The preservation of international peace and the problem of negotiated disarmament among nations have been a problem for humanity from biblical times at least. Turning spears into pruning hooks and swords into ploughshares was urged by ancient Jewish prophets in the Old Testament and echoed in the New Testament by Jesus of Nazareth in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) by calling peace-makers “blessed”. That was an aspiration which the course of history has mocked. Wars and rumours of wars have plagued human history from time immemorial. Wars to end war have been fought and have succeeded only in the sowing of dragons’ teeth. The First World War led almost inexorably to the Second.
The great irony is that these most destructive wars in human history have been fought among avowedly Christian nations. The Florentine Machiavelli has triumphed over Jesus of Nazareth, the Prince of Peace. It is noted, however, that Machiavelli in his work The Prince of 1513 was only describing the behaviour of rulers at that time and what they did to stay in power. They all simply acted in their dynastic or national interest whenever they took up arms against a neighbouring state.
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Nothing, it would seem, has really changed throughout history, despite the well-intentioned efforts of pacifists, who continue to recommend unilateral disarmament as if that were the magic formula to create a knock-on effect inspiring all other powers to risk doing the same. Peace, and hopefully justice on earth, would then prevail. Pacifists also accuse statesmen of duplicity and deceptive actions against their own people while in reality they are furthering their class interests.
During the great naval race between Britain and Germany, the English journalist and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Norman Angell published a book called The Great Illusion (1909). He had hoped to illustrate that modern warfare between great industrial powers would be so costly regardless of who actually won, that decision-makers would shy back from the risk. The naval build-up went on anyway and hostilities eventually broke out in August 1914 and lasted four horrifically ruinous years for all concerned.
The most reliable research on all this was carried out by the Hamburg-based Professor Fritz Fischer and more recently confirmed by his doctoral student Bernd Schulte in a number of detailed publications based on hitherto unexplored sources. The assertions made by Cambridge Professor Christopher Clark in his 2013 book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 have created a furore, especially in Germany where liberals and social democrats have been outraged by Clark’s downplaying of the “guilt” of the imperial German power elite who were bent on war. Not a few Australasian historians have welcomed Clark’s assertions because it allows them to denigrate the imperial connection by arguing that the dominion contribution to that conflict was the result of a deception perpetrated by British decision-makers in Whitehall. In reality, so it is agued, the First World War had nothing to do with the Pacific dominions. Our leaders were simply duped into supplying cannon fodder for wicked British capitalists.
This argument also bolsters the pacifist position which the most recent contribution by Adam Hughes Henry, Reflections on War, Diplomacy, Human Rights and Liberalism: Blind Spots (2020) affirms. While one may admire the idealism of the pacifist cause, one closes such a book with very mixed feelings. It is first an appeal to nations to be honest and turn their “swords into ploughshares”, an act of wisdom that all peace-loving citizens would applaud. However, the argument is based on glaringly inadequately research. Further, it is curiously naive in its appreciation of the cultural differences among peoples. While pacifists are motivated by genuine humanistic ideals, their arguments seem to be based on a naive comprehension of the unique cultural perceptions of rival nations.
Throughout history, Machiavellianism has always triumphed over pacifism. Nations inevitably go to war to fulfil self-interest. Strangely it is contested that the Pacific dominions of the then British Empire had no stake in the outcome of the First World War, an assertion many who have studied imperial German war aims find astonishing for two reasons. First, the chief German war aim, next to re-drawing the map of Europe, was to destroy the Royal Navy, thus facilitating Germany’s ability to plunder all overseas possessions of Britain and its allies, even extending to establishing a permanent naval base in the Dutch East Indies to control Australasian shipping.
With Britain effectively checkmated, the eastern provinces of France annexed to Germany, and Belgium occupied (the November 1914 program) the world would have become Germany’s oyster. If Australasian historians have still not heard of the “November Program” as the essential list of war aims to realise the dream of Mitteleuropa, it is high time they informed themselves. Had it been realised it would have made Germany into the world superpower to which the ruling elite since the mid-1890s at the latest aspired. The plan, of course, was flawed chiefly because its implementation had to challenge the United States of America. The German secret weapon of unrestricted submarine warfare backfired because it inevitably led to US intervention. As President Woodrow Wilson fervently enunciated to Congress, the great trans-Atlantic democracy could not stand by and see the Western European democracies crushed under the knout of Prusso-German militarism.
The idea of pacifism under these conditions is naively illusory. If a power is driven by the belief in a divine calling or an imperialist ideology to impose its Kultur on the world in total disregard of the rights of neighbouring states one’s choices are limited: lie down and let the aggressor walk all over you, or stand up and fight to preserve your freedoms. By August 1914 the Commonwealth government was well apprised of the implications of German aggression in Europe and chose to support the mother country. That decision was not attributable to imperial sentiment alone but to the well understood fact that the Pacific dominions were objects of German aggression. That was well appreciated in government circles at the time, as the operation of a German spy network in Australia’s coastal cities attested. By means of the German East Asia Cruiser Squadron based at their Chinese treaty port of Tsingtau on the Shantung peninsula the Germans had the ability and firm intention of attacking Australian port towns and cities to interdict shipping carrying war materials and food supplies to Britain.
Pacifism under these conditions could not have been more illusory. The possibility of new threats of aggression from powers in our region makes the adoption of an absolutist pacifist stance unrealistic, however noble in essence “peace on earth to men of good will” might be.
John Moses is the author, with Peter Overlack, of First Know Your Enemy: Comprehending Imperial German War-Aims and Deciphering the Enigma of Kultur (Australian Scholarly, 2019)