SocraticGadfly: The 11th hour, of the 11th month, of the 11th day

November 11, 2018

The 11th hour, of the 11th month, of the 11th day

No red blizzard of poppies on sale in shops, markets and at street corners can obliterate the absurdistan of four-plus years of senseless war that ended a century ago, nor ennoble the idea of sending men into a swamp-bog killing field. Neither can writing a poem about that which lead to people pinning poppies on puffed-out chests. That poem, as I discussed on the centennial of the start of the war, was a pro-war piece used by Britain as a recruiting tool. Stop romancing "In Flanders Fields."

"War ... is all hell."

No amount of patriotic prideful chest-puffing can hide the senseless loss of nearly 10 million military casualties plus an additional 8 million war dead, per Wikipedia estimates.

A November 1918 American teacher's riff on "In Flanders Fields" arguably is even worse. "Keep the Faith" by Moina Michael, who also started the poppy sales campaign in the U.S., isn't much less pro-war than McCrae. And, of course, the romanticizing of the war via the poppy was my ultimate condemnation, since the poppy campaign sprang from McCrae's original.

Looking ahead a century, if there are lessons in general, it's that World War I was begun from a case of nationalism run amok, and, at the same time, nationalism at its most petty at times.

In some cases, though, as with the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, it was a tottering, doddering pre-modern supra-naturalism, incarnate in an even more doddering, tottering dynasty, that led to war. The Hapsburgs surely combined the worst of this with the worst of pettiness in the name of nationalism.

Beneath their respective veneers, especially when compared with would-be peers, it was arguable that at the time the war started, the Hapsburg realm was even more the "Sick Man of Europe" than the stereotypical Ottoman patient. Add to that the Baroque Spanish court ritual that course through Viennese veins of protocol, and included Franz Joseph himself — the snubs that Count Montenuovo orchestrated for Franz Ferdinand and Sophie from marriage through funeral were ultimately not only approved, but pushed for by the kaiser — and Austria-Hungary had no business picking a war with the Serbs that threatened to expand.

Indeed, after losing the Seven Weeks War, with that being followed by Magyar disquietude that forced the Ausgleich on Franz Joseph, Vienna had no business, even less than the no business of Istanbul, of picking a war with anybody. The fact that Franz Joseph couldn't even get a better bargain on the Ausgleich than he did showed that he had little business being an activist emperor.

The war in Europe, once Gavrilo Princip assassinated Franz Ferdinand, quickly became overdetermined, as I have blogged before. In other words, if one works to make an honest assessment of who was primarily at fault, using percentages, one gets over 100 percent easily. And, that includes Britain, who had been subsidizing Belgian rearmament nearly a decade before the war started. Belgian neutrality was simply the excuse that Foreign Secretary Edward Grey used to pull non-interventionist Liberals onto the side of war. (Grey is the most under-recognized architects of duplicitousness in the entire run-up to war.)

That said, once war was launched, the U.S. had no damned business getting involved. We had no vital strategic interests. There was no grand moral issue, unlike Nazism in World War II. Indeed, the most anti-Semitic and most autocratic country in the war was one of the Allies, Tsarist Russia.

Yes, by international law of that time, German submarine war was illegal. So was the British blockade by extension, though Britain had not signed that particular agreement. But, considering food as contraband in any blockade was illegal per agreement that even the British had signed. Let us also remember that the U.S. went to war with Britain in 1812 over related freedom of the seas issues.

William Jennings Bryan
The only "interest" the US had was when President Woodrow Wilson eventually started offering government backing on private loans that American banks made to Britain and France, and his alleged neutrality had slipped long before that, as Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan knew even before he resigned his office, politely, rather than putting Wilson on the spot to fire him.

Had Wilson actually honored the letter of neutrality, even, he would have done like FDR in 1939, or John Adams long before, and issued some sort of actual neutrality proclamation. In this case, re the Lusitania incident, issued in advance, such a proclamation would have forbade Americans from sailing on ships of belligerents, among other things.

But, rather than learning from George Washington on steering a ship of neutrality, or from  John Quincy Adams and his famous "(America) goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy" speech, Wilson did just that. He ignored also Washington's Farewell Address warning about entangling alliances. He gave us a United Nations that we selectively engage with today, when it suits our imperial hubris, along with Wilsonian internationalism of Shrub Bush, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and many others. He gave us multiple Red Scares and their own spinoff Wilsonian intervention — whether the Korean War fits that or not, the Vietnam War and many coups do.

This is part of why I rank Wilson lower on the presidential scale than do many professional historians, putting him below average overall.

(I wrote more about the stupidity of America entering the war a year ago, on the centennial of that happening, and again a year ago today.)

What would have happened, had we not entered the war, or even, had Wilson not guaranteed House of Morgan and other banks' loans to Britain and France?

Well, by late 1916, France would have been stretched further than it was. The majority of US loans went to Britain, but almost as much to France, which of course was bearing the bulk of the fighting. Peace feelers might have been sent, either through Wilson, or through Switzerland, or through Norway. Or, France and Britain might have directly approached Kaiser Karl after the death of Franz Joseph, since, soon after his reign started in real history, he reached out on his own to France via brother-in-law Prince Sixtus.

Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg as German Chancellor would surely have been amenable. He might have been able to drag along the Kaiser, Wilhelm, especially if he would have been able to outflank the budding military dictatorship in progression of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff. (Yes, for the unawares, for about the last two years of the war, the duo of Hindenburg and Ludendorff ran Germany by an authoritarian quasi-dictatorship.)

What likely would have resulted, with Britain also recognizing that while its military reserves weren't stretched to the limit, it was running low on money and munitions for other Allies, might have been something like the Seven Years War — a status quo ante bellum, at least on the Western Front.

Certainly, if Germany had gone ahead with plans and let Vladimir Lenin smuggle himself across Germany to Finland and then Russia, the March Revolution, even with the Provisional Government in various incarnations determined to stay in the war — would have pushed Britain and France more toward peace.

In the East? Various things.

The Allies might have accepted Austria doing a set of Black Hand trials, handing over leaders. It might also have accepted deposing the Serbian royal house and reverting to the pre-1903 Obrenević house back to the throne.

In Russia? If the November Revolution wound up still happening, and all other parties were at least in the process of negotiating peace by this time, they might have done an intervention similar to what actually happened. As part of that, they might have united on a separatist Ukraine and negotiated some minor German or Scandinavian princeling — NOT related to the Hohenzollerns — to head the country. (A year ago, on the anniversary of the November Revolution, I wrote against people even further left than I am, as I attacked the romancing of the Revolution.)

In the Dual Monarchy, the Allies might have hinted to the Magyars that peace was dependent on them accepting Karl's plans for Trialism. They might have sweetened the pot by giving Austria a small part of southwestern Serbia.

For the Ottomans? They probably would have forfeit their Middle Eastern lands, with boundaries similar to actual post-dynastic Turkey.

For most of the Balkans, most of the post-1918 world, on one or another such idea of counterfactual history, surely would have been no worse than reality, at a minimum.

Could such a peace have held, without more revanchism?

Maybe, and just maybe, if Imperial Germany got a more liberal constitution, and Wilhelm abdicated in favor of his somewhat better (but not great, as his pre-World War II Nazi flirtations show) son, August Wilhelm. Germany also needed to do what Bismarck in nearly 20 years, and his successors in 25 after, had failed to do — incorporate Alsace-Lorraine into the German Empire as one of its states rather than ruling it as an occupied territory.

Had this all panned out, we would have been spared some of the worst of Leninist Marxism, and likely all of the worst of Stalinism. We would also have been spared much of Fascism. Postwar Italy might not have been bad enough for Mussolini to gain power. A still semi-intact Austria and a Germany spared revolution by a hair would have left no space for Hitler.

Otherwise, with France, Austria and Russia all more seriously weakened than it, Germany would have emerged as more clearly the leading power of Europe. With a more democratized government, it might have reached some sort of entente with Britain about future relationships between the two, the overall governance of Europe, and how to face the United States.

Had this NOT been done, but the US was not in the war? The Red Tide from Moscow surely would have swept over Germany, most likely over France, and likely would have touched the shores of Britain, despite George V denying exile to his royal cousin Nicholas precisely due to revolutionary fears. I discuss that possible alternative history in depth here.

If you want other alternative history? Germany, not Denmark, could have owned the then-Danish Virgin Islands at the start of the war.

For your listening meditation? Benjamin Britten's War Requiem.

Why this? The recitatives, beyond the traditional Latin Mass text, are those of poems by Wilfred Owen.

If you want more music, on my other blog, the three non-Ottoman imperial anthems of World War I.

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