November 02, 2015

The Great War: the Value of Remembering it As it Really Was

Writing about web page http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3298895/Jeremy-Corbyn-comes-fire-denouncing-shedloads-money-spent-World-War-One-commemorations.html

In the spring of 2013, the British government was considering how the nation should remember the centenary of the Great War. At that time Jeremy Corbyn made some remarks on the subject, and in April the Communist Party uploaded them to Youtube. His words would no doubt have lingered in obscurity, were it not that in September this year the same Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of Britain's Labour Party. This weekend his remarks of more than two years ago were brought under critical scrutiny. What attracted the ire of the Sunday columnists was the following words:

Keir Hardie ... was a great opponent of the first world war and next year the government is apparenlty proposing to spend shedloads of money commemorating the first world war. I'm not quite sure what there is to commemorate other than the mass slaughter of millions of young men and women, mainly men, on the western front and all the other places.

As an economic historian I was more interested in what came next:

And it was a war of the declining empires, and anyone who's read or even dipped into Hobson's great work of the early part of the twentieth century, written post-world war, that presaged the whole first world war as a war between monopolies fighting it out for markets and that's essentially what the first world war was.

My notes. "The declining empires": I'm not sure what that can mean, for in 1914 the major empires were surely at their highest moment. "Hobson's great work of the early part of the twentieth century." This is most likely a reference to J. A. Hobson work on "imperialism." Hobson (1902) argued that the capitalist industrial economies of the time suffered from underconsumption, because the big companies were raising productivity while pushing down wages. As a result, there was not enough purchasing power to buy all the output, which was accumulating as surplus capital. Faced with too much capital, Hobson argued, the capitalists solved the problem by exporting it to poorer countries. Having done that, they needed to protect their investments by bringing the poorer countries under colonial administration. So, this was a a theory of imperialism. Being published in 1902, Hobson's book was not "written post-world war" because the world war was yet to come. And it did not presage the coming war "as a war between monopolies fighting it out for markets"; that idea came along later, when the war was already in progress, and belongs to Lenin (1916). While Hobson did not predict the Great War, he did draw a clear link from imperialism to nationalism, and he opposed the war when it came.

How does the Hobson-Lenin view of the Great War stand up today? Not well. Here are two problems:

Problem #1. The surplus of capital does not explain imperialism. In the words of Gareth Austin (2014: 309):

the major outflows of capital from the leading imperial powers, Britain and France, went not to their new colonies but to countries which were either the more autonomous of their existing colonies (such as Australia) or were former colonies (the United States), former colonies of another European country (as with Argentina), or had never been colonized (Russia). Decisively, several of the expansionist imperial powers of the period were themselves net importers of capital: the United States, Japan, Portugal, and Italy.

Problem #2. The protection of business interests abroad does not explain the outbreak of the Great War. Richard Hamilton and Holger Herwig (2004) reviewed the evidence, country by country. In every case, including specifically Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, they found that the business constituency was excluded from the decisions that led to war. Had the business leaders been consulted, they would have opposed war. (This would also have been true in Russia, a case that Hamilton and Herwig do not consider.) They conclude (p. 247):

Economic leaders were not present in decision-making circles in July 1914. And, just as important, their urgent demands to avoid war were given no serious attention. It is an unexpected lesson because many intellectuals give much emphasis to the power of big business. The logic is easy: industrialists and bankers have immense resources; anxious and deferential politicians, supposedly, must respond to their demands. But the realities were quite different. At one point a German banker, Arthur von Gwinner, “had the audacity to point out Germany’s dire financial straits” to Wilhelm II. The monarch’s reply: “That makes no difference to me.”

In remembering the Great War, we should be careful to remember it as it really was. War did not break out in 1914, as Jeremy Corbyn seems to think, because of a money-making war machine, or because commercial interests were manipulating politics behind the scenes.

The Great War broke out because secretive, unaccountable rulers in Vienna, Berlin, and St Petersburg decided on it (I wrote about this in more detail in Harrison 2014). They feared the consequences but decided on war regardless because they believed the national interest would be better served by risking it in aggression than by remaining at peace. They believed this based on a nationalist, militarist, and aristocratic view of the national interest, in which profit and commercial advantage played no role. They decided on war in July 1914, and not in any previous crisis, because in previous crises they had been divided. They came together in July 1914 because this was a moment when Anglo-French deterrence failed, and this reduced their fear of the consequences of aggression below some critical threshold.

Thus two deeper causes lay behind the Great War. One was the ability of autocratic rulers to plan aggressive war in secret, ignoring public opinion, or taking it into account only to manipulate it. The other was the failure of the democracies to deter the aggressors. These lessons are still of value today. But to value such lessons you first need a desire to learn about what actually happened. And a political leader who bases his entire understanding of the Great War on a book published in 1902 seems to have missed that desire to learn.

References

  • Austin, Gareth. 2014. "Capitalism and the Colonies." In The Cambridge History of Capitalism, vol. 2: 301-347. Edited by Larry Neal and Jeffrey G. Williamson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hamilton, Richard F., and Holger H. Herwig. 2004. "On the Origins of the Catastrophe." In Decisions for war, 1914–1917, pp 225–252. Edited by Hamilton and Herwig. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Harrison, Mark. 2014. "Myths of the Great War." CAGE Working Paper no. 188. University of Warwick, Department of Economics. Available at http://warwick.ac.uk/cage/manage/publications/188-2014_harrison.pdf
  • Hobson, J. A. 1902. Imperialism: A Study. New York. Available online.
  • Lenin, V. I. 1916. Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Petrograd. Available online.

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  1. Miguel Madeira

    “Thus two deeper causes lay behind the Great War. One was the ability of autocratic rulers to plan aggressive war in secret, ignoring public opinion, or taking it into account only to manipulate it. The other was the failure of the democracies to deter the aggressors.”

    This could make sense if it was a war of the autocracies against democracies – attending that in the beginning was essentially a war between the autocracies (German against Russia against Austria – even Serbia was not much democratic), it is nor much clear what could have mean “democracies [detering] the aggressors” (perhaps democracies entering in the war to support one autocracy against others? But this was exactly what happened)

    05 Nov 2015, 02:40

  2. Mark Harrison

    Miguel: Your comment (the war “in the beginning was essentially a war between the autocracies”) suggests the importance of unpacking a word like “essentially.” You are right that the origin of the war was competition among the autocracies for influence and power across central Europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea. But in Germany, where the monarchy was putting up a determined fight against parliamentary influence, the leaders had determined that the only way to wage war against Russia, an autocracy, was first to attack Belgium and France, both well advanced on the road to modern democratic institutions. Thus the beginning of the war, as opposed to its origin, was not as you describe; it was an attack by an autocracy on two democracies. Moreover it was here, in the war against the democracies, that the war’s outcome was decided. Which of these best reflects the war’s “essence”? The fact remains that if Britain and France had been able to deter the German leaders from their war plans in July 1913, there might still have been another Balkan war, but there would not have been a Great War.

    05 Nov 2015, 10:47

  3. Ilya

    Dear Mark, thank you for your article. Really interesting.
    Please, help me to understand this statement:

    «The Great War broke out because secretive, unaccountable rulers in Vienna, Berlin, and St Petersburg decided on it»
    «They decided on war in July 1914, and not in any previous crisis, because in previous crises they had been divided. They came together in July 1914 because this was a moment when Anglo-French deterrence failed, and this reduced their fear of the consequences of aggression below some critical threshold»

    But Russia was in alliance with France and Great Britain, isn’t it?

    «in 1914 the major empires were surely at their highest moment»

    And soon they had been broken, right?

    Also, Miguel was right when said that this war was not a war in style «democracies vs. autocracies». At first, «on the road to modern democratic institutions» not means «democracy» in modern definition. In the second place, France and British Empire was in alliance with Empire of Japan, Russian Empire, Romania, Italy and other «democracies». Thirdly, you write «it was an attack by an autocracy on two democracies», but the realities were quite different: British Empire declared war on Germany at 19:00 UTC on 4 August 1914 (effective from 11 pm), following an “unsatisfactory reply” to the British ultimatum.

    07 Nov 2015, 22:54

  4. Mark Harrison

    I wrote: “The Great War broke out because secretive, unaccountable rulers in Vienna, Berlin, and St Petersburg decided on it … They decided on war in July 1914, and not in any previous crisis, because in previous crises they had been divided. They came together in July 1914 because this was a moment when Anglo-French deterrence failed, and this reduced their fear of the consequences of aggression below some critical threshold.”

    You wrote: “But Russia was in alliance with France and Great Britain, isn’t it?”

    My reply: Why were the Germans ready to let the Balkan crisis become a European war in July 1914? From the late nineteenth century, German leaders felt increasingly constrained by British naval dominance and French continental power, and this limited their behaviour in various crises of the period – until 1914. This is why the failure of Anglo-French deterrence in 1914 was crucial.

    The Russians, as a rearming power, did not play a deterrent role; an adversary’s rearmament can work against deterrence because it creates the temptation to strike first, before rearmament is complete.

    The fact that Russia was allied to Britain and France does not mean that the Russians were doing what they were told; they played an independent role in the July crisis.

    I wrote: “in 1914 the major empires were surely at their highest moment.”

    You wrote: “And soon they had been broken, right?”

    My reply: That is why it was their highest moment. The world war went on to break several empires. But this was known only after the event. In 1914 the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman powers were struggling; Germany’s power was rising. Russia was struggling in the East, rising in the West. I still don’t know exactly what Corbyn had in mind, but it’s probably the least important point here.

    You wrote: “Also, Miguel was right when said that this war was not a war in style «democracies vs. autocracies». At first, «on the road to modern democratic institutions» not means «democracy» in modern definition. In the second place, France and British Empire was in alliance with Empire of Japan, Russian Empire, Romania, Italy and other «democracies».”

    My reply: If your point is that the war was not fought between democracies on one side and autocracies on the other, then you are correct. (Although all the democracies WERE all on one side.). My point was that without the war aims, plans, and decisions of the autocracies there would have been no war.

    If your point is that there were no real democracies in 1914, then that’s another matter.

    I wrote that the beginning of the war “was an attack by an autocracy on two democracies.”

    You wrote: “but the realities were quite different: British Empire declared war on Germany at 19:00 UTC on 4 August 1914 (effective from 11 pm), following an “unsatisfactory reply” to the British ultimatum.”

    My reply: This came after the first German attacks on French and Belgian territory. Britain also declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939; does that mean that the second World War began with an attack by a democracy on a dictatorship?

    08 Nov 2015, 16:05

  5. Ilya

    >The fact that Russia was allied to Britain and France does not mean that the Russians were doing what they were told; they played an independent role in the July crisis.

    But that’s not mean that German, Austria & Russia came together against Britain and France.

    >My point was that without the war aims, plans, and decisions of the autocracies there would have been no war.

    And then British Empire and France attacked Soviet Russia, when it came out of the war. I’m not sure that Bill Clinton was right when he said «Democracies don’t attack each other». And i’m completely sure that assumption about «Democracies never starts the wars» totally incorrect.

    >You wrote: “but the realities were quite different: British Empire declared war on Germany”

    I’m sorry. I had made a mistake and read “Belgium and France” incorrect (as”Britain and France”). My fault.

    09 Nov 2015, 11:54

  6. Mark Harrison

    I wrote: “The fact that Russia was allied to Britain and France does not mean that the Russians were doing what they were told; they played an independent role in the July crisis.”

    You wrote: “But that’s not mean that German, Austria & Russia came together against Britain and France.”

    My reply: I don’t understand. Who says they did?

    I wrote: “My point was that without the war aims, plans, and decisions of the autocracies there would have been no war.”

    You wrote: “And then British Empire and France attacked Soviet Russia, when it came out of the war. I’m not sure that Bill Clinton was right when he said «Democracies don’t attack each other». And i’m completely sure that assumption about «Democracies never starts the wars» totally incorrect.”

    There is extensive empirical social-science research on the propensities of autocracies and democracies to start wars. I reviewed the literature recently here http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-0289.2011.00615.x/abstract but you may find that is behind a paywall so you can find a postprint here http://warwick.ac.uk/markharrison/public/ehr2011postprint.pdf (check pages 3 to 6). The analysis is conducted at the level of pairs of countries. The essential finding is that the propensity of pairs of countries involving either one or two autocracies to enter conflict is many times higher than the propensity of pairs that are both democracies, for which it is very small (although not zero). Two things follow. One is that Clinton was roughly correct. The other is that democracies do go to war, but typically only against autocracies. The canonical references are Levy, Jack S. 1988. Domestic Politics and War. Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18:4, pp. 653-673; and Russett, Bruce. 1995. And Yet It Moves. International Security 19:4, pp. 164-175. The Anglo-French intervention in the Russian Revolution is not a counter-example because Soviet Russia was a dictatorship. But it should also be pointed out that the Allied intervention was not an isolated act of aggression by the democracies; it was part of the process of the World War that was already under way. The British and French governments were motivated to act, in particular, by the collapse of the Russian front, the Bolshevik aim of making peace with Germany at any price, and the German intervention in Finland. These were defensive considerations. You might be interested to note an offshoot from the main literature that asks why some democracies are more warlike than others, and suggests that this is more likely to be the case when a democracy is newly established, or still emerging, and nation building is in progress. See for example Mansfield, Edward D., and Jack Snyder. 2009. Pathways to War in Democratic Transitions. International Organization 63, pp. 381-390.

    10 Nov 2015, 13:47


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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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