November 13, 2007
Although Sid Cundiff in a recent blog praises me as someone who recognizes “shades of grey,” I may be losing that capacity when it comes to certain neoconservative journalists. In an article for the Canadian National Post, which was also published on NRO (November 11, 2007), David Frum bewails the fact that Canadians are not showing the appropriate enthusiasm over the Allied victory in the Great War. In spite of 67,000 dead Canadians and the wounding and maiming of 170,000 more, the sacrifice and blighting of human lives was well worth the price: “A German victory in that first war would have done nearly as much damage to democracy in Europe as a German victory in the second”and in that first war the odds in favor of Germany stood much higher.” “Our free and democratic modern world is the gift paid by the fearsome sacrifices,” and lest we forget, Frum reminds us that the “German occupation of Belgium pioneered the methods the Nazis would later use in Poland and Ukraine.”
Lest anyone think I”m a surviving agent of the Kaiser’s Germany, let me make it clear that I consider the First World War an unmitigated tragedy for Western civilization as a whole. My heart goes out to those on both sides who fought and died in this totally unnecessary war, out of which came no conceivable good and which ended in a predictably unjust treaty. My own family fought for the Austrian side, and ultimately for the survival of the Habsburg monarchy, but I feel the same pain for Western Europeans who were dragged into this brutal conflict, which erupted because of stupidity on both sides.
The American responsibility was particularly grave, since we had it in our power, which is a point that George Kennan repeatedly suggested, to push the warring sides toward genuine negotiations. But Wilson’s government was so passionately pro-British and anti-German that our ambassador to London Walter Hines Page did everything possible to fuel international strife. Instead of letting the British know that the starvation blockade that Churchill began to place on Germany, weeks before the declaration of war, was illegal under international law, Page gave the British assurances that we would soon join them on the battlefield. Let me recommend an essay by American historian Ralph Raico in The Costs of War that outlines all the belligerent steps taken by the American government to make the intended outcome, entering the war against the Central Powers, all but inevitable. Raico and, even more exhaustively, the historian Walter Karp also discuss the systematic destruction of civil liberties at home accompanying Wilson’s glaringly hypocritical war “to make the world safe for democracy.”
As for the light that might have come at the end of the tunnel, let me inform David Frum that there was not much to choose from between the two sides. Neither the probable peace that the Central Powers would have imposed after four years of fighting, which would have extended Austro-German control through Eastern Europe and called for the absorption of Belgium into a German sphere of influence, nor the Treaty of Versailles, and the other far more vindictive treaties made with the other defeated powers after World War One, would have boded well for Europe’s future. But the US could have done something constructive to avoid the Old World’s self-destruction if Robert Lansing, Woodrow Wilson, and Ambassador Page had not been so hell-bent on doing the bidding of the British government.
Finally, there is no reason to glorify the German government in 1914 to recognize that it was more like the British government of 1914 than like a modern mass democracy. Each was led by aristocrats and the upper-middle class in what was an essentially Victorian social order, and in both countries impetuous monarchs, whether Edward VII or Wilhelm, played high-risk diplomacy in the first decade of the twentieth century. Looking at the events leading up to the war, both sides oscillated between recklessness and occasional restraint, but contrary to the conventional impression, the British behaved about as badly as the Germans, if one looks at the British First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill, who for several years before 1914 was itching for a showdown with Imperial Germany. The German naval challenge to England was for the most part fictional. In 1898 the German navy was the world’s fifteenth largest, and even by the time of the First World War, Germany as a naval power still trailed behind several other countries, besides Britain. I was amused by Frum’s reference to German atrocities in Belgium foreshadowing those of the Nazi occupation of Poland and Ukraine. Presumably he is still reading the horror reports of Lord Bryce, who was in charge of British war propaganda. Unlike Frum, however, Bryce admitted to having invented his facts, as a wartime patriotic act.
The term “mishagas” in my title is a Yiddish expression that refers to a persistent tic. In the case of Frum and his neocon pals, their distinctive mishagas, which goes beyond their strident Zionism, is their hatred of certain peoples, and most particularly the Germans. From their weird perspective Hitlerian types and eliminationist anti-Semites were already running Germany at the time of the Second Empire, and those Jews who fought for the Central Powers in the Great War had deluded themselves by supporting a proto-Nazi regime that foreshadowed the horrors of the Third Reich. There is of course the other related side of the neocons” Teutonophobic fixation. It is the omnipresence and timelessness of the evil German Hitler, who did not really die in a Bunker in 1945 but who is now living in the Middle East—or wherever else the neocons are pushing the “democracies” into launching “preemptive wars.” In Frum’s wholly predictable opinion, the Canadians are not whooping it up with sufficient enthusiasm over the happy “democratic” results of the Great War. But then possibly they”re not as Germanophobic as Frum. And they may even recall the real pity of war, to cite the title of Niall Ferguson’s book about the English suffering caused by the wholly avoidable bloodbath that occurred between 1914 and 1918.