by Michael Carson
Tom Streithorst has an interesting article in Pieria magazine titled “Who Needs World War One?” In it, he imagines a German First World War general waking up in 2014. Streithorst suspects the general would “be pleased but not be surprised” to “see a prosperous Germany dominating a peaceful Europe.” He goes on to explore this counterfactual and like counterfactuals throughout history. What if, Streithorst asks, “Christopher Columbus had never gone to sea? It wouldn’t matter, answers Streithorst: “Cassava would nonetheless be a staple crop in Africa today and a Nahuatl speaking emperor would not be ruling Mexico.” Getting out ahead of “the slew of books” soon to be published to honor the First World War’s centenary, Streithorst marshals his evidence and speculates that even if the First World War did not happen, “we might still end up with a world pretty close to what we have today.” In other words, the Great War, according to Streithorst, might have no real importance compared to broader historical trends. “I’m not sure what this tells us about the value of history,” concludes the article.
Value is a funny word. A culture holds an object or idea valuable in so far as it maintains currency. What a culture or person values tells you a lot about that person or culture. Much finer minds than myself have discussed the value of history at length. I will leave a thorough intellectual defense of the discipline to them; but I will say Streithorst’s article strikes me as a misleading teleology. Despite his good intentions, his desire to reframe the World War One debate, Streithorst turns the problems and prejudices of today and the assumptions and prejudices of a century ago into some kind of unalterable historical truth about the meaning and role of certain nation states. History today has questionable value precisely because people barter in such teleology. Otherwise intelligent men and women lack historical sensibility – a deficiency Robert Penn Warren once called the “damnation of the modern world”– and for such people Germany will forever remain Germany and America forever America. The interval between the Constitution and us, between Bismark and Merkel, are so many interactions between photographs and sentimentalities, vague apprehensions and voodoo divinations encouraged by our History Channel marketed abomination of a historical imagination.
Streithorst dismisses long-running historical debates over the war as so much historiographical schizophrenia. At one time historians considered the war inevitable; now they consider it a choice. What idiots. According to Streithorst – and a whole lot of lay academics I imagine – the whole conversation is bunk, and not because ideas about the war reflect the political ideas and attitudes of the historians who write about the war – which can be disconcerting for those who have studied history – but because nothing has been gained and no one has been declared victorious. “Debate still going after a century” makes for a piss poor Wikipedia entry, almost as boring as a trench war of attrition gone into its third year. Us moderns, us in the know, want answers, take-aways, Powerpoint bullet points, and historians have erased and rewritten the bullet points too often for us to trust them anymore. Do you know what we can trust though? You know what has remained valuable throughout the century? Money. Germany is good at capitalism ergo World War One means nothing. The rest is but sound and fury signifying nothing.
Streithorst does not limit himself to Germany. Look at Russia, he says. Should we be surprised by the recent events in Ukraine? Not at all. These are things Russia does. Look at what Ivan the Terrible did. Are their any real differences between Putin and Ivan? A historian might say so, but isn’t he or she missing the bigger picture? The Russian people –Platonically understood of course – do not appreciate western ideas about peace, stability and responsibility like good capitalists. Same goes for Columbus. He was just one man. The tidal wave of European economics would have washed up on the New World whether or not Columbus existed. On one level this is so true as to be meaningless. Yes, some other Portuguese or Englishman would have found his way across the Atlantic. Logic would tell us Nahuatl would not be in charge today as he would still logically be dead. But it is also a teleological lie. One of power’s greatest tricks is to make us think just because something happened that it had to happen. The same goes for things that happen twice or a thousand times. When dealing with evidence as complicated as human experience, a pattern has as much value as we choose to give it. People used to finding white faces in charge want to see some larger meaning to these white faces being in charge. But they confuse metaphor and parallel for science; they conflate brute power and luck with meaning; and then they have the nerve to call it history and themselves historians.
Let’s do a counterfactual along the lines of Streithorst’s World War One experiment. Let’s say George W. Bush had not invaded Iraq. Near-term historical thinkers blinded by facts and determined to find meaning in human life and actions would waste a whole lot of time pointing out that not going to war saved a half a million Iraqi lives and five thousand American ones. They would get caught up with human actions, trivialities, numbers that had little to do with overarching trends, transcendent materialisms. They would blabber on about stable infrastructure, moms with sons, wives with husbands, less debt, less chaos, less mutilated bodies. But then things would become confusing. Talking about lives saved would become a bit boring, because what is there to say about someone who lives out a rather boring life? Saved to do what exactly? Wars would still happen over there regardless of the actions of Bush. Terrorists would still kill civilians. The CIA would meddle in Middle-East politics. Iraqis would die. The people saved by the war would eventually die, possibly violently, in some other war, under some other dictator. Some Americans would demand we turn the whole area into glass. Other Americans would get hysterical about something else. Another downturn. Another pipeline. We would bite our nails wondering if maybe it would have been a good idea to kill Sadaam when we had the chance. From a certain perspective, considering overarching historical trends, we wouldn’t be any better or worse over all. The war’s happening or not happening would be irrelevant, unnecessary to the broader movements of history.
Now let’s go back and say the war had happened as it did. What if 2002 Donald Rumsfeld woke up a hundred years from now and saw America was still rich and the Arab world still a political mess? Do you think the little ol’ war would matter to the world then? Hardly. Rumsfeld is pleasantly surprised to see rich white people, his fellow Americans, still in charge. Think of all the hand wringing over his and the President’s decision to invade Iraq, the countless op-eds, the protest marches, the inter-party squabbles. Sure there had been a couple civil wars over there, but what can you do? How Rumsfeld would laugh. From the perspective of a hundred years, it would seem to be so much wasted breath, near-term myopia, in many ways a justification of neo-con arguments. After his arrest for manslaughter, Ted Bundy considered everyone’s anger toward him illogical. “I mean, there are so many people,” he said. Hitler couldn’t understand the difference between what the Americans did to the Native Americans and what he was doing to the Jews. Considered broadly enough, a world with so many people in it will have ups and downs, hurricanes and wars. And look at the historians, the poor pitiful historians, who still can’t decide whether or not the second Iraq War meant the downfall of Western civilization or not, whether it meant anything at all compared to overarching trends, compared to more important material realities like the movement of gold from one capital to another.
Jean Amery’s At the Mind’s Limits, an intellectual memoir concerned with the very same questions as Streithorst, recounts living through Germany’s resurgence feeling very much as Streithorst’s imaginary general would feel waking up today. Yet, as a concentration camp survivor, Amery’s account is not a mere intellectual exercise. He admits the West German economic miracle only a decade after the war was “a delight to the world.” Amery sees how ridiculous and morbid his obsession with his own experience seems beside those succeeding at and indulging in capitalism. The German people, he has been often told, have paid their dues – they are now “ an example of not only economic prosperity but of democratic stability and political moderation.” Yet he still feels uncomfortable. He can’t get over the fact that these nice modern thoroughly democratic people tried to kill everyone who looked like him. His resentments, absurd as they might be to forward thinking people, persist in order that the crime become a moral reality for the criminal, in order that he be swept into the truth of the atrocity.” Absurdly and perhaps quixotically, Amery is stuck on the historical value of his own experience just as the otherwise decent German who stuck him on a hook until his shoulders snapped found Amery’s history valueless. Amery never got over his quaint historical obsession. Thanks to the economic miracle, the low-level Gestapo functionary who snapped Amery’s bones got over his.
I understand Striethost meant his article as a thought experiment, a useful corrective to the approaching deluge of World War One nostalgia. I sympathize. History, as for many of us, interests him for the way in which it rhymes. There is nothing wrong about looking at patterns and appreciating how they resonate through successive epochs. But this does not excuse our pretending the patterns themselves to be history and the events between them to be meaningless. It does not make it ok to mistake superficial resemblance for timeless ahistorical truth. Contemplating the American Civil War, Robert Penn Warren argued that history “is not melodrama, even if it usually reads like that. It was real blood, not tomato catsup or the pale ectoplasm of statistics, that wet the ground at Bloody Angle and darkened the waters of Bloody Pond.” We need World War One very much. Not to endlessly recount its importance until children think it a rite of passage to go die in some big stupid war. We need the First World War because so many people died in that war, and for absolutely unimportant reasons that seemed extraordinarily, indeed supra-historical, at the time. Soldiers, politicians and civilians found these reasons so important because they defined history through economics, nationalism, racism, hysteria and bloodlust, not in terms of human life. They took history for melodrama, as the story of the winners and the losers, not of people. But history is valuable in so far as we hold human life valuable. No more, no less.