Forgive me this rant… but I need to get it out of my system!
We are coming up in four years on the hundred year anniversary of an event that represents the absolute climax of patriarchal power politics, a world-wide doctrine of “us and them”, and the crashing failure of Western Culture, an event I think the world is still recovering from. I’m such a student of history and a lover of humankind and our cultural narrative of evolution that when I ponder this stupidly self-inflicted apocalypse, I am always deeply saddened.
If you haven’t already done the timeline math and figured it out, the event I am talking about is World War I, a five-year conflict that sewed death, destruction, hate, and mistrust throughout the world, and demoralized most of the progressive thinkers, artists and activists that might have otherwise been able to prevent some of the human cataclysms that played out in the remainder of the 20th Century, and got the 21st off to such a depressing start.
Metaphorically, like a person with a self-destructive lifestyle, the world developed an illness that caused its immune system to crash and allow it to be riddled with other contagions and cancers. Maybe in the fledgling 21st Century the human race is finally off the critical list, but we may be still another hundred years recovering.
From my reading of Jacques Barzun’s book Dawn to Decadence, and Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy & Hope, developments in Europe in the last half of the 19th Century and the first decades of the 20th exhibited the “illness” of patriarchal power-over “us and them” thinking. In national politics and economics, imperialism and colonialism ruled the day. Ironically, colonial possessions were not even a money-making proposition, but just a way for the major power leaders and the newspaper-reading populace, to indulge in the macho exercise (like a handful of men standing around arguing that “mine is bigger than yours!”) As an example of this, recall the boast that “the sun never sets on the British Empire”.
The patriarchal calculus was already well understood by the great political minds of the 19th Century. According to German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck in 1870, “A generation that has taken a beating is always followed by a generation that deals one.”
And in the years running up to the August 1914 beginning of the war, the diplomatic effort to resolve the conflict followed the patriarchal script as well. According to Quigley…
Instead of a discussion between gentlemen to find a workable solution, diplomacy became an effort to show the opposition how strong one was in order to deter him from taking advantage of one’s obvious weaknesses.
This sounds like macho posturing to me, and the major powers of Europe (and eventually the United States) backed it up by building huge mass armies and large navies of massive armored battleships, called “dreadnoughts and superdreadnoughts” in the parlance of the day. According to Barzun…
Both sides had plenty of reasons for arming to the teeth. England built dreadnoughts and superdreadnoughts as Germany watched the seesaw between armor and firepower and widened the Kiel Canal for access to the North Sea. France lengthened military service to three years. Everywhere “The Next War” filled news articles and common talk.
The competition between the powerful nations and the colonization of the third-world was egged on by the “us and them” ideas of “natural selection” between nations touted by the Social Darwinists and eugenicists, which included the belief in the superiority of the “Nordic” over the “Mediterranean” race and the even more inferior people of color in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
When I bring up the subject of WWI with friends, it seems the conventional wisdom (learned mostly in school history classes I imagine) is that the major players had all these interlocking treaties that forced them to go to war. When the Austrian Archduke was assassinated and Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, based on mutual defense treaties Russia, Germany, England and France had to join the conflict on various sides. Even if there were no compelling reasons for the war, and compelling reasons to try to avoid it, there was no real choice in the matter.
But from my reading of history, the whole damn thing was a war of choice. Every one of the major players entered the conflict willingly hoping to gain territory, avenge prior defeats, otherwise benefit, and also show its national machismo in the process. The intervention one way or the other in reaction to the assassination and the Austria-Hungarian response could just have as easily been a diplomatic effort based on the treaty responsibilities. But instead the players unleashed a military apocalypse they had spent decades building and planning for.
In July of 1914, just before the major powers of Europe issued their declarations of war, John Burns, working class member of Britain’s Liberal government said, “Why four great powers should fight over Serbia no fellow can understand.”
And most disturbing to me was the unanimity of pro-war sentiment among virtually all of the progressive thinkers, writers, artists, religious leaders, and other social critics and commentators, at least some of which could normally be counted on to put forward a counter argument. According to Barzun…
What is truly astonishing is the unanimity, unheard of on any other subject but the war and the enemy. Looking over the roster of great names in literature, painting, music, philosophy, science, and social science, one cannot think of more than half a dozen or so who did not spout all the catchphrases of abuse and vainglory… But not before 1914 was the flush of blood lust seen on the whole intellectual class… And everywhere the clergy were the most rabid glorifiers of the struggle and inciters to hatred. The “Brotherhood of Man” and the “Thou Shalt Not Kill” were no longer preachable.
And the macho blood-sport of it all is captured in this quote from the French General Marshal Foch, from September 1914, one month into the fighting: “My centre is giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent, I am attacking.”
I have read that the French military leadership persisted in a belief that their soldiers could charge enemy machine guns and not suffer horrendous losses if only their morale was high enough. This belief persisted even after many thousands of French soldiers were slaughtered in huge battles where nothing of consequence was achieved. What more can this be than delusional machismo?
I could go on but I think I’ll stop! I’m still not sure why this nearly century-old event pushes my buttons so. I guess it is just so painful to contemplate, as Barzun says, “The blow that hurled the modern world on its course of self-destruction was the Great War of 1914-18.”
It’s probably a bit of an exaggeration, but the Western World seemed to me willing to sacrifice millennia of cultural and ethical development (admittedly three steps forward and two back) in an effort to see who was the “top dog” with the biggest “huevos”. It feels like a historical low-point for my male gender, when with all our modernity we should have somehow known better.
Ironically, upon seeing the final draft of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, now Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Foch commented, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.”
Million of soldiers and civilians were dead. Much of Europe was in ruins. The major Western countries were all demoralized, bankrupt and missing a generation of their male older youth and young adults. Vengeance and festering anger ruled the day. Most progressive people, having bought into the war and failed to champion a peaceful resolution of issues, were likewise demoralized and offered little inspiration or guidance on a different path forward for Western society.
It was exactly 20 years later that Nazi Germany invaded Poland to start World War II. (So prophetic words from a man of power who understood all too well what the game was and how it was going to continue.)
One can easily make an argument that the Bolsheviks would never have taken power in Russia (leading to Stalin after Lenin and the whole Cold War Communist Menace thing), the Great Depression might have been averted, and Hitler probably never would have been voted into power in Germany if “The Great War” had not been indulged in by the angry father-figures of the world, with the greater public along for the thrill ride. How different a world it would be today if the conventional wisdom and path of least resistance of patriarchy had not been indulged in by the powerful fathers of the world in 1914 with all the grown-up “toys” of death and killing machines that an industrialized world had been able to produce?
Hope we learned something!