On the idle hill of summer,
Sleepy with the flow of streams,
Far I hear the steady drummer
Drumming like a noise in dreams.
Far and near and low and louder
On the roads of earth go by,
Dear to friends and food for powder,
Soldiers marching, all to die.
From AE Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad (1896)– a rural idyll shatteredby grim foreboding. If war was that obvious, why did it happen?
Much is said about the start of the mass murder called World War 1 or the Great War, but not so much about the mind-sets of the ruling establishments in Europe who created and perpetuated it. We hear about events and human interest, but little or nothing about the paradigms or conceptual frameworks of knowledge, assumptions and goals in which rulers thought, discussed and made fateful decisions leading to escalating savagery. How then can we prevent acts of barbarity in the future, if we don’t understand how or why ruling establishments and others make wars happen? So this is a short personal view into the minds of those war-makers.
Up to the start of war, European ruling establishments were under threat to their positions of power from the ruled. The threat was from the workers of the world uniting across national borders, since they had much more in common than they had with their rulers. Also unfranchised, under-franchised or ‘exploited’ people were getting more militant and organised as their demands were resisted.
International rivalries were also challenging the status quo and creating potential trouble-spots. Germany and the United States had already overtaken the United Kingdom in terms of productivity and average wages, but not in perceived world standing. Germany, led by the Kaiser and military, was also on a roll to continually increase armed power; Might is Right or Might makes Right were to varying degrees accepted wisdom in high places in the UK and Germany.
Stirring up trouble and making war were established instruments of foreign policy. Prussia under Otto von Bismarck had in recent memory systematically created a unified Germany and expanded its borders through threats and invasion. The UK had also recently provoked the Boer Wars as part of lucrative empire expansion. War was seen to work against the militarily weak and was acceptable to ruling establishments. Under these circumstances, rational decision-making was not readily tempered by thoughts of humanity.
European ruling establishments lived lives remote from the ruled. Their knowledge of reality was not empirically based, from personal experience, but rather from idealism, that is reality being a creation of the mind. Thus reality based on facts and humanity could be ignored, or modified to suit their aims (sometimes ruthless or inhuman); also without a ‘reality check’ ideas, theories, perspectives and resulting behaviour could in time become more extreme. Germany already had recent form in barbarity in colonial South West Africa (present day Namibia).
Ruling establishments were not readily subjected to democratic, legal or moral restraint or accountability. Manipulation, massaging egos and deal-making also went on in the opaque and exclusive worlds of the ruling classes. Thus war-making was the prerogative of a very few powerful individuals or cabals.
So there it was, not an environment for compromise, or displays of weakness or humanity especially from the worst offending ruling establishments; they were incapable of understanding the true nature of what their actions, declarations of war and invasions of peaceful countries, were about to inflict and, worse, they didn’t care much anyway about causing harm to others; in their eyes, Their ends justified their means including escalating barbarity and callous murder of the defenceless.
Wars are made by ruling establishments and others deciding that violence is acceptable and that the human price to be paid is worthwhile. As Rudyard Kipling noted their cynicism and denial of culpability in Epitaphs of the War, to a dead statesman (1919):
I could not dig: I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?
All conflicts are preventable. Enduring peace can be established, for example, if everyone heeds Louis Botha:
If we conclude peace, we have to do it as men who have to live and die here. We must not agree to a peace which leaves behind in the hearts of one party a wound that will never heal. I will do everything in my power to obtain peace.
Words that were true when said in 1902, true in August 1914, true but largely ignored in 1919 in Versailles and true today.