the unemployed. The population subsequently rises beyond its sustainable limits.

And so it goes…

67

JJ 10.10.10 at 5:18 pm

I appreciate the reference to Hannah Arendt, btw, about imperialism being the misdirection of the misery of the unemployed, from the people who benefit from it to the people who share it. Misery loves company, after all, if only as an emotional misdirection of the desire to exterminate the misery by exterminating the miserable.

68

Doug M. 10.10.10 at 8:23 pm

notsneaky @62, you’re right — the figure for 1800 is more like 3-5 million in North America. My bad.

James Kroeger @64, Germany give up Alsace-Lorraine? After they’d already won the war in the East? I’m sorry, but that’s ridiculous — it simply could never have happened.

BTW, Angola was Portuguese, not German.

JJ @67, a cite for this actually happening would be useful.

But to bring it back — WWI as the central catastrophe of the last 200 years is really a very British thing. In France, WWI has to compete with the defeat and occupation; in Germany and points further east, it’s WWII that occupies the central place in historical memory.

That’s understandable. But “WWI ended a golden age of peace and prosperity and brought on the Century of the Toad” — that’s just really Anglocentric. The 19th century was just not that great for the rest of the world, and the 20th — the century of vaccination, mass literacy, civil rights and the end of imperialism — was not a universal nightmare.

Doug M.

69

John Quiggin 10.10.10 at 8:39 pm

@Doug M

The idea of World War II as a event separate from WWI is, as argued in the post a fundamental (US-centric?) mistake, which then derails subsequent analysis. As regards the 20th century, your implied suggestion that the first half of that century saw progress towards, among other things, the end of imperialism is way off beam. Not only did the existing colonial empires continue but new and far worse empires (Japanese, Soviet and Nazi) arose to challenge them. As I said in the post, the course of the Great War took humanity a long way downward from 1914 to 1945. As I also said in the post, that was the low point and there has been a lot of progress since.

70

Jörg Raddatz 10.10.10 at 9:33 pm

One has to remember that the imperial German government was heavily un- or even anti-democratic. The Social Democrats hat won a plurality in the 1912, after they had lost seats in the Hottentottenwahlen of 1907, and it was expected that their growth would continue in the election scheduled for 1917. So “reigning them in” by appealing to their patriotism was a attractive idea for the ruling clique and it deplorably worked.

I have read (but don’t remember whether as a direct quote or a historian’s speculation) that the foolishness of a war against three Great Powers was a political necessarity: In order to “sell the war” to the industiralists and colonialists, they had to fight the commerical rival Great Britain, the militarists and Junkers would support a war against “Erbfeind” France, while the socialists and progressives could be won for fighting the autocratic regime of the Tsar.

Concerning the reparations: I really should read Marks, but weren’t they also imposed to enable France and the UK to pay off the mostly American loans they had needed from 1914 on?

One of my favourite contrafactuals about WWI is the non-invention of the Haber-Bosch process, so Germany runs out of ammunition in late 1914 or early 1915. I can see the GGS going into the war even with very limited reserves of Chile Saltpeter, since they believed the war would be a short affair.

71

Doug M. 10.10.10 at 9:39 pm

“Implied suggestion”? John, are you seriously claiming the first half of the 20th century did /not/ see progress towards the end of imperialism? Because that takes us to 1950. By that time India, Pakistan, Burma and Indonesia were independent, the Japanese Empire was gone, the Middle East from Libya to Iran was in the middle of decolonization (Syria and Jordan already independent, Libya and the smaller Gulf States about to be) and the British and French colonial empires were visibly unraveling.

No progress? Really?

Doug M.

72

Doug M. 10.10.10 at 9:44 pm

As to the rest: I don’t really see where the WWI/WWII distinction comes in; I suspect you may be confusing me with another poster. I’m taking issue with your statement that WWI ended — in your words — ” a century of relative peace and to what seemed (at least to the people with whom I’m most in sympathy) like steady progress towards some form of internationalist democratic socialism.” That’s certainly true for dear old Blighty, some parts of the Continent, and maybe — if you cross your eyes — the United States. But the further you get from Edwardian England, the more absurd that statement becomes.

(You don’t even have to get that far. Was 1815-1914 a century of peace and steady progress toward international democratic socialism in Ireland? Really?)

If you lived in South or Central America, the 19th century was mostly a string of military dictatorships punctuated by coups — not much progress towards democratic socialism there. If you were Chinese, it was a century of political collapse into catastrophic civil war, warlordism, and foreign invasion — not good times there either. If you were Japanese, you got sudden fast modernization, but under a limited democracy that was authoritarian and aggressively imperialist. If you were Native North American, an Australian aborigine, or an inhabitant of the Belgian Congo, you were in the path of a major genocide. And if you were a native of India, Indochina, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, central Asia or Indonesia, you would spend the century under distinctly illiberal imperial rule with very little progress towards democratic socialism to be seen.

In other words, for rather more than half the human race the 19th century saw little or no “progress toward international democratic socialism”, and for a large minority of humanity it was in no sense a century of “relative peace”.

I’d have no problem with your statement if it were appropriately qualified. But it isn’t. So it gives the strong impression of promoting a discourse where the historical experiences of Englishmen are privileged over those of (for instance) Australian Aborigines, Indonesians, Chinese or Native Americans. The parenthetical about “at least to the people with whom I’m most in sympathy” doesn’t help in this regard.

Doug M.

73

Anderson 10.10.10 at 10:19 pm

Germany give up Alsace-Lorraine? After they’d already won the war in the East? I’m sorry, but that’s ridiculous—it simply could never have happened.

Right, and then some. A victorious Germany would not have let go of Belgium, and that would have kept France very uneasy. (Tho, hey, the French then might’ve built their damn Maginot Line all the way to the Channel, and then positioned their forces in the Ardennes gap. THAT would give you a very different 1940.)

74

LFC 10.11.10 at 3:01 am

J. Raddatz @72:
I can see the GGS going into the war even with very limited reserves of Chile Saltpeter, since they believed the war would be a short affair.

As I’ve had occasion to mention on CT before (though not on this thread and evidently not to very much effect), the once widely accepted view that the German General Staff thought WW1 would be short is, in light of recent historiography, now debatable. (See eg K. Lieber, “The New History of WW1 and what it means for IR theory,” Int’l Security, 2007).

75

Anderson 10.11.10 at 3:18 am

the once widely accepted view that the German General Staff thought WW1 would be short is, in light of recent historiography, now debatable

My impression isn’t so much that they thought it would be short, as that the General Staff feared Russia would be too strong to defeat in just a few years, so it was now or never.

76

Bruce Wilder 10.11.10 at 3:54 am

If the memory of World War I, and its causes, have been lost, they have been lost in an eclipse imposed by the far larger, brighter, nearer disc of World War II. The memory of the Great War shaped the Second World War and its aftermath, decisively, but we, who have lived most or all of our lives in the World created after 1945, can only struggle to understand what came before the singularity of 1945.

The First World War was the culmination of the political progress of revolution, whereby feudal institutions were destroyed and displaced by modern ones. It was a process that began with the Dutch Revolt and continued with the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution, and, of course the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Arguably, the American Revolution and the American Civil War also belonged to this process. The War was a failure of the politics of Imperial international relations, driven by reactionary, landed, hereditary elites. And, it was a failure of states, organized on imperial and hereditary, landlord principles.

The bloody, indecisive conduct of the war was a product, certainly, of technology, and the hubris of early technocrats in the military, but also a product of military strategy and tactics chosen by reactionary and class-bound political elites and military leadership cadre. The international conflict between Empires quickly became a revolutionary conflict between the remnants of feudalism and the forces of modernity.

That the War ended the careers of four great Empires — the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires — and eliminated the claims to sovereign authority of their respective monarchies and aristocracies marks out its historical significance. It was a business continued from the past, and still not finished, at the end. The war marked a nearly revolutionary change in the British class system and initiated great changes in Republican France, as well, which, unfortunately, would not reform the French military sufficiently.

77

John Quiggin 10.11.10 at 4:02 am

Doug M, although I was mainly talking about Europe, by 1914 it seemed reasonable to hope for a peaceful evolution towards democracy in China under Sun-Yat Sen and in India where the Congress Party had been active for some time. It’s hard to know how things would have gone in China without the Great War, but at least they would have been spared from Communism.

As regards Ireland, which you mention with incredulity above, the Home Rule Act, the object of a century or so of mostly peaceful struggle and agitation, and already passed by the British Parliament, was suspended on the outbreak of the Great War, with the results with which we are all familiar. Hard to imagine a better illustration of my case.

78

Andrew 10.11.10 at 4:05 am

LFC @ 60: there were effectively two collapses: the effective breakup of the Warsaw Pact in 1989, with the overthrow of Communist regimes in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, then the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself in 1991. That either collapse occurred without significant bloodshed is (to me) remarkable: the breakup of former Yugoslavia led to a material amount of fighting over the course of nearly a decade.

Russia chose not to fight the independence of its satellite buffer to the West – that in itself is fairly remarkable. Then it acquiesced in the loss of territory which it had gained control over during the previous 400 years or so – not just the Central Asian republics acquired in the 19th century, or the Baltic states in the 20th, but Ukraine and Byelorussia. You suggest that this peaceful transfer of power wasn’t surprising: perhaps your threshold for surprise is significantly higher than mine.

Maybe the US would shrug if Hawaii, Alaska, California and much of the territory transmitted in the Louisiana Purchase were to declare independence – but I doubt it.

79

novakant 10.11.10 at 5:15 am

The American historian Sally Marks commented that Keynes had fallen in love with Carl Melchior, a member of the German delegation, and that views on reparations “…were shaped by his passion for Carl Melchior, the German financier and reparations expert whom he met during negotiations at Spa shortly after the armistice”.

So Keynes argued against WWI reparations BECAUSE HE WAS GAY – awesome, that’s some amazing scholarship … The whole Wikipedia article is a rather shoddy affair.

80

Bruce Wilder 10.11.10 at 5:29 am

“a century of relative peace [and] steady progress towards some form of internationalist democratic socialism” seems to miss key features of the course of Europe in the 19th century rather badly. In the initial aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, political reform in Europe, of a liberal, but not a socialist character, seemed to have the upper hand, and political progress and institutional reorganization came in waves, with relatively mild violence. Circa 1822, independent nation-states emerged in Latin America, and the Greeks began the process of freeing themselves from Turkish domination. Circa 1832, the British managed the Great Reform Bill, and the French finally disposed of the Bourbons, in favor of the Citizen King.

But, by the time of the revolutionary pulse, circa 1848, the forces of reaction were rising in power. The starving Irish just barely discredited the landed aristocracy enough to allow repeal of the Corn Laws in Britain. The socialist vision, rivaling the liberal reform movement, found a much more effective Reaction, in opposition to its aims, in Germany and the Hapsburg possessions. By 1867-70, the irony of the conservative Disraeli expanding the franchise, or the House of Savoy uniting Italy, paled by comparison to thoroughly monarchist France establishing a Republic, because the French could not agree on which monarch. Liberal failure to establish parliamentary supremacy in Germany, or even a parliament in Russia, were significant failures, which contributed decisively to nurturing the War. The socialists, meanwhile, were thoroughly frustrated in the late 19th century, which frustration and alienation from power contributed to their highly theoretical radicalism.

The ability of Reaction to frustrate liberal as well as socialist reforms was the cork in the bottle that allowed pressure to build. The liberal alternative to Empire — the self-governing nation-state — had some serious drawbacks, connected to the inevitable legacy of Empire, which liberals tended to deny or idealize. Gladstone, the Liberal Prime Minister, spoke glowingly of Jefferson Davis and the aspirations to national self-determination of the Confederacy, and the Liberal Party foundered repeatedly on the problem of Irish Home Rule. The terrible ethnic mish-mash, mixed with feudal anachronism, which Turkish and Austrian Empire had made of the unfortunate Balkans, could not be papered over by such weirdnesses as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, anymore than Serbia or Corsica could be rescued from their degenerate fates.

Far from steady progress, it was the failures of liberal reform and the frustration of socialist reform, leaving reactionary Empires and hereditary elites in power, which drove the creation of new colonial Empires and the Great Game of Great Power rivalry, which led to War.

81

Doug M. 10.11.10 at 6:56 am

John, take a moment to google “Ulster Mutiny” and, ohh, the Larne and Howth Gun-Runnings as well. We’ll wait.

So: after a peaceful 19th century that included the Tithe War, the Land Wars, the Young Irelanders rebellion, two generations of guerrilla warfare by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, nearly two million deaths in two major famines, and four million emigrants fleeing violence and poverty, Ireland got a Home Rule bill — which was utterly unenforceable, because Ulster would start a civil war rather than be governed from Dublin, and the British Army would mutiny rather than enforce the law.

The Irish Civil War was already starting in summer 1914; the outbreak of war simply delayed matters by a few years. And ham-handed British policy had already marginalized liberal and socialist aspects of Irish nationalism, ensuring that an eventual Irish Republic would be politically reactionary, socially conservative, and militantly Catholic.

“Hard to imagine a better illustration”, indeed.

India’s Congress party, pre-1914, as the vanguard of democratic socialism? Excuse me while I try to suppress a fit of the giggles. Originally a collection of rich eccentrics — it was founded after a meeting of the Theosophic Society — it soon transformed into an illiberal, explicitly nationalist movement. Or rather, three movements; the anti-British, anti-imperialist Garam Dal, the relatively moderate work-within-the-Empire Naram Dal, and the Muslims, who saw the whole thing as a front for Hindu nationalism and left the party in 1907.

The early INC was not particularly democratic, and never remotely socialist; it was always dominated by landowners and businessmen, and thus aggressively conservative. Later it would adopt some aspects of Fabian socialism, but that it would be the sort of “socialism” that makes sure the folks on top stay firmly on top. And even that would only come after WWII; as late as 1939, the INC was expelling its elected president for being “too socialist” (i.e., openly discussing the possibility of land reform).

As for Sun Yat-Sen… eh, why bother. You’re not interested.

Doug M.

82

gray 10.11.10 at 8:30 am

@ novakant

I thought that bit was weird too. It is cited in a book by Kagan? that I have not read. There is no mention of Melchior in the Myths article I’ve noted.

83

Z 10.11.10 at 9:57 am

It’s hard to know how things would have gone in China without the Great War, but at least they would have been spared from Communism.

A lot of what I think is questionable in your approach is encapsulated in this sentence, John. First, it presupposes that WWI could have not happened. But this is very debatable: on the one hand, France was extremely eager for war, in order to regain its territorial losses of the war of 1870/1871 (so you had a matchstick), on the other hand all major powers at the time had chosen an unsustainable mode of organization (so you had a barrel of powder). One can imagine slightly different counterfactuals, but it is hard to imagine the first half of the XXth century without a massive military confrontation between the major powers. So I don’t see WWI as a break in the trajectory of european history, but rather as a rather predictable culmination; and I think this is also how contemporaries saw it: ask a lay person in 1900 in Europe, and she knows that a war will occur (for reasons outlined in Bruce Wilder’s comment)

As for the specific point about China, I think you are making a causal claim that is extremely weak: with or without WWI, Japan would presumably have conquered northern China in the 1930s and the fundamental aspects of chinese society leading to the civil war would have been present. You could try to argue that without soviet support, the nationalist side would have prevailed, but this is very arguable, and I would bet that the promise of land-reform was a much larger factor in the communist party victory than any actual soviet support they had (in fact, and though I am far from being an expert, I would venture the guess that the nationalist side got more actual material help from the US than the communist side from the soviet). To start with a specific point: Sun Yat Sen career was not impaired by WWI, quite the contrary.

84

John Quiggin 10.11.10 at 10:22 am

Doug M, I’m well aware of all of the events to which you refer. It’s obviously arguable, as various commenters have suggested, that war was inevitable. In that sense, the various instances of sabre-rattling in Ireland were of a piece with other precursors of collapse. But equally, it’s possible to conceive of the possibility that the disasters of the 20th century (of which the Irish Civil War was a minor instance) might have been avoided. That didn’t happen, a fact that I deplored in the post to which you have taken such offence.

However, as you say, there doesn’t seem to be much point in taking this any further. To say we are talking past each other would be charitable at this point.

85

John Quiggin 10.11.10 at 10:28 am

@Z I’m not arguing that the Chinese communists would have lost without Soviet support. I’m arguing that they wouldn’t have existed. Presumably some political force embodying the demand for land reform would have emerged. Perhaps in the absence of Leninism/Stalinism, someone even worse than Mao would have risen to the top, but it seems reasonable to suppose an evolution more similar to, say, Mexico which, for all its faults, saw nothing like the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution.,

86

Doug M. 10.11.10 at 10:57 am

“Japan would presumably have conquered northern China in the 1930s”

Since Japanese imperialism in China dated to the 1890s, this is a pretty good bet. By 1914, Japan had already taken Korea, Taiwan, Port Arthur and the Pescadores. And the Man-Mon concept — the idea that Japan could only be secure by conquering Manchuria and turning Inner Mongolia into a buffer puppet state — was already well developed.

“and the fundamental aspects of chinese society leading to the civil war would have been present.”

Viz., a weak, unpopular central government dominated by fiercely conservative local landowners and barely held together by a massively corrupt and sclerotic bureaucracy.

That was true under the Manchus, and even more true under the Republic. Things got dramatically /worse/ in China after the 1910 revolution; the new Republic was every bit as weak and incompetent as the Manchus, but had less legitimacy. And its feeble attempts at reform were utter anathema to the landowners, who quickly turned to local warlords instead.

By 1914 central authority had broken down completely over most of the country. China had to go through a generation of Hobbesian anarchy before Chiang arose to establish some semblance of a central state. The outbreak of WWI in Europe affected this barely at all; if anything, it made things a bit better, by raising export prices while bringing some relief from European imperialism for a while.

“I would bet that the promise of land-reform was a much larger factor in the communist party victory than any actual soviet support”

It’s difficult to overstate the extent to which Chinese political life, from the 1840s to the 1930s, was dominated by large local landowners. It’s also difficult to overstate how stupid, petty and reactionary these guys were. China was a nation of immiserated landless peasants, and the folks actually running the country liked that just fine. (It’s the main reason the late Manchu reforms failed: they were top-down, and got no support from the squirearchy that actually made things happen.)

Again, the idea that things were getting better in China in the years before WWI is just daft. Aside from a very thin gloss of modernization, the country was far worse off in 1914 than in 1815 by any conceivable metric. And the idea that Sun and the Republic were going to bring democratic socialism… I mean, one doesn’t know what to say.

“To start with a specific point: Sun Yat Sen career was not impaired by WWI, quite the contrary.”

And modern Indian historians do not view the World Wars as catastrophes. Quite the opposite!

History is complicated.

Doug M.

87

Doug M. 10.11.10 at 11:01 am

I’m not taking offense at the post in general. I’m just choking on the “century of relative peace and steady progress” statement.

For much of humanity, that just wasn’t true. You’re insisting that yes it really was! And obviously I’m not going to budge you from that. So, whatevs.

Doug M.

88

ajay 10.11.10 at 11:18 am

And modern Indian historians do not view the World Wars as catastrophes. Quite the opposite!

I would guess this is largely because, thanks to the Indian Army (and despite the best efforts of Indian heroes like Subhas Chandra Bose), the Japanese never got very far into India. Nations which actually played host to the IJA generally look back on the experience as not very nice. Vietnam, for example. China. The Philippines. Korea. If the Japanese had made it into Bengal, say, I suspect that modern Indian historians would regard WW2 as a catastrophe.

89

Z 10.11.10 at 12:00 pm

I’m arguing that they wouldn’t have existed.[…] it seems reasonable to suppose an evolution more similar to, say, Mexico

But this is a quite extraordinary claim, even for the genre of counterfactual history. The Chinese communist party relied on its russian brethren for some ideological guidance and organization principles, but its rise to power has been largely independent of the Soviet Union, and surely almost completely independent of geopolitical trends in Western Europe. It is very hard for me to see what crucial event would or would not have taken place had WWI not occurred which would have significantly modified the course of events in China. Pointing out to a comparison with Mexico is not illegitimate in itself but I don’t see how it is particularly relevant either. Mexico in 1900 had 13 millions inhabitants, China at the same time more than 400 millions; their cultural backgrounds were completely different, in particular with respect to literacy and ideology (the landless masses in Mexico were illiterate demoralized natives; not so much in China).

So you may be right, but as for now I am unconvinced. My larger point being that, though French people have monuments in every town to remind us that 5% of our population died in WWI, I don’t see that this war was really a breaking point in the history of the world. On the other had, and FWIW, I agree with you about the spiralling downward of the 1918/1945 period.

90

LFC 10.11.10 at 1:16 pm

Andrew @80: there were effectively two collapses: the effective breakup of the Warsaw Pact in 1989, with the overthrow of Communist regimes in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, then the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself in 1991. That either collapse occurred without significant bloodshed is (to me) remarkable

I have no problem agreeing that the absence of “significant bloodshed” was remarkable. There is a difference, however, between “significant bloodshed” and interstate war involving major powers, and my point is that the absence of the latter was not so remarkable.

91

Anderson 10.11.10 at 1:53 pm

First, it presupposes that WWI could have not happened.

That’s a good point, but that is also why the prospect of Germany repeating 1870 in 1914 is interesting. Does France resign itself at that point? Leaving Russia as the only power really able to contemplate taking on Germany?

A short WW1 was possible and incalculable in its effects.

92

aretino 10.11.10 at 3:35 pm


More exceptions to the “century of [relative] peace” trope which was (and probably still) such a staple of potted European History texts: (concentrating even just on, say “Napoleonic-era” Europe:

Greek War of Independence 1821-30
Civil conflicts in Spain throughout much of the 19th Century
Prusso-Danish War of 1864
Civil conflicts in Italy 1860-70
Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78
Balkan Wars of 1909-13

This leaves out the war carried out by an Austro-Russian alliance to crush Hungarian independence circa 1849. Of course, the Magyars always get short shrift.

93

Doug M. 10.11.10 at 4:34 pm

“I would guess this is largely because, thanks to the Indian Army (and despite the best efforts of Indian heroes like Subhas Chandra Bose), the Japanese never got very far into India.”

What’s not to like about Bose? Patriotic nationalist, fierce anti-imperialist, anti-racist, socialist to the bone.

” Nations which actually played host to the IJA generally look back on the experience as not very nice.”

Broadly true — the IJA were bad news. There are a couple of interesting exceptions. Thailand, aka The Forgotten Axis Power. (Thailand is the only no-kidding member of the Axis that got its wartime fascist dictator back in power after the war.) The Thais dealt with the IJA as equal partners, and at arms’ length, and they did fine.

There’s also Taiwan, which was under surprisingly enlightened colonial rule from 1896 to 1945. The Japanese put a lot of money into Taiwan, treated the locals (by the standards of then-and-there) pretty well, and kept the local IJA garrisons firmly on a leash. As a result, Japanese colonial rule is still remembered, if not fondly, at least as a peaceful time when ordinary people could have a decent life. There’s nothing like the burning hatred and resentment found in, say, Korea.

Of course, Taiwan was under the jurisdiction of the IJ_N_.

“If the Japanese had made it into Bengal, say”

Yes, and if my aunt had etc. etc. my uncle. But they didn’t, and India’s historical memory of the war got shaped accordingly.

Doug M.

94

ajay 10.11.10 at 4:59 pm

What’s not to like about Bose? Patriotic nationalist, fierce anti-imperialist, anti-racist, socialist to the bone.

What’s not to like is that he tried to help the Japanese Empire conquer his home country (which they would presumably have done with their customary energy and panache), and also recruited Indian troops for the Wehrmacht, whom they used to help keep a hold on occupied France. For an anti-imperialist, anti-racist socialist, those are some pretty odd things to do. It is unquestionably a good thing for the world that Bose was not more successful in his efforts – that he only raised one rather ineffectual brigade for the Wehrmacht and a couple of weak division groups for the INA, rather than anything approaching the size and expertise of the Indian Army, which was and remains the largest volunteer army in history.

95

Doug M. 10.11.10 at 7:35 pm

“For an anti-imperialist, anti-racist socialist, those are some pretty odd things to do.”

Not in the least. He was getting help from one empire to free his people from another; as he pointed out more than once, it was nothing more or less than what the Americans did in 1781.

He was indeed rather fiercely anti-racist, and there were a number of uncomfortable episodes where he upbraided his German friends for their racist attitudes.

Sure, he was on the side of evil. So were those lovable Nordic social democrats, the Finns.

Doug M.

96

Anderson 10.11.10 at 7:53 pm

He was getting help from one empire to free his people from another

I still hope Doug M is tongue-in-cheek here, but the Japanese were certainly not going to play the rich-uncle role that the French played in the American Revolution, and Bose would be damned as a Quisling if Japan had indeed marched into Delhi.

It took a light touch for Britain to rule India as long as it did, and for the country that invented the tea ceremony, Japan was not so adept at the light touch.

97

Doug M. 10.11.10 at 8:24 pm

Oh, a little bit. It’s a good thing — for India and the world — that Bose failed.

That said, he was an interesting dude, who deserves more than “he fought for the bad guys! bad, wicked man, bad!!”

(Also, as far as we can tell, the Japanese were serious about Indian independence. They didn’t view India as part of their sphere of influence, and weren’t interested in joining it to the Empire. Their goal seems to have been independent India that was neutral, friendly and weak — basically a buffer state.)

Light touch: actually, the Japanese ruled some parts of their Empire pretty well. I mentioned Taiwan upthread. And if you ever visit Palau, in Micronesia, you’ll find a surprising lot of people with Japanese names; the Japanese behaved themselves very well there, and people have fond memories of the colonial days.

That said, sure. To oversimplify, Japan’s liberal side collapsed after 1929, and aggressively know-nothing radical nationalists took over pretty much everything.

Doug M.

98

ajay 10.11.10 at 10:21 pm

Also, as far as we can tell, the Japanese were serious about Indian independence. They didn’t view India as part of their sphere of influence, and weren’t interested in joining it to the Empire. Their goal seems to have been independent India that was neutral, friendly and weak—basically a buffer state.

That was more or less the German plan for Britain. That still doesn’t make me feel very well disposed towards Oswald Mosely. And Mosely at least didn’t actually command a brigade in the SS.

He was indeed rather fiercely anti-racist, and there were a number of uncomfortable episodes where he upbraided his German friends for their racist attitudes.

He “upbraided” them? Ooh. I bet that made them feel all guilty and self conscious over the coffee and cakes. And then he went back to recruiting an army for them.

99

ajay 10.11.10 at 10:31 pm

To expand on that: you know what people who are really “fiercely anti-racist” do? They go on protest marches. They lobby governments for fairer treatment. They risk their lives trying to register people to vote. They face off against the police thugs trying to enforce bigotry. They take up arms, in extremis, against violent racists.

What they don’t do is go and live in Nazi Germany during the Second World War and recruit thousands of soldiers into the Wehrmacht. Because the Nazis were, actually, a bit racist themselves, from time to time.

100

Barry 10.11.10 at 10:44 pm

Ajay, by that standard, people who are actually for democracy and freedom don’t ship vast tonnages of weapons and materials to Stalin. But they did, when necessity demanded it.

101

novakant 10.11.10 at 11:09 pm

And the Kaiser financed the Bolsheviks and put Lenin on that sealed train to Petrograd …

102

John Quiggin 10.11.10 at 11:34 pm

“To oversimplify, Japan’s liberal side collapsed after 1929, and aggressively know-nothing radical nationalists took over pretty much everything.”

And you don’t think the rise of Fascism and Stalinism in Europe after the War had anything to do with that development?

103

john c. halasz 10.12.10 at 12:02 am

@87:

The Chinese communists modeled their insurrection very consciously on the precedent of the Taiping rebellion.

@104:

Neither Fascism, nor Stalinism had arisen in Europe before 1929, as dominant forces. Way too abridged history there.

104

Doug M. 10.12.10 at 12:31 am

“And you don’t think the rise of Fascism and Stalinism in Europe after the War had anything to do with that development?”

Some. But most of it was endogenous. Japan stayed more-or-less quiescent through the prosperous 1920s, after all. The phase change came in 1930-31, as a direct result of the Depression.

Japan embarked on naked aggression in China in 1931. At that time, Fascism had only come to power in a single country, and Mussolini hadn’t exactly set the world on fire. As for Stalinism, Stalin had been sole leader of the USSR for only a couple of years. (Exact date depending on when you start the clock; I’d put it at the fall of Bukharin, late 1929.) So neither of these were exactly compelling models.

Five or six years later, sure — Five-Year plans, Anschluss, Ethiopia, the spread of copycat fascist movements around the world. At that point the Japanese were indeed taking copious notes and being consciously influenced.

But in 1931? No, not really. As noted upthread, Japanese aggression against China dated back to the 1890s (and they’d been thinking about it for a decade or two before that). So it’s not like they needed Mussolini or Stalin to give them ideas.

Doug M.

105

Omega Centauri 10.12.10 at 2:19 am

Doug @106, Japanese agression towards China had a bit of the feel of British Imperialism in India. Neither was planned (at least by those in a high level of government), but actions by low and midlevel people in the respective terrotories gradually dragged the country into the policy bit-by-bit over a period of years.

106

Britta 10.12.10 at 3:47 am

In terms of counterfactuals towards China, you really don’t need to posit a possible government worse than the Communists, as the pre-revolution easily KMT represents such a possibility. As some historian whose name I am too lazy to look up said, “the KMT was fascist in every respect except efficiency.” Whatever havoc the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution has wreaked on China, it’s not terribly difficult to imagine that 60 years of government by a reactionary, corrupt and autocratic state would probably have been worse on the whole than Communist leadership has been.

Also, arguing that the Communists only succeeded due to help from Stalin is similar to arguing that the KMT was only as successful as it was due to help from Hitler or the US: both sides received weaponry and expertise from foreign powers, but ultimately the Communists succeeded by capitalizing on support from the countryside and from the failure of the KMT–that is, from internal domestic factors rather than outside support.

107

Doug M. 10.12.10 at 7:41 am

@Omega Centauri, that was certainly true for the Mukden (Manchuria) incident, and to some extent the outbreak of formal war in 1937 after the Marco Polo Bridge. OTOH, the 1895 war was carefully planned at the highest levels, as were the Twenty-One Demands, the annexation of Shandong, and the assaults on Shanghai and Nanjing.

Doug M.

108

Hidari 10.12.10 at 8:32 am

#99-100-101

Almost never mentioned in this discussion about how awful the Axis powers were is the case of Finland. Indeed, Haaretz recently had an interesting article about Jews who fought for Finland (and, therefore, implicitly, the Axis). I agree with Doug M. Despite the fact that, in the final analysis, we might decide that Bose was wrong, he deserves more than just being consigned to history ‘Cos teh Nazis was bad, mmm’kay?’ Life’s a bit more complex than that.

109

ajay 10.12.10 at 9:50 am

in the final analysis, we might decide that Bose was wrong,

Have we decided that? Doug M seems rather to like him. Patriotic, anti-racist, socialist and all that. Though he has admitted, it’s true, that it might not have been a good thing for the world if Bose and his German and Japanese friends had won. Glad we see eye to eye on that!

110

Doug M. 10.12.10 at 10:11 am

Amusement.

Doug M.

111

John Quiggin 10.12.10 at 10:41 am

Britta, to repeat myself, I’m not saying that the Communists got help from Stalin. I’m saying that, if there had been no Great War, there would have been no Bolshevik revolution and therefore no Communist Party, in China or anywhere else.

And, to others, I’m surprised to see the nitpicking about my use of “Stalinism”. For the purposes of this argument, I’m happy to use “Leninism-Stalinism” instead to avoid any quibble about dates (while not asserting that Stalinism and Leninism were the same thing). There were also plenty of fascist movements apart from Hitler and Mussolini – Horthy is one example that comes to mind. Authoritarian and anti-democratic ideas were widespread in many countries in the 1920s, and the brutalising effects of the Great War played a major role in this development.

112

novakant 10.12.10 at 10:50 am

ajay, you know about “Operation Paperclip” and all that, right? The point being that associating with unsavory characters to further your strategic goals seems to be rather common in international politics.

113

g 10.12.10 at 12:55 pm

novakant, “Keynes did X because he was in love with Melchior” is not at all the same thing as “Keynes did X because he was gay”. (Suppose Melchior had been female. The allegation would not be that Keynes argued against reparations because he was straight.)

Of course, (1) whether Keynes was in fact in love with a member of the German delegation, (2) whether this affected his stance on reparation payments, and (3) whether that bit of the Wikipedia article is (or reflects) rotten scholarship, are entirely separate questions. In any case, whatever Keynes’s reason for taking the view he did, he does seem to have been right.

114

g 10.12.10 at 12:56 pm

(Er, I see that actually some people who aren’t obviously mad, such as Sally Marks and Donald Kagan from whose writings those comments about Keynes are taken, are skeptical about the usual view that reparations destabilized Germany. I don’t know whether they’re right, but I’m not really qualified to declare that they aren’t.)

115

Anderson 10.12.10 at 2:35 pm

the usual view that reparations destabilized Germany

Reparations were excessive and did not help, but the wartime decision to fund Germany’s war by loans, not taxes, and the manipulations of the postwar governments and financiers, place much blame on Germany itself. Rathenau tried to take a good-faith approach and was murdered for his pains.

116

Hektor Bim 10.12.10 at 3:11 pm

It’s interesting that no one has brought up Indonesia. Japanese colonial rule did in fact ensure the independence of Indonesia. It was brutal and unpopular, but it also ended up politicizing Indonesians and made their independence much quicker and easier. The Japanese occupation authorities deliberately cultivated Indonesian nationalism, and that lead to the declaration of independence a couple of days after the Japanese surrendered.

Bose and the INA were probably expecting something even better by cooperating with the Japanese. Considering that the British let 3 million people starve to death in Bengal in 1943, no one ends up looking very good.

117

Hektor Bim 10.12.10 at 3:20 pm

Daniel Waweru,

“Namibia was worse than Kenya, and German colonial expansion, at least in Africa, was almost always clearly worse than British.”

I don’t think you can make that case convincingly. The Herero genocide and the Mau-Mau concentration camps killed about the same numbers of people. (I notice that no one has brought up the Tasmanian genocide as a British colonial atrocity, for example.)

In East Africa, the German record was substantially better than the British. Basically more education and less killing.

118

Doug M. 10.12.10 at 3:24 pm

I’m sorry, but Horthy was not a fascist. He was a conservative Catholic aristocrat. After the early 1930s, he had to deal with local fascist movements — which he did by a combination of co-opting (Gombos) and purging (Szalasi). But he himself was about as fascist as Franz Josef.

To bring this back to the main point, no, Japanese aggression against China in the early 1930s had little to do with fascism, nor with Leninism-Stalinism either. It was a logical continuation of trends that, at that point, dated back half a century. The proximate causes were the Great Depression and the rise of Chiang Kai-Shek and the Nationalists. (The Japanese right saw the Nationalists as a serious menace, even though the actual threat level was modest — a rough modern comparison might be to the Islamic Republic of Iran.)

Another contributing factor was the tendency of radical nationalist groups to assassinate liberal Prime Ministers — between 1931 and 1934, they got four out of five of them — and the tendency of the very conservative police, security forces and judiciary to more or less passively let this happen. The cumulative effect of multiple assassinations was, unsurprisingly, to mute and demoralize liberalism within Japan.

But this had exactly nothing to do with WWI or fascism. Ideologically motivated assassinations had been a problem in Japan since the early Meiji period. Google Okubo Toshimichi — he was killed in 1878, and there were half a dozen more between then and the 1920s.

There is some existing scholarship on this, you know.

Doug M.

119

Doug M. 10.12.10 at 5:49 pm

– That last bit could have come across as snarky, which is not how I meant it.

It’s just, this is not a new issue. The question of how Japan and the European revisionist powers influenced each other has been gone over pretty thoroughly. The consensus is, up until the mid 1930s they weren’t affecting each other much — neither directly, by working together, or indirectly, by copying each others ideology and tactics. (N.B., not much doesn’t mean not at all. There were some influences — Hitler was very impressed by the Japanese walkout from the League of Nations — but they were pretty secondary.)

Things changed in the latter 1930s, when Japan’s rulers started paying closer attention to Germany’s rapid rise in Europe, and fascistic movements started appearing in Japan. But it was, if you like, a convergence of streams that up until then had been running on parallel but separate courses.

Doug M.

120

Britta 10.12.10 at 5:50 pm

John, Fair enough, though it’s a disputable counterfactual to claim that a Communist revolution would have occurred nowhere else in the world if it didn’t occur in Russia first.

I guess I was more taking umbrage with the claim that China would have done better in the second half of the twentieth century without Communism than with it. I think that requires a far too rosy view of other political movements in mid-century China and the general conditions of extreme poverty, corruption and chaos that were present at the time.

121

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.12.10 at 6:18 pm

I’m saying that, if there had been no Great War, there would have been no Bolshevik revolution and therefore no Communist Party, in China or anywhere else.

There was already a revolution in Russia in 1905, you know. Bolsheviks were a part of it, and there were already Soviets. Without any war whatsoever.

122

Substance McGravitas 10.12.10 at 6:29 pm

In terms of counterfactuals towards China, you really don’t need to posit a possible government worse than the Communists, as the pre-revolution easily KMT represents such a possibility. As some historian whose name I am too lazy to look up said, “the KMT was fascist in every respect except efficiency.”

Is Taiwan’s history as nasty as China’s through that period?

123

Z 10.12.10 at 6:35 pm

Like Britta, I am very sceptical of the idea that no Communist revolution would have succeeded without the prior success of the USSR. In fact, it appears to me that the 3 latter major communist revolutions (China, Vietnam, Cuba) were rather independent of the USSR and succeeded mainly because of their own strength. I mean, in the case of CHina, look at the specifics: the Cominterm wanted the Chines Communist Party to stay an allied of the KMT, not to fight against it.

And you don’t think the rise of Fascism and Stalinism in Europe after the War had anything to do with that development?

Ah here I actually know a little something (contrary to the case of the communist rise to power in China, where I am a hopeless amateur). And I concur with Doug M. The answer to your question is mostly no. The rise of fascist elements in imperial Japan was rather endogenous and in so far as european trends influenced it, the source of inspiration was much more the standard practices of the major imperial powers (UK, France, Belgium, the US and Russia) rather than any fascist movements. I mean, the common wisdom at the time was that an industrial power could not succeed economically without a colonial empire (and I should ask that this wasn’t such a stupid idea at the time, mostly because of the explosion of population).

So yes, had Europe created a peaceful and democratic european union in 1919 under the auspices of the SDN and I think it is a safe bet that Japan would have invaded China and tried to do its best to create its own empire.

124

AntiAlias 10.12.10 at 6:39 pm

There was already a revolution in Russia in 1905, you know. Bolsheviks were a part of it, and there were already Soviets. Without any war whatsoever.

And it failed, you know.

Captain Obvious, but in 1905 neither Russia (socially) nor the Party (in organisative terms) was ready for Revolution. Need the war as a catalyst, etc.

125

MPAVictoria 10.12.10 at 6:46 pm

Doug M.
I think you have a point but you are neglecting to consider the devastating effect the the long conflict on the western front had on British Empire. If the war had ended quickly in say 1914 or 1915 the British would have faced the coming years from a much stronger military and financial position. Would they have stood by and allowed the Japanese to expand unchecked in China? Maybe, maybe not.

126

AntiAlias 10.12.10 at 6:59 pm

Also, Henri, I think you are forgetting the Russo Japanese War. It did influence the 1905 revolution, and Parvus draw inspiration from it to co-develop the theory of permanent revolution with Trotsky.

127

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.12.10 at 7:29 pm

I thought the war with Japan was in 1904. I dunno, maybe it did need war as a catalyst, but it didn’t have to be a Great War, I’m sure. Or are we assuming the perpetual peace starting from 1914? Oh, never mind.

128

daniel waweru 10.12.10 at 8:04 pm

I don’t think you can make that case convincingly. The Herero genocide and the Mau-Mau concentration camps killed about the same numbers of people. (I notice that no one has brought up the Tasmanian genocide as a British colonial atrocity, for example.)

I don’t see how I can’t, especially if I restrict, as I did, to colonial behaviour in Africa.

If roughly the same number of people were killed in the Herero genocides as in the Mau Mau stuff — and the execution, in at least two senses, of the Emergency wasn’t as bad as the genocides — then British behaviour in Kenya wasn’t as bad as German in Namibia. I’m taking the bit in the middle to follow from the fact that what happened in Namibia was pretty clearly genocide, while events in Kenya simply don’t look that way — the lack of good evidence for exterminatory intent looks like the the key thing — even though they were very horrible in their own way.

129

Hektor Bim 10.12.10 at 8:46 pm

Daniel Waweru,

Let me try this again:

You said, “Namibia was worse than Kenya, and German colonial expansion, at least in Africa, was almost always clearly worse than British.”

The second part of the sentence doesn’t follow from the first. Suppose we grant that Namibia was worse than Kenya. It still doesn’t mean that the German colonies were always more brutally administered than the British colonies. Contemporaries, for example, claimed that overall levels of education in German East Africa were much higher than in the surrounding colonies.

130

daniel waweru 10.12.10 at 10:58 pm

Hektor,

“Namibia was worse than Kenya, and German colonial expansion, at least in Africa, was almost always clearly worse than British.

The second part of the sentence doesn’t follow from the first. Suppose we grant that Namibia was worse than Kenya. It still doesn’t mean that the German colonies were always more brutally administered than the British colonies. Contemporaries, for example, claimed that overall levels of education in German East Africa were much higher than in the surrounding colonies.

Sorry. I took you to be saying two things: that the Namibian genocide and British suppression of Mau Mau were on a par, and (therefore) that it couldn’t be true that German colonial expansion in Africa was worse than the British version.

The first clearly isn’t true: even if the same number were killed in both the Emergency and the Herero genocides, it doesn’t follow that they were equally bad; presumably genocide is worse than things which fall short of genocide.

The second seems obvious to me. Germany had three (or is it two) real colonies in Africa: German South West Africa and German East Africa (as they were). In one, the German empire managed to carry out (prolly) the first properly mechanised genocide in history; in the other, it managed to wipe out about a third of the population during the conquest phase. The British Empire, while really pretty horrible, fell short of these unusually low standards.

131

Hektor Bim 10.13.10 at 12:37 am

Daniel Waweru,

Where does wiping out a third of the population come from? Are you talking about the Maji Maji rebellion?

Togoland and Kamerun don’t count, somehow?

132

Doug M. 10.13.10 at 7:17 am

“If the war had ended quickly in say 1914 or 1915 the British would have faced the coming years from a much stronger military and financial position. Would they have stood by and allowed the Japanese to expand unchecked in China? “

Well, they did nothing to check Japanese expansion in 1895, 1905, 1910, or 1915. Japan’s first attempt to seize Shandong in the 1890s was checked by the Triple Intervention — but that was France, Germany and Russia; Britain had nothing to do with it.

Also, note that for much of this period Japan was formally a British ally.

Doug M.

133

Doug M. 10.13.10 at 8:22 am

“the source of inspiration was much more the standard practices of the major imperial powers (UK, France, Belgium, the US and Russia) rather than any fascist movements.”

There were also internal influences. The Meiji Constitution of 1890 was quite deliberately modeled on the Prussian Constitution of 1850. (The main foreign advisor to the constitutional drafters was a Prussian legal academic, Dr. Herman Roesler.)

The Prussian Constitution was very deliberately drafted, in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions, to provide a veneer of liberal democracy while dividing real power among the monarchy, wealthy landowners, and the military. It was very much a “keep the peasants down and the liberals out” design.

Arguably it wasn’t a bad design for a country entering a period of very rapid modernization, like Germany after 1850 and Japan after 1890. In both cases, the constitution worked pretty well for a generation or two. But by 1914 in Germany, or the early 1930s in Japan, the internal political structure was visibly cracking under the stresses of modernity.

– This raises an interesting speculation. You’ll sometimes hear people saying that, if there’d been no Great War, Germany would have naturally evolved into a social democracy; the Socialist party was within an election or two of taking power, and probably would have been able to form a government. The prewar Socialists had a broad tent, but they were mostly pretty liberal and pacifist, so they’d have led Germany towards the light.

Japan’s experience suggests an alternative: a system hardwired for conservative rule would have thrown up an intense autoimmune reaction, with destabilizing and probably violent results.

Doug M.

134

novakant 10.13.10 at 1:46 pm

even if the same number were killed in both the Emergency and the Herero genocides, it doesn’t follow that they were equally bad; presumably genocide is worse than things which fall short of genocide.

There is no water-tight, uncontroversial definition of genocide and we should stop pretending that there is. The vagueness comes with the territory, it will always be a gray area. Suffice it to say that if the same amount of people belonging to an ethnic group are killed, saying “oops, sorry, we didn’t really mean it” instead of “we wanted to kill these guys” doesn’t really make much of a difference.

135

AntiAlias 10.13.10 at 2:06 pm

@ Henri Vieuxtemps 129:

Well, I guess we can’t possibly know if the Revolution needed a “Great War” or could make do with a mere “war” without capitals (no pun intended). Would a Russo-Japanese War 2.0 have sufficed? Maybe, but IMO, not very likely – generalised war in Europe created a certain atmosphere of impending downfall of the “bourgeois states” (consequently providing momentum to Bolshevik discourse) that another “Asiatic” war with Japan probably wouldn’t have. Trotsky was looking forward to the rising of German proletarians, not Japanese serfs.

I agree with you there wasn’t just one way for things to happen. To put it simply, maybe Revolution didn’t totally need WW1, but given WW1, it was quite inevitable (or at least, the very best chance the Bolshviks could have expected – it matched almost perfectly with forecasts made years beforehand).

(On a side note, the Russo-Japanese War started in 1904 and ended in 1905, but I don’t have to tell you the consequences of a war, “Great” or else, don’t just disappear in a couple of years. Killed people stay dead and wasted resources are gone forever, i.e. shit happens & shit is cumulative).

136

chris y 10.13.10 at 2:51 pm

AntiAlias, The Russo-Japanese war was widely believed at the time and later to have created the coditions for the 1905 revolution in Russia, so it’s not necessarily that unlikely.

Trotsky (and other revolutionaries) looked to a German revolution because a. there was a massive Socialist movement in Germany and had been since Marx was a lad, b. because it was an explicit part of Lenin’s strategy in seizing power that a German revolutio would fall out of the war and that German industry and Russian agriculture would complement one another in creating a base for revolutionary expansion – Lenin never supposed that socialism in Russia could survive on its own, and c. because Germany looked like the best bet for spreading revolution in the developed world.

The Bolsheviks were clear in 1904/5 that Japan was a industrialising, capitalist state and they would have been delighted to see a revolution there (lack of a mass party made it unlikely). But they would have been perplexed as to what it might lead to.

137

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.13.10 at 3:23 pm

I think war is only a catalyst, one of many possible catalysts. According to Lenin, revolutions happen when the lower classes are unwilling and the upper classes unable to carry on as usual; so, it was a war, but it could be a famine, or a pandemic (like the one in 1918), or something else precipitating a crisis leading to a revolution.

Comments on this entry are closed.