January 28, 2013

The future and the first world war

There isn't much that's more dangerous in diplomacy than assumptions about the future. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the arguments for the hardline position was that if the Russians are going to be around forever, it might be better to have a nuclear war now when America will win and the losses will be limited, rather than later when both great powers can unleash infinite destruction on each other. The same is true in the First World War. One of the motivating things in any war is the attitudes with which the parties enter the war. In the First War, that's most evident in the attitudes of Britain and France towards Serbia and Austria Hungary. Put bleakly the British and the French saw the plucky Serbs as the instigators of a new wave of nationalist and democratic history- in their imagination, they dressed the Serbs, as Byron had dressed the Greeks almost a hundred years before, with all the clothes of European liberty. Whereas they saw the Austrian monarchy as a doomed experiment that had run out of time, an empire and a power in decline. Neither of these impressions were particularly correct: Serbia was economically primitive, had low levels of education and an irredentist movement that destabilised the state. Austria on the other hand was stable, and to the eyes of many 21st century observers looks much more progressive than its nationalist neighbours.

The complacency of that judgement helped steer the Entente powers into a much more assertive Balkan policy, may have contributed to the origins of the war itself. It all stemmed from a basic teleology- that history was aiming in a particular direction. Of course history has no necessary direction: and the complacency of current understanding can swiftly become the obvious error the next generation despises.


edmund said...

good points i think though that therre's something more in their nationalist wave of the future etc reasoning though. After all After aWorld I all the multi ethnic empires disintgrated (that had lost the war not the UK! ) Russia and Austra both did the latter more or less before any settlement at all was imposed. And those people who Versailles put outside their 'nation' boundary e.g Sudaten Germans were preciesly those who were very irridentalist. Basically no one sought to put Austria-Hungary back together again. There are forces with real effect as well as late victoria smug liberalism in that analysis.