wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Paul Crook

Darwinism, War and History

In Germany ideas of Darwinian militarism accompanied an expanding war culture that grew out of the nation's headlong leap into modernity after 1870. It was a leap into the world of big industry, big cities, a big army, new science, large geo-political ambitions, rapid and disorienting social and political change. The German cults of Weltmacht, naturalistic atavism, scientism and efficiency, futurism and idealised Kultur offered psychological resolutions to the problems created by flux, most notably a feeling of loss of identity and bearings, perceptions of disintegration and threat. There was a sense of threat to Germany, whether real or imagined, posed by a barbaric Russia or by an encircling Anglo-French coalition—bourgeois and determined to exclude Germans from the great power structure. This perception conditioned German thinking about power and the state, which repudiated orthodox liberal concepts. At least one historian has described a modernist Germany embracing the 'elemental' in diplomacy as well as the arts, rebelling against 'suffocating and stultifying norms, against meaningless conventions, against insincerity'. War was glorified as a test of spirit and culture. Emblematic of this approach were men as diverse as Richard Wagner, Thomas Mann, Kaiser Wilhelm II and General Friedrich von Bernhardi.

Bernhardi insisted on judging war 'from the point of view of natural history'. A 'fundamental law of development', war exemplified the Darwinian struggle for existence, where nature was ruled 'by the right of the stronger', where the weak and 'unwholesome' were selected out. Bernhardi's militarist writings were a compendium of German war philosophy 'declaimed not with the crass and naive brutality of the Pan-German pamphleteers, but with undeniable literary skill and the inflections of a man of culture'. Yet they were too extreme, or too tactless, for the German General Staff, worried that Bernhardi was telegraphing their war programme to the rest of the world. Something of a loner and a political naive, Bernhardi headed the historical section of the General Staff from 1898 until transferred by Schlieffen, who disapproved of his 'radical' ideas. He retired from the army in 1909, and spent his time attacking Schlieffen's strategies, and mobilising German opinion against Britain and peace. He sneered at the strong world peace movement as 'supported by powerful private, and especially by large capitalistic, interests'. His Germany and the Next War (1912) was a bestseller, and was translated into many languages, including Japanese. Bernhardi's name became synonomous with rampant Prussian militarism and the strategy of preventive war. He reworked the Staatsrdson tradition, with generous additions of modish biological.determinism. He rejected any higher law or power above the state, which was entitled to act according to the laws of self-interest and survival. Like organisms the state must dominate or degenerate.

Darwinism may not have figured centrally in Bernhardi's overall intellectual strategy—Goethe, Schiller, Treitschke, even Nietzsche contributed more powerfully to his thought. Even so, his use of biological analogy struck home, as a rash of refutations from western sources affirmed. War, in a long-remembered phrase, was 'a biological necessity'. It was not merely a necessary element in the life of nations, but 'an indispensable factor of culture, in which a true civilized nation finds the highest expression of strength and vitality'. The law of the stronger held good everywhere: 'Those forms survive which are able to procure themselves the most favourable conditions of life, and to assert themselves in the universal economy of nature. The weaker succumb.' International relations was governed by 'a persistent struggle for possessions, power and sovereignty', and those nations prevailed in war 'which can throw into the scale the greatest physical, mental, moral, material, and political power'. War furnished such nations 'with favourable vital conditions, enlarged possibilities of expansion and widened influence', and thus promoted the progress of mankind: 'Without war, inferior or decaying races would easily choke the growth of healthy budding elements, and a universal decadence would follow.'