Nationality and the War

November 6 2007


On April 1 1915 Toynbee published a large book called Nationality and the War, written while a fellow of Balliol. On May 1, he began working for a new Foreign Office bureau in London, unnamed by him and his biographer in the sources I have seen (except by Toynbee as the “Mendacity Bureau”), whose job was to influence American public opinion on the war.

Nationality and the War was his first magnum opus. (He wrote seven works in that category: the second was The Western Question in Greece and Turkey; and after A Study of History comes Hannibal’s Legacy in 2 volumes and Constantine Porphyrogenitus and His World, and two late works published after his death, Mankind and Mother Earth and The Greeks and Their Heritages.)

Nationality and the War’s 1919 edition has just been reissued by Kessinger Publishing. Michael Brooks has posted a review on his blog, at (He says that it was Toynbee’s second book: I show it as his first. Perhaps The New Europe preceded it. The bibliography here does not yet show the order of books within a year.)

“For Toynbee, nationalism was ‘the dominant political factor in Europe,’ and he argued that the key to preventing future wars was to ‘purge’ the concept of nationality of the ‘evil elements in nationalism under its many names, “Chauvinism,” “Jingoism,” [and] [Brooks’s bracket] “Prussianism”’.

“Toynbee followed a thematic approach in this text, examining nationalism within the context of individual European nations as they existed at the start of World War I. Footnotes are provided on the pages in which the reference occurs, and the author developed a useful cross-referenced index for the book. Also included in the 1919 edition were a series of fold-out maps that offer readers greater understanding of the material discussed.”

The maps were in the first edition as well.

Brooks points out that some of Toynbee’s opinions in 1915 were characteristic of their time.

“Toynbee’s writing exhibits some decided biases and prejudices on the part of the author [redundant last six words] of which twenty-first century readers should be aware. There is a strong streak of anti-Semitism in Nationality and the War that – while not uncommon for an early twentieth century European intellectual – still manages to shock this reviewer. A Jew, he believed, was a person whose cultural and religious heritage meant that he ‘cannot be assimilated’ into a European national group. Yet despite Toynbee’s acknowledgement of the existence of millions of Jews in Europe, the author did not include suggestions for how Jews should be incorporated into post-war Europe, nor did he reckon in this book with the growing Zionist movement in Palestine that would play a role in the eventual creation of the state of Israel.”

Toynbee’s later views were anti-Zionist, and pro-assimilation in Europe, but of course not “anti-semitic”. But he does write differently in 1915 compared with later. A couple of posts ago, I linked to some passages in which he expresses regret for the tone of some of his First World War writings.

“Similarly, Toynbee expressed thinly-veiled disdain for a number of other ethnic groups in Europe. Poles, he argued, constituted a particularly inferior category of ethnicity that did not merit consideration as an independent nation. In the following passage, Toynbee speculated on the relative merits of placing minority populations under majority governments in places such as East Prussia:

We shall probably receive the impression that the German would suffer greater disadvantage by being annexed to a community of Poles, whose standards would be lower than his own, than the Pole would suffer by enrolment as a German citizen, which would be a kind of compulsory initiation into a superior civilization.

“Yet Toynbee’s anti-Polish bias might be forgiven were he better versed in the history of East Central Europe. The author argued that the Napoleonic creation of the short-lived Grand Duchy of Warsaw resulted in the Polish population being ‘rescued from the foreign yoke’ and that ‘for the first time it [Poland] [Brooks’s bracket] experienced the benefits of self-government.’ This statement seems to indicate that Toynbee was unaware of the long history of Polish self-rule, that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was arguably the most powerful state in Europe in the sixteenth century, or that the parliamentary innovations of the Polish Sejm were on par with the constitutional monarchism that so enamored Toynbee in his native England.”

Toynbee was not unaware of Poland-Lithuania. It is an important fact in all his analyses of early modern Europe. He was not even unaware of it in 1915. He mentions the union of Poland and Lithuania in another book of 1915, The New Europe. It was formed in 1385, lasted until the partitions of Poland at the end of the eighteenth century, and included Russia’s Ukrainian hinterland. In a passage I have already quoted from the Study, he tells us that it, with the political union of Scandinavia, arrested the German expansion into the Baltic. It also intimidated Russia. I am not sure how much he knew of Polish constitutional history. Brooks again:

“The author also mocked the national ambitions of the Lithuanians, who[m] he described as ‘the most backward race in Europe’ and a group that ‘have drawn their civilization at second hand, instead of creating a national tradition of their own.’ As evidence for this claim, the author noted that the Lithuanians did not convert from their ‘primitive paganism till the fourteenth century;’ this is clear evidence of Toynbee’s avowed attitude toward the supposed superiority of Christianity – especially Protestantism – as a civilizing and foundational force. Toynbee argued that the Lithuanians were incapable of self-government, and in post-war Europe should only be granted a limited amount of autonomy while remaining firmly within the subjugation of the Russian Empire.”

But Toynbee had, if anything, a pro-Catholic bias later – especially when it came to Catholicism as a “civilizing and foundational force”. For example, here.

He goes on:

“Toynbee, throughout the text, struggled to restrain his contempt for Islamic peoples in Europe and the Near East, and the book is filled with passages brimming over with disdain for the Islamic world. Toynbee called for the complete dismantling of the former Ottoman Empire, and he argued that Islamic groups in the Balkans and elsewhere would welcome new Christian rules, as ‘the Turk has found by experience that good government by the foreigner and the infidel is a happier lot than the Dark Age of his native regime.’ Persia, he argued, should be considered ‘outcast from the legitimate family of Islam,’ and intervention by the Russians and the British in the late nineteenth century ‘have already done more for strong government in Persia … than the Persian nation has accomplished for itself.’ In Toynbee’s eyes, Persia’s vast petroleum reserves justified British oversight, as the ‘backward’ Persians were incapable of exploiting this increasingly important natural resource.”

This type of comment is utterly uncharacteristic of the later Toynbee.

“Beyond its prejudice and racism, it is with his poor understanding of Russia that Toynbee’s work most suffers, as the author exhibited an almost shocking ignorance of basic Russian history. In Toynbee’s eyes, Russian history ‘began little more than two hundred years ago,’ as if the thousand-year tradition of Muscovite monarchy were a mere myth. Seemingly unaware of the strong tradition of radical factions in Russian politics, the author wrote that Russian liberalism ‘is in the ascendant, and will prevail.’ This was written a mere two years before the Bolshevik Revolution, and while one can forgive Toynbee for a lack of clairvoyance, his unabashed trumpeting of the virtues of Western liberalism blinded the author from considering other post-war possibilities for Russia.”

Again, this is a First World War Toynbee. But of course Toynbee knows Russian history even if he seems here, for a moment, to regard it as beginning with Peter the Great. The entire thrust of Toynbee’s later writing is against this kind of exclusion.

Toynbee wrote, in some degree, like a man of his time while he was both a historian and a propagandist. On one matter he swam against the tide from the very beginning: nationalism. On racism, his views were clear from the first volume of the Study. He allowed himself to speak straightforwardly of the cultural superiority of one group over another for a little longer.

Brooks refers to a remarkable passage in Nationality and the War.

“Yet despite the limitations of this text, Toynbee foresaw the dangers in a defeated Germany being forced to pay onerous reparations after the World War I, and the author argued that the best strategy for the Allies would be to ‘beat her [Germany] [Brooks’s bracket] badly and then treat her well.’ Toynbee believed that the dominance of the Prussian military would continue in post-war Germany if the Allies pursued a policy of retribution against the Germans in the peace settlements:

If we humiliate her [Germany] [Brooks’s bracket], we shall strengthen the obsolete ideas in her consciousness more than ever – perhaps no longer the idea of “Plunder,” but certainly that of “Revenge,” which is much worse … Germany was led to pursue the policy which has culminated in this war, by the oppressive sense that her development was being cramped by the actions of her neighbours … One thing is clear: whether Germany’s feeling of constriction has good grounds or not, we must avoid deliberately furnishing it with further justification than it has already.

“Finally, Toynbee’s forward-looking methodology offered some prescient glimpses into the future, as evidenced by his prediction that the ‘fundamental factor in world politics during the next century will be the competition between China and the new commonwealths’ (the United States, Canada, and Australia).”

Wrong for the twentieth century. Partly on the right track for the twenty-first.

Nationality and the War, Dent, 1915

3 Responses to “Nationality and the War”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    The New Europe, Some Essays in Reconstruction, Dent, 1915 is really a set of essays supplementary to this book.

  2. Mike Stone Says:

    I think his main bias was not so much anti-Polish as pro-Russian. For all his intelligence he couldn’t escape the passions of the time, and instinctively wanted to believe the best about the biggest Ally – even declaring that in Tsarist Russia “Liberalism is in the ascendant, and will prevail” – I swear I am not making that up. Since Poland, Lithuania etc could not become independent without a Russian defeat (which in 1915 would be assumed to involve an Allied defeat) he could not support it.

    He was even worse about the Ukrainians, pontificating on their duty to “abandon their particularism, and be absorbed into the main body of Holy Russia” and explaining why they couldn’t even have Home Rule, let alone independence, and why they should adopt the Russian language and abandon their own.

    Talk about a patronising prat! Still, it’s a good read, containing a lot of historical information, and casts a lot of light on the thinking of an intelligent Englishman in 1914.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    Thanks. And in his defence, it is his first book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s