Armistice Day

91 years ago, the world marked the end of the Great War that had consumed tens of millions of lives, mostly those of young men sent to die far from home in a cause that few could explain, then or now. It was a false dawn. The chaos unleashed by the Great War spawned more and greater wars, revolutions and genocides that continued through most of the 20th century and still continue, in places, even to this day.

I’ve written in the past about the futility of war, and that is the most important thought for this day of remembrance. But there is something else that demands more attention than it has received. The cataclysm of the Great War brought forth monsters like Hitler and Stalin, who killed millions. But the War itself, with the millions and tens of millions of lives it took, directly and indirectly, was loosed on the world by political leaders more notable for mediocrity than for monstrous greatness. 

The names of Asquith,  Bethmann-Hollweg, Berchtold and Poincare are barely remembered, yet on any reasonable accounting they belong among the great criminals of history. Not only did they create the conditions for war, and rush (eagerly in most cases) into it, they carried on even as the death toll mounted into the hundreds of thousands and beyond. Even as the original grounds for war became utterly irrelevant, they continued to intrigue for trivial postwar benefits, carving up imagined conquests among themselves. Eventually, most were displaced by leaders who were marginally less mediocre, and more determined to win at all costs (Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Ludendorff, Hindenburg and others).

How could such ordinary, seemingly decent, men pursue such an evil and self-destructive course, and yet, in most cases, attract and retain the support of their people? I find it hard to understand. 

Posted via email from John’s posterous

59 thoughts on “Armistice Day

  1. The people who started the war, and those who went to war against those who started the war, weren’t stupid, and they weren’t even mistaken. They all believed, correctly, that their aims – positive, as in German hegemony/Austrian security, or negative, as in no German hegemony/Austrian security – couldn’t be attained without war.
    That is to say, you can’t have it both ways. It’s not a matter of saying “They could have achieved their aims in other less murderous ways.” They couldn’t. The only way for Asquith to avoid war would have been, essentially, to take the decision to lose it. That would have been a very courageous decision, in the Sir Humphrey sense.
    The same with Iraq. The issue isn’t “is the world better off without Saddam?” It’s whether the good of having no Saddam is worth the evil of not having the what, half million to a million Iraqis who died along the way.
    Which does, to some extent, underline that the person who starts it – who walks across someone else’s border carrying a rifle – bears a heavy responsibility. Then, Bethmann-Hollweg and Berchtold. Now, George Bush.

  2. How could such ordinary, seemingly decent, men pursue such an evil and self-destructive course, and yet, in most cases, attract and retain the support of their people? I find it hard to understand.

    It is a sad truth about human behavior that is evident in history and a host of studies on behavior. Long ago I read a text, “Human Behavior in the Concentration Camp” by a Jewish psychiatrist who survived the concentration camps. I read it once, thereafter I viewed it with great trepidation yet it remains one of the few books I have kept in my library; if only to remind me there is no limit to human cruelty.

  3. Another issue is that all these people are middle aged / elderly men from (generally) similar socioeconomic and class background. To the extent that our social and political institutions reflect a disparity towards a small and unrepresentative minority – is the degree to which future conflicts based on senseless ideologies (inherent to that particular grouping) may occur. If women held all the major power and rights in Europe at the time (for example), you may (obviously) have had a different outcome.

  4. In WWII it was easy to identify blame because a single individual – Hitler – was the dominant factor. But in WWI pretty much all individuals were equally liable. This points to an institutionalist, rather than individualist, explanation of the causes. At least as far as WWI is concerned we must get past the “Bad King John” school of historical methodology.

    Basically WWI is a classic example of the unintended consequences of purposeful human action, a staple of both social theory in general and game theory in particular. Steve Sailer, back in FEB 06, pointed out that the leaders responsible for launching WWI were mostly ordinary men who were just carrying out their lawful duties:

    In 1914, a whole bunch of fairly reasonable men, none of them a Hitler, were responsible for just about the worst thing that ever happened. Historian David Fromkin’s recent re-examination of who started the Great War concluded that the man most responsible for WWI was von Moltke the Younger, the head of the German General Staff.

    Maybe, maybe not, but the point is that von Moltke, or General von Hotzendorff of Austria, or Colonel Dragutin Dimitrievitch, the leader of both the Black Hand terrorists and military intelligence in Serbia, or Sir Edward Grey, or whomever you want to pin the blame on is a pretty boring villain compared to Hitler.

    The point is that WWI came about through all the proper bureaucratic channels, without the impetus of anybody who seemed overtly evil — except for the fact that they played a role in bringing about four years of slaughter..

    Its interesting that the two most reviled figures of the day, Kaiser and Rasputin, were actually the leaders most opposed to the war.

    The most picturesque villains of the time were Kaiser Wilhelm II and Rasputin. But the Kaiser in this case was quite reluctant to go to war and had to be dragged into it by his generals. Rasputin was utterly against war on the grounds that too many Russian peasants would die. But he couldn’t work his usual magic on the Czar and Czarina because he was laid up in a Siberian hospital after being stabbed by a young lady he had trifled with.

    Wikipedia elaborates the Fromkin thesis:

    Recently, American historian David Fromkin has allocated blame for the outbreak of war entirely to elements in the military leadership of Germany and Austria-Hungary in his 2004 book Europe’s Last Summer. Fromkin’s thesis is that there were two war plans; a first formulated by Austria-Hungary and the German Chancellor to initiate a war with Serbia, to reinvigorate a fading Austro-Hungarian Empire; the second secret plan was that of the German Military leadership, to provoke a wider war with France and Russia.

    He thought that the German military leadership, in the midst of a European arms race, believed that they would be unable to further expand the German army without extending the officer corps beyond the traditional Prussian aristocracy. Rather than allowing that to happen, they manipulated Austria-Hungary into starting a war with Serbia in the expectation that Russia would intervene, giving Germany a pretext to launch what was in essence a preventive war.

    Part of his thesis is that the German military leadership were convinced that by 1916–18, Germany would be too weak to win a war with France, England and Russia. Notably, Fromkin suggests that part of the war plan was the exclusion of Kaiser Wilhelm II from knowledge of the events, because the Kaiser was regarded by the German General Staff as inclined to resolve crisis short of war. Fromkin also argues that in all countries, but particularly Germany and Austria documents were widely destroyed and forged to distort the origins of the war.

    Based on the theories of Weber and Knopfelmacher I came to the same conclusion as Fromkin- on the special wickedness of the German General Staff, led by von Moltke. The latter stuffed it up by famously losing his nerve and “weakening the right flank”. It was this group that planned, executed, extended and intensified the the war.

    Weber was ambivalent about the war. As a patriot and German nationalist he instinctively supported his own side. But as a social scientist he identified what we might call the “German governance problem” – the conjunction of an irrational reactionary (later revolutionary) political head on an ultra-rationalist professional body of techno-bureaucrats – as a systemic cause of European instability. Colonel von Blimps suddenly put in charge of the “iron cage”.

    The Fromkin thesis more or less strengthens the Fischer thesis which argued that Germany has planned a general European War from the late 19thC onwards. The smoking guns are all over the place von Schliefen plan and 1912 War Council. Wikipedia elaborates:

    In 1961, the German historian Fritz Fischer published the very controversial Griff nach der Weltmacht, in which Fischer argued that the German government had expansionist foreign policy goals, formulated in the aftermath of Social Democratic gains in the election of 1912, and had deliberately started a war of aggression in 1914. Fischer was the first historian to draw attention to the War Council held by the Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Reich’s top military-naval leadership on December 8, 1912 in which it was declared that Germany would start a war of aggression in the summer of 1914.

    In 1973, the British historian John Röhl noted that in view of what Fischer had uncovered, especially the War Council meeting of December 8, 1912 that the idea that Germany bore the main responsibility for the war was no longer denied by the vast majority of historians.

    What is striking about Fromkin’s thesis is the overall similarity in strategies between the German General Staff in both WWI and WWII. The main difference being that Kaiser was reluctant to wage war whereas the Fuhrer was all-too willing.

    The WWI leaders were certainly delinquent in their duty in not attempting to resolve the crisis and avert disaster once it was apparent the war would be a criminal act of self-destruction. But even as the war dragged on most decision making centres – in the military, politics on both sides and the clergy – hardened their resolve. Popular opposition to the war was minimal until the latter stages. And it was not until 1917 that the troops started to show reluctance to fight.

    More generally, from the early 20thC onwards, it was apparent that the long reign of progressive liberalism was coming to an end, symbolized by the death of our illustrious former Head of State and state eponym, Queen Victoria. One can generalise and say that the 19th C reformatory zeal was replaced by a clash between the reactionaries and revolutionaries.

    The era of genocidal social, racial and national conflict was approaching fast, effecting both European and Asian powers. This was signaled by the liquidation of the Armenians. Nippon played little or no part in WWI and yet developed into a monstrous totalitarian militarism playing in the same league as the Nazis and Bolsheviks.

  5. As a side note, while World War 1 was a catastrophe for European liberal civilisation, some quick research suggests this was not because it was unusually bloody by European historical standards.

    I was struck by some figures I came across for 16th and 17th century wars – eg something close to 20% of Germans died in the 30 Years War, and there are estimates that a quarter of the Irish population died in Elizabeth’s wars, and another quarter in Cromwell’s wars.

    Again, around 6% of the French perished in the Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars, and I was surprised to find 3% of the UK population did (figures from Wikipedia).

    Figures for World War 1 are 2.19% for the UK, 4.2% for France and 4% for Germany.

    And these figures are mostly smaller than for World War 2, which was much less socially dislocating.

    I don’t know what to make of this, other than to suggest the war catalysed a whole series of social cleavages (something argued by George Dangerfield in his classic The Strange Death of Liberal England), and therefore the casualties loom larger. In which case, assigning fault is maybe a bit pointless.

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