Donald Trump is making America grate again - that is, grate on the nerves of our longstanding friends and allies. He did this recently when he declined to attend a solemn Armistice Day memorial ceremony because of rain, and shortly thereafter sat grimly while France’s President Macron attempted to educate him on the stupidity and bigotry embodied in the concept of “nationalism.”
Here’s what Winston Churchill’s grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames, tweeted after Trump called off his participation in the ceremony: “They died with their face to the foe and that pathetic inadequate
even defy the weather to pay his respects to The Fallen #hesnotfittorepresenthisgreatcountry”
But let’s not dwell on the crudeness, stupidity and selfishness of the orange and white nationalist now occupying the Oval Office. I’d rather talk about World War I, which ended 100 years ago today and so brought about the birth of Armistice Day.
In The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman quoted a conversation between two Germans about how the war started: “How did it all happen?” one asked. “Ah,” the other replied, “if only one knew.”
How it all started was through an understanding of national interests among the dominant European powers that took for granted the idea that each country was in the game for its own interest and nobody else’s. A kind of suspicious, trigger-happy nationalism was the order of the day, where power politics were seen as a zero-sum game. If Germany grew strong, France would be weak. Slavic independence was a threat to Austria’s influence, and so on. In this Hobbesian “every country for itself” environment, all that was needed to launch a general conflagration was the assassination of a prominent figure. On July 28, 1914, a Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip, provided just such a catalyst for war when he murdered Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife.
Princip had reason to be angry at Austria-Hungary which had been pursuing its own nationalistic interests by bullying the Balkan Slavs. Princip’s desire to curtail Austria’s domination of the southern Slavs was justified; his methods were not. Once he had committed his bloody deed, Austria mobilized against Serbia, Russia against Austria, Germany against Russia and then Britain and France against Germany. There you have it: nationalism in the raw. Seventeen million deaths later, on November 11, 1918, an exhausted Germany signed an armistice with the western allies bringing the carnage to an end.
The Hobbesian idea that we are programmed to engage in a “war of all against all” is, I believe, a misleading simplification of human nature. But it was one of the ideological foundations of European nationalism in 1914. It was perhaps more characteristic of Europe’s leaders than of its ordinary citizens. Kaiser Wilhelm may have resented the rising power of Czar Nicholas’s Russia, and France’s President Poincaré may have feared Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, but the attitudes of the men who were drafted and sent to war were more complex than these nationalist hostilities imply.
This was evident in December 1914 during the Christmas truce. Peace emerged spontaneously on the western front during this truce as the men on the front lines – who by then had been killing each other relentlessly for four months – began to hear the familiar tunes of Christmas Carols being sung by their “enemies” in neighboring trenches. Different units began to serenade each other across no man’s land and before long, men were getting out of their trenches and walking over to meet with their adversaries to chat and exchange cigarettes and other trifling gifts. Eventually soccer matches were organized and German, British, and French soldiers threw themselves into harmless competitive scrimmages against each other. One has to wonder (at least I do) if, during that Christmas week of 1914, the men at the front had been offered the opportunity to vote on whether to continue the war or not, they might have overwhelmingly voted to put away their weapons and go home. This was not to be, of course, since the Kaisers, presidents, and prime ministers of the warring powers would not have it.
What the spontaneous Christmas truce of 1914 says to me is that philosopher Hobbes’ idea that a general war of all against all is a primary driving force underlying our very beings is mistaken, or, at the very least, an oversimplification. Violent confrontation can, at times, be presented by national leaders as an appealing program of action, but more often it is in our natures to interact in less destructive and more empathetic ways. So why don’t we act on these more positive impulses all the time? Well, obviously, one reason is that unscrupulous or ignorant political leaders succeed in pumping up selfish hatreds in the form of nationalism.
British and German troops mingle and chat during the 1914 Christmas Truce (Photo from Wikipedia)