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ZSorenson

WWI, Revolutions, Conspiracy

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What was it that made WWI that much more explosive than say, the Franco-Prussian war?

I already know the traditional explanation about population, culture, nationalism, technology, ideology, etc. It's a strong one, and makes sense as a narrative, but let me off an alternative narrative, and let me know what you think.

Imagine that within the political framework of many nations, are burgeoning ideological movements that seek a chance at full expression. For reference, see Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, New Deal America, and so forth. As far as America's involvement in WWI, you can certainly blame the influence of Progressivism. The country had a great many German immigrants, and was otherwise fairly isolationist. Wilson himself won the election with a promise to stay out of war. Other than a marginal historical friendship with England, and a generic favoring of Republicanism abroad (can't say it had been quite successful - see France, Central American Federation, Simon Bolivar, pre-Bolshevik Russia), America had no particular interest - even altruistically - in getting involved in the war. You can make a case, very easily, that the war was a boon for Progressives - with a 'return to normalcy' as a potent political reaction to many controls and reforms enacted in the name of the war effort (many of which were cited as examples for enacting the New Deal).

Now, here's a question - why did everyone see the need to get involved in the war? Why did Russia commit itself on a suicidal course against Germany, why did Britain see the need to get involved? There are plenty of explanations from the hubris of monarchs, to a general misunderstanding of the scope of the conflict. Ironic that Germany thought it would end quickly, yet Britain thought the same? I suppose Germany was a lot bigger once unified, and was very economically powerful. It was expansionist and had a violent history. I'd see the desire to stop it from expanding to rule Europe. As I see Germany's desire to rule Europe.

But just imagine little snively grins, and twiddling fingers, on quiet advisors and ideological politikos who understood perfectly well what such a massive war would do to the old order. In fact, the war to end all wars was a Marxist narrative originally, no? When communism stayed in Russia, wasn't that the impetus for the founding of the Frankfurt school?

I'm saying, without any ability to know for sure, that perhaps Marxist narrative and ideology inspired a generation of - not leaders, the guys behind them that do the thinking - to sort of quietly lust for world war. I'm not implying it was coordinated. Rather, maybe it was a cumulative effect that was partially coordinated - one that resulted from a generation raised to think that history was bound to a particular narrative, that they were taught would lead to mankind's ascension to a world without care.

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Many Marxists did look at WW1 as demonstrating the bankruptcy of the old order but are you suggesting an organized secret society of crypto-marxists pushing for war existed on a global scale?

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Now, here's a question - why did everyone see the need to get involved in the war? Why did Russia commit itself on a suicidal course against Germany, why did Britain see the need to get involved? There are plenty of explanations from the hubris of monarchs, to a general misunderstanding of the scope of the conflict. Ironic that Germany thought it would end quickly, yet Britain thought the same? I suppose Germany was a lot bigger once unified, and was very economically powerful. It was expansionist and had a violent history. I'd see the desire to stop it from expanding to rule Europe. As I see Germany's desire to rule Europe.

I don't think you can ignore the interlocking alliances and mutual defense treaties (some of which were secret) coupled with a general atmosphere of militarism that helped to draw countries into the Great War. As far as your thesis about Marxism is concerned, I've never heard that before. Not that it's implausible for that reason, but I don't think enough Marxists were in positions of influence to bring about the series of events that lead to WWI.

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I call such thinking the "Foresight is 20/20" school of history.

One can read the history of a major event, such as WWI, then ask one's self: who benefitted from it? Why not? It's a useful excercise. from then one could deduce some sort of conspiracy. But proof of a conspiracy requires more than showing some group or nation banefitted from the event. One such requirement is what they expected to get from it beforehand. And people just aren't that good at predicting the future.

One fact about WWI is no one anticipated the scale of the war, the time it would take or the massive casualties that resulted on all sides.

It was a curious kind of war. It was sort of an in-between war: between XIX century war techinques and modern warfare. On one hand you had heavy and fairly accurate artillery, machine guns, poison gas and, by the end, automatic rifles. On the other soldiers were restricted to however fast they could advance on foot.

By that time the cavalry, thus far the traditional means for making a rapid advance, had just been rendered obsolote by the machine gun. Nothing easier than to mow down a bunch of large targets out in the open from the safety of a trench. Moving men on trucks was an even worse idea, I don't think it was ever tried (only behind the lines). And there were no large transport aircraft to drop paratroops behind the enemy's lines.

Advances were slow and bitterly fought in the trenches. This gave both sides the time to build more trenches and barbed wire obtacles to fall back on. it also kept making the front wider to an unbelievable degree. What ended the stalemate was the development of the armored tank and the success of the Royal Navy, with some help from Entente forces, in keeping Germany under-supplied from abroad. It's common in war for the civilians to suffer privations, as everything is routed first to the front. But at the end of the war even German soldiers were starving.

No one ever starts a war thinking he will lose. But also no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.

The Germans had a very good plan for overpowering France. They'd flank the French by going through Holland and Belgium (and too bad for the Dutch and the Belgians!), then turn towards Paris, which tye expected to capture. Three things went wrong. 1) The Germans did not go through Holland for political reasons and 2) the French and British resisted a hell of a lot more than the Germans had anticipated. 3) there were British troops fighting them in France. Germany had anticipated great Britain would remain neutral, even after going through her Belgian ally like a hot knife through butter

Had the Kaiser at the time known how the war would play out, there's no way in Hell there would have been a war.

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There is certainly enough evidence to explain how the war started and why it was so bad. No other weird ideas necessary.

But in American politics at least you do see the influence of collectivist thinking - and clearly collectivist policies, with open admission of as much - in getting into the war. Not as a primary justification, but enough to wonder. Not to wonder whether Wilson was hoping to lead the vanguard of a global proletariat revolution - no, rather, that he would transform America and then with America lead the world into a new progressive order. I think the argument is pretty solid for explaining his desire to enter the war as ideological, and leading to a global collectivism.

Certainly, you might argue that some circles around the time of the Bolshevik revolution no doubt anticipated global Marxism (probably not Lenin, though) as the war grew ever larger.

So Marxist conspiracy? No. Any kind of conspiracy? No. But perhaps like America, each nation saw the war as their chance to 'make it'. In other words, because of Marxism - leading to and through Progressivism - there arose a notion of a global world order - a benevolent force for all mankind, preserving the common good. This sort of idea has its obvious roots in anything from divine right to mercantalism, mixed in with Imperialism.

Still, my argument was that the intellectual climate of the day led nations to bite off more than they could chew, and that the common theme was global collectivism. Each was vying not just to win this conflict, but to be that force that led the global masses to brighter horizons.

That might not work as a compelling argument - outside of America's reasons for fighting, which I believe do fall under this argument. So the question is: at what point could the nations have stopped fighting? At what point could they have realized the poo hit the fan and work out an amenable ceasefire? That is, if they could have stopped the war after a year (oops, this was worse than what I thought it'd be), why didn't they? I don't know, but suspect, that the Progressive vision and narrative compelled each nation to self-righteously fight until the bitter end (mass starvation and deprivation and the certainty of total defeat - let alone not being able to afford to conquer your neighbor anymore).

So that's the question to answer: why did the war carry on and on?

Perhaps this is why fascism arose - the warriors were right in their global quest, they just didn't fight 'hard enough' (or they were fighting a bourgeouis war, not a righteous war, or they didn't have the 'will'). The basic premise behind the lunacy of the war wasn't rejected until tens of millions of people died two decades later. Even then it was barely rejected, American 'imperialism' - both a free lunch in terms of geopolitics for Europe, as well as an ideal scapegoat for the bright collectivized future that never came. People longed for what they thought the USSR had

Edited by ZSorenson

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America had no particular interest - even altruistically - in getting involved in the war.

I don't think that was the case, actually. If you read Wilson's 14 points, he makes several comments in the beginning of some of the speeches about how America has no self interested motive to get involved in the war, then immediately proceeds to explain his 14 points which are almost exclusively beneficial to the US. Essentially, he required free trade and independence for a bunch of areas which were, then, colonies of the larger states. In allowing this free trade there was a considerable relative gain by the US in terms of access to raw materials at lower costs as well as the destruction of a good deal of the industrial capacity of the then industrialized world.

This compounded, of course, with WW2 giving us the 'Pax Americana' of the 50's and 60's as the rest of the world was rebuilding the catastrophic damage that the US did not suffer, by any reasonable comparison. I think it would be difficult to make the case that the US did not benefit from the world wars or that it wasn't a pretty obvious intention to gain us these benefits in the 14 points.

I don't mean to exonerate Wilson. He was certainly a progressive and I would not be surprised to learn that he was a marxist, but in this case he was a typical leftist claiming disinterested unselfishness while making a power grab on a grand scale.

On a side not, the massive spending by our government then to finance the war could not have been accomplished without the federal reserve printing presses and taxation of income, which he had allowed to come into existence a few years earlier. Either an interesting coincidence or excellent foresight.

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That might not work as a compelling argument - outside of America's reasons for fighting, which I believe do fall under this argument. So the question is: at what point could the nations have stopped fighting? At what point could they have realized the poo hit the fan and work out an amenable ceasefire? That is, if they could have stopped the war after a year (oops, this was worse than what I thought it'd be), why didn't they?

Well, let's see:

Germany held parts of Belgium and France. No way it would agree to any cease fire which didn't include some gains. France had territory under German occupation, so no way it would just quit and allow the Germans to take bits of France. Great Britain entered largely because of Belgium, so see what I said about France.

Russia did withdraw. At that point the Germans might have acquiesced to a cease fire because they then could move troops to the Western Front.

As for America, there was one good reason to enter the war. Look up the Zimmermann Telegram. That kind of meddling cannot be allowed to just pass.

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The Wilson administration was itching to get into the war. Herbert Croly, one of the most influential thinkers of American Progressivism (writer of The Promise of American Life and founder of the journal New Republic), saw the war in Europe as something that could give America the "tonic of a serious moral adventure." Woodrow Wilson stated to Congress that America had "no selfish interest" in the war. Wilson, Croly and others all hoped to use the war to entrench a culture of service to the state among Americans. If anyone on this thread has not read Leonard Peikoff's The Ominous Parallels I highly recommend this book. Dr. Peikoff does a great job outlining the rise of American Progressivism. The parallels with Fascism and Nazism are certainly ominous. The wartime economic controls put in place by the Wilson administration were never repealed. See Chapter 14 of The Ominous Parallels, entitled "America Reverses Direction." I think that Wilson wanted into the war so that he could massively expand the state and run roughshod over the Constitution (and thereby crush individual rights) at home. The war itself was of secondary or tertiary importance. It was all about the power grab.

Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg is also a good read for explaining the rise of the Progressives. While this book does occasionally lapse into some fairly typical National Review-style conservative talking points (and typical conservative evasions), Goldberg goes into the historical roots of Progressivism in some depth, including the influence of Fascism on Progressivism. Goldberg even takes the comparison a step further, stating that Progressivism is American Fascism.

Whether it was the sinking of the Lusitania, or the Zimmermann telegram, the Wilson administration was likely willing to use any pretext it could to get into the war. I'll bet America would have been in the war even if the Kaiser had done something as trivial as making a "Your mother!" comment directed at Wilson.

I don't think Wilson was part of some global Marxist conspiracy. But he and the rest of the Progressives were certainly influenced by Kant, Hegel, and so on; the exact philosophic influences that led to the rise of the Nazis and Mussolini's Fascists. Combine the rise of collectivism with the waning influence of the traditional European absolute monarchies, the destructive power of more modern weaponry with old-fashioned tactics, and you have the explosive mix of WWI. It was new statism versus old statism, and since the individual did not matter to any of the involved governments, the result was unparalleled devastation and slaughter.

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Well, let's see:

Germany held parts of Belgium and France. No way it would agree to any cease fire which didn't include some gains. France had territory under German occupation, so no way it would just quit and allow the Germans to take bits of France. Great Britain entered largely because of Belgium, so see what I said about France.

Russia did withdraw. At that point the Germans might have acquiesced to a cease fire because they then could move troops to the Western Front.

As for America, there was one good reason to enter the war. Look up the Zimmermann Telegram. That kind of meddling cannot be allowed to just pass.

I guess you would have to tie nationalism to Romanticism on one end, fascism/socialism on the other. Interestingly, this is the narrative taught in schools already. Then I guess my point is much clearer. WWI was a much a part of the chain of progression from Kant onward as WWII and communism.

My central point is that Nationalism was a force in each culture that provided for heavily populated and industrialized societies to fall on top of each other and keep fighting through millions dead. There would be no other way to organize industrial force - a good geopolitical lesson - armies don't need to be all that big if there's minimal collectivism. Plus, I still think the war lasted too long. I think all countries could have realized after a year what sort of conflict they were fighting, and worked out a more amenable resolution than 4 more years then Versailles.

So, no conspiracy perhaps, but certainly an indentifiable ideological cause.

Here's where my thinking led to this thread: in America, nationalism was used to rally the populace (more so than at any time, where you had many European immigrants, and where individual rights were highly infringed - more nationalism than patriotism). However, the leaders were inspired by Progressivism - the war was a tool for domestic and foreign change. I was wondering if a similar dichotomy existed in Europe. In the end, the roots of romanticism, Kant, etc. led to all of it, and further on towards worse things. Oh well.

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The ideologies that led to the war's outbreak in the first place precluded any possibility of a cooling of heads and a cessation of hostilities after a mere year.

When a statist leader of a modern country is puffed up with nationalism, drowning rational thought in a river of collectivism, and thoroughly convinced that the war is a morally justified crusade of altruistic virtue, the possibility of being convinced to stop the whole affair is nonexistent. Further, huge numbers of casualties would likely have added to the nationalistic fire. National pride was at stake and no one wanted to give up their postage stamp of the French countryside. The armies involved all seemed to subscribe to the "send wave after wave of soldiers into the meat grinder and eventually overrun them with numbers" school of military tactics, at least at the beginning, before the bloody stalemate of trench warfare.

Even now when Remembrance Day ceremonies are held here in Canada, the commentary is always about the sacrifice of the soldiers who died "for their country." The sacrifice is held as the primary (no surprise there). It is usually followed up with modern leftist platitudes about how bad war is. What underlying morality led to the war? Blank out.

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Isaac Asimov once described WWI as a massive outbreak of stupidity. That's a very fair assesment.

Consider the infamous Zimermann Telegram. It offered Mexico financial aid in exchange for invading the US in order to recover the territories lost in the Mexican american war of the XIX Century. Sounds good, right?

Wrong. For one thing the one sole arms supplier in the Americas was the US. So, sure, America would sell Mexico weapons to invade America with?

Ok. So how about getting weapons from Germany or other European countries? Well, Germany was using everything it produced. Other European nations were doing the same. But if some could ship weapons to the Americas, they'd have to get past the Royal Navy, at the time the pre-eminent naval force in the world.

That's it, right?

Not quite. The Zimermann Note was sent from Germany to the United States! Encoded, of course, and specifically to the German ambassador in the US, who forwarded it to the German Embassy in Mexico City. NIce going. Ok, it was the Brits who decoded it, not the Americans. In any case security sucked.

And lastly, if we needed anything else, Mexico was in the midst of a civil war, known locally as the Mexican Revolution. By then things had more or less settled down, but Pancho Villa and others still carried out guerilla warfare inside the country. Not the best time to go to war against a bigger, richer neighbor.

And that was just one diplomatic maneuver.

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The ideologies that led to the war's outbreak in the first place precluded any possibility of a cooling of heads and a cessation of hostilities after a mere year.

When a statist leader of a modern country is puffed up with nationalism, drowning rational thought in a river of collectivism, and thoroughly convinced that the war is a morally justified crusade of altruistic virtue, the possibility of being convinced to stop the whole affair is nonexistent. Further, huge numbers of casualties would likely have added to the nationalistic fire. National pride was at stake and no one wanted to give up their postage stamp of the French countryside. The armies involved all seemed to subscribe to the "send wave after wave of soldiers into the meat grinder and eventually overrun them with numbers" school of military tactics, at least at the beginning, before the bloody stalemate of trench warfare.

Even now when Remembrance Day ceremonies are held here in Canada, the commentary is always about the sacrifice of the soldiers who died "for their country." The sacrifice is held as the primary (no surprise there). It is usually followed up with modern leftist platitudes about how bad war is. What underlying morality led to the war? Blank out.

That's my point, that the war wasn't the result of 'enlightened princes' - but rather a more ideologically 'modern' sort. Nationalism, sacrifice, 'the cause' - considering the imperialism of the previous era and so forth. Wilson's vision I'm painting as the American version of this, but an altruistic noble world order is how I would describe what was in common with all the countries' ideologies. My point is specifically that the 'technology' of the era would have led to a quicker settlement if the leaders and countries hadn't had the ideology they did. Even a mere, cold, Machiavellian power play would have tried to back out of the trenches carefully rather than sacrifice the whole nation to a disastrous and nonsensical objective. So, think of a realist dictator vs. a romanticist parliament, and answer which would have reacted to the first few months of WWI better. That's my point.

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