The Road to Hell, etc.: The Hohenzollerns by A.D.Innes
T.C. & E.C. Jack, London, 1915 (94 pages)
This excellent little history was written as world war I was breaking out, when the German unification under Bismarck and the Kaiser had reached its apotheosis but not yet its nadir. It begins, though written in 1914, with the assertion that Kaiser William II is unlikely to get what he wants from the current war, and that “an appreciable curtailment of the powers of the house of Hohenzollern will be the inevitable and fortunate alternative.” Much of what the author says is equally perceptive.
The book begins with an introduction, then moves on to explore the founding of Prussia, its rise to prominence, the epochal figure of Frederick the Great and then the consolidation of the fragments of the German region — bits of the Holy Roman Empire, various duchies and independent cities — into the German empire. And then we seen how the same concerns that drove Hitler — the will to power, the sense of destiny, the fear of encirclement with France and the British Empire on one side and Russia on the other, even the belief in world-wide conspiracies designed to prevent the German nation achieving its destiny — lead to military build-up and, with utter inevitability, world war.
“…the Kaiser has always found it necessary — and not at all difficult — to persuade his people that he is the least aggressive of men, and that any appearance of aggression must be attributed entirely to the hypocritical craft of treacherous foes. The Kaiser’s greatest and tragical triumph lies in this, that to-day the bulk of the German nation is probably honestly convinced that William in 1914, like Frederick in 1856, drew the sword only to save the German nation from destruction at the hands unscrupulous and wanton enemies of whom the most unscrupulous and the most wanton is Great Britain.”
The same words could have been written about a different dictator in 1939 and it is nice, though perhaps taken for granted, that this is marginally less likely these days in Europe, at least in the major nations (excluding Russia) (add other caveats here). Even now, with the UK voting (misguidedly? regretfully?) to leave the EU, there is still a preference for talk and collaboration. Today one has to look elsewhere, notably Russia and China, to see these attitudes; though sadly they are there. The sense of entitlement (like in the South China Sea right now), the us-against-them rhetoric, the “everybody else is to blame” pronouncements; they are all old tactics. Europe, it seems, has learned a little; but not humankind as a whole. It is sad that one part of the globe cannot learn from the tragedies of another part, that victors (for so the Russians were in WWII, and so the Chinese Communist Party was in 1948) cannot learn the lessons forced upon the vanquished.
Yet so it would seem. Reading history shows us that until nuclear weapons gave us the power to actually wipe out entire nations, and to (more importantly) be wiped out ourselves, war, all-out war between major powers, was indeed an acceptable, even popular, means of conducting foreign policy. Given the proxy wars, the civil wars, the religious wars, that go on and on and on, one is forced to conclude that even if we dislike war as individuals, we approve of it as a species, and we have learned next to nothing. Perhaps to-day we have a better sense of how we should behave.
The road to Hell, etc.
History does not tell us that we learn nothing from history; but the learning is rather incremental while the lessons are appallingly expensive.