WHAT is the significance of the World War? What is the meaning of this enormous common manifestation in the history of Europe and of humanity?

The Marxian interpretation of war will not hold. Not that a specifically capitalistic interpretation of economic history is entirely wrong; but it is one-sided, incomplete, and uncertain. The conception of capitalism itself is vague; there were certainly wars before capitalism--and nobody has demonstrated the extent to which capitalism is responsible for the genesis and development of this latest war. Are we to understand by "capitalism" a whole and complete economic system or, specifically, finance? Or great industrial development? And in what countries? Capitalism is to be found in all countries, and capitalism has always opposed capitalism. Which capitalism is the deciding factor? We always return to one main question: Which of the combatant parties was conducting an offensive war, and which a defensive?--for this distinction is of great importance in estimating the character of the war.

Nobody doubts that economic interests have always been an important reason for making wars. But there are, in addition, other deciding factors. Historians are always teaching (as are also the historical Marxists) that in modern times wars are made in order that states, their rulers and their statesmen may increase their power and prestige, that they may extend their sway over portions of neighboring countries, and that they may get colonies. They talk much about imperialism, especially in the case of large states. The proponents of this point of view stress ambition, the desire to dominate, greed, and racial and national hatred as the motives for a military offensive.

An interpretation of the World War in the light of nationalism is likewise one-sided and vague. Nationalism differs in various countries, and again the question is raised as to what sort of nationalism was responsible. Who began the offensive, and who was on the defensive? What is implied by this "nationalism"? Certainly, nationalist quarrels and disputes were one of the causes of the war. But the war cannot be regarded as exclusively a war of nationalities. Nations are not yet quite synonymous with states; the states were at war, the nations only so indirectly, or as far as they were organized by their states and were represented in them. Moreover, the policy of the states was not merely national. Policy, i.e., the principle of the politics of states, is complicated. It is affected by dynasties, governments, influential statesmen and politicians, journalists, parliaments, parties, and by intellectual and moral movements. To define scientifically exactly who conducted, and was responsible for, the policy of a given state--who, in a given instance, made the decision and why--who had greater and who less influence upon it--this is a task for genuine history and the philosophy of history. It is impossible to say that wars are nationalist, that is, nationalist only. England and America certainly did not take part in the war for reasons of nationalism, at any rate nationalism of the type common on the Continent, although they recognized the principle of nationality and especially the rights of small nations in Europe to be free and independent. It cannot, therefore, be said that the war was a contest between the Germans and Slavs, or between the Germans and the Romance peoples. It was a World War. The genesis and development of the war clearly demonstrate that nationality--at times national Chauvinism--was only one factor among others.

The war has sometimes been regarded as an ecclesiastical and religious quarrel between the Orthodoxy of Russians and Serbs and the Catholicism of Austria, the Protestantism of the Germans and the Catholicism of the French. These religious influences were also factors, but again only factors among others.

The character of this war can to a certain extent be realized by a comparison of the military aims of the contestants and their programs; that of the West, leading the enormous majority of mankind, and that of Germany, leading a minority composed of the Central Powers. This division had more than a temporary military significance; it expressed the whole situation. Ideas faced each other in a life and death struggle.

In modern times, the independence of states and peoples has been substituted for the mediaeval theocracy which centered in the spiritual leadership of the Papacy as an international authority. The Reformation, humanism, science, art and philosophy laid down new spiritual and moral ideals as the foundation for the organization of a new society. A great revolution was prepared in England, France and America. In this revolution the enormous gain was that the state and the church (or rather the churches) became independent of one another. With the passage of time, state and church have become more and more separated in the West, that is, in Europe and America, not to the detriment of religion but on the contrary to its gain, as also to the gain of political life. And as the state gradually became emancipated from ecclesiastical influence all institutions and strata of society--science, together with philosophy, education and morality--became emancipated also.

In the state which after the Reformation took over the leadership of society and, following the example of the church, became absolutist, the French Revolution proclaimed the great watchword "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity." The rights of man and of citizens were enunciated and codified, France and America became republics, England, and for a time France also, constitutional monarchies. Against the old aristocratic system--for monarchy is but a form of aristocracy--democracy developed in different forms and degrees. The revolutionary process was not exhausted by the French Revolution. A succession of revolutions followed, and we are still in the midst of them. It may even be that in the World War we not only overthrew the old régime but also the earlier stages of revolution.

The ideal of the whole revolution was humanity. Morally, this signified mutual sympathy and respect between individuals, and the recognition of the principle that one man must not be used by another as a tool. Politically and socially, it meant the equality of all citizens in the state, the alliance of nations and states, and through them the coming together of the whole of humanity. This idea of natural right was an old one which we had inherited from the Greeks and Romans, and in some respects it had been consecrated by the church and by the churches, though the social and political content of this natural right was only graduallv formulated. Closely allied to this ideal of humanity was the conception of enlightenment, expressed in a striving for knowledge and education. From this grew, in the last century, the universal recognition of science and the attempts to develop a new philosophy with a scientific basis, as also the continual efforts to organize general education, to make attendance at schools obligatory, to popularize science, and to develop journalism, publicity and the press generally.

The revolution, and the great changes which it wrought in the outlook on life, fixed the idea and the ideal of progress in all branches of human effort, and spread the faith that nations as well as humanity in general would gradually, through their own efforts, reach a higher and higher degree of achievement and satisfaction.

These, it seems to me, are the dominating ideas of Western Europe. I say Western Europe, although I am chiefly thinking of France, since the West (France and the adjoining nations, England and America, and Italy and the other Romance nations) forms a cultural whole, as is clearly demonstrated by the history of the reciprocal influences exerted by the various nations mentioned.

During the Middle Ages, Germany also belonged to the cultural body of Europe. But in modern times she has steadily separated herself, more and more, in her culture. Prussia, an aggressive state from the very beginning, strengthened by the Reformation, came to dominate Germany. A noticeable étatisme also prevailed in the West, but there the state grew to be the organ of Parliament and of public opinion, while in Germany a monarchistic state was deified and its absolutism generally recognized. Not till the end of the World War did the Prussian King, as German Emperor, decide for the parliamentarization of the government. Prussia and Germany were really an organized Caesarism; certainly Frederick the Great, Bismarck and the Wilhelms in contrast to Napoleon were Caesars and Tsars. The soldier, the Prussian officer, was for the Germans the standard of social organization, in fact of the organization of the world. The soldier and war became institutions. In Germany the Reformation, humanism, science, art and philosophy did not expel theocracy as thoroughly as they did in the West; the German people accepted the Reformation only in part, and in its German form (Lutheranism) adapted it to Catholicism. A kind of Caesaro-Papism arose, although different from the Russian Caesaro-Papism. The humanitarian ideals of Lessing, Herder, Goethe, Kant, and Schiller, derived from observing and from collaborating in the development of the West and of the world in general, came to be replaced by a pan-Germanic imperialism. The Berlin-Bagdad scheme was characteristic of the effort to dominate Europe and Asia and Africa--an effort in which is to be seen the ideal of the ancient world! Germany maintains and develops the ideal of the Roman imperium.

In contrast with this, the ideal of the West is the organization of the whole of humanity,--the alliance (before everything) of Europe with America, and by this means the alliance of the other parts of the world. The World War furthered this unification.

Pan-Germanism did not recognize the rights of peoples to independence. It wished to be the sole leader and ruler of all. In its arrogance it announced that the ideal was a multi-national state. It rejected natural right and substituted for it historical right. Kant is certainly recognized as a leading philosopher; but his inclination towards natural right and Rousseau was rejected by Germany, as were humanitarian ideals in general. Historical right was strengthened with the aid of Darwinism, through the theory of mechanical evolution, guaranteeing success to the strongest. War and the making of war became divine institutions. Prussian militarism utilized the theory of the English naturalist to strengthen its military aristocracy, which proclaimed as its chief dogma the so-called Realpolitik, the notion that all right is born of might. Power and force were identified.[i] The German nation was described as a nation of born rulers.

The results of Prussianism can be seen not only in politics, but also in German philosophy, science, art and, of course, in theology. When in a nation the leading men and classes begin to rely upon power and force, eschewing sympathy, people cease to have any interest in finding out about the feelings and thoughts of those who are near to them, and finally of foreigners; for all contact with them is made through the state mechanism. They cease to think freely, and knowledge becomes devoid of living ideas.

This is an interpretation of the great errors of German history and of German thought before and after the war. Bismarck, with his use of force in his relations with the people near to him, is the type of the domineering Prussian spirit. I should describe the development schematically as follows: Goethe, Kant, Frederick the Great, Hegel, Lagarde, Marx, Moltke, Bismarck, William II.

In Hegel we see the synthesis of both tendencies of German culture; he accepted the Prussian idea of the state, namely that it is the chief expression of nationality and the leader of all society. By his pantheism and his imaginative philosophy he constitutes a transition from Goethe, and in the practical domain a transition to Prussianism and its mechanism, materialism and force. Not for nothing was Hegel originally a theologian--even in this connection he formulated the principles of the Prussian theocracy. Bismarck and Wilhelm were always calling on God, of course the Prussian God; Hegel, with his "absolute idealism," served the "authoritism" of the Prussian state, abandoned humanity and the universal outlook of Goethe and Kant, and laid a foundation for the theoretical and practical employment of force. Bismarck and Bismarckism absorbed Goethe--the Prussian state became the infallible leader of the nation and the arbiter of its spiritual and cultural efforts.

Marx, having passed through the philosophy of Feuerbach ("a man is what he eats"), turned Hegel's pantheism and absolute idealism into materialism and accepted the mechanism of Prussian organization and étatisme (all-powerful centralization), although he made the state subject to economic laws. The fact that during the war the German Marxians, in spite of their socialism and revolutionary tendencies, accepted without criticism the Prussian policy and remained so long in alliance with the Pan-Germans, is due to their relationship with them in method and tactics. The undemocratic conception regarding the necessity of large economic units corresponds to the Prussian theory of super-humanity. Marx himself had the same view of the Slav peoples as Treitschke and Lagarde.

German thought, beginning with Kant, took a wrong road. Kant set opposite the one-sided English empiricism, and especially the skepticism of Hume, the one-sided intellectualism of so-called pure creative reason. He constructed a whole system of a priori eternal truths and thus began the reign of German subjectivism, leading inevitably to solipsistic isolation and egoism, to an aristocratic individualism and a super-humanity based on force. This metaphysical titanism necessarily led the German subjectivists to moral isolation. The phantasy of Fichte and Schelling gave birth to the nihilism and pessimism of Schopenhauer. The titans became wrathful, ironical--and anger and irony and titanism are a contradictio in adjecto--and finally desperate. Hegel and Feuerbach sought a refuge in the police state and in materialism, through which they avoided metaphysical imagination; they submitted to the régime of Prussian "corporalism," for which Kant had given strong justification by his categorical imperative. The German universities became the spiritual barracks of this philosophical absolutism, which reached its consummation in the idea of the Prussian state and kingdom, deified by Hegel. Hegel created absolutism for the state, and justified right by strength and force. Nietzsche, like Schopenhauer, rejects this development, but only in words; in reality Nietzsche became a philosophical prophet of the Hohenzollern parvenus and of Pan-German absolutism. Nietzsche is the type of the modern hair-splitting scholastic, intoxicating and satisfying himself with big words.

Hegel proclaimed not only the infallibility of the state, but the "self-saving" quality of war and militarism; Lagarde and his followers then conceived a philosophy and policy of pan-Germanism. This it was which was defeated in France. With the Prussian regiments there fell the philosophy which stood for the doctrines "exterminate the Poles" (von Hartmann); "break the thick skulls of the Czechs" (Mommsen); "destroy the decadent French and the haughty English." Prussian pan-Germanism was overthrown by the war.

In rejecting the one-sidedness of German thought which was initiated by Kant I do not say that German philosophy is entirely faulty, nor do I say that it is superficial or uninteresting. On the contrary, German philosophy is interesting and profound, but profound for the reason that it is not, and can not be, free. It is a scholasticism of the mediaeval type, ready-made, a predetermined official creed. Like the Prussian state and Prussianism generally, German philosophy, and also German idealism, is absolutist, violent, unjust to the greatness of free united humanity.

In my first work, "Suicide as a Collective Social Phenomenon in Modern Civilization" (1881), I attempted to interpret the surprising and terrible fact that in modern times, from the end of the eighteenth century, the number of suicides has increased everywhere in Europe and in America, and particularly amongst the most enlightened peoples, and this to such an extent that it is necessary to speak of suicide as a pathological condition of modern society. This tendency to suicide in the modern individual is allied to his increasing psychism. Through a detailed analysis of the causes and motives of isolated suicides I was forced to the recognition of the fact that the instigating, and often the deciding, factor in suicide is a weakening of character through the loss of religion. Seen in historical perspective, modern suicide and psychism appear as the result of the precocity or crudity of the new conception of the world and the inadequate organization of the society inhabiting it.

Mediaeval Catholic theocracy consolidated throughout Christendom a unified conception of the world and, corresponding to it, a moral and political régime; but the power of the Catholic theocracy in modern times (and this is what makes them modern!) decreased, and is still decreasing. Revolution--scientific, philosophical, artistic, religious, political and social--characterized the transition from the Middle Ages. Hume and Kant, skepticism and the attempt to overcome skepticism, are both characteristic of modern times. Against infallibility, absolutism and inquisition, mankind protested and revolted; there developed a revolutionary and excessive individualism and subjectivism, leading to spiritual and moral isolation, to general anarchy instead of the previous catholicity. Skepticism, criticism, irony and negation have forced faith into the background, man has become uneasy, inconstant, restless, nervous; through his very energy, often artificially increased, he has fallen into Utopianism; through his continual searching and enterprise he has been deceived again and again; the idealist has plunged himself into gluttony, but has not found satisfaction; pessimism, not only theoretical, but also practical, has become widespread--as also joylessness and anxiety, hate and despair, and from these exhaustion, nervousness, psychism and suicide. Modern society is pathologically irritated, torn, disintegrated--always in one transition after another. In the number of suicides we find a direct arithmetical measure of this psychic sickness, at once moral and psychological.

The psychological opposite of suicide and the suicidal mania is murder. Suicide is violence done by the soul to itself and is intrinsically egocentric and subjective; murder is violence to the soul, turned outwards--it is abnormal objectivization. Subjectivistic individualism, reaching a higher stage in solipsism and titanic equality with God, is unendurable to man--finally he uses force, either on himself or on somebody near him: suicide and murder are degrees of the same violence.

Modern militarism, especially Prussian militarism, is a violent flight from morbid subjectivity and the suicidal mania. I repeat, modern militarism; for, psychologically and morally, the bellicosity of the savage, the barbarian, and even of the mediaeval knight and mercenary, are different from the scientifically calculated military system of the modern absolutist states. The savage and the barbarian fight from original savagery; but in the World War, there were to be found in the trenches disciples of Rousseau and Kant, Goethe and Herder, Byron and Musset! If Sombart praises German militarism in the spirit of Hegel, and is proud of the fact that Fausts and Zarathustras are fighting in the trenches, he does not realize that he is thus condemning the bloodthirstiness of German and European civilization.

The warfare of these modern civilized peoples is in actuality a violent flight from the narrow conditions imposed by the conception of the superhuman "I." For this reason the intelligentsia, as far as bellicosity went, were not eclipsed by countrymen and laborers, but on the contrary took a leading part in the war. In modern war the opponents do not stand opposite to one another, eye to eye; it is not a battle, as it used to be; they destroy one another at a distance, abstractly, one man not seeing the other, killing one another through ideas and in ideas--German idealism turned into "Kruppism." The natural man knows nothing of suicide from modern reasons of exhaustion, nervousness and boredom; only in isolated instances does he commit suicide from anger at the lack of recognition or from general failure of his energy. The modern man, through exhaustion and narrow conditions due to spiritual and moral isolation, from a fruitless desire for greatness, and from "super-humanism," suffers from a morbid desire for suicide. Militarism is the attempt of this superman to flee from his malady, but it only constitutes an aggravation of it. It is a nation of thinkers and philosophers which has had the greatest number of suicides, which has produced the most perfected militarism, and which was responsible for the World War.

I am of the opinion that this connection between the modern suicidal mania and Prussian militarism is very real. The World War was a war of peoples. Not the old, permanent armies were opposed to one another, but new armies created through a universal obligation to military service, armies consisting chiefly of reserves. Not many of the soldiers engaged on opposing sides were soldiers by profession, though, of course, the Kaiser and the military leaders, as well as a portion of the personnel, were soldiers of the old type. The fact, however, that the World War was conducted on a huge scale gave it a peculiar stamp--the characteristics of the combatant peoples themselves were made manifest. The character of the war depends on the character of the soldiers. If the war, as the pacifists assure us, let loose all the evil forces such as hate, ill-will, and bellicosity, then these qualities did not arise only in the war, but were characteristic of the people before the war; the devils of the year 1914 were not the angels of 1913. The World War had, as has been said, an abstract, scientific quality. It was the preeminence of scientific military industry and the mathematical employment of great masses which finally brought victory.

I am of the opinion that the moral significance of the World War as an attempt at objectivization after excessive subjectivism is plain enough; the war and the method of making war arose from this moral and spiritual condition of the modern man and of his whole culture, as I have briefly set it forth. The modern contest between objectivization and subjectivization, expressed in literature and philosophy, and therefore in life, is a protracted historical process and expressed itself in the war also and particularly in its long duration. The war demonstrated what the modern man is capable of and what he would be capable of if he were to rid himself of his desire for domination and did not suppress in himself that love for his neighbor which is innate in every man.

The German historian, Lamprecht, in endeavoring so enthusiastically and energetically to justify the Germans in the war, supports my analysis in spite of himself. In his history of modern Germany, written before the war,[ii] he rightly characterizes the time as an epoch of nervous irritation (he coined the word "Reizsamkeit"), and quotes not only Wilhelm but also Bismarck as types of this neurosis. In fact, the German superman, the titan, is nervous and seeks either for death or war as an acute excitement in the place of chronic excitement.

This applies to all nations, but before everything to the German nation. In their spiritual isolation the German philosophers and scientists, historians and politicians, declared German civilization and culture to constitute the zenith of human development, and in the name of this self-appointed eminence Prussian Pan-Germanism announced the right of conquest and the right generally to subdue by power and force. The Prussian state, its army and militarism, became a corrective to morbid subjectivism; Prussian Pan-Germanism is responsible for the World War, is the moral cause of it.

The crisis of the modern man is a general one; it is a crisis of the whole man in his whole spiritual existence. Modern life, our institutions, our views on the world, must be revised. The internal disintegration and disharmony of the modern man and his life, the disintegration and disharmony of society and the general spiritual anarchy, the contest between the present and the past, between fathers and children, the war between the churches and science, philosophy, art and the state, these penetrate the whole of modern culture. We are seeking for the peace of our own souls--how and where shall we find it? In our effort to attain spiritual freedom we fell into an excessive individualism and subjectivity, which were the source of this general spiritual and moral anarchy. Many of us gave ourselves up to materialism and mechanics. We have cultivated intellectualism one-sidedly and have forgotten the harmonious cultivation of all our spiritual and physical powers and qualities. In opposing the churches and religion, we have contented ourselves with doubt and denial, we have snatched at revolutionary politicism, although we have convinced ourselves that at least in the primary conceptions of life and of the world a permanent social organization is impossible without harmony. We have revolted against the discipline of the church, but we have become slaves to programs and to the principles of parties and factions. To talk about and to demand morality and moral discipline is considered to be an exhibition of old-world moralizing. Restlessness, anxiety, skepticism, exhaustion, pessimism, hate, despair, suicide, militarism, going to war--that is the end of the modern man, the modern super-man.

The post-war situation led many to the conviction that Europe and the civilization of peoples were declining, declining definitely. Before the war, the Pan-Germans often announced the decline of the Romance peoples, especially of the French; now the German philosophers of history (Spengler) talk about the decline of the Germans and of the whole of the West. Some, on the other hand, hope for salvation from Russia or even from further east, although Russia fell in the war just as did Germany and Austria.

I do not believe in a general and definite degeneration and decadence. As a consequence of the war we are living through an acute and chronic crisis. Not we alone are responsible for this crisis, but our forefathers also. We could not refrain from altering what they left us; but the alterations we made were erroneous, and we continue to err. However, an honest recognition of a mistake is the beginning of improvement. The war and its horrors upset all of us--we stand helpless before a tremendous historical mystery, faced with an occurrence of a type which has never been known before in the history of humanity. But perturbation is not a program. We need a calm, direct analysis and criticism of our culture and its elements, and we must decide upon a concrete improvement in every sphere of thought and action. In all the enlightened nations there are enough thinking people to carry out this reform in concert.

[i] The proof of this Pan-German identification of right and might is given by Professor Schafer in "Staat und Gesellschaft," 1922 (i.e., after the war). He shows that right is only an expression of conditions of power, particularly external right; but under his hands power becomes force. "The thing cannot be otherwise, force and power can create right" (p. 264).

[ii] "Zur jungsten deutschen Vergangenheit," 1904.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now