Sunday, December 28, 2003

War and the Anti-Liberal Impulse in European Intellectual History

Following is a statement I made in response to a post on Brad DeLong's weblog, which I think is worth reposting on here for posterity's sake.

"Frankly, I don't think there was ever a really peaceful time."

Globally speaking, you'd be correct, but the thing about nearly all the conflicts between 1814 and 1914 was that they either occurred on the periphery of "civilized" Europe (the Crimean War), or in far-off outposts like South Africa and the then United States. Even the Austro-Prussian war of 1866 and the Franco-German conflict of 1871 were relatively short, decisive and bloodless by comparison either with the Napoleonic wars that came before them or the Great War that was to come afterwards.

All of the above considered, it is meaningful, even blindingly obvious, to say that hardly any Europeans alive in 1914 really knew what all-out war was like, even amongst the military classes.* The illusion at the time was that modern science had "solved" the military problem once and for all, and the war would "all be over by Christmas." Why not rush, then, to get a piece of the "manly" fighting action that was to be had, before the whole show was over?

I blame reactionary intellectuals like Hegel, Carlyle and Heinrich von Treitschke for the Great War and all that followed from it, as their poisonous formulations helped poison the minds of entire generations of Europeans that there was something decadent about peace and middle-class commercialism. Even when we look at individuals like Lenin, with his commitment to a revolutionary vanguard, or Hitler, with his belief in the importance of Great Men like Frederick of Prussia, Bismarck and (of course) himself, it is the same elitist, anti-rational, philosophies of violence and strength peddled long before by these men that we see being translated into political programmes.

*I don't consider colonial policing actions against outgunned natives, of the sort characterized by the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, or Kitchener's Sudanese campaign of 1898, to have been "wars" in the modern sense; "lop-sided slaughters" would be a more accurate description in my view.

To get a flavor of Treitschke's thinking, consider the following snippet1 by him:

… One must say with the greatest determination: War is for an afflicted people the only remedy. When the State exclaims: My very existence is at stake! then social self-seeking must disappear and all party hatred be silent. The individual must forget his own ego and feel himself a member of the whole, he must recognize how negligible is his life compared with the good of the whole. Therein lies the greatness of war that the little man completely vanishes before the great thought of the State. The sacrifice of nationalities for one another is nowhere invested with such beauty as in war. At such a time the corn is separated from the chaff. All who lived through 1870 will understand the saying of Niebuhr' with regard to the year 1813, that he then experienced the "bliss of sharing with all his fellow citizens, with the scholar and the ignorant, the one common feeling-no man who enjoyed this experience will to his dying day forget how loving, friendly and strong he felt."

It is indeed political idealism which fosters war, whereas materialism rejects it. What a perversion of morality to want to banish heroism from human life. The heroes of a people are the personalities who fill the youthful souls with delight and enthusiasm, and amongst authors we as boys and youths admire most those whose words sound like a flourish of trumpets. He who cannot take pleasure therein, is too cowardly to take up arms himself for his fatherland. All appeal to Christianity in this matter is perverted. The Bible states expressly that the man in authority shall wield the sword; it states likewise that: "Greater love hath no man than this that he giveth his life for his friend." Those who preach the nonsense about everlasting peace do not understand the life of the Aryan race, the Aryans are before all brave. They have always -been men enough to protect by the sword what they had won by the intellect….

To the historian who lives in the realms of the Will, it is quite clear that the furtherance of an everlasting peace is fundamentally reactionary. He sees that to banish war from history would be to banish all progress and becoming. It is only the periods of exhaustion, weariness and mental stagnation that have dallied with the dream of everlasting peace…. The living God will see to it that war returns again and again as a terrible medicine for humanity.

As you can see, I certainly haven't slandered the man in saying that he was an apostle of a ruinous philosophy that would lead eventually to the deaths of millions of innocents. Kaiser Wilhelm subscribed to most of the nonsense spouted here by Treitschke (on the outbreak of war, he even proclaimed "I recognize no political parties, only Germans!"), and the only thing original about Hitler's thinking was that he was the first elected politician to dare to turn such madness into real policies.

POSTSCRIPT: It has occurred to me that many might wonder why I leave out Nietzsche from my list of blameworthy intellectuals. Wasn't he also an advocate of strength and violence, an elitist and glorifier of war, and a proponent of "master race" theories? Could it not be said with justice that he was even the most important prophet of romantic nihilism in European intellectual life?

I don't agree with such claims about Nietzsche, as it seems obvious to me that he never meant to be taken literally as advocating racialism, war, Social Darwinism or anything along such lines. Nietzsche was neither an anti-semite nor a German chauvinist, and in any case his concern was with the problem of values rather than the political issues of his day. When Nietzsche wrote about "supermen" and "herd morality", he certainly wasn't agitating for the political rule of the strong at the expense of the weak, as did Carlyle, Hegel, and Treitschke (and Fichte, and Bernhardi, and an assortment of other German intellectuals too numerous to mention).

At most, I would say that Nietzsche was guilty of writing in a style too easily misunderstood by literal-minded individuals, and that if he is now popularly regarded as an apostle of racism, anti-semitism and ultra-nationalism, most of the blame should go to his sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who used his writings as a convenient vehicle for the popularization of her own peculiar beliefs. At any rate, one can find in this excerpt (again, by Brad DeLong) from William L. Shirer's "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" an eloquent summary of the customary chargesheet levelled against Friedrich Nietzsche by those who have bought into the identification of Nietzschean philosophy with fascism.

1 - Heinrich von Treitschke, Die Politik, as excerpted in Germany's War Mania (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1915), pages 221-223.