Remembering the folly of humanity

One hundred and six years ago this week, war clouds loomed close across Europe. Austria-Hungary’s 28 July declaration of war on Serbia ended four weeks of tension and posturing. By 4 August the continent was at war – a moment that has gone down in history as a demonstration of the way in which pride, arrogance and folly lead humanity into darkness.

In that ‘golden summer’ of 1914, of course, few guessed that the struggle might last four years and provoke slaughter to a scale never before seen in warfare. The nature of late-industrial age weaponry had led some military thinkers to understand the difficulties of an expanded battlefield swept by machine-guns and protected by wire, mines and dugouts. But such thinking was not shared by the public or, it seems, many of the politicians who failed to back away when war loomed.

My photo of soldiers’ graves at Tyne Cot.

It is easy to portray the start of the First World War as a bar brawl – a succession of events framed by alliances. However, the surface narrative, as always, merely proxied deeper issues. The common vision of a world led helter-skelter into war on the back of pride and iron-clad mobilisation timetables – which, the story goes, meant nobody could back away without compromising their position if things went sour – has been shown to be incorrect. Politically, it was possible to back away from the crisis of July 1914 at any time. Nobody did; and the ‘revisionist’ view – explored by historians such as Max Hastings – generally points the finger at a militaristic Germany.

By this argument, war offered politicians in Berlin a way to resolve the pressing issues of the day, in which – essentially – a rising ‘Reich’-minded Germany was confronted at global level by older Empires. The race for territory in Africa had proxied Europe’s rivalries away from their own soil. But the practical fact remained that Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary were confronted there on two sides by allied powers – France and Russia. War could resolve it, and – it was thought – do so relatively quickly.

The scenario of a ‘high-tech’ war in which the vast conscript armies of the day could be whisked to the battlefield by the railway networks – all at a speed unheard of in Napoleon’s day – and then supplied by the same systems – was appealing. So, the argument goes, Europe fell into war. Not because it was necessarily wanted. But because it offered a logical and rational answer to Germany’s geo-political and economic constraints.

To me the scenario painted by the ‘revisionist’ argument is compelling. And it begs questions about humanity. Time and again, it seems, humans fall into folly not through stupidity or mistake, but by rational, logical processes that seem impeccable at the time. It does not necessarily mean warfare: such thinking – followed by disastrous outcomes that nobody anticipated, however obvious they become in hindsight – can be found in many aspects of human endeavour.

The First World War was neither the first, nor the last, such experience. It was, however, the first industrial-scale demonstration of how humanity can – by all due rational process – fall into wider folly. It happened again on even larger scale in the Second World War. Today – well, society is on an even larger scale again. Have we learned? Of course not. Humanity’s rational logic has led us into folly of a different kind, one in which nobody imagined the outcomes of the neo-liberal shifts of the 1980s, nobody imagined the outcomes of social media – and where the human condition, again, has been revealed.

Remember to check out my book The New Zealand experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front – click to buy.

The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021

7 thoughts on “Remembering the folly of humanity

  1. I know little about the first World War, but I know that Japan’s entry into the second was also a rational decision about ‘resources’. Japan, too, was a ‘new’ power, at least as far as the rest of the world was concerned, and the war in Europe must have opened up all sorts of possibilities against those who had already carved the world up to suit themselves.

    It seems to be a base human requirement that those ‘with’ always want to protect what they have against those ‘without’.

    In 2021, I fear that something similar is happening with China. The nation is well on its way to becoming the greatest economy in the world, but it’s facing pushback from existing world powers, such as the US. What few people outside China realise is just how much psychological pressure there is for China to regain its /pride/.

    For most of its history, the Middle Kingdom neutralised and assimilated its foes because its culture was so superior. Then along came all these smelly, technologically advanced European barbarians who carved out spheres of influence in China without in any way acknowledging China’s cultural and historical superiority. Galling and humiliating, to say the least. Now, finally, China is clawing its way back to where it has always believed it should be. The only difference is that now it’s playing on a global stage.

    Will the fading powers of the West allow China in? I very much fear the answer is no. 😦

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    1. We are without question entering another phase of world history. Whether the west will allow its hegemony to fall relatively gracefully (as the British Empire sort of did in the 20th century) or disgracefully, remains to be seen. What worries me is that everything will end up being done by ‘rational’ thinking, in which superficially sensible and obvious steps lead inexorably to a stupid outcome. This was the issue that led to the First World War. Humanity, in general, seems to be incredibly good at this particular line, time and again – be it through international diplomacy or such matters as developing the systems that surround the financial markets. The rationality of the logic is impeccable: the results usually calamitous.

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      1. Yes…but are those oh so rational reasons the actual reason we go to war etc etc? Or are they the excuses we concoct to justify doing something awful?
        I’m thinking in particular of the invasion of Iraq using ‘weapons of mass destruction’ as the excuse.
        We humans are very good at justifying even our worst behaviour. :/

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        1. I suspect most of the ‘rational’ reasons why nations go to war are actually excuses – as you say, Iraq is the exemplar. I think the principle of ‘rational reasons/stupid outcome’ is true, generally, even in everyday circumstance and society – humans are very good at rationalising behaviours that, once stripped of the apparent logic and reason, are actually counter-productive or nonsensical. Seems to occur on all sorts of scales.

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          1. Gods…does it ever. As writers, we both know that human motivation is never linear. It’s always a mixed bag of selfish ‘wants’, past experience, especially when it’s ‘bad’, and all sorts of other, petty considerations. Reason is often just a bandaid to hide the things we don’t want to acknowledge.

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  2. Thanks, Matthew. It’s always useful to be reminded of the great folly of the world wars and their causes.
    I think you’re saying that the true cause was that the Germans thought they could win easily and it was their best chance to get out of the straitjacket of France-Russia and allies. This sort of thinking will not go away, but we have to hope that the evident extreme consequences for humanity will deter any future adventurism by great powers.
    In reality they are competing by other methods. Will some country one day think it can ‘win’ by overwhelming the others’ technology. Horrendous thought… we are already in some sort of asymmetrical war with hackers…

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    1. What worries me is that the First World War was merely an industrialised expression of what seems to be very basic human behaviour. There are many other examples, not all involving warfare – including, as you point out, hackers. The problem, of course, is that while it was possible for bands of humans to beat each other up during the Neolithic period, without too much affecting the fortunes of humanity, our current world with its integrated systems, economics and all the rest is a fragile entity.

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