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What caused the First World War? Part IV – right and wrong

[This is the text of a talk I gave on 20 March to the 6/20 Club in London. See also Part III and Part V.]

Part of the reason the origins of the First World War are so controversial is that for a long time the history itself was a matter of contemporary politics. After the inclusion of the War Guilt Clause in Article 231 of the Versailles Treaty, the German government spent a great deal of effort in attempting to vindicate its predecessor’s actions. In a similar vein the communist movement spent a great deal of effort trying to prove that it had something to do with capitalism and imperialism.

The very fact that the debate is still ongoing and still so confused makes me think that there must be something missing.

One thing that tends to be missing from the debate is morality (although as I will explain that’s not going to do us an awful lot of good.) What I mean by that is a sense of right and wrong. What is reasonable for a state to do and what is unreasonable.

This poses some pretty obvious difficulties for libertarians. Violence is wrong. States are the institutions that claim a monopoly of violence. Therefore states are wrong. But, so what? they exist. And not all states are the same. Some states do more violence than others and some states act more reasonably than others. Secondly, you are allowed to defend yourself and others. (At least, I think you are.) The problem is that if you are British in 1914 and wish to defend Belgians the only way you can do that is through the British state.

I should point out that Belgians were attacked in 1914. Whatever, you make think of the tales of German atrocities – I tend to think they were substantially true – German rule still meant all sorts of restrictions on every day life, a vast decline in living standards and the taking of hostages.

Another way of looking at it is to look at states’ liberalness. In 1914 the UK and France were the most liberal states in Europe, Germany and Austria slightly less so and Russia a long way behind (but still a long way ahead of what followed it). In 1917, America, a very liberal state, joined the allies and Russia exited the war. So, from a libertarian point of view the good guys, or at least the less bad guys won.

But were the good guys acting justly? Or less unjustly might be a better way of putting it. To the best of my knowledge, while the UK may have had the largest navy in the world it was not using it to deprive anyone of their freedom. Similarly, Belgians and Frenchmen were under attack and Britons had the right to come to their defence.

What about the French? Pretty much their only concern was Alsace-Lorraine. But from a libertarian point of view the only thing that matters is the freedom of the people of Alsace-Lorraine.

This takes us more or less immediately to the Zabern Affair. The Zabern Affair began when a German officer based in Alsace said some rude things about the locals. The locals got to hear about it and there were riots. It revealed to Germans that the army had a legally privileged position and that the Reichstag was toothless and to Frenchmen that their countrymen were, well oppressed is perhaps too strong a word – looked down upon might be better.

So what about Germany? In the Christmas truce of 1914 some British and German soldiers got talking and the conversation turned to the subject of the war. The German explained that they were fighting for “freedom”. To which the Briton replied, “I’m terribly sorry but we are the ones fighting for freedom.” You wonder how the German could think such a thing. I think it was related to the idea that to be a serious state you had to have an empire; a place in the sun. Whatever, it is it is not freedom as we know it.

As for the rest of them Russia was not going to be liberating anyone and if Germany was really worried about the Russians then first it should have made up with Britain and France and secondly, it should have waited to be attacked.

And then we’re left with Austria and Serbia. It’s difficult to pick a libertarian winner but my money’s on Austria. On the plus side it’s got waltzes, schnitzels, fancy uniforms and Ludwig von Mises. On the down side it’s just closed down the Bohemian Parliament. As for Serbia, the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 as with the 1990s had seen their fair share of ethnic cleansing but on the plus side in July 1914 they were holding an apparently free and fair election.

34 comments to What caused the First World War? Part IV – right and wrong

  • CaptDMO

    “This poses some pretty obvious difficulties for libertarians. Violence is wrong.”
    Historically perhaps. And I’m sure that looks good on paper.
    Quite frankly, I’ve yet to come across any folks calling themselves (L)or(l)ibertarian that would have any issue with violence, when all else fails.

  • It’s just poor word choice. It should be “aggression is wrong”.

  • Paul Marks

    In 1888 the brief Emperor Frederick died of cancer (having only reigned a few months).

    The last hope of German liberalism (before the economic miracle of 1949) died with him.

    From then on German policy was increasingly in the hands of the “Socialists of the Chair” (as Ludwig Von Mises and others called them).

    The socialist intellectual elite in Germany – not Marxist socialists, but state worshippers in the tradition of Fichte and other German philosophers.

    The new German Emperor had a decent side (he was not, at heart, an evil man) but his mind was dominated by the collectivist ideas that were dominating the German academic and political elite (closer in Germany than in any other country).

    With their dreams of European conquest and world domination.

    Both Britain and the United States (not “just” France) would have to be undermined for the goal of world domination to be achieved – but, in their terrible folly, the German academic and political elite embraced this objective – dreaming of colonies in South America and pushing the Hispanic world into war with the United States (in the hopes of then dominating both – after the dust, and dried blood, had settled).

    As for President of France said in 1914 – the German Declaration of War upon France was not just a Declaration of War upon France, it was Declaration of War upon the “universal principles of reason and justice”.

    The German Declaration of War (what should have been the most serious document a state can produce) even had France bombing Bavaria – the document was a tissue of lies.

    But this was more than a single document.

    As a philosopher the President of France was aware that the German academic and political elite rejected the existence of universal principles of reason and justice.

    They, the German academic and political elite, were relativists – historicists.

    Not just in their economics – but in their ethics also.

    Sadly these depraved ideas (denying the universal principles of reason and justice – rejecting human agency and natural law, natural justice), were spreading from Germany to all other nations.

    These ideas of evil (for relativism and historicism are evil) have proved much harder to defeat, than the armies of aggression unleashed by Imperial Germany in their unjust invasions of 1914.

    To prevent the coast of northern Europe being dominated by a single power (which would have doomed Britain – as even the first Queen Elizabeth would have understood) was one thing – to prevent collectivist ideas dominating university students was quite another.

    As for “freedom”.

    Sadly German Kantians (for all the faults of Kant) were the only German intellectual leaders who even believed in human agency by 1914 – and many of these Kantians were socialists in their economic opinions.

    The rest of the German “educated” opinion denied even the existence of human agency – holding that humans were slaves of “historical laws” (of racial or economic class type).

    The only “freedom” they offered was the same “freedom” Martin Luther offered.

    The “freedom” from shame and guilt – for if everything is determined (by “fate” or “historical laws”) then there is no point in shame of guilt.

    One can do the most evil things – and still feel good about one’s self.

    This is not a “freedom” worth having.

    It is a denial of individual moral responsibility.

    A terrible “freedom not to be free” as it was put in 1933.

    Nor was it recent – after all Frederick the Great had argued the same thing.

    He had been a determinist – and this is how he justified his wars of aggression, and his lesser crimes (such as forging Polish coins).

    None of it was the personal choice of Frederick the Great – it was all fate, all predetermined.

    Frederick the Great was to blame for nothing – as he had no real choice over any of his actions.

    I say quite openly that I wish the Empress Elizabeth had lived a few months longer.

    And that her Cossacks had ridden into Berlin and decorated the end of a lance with the head of the Prussian swine Frederick the Great.

  • Paul Marks

    Indeed I believe the “cult of Frederick the Great” in British and American thought was the first sign that something was going seriously wrong with the “intellectual classes”.

    “Protestant” tyranny is no better than “Catholic” tyranny.

    And blather about “science” and “progress” does not alter this.

  • JohnK

    I think in 1914 the Germans were fighting for the “freedom” to dominate Europe. Good job that never happened.

  • Patrick Crozier

    Violence. I think one of the strongest arguments for freedom is the moral one. It drives our opponents crazy. There they are thinking they are the virtuous ones and we go in with our size elevens and tell them in no uncertain terms that the basis of their beliefs is disgusting. Of course, it’s not the only argument – the idea that freedom creates better outcomes is also important – but it doesn’t get used half as much – a tenth as much – as it should do.

    So why is this? One of the reasons for this is that rather clumsy formulation about “initiation of force”. To my mind “violence” is much punchier. There is no doubt what you mean. OK, you then have to explain that you are allowed to defend yourself but I can live with that.

  • Matra

    Whatever, you make think of the tales of German atrocities – I tend to think they were substantially true –

    During the invasion and temporary occupation of Belgium Germans committed some of the most hideous atrocities of 20th century Europe. That’s saying quite a lot. The problem is that certain British newspapers (and possibly politicians) instead of sticking to the atrocities that actually happened made stuff up so that even 100 years later many (most?) people think the reports of war crimes in Belgium were just war propaganda. The truth is good in the long term. Right now Russia could have far more international sympathy in Ukraine if Russian state media hadn’t been caught so many times making shit up about crucifixions and the like. It means that even when Russians civilians are wronged or when Russia express understandable geopolitical concerns it’s easy to dismiss them given their track record of lying.

  • David Crawford

    What you wrote reminds me of the current discussion about Turkey refusing to acknowledge the genocide against the Armenians in 1915. No sane person denies it happened and yet the Turkish government still denies it. Unreal.

  • Regional

    Study how the Dutch, French, Germans and Belgians behaved towards the subjugated people in their conquered territories. The Germans were no different. Remember how the Europeans waged war on the Chinese to compel them to buy opium.

  • Nicholas (Self-Sovereignty) Gray

    Regional, the British did not compel the Chinese to buy opium. They fought a war to be allowed to sell it. And let us not forget that you could trade in opium in Britain at the time, so they were not being hypocritical.

  • Regional

    True, but it was considered a scourge.
    In this rural berg during the 1900’s there was a China town with opium dens frequented by the young bucks.

  • Regional

    There was a flourishing trade in cocaine between Australia and Java in the 1920/30s and Java supplied 1500 tons of coca leaves to Holland for processing into cocaine. The dogooders and Japanese stopped that but didn’t stop the flow of opium.
    Are you aware that Australia is a large supplier of opium for morphine?

  • Nicholas (Self-Sovereignty) Gray

    No, I am not aware. And what is a dog-ooder?

  • Laird

    “Dog-odor” is what you get when your pooch goes out in the rain. But a “do-gooder” is an officious busybody.

  • Nicholas (Self-Sovereignty) Gray

    I think you mean ‘dog-odour’. Here in Australia we are quite happy to spell english words with their correct French spelling, thank you!

  • Vinegar Joe

    Americans prefer the Latin “odor” to British pseudo-French.

  • Sorry, Matra the NeoSovs get zero sympathy from me. Putin is utterly evil and if there was any justice in the World the CIA etc would be doing everything in their power to termnate him.

  • Mr Ed

    Putin is utterly evil and if there was any justice in the World the CIA etc would be doing everything in their power to termnate him.

    I misread that as:

    Putin is utterly evil and as there is Eric Holder in the Justice Department, the FBI etc will be doing everything in their power to imitate him.

    Good job I read it twice.

  • Chip

    Here in Singapore the Art Museum is a former school and catholic orphanage. A plaque outside honors the donors who helped build the place, the first among them being opium companies. This was well after the opium wars in China.

    Incidentally, the Chinese authorities at the time didn’t give a fig about opium – they were incensed at the outflow of silver being used to pay for it.

  • Jacob

    “Incidentally, the Chinese authorities at the time didn’t give a fig about opium – they were incensed at the outflow of silver being used to pay for it.”

    They were incensed that too little of that outflow of silver was diverted to their pockets.

  • The Sanity Inspector

    The pursuit of Mammon has deprived that nation [England] of its senses. Can they actually believe that they can conquer a Germany which stands united behind its Kaiser with their soldiers who they pay ten shillings a week? Can they actually believe that?
    –Seaman Richard Stumpf, diary entry, 2 August 1914

  • British Empire; discuss.
    French and Spanish colonialism; discuss.

  • Discuss what Sam? How are those things particularly relevant to the Great War in Europe?

  • Mr Black

    “As for the rest of them Russia was not going to be liberating anyone and if Germany was really worried about the Russians then first it should have made up with Britain and France and secondly, it should have waited to be attacked.”

    This really is first class nonsense. Waiting to be attacked cedes virtually every military advantage to the enemy, except that of sitting on a moral high-horse with the international community. When nations feel themselves threatened, whether rightly or not, striking first has a pretty good track record of success, because of the afore mentioned “every military advantage” being on their side.

    I like libertarianism at an individual level, but it’s absolutely horrible and worthless when applied to nations and wars. It effectively boils down to letting yourself get stomped so you can feel morally superior when you’re conquered. If war is the right course for a nation, it is best waged to win, morality be damned.

  • Patrick Crozier

    This is a discussion about morality, so moral high-horses become important.

  • Mr Black

    It’s really a decadence of thought made possible only because of our vast military superiority over all our enemies. As we’ll never be conquered, academics can spend time ruminating over whether we fought appropriately enough for their tastes and I get the sense that a lot of those people would rather we lose by the rules than win by whatever it takes. But again, that kind of thinking is only possible because we’re safe from invasion and attack.

    People in a war for survival dispense with that nonsense after the first shots are fired.

  • Alex

    Leaving aside waiting to be attacked, if Germany were truly only concerned with its self-defence and territorial integrity it should have allied with Britain and France. It therefore follows that Germany was a principal aggressor, not just dragged into war as the popular modern interpretation suggests. I agree with Patrick that Britain, the US and France were acting in accordance with their liberal nature and that Germany was a ‘bad guy’.

  • Mr Ed

    Waiting to be attacked cedes virtually every military advantage to the enemy, except that of sitting on a moral high-horse with the international community.

    Had Germany waited 1,000 years in 1938, would Czechoslovakia have attacked? And Poland starting in September 1939?

    Germany shot first (again) and this time got Bomber Harris and the Mighty Eighth, and a million Red Army rapists on the rampage. So that worked out well.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Mr Black
    April 25, 2015 at 5:05 am

    Waiting to be attacked cedes virtually every military advantage to the enemy, except that of sitting on a moral high-horse with the international community. When nations feel themselves threatened, whether rightly or not, striking first has a pretty good track record of success, because of the afore mentioned “every military advantage” being on their side.

    The major advantage of waiting to be attacked is that it doesn’t get a country into unnecessary wars. If we look at the last 200 years, we can see many cases of nations getting into unnecessary wars with disastrous consequences to them. Peru and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific, 2nd Balkan War Bulgaria, WW I Germany, WW I Austria, WW I Bulgaria, WW I Turkey, WW II Germany, WW II Italy, and WW II Japan are cases in point.

    Cases of successful pre-emptive war are much rarer. The only one I can think of is Israel in 1967, and even that is open to dispute. (Whether it was pre-emptive.)

  • Paul Marks

    Waiting to be attacked is often a bad policy.

    For example the British and French did nothing to help the Czechs in 1938, just as they had done nothing over the Rhineland or Austria, – and with each successful attack the Nazis grew stronger.

    Had this country allowed Louis XIV, the “Sun King”, to take over Europe he would not have left this island alone – any more than Philip II of Spain would have.

    They would have used the full force of the resources of Europe to crush this island.

    Just as the Keiser would have.

    “But Germany could make the same argument”.

    Not truthfully – after all (for example) Russia did not want to be the enemy of Germany.

    The Keiser actually through away the alliance with Russia – much to the horror of Bismark.

    Germany made everywhere its enemy (France by occupying A-L and so on) and then complained that it had lots of enemies.

    This would be like me going around beating up everyone on this street, and screaming “you will soon all be my slaves” (basically what German academia was saying all the time), and then complaining that the people of Northumberland Road do not like me.

    What really interests me at this time of year is as follows…..

    No major military operation is easy – but the operation to take Constantinople in 1915 was relatively straight forward and had a real objective (knocking the Ottomans out of the war and linking up with the Russians).

    Why did the Royal Navy command and the British army command mess it up so utterly?

    What would Nelson or Wellington have thought?

    There in, I believe, is the solution to the puzzle.

    In the time of Nelson or Wellington (or Churchill’s ancestor the Duke of M.) one man had total control of an operation.

    True the consequences of failure could be nasty – as Voltaire put it “the English hang an admiral from time to time – to encourage the others”.

    But at least you were in absolute and total command of the operation.

    By 1914 what had come to pass was basically “command by committee” – indeed a series of committees, (both in London and in the field). With no one fully in charge – no one fully responsible.

    Also the nature of the British armed forces had changed.

    The navy of Nelson’s day was indeed based on “rum, sodomy and the lash”.

    But at least they were competent – hardened killers (lusting for loot, prize money, like the “scum of the earth” British army of the time – who did incredible things to take cities, so that they could rape and loot).

    The Royal Navy of 1914 were basically gentleman (even the stokers down below) – more likely to make a stranger a cup of tea rather than rape them to death.

    They were not savage pirates who defeated the Spanish Armada of 1588 – or even the price money obsessives of Nelson’s day.

    They (like the British army) were much nicer people to meet – but not nearly so effective as they had been.

    The little things – for example storing powder in silk bags (in Nelson’s day that would have been mocked – they inevitably leak and cause fire and explosions, powder was in sealed containers in his day).

    And the language – it would not even have been understood in the First World War.

    “Son of a gun” – NOT an American term, it was a Royal Navy term.

    It meant someone who had been born on a warship and slung hanging from a cannon as a baby.

    No wonder these men could fire more rapidly and more accurately than their enemies – something the Royal Navy could NOT do in 1914.

    And “show a leg”

    Do you know what that means gentle reader?

    It means exactly what it says – show your leg (over the side of your hammock) to show if you were a man or a women.

    Men being sent up the mast – women not.

    “But why would women be on a warship?”

    Oh for bleep’s sake – where do you think the “sons of guns” came from?

    It was not all sodomy.

    Ditto the army.

    The army command of 1914 were much more gentlemanly than, say, Churchill’s ancestor M. – who sacked and burned towns and villages to get the French and Bavarians to come out to fight him.

    A more gentlemanly command culture.

    But not nearly so effective.

    War is not a game – war is (has to be) savage and cruel.

    And, the horrible thing is, it is best conducted by people in touch with their “dark side”.

  • Paul Marks

    Without going too deeply into a “Star Trek” episode and pointing out that when “Kirk” is split into good and evil sides of himself – the good side does indeed have the true courage (the evil side is a coward – rejoicing in the suffering of others, but terrified that he himself may die), but the good side does not have the “power of command”.

    “What you have to accept is that your ability to command this ship is mostly in him” – as I believe “Dr McCoy” puts it.

    But that is a fantasy example – the real life one is more chilling.

    What did army and navy training schools (which did not even exist in the time of Nelson and Wellington – when officers “learnt on the job” the trade of killing people) concentrate, above all, on teaching?

    Was it gunnery? Was it the mathematics of the new scientific age?

    No it was “good character” – making boys decent Victorian gentlemen.

    If one’s trade is mutilating and killing people this form of education may not be entirely appropriate.

    Tom Brown may be very good at getting himself (and his men) killed – but Flashman is better at destroying the enemy (if only out of terror that they might kill him first) – by whatever low, dishonest, dirty tricks he needs to play.

    As General Patton put it.

    “I do not want men who are going to die for their country – I want men who are going to make the other bastard die for his country”.

    Have operations that actually have objectives – real ones.

    Not offensives on the Western Front (or elsewhere) that have no real objective at all.

    The point of things like the Somme is not only that they were disasters – it is that they did not really have an objective, what would “victory” have looked like? What was the military objective?

    It the military objective was really “attrition” – “kill more of them than they kill of us – or the same number because we have a bigger population and carry on longer” that this is a degree of evil far beyond the “evil Kirk” or “Flashman”, it is madness (insanity) and commanders who come up with that sort of plan should be hanged by the neck till they are dead.

    Remember war is politics by other means (and politics a dirty trade – I know), there has to be a goal (be it prize money or capturing an enemy capital – or something), not “we will walk straight towards the enemy guns in nice neat lines, and die, to show how brave we are”.

    O.K. you are very brave – now give me someone who will actually do something that I want done. And not a lunatic who is just concerned with “attrition” – which profits no one (and I used the word “profits” quite deliberately).

    Someone who will take a real objective (by whatever dirty tricks he needs to play) – and, yes, profit hugely if he takes it (so you liberated the Crown Jewels of the Ottoman Empire – lucky you!).

    And know that things will go very badly for him indeed if he does not take it…..

    Real battles are not won on the “playing field of Eton” (as the officers of the First World War were taught to believe) – Eton did not even have playing fields when Wellington went there.

    But the Eton of those days did have other activities….

    The ultra moral Christian gentleman of 1914 seemed to lose their morality totally – treat their men as toys to be thrown away, in heaps, in games (games with no profit in them).

    I suspect this is because they were not in touch with (did not understand) their own dark side.

    They hid from their dark side – and covered it a mist of words (even from themselves) so they could do things such as the second day of Battle of Loos or the offensive on the Somme, or the Pas offensive of 1917 – without really admitting (even to themselves) what they were doing.

    They hid from their own dark side so totally that (in a hideous irony) it came to control them far more than if they had faced it honestly.

    Such questions as “how do we profit from this operation?” are not shameful questions – and an officer who recoils from them in disgust (in the tradition of Plato) will not lead his men better – on the contrary he will lead them to disaster.

  • Paul Marks

    I have a friend in Ulster who is disturbed by the modern English way of speaking – the habit of speaking in such a way that no one (even the speaker themselves) is exactly sure what is being said.

    He calls it speaking via the “Heisenberg uncertainly principle” form of English.

    Wellington, Nelson and the others did NOT speak like that – they were clear and had command of the language.

    They could explain what they were doing and why they were doing it.

    In straightforward, literate, adult English.

    If a commander can not even explain what he is trying to do – please get rid of him.

    I do not care if the replacement is a greedy swine who wants half of Northamptonshire if he wins (knowing what will happen to him if he does not win…..).

    As long as he can get the job done.