The London Economist observes Remembrance Day under the headline, “Avoidable brutality,” citing a new book by Margaret MacMillan claiming that the whole horrible mess was the result of blunders. That also is the view of Sir John Keegan, who in his history of the First World War calls it a “tragic and unnecessary conflict.”
That is a contradiction in terms, for “tragic” implies necessity. MacMillan and Keegan, in my view, offer in place of hard analysis a Utopian rescue fantasy. The same Utopian view infects Western policy towards Iran. If only reasonable men could sit down and split the differences, there would be nothing to fight about. I do not believe this is always, or even often, the case. In the case of Iran, the West encounters a dying civilization with a death wish: Iran’s fertility rate has fallen from 7 children per female in 1979 to perhaps 1.7 at the moment, the fastest demographic decline ever recorded, which ensures societal collapse at the horizon of one generation. Iran is like a hostage-taking bank robber with a brain tumor. It has little to lose and can only be dissuaded from building nuclear weapons by force.
The flaws in Europe were fundamental, not arbitrary: Russia as an empire depended on Poland and other industrialized Eastern provinces for its tax base. The pull of the German cultural-economic sphere constantly threatened to dislodge the Eastern part of the Russian Empire from the center, which would have caused its economic collapse. That is why Russia sponsored pan-Slavic movements including the Serbian terrorists who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in July 1914. I listed the reasons for war some years ago (in an essay titled “In praise of preemptive war”) as follows:
1. With a stagnant population, France could not hope to win back the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine it had lost to Germany in 1870 unless it fought soon.
2. Germany could not concentrate its army on a crushing blow against France if it waited for Russia to build out its internal railway network.
3. Austria could not keep its fractious ethnicities within the empire if it did not castigate Serbia.
4. Russia could not maintain control over the industrialized western part of its empire – Poland, the Baltic states and Finland – if Austria humiliated its Serbian ally, and Russia depended on these provinces for the bulk of its tax revenues.
5. England could not maintain the balance of power in Europe if Germany crushed France.
There was one way out of a protracted European conflict:
If Kaiser Wilhelm II had had the nerve to declare war on France during the 1905 Morocco Crisis, Count Alfred von Schlieffen’s invasion plan would have crushed the French within weeks. Russia’s Romanov dynasty, humiliated by its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War and beset by popular revolt, likely would have fallen under more benign circumstances than prevailed in 1917. England had not decided upon an alliance with the Franco-Russian coalition in 1905. The naval arms race between Germany and England, a major source of tension, was yet to emerge. War in 1905 would have left Wilhelmine Germany the sole hegemon in Europe, with no prospective challenger for some time to come. Germany’s indecision left the initiative in the hands of Russia, elements of whose secret service backed the Serbian terrorists who murdered the Austrian crown prince in 1914, forcing Germany into war under far less favorable circumstances.
“Both World Wars of the 20th century, in my view, started too late, with catastrophic consequences for Western Europe,” I concluded. Sometimes it is better and more humane to start war early rather than late. My objection to Wilhelmine Germany is not so much that it was aggressive, but that it was reactive rather than preemptive.