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1918: Everyone’s a statist

Much as I accept that the First World War was ghastly I believe it had to be fought. However, as I have followed events in “real time” as it were, I have had to reluctantly accept that to fight the war required a substantial increase in the size of the state. Conscription, rationing and a Ministry of Munitions, for instance, were essential. Even so, some extensions of state power are simply baffling:

The Times 30 March 1918 p2


It gets worse. While most people were busying themselves fighting the war, statists were making plans…

The Times 15 March 1918 p12

I love that phrase in the linked article about not liking coercion. I also note that no attempt is made to explain why state provision would be better than the private-sector alternative. It is simply assumed.

There was a lot of this sort of thing going on. While the cat is away the mice shall play, so to speak. One of the committees that sprang up around this time had a rather surprising member:

The Times 4 April 1918 p3

Many will know that Ernest Benn was Tony Benn’s uncle. Many will also know that he was one of the founders of the Society of Individual Freedom. The Society of Individual Freedom spawned a youth wing which came to be known as the Libertarian Alliance and the Libertarian Alliance to a large extent was responsible for Samizdata. As it happens Benn was, at this time, in his statist phase. He would soon learn.

14 comments to 1918: Everyone’s a statist

  • twinkletoes42069

    Recently read something by Peter Hitchens about daylight savings time – apparently that was a temporary wartime measure too.

  • …and the Libertarian Alliance to a large extent was responsible for Samizdata

    “Up to a point, Lord Copper.” 😉

  • WWII had a similar or even greater effect. In 1945, Churchill, basing himself on Hayek, warned against imitating the statism we’d been fighting – but lost the election. In 1951, after six years of experience of Labour making the post-war years more dreary than the war, Churchill only just got back into power.

    (It is often said Churchill lost the popular vote, but the gap is mostly an artefact of four seats being returned unopposed, so their votes were not counted, the last general election when that happened. But the margin was very close even so.)

    The sad conclusion seems to be that experienced statism recruits and blinds some even as it disgusts others.

  • Mr Ed

    Prussian war socialism infected the United Kingdom even as it was being throttled. Just as, 27 years later, the National Socialists’ identity politics would leave a toxic legacy, later to be seized upon by those purporting to be their foes.

    And what a superb quote from Ernest Benn, almost summing up Tony Blair in one sentence.

    “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.”

  • bobby b

    “I love that phrase in the linked article about not liking coercion.”

    Perhaps I’m being dense, but . . . what linked article?

  • Mr Ed

    bobby b

    I think if you click on the pictures, you might get a pop-up with e.g. 3 pictures with one showing and a ‘1 of 3’ arrow at the bottom, in a very faint type.

  • Patrick Crozier

    If you right click and the open in a new window you will get a full-scale version.

    @MrEd I used to have that quote on my personal blog.

  • CaptDMO

    See no connection between a country at war, and maintaining grain threshers, as well as housing for (presumably new, child rearing, couples)?

    Any confusion concerning any OTHER aspects of maintaining the foundations of the supply line to the front, as well as the essential “spirit” of those on the home front?

  • Patrick Crozier

    If you read the article you will see that the repairs are being carried out by private companies. So why is the government sticking its oar in. The government housing scheme is for after the war.

  • Patrick Crozier

    @Perry, my understanding is that Samizdata was born out of a chance remark on the LA email list. Also, IIRC, it main writers in the beginning had for the most part been published by the LA. My apologies if I have got that wrong.

  • Paul Marks

    Statism was on the rise, just about everywhere, from the early 1870s onwards. The First World War did start the trend, and countries that avoided the First World War, such as Sweden, are NOT less statist than us today. However…….

    It would still have been vastly better if Imperial Germany had not turned a Balkan War (there had been several Balkan Wars) into a general European War (which the German government did) – by Declaring War on both Russia (the infamous two letters delivered to St Petersburg – first letter we are declaring war on you because you are mobilising, second letter if you decide to demobilise we are going to declare war on you anyway) and France – the German Declaration of War on France in 1914 being a wild fantasy document that has the French bombing Bavaria and so on (they might as well have said the French were in league with the Emperor Ming the Merciless of the Planet Mongo – the Germans could have at least TRIED to make their lies believable).

    Then the Germans invade Belgium shooting civilians and burning historic libraries – the policy of “Terribleness” designed to humiliate the people and break them (the “atrocity propaganda” was, sadly, the truth about German policy in Belgium – and later in those areas of France that fell under their control, the civilian population were reduced to slavery working for the War Machine of their enemies and kept from fleeing to Holland by a electric fence designed to kill).

    The Liberalism of the Emperor Frederick had been rejected in Germany after his death (from cancer) in 1888 – his son, Wilhelm II, was filled with hatred and contempt for the politics of both his father and his mother (and treated his father’s death with such lack of grief that he shocked and disgusted Czar Alexander III of Russia – so much so that the Czar’s basic view of international politics changed). Kaiser Wilhelm II was not all bad (he had a gentle and decent side) and the medical treatment his father had supported (for his son’s withered arm) was both painful and humiliating (quack stuff) – but Wilhelm gravitated to all the WORST intellectuals in Germany, the “Historical School” economists of the universities, and the “Geopolitics” university intellectuals with their ideas that Germany must dominate the world. Even Bismark was too MODERATE for Kaiser Wilhelm II and he was dismissed in 1890.

    The desire for WORLD power led Germany to a deliberately anti American policy (even trying to stir up the Mexicans against the United States – contrary to what some libertarians believe, Woodrow Wilson was not “desperate to get America into the war” he was desperate to keep America OUT of the war – President Wilson tolerated actions (including the killing of large numbers of Americans – both on the high seas, and even some attacks inside the United States) that no other President would have tolerated – and he tolerated it for YEARS. Had America entered the war sooner than the First World War would have ended sooner – perhaps Russia would have been saved from the Marxist Revolution and the TENS OF MILLIONS of murders this led to – both in Russia, China and elsewhere. But it was not till 1917 that the United States finally declared war – and it takes time to turn a peacetime nation into a nation waging full scale war. American declared war in 1917 – but it was not really till late 1918 that the weight of the American sliding hill really started to be felt.

    As for strategy and tactics. By 1918 the debate on strategy between “Westerners” (such as Patrick) and “Easterners” (such as myself) was over – the collapse of Russia into Marxist hands made an “Easterner” strategy impossible. And the new Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Henry Wilson, was a “Westener” – but had a very different personality from Robertson (his removed predecessor) or Haig. Rather than looking down on people and sneering (or refusing to talk at all), Henry Wilson was a friendly man full of jokes (he even joked about his looks, which were the result of being shot in the face on active duty) and good humour. This really did matter – if Robertson or Haig asked for something the temptation was to tell them (in so many words) to FUCK OFF, because of arrogant way they conducted themselves – Henry Wilson asking (even if he was asking for much the same thing) was a different matter. “War is bigger than personalities” – sometimes it really is not, if you can not stand someone it is very hard to work with them.

    On the Western Front one can believe Haig that he was really in charge in late 1918 – or one can believe those who hold that Foch was in strategic control and Rawlingson and Plumer (especially Plumer) were in tactical control – I believe the latter, some people (who rely on Haig’s writings and the writings of the official machine he had influence over) seem to believe the former. But it does not really matter – as by late 1918 the manpower and resource advantages of the Allies were decisive. It may have been the Bulgarian surrender that officially gave Ludendorff (the great Warlord who dreamed of ETERNAL war – to establish a form of National Socialism over the world and to destroy the “slave morality” of the Christianity he despised) into the weird fit he had – but that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. What really undermined Ludendorf were German defeats in the field and (even worse) reading reports about just how much, in terms of men and materials, the United States could put into the field in 1919.

    German discipline was already cracking even during Ludendorf’s Operation Michael offensive of early 1918 – the offensive that was intended to defeat the British and French before the Americans could arrive in force.

    Private property (especially of enemies) meant nothing to the leader of “War Socialism” – but loot was supposed to go to THE STATE. In 1914 German discipline had been iron – no civilian had been murdered and no property looted without direct orders to do so (the Policy of “Terribleness” – had been a POLICY, not random German soldiers doing bad things because they felt like doing bad things). But in 1918 German soldiers (even the elite Storm Troops) fell to looting and plundering for THEMSELVES (not for the collective – not for the state). Some German soldiers drank so much stolen wine that in some places they were too drunk to advance, German officers reported that they would have to kill their own men if they tried to force them to move. And this was when the Germans were winning – in 1919 they would be losing and hopelessly outnumbered. Ludendorf feared that his whole army (and the artificial German state – only created in 1871) would collapse – with the Allies marching into Berlin by the end of 1919.

    Ludendorf believed that to safeguard the very existence of the German army and state (the same thing in his mind – after all Prussia was the “army that became a state”, borne out of the Teutonic Knights, and “German Unification” had really been Prussian conquest), a fake “peace” would have to be agreed – till Germany was strong enough to attack again. Any terms at all could be agreed to (after all those who are “beyond good and evil” do not care about breaking their word – and so can agree to anything with an light heart) – and civilians could be found to sign the papers anyway (and got rid of later).

    The tragedy was that even 1918 most Allied Generals and Politicians thought that the German academic and political (military) leaders were much like themselves – and they were not. Or rather only SOME of them were – for example Germans such as General Falkenhayn had beliefs and a personal code of honour that would have been understandable inside a British Gentleman’s Club – and there were many Germans like this, including (perhaps) most ORDINARY Germans (the people who, for example, went to Church and actually BELIEVED – rather than seeing it as a “philosophical metaphor”). But the “educated” part of the German elite were very different – very different indeed.

    If you had asked General Haig “what do you think of the work of the philosopher Fichte?” he would not have had a clue what you were talking about – and he would not have regarded it as an important question, and tried to move the conversation on to golf (not unreasonably – as Haig actually understood golf). But General Ludendorf would have been able to answer you – and to talk about the other philosophers and thinkers that had influenced him and the part of the German elite he was typical of.

    General Ludendorff and others were not people whose minds operated on the level of horse riding and golf – nor were they just interested in the scientific side of infantry and artillery tactics (although they were very interested in these things – far more so that Haig was), they also had profound political and philosophical ideas. Profoundly EVIL political and philosophical ideas – but profound ideas nevertheless.

    Unless one made the effort to actually understand the IDEAS that motivated the German elite (academic as well as military)then any attempt to deal with them was likely to end in failure – a “20 year truce” and another war. However, even Woodrow Wilson (an academic who had been educated in the GERMAN fashion – even though he had been educated physically in the United States) did not seem to understand German ideas at all – indeed he even made the crass (the absurd) error of thinking that getting rid of the monarchy and having a fully elected government would solve the German problem.

    Woodrow Wilson paid lip service to everything just being a matter of social evolution and so on – but he never really “freed” himself from the “moral chains of right and wrong” – there was assumption in him that there were objective and universal laws of morality. Woodrow Wilson might deny that in his (German style) academic work – but he never totally shook off the Christian world view (indeed he remained a believer – he did not see it as philosophical metaphor for the power of the STATE). Many of the German academic and political (military) leadership LIVED THEIR BELIEFS – ideas were not stuff to be put in essays and then ignored, not to them.

    Of course this did not apply to all the German elite – indeed there was a grim struggle within the heart of the German elite, a struggle being light-and-dark good-and-evil (with those who considered themselves “above” good and evil – being the servants of evil). But Westerners, even those who visited German, seemed unable to grasp the nature of the conflict (sometimes did not even notice it) – did not understand how vitally important IDEAS were for the Germans.

    Even during the 2nd World War such Germans as Admiral Canaris (head of military intelligence) thought of the world war as not the true war – but merely as part of a vastly bigger (cosmic) war, with the true enemy not being (say) Britain – but rather the National Socialists and the cosmic evil they helped serve (knowingly or unknowingly).

    “Why would Canaris work to make Franco REFUSE to attack Gibraltar or help the Germans attack it – did he not see that this would close the Mediterranean to Britain and win the war for Germany?”

    That question only confuses people who think in terms of “Germany” and “Britain” – not in terms of good and evil. For those who believed that the Nazis (like so many before and since) served EVIL – only one course of action was morally logical, even if it led to one’s own torture and death and the torture and death of one’s family and friends.

  • Patrick Crozier

    “By 1918 the debate on strategy between “Westerners” (such as Patrick) and “Easterners” (such as myself) was over – the collapse of Russia into Marxist hands made an “Easterner” strategy impossible.”

    Not that it stopped Lloyd George who wanted to concentrate on the Middle East, tried to browbeat Haig into stating that the Germans wouldn’t attack on the Western Front and starved him of troops.

  • Paul Marks

    War can indeed make the state bigger – but it is often the ruin of the state. Big and strong NOT being the same thing.

    David Lloyd George also starved General Allenby of troops Patrick – first promising him men and resources, and then going back on his promises. However, Allenby adapted – partly because the Middle East was more suitable to the style of warfare that both he and Haig had been taught (cavalry warfare), to be fair Haig he might have done well in the Middle East as well (we will never know).

    David Lloyd George had no confidence in Haig – and given Haig’s record over several years it would have utterly mad to have confidence in him. But the answer to that was NOT to starve the Western Front of men (for fear that Haig would just get them killed – as he had so often before), but to replace Haig. This David Lloyd George did not do – because the Prime Minister was a MORAL COWARD.

    “Back him or sack him” is a good rule – if you have no confidence in a General, get rid of him. Do not deny resources to the campaign.

    By the way I have some (some – at that time) sympathy David Lloyd-George on the Turkish question after the First World War (he took the same line as Gladstone had done – the forces of Islam “out of Europe – bag and baggage” including Constantinople and the great Church there) and I fully support Winston Churchill’s line on Russia – but the same mistake was made in both cases.

    All talk and little ACTION – only a token force was sent to Russia (enough for the Reds to scream “Imperialist Intervention” but not enough to make any difference militarily) and no force was sent to fight the Turks after 1918 at all – just talk-talk-talk (whilst the Greeks were being defeated and then the Christians kicked out of Asia Minor).