As humans culturally evolve to a point of greater knowledge and understanding, one would expect war to become obsolete. There is probably nothing that war can accomplish that cannot be accomplished better through less violent means. But nations, unlike some individuals, have almost never been known to resolve conflicts peacefully. When they do, it is a cause for celebration; the European Union got the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for simply not having war for six decades.
But wars are not just things that happen. Somebody has to start them. I thought about this as I read, in English translation, the classic novel about World War One: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, by Vicente Blasco Ibañez, written in 1916 even before the war was over. I will tell a little about this novel in a later essay.
Seldom are wars started solely by ordinary people who may want to take resources from, or who feel animosity toward, people of other countries. War is started by governments, who then stir up masses of ordinary people into a frenzy of patriotism, fueled by religion. And, sometimes, fueled by something else as well: scientists and other intellectuals. As a scientist, I hate to admit this, but…well, let me give you an example.
The war that is now called World War One (The Great War, prior to the second) was a war that, as it happened, and even a century after it ended, has been hard to explain. Ask anybody what caused World War Two, and they will say Hitler and Mussolini and the imperialists of Japan. But World War One? Most people would guess Germany—and that is the correct answer—but that is about as far as they could go. I didn’t know much more about it than this before I began reading the novel.
Germany started World War One. It arose from the unresolved animosity from the Franco-Prussian War. In 1870, Prussia insisted that it had the right to rule France. The German Prussians had to retreat from France, except for Alsace. Then, in the Great War, the Germans attacked France again. This time the Allies beat them back past Alsace, to the east of the Rhine River. Then they did it again. Full resolution did not happen until Germany’s unconditional surrender after World War Two. Since that time, peace has been maintained in most of Europe.
German aggression did not result simply from economic and military leaders ordering German troops to attack France (as well as Belgium and other countries). The German people (not all of them, but millions of them) believed with all their souls that Germans were the master race and deserved to rule as much territory as they could get, by whatever means they could get it. They believed whole-heartedly in the war, and the German soldiers fought ferociously. According to Ibañez, German soldiers killed anyone they could find in Belgium, even cutting off women’s breasts and nailing them to doors, or spiking babies on bayonets and parading them around town. Only religion—in this case, a religion of German superiority—can so strongly parasitize the human mind as to make people believe and do things like this.
The Germans began World War One with the claim that the war would be brief and intense. They claimed that by beating down the other countries, particularly France, with utter ferocity, they would make it impossible for any European war to ever occur again. They thought of it as the war that would rid the world of future wars. This was their justification for utter, and often insane, brutality. According to Ibañez, the Germans said that cruelty was actually kindness. Cruelty would force an earlier surrender and an earlier end to the sufferings. It was necessary to kill even the children because, if left behind, the children would grow up as Frenchmen who did not worship the power and glory of Germany.
Who stirred up the Germans to such an intensity of evil? The government and military leaders deserved most of the blame. Religion, far from engendering careful humanitarian thought, became just a rallying point for bloodthirstiness. Ibañez said that, to the Germans, “outside of Germany everything was despicable, even their own religion.” That is, the Germans were proud of their Christianity but hated that of the French. He also said that one of the kinds of people who vanished during the war was the man “of complex spirituality,” whose beliefs could not be summarized by a flag.
I now explain why I include this essay in a science blog. At this point in history, Germans considered themselves the most civilized people on Earth. Theirs was, they believed, the greatest music and the greatest art. And they fancied themselves to be the leaders of the intellectual world. Ibañez makes it perfectly clear that German scholars created a framework of intellectual justification for the brutality. Ernst Haeckel, the biologist, claimed to be inspired by Darwin. Actually, Haeckel took most of his inspiration from the Englishman Herbert Spencer, who believed that Darwinism proved the superiority of the white race. Haeckel substituted German for white. The German intellectuals had prepared the way for the war, giving it a “varnish of scientific justification,” in the words of Ibañez.
As I am an intellectual, this sent a chill down my spine. The words that I write in my books and blogs, and the things that I teach in my classes, might be ignored by most people. But, even if I do not intend it, some of my words might take on a life of their own and become a scourge to history. Those of us who have the holy duty of seeking and telling the scientific truth about the world need to be proactive, and always frame our statements in a context of humanitarianism, even of love.
I will next post an essay about The Four Horsemen and altruism.