The military temper

March 11 2012

The French psyche was [...] a psychological barometer on which the readings at successive dates of Western history since A.D. 1494 had been apt to give accurate forecasts of imminent rises and falls in the strength of martial feeling in the Western World as a whole. The progressive militarization of Western Christendom in the course of the four centuries beginning with a French King Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy had been registered in the French people’s change of mood from the peaceableness (perhaps due to their still lively memories of their sufferings in the Hundred Years War) that had been characteristic of a majority of the French people in the first chapter of this tragic story to the chauvinism that had come to be characteristic of a majority of them by the Napoleonic Age. This adventitious aggressive spirit in France had not been blunted by the horrors of the Grand Army’s retreat from Moscow in A.D. 1812 or by the experience of fighting on French soil in A.D. 1814 or even by the humiliatingly decisive defeat, at Waterloo in A.D. 1815, of a light-hearted attempt to reverse the military decision of the preceding year. Thereafter, the French had still had in them the spirit to seek psychological compensation for the loss of an abortive Napoleonic French empire in Europe by embarking in A.D. 1830 on the arduous aggressive military enterprise of conquering a substitute-empire in North-West Africa; and a French aggressiveness which had thus survived a chastisement with whips at Waterloo had required the sharper sting of a chastisement with scorpions at Sedan [1870] to make it wince and wilt. The nemesis of a Napoleon I’s militarism had not deterred Frenchmen of a later generation from placing their lives and fortunes in the hands of a Napoleon III; and, after having pandered to his subjects’ still impenitently militaristic taste by leading them successively into a Roman adventure in A.D. 1849, a Russian adventure in A.D. 1854-6, an Austrian adventure in A.D. 1859, and a Mexican adventure in A.D. 1862-7, this second-rate practitioner of a dangerous trade had committed his country in A.D. 1870 to a Prussian adventure in which the agonies of the Hundred Years War had been concentrated within a Time-span of seven months. This terrible retribution upon France for a militarism to which her Government had been addicted since A.D. 1494, and her people since A.D. 1792, had been so shattering a psychological experience that French souls had never afterwards fully recovered from it.

Though in A.D. 1914 a conscript French national army had patriotically flown to arms to stem a fresh German invasion, and though for four years thereafter the French people had heroically endured casualties of a severity that was crushing for a country in which the population had ceased to increase, besides being grievous for millions of bereaved families, the French had emerged in A.D. 1918 from this deadly struggle for existence with a sharpened consciousness of having been caught by the malice or nemesis of History in a strategico-political position that was so perilously exposed that, sooner or later, it must prove untenable. History had condemned France in a post-Modern Age to have for her next-door neighbour a German national state that was at least as aggressive-minded as France had ever been at her worst, and that was now far more than a match for France in industrial war-potential, as well as in man-power. On the 11th November, 1918, the French had been aware that they would never have emerged on the winning side from a war with the Germany of that day if the combined strength of all the English-speaking peoples had not also been thrown into the anti-German scale; and from that moment onwards France’s English-speaking allies and associates had started perversely to do their worst to break French hearts by serving public notice on France that she could not depend upon their being willing to come to her rescue again if the German peril were once more to loom up. In these cruelly unpropitious circumstances the French had entered an inter-war breathing-space in a mood of disillusionment and discouragement that had been registered in action eventually in France’s collapse and capitulation in June 1940; and the ensuing passage of French history had been big with the future of the Western World as a whole.

The Vichyssois temper and régime had given a practical demonstration of a psychological process through which Nationalism, when carried to an extreme, could box the compass by turning into an equally extreme renunciation of a traditional will to maintain and assert a parochial sovereign independence. Frenchmen, responsible at the time for the government of their country, who, on the 16th June, 1940, had rejected with indignation Churchill’s eleventh-hour offer of a voluntary political union on equal terms between a then all-but-conquered France and a then still unconquered United Kingdom, on the ground that this British offer was an insidious move to consummate the sacrifice of France for the United Kingdom’s benefit, did not rebel when, six days afterwards, on the 22nd June, they were required to sign an armistice which placed France at the mercy of a National Socialist Germany, and did not refuse, after that, to accede to German demands for French collaboration with Germany’s continuing war-effort against a Britain who, till yesterday, had been France’s ally, though a German victory over Great Britain would have extinguished France’s last hope of ever being liberated from the German yoke to which she had bowed her neck. The ostensibly nationalist Vichyssois slogan “la France seule” was a euphemism for the unspeakable truth that France had placed herself at Germany’s disposal and had accepted the shameful role of principal slave to a foreign tyrant nation that had attacked and conquered its neighbours in Continental Europe as a first step towards attacking and conquering the rest of the World with sinews of war that were to be reinforced thanks to the pliancy of Continental European victims who were to be bullied into becoming their German conquerors’ accomplices.

It was true that a demoralized French nationalism would never have entered into a transaction of which it was manifestly ashamed if the alternative course demanded by a traditional standard of heroism had not been beyond the French people’s powers of endurance under novel technological conditions of warfare which had keyed up a once familiar and tolerable ordeal to an unprecedented degree of severity; but this turn of a technological screw was not the whole explanation of the collapse of French moral that had declared itself in A.D. 1940. Part of the explanation also was that, for nationalist-minded souls, the psychological difficulty of acquiescing in the abrogation of a national sovereign independence by a foreign conqueror’s exercise of an irresistible brute force was not so great as the psychological difficulty of taking the initiative in voluntarily surrendering some agreed part of the same national sovereign independence in order to enter into co-operation with people of other nations, on a footing of equality, in a loose confederation like the League of Nations or in a full federal union like the United States and this though the difference between the respective effects of these two alternative ways of foregoing sovereignty was the extreme difference between purchasing security through cooperation and paying the penalty of subjection for the luxury of choosing the psychologically easier option of accepting a fait accompli imposed by force majeure.

The second factor that was reinforcing the effect of an advancing Technology in undermining a parochial patriotism was a victory of class-feeling over patriotism in a competition for precedence between two conflicting expressions of sectional corporate self-interest that were irreconcilable in the last resort. In a France that had been living under the regime of a Front Populaire from June 1936 to April 1938 a considerable portion of the middle class had apparently come, by A.D. 1940, to feel that the aggression of its working-class fellow-countrymen on a domestic front was a greater menace to the preservation of the middle class’s most highly prized assets than the aggression, on an international front, of a Fascist Power which promised to protect a compliant French bourgeoisie’s private property as a quid pro quo for the abrogation of their country’s national sovereignty. [Footnote: Similarly, in a China that had been living under the régime of a Kuomintang during the years A.D. 1928-48, a considerable section of the industrial working class and even of the peasantry had apparently come, by A.D. 1948, to feel that the incompetence and corruption of this ruing clique of a Chinese intelligentsia was a greater evil than the hegemony of a Soviet Union under which they would be allowing their country to fall if they acquiesced in the liquidation of the Kuomintang régime by a Chinese Communist Party.]

If in France the Vichyssois policy and spirit had thus demonstrated that the experience of a First World War had made one once aggressively martial-minded Western nation willing to purchase peace “at any price”, the French people’s British allies had been convicted of a willingness to purchase peace “at almost any price” [footnote: “Not peace at any price, but peace at almost any price” (Mr. Eden in the House of Commons at Westminster on the 25th June, 1937).] by a policy and spirit of “appeasement” (in a pejorative connotation of the word) that had been in the ascendant in Great Britain from the 18th September, 1931, when her inter-war temper had first been put to the test by the opening move in a new Japanese campaign of military aggression in the Far East, and the 10th May, 1940, when the British people had taken for their leader a statesman who had lost no time in putting their temper to the test again by his challenging offer to his countrymen of “blood and toil and tears and sweat” [footnote: Mr. Churchill in the House of Commons at Westminster, 13th May, 1940.] as the price that must be paid for the United Kingdom’s present survival and future victory.

From June 1940 to August 1945 the British people had paid as appallingly heavy a price for the purchase of an inestimably valuable spiritual treasure as the French people had paid in A.D. 1914-18; and in A.D. 1952, some seven years after their release from this supreme ordeal, it had still to be seen whether the ultimate psychological effect of a Second World War on British moral would or would not prove to have been the same as the effect of a First World War had proved to have been on French moral. Would British souls that had been willing to purchase peace “at almost any price” rather than have to face a Second World War be found willing to purchase it “at any price” if a third world war were to descend upon them? There were, after all, limits to Human Nature’s powers of endurance, even in communities of the toughest moral fibre fortified by the most Spartan martial tradition. If the spirit of France had flinched in June 1940 at the prospect of having to face casualties in the field even heavier than the French casualties in A.D. 1914-18 and having to see the whole of her metropolitan territory overrun by a temporarily victorious enemy, how was the spirit of Britain likely to react to the prospect of seeing a congested island subjected to an intensive bombardment with guided atomic missiles which would do incomparably greater execution than the heaviest of the blows recently delivered by Göring’s Luftwaffe?

The answer to this question was no foregone conclusion, and any future follower, German or Russian, in Hitler’s footsteps would be inviting the fate that Hitler had brought on himself and his ambitions if, like Hitler, he were to gamble on the answer to the question turning out to be that the British no longer had any spirit left in them; yet, for all that, the question could not be denied a hearing in A.D. 1952; and the British people was not, of course, the only people in the World at this date about whom this importunate question had to be asked. If it was at least questionable whether a third world war would be endurable for the people of the United Kingdom, it was manifestly questionable a fortiori whether this tribulation would be endurable for Continental West European peoples who had undergone in the years A.D. 1940-5 – and, in the Belgian, French, Italian, and Polish cases, in the years A.D. 1914-18 before that – an experience that was more harrowing, and very much more demoralizing, than the British people’s ordeal of an aerial bombardment. These Continental West European victims of an inordinate German militarism had seen their countries partially or completely overrun and occupied by invading hostile armies, and they had found themselves at the mercy of an occupying alien enemy that had taken advantage of its power over them to distrain upon their material resources for the reinforcement of its own war effort against their surviving allies and to harness their energies to its own evil will by training upon them all the terrors of a post-Modern Western totalitarian police-state.

This institutional engine of militarism had been keyed up to a sinister efficiency on the home fronts of a Fascist Italy and a National-Socialist Germany; and, while in A.D. 1952 it was indisputably true that Western Europe as a whole had had its martial spirit damped by its devastating experiences since A.D. 1914, was this true without reservations of the two West European countries in which Fascist national governments had deliberately re-stoked the local fires of militarism after the First World War with the intention of profiting, in a Second World War, by a consequent marginal difference between the respective limits of their foreign victims’ and their native instruments’ capacity for continuing to stand the traditional test of an ordeal by battle? What had been the ultimate effect, on Italian and German souls, of the misdeeds that they had allowed their governments to require of them, and of the retribution that they had consequently allowed their governments to bring down upon their guilty heads? In what mood had the Italians emerged from the twenty-one years A.D. 1922-43, and the Germans from the twelve years A.D. 1933-45?

An observer in the year A.D. 1952 could predict with some assurance that the Italians would prove to have no more stomach for a Mussolinian militarism to which a majority of the nation had paid lip-service, not because they ever had it in them to go forth conquering and to conquer any foreign people that was their match in technical equipment, but because they did not have in them the spirit to defy the will of a domestic tyrant from the Romagna. It was assuredly no accident that there was always an exceptionally strong local resistance to Fascism in a Piedmont that was also exceptional in being the one locality in a twentieth-century Italy that had preserved something of an earlier martial tradition. On this showing, it might be prophesied in A.D. 1952 that Italy would go the same way as the rest of Western Europe. But could the same prophecy be made at the same date with the same confidence about Germany, where the traditional Prussian militarism that Hitler had stoked up to such incendiary effect manifestly had a far more wide-spread and far more tenacious hold on the souls of the people?

This question was one of grave concern to non-German West Europeans at a moment when, with their reluctant and half-hearted assent, the Americans were soliciting a German people that had attacked and overrun its neighbours twice in one lifetime to revive a martial tradition that, within living memory, had cost the rest of the World two world wars. At the time of writing, it was impossible to predict what the German response was going to be to a challenge presented to Germany by the current quarrel between the ex-victors in the latest of two wars that Germany had made and lost. Which of two features in the new situation would loom the larger in German eyes? The possibility for Germany of reacquiring political power by auctioning German military services to the higher bidder of the two parties that were now feverishly competing for so unquestionably valuable a military asset? Or the possibility of exposing herself to suffer a fate that would be even worse than the fate that she had brought upon herself in A.D. 1945, and indeed as bad as the fate that she had experienced in A.D. 1618-48, if she were now to become the battlefield of a war between foreign Powers by whom she had formerly been “encircled”? On the morrow of the War of A.D. 1939-45 there were signs in Germany that some Germans, at any rate, had by this time had enough of sacrificing life, property, and conscience by submitting to serve as “cannon-fodder” for successive German Governments to spend in successive wars of aggression ending in successive disastrous defeats; and the emergence of this mood in Germany after VE-Day, 1945, was, after all, something that was to be expected in the light of similar changes of heart which, at earlier dates, had come over other West European peoples who, in their day, had been addicted to Militarism no less strongly or persistently than the Germans.

The Germans’ French victims, as we have already noticed, had lent themselves to Militarism for 376 years (A.D. 1494-1870), till they had been cured of it by a crushing German retort. A Swedish militarism that had been rampant since Gustavus Adolphus (regnabat A.D. 1611-32) had disembarked his expeditionary force on German soil on the 27-28th June, 1630, had been extinguished by a subsequent and consequent Swedish experience of being bled white by Charles XII (regnabat A.D. 1697-1718). A Spanish militarism that had been coeval with its French counterpart had evaporated after the Thirty Years War. “Therefore say: ‘Thus saith the Lord God: … I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and will give them an heart of flesh’.” [Footnote: Ezek. xi. 16 and 19.] When this God-given change of heart had been vouchsafed, in recent Western experience, to the Spaniards and the Swedes and the French, it seemed unlikely that the Germans would be proof against an influence to which these other West European peoples had all yielded. Spanish, Swedish, and French hearts had been changed, sooner or later, by the experience of learning through suffering (πάθει μάθος); [footnote: Aeschylus: Agamemnon, l. 177, quoted in this Study, passim.] and since A.D. 1914 the Germans had received, in their repeated punishment for a repeated sin, a double measure of this sovereign spiritual education. “Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He received!”, [footnote: Heb. xii. 6.] was a timeless truth that held out hope for the conversion of the Germans in the sixth decade of the twentieth century of the Christian Era.

No doubt the non-German West Europeans, in their dealings with their German neighbours at this critical time, might, while putting their trust in God, still feel inclined, en attendant, to keep their powder dry. Yet, notwithstanding the openness of this question concerning Germany, by the year A.D. 1952 it looked as if, in a Western Europe which had already been put to the torment of a Second World War, dispirited nations and exasperated social classes had been reduced, by the combined operation of the psychological forces analysed above, to a temper in which their moral capacity to offer resistance to a world-conqueror would be at a minimum.

One could quibble with the use of the phrase “rises and falls” in the plural at the beginning.

Churchill’s phrase, in the first of his three Battle of France speeches, was “blood, toil, tears and sweat”, not “blood and toil and tears and sweat”. (He may have adapted it from Garibaldi, who had rallied his forces in Rome on July 2 1849 with the words “Non offro nè paga, nè quartiere, nè provvigioni. Offro fame, sete, marce forzate, battaglie e morte”, or from Theodore Roosevelt, who may have said something similar in 1897.)

Brandenburg Gate on Sedantag, September 2 1898; German Wikipedia, with more images; Sedantag was celebrated in the German Empire from 1871 to 1918

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

2 Responses to “The military temper”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    The phrase “peace at any price” had allegedly been used by Douglas Jerrold (“We love peace, but not peace at any price. There is a peace more destructive of the manhood of living man, than war is destructive to his body. Chains are worse than bayonets.”) and by Theodore Roosevelt (“The things that will destroy America are prosperity at any price, peace at any price, safety first instead of duty first, the love of soft living and the get-rich-quick theory of life.”).


  2. [...] Buildings on southeast side of Lal Dighi (BBD Bagh, formerly Dalhousie Square), Calcutta, lit at night for the 1912 royal visit (compare the picture of Berlin here) [...]


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