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.

Avner Offer

The First World War

If the gamble turned out badly, the losses could be as massive as they actually turned out to be. This is where we take leave of conventional rationality. Rationality (e.g. in economics) has room for risktaking, but hardly for risks on such a scale. Even Russian roulette is safer than deliberately entering a war with powers of equal or superior resources to one's own. A one-half probability of failure (surely it was no lower than that) is not a risk upon which any rational person would choose to wager such colossal stakes. Yet the leaders of Germany placed the fate of their political system and the property, livelihoods and lives of millions of their countrymen on a bet of this magnitude. Not only that, they continued to do so repeatedly during the war: in starting the battle of Verdun in 1916, the unrestricted submarine campaign of 1917 and the spring offensives of 1918. How can such action be explained?

Certainly not in economic terms: they chose to fly in the face of economics, and economics, in the widest sense, brought them down—as the blockade strategists in Britain had predicted. General Bernhardi's Germany and the Next War provides an insight into the military mind on the eve of the war. He affected to despise economic motives and, in passing, the United States of America and its 'plutocratic' values. The leaders of the American peace movement, he wrote,
appear to believe that public opinion must represent the view which the American plutocrats think most profitable to themselves. They have no notion that the widening development of mankind has quite other concerns than material prosperity, commerce and money-making.
A few pages later the General gives vent to the mystical and fatalistic dimension. Action is not to be judged by its consequences, but by the intentions that drive it.
For the moral justification of the political decision we must not look to its possible consequences, but to its aim and its motives, to the conditions assumed by the agent, and to the trustworthiness, honour, and sincerity of the considerations which led to action.
In another passage he wrote, 'Even defeat may bear a rich harvest.'

It is impossible to conclude this section without some speculation on the cast of mind that made this possible. The most striking feature about it is a fundamental incompetence: an unworthiness to manage the affairs of a great nation. This incompetence radiated from the very top downwards, and should provide a warning about the fitness of any group of persons, however capable, for handling the means of mass destruction. On 30 March 1911 Bethmann Hollweg spoke in the Reichstag, explaining his restraint in Morocco in terms of Bismarck's sagacious admonition, that,
Even victorious wars can only be justified when they are forced upon a nation, and we cannot see the cards held by Providence so closely as to anticipate the historical development by personal calculation.
Bernhardi quotes these words, but follows them with another epigram from Bismarck: 'Men Make History.' It was not calculation that finally drove the German leaders, but a reckless, fatalistic abandon.