Britain’s Great War was not only a war on Germany and the Ottoman Empire it was also a war on philosophy – or on the Germany philosophy that England attributed the War to. However, the Great War was not the great war it turned out to be because of German Philosophy. It was a Great War because of the philosophy Britain infused it with at the outset, which was entirely unnecessary to it.
Britain’s Great War was a Balance of Power war given the perception of a crusade against evil. And perception is everything in these things. Philosophically it was, in many ways, James Bryce versus Carl Schmitt, although whilst Bryce was a contributor to the catastrophe of 1914 Schmitt was merely someone whose thought was moulded by the experience of it. But it is worth examining these two conflicting views of the nature of war to understand why the Great War was such a catastrophe.
James Bryce of Belfast was author of The Holy Roman Empire, Professor of Law at Oxford, where, with Lord Acton, he founded the English Historical Review. From 1880 to 1907 he was a Liberal M.P., serving as Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and President of the Board of Trade. He also served as Chief Secretary for Ireland, Ambassador to the United States. He initially opposed the Great War but then became a leading figure in the British Ministry of Information/Propaganda, which served the purpose of justifying it and expanding it.
Viscount Bryce gave An Address to the Huxley Foundation at the University of Birmingham in 1916 as part of his work. Near the beginning of the address entitled War and Human Progress he stated:
“A school of thinkers has arisen which, not content with maintaining war to be a necessary factor in the relations between states, as being the only ultimately available method of settling their disputes, declares it to be a method in itself wholesome and socially valuable. To these thinkers it is not an inevitable evil, but a positive good — a thing not merely to be expected and excused, but to be desired for the benefits it confers on mankind. This school challenges the assumptions of the lovers of peace and denounces their projects of disarmament and arbitration as pernicious. War, it seems, is a medicine which human society needs, and which must be administered at frequent intervals; for it is the only tonic capable of bracing up the character of a nation.”
Bryce went on:
“That which is called the Darwinian principle of Natural Selection is a matter still in controversy among scientific men. A distinguished zoologist, for instance, Dr. Chalmers Mitchell, whose little book entitled Evolution and the War may be commended as full of interest and instruction, pronounces the principle to be only a highly probable hypothesis regarding the process by which the evolution of species has taken place, but still no more, as yet, than a hypothesis. The methods by which natural selection takes place are uncertain. Higher and more complex forms do certainly come out of lower and simpler forms; and the adaptability to environment would seem to be an extremely important factor in their development. More than that—so one gathers from the biologists—we are not entitled to assert.
Thomas Huxley, the foremost advocate of Natural Selection, had been known as “Darwin’s Bulldog.” So there was no disguising Social Darwinism as a German phenomenon. Huxley had reservations about the applicability of Darwinism to the struggles of human kind, due to the growth of civilization, but it would have been impossible for Bryce to conceal the English origins and strength of the Social Darwinist movement to the Huxley Foundation Scientists.
Dr. Charmers Mitchell, of the London Zoological Society, who worked with Bryce in the British Ministry of Information/Propaganda, had written some famous articles for the Saturday Review in the 1890s under the pseudonym ‘A Biologist’ about the connection between Biology and Foreign Policy. They persisted in the collective memory it seems. They were Social Darwinist in a very fundamentalist way and the gist of them was that as races go the Germans were closest to the English and a “racial struggle” fought to the death was therefore inevitable between the two branches of Anglo-Saxondom.
This sort of thing was embarrassing for Bryce and he skipped over it quickly.
The English Social Darwinism had been toned down in August 1914 in favour of putting Germany in the wrong and the Christian rhetorical mode of Bryce and others was employed to project a different war. This was done in order to work up a moral war frenzy in the populace out of the residue of Christianity.
The War itself was waged on an entirely different basis from the morality that advocated it, closer to the one Bryce pretended was indicative of Germany. But like so many other British Liberals who should have been against the Imperialist war Bryce went to great lengths to propagandize it as a different war—a moral war in which England was fighting for the highest of motives against the greatest of evils.
The audience could have little doubt who Viscount Bryce was talking about in his address – Germany. From the start of the Great War British propaganda was dominated by the theory that “prophets of war” saturated German thinking and that fanatic German nationalists were inspiring German policy to conquer Europe and expand into territories across the world. Bryce described Social Darwinism and the idea of Natural Selection, which had originated in England but which Bryce inferred had been perverted by Germans and erected into a philosophy of life. He argued that this lay at the bottom of this system of thought. He quoted General Bernhardi:
“Wherever we look in Nature we find that war is a fundamental law of development. This great verity, which has been recognized in past ages, has been convincingly demonstrated in modern times by Charles Darwin. He proved that nature is ruled by an unceasing struggle for existence, by the right of the stronger, and that this struggle in its apparent cruelty brings about a selection eliminating the weak and the unwholesome. The natural law to which all the laws of nature can be reduced is the law of struggle. From the first beginning of life, war has been the basis of all healthy development. Struggle is not merely the destructive, but the life-giving principle. The law of the stronger holds good everywhere. Those forms survive which are able to secure for themselves the most favourable conditions of life. The weaker succumb.” (Germany and the Next War, p. 18.)
Bryce did not put Bernhardi in context, however. Bernhardi was describing the existing structure of the world (1912) that had been largely made by England, for his German audience. That structure was strictly militarist (or navelist), built by a nation that had fought more wars and nations than any other. Presumably Bernhardi was attempting to shock the idealistic Germans into taking account of the reality they were becoming a part of and would have to take account of.
Many English writers had described the world in the same way as Bernhardi and it had become commonplace in England to understand it like this. The British State certainly acted upon such considerations. Liberal moralists like Bryce might have disapproved of seeing the world in such terms, particularly since that made them accomplices to it, or servants of it. They pretended they were part of something greater and more righteous but they always reconciled themselves to the reality of what they found distasteful to describe. It was after all their ambit, and their bread and butter.
Bryce then set about the critiquing the thought that he attributed to Germans, saying that arguments from the biological world were not applicable to human affairs as the social world of humanity failed to support “the thesis that the law of progress through strife is a universal law, applicable to human communities as well as to animals and plants.”
“It is alleged that the record of all that man has done and suffered is largely a record of constant strife — a fact undeniably true — and that thereby the races and nations and states which are now able to do most for the further advance of mankind have prevailed. They have prevailed by war; war, therefore, has been the means, and the necessary means, of that predominance which has enabled them to civilize the best parts of the globe. Before entering this part of the enquiry, let us see what Progress means. It is a term which covers several quite different things…”
Despite noting that the dominant states “have prevailed by war” and “war, therefore, has been the means, and the necessary means, of that predominance which has enabled them to civilize the best parts of the globe” Bryce made no mention of the state which had prevailed most by war and which actually dominated the globe. That is a familiar blind spot.
Arriving at the real target of his philosophical reasoning, Bryce continued:
“The capital instance of the association of war with the growth and greatness of a state is found in Prussia. One may say that her history is the source of the whole thesis and the basis of the whole argument. It is a case of what, in the days when the students of my generation were learning logic at the University of Oxford, we used to call the “induction from a single instance.” Prussia, then a small state, began her upward march under the warlike and successful prince whom her people call the Great Elector. Her next long step to greatness was taken by Frederick II., again by a course of successful warfare, though doubtless also by means of a highly organized, and, for those days, very efficient administration. Voltaire said of Frederick’s Prussia that its trade was war. The close of the Napoleonic wars further enlarged her territory. Three successful wars — those of 1864, 1866, and 1870-71 — made her the nucleus of a united German nation and the leading military power of the Old World.
“Ever since those victories her industrial production, her commerce, and her wealth have rapidly increased, while at the same time scientific research has been prosecuted with the greatest vigour and on a scale unprecedentedly large. These things were no doubt achieved during a peace of forty-three years. But it was what one may call a belligerent peace, full of thoughts of war and preparations for war. There is no denying that the national spirit has been carried to a high point of pride, energy, and self-confidence, which have stimulated effort in all directions and secured extraordinary efficiency in civil as well as in military administration. Here, then, is an instance in which a state has grown by war and a people has been energized by war.”
So Prussia’s success had been due to its spirit of war – despite the fact that it had fought no wars for nearly half a century. It had utilized its war spirit for peaceful success and that, presumably, was why it had got the better of Britain.
An examination of the available statistical evidence on the comparative militarism of the European powers since the end of the Middle Ages reveals that, far from being an aggressively military entity, Prussia/Germany was one of the most peaceful nations in Europe. From 1480 until 1940 the relative percentages of participation by the principle European states in wars, as estimated by the American Professor Quincy Wright in his 1952 book, A Study Of War, was England 28%, France 26%, Spain 23%, Russia 22%, Austria 19%, Turkey 15%, Poland 11%, Sweden 9%, Netherlands 8%, Italy 9%, and Germany/Prussia 8%.
The Russian historian Pitirim Sorokin, in Social And Cultural Dynamics, undertook an investigation of data and proved that historically, of all the nations of Europe, Germany had the lowest percentage of years with war. England, Spain, Poland, Lithuania, Greece, France, Russia, Holland, Austria, and Italy all exceeded Germany in time spent on martial pursuits. F.Cowell published some of Sorokin’s findings in A History Of Civilisation And Culture in 1953. In his book England is credited with 176 wars. Prussia/Germany, which British propaganda depicted as an essentially militarist state, is credited with 24 wars.
The British military and naval historian, Captain Russell Grenfell, made a statistical analysis of the numerical involvement in wars by the major European powers in the century between Waterloo and the Great War. He credited Britain with involvement in ten wars, Russia in seven, France in five, Austria in three, and Prussia/Germany in three.
During this period, Germany strove for commercial success in the world, and not world hegemony. Germany was alone amongst the European Powers of Britain, France, Holland, Belgium, Spain and Portugal in having very little Imperial possessions abroad. Only the German Empire didn’t have a substantial overseas Empire. The German Empire was not like the British Empire. It was primarily an Empire of Germans. Bismarck had no great desire for a “Greater Germany” to rival “Greater Britain”. Germany’s colonial empire never amounted to much and Bismarck gave no encouragement to the handful of Anglophile German colonial adventurers, like Carl Peters, who wanted to follow in the footsteps of Cecil Rhodes and others, and emulate Britain’s Imperial enterprise in the world.
Germany had no aims requiring warfare for achievement. It was winning the commercial contest and establishing markets without any need for warfare. It was Britain that required warfare to arrest German commercial success.
This is where Bryce’s argument assumes the character of philosophy as propaganda.
“Two conclusions… we may claim to have reached… are rather negative than positive. One is that war does not necessarily arrest progress. Peoples may advance in thought, literature, and art while they are fighting. The other is that war cannot be shown to have been a cause of progress in anything except the wealth or material power of a state which extends its dominions by conquest or fills its coffers by tribute extorted from the vanquished.
“The weakness of the argument which recommends and justifies war by the suggestion that it is by war that the foremost races and states have established their position may be very briefly stated. War has been practically universal. All the races and states have fought, some better, some worse. The best fighters have not always succeeded, for they may have been fewer in number. There is no necessary connection between fighting quality and intellectual quality. True it is that some of the intellectually gifted peoples have also been warlike peoples. The Greeks were; so are the French and Germans. But the Turks, who are good fighters, are good for nothing else; and the dull Spartans fought better, on land at least, than the bright Athenians. Where the gift for fighting goes with the gift for thought, the success achieved by the intellectual race in war is not a result but a symptom, an indication or evidence of an exceptional natural force. Those races and states that are now in the front rank of civilization have shown their capacity in many other fields besides that of war, and at other times than when they were fighting. All that can safely be said to be proved by history is that a race which cannot fight or will not fight when a proper occasion arises, as, for instance, when it has to vindicate its independence, is likely to go down, and be subjected or absorbed. Yet the fact that a state is subjected or absorbed does not prove its inferiority. There is no poetical justice in history. The highly gifted race may be small, like Israel, or too much divided to maintain itself against heavy odds, like the Hellenes of antiquity. From 1490 to 1560 Italy was the prey of foreign invaders; but she was doing more for human progress in art and letters than all the other European nations put together.
Britain is again peculiarly absent in Bryce’s historical review of the relationship between war and progress – perhaps as a moral centre which exists outside of analysis. However, aware that this line of argument presented the inference of a problem of Britain at war contaminating the peace loving nation, Bryce made a distinction:
“A war of oppression, stimulated by national pride and ambition, may have a different moral effect from one that is undertaken to repel a wanton attack, to defend an innocent neutral state, to save peaceful peoples from a danger to their liberties, and protect the whole world from a menace to the sacred principles of justice and humanity.”
This brings us to Carl Schmitt – who is very much Bryce’s antithesis.
The formative influence on Schmitt’s thought was the Great War. He was a German conservative of the Weimar era who was interested in geopolitics and constitutional law. Schmitt wrote about the land/sea geopolitical conflict and the distinction between revolutionaries and partisans. He was a Catholic conservative who dismissed Hitler as an ignorant nobody. However, he joined the Nazi Party in May 1933, at the same time as Heidegger, and became a legal official of the regime.
However, Schmitt’s philosophy was incompatible with what the Nazis stood for and they gradually parted company. Schmitt, with his connections in high places, managed to survive an SS denunciation in 1936. The SS charged that Schmitt only pretended to be anti-semitic and had condemned the Nazi racial theories before joining the party. After the war Schmitt was punished for his legal affiliation with the Nazis, losing his academic career. his books were banned and he was sent to prison briefly. His influence was great, although less and less acknowledged it with the blackening of his name.
Schmitt was a strong critic of Liberalism, which he saw as dangerous deception and hypocrisy. He viewed the Liberal “Humanism” of Viscount Bryce and his ilk as premised on the ultimate objective of the disappearance of politics and an end of history. Because, for Schmitt, the political is rooted in human nature, it could not be abolished.
Schmitt saw a polarity lying at the root of the political in the friend–enemy (amicus v. hostis) distinction. That distinction which was external to the state except during times of insurrection or civil war naturally made for political conflict and implied the ultimate possibility of killing. Schmitt saw the enemy as the existential outsider, whose hostility and readiness for conflict represented a threat to the state and its internal relations of consensus. The enemy, therefore, should not be designated from moral judgments (inimicus), but on the basis of hostile power, which menaces the state’s existence. An enemy, for Schmitt, exists wherever one fighting-collectivity poses an existential threat to another collectivity.
For Schmitt the enemy is defined in terms of particular criteria, not content or substance — which means it takes the form of something that is always specific and concrete — not something symbolic or metaphorical as English Liberalism created.
The enemy must remain solely a political enemy for Schmitt. Peace is the aim of war and the enemy must always remain someone with whom peace can be made – since war must always end with a peace treaty. Total War is a disaster because the elimination of the enemy is not a wise political course. For one thing, an attempt at annihilation of the enemy would eliminate the element that constitutes politics itself. The Liberal moralist, believing the enemy to be absolute evil and which can be eliminated to cure the disease of war is under a dangerous utopianism. This Liberal view results in the raising of the stakes in war without ever possibly winning what it is believed can be won – and “the war to end all wars.”
War is not an agent of progress or of regression for Schmitt. It is simply an “ever present possibility,” which Schmitt recognized as being at the core of the political sphere.
Schmitt believed that Liberalism was not capable of effectively distinguishing between friend and enemy because its individualist, universalist ideology denied that such a designation is conceivable in a world it understands in either market form or in terms of morality, where there are only competitors and moral entities, with whom one negotiates or reasons with on the basis of the existence of universal rights and interests.
However much it tries, Liberalism cannot exclude the “political.” So when it designates an enemy, it has to present it as being outside “humanity” and thus something not simply to be defeated, but annihilated. And so Liberal England had to see Germans and Turks as lying outside human civilization to be deserving of war.
Schmitt argued against the concept of ‘Just Wars’, on the grounds that wars fought for political gain tend to be limited by the fact that their protagonists operate within clear strategic objectives, whereas ‘Just Wars’, and especially Humanitarian War, lead to Total War because of expansive goals and the moral fervour whipped up behind them. Humanitarian Wars is based on fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of international politics. International Morality makes war more likely, not less likely for Schmitt.
‘Just War’ also presupposes that only certain people deserve such wars fought on moral principles. Some don’t – Moslems, during the Crusades, for example. Pagans, barbarians, infidels, savages etc. are immune to morality and can be treated in such a way that anything is permitted to be practiced against them. Schmitt called this the “discriminatory conception of war” which reached its culmination during the Great War. The Allies abandoned the jus publicum europauem by fighting a moral war and attempting to bring the Kaiser to trial as a criminal. With the demonization of the adversary in war, the annihilation of the enemy identified with absolute evil becomes a moral imperative.
“Such a war is necessarily unusually intense and inhuman because, by transcending the limits of the political framework, it simultaneously degrades the enemy into moral and other categories and is forced to make of him a monster that must not only be defeated but also utterly destroyed.” (Concept of the Political, p.36)
The philosopher and Rabbi, Jacob Taubes, who engaged in a correspondence with Schmitt over a number of years, wrote in support of the German’s criticism of Liberal war:
“Whoever condemns war as war… does not abolish war. Not at all. Instead he criminalizes war and thus makes it possible to prosecute in the worst possible forms. Whoever opposes here and now must be a criminal to be eliminated. That means that war becomes more acute, brutal, without any limits, if a state of war is not allowed to exist between men, a state of war that then brings about a peace.” (To Carl Schmitt: Letters and Reflections, p.37)
Schmitt supported the old regulated war of the Westphalian order founded on the jus publicum europaem which replaced the former respublica christiana. Enemies had to be respected in war and not seen as criminals. Therefore, there should be strict adherence to rules governing the treatment of prisoners and civilians, respect for neutrals, respect for those surrendering and no aim of overthrowing a government/regime change. Wars should be fought to achieve territorial objectives alone and the most important thing in waging war was to limit it in both duration and effect.
Schmitt’s regulated war is the antithesis of the warfare of the Book of Joshua with its extermination of the enemy population, including women and children, the destruction of settlements, etc.
The system Bryce advocated appealed to the idea of “Humanity” to rid itself of political units and unities. But “Humanity is not a political concept,” wrote Schmitt.
Schmitt noted – and this is particularly relevant to Viscount Bryce:
“The idea of Humanity in doctrines based on liberal and individualistic doctrines of natural Right is an ideal social construction of universal nature, encompassing all men on earth. . . . which will not be realized until any genuine possibility of combat is eliminated, making any grouping in terms of friends and enemies impossible. This universal society will no longer know nations. . . . The concept of Humanity is an ideological instrument particularly useful for imperialistic expansion, and in its ethical and humane form, it is specifically a vehicle of economic imperialism. Here one is reminded of a somewhat modified expression of Proudhon’s: whoever invokes humanity wants to cheat. To confiscate the word humanity, to invoke and monopolize such a term probably has certain incalculable effects, such as denying the enemy the quality of being human and declaring him to be an outlaw of humanity; and a war can thereby be driven to the most extreme inhumanity. Such a sublime name entails certain consequences for one who carries it. Indeed, to speak in the name of Humanity, to invoke it, to monopolize it, displays a shocking pretense: to deny the humanity of the enemy, to declare him outside the law and outside of Humanity, and thus ultimately to push war to the extremes of inhumanity.“ (The Concept of the Political, pp. 53-4)
Schmitt’s defining of the political in terms of the categories of friend/enemy and his rejection of “humanitarian” war did not lead to “crimes against humanity”. The reverse was actually the case. Giving recognition to fundamental political conflict made sure that the cause of the enemy was no less legitimate than one’s own. It was the ideology of Bryce, claiming universal truth and the cause of “humanity”, which considered the enemy as absolute evil, that led to the “crimes against humanity” that the same people railed against. Why? Because if the enemy saw himself defined as absolute evil and was threatened with annihilation what choice had he but to fight using all means necessary to preserve himself. Bryce’s view of war was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What made Britain’s Great War the global catastrophic event it became was not the plan of the Committee of Imperial Defence or the desire of the British elite to crush Germany. It was the infusion of the moralism of English Liberalism, whipping up popular frenzy to alter the character of the War to justify it, that made for the global catastrophe. War on the lines described by Schmitt would have been much more limited and probably have ended in 1916, before the worst of the damage had been done.
(A shorter version of this article will be published shortly in The Heidegger Review, No. 3)