Critique of Niall Ferguson
links for 2010-07-19

Lemmings Marching Off a Cliff...

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Wolfgang Mommsen on Max Weber:

Max Weber was not unprepared for the misfortune that befell Germany and Europe in August 1914. He was nevertheless deeply disturbed that the Reich had to face a superior coalition in the battle to retain its position as a world power. He had viewed a war for German equality to be unavoidable, and he was in principle inclined to support such a way. The war turned out to be a struggle to preserve Germany's national existence. The catastrophic diplomatic situation that isolated Germany at the war's outset clouded Weber's prophetic eyes.

How can we think of a peace? And when? Hundreds of thousands are bleeding because of the embarrassing incapacity of our diplomacy. We cannot deny it. Therefore I do not expect a lasting and fruitful peace for us even in the event of a favorable outcome.

In the most favorable circumstances, he did not expect this war would permit Germany to enter the ranks of the world powers. For this reason the World War seemed to make little real sense. It was above all the bloody reckoning for a quarter of a century of a boasting and arrogant German foreign policy that had offended all the powers equally.

Max Weber did share the national enthusiasm of the late summer of 1914. He had frequently criticized the German people for quietism and apolitical attitudes. He was now deeply affected by the national élan and the willingness for sacrifice with which the entire nation took up the fight for national preservation. He was fascinated by the event itself, independent of the fearful question of what it would lead to:

"Whatever the outcome, this war is great and wonderful." The nation's patriotic enthusiasm, its willingness to make sacrifices, its national unity--Weber sensed all this as of final and permanent value. To this extent he was able to find inner meaning in the bloody event, whatebver the outcome might be. "We have proved we are a great cultural nation," Weber wrote to his mother in April 1915.

People who live in a civilized milieu and are nevertheless able to rise to the horrors of war (no achievement for a black man from Senegal!) and to return as honorably as most of our people do--that is real humanity. We cannot overlook this even in the light of much that is unpleasant. This experience will remain, no matter what happens in the end, and indeed it does not look good if Italy cannot be pacified....

Although Max Weber attributed the rise of a "world coalition" against Germany primarily to the failure of German foreign policy, he also rejected the view that Germany could have avoided the World War through a better and more modest foreign policy.

We have to be a world power, and in order to have a say in the future of the world we had to risk the war.... Responsibility before the bar of history

demanded that Germany resist the division of the world between the "Anglo-Saxon convention" and "Russian bureaucracy"; otherwise the foundation of the Reich would have been meaningless and Germany should have remained divided into small states.... Weber was convinced that the only justifiable objective of the war was the preservation of the German Reich as a great power among "European world powers"...

It is never clear to me to what extent the fact that faithful translations from the German seem evasive of agency to nos Anglo-Saxons is an artifact of translation, a reflection of truth about German habits of thought, or an accurate view into authorial decisions. The use of passive in the translation of Mommsen:

  • "the misfortune that befell Germany and Europe..."
  • "the Reich had to face a superior coalition..."
  • "the war turned out to be..."
  • "the catastrophic diplomatic situation that isolated Germany..."
  • "It was above all the bloody reckoning..."

is striking. Alternatives that focus more attention on agency are almost immediately thought of by one:

  • "great powers decided not to shrink from the risk of war..."
  • "the German government struck first and struck at Belgium and France, creating the coalition of Russia, France, and Britain it then fought..."
  • "the German government raised the stakes from their initial Balkan-squabble value..."
  • "Imperial Germany alienated all possible allies and neutrals in the years and months before the war..."
  • "Germany's boastful and arrogant foreign policy over twenty-five years created a bloody reckoning..."