The Conditions that Make for European Wars

I am currently reading two books about the build-up to WWI.

Sean McMeekin’s July 1914 and Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers. Both are very good and, in light of the current global crisis, both are terribly disturbing.

The general story we tell ourselves about WWI is that it was the outgrowth of nationalism, militarism, and imperialism, all three of which fed off one another. McMeekin and Clark do not tell an altogether different story. And yet what rises to the surface is how completely powerless Europe’s decision makers were in the face of popular sentiment. For example, both scholars spend much more time than is usually spent exploring the role Serbian nationalism played in the years and months leading up to WWI. Obviously this was the case in Serbia proper and particularly in Belgrade. But it also played out in Russia’s defense of Serbian nationalism, based entirely on shared Slavic ethno-religious nationalism, opposition to the dual monarchy, again almost entirely because of its Roman Catholic base, and the visceral hostility to the so-called “Turkish hoard,” whose vestigial  presence in Bosnia inflamed so much hatred among Serbian nationalists. While decision makers everywhere fashioned themselves leaders of the nationalists within their borders, the truth is that everywhere these decision makers could not help but play to these nationalists and their fears.

I think here of Vladimir Putin’s and Donald Trump’s love fest, which in both their own and their supporters’ imaginations fashions itself as a sign of military might and masculine virility. In fact, Putin and Trump are nothing more than vessels bearing about the venom of their supporters.

Scan the European landscape in July 1914 and there is no one at home capable of defusing the ticking time bomb that was WWI. Everywhere the decision makers were only reflecting, mirroring the hatred and mean-spiritedness of those over whom they “ruled,” but who in fact ruled them.

Evidence of this same dynamic hit me right between the eyes today while listening to a debate on Democracy Now between Chris Hedges and Robert Reich.

CHRIS HEDGES: . . . When you dispossess that segment, as large as we have — half the country now lives in virtual poverty — and you continue to essentially run a government that’s been seized by a cabal, in this case, corporate, which uses all of the machinery of government for their own enrichment and their own further empowerment at the expense of the rest of the citizenry, people finally react. And that is how you get fascism.

Both Mr Hedges and Mr Reich are legitimately frightened by the prospects of a Trump White House. Mr Reich described in some detail his own consternation as part of the Clinton White House over President Clinton’s neoliberal economic policy instincts. Mr Reich agreed with Mr Hedges that it was Jimmy Carter’s, Bill Clinton’s, and Barrack Obama’s economic policies that have led the people to react in support of Mr Trump.

ROBERT REICH: Chris, you know, I — again, I find this a frustrating conversation, because I agree with so much of what you have said, but the question is: What do we do about it? I mean, we are in a better position today, in the sense that Bernie Sanders has helped mobilize, organize and energize a lot of Americans, and educated a lot of Americans about the very issues that you have talked and written about and I have talked and written about. But it is—the question is: What is the action? What is the actual political strategy right now?

Mr Hedges is convinced that there is no reason for us to believe that Ms Clinton will abandon her tight relationship to Wall Street, but therefore that the policies she will adopt will push working families into the outstretched arms of the fascists. Mr Reich, by contrast, feels that a Clinton White House will give the movement time to mature, whereas a Trump White House will make movement building more problematic (and perhaps even illegal).

I am inclined to agree with Mr Reich. Yet I am also aware that a Clinton White House will likely move us in the wrong direction, albeit more slowly, than a Trump White House, because the people are beyond the point of turning back.

The other thing that struck me about Mr McMeekin’s and Mr Clark’s books is how very prevalent terrorist threats and attacks were in the years and months leading up to WWI, a fact that put everyone on edge and made them more inclined to support policy makers who would take action, any action, even war, to protect them and make things right again. Mr Clark, in fact, specifically identifies the current international climate as making readers more receptive to this new interpretation of WWI. Who in the 1970s would have believed that ethno-religous nationalism and militarism would once again be popular? Who in the 1970s would have believed that terrorist attacks would be coursing through the capitals of Europe?

Perhaps now we can better understand why and how something like a political assassination in the capital of a small nation on the fringe of Europe might blow up into one of Europe’s most costly wars.

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