The causes of the Great War are still being debated a century after Armistice Day 1918. Like all great ghosts its creaks and moans are still heard on dark nights and we’re not really sure if it’s gone. French president Emmanuel Macron reassured the public at the centenary commemoration that the nationalistic “demons” that caused it would never return. They had been banished he said, by the European Union. The New York Times reported:
In marking the centennial of the armistice, Mr. Macron said that from the ashes of that war and the next one came hope. “This hope is called the European Union, a union freely entered into, never before seen in history, a union that has freed us of our civil wars,” he said.
“Yet absent from the ceremony,” the NYT noted with some nervousness, “was the prime minister of Britain, which is currently in the throes of trying to detach itself from the European Union.” Her absence was in stark contrast to the man who was actually present: Donald Trump. “Mr. Trump, who recently declared himself ‘a nationalist,’ appeared grim as he listened” to Mr. Macron indict nationalism as threat to world peace.
Macron took aim at the style of nationalism that has been embraced by President Trump, warning a crowd of dignitaries and heads of state about how the splintering of multilateral institutions led to the first World War and now threaten to divide the world once again.
If Macron’s great hope falters there’s the ready made excuse of Paradise Lost. The saga of the Fall has Theresa May in the role of Eve tempted by the Brexit apple with Donald Trump naturally as the snake. But it’s not clear that the collapse of multilateral institutions in 1914 caused the war in the first place. It might be argued it was the international system with its entangling alliances and secret treaties that dragged the world kicking and screaming to slaughter of the trenches. Integration can pose dangers of its own, perils that British Labour Party MP Norman Angell underestimated in his 1909 work The Great Illusion. To Angell as with Macron it seemed obvious that economic integration would bring peace in Europe for time to come.
What is the real guarantee of the good behaviour of one state to another?” Angell asked. “It is the elaborate interdependence which, not only in the economic sense, but in every sense, makes an unwarrantable aggression of one state upon another react upon the interests of the aggressor.
Ten years and ten million deaths later Angell’s thesis was in tatters for a world without firebreaks can internationalize a local incident that might otherwise have remained isolated. It was precisely the telegraph, railroad and even the invention of corned beef that made “some damned fool thing in the Balkans” able spread like wildfire. Once the finger of Serbia had been caught in the mangle the entire European arm was pulled into the meat grinder, inevitably and inexorably. As Ben Chu at the Independent put it, integration by itself does nothing; it cannot compensate for a political class gripped by madness.
“All the mobilization plans had been timed to the minute, months or even years before and they could not be changed. Modification in one direction would ruin them in every other direction….Any alteration in the mobilization plan meant not a delay for 24 hours but for at least six months before the next lot of timetables were ready.”
These constraints, according to Taylor, meant that a single spark – the assassination of an Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo – exploded into a wildfire; this was “war by timetable”.
The mysterious origin of this madness is the subject of Algis Valiunas at the Clarement Review of Books survey of causes of the Great War. “The murders needn’t have touched off a world-historical event [but] … the shadow of unreason fell upon leading men everywhere … they were resigned to the inevitability of a war they did not really want once lever after lever was tripped in succession: an Austrian ultimatum that Serbia could only reject, further ultimatums, warnings against issuing ultimatums, partial mobilization here or there, demands that a potential enemy’s mobilization must stop or else, and the mobilization that could not be stopped however the men supposed to be most powerful might have wished it.”
Whatever the origin of the ghost the sheer violence of the Great War shell shocked European civilization into inanition. George Orwell cannily noted that the literary voices of World War 1 stopped believing in causes, even the ones they had been fighting for; and came to see themselves as passive victims of chaos. “Books like All Quiet on the Western Front, Le Feu, A Farewell to Arms, Death of a Hero, Good-bye to All That, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, and A Subaltern on the Somme were written not by propagandists but by victims. They are saying in effect, ‘What the hell is all this about? God knows. All we can do is to endure.’”
Valiunas concludes that the guts had been ripped out of Europe by 1918. “At the foundation of civilized life had been the religious, the national, and the erotic ideals: Christianity, patriotism, and romantic love. The war splintered them all.” Into this vacuum stepped not the longed for peace but more war. “The supreme tragedy of the Great War is that it neutered the multitudes of decent men who ought to have prevented the rise of the foulest regime ever, and the eruption of another war so devastating that the evils of the erstwhile Great War came to seem acceptable by comparison.”
It’s instructive to note that even a century has not proved enough time for Macron’s EU to recover its religious, national and erotic confidence. In the quartet of leaders formed by May, Macron, Merkel and Trump only the Donald has children. To Macron at least, national ideals have become demons. And as for religion — perhaps that is a subject best left untouched for the present.
We’re safe now with multilateral institutions like the EU, Macron says. But are we ever safe?
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Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T.J. Stiles. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History, this book paints a portrait of Custer that demolishes historical caricature, revealing a volatile, contradictory, intense person — capable yet insecure, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (he was court-martialed twice in six years). The key to understanding Custer, Stiles writes, is keeping in mind that he lived on a frontier in time. In the Civil War, the West, and many other areas, Custer helped to create modern America, but could never adapt to it. Stiles casts surprising new light on a near-mythic American figure, a man both widely known and little understood.
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding or “tribes,” a connection now largely lost. But its pull on us remains and is exemplified by combat veterans who find themselves missing the intimate bonds of platoon life at the end of deployment and the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today. Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, Junger explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. He explains why we are stronger when we come together, and how that can be achieved even in today’s divided world.
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The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
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Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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