The 100 Years War

by John Q on June 28, 2014

It’s 100 years today since a political assassination in the Balkans set in motion the Great War which, in one form or another, has continued ever since. In destroying themselves, and millions of their subjects, the German, Austrian and Russian empires brought forth Nazism and Bolshevism, which killed in the tens of millions. After 1945, the killing mostly stopped in the developed world, replaced by the threat of instant nuclear annihilation, which remained ever-present for decades and has by no means disappeared. Instead, the War moved to the Third World, and a multitude of proxy conflicts. The fall of the Soviet Union saw the renewed outbreak of the War in Europe, most bloodily in Yugoslavia and more recently in Georgia and Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the British and French imperial War plans, embodied in the (secret) Sykes-Picot treaty and the contradictory assurances offered to Jews and Arabs in the Balfour declaration and the McMahon-Hussein correspondence[^1], continue to work their evil consequences long after all the original participants have gone to their graves. Syria, Iraq and Israel-Palestine are all products of the Great War, as is modern Iran (the product of a revolution against British and later American suzerainty imposed after 1918).

And, after 100 years, nothing has been learned. The architects of the most recent catastrophe in Iraq are still respected commentators, as are the many historians and others who defend the conduct of the British-French-Russian imperial alliance in the 1914-18 phase of the Great War (most British and French apologists ignore or explain away the alliance with the most oppressive European empire of the day, but I imagine there are now Putinist historians hard at work producing defences of Tsarist war policy).

More fundamentally, despite 100 years of brutal and bloody evidence to the contrary, the idea that war and revolution are effective ways to obtain political ends, rather than catastrophic last resorts, remains dominant on both the right and the left.

Perhaps in another 100 years, if we survive that long, the world will have learned better.

[^1]: In addition to these, there was the secret Constantinople agreement with the Tsarist empire, and the Treaty of London and Agreement of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne with Italy, none of which came into effect. These secret deals (and similar agreements made by the Central Powers) make it clear that all the major participants in the Great War were committed to the pursuit of imperial expansion, even as they all pretended to be defending themselves against aggression and pointed to the crimes of their enemies as justification for their own.



bob mcmanus 06.28.14 at 1:18 am

And the Serbs dedicated a statue of Gavrilo Princep today. I couldn’t pick a story or image, just google.

Aw Heck This is Nice


Evan Harper 06.28.14 at 1:37 am

Would German hegemony over the European continent have been a bad thing?

If so, how else to forestall it but a Franco-Russian alliance?


shah8 06.28.14 at 1:38 am

I’d have a hard time believing that historians in Putin’s Russia are trying to justify Tsarist alliances, since there is a pretty clear and comprehensive cause-effect relationship between honoring such alliances and lots and lots of Russians dead.


John Quiggin 06.28.14 at 1:46 am

And comment #2 proves my point. I’ll leave the thread now before I get even more depressed.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© 06.28.14 at 1:54 am

John Quiggin, I know where you’re coming from.

But take a look at these tiny toads!


Anderson 06.28.14 at 2:03 am

Equating aims formed during the war, with plans laid before the war, seems odd.

But yes, a sad anniversary. Imagine the historians in 100 years arguing that Bush and Blair were mere “sleepwalkers” and that blame is inappropriate.


Anderson 06.28.14 at 2:04 am

5: those ARE some tiny toads. I think those may be similar to the ones sold in an artificial habitat at our local toy store.


P O'Neill 06.28.14 at 2:15 am

Recent events suggest that it’s not even clear we’ve sorted out the Crimean War yet, so dating the war as 100 years may be optimistic.


Anarcissie 06.28.14 at 2:48 am

Here’s my chance to get moderated like everyone else.


mud man 06.28.14 at 2:51 am

Kinda puts the “just war” thing in it’s place, don’t it? Except that I don’t know what John means by war should be a “last resort”.


Ronan(rf) 06.28.14 at 3:08 am

Adam tooze perspective – “He described the powers, great and small, as members of a chain gang, a lurching, shackled together collective. The prisoners were differently proportioned. Some were more violent than others. Some single minded. Others exhibited multiple personalities. They struggled with themselves and each other. They could seek to dominate the other chain, or to cooperate. As far as the chain would give, they could enjoy some degree of autonomy, but in the end they were locked together. Whichever of these images we adopt, they have the same implication. Such a dynamic, interrconnected system can be understood only by examining the entire system and retracing its movement over time.” – seems right


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© 06.28.14 at 3:30 am

Anderson @ 7: These tiny toads are hopping wild around the family house on Cacapon Mountain in Berkeley Springs.


Lee A. Arnold 06.28.14 at 3:39 am

The Great War was the first OIL war. Performer Robert Newman’s “History of Oil” maintains that WWI started for the British with an invasion of Iraq. The basic set-up was that the German and British navies had just switched from coal to oil, but Germany had no easy access to oil except by extending the railway that ended at Constantinople (known as the Orient Express) another 900 km to Baghdad. The other European powers were opposed because it meant a major German oil and business drive into the Middle East. When Ferdinand was assassinated, all the countries started grabbing what they could:

“The first British regiment to be deployed in the First World War, the Dorset regiment, went to Basra in 1914, where it was joined by 51 other British divisions.”


js. 06.28.14 at 3:56 am

Since no one else has picked up on the low-hanging fruit, I will:

the idea that war and revolution are effective ways to obtain political ends, rather than catastrophic last resorts, remains dominant on both the right and the left. [emph. added–js.]

So… any evidence for the bit I’ve emphasized? I mean, obviously there’re are revolutionary lefties out there, but dominant? I seem to have missed the spate of recent articles in the NLR about the glories of war and revolution? So also in Jacobin, etc.?

(More to the point, I think I disagree with the main point too—the idea that the last 100 years are essentially the continuation of the first world war. No doubt the war shaped the world and its geopolitics in ways that shaped—indeed were responsible for—the ensuing conflicts, but the continuity claim seems problematically strong to me. But I’ll have to think more to give you something approaching an argument.)


David 06.28.14 at 4:04 am

I still can’t shake the feeling that declaring revolutions undesirable is nothing more than Center-Left apologetic for the world-as-is


David 06.28.14 at 4:06 am

It wasn’t “the revolution” per se that made Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany such world historical disasters.


js. 06.28.14 at 4:12 am

What are you counting as ‘the revolution’ re Nazi Germany? I’m sort of inclined to agree about the USSR, but I’d rather go hide behind the sofa than elaborate.


David 06.28.14 at 4:14 am

I mean, Nazi Germany was more of a pseudo-legal takeover, but it was certainly proceeded by years of political quarreling


Watson Ladd 06.28.14 at 4:44 am

Bolshevism was not brought forth by the First World War: the Social Democrats split over the War Credits vote, thus *ending*, not *starting* the Second International. (The Russian Revolution took advantage of the war, but absent a war the politics would have continued)

Nazism was likewise not a result of the war: in Italy, where Fascism first came to power, the war was won, and there was an economic crisis. Rather it was against the left that Fascism became acceptable, assisted by capitalists.

It’s very easy to be against war when you have a continent to people who like you, in a liberal democracy no one really wants to overthrow. But if you are Oliver Cromwell, William the Silent, or Robespierre, then armed violence is the only means to vindicate your rights or defend the rights of the people. War brought rights to Central Europe, democracy to England, freedom of religion to the Netherlands.


Bruce Wilder 06.28.14 at 5:24 am

“the only means” seems not only a bit presumptuous, but unimaginative.


Neville Morley 06.28.14 at 5:27 am

Can hardly disagree with the idea that nothing, or at best very very little, has been learned over the last century, but the claim that this must – or must therefore – be seen as a single Great War feels much more problematic. The idea that 1914-45 should be seen as a single struggle for dominance in Europe isn’t new (not sure if Raymond Aron was the first to put it forward, but he certainly developed it), and makes lots of sense. The Cold War, however, feels less like a continuation or iteration than a tritone substitution – some shared elements, different configuration and different effects. If you want to include the Balkan Wars, Iraq etc., not just as new manifestations of our leaders failure to rethink war but as phases in a single conflict, then the idea that it all starts in 1914 is, as P. O’Neill suggests, arguable; is this not rather the continuation, in different forms, of the war of Europe against the rest of the world, begun in the sixteenth century though intermittently interrupted by internal blood-letting over religion, continental hegemony or ideology?


Bruce Wilder 06.28.14 at 5:41 am

Peoples and politicians go toward war as policy like moths to a flame, heedless of centuries of experience, which ought to indicate how risky and destructive war is, of the common ends of men, all of which are better satisfied in peace.

If war can ever be said to accomplish anything worthwhile, it is often to be found in the exhaustion that finally leads people to devise other means and methods, however reluctantly, and to dissolve the accumulated claims of a cretinous patrimonial leadership.

One would think humans could develop some, better sense of justice or practical accommodation.


Bruce Wilder 06.28.14 at 6:00 am

The First World War was the graveyard of Empire and the feudal aristocracies that still ruled them. It was the apparent inability to think up any other workable mode of government and politics that left the world staggering through the interwar period, economic devastation stalking the survivors. Piketty tells us that the period, 1910-1980 was anomalous, and we will soon enough be back in a neo-feudal order wrought by a patrimonial capitalism, just in time for the collapse of civilization in environmental catastrophe and resource limits. Oh joy! History continues.


acv 06.28.14 at 6:21 am

Would German hegemony over the European continent have been a bad thing?

If so, how else to forestall it but a Franco-Russian alliance?

Oh, good God.

Look, the German Empire had serious problems, and was pretty authoritarian, but it was not Nazi Germany. So, no “German hegemony” over Europe would not have been a good thing, but the the idea that a World War which killed millions of people and devastated Europe was worth it to prevent that is asinine. Let alone the idea that allying with the Tsarist Russians, (who were actually worse than the German Empire), was a good thing.

And I am well aware that some people in this thread will accuse Quiggin of excusing the Central Powers, particularly Germany. Wether that is true or not, It is a pretty damn ironic accusation considering that those same people almost never criticize anything Britain and France did.


David 06.28.14 at 6:32 am

Ever try prozac, Bruce?


godoggo 06.28.14 at 6:45 am

Catchy title.


godoggo 06.28.14 at 6:49 am

The World Is Flat!


bad Jim 06.28.14 at 7:04 am

I’m inclined to agree that the twentieth century wars were the continuation of a long tradition going back at least as far as the beginning of recorded history. The only WWI history I’ve read was Tuchman’s, which suggested it was motivated by the success of the Franco-Prussian War, and that French military doctrine was heavily influenced by Napoleon, who arguably sought to emulate Alexander…

War seems to be the default setting. How else to account for the invasion of Iraq? The problem was not just the Bush Administration, but the UK and Australia, plus all the little countries that went along. If sanity is the unusual case, we ought to study Canada, since they gave up the game a lifetime ago.


roy belmont 06.28.14 at 7:06 am

Vera Mary Brittain Testament of Youth


bob mcmanus 06.28.14 at 8:22 am

I started the thread with an apotheosis of Gavrilo Princep, the individual who single-handedly created all the history of the hundred years following him.

Not. Nor ten, nor a hundred, nor ten thousand men create history.

Nor wars really, which are not direct objects of study for me. I consider wars to be effects, consequences, opportunities for, well capital and other forces to restructure themselves and reform equilibriums after long periods of accumulating stress and imbalances caused by technological, social, demographic and resources shocks and adjustments.

It makes much more sense for me to say that Quaddafi and Assad and Mubarek ran into trouble because of the evolution of neo-liberal and late capitalist modes of production than to say Bush & Cheney got a whim and changed everything, I mean everything.

And so, looking back 100 years, I would try to overcome my Eurocentrism and look at China, India, Thailand, South America, Africa; and read my Hodgson and Hilferding and Lenin and even Spengler and try to see the Somme and Gallipolli as consequences of the 2nd industrial revolution and failure of the imperialist model of surplus extraction.

We create our wars and weapons of mass destruction in our offices and factories and living rooms, and we do it every day not once a century.


Peter T 06.28.14 at 8:23 am

Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars: 24 years, devastated cities from Cadiz to Moscow, killed an estimated 2.5 per cent of Europe’s population. World War 1: lasted 5 years, killed an estimated 2.5 per cent of Europe’s population. Conservatives see the first as a great tragedy, and mourn the violent destruction of the old regime. Both liberals and conservatives see the second as a great tragedy, one mourning the old regime and the other the death of classical liberalism.

That both were great tragedies is unarguable. But once we are done weeping, there’s no shame in trying to understand why they happened. Here the post is more than a little short. There’s plenty of blame to go round, but “leaders made bad decisions” does not really hack it. Yes they did, but they were also part of a set of systems which, in both cases, were manifestly failing to address the urgent issues of the time and which yet blocked peaceful change. The recipe for peaceful revolution continues to elude us.


bob mcmanus 06.28.14 at 8:43 am

Crashes, ala Minsky, are caused by the inadequate management of booms, for instance concentrations and failures to widely redistribute profits.

Wars are cause by a mismanagement of peace, likely too much pride, national exceptionalisms, an arrogance that geopolitical disequlibriums can be adjusted by hegemons or regional powers or that peaces are opportunities for advantageous gains.
I don’t have those answers.

A question I have is whether the rising hyperpower (s) was the base cause for paranoia and insecurity in failing empires and slower developing areas.


bad Jim 06.28.14 at 9:05 am

We definitely need a little Smedley Butler here:

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

For the U.S., at least, war’s just too easy, a loaded gun quick to hand. Our armed forces could, theoretically, defeat all the rest of the world, without resorting to nuclear weapons. It reminds me of a Far Side cartoon, one bear asking another “Look at these teeth. Look at these claws. Are we really meant to eat nuts and berries?” (or words to that effect.)

Under the assumption that we can’t be wrong, we’re not crazy to have such overwhelming might, therefore it’s entirely reasonable to deploy it at every opportunity, and consequently dereliction of duty for the commander-in-chief not to do so.


gianni 06.28.14 at 9:06 am

I just want to recommend to those here interested in the causes of WWI the work of AJ Mayer, who locates much of the drive to war in the internal tensions of the imperial powers at the time. The decline of the local aristocracies/junker-esque classes, and the rise of (militant) labor movements, made war an appealing outcome for certain empowered groups who stood to benefit from the local political effects of the drive to war. In this sense, Mayer makes the case that it was very much a proto-modern phenomenon, the outcome of domestic conflicts specific to that tumultuous period. Short summary is here: and a longer review at Jstor for those interested


Peter Erwin 06.28.14 at 11:15 am

Also recommended for those interested in the causes of WWI is Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, which does superb job of going into the backgrounds and activities of the various governments and leaders in the years leading up to 1914, and the way previous crises had, temporarily at least, shifted things in certain directions and encouraged leaders to act and react in certain ways.

I’ll admit to being somewhat startled to learn how eager some French generals and politicians were for a war, especially one starting in the Balkans; or how Russia’s growing economy (and Western governments’ overestimation thereof) affected things; or the fact that World War I almost started in late 1912 or 1913, instead of when it actually did.


Main Street Muse 06.28.14 at 11:47 am

Agree with Bad Jim @ 28 that WWI was a continuation of centuries of European conflict and war. It was the thing that brought down the established world order – the divine right of kings.

The wars of this century are not a continuation of WWI but violent adjustments to the new map and to the new ruling order; Soviets a different species than tsars, etc. It also ushered in the emerging power of that strange nation in the North American continent, shifting power from Europe to America.

But yes, the war to end all wars sadly failed in that regard. And nukes have not hastened the peace in any way. My father was bitter that the nuclear standoff due to MAD did not prevent him from serving on the front lines of Korea. War is a habit we cannot kick, it seems. Now we’ve got Dick Cheney urging us to head right back into Iraq.


Peter Erwin 06.28.14 at 11:51 am

Lee A. Arnold @ 13
The Great War was the first OIL war

No, it wasn’t. Concerns about possible access to oil were way, way down on the list of contributing factors.
(The German navy hadn’t switched to oil; they’d only just started experimenting with mixed oil/coal fueling when the war broke out. Also, although people speculated about the possibility, no oil was actually found in Iraq prior to the 1920s. The sources for British oil used in World War I were primarily Persia and Burma.)

shah8 @ 3
there is a pretty clear and comprehensive cause-effect relationship between honoring such alliances and lots and lots of Russians dead.

As it happens, it was really the French who were honoring their alliance, since the precipitating step was Russia mobilizing against Austria-Hungary (and Germany, since Germany was almost guaranteed to honor its alliance with A-H, and the Russians didn’t really have a plan for mobilizing against just A-H anyway). Once Germany followed by mobilizing against Russia, it was up to France whether or not to fulfill its treaty obligations to Russia (which the French government had already assured Russia they would do).

The Russian mobilization against A-H (and Russian behind-the-scenes encouragement of the Serbian government, which help the latter decide to reject A-H’s ultimatum) was not the result of a formal alliance or treaty, but a mixture of sentimental pan-Slavism and ongoing policy (Russia having decided that Serbia was a more reliable proxy in the Balkans than Bulgaria).


Matt McKeon 06.28.14 at 12:39 pm

What would be a good one volume history of the causes of the war. Posters have mentioned “The Sleepwalkers” Any other suggestions? Thanks.


David 06.28.14 at 12:59 pm

(Not the David above!)
You can look at the last hundred years as a series of failed attempts to deal with the underlying tensions present in 1914. Schematically, these were all related to competition: at the domestic level competition between established monarchies and oligarchies and new democratic forces; internationally, between multinational empires and the growing trend towards nation-states and globally between imperial powers for colonies. WW I was not guaranteed to break out when and how and where it did, so to some extent arguing about exactly who was responsible for what, although interesting, is not fundamental.
More fundamental was the decision, after 1919, to return to competition as a means of settling these underlying tensions, with the recognition that, in a competition, somebody always loses, and generally feels bad about it. Communism, which disowned nationalism and preached international solidarity, was treated as the enemy.
For a while after 1945, it looked as though things might have improved. Factors ranging from the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Soviet Union, to the creation of the UN and the Common Market to the (relatively) peaceful process of decolonialisation, to the adoption of Keynesian economics and managed international trade, suggested that competition was on the way out. But competition, of course, always benefits those who think they can win. And the counter-attack from the 1980s saw the return of nationalism, of neoliberal economics, deregulation and military adventurism. Cooperative ideologies, essentially on the Left, have been shoved mercilessly aside, and Socialist parties themselves have formally embraced competition (in the form of “competitiveness” to replace their old ideology of solidarity.
Perhaps all we learn from history is that some lessons are too difficult to learn.


Peter T 06.28.14 at 1:04 pm

Matt McKeon

Rather than any single work on the causes – most of which either push one line or just list a lot of different issues, better to look at work on the underlying dynamics. Arno Meyer’s The Persistence of the Old Regime is one such (as Gianni notes @34). VR Berghahn is very good on the pathologies of the German political process (eerily reminiscent of the current US). Sandra Halperin outlines the strength of class tensions and the ways they worked through the system. Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England is a classic bit still worth reading – highlights the depth of dissatisfaction with the liberal order.


Peter T 06.28.14 at 1:10 pm

and additional to Peter Erwin’s comment above: Germany was not just honour-bound to support A-H; all the moves Vienna made were cleared with Berlin beforehand. France did not get a choice: it got a preemptive German demand that it remain neutral and hand over key border fortresses as a surety. Serbia did not reject the Austrian ultimatum. It accepted it with minor reservations. Vienna and Berlin were determined on war, so made the reservations the excuse.


Lee A. Arnold 06.28.14 at 1:35 pm

Peter Erwin #37: “No it wasn’t… The German navy hadn’t switched to oil; they’d only just started experimenting with mixed oil/coal fueling when the war broke out. Also, although people speculated about the possibility, no oil was actually found in Iraq prior to the 1920s. ”

I’m sure you are correct and I did not mean to imply that it was a primary objective. Most people hadn’t even thought about oil yet, and today it is not taught as a oil war. But ten years before, the British Admiralty had determined that oil would take the place of coal, and this apparently set them (including it would seem Churchill) to thinking of where it might be found. (The D’Arcy affair was in 1904, and the Admiralty knew that D’Arcy was also looking at Mesopotamia.) By the time the war broke out, the British were unsure of what the Germans were doing, and were uneasy and fearful about German engineering prowess.

From a history website of the British Army:

“5 November 1914 — The orders given to Brig-General W. S. Delamain – commanding Indian Expeditionary Force ‘D’ – were to protect the oil refineries, tanks and pipeline at Abadan [in Persia, right at the head of the Gulf] and cover the landing of reinforcements if these should be required. Only if hostilities with Turkey were to become fact should he try to occupy Basra too, and to do this the rest of the 6th (Poona) Division of the Indian Army would arrive. News came through that Turkey had attacked Russia on the Black Sea coast, and war was declared on this day.”


the anon 06.28.14 at 1:55 pm

Yes, Quiggin, WWI was the singular cause for all that went wrong in the twentieth century! But for this singular calamity, the world would have continued to enjoy the wonderful and idyllic accoutrements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century which most certainly did not include the concentration of civilians, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and all manner of racial bio-politics and state violence. These terrible things cannot possibly have predated the war! Not when Britain ruled supreme and everything was great! Not before those swarthy East Europeans deigned to start the awful war that would undermine our glorious liberal empire. O Britannia!

Yes, let’s ignore a century of historical research in favor of an interpretation first put out at the end of the First World War by Britain’s liberal imperialists.

But those interested in learning about Germany’s policies before and during the war would do well to consult works like Isabel Hull’s ‘Scraps of Paper’


Anarcissie 06.28.14 at 2:03 pm

It’s not just Europe, and it’s not just the last 100 years. The remarkable thing would be to find people, other than small, peculiar ethnic and religious groups, who didn’t have wars and construct oppressive states, a related practice. It would be especially interesting if you could extract a sort of germ of warlessness that normal human communities could be infected with.


Matt McKeon 06.28.14 at 2:14 pm

Thank you, Peter T


Lee A. Arnold 06.28.14 at 2:38 pm

John Quiggin: “More fundamentally, despite 100 years of brutal and bloody evidence to the contrary, the idea that war and revolution are effective ways to obtain political ends, rather than catastrophic last resorts, remains dominant on both the right and the left.”

Is this true? It seems to me that over the last 100 years, the majority opinion of war has moved from being instrumental to being a useless calamity. It is the implementation of the supposed counteractant which has been the hangup. Because the argument has been that democracy is the way out. But democracy is too easily managed by greedy malefactors too, such as some private corporate interests, and some of these have led to more war. The Enlightenment project warned that aristocracy and government are the great dangers, but we started to expand that list, by 50 or so years ago, to include what were then called “multinational corporations.” We have learned that there is no essential difference between what bad government can do, and what bad corporate actors can do, not least in regard to destroying democratic process and to polluting the environment. But the problem with leveling the corporations is that it is difficult to preserve individual initiative in that process, because some individual ideas require the command of resources, and a “people-based” process to award that command requires, in turn, either 1. private finance, or 2. public voting. So now, with the growing complexity of the world, we are given a huge “information problem” IN ADDITION TO the prior emotional, egotistical, greedy criminal problem, and we cannot solve either one. Are global doses of smart pills and entheogens going to help us? At this point, we appear to have few other options. At one time I had hoped that an accelerative language might help, but the intellectual lethargy out there is daunting.


The Tweets of the Gods 06.28.14 at 3:23 pm

> More fundamentally, despite 100 years of brutal and bloody evidence to the
> contrary, the idea that war and revolution are effective ways to obtain political
> ends, rather than catastrophic last resorts, remains dominant on both the right and
> the left.
The Iraq war was simply a mistake. Made by a moron, but a mistake nevertheless.

To be fair, war and revolution are the slogans chiefly of the Islamists these days.


J Thomas 06.28.14 at 3:25 pm

Sometimes when I had a programming problem that seemed like a mountain of glue, where the specs were very complicated and appeared to contain contradictions so that any solution which met part had to fail at other parts, and there was an existing small mountain of code that probably had important bugs but the specs made it hard to tell….

Sometimes it seemed like the best thing was to just throw away the whole mess and start over.

Maybe that happens with whole international communities too.

When you cut the Gordian knot you get a bunch of short scraps of rope that aren’t nearly as valuable as one long piece, but you can think about them in simpler ways.


J Thomas 06.28.14 at 3:43 pm


So now, with the growing complexity of the world, we are given a huge “information problem” IN ADDITION TO the prior emotional, egotistical, greedy criminal problem, and we cannot solve either one. Are global doses of smart pills and entheogens going to help us? At this point, we appear to have few other options. At one time I had hoped that an accelerative language might help, but the intellectual lethargy out there is daunting.

I’d kind of like to see a consortium of academics arrange a series of war games. Get the best evidence available about what each side can and will do. See what happens then. To the extent that the nations involved believe in the outcomes, it will affect their strategies.

This approach will tend to fail when one nation believes it has secret abilities that will provide a quick cheap victory, that only work while the abilities stay secret. Surprise attacks, secret weapons, strategies which depend on the enemy failing to understand the danger and so acting stupidly. They will not reveal their secrets because they want the methods to work, they will not believe the simulation results, and others will not factor the secrets into their calculations. So they are likely to get into a war that nobody would choose if they knew the facts, and the secrets may or may not provide a quick victory (usually not, given past experience).

But maybe a careful analysis of likely outcomes, performed by a large collection of experts, might have some good effect.

It isn’t that uncommon that nations starting wars give their opponents a stark choice — fight or unconditional surrender, with no guarantee at all that unconditional surrender will have a better result than fighting until there’s nothing to fight with. If the likely costs to the plausible victor are large enough, maybe they would see an incentive to actually negotiate.

Of course, if the simulations appear to be bogus people will not believe them as much.


geo 06.28.14 at 3:56 pm

Eloquent post, JQ, but I still think, as in your posts about the irrationality of the second Iraq war, you go a bit astray by not disaggregating. “Political ends” — whose ends? If the goal was to discourage “the rot from spreading” and prevent “the threat of a good example” — ie, independent national development, not integrated with (ie, controlled by) American financial and military structures — then the overthrow of Mossadegh and Arbenz, the harassment of Cuba, the Contra war, and even the Vietnam war look like (sometimes costly) successes. They kept most of the world safe for liberal (or illiberal) capitalism until its primary antagonist disappeared and all barriers to global economic integration fell.

Much of “the world” has already learned this but is helpless, in a global plutocracy, to do anything about it. As for the plutocrats, they already know that they sometimes have to spend a great deal of other people’s blood and their own (as well as other people’s) money to achieve essential strategic ends. They have nothing to learn.

I don’t mean to sound impatient — it’s a generous illusion, after all — but I do wish you’d stop assuming that we’re all in this together.


William Berry 06.28.14 at 3:57 pm

the anon @43 [with apologies to J.Q. if I appear to presume to speak for him]:

Whether or not you have read J.Q. on war before, your comment is astonishingly ignorant.

Nowhere have I ever known Quiggin to put on rose-colored glasses concerning any aspect of the human condition. On the contrary, the man is often generally downbeat to the point of lugubriousness on the prospects for human civilization.

Insofar as the prevailing conditions of the late C19 are concerned: well, the man knows history, and is an ECONOMIST for Christ’s sake.

Quiggin may or not be a pacifist— that depends on one’s definition of pacifist— but I am fairly certain his definition of “just war” would be “highly qualified”; and in both senses of that phrase.

One-hundred years of virtually continuous WAR, beginning in 1914, is the subject of the OP.


Anarcissie 06.28.14 at 3:58 pm

Lee A. Arnold 06.28.14 at 2:38 pm
‘… But the problem with leveling the corporations is that it is difficult to preserve individual initiative in that process, because some individual ideas require the command of resources, and a “people-based” process to award that command requires, in turn, either 1. private finance, or 2. public voting. So now, with the growing complexity of the world, we are given a huge “information problem….’

Progress, so-called, would be slower in a social order of democratic communism than with ‘individual initiative’ so-called, but it would not be non-existent if that was what people really wanted. Also considerably less cruel and destructive, again, if that was what people wanted. It’s hard to say what people want, because their desires are affected by their culture, and their culture is in part the outcome of several thousand years of war, slavery, oppression, domination, and exploitation, which, while widely deprecated as abstractions, are still accepted, indeed, fetishized and heroized in the individuals who practice them.

For instance, our current president said he was not against wars but only ‘stupid wars’.


Lee A. Arnold 06.28.14 at 4:55 pm

Anarcissie #51: “Progress, so-called, would be slower in a social order of democratic communism than with ‘individual initiative’ so-called, but it would not be non-existent if that was what people really wanted.”

In the “social order of democratic communism”, you still have the question of HOW it is agreed-upon what it is that people want, and that is the “information problem”.


Lee A. Arnold 06.28.14 at 5:01 pm

I just finished this one a few days ago, toward agreement of how rationality works:


Lee A. Arnold 06.28.14 at 5:03 pm

Sorry, I keep forgetting this inserts the movie, and anyway it’s the wrong one because YouTube URLs are not vey handy. Here it the right one (I think):


The Temporary Name 06.28.14 at 5:04 pm

It helps American warmongers quite a bit that their meddling doesn’t often result in onshore catastrophe (9-11 being an enormous psychic blow). I wonder if American string-pullers would be more or less warlike if their castles were in the middle of Europe, subject to the enmities they encourage.

If sanity is the unusual case, we ought to study Canada, since they gave up the game a lifetime ago.

Canada prior to Harper. He’s very much interested in sabre-rattling.


Z 06.28.14 at 5:17 pm

Meanwhile, the British and French imperial War plans, embodied in the (secret) Sykes-Picot treaty

Not to mention the elephant in the room: the fact that Great Britain and France had already colonized everything there was to rule over in the world, and Germany was feeling massively disadvantaged because of that. So the imperial behaviors of France and Great Britain played a very significant role in the rise of the imperial behavior of Germany.


William Berry 06.28.14 at 5:54 pm

The wargamers and warboys are put in force.

So much for the thread.

[Will iron shorts and polo and go downtown to browse the LP stacks in the antique stores.]


William Berry 06.28.14 at 5:55 pm

‘”out”, obviously.


john in california 06.28.14 at 6:30 pm

The causes and consequences of WWI may be myriad and coincidental or rooted in the nature of human organization and the power that flows from it. Probably both. But it is hard to see , at least since the fall of the Soviet union ,anywhere the conclusion of this sentence is true.

“More fundamentally, despite 100 years of brutal and bloody evidence to the contrary, the idea that war and revolution are effective ways to obtain political ends, rather than catastrophic last resorts, remains dominant on both the right and the left.”

Rather, the revolution and war parties that are generally marshaling against each other are the economic right against the religious right. Whatever left is left is pipsqueaking “can’t we all get along?” between them.


LFC 06.28.14 at 8:00 pm

On a fairly quick look through the thread, no one here seems to be aware that the severity and amount of armed conflict in the world was on a downward trend until the (tragic and horrible) Syrian civil war produced an uptick in casualty (battle-death) figures. The Iraq invasion was anomalous, I think. The real problem today is civil wars, and other sorts of wars that are not ‘traditional’ (e.g., Israel vs Hezbollah in Lebanon). Interstate wars — country A fights country B — are on the way out. There hasn’t been a prolonged interstate war since the Iran-Iraq war ended in ’88. (The Iraq invasion of ’03 started as an interstate war but quickly devolved into a civil war plus insurgency.) And there hasn’t been a great-power war (war directly between 2 or more great powers) since 1945 (or 1953, depending on one’s definitions).


roy belmont 06.28.14 at 8:03 pm

Vera Brittain didn’t offer much in the way of explanation for the causes of WW1 in her book, just the lived experience of it.
She lost her brother, her fiance, and her best friend to the nightmare, while at the same time nursing the broken, the gassed, and the dying in field hospitals and in London.

The denigration of emotion as the prime motive for human action and decision-making means her experience, while deeply moving to any still-functioning human heart, is ancillary, collateral. Secondary at best, ultimately trivial.
That seems more and more to be deceptive, a lie, a denial of the centrality of the heart in common human affairs.

Some among us seem quite capable of the most cold-hearted rationalism in the face of inhuman horror. Possibly this is because they lack that emotional center. There are diagnoses of this condition, though they seem still incomplete.

Of course there’s the other interpretation:
That people can behave heartlessly when it’s not their hearts and lives that are being broken.
Thus, majority disapproval in the US for the return to Iraq of ground combat troops, concurrent with majority approval for bombing the shit out of what’s left of that wrecked place. Drones will keep the blood from our hands.

It isn’t cognitively dissonant if you accept selective heartlessness as a character trait in most humans. I don’t, but many obviously do.
That tension, between caring about the suffering of anyone versus only caring about you and yours, operates in a culture that has for centuries insisted that compassion be reduced to the level of a consumer choice, a naive luxury for people whose lives are otherwise privileged and free of the amoral urgencies of immediate survival.

No accident that Brittain was close enough to the front lines to hear and see the ballistic display from her tent in a field hospital, and yet at the same time she was not able to vote.
Because women, they’re so damned emotional, they can’t be trusted to make sound decisions about things like war and the killing of thousands of young men and the devastation of a living landscape.
That’s the pathology underlying a lot of the noise and confusion, and it has a very long history.


LFC 06.28.14 at 8:04 pm

p.s. The Balkan wars of the 1990s prob. better classified as civil wars, though I admit it’s a murky case and had interstate elements.


LFC 06.28.14 at 8:08 pm

RB @61
I’ve read (parts of) Brittain, Testament of Youth. Moving and worth reading. She was later a critic/opponent of the British bombing of German cities in WW2. (Her daughter is Shirley Williams, the well-known politician.)


LFC 06.28.14 at 8:09 pm

sorry italics shd end with ‘Youth’.


David 06.28.14 at 9:17 pm

“Interstate wars — country A fights country B — are on the way out.”

I see this asserted constantly. I think it has more to do with the overwhelming superiority of the American military at the moment than any long term change in warfare itself.


Chris Warren 06.28.14 at 9:41 pm

Interesting thread chattering.

“Z” makes the most sense if a bit overstated.

In general, wars break out only when underlying tensions have reach breaking points.

However Georgian and Victorian England was built on perpetual global wars, theatre by theatre, for over 200 years.

There was no stopping of killing after 1945. There was a relapse simply because one side was entirely vanquished but America continued killing, either directly or through proxies, right through to the invasion of Iraq.


Donald Johnson 06.28.14 at 9:54 pm

“That people can behave heartlessly when it’s not their hearts and lives that are being broken.
Thus, majority disapproval in the US for the return to Iraq of ground combat troops, concurrent with majority approval for bombing the shit out of what’s left of that wrecked place.”

I think that’s a very important point. In almost all cases, when some mainstream pundit talks about why the Vietnam or Iraq Wars were bad ideas, they talk about the cost to America in both casualties and monetary expense, but almost never about Vietnamese or Iraqi dead. (One exception–Nicholas Kristof in the NYT last week actually mentioned the study published last year in PLOS, where the number of Iraqi dead was estimated at 500,000 due to the war from 2003-2011).

It’s a very creepy feature of mainstream discourse.


Ze Kraggash 06.28.14 at 9:54 pm

“The real problem today is civil wars, and other sorts of wars that are not ‘traditional’”

Same shit, different methods. Modern means of mass communications and proliferation of political rights made it easy to split the enemy country, make it fight itself, and destroy it this way. If this method of conducting warfare could be prevented somehow, then perhaps we’d see tanks rolling across borders again.


Donald Johnson 06.28.14 at 9:55 pm

Here’s the PLOS study on Iraqi mortality due to the war, for anyone interested–



MPAVictoria 06.28.14 at 10:15 pm

What a godawful mess….

I hope to god we learned something from it.

/we probably didn’t…


Davud 06.28.14 at 10:36 pm

Well, we never learn anything from wars because the people who benefit from them are not the people who pay the cost of the war itself.


Thornton Hall 06.28.14 at 11:01 pm

Isn’t at least one common theory that the primary cause was the uneven advance of the Industrial Revolution? Late developer Germany hoping to catch up with colonial powers that had industrialized first?


Sasha Clarkson 06.28.14 at 11:16 pm

An interesting article John Q, and much food for thought.

However, regarding this: “most British and French apologists ignore or explain away the alliance with the most oppressive European empire of the day, but I imagine there are now Putinist historians hard at work producing defences of Tsarist war policy”

Firstly, I think it pointless to attempt to judge the foreign policies and alliances of the day anachronistically, by moral standards “we” sometimes pretend to have today. In those days Russian domestic policy really was considered to be none of “our” business: what mattered was the geopolitics; in any case, Russia had been evolving rapidly since the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, and its future direction was highly uncertain.

Secondly, I suspect that Putin shares the attitude of Clavell’s Toranaga: “Stupid to fail. Unforgivable.” , so I doubt that Putinist historians are likely to defend Tsarist war policy because, ultimately, it was a total failure.

Before conscription, recruitment propaganda in the UK didn’t focus on justice: it focussed on appealing to loyalty to “King and Country” and “The Honour and Glory of the British Empire”: somewhat ironic given how closely the British and German royal houses were related.

When war broke out, pacifist organisations like the ILP were marginalised by the patriotic propaganda onslaught. However, the terrible carnage of the war, and the perceived incompetence of the high command, undoubtedly contributed to the further weakening of traditional loyalties to the ruling classes.


LFC 06.28.14 at 11:37 pm

@Chris Warren
There was no stopping of killing after 1945. There was a relapse simply because one side was entirely vanquished but America continued killing, either directly or through proxies, right through to the invasion of Iraq.

Of course the Soviets and their proxies (and the Chinese and their proxies) did no killing during the Cold War. Only the US and its proxies.


William Berry 06.28.14 at 11:55 pm

Thornton Hall @71:

Rather backwards, actually.

The first, British, phase of the IR was primarily textiles production, first utilizing water-power, followed by steampower, and evolving into iron and steel production and the widespread use of railroads in England and the U.S.

The second, German-American phase took place in the second half of the C19 (running to the electronics revolution of the mid-C20), and was based on steel, petro-chemistry, and electricity.

It was the British playing catch up on that one.


The Temporary Name 06.28.14 at 11:59 pm

Trivia I hope:

This Russian university has gone back to its roots and, with the education ministry’s permission and with an award from the agriculture ministry, renamed itself after the Emperor Peter I.


Matt 06.29.14 at 12:28 am

“Interstate wars — country A fights country B — are on the way out.”

I see this asserted constantly. I think it has more to do with the overwhelming superiority of the American military at the moment than any long term change in warfare itself.

I think that inter-state war between even moderately-developed neighboring states is going to more closely resemble nuclear war: a spasm of mutual violence that ruins decades of development in a short time, rather than a protracted affair like WW I, WW II, or the Iran-Iraq war. The reason is that modern bombs and missiles hit their targets much more often. In 1991 the American weapons used against Iraq might have appeared a little magical — lasers! silicon! bombs carrying their own computers! — but today a $40 cellular phone has more magic. The bombs hit their targets on the first try, and war looks more like a slaughter or (at best) suicide pact than an uncertain contest where a victor can emerge.

World War I saw hundreds of tonnes of mud ‘killed’ by artillery for every human casualty. World War II’s air power took a wave or two of bombers to destroy a single factory. Both wars lasted years. But the 1991 air war against Iraq managed to destroy or disable 90% of major infrastructure points in a month, with less than 85,000 tonnes of ordnance.

Precision guided munitions were not created to spare civilians, in case anyone was operating under that delusion. They were created to destroy targets more effectively. If those targets are electrical switchyards and water treatment plants, you can kill civilians more efficiently than ever.

The United States or other ‘advanced’ countries which pioneered the development of these munitions have no special defense against them save the threat of vengeance. New York would be about as vulnerable as Baghdad to a salvo of cruise missiles, if anyone dared to send them the other way. And the capabilities to destroy keep spreading and improving. It takes an ever-smaller fraction of a nation’s industry and workers to destroy an equivalent quantity of workers and productive capital.

The ‘rational’ incentives toward war keep declining between countries that could threaten each other with substantial, rapid destruction, and the number of hostile pairings in that category keeps increasing. But this may be a brittle peace, like the US-USSR nuclear standoff. One month of deviation from rationality could reverse the declining inter-state war mortality rate for decades. It need not even start deliberately — an accident could escalate to mutual slaughter, as it nearly did with nuclear weapons a number of times.


Chris Warren 06.29.14 at 1:16 am

LFC @73


Well said.


Anderson 06.29.14 at 1:21 am

72: I have no idea what JQ’s moral criteria for an acceptable alliance partner are. France allied with Russia out of sheer self-defense. Britain IIRC had no true alliance w Russia (else the UK would have gone to war when Germany declared war on Russia).

I would think that engagement with the western powers was likely to help improve Russia politically, had the war not intervened. There had been one revolution already. Hard to hope for much from a fool like Nicholas II, but diplomatic & economic shunning cd hardly help.


Anarcissie 06.29.14 at 2:36 am

Lee A. Arnold 06.28.14 at 4:55 pm:
‘Anarcissie #51: “Progress, so-called, would be slower in a social order of democratic communism than with ‘individual initiative’ so-called, but it would not be non-existent if that was what people really wanted.”

In the “social order of democratic communism”, you still have the question of HOW it is agreed-upon what it is that people want, and that is the “information problem”.

I was thinking that you were talking about asking everyone affected by a project about it and figuring out some way of aggregating and combining the results in an egalitarian manner befitting a communist social order, and actually doing it, which indeed could take a long time but probably isn’t an insoluble problem if approximate solutions are permitted. But you might be talking about a different question-how, like the processing of power conflicts. (Knowledge is power, etc.)


Thornton Hall 06.29.14 at 3:50 am

@William Berry: From a history of technology point that may be true, but from the competition of world powers point of view, the argument is (I believe) about pride and prosperity. So Germany didn’t have colonies and they were still very agrarian and poor on a per capita basis compared to the UK. It’s argued that military aggression offered a short cut over the long slog of educating the population and moving them to the cities. I don’t know if I by the theory, but it’s part of the conventional wisdom that needs to be addressed if your theory of history focuses instead on the craven dumbness of people in power.


Lee A. Arnold 06.29.14 at 3:53 am

I was thinking more of technological innovations.


Adrian Kelleher 06.29.14 at 4:37 am


Uh… Crimea?


roy belmont 06.29.14 at 6:07 am

NYTimes: Cost of Iraq war ($1.2 trillion)

Pretty sure they mean the one they already had, which would be sort of the second one, if the upcoming projectile fiesta is number 3, or maybe it’s 2.5.
I get a little vague on big money after a few hundred million. That sure seems like a lot of cash for what many otherwise reasonably sane and intelligent people see as a mistake.

Something else that keeps bothering me is the way journalists talk about things “costing” X amount of dollars. As though the money got incinerated, or thrown into outer space. Spent. Gone.
Maybe there’s a key clue to why this shit is happening, again, why it happens at all, in where that money went.
Who got paid?
Can’t be the soldiers fighting for minimal healthcare from the VA.
Can’t be the families of the fallen.
And it sure didn’t trickle down to the Iraqis themselves.
Cui bono, dudes.


Meredith 06.29.14 at 6:29 am

Many ways to site oneself, but I’ll choose somewhere between Neville Morley@21 and Anarcissie@44. I came across this today (out of 1765 Charlestown, MA, re the Stamp Act — designed to pay for the king’s wars, fought to the benefit of the petitioners here, whether the king cared about them or not — no, he didn’t care about them…):

“This being a time when several acts of parliament have a direct tendency to distress the trade and commerce of this province, and in our opinion to deprive us of our rights and privileges granted by royal charter, and which we are entitled to, as free-born subjects of Great Britain. And in particular the Stamp Act which has thrown the province and the whole continent into confusion, and which as we apprehend, will lay not only an unconstitutional but an insupportable tax on the colonies, and will strip us of our most valuable liberties, as it admits of our properties being tried by a court of Admiralty, without a jury, even in such controversies that arise from internal concerns.
” Wherefore we think it our duty in this critical conjuncture of our public affairs to direct you as representative, to be so far from countenancing or assisting in the execution of the aforesaid act, that you endeavor that such remonstrances may be made to the King and Parliament as may be likely to procure the disannulling thereof as soon as possible; and that you be assisting in every proper step that may be taken for the removal of the heavy burthens on our trade.
” And as the province is greatly impoverished by the war and decay of trade, we desire you to take special care that the public moneys be used with the utmost frugality, and that no money be drawn out of the treasury and applied to such uses as may tend rather to destroy the liberties of the people, than to promote their interest.
” As to any other matters, though of less consequence, tbat may come before the House, we doubt not but you will conduct yourself in such a manner that the best interest of the province in general, and the town you represent, in particular, may be promoted.”

Ah,” to distress the trade and commerce…. ” Yet, trade and commerce matter(ed)! And a few enduringly good things came out of that Charlestown muddle.

We haven’t solved the enigma of those India trading companies. Look to the 17th century, I’m suggesting, not the early 20th. (And analogies probably abound in China or wherever — that’s where the Onion nails it.)


bad Jim 06.29.14 at 6:56 am

Okay, bullshit. Back in 1914 we didn’t have the World Cup. Now we do. It’s such a simple tweak, it’s astounding that we didn’t think of it thousands of years ago, but back then no one knew that countries like Uruguay existed.


bad Jim 06.29.14 at 7:07 am

What brought that to mind was this bit from the War Nerd:

But on the night of June 12, we both woke up around three in the morning. It was the silence—total silence, for the first time. We whispered in bed about what could produce such an apocalyptic silence, and Katherine finally remembered that people at her job had mentioned they planned to watch the World Cup opener that night–a game between Brazil and Croatia.

The thesis is that Boko Haram and ISIS are hostile to sports because they’re competitors in the same business.


Peter Erwin 06.29.14 at 8:03 am

Thornton Hall @ 80:

So Germany didn’t have colonies and they were still very agrarian and poor on a per capita basis compared to the UK. It’s argued that military aggression offered a short cut over the long slog of educating the population and moving them to the cities.

Germany’s per-capita income had already surpassed France’s on the eve of the war, and it had a growth rate similar to or higher than the UK’s; see, e.g., the 1913 figures here. I don’t think they were doing too badly on the urbanization or education fronts, either, to put it mildly. (The modern research university is, after all, strongly based on the early 19th C German model, and German pre-eminence in engineering and science in the early 20th C kind of speaks for itself.)

The second part of your statement would suggest that the war was started by, say, Serbia and Russia, not Germany. Which I think is partly correct, but not for the reasons you suggest.


Sasha Clarkson 06.29.14 at 9:09 am

Thornton@80 “So Germany didn’t have colonies and they were still very agrarian and poor on a per capita basis compared to the UK”

Firstly, Germany as a united nation only came into existence after the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. Butt Soon after the Berlin conference in 1884-5 Germany acquired four strategically placed colonies in Africa. Admittedly, Kaiser Wilhelm II and his supporters wanted more, but, as a latecomer to imperialism, Germany had “done well” in a short time. Given that it was a latecomer, the only way “forward” then was at the expense of established empires.

Secondly, Germany was not poor, or “largely agrarian” in 1914. To quote from Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace (chapter 2)

“In 1870 Germany had a population of about 40,000,000. By 1892 this figure had risen to 50,000,000, and by June 30, 1914, to about 68,000,000. … This great increase was only rendered possible by a far-reaching transformation of the economic structure of the country. From being agricultural and mainly self-supporting, Germany transformed herself into a vast and complicated industrial machine …”


Sasha Clarkson 06.29.14 at 9:30 am

One should also remember that the foundation of the German Welfare State pre-dated that of Britain by more than a quarter of a century. Bismarck introduced social insurance for the German Empire in 1881, with the famous (in Germany) “Imperial Declaration”:

“Geben Sie dem Arbeiter das Recht auf Arbeit, solange er gesund ist, sichern Sie ihm Pflege, wenn er krank ist, sichern Sie ihm Versorgung, wenn er alt ist.”

This translates as “Give the worker the right to work while he is healthy, assure him nursing when he is sick, and care when he is old.”

This is something which Germans are very proud of to this day. I wonder what the modern US right would make of this rampant socialist? ;)


Anderson 06.29.14 at 1:11 pm

Are we now saying having colonies was an economic benefit? Because I had thought colonies were a net loss for imperialists, and that Germany lucked out by not diverting resources towards conventional imperialism.

(Of course Germany did pursue an imperialist policy; it’s just that its desired colonies were Poland and the Ukraine.)


LFC 06.29.14 at 2:45 pm

@A. Kelleher:
Uh… Crimea?

My comment @73 is sarcasm, so I don’t know what this question indicates exactly…


LFC 06.29.14 at 2:59 pm

@Anderson 90:
well, as you prob. know Wilhelmine Germany did have some colonies, e.g. SW Africa; quasi-genocidal war vs. the Herrero (see e.g. Isabel Hull, Absolute Destruction).


LFC 06.29.14 at 3:01 pm

Ok I see S. Clarkson @88 already mentioned Ger. colonies in Africa.


bob mcmanus 06.29.14 at 3:02 pm

“Interstate wars — country A fights country B — are on the way out.”

The Ages of mass mobilizations, from Bonapartism to Fordism, are over. No longer can million-person armies be inspired, recruited, or conscripted within “democracies.”

Of course this means that the other forms of mass mobilizations, organizations, and macro-regulation are over. Unions are over. Mass Media is over. National Political parties are over.

Liberalism is over.


J Thomas 06.29.14 at 3:54 pm

The Ages of mass mobilizations, from Bonapartism to Fordism, are over. No longer can million-person armies be inspired, recruited, or conscripted within “democracies.”

I don’t know whether this is true, but say it is. Does that mean that big armies can be raised only in more backward nations? Is there a benefit to them by doing that?

I looked at the countries that had the largest military per capita.
North Korea 30%.
Singapore, Cuba, South Korea, about 10%.
Israel, Armenia, Taiwan, a bit less than 10%.
Finland, Lebanon, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Vietnam, Eritrea, Mongolia, over 5%.

I’m not sure I can take these numbers completely seriously, but it looks like you’re at least partly right. There are some other factors involved too, like degree of threat or something like that. All of these with the possible exceptions of Israel and Cyprus have big unpleasant neighbors. And it could be argued that Cyprus has got Greece and Turkey, and some sort of argument could be made for Israel too.


LFC 06.29.14 at 4:59 pm

Back in February JQ touched off a long debate w his assertion that nat’l boundaries are becoming more stable over time, contained here:

I don’t want to rehash that debate. But it seems to me there is a tension betw the line he took there and his assertion in the OP here that nothing has been learned from or since WW1. It cd be argued that one of the reasons boundaries have become more stable is that wars over territory are less frequent, suggesting that states and leaders (if not certain people on right and left) have learned something. This is an argument made by certain writers on IR, not universally accepted of course. But the phenomenon of a relative “territorial peace” (Douglas Gibler’s phrase) seems real, even if the explanations for it are contested.

McManus is right that mass conscript armies are less prevalent now, but the explanation is not necessarily that “liberalism is over.” Indeed, just the contrary cd be argued: there are fewer militarized disputes over territory, which means less need for mass armies, which means less prevalence of centralized, authoritarian govts, which means liberal democracy (on one definition) is more prevalent. That’s basically Gibler’s argument. Not saying I accept it, but it’s not outlandish.


LFC 06.29.14 at 5:04 pm

p.s. Of course I’m well aware that the US, China, and Russia have v. sizable militaries, even if the US has not had a draft in quite a long time. The evidence is not all in one direction. (But then it rarely is.)


Omega Centauri 06.29.14 at 5:12 pm

The thing I find most amzing(depressing) about the events spanning June-28 to August 4th, was the almost complete lack of conflict “firebreaks”. Most of the participants had read Norman Angells “The Great Illusion”, which argued that all sides of any modern war would be huge losers. And the attitude of almost everyone was that a (near)global war over Serbia was unthinakably insane. Yet too many were infected with a peace through strength mentality, -the best may be prevent (or minimize the chances of) a big war was to back our side (ally) to the hilt. So the Germans backed the Austrians, the Russians, backed the Serbian’s, and the French the Russians -all in the name of heading off the catastrophe, where in fact those decisions made conflict localization impossible. {And mobilization (as a “needed” defensive measure,) forcing the start of general war -crazy!}

We’ve learned a little. We have fairly decent conflict firebreaks now: small (or proxie) wars, rarely precipitate large scale nations against nations conflicts, in which no participants see any alternatives other than to double-down. The rest of it however, there is little evidence we’ve learned anything else.


Vanya 06.29.14 at 6:24 pm

It is a little naive to call it a “hundred years war”. WWI didn’t emerge from a vacuum, as the Austrian historian Manfried Rauchensteiner likes to point out, there was almost no year in the 20th century before 1914 when there was truly peace in Europe. Arguably the Balkan war of 1904 was when the various European powers (especially Russia and Austria) started getting war fever and started actively looking for military opportunities to shore up their troubled empires. A decade and a half of skirmishing on the periphery of Europe and in the colonies both legitimized war as a tool of foreign policy, and created a rabid class of frustrated military officers in all the European powers who were constantly putting pressure on the politicians to let them “take the gloves off”.


godoggo 06.29.14 at 6:32 pm

I don’t think its naive exactly, so much as an exercise in the Tom Friedman catchphrase+gibberish school of essay writing, aimed at an audience of people who really like to talk about WWI.


Vanya 06.29.14 at 6:42 pm

And to John Quiggin, the Tsarist Empire was brutal, but to consider it exceptionally brutal compared to any of the other combatants is hard to justify, and very Eurocentric. The idea that the United Kingdom and France were “democracies” in 1914 holds only if you ignore the millions and millions of colonial subjects who had no voice at all. I would submit that none of the peoples under Tsarist rule were treated anywhere near as badly as Sub-saharan Africans were by the British, French and Germans. The Hungarian treatment of Slovaks and Croats was every bit as brutal and repressive as Russian treatment of Poles. The attitude of the US towards its black and native American populations was arguably more vicious, and lasted longer, than the pogroms or the ethnic cleansings in the Caucuses or Central Asia. Not to mention British behavior in India, etc. The Russian Empire was far more vicious towards its native educated populations than the other powers, leading naturally to Russian, Polish and Jewish emigres loudly attacking the crimes of the Tsar in European periodicals, and creating sympathy among European elites who didn’t want to think too much about the crimes their own leaders were commiting in the name of civilization. To be clear, I don’t want to defend Tsarist Russia, I want to focus more attention on the numerous crimes of the other powers.


stevenjohnson 06.29.14 at 7:34 pm

LFC@73: The Great War of the OP started without any Communists and it continues when conventional wisdom has pronounced Communism dead, which makes your concern to drag them in manifestly foolish. Further, war is commonly regarded as involving one nation’s troops into combat on another nation’s soil. The records of the wars of Soviets and Chinese and so-called proxies are pitiful;y blank compared to the bloody annals of the wars of the US, the UK, France et al. (Unless you want to count the conquest of the road to Berlin as a crime? But why, unless you secretly wished Hitler had won?)

Yet, manifestly foolish as it may be, yours is the same error the OP makes when revolution, like war, is decreed to be only acceptable as a last resort. Revolution is never acceptable to everyone, not even as a last resort. Also, historically nations that have had revolutions are the ones that are the engines of progress. Unless you’re a libertarian who lives in a delusional universe where markets are the essence of liberty, revolutions were and are the engines of progress, since the days the plebeians left Rome. (If not earlier.) Movement toward a goal is never progress if you don’t approve the goal. Therefore revolutions’ necessity is obscured by reactionary rhetoric by those who approve the ancien regime. I suppose what is important is that we find a way to feel superior to both sides?

As to the justification of war, most common folk have found the presence of armed men committing violence at behest of a foreign government sufficient. It is remarkable how few supposed threats ever take this form.


Bruce Wilder 06.29.14 at 7:52 pm

The alliance system, which had been evolving since the Congress of Vienna in 1815, was aimed at maintaining a balance of power and avoiding a general war among Great Powers. That system had evolved thru several phases. Initially, Protestant Prussia, Catholic Austria and Orthodox Russia banded together in the reactionary Holy Alliance to put down nationalist aspirations and liberal revolutions. This they continued to do, thru the 1848 revolutions, when Russian troops put down the Hungarian revolution, rescuing the Hapsburgs. In the Crimean War, France and Britain joined Ottoman Turkey to check Russian ambitions, and Austria failed to support Russia — Austrian and Russian interests in the Balkans, where nationalisms were rising and the Ottomans receding, conflicted.

Without Russian support, the Hapsburg position was hopeless, and the wars of German and Italian unification — which were largely wars to eject the Hapsburgs from Germany and Italy — followed, culminating in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which made France a Republic and Germany a nation-state with an authoritarian political structure controlling its military and foreign policy. The Hungarians, no longer needing to fear Russian intervention, were able to negotiate a liberal constitution and their place in a newly established Dual Monarchy, which also retained an authoritarian structure in the hands of the Emperor that governed the military establishment and foreign policy.

Bismarck, fearing encirclement, if an alliance of France, Austria, and Russia should form, sought to recreate the reactionary Holy Alliance as a League of the Three Emperors, aimed at maintaining the status quo. To make it work, Germany, without its own interests in the Balkans, would have to play the role of honest broker, arbitrating conflicts between Austria and Russia as both advanced against a crumbling Ottoman Turkey, and coped with rising nationalisms in that region. It didn’t work out as Bismarck planned. Russia preferred to try to control rising Slavic nationalisms, by championing them, rather than risk Slavic nationalism becoming a foundation of opposition to the Czar. At the Congress of Berlin in 1878 after Russia’s successes in the Russo-Turkey War, Russia felt aggrieved, as Bismarck attempted to shore up the Austrian position in the Balkans at Russia’s expense. It was at that time that Austria received what would prove to be the fatal gift of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as part of a scheme to enable Austria to isolate Serbia from Montenegro and the sea, and possibly seize Salonika at some future date, securing its dominance in the western Balkans.

The Great Game of global competition and ad hoc cooperation among the Great Powers continued and accelerated with the race for Africa, as well as the continuing maneuvering about the Balkans and Black Sea. (Around 1870, the oil boom began around Baku, on the Caspian Sea, in the Caucasus.)

There were a great many conflicts and confrontations among the Great Powers, during the last decades of the 19th and first years of the 20th century, but, for the most part, they had the character of a game of cards, in which the players would play a round or two, then show their cards, and settle accounts accordingly, with no further show or use of force, until the next crisis, though the next crisis might be within a few months. The crises were often more public relations battles to capture the favor of international public opinion than they were actual exercises of military power in battles. Wars were brief and, except for the Balkans skirmishing, far away: the Boer War, the Spanish-American War, the Russo-Japanese War. Mostly, these crises were a kaleidoscope of differing ad hoc coalitions and confrontations. The French confronting the British in the Fashoda Incident or the British and German cooperating to intervene in Venezuela. The Russians and British playing the Great Game in Afghanistan. The U.S. mediating the Russo-Japanese War.

The First World War broke the pattern. The fluid play of alliances (and betrayals) seemed to settle into a fixed pattern very suddenly in the decade before the outbreak of War in August 1914. In retrospect, the precipitant for this crystallization was the weakness of the Hapsburg Empire. The Dual Monarchy was a hopelessly complex, antiquated mess, and it was utterly dependent on its German ally; it could never independently ally with or even confront any other power, without the leave of Germany. From 1878, Austria was no longer in play; she was married to Germany irrevocably. The Germans were drawn thus into the Balkans and into conflict with Russia, France, Britain and Italy, and thus into supporting the almost equally hopeless Ottomans. The French, cut off from the possibility of an Austrian alliance, were forced to cultivate long-term commitments with Britain and Russia, and Russia could no longer afford its antagonism with Britain. Only Italy, which seemed to have grievances with both France and Austria, remained a wildcard.

Before the Entente Cordiale (1904), Britain had never committed to any but an ad hoc alliance in the Great Power game. It stood aloof. It sometimes leveraged its relationship with the U.S. in Latin America and the Far East, and cultivated a protective relationship with minor powers, particularly Portugal and the Netherlands, which had extensive colonial empires, perhaps to keep them isolated. But, its alliance with France was new, and marked the crystallization of the Great Power system into a fixed dichotomy.

The other change, happening beneath the surface so to speak was, as bob mcmanus hints, the scale of political economy and “Fordism”. The Second Industrial Revolution was fully underway after 1870, encompassing not just Britain, but the U.S., France, Germany, northern Italy, and Austria. Cheap steel, electricity, petroleum, chemicals. The falling costs of transport by steamship and by rail increased the scale of markets. Vast industrial business enterprises emerged in the 1880s. Socialism began its rapid rise from political obscurity as the ranks of wage workers swelled and the implications of broadening suffrage were realized.

The implications of the new industrial technologies for naval warfare were recognized immediately. The implications for armies took much longer to digest. The humiliating Prussian defeat at Jena in the Napoleonic Wars had sparked a spirit of professionalism in the officer corps and progressive reform, which carried forward to the German Army. The innovation of a general staff gave the Germans a capacity to plan the logistics and maneuver of an Army on the new industrial scale. Other Great Powers would be much slower to introduce reforms, in part because the Army was a reactionary’s refuge from liberalism in several of these countries.

The scale of military action was increasing, quietly taking on the character of mass industrialization, without anyone fully realizing the implications. Even if many of the Generals had not been stupid fools, the technical means of command-and-control, let alone the strategic and tactical doctrines, lagged behind the industrialization of firepower and the logistics of massing infantry. This combination of circumstances would magnify the scale of horror once war was underway.

The critical question, as we reflect on the events that followed the assassination at Sarajevo, is why, after the decades-long habit of crises and confrontations followed by negotiated settlements did the First World War go so differently?

One would think that the Russians, Austrians and Ottomans would all have understood that their regimes could not withstand the strains of an actual and protracted war. Of course, no one expected a protracted war. Those three also probably thought that their regimes were so weak that they could not afford to be seen as weak.

The new industrial scale of militaries, along with the weakness of their equally new schemes of command-and-control, played a role. To make a credible threat to be able to use force, mobilization had to be set into motion early.

And, here’s where the Germans get blamed. The German General Staff, responding to the French-Russian alliance had come up with a plan that turned on the superior ability of industrialized Germany to mobilize its mass army quickly. And, it was a plan that called on Germany to knock out France early, before the Russians could complete their mobilization and advance, and then, with France out of the way, turn around and fling the whole German Army at Russia. The only way to get the mass of the German Army into France, though, was to violate Belgian neutrality, and not in a small way. Germany would have to seize nearly the whole country just to have the space and rail capacity to move the German Army in a great fast-moving, swinging arc, which was supposed to envelop Paris from the West.

In the event, it was the Germans, who were in charge. The Austrians would do what they were told to do. The Austrians made the ultimatum to Serbia, designing the ultimatum to be something Serbia could not accept. Serbia, advised by the Russians that the Russians could not intervene in time to save them, caved. (In the event, Serbia was completely devastated.) But, it didn’t mattered. The mere demur in Serbia’s acceptance of Austria’s ultimatum became a cause for war; what Germany wanted was Russian mobilization, the signal to put the German plan for mobilization-cum-conquest-of-Belgium-and-Paris into irrevocable motion. The Russians, knowing the long lead-time on putting their forces into motion, did begin mobilization as a signal of support for Serbia. Germany, satisfied that Russia’s mobilization would make Russia seem the aggressor, began its mobilization. But, Germany’s plan of mobilization entailed invading Belgium and France.

Germany’s plan could have been more defensive, or at least more contingent. Germany certainly had the resources to contain a French advance with relatively few forces, given the narrow and difficult terrain of the actual French-German frontier. In fact, the actual German war plan depended on committing only a small fraction of German forces to this task, and they succeeded. Neutralizing France — showing that France was unable to aid Russia — would have been sufficient to set up the circumstances in which Russia could be persuaded to back down. But, that wasn’t Germany’s plan. Germany’s plan was to defeat both France and Russia, and to do so on a massive scale. And, it entailed the irrevocable violation of Belgian neutrality at the outset.

Germany’s outsized ambitions, reflected in its aggressive mobilization plan, would prevent any negotiated settlement in the early days of the war. The absence of firebreaks — openings for negotiated settlement, opportunities for national leadership to alter course or show restraint — in the German war plan has seemed accidental to some analysts. Others find the Fischer thesis more credible, and Fischer found plenty of documentary evidence, including the smoking gun of the Imperial War council of 1912 that committed German to an aggressive war in the Summer of 1914. The German government’s formulation of war aims — its Septemberprogramm was almost absurdly aggrandizing, calling for annexation of Luxembourg, subjugation of Belgium, expansion across Central Africa, and creation of German-dependent buffer states out of western Russia and Poland.

The OP’s point is not refuted in the least by correctly blaming Germany for the First World War (realistically, for both World Wars, as Hitler revived the war program of the second German Empire for his third). The bullying aggrandizement by violence was something all the Great Powers were engaged in, not just Germany — and usually they engaged in it against weak states and peoples ill-equipped to resist, peoples they actively worked to keep too weak to resist.


John Quiggin 06.29.14 at 8:19 pm

LFC @98 Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

Seriously, I’m generally an optimist about the world, but when I think about the Great War and the willingness of so many (even among CT commenters) to defend the actions of those who started and maintained it, I feel despair. It makes me fear that, as has already happened to a large extent with Vietnam, the general recognition that war is both a mistake and a crime will be replaced on the left with cultural relativism (other times et) and on the right with an addition to the long list of glorious wars.


Omega Centauri 06.29.14 at 8:56 pm

I think our more modern security thinking fails to grasp the overriding balance-of-power logic of the times. Membership in the Alliance, and Entente, was not based upon shared ideology or cultural affinity, but was created by the vicissutudes of history. It was really an attempt to maintain the peace among predatory imperialistic powers. Any changes which could be construed as threatening that balance were a threat to the stability of the system.


Thornton Hall 06.29.14 at 9:06 pm

@106 Cultural / moral relativism is *the* pitfall of the left. The small brains of academia that can’t imagine tolerance/pluralism without relativism cause infinite problems. Of course, genuine pluralism destroys the objective moral truths that have been traditionally posed in opposition to relativism. The next move isn’t easy, but tenured English professors really have too sweet a gig not to get around to seeing that morality is formed thru objectively valid processes that deal with changing problems. I mean, how long do we have to dwell in the misery left in the wake of postmodern nihilism?

What always confuses me about the history of war is how every discussion seems to assume that historical actors have goals and that discussions can go forward without describing what those goals are. I know why white Europeans in the United States attacked the Native Americans: growing population needed economic opportunity and at the time that meant arable land. But what did France, its leaders or its people, *want* in 1913? And why doesn’t every discussion of history start with a discussion of goals?


Watson Ladd 06.29.14 at 9:10 pm

When was that ever the view of the left? The Spanish Civil War was the glorious fight against fascism, the French Revolution the introduction of modernity, the doomed Commune the origin of Communism.

As for firebreaks, there was the War Credits vote on August 4th. Had the SDP kept to the line, there would have been no war.


Sasha Clarkson 06.29.14 at 9:24 pm

Dear John, don’t despair. Personally, I’m only a cultural relativist in the sense that I think it’s wrong to judge people by standards which were not common in their society.

One hundred years later, there is no excuse for people who aspire to be educated not to have learned from the mistakes of the past. Of course, this requires honest information to be available. Unfortunately, we live in a world where powerful forces have no intention of cooperating with honest debate about anything. Rupert Murdoch, your erstwhile countryman (I’m not getting at you – I sympathise) is the worst of the worst.

What can we do against these people? A Muslim imam would issue a fatwah. But incitement to murder is both wrong and counter productive. Instead, we should issue a “twatwah”, implying both a boycott, and that no opportunity should be lost to declare contempt: for him, his minions, and those politicians who toady to his agenda in the hope of receiving favourable publicity.

I will never buy “Sky” anything. I will not buy his newspapers, nor will I pay to see any 20th century Fox films. Yoda might be cute, but I will not help finance Darth Rupe-sidious in any way. And when he dies, even though there will be a very long queue, I hope to fertilise his grave!


roy belmont 06.29.14 at 10:09 pm

Sasha Clarkson:
it’s wrong to judge people by standards which were not common in their society

I think I get the sentiment underneath that but it seems like you’re leaving out the possibility of judging a community by much the same criteria you use to judge an individual, if you’re going to be judging people I mean.
Because I’m leaning more and more toward the idea that, beyond pragmatic maintenance issues, human beings are incapable of morally judging each other with any accuracy. Not that it isn’t fun for some to try.

The possibility of an individual operating within a pathological culture, someone whose intentions and moral decisions come from an obedient and co-operative position in that culture, thus their being morally blameless somehow.
“Hey everybody was a cannibal back then.”
Yeah, it’s true maybe. It’s not like running around a modern city eating people. Not a groovy lifestyle either way. But one’s monstrous, the other atavistic “primitive”.
To us, in our culture.
Cultural relativism-sort-of, as you sort of said.
For me it’s a little incomplete.
I’m not putting a rebuttal on it so much as saying we need some kind of collective thinking through of this.
Judgment and understanding forgiveness are not a binary.
Maybe it’s not so much judgment as rejection.
Is it possible to condemn some act without condemning the actor?
This has come up in some other areas a time or two I’ve noticed.


Bruce Wilder 06.29.14 at 10:09 pm

Thornton Hall @ 108

What did France — its leaders or its people — want in 1913? A great multitude of contradictory things, the multitude and conflicts both too numerous to catalog. The usual dodge is to describe some of the salient controversies of the day. For France, the competent histories always point to l’affaire Dreyfus to sketch an illustration of the contradictory currents running through the collective unconscious of France. There you will find the odd relation of hyper-modern, liberal Republican France to the decadent reactionary rump festering away in the Army and the Church. There you will find the obdurate incompetence of the French military, eager to frame the punctilious Alsatian Jew, careless of the drunken Hungarian conman, as well as the passionate determination of the French idealists, some liberal, some socialists, some hard to categorize, but always French, and thru it all the odd loyalty of the French Republic to its sacred Army, many of its officers reactionaries, who despised its modernism.

You could find other clues in the riots that attended the performance of the Rite of Spring by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1913, part of the modernist opening to Russian culture. Or, perhaps, in the Saverne Affair, that reminded Alsace and Lorraine that they wanted to be French and Germany that they were not German, at the end of 1913.

The historian can point at these events, and hope to convey insight into the mind of a nation. But, they don’t fit neatly onto the template of the hero’s journey, defined by individual moral intention and striving and vision, even though that’s the literary device we are bequeathed by thousands of years, to understand the last few centuries of collective achievements by vast organized societies and their states.


LFC 06.30.14 at 1:35 am

JQ @106
Your reply noted/understood. (As for the Vietnam war in particular, that wd be a whole other thread.)


ChrisB 06.30.14 at 1:38 am

Australians should get on to iView to watch 37 Days, the Brit serial about the diplomacy leading up the war (which suggests, as a sideline, that the problem was that the Kaiser wanted a small and almost instant war where Austria-Hungary marched to Belgrade on about day five and it was all over before Russia could make a decision, but Franz Joseph dealt with his correspondence in date order and couldn’t move that fast).
More generally, the problem was surely that all the calculations made by the players were more or less rational if you believed, as they did, that they could do it quickly and cleanly. If they’d thought it would last five years and involve 16 million dead, not rational. Two months and 100,000 dead, rational (or if you don’t think that would be rational, 1 day and 1 casualty, rational). If you think that there’s a 20% chance you’ll win your bluff, a 20% chance that it’ll be a walkover, a 20% chance that it’ll be like the Austro-Prussian war, a 20% chance that it’ll be like the American civil war, and a 20% chance that it’ll be the way it was, that averages out to about 111,111 dead per nation – not wildly out of line.
Again, another problem was that mass armies involve mass publics, and mass publics don’t make peace easily. Monarchs found it a lot easier to cut their losses and swallow a little humiliation. Elected governments couldn’t do that.


Lee A. Arnold 06.30.14 at 2:31 am

I don’t think there was a hero’s journey defined by individual intention until the modern period (i.e. starting around Shakespeare etc.). Before that, heroes were firmly ensconced in the body of God along with the rest of us, they suffered tragedy by getting out of line with that, and individuation was still a mere spark. The rise of the Romantic period added a new dressing to the hero’s journey, that individual achievement was still the divine plan (or in some cases the hero was aided by magical devices) but the glory was here on Earth, until the ongoing secularization drowned out the transcendent impulse entirely, to leave us with the watered-down gabble of consumerist culture + anti-depressants.

The Great War ended the brief ascendancy of the romantic soldier: yes, it was the old heroism and glory going in, but coming out, the useless devastation was recognized by everyone. There had been smatterings of this feeling expressed after the US Civil War 50 years before — even the Europeans were concerned about its appearance (and its lessons for the future) as the first big rail-mechanized war, the first semi- “total” war in which civilians were regular targets too (and Lincoln may have been the first to warn of the coming influence of corporate war profiteers). But the Great War brought it home to everybody, and the advent of World War II was greeted more as something of a wearying and horrifying replay, and not as an opportunity for the glorification of heroes. Those who came back could barely speak of it. WWII may one day be seen as chapter two of The One Big War.

I am not so sure there will be a chapter three. Now, I think we are in a different era, and I think it is correct to call it the post-Great War Era, because the public attitude toward heroism and vainglory seems to be permanently changed. There may always exist the brash needs of young men, but that is a slightly different issue. Note that recent U.S. wars have had to be sold to the public as wars waged for the freedom and democracy OF OTHERS, as well as safety to the “homeland” — a new form of colonial propaganda. And indeed the U.S. sometimes follows through by withdrawing, as from Iraq. Of course, another convenient change is that market colonialism only requires adherence to the capitalist world market — the freed client does not have to sell directly to the United States, although that is encouraged.

The rise of religious fundamentalism is another part of the new era, and, although it has arisen in the United States too, it looks like the danger is in colonial blowback from people who were kept in despair, and are noe organizing upon religious emotions, and can now with modern weapons do lot of damage to others.

The news today? The Taliban has reclaimed more area in Afghanistan, ISIS has declared itself to be the world Sunni Caliphate, and the U.S. is getting in way over its head.


Bruce Baugh 06.30.14 at 3:42 am


Bruce Baugh 06.30.14 at 3:42 am

Ack! Sorry about that un-closed URL in my first paragraph. Also would appreciate a boost out of moderation.


Peter T 06.30.14 at 5:18 am

Although there is still argument about what “caused” WW I, I think it’s fair to say that the majority view among historians is that most of the really bad decisions were made in Berlin, not only in 1914 but in the decades of increasing tension beforehand.

What drove Berlin? A complex stew of both domestic and international factors (the note by A J Mayer linked to at 34 above is a good start). Many were common across Europe, but amplified or distorted by the peculiarities of the German political and social system. In short, European elites were trapped in a genuine dilemma: they needed industrialisation to compete internationally, but found it hard to stomach the accompanying rise of organised labour.

One element making the trap hard to escape was the crash in agricultural incomes with the arrival of the steamship and cheap imports: landowners and labourers both struggled. Labourers could emigrate, agitate or starve – the first and third threatened national security, while the second reinforced the threat of socialism. The gentry sought refuge in government service and the professions, closing off mobility for others while reinforcing reactionary attitudes at the top (David Cannadine documents how, even in Britain, both government and the professions were more aristocratic in the late C19/early C20 than previously). The resulting discontents added to social ferment, and gave extra impetus to various nationalist and radical movements.

Britain and France were only just coping with all this. The German elite, heavily military-flavoured, somewhat resentful of French cultural and British imperial dominance, fearful of Russian power, uneasily aware of Austro-Hungarian weakness and confident (as Russia and Austria were not) of their own strength, lapsed into a sort of social psychosis. All the manoeuvres from 1880 to 1910 failed to solve their dilemma; in fact, many made them worse. So they went to war in 1914 hoping for a quick victory, many aware that this was unlikely, some acknowledging that even victory would not solve things, but all desperate to do something. Very much a flucht nach vorn. They had been prepared for war in 1909, and von Moltke had seriously proposed a short war against Russia in 1906. This time they were not going to back down.

The High Seas Fleet is a good example of the stupidity of German policy. It had multiple aims: to deter the British from supporting the French, to boost north German industry during a downturn in the business cycle, to drum up middle class support with nationalist appeal, to win over north German industrial workers, to maintain a large military budget without enlarging the army (which might require commissioning middle-class (politically unreliable) officers..

It backfired on most of these counts. It posed a completely unacceptable threat to vital British interests and so drove them into the entente and into a naval ship-building program with which the Germans could not compete. The workers remained unappeased (when the Kaiser gave a speech at one launch, the assembled workforce turned their backs on him). The nationalist frenzy surrounding the program made it impossible to reverse, or to accept British offers of a truce in the naval race, and the army continued to grow even as the fleet sucked up resources.

Most of these defects or consequences were pointed out at the time, but brushed aside. And this example could be multiplied in many other areas. If one had to look for parallels, Japan 1930-41 would come to mind, or the second Iraq war – an elite that had lost the ability to realistically assess the world and calculate options.


Sasha Clarkson 06.30.14 at 8:57 am

Roy @(currently) 111 “beyond pragmatic maintenance issues, human beings are incapable of morally judging each other with any accuracy”

In looking at the past, perhaps the best one can attempt is to judge people by their own declared standards, and also whether they succeed or fail in their objectives.

For example a number of prominent Brits, like TE Lawrence, were dismayed over the betrayal of the Arabs over Syria, as was McMahon who reportedly resigned over the Sykes-Picot agreement. In 1918 Allenby reported to the cabinet “… I reminded the Amir Faisal (son of Sharif Hussein bin Ali) that the Allies were in honour bound to endeavour to reach a settlement in accordance with the wishes of the peoples concerned ….”

This did not happen. Lloyd-George allowed Clemenceau to ignore even the limited protections given to the Arabs in the Sykes-Picot agreement. Not only was this morally wrong, it was bad policy. Trust between Britain and the Arabs was poisoned, and the French involvement in Syria and Lebanon turned out to be a disaster from start to finish.


Sasha Clarkson 06.30.14 at 9:14 am

Meanwhile, Martin Rowson’s Grauniad cartoon from Friday is a brilliant juxtaposition of past and present.
(But yes, I confess I had to read the comments below to understand some of the subtleties.)


Vanya 06.30.14 at 9:18 am

@Peter T – ” all the moves Vienna made were cleared with Berlin beforehand.”

That is overstating the case, I think. Austria was even more hawkish than Germany. It would be fair to say that Austria pushed and persuaded a Germany that was still kind of wavering in mid-July. It was the Austrians that made the ultimatum against Serbia so harsh, even the Germans were taken by surprise. Von Hötzendorf was certainly no German puppet, he had pushing aggressively for war with Serbia for over a decade.

The Habsburg Empire really deserves a lot more blame for WWI than common wisdom allows. In most English language stories about WWI Austria-Hungary practically vanishes from the stage after FF is killed (Tuchmann is very guilty of this), which makes the history even more confusing to the uninitiated. The fact that Austria-Hungary suffered significantly more casualties in WWI than the United Kingdom (not to mention civilian deaths by an order of magnitude) is rarely mentioned. Austria was certainly still a major power in 1914, even if we don’t remember that anymore. Some of this neglect is because the Empire vanished completely after the war, so there are no political points to be gained today by assigning blame, some of it is due to the fact that Central Europe disappeared from our cultural radar during the Cold War, and some of the neglect is due to the condescension we often unconsciously share towards the losers , and no country lost as abjectly as the Habsburg Empire.


Ed 06.30.14 at 12:37 pm

This was the ultimate balance sheet for the great powers in Europe at the end of the war:

Austria-Hungary: broken up into small republics, with Hungary losing half its territory and population.

Russia: Quite large territorial losses and the complete recasting of both the state and society, including the murder of much of the old elite, including the royal family.

Germany: Humiliating peace where Germany was blamed for the war, assigned reparitions, had its territory occupied, its fleet scuttled, and its armed forces restricted. Loss of colonies and somewhat minor loss of territory in Europe. Exile of the Kaiser. Balanced against this is that Germany was confirmed as a united country, that was not necessarily in the cards in 1914 given Russian and French war aims. Also, Germany wound up in a stronger strategic position in 1920 compared to 1914 due to the diminishment of Russia.

Britain: Loss of much of Ireland and effective loss of superpower/ hyperpower status. On the other hand they gained colonies, particularly in the Middle East, and the end of the threat posed by the High Seas Fleet.

France: Regains Alsace-Lorraine, though at a high rate of losses per population. The French elite survived the war with its power intact better than any other great powr (this includes the UK, where the Liberal Party was eclipsed and the elite had to concede universal suffrage).

What is remarkable in this accounting is how balanced the losses are against how responsible each country’s elite was for starting the war. Its very cosmic.

The U.S., Italy, and Japan all gained from entering the war later, but there was alot of resentment among the population and to some extent among the elites, since they concluded that they had been gulled by sharp operators into entering a war that was none of their business. The situation with Turkey is really, really complicated.


Ed 06.30.14 at 12:58 pm

One point that confuses historians to this day, and confused senior military officers and statement in at the time, is that mobilization did not actually mean war. It meant mobilization. The mobilization plans envisaged calling up reservists and amassing large armies on the frontiers. Where the armies were located made an obvious difference in how the opening campaigns would play out. But once they were assembled the armies didn’t have to necessarily move anyplace. They could be shifted around, or stay in place.

For example, histories often repeat Molkte’s nervous breakdown (though this was part of an emotional collapse that lasted months) when the Wilhelm II suggested at the last minute that the Germans scrap their war plan and move forces to the East. However, the German general staff proceeded to do exactly this, countermanding orders for German forces to cross the western German frontier, until it became clear that Britain would not guarantee French neutrality. I think they should have changed their war plans anyway, but the point is that the German general staff obviously had the capability to alter plans in mid-campaign.

The French mobilization plan acutally provided for an army to be kept in reserve, in addition to the four armies assembled in Lorraine, and this army was historically sent to the Ardennes to try to block the German advance. The Austro-Hungarian plan provided for an army that could be either sent against Serbia or against Russia, in the event they tried to do both, but the fact is that they mobilized an army against Serbia and wound up shifting it to Galicia. On three occassions in 1914 and 1915, the Germans took a reserve that they had amassed for a planned breakthrough on the Western Front, and sent it to deal with perceived emergencies on the Eastern Front instead.

The fallacy that almost everyone (the only exception I’m aware of is Kitchener) is that the war would have to be short, so the opening campaigns would be decisive. The mentaility was that the war would be fought with the forces that showed up on the frontiers in the first few weeks. Everyone underestimated the ability of governments to mobilize their economies and populations for the duration. The Germans for example got all their nitrates from one island in the Pacific and knew they could not count on this, in the event their chemists came up with a substitute but this probably wasn’t something that could be planned on.


Anderson 06.30.14 at 1:06 pm

Ed @ 123- there was one power whose mobilization plan required war. Germany had to seize Liege ASAP. So mobilization not only meant war, but war with France (and Belgium). To me, nothing better illustrates the military’s capture of the government.


Ed 06.30.14 at 1:27 pm

I don’t disagree with much of Bruce Wilder’s long post earlier (#105), but this is the first that I have heard that Russia advised Serbia to accept the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum. I’ve read extensively on the subject, from historians agreeing and disagreeing with the “Germany caused it” approach, and the usual account is that the Russian government advised the Serbian government to reject the ultimatum.

As David Fromkin pointed out, though the Serbian response was good enough for Wilhelm II, who belatedly started to try to apply the brakes at that point, there was a fair amount of hedging and evasiveness on the points the Serbs accepted. The one point they rejected essentially would have allowed Austro-Hungarian investigators to find out how high in the Serbian government the Black Hand had penetrated.


Ed 06.30.14 at 1:31 pm

“there was one power whose mobilization plan required war. Germany had to seize Liege ASAP”

No they didn’t.

In World War II, the German army waited seven months after the outbreak of the war, to Hitler’s frustration, before assaulting Liege and Eban Emael. That turned out to work out OK for them.


Ronan(rf) 06.30.14 at 4:02 pm

(anyone) What does contemporary research say about the Fischer thesis ?


Anderson 06.30.14 at 4:02 pm

Ed: what I meant was, the Germans’ plan required this, not that they were “really” required to do so.

Joll, 2d ed., at 100: “the campaign was to open with a sudden surprise attack on Liege and the surrounding forts; and it was essential for the whole subsequent development of the German plans that this risky coup de main, involving as it did a very rapid advance on a narrow front so as to take the Belgians by surprise, should be carried out immediately war was declared.” (My boldfacing.)


Anderson 06.30.14 at 4:08 pm

Re: Russia and the ultimatum, Fromkin at 190: the Russians “advise[d] Serbia to offer the least possible resistance to any Austrian agreement.” As he adds later, the Russians offered only “moral support” and advised giving way to Austria & letting the egregiousness of the Austrians provoke support from Serbia from other powers.


Anderson 06.30.14 at 4:18 pm

“What does contemporary research say about the Fischer thesis ?”

I am just a history-reading lawyer, not an expert, but the strong Fischer thesis – that Germany’s leaders sat down in 1912 or so and decided on a general European war the next time one came knocking – appears to be discredited. The Germans didn’t have their shit together to any such extent.

What has stood up is that Germany was perfectly willing to *risk* a general war if it didn’t get its way. That’s David Stevenson’s conclusion, and apparently Otte’s as well in his new July Crisis book. Germany wasn’t actively seeking war with Russia, which might have backed down; but the Germans were wilfully indifferent to whether Russia backed down or not.

Maybe the single most interesting book I’ve read on this is Annika Mombauer’s book Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War. Highly recommended. Dispels a few myths.


Ronan(rf) 06.30.14 at 4:46 pm

Thanks Anderson (I’ve been meaning too read Annika Mombauer’s book, but probably won’t get around to it for a while)


Sasha Clarkson 06.30.14 at 5:08 pm

As opposed to the Great Powers, what was the ultimate balance sheet for the ordinary people of Europe?

As well as the millions dead and maimed, and the destruction, the economy of Europe had been totally wrecked. Keynes pointed out that the pre-war European economic system centred on Germany and that trade between the future belligerents was what sustained their mutual prosperity. Even Great Britain, which was not an integral part of the European system, was Germany’s second-best customer and source of supply.

Also, German banks and industrial firms had huge investments in the territory of their future enemies, so in economic terms, Germany was already a superpower and increasing in importance and even dominance.

In the British Empire, capitalism ruled: trade had always been a prime motivator, and capitalist interests were dominant in both main political parties. However, Germany’s ruling aristocracy and military class were drawn from the more agrarian old-Prussian backwaters, and did not really care about the economy, except as it served their military objectives. For example, the career of Ludendorff emphasises this extraordinary schizophrenia between capitalism, the source of German power, and the anachronistic forces which wanted to control it.

Germany was achieving dominance anyway, but it was the wrong kind of dominance for Ludendorff and his class: they wanted the trappings and the glory too.


Thornton Hall 06.30.14 at 6:37 pm

History has never been one of my obsessions and I think part of the reason is that when one moves past Bailey/Kennedy or McCulloch, it seems to dive into an absolute mess of details. What’s worse, it seems like every single historian independently develops a unique nomenclature for every book. It wars, for instance, I frequently want to know: who had the power to make decisions, who fought, and what mechanism was used to connect them? I keep almost understanding things only to be frustrated when the next author reframes the whole mess. But it seems like the patterns involved could be illustrative if someone would deign to “oversimplify” and get it a little wrong. I’m imagining like the back of a baseball card that could be quickly compared.


Anderson 06.30.14 at 7:11 pm

133: “The history of the Victorian Age will never be written; we know too much about it.” -Lytton Strachey.


DaveL 06.30.14 at 9:03 pm

128 et al.: The issue with Liege and the other Belgian fortresses and fortress cities was that the German war plan required that victory against the French would take no more than six (I believe) weeks. If they had bypassed Liege et al. there would have been the possibility of an attack by Belgium in the German rear. If it took too long to subdue them too much time would be wasted and the six week deadline missed. So the plan was to attack them quickly and with overwhelming force immediately.

The “deadline” was set based on the idea that the German army couldn’t defend Prussia from a Russian invasion. In practice the troops in Prussia held them off quite successfully, but that couldn’t have been predicted.

I agree with the idea that the Austro-Hungarians and the French deserve more of the blame than they usually get.

Austria wanted to smack Serbia and insisted on doing so in spite of Serbian acquiescence to an ultimatum even Germany characterized as humiliating.

France (more accurately French generals) was eager for war as they saw German power (military, economic, demographic) growing and theirs shrinking. That was also why republican France was willing to ally with despotic Russia. Their detaching of Russia from the German-Austrian-Russian alliance was a diplomatic coup of the first order; without that, they would never have risked war.


Anderson 06.30.14 at 9:12 pm

” If they had bypassed Liege et al. there would have been the possibility of an attack by Belgium in the German rear.”

Yes, because cramming the German 1st 2d & 3d Armies into such a tight spot required Liege to be neutralized.

I don’t buy the blame on the French, though. Leaving aside the pertinent comment upthread wondering just how Russia was all that much worse than (say) Britain (and what about the Belgians in the Congo, eh?), France was isolated against a powerful, saber-rattling Germany. And France didn’t “detach” Russia, as I understand it. Caprivi let the Reinsurance Treaty lapse after Bismarck was ousted. This isn’t unforgivable – any alliance with Austria & Russia in it was going to be like an unstable particle doomed to disintegrate – but it certainly provoked Russia into looking around for friends, and threw a lifeline to France.

I mean, why, exactly, should France jeopardize its own national security in the interests of … what? Punishing the Russians for their naughtiness?

Even the Tsarist tyranny looks positively quaint in its treatment of convicted revolutionaries. The Bolsheviks in Siberian exile had it pretty cushy compared to the punishments they would mete out.


Bruce Wilder 06.30.14 at 10:42 pm

I think the argument with regard to the French alliance with Russia would be that France made itself the hostage of the Czar’s dubious foreign policy acumen, in order to avoid having to submit to the Germans at the first threat of war. If the Czar had been an intelligent and far-sighted leader, atop a secure and competent administration, one might have some confidence in his prudence in avoiding war, but that was not the case. He might choose war, when it was unwise to do so, and his regime might well collapse underneath him during a war (which, of course, it did). So, France took a losing bet as a hedge — not an entirely sensible risk reduction strategy, on the whole.

I am somewhat sympathetic to the French — it was not like they were turning down any great alternatives staring them in the face. Belgium and the Netherlands were determined to remain neutral; Britain didn’t have a standing Army at home comparable to the other Great Powers; Italy was willing to listen, but was nominally one of the Central Powers before the war. The most important thing the French could do to improve their position — reform the French Army command — appeared to be politically impossible — indeed, it wouldn’t happen until DeGaulle, during and after WWII.


William Berry 06.30.14 at 11:31 pm

Thornton Hall @133:

One of my favorite references is a giant pulp paper-back called The Timetables of History, with voluminous, relatively detailed— if, obviously, far from exhaustive— chronologies in each of a half-dozen or so categories. Tranlated from a German work, as I recall; something like Kulturfahrplan.

Not exactly what you were asking for, but very handy.

Most here have probably read William H. McNeil’s The Rise of the West, but I can’t recommend it highly enough. It is a monumental work of analysis and synthesis. One of the best bits: In the later chapters, Professor McNeil anticipates (IMHO) William Gibson’s C21 Western mass society by forty years.

For better or for worse (wrt the present commentariat), ROTW assumes a global and philosophic perspective, and doesn’t rehash the kind of pointless speculation about diplomatic trivia that dominates threads of this type.

No offense intended to anyone here, but I think it is literally true that the kind of micro-metric casuistry of blame that is the subject of most of the comments is basically meaningless.


Bruce Wilder 07.01.14 at 12:25 am

I’m going to refrain from being provoked by a phrase as insulting as “micro-metric casuistry of blame”. I don’t think that’s what we’ve been doing here.

History is an account of the activities of (potentially) millions of people over all the hours of their lives over a period of years and years. To compress that meaningfully into a few pages, or a few hundred pages of narrative is a daunting task. But, for there to be any “truth” value to such a highly compressed narrative, it must have a definite relationship to the details. It is not enough to say, for example, “the American Civil War was about slavery”. The narrative has to unpack its theses in ways that faithfully account for the details — at least the details we can document from the detritus and documents left behind. You’d have to go with something a bit more substantive, like, “The United States experienced a constitutional crisis over the issue of slavery (expansion), which resulted in civil war.” And, you’d do that because it unpacks in a way that (better) accounts for the documentary evidence of the course of events.

The First World War was one of the most destructive, bloody senseless events in human history, and understanding how it happened is important as well as inherently interesting. There are a lot of competing narratives of the “causes” of the First World War, that can account for many of the known facts. But, if any of them are to be regarded as facially true, they have to also account for, and accomodate, key details of how and why particular human beings decided to go to war. Broadbrush treatments that dispense with such facts without acknowledgment are liable to descend quickly into mere fatuousness.

The “truth” of an interpretation can not be tested by replicative experiment. You cannot reproduce history in some alternative time-line to test a counterfactual line of speculation. All that you can do, to test the truth-value of an interpretation is apply it to the facts, and extend it to additional facts. Any reasonable thesis will account for the facts already known to the narrator — unless he’s a complete tool — but the powerful theses will unpack and extend, to account for additional facts. The best theses expand to account for a lot of information.

I think the commenters here have been sorting through alternative theses, that cover a lot of history, even as they’ve been sorting through a few key facts, which are, arguably, dispositive concerning which theses have power and truth-value.


bob mcmanus 07.01.14 at 12:48 am

It was an anxious and accelerating age, and roles and values were being redefined at breakneck pace. War and nationalism afforded a little certainty. There are plenty of books studying the sociology and culture of the period. Cubism! Schoenberg! Elmer Rice! Kelloggs!

A general is not much without an enthusiastic or complacent army. The boy or girl is lost when h/she enlists, long before the trenches or muddy fields.

So I am not much interested in battles or strategy or statecraft, failed or otherwise. Understanding those will not explain the last war or prevent the next one. Not as long as the universal soldier gives her body as a weapon.


Anderson 07.01.14 at 1:21 am

139: what you said. Indifference to the causes is indifference to the effects.

I guess I’m fundamentally opposed to the conservative politics that seem to underlie a thesis like Clark’s in The Sleepwalkers. (NB I’m ignorant of Clark’s personal politics.) It Was All an Unavoidable Mistake suggests there’s no blame, no fault, and shit just happens with humanity along for the ride. This may be true, but I’m against it. It’s Burke turned up to 11. Rather: People made bad choices. It’s at least theoretically possible to learn not to screw up.

Put another way, I’m against a theory of history that might in 2103 decide that Bush & Cheney just couldn’t help themselves.


Omega Centauri 07.01.14 at 2:02 am

I would think a big part of the fault, is the lack of systems-gaming going into the design of the system of alliances and military command an control etc. They had a system which had a catastrophic failure mode (a world war), and everyone knew that, it had come close to hitting that failure mode more than once in the preceeding few years. Yet there was no large-scale effort made to recify that dangerous instability, it was just taken as a matter of faith, that the personalities of the leaders and their diplomats would be up to the task. As it was, as the crisis unfolded in July, all these people with critical parts to play were under an inhuman level of stress and fatigue. So at the very technical level, the system was amateurish and highly vulnerable to catastrophic failure. That (technical) part of the lesson, we’ve mostly learned.

And when you think about command-and-control, theres the bit where a few minutes after the kaiser had ordered mobilization against France, he recieved a telegram about a promising peace inititive, and immediately asked for the action to be stopped, but was told “its too late, thats technically not possible”. Thats pretty shocking in itself.


LFC 07.01.14 at 2:47 am

@Omega Centauri

I don’t disagree w you that some technical lessons have been learned, but I think the more important lessons that have been — at least partly — learned are not technical. They are lessons, e.g., about the costs vs. the (supposed) benefits of territorial expansion. As Martha Finnemore wrote 10 years ago in The Purpose of Intervention, today most leaders of most countries don’t want more territory. “Start war of territorial expansion next Monday” is not on their to-do list.

Individual leaders and decision-makers do still matter. I shudder to think what might have happened had LBJ rather than JFK been president during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I wdn’t esp have wanted Nixon as pres. during the Cuban Missile Crisis either. As E. Scarry reminds in her new bk w the (perhaps somewhat unfortunate) title ‘Thermonuclear Monarchy’, Nixon while the impeachment proceedings vs him were going on said to reporters “I can go into the office, pick up the phone, and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead.” I don’t have the context, but it’s not a pleasant quote regardless of the context, which was prob. Nixon’s increasing psychological instability.

OK, very off topic. Back to WW1, the July Crisis, and all that.


LFC 07.01.14 at 2:49 am

Or maybe RMN was trying to show he was still very powerful despite being beleaguered and on the verge of being impeached. Whatever.


Omega Centauri 07.01.14 at 3:49 am

No doubt there are harder more fundamental lessons than just the technical ones. Especially I would include the cultural memes that the create/promote pass-on. Ultra-nationalism, that glorifies past violence, and justifies violence against those not in the in-group for one. Attitudes towards militarism. Lack of thinking at the level of the system as a whole, rather than just my organization’s litle part of it, and how we can maximize our local objectives.. And so on.

I don’t think we’ve done all that well with the technical lessons either. Despite some good progress, we had the Cuban missle crisis, and the 1983 nuclear crisis, where but for a local Russian commander, disobeying orders and refusing to launch nukes when his technical indicators were indicating an attack was in progress, we narrowly avoided accidental armegeddon.


Peter T 07.01.14 at 4:39 am

Following on Bruce W’s excellent last comment, it helps to be clear about the different levels of explanation, and not lump them all together. There are the decisions made in July 1914 by those then in charge, the decisions made over previous decades that set the context of 1914, the attitudes and fears that shaped those decisions, and the larger social and political trends that in turn gave those attitudes traction. It may have been possible in July 1914 to avert war, but it would have taken both great courage and great persuasiveness. I do not know what or who – in 1914 – could have averted war, lessened the influence of militarism and persuaded Europe’s elites of of the necessity – indeed virtue – of an alternate social democratic future.


William Berry 07.01.14 at 5:55 am

Bruce Wilder @139: “I’m going to refrain from being provoked by a phrase as insulting as “micro-metric casuistry of blame”. I don’t think that’s what we’ve been doing here.”

Why do I do it? I am a drive-by commenter who gets himself in trouble by coming in a little too heavy at the end of dead threads! I should know better, as I have plenty to do to occupy my time. (This is as good an opportunity as any to remark on how impressed I am at the sheer volume of writing some of you folks are able to do here!)

[To be clear, I am not crying. I don’t feel nearly as persecuted as Jesus or Geronimo or Rosa Luxemburg or that other guy!]

Anderson @141: “Indifference to the causes is indifference to the effects.”

No doubt: But I have never beaten my wife.

BW: I am sorry you found that particular phrase insulting; it was intended to be descriptive of the comments of some others, and not those of your admirable self. I generally find your comments in line with my own views.

Yes, I exaggerated when I said it applied to most of the comments. Rather, 30-40% of them, I would guess. I won’t name names, but I am talking about all the arm-chair von Moltkes who always show up whenever Quiggin puts up one of these anti-war posts. I understand completely his impulse to post and then bow out. He is right to anticipate the arrival of the war-gamers and warboys.

I intended to explain my position at some length, but bob mcmanus mmostly obviated the need with his comment at 140.

Thnx, Bob.

So, just a few cursory remarks:

Briefly, I am a historical determinist. Those here who think it matters what “choices” were made by individuals at the “proximate” level of causation are, in my opinion, deluded. Even the highest-ranking players in that game (the run-up to the GW), so . . . so fucking PROUD, and so fucking IMPORTANT, were minor pieces shuffled about the board by forces beyond their comprehension. If you will pardon the scholastic language, I think we should be more concerned with examining the “efficient” causes of events. These are such as human bio-geography, the development of various political and social systems and institutions, socio-economic stratification within and between societies, etc.

In a word: HISTORY. Not meaning to shout. The caps are to indicate reverence. History is the story of the succession of the physical states, in space-time, of the human race and its environment.

I could, like bob mcm and some others here (I mean CT, not this thread. geo, maybe; one or two others) be a Marxian. What prevents me being one is my pessimism. I am far from convinced that History will unfold a Workers’ Paradise or Socialist Utopia of any kind. Ι alluded to the Gibsonian society up-thread (a kind of “u/dys-topia” in which the “u/dys” dimension is in a more-or-less exact scalar correspondence to the socio-economic stratification of the society). That is where I think we are headed. We are almost there.

Revolution is, most likely, not a serious option. The models we have suggest that it would be retro-grade. There will surely be serious convulsions. But in the West, world conditions (climate change, ) will conspire with politics to create revolution-proof societies. Our governments will save us by exterminating whole nations of Other People. Our soldiers, safe and sequestered from society in their club, will not hesitate to mow down the mob. As institutions become increasingly neo-fascist, today’s gun-nuts and “libertarians” will discover that they are statists after all. What they have really wanted anyway, all along, is just to kill us (environmentalists, peaceniks, union activists such as myself, et al).

I really hope I am wrong!

And while we don’t all agree on everything, let’s work together to stop the killing.

P.s.: Unfortunately, in addition to being a determinist, genetics, circumstance, and opportunity have conspired to make me a hedonist. Tonight, I made some delicious fried rice, with veg, chicken, egg, and bacon (good soy, oil, cumin, garlic), and drank too much Riesling, so slightly buzzed.

G’night, all.

[BTW: As I threatened up-thread, I did go out Saturday to shop for LPs at antique stores. In this hick town, where few listen to opera, and fewer still listen on LPs, I found FOUR Maria Callas LPs in pristine condition (as though literally never played) for ONE DOLLAR EACH. FY!]


J Thomas 07.01.14 at 6:09 am

They had a system which had a catastrophic failure mode (a world war), and everyone knew that, it had come close to hitting that failure mode more than once in the preceeding few years. Yet there was no large-scale effort made to recify that dangerous instability, it was just taken as a matter of faith, that the personalities of the leaders and their diplomats would be up to the task.

As you and LFC point out, theoretically we also have a catastrophic failure mode that could result in nuclear contamination of the whole world. We have had various close calls, for example one between India and Pakistan.

During the Reagan administration, some administration and military figures claimed that a US first strike on the USSR would be safe for the USA and perhaps was advisable. Some scientists then suggested the possibility of “nuclear winter” which could be very bad for the USA, a possibility the first-strike enthusiasts had not considered. After about 5 years of study they announced that depending on the time of year the attack was staged, the effects could be much reduced, a mild “nuclear autumn, and so they claimed they had discredited the original studies and the world was safe for nuclear war after all. The claim was made that the nuclear winter scare was created by the KGB with the intention of harming US policy. They did not think that if there was one possible serious problem they had not considered, there might be others.

Later research on “nuclear winter” found that the effect depended strongly on tiny details about particle size etc, so that the results could be tailored to meet various preferred conclusions by adjusting the initial assumptions. Somehow this was used to support the idea that the risk was minimal.

It looks like precisely the sort of catastrophic failure mode that everybody knows about that you’re talking about. However, we have gone 70 years without a nuclear war, and a lot of the smartest people in the world have spent most of their efforts toward the negative goal of preventing nuclear destruction. It’s possible that they have arranged secret methods to prevent nuclear war, that work. Maybe the system is more stable than it looks.

I hate to depend on the possibility of secret cabals that are secretly running the world to keep us from driving ourselves extinct. But that’s pretty much what we have as a rational basis for hope.


William Berry 07.01.14 at 6:16 am

And again, I have to salute bob mcmanus @140 (not 141, as I had it above), for his awesome, very moving comment.

She gives her body.

Indeed. There are depths . . .


John Quiggin 07.01.14 at 6:25 am

I don’t really want to get into the “origins of the war” debate, but I’ve long thought about a post on how the war might have started with the Agadir crisis, with all roles reversed. The ‘scrap of paper’ would have been the French guarantee of Moroccan independence, which they tore up. Lloyd George’s Mansion House speech would have been the proof that all parties in Britain wanted war. Germany would have been reluctantly dragged to war so that small nations might be free. And so on.

It came close enough. An assassination at the height of the crisis would probably have been enough to set it off.


J Thomas 07.01.14 at 6:39 am

Briefly, I am a historical determinist. Those here who think it matters what “choices” were made by individuals at the “proximate” level of causation are, in my opinion, deluded. Even the highest-ranking players in that game (the run-up to the GW), so . . . so fucking PROUD, and so fucking IMPORTANT, were minor pieces shuffled about the board by forces beyond their comprehension.

Yes, sure. When according to the institutional wisdom of some particular institution there is one best decision to make, the institution will arrange to promote leaders who will make that decision. People who don’t reliably make the “correct” decisions will tend to get weeded out. It’s predictable that they will do as they are required to. Betting that they might not is a sucker’s game.

Sometimes they are faced with choices where the institutional wisdom does not say what to do. Then they might do something unpredictable, with random results. This is not necessarily an improvement over them doing the predictable thing.

People who are not so heavily selected are not as certain to be predictable. The system is designed to make their choices matter less. But it’s hard to guard against threats you can’t imagine….

It’s as if we’re puppets, and the system uses a variety of methods to control our behavior, from subtle to brutally direct. But every now and then one of us does something that changes the rules, and then pretty soon the system requires us to something different.

Americans used to laugh at communist organizations where one day everybody would take one stand, and then in a matter of days they’d all switch and take a radically different one — because that’s what the organization did and they had to go along if they wanted to stay in it. That joke is getting less funny….


William Berry 07.01.14 at 7:29 am

“that joke is getting less funny”.


That is why I no longer enjoy thinking (if I ever did).

Prayer of an un-believer: “now that I am retired, Lord— whoever and whatever you may be— help me to be a decent soccer grandpa.

Nothing else matters.

Thank you.


Sasha Clarkson 07.01.14 at 9:29 am

I don’t know whether this post will work, but not long after Thornton Hall posted @133, I saw the cartoon (hopefully) linked below somewhere else, and it seemed approprate :)


Sasha Clarkson 07.01.14 at 9:30 am


Thornton Hall 07.01.14 at 11:57 am

I want to read a lot of what followed my last comment more carefully. In the meantime, I think there’s a value to asking, “what is the purpose of *this* history?” If it is to help us learn the lessons of war, then it seems there would be a particular kind of simplification applied consistently across eras would be useful.


Thornton Hall 07.01.14 at 11:59 am

@154 Right on.


Ronan(rf) 07.01.14 at 12:10 pm

“Most here have probably read William H. McNeil’s The Rise of the West, but I can’t recommend it highly enough. It is a monumental work of analysis and synthesis. One of the best bits: In the later chapters, Professor McNeil anticipates (IMHO) William Gibson’s C21 Western mass society by forty years.”

I haven’t read that specific book, but what I have read from McNeill (while interesting) can’t really tell us much about specific, contingent events like WW1. (Although my own biases would prefer an analysis based on the system as a whole, looking at how the parts interacted in that specific context to create the war , rather than examining each actor in isolation and building a case from there.)
Anyway, I think this Timothy Burke post is a good defence of particularism

(also, I am not Marxist. It seem’s to me that mainstream Marxists have all but given up on explaining the world and have fallen back on whatever mode of analysis best supports their priors ? )


Thornton Hall 07.01.14 at 12:12 pm

@Wm Berry
Thanks for the recs. The giant paperback sounds like something that I’ve thought about re-doing for The Internet Age: a timeline with infinite resolution that starts with all of history on one screen but allows you to click down into increasing detail. The ground-breaking stuff would come linking between locations.

It’s actually a whole alternative model of historical scholarship. Instead of free floating journal articles, arguments would vie to be included as hyperlinks on the official timeline of history housed on a computer in France in the same building with the official gram and meter.


DaveL 07.01.14 at 12:24 pm

@142 Omega Centauri.

I would suggest that the system indeed had a catastrophic failure mode but in fact they didn’t know it. There hadn’t been a world war since the fall of Napoleon. There had been the Franco-Prussian War but that was short and decisive. The various crises leading up to 1914 (Morocco, the Balkan Wars) had all been settled. Even if they had led to war, the international consensus (based partly on the Franco-Prussian War) was that it would be short and decisive, not “catastrophic” except in the sense that all wars are catastrophes.

That consensus was still strong in the summer of 1914.

The memory of that consensus and its utter failure to predict what actually happened should be in every policy makers’ mind as they consider bombing Iran, annexing Crimea, expanding into the South China Sea, or what have you.


Ronan(rf) 07.01.14 at 12:28 pm

I was only trolling with my last line @157, btw.


Ze Kraggash 07.01.14 at 1:33 pm

It’s all in the game, yo. Аll in the game…


Anarcissie 07.01.14 at 2:01 pm

Thornton Hall 07.01.14 at 11:57 am @ 155:
‘… I think there’s a value to asking, “what is the purpose of *this* history?” If it is to help us learn the lessons of war, then it seems there would be a particular kind of simplification applied consistently across eras would be useful.’

History was originally an art (it had a muse, Clio) because people liked to tell stories about what happened. Subsequently it became a pseudo-science and a game. Some of its purposes are harmless, others pernicious, like the recounting of atrocity stories, or the delusions of competence and control its practice seems to inculcate in the psychopaths we choose to permit to govern us. Marx said the point was to not just to understand the world, but to change it, but it is difficult to get beyond the understanding of Bob McManus in 140. ‘Now man can do as he desires, and he must change his desires, or perish.’ And so, how do we change the behavior of the many? Is it a doom genetically determined, or a result of culture, which might be changed before we annihilate ourselves? Many weary of the game.

However, for those not yet weary, I agree that the game could be played differently. One could have history as a state machine or a fractally-organized database instead of linked narratives or programs or assemblages of statistics. The new kinds would probably be no more harmful than the other kinds.


J Thomas 07.01.14 at 5:08 pm

I was only trolling with my last line @157, btw.

I really couldn’t tell.

My limited experience has been that there is no longer any real organization behind Marxism, so pretty much anybody can say they’re a Marxist if they want to. Kind of like Christianity, it used to be the Papacy could declare you a heretic if they didn’t like you, but now anybody can call himself a Christian and who would know better?

So there’s no coherency. There isn’t very much you can say “Marxists do” and be right more than 65%. You can usually depend on them to complain about capitalism and a few things like that, but the agreement doesn’t go very far.

These days Marxists are splintered worse than Protestants.

So when I hear somebody say “Mainstream Marxists do X” usually what I get is that here is somebody who has had even less contact with Marxists than I have, who is so utterly clueless that he doesn’t know how clueless he is.

I didn’t see any particular reason to expect you were trolling, since I meet lots of people who do that sort of thing for real. But I’m glad you were.


Sasha Clarkson 07.01.14 at 5:43 pm

JT “These days Marxists are splintered worse than Protestants.”

I’m pushing 60, and that’s been the case all my life. There’s probably a sociological reason for the apparently parallel development: it’s not for nothing that the WRP used to be called “The Jehovah’s Witnesses of Socialism”, though, to be fair, I find Witnesses are far more polite.

I suppose the Quakers of Socialism would be the Proudhonite anarchists, if there are any left?

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