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The If Only School of history

A commenter writes and I sub-edit to twist his meaning:

…history would have been rather different if the Black Prince had lived. Just as history would have been very different if Henry V had lived. History is decided by small events – individual choices (a choice is neither determined or chance – a choice is a choice, it cannot be reduced to something else) and luck (chance – such as getting ill, or dying in a shipwreck as Henry the First’s son Arthur did), not grand “historical forces”.

This brings up one of my bugbears, namely the If Only School of History. The If Only School states that “if only” event X had or hadn’t happened then disaster Y would have been avoided. For example:

  • if only the chauffeur had known the way, Franz Ferdinand would have survived and the First World War would not have happened;
  • if only the British hadn’t shot the rebels then the Irish wouldn’t have sympathised with them and Ireland would still be part of the UK;
  • if only Hitler had stayed a little longer then Elser’s bomb would have killed him and the Second World War would have ended much sooner;
  • if only the French hadn’t been so perfidious at Chesapeake Bay then America would still be British;
  • if only Harold hadn’t been in such a rush to get to Hastings then the Norman Conquest could have been prevented etc, etc.

Straight away there is an obvious problem with the If Only School. It assumes that if event X had not happened then things would have been better. It ignores the possibility that things might have been worse.

The truth is that you never know. You only get one history. You cannot know what would have happened had the world gone down another path. But I tend to assume that it would have been much the same. Why? Because there are millions of people in this world and they all have beliefs and something happening, or not happening, is unlikely to change those beliefs. Also, we have a certain level of technology. That too only changes slowly. When it does, of course, it has profound implications.

Of course, this is something of a numbers game. If there aren’t so many people about then the impact of one person’s decisions or one person’s luck can be much greater.

Getting back to my main point, take for instance, Sarajevo. Obviously, had the chauffeur taken a different turn that day the Archduke and his wife would probably have survived. But the great forces of history would still have been in play. Serbian nationalism would still have existed and posed an existential threat to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The German military would still have felt threatened by the build up of the Russian military. The German monarchy would still have been under threat from German republicanism.

Indeed, it may not have made any difference at all. The Austrians still had plenty to play with that day, assassination or not. The bomb throwing orchestrated – as it was – by Serbian intelligence still constituted an act of war and – as was subsequently shown – they needed little excuse to commence hostilities.

We can also take a look at similar situations down the years and see if different actions lead to significantly different results. Take, for instance, the ways in which monarchs have re-acted to the threat from republicanism:

  • Charles I was inflexible and there was a bloodbath
  • Louis XVI was very accommodating. And there was a bloodbath
  • Wilhelm II tried to focus his population’s attention on foreign adventures. And there was a bloodbath.
  • Nicholas II was inflexible. And there was a bloodbath.

And only one of them survived to not tell the tale. And he was lucky.

Did I say “lucky”? Am I admitting that luck plays a part? Not really. Actually, this example rather makes my point because Willhelm’s survival – lucky or otherwise – wasn’t of any great importance. For sure luck exists but it is more in the nature of waves on the sea rather than the great tides. The big changes may have happened in a different way at at different time but they would still have happened.

But there are other examples. Ask yourself why it was that all Medieval monarchs were such bastards? With one exception they were violent, dishonest, disloyal and untrustworthy. Indeed, the exception, Henry VI, rather proves the rule.

Yes, maybe, had Harold taken his time to assemble at Hastings he might have won the day but do we seriously believe that the invention of the stirrup or, if you prefer, the rise of mounted warfare, would not have had profound consequences for the structure of medieval society?

Of course accepting that we are subject to the great forces of history does leave us with the problem of where we as individuals come in? Why not sit back and relax as there is not much that any of us can do about it?

The Russian Revolution as it appeared in The Times

I suppose – given that it is the centenary of that catastrophe known as the Russian Revolution – I ought to drag out something from The Times. I have to confess that this is no easy task; not because there is too little but because there is too much. Anyway for your intellectual delectation we have the following selection: the initial report (8/11/17), a background report (9/11/17) and The Times leader (same date) which gets it pretty much spot on:

The latest developments in Russia will hardly surprise those who have watched recent events in Petrograd. When constituted authority is palpably incapable of backing words by deeds, when anarchy is allowed to increase daily, when arms are recklessly given to the mob, then the end cannot be far off.

Update One more (9/11/17 again) but this one comes with a free Balfour Declaration

Samizdata quote of the day

The undeniable truth is that neither slavery nor Jim Crow nor the harshest racism has decimated the black family the way the welfare state has.

Walter Williams

Samizdata quote of the day

Washington is a parasite that sucks the rest of the country dry. The counties surrounding Washington, D.C., have the highest per capita income of any metropolitan area in the country including New York, Hollywood and Silicon Valley. The unemployment rate is also the lowest of any large region in the country.

At least New York, Silicon Valley and Hollywood all produce something we need or enjoy. Washington produces red tape, taxes and new ways to handicap innovation on a daily basis.

While America staggers after its first lost decade (2007–17) and with a new lost decade set to begin (Japan, anyone?), Washington grows fat and rich. Trust me, the hotels and restaurants in town are jammed. No depression here.

Jim Rickards.

Not sure I’d agree with him on Hollywood but he is one of an apparently growing number of commentators who have noticed the parallels between the West’s current predicament and the Fall of the Western Roman Empire.

No wonder they were peeved

From a letter in The Times (28 September 1917):

I propose to relate a few facts which came within my knowledge in the summer of 1872, the time when the inhabitants of Aisace-Lorraine were called on to determine as to their future nationality and, on a certain day, to vote whther they would remain French or become German. I was then brought into daily contact with all classes of the inhabitants. This “option,” as it was called, was in everybody’s thoughts, as all French families in the annexed provinces had in the immediate future to decide whether they would continue to reside where they had been born, or leave their homes in order to live in France, from which they had been torn, or in some other country, or, as an alternative, to become German, with all the effects and responsibilities involved in such a change. In cases where fathers were beyond the age for conscription and there were not sons, the choice was generally in favour of remaining in homes where most of them had been born, and submitting to a foreign yoke. But the wrench was a terrible one in cases where there happened to be sons, as these, if they remained in what was soon to be called the Reichsland, would be compelled to be educated in German schools and eventually to be enrolled in the German Army. Thus it was that in many cases homes were broken up and French families hurriedly sold their property at a great sacrifice and migrated in order that they might remain French and continue to dwell in the country they loved.

I really had no idea that German rule in Alsace-Lorraine was that brutal. I understand that Bismarck was totally against the annexation. Smart cookie that Bismarck.

He may have to wait a while

The Times 4 October 1917 p3

We are all familiar with Churchill’s soaring rhetoric from the Second World War but how do his efforts from the first time around compare?

Sadly, this is a report of what he said as opposed to a transcript but you get the general idea:

So now the weight devolved squarely on our shoulders. If we failed, all failed. If we held, all prospered. It rested with us to carry it out. Was there a man in this country who doubted our capacity to maintain and sustain the moral and military effort of the Allies against Prussian militarism until the weight of the United States could be brought to bear? We felt an assured confidence that we should not fail. But our confidence was shared by the Germans. (Cheers.) It was not for nothing that they were making these desperate efforts to strangle our shipping, to terrorize our cities, to drive our soldiers back in their remorseless and methodical advance. They knew where the vital point in the world struggle was. They knew that this island stood alone between them – and even at this last moment, even after all this struggle – and complete victory. They knew that in this island there resided the forces which were appointed from the dawn of history to frustrate that great evil and shield the world from its unmeasured consequences.

Not bad I’d say.

“Perhaps the advent of Bolshevik Government is a necessary evil.”

This quotation comes from an article entitled “Russia To-day”; not words one normally associates with accuracy:

Perhaps the advent of Bolshevik Government is a necessary evil. It may be an indipensable ordeal through which Russia must pass before the bulk of the people realize the fact that the Bolsheviks are the real counter-revolutionaries, who are doing their best utterly to ruin the country, and are working hand-in-glove with the enemies of Russia and the secret agents of the old regime. But we know enough about the Bolsheviks to realise that methods of peaceful suasion will never rid the country of ther evil sway. There is only one remedy against them. M. Kerensky indicated it when he asked General Korniloff to send a cavalry division to Petrograd “to subdue the Maximalists.” The proverbial “whiff of grape-shot” is the only medicine, and until it is administered in the proper dose the present situation will continue.

But of course it wasn’t.

There is a lot to get ones teeth into here. I mean there’s the obvious point that the Bolsheviks really did “ruin the country”. So, there’s at least one person out there in 1917 who could see the dangers of communism.

And then there’s Korniloff. At school I was taught that he was attempting a coup and that he had the “brains of a sheep”. I am beginning to think that in reality he was one of the good guys – or at least one of the less bad guys.

The Korniloff affair remains murky – see the Wikipedia page – but the consequence was clear enough: the army was no longer willing – and probably not able – to support the Provisional government. The correspondent here gets this.

I am not an expert on the ins and outs of the Russian Revolution. So whether the Bolsheviks and Okhrana were working hand-in-hand I have no idea.

I wonder what the “M” in “M. Kerensky” stands for?

The Times 28 September 1917

So what should we do about North Korea?

By “we” I mean the American government of course.

Let’s try some Q and A:

Does North Korea currently possess the means to destroy cities in South Korea, Japan and even the United States?
I’m guessing that’s a “no”. My understanding is that building a missile is one thing, building an atomic bomb another thing and combining the two really difficult.

If not, are they likely to acquire those means any time soon?
Well, they seem to have spent a hell of a long time just getting to this stage. So, it could be a while yet.

Were they to acquire them how likely would they be to use them?
I suppose the question here is whether or not the threat of instant nuclear annihilation would deter them. The point is that the Norks are atheists. They do not have a heaven to go to. They want to receive their rewards in this world. There is no upside to being nuked. So, they can be deterred.

Of course, I say they are atheists but their system of government is clearly a hereditary monarchy. Monarchies tend to have gods attached. But as yet (to the best of my knowledge) the Norks haven’t come up with a heaven. But when they do… watch out.

So, the best approach is probably to do nothing and let deterrence do its thing?
Probably. Of course, it doesn’t have to be the US doing the deterring. Japan and South Korea could do much the same, after they had developed nuclear weapons of course.

Getting back to this god stuff, the Iranians aren’t atheists are they?
No they’re not. And they believe in heaven. And they believe they would go to heaven if they nuked Israel. And rumour has it that the Norks are helping them with the tech. But my guess is that the Israelis have the means to deal with this threat before it becomes serious.

So, what you’re saying is that the US’s best approach is to do nothing?
Yes, I guess I am.

I would just add that it is remarkable how difficult smaller tyrannies find it to replicate 60-year old technology.

Government to ban Uber in London

In 8 days time.

Fuckers.

Lots of people – including some Uber supporters – saying stupid things.

Talking of which, I see Sargon of Akkad – he of This Week in Stupid – has been “unpublished” on Facebook.

What a shit day.

The ghastliness of the weak state

Bear with me on this.

I give you two examples from 1917.

Exhibit A hoarding:

The Times, 1 September 1917 p3


And now for the grim tale of Exhibit B (from The Times 8 September 1917 p3). To cut a long story short: a German gets served with a deportation order, doesn’t want to go and commits suicide instead. Oh, and he tries and fails to take his family with him. The suicide note is heartbreaking.

In the First World War, the British state started off weak and only acquired greater powers on a case by case basis.

In the Second World War, the British state was much more comprehensive and consistent. As a consequence neither of these two outrages would have happened. There would have been no hoarding because the ration system would have made it more or less impossible and there was no deportation because all German citizens were interned.

I would much rather this wasn’t the case.

On the idle hill of summer (1917 style)

On the idle hill of summer,
Sleepy with the flow of streams,
Far I hear the steady drummer
Drumming like a noise in dreams

A. E. Housman

Now, in 1917 you might not be able to hear the drums but you might – depending on the proximity between your ear and the ground – be able to hear the drumfire:

The Times 24 August 1917 p9. Right click for full article.

Just in case you were wondering 24 June was in the “lull” between the Battle of Messines and the Third Battle of Ypres or Passchendaele as it is better known.

The truth about Mother’s Day

Things I know about Mother’s Day: correctly Mothering Sunday, early in the year, ancient celebration, all about being nice to mothers and appreciating their efforts.

Wrong.

Mother’s Day is not Mothering Sunday. Mothering Sunday is ancient. Mother’s Day is modern. And American. Mothering Sunday has nothing to do with mothers. Mother’s Day does. Mother’s Day only really came to be accepted (in Britain) in the 1950s when it got commercialised. Confusingly, the British have chosen to hold both celebrations on the same day.

The first modern (British) Mother’s Day was held on 8 August 1917.

I always had my doubts.