Tag Archives: World War I

New Thinking in the Islamic Heartlands

 

 

Christopher de Bellaigue, The Islamic Enlightenment:

The Islamic Enlightenment:

The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times 

          Christopher de Bellaigue is one of the leading English-language authorities on the volatile Middle East, an elegant stylist with an uncanny ability to explain that bewildering swath of the globe in incisive yet clear prose.  Heis the author of a perceptive biography of Muhammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister deposed in 1953 in a joint American-British covert operation, reviewed here in October 2014.  De Bellaigue’s most recent work, The Islamic Enlightenment: The StruggleBetween Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times, tackles head-on the widespread notion that Islam, the Middle East’s dominant religion, needs an intellectual, secular awakening similar to the 18th century Enlightenment which transformed Western society.  De Bellaigue delivers the message forthrightly that Islam has already undergone such a transformation.  Those who urge Enlightenment on Islam, non-Muslims and Muslims alike, are “opening thedoor on a horse that bolted long ago” (p.xvi; disclosure: I have argued in these pages that Islam needs  a 21st century Enlightenment).  

          For the past two centuries, de Bellaigue writes, Islam has been undergoing a “pained yet exhilarating transformation – a Reformation, an Enlightenment and an Industrial Revolution all at once,” an experience of “relentless yet vitalizing alternation – of reforms, reactions, innovations, discoveries, and betrayals” (p.xvi).  The Islamic Enlightenment, like its Western counterpart, entailed the “defeat of dogma by proven knowledge, the demotion of the clergy from their position as arbiters of society and the relegation of religion to the private sphere,” along with the “ascendancy of democratic principles and the emergence of the individual to challenge the collective to which he or she belongs” (p.xxiv).  Although influenced and inspired by the West, the Islamic Enlightenment found its own forms.  It did not follow the same path as the European version.

          De Bellaigue concentrates almost exclusively on three distinct Islamic civilizations, Egypt, Iran (called “Persia” up to 1935, although de Bellaigue uses the word “Iran” throughout), and the Turkish Ottoman Empire.  These three civilizations constitute “Islam’s heartlands” (p.xxvi), the three most consequential intellectual, spiritual and political centers of the Middle East.  Although he barely mentions such major Islamic areas as North Africa or East Asia, there is logic and symmetry to de Belliague’s choices, starting with a different language in each: Arabic in Egypt; Persian (or Farsi) in Iran; and Turkish in Ottoman Turkey.  Egypt and Iran, moreover, represent full-strength versions of Sunni and Shiite Islam, respectively, whereas the Sunni Islam of the Ottoman Empire interacted with Christianity as the empire extended its suzerainty well into Europe.

          The Islamic Enlightenment had a clear starting point in de Bellaigue’s account: Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, in which the Corsican general brought with him not only several thousand military troops bent upon conquest but also the transforming ideas of the French Revolution and the French Enlightenment.   The French occupation was short-lived.  The British dislodged the over-extended Napoleon from Egypt in 1802 and retained a foothold there that became full colonial domination in the latter part of the 19th century.  But the transformative power of the new ways of thinking embodied in the French Enlightenment could not be so easily dislodged.  

          De Bellaigue begins with three chapters entitled “Cairo,” “Istanbul,” and “Tehran,” concentrating on Egypt, Turkey, and Iran in the first half of the 19th century.   Here he demonstrates how, in a recurrent pattern throughout the first half of the 19th century,  the new ways of thinking arose in the three locations largely as unintended bi-products of regimes where relentless leaders pursued institutional modernization, particularly of the military to defend against foreign incursions.  The succeeding chapters, entitled “Vortex,” and “Nation,” treat the three civilizations collectively, and  center on the increasing interaction and integration between the three in the second half of the century, up to World War I, along with their increasing servitude to the West at a time when European colonial acquisition began to run up against Muslim resistance.  De Bellaigue contends that World War I marked the beginning of the end for the Islamic Enlightenment, setting in motion the forces that undermined the liberalizing tendencies of the previous century.  His final chapter, termed “Counter Enlightenment,” takes us up to the dispiriting present.

          Unlike many works on the Western Enlightenment, de Bellaigue goes beyond a history of ideas.  He is interested in how the new thinking of the Islamic Enlightenment was utilized in the three civilizations as an instrument of transformation — or “modernization,” his preferred term.  His work contains much insightful reflection on the nature of modernity and the process of modernization, as he  addresses not only the intellectual changes that were afoot in the Islamic heartlands during the 19th and early 20th centuries, but also political and economic changes.  This broad focus renders his work something close to a comprehensive history of these lands over the past two centuries.  Along the way, de Belliague introduces an array of thinkers and political leaders, many also religious leaders, few of whom are likely to be familiar to Western readers.

* * *

           By way of background, de Bellaigue begins with a revealing picture of the three civilizations prior to 1798.   Many Western readers will be aware of the flowering of Islamic civilization from approximately the 9th century onward, a period of “glory, prosperity and achievement” (p.xxvi), in which the faith of the Prophet Muhammad created an “aesthetic culture of sophistication and beauty, excelling in architecture, textiles, ceramics and metallurgy” (p.xviii), along with mathematics — the study of algebra originated in the Arab world during this period, for example.  Dynamic centers of learning permitted the “unfettered exercise of the rational mind” (p.xviii) in a way that was unthinkable in Europe during what was considered Christendom’s “dark ages.” But sometime in the 15th century, Islam began to molder and decay, falling victim to the same wave of superstition and defensiveness that had beset Christian Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.

          Egypt at the time of the Napoleonic conquest, nominally a province of Ottoman Turkey, “hadn’t produced an original idea in years.  Of the world outside Islam – the world of discovery and the Americas, science and the Industrial Revolution – there was a virtual boycott” (p.2).  Napoleon, inspired both by the prior intellectual vigor of Egypt and the transformative potential of the French Revolution, strove to restore the country to its earlier glory under France’s “benign tutelage” (p.4).  Napoleon brought with him a retinue of scholars who acted in the field of knowledge “as his army had acted on the field of battle, pointing to the future and shaming the past” (p.2).  The short-lived French occupation set in motion new ways of thinking that altered Egypt indelibly and, in de Bellaigue’s interpretation, jump-started the Islamic Enlightenment across the Islamic heartlands.

          The first of the Middle East’s “coercive modernizers” (p.18) was Muhammad Ali Pasha.  Although De Bellaigue resists the temptation to label Muhammad Ali the heavyweight champion of 19th Middle Eastern modernization, that is a fair summation of the man who served as the Ottoman Sultan’s viceroy in Egypt from 1805 to 1849.  Ali packed more reforms into the first half of the 19th century than had been carried out in Egypt over the previous 300 years. He reined in Islamic clerics and reformed the state bureaucracy, agriculture, and education.  Above all, he modernized the military, with the Egyptian army becoming “both a symbol and a catalyst of the new Egypt”  (p.21). 

          Muhammad Ali showed little interest in fostering the Enlightenment spirit of irreverence, skepticism and individual empowerment.  But this spirit nonetheless arose as an irrepressible component of modernization.  The interaction with French scholars convinced Hassan al-Atta, arguably the first major thinker of the Islamic Enlightenment, that the progress which had surged through Europe was a universal impulse that could gain traction anywhere, and was in no way foreclosed to Muslim civilizations.  Spellbound by the Frenchmen he met in the aftermath of the Napoleonic conquest, Al-Attar spent many formative years in Istanbul.  When he returned to Egypt, he took up the task of reconciling Islam with secular knowledge in fields as diverse as logic, history, science, medicine and geography.  One of al-Attar’s students, Rifaa al-Tahtawi, known as Rifaa, received from al-Attar “what may have been the most complete education available to any Egyptian at the time,” (p.29), and went on to build upon his teacher’s efforts to show that the Muslim faith was compatible with progressive ideas. 

          Rifaa became the first 19th century Egyptian to study in France, spending five years there in the 1820s.  He wrote a seminal travelogue, the first comprehensive description in Arabic of post-revolutionary France.   Rifaa’s time in France “convinced him of the need for European sciences and technologies to be introduced into the Islamic world” (p.39).  Rifiaa sought to close the distance between modern ideas and the capacity of Arabic to express them.  De Bellaigue characterizes Rifaa as a translator in the “broad sense of someone who fetches ideas from one home and makes them comfortable in another” (p.42).  His translated works had a “huge impact on the engineers, doctors, teachers and military officers who were beginning to form the elite of the country; they were the forerunners of the secular-minded middle classes that would dominate public life for much of the next two centuries” (p.43).

          In the sprawling, multi-faith Ottoman Empire, of which Egypt was but one province, Sultan Mahmud II was the approximate equivalent to Muhammad Ali, and Ibrahim Sinasi the complement to Rifiaa.   As the 18th century came to a close, Ottoman Turkey, although not nearly as backward as Egypt, had suffered a handful of painful military loses to Russia that convinced Mahmud II that the empire sorely needed to upgrade its military, not least to quell separatist tendencies emanating from Muhammad Ali’s Egypt.  But the reforms instituted under Mahumd’s rule went well beyond the military, extending to education, statistics, modern sociology, agricultural innovation and political theory, with some of the most stunning innovations occurring in the education of doctors and the practice of medicine. 

          Like Rifaa, Sinasi spent time in Paris, where he saw the inadequacies of the Turkish language.  Sinasi gave birth to modern Turkish prose and drama.  Emulating Victor Hugo, Sinasi popularized concepts like freedom of expression and natural rights.  Cosmopolitan, outward looking, and drawn to questions of human development, Sinasi was one of the first in the Middle East to “define rights not as conferred from above, but as inseparable from the growth of a law-based society,” making him a “pioneer of a new mode of thinking,” (p.80-81). 

          Iran was more isolated than Turkey or Egypt in the first half of the 19th century, and entered the modern era later and more sluggishly.  Yet, Iran had to contend throughout the century with the persistent meddling of Russia in its affairs, with Britain becoming equally meddlesome as the century progressed.  Iran in the first half of the 19th century had no forthright, determined and durable modernizer comparable to Muhammad Ali or Mahmud II.  It sent no fledgling intellectuals or future leaders to Europe for education.  Powerful Shiite clerics, proponents of “obscurantism, zealotry and fear” (p.129), served as a check on modernization.  

          But Nasser al-Din, who ruled as Iran’s Shah for 48 years, from 1848 to 1896, longer than either Ali or Mahmud II, found an engineer of reform in his tutor and then Chief Minister, Amir Kabir, 30 years older.   During a tenure that lasted only three years, Chief Minister Kabir pursued industrialization and manufacturing, introduced town planning, established a postal service, promoted reforms in medicine, education and agriculture, and reined in the Shiite clergy.  Nasser al-Din had Kabir removed from office, then executed, probably because he was perceived to have been too close to British and Russian diplomats.

          Al-Din’s increasingly tyrannical rule after Kabir’s demise saw the rise of Jamal al-Din Afghani, sometimes credited with being the Middle East’s first advocate of pan-Islamism, a complex set of ideas that revolved around the notion that Muslims needed to transcend state boundaries and stand up to Europeans.  Berating despotism and the European presence throughout the Muslim world, al-Din Afghani “embodied the use of Islam as a worldwide ideology of resistance against Western imperialism, knitting the Islamic heartlands together in a way that today seems impossible” (p.230).

            Backward and isolated Iran made the region’s most dramatic move toward modern nationhood when it underwent a constitutional revolution in 1905 that gave rise to a National Consultative Assembly, Iran’s first parliament.  The new powder of democracy was sprinkled over the land, with unprecedented levels of freedom of speech.  But Russia in 1907 signed an anti-German pact with Great Britain, a portion of which divided Iran in half, with Russia having a sphere of influence in the north, Britain in the south, all the while purporting to honor and respect Iran’s independence.  The two powers encouraged Iran to crack down on the constitutionalists, resulting in the installation of a military dictatorship in the name of the shah.  For the remainder of the century, democrats and constitutionalists in Iran were caught in the middle, with those who favored an unchecked monarchy competing with Shia clerics and their supporters for control over public policy.

          Turkey underwent a similar constitutional revolution following a military mutiny in Macedonia in June 1907.  The military officers formed a key part of a group of “young Turks” who came together to demand that the brutally repressive Sultan Abdulhamid revive and reform the Ottoman constitution of 1876.  With the surprising backing of the Sultan, a new legislative chamber met in December 1908, at a time when the Empire’s hold on its European provinces had begun to unravel.  The defeat by Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece in the First Balkan War in 1912 all but ended the Ottoman presence in Europe.   

          As the first decade of the 20th century closed, Egypt, by then formally a British colony which lacked Iran and Turkey’s experiences with electoral politics, was also developing institutions that might have underpinned a liberal political regime, “if permitted to mature” (p.293).  Across the region, a liberal, modernizing tradition had emerged strongly in the three intellectual and political centers of the Middle East.   In less than a century, de Bellaigue writes, the region had “leaped politically from the medieval to the modern” (p.291).  But World War I constituted an “unmitigated catastrophe” (p.295) for the region.

          The Ottoman Empire, which sided with Germany during the war, ended up as one of the war’s losers and was formally and finally dismantled in its aftermath.  Britain used the war to increase its hold on Egypt and suppress nationalist activity.  Iran, although officially neutral, was violated with impunity during the war, as Turkish, Russian and British armies “ran amok on Iranian soil” in an effort to exploit Iranian oil resources.  By the close of hostilities, Iran seemed “barely to have existed” (p.296). 

          The secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France, to which Tsarist Russia assented, divided most of the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence and has come to symbolize the “cupidity and arbitrariness” (p.299) of the Western powers in the Middle East.  But to de Bellaigue, Sykes-Picot was far from being the most consequential among the treaties, declarations, and gentlemen’s agreements that were imposed on the region.  This collection of instruments, “ill-considered, self-interested and indifferent to the desires of its inhabitants” (p.300), created a belt of instability across the region that endures to this day.  The post-war settlements also accelerated the importance of oil for world economies, skewing development and ensuring continued meddling of the West in the region.

          The Islamic counter-Enlightenment which de Bellaigue describes in his final chapter was a “response to the arbitrary settlements that had been imposed by the victors in the First World War” (p.315), expanding revulsion toward the West exponentially across Middle East.  Fueled by the “paradoxical situation of imperialists advocating democracy” (p.315), the revulsion expressed itself in many forms, among them militant nationalism that left little room either for democratic norms or for Islam as a force that could provide internal coherence and strength to the region.

* * *

          Today, de Bellaigue concludes, it is “hard to discern any general movement in favor of liberal, humanist principles in the Middle East” (p.352).  Rather, the trend seems to be toward violence and sectarian hate, which makes it easy to discount the Islamic Enlightenment.  De Bellaigue’s erudite and – yes – enlightening work thus leaves us yearning wistfully that the sparks of new thinking which ignited Islamic civilization in the 19th century might somehow be rekindled in our time. 

Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D.C., USA

December 15, 2018

Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under History, Middle Eastern History, Religion

They Kept Us Out of War . . . Until They Didn’t

Michael Kazin, War Against War:

The American Fight for Peace, 1914-18 

            Earlier this month, Europe and much of the rest of the world paused briefly to observe the 100th anniversary of the day in 1918 when World War I, sill sometimes called the Great War, officially ended. In the United States, where we observe Veterans’ Day without explicit reference to World War I, this past November 11th constituted one of the rare occasions when the American public focused on the four-year conflict that took somewhere between 9 and 15 million lives, including approximately 116,000 Americans, and shaped indelibly the course of 20th century history.  In War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-18, Michael Kazin offers a contrarian perspective on American participation in the conflict.  Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University and editor of the avowedly leftist periodical Dissent, recounts the history of the diverse groups and individuals in the United States who sought to keep their country out of the conflict when it broke out in 1914; and how those groups changed, evolved and reacted once the United States, under President Woodrow Wilson, went to war in April 1917.

            The opposition to World War I was, Kazin writes, the “largest, most diverse, and most sophisticated peace coalition to that point in U.S. history” (p.xi). It included pacifists, socialists, trade unionists, urban progressives, rural populists, segregationists, and crusaders for African-American rights.  Women, battling at the same time for the right to vote, were among the movement’s strongest driving forces, and the movement enjoyed support from both Democrats and Republicans.  Although the anti-war opposition had a decidedly anti-capitalist strain – many in the opposition saw the war as little more than an opportunity for large corporations to enrich themselves — a handful of well-known captains of American industry and finance supported the opposition, among them Andrew Carnegie, Solomon Guggenheim and Henry Ford.  It was a diverse and colorful collection of individuals, acting upon what Kazin describes as a “profoundly conservative” (p.xviii) impulse to oppose the build up of America’s military-industrial complex and the concomitant rise of the surveillance state.  Not until the Vietnam War did any war opposition movement approach the World War I peace coalition in size or influence.

            This eclectically diverse movement was in no sense isolationist, Kazin emphasizes. That pejorative term that had not yet come into popular usage.  Convinced that the United States had an important role to play on the world stage beyond its own borders, the anti-war coalition sought to create a “new global order based on cooperative relationships between nation states and their gradual disarmament” (p.xiv).  Its members hoped the United States would exert moral authority over the belligerents by staying above the fray and negotiating a peaceful end to the conflict.

             Kazin’s tells his story in large measure through admiring portraits of four key members of the anti-war coalition, each representing one of its major components: Morris Hillquit, a New York labor lawyer and a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, standard-bearer for the Socialist Party of America and left-wing trade unions; Crystal Eastman, a charismatic and eloquent New York feminist and labor activist, on behalf of women; and two legislative representatives, Congressman Claude Kitchen, a populist Democrat from North Carolina and an ardent segregationist; and Wisconsin Republican Senator Robert (“Fighting Bob”) LaFollette, Congress’ most visible progressive. The four disagreed on much, but they agreed that industrial corporations yielded too much power, and that the leaders of American industry and finance were “eager to use war and preparations for war to enhance their profits” (p.xiv).  Other well-known members of the coalition featured in Kazin’s story include Jane Addams, renowned social activist and feminist; William Jennings Bryan, Secretary of State under President Wilson, three-time presidential candidate, and Christian fundamentalist; and Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas, successively perennial presidential candidates of the Socialist Party of America.

            Kazin spends less time on the coalition’s opponents – those who had few qualms about entering the European conflict and, short of that, supported “preparedness” (always used with quotation marks): the notion that the United States needed to build up its land and naval capabilities and increase the size of its military personnel in the event that they might be needed for the conflict.  But those favoring intervention and “preparedness” found their voice in the outsized personality of former president Theodore Roosevelt, who mixed bellicose rhetoric with unadulterated animosity toward President Wilson, the man who had defeated him in a three-way race for the presidency in 1912.  After the United States declared war in April 1917, the former Rough Rider, then fifty-eight years old, sought to assemble his own volunteer unit and depart for the trenches of Europe as soon as the unit could be organized and trained.  To avoid this result, President Wilson was able to steer the Selective Service Act through Congress, establishing the national draft that Roosevelt had long favored – and Wilson had previously opposed.

             Kazin’s story necessarily turns around Wilson and his fraught relationship with the anti-war coalition. Stern, rigid, and frequently bewildering, Wilson was a firm opponent of United States involvement in the war when it broke out in 1914.  In the initial months of the conflict, Wilson gave the anti-war activists reason to think they had a sympathetic ear in the White House.  Wilson wanted the United States to stay neutral in the conflict so he could negotiate a lasting and just peace — an objective that the anti-war coalition fully endorsed.  He met frequently with peace groups and took care to praise their motives.  But throughout 1915, Wilson edged ever closer to the “preparedness” side. He left many on both sides confused about his intentions, probably deliberately so.  In Kazin’s interpretation, Wilson ultimately decided that he could be a more effective negotiator for a lasting and just peace if the United States entered the war rather than remained neutral. As the United States transitioned to belligerent, Wilson transformed from sympathizer with the anti-war coalition to its suppressor-in-chief. His transformation constitutes the most dramatic thread in Kazin’s story.

* * *

              The issue of shipping on the high seas precipitated the crisis with Germany that led Wilson to call for the United States’ entry into the war.  From the war’s outset, Britain had used its Royal Navy to prevent vessels from entering German ports, a clear violation of international law (prompting the quip that Britannia both “rules the waves and waives the rules” (p.25)).  Germany, with a far smaller naval force, retaliated by using its submarines to sink merchant ships headed for enemy ports.  The German sinking of the Cunard ocean liner RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915, killing more than 1,200 citizens, among them 128 Americans, constituted the beginning of the end for any real chance that the United States would remain neutral in the conflict.

            A discernible pro-intervention movement emerged in the aftermath of the sinking of the Lusitania, Kazin explains.  The move for “preparedness” was no longer just the cry of the furiously partisan or a small group of noisy hawks like Roosevelt.  A wide-ranging group suddenly supported intervention in Europe or, at a minimum, an army and navy equal to any of the belligerents.  Peace activists who had been urging their neutral government to mediate a settlement in the war “now faced a struggle to keep their nation from joining the fray” (p.62).

            After the sinking of the Lusitania, throughout 1916 and into the early months of 1917, “social workers and feminists, left-wing unionists and Socialists, pacifists and non- pacifists, and a vocal contingent of senators and congressmen from both major parties,” led by LaFollette and Kitchin, “worked together to stall or reverse the drive for a larger and more aggressive military” (p.63), Kazin writes.  The coalition benefited from the “eloquent assistance” of William Jennings Bryan, who had recently resigned as Secretary of State over Wilson’s refusal to criticize Britain’s embargo as well as Germany’s attacks on neutral vessels.

            In the aftermath of the sinking of the Lusitania, Wilson grappled with the issue of “how to maintain neutrality while allowing U.S. citizens to sail across the perilous Atlantic on British ships” (p.103).  Unlike the peace activists, Wilson “tempered his internationalist convictions with a desire to advance the nation’s power and status . . . As the crisis with Germany intensified, the idealism of the head of state inevitably clashed with that of citizens whose desire that America be right always mattered far more than any wish that it be mighty” (p.149).

            As events seemed to propel the United States closer to war in late 1916 and early 1917, the anti-war activists found themselves increasingly on the defensive.  They began to concentrate most of their energies on a single tactic: the demand for a popular referendum on whether the United States should go to war.  Although the idea gathered genuine momentum, there was a flagrant lack of support in Congress.  The activists never came up with a plausible argument why Congress should voluntarily give up or weaken its constitutional authority to declare war.

         In his campaign for re-election in 1916 against the Republican Party nominee, former Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, Wilson ran as the “peace candidate,” dictated as much by necessity as desire.  “Few peace activists were ambivalent about the choice before them that fall,” Kazin writes.  “Whether as the lesser evil or a decent alterative, a second term seemed the only way to prevent Roosevelt . . . and [his] ilk from grabbing the reins of foreign policy” (p.124).  By September 1916, when Wilson left the White House for the campaign trail, he enjoyed the support of the “most left-wing, class-conscious coalition ever to unite behind a sitting president” (p.125).  Wilson eked out a narrow Electoral College victory in November over Hughes, with war opponents likely putting him over the top in three key states.

             Wilson’s re-election “liberated his mind and loosened his tongue” (p.141), as Kazin puts it.  In January 1917, he delivered to the United States Senate what came to be known as his “peace without victory” speech, in which he offered his vision for a “cooperative peace” that would “win the approval of mankind,” enforced by an international League of Peace. Borrowing from the anti-war coalition’s playbook, Wilson foreshadowed the famous 14 points that would became his basis for a peace settlement at the post-war 1919 Versailles Conference: no territorial gains, self-government and national self -determination for individual states, freedom of commerce on the seas, and a national military force for each state limited in size so as not to become an “instrument of aggression or of selfish violence” (p.141).  Wilson told the Senators that he was merely offering an extension of the United States’ own Monroe Doctrine.  But although he didn’t yet use the expression, Wilson was proposing nothing less than to make the world safe for democracy.  As such, Kazin notes, he was demanding “an end to the empires that, among them, ruled close to half the people of the world” (p.141).

           Wilson’s “stunning act of oratory” (p.142) earned the full support of the anti-war activists at home and many of their counterparts in Europe.  Most Republicans, by contrast, dismissed Wilson’s ideas as an “exercise in utopian thinking” (p.143). But, two months later, in March 1917, German U-boats sank three unarmed American vessels. This was the point of no return for Wilson, Kazin argues.  The president, who had “staked the nation’s honor and prosperity on protecting the ‘freedom of the seas,’ now believed he had no choice but to go to war” (p.172).  By this time, Wilson had concluded that a belligerent America could “end the conflict more quickly and, perhaps, spur ordinary Germans to topple their leaders, emulating their revolutionary counterparts in Russia.  Democratic nations, old and new, could then agree to the just and ‘cooperative’ peace Wilson had called for back in January.  By helping to win the war, the United States would succeed where neutrality had failed” (p.172).

* * *

           As the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917 (it never declared war on Germany’s allies Austria-Hungary and Turkey), it also seemed to have declared war on the anti-war coalition  and anyone else who questioned the United States’ role in the conflict.  The Wilson administration quickly turned much of the private sector into an appendage of the state, concentrating power to an unprecedented degree in the national government in Washington.  It persecuted and prosecuted opponents of the war effort with a ferocity few in the anti-war movement could have anticipated. “In no previous war had there been so much repression, legal and otherwise” (p.188), Kazin writes.  The Wilson administration, its allies in Congress and the judiciary all embraced the view that critics of the war had to “stay silent or suffer for their dissent” (p.189).  Wilson gave a speech in June 1917 in which he all but equated opposition with treason.

          The next day, Wilson signed into law the Espionage Act of 1917, designed to prohibit interference with military operations or recruitment as well as any support of the enemies of the United States during wartime.  The following year, Congress passed the even more draconian Sedition Act of 1918, which criminalized “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the government, the flag, or the “uniform of the armed forces” (p.246). The apparatus for repressing “disloyalty” had become “one tentacle of the newly potent Leviathan” (p.192).

            Kazin provides harrowing examples of the application of the Sedition Act.  A recent immigrant from Germany received a ten-year sentence for cursing Theodore Roosevelt and cheering a Germany victory on the battlefield.   Another served time for expressing his view that the conflict was a “rich man’s war and the United States is simply fighting for the money” (p.245); still another was prosecuted and jailed for charging that the United States Army was a “God damned legalized murder machine” (p.245).  Socialist Party and labor leader Eugene Debs received a ten-year sentence for telling party members – at a union picnic, no less – that their voices had not been heard in the decision to declare war.  The administration was unable to explain how repression of these relatively mild anti-war sentiments was helping to make the world safe for democracy.

            Many in the anti-war coalition, understandably, fell into line or fell silent, fearing that they would be punished for “refusing to change their minds” (p.xi). Most activists understood that, as long as the conflict continued, “resisting it would probably yield them more hardships than victories” (p.193).  Those continuing in the shrunken anti-war movement felt compelled to “defend themselves constantly against charges of disloyalty or outright treason” (p.243).  They fought to “reconcile their fear and disgust at the government’s repression with a hope that Wilson might still embrace a ‘peace without victory,’ even as masses of American troops made their way to France and into battle” (p.243).

           Representative Kitchin and Senator La Follette, the two men who had spearheaded opposition to the war in Congress, refrained from expressing doubts publicly about the war effort.  Kitchin, chairman at the time of the House of Representatives’ powerful Ways and Means Committee, nonetheless structured a revenue bill to finance the war by placing the primary burden on corporations that had made “excess profits” (p.244) from military contracts.  La Follette was forced to leave the Senate in early 1918 to care for his ill son, removing him from the storm that would have ensued had he continued to espouse his unwavering anti-war views.  Female activist Crystal Eastman helped create the National Civil Liberties Bureau, a predecessor to the American Civil Liberties Union, and started a new radical journal, the Liberator, after the government prohibited a previous publication from using the mails.  Socialist Morris Hilquit, like La Follette, was able to stay out of the line of fire in 1918 when he contracted tuberculosis and was forced out of New York City and into convalesce in the Adirondack Mountains, 300 miles to the north.

           Although the United States was formally at war with Germany for the last 19 months of a war that lasted over four years, given the time needed to raise and train battle ready troops it was a presence on the battlefield for only six months.  The tardy arrival of Americans on the killing fields of Europe was, Kazin argues, “in part, an ironic tribute to the success of the peace coalition in the United States during the neutral years” (p.260-61).  Hundreds of thousands of Americans would likely have been fighting in France by the summer of 1917 if Theodore Roosevelt and his colleagues and allies had won the fight over “preparedness” in 1915 and 1916.  “But the working alliance between radical pacifists like Crystal Eastman and progressive foes of the military like La Follette severely limited what the advocates of a European-style force could achieve – before Woodrow Wilson shed his own ambivalence and resolved that Americans had to sacrifice to advance self-government abroad and preserve the nation’s honor” (p.260-61).

          * * *

          Kazin’s energetic yet judicious work sheds valuable light on the diverse groups that steadfastly followed an alternate route for advancing self-government abroad – making the world safe for democracy — and preserving their nation’s honor.  As American attention to the Great War recedes in the aftermath of this month’s November 11th remembrances, Kazin’s work remains a timely reminder of the divisiveness of the conflict.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

November 16, 2018

 

13 Comments

Filed under American Politics, European History, History, United States History

Not So Great

Hochschild.realone

Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars:
A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion 

          Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion makes a nice complement to Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, reviewed here in September. Hochschild’s work does not purport to be a comprehensive account of what is sometimes called the Great War, as is Clark’s on the prelude to the war. Rather, Hochschild elaborates upon selected manifestations and consequences of the destruction unleashed in the summer of 1914, destruction that “still seems beyond belief,” with a “magnitude of slaughter. . . beyond anything in European experience” (p.xiii-xiv). In artful prose, Hochschild surveys war resisters, women’s rights advocates, socialists, soldiers on the front lines and their commanding generals. His approach is anecdotal but also rather strictly chronological, treating the war in yearly sections, staring in 1914 and ending in 1918. Hochschild’s primary focus is on Great Britain, but he manages to bring all the belligerents into his picture. Throughout, he writes sympathetically and passionately, yet objectively, about those who prosecuted the war and those who opposed it.

          Hochschild starts with a captivating prelude termed “Dramatis Personae,” which provides an overview of Britain in the half-century prior to 1914. Here, Hochschild introduces his readers to several of the main characters of his book, whom he follows throughout the course of the Great War. These exceptionally vivid sketches personalize the fault lines of the war, none more so than between career soldier John French, who became commander of British forces on the Western Front, and his pacifist, progressive sister, Charlotte Despard, who led the opposition to the war. Hochschild also gives prominent attention to Douglas Haig, French’s “ambitious subordinate” (p.104), who replaced French as Western Front commander and in that capacity made some of the most misguided strategic decisions of the war. The jingoistic poet Rudyard Kipling is the figure in “Dramatis Personae” most likely to be familiar to readers. Kipling’s unabated enthusiasm for the war was tested when his beloved son John disappeared in battle in Northern France. Hochschild also introduces his readers to Emmeline Pankhurst, whose fervent support for women’s suffrage overrode her pacifist inclinations; and James Keir Hardy, leader of the British Socialist Party and a true believer that socialism was the perfect antidote to war.

          “Dramatis Personae” further highlights forces that changed the nature of warfare when the conflict broke out in 1914, most of which came into view during Britain’s war against the Boers in South Africa at the end of the 19th century. Over 100,000 civilians, including African farmhands, Boer women, children, and elderly were herded into guarded concentration camps, “an eerie glimpse into the not-so-distant future” (p.33). More than twice the number of Boer civilians died in concentration camps than Boer soldiers who died in combat. The Boer War made clear that industrial might would determine the outcome of the next war.

          The socialism that was gaining ground across Europe as 1914 began was an early manifestation of what we might now term globalism, in which social welfare and improvement of living standards across Europe were deemed to trump workers’ loyalty to their nation states. But British class consciousness proved for the most part an ineffectual competitor with the national loyalties which the Great War demanded. The socialist dream “[d]issolved in the face of an ancient and greater force: the deep, instinctive human impulse for solidarity with fellow members of one’s tribe – a group most defined, in this moment of crisis, not by class but by nation” (p.128). In Germany, too, socialists were “like everyone else, carried along on the unstoppable torrent of emotion” (p.92). On both sides, consequently, “governments were delighted to discover that they had feared the left too much” (p.92).

           At the outset of the war, advocates of women’s suffrage were among the few who raised their voices in opposition. Emmeline Parkhurst, who had been a vocal opponent of the Boer War, suggested when war broke out in Europe in 1914 that “all war was the mere byproduct of male stupidity” (p.48). The Suffragettes’ opposition to the war was so strong that her Women’s Social and Political Union decided to put suffrage on hold. But later in 1914, Parkhurst went through a mysterious transformation into a war supporter. Hochschild spectulates that she may have made tactical decision that it would be easier to obtain the vote for women if she supported the war. It was perhaps in recognition of this support, as well as recognition of the sacrifices that women were making to further the war effort, that Britain in 1918 gave the vote to women over 30 — those less likely to have husbands killed or wounded in the war, and therefore less likely to adopt anti-war sentiments, Hochschild suggests. By the time the war ended, Parkhurst had become one of the most strident voices in support of the British war effort.

          The anti-war movement arose in Britain at about same time as conscription and remained an important force throughout the war. By 1916, some 200,000 Britons had signed a petition calling for a negotiated peace. Russia was the only other belligerent to have an anti-war movement as large and as vocal as Britain. Although the war had unleashed “powerful national chauvinism, witch hunts for traitors, and public fury at any apparent lack of resolve to fight” (p.257), Britain alone enjoyed the “deeply embedded tradition of civil liberties” that allowed the anti-war movement to flourish (p.188). But with overwhelming pressure from friends and family to support the war effort, it nonetheless required “rare courage to resist” (p.188). Yet, by 1917, there were anti-war voices within the Establishment and the right.

          British leaders vigorously sought to counter anti-war sentiment. Parliament empowered a War Propaganda Bureau, which enlisted a wide range of authors to launch a “flood of books, pamphlets, newspapers, postcards, slide shows, and films for consumption in Britain and abroad,” (p.148), with the United States being one of the primary foreign targets. “Pamphlets and books bore the imprimatur of well-known publishing houses, and the government secretly agreed in advance to buy copies, which it often distributed for free” (p.148). The Bureau freely ran with rumors and half truths about German atrocities in occupied Belgium. In one court case against a war resister, prosecutor Sir Archibald Bodkin — who, after the war, won fame for winning the case that banned James Joyce’s Ulysses from publication in England – argued that “war will become impossible if all men were to have the view that war is wrong” (p.191).  Imagine.

          In his treatment of the realities of the battlefield, Hochschild focuses on trench warfare, new weapons, and battlefield carnage. Trench warfare was not new. Versions were seen in the American Civil War and the Boer War. But it “seemed like such an ignoble sort of combat that hardly anyone in Europe had planned for it” (p.123). “No war in history had seen so many troops locked in stalemate for so long” (p.173). On all sides, military leaders were reluctant to admit how dramatically the machine gun had changed warfare. “No general was ready to acknowledge that the machine gun had upended warfare as it had been known for centuries. A single such gun emplacement could stave off hundreds, even thousands of attackers” (p.124).

              The Battle of the Somme on July1, 1916 was the bloodiest of the war so far, and marked a turning point for Great Britain. Of the 120,000 British troops thrown into the battle, 57,000 were dead or wounded by day’s end – “nearly two causalities for every yard of the front” (p.206). From that point onward, Hochschild argues, the attitudes of British soldiers began to change. “It was not a turn toward rebellion but toward a kind of dogged cynicism, a disbelief that any battle could make a difference” (p.211). Later that year, however, David Lloyd George as Secretary of State for War allowed a film of the gruesome battle to be shown in theatres. The film actually reinforced civilian support for the war. “The more horrific the suffering, ran the chilling emotional logic of public opinion, the more noble the sacrifice the wounded and dead had made – and the more worthwhile the goals must be for which they had given their all” (p.228).

          Hochschild’s treatment of battlefield realities is interlaced with discussions of miscalculations made by military hierarchy, especially French and Haig. Haig combined stubbornness with an “unshakable faith in the rightness of the British cause. . . [and a] mindless optimism in the face of bad news” (p.321). Haig adhered to his belief that the cavalry was still the 20th century’s key to military success. Referring to two cavalry skeptics, Hochschild quotes Haig as saying, “If these two had their way, Cavalry would cease to exist as such. In their opinion, the war will continue and end in trenches” (p.139). High casualties were seen in some military circles as a sign of aggressive leadership and a measure of success. This perverse logic, Hochschild writes, “sometimes led Haig to fly into rage when he thought British losses . . . were too low” (p.209). But what made it so easy for Haig to demand high casualties was that he chose not to see them. He “felt it was his duty to refrain from visiting the casualty clearing stations,” his son wrote, “because these visits made him physically ill” (p.210).

          Haig launched a bombing campaign in Northern Belgium – one of lowest spots in Europe’s “low countries” — with no apparent thought given to the possibility that this bombardment would “wreck canals and drainage ditches and leave tens of thousands of craters that soon filled with water” (p.285). Haig and French were jointly responsible for Britain’s first use of poison gas, on September 25, 1915. The winds did not favor the use of gas that day and, when the day was done, Britain had suffered more casualties than Germany from its own gas.

          The following day, Haig made a decision to order an advance by two battle weary, inexperienced reserve divisions directly up a hill guarded by German machine guns and uncut barbed wire. Out of the 10,000 men thrown into battle, more than 8,000 were killed, wounded or missing in very short time. It is difficult for us to look at this “spasm of carnage” on September 26, 1915, Hochschild writes, as “anything other than a blatant, needless massacre” initiated by French, Haig and their advisors “with near-criminal disregard for the conditions their men faced” (p.165). But, Hochschild notes, few survivors saw that day’s carnage in this light. “For them to question the generals’ judgment would have meant . . . asking if their fellow soldiers had died in vain. From the need to avoid such questions are so many myths about wars born” (p.165).

          After detailing the military ineptitude that exacerbated the unparalleled carnage on the battlefield, Hochschild poses the question that lies behind his narrative: is there an argument to be made, from Britain’s perspective, that the Great War had been necessary. Here, Hochschild differs dramatically from Clark, who refused to assign responsibility to any nation state for the outbreak of the war, depicting it not as a crime of any state but a collective tragedy implemented by sleepwalking diplomats. Hochschild would likely respond that the war was both a tragedy and a crime, with Germany the most criminal of the belligerents. It invaded neutral Belgium, committing widespread atrocities against the Belgium civilian population –“pre-figuring the Nazis’ even more ruthless occupation regime of the Second World War” (p.219) — and clearly threatened to conquer France in the West and Russia in the East.

           In the end, though, Hochschild sidesteps a direct response to this question, while nonetheless reminding readers that the consequences of the Great War would be devastating for years to come. The “most toxic legacy of the conflict,” he concludes, “lies in the hardly imaginable horrors that followed” (p.373).

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
November 8, 2014

7 Comments

Filed under British History, English History, European History, German History, History, Uncategorized