Sleepwalking into the future

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing – Edmund Burke

I have been reading Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clerk. The author admits that thousands of books have already been written on the subject. However, his contribution is still a worthwhile—if overly long—read. It has some interesting insights, even if only for the worrying similarities between then and now.

The causes of the conflict—one of the deadliest in the history of the human race, in which over 16 million people died—are complex and multiple. However, the overall terrifying message of the book is that the build-up to war took on its own momentum that was in the end impossible to stop. Discussing the role of the monarchy in that process, Christopher Clerk writes,

At the core of the monarchical club that reigned over pre-war Europe was the trio of imperial cousins: Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II and George V. By the turn of the twentieth century, the genealogical web of Europe’s reigning families had thickened almost to the point of fusion… Viewed from this perspective, the outbreak of war in 2014 looks rather like the culmination of a family feud.

The author is particularly harsh on Kaiser Wilhelm II. He writes,

The Kaiser spoke, wrote, telegraphed, scribbled and ranted more or less continuously during the thirty years of his reign, and a huge portion of these articulations was recorded and preserved for prosperity. Some of them were tasteless or inappropriate.

He continues,

The Kaiser picked up ideas, enthused over them, grew bored or discouraged, and dropped them again. He was angry with the Russian Tsar one week, but infatuated with him the next.

 Wilhelm wasn’t content to fire off notes and marginalia to his ministers, he also broached his ideas directly to the representatives of foreign powers. Sometimes his interventions opposed the direction of foreign policy, sometimes they endorsed it; sometimes they overshot the mark to arrive at a grossly overdrawn parody of the official view. It was precisely because of episodes like this that Wilhelm’s ministers sought to keep him at one remove from the actual decision-making process.

 There was quite a fuss, for example, when the German ambassador in Washington…refused to pass on a letter from Wilhelm to President Roosevelt in 1908…It was not the content of the letter that worried the diplomats, but rather the effusiveness and immaturity of its tone. It was surely unacceptable, one official remarked, that the sovereign of the German Empire should write to the president of the United States “as an infatuated schoolboy might write to a pretty seamstress”.

The author adds,

It was one of the Kaiser’s many peculiarities that he was completely unable to calibrate his behavior to the contexts in which his high office obliged him to operated.”

But at least Kaiser Wilhelm didn’t have Twitter.

There are other similarities with current times. The author writes that a family feud wasn’t the only cause for the war; public opinion also played a part.

“Most of the conflicts the world has seen in the past ten decades,” the German chancellor Bernhard von Bülow declared before the German parliament in March 1909, “have not been called forth by princely ambition or ministerial conspiracy but through the passionate agitation of public opinion, through which the press and parliament has swept along the executive government.”

Early in 1905, the Russians were distributing about £8,000 a month to the Parisian press… and during the Russo-Japanese and Balkan Wars the Russians handed out huge bribes to French journalists…In areas where the European powers competed for local influence, the use of subsidized press organs to win friends and discredit the machinations of one’s opponents was commonplace.

It is not clear who said, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes,” but let’s try not to sleepwalk into anything bad.

Author: Jonathan

After 37 years as a commodity trader and analyst, Jonathan Kingsman is now chairman of Bonsucro, a non-for-profit organisation that promotes environmental sustainability and human rights within the sugarcane sector. Jonathan is married with four grown up children and lives in Lausanne Switzerland. He is the Editor of The Sugar Trading Manual and author of The Sugar Casino. Godstone is his first novel.

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