How true is it of any period you have studied that wars seldom succeed in removing the causes of conflict?
The failure of the First World War to bring an end to international conflict in the modern era has led many historians to question the effectiveness of war as a mechanism to end and resolve conflict. Whilst it can be argued that the Second World War ended conflict on a worldwide scale, the aftermath of the wars have seen the world witness the enigmatically coined ‘Cold War’ and various disputes between countries and nationalities. The effects of developing states and the rising of new political theory evolving as a response to the status quo must also be taken into account in order to determine the effectiveness of warfare in removing the causes of conflict. This essay will argue that, within the sphere of modern history in the 20th Century, war has proven to be an ineffective method of removing the causes of conflict, the causes being inherently ideological and rooted in the societies of their predecessors, coming to the fore in a form of discontent as a reaction to events of the time.Although the First World War was the first modern-day major conflict that the world witnessed, it can be argued that the trigger associated with beginning the war, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand cannot alone be blamed for the outbreak of war. Instead, a school of thought that proposes that German provocation resulted from the assassination was “a tragedy of miscalculation”1 and that war was not intended to result the tension that enveloped Europe at the time.
Indeed, the multitude of factors that led to the First World War, such as German desire to create an Empire of her own, an unprecedented rise in nationalism, stemming from the French Revolution, which bore, as Cunliffe believes, infused an “entire people… with the sweet life-giving doctrines of liberty, equality, fraternity”2 (and a tumulus period preceding it when the theories of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin became prominent) show that the period preceding 1914 was more unstable than has been thought. It can be argued in turn that the French Revolution and the dawn of intellectual theories to counter the expansionist aims of Western civilisation e.g.
the British Empire, were a reaction to the status quo; trying to challenge and undermine it because it was seen as wrong or not in the interests of the world. Indeed, E.H. Carr supports this belief, questioning whether not just the First, but also the Second World War was more than just “the result of the individual wickedness of Wilhelm II and Hitler”, for example the “deep-seated breakdown in the system of international relations.”3To assume that the causes of conflict for the First World War were superficial and easily solved would be a flawed assumption, because the causes were far deeper than first thought, and to resolve them in such a sweeping way as was attempted; the charge levied by Taylor, that of the men of 1919 “were constantly aspiring to do better than the peacemakers at Vienna a century before,”4 despite the fact that, as he argues, the settlement at Vienna5 was an “attempt to rivet a ‘system’ on the future”6 shows that, at the heart of politics at the time lay a flawed misconception that the causes of conflict could be systematically eliminated by creating an environment where an imbalance of power lay, and where those who retained the power would maintain the status quo in order to ensure conflict did not occur. As Richard Overy argues, “the influence of Britain and France”7, in effect the major powers of the inter-war period with the alienation of America and the Soviet Union from world politics, “rested on an unreal foundation”8 which, when challenged by a aggressive Germany, led by a leader (Hitler) who believed “war is the ultimate weapon with which a people fights for its daily bread”9 would ultimately lead to conflict.
Had there been no imbalance initially, there may well never have been the need for such a figurehead to lead Germany out of the abyss that she found herself in post-World War I.The repercussions of the Treaty of Versailles, it can be argued, had a greater effect on the proceeding inter-war period than the Treaty itself. Although Taylor’s assessment of the effect of the Versailles settlement of 1919 is somewhat narrow, stating that “Germany fought specifically in the Second World War to reverse the verdict of the first and destroy the settlement which followed it,”10 and his line of argument is uncharacteristic of the revisionist school of thought, which tends to blame other factors leading to the Second World War, such as the demise of Britain and France as world powers, the rise of authoritarian governments and the imbalance in world politics, as Richard Overy argues, caused by the lack of intervention of the U.S.A, the major world power of the time, preferring to follow a policy of isolationism, his argument can ultimately be supported by the fact that, as was the case, the Second World War followed suit a mere twenty years after the first.It is fair to say that although Taylor’s assessment of Hitler and his motives ‘fly in the face’ of traditional schools of thought, in that although Hitler “may have projected a great war all along”11 he was, at best, an opportunist in the established tradition of German nationalism, with in effect no clear plan of world conquest, the foundations on which historians such as Carr seek to challenge and dispute this claim can be shown to have deficiencies; in effect, Carr to an extent inadvertently argues the same line of argument as Taylor in that “Hitler’s individual wickedness” was a by-product of the “society which produced him.
“12 The clash between the historians occurs not on beliefs, but moreover on morals and principle; Taylor, the ‘celebrity’ historian writing on the conviction that “the purpose of History is to amuse,” Carr, the Communist supporter writing to support his views and challenge the immorality of Taylor’s controversial convictions.However, what is important to acknowledge is that what spawned from the Versailles settlement was an intense hatred of it from the German people, and what was left was a set of grievances that were to be the catalyst for increased nationalism in the coming years. Even before Hitler’s rise to power after January 1933, his chilling autobiography, Mein Kampf set the precedence for what was to follow. Unlike those before him, Hitler’s stance took not just into account the harsh nature of the Versailles treaty, which he believed was derived from “hatred, malice and unreason,”13 but, as his autobiography details, the importance of ‘lebensraum’14 and a return to the Teutonic heritage of his ‘forefathers’, claiming that “all great cultures of the past perished only because the only creative race died out”,15 and that a return to a pure, ‘Aryan’ race was required in order to make Germany strong and united. What resulted, it can be said, was more than just merely a desire to reverse the Versailles Treaty; it was an ideological desire seated deep within the minds of German nationalists, and only came to the fore because the evolution of history, as Carr perceives,16 allowed it to.Although it would be tendentious to assume that, in his analysis, Taylor sidesteps the importance of Mein Kampf and what it represented in terms of future policy, instead choosing to focus on German grievances after the First World War, magnitude of what German nationalism represented to Hitler and the German people cannot be stated enough.
In the same way that Marxism was an ideology for the Bolsheviks to pursue, National Socialism for the Nazis meant, as with the Bolsheviks, the need for future conflict on an ideological basis, disregarding of religion and nationality, but now instead focusing on race, as many minor wars had before the major conflicts that ensured in the 20th Century. As Overy argues, Hitler’s belief that war was “like the survival of the fittest in nature” stemmed from the “geopolitical literature circulating in German nationalist circles” of the time; war, it seemed, was not merely inevitable, but at the heart of German ideology at the time, unmasking itself in a nationalist tirade only when all else had failed.If we assess the importance of the Second World War and its contribution to world affairs of time, it is only natural to question whether conflict in its aftermath is resolved, fully or otherwise. Whilst a school of thought that exists which, supported by an earlier assessment by Taylor in 195017 at the beginning of the Cold War, argues that a post World War II settlement would learn from the mistakes of the past and produce a resolution that would satisfy all parties, the reality showed a conflict, once again, in ideology.The new threat of the Soviet Union, challenging the status quo of American supremacy and dominance at the end of the Second World War produced within the capitalist democracies a deep-seated fear that ‘international revolution’ preached first by Karl Marx in his theory of Marxism, and then by Trotsky and Lenin after the Russian Revolution in 1917, would occur and dismantle the social fabric of capitalism within Europe and beyond.
The Yalta Conference, set up in February 1945 to allow deliberations over the future of Europe to take place, did little to relieve early tensions between what was to become two states embroiling for supremacy in a bi-polar world. In effect, Yalta exposed the vulnerability of the Western states and what they feared from their Communist partners in the East, whilst highlighting the potential for conflict in the future between these competing states, as highlighted by the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the U.S.A and the Soviet Union came closer than at any stage in world history full-scale nuclear war.The impact of the Second World War, however, did suggest that a shift in political thought would occur.
Global politics, as Robbins believes, not only had an influence at the time, but moreover causes attitudes of the time to change as a reaction to the events that have taken place.18 In the same way as Carr believed Chamberlain to be a product of the post-war era,19 it can be argued that, in the same manner, Harry S. Truman, the American president in the wake of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, was borne out a society that felt threatened by this new challenge to their superpower status; a challenge which they felt was important enough to take steps towards in order to either defeat or minimise its effects.To state that the Cold War was directly borne out from the events of the Second World War would be tendentious and essentially myopic; it can be argued that both powers’ pursuits of cementing their respective status’, culminating with their suspicions of the opposing sides motives led to increasingly hostile motives.
However, it would also be flawed to suggest that the Second World War could provide an answer to the inherently ideological conflict between Capitalism and Communism. Although Stalin initially believed in the policy of “Socialism in one country,”20 the basis of Marxist theory, which, as Singer states, saw Marx argue that “Capitalism involves… collective irrationality” and was “a wasteful, irrational system which controls us when we should be controlling it”21 means that it is almost inevitable under these circumstances that governments, as Communist-based structures did, would challenge what they saw as immoral and against the interests of the common person.As Walker surmises in his introduction to his argument, the Cold War revolved around the “balance of power.
.. and at the same time it was an ideological confrontation”22 which would do little to preserve the peoples of the world except present “a stabilising paradox”23 that would, in effect serve to present merely a new type of warfare in the age of technical revolution, with the threat of more potent and destructive weapons enabling either side to land a mere sparring blow towards the other, keeping each other at arms length. Marxism subscribed to the fact that dialectic, or inherent conflict, would occur because the nature of overthrowing the capitalist system that was entrenched in the minds of the masses could not be achieved overnight. Supporters of Communism, such as Carr and Hobsbawm concur with this assessment; whether it serves the interest of the masses, on the other hand, is questionable.
Indeed, the importance of ideology within the scope of modern history, and its potential for manipulation qualifies the belief that the subversion of what is true and what is false merely “inspires political movements and states whose very essence is history i.e. an ideological construct based on a misinterpretation of the past.”24 If history itself, as Hobsbawm believes, has been manipulated and shaped in such a way that leads to grievances within a society or country, it can be argued that conflict will always continue to exist on the premise that the collective aggrieved by the misrepresentation of history will react to it by seeking to ‘rewrite’ history and correcting what they believe to be wrong initially. The injustice the German people saw in the wake of the First World War, the belief that Germany was ‘guilty’ of causing the war and thus take full responsibility for her actions aggravated not only Hitler, but an entire nation of people.
The manipulation of ideology purported by philosophical greats such as Nietzsche25 made a nation willing take whatever actions necessary to shatter the belief and restore Germany in her place as a European power.Within the scope of modern history, links between the major wars have shown that, as a central and key theme that predominates in each of the wars, ideology, and the struggle between differing beliefs has led man on the road to war, be it readily or otherwise. Whether it be a desire to enforce nationalist ideology as Hitler and Wilhelm II as proposed by philosophers such as Nietzsche, or whether it be a challenge to the maintenance of the status quo which dominated the politics in Western Europe during the inter-war period, as a group the wars of the modern era, it can be argued, have been products or in some way by-products of a crumbling system of democracy that has required the intervention of seemingly authoritarian and extreme political forces within a country to stabilise and present her peoples with an option to return to the past, and have ‘what might have been’, as was the case of Hitler and the aims of National Socialism, or to look forward and expel the corrupt and immoral system of Capitalism in the name of Marxist theory, and envelop the world in a Communist utopia that would produce social freedom and liberalism for all. Whilst H.G. Wells believed that the First World War had been “the war to end wars”,26 all that had materialised, it can be argued, after the second round of conflict twenty years later was a Europe “polarized between parliamentary democracy and the Communist left”,27 a world divided in ideology and the status quo shattered, with the threat of future conflict very possible indeed.
The striking characteristic, with the exception of the Cold War, is that within a short space of time, man endeavoured only to massacre and butcher on a greater scale than previous conflicts had produced, and thus create further grievances with which the extremists of the 20th Century could use and manipulative in pursuit of their own aspirations and ultimate aims. If we are to believe what Taylor argues, in that Hitler was not just “in part the creation of Versailles, in part the creation of ideas that were common in contemporary Europe” but, moreover, ” the creation of German history and of the German present,”28 what can be taken from this is that, however far war seeks to achieve good by defeating evil under the pretence of world stability and human rights, conflict will always prevail under almost any political climate because it has become embedded in the beliefs of a society of people who, given the necessary prevailing conditions to expose these beliefs, could once again go in pursuit of the aims of their ideological ancestors, irrespective of whether conflict leading to war arises; as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes observed, “war consisteth not in battle only, or in the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is significantly known,”29 the argument that humanity and all that it stands for will be forsaken once again in search of an unrealised epitome of civilisation in the modern era is one that is stark, yet is true of an era saturated with death and destruction.