Saturday, January 4, 2014

Nineteen Fourteen

2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. I was just listening to the latest episode of Hardcore History about the outbreak of World War 1 - Blueprint for Armageddon. It's a fascinating show, and good backdrop for these articles:
Each century effectively began in its 14th year...Think about it. The first decade of the 20th century was filled with hope and a kind of can-do optimism that was never seen again -- not after the horrific events of 1914 shattered any vision that a new and better age would arrive without pain. Yet until almost the start of World War I, 19th-century progress seemed unstoppable and ever-accelerating.

Consider the world of 1913, when regular middle-class folks in the U.S., U.K., France, Germany and so on were acquiring unexpected wonders: clothes-washing machines, gas stoves, gas and then electric lighting, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, vaccinations, telephones, radios, motor cars. Stepping outside you would see and hear human beings flying through the sky -- with a looming confidence that soon you would get a chance to join them.

Science was pouring forth what seemed unalloyed goodness. New dyes and industrial textile methods doubled a working family’s access to fresh and beautiful clothes. Cheap iron bedsteads kept cheap spring mattresses clean, making sleep both healthier and far more comfortable. Nations were banning child labor and providing free schooling. Astronomers discovered what galaxies were. Physicists were pushing their pure and harmless science to fantastic frontiers. And the Haber-Bosch process brought cheap fertilizers that tripled crops, as chemistry proved itself to be everybody’s friend.

Think our era is similarly fast-changing? Just compare the kitchen of today with a kitchen of 1950. Sure, everything nowadays is shinier, smarter. Still, a person from 1950 could use our apparatus with fluid familiarity. But the drudgery-saddled housewife of 1880 would blink in bedazzlement at what her daughter used in 1913. Life itself was changing at a pace never-before seen, and mostly for the better.

Yes, all of those techno-advances continued after World War I. Social changes such as women getting the vote were harbingers of more to come. But after 1914, the naivete was gone. People realized that the 20th century would be one of harsh struggle accompanying every step of advancement. And along the way to hard-won better times, the age would spiral downward first, into the deepest pit that humanity ever knew, before our parents (or grandparents) clawed their way out of the nadir of 1944 -- the focal year of a century that truly began in 1914.

All right, that’s just one data point. Is there another? Well, look at 1814, the beginning of the Congress of Vienna and the so-called Concert of Europe that made possible the continent’s longest extended period of overall peace, as the great powers turned from fighting bloody wars to perfecting their colonial empires. Those two years -- 1814 and 1914 –- each marked a dramatic shift in tone and theme (in the West, that is), so much so that they represented the real beginnings of the 19th and 20th centuries.
What If the 21st Century Begins in 2014? (David Brin, Bloomberg)

The rest of his article basically is his typical lament of how all of us doomsayers are standing in the way of the normal progress of opulence, and how if we all just solved our political problems, everything would be fine. So I guess his knowledge of history isn't so great after all.

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker also recalls the spirit of 1914:
We make the turn toward the new year this January with trepidation. Well, we make the turn toward every new year with trepidation, but added to the anticipatory jumps this year are what might be called the retrospective willies. You don’t have to have a very enlarged sense of history to remember what happened last time Western Civilization sped around the corner from ’13 to ’14. Not so good. The year 1913 had been full of rumbling energy and matchless artistic accomplishment—Proust kicking off, the Cubists kicking back, Stravinsky kicking out—and then, within a few months, the Archduke was assassinated in Sarajevo and the troop trains were running and, pretty soon, the whole positive and optimistic and progressive culture was on its way to committing suicide. The Great War left more than ten million Europeans dead and a civilization in ruins (and presaged a still worse war to come). Naturally, a lot of people, staring at this year’s tea leaves—at rising new powers and frightened old ones—are searching for parallels between that ’14 and this one, and finding them. In the Times recently, the historian Margaret MacMillan pointed out a few, clustering around the folly of “toxic nationalisms” that draw big powers into smaller local disputes, with the Russians trying to play a better hand today in Syria than they played in Serbia a century ago.
Kind of makes you wonder what the year has in store, doesn't it? Of course, it's not the number that counts, assigning 2014 to this year is totally arbitrary, based on the calendar system you happen to follow. But the hundred-year cycle is itself interesting, especially as it seems people are losing faith that progress and modernity bring better lives for all.

Incidentally, one of parts of the podcast I found most fascinating was where he described the difference between European wars pre- and post-French Revolution. Before the French Revolution, wars were fought with professional soldiers and mercenaries, and carried out almost as a friendly chess match between opponents with limited goals and relatively little slaughter and loss of life. The last thing kings and princes of the time wanted to do was arm their civilian populations and turn them into a fighting force - they would probably rebel and overthrow the king if he did that. In fact, the armies and mercenaries of the time were often used by the rulers against their own population to keep them in line!

But after the French Revolution - Carlin compares it to Maoists suddenly taking over the U.S. government - the idea is the the people themselves are the rulers and that they control the government. This paves the way to mass conscription of people and the putting of all the nations' resources under governmental control in order to wage total war. Suddenly every citizen is a potential soldier, and any resource can be pressed into the service of the state. This is how Napoleon's war machine was built. Here's a good Wikipedia article on the subject:
Kabinettskriege (English: "Cabinet Wars", singular Kabinettskrieg) is the German expression referring to the type of wars which affected Europe during the period of absolute monarchies, from the 1648 Peace of Westphalia to the 1789 French Revolution. It is also known as "war between princes." Such wars involved small armies, noble officer corps, limited war goals, and frequently changing coalitions among the belligerents. In contrast with precedent wars of religions, and 20th century total wars or revolutionary people's war, "cabinet wars" had limited goals. Clausewitz theorized this in On War by stating that "war was the continuation of politics by other means," thus placing the military under civilian control.

The Thirty Years' War, based on religious conflict, had been marked by wild plunders and marauding armies. Order was reestablished by the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which formulated the rules of international relations for the next centuries, in particular respective to the laws of war (jus ad bello and jus in bellum). During the Age of Enlightenment and under the direction of the "enlightened despots," wars became more regulated, although the civilian population was still a current victim of mercenaries.

The invention of the levée en masse (mass conscription) during the French Revolution put an end to cabinet wars. Further wars were not simply due to conflict between princes, but involved nationalism and conflicts over the boundaries of nation-states. Thus, the Peninsular War was called by Spanish the "independence war"; this conflict also led to the first guerrilla warfare, against the regular Napoleonic army. The Crimean War (1854-1856) could be classified, however, among the "cabinet wars," as it was conducted with limited goals and released only moderate passions from the people of the involved belligerent states.
After Napoleon, Europe was relatively calm (much like today), and people thought, then as now, that trade and prosperity would lead to perpetual peace. How wrong they were. The American Civil War and the Russo-Japanese War were dress rehearsals for the slaughter of modern, mechanized warfare, and this was the time when the optimism of that era "died in the trenches." And it was only 100 years ago.

BONUS: What if the Germans had won the first World War? (The Guardian)

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