11 October 2014

The War on Modernity

(This post was begun in August, but then put to one side as my attention turned to other things. I complete it out of an obligation to ride my favourite hobby-horse, as I feel it seems rather dated now.)

Peter Hitchens is not alone in regarding the First World War as a conflict that altered the course of civilisation for the worse. That article of his is as good a summary of the argument against the war — the tremendous human cost did not serve the material purpose of most of those who lost family, or came home mutilated either physically or mentally. Hitchens does see one winner from the war:

Those on the Left should defend it and rejoice over it. It was the fulfillment of their dreams. No single event has done more to advance the power of the state and of state socialism.
At least one historian, Arno Mayer, has argued that the First World War was rooted in an attempt to solve a crisis of domestic politics rather than a crisis of foreign affairs. While an earlier post of mine may seem to agree with this thesis on first sight, in fact it argues that Britain's party-political situation made her intervention in the general European war inevitable. The Liberal government did not go to war to avoid a civil war over Ireland or industrial unrest. It went to war out of fear of losing power to a coalition of pro-war politicians. (The latter may have been acting in line with the Mayer thesis, but I haven't done the research to say.) However, a close reading of Hitchens' article suggests that he, at least, is motivated by a Mayer-like idea, although one operating with the benefit of hindsight.

Hitchens' article laments a world lost.

Many of [the war's] worst consequences came during official periods of peace and are unknown or forgotten, or remain unconnected with it in the public mind. The loss cannot be measured in cash because it was paid in the more elusive coin of faith, morals, trust, hope, and civility. The war is the reason why Europe is no longer a Christian continent, because too many churches supported it. Pointing to the poverty and scientific backwardness of the pre-1914 world is a false comparison. Who is to say that we could not have grown just as rich as we are now, and made just as many technological and medical advances, had we not slain the flower of Europe’s young men before they could win Nobel Prizes, or even beget and raise children?
It appears that, at least in Germany, there was a view that the war would slow or halt the pace of some changes:
Some politicians and writers viewed war as a cure-all for what they perceived to be the evils of an age of bourgeois materialism...
(quoted from Decisions for War, 1914-1917, p. 74)

Hitchens cites a quote from Aldous Huxley to the effect that the war removed conservatives and replaced them with nationalistic radicals. We certainly seem to conceal from ourselves the fact that Nazis and Fascists were, in their own time, seen as 'modernisers', a mood captured in the song 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me' from the musical Cabaret. Nationalist radicals, whether right or left, celebrated youth. They were essentially Modern. For the Mayer thesis, the war represents an attempt to manage the rushing flow of Modernity, re-channelling it so that it will support the traditional power structure. While Mayer sees the war in the context of a Marxist opposition between a capitalist bourgeoisie and the revolutionary proletariat, there is evidence that suggests that in Germany a war was seen as an attack on what might be called Anglo-Saxon attitudes, the bourgeois materialism essential to the capitalist system:

some politicians and writers viewed war as a cure-all for what they perceived to be the evils of an age of bourgeois materialism—lethargy, emasculation and moral rot.
[p 74, Hamilton and Herwig, Decisions for War] The great A.J.P. Taylor similarly saw cultural and political trends such as Futurism and Syndicalism presaging a mood of violence, but it might be better to think of them in terms of a cultural accommodation of the unsettling effects of technology and its byproduct Modernity. (See the quote by Taylor cited on page 40 of David Fromkin's Europe's Last Summer.

Ironically, the war had the real impact of overthrowing the most traditional of European regimes, in Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. For Britons, it did have the effect of expanding the role of the state far beyond what had previously been thought acceptable. The problem with the idea of a 'War on Modernity', though, is that it does not seem to operate in all the European countries, at least not noticeably. Decisions for War makes it clear that while it might be a factor in Germany, in the other major countries different assumptions were at work in guiding national leaders from the Assassination of Franz Ferdinand to the war. That Germany declared war on Modernity is an arguable proposition. For everyone else, the issue is best seen in terms of supporting or resisting German power. Subsequent conceptions of a 'war on modernity' simply turn history into a plaything of the political debate. Like 'The Sixties', the First World War becomes symptomatic of whatever ills one wishes to castigate in the politics of the day. History deserves better than that.