Tuesday, January 25, 2011

I still don't get it.

There's something I've never understood. While I wouldn't say it has consumed me night and day, my lack of understanding always bothered me. I like to understand the things I wonder about, and I've always wondered what the hell World War One was all about.

Oh, sure - Germany/Russia/Austria/Serbia. Archduke Ferdinand. Got it. But how the hell do you get from the assassination of some Hapsburg potentate nobody could really have given a damn about to the frickin' Battle of the frickin' Somme? I don't expect people to behave rationally, but this is senselessness on a vast scale. Didn't these people see what they were galloping toward?

I just finished reading Dreadnaught, by Robert K. Masse. Nine hundred pages later, I still can't say I understand it. Everything seems to come down to such utter personal folly - Victoria, William II, Franz Josef, the various "diplomats" who either failed to see the swamp they were wandering into or actually planned to jump into it, for reasons that surpass ... reason.

For all its heft, this book is very limited. Masse goes on and on and on about the British and German personalities directly or indirectly involved in the lead-up to the war, but almost ignores the Austrians and Serbs and Russians who were its proximate cause. Granted that in a sense they were only pawns in a bigger game, still I would cheerfully have sacrificed knowledge of Lord So-and-so's fourth mistress to have learned something about what was going on in the head of whoever put that pistol in Gavrilo Princip's hand.

But I do at last believe I understand a little about that web of treaties trapping France and England into the war, when it was pretty clear they'd both have been happy to sit it out.

And over and over, one great omission just glares at me. "England" and "Germany" and "Russia" and "Austria" are treated as if they were people themselves, led into one folly after another by individual rulers and bureaucrats, perhaps, but still coherent entities in their own right. But the millions of people who actually fed all this were ignored, when they weren't being rounded up and armed as cannon fodder. And one and all, they allowed it. They trusted their rulers to do the wrong thing and get them all killed, as long as all the right speeches were made at the right times.

I closed the book with a lot less sympathy for those people than I had had when I opened it.


John Venlet said...

Everything seems to come down to such utter personal folly...

Still true today, Joel.

MamaLiberty said...

And after reading history for more than 50 years, from many angles and sources, it is less clear now than when I started.

History is written by people, ALWAYS with a unique point of view and ALWAYS with incomplete facts/information - whatever their motive or integrity.

Only the ghosts of those who died know the absolute truth - and only for the tiny slice of history in which they were intimately involved.

Nobody can ever truly know all the reasons, the manipulations, the motives for what happened. And we have only incomplete indications of the actual results either.

But, for me, the message of history is crystal clear. The initiation of force is the ultimate evil and feeds every other evil on earth.

I don't need to know exactly what happened or why they did it. It is enough for me to understand the evil and the need to avoid it in the future.

Claire said...

Joel, I had the same feeling after reading Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August. Tuchman was a wonderful writer. She made the distant and oh-so-foreign 14th Century understandable in A Distant Mirror. But even she couldn't make any sense of "The War to End All Wars."

And about Archduke Whatsisface -- Remember how, in high school history, his assassination was always given as the cause of the war? And we were all just supposed to say, "Oh. Okay. Some minor royal is killed; naturally the whole world has to try to slaughter the whole rest of the world."

Explains everything, dunnit?

Brian Dunbar said...

I would also suggest Niall Ferguson's 'War of the World'. Covers the period 1901 - 1960ish, very well written.

Joel said...

I read The Guns of August many years ago, and would very much like to read it again. She made the first part of WWI entertaining, but as I recall she didn't even try to explain it.

Haven't read the Ferguson book, but I may look it up.

Anonymous said...

I think this is a problem with people ...identifying a "ruler" as the country itself. So Nickie and Willie and Georgie were Russia, Germany and England.

Brass said...

If you want the answer, look to Fatima. There's only one thing that can explain that much slaughter. And the worse slaughter that was WWII.

Anonymous said...

Brass -- Are you saying God did it? Because we all didn't pray the rosary enough?

Do you have any more proof of that than the words of three little kids?

Anonymous said...

Not in any way trying to justify the mass of humanity that has "let" their "leaders" push them into killing their neighbors.

I always TRY to remember that for Most of the history of the human race the majority was kept ignorant and poor the better to "control" them and for the elite minority to milk them for the little that they did have.

Like ML says it is always about Control and Force is always the tool used.

I'll go be quiet now ....


Anonymous said...

I've had the idea from my reading that the whole thing was driven by the need to rapidly moblize the reserve troops. Both France and Germany had small standing armies and huge reserves. The standard military thinking was that the country that moblized last would loose.
Germany went one better. They had the Schlieffen Plan. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schlieffen_Plan
Once the Germans started moliziation they didn't leave any alternative but and all out total war.
The web of treaties took care of the rest of the world entering the slaughter.
Tucman's The Guns of August is wonderful for explaining this.
Of course all her stuff is wonderful.

Matt said...

I've always seen WWI as the last gasp of the dying monarchies of Europe. They used it as an excuse to try and bloster their failing hourse, grab productive territories and maintain power over their own people and as many others as possible. Due to improving technologie and increasing ease of travel, the world was beginning to change in ways that would move beyond these old monarchies.

On the other hand, it could of just been manipulation by the money lenders and arms manufacturers to exert their power over the ruling houses and countries they represented.

That the U.S. had no business engaging in that war is obvious to me. YMMV

Anonymous said...

Money. War is the health of the state, and the only enterprise whose costs are paid in blood while profits are paid in money.

Rothbard has a good essay:
War Collectivism in World War I

"War collectivism showed the big-business interests of the Western world
that it was possible to shift radically from the previous, largely freemarket,
capitalism to a new order marked by strong government, and
extensive and pervasive government intervention and planning, for the
purpose of providing a network of subsidies and monopolistic privileges to business, and especially to large business, interests. In particular, the economy could be cartelized under the aegis of government, with prices raised and production fixed and restricted, in the classic pattern of monopoly; and military and other government contracts could be channeled into the hands of
favored corporate producers. Labor, which had been becoming increasingly rambunctious, could
be tamed and bridled into the service of this new, state monopoly-capitalist order, through the
device of promoting a suitably cooperative trade unionism, and by bringing the willing union
leaders into the planning system as junior partners.

"In many ways, the new order was a striking reversion to old-fashioned mercantilism, with its aggressive imperialism and nationalism, its pervasive militarism, and its giant network of subsidies and monopolistic privileges to large business interests."

Rothbard's "History of Money and Banking in the United States: The Colonial Era to World War II" is also helpful in understanding it. Banksters and bankster families have been running things for a long time, and they make huge profits from wars. Rothbard's method of showing the interpersonal relationships that drive history is very revealing.

It is no coincidence that the Federal reserve was created just before the outbreak of the war. Follow the (fiat) money.


Al said...

Although it won't lead you to much greater sympathy for the people of those days, Lloyd deMause's The Origins of War in Child Abuse provides pretty good insight into how entire generations go off their rockers. The solution would be to extend the NAP to parenting practices.

Anonymous said...

Rothbard doesn't miss much, does he?

Brass said...

Anonymous @7:36,

I am not saying "God did it."

I am saying men did it. God doesn't start wars. He can, however, withdraw His intervention that prevents wars that would otherwise happen. When men, as individuals, do not live according to moral laws, and do not have an accurate view of human nature, bad stuff happens. At Fatima, Mary warned that if men did not turn from their ways, a second and worse war would follow.


Ken said...

Everything seems to come down to such utter personal folly - Victoria, William II, Franz Josef, the various "diplomats" who either failed to see the swamp they were wandering into or actually planned to jump into it, for reasons that surpass ... reason.

That about sums it up. The Hohenzollern popinjay, abetted by the other popinjays, who were all so quick to conflate personal pique and "the national honor."

Which, if one thinks about it, tends to put one in mind of Dugout Doug.

BTW, I loved Dreadnought, and read a couple of chapters of the follow-on, Castles of Steel (all I had time for, at the time). Very well done as well.

Ken said...

Couple of addenda:

1. The aforementioned popinjays were, naturally, also comfortable with treating men as means, rather than ends.

2. Second the recommendation of Tuchman. Also, for a single-volume overview of the war itself, John Keegan's The First World War is tough to beat.