Unnecessary wars

by John Quiggin on October 22, 2016

I’ve written a lot here about the disaster of the Great War, and the moral culpability of all those who brought it about and continued it. It’s fair to say, I think, that the majority of commenters have disagreed with me and that many of those commenters have invoked some form of historical relativism, based on the idea that we shouldn’t judge the rulers (or for that matter the public) of 1914 on the same criteria we would apply to Bush, Blair and their supporters.

It’s fascinating therefore to read Henry Reynolds’ latest book, Unnecessary Wars about Australia’s participation in the Boer War, and realise that the arguments for and against going to war then were virtually the same as they are now. The same point is made by Douglas Newton in Hell-Bent: Australia’s leap into the Great War . He shows how, far from loyally following Britain into a regrettably necessary war, leading members of the Australian political and military class pushed hard for war. In Newtown’s telling, the eagerness of pro-war Dominion governments helped to tip the scales in the British public debate and in the divided Liberal candidate. I don’t have the expertise to assess this, but there’s no escaping the echoes of the push towards the Iraq war in 2002 and early 2003, when this blog was just starting out.

The case against war was fully developed and strongly argued in the years before 1914, just as the case against slavery was developed and argued in the US before 1861. Those who were on the wrong side can’t be excused on the grounds that they were people of their time.

The only defence that can be made is that those who were eager for war in 1914 had not experienced the disaster of the Great War and its consequences. The failure of today’s war advocates to learn from this disaster makes their position that much worse. But the same is true of anyone defending the warmakers of 1914 on any grounds other than that of their ignorance.

{ 127 comments }

1

mjfgates 10.22.16 at 6:19 am

The Napoleonic Wars were no more remote from 1914 than the First World War is from today. If it’s reasonable to expect modern leaders to remember the Somme, you can damned well blame Kaiser Wilhelm for not remembering Austerlitz. (Not really meaning to single him out there; I’m pretty sure that everybody had at least one “whoopsie, got a few tens of thousands of our boys killed there” moment between 1799-1815.)

2

Jerry Vinokurov 10.22.16 at 7:26 am

I forget, did CT ever have a symposium on Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers?

3

Timothy Scriven 10.22.16 at 8:59 am

I’m suprised I haven’t run into some godawful right-revisionist arguing the allies were on the side of the angels in the great war. No doubt one will present themselves in the comments.

4

Maria 10.22.16 at 9:28 am

No, Jerry. We didn’t.

5

RichardM 10.22.16 at 10:26 am

According to wiki, the Boer War cost £200 million (£22 billion @ 2015). Annual SA gold exports were $3.8 billion USD in 2005. Platinum is similar, diamonds, uranium and chromium significant too. So at the basic level of imperial arithmetic, the claim it was unprofitable would seem to be wrong.

In contrast, the same claim about the Iraq war would be clearly right. Even if you teleported the entire Iraqi oil reserves into a big tank in the midwest, you could barely sell them at a price that would break even on the war.

Which argument is right, and which is wrong, would seem to be at the heart of the issue. In contrast, whether or not you can find someone who made a particular argument doesn’t seem that significant. People in the past didn’t know the future; some of them will have been wrong about it.

6

Placeholder 10.22.16 at 11:16 am

Timothy@3
You haven’t run into David Cameron; “We should be clear that world war one was fought in a just cause and that our ancestors thought it would be bad to have a Prussian-dominated Europe.”
John@0
This blog was created in the Iraq War period when the venture was mounted as the height of ideological preciousness and in the luxurious excess of Aussenpolitik. As before the belle epoque of decades of peace, progress and the liberal way is perished, rather, swallowed up and lost in the infernal device they set running for their ends.

The scene has changed fundamentally. The six weeks’ march to Paris has grown into a world drama. Mass slaughter has become the tiresome and monotonous business of the day and the end is no closer. Bourgeois statecraft is held fast in its own vise. The spirits summoned up can no longer be exorcised. Gone is the euphoria. Gone the patriotic noise in the streets, the chase after the gold-colored automobile, one false telegram after another, the wells poisoned by cholera, the Russian students heaving bombs over every railway bridge in Berlin, the French airplanes over Nuremberg, the spy hunting public running amok in the streets, the swaying crowds in the coffee shops with ear-deafening patriotic songs surging ever higher, whole city neighborhoods transformed into mobs ready to denounce, to mistreat women, to shout hurrah and to induce delirium in themselves by means of wild rumors. Gone, too, is the atmosphere of ritual murder, the Kishinev air where the crossing guard is the only remaining representative of human dignity.

-“Junius”

Now the system faces exhaustion, discreditation, crisis and when the masses turn to radical demands on their wealth and power the elite turns to the popular prejudice it holds in the palm of its hand: the lust for war. Innenpolitik has returned.

The Second International, which had bravely fought and won for the International Worker’s Day on May 1st and International Women’s Day on March 11th was swallowed and consumed by the hunger for patriotism and war. The whole conference voting for international peace and solidarity and every constituent party captured by its own ‘social patriotism.’ Lenin falling of his chair at the news the whole German SDPer to vote for war credits (save Karl Liebknecht). Keir Hardie died a broken man.

And many of us still say the universal conflagration – the lights that went and the world-fire that was set on August 1, 1914 did not burn out until August 15, 1945. That Hiroshima air.

Working men and working women! Mothers and fathers! Widows and orphans! Wounded and crippled! We call to all of you who are suffering from the war and because of the war: Beyond all borders, beyond the reeking battlefields, beyond the devastated cities and villages – Proletarians of all countries, unite!

– Lenin et al., Zimmerwald, 1915.

7

BenK 10.22.16 at 11:36 am

I’m just wondering why the 1861 sentence didn’t read ‘the push towards war’ instead of ‘the case against slavery.’ After all, the theme of the whole post…

8

ZM 10.22.16 at 11:49 am

John Quiggin,

“He shows how, far from loyally following Britain into a regrettably necessary war, leading members of the Australian political and military class pushed hard for war. ”

But Australia didn’t have conscription for the First World War, and also there was a national vote allowed on the matter of conscription. So even if some people did push hard for war, there were a lot of Australians who pushed back against the war drive.

In the town I grew up in one of the big hills overlooking the main street was turned into a white quartz rock billboard with VOTE NO for conscription, although this same hill had a quartz rock V on it at the end of WWII.

I think its difficult sometimes judging if wars are necessary. It can be difficult to decide about a war at the start, and easier to decide about it afterwards unfortunately.

I remember first really learning about the First World War in any detail from The Anne Of Green Gables series when I was a kid. The final proper book in the series ends with the war, and it starts with the young men all sort of thinking of the bravery and so on, and ends with them dying or wounded mostly, although its set at home with the women and older people and children hearing the news and waiting for the war to end. There is a later book in the series part based in the early days of the Second World War, with a lot of bitterness about war in contrast to the WWI book.

But I couldn’t really say that WWII shouldn’t have been fought by the Allies. But a lot of the information I have to decide that WWII was a just war, if there can be just wars, is based on information that came to light during the war or after the war.

I didn’t agree with the war in Afghanistan and went on at least one march against it but I had to think about it a lot and wasn’t sure at first, since the Taliban were so terrible, and I had no idea it would turn into this protracted extended group of wars in the Middle East.

But I read something by Kim Beazley saying he already committed Australia to following America to war in the Middle East when he was Defence Minister in a conversation with someone from the USA Government that he didn’t realise the significance of at the time.

So it would seem that Australia was already committed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq before they even started.

I would like to see a reappraisal of security policy generally really. The situation with China and America has calmed down since a few years ago, but still has the prospects to be unsettling. And I don’t like what’s happening with America and Russia at the moment, and Julie Bishop the Australian Foreign Minister said she witnessed a discussion about Syria where trust had completely broken down and she thought that all options need to be on the table to stop destruction now, including no arms sales to Syrian groups. They might not have many munitions factories of their own if other countries stopped supplying them with weapons and ammunition.

9

stevenjohnson 10.22.16 at 12:11 pm

Looking at the Amazon page on The Sleepwalkers, they describe it as a study of how “well-intentioned” people…it is generally felt that national power and prestige and prosperity are good things to intend. The British Empire in particular was deemed to be an amazingly good thing for humanity, an idea revived for popular consumption in steampunk. And this is doubly true I think when somehow one nation’s place in the sun is a bad intention, yet an empire whose place is under the noonday sun, everywhere in the world when it is local noon. Yet if you reversed the proposition, it would be just as senseless. Moralizing about individual psychology, contra Corey Robin, just doesn’t seem to be all that enlightening.

I suppose it’s possible Clark was misrepresented. But the commercial interest in bottom lining the selling point makes it seem unlikely. Also, looking at the table of contents, the chapter and section titles suggest the book neglects Anglo-French tensions (Fashoda seems to be missing,) the whole Russian-Japanese war and subsequent revolution, the Austr0-Hungarian seizures of the Sanjak and Bosnia. The Venezuelan crisis of 1902? At least one of the Moroccan crises and one of the Balkan wars gets into the table of contents.

Still, despite the obvious usefulness of examining the particular crisis that led to the general catastrophe, it is not at all clear that Clark has any notion that any of these crises could have led to war. Nor does Clark seem to have a notion that maybe, in a system where state power engineers a national market in a competitive world wide economic system, said state powers will pursue the competition by multifarious means, including state violence, a competition leading to negative outcomes. That, in other words, the breakdown of the general peace between the great empires was an inevitability, even if the date was an accident found by sleepwalkers. No doubt the notion seems outre for those who believe at heart in the magic of the market.

The OP’s concern with the moral responsibility for the war seems to focus solely on one train of events that happened to result in a bad accident, rather than a bad system that would inevitably break down. The comparison to American slavery is suggestive. To avoid the Civil War, the slavers would have had to give up their property and power. To avoid the Great War, the rulers would have had to give up their empires. States would have to forego the good intentions of defending their national interests by all means necessary. Like the slave power in America, though we may wisely declare after the fact their surrender will ultimately benefit even them, however shall we teach them this wisdom in defiance of their daily experience? How shall it profit the rulers to retain their souls if they lose the world?

10

chris y 10.22.16 at 12:21 pm

mjfgates @1

I was told that until the Great War, the Napoleonic Wars were colloquially referred to as “The Great War”. So, not forgotten.

11

Layman 10.22.16 at 12:47 pm

“The only defence that can be made is that those who were eager for war in 1914 had not experienced the disaster of the Great War and its consequences. The failure of today’s war advocates to learn from this disaster makes their position that much worse.”

I confess it’s hard for me to grasp why the experience of the Great War would be internalized as a lesson by today’s leaders – by what mechanism? They have no direct experience of it at all. The horror of the war is so remote as to reside in the realm of fantasy or fiction. As to the consequences, today’s leaders and war advocates of whom you speak reside in countries that are by and large the beneficiaries of past wars. The US, UK, Germany, France, Austria, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands – these countries are the very definition of wealth and prosperity. Russia is wealthy and prosperous compared to most other countries, as is Turkey. Why should leaders of such countries eschew war on the basis of experience? They have essentially no negative experience of it at all, and other people’s negative experience of it is hardly transferable over a gap of 100 years.

12

Placeholder 10.22.16 at 1:02 pm

“But Australia didn’t have conscription for the First World War, and also there was a national vote allowed on the matter of conscription. So even if some people did push hard for war, there were a lot of Australians who pushed back against the war drive.”
Isn’t that the point? The ‘british-to-their-bootstraps’ establishment wanted to harvest the youth for the most threatening war Europe had ever seen and the ‘actually I’m Catholic and I’m here cause you deported my dad’ brigades forced and won a referendum against it in Australia.
And Quebec https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscription_Crisis_of_1917
And Ireland. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscription_Crisis_of_1918
The fact that they failed is not the point. The fact that Gough Whitlam, *cough*, Balibo Five *cough cough* ahem…that’s the point.

“But I couldn’t really say that WWII shouldn’t have been fought by the Allies.”
The ‘agonizing quandary’ of whether America should have gone to war is somewhat undermined by Nazi Germany declaring war on them and the moral complusion ‘we must do something’ might perhaps be undermined by France doing something and being utterly trounced. Finally the blinding raging sanctimony of the warmongers ‘but how can you be pacifist when Hitler is attacking you!!!?!’ is a little undermined by the fact that, yes, a global warmonger out to conquer everything in his path will actually be attacking you and not by permanent metaphorical extension. “and Putin-Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, Appeasement Gerry Adams Munich”.

“So it would seem that Australia was already committed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq before they even started.”
Par vous. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ezs3dp8JKJs

13

erichwwk 10.22.16 at 1:12 pm

Since you seem to be interested in the causes of wars, wonder if you are familiar with John Swomley’s work. Since I only became aware of him through a fluke (happened to be with someone getting an email (believe it was from Elise Boulding) announcing John’s death. He was surprised I wasn’t familiar with his work , and since he had worked with Elise and her husband Kenneth in Kansas City at FOR Peace Center, I looked into it. I was so impressed I have read most of John’s work. I highly recommend at least “American Empire-the Political Ethics of Twentieth Century Conquests” [ http://bit.ly/2esBKnC ] . Along the lines of AJ Taylor, it pretty much does away with the “devil theory of international relations” and lies to rest MANY previous myths I was unaware I held. The first eye opener was the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US equivalent of the Reichtags fire. John made a passing reference that the two leading newspapers in Honolulu, had in fact headlined “Kurusu Bluntly Warned Nation Ready For Battle- Japanese May Strike Over The Weekend” on Sunday,November 31, 1941. I was VERY skeptical, but turns out, not only is this true, [ http://bit.ly/1zuS3nb ] but so were most of his other assertions on causes and events leading to war.

14

Placeholder 10.22.16 at 1:22 pm

Benk@7 “I’m just wondering why the 1861 sentence didn’t read ‘the push towards war’ instead of ‘the case against slavery.’ After all, the theme of the whole post…”

See that’s what I’m talking about. The Confederacy attacked the vestiges of the Union. Like with ‘but WWII’ this latest very serious and very necessary war of choice is excused by constant metaphorical extension from an unimpeachable war of alien aggression. Anti-militarism and Anti-imperialism is always obligated to the logic of pacifism.

15

Brett Dunbar 10.22.16 at 1:47 pm

The situation for the various participants varies.

Serbia, Belgium and France were directly attacked and had no choice other than fighting or surrender. Serbia had agreed to seventeen of the twenty one demands in full, three with reservations and rejected one.

Germany and Austria-Hungary were the aggressors and actively sought war.

Italy and Japan were essentially opportunistic, both feeling that they could make gains at a relatively low cost, Japan correctly, Italy incorrectly.

Britain, Russia and the USA were in a position of either fighting or suffering a major foreign policy defeat.

Britain had guaranteed Belgian independence and the brutal German invasion (some of the atrocity stories were false, many were not) convinced Lloyd George that war was a moral imperative, while the attack on France was insufficient. He and his immediate supporters gave the Cabinet a pro-war majority. So it really was about Belgium. This was on top of a German naval programme obviously aimed at Britain. If German aggression were not stopped now then they would be harder to stop next time if France and Russia were German clients.

Russia faced the destruction of its ally Serbia even after Serbia had agreed nearly all of Austria-Hungary’s demands.

The USA had got Germany to halt unrestricted submarine warfare after the Lusitania only by threatening war. The resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare left them with a credibility problem if no declaration was made.

I’m not very familiar with what happened with the Ottoman empire.

The view that the Entante were morally right is pretty much the consensus in military history. The popular view is extremely dated and not well supported by evidence.

The desire to avoid another world war was one of the reasons that Britain and France were so reluctant to oppose Germany during the 1930s. Faced by a relentless aggressor it is normally better to fight now with as allies than later alone.

16

ZM 10.22.16 at 2:05 pm

Placeholder,

“Par vous. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ezs3dp8JKJs

No, I mean years beforehand in the 1980s.

Kim Beazley was the Defence Minister in previous Labour governments, not in the Liberal Howard Government that was in power during the starts of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. It was more a strategic commitment rather than a declaration of war:

“The United States had regarded our contribution to the Tanker War [part of the Iran-Iraq war] activity as an earnest of good faith that new Australian defence policies still contemplated an ability to respond positively to allies.

I did then recollect a call from him sometime in October 1987 when he had opened:

“You remember that conversation we had last year when you said that even though your forces were structured to defend Australia, you would still work elsewhere if your ally needed you? … Well, this is the call.”

The conversation he was alluding to was a fierce argument before the White Paper was produced but after the publication of Paul Dibb’s Review of Australia’s Defence Capabilities.

I had not understood at the time of his call how much of a test he considered it. In his mind it was evidently a little more than normal banter.”

http://www.regionalsecurity.org.au/Resources/Documents/vol4no3Beazley.pdf

17

kidneystones 10.22.16 at 2:09 pm

The role of Commonwealth and Empire troops in Britain’s wars is immense and complex. On simple terms, elites in Commonwealth nations often shared values, politics, and economic interests with the ‘mother nation’ and each other. We should not, therefore, be surprised to find elites in Australia cheering for a war championed by elites in London. Those further down the pecking order were often hostile to the idea of going to war. In India, a sizeable minority elected to fight alongside the Japanese against Britain.

As for learning from mistakes, we clearly haven’t. It’s too easy to forget how Americans of all political stripes cheered once the bombs started landing in Iraq in 2003. Ignored now by many supporting the only candidate directly involved in America’s 21st century wars of choice is the fact that America under the Democrats is now fighting five wars, or the same war on five different fronts. None of which is likely to end in time for the Peace Prize President to declare victory, although the pliant media may oblige with a ‘thank goodness we brought that part of Bush’s mess to an end.

The press seems much more interested in securing victory for the Democratic candidate before the voters get their chance. A couple of days ago it was difficult to see any other outcome. That’s no longer the case. The race had tightened again.

Try as many might to forget the last 12 years of war under two two-term presidents from two different parties with the prospect of at least another four from at least one of the two candidates, ordinary Americans seem quite ready to take a break.

On a personal note. The one lesson learned from the Great Was in my own family was to avoid war if at all possible. My grandfather wounded severely twice and sent back to the front in both instances did all he could to ensure his own sons delayed enlisting as long as possible.

18

Jake Gibson 10.22.16 at 2:38 pm

World War 2 and possible the American Civil War are just about the only wars that I can think of that might qualify as a “necessary war”. I have long held that there are no “just wars”, only horrible wars and even worse wars.

3rd time the charm?

19

rea 10.22.16 at 4:54 pm

you can damned well blame Kaiser Wilhelm for not remembering Austerlitz.

Or at least Jena–Franz Joseph and Nicholas were the ones to remember Austerlitz

20

Gareth Wilson 10.22.16 at 6:36 pm

I haven’t seen any alternate history stories where the British Empire decides not to fight the Boer War and leaves Orange Free State and the Republic of Transvaal independent. Of course, there’s probably enough grim dystopias already. And maybe this covers it well enough: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hek-XimOhGA

21

George 10.22.16 at 7:17 pm

“All history is contemporary history,” the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce wrote nearly a hundred years ago. Modern historians’ agree to some extent with this, aware that the writing of history is an imperfect reconstruction of the past tainted with contemporary prejudices. Some postmodern historians’ go so far as to doubt whether anything approaching genuine knowledge of the past is possible. But most people writing history today do engage to some degree in historical relativism, aware that the past was to some extent unique. To start assigning moral responsibility to past historical figures ignores what the study of history can truly offer. Looking at how historical collective mentalities or institutions shaped individual actions doesn’t just help us understand past events, but also can make us more attuned to the existence of these complexities within society, therefore helping us comprehend the present.

22

stevenjohnson 10.22.16 at 7:34 pm

Gareth Wilson @20 Well, there is the S.M. Stirling Draka series. From wikipedia, “The world of the Domination diverges from our world at the time of the American Revolutionary War, when the Netherlands declares war on Great Britain, resulting in the loss of its Cape Colony to the British. After defeat in Revolutionary War, the Loyalists who historically went to Canada are instead resettled in the new Crown Colony of Drakia (named after Sir Francis Drake) in South Africa, taking their slaves with them. Thousands of Hessian German mercenaries who fought on the Loyalist side are also paid off with land grants in the new colony. The Crown Colony of Drakia (later, the Dominion of the Draka) is an aggressive militaristic slave-owning society, massively influenced by the inherent racist attitudes of these American slave owner settlers that are allowed to run unchecked, reinforced over the course of the late 18th and 19th century by 25,000 Icelanders fleeing their island after the 1783-84 Volcanic devastation. French royalists, 150,000 defeated American Confederates and other reactionary refugees also emigrate to the colony. The much earlier Dutch Boer settlers are completely assimilated by these subsequent immigrants.”

This doesn’t sound like entertainment to me, so I haven’t read a word.

23

Eli Rabett 10.22.16 at 8:00 pm

All they had to do is remember the US Civil War. Horses charging into machine guns and repeating rifles do not lead to longevity

24

Scott P. 10.22.16 at 8:44 pm

The difference with the Boer War is the Boers were not a threat to the peace and stability of Europe, while the German military aristocracy certainly were.

25

bruce wilder 10.22.16 at 8:46 pm

The case against war was fully developed and strongly argued in the years before 1914 . . .

Was it? I wonder about that.

Continuing the war, once the bloodbath is underway and its futility is fully evident (which surely is objectively the case as early as 1915), seems to me to be the point where moral culpability on all sides applies most forcibly. It is on this point that I think arguments from before the war cannot have the weight the horror of experience must give them. Elite leadership across Europe failed. It was a symptom of degenerate aristocracy clinging to irresponsible power. Continuing to turn the crank on the meat grinder without any realistic strategic hope or aim should have condemned the military establishment as well as the political establishment in several countries where it didn’t. Hindenburg was there to appoint Hitler; Petain to surrender France. It is inexplicable, really, unless you can see that the moral and practical case against war is not fully developed between the wars; if there’s a critique that made use of experience in its details in the 1920s and 1930s and made itself heard, I missed it — it seems like opposites of such an appreciation triumph.

And, before the war? Are the arguments against war really connecting? There’s certainly a socialist argument against war, based on the illegitimacy of war’s class divisions, which were conveniently exemplified in military rank and reactionary attitudes among the officer class. That internationalist idea doesn’t seem to survive the war’s first hours, let alone first weeks. Universal conscription in France and Germany created a common experience. Several generations learned not so much the horror of mass slaughter as war as the instant of national glory in dramatic crises and short-lived conflicts with a decisive result.

26

bruce wilder 10.22.16 at 8:47 pm

Certainly, there had been arguments made before the war and even several disparate political movements that had adopted ideas critical of imperialism by military means. I question, though, how engaged they were with mainstream politics of the day and therefore how fully developed we can say their ideas or arguments were.

Consider the Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907 as examples of the state of the practical politics of a program for peace. The first Conference was called by the Czar and the second by Theodore Roosevelt — no little irony in either case. Without looking it up I recall Barbara Tuchman using the 1907 Conference as an illustration of the growing war fever gripping western (so-called) civilization, as many of the delegates apparently sat around discussing how they longed for a cleansing war. I cannot pretend to understand the psychology, but I accept that it was prevalent, as least for a certain class. Morally reprehensible this glorification of war? I certainly think so. Was it engaged by fully developed argument? When?

The long effort by reactionary forces to assemble a coalition capable of defeating Napoleon had created in Europe what for a time was called the Concert of Europe. Austria, Prussia and Russia initially cooperated in suppressing liberal and nationalist aspirations and that effort gradually morphed into efforts to harness or channel rising liberalism and nationalism and industrial power. It was the evolved apparatus descended from Metternich’s Congress of Vienna thru Bismarck’s Congress of Berlin that made wars brief and generally decisive in regard to some policy end. The long list of successive crises and brief wars that stevenjohnson references above — often cited as evidence of the increasing fragility of the general peace — could just as well be cited as evidence for the continued effectiveness of the antique Concert of Europe in containing and managing the risk of general war. (Fashoda 1898, Venezuela 1902, Russo-Japanese War 1905, Agadir 1911, Balkan Wars 1911-1912 — it can be a very long list).

It was against the background of this Great Game of elite diplomacy and saber-rattling and brief, limited wars that efforts had been made to erect an arguably more idealistic apparatus of liberal international peace thru international law, limitations of armaments and the creation of formal mechanisms for the arbitration of disputes. If this was the institutional program produced by “the fully developed and strongly argued” case against war, it wasn’t that fully developed or strongly argued, as demonstrated by the severe shortcomings of the Hague Conferences.

It was one of the mechanisms for peace by international law — the neutrality of Belgium mutually guaranteed by Britain and Germany in the Treaty of London 1839 — that triggered Britain’s entry as an Allied Power and general war. There is, of course, no particular reason Australia should have taken an interest in Belgium’s neutrality, but it was that issue that seemed to compel the consensus of opinion in favor of war in Britain’s government.

The consequences were horrific as mass mobilization and industrialized warfare combined with primitive means of command-and-control and reactionary often incompetent leadership to create a blood-bath of immense scale. (See my first comment.)

What I don’t find is the alternative lever or mechanism at the ready, put in place by this fully developed argument against war. The mechanism in place was the neutrality of Belgium guaranteed by international law (arguably reinforced in the stipulations of the Hague Conference of 1907). If Germany doesn’t violate Belgian neutrality, the result in the West at least is stalemate as France and Germany are evenly matched across their narrow and mostly impassable frontier; in the East, Russia must concede to Germany even as Austria must concede to Russia; — instead of a general conflagration, the result is another negotiated settlement of some sort, perhaps arbitrated by Britain or the U.S.

The urgent questions of the day regarding the organization of modern liberal polities in the territories of Ottoman Turkey, Hapsburg Austria and Czarist Russia — what is the strongly argued and fully developed case there? How is the cause of Polish nationalism, or Finnish nationalism or Yugoslav nationalism to be handled or managed without violence and war? The antique system of a Concert of Europe had kinda sorta found a way by means of short and decisive engagements followed by multi-power negotiation, a pattern that had continued with the gradual emergence of Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania. But, where was the argument for managing irredentism and nationalist aspiration peacefully?

27

Jerry Vinokurov 10.22.16 at 9:20 pm

@stevenjohnson,

I don’t see how you can get an adequate account of Clark’s book just by reading an Amazon blurb and glancing at a table of contents. Your synopsis is totally mistaken (I also don’t recall any mention of “well-intentioned people” in the book).

What Clark has done was to write an extremely detailed diplomatic history of the July Crisis and the events preceding it. He gets into some depth on questions like the conflicts over colonies (Fashoda is discussed, starting on p. 132), but he also makes the strong case that this conflict was only one of the contributing factors to the war. His major focus is on the structures of the foreign policy apparatus within the government of each of the participants, and the interactions between the various factions both within and across states. No one comes out looking particularly good from this analysis, but it’s not as simplistic as saying that the conflict was predetermined by struggles over capital or whatever; in fact, there were many potential avenues that could have avoided war, and it took the coincidence of some really terrible bluffs being made and called by lots of different people in order for the war to actually happen. I’m happy to cite specific examples if people are interested because I have the book handy.

The Sleepwalkers is really a valuable book; it taught me a great deal that I did not know before (which, granted, may not mean much), but it also really changed the way that I think about WWI. The standard explanation that is often given in college courses, and which pervades the popular imagination, is that either the Germans were wicked mustache-twirling villains, or that the conflict was structurally predetermined by the alliance system. Clark makes a very convincing case that this is incorrect, that in addition to the alliance system which of course provided the framework within which foreign policy decisions were being made, there was a great deal of contingency in the decision to go to war, and that the key decision makers were acting under many misapprehensions of both their own abilities and the abilities and information available to their counterparts. It’s really worth your while to read it if you’re interested in the causes of the war.

28

Brett Dunbar 10.22.16 at 9:43 pm

One reason for the high casualties in the American Civil War was that the armies had an unusual habit of marching to fairly close range and then firing volley after volley from short range while static. This surprised foreign military observers who were used to troops firing a volley then charging into the enemy line. The ACW had had an exceptionally high proportion of casualties due to small arms at about 80%. It seems that having a bayonet helps even thought it was rarely used directly as the soldiers rarely hung around to get stabbed. Charging directly into the enemy formation while you would take heavy casualties if you got there you could scatter the enemy force and win. This had been effective during the Russo-Japanese War, at the time the most recent great power war.

29

greg 10.22.16 at 11:02 pm

All war is for profit. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fought for profit. The profit from Iraqi oil and whatever was expected from Afghanistan were irrelevant. Weapons of mass destruction, the Taliban, even Isis, were and are all issues that could have been more efficiently handled, but instead were pretexts to convince the credulous of the necessity of war. The real profit was the profit taken by the military-political-industrial complex in the treasure and stolen rights of the American people. That is the bottom line for why we went to war, and why we are still there, and why, if our elites persist, we might go to war with Russia or China.

The good news is that, because of the unrelenting depredations by American elites on the treasure and rights of the people, the United States is increasingly unable to wage war effectively. The bad news is that our elites are too blind to see this.

America: Consuming your future today.

30

dpm 10.22.16 at 11:19 pm

The last big war in western europe prior to 1914 was the Franco-Prussian nonsense in 1870, and that started in August and was over by Christmas, so maybe it wasn’t crazy to expect a short war.
I can understand the argument that going to war was wrong in 1914, and certainly agree that continuing it was morally bankrupt after the nature of the struggle became apparent. But I don’t understand the argument that the decision to fight was justified in 1939 if it was not justified in 1914. In both cases, Australia followed the UK, and in both cases the UK fought to prevent German domination of Europe, with the proximate cause being the invasion of a neutral country. Of course, with hindsight Hitler looks much worse than the Kaiser, but its not clear that was true from the standpoint of 1939. At that point, Hitler had never committed genocide, but the Kaiser had (in Namibia).

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John Quiggin 10.23.16 at 12:24 am

erichwwk @13 Thanks for the suggestion of Swomley.

George: This encapsulates the problems I have with historical relativism.

“To start assigning moral responsibility to past historical figures ignores what the study of history can truly offer. ”

But when does someone become a historical figure? Is GW Bush historical? Kissinger? Mao? Eisenhower?

And if we approach history with a strictly non-judgemental attitude to its actors, how does this help us form judgements about what should be done in the present.

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Mark Pontin 10.23.16 at 1:10 am

There’s a book called THE SOCIAL HISTORY OF THE MACHINE GUN by John Ellis, that’s very insightful about how WWI turned out like it did.

Very likely some of you have read it. For those who haven’t, I recommend it.

33

Omega Centauri 10.23.16 at 1:13 am

The decision to continue it seems to be a natural consequence of the human proclivity towards doubling down. This operates on many levels, some of which are related to the need for vindication of those involved in the decision to start the conflict. There is also the horror that if you end a war without achieving something the masses can identify with as victory, then the families of those killed will see that their loved ones died in vain -for someone else’s mistake (very bad for your political future). And of course if you quit, what is to stop the enemy from extracting reparations or worse from you, because in his eyes, you are the criminal party. Much easier to try yet one more offensive, or to lure a formerly neutral party into joining in and opening up another front, which you hope will break the stalemate.

The thing that appalls me so much about the Great War, is how so many nations were dragged in, by promises of booty. In many ways it resembles the Peloponnisian war, in its inability to allow neutrals to be neutrals.

34

kidneystones 10.23.16 at 1:24 am

The title of the OP encapsulates the problem. I’d argue that all wars fit the bill.

The assumption that some wars are necessary and others are not is built into the discussion and is, for me, the central problem with this and all other discussions on war.

It isn’t at all clear to me that any wars are ‘necessary.’ That is not to say that coercive violence is obsolete and that pacifism is the goal. That seems to me highly unrealistic.

Contra JQm we do not need to understand history to understand that all future wars are the worst possible solution to any conflict. The problem is that when the powerful can impose their will upon the weak they do, and will, unless the weak band together to reduce the power of the strong.

Japan currently has a constitution that makes war illegal.

Surely this form of constraint on state violence should be the norm, not the exception. The fact that so few nations are interested in making war illegal speaks volumes about our general commitment to peaceful conflict resolution. States want a monopoly on violence within the state, but in most ‘civilized’ societies a host of other institutions and statutes exist to constrain, not eliminate, capricious and unjustified incidents of state violence. Yes, ‘bad’ actors exist and have to be dealt with. Our current ‘solution’ to the bad actor problem within states is to arm and fund them.

We invent fantasy patriots, rather than recognize that most/all of these individuals are self-interested individuals seeking to profit from destroying/changing the status quo.

Ben Franklin was a British slave-owner and capitalist who spent his years in the mother nation lobbying the British parliament on behalf of special interests and others seeking to enrich themselves. When better opportunities arrived Franklin and other self-interested actors seized the moment by force. One can make a persuasive case that Franklin and others were right to do so.

We are not, however, living in the latter stages of the 18th century. People do learn from history, or can. We have numerous examples of how the state is not serving the interests of ordinary citizens. In that sense little has changed since the time of Franklin. The US and Russia may be the last nations to surrender the ‘right’ to attack and wage war on ‘enemies.’

That does not mean the other nations should not renounce this ‘right’ to attack other nations and wage war. There have some rare instances where international police actions/wars have curtailed massacres. Interventions too often occur too late. A great many ‘good’ state actors such as Sweden and Canada are deeply committed to the international sale of weapons, whilst making weepy noises about the deplorable level of gun violence in the US, the free world’s favorite whipping boy.

35

faustusnotes 10.23.16 at 1:37 am

If any of the major powers in the war had quit in 1915, would the consequences at home have been as limited as simply some leaders losing their positions? The spectre of revolution was haunting the continent, and military failure is associated with that revolution happening in Germany and the USSR. Perhaps the leaders of France and Germany decided not to back down in 1915 because they thought that was a risk?

(I don’t know how much the fear of revolution exercised the western leadership at that time, so this is a genuine question).

36

LFC 10.23.16 at 1:47 am

There is not too much point in arguing about whether “the case against war was fully developed” before 1914, because “fully developed” means different things to different people.

There were various sorts of arguments against war in reasonably wide circulation before 1914 — and this fact is important from a number of standpoints — but there was also a lot of war-glorification in elite and intellectual circles. The devastation wrought by WW1 had an enormous impact on the way war was thought about and discussed in elite European circles: with the exception of certain sectors in Germany and perhaps one or two other places, it was hard after WW1 to find praise for war in elite circles as being “healthy,” “cleansing,” “natural,” “good for the race,” “inevitable,” and so on.

This kind of language, so easy to find in elite discourse before 1914, largely (not completely, but largely) vanished from elite (and a lot of popular) discourse after WW1. Plenty of Anglophone and other intellectuals before 1914 spoke about war in Social Darwinist, quasi-eugenicist terms (although some pro-eugenicists, such as David Starr Jordan, opposed war on the grounds that it would disproportionately kill “the best” of “the race”).

‘Pro-war’ arguments were still made in various ways and contexts after 1918, of course, but the character and language of those arguments changed. There were some who still adhered to the Social Darwinist notions prevalent before the war, such as the Austro-Hungarian chief of staff, who wrote in his memoirs after the war that it had been an inevitable result of “mankind’s struggle for existence.”[*] But this kind of thinking, as already indicated, became much less prevalent as the war dragged on and then after it ended.

——-

[*] “It is in accordance with this great principle [i.e., mankind’s struggle for existence] that the catastrophe of the world war came about as a result of the motive forces in the lives of states and peoples, like a thunderstorm which must by its nature discharge itself”: Conrad von Hoetzendorff, Aus meiner Dienstzeit, as quoted (and translated) in J. Joll, Europe Since 1870 (Harper & Row, 1973), p.164.
Re the reference to “the motive forces in the lives of states and peoples” and the implication that such “forces” must inevitably bring them into violent conflict: does anyone talk this way any more? Afaik, not even writers for, e.g., The Weekly Standard or National Review or Commentary or The American Conservative would write in this manner today.

37

Placeholder 10.23.16 at 3:49 am

@kidneystones

Japan currently has a constitution that makes war illegal.

To go further it declares “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” I know many Japanese who know that. I am yet to meet a German who can provide even a garbled rendition of “Acts tending to and undertaken with intent to disturb the peaceful relations between nations, especially to prepare for a war of aggression, shall be unconstitutional. They shall be made a criminal offence.

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Gareth Wilson 10.23.16 at 6:08 am

It’s more important that Japan has a public opinion that makes war unpopular.

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kidneystones 10.23.16 at 7:52 am

37 Yes. And given that Japan has morphed from isolationist to empire builder and into the only nation so far to arrive at this relatively enlightened state in only a century, or so, I’d say the rest of us can give it at least a good go.

That topic never comes up, of course. Whatever good points a discussion on ‘necessary’ wars may have, surely a better discussion is why any of us still consider all war to be anything but a mark of failure.

38. Both are vital, but if I had to choose I’d agree. The problem is that Japan can look around and see, with some justification, that practically no other nation sees the world the same way.

40

Peter T 10.23.16 at 8:56 am

faustusnotes

fear of “socialism” – meaning, broadly, greater popular participation in politics – was explicitly a major factor in the German and Russian decisions for war. In both cases, they hoped victory would shore up increasingly fragile conservative dominance. It also underlay British and French attitudes. 1870-1914 was a very stressful time for elites.

1915 was too early for any of the combatants to settle. By mid-late 1916 there were some voices in favour of negotiations, but the Germans would have none of it then or in 1917. By the time the Germans were prepared to talk (mid 1918), they had lost. Fear of socialism was again a major factor in the post-war settlements.

Liberals of today see World War I as the great disaster that shattered the pre-war liberal order. In the same way, the generation post 1815 saw the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars as the great disaster that shattered the happy old order. The extent of the damage and loss was much the same in each, although World War I took 5 years to do what the French wars did in 25.

41

Igor Belanov 10.23.16 at 9:55 am

dpm @30

“Of course, with hindsight Hitler looks much worse than the Kaiser, but its not clear that was true from the standpoint of 1939. At that point, Hitler had never committed genocide, but the Kaiser had (in Namibia).”

Don’t talk daft. Wilhelmine Germany was a polity that was heavily skewed towards the interests of the aristocracies and big business, but it was also a state that respected the rule of law and tolerated the existence of multiple political parties (including that of the organised working class). There were no Nuremburg Laws against Jews, and German brutality in the colonies was hardly worse than that of other empires (if anything, ‘plucky little Belgium’ treated its colonial subjects the worst).

Your theory seems to come close to A.J.P. Taylor’s bilge that Hitler was the logical continuation of long-term German historical development.

42

Peter T 10.23.16 at 10:48 am

“Wilhelmine Germany was a polity that was heavily skewed towards the interests of the aristocracies and big business, but it was also a state that respected the rule of law and tolerated the existence of multiple political parties (including that of the organised working class).”

See Zabern Incident, Prussian three-class voting system, lack of control of Reichstag over budgets or major policy areas, anti-socialist laws…

Wilhelmine Germany was a complex polity, which somewhat resembled the modern US in its multiplicity of veto points and the degree to which industrial, military and landowning elites held control through back-channels and various institutional levers. Many of its mechanisms were deliberately designed to provide the appearance, but not the substance, of parliamentary democracy. For instance, the military took the largest share of the budget, but the responsible ministers were not accountable to parliament (this is not to compare it to Hitler’s regime).

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Igor Belanov 10.23.16 at 12:04 pm

Peter T @42

“See Zabern Incident, Prussian three-class voting system, lack of control of Reichstag over budgets or major policy areas, anti-socialist laws…”

Well exactly, that is what I meant by ‘heavily skewed towards the interests of aristocracies and big business’. But all those instances are a drop in the ocean compared to Nazi Germany.

The complexity of Wilhelmine Germany was probably a result of the political failure of the liberal bourgeoisie in Germany, and the fact that there were no major political rifts to shatter the power of the aristocracy (it took until WWII to finally achieve this). Nevertheless, as Peter T suggests, even though the Prussian monarchical regime retained the formal political ascendancy, it took a byzantine institutional morass to keep different classes and political interests together, and the Wilhelmine elite wasn’t alone in seeking to maintain its position by recklessly fanning the flames of national chauvinism. The irony was that 1914 proved that this policy was extraordinarily successful in the short term and subsequent events showed that it was completely disastrous after that.

44

George 10.23.16 at 12:24 pm

John Quiggin- The problem I was trying to suggest was that of presentism. This is an issue that many university history departments take pains to caution their students about in courses on historiography. Similarly these courses on historiography tend to teach that there is value in explaining the present by looking at the past, but warn that by making past events serve present needs, history can be distorted.

Personally I have found the essays of the late Tony Judt brilliant at explaining the present by referring to history. In one of his essays on how the modern Belgian political system came into being, Judt carefully dissected hundreds of years of economic, political and social to offer an explanation. Obviously he was making a judgement call as to which facts of history were most useful, served his purposes, but reading his essay the reader is aware that Judt is striving for ojectivity, however elusive it might. To me this is the best kind of history writing. What the reader chooses to do with this information, what judgements he or she might wish to make is another matter.

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Brett Dunbar 10.23.16 at 3:21 pm

German colonial policy was notably bad. German behaviour in Namibia was worse than almost any other colonial administration. After Belgium seized Congo it had the worst record of any existing regime.

Belgium took over Congo in 1908 before that it had been a private empire under the personal rule of Leopold II until his behaviour led to the Belgian government confiscating it from him. Belgian parliamentary rule, while at then bottom end of colonial administrations, was a pretty big improvement.

46

Mike Schilling 10.23.16 at 6:03 pm

It seems to be received wisdom on all sides these days that Woodrow Wilson was a warmongering hypocrite for running on a platform of peace and neutrality and then entering WWI shortly after his reelection. But between sinking American merchant ships and conspiring with Mexico to support an invasion of the US, I don’t see that Germany gave him much choice.

47

Jerry Vinokurov 10.23.16 at 7:00 pm

Brett Dunbar writes:

Serbia, Belgium and France were directly attacked and had no choice other than fighting or surrender. Serbia had agreed to seventeen of the twenty one demands in full, three with reservations and rejected one.

This is a vast oversimplification especially as regards the ultimatum, as Clark makes very clear. The ultimatum was delivered on July 23, 1914 and had 10 points (although I suppose depending on how you count various subpoints you may get 21; this isn’t especially relevant except that I’m using 10 because that is Clark’s enumeration of them). The particular sticking points for the Serbian government were points 5 and 6, which demanded that Belgrade accept Austro-Hungarian collaboration into the investigations of Serbian subversives (point 5) as well as into the assassination itself (point 6). According to Clark, the initial memo circulated by Laza Pacu, who was acting Serbian PM while the actual PM, Pasic, was campaigning for the upcoming elections, indicated that Serbia could not possibly accede to the demands. While awaiting Pasic’s return to Belgrade, Pacu and the Prince Regent Alexander both visited Strandmann, the chief of the Russian mission, and both insisted that they could not accept the ultimatum and sought assurances from Strandmann that Russia would back them, even unto war (Alexander actually thought that Serbia should stall for time, as a reply was expected within 48 hours). I quote Clark (p. 461):

All of this might seem to suggest that the Serbian political leadership came almost immediately to the unanimous view that Serbia must resist and – if necessary – go to war. But these utterances were all reported by Strandmann. It is likely that the desire to elicit Russian support encouraged the ministers on hand in Belgrade to insist on the impossibility of acceptance. Other testimony suggests that, among themselves, the decision-makers were deeply alarmed at the prospect of an Austrian attack and saw no alternative to acceptance. The memory of October 1913, when Sazonov [the Russian foreign minister] had advised Belgrade to back down in the face of an Austrian ultimatum over Albania, was still fresh enough to nourish doubts about whether the Russians would support Serbia in the current crisis. Ascertaining the attitude of France was difficult, because the key French leaders were on their way back from Russia, and the French envoy Descos, who for some time had been showing signs of strain, had collapsed and been recalled to Paris; his replacement had not yet arrived.

Faced with this uncertainty, Pasic decided to stall until he could figure out what the Russians would do. Regent Alexander telegrammed the Tsar, stating explicitly that Belgrade was prepared to accept any points of the ultimatum “whose acceptance shall be advised by Your Majesty.” Pasic drafted a telegram to Serbian foreign missions indicating that Belgrade intended to offer “full satisfaction” to Vienna and concede on all points. British correspondence from the same time indicates that this would have included the contentious points 5 and 6.

At that point, a telegram arrived from Spalajkovic, the Serbian envoy to Russia, recounting his conversation with Poincare (the French President) during the latter’s state visit to the Tsar. Spalajkovic reported that when he told Poincare that the situation in Belgrade was very bad, Poincare told him, “We will help you improve it.” Spalajkovic also communictated his conversation with Sazonov, who had told him that the Russian Council of Ministers had condemned the ultimatum and that Serbia could “count unofficially on Russian support,” although there was no indication regarding what form that support would take. A second telegram from Spalajkovic reported that Russian mobilization might be imminent and that Russia would soon issue an official proclamation of support for Serbia.

Buoyed by the news from Russia, the Serbian government began drafting a reply to the Austrian ultimatum. I won’t get into the details of the reply, which are long, but the basic gist is that Serbia pretended to accede to the Austrian demands, provided Austria supply conclusive evidence on all points before any investigations would begin. I quote Clark again (p. 465):

The claim often made in general narratives that this reply represented an almost complete capitulation to the Austrian demands is profoundly misleading. This was a document fashioned for Serbia’s friends, not for its enemy. It offered the Austrians amazingly little. Above all, it places the onus on Vienna to drive ahead the process of opening up the investigation int the Serbian background of the conspiracy, without, on the other hand, conceding the kind of collaboration that would have enabled an effective pursuit of the relevant leads. In this sense it represented a continuation of the policy the Serbian authorities had followed since 28 June: flatly to deny any form of involvement and to abstain from any initiative that might be taken to indicate the acknowledgment of such involvement. Many of the replies on specific points opened up the prospect of long, querulous, and in all likelihood ultimately pointless negotations with the Austrians over what exactly constituted ‘facts and proofs’ of irredentist propaganda or conspiratorial activity by officers and officials. The appeal to ‘international law’ though effective as propaganda, was pure obfuscation since there existed to international jurisprudence for case of this kind and no international organs with the authority to resolve them in a legal and binding way. Yet the text was perfectly pitched to convey the tone of voice of reasonable statesmen in a condition of sincere puzzlement, struggling to make sense of outrageous and unacceptable demands. This was the measured voice of the political, constitutional Serbia disavowing any ties with its expansionist pan-Serbian twin in a manner deeply rooted in the history of Serbian external relations. It naturally sufficed to persuade Serbia’s friends that in the face of such a full capitulation, Vienna had no possible ground for taking action.

In reality, then, this was a highly perfumed rejection on all points.

Continuing with Brett:

Germany and Austria-Hungary were the aggressors and actively sought war.

This is also deeply misleading and fails to take into account what Clark’s research demonstrates, which is that all of the foreign offices had various pro- and anti-war factions; this includes Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France, and Great Britain. I can’t possibly do justice to the full scope of Clark’s evidence here, which spans literally hundreds of pages, but he goes to great efforts to answer the question of who controlled foreign policy in each country. In France, for example, a pro-war, anti-German faction, composed primarily of career foreign office civil servants who, despite nominal subservience to the foreign secretary actually represented a kind of inner circle that pursued its own ends, was consistently leaking anti-German slanders and pro-war propaganda to the press. The British foreign office was likewise filled with with undersecretaries like Francis Bertie and Arthur Nicolson, who controlled the information that reached Edward Grey in such a way that it skewed the argument toward war. Of course Germany and Austria had their own pro- and anti-war factions, but the simplistic painting of the two countries as “the aggressors” is a drastic simplification of a hugely complex state of affairs.

Britain, Russia and the USA were in a position of either fighting or suffering a major foreign policy defeat.

Again, the actual situation is far more complex. Clark says nothing about the US for the obvious reason that the US had no meaningful participation in the July Crisis, but the situations in both Britain and Russia were substantially more complicated. Grey was not necessarily predisposed to war, and if he was, he had a very inconsistent way of showing it. He constantly offered ambiguous assurances to his foreign service counterparts in both Germany and France, hinting that Britain was likely to support France but also that there might be a way for it to remain neutral in a conflict with Germany. Here’s Clark again (p. 574):

Whichever view we take – and the disagreement among historians is itself telling [ed: Clark here is referring to the debate over documentary evidence of whether Grey “really did hold up the prospect of British neutrality to Lichinowsky” (the German ambassador) or “perhaps he was trying to accommodate his uncertainty about whether the British cabinet would back his policy of support for France” (Grey having kept the actual cabinet from finding out about many of the things he had hinted to the French) or “maybe Grey was not interested in neutrality at all, but briefly came under pressure from his liberal imperialist ally, Lord Chancellor Haldane, to find a way of preventing of delaying the commencement of hostilities between France and Germany so that there would be time better to prepare and train the British Expeditionary force.”] – it is clear that Grey’s ambiguities were on the verge of becoming open contradictions. To propose British neutrality, even in the face of a continental war involving France, would have amounted to a crass reversal of the positions the foreign secretary had earlier adopted – so much so, indeed, that it is hard to believe that this was truly his intention. On the other hand, the proposal that France and Germany should maintain an armed stand-off is unambiguously instantiated in the documents. In a telegram dispatched to Bertie at 5.25 p.m. on 1 August, Grey himself reported that he had put it to the German ambassador that ‘after mobilisation on the western frontier French and German armies should remain, neither crossing the border so long as the other did not do so. I cannot say whether this would be consistent with French obligations under here alliance.’ But even this suggestion was bizarre. since it was based on the supposition that France might be willing to abandon the Russian alliance Poincare and his colleagues had worked so hard in recent years to reinforce. It suggests at best a very weak grip on the realities of the wider political and military situation.

All the evidence seems to suggest that not only did Grey entirely misjudge what was happening then, and what had been happening around him for years, but that until almost literally the last minute he was waffling because he had no way of properly ascertaining the actual strength of his position. For example, in a conversation with Paul Cambon, the French ambassador, on July 29, he intimated that France was allowing itself to be “drawn into a quarrel which is not hers, but in which, owing to her alliance, her honour and interest obliged her to engage,” whereas Britain was “free of engagements and would have to decide what British interests required the government to do.” He also claimed that it was British policy to avoid going to war over “a Balkan question.” Then two days later, when asked by Cambon directly whether Britain would help France if the latter were attacked by Germany, he argued that the full Russian mobilization, which at this point was in effect, was effectively forcing Germany to mobilize. Cambon himself was likewise acting on the assumption that the Entente was much more binding than it actually was, and that it was an instrument by which England intended to contain Germany, as per Clark (p. 539):

He failed to see that for British policy-makers, the Entente served more complex objectives.” It was, among other things, a means of deflecting the threat posed to the dispersed territories of the British Empire by the power best placed to do them harm, namely Russia. One likely reason for Cambon’s misprision was that he came to depend too much on the assurances and advice of the permanent under-secretary Sir Arthur Nicolson, who was passionately attached to the Russian and the French connection and intent on seeing both hardened into a fully-fledged alliance. But Nicolson, though influential, was not the arbiter of policy in London, and his views were increasingly out of sync with the group around Grey, who were becoming increasingly distrustful of Russia and increasingly open to a more pro-German (or at least less anti-German) course. This is a classic example of how difficult even the best informed contemporaries found it to read the intentions of allies and enemies.

The key point here is that the alliances meant entirely different things to different parties, and that different factions within different foreign offices were engaged in significant amounts of cross-talk in a manner which undermined any specifically unified method of setting policy. Here again the contingent facts of the particular individuals playing particular roles carries much more explanatory power than simple declarations of “German aggression.”

Britain had guaranteed Belgian independence and the brutal German invasion (some of the atrocity stories were false, many were not) convinced Lloyd George that war was a moral imperative, while the attack on France was insufficient. He and his immediate supporters gave the Cabinet a pro-war majority. So it really was about Belgium.

This is yet another drastic oversimplification. The decision in favor of intervention actually preceded the German invasion and any atrocities that occurred; that decision came by the end of August 2, two days before German forces crossed the Belgian border, and it was the result of particularly skillful political maneuvering on the part of the pro-war liberals and the conservative opposition. Prior to that meeting, the position in the cabinet had been slanted against intervention, but the anti-interventionists were outmaneuvered by Grey, who afterwards took his case to the House of Commons and secured British commitment to the war. But while Belgium provided one of the pretexts, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the British leadership held any particular brief for Belgium as such; Grey’s speech was primarily pitched in terms of a moral commitment to France and the possibility that British naval resources would be required to defend Mediterranean trade routes if Italy withdrew from its own commitment to neutrality. The relevant cites are on pages 544-546 in Clark’s book.

This was on top of a German naval programme obviously aimed at Britain.

German naval expansion needs to be seen in the larger context of Britain’s own aggressive naval posture. In 1897, the aforementioned Francis Bertie, in conversation with the German ambassador von Eckardstein, literally threatened war and naval blockade against Germany if any German intervention in the Transavaal were detected. Naturally, German naval expansion was undertaken with some eye towards counteracting British supremacy, but this was par for the course at the time. As per Clark (p. 149), “Until the signing of the Entente Cordiale in 1904, the programmatic documents of the French naval strategists of the jeune ecole had envisioned systematic use – in the event of war – of fast, well-armed cruisers to attack commercial shipping and force the British Isles into starvation and submission. As late as 1898, this prospect seemed real enough in British naval circles to generate panic over the need for extra cruisers and the consolidation of domestic food supplies.” Clark goes on:

In any case, it was not the building of German ships after 1898 that propelled Britain into closer relations with France and Russia. The decision to enter into an Entente with France and to seek an arrangement with Russia came about primarily as a consequence of pressures on the imperial periphery. British policy-makers were less obsessed with, and less alarmed by, German naval building than is often supposed. British naval strategy was never focused solely on Germany but on the need to remain dominant in a world of great naval powers – including France, Russia, and the United States. Nor did German naval construction have the mesmerizing effect on British strategists that has sometimes been claimed for it. In 1905, the director of British naval intelligence could confidently describe Britain’s naval preponderance over Germany as ‘overwhelming.’ In October 1906, Charles Hardinge, permanent under-secretary at the foreign office, acknowledged that Germany posed no immediate naval threat to Britain….[other expressions of same follow]… There was good reason for such confidence, because the Germans lost the naval race hands down: whereas the number of German battleships rose from thirteen to sixteen in the years 1898-1905, the British battle fleet rose from twenty-nine to forty-four ships. Tirpitz had aimed at achieving a ratio of one German battleship to every 1.5 British but he never got close. In 1913, the German naval command formally and unilaterally renounced the Anglo-German arms races, Tirpitz declaring that he was satisfied with the ratios demanded by Britain. By 1914, Britain’s lead was once again increasing. The naval scares that periodically swept through the British press and political circles were real enough but they were driven in large part by campaigns launched by navalists to fend off demands for funding from the cash-starved British army.

If German aggression were not stopped now then they would be harder to stop next time if France and Russia were German clients.

Why and how would France or Russian become German clients? From pages 159-167, which conclude his chapter titled “The Polarization of Europe,” Clark demonstrates that much of the invention of Germany as the implacable foe of Britain was due to the machinations and memoranda written by Bertie, Nicolson, and Eyre Crowe. This was paralleled several years later by Sazonov’s aggressive formulation of Russo-German relations, partly in reaction to the Liman von Sanders mission to Constantinople. None of this of course means that there was literally no German aggression or that Germany was somehow an innocent wronged party; it just means that within the contours of European international politics circa the beginning of the 20th century, Germany did not stand out in any particular way from any of its contemporaries.

Russia faced the destruction of its ally Serbia even after Serbia had agreed nearly all of Austria-Hungary’s demands.

As I have argued via Clark above, this is not correct; there was no such concession at all.

I apologize for the length of this response, the multiple blockquotes, and the excruciating level of detail, but I’m trying to summarize major points from a 600-page book and this is not easy to do in an internet comment thread. Nevertheless, I think it’s really important that the discussion around causes of WWI does not devolve into a simple morality tale of “Germany bad, Entente good.” The real picture is infinitely more complex and that complexity deserves to be taken seriously. I don’t mean to imply by any means that Clark is the last true word on this subject, but he makes a compelling case, backed by documentary evidence, that the “canonical” (at least, I suppose, in the popular imagination) interpretation of the July Crisis is deeply misleading. Moreover, he places the diplomatic machinations of the various foreign offices in the broader context of international European competition, and underlines the ways in which the offices themselves were not unitary actors but rather home to multiple factions which operated at cross-purposes and often made promises that stood in contrast to the official pronouncements of their own heads of state. I can’t possibly do justice to the book here, so I would encourage everyone to read it for themselves.

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divelly 10.23.16 at 7:12 pm

See Gen. Butler,”War Is A Racket.”

49

bruce wilder 10.23.16 at 7:17 pm

Peter T @ 40:

1915 was too early for any of the combatants to settle. By mid-late 1916 there were some voices in favour of negotiations, but the Germans would have none of it then or in 1917. By the time the Germans were prepared to talk (mid 1918), they had lost. Fear of socialism was again a major factor in the post-war settlements.

“too early . . . to settle” — I have no idea what that means.

After nearly 100 years of European wars and crises that had been small, short and decisive, the leadership in each of the Great Powers found themselves mired in something new and horrifying and they seemed completely unprepared to take responsibility for its conduct, its course or its termination.

It is quite remarkable the extent to which the Great Powers heaved themselves into total war, entailing national and imperial effort on a scale unknown since Napoleon and having done so, appear to have had little notion of what their goals were, beyond grasping at a forlorn hope of “winning” on the battlefield, or just staying in long enough to win a contest of attrition, without any realistic notion of what overarching purpose was being served or appreciation of the horrific costs being borne by human beings in the decimation of the polity and its society.

This was in contrast with the long series of crises and short wars that preceded WWI, contests which were short and decisive, precisely because there seems to have been a coordinating consensus on goals and means — almost as if they were playing a game with written rules and scorekeeping. That it was played as a game is not a moral justification, of course. The human costs of such means of rivalry and dispute resolution — not to mention the arrogance of the routine abuse of colonial or just peripheral states and populations — doesn’t present a morally admirable picture, but it does suggest statecraft as a purposeful, managed activity.

In retrospect, one can see early signs that the rules and assumptions of “gentlemanly” imperial rivalry were being undermined and transformed by changes in military technology and the rise of nation-states and a more popular sort of politics, but the total breakdown seems to have been a surprise reward for a particular sort of accumulating moral and practical incompetence. In the Agadir Crisis, with its Panther’s Spring, or the Zabern incident or l’affaire Dreyfus or the Curragh mutiny, I see more than hints of a moral and/or practical imbecility in the old order as well as a stubborn resistance to liberal reform.

In the event, Wilson and his Fourteen Points (January 1918) was a galvanizing intervention. On a more subterranean level, the almost bizarre musings of the German leadership on war aims, would have serious consequences in the inter-war period. And, of course, we are still living with the consequences of ill-conceived efforts by the British and French and Italians to “manage” formerly Ottoman Arabia.

50

bruce wilder 10.23.16 at 7:17 pm

Peter T @ 40:

Liberals of today see World War I as the great disaster that shattered the pre-war liberal order. In the same way, the generation post 1815 saw the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars as the great disaster that shattered the happy old order.

There’s a certain sort of conservative or reactionary who is inclined to tell liberals that World War I was a disaster that shattered a pre-war liberal order. Somebody like John Keegan will write this way with no consciousness of controversy at all. But, it wasn’t actually the liberal order that was shattered; what was shattered was an order of hereditary aristocracy and imperialism.

Liberalism failed conspicuously in the inter-war period, but that’s a different narrative if you recognize that pre-war liberalism had come up short in its attempts to reform a non-liberal order which collapsed in senseless violence of its own febrile making.

The trouble with saying that a generation after 1815 looked back and saw the French Revolution and Napoleon as a disaster is that it was only a narrow, reactionary slice at the top of the steep pyramid of political power that held this view without significant qualification and they tended to make themselves look ridiculous when they acted as if the world had been restored to their liking, as when Charles X tried to cure scrofula with the King’s touch at his coronation in 1824.

For most people, even or especially the upper reaches of the professional classes and the bourgeoisie, the liberal reforms of Napoleon were as inviolable as a return to general war was unthinkable. It took half a generation to fashion that into the liberalism of compromising on incremental reform in the context of a presumed course of inevitable progress, but that formula worked in the constitutional reforms of the early 1830s, in at least some of the many revolutions of 1848 and became the doctrine of a new conservatism circa 1866-71.

It was the perception of liberalism triumphant that gives a sense of a liberal order emerging in the course of the long 19th century after 1815, but at every step the old order of hereditary aristocracy was preserving itself and its privileges. In the consensus of elite opinion, monarchy (somewhat qualified as constitutional monarchy to mollify liberal sensibility), not republican democracy, is awarded pride of place as the ideal of natural political order.

Even without instruction from the likes of Keegan, I think many small-l liberals and social democrats look back at the period before the First World War with amnesia for the reality of a degenerate political order of hereditary aristocracy and imperialism and project some kind of normal politics, so that WWI shatters normal civilization with the terrible consequences that followed. Many reactionaries have roughly commensurable views that sum up as “Kaiser Wilhelm was OK, what was the big deal?” Niall Ferguson, for example, has offered the view that Britain’s entry into war was a huge strategic error; on cost-benefit grounds, he argues that Imperial Britain should have bided its time and conserved its resources, dealing later from relative strength with the German Empire.

In some ways, I suppose, the erasure of historical detail is the flipside of Lind’s alleged uniformitarian science fiction narrative that Henry is writing about. Of course, Lind is almost nostalgic for a nationalism that may be only a reactionary vestige in our time. I don’t know that qualifies as “presentism” or just a failure of imagination.

51

LFC 10.23.16 at 8:01 pm

@J. Vinokurov

I haven’t read The Sleepwalkers nor even all of your long comment above summarizing it. But from the sentences at the end of your post you presumably realize that Clark is only one of a number of historians who published books about WW1 and its origins around the time of the hundredth anniversary in 2014. (Btw there have been very long threads on CT on this subject with lots of people commenting, some with reading recommendations: e.g. J.C.G. Rohl’s essays on the origins were mentioned back then by someone who seemed to know what s/he was talking about; also I. Hull, Absolute Destruction which is not about the origins primarily but more about German ‘military culture’ and the conduct of the war.) I’ve no reason to doubt Clark’s an excellent historian, but like every historian he has a point of view, and given the enormous extant historiography I don’t think there can be such a thing as a definitive account of the origins of WW1, and there also can’t be a purely ‘objective’ one.

You write:
I think it’s really important that the discussion around causes of WWI does not devolve into a simple morality tale of “Germany bad, Entente good.” The real picture is infinitely more complex and that complexity deserves to be taken seriously. I don’t mean to imply by any means that Clark is the last true word on this subject, but he makes a compelling case, backed by documentary evidence, that the “canonical” (at least, I suppose, in the popular imagination) interpretation of the July Crisis is deeply misleading.

I think most here would probably agree that the origins of WW1 can’t be fit into “a simple morality tale,” and if that’s the view of “the popular imagination,” it’s not right.

52

Stephen 10.23.16 at 8:18 pm

bruce wilder@49’“too early . . . to settle” — I have no idea what that means.’
And earlier@25: ‘Continuing the war, once the bloodbath is underway and its futility is fully evident (which surely is objectively the case as early as 1915)”.

Yes, if you look only at the Western front. In the East, 1915 was objectively the year of the fall of Serbia, and far more spectacularly the year of Gorlice-Tarnow: the enormously successful German/Austro-Hungarian breakthrough at the western end of the Russian Carpathian front, followed by rolling up the enemy positions in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, for 200 miles or more, in what even the Russians called the Great Retreat: capture of Warsaw, Lvov, Brest-Litovsk, Vilna, ending with a front line stretching from Riga to the Romanian border.

If the German command did not think that was futile, who can blame them? Do you? If peace had been made in 1915 (and I entirely agree that might in the long run have been preferable) would that not have meant the Central Powers keeping their conquests in Belgium, northern France, western Russia, and Serbia? Would that have been an acceptable ending for the Entente – who could reasonably hope that the British armies (left untrained and unequipped in 1915 by reason of the British government’s not wanting, and not preparing for, an European land war) might in 1916 achieve something? Would it have been an acceptable ending even for the Central Powers, who after such victories in 1914-15 might reasonably hope for an even more favourable settlement after more victories in the East? If not the latter, remember it takes two to make peace.

53

Stephen 10.23.16 at 8:25 pm

Gareth Wilson@20: “I haven’t seen any alternate history stories where the British Empire decides not to fight the Boer War and leaves Orange Free State and the Republic of Transvaal independent.”

Given that the Boer War began with the armed forces of the Orange Free State and the Republic of Transvaal invading British territories – hence the sieges of Ladysmith, Kimberly and Mafeking – I find it hard to imagine an alternate history in which the British Empire shrugs its collective shoulders and says, oh all right then, invade us as you please, we won’t fight.

54

Brett Dunbar 10.23.16 at 9:11 pm

Relating to the British declaration of war the Cabinet was split. One faction already supported intervention. Churchill was the most enthusiastic while Grey was somewhat more reluctantly in favour. A second faction were firmly opposed, two resigned in protest. In the middle was Lloyd George and his friends, until the invasion of Belgium he was ambivalent but on balance opposed to a direct involvement. Grey couldn’t make a commitment as the Cabinet wasn’t willing to commit to defend France.

Serbia’s position was analogous with the current position of North Korea, an odious regime which happens to be the client of a great power. Austria-Hungary backed by Germany called Russia’s bluff on Serbia, it turned out that Russia wasn’t bluffing. Germany then launched an entirely unprovoked invasion of Belgium.

55

Gareth Wilson 10.23.16 at 9:45 pm

53: That’s true, which makes the idea of the Boer War as unnecessary even flimsier.

56

John Quiggin 10.23.16 at 9:54 pm

I’d be interested to read the views of the pro-war commenters above on more recent wars, particularly those in which the US has been engaged. I can’t see any difference between the pro-war cases made above and those for Vietnam, the Iraq wars and others.

57

Jerry Vinokurov 10.23.16 at 10:16 pm

LFC,

I haven’t read The Sleepwalkers nor even all of your long comment above summarizing it. But from the sentences at the end of your post you presumably realize that Clark is only one of a number of historians who published books about WW1 and its origins around the time of the hundredth anniversary in 2014.

Indeed, and if you read, or even skim my post, you will see that I explicitly acknowledge this very fact.

I’ve no reason to doubt Clark’s an excellent historian, but like every historian he has a point of view, and given the enormous extant historiography I don’t think there can be such a thing as a definitive account of the origins of WW1, and there also can’t be a purely ‘objective’ one.

I don’t believe I have ever claimed this, nor have I ever used the word “objective” in either of my posts in this thread. That said, there do exist documentary records of what various actors were doing and saying at the time; any serious historical exegesis has to take those things into account (and of course the records themselves can often be falsified, as the Russians and French foreign offices both did after the fact). It is my understanding from reading about Clark’s work that his greatest contribution has been precisely the depth of his excavation of this documentary record. I brought the book into this discussion because it has been widely acknowledged as a very valuable addition to the scholarship precisely on the strength of this work.

I think most here would probably agree that the origins of WW1 can’t be fit into “a simple morality tale,” and if that’s the view of “the popular imagination,” it’s not right.

Well, my long post was in response to several points made by Brett Dunbar, which reiterated the idea that the war was simply a result of unchecked and unjustified German aggression. My goal was to show, citing relevant research, that this view is mistaken. I think it is also the view that is most often incorrectly taught at the high school and college level, but if that’s not the case then I’m perfectly willing to take back that statement.

Brett,

Relating to the British declaration of war the Cabinet was split. One faction already supported intervention. Churchill was the most enthusiastic while Grey was somewhat more reluctantly in favour. A second faction were firmly opposed, two resigned in protest. In the middle was Lloyd George and his friends, until the invasion of Belgium he was ambivalent but on balance opposed to a direct involvement. Grey couldn’t make a commitment as the Cabinet wasn’t willing to commit to defend France.

The cabinet had already decided before the invasion had actually commenced that it would intervene if it occurred. If Lloyd George was indeed ambivalent about it, he couldn’t have been that ambivalent, since he certainly allowed intervention to be put forth as the official position of the government, which Grey did on August 3, one day before the invasion had actually commenced. Here’s some additional background that Clark gives as regards Belgian neutrality (p. 494):

Even the question of Belgium seemed unlikely to trigger an intervention. It was widely assumed, on the basis of both military intelligence secured by the French General Staff and of military inference, that the Germans would approach France through Belgium, breaching the 1839 international treaty guaranteeing its neutrality. But the cabinet took the view that, while Britain was indeed a signatory to the treaty, the obligation to uphold it fell on all the signatories collectively, not on any one of them individually. Should the matter actually arise, they concluded, the British response would be ‘one of policy rather than obligation.’ Indeed, it is striking with what sang-froid senior British military and political leaders contemplated a German breach of Belgian neutrality. On the basis of Anglo-French staff conversations in 1911, Henry Wilson had come to the conclusion that the Germans would choose to cross the Ardennes through southern Belgium, confining their troops to the area south of the rivers Sambre and Meuse; these findings were presented to the 114th meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defence. The same scenario was discussed by the cabinet on 29 July, when Lloyd George showed, using a map, why it was likely that the Germans would cross ‘only… the furthest southern corner’ of Belgium. Far from greeting this prospect with outrage, the minsters accepted it as strategically necessary (from Germany’s standpoint) and thus virtually inevitable. British strategic concerns were focused primarily on Antwerp and the mouth of the river Schelde, which had always been regarded as one of the keys to British security. ‘I don’t see,’ Churchill commented, ‘why we should come in if they o only a little way into Belgium.’ Lloyd George later claimed that he would have refused to go to war if the German invasion of Belgium had been confined to the route through the Ardennes. British policy-makers assumed in any case that the Belgians themselves would not make their last stand in the south, but would, after offering token resistance to demonstrate that they had not permitted the violation, fall back on their lines of fortification further to the north. There would thus be nothing automatic between a German invasion of Belgium and British intervention in the conflict.

Assuming this chronology is correct, it appears that even at a very late stage in the crisis, the question of Belgian neutrality was not necessarily the deciding factor in the decision to intervene. There’s definitely a possible timeline in which Britain does not declare war almost immediately following the German incursion into Belgium.

Serbia’s position was analogous with the current position of North Korea, an odious regime which happens to be the client of a great power. Austria-Hungary backed by Germany called Russia’s bluff on Serbia, it turned out that Russia wasn’t bluffing. Germany then launched an entirely unprovoked invasion of Belgium.

It’s not clear that Austria-Hungary could have been said to even understand that they were calling a bluff. Clark’s argument on this point is spread out across many pages, but generally amounts to the contention that Austria viewed the ultimatum as an affair strictly between it and Serbia. One can (and Clark does) fault the Austrians for their short-sightedness and their failure to properly assess the international situation, but they were certainly not alone in this.

58

bruce wilder 10.23.16 at 10:19 pm

JQ: I can’t see any difference between the pro-war cases made above and those for Vietnam, the Iraq wars and others.

Really?

I don’t know that I made a “pro-war case”, per se, but I think I understood the cases made.

As far as I know, neither Vietnam nor Iraq (2003) attacked the United States or any formal allies of the U.S.

59

Peter T 10.23.16 at 10:32 pm

who on earth (or at least in this thread) has been “pro-war”?

60

Omega Centauri 10.24.16 at 1:18 am

Its been two years since I read Sleepwalkers and a couple of other WW1 books.

And of course the German ultimatum to Belgium to effectively join them or suffer dire consequences went far beyond a southern transportation corridor. Public opinion which was running heavily towards sitting out the war changed overnight. Had the Germans asked for the minimum necessary and been refused, perhaps things would have transpired differently.

Most of the diplomats at least considered an Austrian attack on Serbia would generate a Russia attack on Austria, bringing on a German/Russia war, and triggering a French German war. The only real question was whether the Tsar would blink.

61

J-D 10.24.16 at 3:31 am

All the wars I have ever heard caused far more harm, destruction, and loss than any resulting benefit; in their effects on human welfare, every one of them has been a nett loss. That’s true of wars already referred to in this discussion (the First World War, the Boer War, the Iraq War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Second World War, the American Civil War, the War in Afghanistan, the Russo-Japanese War, the Franco-Prussian War, the French Revolutionary Wars, the Vietnam War) and of others. In this sense, they were none of them good wars; there are bad wars and there are worse wars. In much this same sense, the Second World War, with the highest death toll of any war, was the worst war of all, unless a relative scale is adopted, measuring by death toll in proportion to total population, in which case it’s hard to say for sure whether the Second World War was the worst, because of lack of statistics, but it would still clearly count as worse than the First World War.

If there’s a sense in which the Second World War was a ‘good’ war, or even a less bad war than the First World War, it might be because the Allied share of culpability for the outbreak or continuation of the Second World War was less than the Allied share of culpability for the First World War. But that has to mean that the Axis share of culpability for the outbreak or continuation of the Second World War was greater than the Central Powers’ share of culpability for the First World War. To exactly the same extent that the Second World War was more justifiable for the Allies, it was less justifiable for the Axis, or, if you prefer, to exactly the same extent that the Second World War was closer to being necessary for the Allies it was further from being necessary for the Axis; from which it also follows that to exactly the same extent that the First World War was further from being necessary for the Allies it was closer to being necessary for the Central Powers. (Unless you hold the view that all belligerents are maximally culpable for all wars, which I reject.)

62

John Quiggin 10.24.16 at 4:46 am

Peter T @59 “who on earth (or at least in this thread) has been “pro-war”?”

I assume that you don’t need an answer to “who on earth”, since pro-war attitudes have been the norm rather than the exception for most of history

Looking through the thread, I’d say, the following are pro-war, in the sense of arguing that the wars mentioned in the OP were justified/necessary

BenK @7
Brett Dunbar @15 and again @45
Scott P @24
Mike Schilling @46
Stephen @53
Gareth Wilson @55

63

John Quiggin 10.24.16 at 4:55 am

Bruce Wilder @58 I didn’t think your contributions were pro-war. But I don’t think the distinction you draw is helpful. Apart from anything else, the formal involvement of the US in the Vietnam War was based on an alleged attack on US forces by North Vietnam (the Gulf of Tonkin incident). So, the formal justification is just the same. In reality, whatever the formal situation, South Vietnam was a US ally, and the general argument for war (the need to resist an expansionist hostile power) was exactly the same as that put forward above.

64

david 10.24.16 at 6:32 am

The question of whether North Vietnam was indeed prepared to expand into and annex South Vietnam has a self-evident answer: yes, it was.

At least in the context of WW1, there is no ambiguity over whether Belgium actually wanted to be annexed by Germany in the common cause of German nationhood.

65

John Quiggin 10.24.16 at 6:37 am

George @44 “The problem I was trying to suggest was that of presentism. ”

And my problem is that I don’t accept that presentism is a (generally) useful concept in understanding modern history. To be sure, there are issues like equal marriage where modern views are very different from those of even the recent past. But on the issues discussed in the OP, and on most major issues of public policy debate today, the arguments of the 19th and 20th century are still going on: we have more evidence, and there have been changes in the balance of opinion, but the issues are essentially the same.

66

david 10.24.16 at 7:34 am

It is rather presentist to merrily ignore that imperial federalism was a popular idea in the Australian elite class in the Edwardian period. The main priority was not common defense of British interests in the continent, but rather British defense of the imperial lifeline, and in particular, British acceptance of a common external tariff – Australian elites would eventually prevail on that point, and would only very reluctantly give it up when Britain joined the EEC decades later.

That is to say, Australian elites conceived of themselves as sharing a common bond with a non-European, pro-imperial sense of Britain that contemporary Australians do not, and the unity of the (white) British Commonwealth is an “issue” that has completely disappeared.

67

J-D 10.24.16 at 7:59 am

‘Looking through the thread, I’d say, the following are pro-war, in the sense of arguing that the wars mentioned in the OP were justified/necessary’

It still seems to me that for any war, the greater the culpability of one side (for its outbreak/continuation), the less the other side’s must be; the less one side is justified in fighting, the more the other side must be; and therefore, in that sense, the less the war was (if you will) necessary for one side, the more it was for the other. Every war involves aggression; therefore every war has victims of aggression, who have some justification for fighting back. It’s because that justification is so generally accepted that it’s so common for aggressors to try to make themselves out as victims of aggression; but just because it is at least sometimes difficult to tell who the real victims of aggression are, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any.

68

Peter T 10.24.16 at 9:21 am

I would see these contributions less as “pro-war” than as arguing that war was close to inevitable, certainly not to be stopped by some leader deciding to take some other road. And this is, I think, broadly true even for the German leaders who did most to bring the war about.

The period after 1970 was enormously stressful for Europeans. One key was the steep fall in agricultural prices, when agriculture was not only the largest single sector of the economy but at the heart of long-settled social arrangements. Many landowners saw the family home go under the hammer and, with it, the heritage of generations, the prospects for their children, the livelihoods of their dependents. And for every landowner there were a hundred labourers who cast a last look around the village before trudging to the nearest railway to chance life in an urban slum or a foreign country (while those who remained knew only longer hours, harder work and shorter rations). Throw in the rising socialist tide, the emergence of suffragism, public attacks on religion, ethnic nationalism and increasing uncertainties about relative power, and you have a recipe for social panic, resort to any offered nostrum and clinging tight to any remnant of the old. The war came not out of calculation but of desperation. That a legion of Gorbachevs was not available is a pity, but not a surprise.

69

kidneystones 10.24.16 at 11:33 am

JQ I think the use of the term ‘pro-war’ in this discussion is particularly unhelpful, which began under the rubric of necessity, not affection or approval. I take your point that historically war has consistently been one of the possible options available for conflict resolution, indeed I make the same point myself.

I suggest we abandon the term ‘pro-war’ as too inflammatory and imprecise.

70

Z 10.24.16 at 12:24 pm

John, as usual your posting on WWI makes me somewhat uncomfortable and as usual it is not that I disagree with anything in particular regarding facts, it is just that I am unclear about the implications you want to reach and the intended audience.

Take your conclusion for instance “The case against war was fully developed and strongly argued in the years before 1914 […] Those who were on the wrong side can’t be excused on the grounds that they were people of their time.” Now, perhaps this is due to me not growing at the same time at the same place as you, but if I were to sum up what I consider the conventional wisdom (the one I was taught in school and the one my children are taught in school on the occasion of the centenary), I would say that the widespread belief that the war would be quick, the relentless warmongering, the revanchism and the especially the near-total consensus among the elites that increasing one’s empire by force was the alpha and omega of foreign and to a large extent domestic policy is commonly considered as an evil folly of cataclysmic consequences. In that sense, I don’t think anyone who ever thought about this would dream of judging the leaders of the great European powers of the time with the same measure that the one they use to judge Bush or Blair: of course, these guys were infinitely worse in all respect!

If that is all you are saying, then OK, and the difference between how I would phrase it and how you do has to come from the existence of a common alternate narrative that I never encountered but that is obvious to you (no irony intended, I’m more than ready to accept that received wisdom in Australia is a tad different from that of France when discussing WWI).

Another thing that leaves me puzzled is the parallel you draw in comments with the Vietnam war. Surely, rather than comparing the events leading to August 1914 to the Gulf of Tonkin incident (which anyway happened long after the United States had taken military control of South Vietnam and thus many years after the beginning of heavy US military involvement against the South Vietnamese population-or at the very least a sizable minority thereof), the relevant comparison is with WWII. I know you wrote many times that you consider invoking WWII to justify or otherwise explain a war to be rhetorically very dubious (and I fully agree) but surely if it is legitimate in one instance, it is for WWI.

More specifically, and here I know I am entering in more provocative territory, recent historiography indicates that it is just not true that German occupation of Belgium, Luxembourg and about 4% of France (representing 8% of its population) on the Western Front and of the Ober Ost on the Eastern one was significantly different from German occupation in the West during WWII (I hasten to say that German occupation in the East during WWII was of course something totally different): the German army’s rule in WWI was incredibly harsh, summary executions of civilians numbered in thousands, confiscation and wanton destruction of property was widespread, permanent and thorough (and the deliberate suppression and mismanagement of health care in the Ober Ost apparently led to horrifying epidemics in the East but I just learned that right now). There is obviously one big difference: the deportation and subsequent extermination of the Jews.

Are you drawing the line between pacifism and the need to go to war on that point (that is fine with me if you do, this is a genuine question)? And even if you do, doesn’t the Armenian genocide make the point moot? Personally, I would say that when hostile powers are closing in on a capital city and has under its iron-fisted rule 8% of the population, daily executing civilians and prisoners, then it is legitimate to fight back, even if those hostile powers are not committing any kind of genocide (though of course, at the time, they also were).

Does that make 1914 France (or at least a large part thereof) any less revanchist, imperialist, and absolutely convinced that a good war will show these Boches once and for all who’s the boss? No. Does that excuse the folly of rulers and military elites whose decision to scrap everything they could from their vanquished opponents, the consequences of which are today felt in Aleppo and Mossoul (or for that matter Paris), less repellant? Of course not. But if there is a pacifist case to be made that the British Empire should have stayed out of the war and/or that France should have negotiated peace in late September 1914 (or at any subsequent point during the war, note that river Aisne was crossed by Entente forces in November 1918 and not a day sooner), how does this pacifist case not apply to the same powers negotiating peace with the Axis between say October 1939 and July 1941?

Also, I agree with what Peter T said @68. OK, good luck with the moderation.

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Jerry Vinokurov 10.24.16 at 1:28 pm

Most of the diplomats at least considered an Austrian attack on Serbia would generate a Russia attack on Austria, bringing on a German/Russia war, and triggering a French German war. The only real question was whether the Tsar would blink.

A crucial point elucidated at length in The Sleepwalkers is that “the Tsar” did not actually control foreign policy, any more than “the Kaiser” did in Germany (in fact, Wilhelm’s antics routinely mortified his foreign service and they often did everything they could to keep him out of the way; it wasn’t enough). In actuality both foreign policy apparatuses were largely run by their ministers and an associated professional foreign service; different members of these foreign services had different agendas. As I noted above in a cite from Clark, it was only a year before the July Crisis that Serbia had been restrained by Russia from going to war. Had a less bellicose individual than Sazonov been in charge of the foreign office, or if he had been better able or willing to resist pan-Slavist impulses, there might well have been no war, or merely a localized conflict between Serbia and Austria.

72

Brett Dunbar 10.24.16 at 6:09 pm

The Central powers did actually start the war. It was a German and Austro-Hungarian decision to invade Serbia despite the fact that Russia had committed itself to defending Serbia that led to war. Basically either they were gambling that the Russians were actually bluffing and wouldn’t declare war on Serbia’s behalf or they had deliberately decided to start a major war.

Britain had committed itself to closing the Channel to Germany at the start of the war. Grey and Asquith got the Cabinet to agree to meeting the commitment Grey should not have made by both threatening to resign. This allowed the French to move their Navy to the Mediterranean, where they would have an advantage over the combined Italian and Austro-Hungarian Navies it Italy decided to stick with the Triple Alliance. In the event Italy decided that Germany and Austria-Hungary were the aggressors and therefore the defensive Triple Alliance didn’t count.

73

Jerry Vinokurov 10.24.16 at 7:50 pm

The Central powers did actually start the war. It was a German and Austro-Hungarian decision to invade Serbia despite the fact that Russia had committed itself to defending Serbia that led to war. Basically either they were gambling that the Russians were actually bluffing and wouldn’t declare war on Serbia’s behalf or they had deliberately decided to start a major war.

The whole point is that they did not actually know whether or not Russia had committed itself thus. Russia bears as much blame for mobilizing first (which it unquestionably did) as the Central powers do; lest we forget, Serbian irredentists really actually did assassinate the Austrian head of state and then the government in which they were effectively embedded then proceeded to stonewall the investigation. The idea of a singular war guilt is preposterous and untenable, as is the idea that WWI was “necessary” in any way.

But whatever. I’m done litigating this point because I’ve typed probably several thousand words by now, citing actual evidence, and the result is just people repeating whatever assertions they were going to make anyway. A timely illustration of the problem with CT comment threads, I guess.

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Brett Dunbar 10.24.16 at 10:42 pm

The case you are making is rather unconvincing. The mobilisation of Russia’s army put Russia in a position to act if Serbia was attacked. This was the clearest signal Russia could make that they were serious short of actually going to war, it’s a highly credible commitment gesture. Given the evidence that Russia was serious Germany and Austria-Hungary still chose to attack. That is worse than if they didn’t think Russia was serious.

Clark appears to be trying to revive the pro-German analysis that was popular until the 1960s, when evidence led to it being largely rejected.

The best that can be said for the German approach is that they had suffered a series of major foreign policy defeats over the previous decades and were determined not to back down yet again even when faced with the prospect of a major war

75

J-D 10.25.16 at 3:34 am

“… There is one fairly good reason for fighting—and that is, if the other man starts it. …”
“But both sides always say that the other side started them.”
“Of course they do, and it is a good thing that it should be so. At least, it shows that both sides are conscious, inside themselves, that the wicked thing about a war is its beginning.”

Kay said: “Suppose King Lot of Orkney was to draw up his army all along the northern border, what could our King here do except send his own army to stand on the same line? Then supposing all Lot’s men drew their swords, what could we do except draw ours? The situation could be … complicated …. It seems to me that aggression is a difficult thing to be sure about.”
Merlyn was annoyed.
“Only because you want it to seem so,” he said. “Obviously Lot would be the aggressor, for making the threat of force. … Any reasoning man … who keeps a steady mind, can tell which side is the aggressor in ninety wars out of a hundred. He can see which side is likely to benefit by going to war in the first place, and that is a strong reason for suspicion. He can see which side began to make the threat of force or was the first to arm itself. And finally he can often put his finger on the one who struck the first blow.”
“But supposing,” said Kay, “that one side was the one to make the threat, while the other side was the one to strike the first blow?”
“Oh, go and put your head in a bucket. I’m not suggesting that all of them can be decided. I was saying, from the start of the argument, that there are many wars in which the aggression is as plain as a pike-staff, and that in those wars at any rate it might be the duty of decent men to fight the criminal. If you aren’t sure that he is the criminal—and you must sum it up for yourself with every ounce of fairness you can muster—then go and be a pacifist by all means. …”

TH White, The Once And Future King

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Jerry Vinokurov 10.25.16 at 10:04 am

The case you are making is rather unconvincing.

So far as I’m aware, I’m the only one who has actually made a case here instead of just flatly stating my preferred conclusion as truth.

Clark appears to be trying to revive the pro-German analysis that was popular until the 1960s, when evidence led to it being largely rejected.

Oh cool, you didn’t actually read anything I wrote, nor does it seem like you really know much about Clark’s book. Maybe instead of speculating on what it’s about, you could read it and evaluate the evidence it presents. Its thesis is not at all what you stated; it’s not a “pro-German” analysis, it’s an attempt to establish, to the best of our abilities and relying on mountains of documentary evidence, what the key decision-makers were thinking at the time and to try and understand why they did what they did. It’s definitely possible that he’s wrong, but so far I haven’t seen anyone actually contradict the presented evidence with anything other than sweeping declarations that it must be wrong.

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Brett Dunbar 10.25.16 at 11:05 am

You cannot simultaneously argue that the Russian mobilisation was to blame and that Germany and Austria-Hungary were not to blame as they didn’t really think Russia was serious when that had just given the clearest possible signal that they were serious.

You cannot simultaneously argue both that Germany and Austria-Hungary weren’t at fault and that war wasn’t almost inevitable. The war started in a period when the great powers were treating international diplomatic crises as a ultra high stakes game of poker. In that atmosphere at some point someone was going to call a bluff that wasn’t a bluff. Germany had folded in several crises so giving the impression that faced by determined opposition they would back down. Germany and Austria-Hungary were at fault in 1914 but if this kind of diplomacy continued one of the crises was going to lead to war.

The only way of avoiding war in the long term would have been to do what Britain and France did after Fashoda, agree distinct spheres of influence so that conflicts of interest don’t arise.

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kidneystones 10.25.16 at 11:37 am

@73 Thank you very much for your contributions on this thread, Jerry.

I thoroughly enjoyed your comments and I’m certain many others did as well.

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stevenjohnson 10.25.16 at 11:47 am

Like the OP, The Sleepwalkers seems to imply the Great War was an unnecessary war. The extensive comments by Jerry Vinokurov strongly reinforce my impression that Clark sees the outbreak of the war as a failure of management rather than something inevitable. (As it turns out the book is available on interlibrary loan, so I’ll see for myself, for once.)

It seems to me still that Clark could have written a book equally sensitive to the role of accidents in communications, differences in personal temperaments, divergent institutional necessities, illusions of control and so forth in *preventing* a general war between the Great Powers in any of the repeated crises.

But I don’t think he could have written anything to explain how turning the corner, even by accident, in 1914 could have prevented another crisis somewhere else a few years later. The failure of the system was inherent to the system, even if the date of the failure was set by an improbable concatenation of events, institutional inadequacies and personal lapses. In a complex world, there will always be, eventually, improbabilities.

There is a cheap critique of “presentism” which seeks to excuse the past as naturally unable to reach the present-day sophistication of moral judgments. This I think is rightly agreed to be somewhat naive at best. But there is a kind of presentism which assumes the past is the singular prologue to the present. In this case, that the Great War has to be seen as a choice, a moral failure, of historical agents. If history had seen fit to elect different agents, rather like voters wisely choosing their representatives today, then the Great War could have been avoided.

Perhaps another of putting it is to object that if you don’t understand the present, seeing the past through that lens will obscure your views? The Great War I think was not even a breakdown in the world system of colonial empires dividing a capitalist world economy, but in the long run an inevitable culmination of changes in a rigid system unable to peacefully accommodate change.

Ultimately the true moral failure of the agents involved, all of them, was the absurd insistence on committing to a system that cannot survive. Of course, this is not what most people presently consider a moral failure at all, is it? The thing is, if you accept that committing to the status quo is a legitimate moral choice, then the grounds for assuming one party or another is immoral gets considerably shakier. The ramshackle Austro-Hungarian empire cannot accept the murder of its prospective emperor at the hands of yet another ethno-national group that threatens it continued existence as it is, hence the ultimatum. Serbian nationalism cannot easily accept the ultimatum. And so it went. In the end, we get very little more than the great mantra of modernist literature, “Shit happens, and then you die.”

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Jerry Vinokurov 10.25.16 at 12:13 pm

You cannot simultaneously argue that the Russian mobilisation was to blame and that Germany and Austria-Hungary were not to blame as they didn’t really think Russia was serious when that had just given the clearest possible signal that they were serious.

I am trying to argue that the concept of “blame” is actually inapplicable here. Treating this like a criminal trial presumes the existence of some guilty party, and rather than engaging in the historical inquiry regarding what actually happened, we’re either parties to the prosecution or defense. But that whole point is that this is not what actually happened; various actors were operating under conditions of mistaken or incomplete information regarding what the other actors were doing or were willing to do. You’re reading our current state of knowledge back into a situation that was considerably more opaque to the people living it at the time.

A point about mobilization, which is another thing that Clark discusses in depth: the Russians actually tried to rescind the mobilization order. Nicholas had second thoughts and panicked, but he was talked out of it eventually because the logistical aspect of the mobilization was such that it could not be walked back. A general mobilization order necessarily meant Russian armies massing on the Eastern front, and that was something that everyone did understand.

Again: I’m not saying “the Russians were to blame,” because it’s not a question of blame. It’s a question of why people did what they did.

You cannot simultaneously argue both that Germany and Austria-Hungary weren’t at fault and that war wasn’t almost inevitable.

…why not? I don’t really understand how these are mutually exclusive in any way. The war wasn’t inevitable; it could have been averted in any number of ways, even in the very last days. The arguments that the war was necessary are usually structural: they rely on arguments about the state of the alliance system and what obligations it entailed for the participants. But the alliance system was considerably more malleable than e.g. modern treaties like NATO, and this is clear when you look at the way someone like Grey continually waffled on the state of the Entente until events forced his hand. My argument is that the war was a contingent state of affairs in which every participant shares some of the blame, but for which blame cannot be definitively ascribed to a single actor. This is perfectly consistent.

The war started in a period when the great powers were treating international diplomatic crises as a ultra high stakes game of poker. In that atmosphere at some point someone was going to call a bluff that wasn’t a bluff.

This is extreme presentism: you are reading a complicated geopolitical situation from a century ago through the lens of a card game. This does not help anyone understand anything about what actually happened. But even running with this analogy (which we should definitely not do), there’s no reason to think that any particular “someone” should have expected a bluff to be called. If that’s the case, then Russia, France, and Britain had every bit as much reason to expect a bluff to be called as Germany and Austria did. But you ascribe blame to the latter and not to the former, even though under this logic there’s no reason to do so.

Germany had folded in several crises so giving the impression that faced by determined opposition they would back down.

Surely this is why anti-German propaganda was insistent that the voracity of the Hun could never be sated by conventional diplomatic means! This is just nonsense, not even remotely true.

Germany and Austria-Hungary were at fault in 1914 but if this kind of diplomacy continued one of the crises was going to lead to war.

Again, there is absolutely no reason to believe this. You are reading our present timeline back into a past, just like people who having experienced the collapse of the Dual Monarchy (or the USSR) became convinced that this collapse represented a historical necessity rather than a contingent state of circumstances.

The only way of avoiding war in the long term would have been to do what Britain and France did after Fashoda, agree distinct spheres of influence so that conflicts of interest don’t arise.

Weird how that doesn’t apply to Anglo-Russian relations, which never had any such agreement.

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Stephen 10.25.16 at 12:44 pm

JQ@62: you say my post @53 was “pro-war, in the sense of arguing that the wars mentioned in the OP [in this case, the Boer War] were justified/necessary”. The point I made was that the war was started by the Boers, invading British territory and besieging towns there. I’m certainly not arguing that the Boer invasions were either justified or necessary. I do think that resisting being invaded is in many cases justified and necessary. There are occasions (Czechoslovakia in 1938, 1939, 1968; Denmark in 1940) when resistance was guaranteed to fail, and it was reasonable to argue it should not be seriously attempted: that was not, obviously, the case in South Africa. Are you arguing that the Boer invasion should not have been resisted?

Going back to your original post: I came across a rather solid book by an Australian historian, Trevor Wilson, “The myriad faces of war”. He concludes that the terrible cost for the Western peoples of victory World War I may have been less than the probable cost of Western defeat. What is your opinion of Wilson?

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Jerry Vinokurov 10.25.16 at 1:35 pm

It seems to me still that Clark could have written a book equally sensitive to the role of accidents in communications, differences in personal temperaments, divergent institutional necessities, illusions of control and so forth in *preventing* a general war between the Great Powers in any of the repeated crises.

It will not surprise you to learn that the book is actually about that too. A lot of it concerns the crises that did not lead to a general war and why and how they were prevented. Not in the same level of detail, of course, for obvious reasons.

But I don’t think he could have written anything to explain how turning the corner, even by accident, in 1914 could have prevented another crisis somewhere else a few years later. The failure of the system was inherent to the system, even if the date of the failure was set by an improbable concatenation of events, institutional inadequacies and personal lapses. In a complex world, there will always be, eventually, improbabilities.

Well, I don’t think anyone could have written that book. I don’t see what value there is in viewing crises as predetermined, except that it allows for the formulation of a theory that is always right. Contending that “the failure of the system was inherent to the system” doesn’t help explain much, in my view, because all systems are transitory; we could say the fall of the Roman empire was inherent in the Roman empire, but I don’t believe this helps us explain why it occurred. It’s true that a complex world will always have room for improbable events (although the potential of a Balkan crisis to usher in a general war was not exactly a tightly-held secret), but I don’t think there’s much use in extrapolating an alternate history in which WWI does not occur (unless we’re writing science fiction). We just don’t know what would have happened; maybe another crisis would have undone that system anyway, and maybe something entirely different would have occurred. A massive event like WWI drags so many other things in its wake (the Russian Revolution, for example) that there’s no real way of untangling them from each other.

But there is a kind of presentism which assumes the past is the singular prologue to the present. In this case, that the Great War has to be seen as a choice, a moral failure, of historical agents. If history had seen fit to elect different agents, rather like voters wisely choosing their representatives today, then the Great War could have been avoided.

What I take JQ to be saying in the original post is that by the standards of the time the war was a moral failure. I’m not sure how precisely to evaluate that; it doesn’t seem to me that war in a general sense was viewed as a moral failure, but it’s also likely that this particular war, had its outcomes been known, would have been viewed as such. I’d guess that no one would have made the choice to put millions of people in the ground over a localized conflict had they known that would be the result.

What makes sense to me is to concentrate more on the contingent aspects of the war’s outbreak. The problem with high-level structural theories (not just in history but everywhere) is that while they offer a useful abstraction, they obscure the particulars. If it is true that people make choices but not under the circumstances of their own choosing, it’s still true that the choices matter; the high-level theory might serve to illuminate the constraints under which the actors operate, but I don’t see how it can explain all of the actions themselves. Certainly within the specific context of WWI, there was a remarkable degree of latitude available for all of the decision-makers at almost every step of the process; why shouldn’t we expect that if they had made different choices, the outcomes would have been different? Ultimately, the high-level schematic is a post hoc rationalization imposed by us for the purpose of conceptual clarity, but that doesn’t mean that our map is the territory or that the people who operated (what we take to be) that schematic would have seen themselves as doing so. Thus the value of trying to get at the rationales and actions of the people embedded in the moment, to try and see what they saw as the limitations of their world and the possibilities for their actions.

Perhaps another of putting it is to object that if you don’t understand the present, seeing the past through that lens will obscure your views? The Great War I think was not even a breakdown in the world system of colonial empires dividing a capitalist world economy, but in the long run an inevitable culmination of changes in a rigid system unable to peacefully accommodate change.

Ok, but what would lead us to the conclusion that it was a “a rigid system unable to peacefully accommodate change?” On the one hand, we have the specific example of what actually did occur: the system shattered when its constituent parties decided to go to war over what was, in the end, a fairly minor local dispute. But on the other hand, I don’t think you can conclude from this that it was fait accompli that this would happen at some point or another. After all, the system had actually accommodated change relatively peacefully in the past, since this wasn’t the first crisis, or even the first Balkan crisis, to trouble the continent. As for “rigidity” I’d argue that the system was a great deal less rigid than people think; in particular, reading the accounts of how the contemporaries of 1914 saw themselves as embedded in the international system, it seems to me that they themselves saw a fair amount of flexibility that was available to them. For example, the British internal cabinet debates about their obligations to Belgium under the treaty don’t suggest anything like a mechanical interpretation of obligation to intervene.

Ultimately the true moral failure of the agents involved, all of them, was the absurd insistence on committing to a system that cannot survive.

But we don’t know that it couldn’t have survived. We just know that it didn’t. Actually, I’m not sure what “it” even was; what constituted this system that was so broken that it could not accommodate peaceful resolution of crises?

Of course, this is not what most people presently consider a moral failure at all, is it? The thing is, if you accept that committing to the status quo is a legitimate moral choice, then the grounds for assuming one party or another is immoral gets considerably shakier.

The fact of something being the status quo does not automatically render it an immoral option. Politics is full of debates like this; sometimes the status quo is Actually Good and sometimes it’s terrible, and the specifics are everything.

The ramshackle Austro-Hungarian empire

Considerably less ramshackle than people think. Again, this is reading the present timeline, in which we know that the empire collapsed under the strain of the war, into the past. Without the war, maybe the empire survives and maybe it doesn’t and maybe it takes on an entirely different character altogether. We just don’t know.

cannot accept the murder of its prospective emperor at the hands of yet another ethno-national group that threatens it continued existence as it is, hence the ultimatum. Serbian nationalism cannot easily accept the ultimatum. And so it went. In the end, we get very little more than the great mantra of modernist literature, “Shit happens, and then you die.”

Are there any states, ramshackle empires or not, that would accept the assassination of a head of state by foreign operatives with equanimity? It’s hard to imagine that under any circumstances such an action would not lead to an international confrontation of some sort. And Serbian nationalism could and was in fact prepared to accept the ultimatum (perhaps not “easily”), until it received intimations from the Russian foreign office that they would be backed up in case of war. Once you start unrolling the story, it turns out that there were a lot of decisions that could have gone differently and brought us to different ends. What those ends would have been is impossible to determine, but I think that concluding that the actual was the necessary is to lean on a kind of availability bias expanded to historical scale.

Indeed, shit happens and then you die. I hold to the perhaps idealistic belief that it might behoove us to understand the cause of shit happening so that perhaps we might lessen the possibility of shit happening in the future.

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stevenjohnson 10.25.16 at 3:57 pm

Well, I must disagree as to how idealistic it is to think we are going to manage our way out of crises etc.

“I don’t see what value there is in viewing crises as predetermined, except that it allows for the formulation of a theory that is always right.” The thing is not that the colonial imperialist system of the period had crises due to complex, random events. If anything that is what Clark et al. really are saying, even if they imagine themselves to be saying otherwise. (Clark won’t care one bit if I understand better after the his book comes in, any more than he cares about any possible misunderstanding as of the moment.) The point is that the crises kept on happening. That is not random, that is systemic. I think the point of a theory that says such unseemly eruptions as the Great War are the exceptions is to be a theory that is always right. All events are horribly complex and random, just like any given poker hand is highly improbable.

But there is no resolving the more important point about what’s idealistic. Nor would it be profitable to fight every detail. You have succeeded in the mission of getting me to read the book, for what that’s worth.

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Brett Dunbar 10.25.16 at 3:58 pm

The central powers were guilty of actually starting the war when they had good reason to think that Russia was committed to back Serbia. Germany had backed down in previous crises and seems to have been determined not avoid another diplomatic humiliation, even at the cost of risking war. At some point a crisis where both determined that they wouldn’t back down was likely. Brinkmanship is a very dangerous tactic in diplomacy, it can be an effective one, until the other side refuse to back down.

If the system was such that repeated diplomatic crises were inevitable then at some point then one is going to be mishandled to the point that a major war breaks out. So a war is inevitable even if which one is contingent. While if you argue that the system wasn’t so unstable that war was virtually inevitable then the German and Austro-Hungarian decision to go to war was criminal.

It doesn’t depend on present knowledge to understand that if the Russian army is mobilised then it can be ordered into action if the decision to go to war is made. It also doesn’t require present knowledge to realise that Russia was likely divided on the subject. Germany gambled, and it turned out, made a mistake. While we have more detailed information about the actual process they had quite a bit.

Britain had come to an accommodation with Russia, the Russians had withdrawn from Afghanistan, there were rather rather fewer areas where Russia and Britain might clash than was the case with France. Clashes with the Americans was avoided as the US claim, the Monroe doctrine, largely suited Britain.

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bruce wilder 10.25.16 at 5:31 pm

The war wasn’t inevitable; it could have been averted in any number of ways, even in the very last days. The arguments that the war was necessary are usually structural: they rely on arguments about the state of the alliance system and what obligations it entailed for the participants. But the alliance system was considerably more malleable than e.g. modern treaties like NATO, and this is clear when you look at the way someone like Grey continually waffled on the state of the Entente until events forced his hand. My argument is that the war was a contingent state of affairs in which every participant shares some of the blame, but for which blame cannot be definitively ascribed to a single actor. This is perfectly consistent.

All historical narrative involves extreme compression of information. Retrospectively, history only happens one way, and “inevitability” can be a strategy for narrative compression — one in which the narrator-historian strips out all contingency. It is very tempting, but by most lights, it is a bad strategy. The interesting challenge is to find ways of showing how historical actors shaped their behavior in line with their own experience and perception of prospective contingency, without losing the thread that links the sequence of events.

Historians imagine the past and remember the future, as Lewis Namier had it, and they are not the only ones. Another dangerous strategy for narrative compression is the novelist’s: find the plot and string together the sequence of events in a moral journey as if history is a novel. One cannot so easily rule this strategy out of bounds as the strategy of stripping away all contingency, because without it, history would be deadly dull to read and quite possibly impossible for humans to comprehend. But, in its short forms, it doesn’t just erase a lot of detail, it can also leap over causality. The moral struggle of protagonists covers the sociology, political science and economics like a blanket; vast nations become unified persons with motives and thoughts, or are personified in kings and generals cast as heroes and villains.

I haven’t yet read Clark’s The Sleepwalkers; I know it only from reviews and what has been written hear. I sense that Clark is determined to resist both “inevitability” and the simple conventions of moral narratives that identify good guys and bad guys without understanding any of the details of confusion and contingency. It seems like a worthy ambition for an historian.

That said, I think I am largely with Brett Dunbar in thinking that nothing I have read here convinces me that Clark has overturned a well-informed version of the conventional narrative analysis, which finds Germany or Germany and Austria at fault for bringing on a general conflagration.

Some events are dispositive in this respect. Germany invading Belgium stands out. Austria’s unwillingness to take Serbia’s “yes” for an answer is another. Clark apparently works hard to obscure the import of these events and the bounds they place on any narrative analysis we want to construct, but ultimately I do not think he succeeds or can succeed really against the facts as they are known.

World War I comes about because Germany is determined to have a war and and its collective leadership wills it so. You can say that everyone is to blame only in the sense that all of the Powers have prepared for general war on an enormous scale, a progressive development of the previous 40 years. No one is managing that evolving system, thinking clearly about the foreseeable consequences of building a structure for industrialized warfare under a system of international relations that relies on war and the threat as a routine tool of policy and a means of state building. That failure of elites has something to do with those elites mostly not being responsible in a political sense in political systems still monarchical and aristocratic but also increasingly bureaucratic and relying on mass participation. (In that context, the “sleepwalkers” metaphor makes a lot of sense to me.)

So, in a broad sense — and this is a critically important sense both morally and practically — war and the threat of war has been adopted as a means of organizing polities and resolving disputes and rivalries between states in the period after 1815. It is a system that makes use of both diplomacy and limited warfare and it is a system that had been evolving without sufficient reflection after 1870.

But, that leaves the narrow case, of what exactly made August 1914 different. And, what made August 1914 different was that the Germans were determined to have a general war on the gamble that they could defeat both France and Russia in short order and enhance the power and prestige of the German Empire by this means.

That Austria had discovered itself in desperate straits after the collapse of the remnant of the Ottoman’s European empire in the two Balkan wars was the occasion. Arguably Russia was in similarly desperate straits though with less awareness, because the currency of its patronage of the Balkan states had been debased in the course of the two Balkan Wars. On ample precedent, the normal or expected way of handling this problem, after the usual rattling of sabers, would have been a series of diplomatic conferences. What prevented the Powers from following that well-worn path, which might well have allowed for all the Powers to become fully aware in mutual deliberation of the changed situation and the need to accommodate the emergence of the smaller nation-states, was Germany going to war.

To the extent that the choice to go to war in 1914 is to be viewed as an instant ethical issue, I do not know that one can really assign much blame to the U.K. or France or even Russia. They are not playing the game with a view to initiating a general war. Only Germany is doing that. We are doing violence to the historical reality, if we look back and try to “normalize” what Germany was doing and obscure its apparent determination to bring about and fight a general war.

In the broader sense of choosing how we organize peoples and states politically and how relations between countries, which will inevitably entail conflicts, are handled, the First World War remains the great object lesson in how not to do things.

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Jerry Vinokurov 10.25.16 at 9:19 pm

Well, I’m traveling and don’t have the book with me, so I can no longer quote voluminous passages from it. I’ll just register my final point of disagreement on the facts, but if I’ve managed to entice a few people into reading the book, I’ll go ahead and consider that a success.

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J-D 10.25.16 at 11:48 pm

The case against war was fully developed and strongly argued in the years before 1914, just as the case against slavery was developed and argued in the US before 1861.

Slavery is wrong. People enslaving other people is a wrong. People being enslaved by other people is a wrong.

War is wrong. People inflicting war on other people is a wrong. People having war inflicted on them by other people is a wrong.

But who’s doing the wrong? The people doing the enslaving are doing wrong, not the people being enslaved; the people inflicting war are doing wrong, not the people having it inflicted on them.

It’s easy to tell who’s doing the enslaving and who’s being enslaved. It’s often hard to tell who’s inflicting war and who’s only having it inflicted on them. But that doesn’t mean there’s no difference.

The case against slavery is clear, but it’s a case against enslaving, not a case against being enslaved. The case against war is clear, but it’s a case against inflicting war, not a case against having war inflicted on you.

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Brett Dunbar 10.26.16 at 1:20 am

The main factual argument Clark appears to be making which differs from the standard interpretation is that he characterises Serbia’s response to the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum as essentially a rejection. The standard analysis is that the documentation shows the ultimatum was intended to be unacceptable and that Serbia accepting much of it was a surprise.

Unlike the other great powers German mobilisation was an act of war German plans involved invading Luxembourg and Belgium. All of the others confined mobilised troops to their own territory.

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John Quiggin 10.26.16 at 2:55 am

I’m struck that both Peter T and Kidneystones are unhappy about my use of the term “pro-war” to describe commenters writing in support of the decisions of the British government and its allies to go to war with the Boers and the Central Powers. As kidneystones says, the term is “inflammatory”.

Exactly the same sensitivity applies to “racist”: no matter what someone says about people of other races, there’s always a definition of “racist” that lets them off the hook of being called a racist, and justifiies a euphemism like “racially charged” instead.

That’s a kind of progress, in the sense of La Rouchefoucald, “hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue”.

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Gareth Wilson 10.26.16 at 4:18 am

I’m happy to be described as pro-war.

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ZM 10.26.16 at 6:09 am

bruce wilder,

“All historical narrative involves extreme compression of information. Retrospectively, history only happens one way, and “inevitability” can be a strategy for narrative compression — one in which the narrator-historian strips out all contingency. It is very tempting, but by most lights, it is a bad strategy. The interesting challenge is to find ways of showing how historical actors shaped their behavior in line with their own experience and perception of prospective contingency, without losing the thread that links the sequence of events.”

On historiography — one of the Melbourne Group of historians died recently, Inga Clendinnen, and an article about her work after her death in The Monthly gave a nice discussion of her approach to history writing. Clendinnen did a lot of work on Aztec history and culture before turning to the Holocaust and Australian history after an illness, and the Melbourne Group were generally interested in doing ethnohistory that engaged with anthropology and culture.

“Clendinnen began to articulate her understanding of history’s special capacity – it could only bridge the gulf between fragmentary sources and complex past reality “by systematic intellectual procedures and without resort to ‘intuition’ or other esoteric magical formulae”. Just what those systematic procedures might be was to become the meta-narrative of all her subsequent work.

She warned that one could not simply simulate complexity by projecting one’s own common-sense interpretations on the people of the past “in the eerie conviction that [they] are simply ourselves tricked out in fancy dress”. One had to recognise the strangeness of past peoples and interrogate the metaphors they lived by, employing methods like those used every day for the evaluation of gossip, always working close to the ground with “muddy actuality”.

And good history, unlike flashes of intuition, was “at all points open to scrutiny, criticism and correction”. To be anything but humble in the face of what we have lost of the complex past was to be vulnerable to error. This conviction made her a brilliant and reflective scholar, and it could also make her – as she said herself – a stern critic.

….

Clendinnen knew that historians “have to live with the fact that ordinary people are practising historians too”. That is, history is a democratic craft and everyone has to deal with the past.

Her respect for the intelligence of her readers, her sacred sense of the moral responsibility of history, and her luminous prose won her a large and devoted public. This distinguished writer and world-class reader loved the way literacy connects “the living with the living, but also with the great company of the dead”. She saw her art as achieving a kind of triumph over death, as denying the immutability of time. “Of course humans die,” she wrote, “but I have a friend called Michel de Montaigne who died more than four hundred years ago, and he is still alive to me.””

https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2016/october/1475244000/tom-griffiths/reading-inga-clendinnen

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Peter T 10.26.16 at 8:25 am

JQ

Rather than doubling down on the rhetoric, why not try to understand the argument? I can’t speak for kidneystones, but what I see is people pointing out that the French, British and Russian leaders were handed a shit sandwich: very few of them were eager for war; none of them would have lasted a week if they had acquiesced in German and Austrian demands, and it is not clear that submission would have averted war, simply because Berlin wanted a large war, and Vienna/Budapest were both dependent on Berlin and insouciant about the risks of even a small war. The above assertions are well-supported by the historical record, and broadly accord with the historical consensus.

For myself, @68 I pointed out that European society was under enormous stress at all levels and, after several decades of this, elites as well as masses were in a state perhaps best described as collective nervous exhaustion. That they did not arrive at reasoned moral judgements is hardly strange, and I do not choose, myself, to sit in judgement on them.

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Brett Dunbar 10.26.16 at 1:24 pm

The various great powers were treating diplomatic crises as a game of ultra high stakes chicken. The side that backed down first when faced by the prospect of war lost, so the closer you were willing to get to a major war the more likely you were to win. Ultimately if one side is prepared to accept war and the other is not that side will win, however if both sides are prepared to accept war rather than defeat then a catastrophic war is in prospect.

The dynamics of international diplomacy was such that at some point a crisis would occur where neither were bluffing. If war had been averted in the July Crisis maybe we would be discussing the details of, say, the Aegean Crisis of 1921.

94

kidneystones 10.26.16 at 2:38 pm

JQ @56 I’d be interested to read the views of the pro-war commenters above on more recent wars, particularly those in which the US has been engaged.

JQ @ 89 I’m struck that both Peter T and Kidneystones are unhappy about my use of the term “pro-war” to describe commenters writing in support of the decisions of the British government and its allies to go to war with the Boers and the Central Powers.

I’m not at all unhappy, John. I question the utility of applying the term to individual commenters in a general sense, when you originally employed the term ‘pro-war’ as useful and perfectly reasonable short-hand for Dominion governments, rather than any individuals. I grant you certainly can make the jump as you do.

A less inflammatory and more precise phrasing of your query (I suggest) might look something like this:

‘I’d be interested to read the views of those commenters above who argue that the Boer war and/or the Great War were somehow necessary on more recent wars, particularly those in which the US has been engaged.’

Even Churchill argued that ‘jaw-jaw is always better than going to ‘war-war’. Very few people I can think of would ever characterize themselves as pro-war, except in very specific and clearly defined instances.

Given that your premise implies that some wars are in fact necessary, does that make you similarly pro-war?

And would you be comfortable being referred to as the ‘pro-war contributor’ at CT?

95

Placeholder 10.26.16 at 4:21 pm

the French, British and Russian leaders were handed a shit sandwich: very few of them were eager for war; none of them would have lasted a week if they had acquiesced in German and Austrian demands.

The various great powers were treating diplomatic crises as a game of ultra high stakes chicken.

Indeed. How do we know this? After the horrific devastation of the First World War they did indeed set up a system of international peace and really stuck to it for a time. If the Appeasers- pro-fascist warmongers like the Stresa Front and not Tory pacifist as so often depicted – had not actually conspired to undermine it would have held up. It was on this basis that the post-war trials in Nuremberg and Tokyo passed out death sentences for Crimes Against Peace.

Oh and Germany didn’t ‘annex Belgium’ it occupied to carry out the Schlieffen plan and it was just as ‘forced’ to do this prevent ‘foreign policy defeats’ as France was to retake Alsace and Holstein for Sun King. Seems the great powers of England and France were so desperate to stop Kaiser ‘penulto-Hitler’ II we should be so grateful they seized half the small weak countries of the world to keep them out of dastardly imperialist hands! You can indeed reverse Hitlerize the figures of the fin-de-siecle – as long as it as warmongers, not merely as Germans.

If this OP is still thinking his reading list then I would strongly recommend Fritz Fischer’s ‘Germany’s Aims in the First World War’. It’s multisided enough that even the German War Guilt party can get in on the action – but I find its claims about the SPD most revealing.

96

soru 10.26.16 at 5:06 pm

> Exactly the same sensitivity applies to “racist”: no matter what someone says about people of other races, there’s always a definition of “racist” that lets them off the hook of being called a racist, and justifiies a euphemism like “racially charged” instead.

Does that mean when the topic turns to the US Civil War, the available menu of arguments is ‘racist’, ‘pro-war’ or ‘both’?

97

Stan 10.26.16 at 8:17 pm

“All the wars I have ever heard caused far more harm, destruction, and loss than any resulting benefit”

I have to argue with you on that one as far as the US civil war goes. It should not have been necessary but, the benefit was enormous.

98

Peter T 10.26.16 at 11:03 pm

“The various great powers were treating diplomatic crises as a game of ultra high stakes chicken.”

Not quite. First – there were different views within each state. More important, previous crises had been resolved either through back-downs (Russia over Bosnia, Bulgaria, France over Fashoda..) or through conferences. 1914 was different in that Germany refused to consider a conference, and pushed demands on France and Russia that could not possibly be met. Probably deliberately – the only war plan they had was to defeat France and then turn on Russia, so the game was to push France to war.

The central question is, why was Germany so determined to go to war (influential groups in Germany had argued for war with Russia in 1906, and with France and Russia in 1909. In 1914 they got their way)? A good many historians have come to the view that domestic factors were as important as international ones.

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J-D 10.27.16 at 1:47 am

Placeholder

It was on this basis that the post-war trials in Nuremberg and Tokyo passed out death sentences for Crimes Against Peace.

The death sentence was not imposed on any defendant convicted only of Crimes Against Peace. All the defendants sentenced to death had been convicted of War Crimes or Crimes Against Humanity or both. Defendants convicted of Crimes Against Peace but not convicted of War Crimes or Crimes Against Humanity were imprisoned but not subjected to the death penalty.

100

LFC 10.27.16 at 2:16 am

1) To (belatedly) thank erichwwk @13 for mentioning J. Swomley, whose name I hadn’t run across before.

2) An article I’d read a long time ago (and frankly forgotten about) that is relevant to some points I made @36 but focuses spec. on Britain (it was delivered as a paper in 1972 but not published until 2003):
Zara Steiner, “Views of War: Britain Before the ‘Great War’ — and After,” International Relations 17:1 (March 2003)

btw, Steiner is the author of two lengthy and (from what I gather) much-praised volumes on the diplomatic/international history of interwar Europe: The Lights that Failed and The Triumph of the Dark.

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J-D 10.27.16 at 3:22 am

John Quiggin

I’m struck that both Peter T and Kidneystones are unhappy about my use of the term “pro-war” to describe commenters writing in support of the decisions of the British government and its allies to go to war with the Boers and the Central Powers. As kidneystones says, the term is “inflammatory”.

If ‘pro-war’ is an appropriate term for anybody who supports a decision to go to war, then it’s an appropriate term for those who support (or supported) the decisions of the British government and its allies to go to war with Germany in September 1939.

The wing of the Democratic Party that gave support to Lincoln and Lincoln’s policies are routinely referred to as the ‘War Democrats’ (although not, as far as I know, the ‘Pro-War Democrats’), and it doesn’t seem to be regarded as a pejorative or inflammatory description.

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John Quiggin 10.27.16 at 5:54 am

@101 Agreed, and I’m certainly willing to accept the description in the case of the two wars you mention. So, I would say, that I’m almost always, but not absolutely anti-war. That is, in nearly all wars, I regard those on both sides who supported the war as being in the wrong.

I invited the commenters who had expressed pro-war views in relation to the wars of a century ago to give their views on more recent wars. I’ll repeat that, with the clarification that I don’t regard “pro-war” as a binary description.

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John Quiggin 10.27.16 at 5:59 am

Peter T and others: I’d ask if you paid any attention to the OP, which referred to the strong pro-war sentiment prevailing in Britain and the Empire. There was, to be sure, a substantial peace faction in the Liberal government, more so than in most of the other belligerents, including France and Russia. But they lost, as the peace faction has lost in so many subsequent debates up to and including the Iraq War.

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Gareth Wilson 10.27.16 at 8:36 am

Some of them turned out to be bad ideas, but I’d support most modern wars entered by Western powers, given what they knew at the time.

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Peter T 10.27.16 at 9:03 am

JQ

Certainly being “pro-war” was more respectable at the time than it became later, even if war was as universally accepted as normal business in the way it was in, for instance, classical antiquity. But, as you say, to any but absolute pacifists, war is sometimes justified. And, as the decision is always taken in uncertainty as to the costs and outcomes, a judgement has to rest not on what the cost was, but on intentions and, as far as we can reconstruct them, how the key people saw the situation.

The British cabinet was initially very much against war. By the time they decided for war, they had seen Austria-Hungary and Germany refuse mediation, refuse a conference of the powers, declare war on Russia and invade Luxembourg and Belgium en route to France. This came on top of decades of German diplomatic sabre-rattling and the German creation of a fleet specifically designed to threaten Britain with starvation. How far, in your opinion, should Britain and France have gone to avoid war? And how far, given public and parliamentary opinion at the time, was it possible for them to go?

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bruce wilder 10.28.16 at 2:45 am

War in 1914 doesn’t turn simply on a border violated on August 2 or 3. In a very real sense, Germany set on its course when the Kaiser around 1890 turned from Bismarck’s realpolitik toward the weltpolitik of “seeking a place in the sun” by means of investments in armaments and conquests. War became a matter of glory-seeking and Germany began preparing to fight a fight for the fight’s sake: to acquire the capacity to beat the rest to show they could. It was a strangely pointless foreign policy well demonstrated in the Agadir Crisis when the Panther sprang, but each humiliation simply added to the motive to escalate.

And, Britain’s response was to outspend Germany on its navy, and to bolster France even in its quixotic alliance with autocratic Russia. The threat of war met with a threat of more war.

There were a lot of choices made to get all the countries involved to the fateful moment when war became an imminent offer that could not be refused.

I cannot help but think of Chris Hedges’ title, war is a force that gives us meaning.

In the power game that was the Concert of Europe, war was a means to popular political power and nationality. War was at the nexus of political tensions, domestic as well as international. The same impulse of arrogance that led the Kaiser to embarrass his country led a common lieutenant to alienate Alsace in the Zabern incident. France struggled over the incompetence of its reactionary military leadership in the persecution of an Alsatian Jew and the Liberals coped inadequately with the Curragh Mutiny.

I find the lack of respect for institutional context in JQ’s WWI posts troubling, but not the anti-war sentiment. I do not feel I need to refrain from moral judgments. Europe was drenched in war as a political solution circa 1910 and the authoritarianism, stubborn stupidity and waste of resources was staggering.

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Jerry Vinokurov 10.28.16 at 3:11 am

Truly the blood-lust of the Hun is unparalleled, perhaps genetic even. Never thought I’d see the day when self-proclaimed liberals defended ethnic essentialism on Crooked Timber, but cool, you learn something new all the time.

108

J-D 10.28.16 at 4:23 am

John Quiggin
You state that you’re willing to accept the ‘pro-war’ description ‘in the case of’ the Second World War and the American Civil War, but surely that’s an incomplete characterisation of your position? Some people are/were pro-war ‘in the case of’ the Second World War in the sense that they support/supported the German decision to go to war in 1939, or pro-war ‘in the case of’ the American Civil War in the sense that they support/supported the Southern decision to go to war in 1861, but surely those aren’t your positions?

I don’t think of the Second World War as a ‘necessary’ war for both sides; the fact that one side was justified in fighting is directly linked to the fact that the other side’s aggression was entirely unjustified and so, if you like, completely ‘unnecessary’. Whenever one side’s war is unnecessary, the other side’s war is usually going to be justified or, if you like, ‘necessary’.

If Brownland launches an unprovoked invasion of Greyland, the Greylanders are probably justified in fighting back, and precisely because Brownland’s aggression is unjustified.

If war breaks out with Brownland and Greyland simultaneously launching unprovoked invasions of each other, then they’re probably both unjustified in fighting, but it seems to me that very few actual wars really start like that.

If you ask me my judgement about any war, recent or ancient, I’m going to answer that it depends on who started it, and why. Somebody started the Boer War; somebody started the First World War; somebody started the current wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — because wars don’t start themselves, people start them. Usually the people who start a war aren’t justified in doing so, and when the side that starts a war does not have justification, the other side is usually justified in fighting back. It’s not clear to me how you can adequately analyse justification or necessity in the case of the First World War, or the Boer War, or any war, while eliding what seems to me a fundamental question.

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John Quiggin 10.28.16 at 7:31 am

@107 I didn’t think I needed to spell out my opposition to Hitler or the Confederacy.

@104 Well, that’s clear, and consistent with the views stated in the OP. Any other responses?

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Manta 10.28.16 at 8:04 am

J-D @107
“If Brownland launches an unprovoked invasion of Greyland, the Greylanders are probably justified in fighting back, and precisely because Brownland’s aggression is unjustified.”

This analysis misses 2 important points:

1) a classical tenet of Just War theory (in the Jus ad bellum) is “Probability of success:Arms may not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success”: if Greyland is hopelessly overpowered, the “fightging back” is not justified.
(The reasoning is quite simple: killing people for no gain cannot be justified).

2) More importantly, there is a confusion between “Greyland” and “Greylanders”: the fact that the rulers of Greyland are justified to fight the rulers off Brownlamd of does not imply that they are justified in ordering their citizens to fight and die for their cause.

For an example: even assuming arguendo that the Tzar was justified in fighting for the Serbian rulers, we cannot deduce that he was justified in sending the Russians peasants to kill and be killed.

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Manta 10.28.16 at 8:17 am

@105 Peter T 10.27.16 at 9:03 am

“War is sometimes justified. And, as the decision is always taken in uncertainty as to the costs and outcomes, a judgement has to rest not on what the cost was, but on intentions and, as far as we can reconstruct them, how the key people saw the situation.”

Could you point out to any other situation where you would look at intentions rather than predictable outcomes to judge the work of professionals? Or where you would give “uncertainty” as a justification to do hazardous things?
For instance, would you apply this criterion to a doctor (“this procedure usually kills the patient, but we are not sure it will kill him this time, so let’s do it”)?

The fact that the benefits are very uncertain and the costs can be enormous should require very strong justifications and a very good case that “this time is different”, not e used as an excuse.

112

Z 10.28.16 at 8:56 am

Sure John, but where do you draw the line, exactly? How do you compute the balance of atrocities? Is the Armenian Genocide more or less worse than slavery in the South? How about forced labor and segregation in the Ober Ost? How about the use of toxic gas? (All genuine questions.) The Central Powers in WWI were conducting extremely brutal occupations of large swaths of Europe and carrying over a genocide, does that entail that France, Belgium, Lithuania and Armenians at least had a legitimate stance in fighting (though perhaps not Great Britain or a fortiori Australia)? Obviously, one could correctly argue back that the Armenian Genocide was in large part a by-product of the fighting and that it played no role in the decision of any power to go to war. Yet, exactly the same is true of the Genocide of the Jews. The Third Reich did not exterminate the Alsatian Jews after the military collapse of France; it “merely” expelled them and the escalation of the war as the proximate cause for the actual industrial extermination of Jews is historically well-attested. Possibly, the Third Reich would have killed “only” 1 million Jews if Great Britain had accepted peace in the summer 1940 and if the USSR had collapsed in 6 weeks in 1941, and of course the Holocaust played no role in the decision of any power to enter the war or escalate it.

Your writing on the topic have been very utilitarian in spirit (that the overwhelming majority of wars have been a net loss for all parties is what I take to be the gist of your position). I wonder if my uneasiness with the specific application to WWI stems for the great dissonance between what I take to be a relatively legitimate war in spirit from the point of view of my own country and the actual conduct of the fighting (pointless, horrific massacres one after the another).

Nothing in the above makes 1914 France any less bellicose, imperialist, brutal and racist as the Kaiserreich, of course.

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Z 10.28.16 at 9:10 am

Also, since I asked many questions, I feel I should answer yours.

I consider the involvement of France and the United States in the Indochina/Vietnam of 1945-1975 as an abhorrent colonial and post-colonial war. Same judgment in spades about all the colonial wars of the second half of the XXth century (Kenya, Madagascar, Algeria, Cameroun…). Despite my deep contempt for this state and all it represents, I am on balance more in favor than against the restoration of Kuwait as a sovereign state in the First Iraq War. Despite profound misgivings, I am on balance slightly more in favor than against the NATO war in Bosnia. On the other hand, on balance, I think NATO should not have militarily intervened in Kosovo. I strongly opposed Desert Fox (the only war I have been directly involved with). The Afghan and Iraq wars were sad excuses on the part of the US and their clients to show they were as barbaric and brutal as anyone. On balance, I oppose France’s wars in the Ivory Coast and Niger and strongly oppose the war in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

I am not sure this is very interesting, but you did ask.

114

bruce wilder 10.28.16 at 6:52 pm

J-D: If you ask me my judgement about any war, recent or ancient, I’m going to answer that it depends on who started it, and why. . . . wars don’t start themselves, people start them. Usually the people who start a war aren’t justified in doing so, and when the side that starts a war does not have justification, the other side is usually justified in fighting back.

This is the morality of a child’s playground: simple and simple-minded: “he started it!” cries the aggrieved.

Of course, the propagandists are well-aware of this moral primitive and will feed it opportunistically, manipulating events if they can, or just making up stories if that’s all they have. So, Lincoln had Ft Sumter, FDR Pearl Harbor, LBJ the Tonkin Gulf Incident, George W Bush imaginary WMD and imaginary connections between Saddam and 9/11.

In 1914, Austria had the dead bodies of the Archduke and his wife. It isn’t predetermined what we make of events. In 1858, a conspiracy of Italian nationalists backed by English radicals attempted to assassinate Napoleon III, the Emperor of France because he was perceived to be blocking Italian unification under the Kingdom of Sardinia and the House of Savoy. In the assassination attempt, the Emperor and Empress were basically unharmed, though several people were killed and a large number wounded. The British government fell and British-French relations were strained over English policies on political asylum. A couple of the assassins went to the guillotine; one — in a singularly improbable life escaped Devil’s Island to serve under Custer and survive the Battle of the Little Big Horn. But, I digress.

Napoleon III decided that the right response was to change his policy. He met secretly with Cavour, the legendary foreign minister of Sardinia a few months later and the next year, France weighed in to throw Austria out of most of Italy, acquiring Savoy and Nice for France. It was one the rare foreign policy initiatives of France under Napoleon III that did not turn into a disaster. So, you could say the assassins succeeded in their political project.

In a way, Gavrilo Princep, the assassin of Franz Ferdinand, succeeded as well, in that Yugoslavia was formed and the Hapsburg Empire was dissolved.

One problem with asking “who started it?” is that it invites a moral inquiry of infinite regress. What was Franz Ferdinand doing in Sarajevo in the first place? What gave Austria a right to claim to rule there?

The problem of government and governance is inescapably a problem of violence and submitting a dispute to a contest of arms is a strategic option, not so easily decidable by reference to ethical imperatives when the institutional structures necessary to an ethics have not yet been formed or are themselves in dispute. The child crying anarchy in the playground doesn’t have this problem: she doesn’t have to bootstrap institutions or rules as parents and teachers and society are already formed around her.

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Stephen 10.28.16 at 8:52 pm

All right, since you asked, an incomplete list of wars (or military interventions, the distinction is not obvious) in recent times for which it seems there might be a reasonable justification. JQ: your opinions on these?

British Commonwealth (including Australia), 1948-1958: defeat of Communist insurgency in Malaya.

United Nations, 1950-53: defeating North Korean invasion of the South.

British Commonwealth (including Australia), 1963-66: defeat of Indonesian attempt to annex northern Borneo.

UK: Operation Banner, 1969-2007: defeat of the Provisional IRA/Sinn Fein’s terrorist attempt to force Northern Ireland into a united Ireland against the wishes of most of its inhabitants.

Indian: Bangladesh Liberation War, 1971, expelling the Pakistani army after estimated 300,000 to 3,000,000 civilians killed, 200,000- 400,000 raped, around 30 million refugees.

French: overthrow of the Emperor Bokassa in Central Africa, 1979. Charges of cannibalism against him were never proven: murder of many children, and others, were.

Tanzanian: overthrow in 1979 of His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Alhaji Dr. Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Conqueror of the British Empire, responsible for 300-500,000 deaths of Ugandans and racist expulsion of around 80,000 Ugandan Asians, disastrous for the Ugandan economy but beneficial for the British. Reports that he kept parts of his Minister for Education in a refrigerator have not been authoritatively confirmed.

US: invasion of Grenada, 1983, currently national holiday in Grenada as Thanksgiving Day, after revolutionary murder of previous government.

UK: Falklands war, 1983: defeat of the military dictatorship of Argentina’s attempt to annex the islands against the wishes of almost all of their inhabitants, with the added benefit of overthrowing the dictatorship.

UK/Nigeria: Sierra Leone, 2000, forcible ending of civil war.

Coalition, 1991: expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

French: defeat of Islamist forces in Mali, 2013, and recapture of Timbuktu where Islamist rule had been generally out of order by CT standards.

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Peter T 10.29.16 at 9:06 am

Manta @ 111

The uncertainties of war involve two sources. First is that war is not just violence – it also involves finance, motivations, multiple combinations of often new technologies, actual and potential alliances and more. And it involves all these against some other party who is trying to render as much as possible of all this ineffective. In this sense, it is as uncertain as the outcome of any game.

A second source is that war arises from uncertainty about relative power. After all, if both sides had an exact knowledge of their relative strengths and weaknesses, then they would not need to fight. One would yield in proportion to the disparity in power, and the other not press for more. The war itself clarifies this uncertainty.

One can condemn leaders who enter wars willfully blind to the realities of power (eg Saddam Hussein), and those who persist despite certain defeat. But the elements of uncertainty are always present.

117

ZM 10.29.16 at 1:26 pm

Peter T,

“A second source is that war arises from uncertainty about relative power. After all, if both sides had an exact knowledge of their relative strengths and weaknesses, then they would not need to fight. One would yield in proportion to the disparity in power, and the other not press for more. The war itself clarifies this uncertainty.”

Cheryl Rofer who was commenting on the Tom Hayden thread has got a really interesting post at the moment I read, which is for a Thucydides forum at Zen Pundit, and some of her piece ties in with what you are saying here — where she compares the arguments Athenian leaders made for going to war against the Peloponnesians with arguments by American leaders for going to war in Iraq:

“There is also the difference between perception and reality. It is easy to consider a war great in the positive sense, engaging, bringing fame and honor, uplifting, before it starts. We will put the wrongdoers in their place. Our technological capabilities, our vigor and bravery, our strategies cannot but prevail.

From Pericles’s speech beginning at 1.141.432.1:

“As to the war and the resources of either party, a detailed comparison will not show you the inferiority of Athens. Personally engaged in the cultivation of their land, without funds either private or public, the Peloponnesians are also without experience in long wars across sea, from the strict limit which poverty imposes on their attacks on each other. Powers of this description are quite incapable of often manning a fleet or often sending out an army: they cannot afford the absence from their homes, the expenditure from their own funds; and besides, they have not command of the sea.

….

Did not our fathers resist the Persians not only with resources far different from ours, but even when those resources had been abandoned; and more by wisdom than by fortune, more by daring than by strength, did not they beat off the barbarian and advance their affairs to the present height? We must not fall behind them, but must resist our enemies in any way and in every way, and attempt to hand down our power to our posterity unimpaired.”

*****

Paul Wolfowitz anticipated an easy victory in Iraq in 2003:

“There has been a good deal of comment — some of it quite outlandish — about what our postwar requirements might be in Iraq. Some of the higher end predictions we have been hearing recently, such as the notion that it will take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq, are wildly off the mark. It is hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam’s security forces and his army — hard to imagine.” (House Budget Committee testimony on Iraq February 27, 2003)

“There’s a lot of money to pay for this. It doesn’t have to be U.S. taxpayer money. We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon.” (Congressional Testimony, March 27, 2003)

Similarly, Vice President Dick Cheney:

“The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but what they want to get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that.” (Meet The Press with Tim Russert, March 16, 2003)

[In response to “We have not been greeted as liberators.”] “Well, I think we have by most Iraqis. I think the majority of Iraqis are thankful for the fact that the United States is there, that we came and we took down the Saddam Hussein government.” (Meet The Press with Tim Russert, September 14, 2003)

http://zenpundit.com/?p=53234

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bruce wilder 10.29.16 at 4:37 pm

Manta @ 11o, 111

I am always a bit uncomfortable with the application of a framework of cooperative productive cost benefit analysis to war, which is, after all, an instance of something else.

There is an aspect of war-making, which, for a highly organized society, may entail even more social organization and cooperation, as Peter T hints in his reference to war entailing problems of finance and technology or as I mentioned in my allusion to war creating “meaning” and the shared identity of, say, nationality. But, the defining core of war is its murderous destruction of life and social cooperation.

Compared to productive social cooperation, war is always a loser. By its nature, it has to be. War aims to waste. War is hell, as the General explained.

In any normal act of social cooperation, the motivation is the gain produced from acting cooperatively and productively. There may be incidental waste and error — arguably waste and error are necessary by-products of all productive activity. But in war, the waste of life and material resources is the main business.

To argue “killing people for no gain cannot be justified” seems to me to run the risk of mistaking what war is.

I want to emphasize that in my view those who think war often “justified” may be making the same error of framing as those who conclude that war is rarely worth the loss of blood and treasure. I am not sure I can articulate the right frame, the frame that would put demolition alongside building for a comparison of merit. So I will leave the question I raise without an answer.

119

Manta 10.29.16 at 10:34 pm

Bruce @118,

One day in the pavilion at Karakorum he asked an officer of the Mongol guard what, in all the world, could bring the greatest happiness.
“The open steppe, a clear day, and a swift horse under you,” responded the officer after a little thought, “and a falcon on your wrist to start up hares.”
“Nay,” responded the Khan, “to crush your enemies, to see them fall at your feet — to take their horses and goods and hear the lamentation of their women. That is best.”

Peter T @116: uncertainty is everywhere in life (only death is certain).
But where the uncertainty is greater and the losses more dire, we should exercise more judgement, and not use it as an excuse to do stupid shit; especially it those paying the price will be mostly other people.
And they should be judged by the outcomes of their actions (as we would judge any professional doing his job, or any bureaucracy), certainly not by their intentions (which are both unknowable and irrelevant).

120

kidneystones 10.30.16 at 1:23 am

@115 These are interesting. I’m not sure all violence by a state constitutes ‘war’ in the Great War sense of war, or even the Boer sense of war.

Part of the problem is applying the realities of the present. Consider just the ‘fog of war.’ Peter T. makes alludes to this in general terms, but lack of information, panic, fear, and greed can make the possible become necessary, which is after the all the distinction made in the OP. There are plenty who can speak on this topic more cogently than I and with deeper knowledge, but it’s clear that both the Great War and the Boer war resulted from elite desires to control and exploit those parts of the globe yet to be controlled and exploited by European elites.

Missing from the discussion so far, it seems to me, are the voices of the great many uncertain citizens and women (who had no say at all in any of these decisions) regarding the ‘necessity’ of these wars. The British colonial administration and FO served the interests of Cecil Rhodes and others, not the interests of the general public.

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John Quiggin 10.30.16 at 5:31 am

@Stephen Thanks for replying. I set out a general view here, that a defensive response to aggressive wars is justified insofar as it aims to restore the status quo ante bellum.

I’m not well informed enough to comment on all the cases on your list, but that criterion rules out all but the first three months of the Korean War and much of the first Iraq war, which seem to be the big cases.

As regards overthrowing dictatorships, it seems to me that you’re picking winners after the fact. If it could be guaranteed in advance that a dictator can be removed with minimal loss of life and replaced with a democratic (or at least, improved) government, I’d support this. But I’m not aware of any such guarantee. If you want to claim Grenada as justified, for example, how do you distinguish this case from the long history of US interventions in the region that have either failed or ended up installing dictatorships?

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ZM 10.30.16 at 5:42 am

kidneystones,

“@115 These are interesting. I’m not sure all violence by a state constitutes ‘war’ in the Great War sense of war, or even the Boer sense of war.”

The Cheryl Rofer post I quoted above is titled “It Would Be A Great War” after Thucydides’ “…it would be a great war, and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it.”

“Great War” seems to be an expression that goes back a long time and that has persisted for many centuries in Western culture.

123

J-D 10.31.16 at 4:11 am

bruce wilder

I wrote: ‘If you ask me my judgement about any war, recent or ancient, I’m going to answer that it depends on who started it, and why.’

If I ask you your judgement about a war, how are you going to answer?

I suppose it’s possible that you would answer by saying that you can’t judge.

Maybe that’s true; maybe you can’t judge; but that doesn’t mean that I can’t.

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Peter T 10.31.16 at 7:44 am

War cannot be justified under any universalistic set of ethics. Which is why such ethics are pretty much all against war (the edge cases are where the universal does not stretch – as in to heretics, infidels and other such non-persons).

Pericles and Genghis Khan did not have such ethics. Theirs was a particularist framework. What counted was not the overall loss of life and property, but the loss to their group compared to the gain (and, for the Mongols or Macedonians or Romans, the gain was much larger than the loss). Losses to others did not count.

And, while obeisance to a universalist ethic is routine, a great many people still heavily discount the losses of others. I don’t share their view, but I can understand it. And I do not know what would persuade those holding it to change.

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Layman 10.31.16 at 11:43 am

Stephen @ 115:

“US: invasion of Grenada, 1983, currently national holiday in Grenada as Thanksgiving Day, after revolutionary murder of previous government.”

This is about as misleading a description of the facts of the Grenada invasion as I’ve ever seen. It ignores the fact that the coup in 1983 deposed the leader of the coup of 1979, and that this was a case of an illegitimate government deposing an illegitimate government; and also that the actual reason for the invasion was the largely unfounded fears of American conservatives in the Reagan administration that Grenada was building a military airport for use by the Soviet Union. It is the textbook case of a war of unprovoked aggression, and was rightly condemned as such by the UN.

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Mark H 10.31.16 at 6:58 pm

“The case against war was fully developed and strongly argued in the years before 1914, just as the case against slavery was developed and argued in the US before 1861.”

Well, you’ve loaded the argument right from the start in your favour. (Anyone here for slavery?). You might just as easily have written “The case against the invasion of neutral and independent Belgium (or countries) was fully developed and strongly argued in the years before 1914”.

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J-D 10.31.16 at 11:02 pm

John Quiggin 10.30.16 at 5:31 am

@Stephen Thanks for replying. I set out a general view here, that a defensive response to aggressive wars is justified insofar as it aims to restore the status quo ante bellum.

My own views have moved me steadily towards the viewpoint that war is hardly ever justified either morally or in terms of the rational self-interest of those involved. The obvious problem is that, if no one else is willing to fight, an aggressor could benefit by making demands backed by force. It seems to me, however, that this problem can be overcome by admitting that self-defense (including collective self-defense) is justified only to the extent of restoring the status quo ante bellum. That is, having defeated an aggressor, a country is not justified in seizing territory, unilaterally exacting reparations or imposing a new government on its opponent.

Applying the suggested evaluative framework to the Second World War, I note that the victors of that war used their victory for the unilateral imposition of changes to pre-war boundaries, extraction of economic compensation, changes to government in the defeated powers, and other changes to the status quo ante bellum. According to the stated evaluative framework, these changes were unjustified. However, they don’t retroactively invalidate the justification for defensive action against aggression. According to this framework, the initial actions of some countries of waging war defensively to resist aggression were justified even though (some of) their subsequent actions were not.

Applying this same evaluative framework to the First World War produces substantially the same result: the initial actions of some countries of waging war defensively to resist aggression were justified even though (some of) their subsequent actions were not.

No fundamental difference (accepting the suggested evaluative framework) is evident.

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