Repeating the Mistakes of 1914?

Yves here. This fine post is a little light on the economic backdrop to 1914 and World War I. Save some short affairs like the War of 1870, Europe enjoyed nearly 100 years of peace, only to have it usher in the unprecedented conflagration of the Great War. One reason for the long period of quiescence was that the mastermind of the 1815 Treaty of Vienna, Talleyrand, had given top priority in negotiations over how various territories were to be ruled, of securing a lasting peace. Another factor was that the rise of the liberal order, powered by the Industrial Revolution that Karl Polanyi described in The Great Transformation, was producing enough in the way of improvements in apparent domestic prosperity so as to reduce the attractiveness of war. Moreover, to the extent that the British and major European states had territorial ambitions, colonial land grabs offered more upside with less risk of manpower and treasure.

By Anatol Lieven. a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC. A new, updated edition of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, was republished in September 2012 by Oxford University Press. Originally published in The National Interest on December 22, 2018; cross posted from openDemocracy

This year saw the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, in which some 16 million Europeans died, two great European countries were destroyed, and others crippled. This year may also be seen by future historians as the last year of the period between the cold wars, when after 29 years of relative quiet, the world’s major powers once again moved into positions of deep and structural mutual hostility.

The First World War also engendered the dreadful scourges of Communism and Nazism, and thereby led to the Second World War, which very nearly finished off European civilisation. As a result of these catastrophes, almost all of the political and cultural elites that led their countries into war in 1914 were swept away, and in the Russian and Austrian cases, destroyed. Historians differ concerning the precise balance of causes and of blame for the disaster of 1914, but on one thing all are agreed: nothing that the great powers could conceivably have gained from going to war remotely compared to what they risked losing.

During World War I, the British and French, later joined by the Americans, portrayed the war as one of civilisation against German barbarism. One hundred years later, one can certainly say that on balance the British and French systems were better than the German; but one must also admit that an Algerian subject of the French Empire or an African subject of the British Empire might have a different perspective – and also that the Russian Empire made a pretty odd member of a supposed alliance for democracy.

Above all, as it turned out, the real barbaric threat to European civilisation did not come from any of the European ruling establishments of 1914. It came from the hatreds and tensions generated within European societies by the social and economic changes of the previous decades, which the war then released. One of the reasons why the conservative elites of European countries before 1914 encouraged aggressive nationalism in their societies was because they thought that this would divert mass support away from socialism, and thereby preserve the old European order. They were most disastrously mistaken.

Graver Threats

I fear that in their enthusiasm for a new cold war against China and Russia, the western establishments of today are making a mistake comparable to that of their forbears of 1914, and that the historians of the future will judge us by a similarly harsh standard. This is not primarily because of the threat of world war, but because this new cold war is serving – and in certain quarters is deliberately intended to serve – as a distraction from vastly graver threats which will eventually overwhelm us if they are not addressed.

Existing western political elites (on both sides of the political divide) are desperately unwilling to address these threats, because this would involve radical changes to their existing ideological positions. In their obsession with their own righteousness and civilizational superiority, the western elites are also falling into the moral trap warned of by Hans Morgenthau (a cold warrior who opposed Soviet aggression, but also a German Jew deeply acquainted with the civilizational fantasies that had helped bring on the disaster of 1914-18):

“Political realism refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe…  the light-hearted equation between a particular nationalism and the counsels of Providence is morally indefensible, for it is the very sin of pride against which the Greek tragedians and the Biblical prophets warned rulers and ruled. The equation is also politically pernicious, for it is liable to engender the distortion in judgement which, in the blindness of crusading frenzy, destroys nations and civilizations.”

Anti-Russian Regimes

The historians of the future may also note the multiple ironies involved in the idea of the USA leading a new “league of democracies” against an “authoritarian alliance”. In Asia, of course, this anti-Chinese alliance would include as key members Vietnamese communists, murderous Filipino authoritarian populists, and above all Indian Hindu neo-fascists. Even in Europe, the most bitterly anti-Russian regime – that of Poland – is also the one that in its authoritarianism and cultural nationalism is in fact ideologically closest to Putin! In the USA, we may devoutly pray that in 2020 Trump will be defeated and replaced by a more convincing leader of the “free world”. On the other hand, all the evidence now suggests that in 2022, France will elect a president from the National Front. 

Even if they do not lead to catastrophic war, diverting domestic discontent into external hostility very rarely works, because of course the factors that created the discontent remain unchanged. Does anyone who has interviewed the “Yellow Vests” in France seriously think that they are acting as they do because of manipulation from Moscow? Does anyone who has seriously studied the crisis of the white working classes in the USA (Robert Putnam or Thomas Frank, for example) write that the reason that they have voted for Trump is because they have been swayed by Russian propaganda?

Rising Death Rates

The people who claim this would do better to address a much more important link between developments in Russia and the USA, and a far more important contribution to the rise of Putin and Trump: the rising death rate among working class males in Russia in the 1990s and the USA in recent years, for the same reasons: diseases and addictions fuelled by economic, social and cultural insecurity and despair. In Central America, a far more terrible version of these pathologies is driving millions of people to seek to move to the USA, driving in turn the radicalisation of parts of the US population; yet total US aid to Mexico in 2017 was less than that to Ukraine or Egypt, and a fraction of that to Afghanistan. Does any truly responsible national establishment neglect its own neighbourhood in this way?

Looming behind these problems is the even graver danger of climate change, which threatens damage to the USA and the West incomparably greater than anything that the Chinese or Russian governments could or would wish to inflict. In a tragicomic irony, amidst the hysteria over a minor clash between Russia and Ukraine in the Sea of Azov, and barely noticed by most of the US media, there was one example of close US-Russian co-operation: the US and Russian governments combined to block adoption of the latest UN report on climate change.

This is not to say that there are not real threats from Russia and China, and real areas (notably trade) where the USA needs to push back. But these are all in the end limited issues, which are either negotiable or containable. None of them  justifies trying once again to restructure the national strategies and institutions of the USA and Europe around the principle of a cold war.

If Khrushchev had not transferred Crimea from the Russian Soviet Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1956, everyone would recognise the Sea of Azov as Russian, and this issue would not even exist. In the South China Sea, the USA is pushing back against China in the name of an international Law of the Sea which the USA itself does not recognise. If the Chinese were ever so mad as to use their position in the South China Sea against US trade, the US Navy could block Chinese trade to the whole of the rest of the world. And so it goes.


There were of course deep factors pushing the European states to war in 1914. The one that actually led to war however was Serbian nationalist claims to Austrian-ruled Bosnia, leading to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. It seems highly probable that not one in a hundred of the British soldiers who died in the First World War had previously ever heard of Serbia’s claims, or of Sarajevo. In the name of God, let us not make this mistake again.

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  1. Louis Fyne

    nitpick. obviously cuts had to be made for brevity….but I’d include more about much more alliances.

    UK (nominally) declaring war based on a 100 year old defence pact with Belgium?

    If Tulsi Gabbard or Trump made comments re. alliances resembling George Washington’s farewell address, the pundits would blast them as backward isolationists. Oh wait, they already do.

    Nato = full employment act for European/Pentagon desk jockeys.

    1. SufferinSuccotash

      There was no 100 year old British defense pact with Belgium in 1914. For one thing, Belgium didn’t even exist until 1830. There was an 1839 agreement among the major European powers to guarantee Belgian neutrality and it was the German invasion of Belgium which violated that guarantee and provided Britain with the excuse for entering the war.

      1. Synoia

        Coupled with the existence of the Triple Alliance, which changed the British policy of having no entangling alliances with countries in Continental Europe.

        The Double Alliance was between Germany and the Austrian Empire, the Triple Alliance between France, Britain and Russia, The British military believed WW I would be over by Christmas 1924.

        The disagreement in Britain about the triple alliance is mentioned in Bertrand Russell’s autobiography.

        1. Martin J Cohen

          Perhaps you mean Christmas 1914.

          Anyway, Bolton gives me something new to be terrified of.

          1. Procopius

            Yes. It’s really irrelevant, but I wonder from time to time if Bolton, reputed to be a really, really smart man, understands the magnitude of the risks he is demanding. The upside is obvious, he is trying to help his friends get their hands on billions of dollars. The downside which too few people seem to be paying attention to, is that he can trigger the end of the world (nuclear war) which will render those billions of dollars utterly valueless. He and his allies seem so complacent, as though those risks are trivial.

    2. Louis Fyne

      Thank you for correcting the error. Point still stands. Is it right to send people to fight/die for a political arrangement made decades prior?

      (Arguably) the millions of Commonwealth dead in northern France only dragged out the war.

      Would the world have been better off if the UK stayed out of the continent in 1914? Would make good arguing over booze fodder.

      1. Sufferin' Succotash

        If NATO had been a diplomatic dead letter for the 70 years following 1949 a good case could be made against sending people to fight and die for a NATO commitment. But this has obviously not been the case. After all, some NATO members have been fighting and dying in Afghanistan under a commitment made 52 years after the founding of NATO.
        As for the 1914 analogy, Germany’s territorial ambitions at the time would have more wars inevitable even in the event of British non-participation in WW1. Quite the contrary. Britain would have had to fight Germany anyway under circumstances far more adverse than was the case in August 1914, circumstances which would have resembled those which Britain in fact did confront in the summer of 1940.
        Actually Lieven’s 1914 analogy, like many historical analogies, doesn’t really hold up under close examination. The two European alliance systems at that time were so closely bound together that any local conflict involving one alliance member (Austria-Hungary versus Serbia, for example) could potentially trigger a general war in Europe. The current situation now involving the US, Russia, China, India and Europe allows for a good deal more room for maneuver than was the case between the Dual Alliance and the Triple Entente.

      2. Unna

        When Germany and France went to war with one another in 1914 Britain was compelled to fight with France against Germany because Britain could never allow Germany to destroy France as a great power on the continent. Germany’s violation of the agreement about Belgian neutrality was only the public reason Britain went to war. The violation of Belgian neutrality was an excuse for Britain to enter a war it was going to enter anyway, but now with public support. Unfortunately as we all know, in a “democratic” age public willingness to permit the mass slaughter of itself and others in war is often dependent on the emotional fervour of its moral outrage whipped up by mass media which in 1914 were the newspapers. In truth and in the “famous” words of the German Chancellor at the time, the agreement was a “scrap of paper” which was both incompatible with the needs of Germany for a quick military victory over France, and a convenient device for Britain to use vis-à-vis its own population.

        There are lessons in this for us in our own time.

      3. Darthbobber

        Britain didn’t really go to war over Belgium. They were just lucky that this gave them a clear excuse that they could justify.

        In fact, their agreements with France and the joint military plans formulated over previous years obligated them to come in on he French side unless the French were the attackers.

        This was a problem for the government, because they’d been in the habit of explaining to parliament for quite some time that the commitments weren’t really commitments if you held your head just so and squinted properly. (so making up this sort of nonsense on the one side, and pretending to believe it on the other, is not a recent British innovation.)

        1. Unna

          Yes, very much so. I’m glad you mentioned the military commitments. Without looking it up, as I remember, the British navy took over guarding the North Sea and the Channel, and the French navy was centred in the Mediterranean. At a certain point during the July crisis the French sought reassurance about Britain entering the war if France were attacked pointing out that their joint naval agreement left France totally exposed without British entry into the war.

          Apart from enhancing Britain’s reputation as “perfide”, if the British hadn’t entered the war either way in the end they would have “lost”: If the Germans had won, Britain would have been facing a continent controlled by a hegemonic Germany. If the French and Russians had won, Britain would have been facing an enraged France as well as an emboldened Russia threatening Britain’s holdings in South Asia.

          In effect, here the British government equivocated (were “perfide”) about Entente commitments both to Parliament as well as to British voters. The “rape” of Belgium arrived just in time for them.

  2. Olga

    I’ve heard Anatol Lieven speak several times, and have respect for much of what he says. And, of course, this article is right that we (i.e., the west) are blindly hurtling toward a future conflict, the effect of which is too scary to contemplate. And yet, few are trying to inject some sanity into the situation. On this point, he is right.
    But I’d like to point out certain inconsistencies in the piece, which – unless corrected – would simply push us along the current path. The point is that, unless we are brutally honest about what went on in the 19th cent. and how E. got to WWI (i.e., we need to undo the long-held biases, misinformation, and misconceptions), we simply will not be able to understand things and/or be unable to chart a new path forward.
    First, there’s the view that Europe was largely at peace from 1815-1914. I don’t think this is strictly true. There were the after-effects of the Napoleonic wars, rebellions and the revolutions of 1848, nationalistic skirmishes in the Ottoman empire (Greece, Serbia, Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878), the Crimean war (1853-56, into which France and UK conveniently inserted themselves and which is today considered as a sort of precursor to WWI – at least in the level of brutality, casualties, duration, and the use of arms), the Franco-German war of 1871 (one result of which – i.e., territorial losses – helped push France to scheme toward a war with Germany) , the imperialistic policies of the Austro-Hungarian empire (many of which led to the rise of nationalism in the various provinces and helped create the powder keg that led to WWI), and the relentless push for colonial dominions by many WE countries (which exacerbated internal European power struggles and also had an element of blowback on the E continent).
    I probably left something out – but the point is that today, we are likely viewing the 19th cent. E. as largely peaceful only because we are looking at that time from the standpoint of the horrific 20th cent. E. wars. Just because there was not a continent-wide war does not mean E. was at peace. If we still lived in the 19th cent. E, I doubt any of us would think of Europe as peaceful. I’d advise to dispense with the view of the “peaceful” E. and study the 19th century in all its gory details to understand how the conflicts of that time laid the foundation of a horrific new war. (There is historical evidence that many top guys in E thought that WWI would be a quick, “surgical” little war that would teach Germany a lesson once and for all – and we’d all be done with it. Alas, a war – once started – is always unpredictable. And so was this one.)
    Second, contrary to popular opinion – anyone who equates communism and nazism, and in one sentence, instantly loses credibility in my eyes. Just because many – even “serious” people – repeat that mantra, does not make it historically accurate. Having my life coloured by the after-effects of nazi destruction, but also having lived in socialist countries, I consider such views intellectual malpractice (or, perhaps, intellectual laziness). (I also believe that if we do not dispense with such gross over-simplifications, it will be very hard for progressives to come up with a vision of a better world, but that is a different discussion.) Socialism in Russia came about because of very specific historical reasons. (I’ve heard Mr. Lieven speak that his family lost possessions somewhere in the area of today’s Donbass, so perhaps his views originate there – who knows.) Having had centuries-old, entrenched elite, meaningful reform did not seem possible in czarist Russia. And reform was needed – desperately. The 19th cent. Russian literature had a concept of “lishnij chelovek” – redundant, unnecessary, superfluous, or unneeded person – documenting that even educated people of property simply had no way to put their skills to good use – because the country was hopelessly under-developed and decades behind the rest of Europe. I do not advocate a revolution, but I do think that revolutions happen for a reason (or, many). It is not up to us to judge them, the best we can do is to try and understand the under-lying reasons. (And, let’s not forget that before both WWI and WWII, it was the socialists and communists who were the strongest advocates against the wars – thus equating them with nazism is simply illogical.)
    Third – “Above all, as it turned out, the real barbaric threat to European civilisation did not come from any of the European ruling establishments of 1914.” This, to me, is a strange sentence. Young Churchill pushed for war to stem the rise of Germany; the French schemed to re-gain Al-Lorr., Austrian aristocracy desperately wanted to hold onto their possessions in far-off provinces, the R. czar seemed ready to fight at the drop of a hat… So really not sure how the above sentence even makes sense. Yes, “the hatreds and tensions generated within European societies by the social and economic changes of the previous decades” played their part, but also the power-competition among the E. powers. My guess is that without that competition, the war might not have happened.
    (But what do I know.) The “conservative elites” the author mentions encouraged nationalism partly as a “divide-and-conquer” tactic (e.g., Habsburgs pushing the elevation of an Ukrainian dialect into a “language” so that they could more easily rule people of that area). But nationalism was also a response to real and daily grievances locals had against the distant rulers.
    Fourth, comparing Polish govt. and VV Putin is way off the mark, as is some sort of equivalency between “the rise of Putin and Trump.” From the point, when Nato started bombing Yugoslavia and Russian PM Primakov turned his plane around to return to Moscow (he was on the way to W., DC), I think the Russians got the message – obey, or be bombed into submission. We don’t know who exactly chose VVP, but we can imagine why. Again, read Zbigniew B.’s the Grand Chessboard – at the end of which, Russia is partitioned into three parts “for better management.” The life today in Russia is incomparably better than it was in 1999 – I have yet to find one person there, who’d want a return to those times (ok, maybe the oligarchs and one taxi driver, who told me he made out like a bandit in those lawless times – but certainly not the ordinary folk).
    Fifth, “the real treats from Russia and China” – as Saker says, these are existential threats to the US empire – but certainly not to the US people, who these days benefit very little from the empire (while some are still dying for it). Most Americans would gain if the empire ceased to exist – given that US will never be an unimportant country (with its size, hard-working people, and wealth).
    All the other points in the article are timely and on target.

    1. hemeantwell

      anyone who equates communism and nazism, and in one sentence, instantly loses credibility in my eyes.

      Agreed. Lieven sounds like someone who believes that to make his urgently valid point he has to sign on to a series of received truths to assure his audience he’s right-minded. In some circles that may be so, but if you’re trying to head off a nationalist psychosis it seems more appropriate to insist on clear, discriminating thinking.

      And that also means that when he says Russia and China are “real threats” that he should set up a firewall against a militaristic interpretation. One of the trends in major power competition that leaves me aghast these days is the way in which military-industrial minions are claiming that political economic competition will inevitably lead to armed confrontation, invoking it as a timeless principle to slosh over the fact that currently warmaking is the US’ strong suit.

    2. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you, Olga.

      Speaking of the Crimean War, it’s interesting how even in the land of my ancestors, the island of Mauritius, there are villages and streets named after Anglo-French victories, e.g. Inkerman and Sebastopol.

      There are similar references from other 19th century conflicts, thus showing that the period 1815 – 1914 was not one of relative peace.

      1. The Rev Kev

        Would you believe that we have places in Oz named after battles of the Crimean War too? When Yves was here in Oz she might have noticed Fort Denison ( in Sydney Harbour. The fort was built, would you believe, in case a Russian squadron attacked Sydney Harbour during the Crimean War. So even in the 1850s it was Russia! Russia! Russia!
        And yes there was plenty of small wars in the 19th century as well as the early 20th century. I wonder how many people have ever heard of the Fashoda Incident ( at all? Actually there is a page I found that mentions quite a few of these troubled relations between the great power and is at-

        1. Joey

          Likewise, since WW2, we haven’t just had cold war, unless your myopia constricts your vision beyond the Mediterranean and the Dardanelles.

        2. Wukchumni

          Sebastopol, Ca. is named after the war, and when it gets chilly on the slopes, I don a neoprene balaclava.

          1. The Rev Kev

            Funny that! It gets chilly in Sebastopol in Crimea too. Did some research on the Crimean War as I have a distant ancestor that fought there and it was freezing in the winters there. He was in the Royal Horse Artillery and they were forced to kill their horses to get food to keep them alive in the bitter cold.

            1. Olga

              It can get chilly there – but nothing like up north. Also, funny translations – it is actually Sevastopol (the consonant “v” in Russian looks like “b” in the the Latin alphabet). So all those Sebastopols should really be Sevastopols (wtih “l” pronounced as “lj”) – for what it’s worth.

          2. John Wright

            I had to look up the origin of Sebastopol, CA as have visited it many times.


            “The town in Sonoma County originally had the name Pinegrove; the name change (according to rumor) had something to do with a bar fight in the late 1850s, which was compared by a bystander to the long British siege of the seaport of Sevastopol (1854-1855) during the Crimean War of 1853-1856.”

            Perhaps copious amounts of alcohol, not the celebration of a military victory, helped Sebastopol, CA get its war-related name.

            I had assumed Sebastopol’s name arose from the Russian settlement about 35 miles away at Fort Ross (1812-1842), which is well before the Crimean War.

            Also the Russian River flows through this area as well.

            1. Wukchumni

              For a glorious romp through California’s past, I suggest reading the wonderful WPA guide from the late 1930’s, that is rich with lore and history. It’s essentially a roadtrip from 1939, exploring each then existent city, and many not around by that time anymore.

              One tidbit I found intriguing was that the Nevada stateline used to run along the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe, but on account of the Sagebrush War in Susanville & surrounding areas, and ambiguous definition of whether one was in California or Nevada, on a tax basis.

              In 1850, John C. Fremont chose the 120th meridian west as California’s eastern boundary. However, because no survey had thus far been done, most assumed this line just tracked the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

              So too did the citizens. Some believed they were too far east to be a part of California and had thus founded their own state, Nataqua, in 1856. Still others refused to pay taxes to Plumas County officials when they would appear to collect, claiming their land was in Nevada, and when Nevada officials appeared vice versa. However, as the settlement grew in Lake Honey Valley, both California and Nevada saw the lack of taxes in the area as an increasingly unacceptable situation and newer settlers were more sympathetic toward Plumas and California authorities, for need of public school funds and protection against Native Americans

              Later on, the settlement as well as the valley up to the easternmost point of the lake was to be, for the time, was put under Plumas County’s control in accordance with De Groote’s earlier map. Two surveyors, meanwhile, ran the eastern boundary anew from Lake Tahoe to Oregon, finding all of the settlement and the lake within the limits of California and shrinking Roop so much so that neighboring Washoe County was forced to annex it.


        3. Colonel Smithers

          Thank you, Kev.

          It’s good that you highlight Fashoda.

          If one reads Sleepwalkers, how Europe went to war in 1914, one learns how throughout that long 19th century (1789 – 1914), the powers, big and small, demonised one another.

          Even with the Entente Cordiale, suspicion remained between the UK and France.

          Soon after the armistice, a movement in favour of “retrocession” emerged in Mauritius. A minority of Franco-Mauritian oligarchs, crucially excluding the Leclezio family, then the most prominent of the oligarchs, and many, if not most, of the reformers in politics, Franco-Mauritian and Creole / mixed race, wanted Mauritius returned to France, the former trying it on as a good will gesture from Albion and the latter thinking France would be more likely to reform than Albion Perfide.

          The UK strongly opposed the movement, but was content to let the commercial interests of the oligarchy, led by Sir Henri Leclezio, win over Franco-Mauritian sentimentalism and reformist elements.

    3. DJG

      Olga: Thanks. A remarkable comment. I would point out, though, that in France, the time between 1871 and 1914 is still called La Belle Epoque, a kind of manufactured paradise of bourgeois stability, prosperity, innovations in the arts, and advances in good eating. Monet was showing paintings. Mistinguett appeared in nightclubs. Even la France profonde seemed peaceful.

      Along the Mediterranean, as you say, the picture was less stable. The Italian Risorgimento, which was constant skirmishes between 1848 and 1860, is an instance of how unstable the peace was.

      A quibble: Years ago, I read Anatol Lieven’s book about the Baltic States and their way of achieving new independence. It covered the 1980s and early 1990s, culminating in reestablished independence in 1991 and 1992 and the strains of the new democracies. He wrote in that book that his interest in the region comes from his heritage as a Baltic German. His family was displaced before his birth, but their origins are as low-level nobles in Latvia, I believe. So I doubt that they held land in the Donbass.

      I have a feeling that I understand how his mistaken equating of communism and nazism arose: Anyone of Baltic descent would be aware of the genocidal effects of the Russan communists and the German nazis on the Baltic States. The unfortunate Lithuanians were neither good Aryans nor good communists, although the outbreak of murderous anti-Semitism there is still inexcusable. So he conflates the effects, which still show in the politics and foreign policies of those little countries.

      1. David

        Yes, although the Nazism=Communism analogy was very popular during the Cold War, because it offered an opportunity to re-fight WW2 with the sides correctly positioned this time. But there’s also a specific cause – the Historikerstriet or “battle of the historians” in the 1980s in Germany, where people like Nolte argued that there was, in practice, no difference between the crimes of the Nazis and the crimes of the Bolsheviks, and indeed the Nazis had only really imitated Stalin’s purges. As you can imagine there was some push-back, but the idea of maximising Stalin’s crimes, and effectively attributing to him the death of everyone who died after 1917, became very popular in right-wing circles. It’s not dead as an idea even today, in spite of the opening of the Soviet archives.

      2. Olga

        Quibble to a quibble – I am pretty sure there were no “genocidal effects” in the Baltics. Those areas were a part of the czarist Russia for close to 300 yrs. Lenin signed a peace treaty with Germans at Brest-Litovsk (1918), after the revolution, since he could not continue to fight them. The Baltics were a part of the bargain, given to Germany. When USSR won in WWII, it took the Baltics back.
        I am not saying they should not have their independence (not that they had much of it under the Germans), but only that USSR did not behave any differently than other war victors typically do.
        As for Donbass, I heard him say that at one of his speeches (I could be wrong, of course). But the reason I remembered it is because he dismissed the region as just another fly-over space, when in fact it is a region rich in resources. (Plus just ‘cuz they were from up north does not mean they could not own property in the south.)

      3. hemeantwell

        He wrote in that book that his interest in the region comes from his heritage as a Baltic German. His family was displaced before his birth, but their origins are as low-level nobles in Latvia, I believe.

        Hmm. I just came across an essay by Norbert Elias on terrorism, “Civilization and Violence,” in which he spends some time talking about Freikorps elements fighting in that area around the end of WWI. “If the Baltic provinces, where German big land-owners had played a leading role for centuries, could be detached from Russia by fighting the Red Army and annexed to Germany…one could acquire a new position adeqate to one’s class — perhaps even a land-holding.” He then goes on to describe scorched earth atrocities by Freikorps after the German surrender ended their hopes of conquest.

        Schlondorff’s film “Coup de Grace” depicts that time. It’s based on a novel by Mauguerite Yourcenar, both a very good.

    4. Carolinian

      Thanks for the great comment which hits on all the dubious points in the above article. Perhaps one big diff with WW1 is that the current situation is so one sided compared to 1914 when many of the ruling families were literally related. The modern US may have imperial ambitions in the minds of the nutty neocons but it’s debatable whether Russia does. Even the original cold war had more substance than the current one which seems to have been invented–here the article gets it right–to “divert mass support away from socialism” and from discontent with our ruling elites.

    5. Randy G

      Thank you, Olga.

      Your comments are always illuminating and this response to Lieven was one of your best, cogently addressing the most jarring missteps in his original.

      The main reason I read Naked Capitalism is the quality of the ‘first responders’ in the comment’s section — which is by far the most informed that I’ve come across on an internet ‘political’ site.

      All the regulars who add so much thoughtful nuance and discussion to the original posts should give themselves a big hand.

    6. orange cats

      (To Olga) This is masterful, thank you. This is particularly relevant:

      “Above all, as it turned out, the real barbaric threat to European civilisation did not come from any of the European ruling establishments of 1914.” This, to me, is a strange sentence. Young Churchill pushed for war to stem the rise of Germany; the French schemed to re-gain Al-Lorr., Austrian aristocracy desperately wanted to hold onto their possessions in far-off provinces, the R. czar seemed ready to fight at the drop of a hat… So really not sure how the above sentence even makes sense. Yes, “the hatreds and tensions generated within European societies by the social and economic changes of the previous decades” played their part, but also the power-competition among the E. powers. My guess is that without that competition, the war might not have happened.

    7. Summer

      “Above all, as it turned out, the real barbaric threat to European civilisation did not come from any of the European ruling establishments of 1914.” This, to me, is a strange sentence…”

      If you didn’t address anything else, I’m glad you got up this morning and addressed that!!

  3. oaf

    Those who don’t learn from mistakes are destined to repeat them…as long as the elite hold all the marbles at the end…they win!
    Thanks, Yves, for this post. Timely refresher providing a perspective suppressed by MSM.

  4. David

    Olga’s post saved me a lot of typing. I normally find Lieven good value, but I’m struggling to find much worth keeping in this article, except for the very mundane point that you should be careful what you start, because it might finish in ways different to what you expect.
    I’d add that none of the Powers in 1914 wanted, or expected, a major European war lasting years, and indeed such an outcome was not inevitable, even after hostilities started. Rather, the major players were all afraid of something (France of German power, Germany of encirclement by France and a growing Russia, AH by separatist and nationalist forces, and so on). All of the Powers considered themselves to be strategically on the defensive against superior combinations of forces. I really don’t think that’s what we have now. In addition, their objectives were relatively limited (a “place in the sun” for Germany, return of Alsace and Lorraine for France) and whatever you think of them, basically rational.
    And I have difficulty with any analysis that claims that “all the evidence now suggests that in 2022, France will elect a president from the National Front,” because there’s no such evidence, and anyway the party has a different name now. For what it’s worth, given that Lieven aims a few passing kicks at nationalism, Le Pen style nationalism is primarily anti-Brussels and pro-community. The RN has been cultivating links with similar parties elsewhere in Europe, in the hope of forming a “Europe of the Nations” rather than what they say is a “United States of Europe.”
    I think the point about the number of wars in the 19th century is fair, but I’d just add that all of these wars were relatively brief, and did not seriously threaten the international system.

    1. Joey

      ‘Did not threaten the international system’

      Ah, so historians and mass media follow the same playbook on protecting elites, and neglecting the struggles of the deplorable others. Ya don’t say.

      Anthropology was a cross-disciplinary class of mine in college, and I recall being struck at the earliest texts’ clear purpose of justification of colonial control by the ‘civilized.’ This framework is as old as power itself, I’d imagine…

  5. JTMcPhee

    Time to saddle up the Sn tzu rocking horse — some observations from the collective wisdom represented as the work of Sun Tzu, in “The Art of War:”

    I. Laying Plans

    1. Sun Tzu said: The art of war is of vital importance to the State.

    2. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.

    3. The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field.

    4. These are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline.

    5,6. The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger. {Note reference to universal moral law in the post}.

    7. Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons.

    8. Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.

    9. The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerely, benevolence, courage and strictness.

    10. By method and discipline are to be understood the marshaling of the army in its proper subdivisions, the graduations of rank among the officers, the maintenance of roads by which supplies may reach the army, and the control of military expenditure.

    11. These five heads should be familiar to every general: he who knows them will be victorious; he who knows them not will fail.

    12. Therefore, in your deliberations, when seeking to determine the military conditions, let them be made the basis of a comparison, in this wise:–

    13. (1) Which of the two sovereigns is imbued with the Moral law? (2) Which of the two generals has most ability? (3) With whom lie the advantages derived from Heaven and Earth? (4) On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced? (5) Which army is stronger? (6) On which side are officers and men more highly trained? (7) In which army is there the greater constancy both in reward and punishment?

    14. By means of these seven considerations I can forecast victory or defeat.

    15. The general that hearkens to my counsel and acts upon it, will conquer: let such a one be retained in command! The general that hearkens not to my counsel nor acts upon it, will suffer defeat:–let such a one be dismissed!

    Sun Tzu’s work goes on to warn, among many other errors, against prolonged and expensive wars at the ends of elongated supply lines (and supply chains, these days. And against impoverishing the State and the peasantry. A whole lot of accumulated wisdom gained by painful experience, all of which is completely opaque to and ignored by the Elites of today, and those self-serving “Battlespace managers” who call themselves General Officers.

    I personally despair of any reformation of the thinking and motivations of, and reduction or dissolution of the powers and interests, of the Elites who have a death grip on the levers and steering wheels of power and wealth.

    But reading through Sun Tzu, and referring to works like “The Proud Tower” and “The Guns of August” and the assortment of wisdom like what Olga has just kindly shared, makes it clear that the intellectual tools and appreciation, as in understanding, of the moving forces that drive “The March of Folly,” are out there, in the mouths of Cassandras and equivalents of the Hebrew Prophets. {And yes, Tuchman’s works have lots to niggle at, but still…] Too bad nobody of any consequence is listening, or has any interest or personal gain to achieve by acting on all that…

    1. The Rev Kev

      Love that book and I hear that it has been standard reading in the Russian military for decades as well as other countries. A favourite quote of mine is where he said: “For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” Damn right!

      1. Wukchumni

        In an updated version, call it: Funds of August

        The leap from the American Civil War to WW1 in killing capability, might be similar to the financial world of 1929 compared to present day in terms of technology, no?

      2. Olga

        Not sure I’d use “love,” but it is certainly masterful. Read it before an inheritance court battle… very helpful.

    2. ex-PFC Chuck

      In a similar vein I offer John Boyd‘s critera for evaluating a country’s grand strategy. He was constantly refining his ideas and thus they are a moving target, so to speak. I find the following formulation of them the most helpful.

      Fundamental Objective: Ensure the nation’s fitness, as an organic whole, to shape and cope with the ever-changing environment of which it is a part.
      Supporting Sub-Objectives:

      • Strengthen national resolve and increase the nation’s internal political solidarity.
      • Weaken the resolve of the nation’s adversaries and reduce their internal cohesion.
      • Reinforce the commitments of our allies to our cause and make them empathetic to our success.
      • Attract the uncommitted to our cause.
      • End conflicts on terms that do not sow the seeds for future conflicts.

      Since the end of the Cold War USA foreign policy has been diametrically opposed to these criteria.
      Links to books about Boyd can be found here, here and here. The first is a biography of his whole, very full, multi-faceted life whereas the latter two are mainly about his strategic thinking.

  6. Unna

    The competing alliance systems in 1914 were a foundation of potential instability but only once one major power “mobilized” its forces. The real danger was created by the wars of the 19th Century and the increasing tempo of international crises in the decades immediately preceding the outbreak of WWI as described by Olga which made the major powers all fearful of one another. With mobilization, then of course, speed became of the essence for competing powers. But there was always a lot of time to talk until one or another major power mobilized. But a major power would mobilize only if it had deliberately decided on war. WWI was not an accidental war.

    The archduke was shot on 28 June 1914 and as I remember Austria only declared war on Serbia a month later and only after getting Germany’s support for war. Then Russia mobilized and Germany declared war all within a few days. Plenty of time to talk before then. But would Serbia have ever supported to the extent it did Serb terrorists shooting the archduke if Serbia had not first received massive financial and military support from France which sought to use Serbia as a weapon against Austria which was Germany’s last great power ally. Serbia sought to gain territory through war with, as it understood it at least, the assurance of support from great powers. Serbia at the time was not considered a “responsible” player. So in effect, France and it’s Entente partners became the dog wagged by the Serbian tail against the German Austrian Triple Alliance. Today’s Baltic countries, Poland, and Ukraine, anyone? And the responsibility for war goes ‘round and ‘round. See also Georgia’s war in 2008 which could have become a great power confrontation. Nobody in their right mind could have considered Saakashvili’s Georgia a responsible player, except maybe John McCain and people like him.

    And today the situation is much worse. With missiles, decision makers have only minutes and there can be genuine false alarms, especially with America recklessly and perhaps catastrophically positioning “defensive” missiles in Poland, Bush (now hero of the Resistance) tearing up the ABM treaty, Clinton’s and Bush’s including countries on Russia’s border in NATO, Obama’s embrace of a virulently anti Russian stunningly corrupt oligarchical regime in Ukraine which is politically dependent on Nazi militias now incorporated into its military, Trump’s John Bolton creature threatening to withdraw from the intermediate range missile treaty, an unhinged and almost criminally irresponsible anti Russia MSM and Dem opposition which has a meltdown over the possible withdrawal of 2,000 illegally present US troops in Syria, and so on. Throw in an American political elite profoundly deluded about the effective military power of its own military along with this elite’s dangerous and insulting claim to be the “leader” of the free world.

    If war happens now, the people who are left, if any, will look back on those quaint wars of the 20th Century where people only died in the tens of millions.

    1. animalogic

      “So in effect, France and it’s Entente partners became the dog wagged by the Serbian tail against the German Austrian Triple Alliance. ”
      Tails wagging dogs….? Israeli tail wags US dog in Iraq, Syria & Iran…to mention the most notorious ?

    2. Procopius

      Throw in an American political elite profoundly deluded about the effective military power of its own military …

      I think the most frightening aspect is that they act as if they believe their systems are invulnerable. They act as if their anti-missile systems actually work. This is a dangerous delusion, since the anti-ballistic systems particularly have never passed a genuine test, even when the targets contain radio transponders the missiles can lock on to.

    3. norm de plume

      ‘With missiles, decision makers have only minutes and there can be genuine false alarms’

      That reminded me of the Donald Barthelme story The Game which manages to be at once amusing and chilling. The two protagonists are a miniature of the macro forces (the old notion of society as the super-individual, in reverse) – bound by defined limits of cognition and role-play, driven by childish envy and fear, armageddon only a tantrum away.

      While fear it is true was a major element in the road to 1914, don’t discount the role of envy. I wonder if Mimesis-Man Rene Girard, the guy who discerned in all human activity the power of envy, ever opined on this. Pride too. In a sense these are all the same thing seen from different perspectives – pride in being on top, fear of not being on top, envy of those perceived to be on top, revenge on those who took you off the top – individual human frailties all knitted together under the rubric of nationalism… society as the super-individual again.

      Seen through a zoom lens, what all this indicates to me is that humans as individuals and as super-individuals tend naturally toward self-interest (or national interest) rather than toward a common interest, even when the stakes are existential.. perhaps especially then. Hardly news.

      John Boyd’s work (mentioned elsewhere in the thread) implicitly recognises this and works within it. In that context, he makes a helluva lot of sense. However, surely the wider, broader, deeper recognition ought to be that the ultimate good is to make enemies, if not friends, then at least no longer enemies, within an encompassing imperative of shared peace and prosperity. For that reason ‘Weaken the resolve of the nation’s adversaries and reduce their internal cohesion’ is problematic for me, a remnant of military thinking that doesn’t recognise that if we poison ‘the ever-changing environment of which (we are) a part’ that it will eventually redound to our mutual cost. The analogy with the planet is so obvious it need hardly be made.

      I would like to recommend a podcast – The History of the 20th Century – wry and full of side streets that shed new light (at least for me) on the build up to war. It is comprehensive; up to episode 141 and still in 1917!

      One thing that really has stood out to me is a two word cause that is at least as important as the more abstract elements – Kaiser Wilhelm. Has the post-medieval world seen a monarch more ultimately destructive? The relatively newborn German state, powered by the sweet revenge of 1871, feeling it’s oats and full of the old BDE, needed a measured, statesmanlike influence at the top, not a dim, gung-ho halfwit with delusions of grandeur. Fear, envy and pride distilled in one man, ideally placed to wreak havoc. He was not the Lone Ranger no doubt, but in his position as emperor he disabled the motors of restraint in Germany (embodied in the embattled Bethman-Hollweg) which had lethal ripple effects elsewhere.

      Not least of which was the gaping hole the loss of the imperial system left in the legitimate exercise of power in Germany after 1918. A hole filled by something far worse than a dim, gun-ho halfwit.

  7. Scott1

    I could create another nation from a 2D to 3D to VR movie, with a game. Love and War movie of course. But recognize war is a compulsion of humans in their tribes & nation states. They are in a courtship where war is the marriage.

    War by other means is Economic War. Hybrid war has been the response of Putin to Econ War. The UN worked in the Bi Polar Balanced world but is failing because of the fear of a Gov. of Govs that would override US Hegemony. The US imposes Sanctions to punish Putin, and what? Way I get it is the UN approves this violation of International Law.

    Econ War is the state of War the world is in already. Putin does not offer to buy the real territory he wants. Why not? He has a willingness for war and the use of his tanks. Tanks take territory. “Offense is the best defense.”

    Nukes exist to kill tank crews. In the multi polar power world that roils now beneath the Unitary power exercised by the US who can say whether the wedding dance of war will start in the China Sea or on land in Europe? Ukraine smolders. Food. Ukraine is food secure. Behind the French front were the farms and France was food secure.

    WWI was WWII. Churchill defeated Hitler. It is Putin who is practicing aggressive war now. He is the War Maker at Hybrid war. He is successful at corruption and Trump is corrupt. A corrupt US? The more corrupt the nation and its leaders the less loved. Why rescue the corrupt?

    1. witters

      Just when you think the NC commentariat hits all the high notes, you get this: “It is Putin who is practicing aggressive war now. He is the War Maker at Hybrid war. He is successful at corruption and Trump is corrupt.”

    2. Oregoncharles

      Nukes exist to destroy cities. That’s the only thing they’ve been used for. Yes, I suppose a nuke would destroy a tank unit, but it would also destroy everything around it. They cannot be made small enough to be useful in war, short of destroying civilization.

      As in Dune, their real usefulness now is to PREVENT war between those who have them. We hope – there’ve been a lot of close calls.

      1. JBird4049

        Actually, they have made and even deployed nuclear weapons small enough for a backpack or perhaps a large suitcase and the tech needed for a primarily people killing instead of physical (relative) destruction was developed over thirty years ago. It is just the continued development and production of such weapons was suppressed because it made the slippery slope for the use of nuclear weapons including that of city killers much too greasy. The thinking was that conventional weapons are useful enough so why take chances? Add the end of the last Cold War and it was all shelved or destroyed.

        Unfortunately the technical knowledge already exists, and is on file somewhere in both the United States and Russia, and I am sure someplaces like Israel, South Africa, India, or maybe even Pakistan.


        1. Procopius

          That description of “neutron bombs” is/was very misleading. They destroyd a hell of a lot of buildings in order to produce those neutrons/gamma rays. The lunatics who promote their use tried to make them sound cute and cuddly, but they kick giga-tons of radioactive dust up into the stratosphere where they will block sunlight for several years just like conventional nukes.

  8. Oregoncharles

    ” the historians of the future will judge us by a similarly harsh standard. ”
    That’s assuming there ARE historians of the future to judge us.

    That’s a remarkably frightening title.

    I doubt I’m the first, but an excellent book on this subject is The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman. WWI started in August.

    Having grown up at the height of the Cold War and MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction – an official strategy), and remembering the exuberant relief when it ended, I can’t quite believe anyone is irresponsible enough to bring it back. It’s a crime against humanity, a Nuremberg hanging offense – and it should be.

    It makes me feel really old.

    1. kernel

      Recently read Tuchman’s “prequel” to Guns of August – The Proud Tower – about Europe before WWI. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t have a happy ending.

    2. JBird4049

      Because we have already lived through the insanity that supposedly ended over twenty-five years ago or because it seems like homicidal, delusional teenagers with dreams of godhood are now running things?

    3. pretzelattack

      mad was designed to stalemate, so that nukes (theoretically) wouldn’t be used. some of the later strategies were even more dangerous, because they seemed to make it possible to “win” in some scenarios. they depended on an opponent in the middle of a ramping up nuclear war being rational. reminds me of the “rational actor” mainstream economics loved and depended on.

  9. skk

    Talk about Western sieve. No mention of the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. And these weren’t just countries, it was The British Empire, the Austria-Hungary Empire, French Empire. Leaving that out leaves out the vicious colonialism that was going on, the grab for Africa.. Peace in the previous century? Bullshit. And we live the consequences of the Brit and french carveup of the Ottoman territories. This is not a good article.

  10. David

    I have a minor point to make, because I’m tired of seeing the same factual error being casually repeated over and over again, even if it is usually tangential. Gavrilo Princip was a Serb and he was a nationalist – but his nationalism was Yugoslav nationalism and Young Bosnia, while primarily made up of Orthodox Serbs, also had Bosnian Muslim and Croat members (i.e. Muhamed Mehmedbašić, one of the co-conspirators in Sarajevo). They wanted a Yugoslav state, in Princip’s own words: “I am a Yugoslav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavs, and I do not care what form of state, but it must be freed from Austria.”

  11. TheCatSaid

    James Corbett has pulled together an illuminating series about WWI causes–information that provides context and rich documentation that upends what we’ve been taught. I believe it is available in transcript format and audio as well as 3-part documentary, and also a couple rated recent interviews.

    Not at computer so inconvenient to get the links but you’ll find it at The Corbett Report.

    I’d LOVE to revisit this discussion after folks have the benefit of this background!

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