Margaret MacMillan's Reith Lectures: are (major) wars inevitable?

Malcolm Redfellow

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The next kerfuffle among historian pundits (and wannabes) ought to arise from the 2018 BBC Reith Lectures.

Yesterday, her preamble was in The Observer:

The past can show us how wars start, how rarely they turn out as planned and how difficult they can be to stop, much less end in ways that won’t provide fertilisation for future wars. Much has changed about war, but certain things remain constant.

Nations and the individuals who lead them fight out of greed, when they think they can wrest something – land, spoils or people – from another. Conversely, we fight to protect what we have and hold dear. Or wars can be about political ideology and religion, which can have many of the same features. Some of the most terrible wars we have seen have been fought in the name of making a perfect society. When you are creating utopia, existing lives are the price to pay for a future in which everyone is happy. Finally, wars are fought for the most basic of human emotions. Fear, for example, of what others might do. In 1914, the German high command felt the timing was good for war because by 1917, so they calculated, Germany would no longer be able to take on a rapidly strengthening Russia. Feelings about honour – maintaining it, defending it, showing it – have led to wars between countries, just as they do between gangs.
No: I'm not going to gloze her piece. Anyone who has reached here has the capacity to hotlink. In reading the second of those quoted paragraphs, though, I did wonder under which of the five categories we'd classify the guerrilla War of Irish Independence — let alone that little matter of the Irish Civil War.

Once upon a time the Reith Lectures — part of the Beeb's chartered commitment to inform, educate and entertain — were unmissable. Their significance has been crowded out by (one hundred and) 57 Channels (And Nothin' On).

I'm expecting MacMillan to make a stir.
 


Catalpast

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The next kerfuffle among historian pundits (and wannabes) ought to arise from the 2018 BBC Reith Lectures.

Yesterday, her preamble was in The Observer:



No: I'm not going to gloze her piece. Anyone who has reached here has the capacity to hotlink. In reading the second of those quoted paragraphs, though, I did wonder under which of the five categories we'd classify the guerrilla War of Irish Independence — let alone that little matter of the Irish Civil War.

Once upon a time the Reith Lectures — part of the Beeb's chartered commitment to inform, educate and entertain — were unmissable. Their significance has been crowded out by (one hundred and) 57 Channels (And Nothin' On).

I'm expecting MacMillan to make a stir.
I think Baron Jomini covered all this already....
STATESMANSHIP IN ITS RELATION TO WAR.

Under this head are included those considerations from which a statesman concludes whether a war is proper, opportune, or indispensable, and determines the various operations necessary to attain the object of the war.
A government goes to war,—
To reclaim certain rights or to defend them;
To protect and maintain the great interests of the state, as commerce, manufactures, or agriculture;
To uphold neighboring states whose existence is necessary either for the safety of the government or the balance of power;
To fulfill the obligations of offensive and defensive alliances;
To propagate political or religious theories, to crush them out, or to defend them;
To increase the influence and power of the state by acquisitions of territory;
To defend the threatened independence of the state;
To avenge insulted honor; or,
From a mania for conquest.
It may be remarked that these different kinds of war influence in some degree the nature and extent of the efforts and operations necessary for the proposed end. The party who has provoked the war may be reduced to the defensive, and the party assailed may assume the offensive; and there
[Pg 15]
may be other circumstances which will affect the nature and conduct of a war, as,—
1. A state may simply make war against another state.
2. A state may make war against several states in alliance with each other.
3. A state in alliance with another may make war upon a single enemy.
4. A state may be either the principal party or an auxiliary.
5. In the latter case a state may join in the struggle at its beginning or after it has commenced.
6. The theater of war may be upon the soil of the enemy, upon that of an ally, or upon its own.
7. If the war be one of invasion, it may be upon adjacent or distant territory: it may be prudent and cautious, or it may be bold and adventurous.
8. It may be a national war, either against ourselves or against the enemy.
9. The war may be a civil or a religious war.
War is always to be conducted according to the great principles of the art; but great discretion must be exercised in the nature of the operations to be undertaken, which should depend upon the circumstances of the case.
The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Art of War, by Baron De Jomini.
 

gleeful

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Nuclear weapons keep the peace. The reason is simple, and fixs with Macmillians's theory. With M.A.D there are no spoils to gain.
 

Catalpast

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Nuclear weapons keep the peace. The reason is simple, and fixs with Macmillians's theory. With M.A.D there are no spoils to gain.
They keep the Peace between the Major Powers

Other than Korea 1950-53 there have been no face to face battles between them

- and China was not a Nuclear Power at the time

But 'proxy wars' there have been quite a few
 

gleeful

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They keep the Peace between the Major Powers

Other than Korea 1950-53 there have been no face to face battles between them

- and China was not a Nuclear Power at the time

But 'proxy wars' there have been quite a few
The obvious solution to proxy wars is nuclear proliferation. If Iran had nukes the middle east would be safer - both the Saudis and the Israelis would be more contained by a nuclear Iran, and the US would have to negotiate.
 

Malcolm Redfellow

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I think Baron Jomini covered all this already....
Jomini can be a hoot — deliberately so, since he aims for a populist style as opposed to ponderous Germanism. He was a French-Swiss of Napoleonic bent (sic), and various allegiances, who expends remarkable effort doing down that 'horrible 'Un, Clausewitz:
One cannot deny to General Clausewitz great learning and a facile pen; but this pen, at times a little vagrant, is above all too pretentious for a didactic discussion, the simplicity and clearness of which ought to be its first merit. Besides that, the author shows himself by far too skeptical in point of military science; his first volume is but a declamation against all theory of war, whilst the two succeeding volumes, full of theoretic maxims, proves that the author believes in the efficacy of his own doctrines, if he does not believe in those of others.
Jomini's greatest hit was to be the prime study of West Pointers in the run-up to the American Civil War. And didn't that go well?
 

rainmaker

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I blame the British for the first World War
Yes, but then you blame the British for WW2 as well. In fact you blame the British for almost everything.

Must be nice to have a scapegoat to blame all the wrongs of the world on, however bizarre the logic :roll:
 

APettigrew92

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Nuclear weapons keep the peace. The reason is simple, and fixs with Macmillians's theory. With M.A.D there are no spoils to gain.
Economics keep the peace. European economies are so heavily integrated that there would be no effective way for one nation to wage war on another without risking immediate impoverishment and ruin. Think of the Austro-Hungarian empire's failed statelets after 1918.

America and China's wealth depends on access to free markets and high consumerism in the West.

I blame the British for the first World War
The fault lies a bit more with the French. The revanchisme stemming from the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to the German Empire in 1871 was the guiding principle for much of French foreign policy in the early 1900s. Poincaré especially was a hawk - his family were from the Lorraine region.

The Russians under Tsar Nicholas were nowhere near as competent as every military in Europe assumed. Their army was colossal but had neither the industry to clothe, feed and arm it nor the strategic ingenuity to lead it. The French visited Russia during the July Crisis in 1914 in order to stiffen Russian resolve and coerce the Tsar into listening to his ravenously pro-war advisers.

The British played the fool the entire time but always had one foot in the Allied camp. The Austrians were overly cautious and clueless while the Germans, surrounded on two fronts, were forced to implement their grand strategic gambit.

They quite rightly identified the British as a nominal power given their tiny standing army and their lack of a munitions industry. The British only became relevant once the Von Schlieffen plan had failed utterly.
 

Spirit Of Newgrange

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i blame the french for the nasty versailles agreement that guaranteed the rise of Hitler thereafter.
 

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Malcolm Redfellow

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I blame the British for the first World War
Another of Margaret MacMillan's students? Here she is (pages 590-591), at the end of The War That Ended Peace:
Meanwhile in Berlin that same day, Bethmann was addressing the German parliament to explain that Germany was only defending itself. True, he admitted, Germany was invading the neutral countries of Belgium and Luxembourg, but that was only because of the French threat. When the war was over, Germany would make good any damage. The Socialist Party, which had for so long promised to lead its millions of members in opposition to a capitalist war, joined the other parties in voting for war credits. Bethmann had worked hard to win them over but they had been moving in his direction. On 3 August at a long and difficult meeting of Socialist deputies, a majority had decided to vote for war credits, partly on the grounds that they could not betray their rank and file who were going off to war and partly because they saw Germany as the victim of Russian aggression. For the sake of party unity the rest agreed to go along.

On the evening of 4 August, even before the British deadline for Germany’s reply had passed, Goschen, the British ambassador, called on Bethmann to request his passport. ‘Oh, this is too terrible!’ exclaimed Goschen as he asked in vain whether Germany could not respect Belgium’s neutrality. Bethmann harangued the ambassador. Britain was taking a dreadful step and all for a mere word, ‘neutrality’. The treaty with Belgium, Bethmann said in words which cost Germany dearly in world opinion, was just a ‘scrap of paper’. Britain, he went on, could have reined in France’s desire for revenge and Russian Panslavism but instead it had encouraged them. The war was Britain’s fault. Goschen burst into tears and left. Bethmann could not see that Germany bore any responsibility. He later wrote to a friend, ‘It remains highly questionable whether with reasonable actions we could have prevented the natural French, Russian, and British antagonisms from uniting against us.’ The Kaiser ranted at Britain’s betrayal and accused Nicholas of ‘unscrupulous wantonness’ in ignoring all Germany’s and Wilhelm’s attempts to keep the peace. Moltke thought that the British had planned the war all along and wondered whether Germany could persuade the United States to come in as its ally by promising the Americans Canada.
OK: tongues out of cheeks now.

Oh, wait: MacMillan has a punch-line (page 592):
In 1914 Europe’s leaders failed it either by deliberately opting for war or by not finding the strength to oppose it. Over half a century later a young and inexperienced American president faced his own crisis and his own choices. In 1962 when the Soviet Union placed military forces on Cuba, including missiles capable of striking the eastern seaboard of the United States with nuclear warheads, John F. Kennedy was under intense pressure from his own military to take action even at the risk of an all-out war with the Soviet Union. He resisted, partly because he had learned from the previous year’s fiasco of the Bay of Pigs that the military were not always right but also because he had just read The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman’s extraordinary account of how Europe had blundered into the Great War. He choose to open negotiations with the Soviet Union and the world backed away from the brink.
Then one has to turn to page 605 for MacMillan's allocation of blame:
As Germany’s defeat became clear in the autumn of 1918, his military made plans for their Kaiser to die heroically in a last charge onto the battlefield. Wilhelm would have none of this and continued to hope, in vain, that he could keep his throne. As the situation deteriorated in Germany, he was finally persuaded on 9 November to go to the Netherlands by special train and Germany became a republic the same day. Wilhelm’s first request when he arrived at the estate of a Dutch aristocrat who had agreed to take him in was ‘a cup of real good English tea’. In spite of pressure from the Allies, the Dutch refused to extradite him and he lived out his days in a small palace at Doorn. He kept himself busy by chopping down trees – 20,000 by the end of the 1920s; writing his memoirs, which, not surprisingly, showed no remorse for the war or for the policies leading up to it; reading long extracts in English from P. G. Wodehouse to his staff; fulminating against the Weimar Republic, socialists and Jews; and blaming the German people for letting him down while still believing they would one day call him back. He took note of the rise of Hitler and the Nazis with mixed feelings; he found Hitler lower class and vulgar but agreed with many of his ideas, especially where they meant restoring Germany’s greatness. He warned, though: ‘It will run away with him, as it ran away with me.’ Wilhelm welcomed the start of the Second World War and the string of early German victories with delight. He died on 4 June 1941, less than three weeks before Hitler invaded Russia, and is buried at Doorn.

Was he to blame for the Great War? Was Tirpitz? Grey? Moltke? Berchtold? Poincaré? Or was no one to blame? Should we look instead at institutions or ideas? General staffs with too much power, absolutist governments, Social Darwinism, the cult of the offensive, nationalism? There are so many questions and as many answers again. Perhaps the most we can hope for is to understand as best we can those individuals, who had to make the choices between war and peace, and their strengths and weaknesses, their loves, hatreds and biases. To do that we must also understand their world, with its assumptions. We must remember, as the decision-makers did, what had happened before that last crisis of 1914 and what they had learned from the Moroccan crises, the Bosnian one, or the events of the First Balkan Wars. Europe’s very success in surviving those earlier crises paradoxically led to a dangerous complacency in the summer of 1914 that, yet again, solutions would be found at the last moment and the peace would be maintained. And if we want to point fingers from the twenty-first century we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go war. There are always choices.
 

Malcolm Redfellow

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MacMillan argues that 1914 leading to 1939 - I presume you intend the treaty of Versailles to be in there somewhere - isn't as important as it's made out to be. She's Lloyd Georges granddaughter btw but I haven't seen any of her work on Ireland.
Well, err ... almost, Lord Copper.

What she wrote (very last bit of Paris 1919, Six Months that changed the World):
The peacemakers of 1919 made mistakes, of course. By their offhand treatment of the non-European world, they stirred up resentments for which the West is still paying today. They took pains over the borders in Europe, even if they did not draw them to everyone’s satisfaction, but in Africa they carried on the old practice of handing out territory to suit the imperialist powers. In the Middle East, they threw together peoples, in Iraq most notably, who still have not managed to cohere into a civil society. If they could have done better, they certainly could have done much worse. They tried, even cynical old Clemenceau, to build a better order. They could not foresee the future and they certainly could not control it. That was up to their successors. When war came in 1939, it was a result of twenty years of decisions taken or not taken, not of arrangements made in 1919.

Of course things might have been different if Germany had been more thoroughly defeated. Or if the United States had been as powerful after the First World War as it was after the Second—and had been willing to use that power. If Britain and France had not been weakened by the war—or if they had been so weakened that the United States had felt obliged to step in. If Austria-Hungary had not disappeared. If its successor states had not quarreled with each other. If China had not been so weak. If Japan had been more sure of itself. If states had accepted a League of Nations with real powers. If the world had been so thoroughly devastated by war that it was willing to contemplate a new way of managing international relations. The peacemakers, however, had to deal with reality, not what might have been. They grappled with huge and difficult questions. How can the irrational passions of nationalism or religion be contained before they do more damage? How can we outlaw war? We are still asking those questions.
There are several incidental references to Ireland in her work: for example pages 486-491 of The War that Ended Peace on Home Rule. I'd count half-a-dozen passing mentions of Ireland in Paris 1919. Specifically, in her warm-up there, she makes this comment about Lloyd-George:
He recognized that Britain could no longer try to achieve these goals on its own. Its military power, though great, was shrinking rapidly as the country moved back to a peacetime footing. During 1919, the size of the army was to drop by two thirds at a time when Britain was taking on more and more responsibilities, from the Baltic states to Russia to Afghanistan, and dealing with more and more trouble in its empire—India, Egypt and, on its own doorstep, Ireland. “There are no troops to spare,” came the despairing answer from the general staff to repeated requests. The burden of power was also weighing heavily in economic terms. Britain was no longer the world’s financial center; the United States was. And Britain owed huge amounts to the Americans, as the prime minister was well aware. With his usual optimism, he felt that he could build a good relationship with the United States which would help to compensate for British weaknesses. Perhaps the Americans would take on responsibility for such strategically important areas as the straits at Constantinople.
 

parentheses

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I'll be starting a thread on the matter of British culpability.

It will take me some time to read up on the matter
 

McTell

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No
Y'see Malc, Berhardi repeated the notion that treaties are signed for the benefit of all concerned. So the belgian treaty signed by prussia in 1839 was no longer of benefit of prussia/germany in 1914, and could be ignored. A "scrap of paper".

Every treaty of alliance presupposes the rebus sic stantibus; for since it must satisfy the interests of each contracting party, it clearly can only hold as long as those interests are really benefited. This is a political principle that cannot be disputed. Nothing can compel a State to act counter to its own interests, on which those of its citizens depend. This consideration, however, imposes on the honest State the obligation of acting with the utmost caution when concluding a political arrangement and defining its limits in time, so as to avoid being forced into a breach of its word. Conditions may arise which are more powerful than the most honourable intentions. The country's own interests—considered, of course, in the highest ethical sense—must then turn the scale.

http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/11352/pg11352-images.html


On the other side of the coin, Clemenceau was asked at the end of WW1 what historians would make of it. He replied that "Well, at least they will all agree that belgium did not invade germany".
 

Malcolm Redfellow

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Y'see Malc, Berhardi repeated the notion that treaties are signed for the benefit of all concerned...
Except that Thomas Hobbes got there first (around 1642).

Which leads us to consider the nature (and cause — parentheses, post #16, please note) of the social-Darwinism that festered fin de siècle, and was latent in much militaristic thinking — including Friedrich von Bernhardi.

Try a few snippets from Nietzsche to get the taste of such willy-waggling.

Big change was happening — and the established order's fear thereof. As I was musing in passing elsewhere, at moments of confusion, there's something comforting about conceits of 'honour', of noblesse oblige, especially if they can be placed in a mystical, even pre-modern, even Ruritanian context.

As the nineteenth century drew to its end, the change that hit the European noble class (whose wealth and prestige derived from land), and their acolytes, was industrial — and the rising economic power of industrialists and financiers. Britain had had longer to adjust — but had done so by indoctrinating the middle-classes into genteel notions of behaviour and honour. Elsewhere things were more sudden, and turned nastier, quicker. Whom to blame for the passing of the old 'Christian' certainties? Franz Ferdinand, in his continuing feud with Foreign Minister Alois Lexa von Aehrenthal (with Jewish ancestry), knew it was all the fault of the Jews — so we still find the far Right quoting him and finding the Jews at the root of WW1 — let me hope parentheses won't dig that one up.

This 'honour' was the incentive for the rise of the duel, if only because that was the marker of the 'old order' against the nouveau-riche (The Student Prince derives from a 1901 play). So Redl had to blow his brains out, Clemenceau is known to have fought a dozen duels, the Dreyfus Affair is riddled with duels.

If, as the above implies, honour is about masculinity, there was also the 'other': those pesky demanding women (local example: Bram Stoker's 1897 effort). Proof positive were green carnations and the declining birth-rate (the French were particularly conflicted on that one). Parallels were drawn from the Fall of the Roman Empire. Margaret MacMillan has an absolute unbeatable doozy (page 245):
Another worrying indicator that virility was flagging, at least in certain countries, was a decline in fertility. In France, the birth rate fell sharply from 25.3 live births per 1,000 of population in the 1870s to 19.9 by 1910. Although its neighbour Germany’s birth rate declined slightly in the same period, it still remained significantly higher which meant, in practical terms, that there were more German men available every year for military service. This gap was a matter of public discussion and concern in France before 1914. It was too bad about French civilisation, Alfred Kerr, a leading German intellectual, told a journalist from Le Figaro just before the war, because it was over-ripe. ‘A people whose men don’t want to be soldiers, and whose women refuse to have children, is a people benumbed in their vitality; it is fated to be dominated by a younger and fresher race. Think of Greece and the Roman empire! It is a law of history that the elder societies shall cede their place to the younger, and this is the condition of the perpetual regeneration of humanity. Later our turn will come, and the ferocious rule will apply to us; then the reign of the Asiatics will begin, perhaps of the blacks, who can tell?’
Ooh, er, missus.

When we go looking for 'causes' of the First World War, we start with the political and diplomatic ones, move on to the Balkan wars, and end up with the alliances. That's all good, traditional history. I'm no fan of sociological stuff (largely because so much is so badly written), but there are elements which deserve to be addressed. MacMillan does just that. Which is another reason why I shall be paying her lectures due attention.
 

Ardillaun

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Nuclear weapons keep the peace. The reason is simple, and fixs with Macmillians's theory. With M.A.D there are no spoils to gain.
A bit soon to come to that conclusion - if proliferation does occur nations may blunder into nuclear war - and we already know what can happen when only one side has them.

MacMillan’s list of war’s causes brings to mind Gulliver’s explanation:

http://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/177/gullivers-travels/3728/part-four-a-voyage-to-the-country-of-the-houyhnhnms-chapter-5/

And no doubt many earlier ones.

Analyzing the immediate causes of wars may give us some chance to reduce their likelihood but the basic problem is in ourselves.
 
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Malcolm Redfellow

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MacMillan’s list of war’s causes brings to mind Gulliver’s explanation:

http://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/177/gullivers-travels/3728/part-four-a-voyage-to-the-country-of-the-houyhnhnms-chapter-5/

And no doubt many earlier ones.

Analyzing the immediate causes of wars may give us some chance to reduce their likelihood but the basic problem is in ourselves.
Thank you for that. I had forgotten my Swift. And I've never had a full and wholly credible explanation of his rationale of Houyhnhnms (or learned to spell 'em, without a prompt).
 


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