Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Did the World Wars Change Anything?

Tom Streithorst:
If we imagine a German diplomat or general falling asleep in February 1914 and waking up today to see a prosperous Germany dominating a peaceful Europe, he would be pleased but not be surprised. The fall of the multiethnic Austrian Hungarian and Ottoman empires and their replacement by nation states was also predictable. No one in 1914 would have been astonished to learn that 100 years later Russia would remain an exporter of raw materials and its politics would be authoritarian, oligarchic, and corrupt. Britain’s half-hearted relationship towards the rest of Europe would startle no one. What would shock our German general is the realization that it took two brutal world wars and the rise and fall of communism to achieve this outcome. Disastrous defeat twice over did not impede Germany’s rise. . . .

On the one hand, even deeply important historical events can be seen as accidents or flukes. On the other, over the longer term history seems tied to the profound processes of demographics, technology, culture and institutions that have little to do with the actions of mere men. To put it another way, even if Christopher Columbus had never gone to sea, cassava would nonetheless be a staple crop in Africa today and a Nahuatl speaking emperor would not be ruling Mexico. If we explore the counterfactual and assume that World War I had not broken out in 1914 and so the Russian Revolution not occurred in 1917 and Hitler not come to power in 1933, we might still end up with a world pretty close to what we have today. I’m not sure what that tells us about the value of the study of history.
I think this is only true at a certain scale. Zoom in, and little details like wars in which millions die matter rather a lot to people's lives. Even something like where the Polish-German border is drawn can completely upend the lives of thousands of people.

Zoom out even farther, and it becomes nonsense to say that "Germany" has some sort of character that endures throughout history; I doubt any generalization you might want to make about the Germans would apply to the ninth century.

Different things about life change at different speeds, so if you define an arbitrary period (1914 to 2014, say) you can always find some things that have not changed. But plenty has.

3 comments:

David said...

I find Streithorst's idea of history deeply troubling. I don't see history as mostly about what "really made a difference," and if something can be shown not to have made a "difference," then it doesn't matter. I see history as about humans' interactions with each other. In that sense, it is undeniable that the two world wars are hugely important human interactions, that also played enormously important roles in changing how we have interacted since then, so far. Who cares that Germany is somehow impersonally fated to dominate Europe? What matters is the human character of that domination and the human reaction to it. Streithorst seems to me the sort of person for whom the key events in history exist entirely apart from anything like human awareness, human experience, and human psychology. (Perhaps it is significant that his real interest is in economics.)

Thomas said...

Can we really say that Nazism hasn't had any effect on the world or the culture of Germany? Could Nazism have existed without war? This is just ridiculous.

In any event, without Hitler, what would the American right use as a reference point for Obama?

David said...

I would add that Streithorst clearly knows nothing about the German diplomats and generals of 1914, whose reaction to the Germany of 2014 would surely be one of unmitigated horror. Remember, these were the guys who refused to carry out universal conscription in pre-1914 Germany, because it would have forced them to dilute the aristocratic character of the office corps. A woman chancellor, and not from Prussia? No monarchy? A female defense minister? A chief of staff from Lower Saxony (and whose official picture makes him look like some sort of . . . American!)?

Streithorst seems to think that 1914 German diplomats and generals would have given a damn about the being able to influence budgetary policy in Greece, or market cars in China. They fought the war in large part to preserve their aristocratic, Prussian world, and thought they needed a victory to do that.