The Rise of Nationalism and Militarism in the Belle Époque

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Jules Chéret [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

While history looks back at the period in European history between 1890 and 1914 as the ‘beautiful era’, those living in it across Europe most likely wouldn’t have seen it that way. Today, we have the benefit of hindsight, allowing us to see with full clarity the horrors that both WWI and WWII would bring to the European continent.  The Belle Époque, however, was a time of peace between European nations, but was marked with internal political and social turmoil as the second Industrial Revolution began to spread across the continent.  The rise of national fervor and its related militarism can easily be observed in the writings of the time.

In Friedrich Von Bernhardi’s “Germany and the Next War”, the general bemoans the misguided policy of perpetual peace, declaring war as a “biological necessity of the first importance as a regulative element in the life of mankind which cannot be dispensed with, since without it an unhealthy development will follow, which excludes every advancement of the race, and therefore all real civilization”.[1]  Von Bernhardi claims that peace is the presence of nations and leaders by which they can promote and enforce their own political aims, to the detriment of those opposed to them.[2]  This ‘perpetual peace’ has caused stagnation throughout society, and has allowed the weak and tiered to prevail over those who are stronger.[3]  War, Von Bernhardi claims, is vital because without it, weaker nations would smother stronger ones, preventing growth and causing great difficulty for the advancement of the societies in and around it.[4]  Because, however, there is no power that resides over states that can impartially decide debates and disagreements, it becomes vital for the State to protect the rights of its citizens, and that includes protection by force against foreign elements – not just to defend against external pressure, but to go on the offensive and attack as well, otherwise the way of life within the State becomes perilous and can easily topple.[5]

Russia shared in its own version of nationalistic (and therefore militaristic) ideals. Russia, a huge territory with a massive population lagged behind the rest of Europe in terms of industrialization, but they had no shortage of national pride or sentiments, seeing themselves as leaders of the East by inheritance and right if not by technological advantage.[6]  While the rest of Europe scrambled in a colonial land-grab across Africa and much of Asia, Russia’s plan was to quietly grown her strength, unnoticed in preparation for a conflict that they were sure was soon coming.[7]  By the European encroachment, Prince Ukhtomskii believed that China and Asia in general would see Russia more favorably, with a deep history of its own in preparation of the coming conflict.[8]  Russia saw itself as superior to the other European powers in that it did not have to leave its own borders to find resources and wealth and work for its citizens – that everything the people needed could be found within Russia’s massive borders itself, and saw the Russian autocratic system as superior to the politics and pandering of other nations.[9]  This view, however, is not without its own irony as the Russian revolution was just around the corner, poised to topple Russia’s last Czar and plunge the country into socialism which would shape the interaction between Eastern and Western Europe for generations to come.

 

Sources:

[1] General Friedrich Von Bernhardi, Germany and the Next War (Stuttgart und Berlin: J.G. Cotta, 1912).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Prince Ukhtomskii, “Russia’s Imperial Destiny, 1891,” Internet History Sourcebook, Fordham University, November 1998, accessed October 17, 2016.  http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1891ukhtomskii.asp

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

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Philosophy Retrospectives

I find myself, in the final week of philosophy class, in whole-hearted agreement with Bertrand Russell’s quote:

“Philosophy aims primarily at knowledge . . . but it is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions . . . but rather for the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.”

So often in our time, we are accustomed to getting concrete answers to questions at the push of a button, and the uncertainty can often make us feel uncomfortable.  We have computers that we carry with us in our pockets at nearly all times, and they are able to pull up information, contradictory information, fact-checking information, and alternative points of view to almost any position at any time.  With the overflow of information that we are accustomed to, it is good sometimes to be reminded of the uncertainties that surround us at every waking moment.  Not every question has an easy answer.  There is not always a right or wrong answer.  Sometimes there is not an answer at all, and sometimes there are dozens.  Sometimes the way to discover the truth is to dig deeper, becoming willing to topple our own preconceptions and biases out the window.  It is only by entering into certain topics with an open mind that we can hope to come closer to uncovering the truth.

There have been several times over the past few weeks where I’ve really had to challenge myself. Some of the reading material was frustrating to me, not knowing which direction to turn, not having an easy way to refute claims that I either didn’t like or didn’t agree with.  But ultimately, I think a lot of the questions (at least the big questions) that we confront within our lives take this consistency.  We have to become accustomed to seeing things from multiple points of view, rather than just seeking out confirmation of what we want to believe just because we are predisposed to it.  Like history, philosophy is a subject that doesn’t always have an easy solution.  Mistakenly, a lot of people think that history is black and white and largely irrelevant in the present.  Realistically, however, nothing could be further from the truth.  The study of history (my major) is one of great depth and is undeniably open to interpretation and debate.  You can have five sources to an event that all disagree with each other.  The job of the historian is to try to uncover the truth, and in order to do that sometimes you have to weed through century’s worth of biases to get closer.

The most valuable thing I think I can take away from the past 8 weeks is that steady, constant reminder. I am no more immune to bias than anyone else.  I have my own ideas, beliefs and preconceptions.  I have desires and predispositions.  But things aren’t always the way I want them to be just because I want them to be that way.  There are alternate points of view that conflict with mine.  If I value truth more than I value comfort or self-justification, I should be willing to adjust my positions by examining other points of reference, and being willing to accept things that have the most justifiable reasons behind them, even if they make me uncomfortable.  Keeping that in mind going forward, as I have had to do throughout the length of this course will be an invaluable reminder to keep shifting the way I think, and to keep an open mind for points of view that differ or even conflict with mine.

The Lifeboat Dilemma and Morality

After a shipwreck, you find yourself in a lifeboat that has enough room and provisions for no more than 50 people. However, there are currently 75 people in the boat including yourself—men, women, children, old and young, rich and poor, passengers and crew members. In addition, there are another 100 people treading water around the boat for a total of 175 people. But only 50 can fit in the lifeboat. And the people in the water will be overcome by hypothermia in less than 3 hours because the water temperature is less than 50 degrees, so you do not have a lot of time to make your decisions and get people in and out of the lifeboat.

Since the ship sank in a remote area, the chances of a rescue anytime soon are poor, especially with no other lifeboats available.

That is all the information you have about the situation. You do not know where you are, whether there will be a rescue by another boat, or even whether the lifeboat itself will safely reach land—if it reaches land. At this point, you do not even know if the lifeboat’s locator beacon system is in working order or what supplies are stowed on the lifeboat.

For whatever reasons, the people in the boat, as well as those in the water, have agreed that you should be the one to make any decisions necessary to maximize the chances of survival for the 50 people who can fit in the lifeboat. You cannot get out of the responsibility; they are all looking at you to make the decisions. Everyone will indeed drown if you do not choose only 50 people, so you must choose a total of 50 people including yourself. And you have to do it in a hurry with no real information about the rest of the passengers except the obvious facts of sex and likely age.

You could decide to give up your seat, but who would you put in your place?

Remember, you cannot get out of making the decision; you must choose a total of only 50 people, and you have to do it in a hurry and with the information you have or can get very quickly, so do not get sidetracked with issues such as “What if we are marooned on a desert island for the rest of our lives?”

 

Although I am exceedingly grateful that it is unlikely I will ever find myself in this situation responsible for making this kind of decision, these types of mental exercises about moral questions are always incredibly difficult for me to make. Given that I have a limited amount of information about any of the passengers and I am ultimately responsible for their life or death, I would have to use the Principles of Utilitarianism in order to make incredibly difficult decisions and a very short amount of time.  Utilitarianism dictates that we, as members of a social species, “should always try to produce the greatest possible benefit for everyone who will be affected by our action” (Rachels and Rachels).  Utilitarianism as described in the book seems to mirror the humanist principles of striving to do the most amount of good and the least amount of harm to as many people as possible.  By minimizing harm and maximizing good, we can ensure the benefit and survival of our species to the best of our ability, even if we only effect a very small piece of the world and society overall.

According to Utilitarianism, three things need to be taken into consideration. We need to be aware and fully informed as to the consequence of whatever actions we take.  In the Lifeboat Dilemma, the consequences of the decision we have to make is the life and death of all 175 people who survived the shipwreck.  Since only 50 people can fit on the single lifeboat, the consequences of the decision we make will result in the death of 125 people.  Secondly, Utilitarianism dictates that we consider the benefits and the harm that will result from our actions and decisions, and indicates that the choices we make should be to the greatest benefit and the least harm.  Lastly, the principle of utilitarianism dictates that everyone’s happiness is equal without special consideration.

In the lifeboat dilemma, the first decision I would have to make would be the fate of myself and my wife. I would give up my seat on the boat to ensure that she had a place on it.  I cannot bear the thought of anyone suffering or dying because of me, but that is doubly true when it comes to her.  I love her more than life itself, and saving her is far more important to me than saving myself.  I think it would be selfish for me to want to save both of us at the expense of someone else’s spouse, father, mother or child.

Given that decision, there are still 49 more seats to fill, and I would have to consider the survival potential for those in the boat past a few days of floating on the open water. Given that, I would choose one crewman from the boat, who would be able to row/steer/navigate the lifeboat.  I would also choose 4 strong (preferably single so that they don’t have a pre-inclined bias towards the welfare of their family above the group) guys to help protect the other survivors in the event of landfall or other unforeseen circumstances.  That leaves 44 seats, which I would give to as many children and their mothers as possible.  Children, I feel, are the right choice because they haven’t had a chance to experience life yet.  While the rest of us may be young, at least we’ve had a chance, and we made the choice to be on the boat that sank.  The kids didn’t have a choice.

 

References:

Rachels, James and Stuart Rachels. Problems from Philosophy, Third Edition.  McGraw Hill, 2012.

The Existence of God and the Problem of Evil

The problem of evil is a hugely important debate between theists and atheists, and has been for thousands of years. Its importance can be clearly seen by its popularity, and the fact that theologians and religious philosophers have been trying to counter it from very early on.  While the problem of evil is not the issue that tipped me over the edge of having faith to abandoning it, I do have to say that it played a role.  While I do not take the position of strong atheism that no god exists, I do have to say that the amount and the scope of suffering in the world seems to be a strong indication that specific gods with omni-traits are less likely to be true.  It doesn’t seem to make logical sense that an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-benevolent deity would purposely and intentional create a world that contains this much suffering for no observable reason.  Arguing that Gods ways are higher than ours and therefore cannot be understood just seems like special pleading or the argument from ignorance – it’s presupposing the specific God, presupposing that there’s a reason for apparently unnecessary suffering and then concluding the desired outcome without demonstrating any of it to be true – or even plausible.

Granted, while things often seem hopeless and desperate and horrible here on earth, I am not certain that things could not be worse, and that humanity is somehow being spared a more horrific alternative. That being said, however, evil (or suffering) could exist without it taking the scope and the spread that it seems to take in our natural world.  You can still have suffering without having the holocaust.  You could still have suffering without innocent children dying from horrible, wasting painful illnesses.  You could have suffering without any of the natural disasters that we see constantly.

Ultimately I think that the existence of so many defenses and theodicies from the theist side against the problem of evil seem to demonstrate its significance and its importance in the theistic/atheistic debate. If it was a question with an easy answer, why would it be one of the most debated issues for well over a thousand years? Why would philosophers still be coming up with different answers?  Why would religious scholars still be studying and arguing for it had it been solved and easily done away with by now?  The fact that it’s still there and is still regularly brought up and debated despite its longevity seems to point to an overall significance to the points that it raises.  No matter how theists try to defend it or argue against the problem of evil, it has remained, and there’s little reason to think that it’s going to go anywhere any time soon.