The Paradox of Prussian Peace

By Norman Angell

[The Independent, October 6, 1917]

It will be safe to assume that the passionate attachment to disarmament and arbitration displayed in the recent notes of the Central Powers is hypocritical and insincere; that it is in large part a maneuver or trap. It should be the business of the Allies, therefore, to see that they do not fall into the trap. This, they will certainly do if they allow the discussion with the Central Empires—for that is what the exchange of notes with the Pope now in political reality amounts to—to end at the present stage. The advantage in political and diplomatic strategy would then undoubtedly be with the Central Powers. They would have stiffened the morale of their own peoples and have checked a certain internal disintegration which has become quite obvious of late in both Germany and Austria, particularly, the latter; they will have lessened certain difficulties of their own and added to certain difficulties of ours.

It is obviously worth while to realize how this would be the case.

It is plain that in a war of attrition, which this has now become, the point of collapse will be very largely determined by the amount of suffering which the civil population is prepared to stand. If, for instance—to make the point clear by putting the case in its extreme, form—a nation is prepared to see all its children and all its old men and women starve to death in order to allow ample supplies to reach the army, it will be able to maintain its resistance long beyond the point at which otherwise it would break down. It is mere ignorance, of patent realities to argue that in an autocracy the attitude of the mass does not matter, that the government will impose its authority by sheer physical force. Whose physical force? There is none available except that of the very people—the common soldier, and, just as importantly, the common workman in the factory—against whom the physical force is used. Two per cent of a population cannot impose its will upon the remaining ninety-eight by sheer weight of muscle. There must be at least moral acquiescence or submission on the part of the mass or it becomes impossible for the minority to use the force which that mass represents. There need not be rebellion in the ordinary sense to make this use of the mass impracticable. In a war in which the factory, the mine and the railroad are as important as the army, mere fatigue and a sense of grievance greatly affects output and efficiency. With the growth of that sense of grievance or weariness we get a tendency for industrial quarrels over small matters, strikes of both men and women, collisions between, soldiery and workers, soldiers refusing to fire, "sabotage," defective work on shells and ammunition, delays, confusion; the government less certain how to act, making wrong decisions, alienating support, provoking more ministerial changes, and finally the whole thing affecting the trenches, with increasing tendency to surrender.... If that sort of thing is possible in Germany—and it is one of the paradoxes of the war that the autocratic German Government has "been more obviously afraid of its own public opinion and at greater pains to placate it than has any democratic government among the Allies—the disintegration in Austria with its rival national factions might well become explosive. More than once paralyzing disorganization has threatened Austria (in one case half a million men actually deserted to the Russians) and would probably have occurred if certain advances made by Czechs and Slavs to the Allied governments had been encouraged. And if Austria "cracks," the whole edifice crumbles. One must, in our day, apply to the whole nation the adage which in Napoleonic days was applied to armies: the foundation of success is morale. Because the nation—farmer, factory hand, miner, railwayman—has become an integral part of the army in a sense which it never was before.

Now the governments of the Central Powers have realized that they can make the morale of their people almost impregnable and be immune from any danger of this disintegration, if they can create a "defense psychosis." That is to say, if they can persuade their people that they are fighting really to protect the Fatherland, to insure its Security and rights in the world, German morale will never be undermined. For all history shows that any people, savage or civilized, good, bad or indifferent, will fight to the last against what they believe to be national annihilation. To bolster that belief on the part of the German people is today the prime need of the German autocracy.

And in that task the German and Austrian governments have been greatly helped by the political and diplomatic strategy sometimes adopted by the Allied governments.

Those governments proclaimed at the beginning of the war that their major object was the destruction of Prussian militarism, and the aggression and wickedness for which it stood. That was and remains the highest object of our arms. But we failed to make known to the German and Austrian peoples how their national rights and interests were to be respected when Prussian militarism had gone. What did it mean, the "destruction" of German militarism? Did it mean that in future Germany and Austria were to have no armies? Were they to be so popular that no nation would quarrel with them and take and unfair view of its claims upon them? How were they to protect themselves and insure respect of their rights? On that point there was no declaration (there is still no declaration). And this silence has enabled the enemy governments to say to their peoples: "This talk of the destruction of German militarism really means that you are in future to be at the mercy of your enemies, and to be deprived of any means of defending your Fatherland, its rights and interests."

So that our failure to give to the justly destructive aim of our policy also its constructive complement converts this war for the German people, however aggressive its origins, into a war of defense. It does not suffice that we have declared that we have no intention of destroying the German nation or of putting it at a disadvantage. No virile people—and especially a people with elements of savagery and barbarism in its composition—will accept the mere general declaration of its enemies as sufficient basis of its security and the defense of its rights. Mr. H. G. Wells—who will certainly not be accused of pro-Germanism—wrote recently of this situation:

"This is the argument that holds the German people stiffly united. For most men in most countries it would be a convincing argument, strong enough to override considerations of right and wrong. I find that I myself am of this way of thinking, that whether England has done right or wrong in the past—and I have sometimes criticized my country very bitterly—I will not endure the prospect of seeing her at the foot of some victorious nation. Neither will any German who matters. Very few people would, respect a German who would."

Now the thing which would make it possible for such Germans as Mr. Wells has in mind to repudiate German militarism and turn against the present German Government, would be some plan of reciprocal disarmament, or at least some real international organization which would furnish a possible, if distant, alternative to German military power as a means of national security. When Germans in the mass see in internationalism a means of defending German rights and interests, Prussian militarism will be doomed.

And so it is to the interest of the German Government to prove to its people that we are not sincere when we speak of such things as disarmament and arbitration. It wants to create the impression at home that so far as it is concerned it would be perfectly willing to abandon militarism for international organization as a means of security for Germany, but that when it is really offered to the Allied governments they refuse to consider it.

And that argument on the part of the Central governments will be quite possible if, as stated above, the debate is left in its present stage. The Central Powers have in fact made what will appear to their people as an offer to go into the question of disarmament and arbitration, a new international order. Silence on our part will be interpreted as a proof that when it comes to the point we want to avoid the subject; that our talk of it is mere diplomatic bunkum.

The situation must be reversed. We must show that we are serious in our talk of internationalism, will consider even disarmament, but on the basis of respect for the rights of all nations, small as well as great, not on the basis of the right of great states to override the will either of subject peoples, or of their own peoples; and we must make it plain that in such a world the German people, like any other, would be secure.

But there is a further reason why the German Government have every motive for desiring at this juncture to prove that our talk of internationalism is insincere and that any attempt to realize world arbitration is impracticable. Its only hope of obtaining the support of its people to a program of annexations is to show that such annexations are necessary to national security. While the Reichstag vote of July 19 makes it plain that the Government could never hope to secure popular sanction for annexations as part of a pan-German or Industrialist policy, it might conceivably do so as part of a policy of self-defense: by the argument that Germany has nothing to depend on but her own resources in men and material, and the strength of her frontiers.

Indeed the truth is that unless the problem of security, by means of some reasonably feasible plan of international organization is on a fair way to solution before we come to deal with nationality and territorial readjustment, these latter will prove to be well nigh insoluble. It is not alone the claims of the Central Powers that will make them so. Nations among the Allies are presenting claims that do violence to the principle of nationality on the ground that they are compelled to consider first their own national safety. Italy or Serbia or Rumania may regret that such and such a claim will bring alien populations under their rule but, they argue, unless the frontier goes just that way their position will in the future be menaced. Most powers are moved by two great considerations: national security and the need for economic expansion. Those things, it is felt, must come first, and so long as a League of Nations or other similar plan for preventing aggression of one nation upon another is merely a vague possibility in the background and not a political reality, every nation will attempt to make sure of its own safety and right by the increase of its power and territory, even at the cost of some violence to the principle of nationality. If this determination is reflected—as it is—in the claims of certain Allied governments that are honestly striving to respect national right, how much more is it likely to operate in the case of the Central Powers?

Until we have made some approach to solving these problems of national security and freedom for economic expansion, the problems of territory and nationality will be sure to baffle us. Not only that: it will make any league of nations subsequently impossible. For if we fix our "strategic frontiers" with a view merely to military advantage, disregarding the claims of national groups, and creating Ulsters over a large part of Southeastern Europe, any attempt to crystallize that settlement will be resented by the aggrieved peoples, who will work subtly and ceaselessly to upset it.

The Pope's note, with the Austro-German reply thereto, at least does this: it places the discussion for the time being on the major problem of security by international organization. It is to the interest of the Allies not to let it slide from that plane until the German Government has made it quite evident where it really stands. If that issue can be forced we shall have accomplished one of two things: have proved to the German people that their Government is not sincere in its professions of attachment to internationalism (and that will help the fight of German Liberalism against that Government), or have compelled that Government really to repudiate its militarist elements, by repudiating militarism. Either result will bring us nearer to the accomplishment of our real war aims.

New York City

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —


A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury