2002 October 04 Friday
European thinkers affected more by WWI than WWII

David Gelernter, in an essay called The Roots of European Appeasement, argues that with the end of the Cold War Europe's elites have reverted back to a 1920s mindset. In this analysis European impulses toward appeasement are driven by a self-hatred and a hatred of European Civilization that is a legacy of the First World War:

But suppose your attitudes were shaped, consciously or not, by the First World War and its aftermath. In that case, the lesson you'd take away would be very different: Whatever you do, never rush a war. Austria did not have to declare war against Serbia on July 28, 1914, but she was in a hurry to forestall proposed negotiations. Russia did not have to mobilize on the 30th, she was under no military threat, but she mobilized anyway. Germany did not have to go crashing into Belgium on August 4, she was in no danger of being overrun by hot-headed Flemings, but once she had mobilized (which she had to do because Russia had), her famous master-plan (to concentrate on the Western front, pivot through Belgium, and come down on France like a sledgehammer) would be exposed and rendered as useless as lightstruck film unless she hit right away.

Some Europeans know these details and some do not. But what every educated European knows is that World War I could have been prevented if only Europe hadn't been in such a demented hurry to fight. And the graveyards of World War I are a permanent feature of the European landscape. In consequence and in tribute, many Europeans are against all war on principle--defensive or offensive, just or unjust, mandatory or frivolous; and they hate Western civilization into the bargain. Can you blame them? The contempt for Western ideas, morality, religion, and traditions that is so prominent among European intellectuals is not the sheer malice it sometimes seems. Europe has earned the right to hate herself. If things go wrong, a scratch can fester. A pardonable act of (at worst) bad judgment--to whoop up a war along with throngs of your fellow citizens--can turn to scalding remorse as the death toll rises and rises. And such quiet emotions as private remorse can reshape history, when you sum up over a whole civilization.

This frantic compulsion to do nothing was countermanded by the Second World War and the Cold War--both of which centered on totalitarian tyrannies. That Iraq is more like these tyrannies than it is like Imperial Germany seems not to matter to the world's Continental Thinkers, who dominate the opinion-making elite nearly everywhere.

The US, having come much later to the First World War, and having had a very different experience with it, does not have the same historical interpretation of war influencing its culture. While quite a few American intellectuals share the European view its not widely held by the American public at large. One is hard put to find a similar American experience. America's Vietnam debacle resulted in American casualties that were a very small fraction of what Europe experienced in the First World War. To find an even roughly comparable US historical experience one needs to go all the way back to the US Civil War. But Americans did not interpret that experience in any way analogous to how Europeans interpreted the First World War in large part because the causes and outcome of the US Civil War were so different.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2002 October 04 12:11 AM  Europe and America

Yookahn said at May 8, 2003 3:02 PM:


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