Bryan Caplan  

Dying of Humiliation

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Lieven's The End of Tsarist Russia subtly proposes a novel theory of Russia's disastrous entry into World War I: Millions died to spare Russia's elites from feelings of humiliation

First, Lieven sets the stage:
Revolution at home had undermined the Russian war effort against Japan in 1905 and forced the government to sign a humiliating peace.
Europeans operating outside their continent might be rivals, but they shared a strong sense of racial and cultural superiority over natives they were suppressing.  But the Slavs living on what Vienna perceived as its semicolonial periphery had a great-power Slav protector in Russia, which often identified with them in cultural terms, and was likely to see their humiliation as its own.
As war approached:
The Russian press coined the unhelpful phrase "diplomatic Tsushima" to describe Russia's surrender to German and Austrian pressure at the climax of the Bosnian crisis.  The phrase was an exaggeration, but it reflected the mood of Russian public opinion and its acute sensitivity to further defeat and humiliation.  This was the most important legacy of the Bosnian crisis...  At the very outset of the crisis, the Russian foreign minister, Serge Sazonov, stressed to the German ambassador in Petersburg, Count Pourtales, that Russia sought peace and was very open to compromise, but the one thing it would never again tolerate was being faced with ultimatums or having its back forced to the wall as in 1909.  Both Pourtales and the Austrian ambassador, Count Douglas Thurn, believed Sazonov and made this reality very clear to their governments.  Thurn repeated on numerous occasions during the Balkan crisis that although the Russia leadership sought and badly needed peace, it would accept even a nearly hopeless war rather than face further humiliation: "The defeat of 1909 has left far too deep a legacy here for any Russian government, however peacefully disposed, to be able to survive any repetition of this event."  Nothing had changed by July 1914, when Russia faced the choice between war and surrender to an even more peremptory and humiliating Austro-German challenge.
Nicholas de Basily, deputy head of Russia's foreign ministry, is particularly explicit:
To back down in the face of this challenge [the July 1914 crisis] would, he wrote, have been "cowardice" and "a humiliation."  The Austrian military attache Prince Franz Hohenlohe was a personal friend.  Shortly after the assassination of the Austrian heir, Hohenlohe said to Basily that fear of revolution must surely dictate to Russia's rulers the avoidance of war.  Basily answered that "you commit a serious error of calculation in supposing [that] the fear of revolution will prevent Russia from fulfilling its national duty."
All this raises to a broader question: Was dread of national humiliation limited to Russia?  If not - and it's hard to believe it was - then Lieven inadvertently suggests a novel theory of World War I itself.  Namely: It was fought for leaders' emotions, not nations' interests.  Any of the major participants could have unilaterally saved their countries - and Europe itself - by swallowing their pride.  But none were willing to efface their egos to spare millions of lives.

COMMENTS (20 to date)
Thomas writes:
Lieven inadvertently suggests a novel theory of World War I itself. Namely: It was fought for leaders' emotions, not nations' interests. Any of the major participants could have unilaterally saved their countries - and Europe itself - by swallowing their pride. But none were willing to efface their egos to spare millions of lives.

This hardly strikes me as novel. The theory has been around since WWI.

Chris Koresko writes:

I'm not very familiar with the history of these events, so you can take this interpretation with a pound or two of salt:

Nations settle serious disuputes by yielding or persuading each other to yield. There are no real laws between them (who could enforce such laws?), only customs that are generally agreed upon by the strong (and typically enforced by them upon the weak). Reputation is an essential tool: it serves to inject an element of consistency and predictability that survives changes in leadership, and permits alliances to exist.

A reputation for effective retaliation deters attacks. Humiliation means a gross loss of reputation. It weakens a nation and makes it a more attractive target for aggression.

From the quoted text, it sounds like Russians considered themselves to be, and were considered to be, leaders and protectors of the Slavic nations. Humiliation in war or diplomacy was a threat that reached beyond Russia itself. The clouds of war were ominous. So the Russians considered themselves duty-bound to avoid humiliation, even at great cost. They warned the Germans emphatically that they were willing to fight to protect their reputation rather than accept a humiliating diplomatic defeat, even knowing they'd likely suffer defeat in war. And they followed through.

My point is that what happened may not be a matter of emotional/irrational leadership, but of a rational calculation made in extremis.

nl7 writes:

One might argue that Chamberlain subscribed to this theory of WWI and effaced himself at Munich to avert a war with Germany. But the implication of this theory is that leaders must scrupulously avoid weakness and indignity by going to war at nearly every provocation. And in any case, I think there are too many facile references to Munich out there.

ChrisA writes:

Such feelings were not just limited to the leaders though, they were also commonly held among the population. For instance in the UK they didn't need to introduce conscription until 1916, they had plenty of volunteers. A lot of people conflate their sense of self worth with how "strong" their country is, even if that strength comes at a loss to themselves (perhaps higher taxes, or loss of friends or relatives).

Shane L writes:

"Namely: It was fought for leaders' emotions, not nations' interests."

Perhaps it was the emotions of the people, not the leaders, that mattered. In 1870, for example, the Prussian government insulted the French and a "crowd of 15–20,000 people, carrying flags and patriotic banners, marched through the streets of Paris, demanding war".

In this pre-World War I environment, it seems many ordinary people relished the idea of a great triumphant war against their enemies. Historian Margaret MacMillan notes in this lecture that young Germans were annoyed at hearing fathers and uncles talk about their exploits in Prussia's wars a generation earlier and they were eager to have a crack at some enemy themselves.

Finally I think Chris Koresko above is probably correct: in a dangerous, unstable environment, states that signalled their inability to punish transgressions could only expect further abuse in the future.

Tom West writes:

Perhaps it was the emotions of the people, not the leaders, that mattered.

Indeed, my impression from history is that in countries operating near a Malthusian boundary, the interests of nearly everybody were aligned towards war.

Those who had nothing might get something, and those who had something preferred to see those who had nothing focused on on getting something from *outside* rather than taking theirs.

The widespread acceptance of the concept of war as a net loss seems to be a very recent phenomena.

However, I don't think there was a lot of polling of the peasantry, so short of revolution, it's probably pretty hard to know the lower classes overall opinion on just about anything.

Grant Gould writes:

The theory that political government in general, and monarchism in particular, causes polities to seek war to gratify or appease individual emotional needs rather than the actual interests of the great majority of the people has been a standard point of anarchist argument since well before the First World War, and still is today. I think the First World War (perhaps along with its immediate precursors in the Russo-Japanese, Spanish-American, and Franco-Prussian wars) is perhaps the most compelling argument for this case.

As an anarchist I am sympathetic to this view -- "national sovereignty" after all is precisely the idea of conflating individuals, states, and nations as a singular monarch-like sovereign -- but also skeptical: Although it correctly predicts that the decline of monarchism during the 20th century would cause a decline in war, it also predicts that countries with unstable elites and regular alternation of power that prevents the emergence of an anthropomorphized leadership should avoid useless war. But this is simply the Democratic Peace theory of international relations and the last two decades have wholly exploded that theory.

RPLong writes:

I'm with Thomas on this one. This isn't a novel theory, in my opinion.

If you've never been to the World War I museum in Kansas City, I highly recommend it. The museum itself is set into a hillside, almost underground. Sitting atop what looks and feels like a bunker are two twin, massive sphinx sculptures - hiding their faces with their wings, in shame. I've scarcely seen such an emotionally powerful work of political art.

This is precisely what World War I was: a terrible global war fought to defend the pride of national leaders who had betrayed the interests of the people who fought to protect that pride.


mark e writes:

"Namely: It was fought for leaders' emotions, not nations' interests. "

I think many, many wars over the centuries have been fought thusly, and is hardly a unique insight.

Greg G writes:

I think it is true that many wars are fought over an emotional reaction to feelings of humiliation.

I just don't see much evidence that ordinary citizens are less subject to these feelings and this reaction than their leaders. Most wars gain popular support at first remarkably easily.

Jon Murphy writes:

Certainly makes sense. I mean, World War 2 was certainly fought with "German Pride" as a rallying cry. And the French certainly wanted to save face following the Franco-Prussian War.

This looks like an interesting book. I'm going to pick up a copy

Chris H writes:

I think generally speaking when we talk about people having "emotional reasoning" for an issue, we should be thinking first about how that response could be adaptive. Emotions did not evolve to make it harder to come to correct conclusions, they're often useful heuristics for how to solve certain problems. In this case, I think Chris Koresko's comment is a good approximation of what the function of that anti-humiliation emotional response was. Humiliation generally signals lower status which makes taking more from someone easier.

Of course, the limitation of a heuristic is that it's easy to process, but potentially has some fairly big error bars to it's conclusions. But in dealing with large complex human systems that's likely to be true even with the most careful thinking. Add in that data collection on social science issues was very poor by today's standards (which are frankly still fairly lax compared to the complexity and importance of the issues involved) and the job of determining how to act pretty much has to come down to heuristics of some variety.

It's also worth remembering that from a self-interested perspective, many of these rulers (the Russian Czar and Austrian Emperor in particular) had a lot of subjects from nationalities which desired independence and even their own same ethnicity countrymen had tendencies to dabble in anti-monarchist movements. The importance and invincibility of the monarch was a way to prevent revolutions (which when they finally happened, as Bryan can point out, had a ton of negative consequences including millions of dead). It's quite possible that the Russians at least (and probably the Austrians as well) were in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. Their regimes were actually fairly shaky and the potential consequences of losing too much respect/fear from their populaces were very plausibly pretty bad.

As it turned out, basically all the major leaders underestimated the extent and harshness of the war which is it's own issue, but the mere presence of emotional reasoning should not be taken as proof of irrationality.

john hare writes:

One thing I haven't noticed in comments here is the lifestyles of a conquered people. A high percentage of them throughout history have paid almost unbelievably heavy prices for their nation losing. A knowledge of the consequences including unarmed men slaughtered, children carried off, and women becoming soldiers toys is frightening to anyone aware of it. As bad as war is, being a subject people is often even worse. Fear of becoming a subject people is a serious driver to war.

Weir writes:

Looks like another ideological Turing test.

The average citizen doesn't see any distinction between "humiliation" and the purely practical disadvantages of, for example, a blockade of British ports. Transforming the English Channel into a German lake would involve both "humiliation" and also "being hungry" for the dull and practical reason that British merchant ships wouldn't get past the German navy.

Imagine someone in the town of Whitby, bombed by the Germans a week before Christmas in 1914. She doesn't perceive that "humiliation" and "being bombed by the Germans" are two unconnected things. She's under the impression that if the Germans are given a free hand there's a real downside to this whole "being humiliated" business.

Or suppose the Germans were given a free pass on the slave camps in France, for example, slave camps to which the Germans deported one hundred thousand Belgians. Or the slave camps in Belgium, or within Germany itself. Accepting them might be both humiliating and also bad in several other senses too.

When the Germans invaded Le Cateau-Cambresis in August, the German Commandatur demanded to be supplied with coal, butter, cheese, wheat, vegetables, and 140 pounds of beef and four sheep a day. The average citizen in Britain did not say to herself, "Good thing I don't live in France." At Christmas, the Germans took extra turkeys, geese, ducks and chickens. The typical voter didn't say with a shrug, "Bad luck for those foreigners living far away over there on the other side of the Channel."

In 1914 the average Brit felt quite strongly that Germany's victims were unfairly treated by the people who were killing them, robbing them, and deporting them into slavery. And this is the case even though there were very few Brits who had expressed the same outrage ten years earlier, when the Germans were committing genocide against the Herero and the Nama in Namibia. But in 1914, at least, the Brits pictured what was being done on the other side of the English Channel, and felt that it was not ok to ignore it.

Jim Glass writes:

Lieven inadvertently suggests a novel theory of World War I itself. Namely: It was fought for leaders' emotions, not nations' interests.

This assumes a contradiction between what the leaders emotionally felt versus what they reasoned to be in their nations' interests, an assumption that seems dubious on both psychological and historical grounds.

People feel the strongest emotionally about the things they believe to be most important to them. Who gets highly emotional in support of things they reason to be unimportant or against their self interest? Does one feel more strongly emotional about protecting one's own job and family or a total stranger doing so? ISTM that he starting assumption should be that emotional belief and calculations of self-interest coincide. The fact that the calculations may be grievously wrong makes no difference.

When the Archduke was shot the Austrian leaders didn't greatly care. Ferdinand was generally unliked, distrusted by many, and a good part of the leadership was happy to be rid of him. Western observers were amazed at how cold the attendees were at his funeral, not a wet eye in the place -- no "emotional rush to war" from that.

But the Empire was tottering and vulnerable and the Austrians genuinely, rationally believed that the Serbian nest breeding terrorists for export was a real threat to its security. And yes, they got emotional about the terrorist threat. (Sound familiar?) They calculated the military invasion to clear it out, and extensively calculated the international diplomatic cover for it embassy-by-embassy, using the assassination as the excuse. It wasn't just the leaders, the invasion had great popular support at the beginning. The fact that their calculated, popular war on terror blew up disastrously anyhow (familiar?) wasn't proof that they had acted emotionally *instead* of calculating their self-interest, but only of how wrong their calculations were.

Concluding that because it all blew up the invasion must have been driven by emotion rather than reasoned calculation of self-interest is hindsight bias, which abounds about WWI. "How did those idiots stumble into the horrors of WWI over so little?? They couldn't possibly have been thinking rationally!!".

But they had zero plans for, and couldn't even imagine the risk of the WWI we know. The "big war" of the prior 100 years in Europe lasted for 10 months in 1870-71. That was the high side of the risk they knew. One must judge the rationality of their calculations by the world they knew, not what we look back on from today.

Jim Glass writes:

Was dread of national humiliation limited to Russia?

Of course not, it was as universal as today, what nation today is happy to be humiliated? What individual is? Resistance to it is in our genetic code, for good reason. When a behavior is so universal one should ask "why?" -- and is that reason possibly even adaptive? -- before hand-waving it away.

Their fear of being humiliated wasn't rooted in "pride", but in entirely rational fear of the consequences of showing weakness in a strong-eat-weak world, where perception of weakness cost allies internally and externally, invited attack from outside and inside, started wars that even if won were costly, and toppled regimes. The Junkers obtained great power and created Germany by marching the Prussian army into Paris in 1871. Everyone else tried the same perceiving a like opportunity. Displays of weakness were costly-to-fatal. What was not-to-fear in that? Then, or later, or today?

In 1938 the German generals had a plan to depose Hitler rather than get into an unwinnable war over Czechoslovakia against a West they perceived as strong. When the West folded, they concluded "Hey, he's right, the West is weak", and it all changed. Perception of weakness mattered.

Look around our world today, or even domestically, in politics, business offices, mating (procreation), who gets mugged on the street and who doesn't, perception of strength and weakness really matters to success and failure. (Bank runs!) On a fractal scale. That's why we all dread humiliation. Signaling matters.

My favorite recent example is a film of three hunters on the African plain who feed their clan by just walking up to an entire pride of lions (15!) and taking away part of its kill. They just walk straight up to the lions, which look at the humans, think "they're not afraid of us so we had better be afraid of them" and run away! Amazing.

Perceptions of strength and weakness really do matter a lot in our world of opportunistic predator humans.

Jim Glass writes:

none were willing to efface their egos to spare millions of lives.

Hindsight bias again, none of them could even imagine risking millions of lives, so none of them made that choice or anything like it.

A far more interesting question is why later, in the middle of the war, when the scope of the carnage was plain to all with no end of it in sight, the citizenries provided such mass support for continuing the war (even in Russia for years) -- to the point where leaders feared being deposed if they just stopped the shooting with the armies in place. Ponder that. For the "not stopping", not the start, was the real key to the megadeath count.

But back to the start. The war was set up by unstable international power relations that created "first strike" incentives. (Incentives matter!) Germany could eat any of of its neighbors (see 1871) while its neighbors collectively could eat Germany. Both sides knew it and had long histories of taking bites out of each other. So mutual fear was rational. (1871 had actually happened.)

Thus if "something bad" occurred, Germany had an incentive to take out one of its neighbors fast, giving them an incentive to mobilize together ASAP, giving it an incentive to strike faster ... If the Germans dallied to talk as the French & Russians finished mobilizing, the latter could at the least extort them using their superior joint power -- nations pursue self-interest -- and at the most decide to reverse 1871 and settle their German problem once and for all. So the Germans saw it. Were they wrong?

The nature of the Russians' mobilization was key. They could have, and argued over, whether to mobilize just against the Austrians, not threatening Germany, but decided they couldn't risk it (see above). Nicky sent cousin Willy messages saying "Peace! Peace! It's a defensive mobilization". But to the Germans there was no such thing as a "defensive" joint French-Russian mobilization surrounding them (see above). The rest followed. It was very much like the nuclear logic of the cold war, with extensive mathematical calculations of marginal extra weakness resulting from delaying action per-day, made by both sides.

Of course the whole situation could have been stabilized by statesmanship. Bismark was prescient about all this, had a "no more wars" policy and a program to stabilize Germany's position in Europe.

But possibly brain-damaged Willy fired him, reversed his policies and followed an addled whim-of-the-moment poser-militarist course that destabilized things every way possible. Willy never wanted war, but if you want one leader who really did put emotions before reason, look at him - he probably did more than any other one person to set up the war even though he didn't want it ... one person really can make a difference in history.

Margaret MacMillan writes that the tragic irony of the war was that Germany's loss via the Armistice left the same instability and strategic incentives in place while making them even worse, as Germany was left relatively stronger, fundamentally setting the stage for the next war more than did anything else (such as anything in the Versailles Treaty). Go figure. Sometimes I wonder how humanity ever got even one foot up out of the muck.

Sorry for running on so in these comments, but for the 100th anniversary I read four thick books about the War, and had to see if I could remember a little before I forget it all.

Nathan Smith writes:

Yes. As Christianity has long taught, the greatest, most disastrous sin is pride.

Bill Drissel writes:

From my early twenties (I'm 82 now) WW I has been an utter mystery to me. A single assassin kills the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and a coupla months later, German artillery is shelling Antwerp, the Brits are involved and the bloodiest war in history (up to that time) is well under way.

Does this new insight posit universal insanity? What essential national interests were involved? What invasion was anticipated by defenders? What crime against humanity needed to be stopped or punished? What land could be conquered by threat of force followed by capitulation rather than bloody invasion and defence?

Maybe insanity is the answer. Guess I'll have to read yet another book on the subject.

Bill Drissel
Frisco, TX, USA

Weir writes:

There was something almost desperate in the stress on honour, whether for the individual or the state. It reflected fears that the material success of Europe, so evident in the new cities, the railways, or the great department stores, was leading to a coarser, more selfish and more vulgar society. Was there not a spiritual emptiness which organised religion seemed incapable of filling? That disgust with the modern world and what the eminent German poet Stefan George called "the cowardly years of trash and triviality" led some intellectuals to welcome war as something that would cleanse society.

A tenable interpretation would have to blame the war on capitalism, not because the capitalists contrived it, for which there is no shred of evidence—the businessmen were appalled, the stock markets collapsed—but because capitalism had created an inhuman society that bred frantic hostility to the regime of calculation and comfort; the human spirit rebelled against Economic Man and against the division of labor, against loss of community from the cash nexus. People turned to war as relief from anomie, materialism, the corrosion of values.

Although the creation of the Empire had produced concentration of political and economic power hitherto unknown in Germany there was a widespread feeling that German civilisation and German culture were on the decline. The outward display of strength—such, for example, was the argument of the popular Jena philosopher Rudolf Eucken—had led to an intellectual decline which showed itself in concern for material comfort and outward success. As a result the ideal, the "real" values of life had been lost.

Heinrich Herkner hoped for a more national and communal spirit among German workers and entrepreneurs as a result of the war experience. Johann Plenge announced the death of "English freedom," saying that "this all too individualistic conception of freedom cannot maintain the state."

According to Plenge, the outbreak of the war signaled a new "German revolution" that would repudiate the liberal ideals unleashed on Europe by the French Revolution. The outmoded "ideas of 1789," wrote Plenge, were nothing but "shopkeepers' ideals, pure and simple, which served solely to provide individuals with particular benefits." The new order, animated by the "ideas of 1914," would "exert all the powers of the state in concerted opposition to the revolution of destructive liberation of the eighteenth century."

Open society or closed culture? Individuality or collectivism? Universalism or ethnic particularity? Cosmopolitanism or nationalism? Economic liberalism or socialism? Atomism or organicism? Knowledge as independently-arrived-at truth, to be experimentally confirmed or falsified, or knowledge as communally authorized belief forever beyond appraisal as true or false? Freely adaptable modern mobility, interest in change and ability to handle it, openness to science and innovation—or roots fixed forever in unrelinquishable blood-soaked tribal soil?

"The flood of German poetry in the first months of the war," wrote Carl Busse in 1916 in the introduction to the third edition of the Deutsche Kriegslieder, "surpassed every expectation, came like a storm or spring flood, broke all dams, rose singing and preaching like a gigantic chorus into the darkly threatening heavens. Boundless, a vigorous army of spirit, the legions of iron larks moved in the heavens above the marching regiments, no longer individually important and potent, but overwhelming (like the soldiers marching out below) primarily because of the weight and force of their numbers." According to Busse, an estimate revealed that "in August 1914 alone one and a half million German war poems were written, on the average 50,000 a day." The majority of these poems came from unknown writers, "from suddenly inspired dilettantes," among whom educated members of the middle class figured prominently: gymnasium and university students, teachers, pastors, or educated housewives.

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