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Home | Blog | World War I and the Triumph of Illiberal Ideology

World War I and the Triumph of Illiberal Ideology

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Tags Protectionism and Free TradeWar and Foreign PolicyWorld History

Just over a century ago, in August 1914, the major European nations plunged their peoples into one of the most disastrous conflicts in history. The First World War claimed at least seventeen million lives, destroyed the social and economic fabric of Western Europe, and played a vital role in the expansion of state power around the world. It is therefore difficult to exaggerate its importance.

The causes of the war are too many and too complex to discuss in a short article (however, for those interested, the late Ralph Raico provides a fascinating overview here). I will discuss only one general problem that helped fuel the catastrophe: the ideological shift that occurred in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries away from the liberal philosophy of laissez-faire and laissez-passer and toward autarky, protectionism, nationalism, and imperialism. Mises, himself a veteran of the First World War, identified these latter ideologies as joint causes of numerous conflicts. Furthermore, he repeatedly warned that war is a necessary outcome of abandoning economic freedom, which is inextricably tied to the spirit of liberalism and its philosophy of peace:

Aggressive nationalism is the necessary derivative of the policies of interventionism and national planning. While laissez faire eliminates the causes of international conflict, government interference with business and socialism create conflicts for which no peaceful solution can be found. While under free trade and freedom of migration no individual is concerned about the territorial size of his country, under the protective measures of economic nationalism nearly every citizen has a substantial interest in these territorial issues. (Mises, 1998 [1949], pp. 819-820)

Economic nationalism, the necessary complement of domestic interventionism, hurts the interests of foreign peoples and thus creates international conflict. It suggests the idea of amending this unsatisfactory state of affairs by war. Why should a powerful nation tolerate the challenge of a less powerful nation? Is it not insolence on the part of small Lapputania to injure the citizens of big Ruritania by customs, migration barriers, foreign exchange control, quantitative trade restrictions, and expropriation of Ruritanian investments in Lapputania? Would it not be easy for the army of Ruritania to crush Lapputania’s contemptible forces? (Mises, 1998 [1949], p. 827)

By and large, these are the kinds of international conflicts that developed in the decades prior to 1914. As relative free trade declined and imperialism flourished, a culture of militarism swept Western Europe, triggering a race to accumulate military assets and materiel on a previously unknown scale.  By the outbreak of the conflict, every major belligerent except Britain had also adopted conscription so as to ensure an abundant supply of human as well as physical resources. Such policies could only end in disaster.

It is important, however, that even though many soldiers were compelled to fight, extraordinary numbers also volunteered for service, especially in the early days of the war. This fact is not so astonishing once we acknowledge the role of ideology. Throughout the 19th century, the nation-state had come to play an increasingly important role in forming the identities of many young European men. This development added a personal ideological dimension to warfare that was largely new, and which also created divisions along political lines among peoples who could otherwise have been at peace. It also helps explain the patriotism and nationalism that lead so many volunteers so unwittingly to the slaughter. Crucially, these sentiments were nurtured and reinforced by many important institutions of European society, especially its intellectual classes, who bear a large portion of the blame for rationalizing and glorifying war.

To take only one example, in his book A History of Warfare, John Keegan recounts a call to arms issued jointly by the rectors of the Bavarian universities on August 3rd, 1914:

Students! The muses are silent. The issue is battle, the battle forced upon us for German culture, which is threatened by the barbarians from the East, and for German values, which the enemy in the West envies us. And so the furor teutonicus bursts into flame once again. The enthusiasm of the wars of liberation flares, and the holy war begins. (quoted in Keegan, 2004 [1993], p. 358; emphasis in original)

This passage hints at the ideological climate in much of Europe after its retreat from an all-too-brief trend toward liberalism. Yet even including the melodramatic rhetoric, the ideas invoked above are indistinguishable from ones made today by both military and culture warriors. The use of religious language to frame a political conflict, the idea that war has been forced upon the blameless, and the claim that barbarians from foreign nations represent an existential threat to civilization that can only be overcome by abandoning reason and resorting to violence based on appeals to tribalism and a (different) barbarian heritage, are still familiar in an age when the European empires have been replaced by an American one. They also run strongly counter to the principles of liberalism.

Historically, the immediate result of the rectors’ appeal was the mass enlistment of German students; so many volunteered that they formed two new army corps. These men were flung almost untrained into battle against British regulars at Ypres in October, 1914, where 36,000 were massacred in only three weeks (Keegan, 2004 [1993], pp. 358-359).[1] This senseless death did not, however, serve as a rebuke to the military class, much less provide an impetus away from international and domestic conflicts; instead, it was simply mythologized and used for propaganda by the Nazis in the Second World War.

The lesson then is that the human costs of war do not in and of themselves teach anything to those who are not willing to listen. War will not cease until the ideas that support it are removed, and until they are, their costs will simply be used as justifications for further conflict. In Mises’s words, “To defeat the aggressors is not enough to make peace durable. The main thing is to discard the ideology that generates war” (Mises, 1998 [1949], p. 828).


[1] I have been unable to verify this estimate, and other sources suggest the number killed was significantly lower. In any case though, casualties were horrific.

Matt McCaffrey is assistant professor of enterprise at the University of Manchester.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
Image source: James Francis Hurley / State Library of New South Wales
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