Just a quick sidelight on the War today, as much a case of me asking questions as answering them, because I don’t know a lot about today’s token anniversary. On 17 April 1916, Italy announced the prohibition of trade with Germany. Italy had been officially at war with Germany since the previous August, and I’ve yet to find anything that tells me why it took almost eight months to stop business between the two countries. If I’m going to speculate – and I am – my guess is that trade was more important than any state of war in 1916, and that gives me something to say.
A hundred years on, it’s easy to assume that Europeans of 1916 (or at least Western Europeans) viewed the world with the same post-imperial pessimism we think of as normal today. In 2016, deep down inside, we all know European civilisation is over the hill. We’ve been everywhere, done it all and enjoyed a prolonged spending spree, but now we can see the end of the supply line and a future of permanent (if relative) austerity. In 1916, for all that the previous couple of years had been disastrous beyond anyone’s wildest nightmares, most Europeans still lived an age of optimism.
Science and technology were providing wonders at an unprecedented rate, the conquest of nature for human benefit seemed all but complete, and the rest of the world was still an apparently limitless source of bounty waiting to be carried off. Before the War, most Europeans took for granted that the future was always going to be better than the past, and even in 1916 they were living in a narrative that saw the shock and horror of total war as a course correction on the road to the Promised Land.
Depending on nationality or class, the Promised Land took many forms. Some Europeans dreamed of independence from empire, others of turning independence into the prosperity enjoyed by the richest countries. Socialists and liberals saw a future of social justice, some of their political masters sought preservation of traditional pecking orders, and plenty from both sides of that particular fence regarded defeat of an historical enemy as an acceptable version of paradise.
My point is this. War today is a means of keeping what you have in a shrinking world, but a hundred years ago war it a means of winning prizes in an expanding world. In order to win the prizes wars had to be won, but no nation or empire could fight wars, let alone win them, without wealth, generated or borrowed. In the early twentieth century, the way to wealth on a national scale had been taught to the world by the British Empire and was pretty much set in stone. Taking control of territory (by annexation or colonisation) supplied raw materials that could be turned into goods that could be traded for wealth.
There was no other way; there had been no other way since the opulence of monarchs had ceased to be the main indicator of national wealth; and there’s still no other way.
For smaller economies – and in 1916 that meant pretty much everyone except the European empires and the USA – there was an obvious catch: you needed wealth before you could grab more territory. So in order to fight wars and win prizes, available trading opportunities had to be exploited to the full. That made trade sacred, the first and fundamental priority in the affairs of sovereign states, the only route to a Promised Land the whole human race could see on the horizon.
I know this is all very generalised, and it may have nothing to do with wartime trade between Italy and Germany (there could, for instance, be legal or contractual reasons behind that), but it is a reminder of an important thread running through the entire conflict. Entering the War, staying neutral, invading neighbours, carving up collapsing empires, blockading the oceans, grabbing colonies or even coming from colonies to aid the mother country… every kind of First World War was about trading for a shot at the treasure.
In age of optimism about the future, that meant no good guys or bad guys. Belgium, France, Serbia and a host of other sovereign states (even Britain) might have claimed to be fighting a defensive war, but none of their buckets hold water once you disqualify countries invaded because their own invasions failed, and any state that committed an expeditionary or colonial force abroad oxycontin dosage. So that’s today’s heritage subversion message: every state fighting the First World War was in it for greed.