Thursday, 9 January 2014

Sleepwalking into disaster, again?

The first thing to say is that the 1914-2014 comparisons that are cropping up in public debate at the moment are different from the Brüning analogies of last year in important respects. That's just as well because the historical events that are being invoked were fundamentally different: Brüning's were economic policies that aggravated an economic crisis with dramatic political consequences. In contrast, the immediate causes of the First World War were diplomatic and military. The misguided political decisions of European powers in the run-up to 1914 did not lead to an economic disaster but to a war. True, this war caused economic instability well into the post-war period. But primarily the First World War was a political and military event with political and military causes.

Therefore the analogies that we are seeing today are not, as in Brüning's case about the economic issues. Rather commentators highlight what they see as similarities in the patterns of political decision making in 1914 and today. Wolfgang Münchau points to two analogies in particular:  (1) today, as in 1914, the pursuit of narrow national interests lead European nations to jeopardize stability (2) the principal decision makers now and then were not sufficiently aware of the size of the risks that they are taking by insisting on this parochial approach. Let's look first at the second part of his analogy and keep the first part for another post.

 I think this kind of comparison is overstating the naiveté of political actors now and then. It is a topos of historical writing that WWI was unlike any conflict before and that contemporaries did not expect it to be as long and destructive. But is it really true that contemporaries did not and could not know what kind of war they were risking? It is true that WWI represented a new type of industrial warfare. But there had been wars in the decades before WWI that had clearly foreshadowed the fact that industrialisation would profoundly change warfare along with virtually all other aspects of life. As Thomas Laqueur points out in his review of Chris Clark's 'The sleepwalkers':

'Why Europeans should have remained unaware that in the American Civil War hundreds of thousands of men had been mowed down as they crossed open fields against the fire of new and more accurate rifles is puzzling. But the history of the imagination is not a history of sleepwalking, whatever else it is.'

 And today? Can policy makers claim to be unaware of the economic risks they are running? Given the historical experience of the Great Depression and the disastrous political and social effects of  deflationary economic policies in the interwar period it is hard to argue that today's political leaders or members of the public are unaware of the risks that are associated with today's handling of the Euro crisis. Not everyone may be an expert in 20th century history but the analogies are widely discussed in media outlets that enjoy broad readership. Krugman, Münchau and other Cassandras don't write in obscure publications but in some of the most widely read and respected news outlets in the western world. It is true that their views are controversial and that mainstream opinions are dominated by other approaches. But no one who is in charge today can cite ignorance as a defense if things go pear shaped. Policy makers and voters have been warned.

When looking at 1914 and 2014 we need to ask why many actors took decisions that endangered European stability. But I doubt that ignorance of the possible consequences should feature very prominently among the answers.

No comments:

Post a Comment