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Review of MacMillan's "What They Were Thinking?"

The appeasement of Hitler at Munich is occasionally evoked in an attempt to broaden minds. It is true that a tough stance by Britain and France – especially if they had maintained their defensive military alliance with the US – might have prevented World War II. But on the subject of outbreak of war there is another bit of history that also broadens minds. It is about attitudes that preceded the Great War in 1914. Margaret MacMillan has written a book on this subject that is both entertaining and scholarly, The War that Ended Peace, published in 2013. It is not another of the dozens of books that argue the causes of the war, but it does have a chapter titled "What Were They thinking?"

Europeans had a lot of conflicting attitudes. MacMillan writes that there were "huge differences by class, country and region ... and many living life as it came and not reflecting much about where the world was going." Behind these differences were the historical changes of the 1800s: industrialization and the scientific and technological revolutions. Old practices and values had been called into question.

The landowning classes had been clinging to honor "as something that distinguished them from the newly prosperous middle classes."

Duels... fought over matters of honor, not only persisted in nineteenth-century Europe but indeed increased, among students.

There was the influential Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) who wrote "copiously and frequently contradicted himself." He was convinced that Western civilization "had gone badly wrong" and that humanity was doomed unless it made a clean break and started to think clearly and allow itself to feel deeply (as if thinking clearly and passion were compatible). He challenged the view that everything could be measured and explained. Nietzsche, writes MacMillan, was against capitalism and modern industrial society, and "the herd people" it produced.

And there was the belief in elan by the famous French philosopher Henri Bergson. Like Nietzsche, Bergson argued against the cold logic of positivism. Positivism was the philosophy of science, of facts and information derived from sensory experience. The word "elan" was derived from throwing a spear. For the French, l'elan vital had a military application: spirit among military men that would supply victory.

According to MacMillan, a leading French intellectual, Henri Massis, wrote of Bergson having delivered his generation 'from the systematic negation of a doctrinaire scepticism of the past.' In 1911, writes MacMillan, "Massis and his friends led a campaign against the academic establishment, accusing them of promoting an 'empty science' and pedantry while neglecting the spiritual education of the students."

There were many in these years who wanted to regain the spiritual, cultural and moral values they saw as having been lost during industrialization and capitalism. They tended to be aristocrats like Nietzsche, their wealth historically from agriculture rather than manufacturing – although aristocratic families were beginning to blend with the families of wealthy industrialists. The aristocrats saw a rise in coarser living, a more selfish and vulgar society, Aristocrats tended to see war as spiritually enhancing, and some viewed bourgeois prosperity as making young men less fit for war. The German poet Stefan George, son of a wine merchant, wrote of the "cowardly years of trash and triviality." (When the Nazis came to power in January 1933, before his death in December at the age of 65, they offered him presidency of a new Academy for the arts.)

Accompanying the view of degeneration and moral decay was the Darwinism that had arisen in the late 1800s. An evolution of species has morphed into the idea that struggle was a fundamental part of the evolution of human societies. MacMillan writes that not surprisingly Social Darwinism "resonated with military men." It seemed to justify and indeed elevate the importance of their calling.

What Social Darwinism did as well was reinforce a much older view, expressed by Hobbes among others, that international relations were nothing more than an endless jockeying for advantage among nations.

Nietzsche's view. by the way, meshed with this Social Darwinism. He believed that the world was not orderly. Instead it was vital and dangerous, He was looking for a struggle that would take humanity to a higher level, including quotes MacMillan "the merciless destruction of everything that is degenerate and parasitical."

Nationalism was not one of Nietzsche's passions. Aristocrats were into aristocracies rather than a massive collection of people. Nationalism was a major development in the 1800s. Writes MacMillan:

Although identifying with a nation rather than with a region or a village was relatively new for most Europeans, many of them were making up for lost time.

Nationalism mixed with Social Darwinism emphasized competition between nations. Germany's Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, according to MacMillan, was convinced that conflict was "bound to come between the declining power of Britain and the rising one of Germany." She adds:

While there were always British and Germans, right up until the outbreak of war in 1914, who talked in terms of shared values, even a shared Teutonic heritage, their voices were drowned out by the increasing hostility which permeated all levels of society.

In various countries rising nationalism had been accompanied by the belief that proper teaching of history enhanced nationalistic patriotism. And there were those complained about the nationalist spirit. Germany's Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke (the elder), an aristocrat, was among them. MacMillan writes of him telling Germany's parliament,

... wars determined by rulers for limited ends was over: "All we have now is people's war, and any prudent government will hesitate to bring about a war of this nature with all its incalculable consequences." The great powers, he went on, will find it difficult to bring such wars to an end or admit defeat.

Moltke could have been thinking about the emotionalism of war mongering demagogue, Cleon, addressing the Athenian masses during the Peloponnesian War or the Roman Republic going to war against Carthage.

Regarding the early 1900s, MacMillan writes of "schoolmasters, writers, generals, or politicians" telling the young "to take pride in the great military victories of the past." MacMillan writes of the German historian Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-96), "one of the intellectual fathers of the new German nationalism." He had more sympathy for capitalism than some aristocrats. He belonged to Germany's National Liberal political party. Through his lectures and writings, writes MacMillan, "he influenced a whole general of Germany's leaders to take pride in the great German past." And he looked forward to Germany gaining its "place in the sun."

MacMillan wrote of the Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863-1938). He "had an impact on the young across Europe with his exaltation of power, heroism and violence." After the Great War of 1914-19 he became one of Italy's fascists.

MacMillan writes also of Britain's promising young poet before the Great War, Rupert Brooke, longing for 'some kind of upheaval.' Entering the war, he was to thank God for 'matching us with His hour.' He was to describe going to war "as swimmers into cleanness leaping."

And there was the Anglo-French Catholic writer and historian Hilaire Belloc, one England's most prolific writers, saying, "How I long for the Great War! It will sweep Europe like a broom."

In addition to cleansing, war for some in Europe was seen as getting them beyond the antipathies and divisions that interfered with nationalistic unity. Both were illusions.

Copyright © 2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.