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A philosophical note on the outbreak of World War I, 100 years ago

by Bruno Van de Casteele

August 3, 2014

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Donate This weekend we commemorate the start of hostilities 100 years ago in World War 1. Direct and indirect causes were, of course, already long in the making, and you can find a lot of information about it in the media. For a good and very thorough introduction, I recommend Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast series on "Blueprint for Armageddon".

Also numerous are the Twitter feeds and Facebook pages that retrace day by day the events leading up to and detailing the hostilities, focusing on the overall picture or just a country or even one city. As a history enthusiast, this is of course very interesting stuff and allows me to learn more on how the entire world got engulfed in a crazy carnage that took four years and millions of lives.

There is, however, one risk to this all. It could lead to misinterpret history as a necessary and unavoidable chain of events, without any hope of avoiding dire consequences. The philosopher Hannah Arendt also warned against this in Origins of Totalitarianism (and other works) where she feared that such an interpretation of history (which is incorrect) would lead and has already led (in totalitarian regimes) to the loss of human spontaneity and even human nature.

She analyzed this in respect to two of the totalitarian regimes the world has known (Nazism and Stalinism), but these thought errors still exist today. Henry Kissinger recently remarked that "World War I was structurally unavoidable." I cringed when I read that, because it implies that the enormous loss of life was unpreventable, and that we should accept it as such. Furthermore, earlier this year an article appeared in the Independent (UK) where professor Margaret MacMillan (an historian!) suggested similarities between 1914 and 2014. It might be the journalist that made too much out of it, but in any case it is bad science that could lead to fatalism.

Of course in hindsight it is always easier to judge the events of 100 years ago. To me however, it seems that somewhere between Austria-Hungary declaring an ultimatum and then war, Russia mobilizing, Germany declaring war and then invading Belgium, etc... there was still room for one person to say "stop" and decide otherwise. In the above chain of events, it could have happened at any point in time. Feel free, of course, to apply this positive outlook and hope of human spontaneity on any recent events...

Coming from an unlikely background, it seems that the following person understood that could have happened. Philip Kiril Prinz von Preuen, great-great-grandchild of Wilhelm II, German Emperor, has apologised [Dutch - Google Translate] and stated that the monarch could have done more to prevent war. Far from this being an apology for his great-great-grandfather, he is in line with current research showing that the German Emperor was maybe not entirely the warmonger he was later made out to be, and that he did not want war even as late as 28th July, 1914. Von Preuen feels guilty that his grandfather didn't do more and that is why he has apologised publicly.

One can only wonder what would have happened if in 1914 Austria-Hungary and Serbia would have accepted Wilhelm's proposal to mediate, and if Austria-Hungary would not have declared war. At any point in the events of 1914, multiple such occasions for avoiding the following four years of destruction and horror could have and did indeed occur.

Hannah Arendt called it the (intrinsic) human spontaneity to be able to act upon such events. The science of history is far more than being able to sum up lists of dates and events, or of analyzing a certain chain of events as something unavoidable and without any other possible outcome. She pointed out that we can "endow [the past] with relevance and meaning for the present, and make it a source for the future." In my opinion, we cannot ignore what history tells us (and that is probably the reasoning MacMillan used, too), because it can inspire us for the future to do better.

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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