One Hundred Years of Solitude (Or, War in the Time of Irrationality)

On December 3rd, 1913, Vorwärts, the central organ of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, published a poem by German-Jewish writer and journalist Kurt Tucholsky, regarding a recent bout of political unrest in Saverne (at the time located in western Germany). Entitled, The Hero of Saverne, Tucholsky derided the “courage” of one particularly violent German lieutenant by the name of Günter von Forstner:

A “man” with a long knife,
and 20 years old –
A hero and a chocolate-eater,
and still not a single hair in his mustache.
He stalks in Saverne’s long alleys
and crows in soprano –
How long will the child be left alone without supervision? –
The matter has become of utmost urgency! –
That is the kind that we need so many of! –
He leads the corps!
And deeply moved, his people are seen to dive
for enemies, deep in every privy.
Since in the end, prey is made that way –
nothing ventured, nothing gained!
Today, it is a lame cobbler,
and tomorrow, it’s an orphan child.
In short: he has courage, the swiftness of a cow, or better:
a whole man! –
Since if someone puts up a fight, he immediately stabs him with the knife,
because the other cannot protect himself.

Forstner’s act of valor was the stabbing of a crippled Alsatian shoe maker with his saber, a stunt induced by taunts from the local Alsatian citizenry toward Forstner and his fellow soldiers. And what, pray tell, was the cause of such taunting and jeering? It was simple: the Germans were foreign occupiers in this land. Alsace-Lorraine had been a territory of France until the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. After France’s humiliating defeat in that conflict – humiliating, because the Germans included in their treaty a chauvinistic parade down the Champs-Élyséas, as well as an enormous indemnity of five billion francs – Alsace-Lorraine was turned over to the Germans and subsequently occupied. In 1913, as will often happen in an occupied territory, resentment finally boiled over.

The fallout from the Saverne affair was global condemnation of increasing German aggression in both her European and African acquisitions. Barbara Tuchman sums it up in her epic narrative of the outbreak of World War I, The Guns of August:

“It ended in the complete and public exposure of German policy in the Reichsland, in a surge of anti-German feeling in world opinion, and in the simultaneous triumph of militarism in Berlin where [Lieutenant Forstner] became a hero, congratulated by the Crown Prince.”

Underneath this event lay Cassandra-like omens that would haunt the Western world for the next forty years. Indeed, it touched upon many of the themes that would become manifest in World War I; namely, the collisions of imperialistic designs, monarchic demands, and economic growth. In addition, the rights of man were being challenged by oppressive forces, and he was fighting back.

—–

Fast forward 97 years, to the morning of December 13, 2010. A young street vendor by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi stood in the middle of the road in front of his local governor’s office in the Tunisian provincial town of Sidi Bouzid. Merely one hour prior to this he had been assaulted, beaten and humiliated – and not for the first time – by a female provincial officer and her aides for not possessing the proper documentation needed for food vending. In other words, he lacked the resources, connections, and money to bribe them. His governor refused to see or hear his complaints; he had no further means of supporting himself or his family. At 11:30 a.m., he therefore stood at the steps of a false government and implored from it the answer to a simple question: “How do you expect me to make a living?” He then doused himself with gasoline and set himself alight in protest.

In 2010, as will often happen in a land without representative government, in a land occupied by autocrats and their cronies, resentment finally boiled over. The Arab Spring was underway.

—–

Of course, the two occurrences bore varying implications on the historical record. The former was a mere road sign of things to come, a harbinger of German aggression supported by a century of Prussian chest-beating á-la Nietzche’s SupermanClausewitz‘s war-as-continuation-of-politics-by-other-means,Treitschke‘s claims that the acquisition of power was “the highest moral duty of the state” — we’ve all seen it before, and we know the disgusting National-Socialism it produced. Bouazizi’s self-immolation – and the uprising it produced – was fundamentally different in the fact that it implied a backlash against oppressive “secular” autocracies (in the cases of Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Libya); a rejection of U.S.-backed proxy states (in the case of Egypt, which, along with Saudi Arabia, handled a lot of the U.S.’s dirty work in the region); an overall irritation at sectarian minority rule over ethnic majorities (in the case of Bahrain and Syria); and an acknowledgment of a powerful new form of communication: social media.

But the differences are merely structural, not conceptual. The reckless, pugilistic governments gearing up for war at the turn of the last century weremonarchical and therefore nationalistic. If we take a small sample of today’s potential adversaries – such as Iran, Israel, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia – they are theocratic and therefore nationalistic. This is a particularly dangerous admixture, because it cuts out the middle man (i.e. the king with the “divine right” to govern), and stipulates that God is the creator and executor of policy. In addition, there exists in both scenarios the presence of an empire on the verge of decline – in 1912 it was Great Britain, today it is the United States – as well as the presence of an empire on the rise – in 1912 it was the United States, today it is China.

These similarities seem admittedly coincidental, except when the focus is enlarged to gather a wider spectrum of events. At the beginning of the 20th century the Progressive movement was well under way in America. In Europe it had taken a different shape but at its core was the belief that capitalism had run amok and needed regulating and/or banishing altogether. Global power had been allowed to collect in various pockets of the world order, whether in the form of capital, land, or autocracy. In 1915, on the eve of America’s entry into the Great War, the top 1% of Americans controlled 18% of the nation’s income. They committed gruesome acts of violence against laborers, such as the Ludlow massacre in 1914. And these acts did not go unreciprocated. Anarchists and socialists set off bombs in public squares. They attempted toassassinate politicians and CEO’s, and then rioted in the streets of New York in support of these acts of violence. Meanwhile, in Europe, the Russian monarchy was on the brink of collapse. The Soviets revolted semi-successfully in Russia in 1905, and again in 1917 with full success. Workers, laborers, citizens, subjects – all were revolting against massive collections of economic and governmental power. Without a doubt, these developments contributed to the war-hungry environment of the era.

Compare these trends to today. The top 1% of American citizens control 24% of the nation’s income. The effects of this nation’s massive accumulation of power are becoming manifest in its streets in the form of Tea Party and Occupy protests, in the form of Anonymous attacks on governmental cyber-infrastructure, and in the form of information leaks that take aim at governmental transparency. On a global scale, the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000. Europe is in the death throes of economic failure. There are revolts in Russia against the possibility of another Putin presidency. The Middle East is still convulsing with the grim after-effects of the Arab Spring. The civil war in Syria bears an increasing amount of importance w/r/t a potential war with Iran, and this fact is receiving little-to-no acknowledgment in the press. (The Alawite-Assad Syrian government is largely propped up by Iran, in order to provide a safe channel of arms to its anti-Israel Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.) Israel – and possibly even the United States – assassinate Iranian officials and scientists in broad daylight. Iran retaliates. Words and threats pervade the major international press outlets, without any kind of thought to what another war in the Middle East might mean. (The Economist posits this question in rather mild tones; I, on the other hand, am submitting that it could be apocalyptic).

In  Errol Morris’s documentary on former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, McNamara reads a letter that former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev sent the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is so relevant because it portrays a sense of wisdom and cautiousness not found in the threats Israel and the U.S. trade with Iran. Global leaders – and citizens – would do best to listen the words of yesteryear’s leaders. Sometimes they speak louder than actions.

“We and you ought not fall on the ends of a rope, which you have tied the knots of war. Because the more the two of us pull, the tighter the knot will be tied. And then it will be necessary to cut that knot. And what that would mean is not for me to explain to you. I have participated in two wars, and know that war ends when it is rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction; for such is the logic of war. If people do not display wisdom, they will clash like blind moles. And then mutual annihilation will commence.”

 

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