World War I, When Polemics Crowd Out History

Kunk Fu Zoby Kung Fu Zu  9/11/14
StubbornThings recently published a piece titled “The First World War’s Relevance to Our Times”. The piece starts out well enough, reminding readers of the fact that the year 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the “Great War” as it came to be called. The author correctly states that WWI was,

“…probably the most cataclysmic event in world history, one that overturned a century of extraordinary human progress and set the political, economic, cultural and social tone for the remainder of the century.”

Sadly, he then goes on to torture historical fact in order to draw questionable conclusions about the war. He does this in service of his agenda, which, as I see it, is to garner support for a military attack against present day Iran. Let me at once say that I hold no brief for Iran. I believe it is a dangerous country run by religious fanatics. But if one wishes to build a case for action against Iran, one would be better served by recounting solid facts than developing a polemic on basis of claims which can be easily refuted.

In order to develop his case, Mr. Davis develops a central theme. This is that WWI was a war about two radically opposing world views, one being “militant absolutism” represented primarily by Germany, and the other view as represented by the Allies as “Fighting for Democracy”.  He implies the war was inevitable because these views had to clash. The author sets up this thesis by posing a rhetorical question,

“What if the war, much like the much more decisively ended conflict which followed it, was really about the defense of a way of life and the shape of human progress?”

He expands on this theme throughout the article, and comes to the following conclusion;

“Seen in this light, the First World War was a desperate conflict between two diametrically opposed concepts of world advancement. The struggle between these competing ideas and ideals would consume the world for the first half of the 20th Century and then continue into the second on to the Cold War, the war with Communism.”

The problem with the author’s theme and conclusion is that the facts simply make a mockery of such a claim.

WWI did not start out as anything like a titanic battle between the forces of good and evil as Mr. Davis suggests. It was not a battle of democratic states versus totalitarian or autocratic states. One only need consider the main combatants on each side. At the start of the war the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires were the “Central Powers”.  France, the United Kingdom and Tsarist Russia made up the “Allied Powers”.  Anyone with the slightest knowledge of history understands that Tsarist Russia was the most autocratic and repressive regime in Europe at the time. Thus to claim, or even imply, that the cause of the war was to “Make the World Safe for Democracy”, a phrase which was coined long after the war started, is factually incorrect. And one doesn’t have to take my word for it.

 “The paradox was that the cause of Serbian nationalism was supported by the illiberal dynastic government of Russia, whose aim was to preserve the independent Slav states as an obstruction to Austro-Hungarian influence in the Balkans. This paradox prevented, from the start, any clear ideological alignment of the powers. The condition of alliances in 1914 placed the western parliamentary democracies of France and Great Britain in the same camp as autocratic Russia; just as it made ill-assorted allies of the German national Reich with its ultramodern economy and efficient military organization , and ramshackle, multi-national, antiquated Austria-Hungary; and before long Turkey of the Young Turks. None of the powers in 1914 was more than a semi-democratic state, in that none rested on truly universal suffrage. But since the presence or absence of democratic institutions was not one of the differentials between the belligerents, democratic ideals were not a war aim in 1914. The only war aims were self-defense and victory.” (P 549, Europe Since Napoleon)

And what was the position of that great bastion of liberal democracy Japan ruled by an oligarchic group of industrialists, militarists and imperialists?

“In August 1914 Japan also declared war on Germany and overran the German Pacific islands and territorial concessions in China.” (P 550, Europe Since Napoleon)

Thus the central claim of Mr. Davis’ piece is completely debunked. The reader may be thinking that like the proverbial swallow, one quote (actually two) does not a convincing conclusion make. If necessary, I can supply numerous such quotations from various reputable historians. It is only for the sake of brevity that I do not recount them here.

Having deflated the claim on which Mr. Davis builds his polemic, I think it worthwhile to investigate the rest of his article in order to determine if it holds other ideas which might merit serious consideration.

Mr. Davis writes, “The undisputed historical trigger for the First World War was the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.” Yet, Mr. Davis has nothing more to say about this crime. Furthermore, he soon forgets about Austria completely; the first combatant to declare war, and Germany’s ally until the end.

This is odd considering he notes it was the assassination of an Austrian archduke, which was the historical trigger of the war.  Should we not then, attempt to learn a little more about the details of this tragic act?  The following quotes will help us understand the context in which the assassination took place.

“It was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, on June 28, 1914, which consolidated the elements of hostility and set in motion the complicated succession of events which culminated in the outbreak of World War I. This terrorist act, by which the heir to the Austrian throne was struck down, was the work of Bosnian agents of a Serbian nationalist society, “Union of Death” (the Black Hand), a society to which many Serb officials belonged and of whose plot the Serbian Government was cognizant some weeks before its execution. The Black Hand Society had been founded in 1911, one of several Serbian organizations created to bring about the union of all Serbs under a new “Greater Serbia.” To the realization of this end the polyglot Hapsburg empire was a major stumbling block.” (Pages 720-721, Pageant of Europe)

 “Since the aim of fervent Serbian patriots was a southern Slav state completely outside the Dual Monarchy, they regarded with great animosity any plan for prolonging German rule over Slavs. After the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 the Austrian government was confronted with even more positive nationalist agitation for a “greater Serbia”, to include all Slavs south of the Danube and so involving disruption of the Habsburg Empire. That Russian Pan-Slav ambitions lay behind this agitation they had no doubts. …Vienna regarded the murders as Serbian provocation of war.” (P 543, Europe Since Napoleon)

“When the Empire of Austria-Hungary went to war with Serbia and when Russia mobilized on Serbia’s side, the nineteenth-century Eastern question reached its culmination. In the views of the men in power at Vienna, it was a war to end Serbian threats to the integrity of the Habsburg Empire and to resist Russian Pan-Slav ambitions in the Balkans and eastern Europe. In was, in this sense, regarded as a war of defence, an ordeal necessary for the survival of a dynastic state.” (P 549, Europe Since Napoleon)

The reader will note the complexity of the situation which existed in South Eastern Europe at the time. I used several quotes in order to make clear that the assassination of the archduke was a political act, which the perpetrators must have known would lead to war given the history of the region. Germany had nothing to do with this event.

Yet Mr. Davis neglects to mention of any of this and immediately points an accusatory finger at Germany. Then based on a German Admiral’s “formerly unknown diary entry” regarding an informal meeting which included the Kaiser and High Command, he claims Germany had been “aggressively preparing for a wide-scale continental war … eighteen months,” prior to the Archduke’s assassination.  He also eludes to a document drafted in the German Chancellor’s office listing detailed and “self-aggrandizing” war aims. One must point out this document was drafted in September 1918, i.e. after the war began, so it should not be surprising that it listed war aims.  Apparently, for Mr. Davis, such documents constitute some type of smoking gun testifying to German war guilt.  Frankly, to act shocked that Germany, or any other country had various war plans, lists of demands or other developed strategies borders on the laughable. Does anyone believe that the U.S.A. doesn’t have countless contingency plans based on various scenarios in the international arena, and that some of these might sound aggressive? To any thinking individual, it should not be surprising that a country at war would draw up a list of demands should it win or be sued for peace?

On basis of such flimsy evidence, Mr. Davis again uses a rhetorical device to further his case by writing, “If the Great War was then a German War”.  There is no doubt that the Great War was a German war in that Germany was a participant, but on that basis, it was equally a French, British, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Turkish, Japanese, Italian and American war, not to mention some of the minor participants.

This is not to say Germany was not on the make for some sort of gain or did not have secret plans or hopes. But in this, Germany was little different from others.

“Nobody denies that the German feeling of not being ‘satisfied’ existed even before 1914, that it was strong and helped to create the atmosphere, the expectation of war and the preparedness for it. But it is not possible therefore to jump to conclusions as to the real cause of the war. If it were, the same yardstick could be applied to others who also had aims, less extreme aims perhaps but more precise aims, less circumscribed by geography and history and so had greater weight. France had designs on Alsace-Lorraine, and Russia on Constantinople, which it was in fact promised in the secret treaties of 1916. If war aims are proof of guilt then all were guilty to a greater or lesser degree and it only remains to ask in whose favour the difference of degree operated. While the Russians knew what they wanted the Germans did not; at one time they wanted only a little, at another a great deal; they set their sights high in one place and low in another, and vice versa, and for four years they argued passionately about their war aims. In what other country was there a ‘war aims discussion’ of the kind that went on in Germany?” (P 493, The History of Germany 1789 to Present)

And as to the insinuation that only Germany was “aggressively preparing for a wide-scale continental war”, one historian notes the war,

“was fought in Europe to a point of exhaustion or collapse, and with unprecedented destruction, because the two sides were so evenly matched and had for so long prepared for battle.” (P 547, Europe Since Napoleon)

Another historian writes,

“All the capital accumulated by the richest continent in a hundred peaceful years of unparalleled industrial progress, all the knowledge, all the assembled strength and courage and exuberance were now devoted to one purpose. All countries believed that they were the victims of attack, but all attacked. All general staffs-German, French, Austrian and Russian had long prepared and nurtured grand offensive plans which they now put into action.” (P 501,  The History of Germany)

So in fact all main parties had been “aggressively preparing for a wide-scale continental war”.

Regarding the great importance which Mr. Davis apparently lends the German Admiral’s “formerly unknown diary entry”, note what an eminent historian has to say (referring to an even bigger question) about the reliance on such a secret document when looking for simple “silver bullet” answers to historical questions,

“Anyone who expects something of that kind merely shows that he ridiculously overestimates the significance of a single document, of a word spoken or written at some time of other, compared with the mass of clearly available evidence as to cause and effect, either because he has learnt no historical method or-which is probably more often the case-because he uses his intelligence to serve his own doubtful purpose.” (Preface, The History of Germany)

Returning to Mr. Davis’s central theme, he writes,

“The First World War……should today be recalled for what it was-a necessary war, fought justly over values as much as over territory…”.

Necessary? There is no doubt that all of Europe had been on tender hooks for sometime regarding the possibility of war. But the idea that the war was necessary, as it was fought over “values as much as over territory” is revisionist at best. One historian notes,

“The ‘Great War’, as it quickly came to be called, got so utterly out of hand as an instrument of policy that it demanded unlimited liability. Its original objectives were soon overlaid with many others which had scarcely been considered when it began. Even the avowed aims of belligerents changed as its course was prolonged, and its outcome was quite different from either the original or the subsequent aims of either the war aims originally involved, the peace aims that came to be involved before it ended, and the consequences that are now known to have flowed from it. Its greatest novelty, historically, was a remarkable disparity between the ends sought, the price paid, and the results obtained. (P 548, Europe Since Napoleon)

Britain declared war because it was her traditional policy and interest to prevent the whole of western Europe from falling under the domination of a single power, because since 1900 she had abandoned isolation, and made an entente with France and Russia in order to preserve some balance of power in Europe; because since 1912 the defence of her coasts and seaways depended on the close naval cooperation with France. These considerations would have brought Britain into a general European war in 1914 even had Belgium not been invaded. “ (P 552, Europe Since Napoleon)

The interlocking system of treaties which was in effect at the time must be seen as a major reason for the outbreak of the war and its rapid spread. These treaties were not drafted because of ideologies. One such proof of this is the fact that, due to rivalries between France and Britain and more importantly between Russian and Britain, Britain approached Germany between 1898 and 1901 regarding cooperation and possibly and alliance.

How important were these treaties in fanning the flames of war?

“The system of alliances which developed after the Franco-Prussian War divided Europe into two hostile groups of powers. Their hostility was intensified by nationalist ambitions, economic rivalry, armament races, and jingoist propaganda. (P 720, Pageant of Europe)

“The incident that, in 1914, precipitated the long-dreaded war between the European powers originated in the Balkans. A dispute between Austria and Serbia drew in Germany, as the ally of Austria, and Russia, as the protector of the Serbs. France was bound to Russia by treaty, and Britain chose to stand by France and Russian under the terms of the Entente. Thus the system of alliances that was supposed to prevent war, but made it, when it came, an all but universal tragedy that drew in nearly all the world’s nations.” (P 774, “A Survey of European Civilization”)

“As Germany’s industrial and military strength was far superior to Russia’s, and as a German victory over Russia would completely destroy the balance of power and make Germany master of Europe, Russia and France inevitably stuck together.” (P 439, The History of Germany)

Clearly, ideology had little or nothing to do with it. Those old bugaboos, nationalism and geopolitics would appear to be rather more important.

Mr. Davis paints a black and white picture regarding war guilt. In his view, Germany is not only responsible for the war, but wanted a war. Let us look at the actual facts of the matter and outline the events as they unfolded.

After the assassination of the Archduke, the Austrian government communicated with the German government. The Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph sent a letter (which was actually written by the Austrian Foreign Minister) to the Germany Kaiser saying,

“The perpetration of the assassination of my poor nephew is the direct result of the agitations carried on by the Russian and Serbian Panslavists, the sole object of which is the weakening of the Triple Alliance and the destruction of my realm. According to all the evidence so far brought to light, the Serajevo affair was not merely the bloody deed of a single individual, but the result of a well-organized conspiracy, the threads of which can be traced to Belgrade; and even though it will probably prove impossible to get evidence of the complicity of the Serbian Government, there can be no doubt that its policy, directed toward the unification of all the southern-Slav countries under the Serbian flag, is responsible for such crimes and that the continuation of such a state of affairs constitutes an enduring peril for my house and my possessions….The efforts of my government must in the future be directed toward the isolation and diminution of Serbia…”  (Page 721-722, Pageant of Europe)

How did the German Kaiser react?

“To this letter, the German Emperor and his Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, thinking the Austro-Serb quarrel was a local matter which Austria could handle adequately, replied (July 5) that “The Emperor Franz Joseph may…rest assured that His Majesty will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary, as is required by the obligations of his alliance and of his ancient friendship.” (P 722, Pageant of Europe)

Unfortunately,

“After this assurance, which Berchtold interpreted as a “blank check” despite the danger of Russian intervention on Serbia’s behalf-an intervention which threatened to bring into play the Triple Entente and plunge all Europe into war-Austria determined to send an ultimatum to Serbia. Berchtold proposed that specific demands should be leveled at Serbia, that the demands should be such that it “would be wholly impossible for the Serbs to accept,” that the time allowed for reply should be “as brief as possible, say forty-eight hours,” and that, by these means, Austria would avoid odium of an attack on Serbia and Serbia “would be put in the wrong”. The ultimatum, carefully timed to await the departure from Russia of the French President Poincare’, who had been conferring in St. Petersburg, was sent at 6 p.m. on July 23.”  (P 722, Pageant of Europe)

Then to the surprise of Austria and relief of Germany,

“The Serbian reply was unexpectedly conciliatory, and went so far towards meeting Austria’s demands that even the Kaiser, suddenly filled with misgivings, hailed it with relief because “with it every ground for war disappears’”. (P 544, Europe Since Napoleon)

Sadly, Vienna rejected Serbia’s reply and the opportunity to stop the fatal progress of events was lost. Austria declared war against Serbia on 28 July. A small war between Austria and Serbia was what Austria wanted and in itself would not have been catastrophic. Regrettably for the rest of the world,

“After July 28, the Serbian issue was completely overshadowed by German alarm over the progress of Russian mobilization, officially decreed July 29. Mobilization made hostilities all but inevitable, and Kaiser Wilhelm telegraphed Nicholas II urging him to withdraw his order. The harassed tsar thereupon “suspended” the order for mobilization against Germany, but his advisers persuaded him to renew it the following day (July 30). The Kaiser proposed to delay German mobilization while his appeal was considered. On July 31, he offered the Russians twelve hours in which to countermand their continued mobilization, and then, on August 1, announced that a state of war existed between Germany and Russia. From France, where mobilization had been going quietly forward since July 30, the German government demanded a statement of policy, and as no clear answer was obtainable (France had already promised Russia to fulfill her obligations as an ally), Germany declared war against France also (August 3).“ (P 775, A Survey of European Civilization)

Modern readers might wonder why Germany would be so alarmed at Russia’s mobilization and ask how this could impel Germany to war.

“The theory which equates mobilization with war may seem strange to us today when the great powers are permanently mobilized. In 1914 this was not, however, a specifically German view; Russian and French strategists had also secretly accepted it. But they were not anxious to have it publicly sanctioned because the Russian mobilization needed time and should take place undisturbed. It was the object of German strategy to prevent the enemy from enjoying this period of “war in peacetime”; so Germany, and Germany alone, thought that it must translate the equation of mobilization with war into reality as quickly as possible. For the others whose strategy was not based on speed the situation was different. They saw in Germany’s hasty declaration of war on Russia an attack, if a preventive one. Bethmann Hollweg with his question “should we have waited until the others attacked?” himself admitted the preventive nature of Germany’s action.” (P 490, The History of Germany)

The reader must recall early twentieth century conditions and geopolitics when considering this question. Germany faced a two front war with France on the one side and Russia on the other. We must not forget there was no Polish state in 1914. Germany and Russia had a long contiguous border. It was this fear of a two front war combined with a faulty war plan which pushed Germany to invade Belgium, its worst blunder of the war.

“Germany’s cynical decision to violate a solemn international obligation was defended on diverse grounds: that it would have been militarily disastrous to await a French attack, that it was a strategic necessity, that amends would be made to Belgium afterwards. It was in truth, a strategic necessity only in the sense that the Schlieffen Plan, officially adopted in 1912, upon which the German generals relied for achieving a swift knockout blow against France, involved swinging the German armies through Belgium territory; and it was a necessity because no other German plan had been prepared which seemed equally capable of giving this result. But its adoption meant that from the first Germany forfeited any convincing moral case for her policy, whereas the western powers were given a morally irrefutable case for taking a firm stand against German aggression.” (P 552, Europe Since Napoleon)

Clearly, Germany’s invasion of Belgium was a strategic blunder, not because it changed the state of affairs between Germany, France and Russia. But because it forced Britain to immediately declare war against Germany. This had serious repercussions as regards both “boots on the ground” and the control of the seas. Additionally, the ties of kinship which existed between Great Britain and the USA must be considered as powerful motivating factors for America’s entry into the war in 1917.

Mr. Davis makes much of Germany’s historic guilt in the case of WWI. But a closer study will show that other actors, i.e. Austria and Serbia, are equally if not more guilty. Neither France nor Russia displayed great moral fortitude. In fact, Belgium and Great Britain are the two countries which, after a century, still shine out as the least guilty countries in the tragedy. And neither went to war for ideological reasons. Given the perspective of one hundred years, a contemporary student of WWI should be able to view events through a less distorted lens than the one Mr. Davis has used.

From the contents of his piece, I believe Mr. Davis has missed the greatest lesson to be learned from WWI and how this might be relevant to our times. The lesson is not that the world stood by fecklessly as a dangerous tyrannical country armed itself to the teeth. That is the lesson to be drawn from the 1930’s.

The major lesson to be learned from WWI is that nations can never completely control events once war has broken out. Its corollary is that outcomes are unpredictable; therefore great caution should be exercised before instigating action which might lead to war.

If proof of this is needed, one must only note that by the end of WWI four empires, the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, Germany and Ottoman, had been destroyed. Three royal houses the Romanovs, Hohenzollern and Habsburgs no longer sat on their thrones. More importantly, it is almost certain neither Nazi Germany nor Soviet Russia would have been birthed but for WWI.  Unintended consequences indeed!

In closing, the reader may ask why the lengthy response to an article regarding something which happened 100 years ago? The answer is as simple as it is important. History gives us hints as to how the future may unfold and guidelines as to how we might need to act in the face of certain situations.  Therefore, if someone claims to use history in order to further a political goal, the minimum readers should expect from that writer is that he get the broad outlines of history correct.

To paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Mr. Davis is certainly entitled to his opinions, but he is not entitled to his facts. And since most people cannot be expected to know the details regarding the build up and outbreak of WWI, I felt it necessary to set facts straight. I believe I have largely accomplished my goal with this piece.


Walter K. Ferguson and Geoffrey Bruun, “A Survey of European Civilization”, 4th edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston 1969

Golo Mann “The History of Germany Since 1789”, English translation, Pelikan Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England 1974

R.P. Stearns, “Pageant of Europe, Sources and Selections from the Renaissance to the Present Day” Revised Edition, Harcourt, Brace & World Inc, New York, 1961

David Thomas “Europe Since Napoleon”, Revised edition, Pelikan Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1966 • (3279 views)

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41 Responses to World War I, When Polemics Crowd Out History

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    Goodspeed in The German Wars quotes both the ultimatum to Serbia and the Serb response, which he considers a clever evasion — superficially yielding but in practices rejecting the Austro-Hungarian demands. Of course, Serbia could count on Russian support. (Incidentally, when Serbia attacked Bulgaria after the latter annexed Eastern Rumelia a couple of decades previously, it was Austria-Hungary that saved Serbia from the successful Bulgarian counter-offensive. At that time Serbia was ruled by the pro-Habsburg Obrenovich family, who were wiped out and replaced by the Karageorgovich clan in 1902.)

    Germany may have made some preparations, but they certainly weren’t ready either financially or economically. The European airplane industries were interdependent at the start of the war, so Germany wasn’t ready to go it alone there, either.

    When we discussed Fritz Fischer in my college course, “Problems in 20th Century German History”, one point Professor Mork raised was the matter of contingency plans. He said he could imagine two German staffers moaning about their jobs before the war. One would talk about preparing contingency plans for fighting the US; the other would complain about having to study the economic potential of Mesopotamia.

    And that was “naval cooperation” between England and France. Navel cooperation would be something very different (and probably rather naughty, though this might be appropriate for the French).

  2. Glenn (the lesser) says:

    Don’t bother counting to ten, Mr. Davis won’t be getting up off the mat.

  3. Glenn Fairman says:

    That was a very detailed piece of work, Mr. Kung. Since it appears that you are no stranger to this topic, can you opine on Barbara Tuchman’s analysis in her two seminal works: “The Guns of August and The Proud Tower?” I have just ordered both and since I have no biases one way or the other, perhaps you could offer enlightenment.

    Also: The current issue of the Claremont Review of Books has an excellent essay by Algis Valiunas entitled “On The Slaughter Bench of History” which dealt with a compendium of authors on WW1. Highly recommended. If you cannot access this I will be happy to forward the pdf.

    And, The current New Criterion offers Roger Kimball’s “Guilt Trip: Versailles, Avant-Garde & Kitsch,” a piece dealing with John Maynard Keynes and his success in demonizing the Versailles Treaty with his usual wrong-headed sentimental analysis of it being a Carthaginian Peace. Kimball’s description of Keynes as ‘The Nietzsche of Economics” was itself worth the read.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      The Proud Tower is about the prewar culture, and thus has nothing to do with World War I itself. The Guns of August covers the beginning of the war, up to the First Battle of the Marne (which it briefly summarizes), though it largely ignores the other fronts. Both are entertaining; only an expert can say how accurate they are (and no doubt there are some inaccuracies that result from information not available when she wrote several decades ago).

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Glenn, it has been many years since I read “The Guns of August” and my copy is packed away somewhere in the many boxes of books which my wife complains about. So I am not able to check on any notes I may have made in the book.

      But from memory, I thought the book a good one. I believe Tuchman writes history something like Steven Ambrose, but on a higher level. Her books are therefore worth reading.

      As I recall, she tried to do a proper job of presenting the buildup to war from the various countries’ points of view. And I think she came to the conclusion that nobody in power had any idea of what was really going on thus things got badly out of hand. I do not recall her mentioning anything about ideology being at the root of the war or of its being a war about differing political world views. So I believe my piece in ST would pretty much agree with her conclusions.

      Of course, new material has come out since she wrote the book, but I don’t think it changes the main theme of the buildup and outbreak of WWI as being a total cock-up by the parties involved. As I say, only Britain and Belgium come out with any sense of virtue.

      I have not read “The Proud Tower” so cannot comment on it.

      Sorry I can’t be of more help, but I will try and find my copy of “Guns” and if I do will see what, if any, notes I have made.

      Thanks for the info re “On The Slaughter Bench of History” and the article in the New Criterion. I will have a look at them both. Will let you know if I need pdf.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Here’s that article by Roger Kiimball that Glenn mentioned: Guilt trip: Versailles, avant-garde & kitsch

      It starts with a good quote:

      What a vast difference there is between the barbarism that precedes culture and the barbarism that follows it.
—Christian Friedrich Hebbel

      In the early paragraphs, it mentions this book by David Fromkin: Europe’s Last Summber. One of the reviewers at Amazon sums it up by pulling this quote from the book:

      “It was no accident that Europe went to war at that time. It was the result of premeditated decisions by two governments” (p. 293). Allegedly, Germany found that the Sarajevo crisis was the perfect pretext for war – it was initiated by the Hapsburg Empire, and thus committed Austria-Hungary to fight along with Germany, and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand made the Serbs, and not the Austrians or the Germans, seem like the perpetrators. If one man could be said to be the criminal it is German Helmuth von Moltke, German chief of staff, the man who had wanted an all out European War all along. “To the extent that any individual did so… this rather ordinary career army officer started the Great War”. (p. 305)

      But Fromkin’s account suggests a more complex answer; although Germany’s Military leadership did plan the Great War, neither its Civilian Government nor the German Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted it, and even Moltke was ambivalent about it. The War broke out because two German-Austrian plots had failed; with the second failure, and with the Russian smobilization, moderates in Germany and Austria Hungary failed to control the events. The War was only partially premeditated; The Germans had played with matches, but they wanted a local, contained burning. The wildfire that erupted was neither planned not wished for.

      Here’s a good quote from the Kimball article:

      When war did finally break out, it was greeted in many quarters as a lark, a holiday, a deliverance from the tedious routines of everyday life. Yes, there were some cautionary voices. “If war breaks out,” warned Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, at the end of July, 1914, “it will be the greatest catastrophe that the world has ever seen.” On August 3, when the German armies were swarming towards France and the “Rape of Belgium” was about to begin, he somberly predicted that “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”

      But in early August, Grey’s was a minority perspective. “We’ll just pop over to France next week and be home by Christmas.” That was the popular refrain. In Germany, the mood was triumphalist. Even a moralist like Thomas Mann welcomed the war as “a purification, a liberation, an enormous hope. The victory of Germany will be . . . a victory of soul over numbers.” “The German soul,” Mann wrote, “is opposed to the pacifist ideal of civilization, for is not peace an element of civil corruption?” What contempt Mann had for the “nation of shopkeepers” across the channel.

      Here’s another terrific passage:

      It is often said that the primary existential or spiritual effect of the war was disillusionment. Barbara Tuchman, for example, notes in one of her classic studies of the Great War that the war had many results but that the dominant one was “disillusion.” She quotes D. H. Lawrence, who observed that “All the great words were cancelled out for that generation.” Honor, Nobility, Valor, Patriotism, Sacrifice, Beauty: Who could still take such abstractions seriously after the wholesale slaughter of the war?

      And this author certainly did see motivations in The Great War in regards to the triumph of a particular ideology:

      But it’s worth interjecting two points. First, it is sometimes said that the Great War, because of its body count, the tactics of its generals, the as-it-turned-out false promise that it was “a war to end all wars,” was therefore meaningless. I submit that, on the contrary, it was instinct with significance. As David Fromkin put it at the end of Europe’s Last Summer, “it was fought to decide the essential questions in international politics: who would achieve mastery in Europe, and therefore in the world, and under the banners of what faith.”

      And he has an interesting insight about the reparations Germany had to pay (in refutation of Keynes typically Leftist baloney):

      Let’s linger over that word “reparations.” Can anyone hear the word straight any longer? Keynes’s book took the word out of normal circulation and invested it with an aura of malignancy and unreality that persists to this day. But Germany started the war, which was fought almost entirely on foreign soil, and, along with the other Central Powers, it inflicted horrendous property damage and killed millions. As the historian Sally Marks points out, “France’s ten richest industrial departments were only horrific ruins, over 1,000 square miles now a desert.” German industry was intact. Why shouldn’t Germany pay? Keynes claimed that the Allies sought to revenge themselves upon the Germans. But restitution is not revenge (even if it happens to be mistaken policy). It is merely justice.

      • Glenn Fairman says:

        beautiful prose.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        The basic problem wasn’t the reparations, or the confiscation of all German foreign investments, or the seizure of the German merchant marine, or the extreme disarmament, or the loss of colonies and territory. It was the totality of all of this, coming off a truce period that involved the continued starvation of Germany. The explicit purpose, at least in the mind of Clemenceau, was genocidal (he thought there were way too many Germans, and wanted to get rid of a lot of them). Note that France paid for the far smaller reparations after 1870 by selling off many of its foreign investments. Germany had no such option.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      I read Kimball’s piece on Keynes and the Versailles treaty and have mixed feelings about it.

      I have never read Keynes’ paper on the treaty, but I do not think he was far off in predicting the chickens would come home to roost, which they did. But perhaps for reasons different from those believed by Keynes, if Kimball is correct in his description of Keynes’ reasoning.

      Germany had not been crushed by WWI. Relatively little fighting actually took place on German soil thus many Germans did not have the feeling they had truly lost the war. In large part because of this fact, the myth of the “stab-in-the-back” by the”November Criminals” took root. Thus Germany was a country which was not broken by the war, rather much of it’s economy was left intact and only part of it was occupied.

      Therefore, in my opinion, the Versailles Treaty was foolish. It was a document which was meant not only to soak Germany for money, but it also tried to humiliate Germany. This was a dangerous thing to do to an enemy which was still powerful. One should never underestimate resentment and humiliation as motivators of violence and revenge.

      What made it worse was the fact that the treaty included “a reference to Germany’s sole guilt for the war.” As I have shown in my piece this was patent nonsense. And since the treaty included such a lie, it was easy fodder for Germans i.e. just about every German political party and politician, who wished to “correct” this falsehood perpetrated against the German nation.

      Kimball mentions something about the harshness of Germany’s treaty with Russia, but he neglects to mention that the German’s were surprised that the Russians agreed so easily to the terms of Brest-Litovsk. I believe these terms were simply drawn up as a starting point for negotiations.

      The terms were accepted because Russia was in a much worse position than Germany and Lenin was more interested in solving his domestic problems than in fighting against Germany. AS I recall, he had no intention of keeping to the terms of the treaty should the Communists come out completely on top in the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union gain power to reclaim some of the lost territory.

      As to Kimball’s bit about kitsch, I find it something less than convincing. Kitsch is not unique to German culture. As a matter of fact, I believe American culture contains a lot more kitsch than German. But in his error, Kimball comes close to a truth.

      That truth is that German culture was, to a large degree highly romanticized. This is something which has been well discussed in German academic circles for many years. I heard this forty years ago when studying history in Austria. One of the basic questions in the history of the so-called “Deutsche Sprachraum” (German speaking area) is why and how did the Austrian culture and German culture diverge in the early 1800’s. I will simply say the Austrians developed into a so-called Biedermeier culture, while the Germans developed into a Romantic culture.

      To be overly simplistic, a Biedermeier culture is one built on domesticity and modest creature comforts. Simple pleasures and pastimes are pursued i.e. it is a “gut buergerliche” society, (good bourgeois). A Romantic culture is one which prizes, among other things, heroics, grandiose acts as well as gestures and has a sense of urgency and search for meaning lacking in the Biedermeier culture.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Professor Mork, who taught German history at Purdue, was scathing about the Allied decision to make Erzberger sign the armistice (which had a lot to do with his assassination a few years later) instead of Hindenburg.

        Anti-Versailles sentiment was so potent in Germany that even the Dawes and Young plans (which reduced reparations to more manageable levels) faced strong opposition because they were based on acceptance of the legitimacy of the reparations. As an interesting side note, many years ago I played a political game (I think the title was Der Fuehrer) about the 1932 German campaigns for the Reichstag. Each party could run on a varied set of platforms from left to right, all of which featured “anti-Versailles” as an issue.

        Brest-Litovsk was a harsh treaty, though one might note that most of Russia’s territorial losses went to newly independent nations (albeit nations Germany intended to dominate politically). It’s also interesting that the nearly simultaneous treaty with Romania (Bucharest), which featured only minimal territorial losses, is commonly ignored by critics.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Glenn, I have read Valiunas’ piece “On The Slaughter Bench of History”. I find the overall tone and information of the article to be pretty good. It is interesting that he uses Tuchman as a sort of starting point on how WWI should be approached and goes from there. I had to laugh when I read the following quote;

      With acid wit Tuchman etches the bloodsoaked heyday of anarchism: So enchanting was the vision of a stateless society, without government, without law, without ownership of property, in which, corrupt institutions having been swept away, man would be free to be good as God intended him, that six heads of state were assassinated for its sake in the twenty years before 1914.

      What an interesting lesson regarding the nature of anarchism, which is certainly a close relative of radical libertarianism. The fact that history gives us guidance as to how things might evolve is something our Libertarian friends never seem to learn.

      I must go out, but will return to this later today.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Anarchism is indeed a close cousin of libertarianism. There are many libertarians who advocate anarcho-capitalism (in essence, a right-wing variant of anarchism). Hugh Thomas mentions an incident in Spain during the 1930s involving a police struggle with an anarchist who had named his daughter Libertaria.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      I am back and will continue my comments on Valiunas’ article.

      Valiunas touches upon a point which I have mentioned somewhere in the discussion i.e. the tragedy that among the main combatants there was not one leader with the strength of character, morals or imagination to step in and stop the dominoes from falling. This could have been done at several points, but wasn’t. I do not include the British in this critique.

      I like the fact that the article goes into some detail as to the personalities involved and their personal motivations for power/etc. And while the personal may have less power in democratic societies, it can still be important. That is why the choice of national leaders is so critical.

      The piece also shows what scoundrels the Serb leaders were. All historians mention the fact that the Austrians didn’t have “proof” that the assassination plot reached the top of the Serbian government, but there must be little doubt the Austrians were pretty well versed in the doings of the Serbian government in its attempts to unsettle the situation in the Balkans. The assassination can be seen as just the most dramatic event.

      While there is no doubt that the men coming out of the war were terribly effected by it, I think the idea that the war “splintered” the foundations of “civilized life.” a little overdone.

      I think the termites had been eating away at “civilized life” for some time and the war only helped push over an already rickety edifice. And I also think the severity of the “loss of faith” which resulted in the so-called “lost generation” was much more pronounced in the scribblers than in the population at large. There was, after all, the roaring twenties.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        One might note that the Serbian dynasty owed its position to the murderers of the rival (and pro-Habsburg) Obrenovich dynasty. No doubt there was a lot of overlap between those who led that assassination and those who led the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. In fact, a friend of mine once suggested that if the Habsburgs had acted promptly, there would have been no major war. (When Kaiser Wilhelm gave Kaiser-und-Koenig Franz Josef a blank check, this is undoubtedly what he had in mind.) Other European nations, on both sides of the alliance, initially saw this as more of that Serb bloodthirstiness. But in time (and the ultimatum was sent nearly a month after the assassination) they forgot their outrage and resumed the usual power politics.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          The article does mention the assassination of the Obrenovich king and his queen, the marriage to whom it appears was the reason for the assassination in the first place. It seems she was a lady of low virtue. From what is said, the list of her past lovers was a “Who’s Who” of the Serbian court and other powerful men.

          I suppose the gallant gents of Belgrade took umbrage at bowing to a notorious slag. Their and their country’s honor were besmirched.

          • Glenn Fairman says:

            You can purchase a lot of honor with the blood of 37 million men.

            • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

              Yes, the sons-of-bitches’ sensibilities hadn’t quite stayed abreast of military technology. But I am not sure that it would have made much difference if they had. One only has to look at the mess they made in the 1990s to assume this likely.

  4. Glenn Fairman says:

    I am in the process of an annual viewing of “Lawrence of Arabia.’ This film is a monument to the power of art, even though I feel that my emotions are being propagandized every time I watch it.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      You must fly or drive up here sometimes and we’ll have an LofA marathon. I love that movie. I’ve got it on Blu Ray. Please assure me you’re not watching it in any lower resolution.

      • Glenn Fairman says:

        limited to the TCM showings which are probably not Blu-ray. There is some confusion on amazon about the Blue- Ray…… which restoration version is yours?

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Okay, let me see if I can figure out which version I have. I wasn’t aware that there was more than one Blu Ray version…

          It’s definitely from 2012. It’s 227 minutes. Okay, I found some fine print on the outer cardboard sleeve:

          2012 Restoration by Sony Pictures Entertainment and Sony Colorworks • 1988 Restoration Produced and Reconstructed by Robert A. Harris and Jim Painten • Photographed in Super Panavision 70®.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          By the way, do you have a Blu Ray player? If so, I could mail you my copy of Lawrence for you to borrow. I make this sacrifice because this movie MUST be seen in all its glory. It really does make a difference. And I’m serious about sending it to you if need be.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            Well, I can only see it occasionally on TCM or some such channel. But then, I did see it originally in a movie theater way back in the 1960s.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              You are all invited to the Northwest where I shall find someone with a very big screen tv (my brother’s would do) and we can all sit down and watch LofA in BluRay. I’d love it.

          • Glenn Fairman says:

            I just ordered the Superbit version which is on two disks and has a DTS soundtrack. I am assured it is possibly better than the Blue ray and was half as much. we shall see.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I was reading through more of the Einstein/Bohr book that I mentioned. It told the story of science in and around the First World War.

    Denmark was neutral so Niels Bohr was not particularly effected. He could got to countries such as England but could not work on any research with military applications.

    Einstein, of course, was a pacifist. And does this ever seem like one instance where that was needed on all sides. The best I can figure is that the continent of Europe went crazy. Even the scientists got caught up in it. And Bohr himself “did as much as anyone to ensure that personal relations between scientists on opposing sides were restored as quickly as possible after the war. As a citizen of a neutral country, Bohr felt no resentment towards his German colleagues.”

    The post-war period had active repercussion for the Jews. Einstein received threatening mail and “suffered verbal abuse as he left his apartment or office.” Einstein wrote, “Anti-semitism is strong here [in Germany] and political reaction is violent.” His theory of relativity (finished in the war year of 1915) was dismissed as “Jew science” by some Germans.

    Two of his colleagues (who had been of great help to him in the past) turned rabidly anti-Semitic. Many scientists on both sides rushed to what they saw as the thrill of war and a patriotic call, believing it would all be over soon. The German scientists Planck, Nernst, Rontgen, and Wien were among

    “the 93 luminaries who signed Appeal to the Cultured World.

    The manifesto was published on 4 October 1914 in leading German newspapers and in others abroad, its signatories protesting against ‘the lies and defamations with which our enemies are trying to besmirch Germany’s pure cause in the hard life-and-death struggle forced upon it’. They asserted that Germany bore no responsibility for the war, had not violated Belgian neutrality, and had committed no atrocities. Germany was ‘a cultured nation to whom the legacy of Goethe, Beethoven and Kant is fully as sacred as its hearths and plots of land’.

    Planck quickly regretted having signed, and in private began apologising to his friends among foreign scientists. Of all those that lent their names to the falsehoods and half-truths of the Manifesto of the Ninety-Three, as it became known, Einstein had expected better from Planck. Even the German chancellor had admitted that Belgium’s neutral status had been violated: ‘The wrong that we are committing, we will endeavour to make good as soon as our military goal is reached.’

    Einstein described the outbreak of the war thusly: “Europe in its madness has now embarked on something incredibly preposterous.” Einstein penned a counter-manifesto entitled Appeal to Europeans. It called on “educated men of all states to ensure that the conditions of peace did not become the source of future wars.” Including Einstein, only four people signed it.

    One scientist of enormous skill and promise (I forget his name and can’t find it in the book) was gung-ho and joined the signal core. He was shot in the head and killed.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Asimov once discussed the concept of “scientific sin”, and suggested as an excellent example the development of poison gas by Fritz Haber (who would later be forced to emigrate by the Nazis). Not only was this horrific in itself (and he contrasts this with Faraday, a century earlier, saying that developing poison gas was feasible but he wouldn’t do it), but he suggests that this also turned science itself into a source of evil. (He thinks it’s no coincidence that RUR, with its rebellious robots, came out right after the war.)

      In another article, he notes that one of Ernest Rutherford’s fellow scientists was a likely Nobel winner — except that he had been killed at Gallipoli. The Nobel committee skipped a year in physics, which he thinks was their way of honoring a man they could not legally recognize. I think the guy’s name was Mosley.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Okay, I found the scientist who died at Gallipoli. It was Henry Moseley:

        When the First World War began he enlisted in the Royal Engineers and served as a signals officer. He died, shot through the head, in Gallipoli on 10 August 1915. His tragic death at the age of 27 robbed him of a certain Nobel Prize.

        Among his achievements, Moseley had “confirmed the nuclear charge of an atom, its atomic number,”

  6. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Sadly, he then goes on to torture historical fact in order to draw questionable conclusions about the war. He does this in service of his agenda, which, as I see it, is to garner support for a military attack against present day Iran. Let me at once say that I hold no brief for Iran.

    I still can’t quite figure out what your beef is with Avi, Mr. Kung. His point was a simple one: Militaristic cultures with a grievance are dangerous. I just re-read his article and find it as thoughtful as ever.

    I think he was right to draw general parallels of the danger that Iran presents. And I don’t find his explanation for the cause of WWI to be single-mindedly an attempt to justify action against Iran. I thought it as a thoughtful and reasonable analogy.

    By all means, lay out your case for why you think WWI started, why it was fought, and whose fault it was. But I still cannot even glimpse a bare reason why Avi got under you skin like this. He wrote a very reasonable article. One might not agree with his conclusions, but they are quite reasonable conclusions. I’ll try to read more later but admit that I’m exhausted by this topic.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      I did not say I had anything against his trying to build a case justifying action against Iran.

      I have read Mr. Davis’ article several times to insure that I have understood it correctly. And I am convinced I do. My point was some of the claims he made are not born out by historical fact. If you did not see this from my article then there isn’t much more I can say. We simply disagree.

  7. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Here’s a mildly interesting article by H.W. Crocker III titled What Doc Savage Can Teach Us About World Word One.

    What I found of particular interest was this exchange which I would characterize as between a libertarian and a conservative, although I can’t be sure:

    12345mk: I wonder what Doc Savage would say about Sykes-Picot, 100 years later?
    Now that the islamic world is revolting against the world that the British and the French created, none of this might even be going on if not for that(Sykes/Picot) and Lawrence of Arabia’s plotting to “remake the world in their own image”.

    CJW: Yeah, the muslim terrorists are sitting around saying that Sykes-Picot agreement is the reason we have to crash into the WTC, Khobar Towers, US Cole, Achile Lauro, Benghazi, seize the US Embassy in Iran, destroy Israel, etc. The muslim terrorists anticipated Sykes-Picot when they were beaten at Tours, Vienna, and Lepanto.

    The Islamic world is not revolting against the world that the British and French “created” or anyone else. They are following the ideology of the Koran/sharia law to conquer by sword and klll/enslave the infidel, as the have done since Mohamed in the 7h century. They want to establish a worldwide caliphate without regard to borders. You are making excuses to justify the mulsim terrorism.

    Whether 12345mk is another blame-America-first liberal or libertarian, I admit that I don’t know. But I do assert that, through experience, the two are indeed often difficult to distinguish. And kudos to CJW playing the role of the informed adult.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      An interesting exchange to an interesting article, though I’m not sure how much I agree with its viewpoint. I was tempted to do a response quoting from “In Flanders Fields”. Incidentally, my large (though probably not quite complete) collection of books by Philip Jose Farmer includes the Doc Savage and Tarzan biographies mentioned in the responses.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        In some respects (from the very outside looking it), WWI was a needless and vast slaughter. And that’s easy for those to say who are not living on the border of German aggression. As they say, the quickest way to avoid conflict is to surrender.

        But it is a bit ghastly reading how the rank-and-file of all participants seemed damned near exuberant at the prospect of war, as if it was an extraordinary event needed to break the boredom of civilized living.

        That’s certainly what the author of this article says about Doc Savage. He, and others like him, are bored outside of some kind of active conflict. And it’s, of course, a noble cause if you throw yourself into harm’s way in the pursuit of the bad guys. I might pick up one of the Doc Savage novels and give it a go, although I don’t offhand see any of the 181 novels available, the first, “The Man of Bronze,” written by Lester Dent in 1933.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      ” I wonder what Doc Savage would say about Sykes-Picot, 100 years later?
      Now that the islamic world is revolting against the world that the British and the French created, none of this might even be going on if not for that(Sykes/Picot) and Lawrence of Arabia’s plotting to “remake the world in their own image”

      Why do I suspect this was just another mindless swipe at Israel, essentially blaming the “Jews” for all the trouble our Muslim brethren are creating? The writer didn’t mention the Balfour Declaration, but you can bet he was thinking about it.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        What the Arabs wanted was, in effect, an Arab caliphate. (Or at least that’s what their leaders wanted. What individual tribesmen wanted may well simply have been getting the Ottomans off their backs.) They were never going to get that, and I doubt it would ever have held together. The blogger probably didn’t realize that “Saudi Arabia” was a postwar creation after the Wahabi tribesmen of the Nejd overthrew the Hashemite hereditary Sherif of Mecca (who had become the King of the Hejaz) and installed their leader, Ibn Saud. The Hashemite rulers of Iraq also faced problems in 1941 (when Rashid Ali took over, but was kicked out by the British for his pro-Nazi alignment) and 1958 (when the dynasty was ejected). Furthermore, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Mesopotamia (Iraq) were traditional regions, and the various regions of Arabia had their own leaders already. Sykes-Picot provided the specific borders, but something of the sort would inevitably have happened even if the British and French hadn’t been so greedy.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          I figure the blogger doesn’t know a lot about the History of the Middle East. To imply that Sykes-Picot is the root of the present problems in the Islamic world shows a poor grasp of what is happening in the Muslim world as well as a questionable grounding in history.

          Do the problems between India and Pakistan grow out of Sykes-Picot? Do the problems with the Moros in Mindanao originate from Sykes-Picot? How about the Taliban, did they spring from the Russian invasion or Sykes-Picot? Maybe the problems in Burma, south Thailand and Xinjiang arose out of Sykes-Picot.

  8. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Here’s an overly long article that is too self-consciously intellectual by half on the subject at hand in general (WWI): A schoolboy’s guide to war by Andrew Stuttaford. But some points of interest may be gleaned from it.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Not a bad piece. It does make clear that all classes fought and suffered in the war.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Max Hastings, in his collection of Military Anecdotes, reports that the tale of a British reporting the conquest of Sind with the message “Peccavi” (Latin for “I have sinned”) is apocryphal, but then gives an actual message by a British officer of that era mixing English and French (and sometimes using Greek letters). I thought of that when the article discussed the intellectual qualities of many of the authors.

  9. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I have come across a book which I had not heard of when I wrote the above article.

    It’s title is;

    “July 1914: Countdown to War” by Prof. Sean McKeekin.

    With new research, the good prof still comes to pretty much the same conclusions regarding war guilt as I did. If anything, he blames the Russians and French more than I did.

    WWI was in no way, “A Necessary War”. It was a war which came about due to leaders who were fools, criminals and ineffectual.

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