Observations on Anzac Day

Anzac day is when Australians and New Zealanders remember their casualties of the first World War and other conflicts. It has become a defining event for the sense of nationhood of the Australians and solemn commemorations are held all over the country. Sharing the same background (some ancestors on the English side of my family fought alongside the Anzacs on the Western front), I find it a great tradition to remember the horrors of that war. It is also an event that is fascinating as a social scientist. Some observations:

  1. A lot of the commemorations are state-sponsored via the Department of Veteran affairs. This department is running out of veterans to take care of, but has over the years increased its budget for commemorative services. It is actually quite hard to figure out just how many of the various ‘budget posts’ should be counted as commemorative, but at best guess we’re talking about half a billion dollars and rising. One of the reasons why Anzac day appears to become a bigger and bigger event as time goes by might quite simply be that it is a way for an existing ministry to spend surplus resources on its budget.
  2. The ‘message of Anzac day’ has changed within Australia over the decades to suit the morals of the day. I was at the Anzac celebration of the school of my kids, with military commanders giving the assembled quiet and disciplined kids the supposed reasons for why so many young men died in WWI. The story these kids were told was that the Anzacs died ‘for tolerance’, ‘mateship’, ‘standing up to bullies’, and more of those values we hold dear today. The kids were basically told to follow the social norms of current day Australia as a means of honouring the memory of the fallen of previous wars. I don’t have an inherent problem with this, but do note as a social scientist that such statements take liberties with the truth. At the time of WWI, appeals were made on the basis of ‘God, King, and Country’. In the intervening century, God and King have been axed from the moral appeal, but ‘the Country’ is still there. Also, tolerance and anti-bullying were not really a big thing in the 1910s when Australia was still a very ethnically ‘pure’ country and bullying was an institutionalised accepted reality in schools. Anzac day is hence a bit like going to church on a Sunday: every generation reinterprets the book of yesterday to suit the moral code of today.
  3. The ability of kids to imagine themselves part of a group that extends over the centuries but that they are not objectively part of is quite remarkable. At a guess, maybe 25% of the kids at the school commemoration will have had actual Australian ancestors involved in WWI, but they all somehow identified with ‘the Australians that went to war’, even if both parents were Chinese or African. It is simply an amazing thing how easily kids adopt stories of cultural continuity as their own even if that story has no real bearing on their actual personal histories. This imaginative capacity is not in any economic model I know, but clearly underlies our sense of identity and hence underlies important economic variables too, such as our willingness to pay taxes for ‘this country’.
  4. The ‘message of Anzac day’ is different in different countries. Where I grew up, i.e. Western Europe, a big message of similar commemorations was the pacifist spirit of ‘J’accuse!’, which was the historic quote from Emile Zola that was also the title of a French film in 1919. It means ‘I accuse’ and one of the characters in that film explains it to mean ‘accusing the war… accusing men… accusing universal stupidity’. We were told as kids that WWI was one of history’s most stupid mistakes started by leaders who get themselves into a mess because their pride wouldn’t allow them to back down, and fought by gullible enthousiastic populations who thought of war as something exciting. The message we were told was that people should not blindly follow their leaders, but should think for themselves and question the logic of going into conflicts just because the conflict exists. Interestingly, there is almost none of this pacifist message left in Australia, though perhaps it was there and has simply been lost over the decades. Indeed, the kids at the school I went to for Anzac day were told to be silent, obedient, and to take it on faith that Australian men lost their lives in droves for a good cause. There is hardly any mention in Australian commemorations that it lost the flower of its nation to a pointless mistake on the other side of the world, lead by foreign commanders (such as Winston Churchill) and not even by one of their own. I must say that I find it curious that Australians are not far more critical about the leaders they blindly followed into WWI (as well as later on) but make excuses to exonerate the mistakes of those leaders and allies, even when the populations of those allies themselves are far less forgiving.

I hence like the idea of Anzac day, but miss the pacifist message that WWI was one of the biggest f-ups of the last century and that we should think for ourselves and question the wisdom of following leaders blindly into battle.

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35 Responses to Observations on Anzac Day

  1. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks for the post Paul.

    You may not object to the total falsification of the reasons the Anzacs went, but I do. Such an opportunity to teach the way in which perspectives change over the ages, and so illustrate how in reality they really did die for nothing. A fiasco from the start and we should have been out of it. (Of course that’s quite unhistorical in the sense that we were always going to be going there with the Empire. But we’re back again, and it’s not our part of the world and it’s totally unnecessary for us to be there.

    I wrote the above para before reading your fourth point with which I strongly agree. I like the pathos of Anzac Day, but it’s pathetically mawkish when you contrast it to the kind of sentiment you report in Europe. Anzac Day was ‘politicised’ in the 1970s and 80s by femos wanting to march with the men to commemorate the suffering of women. Fair enough perhaps, but it was always a much more partial and ultimately less important point than the one that Anzac Day should stand for – which is that we should go to (almost) any lengths to avoid war.

    WWI was one of the stupidest wars, and certainly in ‘death adjusted’ terms surely the stupidest war ever fought.

    Lest we forget.

  2. Richard Green says:

    My earliest impressions of ANZAC day were formed by hearing Eric Bogle (namely No Man’s Land and The Band Played Waltzing Matilda) and that’s pretty much the sentiment that remains with me. The complete lie that is inanely espoused on ANZAC day that there was a cause to die for goes far beyond enraging me. It fills me with soul crushing despair. Why echo “lest we forget” when we have clearly forgotton.

    If we draw pride from the events of the war, let it be the fight against conscription and the failure to succumb to Hughes’ race baiting. The latter set the stage for a much better cause, one which the young men we lost could have lived for instead of dying for utter stupidity.

    I really hope that migrants aren’t enthusiastically taking up celebration through misplaced devotion to their new society. It was a lie in 1915 when it was said that adherence to the line was a sign of loyalty- it is a lie when it is an unspoken assumption now.

    [For the record, I know of no ancestors whom were in the war, it was between generations]

  3. Ken Parish says:

    I think there are mutually contradictory lessons to be learned from history. WWI was a fiasco from just about any perspective. WWII was the closest in the modern era to St Augustine’s “just war” notion, though its inception owes much to the European/American compulsion to screw the Germans into the ground in the wake of WWI.

    Then there’s Korea and Vietnam, which left-leaning apologists like John Pilger happily equate with WWI even though the subjective threat of communism at the time was pretty compelling for those who didn’t welcome the prospect of socialist enslavement.

    Then there’s Iraq, which even without the benefit of hindsight was a stupid decision (though one I cautiously but totally wrongly endorsed at the time), and before that Afghanistan. Should we have joined the Americans in Afghanistan? It’s beyond question that they were hosting terrorist training bases that eventually spawned not only September 11 but the Bali and Jakarta bombings which much more directly targetted Australian interests. Was there a better way to tackle Afghanistan than invading it? Possibly, and possibly attention to the USSR’s experience not long before might have told us that. But you’d have to be wilfully blind not to acknowledge that Afghanistan was (and remains) a drastic problem that can’t simply be ignored.

    Thus I think what we should remember and ponder on ANZAC Day is a lot more troubling, contingent and uncertain than either this post or either of the comments to date suggest.

  4. Nicholas Gruen says:

    To clarify my own comments – after reading Richard’s comment, I certainly think that Anzac Day is as it should be, a day of great mourning and respect for the terrible sacrifices of the troops. As for the ’cause’ of WWI – I agree with Richard.

    Ken,

    I can happily agree that someone should be fighting in Afghanistan. Why it should be us is beyond me. What help did we get in Timor? Our solidarity with the West to the ends of the earth is, well touching, but talk about coming down in the last shower.

  5. derrida derider says:

    Shorter Paul:
    – we can tell our kids lots of bullshit and they’ll believe it. This is a Good Thing.

    I agree with Nicholas that the mythologising is far from harmless. In fact it is so harmful that I think it well outweighs any redeeming features the day has.

  6. Fred says:

    [My Anzac Day reflections which have been posted on Dr Cat’s blog]

    There have been many good books written in recent years about WW1 and the Anzacs. One of these is John Hamilton’s “Good Bye Cobber, God Bless You” about the story of the men of the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade and their charge on foot at the Battle of the Nek at Gallipoli.

    Over a period of 45 minutes 4 waves of soldiers, 150 men at a time, attempted to storm an extraordinarily strong Turkish position. They were ordered to charge with unloaded rifles with fixed bayonets. The first wave of Light Horsemen were killed within seconds of leaving their trench by withering Turkish fire of at least 5000 rounds a minute. Three more lines went over the top, across the bodies of their dead and dying comrades, only to be instantly cut down themselves. 372 men died in an area about the size of 3 tennis courts.

    Nearly 100 years later it is hard to comprehend the concept of duty to God, King and Country that inspired such futile acts of bravery and which sent young Australians off to die in foreign lands.

    “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Yet our Government still sends young Australians to die in foreign lands.

  7. Paul Frijters says:

    Nick, Derrida,

    the reason I am not against much of the mythology of Anzac day is that every story of national identity I know has some historical fantasy in the background, including the myths of the Americans, the English, the Chinese, and, yes, the Dutch. It makes no sense to judge such lies on their truth: one has to judge such lies on their effects. Is a sense of nationhood, a common destiny with a shared ancestry and an explicit moral duty to keep the peace amongst the 20 million in this country (no bullying, tolerance, etc.) a good thing? I would say yes and as such I have stopped caring about the fact that you apparently need a whole set of lies to safeguard that good outcome. As psychologists keep reminding me, only depressed people see the world as it truly is. The rest of us need optimistic myths about ourselves and our groups to keep us going. It seems you two have simply not yet grasped that reality and its varied implications and are still angry at human nature for the lies we cannot do without.

    The lies that do irk me are the falsehood that the Anzacs died for anything but sheer stupidity, and the falsehood that the sacrifice of Australian men then and now buys Australia any browny points with the big Western powers. I agree with Nick and other that those lies are dysfunctional and should be opposed by those who know better.
    As to the war in Afghanistan, I agree with both Nick and Ken. Yes, war should be a last resort, but at the same time it is hard to see how the West could have avoided going into Afghanistan. Staying there is the less defensible thing, because it seems very improbable that a nation is about to be born there. Perhaps the west should simply do a deal with particular factions within the Taliban.

  8. James Farrell says:

    Thanks very much for this very thoughtful post, Paul.

    You’re right about the interpretation of ANZAC Day changing to suit the times, but it’s also the case that we’ve always been aware of the tensions. Of course, after WWI there remained a devotion to Empire that sustained the mythology that the diggers died in a noble cause. But there were always dissident voices and, even if there had been no Hitler, we would have to have learned to distinguish between honouring the soldiers and honouring the cause.

    Things became confused after WWII because that really was a just cause, and as far as that War was concerned we could go back to honouring those who fought and the reasons they fought in a single sentiment. But WWI veterans were still a big presence for another generation after that, so the two wars and their small common denominator (beating the Gerrries) got mixed up.

    Then came the fully televised Vietnam War, which brought home the horror and futility of war into ouu lounge roooms with huge force. This crashed head on with the jingoistic element in ANZAC day, producing confusion and cynicism that lasted another generation after that. Alan Seymour’s play The One Day of The Year was a product of that tension, if you haven’t come across it.

    Now we have a younger generation with no direct memory of any of these wars and very few with living family members who fought, but made highly receptive by popular culture to just about any sentimental message, however thin on content. The school assemblies feed this pretty uncritically. (My own critical attitude was hindered by the fact that my ten-year-old son contributed a very fine rendition of the Last Post on his trumpet at his school ceremony!)

    I share some of the discomfort of the above commenters, but no feelings of rage. Solemn ceremonies do force kids to consider the past seriously. What we need to do is educate them about history and inject some informed nuance into their serious reflections. (I wonder if it’s a topic in the pilot ethics course in selected NSW schools.)

  9. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks James,

    The other thing is that it isn’t hard to inject patriotism at the same time as realism and pathos into the sensibility of Anzac – as Eric Bogle does. We should go for some of that in our official ceremonies.

  10. Simon Musgrave says:

    The kind of reinterpretation which Paul draws attention to in his post is even exemplified there. Zola’s ‘J’accuse’ was his protest about the Dreyfus affair – it was directed against the French military establishment, but specifically against its anti-Semitism and the gross miscarriage of justice that had taken place. So between 1898 and post WW1, this slogan had been reinterpreted to symbolise any attack on militarism – ironic, given that Dreyfus was a career army officer, and that he re-entered the French army as a volunteer in WW1!

  11. Paul Frijters said:

    The ‘message of Anzac day’ has changed within Australia over the decades to suit the morals of the day. …The story these kids were told was that the Anzacs died ‘for tolerance’, ‘mateship’, ‘standing up to bullies’, and more of those values we hold dear today.

    At the time of WWI, appeals were made on the basis of ‘God, King, and Country’. In the intervening century, God and King have been axed from the moral appeal, but ‘the Country’ is still there.

    Anzac day is hence a bit like going to church on a Sunday: every generation reinterprets the book of yesterday to suit the moral code of today.

    THe last statement is anthropologically acute. Every nation needs a “social cohesion” day because “one day of the year” should be set aside to remind us that we are a team, of sorts. Of course what sort of team we are and what game we are playing will always change, depending on the vagaries of cultural evolution.

    The “national message of ANZAC day” is that it commemorates AUS’s sacrifice in WWI, the obvious primeval act of national self-identification. The blood of our ancestors was spilled on our behalf, to prove to other nations (most especially the UK Motherland) that we were a force to be reckoned with. Blood sacrifice is the mark of religious festivals. So ANZAC day is essentially a religious holiday.

    The “global message of ANZAC day” is that it marks AUS’s participation in the colossal 20th Century struggle to control German militarism. A struggle that went on and off for almost two thousand years of European history. (Ger-man is old French for “war man”).

    Almost all members of the ANZAC were aware of their role in this world-historic struggle. Most of their diaries and letters continually refer to the importance of dealing with the “Boche”, Prussian militarists, with their jangling spurs and rattling sabres.

    Its remarkable that so many intellectuals over-look this staggeringly obvious fact. (I am thinking of the knee-jerk derogation of the Day on macro at Fairfaz.) Its almost as if they are trying to ignore the obvious.

  12. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Or as Tom Lehrer put it “We taught them a lesson in 1918, and they’ve hardly bothered us since then”.

  13. Nicholas [email protected]#11 said:

    Or as Tom Lehrer put it “We taught them a lesson in 1918, and they’ve hardly bothered us since then”.

    At the risk of being a deadly bore, one I am always willing to take in pursuit of academic point-scoring, I think that Lehrer’s remark is a joke too far.

    “We” did not “teach the Germans a lesson in 1918” which is why they “bothered us” later on. The Armistice proves that “WWI” never really ended. Or rather, it ended in 1945.

    In 1918 the Reichsheer retired from the field in good order (The Kaiserliche Marine disgraced itself with the Wilhelmshaven mutinies.) Most returned servicemen felt that the Armistice “stab in the back” by “November criminals”. Germans citizens did not accept the notion of German war guilt and bitterly resented the Versailles Treaty terms.

    In any case, the distinction between WWI and WWII is contrived. The former was essentially a replay of the latter, apart from the Italians changing side. A difference that made little difference. Both wars were almost exact strategic replays of each other, except in WWII the revised von Schliefen Plan worked like clockwork.

    THe main difference between the two wars was that Hitler/Nazis were leaders of Germany rather than Wihelm II/Prussians. And Stalin/Bolsheviks were the leaders of Russia rather than Nicholas II/Romanovs. They turned world war into Total War, which made civilians the main targets for attack. (It was Stalin who put the most pressure on Churchill to conduct area bombing on German cities.)

    The Germans really learned their lesson from 1943 onwards, when German cities were razed, women folk raped and their state re-constituted. As Knopfelmacher mordantly remarked, “it knocked the bullsh*t out of them”. The “rubble women” rubbed the lesson in.

    The AIF showed up in both phases of the “War of the World”, essentially used as shock troops in British imperial sideshow campaigns in the Middle East. Both Gallipoli and the North African campaign came at the behest of Churchill. Undoubtedly this was a strategic delusion on his part. But one can understand his reluctance to engage in the colossal blood baths on the Western Front in WWI and the Eastern Front in WWII.

  14. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Jack,

    I’ll defer to your obviously greater knowledge. But you did at least save me from saying what you’ve just said – that the Schliefen Plan worked a treat in WWII.

    I presume when you say that “The former was essentially a replay of the latter” you mean the converse?

  15. Nicholas [email protected]#13 said:

    But you did at least save me from saying what you’ve just said – that the Schliefen Plan worked a treat in WWII.

    I said the “the revised von Schliefen Plan worked like clockwork”.

    The aim of the original von Schlieffen Plan was to knock the French Army out in six weeks so that the Reichsheer could devote its full energy to taking the steam out of “the Russian Steamroller”. Obviously the vS Plan v1.0 failed, as von Moltke (the Younger) lost his nerve and fatally weakened the right flank.

    I WWII Halder re-submitted essentially a dusted off version of von Schileffen Plan. But Hitler, like Churchill, did not relish another war of attrition. So in conjunction with von Manstein and Guderian he made a series of brilliant revisions to take advantage of the Wermacht’s Blitzkrieg capabilities.

    It “worked a treat”, I think we can all agree.

    Nicholas Gruen said:

    I presume when you say that “The former was essentially a replay of the latter” you mean the converse?

    I mean that WWII was a “replay” of WWI in a strategic sense, not in a literal historical sense. In both wars the German war aims, and main players, were the same. In both wars Germany aimed to avoid a two-front war by rapidly destroying the Anglo-French Armies, gradually wearing down the Russian Army and occupying Russian lands at leisure.

    In WWI they failed in the first object but succeeded in the second object. In WWII they succeeded in the first object but failed in the second object.

    Obviously, unlike WWI, the result of WWII was conclusive, largely thanks to Stalin’s utterly ruthless general-ship. We should give him some credit for sorting out the German military problem. But that is unlikely given our incorrigible sentimentality.

  16. Paul Frijters says:

    Jack,

    I agree with the nationalist identity part of your argument, i.e. the fact that countries need myths and particular days to uphold a sense of unity, and yes, the blood sacrifice bit is indeed very reminiscent of religious festivals. The Christ-theme of suffering and sacrifice followed by an obligation of the supposed beneficiaries of the sacrifice to ‘be good’ is very strong on Anzac day.

    However, I reject the ‘its all the fault of the Germans and we had no choice but to join in’ part of your argument. I am not an historian, but the way I was taught history was that WWII would probably not have happened without the treaty of Versaille (an opinion shared by Keynes who was intimately aware of the proceedings) which in turn only happened because the French insisted on humiliating the Germans, despite reservations on this point by the British and Americans. Hitler, French pride, British\American reluctance to stand up to their own allies, and the Great Depression (which swept Hitler, who before the depressions had been losing some of his appeal, to power) can all be cited as proximate factors of WWII. There was stupidity on many sides there. At least, that’s what I recall from my lessons.

    The outbreak of WWI too is not so easily put solely on the plate of the Germans. Sure, there is the famous German assurance to the Austro-Hungarian Empire that it would back that empire up should Russia intervene in its escalating conflict with Serbia following the assassination of its heir to the throne. But the war would equally not have happened without the Russians, French, and English playing their part in the alliance games (see http://www.firstworldwar.com/origins/causes.htm). The whole of Europe was in an arm’s race and several nations, including the Brits, the Russians, the French, the Australians, etc., were continuously fighting wars somewhere, including in the Balkans. Remember the Krimean war, the Boer War, the Japan-Russia war, or the Afganistan campaingn, or the many colonial wars in Africa around those times? All these European countries were militaristic and jingoistic, convinced of their own greatness. To blame the Germans for wanting a slice of the pie and not blame the English for protecting their over-sized slice of the pie is not really putting blame where it should lie, which is with the universal tendency of the elites and populations of those country to want their ‘place in the sun’ via conquest and military might. In that sense it was national pride, the desires of elites to hang on to their positions in society via their roles in the military, and hubris that lead to WWI, which I think is nicely summarised by the quote of J’accuse, i.e. it was the fault of men with our incessant one-upmanship and the fault of our universal stupidity. It was also universal stupidity and pride again that prevented a quick back-track after the first months of the war, when it became clear to the elites that quick victory was not going to happen.

    As to Australia’s involvement: it could have simply refused to join the carnage or to insist on making its own strategic assessments as to where and when to deploy troops. But oh no, the Anzacs had to die at the other side of the world for the pride and hubris of its allies as well as that of its own leaders who were overly keen to show how loyal they were to King and God. The Americans, quite wisely, didn’t join in at that stage and few now blame them for not doing so. Sure, one can point out that Australia was part of the Empire and America was not, but Australians too had their own elected politicians and could have chosen differently. But there was a war being fought by groups Australia felt it wanted to be close to, and it just couldn’t resist condemning its own young men to die on that altar. They died for universal stupidity, not just the German militarism part of that stupidity.

    Simon,

    yes, the J’accuse quote is not without its own ironies in the sense of the character of Dreyfus. Yet, I like to think Emile Zola would have approved of the later use of his quote, in the sense that Zola too accused a whole elite and a whole population-wide mentality for a bad outcome: he didn’t accuse a person but rather an amorphous group and basic human tendencies.

  17. Paul [email protected]#16 said:

    The outbreak of WWI too is not so easily put solely on the plate of the Germans.

    There is a reason that the word Prussian and militarist go together so often. The Junkers had some form in this department.

    The Germans were holding a smoking gun when WWI erupted. They created the means, motive and opportunity to commit the crime of the Century. THey had the means, the Wermacht, a military organization of unequaled size and efficiency. THey had the motive, an interest in crushing the French military and a desire to rule of the lands to their East. And they made the most of the opportunity, using the Austrian punitive expedition and Russia’s solidarity with Serbia to put into operation the von Schlieffen Plan, a plan that was required waging aggressive war on TWO fronts.

    If thats not enough to convince you of predominant German war guilt in WWI then nothing will.

    Paul Frijters said:

    However, I reject the ‘its all the fault of the Germans…There was stupidity on many sides there.

    The Germans must accept the predominant blame for the 20thC’s military holocaust. Thats not to say that other nations are blameless. But Germany was the driver of military hostility during the 20thC. If Germany had copied the other Great Powers and continued on a peaceful path of European defence (together with Asian and African imperialism) then its hard to imagine how the World Wars could have occurred.

    True, in aftermath of WWI its easy to point to folly on all sides. But when is there never folly in history? The Versailles Treaty may have been as wrong-headed and ill-willed as you like. But it had the support of democratic governments on the Allied side and it bore the signatures of democratic governments on the Central Powers side. Thats a better decision making process than 99% of what passes for governance.

    I take the actuarial approach to laying blame in history. When I see one party constantly associated with military aggression against its neigbours, from 1866 through 1945 then I am going to assign the largest risk factor to that party.

    On that score, the Germans bear most of the blame for the 20thC military holocaust. And is it any surprise that the actual Holocaust was a German-run operation? That should tell you something about military aggression risk-factors.

    (FTR I am a profound admirer of all things culturally German, including and especially their military prowess. Hell, I was in a relationship with a German girl for years. But there is such a thing as being too clever by half.)

    Paul Frijters said:

    and we had no choice but to join in’ part of your argument

    More over, once the UK saw its interest as siding with the Entente Powers then AUS had little option but to join the fray. First for political popularity, because raising an AIF to fight in the Great War was the strong democratic preference on both sides of parliament. And second for national security, our system of defence relied on collective security with the British Imperial defence forces.

    None of our Left-liberal historians even bother to mention these factors, which were of overwhelming consideration at the time.

  18. Paul Frijters says:

    Jack,

    you do not appear unbiased in your assessment. I am not German, have no German girlfriend, have no particular admiration for Germany, and all my ancestors were on the other side of the wars to the Germans. Nevertheless, I maintain that one has to blind to the reality of 1850-1914 to single out The Prussian machine for the epitaph ‘militaristic’. The Boer war of 1905 for instance, on which Australians also fought, had nothing to do with Germany and was in fact the conflict that has been credited with introducing concentration camps. The Japan-Russia war had nothing to do with Germany (‘militaristic Japan’ was actually on the side of England during WWI). Attrocities committed/sponsored by British soldiers on Indian civilians cost hundreds of thousands of lives. The 19th century implosion of China, partially due to encroaching imperial powers like France and Brittain, probably cost more lives than the whole of WWI and WWII put together. How you can possibly single out Germany for the giant share of the blame of militarism in the 1850-1914 era is beyond me.

    For sure, Prussian militarism gives a good reason to apportion some blame to the Germans for WWI, but to pretend that the Allied were peace-loving victims for whom war was only a matter of defense is absurd. The big European countries of that day were all war-mongering societies busy oppressing peoples all over the world, and WWI was an internecine tiff about the spoils.

    You are right that the war was universally popular amongst the allied populations and that Versaille was partially a democratic decision, which is exactly why ‘J’accuse’ includes an accusation against universal stupidity, not just German stupidity or the stupidity of the elite.

  19. Paul [email protected]#18 said:

    one has to blind to the reality of 1850-1914 to single out The Prussian machine for the epitaph ‘militaristic’. [insert long shopping list of imperial military misdeeds] How you can possibly single out Germany for the giant share of the blame of militarism in the 1850-1914 era is beyond me.

    You are misdirecting the debate from a search for the basic causes of the European continental war to a more general consideration of the nature of European imperialism. But these are two separate historical phenomenon which are only tangentially related.

    I do not “single out Germany for the giant share of the blame of militarism in the 1850-1914 era”. All that pre-WWI European imperial militarism may have been as bad as you like, but it had little to do with the German military drive to dominate the European continent. Germany developed its military forces for a continental war, whereas most European power’s were interested in colonial wars. Big Difference.

    Extra-European colonial wars were inherently limited and not all that bloody. Incomparable to the colossal bloodbaths of continental war.

    And it was Germany that was the politico-military driver of intra-European militarism. Germany was simply too industrialised and militarised for a stable balance of power. The unification of the German state was a phenomena of world-historical moment. Its industrialization proceeded with un-precedented speed. And then its militarization completed the picture. It totally destabilised the post-Napoleanic Congress of Vienna settlement.

    As soon as Germany’s rise was established (post-1870) the other European powers immediately started to sort themselves into security alliances, Ententes and so on. Germany’s was the prime mover of this militarization.

    And every thing about 20thC European history confirms that expectation. Thats why Germans are the Bad Guys in all those movies.

    Paul Frijters said:

    to pretend that the Allied were peace-loving victims for whom war was only a matter of defense is absurd. The big European countries of that day were all war-mongering societies busy oppressing peoples all over the world, and WWI was an internecine tiff about the spoils.

    With this we have left history and have entered the world of ideology, specifically un-reconstructed Leninism, with “war-mongering…oppressing peoples…WWI as an internecine tiff”. This theory has taken a bit of a battering over the past century or so.

    I do not “pretend that the Allied powers were peace-loving” countries. But their continental militarism was mostly defensive. Note that after Brest-Litovsk the Germans sought territorial annexation of Russian lands. Whereas after Versailles the Allies sought only a restoration of the Alsace-Lorraine status-quo together with reparations.

    The Allies imperial militarism was of course offensive. As proved by the way they used the Versailles Treaty to legitimise a blatant grab for colonies after the war. But the latter does not bother me much because imperial conquest bloody awful and had a civilizing effect on natives, who were no angels.

  20. Correction:

    because imperial conquest [was not so] bloody awful

  21. Paul Frijters says:

    Jack,

    we differ about imperial conquest. A dead Chinese, Latin American, Siberian, and African native is just as dead as an Anzac casualty and I find your sharp distinction between continental war and colonial war problematic. It creates the fantasy of clear boundaries whereas there were no such clear boundaries. For instance, was the immense expansion of Russia towards the East, driving all through the Siberian planes up to Alaska, not both a colonial expansion and a continental expansion? Was a similar drive within the USA not both continental and imperial? Was the Krimean war somehow not continental but imperial? Were the wars between the Brits and the Irish colonial or continental? What about the many wars fought by and against the Ottomans, both in the Middle East and in the Balkans? You make a sharp distinction between supposedly peaceful colonialism and improper bloody continental wars, whereas I see a continuum of wars by aggressive powers, one not noticeably better than the other.

    Your empirical assertion about the relative peacefulness of colonial conquest is IMO simply wrong, but the issue does admittedly hinge on whether you count the loss of lives due to internal civil wars that get started by colonial expansions. In terms of percentages of the world population lost though, there can be little doubt that WWI+WWII pales into insignificance relative to the conquest of the Americas or the colonialism-related famines in China.

    Hence, on balance, I think you are plain wrong about the relative peacefulness of the other European powers of that time, colonial or otherwise (though I agree that the populations being slaughtered in colonial times were not peace-loving natives either). Peacefulness was not a part of the ‘Zeitgeist’.

    I am not disagreeing with you that Germany’s expansion, for which, incidentally, the real push factor I would point to was the higher birth rates in Germany relative to the other places, was disrupting the overall balance of power within Europe, but that status quo was not a peaceful one by any means.

    I also find your rejection of ‘spoils’ argument strange. Did England not enter a naval arms-race with the Germans (a decidedly ‘noncontinental’ part of the war mongering) in order to protect its colonies and favoured trading rights? Did Russia not invest in large armies to partially protect its conquered lands to the East? Similar things can be said about France, Austro-Hungary, the Ottomans, etc. They were all enjoying territories (overseas and next-doors) that were only theirs via recent conquest for decades and centuries before WWI. You seem to want to apportion blame to the big country that arrived late in the colonial\industrialisation game and that aggressively wanted something more than it had, just like the existing powers, i.e. an empire gathered via conquest and regularly fought over with other powers. That’s like blaming the additional school bully for picking a fight over territory with the other bullies. Sure, the additional bully is a bully, but he is really only the same as the ones already there. The more natural thing to do in terms of assigning blame to the ensuing punch-up is to blame the whole lot of bullies for being bullies.

  22. derrida derider says:

    Oh Paul, I am painfully aware that most humans cannot bear very much reality. “Where there is no vision the people perish”, etc. I just think its a really, really Bad Thing and not to be encouraged – least of all in our children.

    I love Jack’s nerdiness on WWII. Dunno that I’d call Manstein’s revisions “brilliant”, though. They depended on Gamelin being a fool in his dispositions, and that foolishness was greatly encouraged by a stroke of blind luck – the capture (unbeknownst to ze Chermans) by the British of the original, unmodified plans. The Manstein plan was a very risky gamble (what if the Ardennes were as difficult for tanks as the Allies believed? What if the allies got wind of it and pre-empted with a flank attack? What if the French line on the Meuse held even for a few days?). Though a risky gamble is probably what Hitler’s strategic position required.

  23. Paul [email protected]#21 said:

    we differ about imperial conquest….You make a sharp distinction between supposedly peaceful colonialism and improper bloody continental wars, whereas I see a continuum of wars by aggressive powers, one not noticeably better than the other…I am not disagreeing with you that Germany’s expansion, for which, incidentally, the real push factor I would point to was the higher birth rates in Germany relative to the other places, was disrupting the overall balance of power within Europe, but that status quo was not a peaceful one by any means.

    Once again, let me re-rail the debate back to the original thread. You seem to think that I am interested in pushing some apologetics for European global imperialism. If pressed I probably could, but its not my main point. My main concern is to substantiate an accusation against German continental militarism.

    My basic point is that AIF participated in WWI as part of the British Empire, of which it thought itself an organic part. There was no possibility of AUS not joining the UK as it was both politically popular owing to ethnic loyalty to the Mother country and a strategic obligation to our imperial security guarantor.

    And the UK participated in WWI in order to contain German militarism on the continent. At no stage in the lead up to WWI were overseas colonies at issue. They only became an issue after the war, by way of reparations. All the points of contention related to long-simmering bones of European contention. Particularly related to German territorial demands or desires in France and Slavic Europe.

    Paul Frijters said:

    I also find your rejection of ’spoils’ argument strange. Did England not enter a naval arms-race with the Germans (a decidedly ‘noncontinental’ part of the war mongering) in order to protect its colonies and favoured trading rights?

    No, you really need to lose the Leninist theory of imperialism. Its was utterly discredited long before you were born. The empires cost more than they earned, which is why most Treasury’s were happy to see them go. Such benefits as they provided could be obtained by trade and investment with friendly states.

    The High Seas Fleet was not designed to “protect its colonies”. The Singapore naval base was constructedafter WWI, to curb Japanese threats to British imperial interests.

    The main British naval base was in Scapa Flow. It was purpose built to provide safe harbour for the British Grand Fleet operations against the German High Seas fleet. We know that the German fleet was designed to choke the UK’s trade routes because the Kaiser said so. This is surely a sufficient reason for the UK to join the Allied cause against the Germans, the latter was the only power that could bring the UK to its knees (which they nearly did, twice, through blockade).

    Compare that to the US, which has humongous naval bases all over the world, to protect its global interests. Pearl Harbour, Subic Bay, Guam.

    Paul Frijters said:

    In terms of percentages of the world population lost though, there can be little doubt that WWI+WWII pales into insignificance relative to the conquest of the Americas or the colonialism-related famines in China.

    I doubt it. You cant blame famines on the Europeans, they actually improved agriculture in the colonies. And the Americas were a pretty savage place before the Europeans turned up. The Atzecs were not exactly poster children for human decency.

    Paul Frijters said:

    You seem to want to apportion blame to the big country that arrived late in the colonial\industrialisation game and that aggressively wanted something more than it had, just like the existing powers, i.e. an empire gathered via conquest and regularly fought over with other powers. .. The more natural thing to do in terms of assigning blame to the ensuing punch-up is to blame the whole lot of bullies for being bullies.

    Lets agree that your “plague on all houses” theory is correct in appraising European imperialism. That still doesn’t let Germany off the hook bearing the primary responsibility for WWI. It wanted colonies just like the other European powers. But it did not want them overseas, in Asia. It wanted them overland, in Russia. In that sense there was a strategic continuity between the Kaiser and the Fuhrer.

  24. Yobbo says:

    Indeed, the kids at the school I went to for Anzac day were told to be silent, obedient, and to take it on faith that Australian men lost their lives in droves for a good cause. There is hardly any mention in Australian commemorations that it lost the flower of its nation to a pointless mistake on the other side of the world, lead by foreign commanders (such as Winston Churchill) and not even by one of their own.

    Things must have changed since I was at school then (1980’s). The message then was that the Gallipoli campaign was a colossal fuckup on the part of the English, were the colonial forces were sent to the wrong place and used as cannon fodder. The main myth was that we took it on the chin and acquitted ourselves well despite this, and in the process began to forge a national identity separate from Great Britain.

    As for the rest of what happened in WWI that was basically ignored.

  25. Paul Frijters says:

    Jack,

    I think the fault-lines between my position and yours are clear, and both positions are represented in the historical literature on this (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Causes_of_World_War_I). If you look at the actual time-line of the war, you wont immediately find a culprit. Russia mobilized before Germany, and Britain declared war on Germany first, though Germany was sooner in her declarations of war against Russia than vice versa, etc. The time-line of the preparations hence wont give you a clear aggressor-versus-peaceful-victims story. We thus both start from the position that we need to look at the wider context of WWI to be able to assign blame. We both agree that it was a time of increasing militarisation, overconfident nationalism, etc. We both agree that there was an inordinate amount of enthousiasm for the war on the side of the joining populations, which you excuse by saying it was democratically supported whilst I wholeheartedly call that enthousiasm general stupidity. ‘Lest we forget’ in my book also includes ‘lest we forget how much we supported going to war’. Democratic decisions can be stupid decisions too.

    In terms of colonialism, etc., I have to say I think you come up with things that are not relevant, such as that colonies were a net cost to most colonisers. This is irrelevant because my argument about the desirability of colonies is that they provided ego-rents, i.e. psychic spoils. You yourself also talk of protecting trade routes. I well know that, apart from the Dutch, most 19th century colonisers are thought to have economically lost from being colonisers.
    Also, you have pictured colonial wars to be either fairly benign and you seem in the last post to defend the military conquests of the Aztecs and the native Americans by referring to their savagery. You are surely not hypothesising that the European colonial powers amassed their empires because of a deep-felt wish to save the natives from themselves? I give these colonial wars as examples of the militarism of the colonisers and you seem to dismiss it via a sort of ‘they had it coming’ argument.

    You also made a big thing about colonial wars fought out on continents, later on redefining this to mean the European continent. I have given you several examples of wars that were both colonial, continental, and even European (such as the various wars in the Balkan by the Ottomans, the Austrians, and the Russians, who all had territorial claims and had occupied many territories for long periods of time in that region). To the list I already gave, I could add the Russian occupation of Finland\Poland, or the occupation of parts of ancient Greece by the Ottomans. Hence, at that time, wars in the Balkans basically were colonial wars.

    The really big dividing difference between us is that you insist on singling out the changes in the German regions since 1870-1914 as some kind of aggressive anomaly, against an imagined background of benign other European powers who were only reacting to German aggression. I on the other hand would equally point to the rapid industrialisation and military expansion of Russia in that same period, the implosion of the Ottoman Empire due to internal forces, the various military campaigns by the British and French that changed the distribution of the colonial ego-rents, etc., as almost equally momentous changes during that period that also fundamentally changed the balance of power and that lead to various land-grabs by non-Germans. You draw attention to the militarism of the Junkers, whereas I would equally draw attention to British militarism that had just amassed and consolidated a huge empire it wished to defend in that period. Hence I would blame the whole zeitgeist for the outbreak of the war, including the jingoism and pride of entire populations, whereas you seem to blame the same thing but only as you find them in the Germans.

  26. Paul Frijters says:

    Derrida,

    the issue of lies is a very complicated one. What do you think is the right thing to do for politicians and scientists if faced with the strong findings from within psychology that people cant handle the truth because they feel much better through rose-tinted glasses?

  27. Fred says:

    As Europe unravels, three royal rulers play toy soldiers with real armies, squabble over whose yacht is biggest, and write teary letters reminding each other that they are all descended from joint stock and so should really try to get along. Ruritanian touches abound.

    Histories such as “George, Nicholas & Wilhelm – 3 Royal Cousins and the Road to World War 1” and “King, Kaiser, Czar” suggest that family rivalry was a major cause of World War 1.

  28. Paul [email protected]#25 said

    If you look at the actual time-line of the war, you wont immediately find a culprit…The time-line of the preparations hence wont give you a clear aggressor-versus-peaceful-victims story.

    If you will look at who actually invaded who in the first instance, you will “find a culprit” or two. Austria invaded Serbia. Germany invaded France. Russia invaded Germany. I make that 2 out of 3 cases of Germanic aggression.

    Paul Frijters said:

    We thus both start from the position that we need to look at the wider context of WWI to be able to assign blame. We both agree that it was a time of increasing militarisation, overconfident nationalism, etc.

    Instead of “looking at the wider context of World War I to be able to assign blame” I would narrow the focus and look at internal governance mechanisms within the two most militaristic Great Powers. It was the absence of democracy in Prussia and Russia which was most damaging to the cause of peace. These Great Powers had not yet developed civic constitutions in the Anglo-Franco tradition. They were still run by military aristocracies which had a congenital militaristic bent.

    Even so, the Russians were definitely less keen on going to war. Nicholas II agonized over the decision and was particularly anxious to avoid a conflict with Germany. The Willy and Nicky correspondence is unbelievably poignant in the light of what when on afterwards.

    Paul Frijters said:

    We both agree that there was an inordinate amount of enthousiasm for the war on the side of the joining populations, which you excuse by saying it was democratically supported whilst I wholeheartedly call that enthousiasm general stupidity.

    I don’t “excuse” democratic militarism, I explain it. In AUS’s case this was obviously the “wild colonial boys” chance to prove themselves as worthy citizens of the Empire – a clear rite of passage to individual and national manhood.

    I have always argued that World War I was a civilizational disaster of the greatest magnitude. It substantially discredited the traditional Right-wing Caucasian-Christian-Constitutional establishment. For all their faults the old ruling classes created a culture of value. But they trashed it all in an orgy of militarism.

    Pretty clearly the worst offenders as militarists were the Germanic nations, as proven by the fact that they came back for a second go. Not to mention the breakneck speed of German militarisation, the smoking gun of the von Schileffen plan and the fact that Germany and Austria launched the initial invasions.

    Paul Frijters said:

    In terms of colonialism, etc., I have to say I think you come up with things that are not relevant, such as that colonies were a net cost to most colonisers. This is irrelevant because my argument about the desirability of colonies is that they provided ego-rents, i.e. psychic spoils.

    Perhaps the extra-European colonies were economically or egotistically beneficial to the imperialists or perhaps not. Either way, they were mostly strategically irrelevant  to World War I. The only power that picked up European colonies during World War I was Germany, after Brest-Litovsk. Which proves my point about Germany’s “territorial demands within Europe”. A phrase which crops up again and again when considering modern European history.

    Paul Frijters said:

    Also, you have pictured colonial wars to be either fairly benign and you seem in the last post to defend the military conquests of the Aztecs and the native Americans by referring to their savagery. You are surely not hypothesising that the European colonial powers amassed their empires because of a deep-felt wish to save the natives from themselves? I give these colonial wars as examples of the militarism of the colonisers and you seem to dismiss it via a sort of ‘they had it coming’ argument.

    I am not really interested in thrashing out the old “imperialism bad, independence good” argument again. European colonial wars are not particularly good example of militarism because most colonies were picked up without a big military fight between colonial powers. And most of the time the local natives did not put up much of a fight because they benefited from European rule. The Aztec example shows that some European colonial adventures had the support of local natives who preferred rule by the white man to tyranny by their fellow nationals. So viewing all pre-20thC Northern colonialism through the prism of 20thC Southern nationalism is not all that helpful.

    Paul Frijters said:

    You also made a big thing about colonial wars fought out on continents, later on redefining this to mean the European continent… Hence, at that time, wars in the Balkans basically were colonial wars.

    I did not “make a big thing about colonial wars being fought out on continents…redefining this to mean the European continent”. Thats your theory! My basic point is that the extra-European colonial rivalries had very little to do with the intra-European continental war.

    Your “World War I was colonial rivalry writ large” theory does not pass even the most cursory inspection. Most of the friction between colonial powers was within the Allied side, between Britain, France and Italy scrambling over Africa and Arabia.

    The only example you can give of Allied intra-European colonialism is Russia’s occasional forays into the Slavic and Baltic states. Let these be as bad as you like but they did not generate major alarm in the Central Powers. Most people thought “that was just Russia being Russia and don’t pay it any mind”.

    And of course the Balkan conflict works against your “plague on both houses” argument because here was a case of blatant Austrian aggression against Serbia, which was already co-operating to deal with domestic terrorism.

    Paul Frijters said:

    The really big dividing difference between us is that you insist on singling out the changes in the German regions since 1870-1914 as some kind of aggressive anomaly, against an imagined background of benign other European powers who were only reacting to German aggression. I on the -other hand would equally point to the rapid industrialisation and military expansion of Russia in that same period…

    Actually, in comment above you did concede in [email protected]#21 that “Germany’s expansion, for which, incidentally, the real push factor I would point to was the higher birth rates in Germany relative to the other places, was disrupting the overall balance of power within Europe”. This is something that I overlooked but again is an example of German virility (and fertility if you like) which so unsettled European neighbors.

    The “changes to the German regions since 1870-1914” really were an “aggressive anomaly.” The militarisation of the continent stemmed from the rise of Germany as a Great Power, in the aftermath of its unification. This completely destabilised the post-Napoleanic balance of power legitimized by the Congress of Vienna. The Germans managed to alienate all the Great Powers serially by:

    annexing the French province of Lorraine,
    angling for a colonial “place in the sun”,
    building a High Seas fleet to rival the British Grand Fleet and
    planning a war of conquest to take lands to the East at the expense of Russia.

    No other Great Power in the lead up to the Great War (1870-1914) had anything like Germany’s menacing posture and capability. Your failure to acknowledge the preponderance of German aggressive action and intent leaves you open to the charge of being an apologist for Germany in order to discredit the Allies.

    The sheer size of Germany and Russia led to the formation of the Triple Alliance and Triple Entente, the diplomatic entanglements which embroiled all Great Powers into the War. So really World War I was caused by the Prussian v Russian struggle for strategic control of the Eurasian heartland, an issue finally settled in World War Two.

    Of course Russia’s break-neck industrialisation and militarisation was always the greatest fear in the minds of the Junkers. So I will concede half-a-point on the issue of the” Russian steamroller”. Of course the fear of the grouchy Russian Bear would, like the fear of “Prussian militarism”, also become a recurring nightmare to European strategists. History repeats itself in both the Prussian and Russian cases.

    Paul Frijters said:

    almost equally momentous changes during that period that also fundamentally changed the balance of power and that lead to various land-grabs by non-Germans.

    The various “land grabs by non-Germans”made during the lead up to the War War I had little to do with the causation of that conflict. The Great Powers stumbled into War largely over fears of intra-, rather than extra-, European security. There was little sense of European crisis when the British went on their periodic punitive expeditions into the North-West of India. Which in any case was part of a Great Game played against Russia, as if that had anything to do with World War I!

    If the War was about colonial expansion then the fighting should have been in Africa, Arabia and Asia. The biggest fight outside of Europe was in Turkey, not its colonies. About the only Allied power that actually made a colonial land grab during the War was Australia (!) which took over Papua New Guinea.

    Paul Frijters said:

    You draw attention to the militarism of the Junkers, whereas I would equally draw attention to British militarism that had just amassed and consolidated a huge empire it wished to defend in that period.

    The British Empire posed little threat to the European balance of power. Its not as if the possession of India was a strategic dagger poised to plunge into the heart of Germany.

    Paul Frijters said:

    Hence I would blame the whole zeitgeist for the outbreak of the war, including the jingoism and pride of entire populations, whereas you seem to blame the same thing but only as you find them in the Germans.

    Its not much use “blaming the whole zeitgeist for the outbreak of the war”. Its a bit hard to clap the zeitgeist in irons when it comes to laying charges of war-crimes. Interesting isn’t it, that the word zeitgeist, always pulled out to excuse a multitude of sins, is a German construction.

    To the extent that the psychological intent of rulers played any role in the conflict it was to avoid general conflict. What makes the War even more tragic is that it was a paradigmatic case of “the unintended general consequence of intentional individual action”. The diplomatic record shows that, apart from Austria, the Great Powers were all most anxious to avoid a general conflict.

    In any case, the zeitgeist theory proves too much. To be sure from the latter decades of the 19thC it was clear that the whole European continent was primed for militaristic orgies , as the subsequent record of both reactionary and revolutionary violence shows. But some bits managed to avoid getting embroiled, Sweden and Portugal. Basically, the further away from Germany you were, the safer you were.

  29. Edward Mariyani-Squire says:

    Jack Strocchi @ #11 said:

    Every nation needs a “social cohesion” day because “one day of the year” should be set aside to remind us that we are a team, of sorts.

    I wonder who “we” refers to here. I’m not entirely sure that Turkish-Australians see it as a reminder of grand and noble team effort of which they could be possibly be counted as members. In my experience, Turkish-Australians bite their tongues when the Celebration of Australian Sacrifice comes around every year. Ironically, they avoid telling a different version of the story in the interests of social cohesion.

  30. Paul Frijters says:

    Jack,

    what a curious reply.

    Firstly, you have shifted a lot in my direction, calling the Australian participation a ‘rite of passage’ from the ‘wild colonial boys’ trying to prove themselves. I couldnt have put it better. In stead of blaming Germany alone (and I have always said the Germans had a lot to answer for), you now almost equally blame Russia. you also blame Austria (whom you say was the one exception to the rule that the ‘Great Powers’ wanted to avoid the conflict), you blame the enthousiasm of the colonial cowboys, etc. If I didnt know better, you and I actually agree on most points, apart from a few side-stories.

    One side story is that you still try to draw me into false debates, like whether colonialism was bad versus independence being good. This is not the time for that discussion (though I now suspect you and I probably agree on that issue as well, once we get over the distractions). The point I kept making is that the many colonial wars of the era show how bellicose the European powers really were, making German militarism seem much less of an anomaly. You now essentially agree, drawing attention to the fact that various supposed allies were fighting each other for colonies (France versus Brittain, Brittain versus Russia, etc.). Your own examples show how loose the various alliances were, which pours doubt over your earlier ‘Germany was the emerging threat that united us ever since 1871’ story.

    The second side-story you introduce above is that you disagree with the zeitgeist idea even though you yourself now drag in a lot of examples of what I am on about because:

    Its a bit hard to clap the zeitgeist in irons when it comes to laying charges of war-crimes.

    which is the whole point of the J’accuse quote and film: there was no single culprit to blame and put in chains. One couldn’t reduce WWI to individual responsibility. Your reaction is exactly that of the general in the film who wants to hear who is to blame so he can bomb the sh*t out of them. Hard to bomb basic human tendencies. Your objection though basically is an irrelevant one, i.e. you object to an explanation because you want to be able to put someone in chains. That means you dont want an explanation, but a scapegoat.
    The second bit of that quote is another ‘canard’:

    Interesting isn’t it, that the word zeitgeist, always pulled out to excuse a multitude of sins, is a German construction.

    what are you suggesting here? That the Germans sat around a table to excuse their sins via the making up of a specific word that would prevent them all from being led to prison? Anglo-saxons havent developed their own word for zeitgeist, but ‘sign of the times’ comes close, as does the thinking behind terms like the ‘swinging 60s’, the ‘roaring 20s’, etc. However, the whole zeigeist={a German word} thing is another complete digression that in a silly way singles out the Germans.

    Despite the fact that you basically now agree, you still come up with:

    The “changes to the German regions since 1870-1914? really were an “aggressive anomaly.”

    followed by

    [the unification of Germany….] destabilised the post-Napoleanic balance of power legitimized by the Congress of Vienna.

    The balance of power after the Treaty of Vienna was already dead and buried before German unification in 1871! The artificial Holland-Belgium country that that congress created in order to have a powerful Northern neighbour to France had already split into its constituent parts in 1839! The Vienna strategy of surrounding the french threat and preserving the divine rights of the Monarchs had already come crashing down with the revolutions of 1848, which including the beheading of the French king. According to the spirit of the Vienna treaty, that beheading should have led to a new invasion of France to reinstate some monarchy. The whole Vienna treaty really was a dead letter even before 1850! The notion that Europe was in a well-balanced position ‘legitimized’ by the conquerors’ fest of Vienna up until the ‘destabilising’ event of German unification is hence a pipe-dream. Where did you pick up this kind of historical revisionism? Its the classic kind of nonsense you expect from the memoires of some general who thinks he knows how to explain history.

    To then wrap it all up, however, you follow up this ‘Germany really was the big culprit’ section by

    To the extent that the psychological intent of rulers played any role in the conflict it was to avoid general conflict. What makes the War even more tragic is that it was a paradigmatic case of “the unintended general consequence of intentional individual action”. The diplomatic record shows that, apart from Austria, the Great Powers were all most anxious to avoid a general conflict.

    In any case, the zeitgeist theory proves too much. To be sure from the latter decades of the 19thC it was clear that the whole European continent was primed for militaristic orgies , as the subsequent record of both reactionary and revolutionary violence shows.

    which I wholeheartedly agree with and which to me is a statement perfectly in line with the ‘zeitgeist’ explanation of WWI. But, somewhat incredibly you then end with

    But some bits managed to avoid getting embroiled, Sweden and Portugal. Basically, the further away from Germany you were, the safer you were.

    which both untrue (Switserland and Holland were even closer than Sweden and Portugal but yet they also had no dealings with the war), and once again drags in Germany for special mention. Yes, Germany was militaristic, and yes, it (like Russia) had a militaristic elite, and yes, its growth in power did lead to other powers getting nervous about them (as they were nervous about a great many things), but that is not the only big element leading to WWI as you now yourself have agreed.

  31. Paul [email protected]#30 said:

    Jack, what a curious reply.

    No, what I say is more or less the conventional wisdom amongst historians. As opposed to those serving warmed-over post-seventies colonial theory spiced up with some clap-trapped Leninism. That dish will not win you the Master Chef of history award.

    Again, you ignore my basic point, which is that WWI was essentially about which continental Great Power was going to establish hegemony over greater Europe and its littoral, and how this upset the post-Congress of Vienna strategic balance. Only finally restored by the interevention of the USA and USSR and the establishment of the EU.

    There was essential continuity between Wilhelmine and Nazi German military strategies. Which in turn was caused by the out-size military and industrial dominance of Germany, together with its particularly militaristic tradition. This is the elephant in the living room which you continually tip toe around, afraid to startle it, lest it trample your lame attempt to lay equal blame on the Allies.

    What follows is a comprehensive refutation of your series of falsities, fallacies and follies, both of my views in particular and history in general.

    Paul Frijters said:

    Firstly, you have shifted a lot in my direction…In stead of blaming Germany alone (and I have always said the Germans had a lot to answer for), you now almost equally blame Russia. you also blame Austria (whom you say was the one exception to the rule that the ‘Great Powers’ wanted to avoid the conflict),

    Its blatantly false to say I have “moved a lot in your direction”. I did not “blame Germany alone” to begin with. I said that “the Germans must accept the predominant blame the 20thC military holocaust” on at least two occasions. I stand by that, as do most sentient European beings who have a “race memory” of German military aggression. You really need to be more scrupulous in your quotation practice.

    I did not “almost equally blame Russia”. I “conceded one-half-point” on the issue of Russia’s responsibliity for the wars opening phase in that I acknowledged that Russia launched the invasion of East Germany.

    But this half-point is not really decisive as it was Germany that craved Russian lands, not vice-versa. This was explicit in the von Schlieffen plan, together with the Brest Litovsk treaty, not to mention the subsequent behaviour of the German military in WWII. This pattern of aggression vindicates my argument that Germanic military strategy was the War’s prime mover.

    I did “blame Austria” alright because it falls under the heading of “Germanic nations”. Do I need to spell out how a certain individuals conduct substantiates that proposition? Austria was the most eagerly militant nation at the time. But it was mostly interested in local, rather than general, war. Germany, by contrast, had more general war aims: hegemony over Europe (“weltpolitik“).

    Paul Frijters said:

    you blame the enthusiasm of the colonial cowboys, etc…calling the Australian participation a ‘rite of passage’ from the ‘wild colonial boys’ trying to prove themselves. I couldnt have put it better.

    I do not “blame the enthusiasm of the colonial cowboys” for WWI. I simply explain that popular feeling was typical of national sentiment at the time. Germans were no different. But the problem was that German nationalism was a much more dangerous thing when linked to German militarism and industrialism which all Great Powers feared was an unstoppable force.

    I have never denied that the AUS populus was enthusiastic about the War. From the word go I said that the majority were totally behind Britain. Both parties supported the war effort because that was what the majority of their constituents wanted, not to mention men of military age. Thats why it was called the A.-I.-F. Get it?

    AUS’s participation in the War stemmed from top-down and bottom-up motives, as I say in comments above. The top-down consideration was the fact that AUS was effectively in the Imperial security alliance, with virtually all its arms designed by the UK and its navy provided by British shipyards. In short the UK-AUS alliance was essentially a preview of the US-AUS alliance.

    The bottom-up consideration, as outlined above, was the ethnic loyalty of “wild colonial boys” to the Mother country. This proposition should only be a revelation to those utterly ignorant of AUS’s federation culture. Which was British triumphalism, slightly tarnished by a colonial cringe and convict stain. The point of ANZAC was to erase the stain and replace the cringe with a salute.

    But of course most of the grass-roots ANZACs wholeheartedly agreed with their top-dogs: AUS’s participation in the war wa in our strategic interest, particularly in regard to the need to contain Prussian militarism which could strangle trade within the Imperial preference region.

    But AUS’s enthusiasm for war has nothing much to do with the general causation of the War. Apart from being a particular instance of the general rule that most populations were very nationalistic and therefore prepared to back their governments (whether democratic or autocratic) in military conflicts.

    Paul Frijters said:

    One side story is that you still try to draw me into false debates, like whether colonialism was bad versus independence being good…the many colonial wars of the era show how bellicose the European powers really were, making German militarism seem much less of an anomaly.

    No, I dont try to “draw you into many false debates”. You raised the red herring of imperialism. I am bored with that subject of colonialism as I consider Orientalism and “colonial theory” to be an embarrassing relic of post-seventies ideological foolishness.

    Whilst its true that “the many colonial wars of the era show how bellicose the European powers really were” to non-Europeans, this is irrelevant to the causation of WWI. Eueopean colonialism had been going on for hundreds of years without a general European war. Two of the greatest colonial powers – Portugal and Holland – stayed out of WWI. These facts refute your “colonialism = general war” theory.

    And Napolean did most of his fighting within Europe, mainly to redraw borders within Europe. His main extra-European military adventure was to assist the American rebels in their anti-colonial revolution.

    Its true that most European nations were all bellicose in one way or another. But colonial bellicosity was not all that strategically destabilising. It was directed at extra-European targets, mostly poorly armed native resistance in the colonies (“we have the Gatling gun, they have not”). But more often than not European colonialism was fairly peaceable compared to what went on before by the natives (Zulus, Suttee, Aztecs). Which is why many of the natives were happy enough with it.

    German bellicosity was strategically destabilising as it was targetted at intra-European targets, specifically the French army, the British navy and Russia’s tempting stock of material resources. It was Germany’s intra-European focus which rattled European strategists and forced them into the Triple Entente.

    Paul Frijters said:

    The second side-story you introduce above is that you disagree with the zeitgeist idea…because… there was no single culprit to blame and put in chains.

    Your theory of the militaristic zeitgeist is nebulous waffle since it fudges the issue of fundamental causation. The zeitgeist idea is the exact opposite of my “unintended consequence” explanation.

    Zeitgeist theory states that History has an explicit purpose to which all must must accept and somehow agree to. (“Freedom is the recognition of necessity” Hegel). Whereas “unintended consequence” theory assumes that history has no inherent purpose, that most parties have their own agendas and that tragedy often ensues when parties who might come to an agreement often come to strife through ignorance, imprudence or incompatible interests.

    Paul Frijters said:

    You now essentially agree, drawing attention to the fact that various supposed allies were fighting each other for colonies (France versus Brittain, Brittain versus Russia, etc.).

    I specifically denies that the “various supposed allies were fighting each other for colonies”. They were competing against each other, but it European competition for colonies rarely degenerated into military conflict. The “scramble for Africa” did not lead to German wars against Britain or France. In various comments I have consitently maintained the opposite:

    At no stage in the lead up to WWI were overseas colonies at issue. They only became an issue after the war, by way of reparations.

    European colonial wars are not particularly good example of militarism because most colonies were picked up without a big military fight between colonial powers.

    And to the extent that they did squabble over colonies, these were within the Allied Entente. Which of course rules out colonial conflict as a cause of WWI.

    Paul Frijters said:

    Your own examples show how loose the various alliances were, which pours doubt over your earlier ‘Germany was the emerging threat that united us ever since 1871? story.

    No, thats exactly the opposite of the truth. My “own examples show” how tight “the various alliances were”, since they managed to survive despite, rather than fail because, of conflicts over colonies. This increases my confidence in the theory that “Germany was the emerging threat that united” European allies “since 1871”.

    And of course the same strategic coalitions re-formed for the Great War’s second phase (1939-45), which shows the essential continuity of both episodes. The only exception to the tight alliance rule was Italy, which prevaricated and changed sides. But this distinction made little strategic difference, as I mentioned above.

    Paul Frijters said:

    The balance of power after the Treaty of Vienna was already dead and buried before German unification in 1871!

    No, the Congress of Vienna still had legs up till, and even beyond, German unification. General peace in Europe reigned for a further 45 years. Although the longer it went on the more it depended on individual brilliance (Bismark) rather than institutional resilience. Thus when Bismark left the scene the inertial tendencies of German militarism and industrialism gradually drew the Great Powers into contending postures.

    Belgium and Holland were of no great strategic importance, apart from being convenient highways for the Wermacht’s west-ward drives.

    Paul Frijters said:

    If I didnt know better, you and I actually agree on most points, apart from a few side-stories.

    No, we disagree fundamentally on the major point: Germany’s primary responsibility for the 20thC military holocaust, in both major episodes.

    Peace in Europe only came in the after-math of WWII when European national borders were re-drawn and provincial populations were shifted to re-store political equlibrium. The most important border re-drawing and population shifting occurring within the Germanic region.

    This restructuring of Europe was obviously super-vised by extra-European powers (USA and USSR) and consolidated by a new concert of Europe (the EU). But only after Germany had defeated and divided, constitutionally pacified and stripped of its offensive capability. What does that tell you about the strategic appreciation of Europe?

  32. Paul Frijters says:

    Jack,

    trying to draw me into an argument-by-attrition?

    You simply put up more red herrings I am afraid. I am now a Leninist and someone who equates colonialism with general war? That’s a deliberate misinterpretation of my argument that the colonial wars showed the general bellicosity of the times. Also, you sweep the colonial scrambles within Europe (i.e. the Balkan and even parts of Scandinavia) under the carpet in order to resurrect your original false position that the colonial powers were merely interested in subduing non-Europeans (including, apparently, the Boers), which allows you to say the Germans were the exception? Austria is now suddenly part of Great Germany? My my.
    You seriously argue that the wars between alliance partners in this era showed how strong these alliances were? Even with the Great Game played against Russia? What a bizarre argument. Also, you simply reassert a bunch of fables, such as the supposed legs on the treaty of Vienna after 1848 simply because there was no conflict as big as that of the Napoleontic wars until WWI, or that WWII was the unavoidable second leg of WWI. Whilst these are distractions in any case, they remain fables. Another distraction you come up with is that the European wars ended with the advent of the USA as the big superpower, with the USSR in close second, both carving out spheres of influence. Whilst I agree with the assertion that the post-WWII arrangements certainly put a lid on immediate further European conflicts, it is beyond me what that has to do with the advent of WWI.

    Yet, despite this curious collection, you basically agree with me on all the points I have been trying to make. You agree Australia was in WWI because of the support of its government and the enthousiasm of its leaders. You agree there was a general degree of bellicosity that generated enthousiasm and support for the conflict. You agree the war was not the result of the actions of the Kaizer or the Junkers, but even in your story the advent of the war needs the active participation of Austria, Russia, and the enthousiasm of all the populations involved. Where you and I appear to disagree is on the allocation of blame. We both agree it took a whole set of factors to get the outcome, we both agree Germany was a vital part, but whereas I regard the other factors as vital too you cant seem to let go of the need to single out the Germans.
    Let me just regurgitate here from your entries above just how much you really like singling out the Germans, mixing truth, lies, and something resembling unreasoned dislike in equal measure:

    The “global message of ANZAC day” is that it marks AUS’s participation in the colossal 20th Century struggle to control German militarism. A struggle that went on and off for almost two thousand years of European history. (Ger-man is old French for “war man”).

    The Germans really learned their lesson from 1943 onwards, when German cities were razed, women folk raped and their state re-constituted. As Knopfelmacher mordantly remarked, “it knocked the bullsh*t out of them”. The “rubble women” rubbed the lesson in.

    Thats why Germans are the Bad Guys in all those movies.

    Controlling German militarism is a 2000 year struggle? On that time-scale, you do realise that the English, Dutch, Americans, and many other European derivatives would also count as ‘Germanic’? Who is containing who then?
    Raping German women knocked the bullsh*t out of them?
    German Bad guys in movies proves your point?

  33. Paul [email protected]#32 said:

    Jack, trying to draw me into an argument-by-attrition?

    I am playing whack-a-mole with your slippery arguments.

    [ad hominems]

    Its also a good chance for me to define and refine my own arguments on what is, after all, the central problem of 20thC world-historical politics: namely the position and solution of the German question.

    [more ad hominems]

    Your basic argument fails because it attempts to deny the bleeding obvious, namely that the militarism of the Germanic powers was the primary cause for the Europe’s 20thC holocaust, both in WWI and self-evidently in WWII.

    Rather than engage in just tit-for-tat I will lay out my basic causal argument for Germany’s primary responsibility for the 20thC military holocaust (1914-45).
    [..]. As I have said, this calamity was obviously so world-historical in nature that it must have had a profound insitituional cause that transcended individual vagaries.

    Turbulent Germanic history: Major institutions only attain staying power after a long period of evolution. This goes far back into European history. The Romans always had great problems with Germanic tribes. Teutonic Knights led repeated invasions of Russia. Hessian mercenaries were always the most feared soldiers. As I said, Ger-man comes from the French word Guerre Man ie War Man. That should tell you something.

    Militarist state formation: The slide into general war only picked up momentum when the German peoples formed into a state in 1870. This unification yoked German provinces to the Prussian bureaucracy which was easily the most militarised in Europe.

    Military-Industrial complex: Germany rocketed ahead of the rest of Europe in both industrial production and military armaments. Not to mention science and technology, the key factors in making the war the most lethal in history to that time.

    Collective Security trigger: The huge German population, high birth rate and industrial productivity meant that no single state could possibly contain Germany. That meteoric rise of Germany to Great Power status triggered the formation of the collective security alliances that ultimately fought WWI. The concurrent formation of both German state and collective alliances is too striking a coincidence to ignore.

    Territorial conquest: Germany also conqured and annexed the Alsace-Lorraine region, which was the biggest sticking point with France. Its not as if Russia, Britain or France took away some part of Germany’s territories. Germany also long planned to annex Russian territories, which it did in the Treaty of Brest Litovsk. Again, no other European power made comparable territorial claims in Europe after WWI.

    Plan for Aggressive War: German strategists had planned a general two-front war for a generation. The von Schlieffen Plan was to wage aggressive, pre-emptive war against both France and Russia, together with a blockade of Britain. This plan was put into effect in WWI. No other European nation had anything like comparable aggressive mlitary strategy.

    Continuity of Strategy: The fact that German military history repeated itself in both WWI and WWII suggest that the underlying causes of both wars were the same: German militarism. The German strategy was exactly the same: destroy the Franco-Anglo army in an initial short campaign and then conquer Russian territory in a longer battle. The former phase failed in WWI but worked in WWII. Whilst the latter phase worked in WWI and failed in WWII. This pattern of aggression again points to the causal common denominator: Germanic aggression.

    Atrocities: No mention of Germany’s involvement in the war can overlook the special iniquity of Germany’s methods of waging war. It pioneered the use of poison gas, unrestricted submarine warfare and aerial bombardment of civilian targets. Its treatment of civilians in occupied areas was also brutal in both wars. This points to an underlying “anger management” problem for German people when confronted with resistance to their will. Which reached its violent crescendo with the extermination of untermenchen in WWII. True, the Allies committed atrocities, but this was only to win the war, not to destroy subject peoples or to permanently subjugate states.

    Extra-European intervention: General European war only stopped when the USA and USSR intervened to destroy the German military, occupy German territory and divide the German state. This was the explicit aim of the immediate post-war political arrangements, later solidified by NATO and Warsaw Pact. Obviously this points to Allied fear of resurgent German militarism, whether Junkers or Nazi, as the over-riding strategic consideration.

    All these facts point to the same conclusion, one agreed on by both popular culture and competent historians: that German militarism was the driving force in Europe’s 20thC bloodbath. It is amazing that you have to contort yourself into a grotesque intellectual posture merely to feed the endless desire of post-modern liberals to play the game of moral equivalence with disrespect to the British and French empires.

    […]

  34. Paul Frijters says:

    Jack,

    Please don’t go into the ad-hominem game. I do not appreciate being labelled Leninist, egg-head, post-modern liberal, etc. I dont mind discussing something with someone who doesnt share my view and I urge you to re-post whatever it is you wanted to say further in the original comment #33 above, but please keep it civil.

    Let me directly take on two main contentions here, one explicit, and one implicit. The implicit contention is that your theory that WWI is almost entirely to blame on German militarism is the consensus opinion of competent historians. You don’t quite say this, but you get close by saying it is an opinion ‘agreed upon by both popular culture and competent historians’.

    As I said before, I am not an historian and have been arguing mainly from remembered history lessons but I have re-examined the issue before posting the blow and answering your other entries. The more I dig into what current history is being taught and what historians in the last 50 years have said, the more names appear of historians on conflicting sides. If anything, the consensus seem to be what I say. Let me give two instances of easily accessible sources.

    The first is a web-site that is an aid to the English National Curriculum (http://www.historyonthenet.com/WW1/causes.htm) and that hence shows you what the kids of Australia’s allies get taught about WWI. What does it say about the causes of world war 1? It lists alliances (of which many are very close to 1914); it lists Imperialism (of which it for instance says ‘The amount of lands ‘owned’ by Britain and France increased the rivalry with Germany who had entered the scramble to acquire colonies late’); it lists militarism (of which it for instance says ‘he armies of both France and Germany had more than doubled between 1870 and 1914 and there was fierce competition between Britain and Germany for mastery of the seas. The British had introduced the ‘Dreadnought’, an effective battleship, in 1906. The Germans soon followed suit introducing their own battleships. The German, Von Schlieffen also drew up a plan of action that involved attacking France through Belgium if Russia made an attack on Germany. ’); it lists nationalism; and it lists crises. The site is typical and shows the kind of story taught in Brittains’ schools today. It is almost a carbon copy of what I was taught in the Netherlands some 30 years ago.

    The second easy-access source anyone can check (and change!) is the usual Wikipedia site (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Causes_of_World_War_I) which is unusually well-documented for a Wikipedia entry. As its reasons for WWI it lists all of the reasons mentioned in the above site plus ‘domestic factors’ as well as the general belief that it was important to be pre-emptive in the war, which means it matters who mobilises.
    Now, both sites are full of historians’ quotes and references, and I can pull up a 100 more from 100 more websites if need be. I find myself nodding in agreement with most of these websites on the first world war (though there are some that basically purport your line too). This hence either means that your theory of the singular importance of German militarism is not a consensus opinion, or else that my type of story is the result of some kind of post-modern liberal falsification that has gone on for at least 30 years and is still bedevilling open debates and teaching now. If you want to argue that possibility, you will have to make it explicit, because the majority opinion I can find is the one I keep giving.

    My second gripe is about your updated line of reasoning above: putting up a set of factors that purportedly hold for one region do not itself make those factors pivotal in any outside event: looking only at events in German history will not automatically give you all the reasons for the things that happen to Germany (it takes more than 1 to tango). If you hence wish to argue your list proves German unique responsibility, then you would need to tell the stories of the other regions in Europe. I can put up similar stories as the one you have for England, France, Russia, Turkey, Spain, etc. Specifically: is there any region in Europe that has not witnessed many wars in the last 2000 years? Is there any country that does not have a set of war-plans towards its neighbours (there are whole books on military plans Europeans countries had for each other)? Was there any big powers that did not try to expand? Etc. In order to claim uniqueness, you have to talk about the other regions. I already talked about many such things in my previous comments above.

    Also, your 2000 year argument begs the question what you actually think it is about the Germans that according to you makes them such war mongers. If it is genetic, you are up against the problem that many of the countries opposing it also count as Germanic because of the spread of Germanic tribes during and after the population movements around 450 AD. Should we all be contained now, vilified for using a Germanic language to write this discussion in? If you want to argue its cultural, you have to say what is specific and continuous about the German culture for 2000 years. That would seem hard because of its internal diversity and lack of cohesion. Apart from its language (which it shares with the Dutch, the Scandinavians, the Swiss etc. Are they all arch-baddies too?), its a region that seems to me to have gone through the same changes seen elsewhere, including religious movements, the enlightenment, movements from agriculture to industry, etc. If its just the Prussian empire (which was somewhat recent) then you cant argue your 2000 year analogy, but you should then effectively speak of Prussian uniqueness and typify it. Hence what is this unique German essence you deem responsible for its militarism that would not have been present elsewhere and yet was gotten rid off after WWII. Or do you think it is still there?

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