Christopher Capozzola: 100 Years After the Great War, Lessons in Reason

August 11, 2014

One hundred years ago, Great Britain declared war on Germany, joining in what we now refer to as World War I, a conflict which cost more than 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians their lives, and shaped the the world we know today. How did reasonable people let “The Great War” begin, and what can reasonable people today learn from it?

Joining us this week is Christopher Capozzola, an MIT professor in political and legal history, war, and the military, and author of Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen.

How did rational people plummet themselves into the irrationalism and chaos that tore apart the continent of Europe along with the rest of the world while sowing the seeds of much of the 20th Century’s subsequent horrors? Dr. Capozzola and host Josh Zepps examine the kind of day-to-day rationality which can spiral off into madness.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, August 11th, 2014. 

I’m Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live, and this is the podcast for the Center for Inquiry last week. Eight hundred eighty eight thousand two hundred and forty six ceramic red poppies were installed at the Tower of London commemorating that many soldiers who died fighting for Britain just from Britain and her colonies alone. Eight hundred eighty eight thousand in the great global battle, what began 100 years ago. It was August 4th, 1914, when Great Britain declared war on Germany. How did one of the deadliest conflicts of all time begin? This episode of Point of Inquiry is not really about religion, but about reason. How did reasonable people unleash on themselves a descent into all of that? Irrationalism, all of that chaos and tear apart the entire continent of Europe, sowing the seeds for so much of the 20th century’s subsequent horrors to help us. Reasonable minded people heed the lessons of the Great War. I’m joined by Christopher Kappa’s Olá, an associate professor of history at M.I.T. and the author of Uncle Sam Wants You. World War One and the Making of the Modern American Citizen. Thanks for being here, Christopher. Let’s just start at the beginning. It’s hard for us to know. We go back to, you know, history class and we think about the cause of World War One. And we think, OK, well, Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. Why on earth did that matter so much? 

It actually really didn’t matter very much that he was assassinated or it didn’t have to matter as much as it did. That Europe in 1914 had was a set of countries with very fragile politics, very tense relations. And so there had been a series of crises and between, say, 1911, 1914, where different countries seemed to threaten each other’s interests, they were at the brink of war, but they had always in the past managed to step back from it. So when the archduke was assassinated, there was certainly a sense that, oh, boy, something something big has just happened. But there was also a sense that, oh, well, there they go again. And here’s another crisis for us to deal with. So the real question is not, you know, sort of what is not why it why it mattered, but why it actually led to war. And I don’t think it led inevitably to war, but it certainly got there within about six weeks. 

And just pull back for a second and remind us of the scale of what the war ended up being, because it’s been so overshadowed, I guess, by World War two. And when we think about wars in Europe, we so much of our kind of iconography goes to D-Day and goes to the Holocaust at the time. This was an era, obviously, when the last the most recent wars. I don’t know what they were fought on horseback. Right. I mean, this was the idea of having a massive global cataclysm wasn’t really in people’s minds. What how big did it end up getting? 

Well, you’re you’re right that that certainly Europeans did not have experience with massive warfare. And to the extent that there had been war in Europe, it was nearly 40 years before between France and Germany, there had been wars in the colonies. And certainly for colonial people, that was something that they knew well. But no one, I think, understood what two generations of industrialization was going to do to to battle and the extent to which soldiers would die literally in the thousands. In the case of a single afternoon, that that machinery would destroy their their physical bodies and that conflict would destroy them psychologically as well. And that new inventions that had brought and had brought prosperity and economic growth would be turned to destructive ends. As, say, for example, the chemical industry generated chemical weapons and then the fact that it also became global, that although most of the fighting happened in in Europe, both Western and Eastern Europe, there is fighting in the Middle East and Africa and the economies of almost every country were affected. 

Well, I mean, and it set the stage for the way that the maps were drawn in the Middle East. It set the stage for all of the subsequent problems that we’ve had in the Middle East or a lot of them. It set the stage, obviously, for Germany being punished to such an extent that it got into the circumstances that gave rise to the Third Reich. It obviously influenced the revolution in Russia and the subsequent evolution of the USSR. It’s hard to imagine the 20th century being the 20th century without the precipitating kind of event of the Great War. So let’s go back to when you mentioned like it out of, you know, thousands of people were dying and in an afternoon. That’s a great understatement, isn’t it? I mean, I mentioned that almost 900000 people just in in the British, in Britain, in her colonies died. But I mean, how many people died in, like the Somme or in Passchendaele, all those big set piece battles? It was tens of thousands just in the single battle, wasn’t it? 

Yes, it was. And I think that that reflects the way in which the fighting of the battle could be separated almost completely from from the planning for the generals and planners who were either far behind the lines or. Actually, back in London or or Berlin, we’re making decisions that that basically sacrificed, you know, the sacrifice of the people who actually have to do the fighting. 

Let’s go back to the beginning. You know, we’ve touched on Franz Ferdinand. So all of these big powers are all kind of jostling with each other. They think that this is a little bit of a crisis. You mentioned that this is not that war was not inevitable. So how did it unfold and what were the mistakes of reasoning that people were making? 

Made it so I think there were mistakes of reasoning and then there was a broader mistake of abandoning reason altogether. So maybe I’ll talk a little bit about what I mean by that, that no one on any one given day people made that sort of short term calculation. 

Political leaders and others about what their relationship, what their alliances, their treaty alliances with the various powers required. And so countries like France and Russia and Britain, which had alliances with each other. Did you know did the calculations are believed that they were obliged to come to the aid of one another? In some sense, that short term calculation required abandoning perspective, that sort of a long term sort of perspective on what this was bringing them to and also required them to abandon the idea of negotiation and diplomacy, of sort of using sort of Europe using rational thought, using calculation, using discussion, identifying their interests and negotiating over them. That got thrown away actually really quite quickly. And it was. And on any one day, I’m not sure that I that other reasonable people wouldn’t have made the same decisions that that these people did. But what they what they never really stopped to do is to say, well, you know, how can we break this and this short term calculation and think and think about what the consequences of our actions are. 

It’s funny because you could almost transpose what you just said onto any emerging conflict. I mean, you could almost talk about that. You could make the same case about what’s going on in Israel and Gaza right now. Right. I mean, there are there lessons for how we should deal with crises from World War One? 

Yes, absolutely. And those lessons were being learned even during the war itself. Right. Because, for example, I’m sure there were quite a quite reasonable people who said, you know this, we need to stop this force before it becomes a road to erm to war. But then and wanted to have a long term perspective, wanted to sort of think outside the box. But institutionally there was no place for them to go outside the box. There weren’t sort of neutral forums of diplomacy and negotiation and such as, you know, we might now have with whether it’s the UN or or any number of other forums for. For negotiation and discussion and lacking that and made it very difficult for European powers. On the other hand, really anyone to to sort of think outside the box. 

I mean, also, if you’d said to someone in the in the spring and summer of 1914. Look, we’ve got to step back from this brink because then we could have a war. It just wouldn’t have. It almost strikes me that it would have been a failure of the war was a failure of imagination. It was so it was so much bigger than then what and what that would had meant previously. It reminds me a little bit maybe of 9/11. You know, I’ve never been as hyper partizan critical of George W. Bush for allowing 9/11 to happiness as I hear some people are, because at the time, it was it was inconceivable that, you know, you would you would you would read something that says bin Laden determined to strike within the United States. But what does that mean when you’re just a governor from Texas like that? The scale and the scope completely fractured our sense of what is possible on the U.S. homeland on 9/11. I wonder if in the same way it was a failure of imagination for people in 1914 to think, you know what, it could be four years hence and we could be millions of people down. It was done. No end in sight. 

Yes, I think I think it is absolutely the case that it’s not so much a failure of the imagination. It’s just. Well, would have required quite it would have required quite a leap of the imagination that probably wouldn’t have been taken very seriously. If someone said, you know, within within six months, you’ll have trenches that go from the English Channel to Switzerland and that and armies of millions that that kind of mobilization seems impossible. So when people talked about war as a thing in July or even early August of 1914, they imagined a rather smaller undertaking. And certainly and in particular, what they what they wanted to do was to stop German the German invasion of Belgium, which is in some ways the the thing that turns this from. A small crisis into a big war. But they thought that they thought that would be done with that say, you know, thousands of soldiers rather than millions. And few also expected that civilians would be in the path of war in quite the way that it became. Why? Well, before that and in fact, actually, a war had generally not sort of targeted civilians in quite the same way. But to go the war, whether it’s through the invasion and occupation of Belgium or in northern France, the sort of the looting and plundering of those countries and brings bring civilians into, you know, into the into the crosshairs. Now, this would only accelerate during World War Two, and they could also become targets of aerial bombardment. And there is a little bit of that during World War One. For me, I think I’m persuaded by the arguments that generations of colonial war before 1914 had sort of made it made it, you know, created mindsets that made it possible for people to to devalue the lives of civilians, in part because they had devalued the lives of colonial subjects for two generations already. 

Yeah. And maybe also made them feel like war is something that happens over there. 

Yes. That it creates the sense of distance from from the homeland. It creates a sense of distance from the people that you’re that you’re attacking and mindsets of dehumanization. And I think that if it if there was a failure of imagination, it’s really the failure to imagine the humanity of the people on the other side. 

In the case of the United States, of course, there was a real issue of distance. It was not a war that was was going to come to these these shores. This is sort of your area of specialty. So how did how did the U.S. respond initially to to what was going on in Europe and had both sides of the debate about whether to get involved kind of frame their thinking? 

Well, it’s the Americans were passionately interested in what was happening in Europe in 1914 and all the way up until April 1917 when the U.S. joined the war. 

But they were certainly not apathetic. They were not uninterested. But most Americans wanted to stay out of the war. I think it’s accurate to say that we didn’t have opinion polls, so we’ll never know exactly. But that seems to be to be the case, partly because they didn’t necessarily see American interests at stake. But over time, they they came to believe that this was a war that affected American interests, either because Americans themselves were being killed or because they felt that American sort of commitments had made it impossible for them to stay out of the war. And this is a case where President Woodrow Wilson, who was president for this whole period, felt that he was keeping the U.S. out of the war, but kept making sort of one step after another that actually in some ways back to the United States into the war. 

Did it shape anything about the American consciousness or America’s sense of itself? I mean, obviously it did. In some ways, the war had such a. There are whole countries whose kind of identity is is is framed around World War One. My home country of Australia has, you know, the sort of founding event that really galvanized the country and gave it a sense of its own existence or cohesion was the Gallipoli campaign where Australians and New Zealanders were sent to their deaths, inviting Turkey by their British overlords. And it’s often remarked that if you if you’d asked someone if you’d ask someone who lived in Australia in, say, 1985 who they were, they probably would have said a subject of Britain. And if you’d asked them after Gallipoli, then they were Australian. This is still an event that has huge commemorative impact in Australia and New Zealand. To what extent did it have any impact on on America’s sense of its destiny and role in the world? 

You know, I think that’s a good question, because, in fact, the war transformed American sense of themselves in ways that I think most Americans on the street today couldn’t actually recognize or pinpoint in the way that British, French or Australian or even Canadians might might feel that the transformation, I think, is the emergence of a of a global mindset. Now, certainly Americans had thought globally before 1914, but coming out of the war in 1918, I think many Americans have a sense that the United States has a clear role to play in the world. And it’s a role that is less about partnership with Britain, rivalry with Europe. But in fact, global leadership, and that on a political scale, it’s on an economic scale. So, for example, this is at the end of the war is the point at which the dollar. Replaces the pound as the world’s global currency, but it also happens on a cultural scale, a sense in which American institutions, American values, American movies, American consumer products start to actually kind of take an upper hand in in in the world. And I think that, you know, certainly that’s that’s the American mindset that the world knows very well. Whether most Americans realize it dates back to 1914 is less clear. 

How will populations manipulated or mis led or deceived? How was propaganda used? 

Well, you know, there is no shortage of information about the work for people to evaluate. But it’s remarkable sort of how one sided a lot of that information was. So particularly for Americans. One of the very first things that the British did during the war was to cut the Germans transatlantic cables. So almost all the news that reached the United States from Europe about the European war came from from Britain. And as you can imagine, this, whether both consciously and unconsciously shaped the way that Americans came to understand the war. So it’s not just sort of implicit bias on the part of British reporters. 

It was actually a deliberate effort by both British journalists and also British officials to shape the American opinion of the war. And so that kind of news and made for an environment in which Americans were sort of making up their mind about the war with it, with a limited and very one sided sense of what the conflict was about. 

Do you think that still happens when you when do you bring when you bring your knowledge of history to your consumption of the modern news media? Have we gotten a lot better? Are you saying? What about the way things are? 

I think I’m not. I think things have. I think things have gotten at the playing field has gotten more level. 

I’m not sure that that happened by anyone’s by anyone’s effort. And certainly all warring powers try to control information. And people need to be sort of critical and skeptical of that. But I think we are today in a media environment in which, you know, there’s no way that you could do the equivalent of just cutting the telegraph cable and hoping, you know, that don’t control information that way. 

There is still such a difference, though. When I travel around and I look at the way that different news outlets and different countries report on controversial things, whether that’s revolution in Egypt or whatever it might be, there is some kind of, I guess, news media consensus about staying within the parameters of a certain world view that smacks a little bit of, if not. If not censorship or if not propaganda, then parochialism, I think. 

I think you’re right. I think that there is both implicit and explicit efforts to sort of control information on some of that is the parochialism you describe. 

Some of it is also calculations that the journalists make about what they can and can’t say in order to maintain access and to maintain sort of good, you know, good contacts, good, good information. And so it’s really sort of important to have investigative journalists who are not closely attached to to whoever the fighters are, whether they’re states or revolutionary movements or social movements or anything. 

Speaking of social movements. One thing that we’re passionate about at the Center for Inquiry, of course, is civil liberties, civil rights, allowing people to be as free and reasonable, as free and reasonable people can be conscription. Talk to us about how that was taken in World War One and what it gave rise to in terms of civil liberties movements. 

Yes, this is a really important turning point, especially for the United States, that there had been some conscription in in Europe before World War One. Nearly all of the powers of Europe raise their armies by by conscription. None of them do so without opposition and criticism. 

Incidentally, did they have that prior to the war? Was there or were they already conscripted standing armies or did this begin after the war began? 

There there were there was conscription in some of the countries. So France and Germany had conscription. Britain generally did not. So the introduction of conscription comes in. Britain actually fairly, fairly late in the war after that. Large numbers of soldiers are already raised by by volunteers. And in fact, one of the things that conscription aims to do is actually not just to get people in the army, but to keep them out. So Britain, one of Britain’s experiences was that they lost many of their best industrial workers and farmers to volunteerism. 

And they realized actually, oh, we we need these people at home. But there were there were also voices against this. So groups in Britain say the No Conscription League one and and others who who really spoke out against the draft. One of my favorite stories is actually from from Australia, where there was an attempt to have a plebiscite to have people vote on conscription as as a way of sort of challenging, challenging the war in the United States. 

There’s an interesting sort of set of events that happens. The draft comes in with the Selective Service Act in May of 1917 and a small group of people who had been sort of pacifist, the American Union Against Militarism, realized that drafted men needed legal advice on their rights and how to sort of, you know, set up their affairs if they’re about to leave their families. And they set up something called the National Civil Liberties Bureau to advise drafted men and conscientious objectors. And then in 1920, the National Civil Liberties Bureau merges with a couple other groups to form the American Civil Liberties Union, which we know today. And so it’s really during the war that this organization gets its start. 

Did it at what point did they do you know that? 

Did that organization branch out from merely being an advisory service with regard to military conscription into the lodge, hydra headed beast that it is today, really basically right away that because the Selective Service Act was the first thing that it worked on and one of the issues on which its members were most passionate during the war, as the wartime state started to target other groups, labor unions, political radicals, anarchists and others, that members of what was then still the National Civil Liberties Bureau started organizing on all those different topics. 

Were they good decisions that were made during the war? Were there when you look at the scope of those four years, are there any moments where you think, well, here were reasonable people behaving reasonably? 

I see a lot of reasonable people trying to make the best of difficult situations and some things that that history has not has not looked upon favorably. I think actually we need to sort of take a second look at and imagine whether whether we could have done better ourselves. There’s what’s called the in history, the fallacy of condescension, which is to think that you’re smarter than everyone who came before you in the past. And so let me give you a couple examples. Right. So one was at one point, President Wilson asked that all of the warring powers, if they would just state what their war aims were and then maybe find a way to actually work it all out, especially by having a neutral power, whether it was the United States, one of the Scandinavian countries, or even the Vatican, to sort of act as the as the sort of just as a broker, then historians have kind of. Laughed at that. But I think I think we need to see that as him trying to make the best of what he could. 

What do they say, incidentally? How did they answer the question? 

How do you know? They said that the plan never really got off the ground. 

And in part because certainly in a public forum. Basically, when it came down to was there ever none of these countries were willing to say in public what their aims were and compared to what they were in private. Right. So I think that was one of the central problems that led these countries into war in the first place was the secrecy of their diplomacy. And so the press that came during and after the war for more openness about diplomacy, more negotiation and efforts to limit armaments through the naval trees of the 1920s. 

I think a very important one that I think matters still very much to us today are a series of conventions in the 1920s and sort of made it a violation of international law to use chemical and biological weapons. Those first regulations have certainly been violated even quite recently, but without the commitment of countries to to those norms, then I think there, you know, we wouldn’t have those we wouldn’t have ways of responding as an international community when those violations took place. 

Yeah, I mean, I was alluding to the the negative legacies of World War One to sort of setting up the stage for the subsequent horrors of the 20th of the 20th century. But would you say that the positive legacy is that it has made diplomacy. It has given a structure, a rational structure to diplomacy? 

Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think, you know, another thing that historians tend to tend to make fun out of is the league is the League of Nations, simply because it didn’t stop World War two. But that’s a pretty tall order to ask of any institution in the middle of social and economic and political crises. But nevertheless, the League of Nations and the United Nations and a series of international treaties about the conduct of war, about international law, about the treatment of prisoners. All of these things are legacies of World War One that I think we really need to cherish and ask about how they can be renewed and refreshed a century later, even as we stop. So it’s not just about sort of remembering the individuals who died through that ceramic poppies that you mentioned that or other things. And that’s an important task. But also to look at the institutions and what are we doing to to make sure that they will last for another century and be, in that sense, even stronger. 

Is there a risk that as the memory of this of these horrible events, that those two world wars fades? We become we don’t know. We we don’t honor those institutions as much we serve. They certainly get. 

I mean, you rarely hear a kind word said about the United Nations, largely because the Security Council veto has become such a farce that getting China and Russia and the United States to all agree on something means going to end up with something that’s so banal. There’s no there’s no point in even trying. I think there’s a lot of fatalism about it. And maybe also the fact that war has become so much easier for us to conduct just technologically. I mean, we’re talking about 900000 almost Britain, British and colonial deaths in the First World War. How many people have we lost in Iraq? I mean, the Iraqis have lost a lot of people. But and I don’t mean to diminish the trauma that’s been inflicted on our servicemen and women, but what, 4000 people, something it’s just incomparable now. War is so much easier for most of us. 

Yes. I mean, that that is true. But and I I certainly hope that we won’t encounter war on the on the scale of the First World War. 

Again, I think and that’s why I think it is important both to remember the negative and the positive legacies, because they are only if you understand that the horrors of war, like the human costs on both individual, personal and psychological levels as well as socially, can we understand what’s at stake in the imperfect institutions that we’ve developed to try to to respond and and prevent future wars? 

And those institutions will probably always be imperfect, but that’s no reason not to try not to use them a lot, too, and also not to value them. But I think it’s important to value international institutions, diplomacy, negotiation and peacemaking so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the summer of 1914 when people sort of couldn’t couldn’t get outside that box, couldn’t find a way to say this war doesn’t have to happen. 

How optimistic are you finally broadly about the fate of humankind? I was reading a piece by Chomsky yesterday who’s basically saying that unless we get rid of nuclear weapons, we’re all going to kill ourselves at some point. Blunder into into some some calamity. As a historian who studied all this stuff. Do you have a general sense of optimism or pessimism? 

Yes, I have a sense of optimism and pessimism that I think that. 

Human society in the 20th century was was and went through terrible texts, but at the same time was also incredibly lucky that that it didn’t face catastrophe. 

But but I have enough optimism in people’s ability to come together to find solutions to big problems, social, economic, environmental, that make me think that makes it worth distinguishing pessimism from fatalism that I don’t think there’s any any call for us to be fatalistic about the future. But we do need to be a little bit skeptical of claims that Progress’s is the only thing ahead of us. 

Right. Christopher Khabbaz. Oh, thanks so much for being on point of inquiry. Great to talk to you. 

All right. Thank you. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.