Controversy

by John Quiggin on November 21, 2020

Many decades ago, I remember watching a British comedy sketch framed around a show called Controversy, the idea of which was that two experts with opposed views on some issue would slug it out for the entertainment of viewers. It turned out, however, that one of the experts had completely reversed himself and now agreed with the other. The host desperately tried to provoke some disagreement, with no success before giving up and saying “Well that’s it, for tonight’s Controversy“. At this point, each of the experts interjected that he had pronounced the word wrongly, each offering their own preferred stress pattern. (I found someone else who remembered it here, but also couldn’t recall the show).

I’m often surprised by which of my opinions on various issues turn out to be controversial or otherwise, and I thought I’d check a couple on Twitter, with some mildly interesting results

I started with a post saying

Possibly controversial opinion: it would have been better to continue building nuclear power plants in the 1990s and early 2000s than to undertake the massive expansion of coal-fired power that actually took place.

Somewhat to my surprise, this wasn’t controversial at all, at least among my (mostly green/left) Twitter followers. A couple of people pointed out the reasons it couldn’t have happened that way (Chernobyl, bad economics in the absence of carbon price), but no one suggested that nuclear was worse than coal.

Trying again, I went with an opinion which I had always assumed to be uncontroversial, until I posted it on CT a few times and got some pretty strong pushback.

Possibly uncontroversial opinion: World War I was a pointless slaughter which set the stage for most of the disasters of the 20th century.

Again, this was mostly liked by my Twitter followers, but with a couple of exceptions this time. Discussion with them brought the post to the attention of WWI specialists. As with expertise on the details of firearms in gun control debates, I’ve found that the greater the level of detailed knowledge on this topic, the more likely someone is to be an apologist for mass slaughter. Since I wasn’t (and am not) interested in renewing this debate, I muted it at that point.

As with the Twitter posts, I’m throwing this out to see what happens. Have your say, and I may or may not respond.

{ 75 comments }

1

George MIchaelson 11.21.20 at 6:49 am

I posted about how much I enjoyed a biography of haig based on the ‘unsanitised’ papers held by the awm and got pasted by others about it. There is huge dislike for critical history against minor factual errors, driving people to false in unum false in omnibus.

Lots of ww2 vintage Australians loathe Churchill, for reasons unrelated to why British working classes hate Churchill.

The more ww1 history I read, the less I think it was about the kaiser and the more I think it was about the decline of the Austro Hungarian empire against rampant Serbian/slav nationalism and opportunistic politics left and right. If the tzar had kept to himself, would the Finland train have happened… its counterfactuals all the way down.

2

Adam Roberts 11.21.20 at 7:07 am

If we believe wars are fought “for a purpose” in some positive sense (the US Civil War to abolish slavery, WW2 to defeat Nazism as an ideology and so on) then it’s true that WW1 was purposeless and achieved nothing, except shuffling the geopolitical mah-jong tiles of the big European powers. But surely wars are not really fought for such reasons. Slavery was a sidebar issue in 1861-65, the great powers would much rather have tolerated Nazism than Communism, if only Hitler had been more circumspect etc.

Why do we go to war? In the old days wars were a higher form of banditage, and the point of going to war was to enrich oneself with spoils, but war has, at least since the Boer War and arguably from earlier, become more expensive to wage than can be recompensed by eg reparations, territorial grabs and the like: “winning” WW1 and WW2 effectively bankrupted the victors; it was Germany and Japan, forceably demilitarised and so freed from the shackles of those onerous budgetary constraints, that flourished economically in the second half of the 20th-C. I know there’s a Marxist reading of war (basically: capitalism depends upon a huge turnover of conspicuous consumption; war, by smashing up immense amounts of expensive kit, is the most conspicious consumption of all) but I have my doubts about that. It seems to me that most wars happen when nations find themselves boxed-in by circumstance, their own diplomatic failures and bad strategic decisions. In that sense WW1 was as pointless as any war, just on a much bigger scale.

3

nobody 11.21.20 at 8:29 am

I’m in two minds about nuclear power. On the one hand, it makes an awful lot of sense from an air quality and climate change perspective. On the other hand, it’s unclear if human neurological wiring is capable of effectively managing kind of extreme low probability, but extreme high impact, risks posed by nuclear energy.

Chernobyl I am willing to write off as Soviets being Soviet; Three Mile Island I’m willing to write off as a teething problem caused by naive ignorance of the true dangers of a comparatively new technology. Fukushima, however, is something different. Nuclear power was well understood when the Fukushima plant was built and the Japanese have a reputation for being one of the most detail-oriented, well-managed, cultures in the world. Despite this, the Fukushima meltdowns still happened.

In an ideal world of competent regulators, designers, operators, and owners, I’d say convert all base load to nuclear power. In the real world of regulatory capture, greedy and/or incompetent management, and corner cutting in the name of profits, I really wouldn’t want to live in the meltdown risk area of a nuclear power plant.

If it were possible to build nuclear power plants in barren, isolated, areas where the consequences of a nuclear accident would be minimal, then by all means let’s collectively go for it. Losing a chunk of economically and ecologically unusable land to a meltdown is entirely worth the benefits in reduced emissions. Otherwise, no thanks.

4

Charlie W 11.21.20 at 9:14 am

Years ago now, I did a driving tour of the Rhine, crossing from the French to the German side and back again, going wherever looked interesting. I visited Verdun and the nearby (60 km) Maginot Fort de Fermont, restored for visitors. The French fought Germans (Prussians) at Verdun in 1792, then again in 1870, then again in 1916, each time using their forts, which seemed to help. The sense of force of habit here is what stuck with me. In 1940 the Germans went around Verdun, as everyone knows.

A better historian than me could trace both the geographic and institutional contours of this extended conflict. WWI was uncontroversially unnecessary—for some sense of unnecessary—but perhaps also depressingly likely to happen?

5

Peter T 11.21.20 at 10:11 am

Charlie W’s last sentence captures the gist of the current historical understanding on WWI. Transformational socio-political shifts rarely happen without major violence (US Civil War, French Revolution, Thirty Years War, end of the Qing, Indian independence…- all took millions of lives). In 1914 all the major states of Europe – the Ottomans included and France excepted – were wracked with both internal and external tensions. It would have taken extraordinary restraint, luck, cooperation, good management, foresight and goodwill to avoid a meltdown. The more the archives are explored and analysed, the clearer it is that all these were in short supply.

Arno Meyer’s The Survival of the Old Regime, Alexander Watson’s The Ring of Steel (Austria-Hungary and Germany), Dominic Lieven’s Toward’s the Flame (Russia), David Cannadine’s The British Aristocracy and Sandra Halperin’s War and Social Change (both on Britain), Volker Berghahn on Imperial Germany – all in different ways outline how much pressure things were under, and how panicky and irrational elites were.

6

Peter Hollo 11.21.20 at 10:35 am

kənˈtrɒv ər si
FWIW

7

Jane 11.21.20 at 10:47 am

What caught my eye here was not the controversial subjects but your observation that

As with expertise on the details of firearms in gun control debates, I’ve found that the greater the level of detailed knowledge on this topic, the more likely someone is to be an apologist for mass slaughter.

Isn’t that why anything becomes controversial? People with a strong interest in a particular subject, hobby, sport, industry, etc. will find a way to justify their interest regardless of the level of harm its continued practice brings on. Human beings, it seems, are far more “rationalizing” beings than “rational” beings as the internet has proven, search on any topic, no matter how obscure, and you will find a corner of the web where controversy on the topic abounds.

8

Roland Papp 11.21.20 at 10:50 am

I am not sure how to understand that WWI was unnecessary. In a sense, if we accept that anything that can be achieved through warfare can also be achieved through diplomacy, not a single war was necessary.

On the other hand, if we understand it to mean that WWI has achieved nothing, this is uncontroversially untrue. The treaty of Versailles rearranged European political borders to correspond with nation states (with the notable exception of Hungary) which laid down the groundwork for the decades of peace (after WWII) we still enjoy today. I remind you that Europe was a stage of non-stop conflict and war since the dawn of history, which only ended recently.

Could this have been achieved with other means than a bloody war? Probably, but it is definitely not nothing.

9

J-D 11.21.20 at 10:58 am

I can’t think of one good reason for suggesting that the Belgians were wrong to fight in 1914. I think they were absolutely justified.

They could have chosen to surrender instead, but what grounds are there for arguing that they should have done so?

10

Raven Onthill 11.21.20 at 1:53 pm

My thinking on nuclear power has, as the popular euphemism has it, evolved, and I don’t think I am alone in this. Not going nuclear has made matters far worse. My current position is

My preference would be to roll forward on the Green New Deal, to continue research into the smart grid and long-term energy storage, and also to restart research into nuclear power generation. This seems to me likely, though, to be a counsel of perfection. I fear we are likely to come up short when it is too late to act, and many people will be left, literally, out in the cold, or perhaps the burning heat. – The Green New Deal: Running the Numbers

A collection of my thoughts on this (in no particular order, this is a search link) may be seen at on my blog. If you take the trouble to read it all (I don’t insist!) you will see the evolution in my thinking.

You are clearly right about World War I. Moltke and Falknehayn wanted their war, and by god they were going to have it. There are rather nightmarish parallels to our current situation.

11

Raven Onthill 11.21.20 at 2:19 pm

Following thought: about a year and a half ago, I realized, “We don’t know how to make the Green New Deal work, yet, but we do know how to build a nuclear power system that will do the job – that’s where we have spent most of our efforts over the last 70 years.” – Getting Started: the Green New Deal. Which is discouraging.

12

steven t johnson 11.21.20 at 2:41 pm

Re the controversialness of nuclear power over coal, seems to me the switch to natural gas and oil somehow hasn’t solved the anthropogenic climate change. Demonizing coal as the singular cause (the distinct impression given) can function as a way to omit deforestation, pollution of coastal sea waters as major causes of limiting carbon dioxide fixation, as well as somehow promoting carbon dioxide emissions from, say, making hydrogen, as green energy. And inefficiencies in power transmission and storage are somehow less of an issue than they should be. Even the internal combustion engine gets off rather lightly when the monster coal. The well-nigh exclusive focus on coal seems to mislead, terribly.

And the issues of nuclear power are not well ventilated. The HBO series Chernobyl was obviously an exercise in anti-Communism, meant for current politics while covering up for Fukushima.. The thing about Fukushima is, simply, that it’s still going on. Who knows what’s going on under the ground? Worse, the problem of long-lived isotopes is still not even understood, much less resolved. The OP was entirely correct in thinking the nuclear power hurrah position should have been more controversial.

The thing about WWI, the Great War, is that there was no point for the majority of the people of the nations involved. That’s the historical norm. But who here believes that in a democracy there is a ruling class that uses its state to defend its property against both other states and its own population, aside from unpleasant cranks? (You know who they are!) The democratic revolution in Russia, so beloved of fantasists like China Mieville, was desperate to pursue the same imperial goals laid down by the Tsarist government.

Any notion that democracy is somehow antithetical to wars for control of other lands (open conquest or in other guise,) is more about spreading illusions about democracy now, than a serious historical analysis. It is the proposition that the majority of the people of a democracy somehow benefit even from informal economic dominion of the ruling class over other peoples that should be the controversial claim. Yet, it is not, not really.

In the specific case of the Great War, my warped view is that of course they had reasons, goals, prizes to win, but those reasons, goals, prizes to win simply weren’t our reasons, goals and prizes to win. We pay, they profit, was always the plan, and it is only confusing if you are uncertain who “we” and “they” are. The timing of the Great War, its beginnings as the Third Balkan War, was fortuitous, but the resort to the arbitrament of arms was as inevitable as a storm. Any notion it was an inexplicable breakdown, a kind of madness, is, to repeat, sowing illusions in what democracy is now.

Adam Roberts’ comment misses the point that shuffling the mah-jong tiles was the point, by lumping the various ruling classes together with the ruled. The aside about how slavery was a side-bar issue in the US Civil War explains why the Adam Roberts of the day, the liberals, favored the South as the champions of freedom. (John Stuart Mill was an exception, inconsistently favoring common decency and elementary humanity over liberal principles, to support the North.)

The aside about WWII supposedly being about containing Hitler in any sense I think badly overestimates England and France. The English guarantee of Polish national integrity seems in retrospect to be far more about trying to get them on side with Hitler in a war against the USSR. It’s not like the English ever had any intention of actually doing anything to support. It’s no accident the recent BBC series World on Fire imagines English soldiers fighting Russians and Germans in Poland In military terms, WWII in Europe was a crusade against Communism, not Nazism.

13

Cranky Observer 11.21.20 at 3:17 pm

I suspect I am one of the few people here who has actually worked for a nuclear electric generating entity (a “utility” when I started; now a GENCO under the current dysfunctional US electric economy) and on nuclear power projects.

Many of the 3rd generation nuclear power plants were built on the far distant edge of regional economic zones in lightly populated areas. Time and US exurbanization development patterns being what they are many of these site are slowly being surrounded by human dwellers/workers. You can see this clearly at Braidwood Nuclear Station when driving south on I-55 from Chicago: that plant was deliberately sited in an old strip mining zone to (a) provide space to build a cooling pond (b) because nobody would ever want to live in that zone, and is now being surrounded by subdivisions. This enormously complicates the design and operation of the Emergency Planning Zone/Evacuation Zone, and in some cases has led directly to the retirement of a plant (e.g. Zion Nuclear Station – the Wikipedia article is not correct on the fundamental driver of the closure of that plant).

This means any new generation of nuclear plants would have to be sited in the absolute middle of nowhere to avoid the same cycle occurring again during their 60-year lifespan. So my question to ‘more nuclear plants!’ advocates is this: are you personally willing to spend the 3 years in trade school , or 6-year hitch in the Navy, it takes to become a candidate for a nuclear plant operator job, then move to Nowheresville, Empty State and live/work there for 40 years as a plant operator? You’ll earn a good buck (and historically a good pension, although the Mitt Romneys of the world have done their best to take that away), but you will never be able to move more anywhere more than an hour drive from work, standard workweek is 50 hours but during maintenance turnarounds and problem periods will be 80 hours or more [1], and you will never get that big promotion to HQ in Chicago or Dallas. Howabout it?

Strangely the topic gets changed whenever I bring up that physical reality of operating nuclear power plants.

[1] 100+ hour workweeks used to be common in the 1970s and 80s but are now frowned upon by the NRC and INPO.

14

Ray Davis 11.21.20 at 3:36 pm

It’s true that no war gets underway for purely noble motives (too expensive), but sometimes the ignoble motives are such as to seem in retrospect worth the cost of defeating them. The American Civil War was not begun to “end slavery” (Union leaders even offered to support an explicit pro-slavery constitutional amendment to prevent the war), but blatantly was instigated by the desire to defend and extend slavery free from the aggro of the non-slave states. In WWII, Allied leaders were not particularly anti-fascist before (or after) the war (Stalin’s USSR would’ve been the exception if he hadn’t made the deal with Germany), and non-combatant fascist Spain was untouched, but the Axis conveniently bundled the most aggressive totalitarian nations, and most of my circle of acquaintances would say they were worth defeating.

Like the comparative “goodness” of those “good wars,” the Great War’s comparative senselessness (and the senselessness of our glorious Liberation of Iraq) was proven in the rear-view mirror. If the League of Nations had (impossibly) worked, the war would have gained as much “sense” as wars ever have.

15

MisterMr 11.21.20 at 3:58 pm

“World War I was a pointless slaughter”

Pointless is an ethical judgement. If we compare this to WW2, then one can say that anti-nazism was an just cause (and therefore not pointless), but then nazism evidently wasn’t so from the point of view of the axis powers it was pointless ultimately.
On the other hand from an axis imperialist point of view, from their point of view WW2 was the last chance at building a proper empire and world domination, in fact axis power failed and became american satellite states.

So the pointlessness of the war depends mostly on what are the moral standards you are comparing it to.

On the other hand, if we ask if it was preventable or an historical necessity, in some sense everything that has yet to happen is preventable, and everything that has already happened was an historical necessity, but I think that WW1 was the natural conclusion of european imperialism, so to a large degree was preordinated; sure if people acted differently they could prevent it, but people acted the way they did because it was the natural behaviour for them, and this behaviour depended on what up to that point worked during their life.

16

Stephen J 11.21.20 at 7:30 pm

Often whether a tweet blows up into a “controversy” depends on whether that one person who is primed and ready to argue sees it, and further whether they or another person draws attention to the fight by retweeting/quote tweeting to draw others in. While I’m never surprised when apparently innocuous claims spark a massive dispute, it is not surprising when provocative ones don’t: they are tinder but you need someone who wants a fight to be the spark.

17

Mr Spoon 11.21.20 at 7:38 pm

Nuclear power: fortunately we’re now only 20 years away from economic and safe fusion power… as we have been for the last fifty years.

18

John Quiggin 11.22.20 at 12:01 am

@1 ” WW1 was as pointless as any war, just on a much bigger scale.” The partial exceptions are pretty much exhausted by those you list, where there was a bigger issue, as well as plenty of the usual pointless motivations

@15 “Pointless is an ethical judgement.” Yes, I make a lot of those

19

Jerry Vinokurov 11.22.20 at 1:35 am

I suppose it’s pretty boring to just say that I agree with both opinions, but hey, sometimes boring is right. A lot of the “justification” of WW1 seems to me to be post hoc stories about how it enabled this or that development in international politics that we now think is good, but there’s no reason to think that some counterfactual timeline in which WW1 doesn’t happen wouldn’t have brought about some similarly good or even perhaps better results. Evaluated in its own context, it was clearly a catastrophic multisided failure of international diplomacy, put 20 million or so people in the ground, and laid the seeds for an even more appalling conflict just 20 years later; it’s not hard to imagine that absent such a conflagration we might have gotten to a more civilized world faster.

On the nuclear side of things:

This means any new generation of nuclear plants would have to be sited in the absolute middle of nowhere to avoid the same cycle occurring again during their 60-year lifespan. So my question to ‘more nuclear plants!’ advocates is this: are you personally willing to spend the 3 years in trade school , or 6-year hitch in the Navy, it takes to become a candidate for a nuclear plant operator job, then move to Nowheresville, Empty State and live/work there for 40 years as a plant operator?

Even granting the premise here for the sake of argument, this question doesn’t prove anything. First, people routinely move to all sorts of remote places for much less serious reasons than “a well-paid job.” Rural America is certainly depopulating but there are still plenty of people in it, so I don’t think the dearth of candidates would be a problem. If we cared very much about such things, we could subsidize nuclear training school (well, we already do via the Navy but we could do it in a civilian context) and we could pay them enough to attract people who would be fine living in remote areas. You could even offer them reduced tours of duty (say, 25 years in a kind of Civilian Nuclear Corps) followed by a comfortable retirement during which they could live somewhere else; you don’t need that many of these people so we can afford to be lavish to them. But second, whether or not I myself am willing to be one such person should be irrelevant as a public policy question. I’m not willing to be an IRS agent or a doctor, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have IRS agents or doctors.

20

nobody 11.22.20 at 4:56 am

@Cranky Observer, #13:

Isolated nuclear plants could be staffed by hiring people to work multi-week (or multi-month) shifts on-site then commuting back to civilization for weeks of time off. This is how staffing works in other industries, such as the maritime, mining, and oil industries, that need people to work in the middle of nowhere.

21

Demigourd 11.22.20 at 6:05 am

An obvious problem with nuclear is that it entrenches the power of the mining industry.

22

Moz in Oz 11.22.20 at 6:57 am

Cranky Observer@13: one of my favourite ripostes in feminist studies classes was “if you think more women should become engineers why don’t you become one?”. The usual answer, from those who answered, was “I don’t want to”. The system-level answer is: import them from poor countries.

The problem right now is that in order to keep increasing economic inequality we are eliminating well paid jobs, especially secure well paid jobs. Safety is also something best addressed by the market (self-driving cars, anyone?) That’s close to a dogmatic position, and it’s being done to doctors, engineers, pilots, all sorts of jobs that used to be professions.

Planning a nuclear plant on the basis that you would go against the whole ethos of the modern workplace seems unrealistic to me. Highly risky, even if you could start out that way. Much safer to design a plant right from the start to be operated the way Australia operates our mines (a mix of foreign labour, fly in fly out workers, and remote control), or concentration camps (bus minimum-wage workers in from a near-ish town under threat of losing unemployment benefits if they refuse). In other words, automate as much as possible remote control as much as possible, and plan on flying in the bare minimum number of skilled staff in shifts. Use disgruntled unskilled labour for the rest.

23

bad Jim 11.22.20 at 8:45 am

While I agree that the first world war was an abominable catastrophe, I cannot agree that the countries Germany invaded should not have resisted. Mark Twain’s forecast in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”, was not quite right; he got the barbed wire, but not the machine guns, and over-emphasized high explosives turning combatants into “homogeneous protoplasm”.

Here’s a recent article from Ars Technica on why nuclear power remains expensive and thus uncompetitive. The small modular reactors that Nuscale may soon bring on line won’t change the game.

As for gun control, I’d cheerfully trade restrictions on assault rifles for general adoption of California’s rather modest regulation of handguns. These handy little engines of death take far more lives, considering both crime and suicide, than the showy emblems of masculinity and apocalyptic fantasies.

24

P.M.Lawrence 11.22.20 at 11:38 am

Possibly uncontroversial opinion: World War I was a pointless slaughter which set the stage for most of the disasters of the 20th century.

I would take some issue with “pointless”, but in a specialised way that may well turn into “furious agreement”.

It was certainly without good results, but it was no more pointless than the fatal mistakes of characters in Shakespearian tragedy. The … point … of those is that only the tragic hero would make them, but only one with his (sometimes her, even in Shakespeare’s day) character traits could rise to where action could raise the possibility of that mistake. So also, only that world could get that war, and did. But that’s not pointless.

As with expertise on the details of firearms in gun control debates, I’ve found that the greater the level of detailed knowledge on this topic, the more likely someone is to be an apologist for mass slaughter. Since I wasn’t (and am not) interested in renewing this debate, I muted it at that point.

I do hope you recall that an apologia is a full and complete explanation, not to be confused with an attempt at justification in the spirit of making the worse appear the better cause. If you have the wrong focus on these questions you will – Shakespearianly tragically – live out Oscar Wilde’s “my mind is made up, do not confuse me with the facts”.

25

roger gathmann 11.22.20 at 1:20 pm

Opinions about past events are inevitably colored by present events. The damage wrought by Chernobyl, as Kate Brown’s Manual for Survival shows, was not only covered up by Soviet officials but by the international nuclear lobby in general,beginning with the U.N – which has weirdly harnessed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to its health organizations, effectively putting nuclear power lobbyists in charge – leading the way. The argument about coal versus nuclear is not just about the products and their effects themselves, but about the international regulation of the power sources. And frankly, on that level, nuclear power still sucks. Thus, who or what is telling Japan that it cannot dump a million gallons of highly radioactive water in the Pacific, water from the Fukushima disaster? Nobody. Nobody is stopping it. If coal destroys the atmosphere and nuclear destroys the oceans, well, the planet is not going to be in good shape. The advantage of coal is on the level of regulation, which can operate just as it did with the release of ozone. Nuclear accidents, on the other hand, are governed, still, by no protocol – making disasters which can be well contained into disasters that disperse over large areas. I would love nuclear power advocates to step up to the plate and call for a very high level of global regulation for nuclear power, but the coincidence of nuclear power advocacy and the deregulatory agenda of the right and neoclassical economics is depressingly predictable.
https://www.dw.com/en/tepco-fukushima-contaminated-water/a-55334567#:~:text=The%20Japanese%20government%20has%20reportedly,groups%2C%20locals%20and%20neighboring%20nations.

26

Matt McKeon 11.22.20 at 2:52 pm

“I’m here for an argument”
“This is abuse. Argument is 12A down the hall”

27

Scott P. 11.22.20 at 4:09 pm

In that sense WW1 was as pointless as any war, just on a much bigger scale.

When asking whether WW1 was pointless, one ought to ask: for whom?

Austria-Hungary was trying to use the war to maintain its integrity as a Great Power. In retrospect, a long, grinding war was a bad way to do that. A short war would probably at best have been neutral, but a short war with Serbia alone would likely have not been possible (leaving the moral question aside).

Germany was worried about losing economic ground to France and Russia and diplomatic isolation. We can now recognize that Germany’s Great Power status was not contingent on winning a big European war; it lost two, within 25 years, and remained a Great Power. Big mistake here.

France and Russia were attacked by Germany, so they didn’t really have an option.

Britain I think made the right call that unchecked growth of German militarism wouldn’t lead to a new, stable order, but simply growing instability as Germany would consider itself to be insufficiently ‘respected’ on the world stage, would continue to try and outbuild the Royal Navy, and moreover would spend greater and greater efforts to incorporate new conquered territories, costing resources that it could only get by further conquests.

The Ottoman Empire was a bit stuck. Russia was a traditional enemy, France and Britain were cool at best and looking to pick off more of the Empire at worst. Germany was a decent choice of ally in isolation, as it had few territorial claims on Ottoman territory. Letting Germany go down would simply put the Ottoman Empire next on the chopping block. On the other hand, the same factors gave it a tremendous strategic vulnerability to the Entente. Neutrality, however hard, was the right choice here.

Italy made the right decision to stay out in 1914 (Cadorna was itching to go to war, though). In 1915 there was a sense among some that picking the ‘right moment’ to join could mean the difference between victory and defeat for the Entente, and so would reap tremendous rewards at relatively little cost. Obviously wrong, and Romania made the same mistake a year later.

For the United States: Its interests largely aligned with Britain in this case; checking German militarism was necessary to maintain its security in the long run.

28

Adam Roberts 11.22.20 at 4:09 pm

Checking-in on this thread I discover that, according to “steven t johnson” @12 I would, had I been alive in the 1860s, have supported the Confederacy. This is, to put it in the mildest terms, news to me.

29

steven t johnson 11.22.20 at 4:33 pm

Ray Davis @14 writes “The American Civil War was not begun to ‘end slavery’ (Union leaders even offered to support an explicit pro-slavery constitutional amendment to prevent the war), but blatantly was instigated by the desire to defend and extend slavery free from the aggro of the non-slave states.”

The question that immediately should be asked and correctly answered is, why wasn’t explicit pro-slavery support from the federal government satisfactory? The answer here, that the southerners were annoyed by abolitionists, is not at all satisfactory. Preventing the extension of slavery to the territories and new conquests, breaking the censorship and other political repressions in the South, majority rule in the federal government were not aggravations, but a long-term program to strangle slavery.

Like the abolitionists who convinced themselves that the Bible was anti-slavery, those abolitionists who convinced themselves the Constitution could be read as at least neutral on slavery (usually by promoting the Declaration of Independence to a principle of free government) were about as close to objectively wrong as you can be in something so complex and grave.

The proposed Corwin amendment simply promised to state explicitly what the majority of people, including legal-minded Republicans like Lincoln, already believed was Constitutional. What the Corwin amendment gave, the repeal of the Corwin amendment would take away. When the Republicans won a plurality that overcame the minority rule biases structured into the Constitution, the writing was on the wall for slavery. That’s why the Corwin amendment was not pro-slavery, but a truly meaningless symbol. Only if you think political symbols are historical causes does this really matter. That’s why this allegedly pro-slavery amendment didn’t resolve the crisis.

Being against majority rule is being for the preservation of class despite the popular will. Antebellum, that meant being for the preservation of slavery, which is a class relationship…class is defined by property in social reproduction. (A contentious thought, when the majority opinion is that class is best marked by differences in income and formal education and tastes in consumption, but still, class is like geography, it affects everything even if you imagine it’s just the way things have always been and always will.)

The Civil War was about democracy as majority, well, technically, plurality rule. That’s why I think people who prefer moralizing and social discipline of Bad Thoughts and Bad Taste have basically joined hands with Lost Cause theorists to portray the Civil War as an evil, at best a tragedy, instead of the last great bourgeois revolution. (People may argue that the early twentieth century Turkish, Chinese and especially the Mexican revolution are “great” too, if they wish.) The Thirteenth Amendment was meant to re-establish slavery, racism now is as bad as slavery, John Brown was an evil White Savior and John Wilkes Booth saved America from the racist Lincoln, etc.

The people who want to believe today’s version of democracy is just fine, so long as there’s a little tinkering, have to believe that the American Revolution must not have been democratic because they can’t admit democracy is about conquest whether overt or covert, not just then, but worse, now. They people who want to believe that all sorts of social evils can be reformed away with a little politics, trickle-down social welfare spending and the cure of Bad Souls have to believe that the civil war, and the expropriation of property on a gigantic scale, have nothing to do with ending oppressioin.

30

reason 11.22.20 at 8:24 pm

You know I used to regard Trumpism as a really extreme case of mass delusion, but stephen t johnson proved me wrong.

31

J-D 11.23.20 at 12:52 am

The dictionaries I have checked vary in their definitions of ‘pointless’. One suggestion is that it means ‘having no purpose’; but the people who launched the First World War did have purposes, so in that sense their actions were not pointless.

I might describe as pointless an action which has no chance of achieving its purpose (and I’m not alone in that), but it’s not clear to me that the people who launched the First World War could have known when they did so that they had no chance of achieving their purposes.

Launching a war is always wicked, but wickedness is not synonymous with pointlessness. (The only way I can figure that the wickedness of launching a war might not be clear is when it’s not clear who launched the war.)

32

Sarah Bitter 11.23.20 at 2:39 am

Cranky Observer,
Thanks for your reply. I’ve (sorry) never considered what their lives of people who work in nuclear power might be like. I distinctly recall touring the Connecticut Yankee Nuclear Power Plant as a school kid. Even then, I remember thinking, woah, this isn’t far away at all. (It wasn’t.) Your comment about populations moving towards plants made me think about how it’s probably not just people, but rising sea levels headed towards many nuclear plants. Sigh.

33

Sarah Bitter 11.23.20 at 2:39 am

Cranky Observer,
Thanks for your reply. I’ve (sorry) never considered what the lives of people who work in nuclear power might be like. I distinctly recall touring the Connecticut Yankee Nuclear Power Plant as a school kid. Even then, I remember thinking, woah, this isn’t far away at all. (It wasn’t.) Your comment about populations moving towards plants made me think about how it’s probably not just people, but rising sea levels headed towards many nuclear plants. Sigh.

34

J-D 11.23.20 at 5:46 am

What is it, I wonder, that makes bothsidesing the First World War popular?

35

John Quiggin 11.23.20 at 6:26 am

@34 The fact that bothsidesism is the appropriate response to war in almost every case?

In the specific case of the Great War, maybe the fact that both side were alliances between oppressive empires? Or maybe that in four years of slaughter, with millions dead, neither side made any attempt to seek a negotiated peace, or even to set out the terms they would accept? Maybe the secret documents in which both sides decided how to carve up the rewards of victory? Just guessing here.

36

Peter T 11.23.20 at 8:28 am

The debate over World War I was initially dominated by the diplomatic historians (it was the major branch of political history at the time), and they have set the tone ever since. But the tragedy was not that some politician did not step forward in August 1914 and de-rail the rush to war (some few tried, but were swept aside), but that some decades of decisions and events had led all a point where war was either actively desired (in Vienna and Berlin) or seen as the least worst option (Paris, London, St Petersburg, Constantinople). And the same processes had brought to the fore people unable and unwilling to envisage any alternatives.

In the same way, the reactions to the civil rights movement – and the demographic and attitudinal shifts of the last decades – has created a Republican Party into which Trumpism fits like a glove, such that a retreat from racism, misogyny and grift means effectively disbanding the party and seeking new careers and a new way of life, so industrialism, the coalescence of politics around ethnicities, the first wave of globalism, feminism and more – and the reactions to them – had created a set of interlocking dilemmas that could only be resolved by dissolving the social order in favour of something else. This the wars did. It is moot whether any other process would have done so – the weight of history suggests no, but we do have the (relatively) peaceful transformations of the Soviet sphere and the EU to at least sketch another possible path.

37

Hidari 11.23.20 at 8:47 am

@35

I was going to make this point but you beat me to it.

There is something so inexpressibly depressing that, over a century after the end of a war that was widely seen as a pointless, endless bloodbath at the time there are still people prepared to defend a war that, let’s not forget, was a total pointless disaster even on its own terms (it did not, fact, end German militarism, nor did it ‘make the world safe for democracy’).

Those claiming that (e.g.) Belgium had a ‘right to defend itself’ might want to remember that there was no such country as ‘Belgium’ in 1914. What there was, was the Belgian Empire (also, there was no such country as ‘France’. Instead there was the French Empire. CF also the British Empire, the Russian Empire etc.).

And which Belgian Empire was this?

It was the Belgian Empire that had, within living memory, committed one of the greatest crimes in human history. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congo_Free_State#Death_toll

No one has ever, ever, ever popped up in CT comments threads to insist that the Congolese had a right to defend themselves against the Belgian onslaught, even though what the Belgians did to the Congolese was so much worse than what the Germans did to the Belgians there is simply no comparison.

The British Empire of course, were no slouches in the genocide department.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Late_Victorian_Holocausts

The French Empire was no slouch in the ‘mass murder’ department either.

https://truthout.org/articles/the-crimes-of-french-imperialism/

And as for the Russian Empire…well.

It’s also worth pointing out that Germany under the Kaiser was not a dictatorship as we understand the term: in the same sense that none of the Allies were democracies, as we would understand that word.

As I say it’s so inexpressibly depressing that there are still people (unsurprisingly British and American people: no one from Africa or India would be so stupid) prepared to defend this pointless bloodbath.

38

J-D 11.23.20 at 8:58 am

In the specific case of the Great War, maybe the fact that both side were alliances between oppressive empires? Or maybe that in four years of slaughter, with millions dead, neither side made any attempt to seek a negotiated peace, or even to set out the terms they would accept? Maybe the secret documents in which both sides decided how to carve up the rewards of victory?

How are those things not also true of the Second World War? Why is bothsidesing the Second World War not nearly as popular as bothsidesing the First World War?

39

Stephen 11.23.20 at 9:55 am

JQ@35: “neither side made any attempt to seek a negotiated peace”.

There was the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in early 2018, which did in fact establish a negotiated peace between Russia and Germany, on terms disastrous for Russia. I think that counts.

I wondered whether there had been earlier attempts at negotiated peace; having a vague memory that there had been, but that they all collapsed because the German minimal terms were their continued occupation of their important 1914 conquests, and the British and French minimal terms were the German withdrawal from those conquests. I found what looks like a thorough account of various attempts to establish a negotiated peace, from late 1914 onwards, at https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/peace_initiatives, which includes details of confidential and public appeals for peace, and explains why neither side accepted the minimal demands of the other.

Given the actual terms of Brest-Litovsk, it looks as if the Allies were not altogether wrong to reject German offers.

40

Jerry Vinokurov 11.23.20 at 2:34 pm

What is it, I wonder, that makes bothsidesing the First World War popular?

First of all, it’s not popular; the dominant opinion overwhelmingly implicates Germany and Austria as the “villains.” But more pertinently, what makes “bothsidesing” the correct judgment is that every participant was gearing up for war, and the major powers were ready to step in to guarantee the security of their client states. That the Russian, French, and English cabinets were all home to major war parties which constantly agitated for continental conflict seems to escape those who, in light of WW2, would like to reinterpret the vicious Hun as some sort of uniquely militaristic entity instead of just another participant in European power struggles.

41

steven t johnson 11.23.20 at 3:11 pm

Adam Roberts@28 possibly rejects the idea that a counterfactual can be legitimate, which would make writing about science fiction a rather odd way to spend time.

As to the likelihood of the counterfactual? Right now, in the twenty first century, Roberts rejects slavery as the cause of the war. He doesn’t say, Northern War of Aggression, true, but…. All that’s left is the old Lost Cause argument for the right of self-determination (and resistance to the tyranny of the majority over tariffs.) The only people who favored the North did so because of their opposition to slavery and support for democracy as majority rule. The two issues are not separable, by the way, no matter how desperate people are to condemn the North for impure motives. The Tories disliked the whole democratic project and favored the South because the CSA was the failure of democracy.

It would have been very bold of me to suggest Roberts would have favored the South as putting paid to the kind of popular democracy represented by the Republic. That suggestion really would have been a mere imputation based on nothing. Fortunately, that’s not what I said.

The ineptly-named “reason” would be far more impressive if giving a reason. Rejecting the characterization of the Civil War as a bourgeois revolution is itself delusional. There should be a hint of why anyone would make such an extreme claim. (For those not paying attention, the phrase about massive expropriation of property was such a hint, though not a subtle one.)

42

MisterMr 11.23.20 at 4:56 pm

@John Quiggin 18

The point that I was trying to make is that, in my view, when you say that WW1 was pointless you mix 2 different arguments (maybe I’m wrong and I’m over-reading implications in what you wrote):

1) The first argument is that WW1 wasn’t good for anyone involved. I agree with this, but this depends on our modern point of view, where stuff like nationalism is generally frowned upon. This is the “ethical” argument, that depends on us having very different ethical standards from early 20th century nationalists.

2) The second argument that I tought was implied in the concept of “pointless” (maybe I’m wrong on this reading) is the idea that WW1 was a sort of weird happening due to politicians sleepwalking into it. This in my opinion is false: WW1 happened because Europe was full of expansionist nationalists, and also nationalists that weren’t necessariously expansionists like serbian nationalists.
This in my view was due to the fact that nationaism was a convenient political answer to a lot of internal social problems (blame it on the foreigner) and also to the fact that colonialism was part of the normal view about politics among most europeans.

I also disagree with Roland Papp @8 who says that WW1 basically solved various problems about borders and ethnicity: for example Italy was unified shortly before WW1, but italian nationalists believed that part of Istria and the Trentino/sud Tyrol/alto adige region had to be italian and went into WW1. After WW1 they didn’t get all that they wanted and so expanded in the interwar period (AFAIK Mussolini was pushed into expansion in Istria by a wing of the fascist party, he himself wasn’t all that keen on it), then ultimately Italy lost WW2 so italian expansionist hopes were dashed.
From this I’d say that, if other countries were anything like Italy, it was natural that at one point or the other a war would ensue.
(Italy was on the “good” side during WW1).

43

J-D 11.24.20 at 12:14 am

First of all, it’s not popular; the dominant opinion overwhelmingly implicates Germany and Austria as the “villains.”

Hm. Well, I guess I don’t know how popular the opinion is that both sides were equally at fault, nor how popular the opinion is that Germany and Austria-Hungary were the villains. Both opinions are held, I know that much, but I don’t know how widely, in either case.

Still, I think bothsidesing the First World War is more popular than bothsidesing the Second World War. Am I wrong about that also? Perhaps, but for the time being I’m going to continue on that assumption and observe where it leads.

But more pertinently, what makes “bothsidesing” the correct judgment is that every participant was gearing up for war, and the major powers were ready to step in to guarantee the security of their client states.

Again: how is that not also true of the Second World War? Why does this not justify bothsidesing the Second World War just as much as bothsidesing the First World War?

44

John Quiggin 11.24.20 at 5:45 am

@43 Certainly adding some useful data here, in terms of the kinds of responses putatively uncontroversial statements can elicit. If you view the Kaiser as portrayed by the most extreme Entente propagandists, and Hitler as portrayed by, say, David Irving, the German side on the two world wars would look equally worth fighting to the death. Otherwise, not so much.

45

J-D 11.24.20 at 7:36 am

Certainly adding some useful data here, in terms of the kinds of responses putatively uncontroversial statements can elicit. If you view the Kaiser as portrayed by the most extreme Entente propagandists, and Hitler as portrayed by, say, David Irving, the German side on the two world wars would look equally worth fighting to the death. Otherwise, not so much.

I’m not viewing anybody as they were portrayed by liars, but I am asking how the Belgians were wrong to fight against the Germans in the First World War. Is the opinion that the Belgians were justified in fighting a controversial one? I can’t tell whether you accept it or reject it.

46

mike_h (formerly R de'A) 11.24.20 at 9:02 am

Maybe, I assume too much, but I sometimes detect the quiet wind-up that seems to be part n’ parcel of some of your posts, JQ.
I had to keep going back to the OP to read once again, to assure my wayward head, what you’d actually written. But there it is, as clear as could be: WWI was ‘pointless slaughter’ etc. But. Somehow. The pointlessness of the slaughter hasn’t seemed to get much of a bite in the comments, Hidari being an exception.
Passing Strange.
I wittered on in a comment thread some time ago about what the Glorious Great Pointful War (No. 1) did to my family: entrenching good old East End of Lunnon Poverty. But. Dash it all. We missed out on the Slaughter bit of the Great Pointful War, ‘cos my grandad survived it all. Sorta. The gassing was a bit of a bastard, though. He went from being an infanteer, such good fun, to being bunged back in the Kate, just to make sure of not missing out on the jolly fine heroic times, overseas yet again, in the Labour battalions: ‘cos he just weren’t A1 no more. (So bloody careless of him, getting gassed and all that! In latter day Australian parlance he probably was a bit of a Leaner. Probably would’ve copped a Robodebt or two, too).
Anyways, Different Times: it was a land fit for heroes when he got back to Bromley-by-Bow, so that’s alright then. That was quite a comfort to him and the family through the years of unemployment. The moral warmth of the Heroes Fitness Thingo took away the chill of cold nights for them. Hurrah!
(And. Heck. That’s just the effects of a Very Pointful war on my insignificant unslaughtered mob!)
But, must stop wittering and get to the point: I was really looking forward to a bit of biffo about the really interesting point in the post: how them folk with ‘specialised knowledge’ gets through the day with a good hit of high abstraction: which sort of comes across as “never mind the slaughter; some entity associated with some bit of geography did alright out of it. Booty capitalism, anyone?”

But. Despite the lack of biffo; Nowt lost. A great bit of “data garnering” here, JQ. Big grin. Thanks.

47

Tm 11.24.20 at 11:10 am

What strikes me about WWI is how many of the issues of the time are still unresolved. The world is still, a hundred years later, grappling with border conflicts stemming from the collapse of the Russian, Ottoman and Habsburg empires: Former Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Armenia, Syria, …

It is easily forgotten how recent an invention the nation state as we know it today is. The drive to reorder the world by nationalist terms has been a disaster in most parts of the world and still causes endless “pointless” wars.

48

Trader Joe 11.24.20 at 12:11 pm

Clearly WW1 was important. If it wasn’t for WW1 we wouldn’t have had excellent WW1 movies like:
Gallipoli
All Quiet on the Western Front
Lawrence of Arabia
Journey’s End
WarHorse
1917

The list goes on….

Nuclear not nearly as valuable – apart from the China Syndrome no decent nuclear movies have ever been produced.

49

steven t johnson 11.24.20 at 3:30 pm

Hidari@37 is, as they say so coyly, interesting. But even though Hidari has picked another side, I will ask why the people of Belgium are believed to be the Belgian empire.? The Congo was as I remember very specifically a personal property of Leopold. The ordinary people of Belgium (basically, the failures in the great competition of the free market, also known as “us,”) should I think have had as great an interest in overthrowing Leopold as in ousting Germans. The implication that the ordinary people of Belgium simply deserved whatever they got from both the Leopolds and the Germans seems to me to be an example of getting confused about “us” and “them.” But then, many would imagine for some reason that Leopold (and the bourgeoisie, aristocracy, land lords, military etc. etc. which is what “Leopold” means here,) was somehow benefitting the mass of the Belgian people. Again, I think this is a dubious proposition.

Mister Mr is skeptical about significance of territorial changes, as in they didn’t matter? But…The demolition of the old Ottoman Empire, with its semifeudal remnants (semifeudal for lack of a better term,) the creation of a bourgeois nation of Turkey entailed the clarification of ethnic territories, which meant the removal of the Armenians and the Greeks. Yet, the notion that the Great War which dismantled the Ottoman empire definitively was pointless inadvertently implies there was no difference between it and the secular republic of Turkey? Or even that the fall of the Ottomans was a Bad Thing? Ethnic cleansing/genocide as democracy building would seem to be an unthinkable thought, despite the historical record.

But if you manage to escape illusions about what democracy is, the failure of the Great War was the escape of the British and French and Dutch and, yes, Belgian empires. People confused about us and them find the victorious empires perpetration/perpetuation a Good Thing, which is why the Great War has defenders I think. The nearly universally held belief that the great tragedy of the Great War was the Bolshevik Revolution is another aspect of this same belief. After all, just like imperial Germany, imperial England and imperial France were democracies in the real world sense. They just weren’t retroactively, now when people want to claim that “democracy” can be fixed up with a few minor reforms that don’t require expropriating property en masse.

50

J-D 11.24.20 at 4:03 pm

But, must stop wittering and get to the point: I was really looking forward to a bit of biffo

So you don’t think a bit of biffo is pointless?

51

Jerry Vinokurov 11.24.20 at 4:55 pm

Still, I think bothsidesing the First World War is more popular than bothsidesing the Second World War. Am I wrong about that also?

No? I never claimed you were wrong about this.

Again: how is that not also true of the Second World War? Why does this not justify bothsidesing the Second World War just as much as bothsidesing the First World War?

You surely cannot seriously be taking my nonexhaustive description of WW1 as intended to draw equivalence to WW2, for the simple reason that a minimal amount of historical knowledge would be sufficient to discern the difference in circumstances between them. And since I don’t believe you are lacking in this knowledge, I can only assume that this is some sort of argument jiu-jitsu you are trying to pull on me, rather than an honest question.

I’m not viewing anybody as they were portrayed by liars, but I am asking how the Belgians were wrong to fight against the Germans in the First World War. Is the opinion that the Belgians were justified in fighting a controversial one? I can’t tell whether you accept it or reject it.

The correct question is not “why were the Belgians resisting the Germans?” but “why did we end up in the situation of Belgian neutrality being violated in the first place?”

52

Peter T 11.25.20 at 6:53 am

On reflection, if any great war is to be described as ‘pointless’, the surely it should be the Second World War. This reconfirmed – this time even more violently and cruelly – the outcomes of the First World War. The map of 1925 was vastly different to the map of 1914; the changes from 1939 to 1948 much less so. As Tm @47 notes, the changes from WW I are still working there way through, and would have worked away without the second war. I am not sure the same could be said of the first.

It is significant that the populace of 1939 – even the German populace – went to war with a great deal of misgiving (German joke 1939: “What will you do after the war, Hans?” “I think I’ll make a cycle tour of Germany” “And in the afternoon?”). The elites of 1914 who had pushed for war had to dragoon their peoples in 1939.

53

Z 11.25.20 at 7:31 am

“If you view the Kaiser as portrayed by the most extreme Entente propagandists, and Hitler as portrayed by, say, David Irving, the German side on the two world wars would look equally worth fighting to the death. Otherwise, not so much.”

And if you view them according to standard historiography, what would it look like?

In actual history, the Triple Entente did not fight to the death. Russia negotiated peace, Great Britain and France ceased fighting even before territories occupied by Germany had been freed. That doesn’t look like an unreasonable standard, when 1/20th of your population lives under occupation.

Or in other words, I do believe you are trivializing the very real atrocities – organized starvation, mass deportation, summary execution, forced labor, pillaging – that Germany perpetrated in occupied France (and probably Belgium, but I don’t know much about the topic), not to mention the much worse ones it perpetrated in occupied Eastern Europe.

Does that mean that France and Great Britain were morally better states, in particular in their dealings with their colonies? Of course not. Does that mean that the Peace Treaties were not colossal crimes? Of course not.

The correct moral reaction 100 years later is to condemn all, not to whitewash any of them.

54

J-D 11.25.20 at 8:17 am

You surely cannot seriously be taking my nonexhaustive description of WW1 as intended to draw equivalence to WW2, for the simple reason that a minimal amount of historical knowledge would be sufficient to discern the difference in circumstances between them. And since I don’t believe you are lacking in this knowledge, I can only assume that this is some sort of argument jiu-jitsu you are trying to pull on me, rather than an honest question.

It is possible, by sufficient effort, to find both points of similarity and points of difference between any two things, and that includes any two wars: so it’s possible, by sufficient effort, to find both points of similarity and points of difference between the First World War and the Second World War. Therefore, in the absence of any contextual point of reference for the comparison, I would argue neither that they were more similar than they were different nor that they were different than they were similar. In this context, the point of reference for the comparison between them was that bothsidesing appears to be more popular in relation to the one than in relation to the other. If the specific characteristics of the First World War pointed to by yourself and by John Quiggin as justifying bothsidesing were also characteristics of the Second World War, then they justify bothsidesing the Second World War as well. Perhaps the question I should have asked was not so much ‘Why do people want to bothsides the First World War?’ but rather ‘Why do people want to avoid bothsidesing the Second World War?’

My position is that the following statements are both true of the First World War, the Second World War, many other wars, and perhaps all wars: both sides were guilty of great wrongs in the course of the war; but one side was more culpable than the other for the outbreak of the war, and the side that was more the victim of aggression was justified in its resistance, if not wholly then at least to a great extent, although not therefore justified even partly in everything it did in the course of that resistance. The victims of agggression have, for the most part, some justification for fighting back, although this does not extenuate the crimes they so frequently commit in doing so, nor their own lesser share of culpability for the outbreak of war.

The correct question is not “why were the Belgians resisting the Germans?” but “why did we end up in the situation of Belgian neutrality being violated in the first place?”

It’s not clear what you mean by ‘the correct question’. In any case, I didn’t ask the question ‘why were the Belgians resisting the Germans?’; I asked the question ‘were the Belgians justified in fighting?’ and that’s not just a question to be discussed in a retrospective evaluation, it was the question which actually confronted the Belgians in 1914. In effect, that was the question they were answering when they decided that they should fight and not surrender; is evaluation of that decision impermissible? It’s within the bounds of possibility that other countries will confront next month, next year, or next decade the same question of whether they should resist an invasion: so the question is relevant not just to the evaluation of past choices but also to the evaluation of future ones.

55

steven t johnson 11.25.20 at 1:50 pm

Peter T@52 ignores how much WWII was the great anti-Communist crusade. Unlike WWI, which some view as a pointless catastrophe that undermined the free trade gold standard system dominating the world with no end in sight, to produce the world historic tragedy of Bolshevism (unlike Germany, blessed with the Freikorps,) WWII merely failed. It’s not like the English and the French and the Americans actually had much to do with stopping the Nazis before Moscow. After Moscow, the Germans were playing catch up with the odds against them. It took decades to drag central Europe backwards.

56

Tm 11.25.20 at 1:55 pm

Peter T: “The map of 1925 was vastly different to the map of 1914; the changes from 1939 to 1948 much less so.”

And as it turns out, some of the changes after 1945 were revised after 1990 insofar as the Soviet Union lost the territory annexed during WWII (notably the Baltic states), and more. Iow the disintegration of the Russion Empire into nation states continued. This doesn’t prove that the nation state is the right solution, only that it still seems to be the only game in town. Hopefully the European experiment in transnational governance will change this logic.

57

Jerry Vinokurov 11.25.20 at 3:32 pm

I asked the question ‘were the Belgians justified in fighting?’ and that’s not just a question to be discussed in a retrospective evaluation, it was the question which actually confronted the Belgians in 1914.

This question is easily answered: of course the Belgians were justified in fighting. I have never heard anyone argue otherwise.

That the question is so easily answered suggests that it’s the wrong one; interesting questions do not have simple answers like this. The Belgian resistance to German invasion, however justified, is not the thing that sparked the war, which is why I don’t understand why it’s even relevant except as some sort of generalized musing about resistance.

The problem with starting any analysis when the war is already underway is that it truncates the causal chain artificially and therefore makes it difficult to address questions of responsibility. Yes, once the war was underway the German military committed war crimes in occupied territory; there’s no real debate about this either. That’s why I’m focusing on the start and causes of the war, since the placing of the blame begins not just with the real atrocities of the war itself but with the causes, and once we’re in the realm of combat the context shifts completely. What you refer to as “bothsidesing” is, in my view, not an attempt to say that German aggression was justified, but to point out that the war, such as it was, took place within the structural context of a continental great power politics that incentivized aggression on the part of all participants, Germany and Austria-Hungary obviously included. This is not to say that I agree with the “war was inevitable” take because I think the diplomatic history demonstrates just how evitable it actually was, but that it was the specific structure of the alliance systems and the interpersonal relationships of the involved parties that made it possible for a single-point-of-failure like a political assassination to collapse the entire framework.

Or, as was stated in less prolix fashion above:

The correct moral reaction 100 years later is to condemn all, not to whitewash any of them.

58

MisterMr 11.25.20 at 5:14 pm

@steven t johnson 49

For clarity, my opinion is this:

Nationalism sucks big time, expecially ethnic nationalism, however it is an intuitive frame from which to see the world.
For example, suppose that an italian worker in late 19th century sees that things are not going very well for him.

He can think “oh I’m a worker, capitalists are screwing me, workers of the world unite against capitalists!”

But he can equally think “oh I’m italian, other countries are screwing Italy, italian of the world unite against perfidous Albion/traditional enemy Austria/whomesver!”

This is largely a psychological/cultural choice, as in the immediate it is probably true that, if for example Italy manages to expand into colonies or in the Balkans some crumbs are going to fall to him too.
In marxian terms, it’s a problem of “class consciousness” VS other forms of identification.
This incidentially was the actual choice after WW1 between the socialist party (internationalists, pro class conflict) and the fascist party (nationalist, against class conflict): Mussolini was kicked out of the socialist party because he was an interventionist before WW1, and part of the message of the fascist party was that Italy had been shortchanged by the peace (hard won with the blood of Italians blah blah).

But the way you put things is as if only the economic elite was pro war. This in my opinion is false, rather the economic elite used nationalism as an alternative cultural frame against class conflict because nationalism was already catchy.

This is something that we can see in modern days too, although in a much less aggressive way: will you vote for the dude who says that he is a progressive but seems “weaker” in international things or will you vote who wants to stick it in the ass of the Chinese who are totally stealing your job? (Of course the Chinese will have the equivalent but opposed opinion).
I have a clear idea of what I want to pick, but it is pretty evident that a lot of people of all social classes believe that the nationalist dude is the one who represents their interests.

59

J-D 11.26.20 at 5:12 am

This question is easily answered: of course the Belgians were justified in fighting. I have never heard anyone argue otherwise.

That the question is so easily answered suggests that it’s the wrong one; interesting questions do not have simple answers like this. The Belgian resistance to German invasion, however justified, is not the thing that sparked the war, which is why I don’t understand why it’s even relevant except as some sort of generalized musing about resistance.

My position is that in most wars, and perhaps in all wars, there is a distinction between those belligerents who launched the war and those against whom they launched it, and that (for this reason) not all of the same kinds of culpability attach to the actions of both sides. When you write that the Belgians were justified in resisting German invasion, it seems as if you are accepting this point of view, particularly when you refer to ‘the thing that sparked the war’, which suggests that identifying the action or actions which sparked the war is a relevant consideration.

If you do think that the Belgians were justified in fighting back against German invasion, do you also think that the British were justified in aiding the Belgians in fighting back against German invasion? You may think that the answers to questions like these are so obvious as not to require statement: the reason I raise them is that in my mind John Quiggin’s comments create unclarity about his position on questions of this kind.

Yes, once the war was underway the German military committed war crimes in occupied territory; there’s no real debate about this either.

The issue of war crimes by the Germans in occupied territory (in the First World War) was raised by Z, not by me; my position is that I expect both sides committed atrocities during the course of the war, because that’s typical of wars, and each side was culpable for its own atrocities because people are (by definition) culpable for their wrong actions. Typically, in a war people on both sides commit atrocities and the perpetrators on each side are culpable; typically, the initiation of a war consists of the actions of people on side and not the other and it’s people on the side that launches the war who are culpable for those actions. I think that’s true of the First World War. Perhaps that seems obvious to you. It seems obvious to me. It’s not clear whether it’s obvious to John Quiggin.

What you refer to as “bothsidesing” is, in my view, not an attempt to say that German aggression was justified …

What I refer to as ‘bothsidesing’ is not the view that aggression was justified but rather the view that both sides have the same sort of culpability for aggression.

,,, but to point out that the war, such as it was, took place within the structural context of a continental great power politics that incentivized aggression on the part of all participants, Germany and Austria-Hungary obviously included.

I agree with the general observation that wars take place in the context of structures which create incentives for aggression, and further I take the position that those structural contexts are the product of human choices and human actions for which many people are culpable, and not just people on one side. Typically, many people from many different countries are responsible for the political decisions which produce the context for a decision to launch a war. That’s so common that it’s not a distinctive feature of the First World War, and it’s specifically and emphatically true of the Second World War as well. On the other hand, although the decision to launch a war can only be understood in its context, it’s still a decision for which the people who make it are (typically) culpable, and it’s typically a decision made by people on one side of the war which ensues and not the other. If the Allies had made some different choices in the 1920s and 1930s, it’s possible they could have avoided the context in which the Axis launched the Second World War, and if they did make bad choices then they are culpable for them, but that doesn’t change the facts that it was the Axis and not the Allies who launched the war and the Axis and not the Allies who bear the culpability for that, and that the Allies were justified in fighting back. I don’t think, however, that makes the Second World War unusual. I think that makes it typical. I think something similar is true of most wars (perhaps all wars), specifically including the First World War. Even if you agree that all of that is so obvious as not to need stating, it remains the case that John Quiggin’s comments create unclarity about his position on this point.

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Hidari 11.26.20 at 8:49 am

I’m glad to see we are all insisting that Belgium was entirely right to fight back when invaded by Germany.

Or, to put it another way, that an invaded country has the right to pursue the armed struggle when invaded by a stronger colonial power.

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MisterMr 11.26.20 at 9:41 am

@Tm 56

“This doesn’t prove that the nation state is the right solution, only that it still seems to be the only game in town. Hopefully the European experiment in transnational governance will change this logic.”

It depends on what you mean with “nation state”:
If, for example, the EU becomes more and more important and EU states lose sovereignity to the point that we have an USE, we end up with a single big nation state instead than many smaller ones.
If on the other hand by nation state we mean ethnically omogeneous nation state, this is a big tricky: ethnicities are a fuzzy thing. Is the USA a single ethnicity nation? In some sense yes and in some sense no.
The same could be said of Italy where, until recently, there was a big separatist movement in the north, that wanted to prove that there was also an ethnic difference between northeners and southeners (I still remember Bossi, the main politician of the Lega of the time, asserting that italian northeners are celts, lol).

By this I mean that the concept of ethnicity was indeed implied in the concept of the sovereign nation state, but that concept is largelly illusory, or perhaps better largely a social construct.

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steven t johnson 11.26.20 at 1:53 pm

MisterMr@58 believes nationalism is largely a psychological/cultural choice. I think it would be better to say, nationalism=democracy. (If you insist on marxian terminology, bourgeois democracy.) And the sense in which this is merely an individual choice implicitly relies on very peculiar (when examined) and downright backward ideas about the autonomy of free will and the nonexistence of social causes for social phenomena and the irrelevance of economic and social power in the face of formal legal equality of all citizens.

Although ordinary citizens tend to accept the given because of the tremendous efforts put into ideological formation, including religion where what is, is God-given, and manifold forms of repression, from legal but structurally biased methods to outright violence, I still say that the nationalism of the poor voter is not the same as the nationalism of the rich who pay politicians.

If we must assert the importance of the ideal over reality, I would say that outlawing war would require a world government that usurps the sovereignty of nations. It would be the annihilation of all nations as previously understood. The implication of your approach I think would be that the man in the street would be as outraged as the ruling classes at the murder of their nation. (Yes, the basic notion here is that a nation is defined by the sovereign right to make war.)

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steven t johnson 11.26.20 at 3:28 pm

Hidari@60 An invaded country has the right to pursue the armed struggle. What is the point of limiting this to colonial powers, whether stronger or weaker? The invasion of Belgium was not the cause of WWI but an event in the war. It is represented as the cause of the English entry into the war, but we need not take that very seriously.

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J-D 11.26.20 at 9:09 pm

By this I mean that the concept of ethnicity was indeed implied in the concept of the sovereign nation state, but that concept is largelly illusory, or perhaps better largely a social construct.

Social constructs are not illusions. Money is a social construct, but it’s not an illusion. The sovereign nation-state is a social construct, but it’s not an illusion.

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John Street 11.27.20 at 2:15 am

I think your most controversial opinion is that interest rates will be zero forever. Being an economic forecast it is almost certainly wrong, but I don’t see interest rates going up any time soon either. A massive switch to Keynesianism or even (god forbid) to MMT might do it.

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Peter T 11.27.20 at 9:06 am

I’ll expand a little on a point I made above. Most discussion of the causes of WW I focus on the diplomacy and great power rivalries. But from the perspective of the elites concerned, the problem was the ways these were intertwined with domestic concerns. Vienna and Budapest had to reckon with local nationalisms – both among ruling and subordinate groups – and with rising class tensions. These threatened both a fragile internal structure and its status as a power. Berlin needed the socialist industrial working class to man the armies and produce the weapons, but was determined to resist their push for reform of a constitution that (very deliberately) kept them away from real power, and also had to accommodate a fervently nationalist middle class. Russia was on the revolutionary brink, and the regime was very concerned to appease the nationalist and slavophile professional classes that were its key support.

For all three, to move in one direction was to make matters worse in others. Hence the decades before the war were spent in a great deal of ducking and weaving, in nonsense policies and facade-building. If you read the contemporary documents there is a great sense of frustration and a growing desire to escape at almost any cost. The push for war was a flight to the front. Sound familiar?

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MisterMr 11.27.20 at 3:26 pm

@steven t johnson 62 and J-D 64

The way I see things, the cultural/social construction side is a byproduct of a deeper level (good old base VS superstructure theory). I think that a good analogy for it is Freud’s idea of conscious/unconscious:
– The superstructure, the cultural factors, is equivalent to the conscious (ant in facts in some real way it is actually the social conscious, the way a society sees itself); but this “self perception” of society is also largely a consequence of the “base”.
– The “base”, that is mostly made of economic relationships, is aquivalent to the “unconscious”, it is where the real pushes (equivalent to the “drives” in Freud’s theory) come.

So there are two symmetrical errors in my view: the most common one is that of taking something that pertenes to the superstructure, such as ethnicities, as if it was really part of the base, which it isn’t (this is what I meant when I wrote that ethnicities are an illusion); the second is to assume a smoke filled room and a conspiracy of capitalists and, in practice, to assume that the “drives” that come from the base/unconscious are acted consciously by some rather evil dudes (evil dudes exist in the world but it is IMO wrong to assome that everything that happens happens as planned by someone, this isn’t how the world works).

“If we must assert the importance of the ideal over reality, I would say that outlawing war would require a world government that usurps the sovereignty of nations. It would be the annihilation of all nations as previously understood. The implication of your approach I think would be that the man in the street would be as outraged as the ruling classes at the murder of their nation.”
Yes I think a lot of people would be very outraged by it, included a lot of working class people, in facts I think that this is the reason right wing dudes can pretend to be populists.

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Tm 11.27.20 at 9:32 pm

Hidari 60: I don’t think anybody around here has ever questioned the right to self-defense against invasion, and I don’t think there are any apologists for colonialism on CT. Perhaps I missed something.

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Tm 11.27.20 at 10:19 pm

I’ll have a stab at the question of the “pointless” war. I usually cringe when people describe specific wars as “senseless” or “needless” with an ostensibly critical intention. Wars usually are waged for a purpose and are not “senseless” from the point of view of the leaders ordering them. Those purposes are almost always morally indefensible. Whether a war is “pointless” or “senseless” therefore is beside the point when your intention is to express a moral judgment; or worse, it obscures the actual moral case one ought to be making . (J-D 31 I think agrees).

Nevertheless, let’s take the “pointless” argument at face value, from a historian’s perspective. A war might be seen as pointless if it has no discernible objective (from whose point of view, one obviously needs to ask), or fails to reach that objective, fails to resolve the underlying political conflict(s) that provoked it. An obvious example is the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s.

In the case of WWI, clearly the political conflicts were not resolved, or there wouldn’t have been another, even more horrible world war within a generation. The Habsburg, Ottoman and Russian empires disintegrated as a result of the war but really it had already been obvious that their time was up. Their elites failed to enact the reforms that might have enabled a less bloody transition to the new era. The Habsburg elites especially hoped to use the war to preserve their hegemony in the Balkans, an objective that was already unrealistic. In that sense, their aggressive stance versus Serbia, which triggered the war, was pointless. It was in nobody’s real interest, just a foolish act of chauvinism. Neither did the German, Ottoman and Russian empires reach any war objectives. What about the ostensible victors France and UK? The war was a struggle for hegemony between the European powers and essentially, they all ended up as losers – the US was established as the new hegemon.

It is obviously not the case that the war changed nothing, like the Iraq-Iran war that just reaffirmed the status quo. To the contrary it caused or catalyzed huge political changes. But I think there was a strong feeling after the war that everybody had lost, at least among the more reasonable, sober politicians and intellectuals (some of whom were now ashamed of their former rapturous war enthusiasm). That the war was foremost a failure of civilization.

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Tm 11.27.20 at 11:57 pm

MisterMr 61: If the EU became a single state, it wouldn’t be a nation state. A nation state is defined in national terms, a state of and for a single nation, usually imagined (or idealized) as more or less nationally homogeneous. Of course, there is no objective definition of what is a nation. Nations are social constructs, as has been pointed out above, they exist by enough people believing in their existence (and that belief creates its own reality). A “European nation” is not inconceivable, but I don’t see much popular support for such a concept. What seems more plausible, although this will take time, is a decline of the nation as identity creating principle in favor of a supranational political identity.

The nation state is a construct of the European 19th century and there are few stable nation states in that sense outside of Europe. It doesn’t make sense to think of states like India or Nigeria – or the USA or Canada – as nation states. And insofar as homogeneous nation states with strong, widely accepted national identities exist, they are in most cases the product of centuries of oppression if not ethnic cleansing of minorities.

Nevertheless Europeans tend to think almost exclusively in terms of the nation state. After the Vienna Congress, there were only a handful of such nation states (and Germany was not one of them!). When the European map was redrawn after WWI and again after 1990, it was to create new nation states. All in all, about European 25 nation states were created in the last 200 years if I counted correctly and almost half of them in my lifetime. Outside of Europe, hundreds of states came into existence as a result of decolonization and somehow, the expectation was that they would function along the European nation states model. But many of them cannot function in that way because that homogeneity concept is a fantasy, or they can only be made to function by adopting those tried and tested methods, oppression and ethnic cleansing (cf. ex-Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, …). The old empires were clearly not tenable any more, their time was up, but their disintegration led to ethnic conflict and bloodshed at a scale not seen before. That we still can hardly even imagine to think in other than national terms is a huge failure of our time.

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Robespierre 11.28.20 at 4:19 pm

And that failure is reflected in how we still take the “right to self determination” i.e., the right to create an ethno-state, as supported by active segregationist Wilson, and something that can only be achieved through deportation and forced assimilation – as if it actually were something respectable.

*I’ll admit it narrowly beats extermination or apartheid within the same borders.

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steven t johnson 11.28.20 at 8:44 pm

Tm@69 wrote “A war might be seen as pointless if it has no discernible objective (from whose point of view, one obviously needs to ask), or fails to reach that objective, fails to resolve the underlying political conflict(s) that provoked it.” Ruin is an objective that many refuse to accept as the point, or at the very least as the acceptable substitute for naive notions of victory.

Tm there also wrote of WWI “It was in nobody’s real interest, just a foolish act of chauvinism.” My personal library is hopelessly disordered and I suspect my copy of Cicero’s political speeches (Michael Grant translation) is buried in a box in the attic. But in one of his Catiline orations he satirically laments that the losers who supported Catiline’s cancellation of debts etc. should have had the grace to die quietly. I have ever since thought this was possibly the epitome of the liberal and why Cicero was so greatly admired by so many more modern liberals.

But I think by and large people don’t die without a fight. A John Brown will strike back at pro-slavery settlers, a Palestinian will strike back at Zionists and indignation over this is a judgment that those who fight back don’t deserve to live. Rulers of empires will imagine their empires are the same as a poor man’s life. Japan would not surrender its empire to an oil embargo and the Habsburgs and the Romanovs and the Ottomans wouldn’t either. I too wish the world didn’t work like that, that history wasn’t a chronicle of sacrifice.

Tm there also wrote of WWI ” But I think there was a strong feeling after the war that everybody had lost, at least among the more reasonable, sober politicians and intellectuals (some of whom were now ashamed of their former rapturous war enthusiasm). That the war was foremost a failure of civilization.” The use of war is not a failure of democracy or capitalism, it’s how things are done. Things like WWI are not failures, they are merely an unusually severe crisis in a system where such crises are necessary resolutions of built-up stresses. Tectonic plates move, the timing and severity of the resulting earthquakes are unpredictable but they are the result of tectonic plates moving. Imagining a mystical failure is a form of apologetics.

Tm@70 writes “Nations are social constructs, as has been pointed out above, they exist by enough people believing in their existence (and that belief creates its own reality).” Reality creates beliefs even better than education and propaganda. But then, the material basis for the schools and propagandists are by and large the real existence of a nation, or even nation-state. This backwards way of seeing things may be what Benedict Anderson taught (which is my impression and why I’ve never troubled to read him,) but it’s a false view. It’s also very much like the sillier versions of social contract theory that somehow assume that people got together one day and negotiated the contract.

Tm also wrote “The nation state is a construct of the European 19th century and there are few stable nation states in that sense outside of Europe.” It is entirely unclear to me how the 19th century empires that simplified the maps of the world are nation states in the mystical sense implied here. Nor is it at all clear to me how there could have been another “first” world war in the eighteenth century, with nonexistent nation-states like England and France somehow fighting in Europe, North America, India. Pitt was not a national leader? Truly? But then for that matter I have no idea how the rather stable national boundaries of the Latin American republics somehow implies they are not true nation-states. As an USian the implicit notion that the Civil War really was about the self-determination of the South being repressed by the tyrant Lincoln seems like old, old BS.

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J-D 11.29.20 at 5:11 am

I’ll have a stab at the question of the “pointless” war. I usually cringe when people describe specific wars as “senseless” or “needless” with an ostensibly critical intention. Wars usually are waged for a purpose and are not “senseless” from the point of view of the leaders ordering them. Those purposes are almost always morally indefensible. Whether a war is “pointless” or “senseless” therefore is beside the point when your intention is to express a moral judgment; or worse, it obscures the actual moral case one ought to be making . (J-D 31 I think agrees).

Nevertheless, let’s take the “pointless” argument at face value, from a historian’s perspective. A war might be seen as pointless if it has no discernible objective (from whose point of view, one obviously needs to ask), or fails to reach that objective, fails to resolve the underlying political conflict(s) that provoked it. An obvious example is the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s.

Consider, by way of contrast, the First Silesian War. Frederick the Great had an objective which was fairly clearly defined and a plan which was realistically calculated, as demonstrated by the fact that he achieved more or less what he sought out to achieve with costs that would not have exceeded what he was prepared to pay (or to have other people pay for him). To that extent his action in launching the war was the opposite of what people typically call pointless. It’s posssible that a case could be made that what he did was pointless in terms of a more profound evaluation, but it wasn’t pointless in the most obvious and unambiguous way.

The same could be said of many acts of brigandage, and that’s essentially what Frederick the Great was engaged in, a form of brigandage on a larger scale; and brigandage is wicked, regardless of whether we assess it as pointless.

However, while brigandage is wicked, resistance to brigandage is not wicked. Therefore, if you’re going to evaluate the First Silesian War, it’s important to be clear about whether you are including both the brigandage and the resistance to brigandage in the scope of your evaluation without distinguishing between them. The distinction between them doesn’t stop being important no matter what faults or crimes might be committed by those who resist. Both sides may be guilty of something, but they’re not both guilty in all the same ways.

The actions of the people who launched the First World War were not as well calculated, and their objectives not as clearly defined, as those of Frederick the Great in the First Silesian War, and that means there’s a stronger case for describing them as pointless, although still not an unambiguous one; but it’s not those factors which are fundamental for evaluation.

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Tm 11.29.20 at 11:04 am

@steven: thanks for contributing a long comment that ostensibly responds to mine but actually doesn’t.

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steven t johnson 11.30.20 at 3:59 am

Tm@74 is wrong again, though no doubt it is annoying to be called out on so many errors and much more gratifying to pretend it was all irrelevant. The chain of equivocations nation=nation-state=ethnically homogeneous=idealization agreed upon by enough people is bad enough, but simultaneously believing that most political entities are not proper nation-states yet “we” all think in terms of European nation-states suggests it is not the world that is confused, but Tm.

The old joke was that nineteenth century nationalism was the belief that every language should have its own flag. That this meant its own army is de-emphasized, to put it mildly. Given that “ethnicity” can mean different alphabets, so that Serbian, Croatian and Bosniak are three different ethnicities, or Hindi and Urdu are different languages for different ethnicities rather than religions. Then there’s the concept of ethnicity as a development of the notion of the tribe, where all the members are supposed to share a common descent into a common history…except for the ones that center their ethnicity in a common inheritance of a specific land like Kosovo or Palestine.

If anything the nineteenth century nationalism was much more diverse in its supposed universal notion of homogeneity, as some deliberately omitted religion/upheld secularism while others defined themselves partly as religious. Which was the universal notion of nation-state mindlessly copied by all humanity that “we” have failed so miserably to rise above?

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