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The West wasn’t pregnant in August 1914, only constipated.
Rather than give birth to the future, it emptied its bowels of rancor. No disaster in world history was more predictable or longer in preparation. Robert Musil’s great novel The Man Without Qualities depicts Vienna’s elite in the months before the war, pursuing petty concerns unaware that their world was about to disappear. It is the great European anti-novel because its self-referential premise – the protagonists do not know what every reader knows – forbids an ending. There are no right choices because nothing can prevent this bubble of a world from popping. After Musil – meta-Musil, so to speak – comes the great evacuation. The novel is considered a masterpiece in the German-speaking world. Few Americans know it, and fewer of these can make sense of it.
As the hundredth anniversary of World War I approaches, we will hear endless variations on a lament for Western Civilization. All of them go more or less as follows: At the height of its prosperity, scientific discovery, and artistic achievement the nations of Europe inexplicably plunged into a mutual slaughter that prepared the ground for the greater slaughter of 1939-1945. That is simply wrong. Europe had done this sort of thing twice before, first in the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648 and again in the Napoleonic Wars of 1797-1814.
French casualties in the Napoleonic Wars were comparable to World War I in proportion to population. France lost between 1.4 and 1.7 million men under Napoleon out of a total population of 29 million. Men aged 17 to 49 typically made up about one-fifth of the 18th century population. The total military manpower pool of Napoleonic France was less than six million men, which means that casualties came to 23% to 28% of total manpower, more than in World War I. Vast numbers died from other nations; of the 500,000 soldiers in the polyglot army that Napoleon marched into Russia in June 1812, only 16,000 returned. The events of 1914-1939, Winston Churchill said aptly, were “a second Thirty Years’ War.” In fact, the first Thirty Years War was in some ways worse. It killed nearly half the people of Central Europe and emptied great swaths of Spain and France.
Beguiled as we are by the Enlightenment’s idea of progress, we play down the precedent for our own problems. In the enlightened reading, the Thirty Years War was a religious conflict, the last blood-orgy of medieval superstition, before the Age of Reason swept away the cobwebs of fanaticism. That is entirely false: after the initial, abortive revolt of the Bohemian Protestants against the Austrian Empire, the Thirty Years’ War became a Franco-Spanish conflict, fought by fanatics on both sides who believed that their nation was chosen by God to be his agent on Earth. It was a religious war, to be sure, but a war between two perverse, nationalistic readings of Catholic Christianity. The same ethnocentric megalomania impelled the nations of Europe into 1914.
War could have been avoided, to be sure, and devising scenarios for its avoidance is an historian’s cottage industry. These usually are lightly-concealed policy recommendations for the present. Even I have published a war-avoidance scenario, namely a German preemptive war against France during the First Morocco Crisis of 1906 (See Why war comes when no one wants it, Asia Times Online, May 2, 2006). The objective causes of war all are well known and endlessly analyzed. Germany had the fastest-growing economy and population, and its rivals countered its influence by encircling her.
- With a stagnant population, France could not hope to win back the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine it had lost to Germany in 1870 – or to win any future war-unless it fought soon. From parity in the middle of the 19th century, the German population had become half again as large as France’s by 1914.
- Germany could not concentrate its army on a crushing blow against France if it waited for Russia to build out its internal railway network.
- Austria could not keep its fractious ethnicities within the empire if it did not castigate Serbia. It could not grant equal rights to Serbs without provoking the Hungarians, who held a privileged position in the empire, so it could only suppress them.
- Russia could not maintain control over the industrialized western part of its empire – Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Finland – if Austria humiliated its Serbian ally, and Russia depended on these provinces for the bulk of its tax revenues.
- England could not maintain the balance of power in Europe if Germany crushed France.
None of the powers could go on without facing existential risk: in the case of France, a hopelessly weakened position against Germany; in the case of Germany, an eventual threat from an industrialized Russia; in the case of Austria, breakup of the Empire due to Slavophile agitation; in the case of Russia, loss of its Western provinces to the Teutonic orbit; and in the case of England, irrelevance on the continent and an inevitable challenge to its sea power.
There are a number of excellent accounts of the events leading up to the outbreak of war in August 1914, most recently Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers. Each of the combatants, to be sure, would have been better off declining to fight. But that would have meant forfeiting the claim to national superiority that motivated them. They fought, in other words, not because they had to in the strict sense of the word, but because of the kind of people they were. They were not thinking, as Evans implies. But what were they dreaming?
The Europeans fought the Great War of 1914 to avoid becoming what they are today. But like the man in the Somerset Maugham story who had an appointment with Death in Samarra, they managed only to postpone it.
It is still a scandal in Germany that its greatest 20th-century novelist, Thomas Mann, greeted the coming of the war with rapture. His “heart was aflame” at the declaration of war, and “triumphed at the collapse of the hated world of peace, stinking of the corruption of bourgeois-mercantile ‘Civilization’ with its enmity to heroism and genius.” Mann lauded Germany’s “indispensable role as missionary,” contrasting German Kultur to the mercenary Zivilisation of the West.
Mann had captured the national mood. Germany fought the First World War under the banner of Kultur. In 1915, 93 of Germany’s leading intellectuals and artists signed a manifesto justifying Germany’s war claims on the grounds of its cultural superiority. That is the nub of Hans Johst’s infamous line in the Nazi propaganda play “Schlageter,” performed on Hitler’s birthday after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933: “When I hear the word ‘culture’ I release the safety catch on my pistol.” This usually is taken to mean that the Nazis were boors, which is not true; Hitler was a painter, if a poor one, and quite the music lover. On the contrary, it expressed rancor at the unspeakable sacrifice that the old regime demanded in the service of its ideals.
Mann enthused about the aesthetics of war: the same qualities and attitudes inform art and war. Unsettling as that sounds, Mann was absolutely correct: art and war demand the same unrestrained existential commitment.
As I argued in a 2010 essay, that helps explain why Israelis so often play classical music better than anyone else. Not only did they inherit many of the best Central European teachers, but as a nation they are risk-friendly rather than risk-averse, and it is a sense of risk that informs great interpretations. “Und setzet ihr nicht das Leben ein/Nie wird euch das Leben gewonnen sein” sang Wallenstein’s cuirassiers in Schiller’s 1799 drama of the Thirty Years War: If you don’t stake your life on it, life never will be won for you. As Germany crumbled in 1945, Mann declared that German culture had come to an end. That is the point of his great postwar novel Doktor Faustus: the protagonist Adrian Leverkuhn, goes mad composing an atonal cantata whose purpose is to “take back” Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – to replace the ordered harmony of the European past with empty randomness.
Asians, who have embraced Western classical music in great numbers, may wonder why this magnificent art is neglected in the lands of its origin. The answer is that we of the West all release the safety-catch of our pistols when we hear the word “culture.” The optimistic, orderly and harmonious culture of pre-1914 Europe is redolent of loyalty to tradition, that is, the attitudes that led us into the trenches. We despise the culture because we abominate authority, tradition and loyalty, that is, virtues that Asians still cultivate. We abhor art that demands of us the recognition of higher authority – of genius subordinated to tradition and precedent – and prefer a levelling popular culture with which we can identify as supposed equals (see American Idolatry, Asia Times Online, August 29, 2006). But there is a dimension to Western art – its risk-friendliness, as it were – that most Asians will have difficulty understanding.
The distinguished Catholic historian George Weigel notes that in 1914 even the Catholic clergy “drank deeply from the wells of a nationalism that seemed beyond the reach of Christian moral critique. Thus when the College of Cardinals met in September 1914 to elect a successor to Pope Pius … the German Cardinal Felix von Hartmann said to the Belgian Cardinal Desire Mercier, “I hope that we shall not speak of war,” to which Mercier shot back, “And I hope that we shall not speak of peace.”
Weigel cites the German chaplain who intoned, “Rage over Germany, you great holy war of freedom,” and the Anglican bishop of London, who urged his congregants to “Kill Germans: kill them, not for the sake of killing, but to save the world; to kill the good as well as the bad.” Weigel thinks this malignant nationalism stemmed from the century preceding World War I. I disagree. The megalomania of national election motivated both the French and Spanish sides of the Thirty Years War. As I wrote in my 2011 book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too):
Not merely the temporal interests of the French state but the impassioned belief in the Election of France motivated Richelieu and Tremblay to prolong the religious wars of the 1620s for thirty years, killing a vast proportion of the population of central Europe… If the Thirty Years War was genuinely a Catholic-against-Protestant religious war, France as the most powerful Catholic country should have supported Catholic Austria. But the French could not abide the claim of the Austrian and Spanish Hapsburg dynasties to the imperial title and the claim to represent Christendom. France set out instead to ruin Austria and Spain and establish .
Like the French… the Spanish court believed that Spain was the nation chosen by God as His proxy on Earth. The monk and political theorist Juan de Salazar wrote in his 1619 treatise Politica Espanola that “the Spanish were elected to realize the New Testament just as Israel had been elected to realize the Old Testament. The miracles with which Providence had favored Spanish policy confirmed this analogy of the Spanish people to the Jewish people, so that ‘the similarity of events in all epochs, and the singular fashion in which God has maintained the election and governance of the Spanish people, declare it to be his chosen people by law of grace, just as the other was his elect in the times of Scripture . . . From this it is proper to conclude from actual circumstances as well as sacred Scripture that the Spanish monarchy will endure for many centuries and will be the last monarchy. “According to Stanley Payne, this reflected “a not uncommon attitude at court and among part of the Castilian elite.”
And further: “The unquiet urge of each nation to be chosen in its own skin began with the first conversion of Europe’s pagans; it was embedded in European Christendom at its founding. Christian chroniclers cast the newly-baptized European monarchs in the role of biblical kings, and their nations in the role of the biblical Israel. The first claims to national election came at the crest of the early Dark Ages, from the sixth-century chronicler St. Gregory of Tours (538-594), and the seventh-century Iberian churchman St Isidore of Seville.”
Saints Isidore of Seville and Gregory of Tours were in a sense the Bialystock and Bloom of the Dark Ages, the Producers of the European founding: they sold each petty monarch 100% of the show. One hardly can fault them. Transmuting the barbarian invaders who infested the ruined empire of the Romans into Christians was perhaps the most remarkable political accomplishment in world history, but it required a bit of flimflam that had ghastly consequences over the long term. The filth of the old European paganism accumulated in the tangled bowels of Europe until the terrible events of 1914-1945 released it.
The authentically Catholic vision of universal empire failed to assert itself over the more tangible claims of blood and soil. The Europeans did not fight the wars of 1618, 1814 or 1914 as Christians, but as crypto-pagans. That has been the contention of Jewish critics, from Heinrich Heine to Franz Rosenzweig and Siegmund Freud . Wrote Freud:
We must not forget that all the peoples who now excel in the practice of antisemitism became Christians only in relatively recent times, sometimes forced to it by bloody compulsion. One might say they are all ‘badly christened;’ under the thin veneer of Christianity they have remained what their ancestors were, barbarically polytheistic. They have not yet overcome their grudge against the new religion which was forced on them, and they have projected it on to the source from which Christianity came to them.
Men are immoderate. We are not as different from our fathers as we like to think. The childless, hedonistic Europeans of today are the same people who fought and died in their millions for king and country in 1618 or 1814. Anything worth living for is worth dying for; if we can think of nothing we would die for, it means that we have nothing to live for, either – like today’s Europeans. Europe learned at length that blood and soil, Kultur and Grandeur, were not worth fighting for. But Europe could find nothing to live for after it forswore the national gods of its violent past. It is dying of enervation and ennui, disgusted with its past and unconcerned for its future, unwilling to bring sufficient numbers of children into the world to ensure its survival for another century.
“Much has been saved,” wrote one soldier of the Great War, J R R Tolkien, but “much must now pass away.” Despite Hans Johst, European culture will not pass away: just as stewardship of classical Greek culture passed into the hands of Europeans, European art – at least its music – will pass into the hands of Asians.