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Some Costs of the Great War: Nationalizing Private Life

The costs of the Great War were truly astronomical. As with the number of stars, the final accounting is in God's hands. The slaughters, the treasure, the faith in some kind of order of society—all of these were costs of the war. As Wilfred Owen suggested in his terrible poem "Strange Meeting," the culture of Europe seemed hell-bent on trekking away from progress toward something that literary historian Paul Fussell would later call the troglodyte world: a kind of Hobbesian vision, one might say, rendered in pen and ink by Otto Dix.1 Costs indeed.

Yet this essay has to do less with numbers of ended lives than it has to do with altered lives, or rather, with changes in the status of the private life of the modern individual, the modern family, the modern community. This essay is about private property, about the autonomy of the individual, and the disastrous trend, accelerated by World War I, of the state claiming the right to take at whim everything within its territory.

A secondary theme is that this great change in private life was already in process before 1914. The real agent of change was not the war, but the state and its backers and minions. Yet war as an accelerator of change was bad enough. Political and intellectual leaders in all countries welcomed the war for the collectivist changes it would inevitably bring. In the United States, one of the more important figures welcoming the war was John Dewey, a veritable god in the pantheon of our modern civil religion. Dewey saw the war, rightly, as the accelerator of the coming industrial society—a managed positivist society, which he thought of as democracy itself. (More on this below.)

Mere Statistics

Mere statistics do not tell the whole story, but they can begin to show the outline. Fifty million men worldwide were mobilized for military service in the war. Just over a fifth of them died.2 Civilian deaths are more difficult to calculate, but many millions died of starvation (as in the case of Germany, where between half a million and 700,000 civilians died from malnutrition), deliberate mass murder, and forced migration, while others were shot in reprisal or as spies, killed accidentally by either friendly or unfriendly fire, the victims of deliberate violence of individual soldiers (friendly or unfriendly), etc.3

Apart from its ability to transform live individuals into dead ones, during World War I, the state also managed to pollute, disrupt, and destroy the ecosystems of countrysides and towns in Europe and elsewhere—ecosystems that had been developing for millennia. The zone of destruction along the Western Front is, of course, the most notable example. Every city or town within this zone was damaged; a large number disappeared. Some towns survived only as reunion associations for former residents to organize official get-togethers — gatherings necessarily held elsewhere, since the very terrain of the towns' locations had been left physically altered, polluted, and honeycombed with live explosives. Indeed, unnatural amounts of rotting organic material and an enormous distribution of toxic chemicals (including heavy metals), along with the near-complete disruption of natural and man-made drainage systems in most areas, means that some of the places have been simply irreclaimable for the last ninety years—and how many more into the future we can only guess.4 Lives are still—within the last several years—lost or threatened by these explosives and other left-behind dangers.5

On other fronts, the destruction tended to be less intense. But still, town after town was bombed and burned throughout east Central Europe and southeastern Europe, as well as elsewhere. Early in World War I, Russian armies "cleansed" the areas close to the front of millions of Jews, Germans, and other persons considered likely to favor the German army. Many hundreds of thousands died in the process.6 And there was the Turkish massacre of Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks at about the same time. Indeed, these cases of ethnic cleansing and ethnic murder opened yet another Pandora's box that transformed the "technique" of violently forced migration into one of the principle motifs of the 20th-century world.

We should also think of the long-term results: the misery caused by these deaths and brutality, the productive lives lost to the world, the work never done, the family traditions that ended, and much more. And if we extend our thinking to the geopolitical results of the war, we see further miseries flowing from the human decisions of the period. The Russian Revolution and conflicts flowing from the almost inexplicable Paris Peace Conference conjured up untold suffering, death, and despair in problems that still seem insoluble.

European Civilization and Individuals

But I want to concentrate here on the subject not of lives, but of private life and its extension, private property. In the first place, one of the enormous costs of the war was the percentage of wealth or productive capacity transferred from private hands into state coffers. Even the original theorist of state power, Niccolò Machiavelli, advised aspiring absolutists to keep their hands off the property (and the women) of their peasants and other productive citizens.7

In effect, Machiavelli's absolutists struggled with the Europe of individualism and constitutionalism for three hundred years, until the forces of the liberal individualists seemed to have won the upper hand in both Europe and its appendages. But by the last quarter of the 19th century, the Europe of empires, nationalism, and growing collectivism turned its back on the achievements of individuals and the autonomy of individuals and families. Just before World War I, Europeans increasingly came to define themselves by group—whether by nationality, sex, or class. Each group developed habits of calling on the government to confirm it or support it or to give it special privileges—often with the implicit threat of violence.

All this was in direct opposition to both the conservative and liberal values of the 19th century, but liberals in Europe and the United States underwent a transformation: starting as champions of individual autonomy, they became slaves to group security. In this scenario, the war became, as Murray Rothbard and others have pointed out, fulfillment.8 The policies are too familiar to enumerate: economic intervention on all sides, heavy-handed cheerleading to join the war "system," continual denunciation of internal enemies, disregard of the rule of law, massive transfer of wealth from the hands of individuals, families, and other private sources to the state. Not least of these trends was the overpowering of private lives and even privacy. From the vacuous propaganda extolling groupthink in all the societies of the belligerents to the very real breakup of family units by the Bolsheviks, the war was the cover for multifarious inroads of the interference of the state in private life.

Accelerated Transfers of Private Property to the State

Let us turn to some cases that give us insights into the process of decivilization —the "trek from progress" in Wilfred Owen's words. During the war, government expenditures among the belligerents increased by an average factor of about eighteen, their stated revenues by a factor of about eight.9 Cost-of-living indices doubled in the best cases and quadrupled in the worst. Governments in all belligerent countries intervened in their economies through price controls and rationing, and they scrambled to pay for the horrendous costs of the carnage. In so doing, they had to develop new attitudes about private property, and hence about private life itself.

Walther Rathenau provides us with an important case study. Rathenau, the head of German General Electric (AEG), served as the head of the German Office of War Materials from the first days of World War I. His office used state authority to bully companies into consolidation (electric companies included), to confiscate needed resources, to intervene quite directly in the operation of businesses large and small. His task, he revealed in a report only one year into the war, had been daunting, mainly because Germany was so attached to outdated concepts like the rule of law, or rather the rule of laws based on private ownership and disposition, such as those "defective and incomplete" laws of property holding sway since the time of Frederick the Great and earlier.10 The "coercive measures" Rathenau had overseen were just part of the array of changes that would "in all probability be destined to affect future times." Indeed, Rathenau showed precisely how the process of change was achieved: by redefinition.

The term "sequestration" was given a new interpretation, somewhat arbitrarily I admit, but supported by certain passages in our martial law…. "Sequestration" [now] does not mean that merchandise or material is seized by the state, but only that it is restricted, i.e., that it no longer can be disposed of by the owner at will but must be reserved for a more important purpose…. At first many people found it difficult to adjust themselves to the new doctrine.11

This kind of redefinition went on in all the belligerent countries during and long after the war, and not only in the totalitarian regimes—men like Rathenau were always ready to step forward. Redefinitions of words like confiscation and sequestration led to the redistributional, paternalistic welfare regimes of Britain, France, and FDR's America, as well as the fascist and communist governments in Germany, Italy, and Russia.

Such redefinitions were already underway before the war, but wartime represented fulfillment. This was especially the case for the agents of the state, and for those whose fortunes depended on the expansion of the modern state.

Another wartime case that might give us insight is the related aspect of transferring private wealth to the use of the state. Let us look at wartime inflation. The inflation policies of most of the belligerent powers represent, after all, an extension of the newly redefined erosions of private property. Historically, inflation is a classic game of legal plunder, more effective than taxes since the legalized theft is concealed. Hence, as World War I governments grew by leaps and bounds, as they employed more and more henchmen—both military and regulatory—to do the state's bidding, they transferred correspondingly more of the wealth of their people to the state.

All First World War belligerents "created" currency or money by printing it or imagining it in the form of credit. World War I planners also paved the way for what we might call the modern "ethics" of inflation (extolled by Keynes and later by the Phillips-curve cheering section) by ignoring the involuntary nature of this transfer of wealth and encouraging the victims of these transfers to regard them as acts of patriotism. The head of the German central bank told the bank's board as early as September 25, 1914, that the best way to cover the massive war costs to come would be "an appeal to an entire people," an appeal to "ethical values and not merely personal gain."12

After 1918, governments tended to back off somewhat from the more extreme taxation of wartime, but transfers of private property to the states continued in the form of inflation. Even in the United States of the postwar period, when there was technically not much growth of the currency supply itself, there was very substantial credit expansion fueled by the federal government and fostered by the Federal Reserve, as Murray Rothbard demonstrated many years ago in his book America's Great Depression. In general, the Austrian economists, from Mises and Bresciani-Turroni onward, showed quite clearly that the 1920s represented a highly inflationary bubble whose bursting triggered the Great Depression.13

If we add to this hidden "inflation tax" that wartime tax hikes raised taxes from a factor of three upward, it is clear that the state crossed a threshold during World War I, a threshold to a much, much higher transfer of private wealth to the state. During the postwar period, the levels abated somewhat, but by and large, the ground was prepared for a continual rise of such transfers up to the end of the 20th century and beyond.

I am suggesting here that a far-reaching cost of the war was the degradation of the autonomy of individuals and families in relation to their property. I might add that the huge, flashy fortunes of the 20th century are not the private property I primarily have in mind, since many of those fortunes are based on monopolistic partnerships between great centers of wealth and governments—the soul of rent-seeking activity, of soaking the producers. What I have in mind is the justice of keeping what one has worked for, the justice inherent in that wonderful capability of the human condition to work hard, plan, and save in order to survive, give, and consume in ways chosen by the individual and family—countered by the state's aggressive tendency to take larger and larger chunks.

The Nationalization of the Private

Part of the problem for henchmen of the state was the question of how to nationalize and systematize a broad swath of essentially private aspects of life. Of thousands of cases we might study in this regard, the multifarious issues of public schooling are perhaps the most closely associated with the loss of privacy. And these issues are revealing when we think of them in connection with the Great War. Here I will concentrate on the United States, where the sainted John Dewey comes importantly into consideration. Dewey's complex collectivist vision of the role of education in society was based on destroying the old mediating habits of individual and family custom, tradition, and negotiation. Like his fellow progressives Frederick Taylor and Edward Mandell House, he believed the new community would be controlled by sophisticated administrators of the "system" who understood the problems of individualism. As Dewey wrote a decade before the war,

We are apt to look at the school from an individualistic standpoint, as something between teacher and pupil, or between teacher and parent…. And rightly so. Yet the range of the outlook needs to be enlarged. What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.14

In the fight to regiment children democratically, Dewey was supported by rafts of progressive foot soldiers. To look at just one, we might think of sociologist and journalist Frances Kellor. Leading the Americanization movement in the period before the war, Kellor linked her predilections for American nationalism, industrial efficiency, and the need for indoctrinating immigrants with American attitudes, creating a movement that took off as World War I started. By 1916, the increasingly influential Kellor was calling for universal military service, carefully crafted indoctrination in the school curricula, and the revitalization of America. She welcomed the coming war because it would create that "heroic spirit by which a nation is finally welded together…." By the end of the war, Kellor and others like her took credit for the real work of lobbying state legislatures successfully to implement a new regime of education, outlawing foreign-language schools, public and private, promoting Americanization classes, and otherwise using the schools to promote the progressive agenda of the destruction of privacy and the immersion of the individual in the murky waters of democracy.15

Another case study has to do with the ways in which states nationalize villages, families, and regions in the name of disaster. Our example is the village of Vauquois, a typical village of the Argonne Forest region of Lorraine, a hilltop home for several hundred peaceful French citizens before 1914. When the war broke out, units of the French army retreated from the frontier to Vauquois in the first weeks of the war and made a stand there. The Germans attacked, but as so often happened, the armies deadlocked, in this case across the very top of the oblong hill or ridge. The sides dug in, both trench lines running through the village, indeed, within easy stone's—or grenade's—throw of each other. This segment of the Western Front line remained in place for four years, except for the blowing to pieces of the narrow no man's land in between by underground mines. Hence, the hill was literally hollowed out by explosives and honeycombed with tunnels. Occasionally, the soldiers fought it out underground. Occasionally, they swapped tobacco and chocolate instead. The American First Army moved into the French positions in September 1918, and "took" the German Vauquois position by incinerating it with thermite shells and then simply going around Vauquois.16

But what had happened to the close-knit French villagers? They were evacuated and relocated many miles behind the lines, where they languished during the war. Once the war was over, the military bureaucracy of French reconstruction—famously haughty and inept—continued to restrict the area so that official reclamation workers could "reclaim" the village, in spite of the pleas of the villagers to let them return to reclaim their own property. Since there was, in fact, no village left beyond huge craters and some bits of masonry, the French government finally—years after the evacuation and even the war itself—decided to declare the area a "red zone." That is to say, no one was allowed to move back in. The plight of the Vauquois villagers finally became privatized, and several charity collections enabled the villagers to return, buy some land a few hundred yards down the hill, and establish new Vauquois.17

Hence, the state had brought on the war that engulfed the private lives of those in Vauquois. The state had removed them for their own safety, and the state prevented them from coming back to salvage what could be salvaged. This is a pattern so engrained ninety years later that it might take some effort to imagine it otherwise: the sooner those individuals could return after the war moved beyond the region in September 1918, the more chance there was for reclaiming something, for recycling the remains, for salvaging what could be salvaged. The sooner they were released from nationalization and returned to private existence rather than living as a part of the war system in another city, the more the natural order of individual, family, and village might reassert itself, even if hard work was necessary. Instead, they faced bureaucratic delays while their government collected millions of francs' worth of reparations from Germany and built new government buildings and various other "infrastructural" additions to France (highways, etc.) far from Vauquois.

With disasters like that of Vauquois and a hundred other French towns and villages, we gain insight into the genesis of the state management of disasters in the 21st century. Individuals who try to protect their own property during a storm are regarded as opponents of the state—problems for the police to deal with. The recent FEMA debacles are only the latest and most extreme version.

Inquiry into many other case studies would fill out the outlines of this story: conscientious objection to the war, the enlistment of women into ultratoxic munitions factories, the propaganda of state obligation that led young women to give out white feathers to able-bodied men who had not enlisted in the army, the program of forced labor in Germany, the internment of ethnic Germans in Australia, the policy of opening the US mail in the search for saboteurs and traitors, and many, many more. But to cut a long story short, as with Rathenau's "sequestration" of private property, and with the "systematization" of state-managed disasters, the upshot of the Great War crisis, as Robert Higgs might point out, was a sea change in all relations of the individual to the state, and therefore a sea change in all relations between and among individuals, families, churches, and nonstate groups.

As I suggested in my opening line, we shall never be able to count the costs of the Great War. We can, however, come to appreciate the world that was lost when the lights went out all over Europe in 1914 and elsewhere thereafter. One of the most important costs was the beginning of the nationalization of private life that continues its course to the present day.

Let me add that this accounting of costs and the whole view of the war in its negative aspects are hardly conceivable in modern democratic and statist modes of thinking. After all is said and done, perhaps the war did make the world safe for democracy. Indeed, Randolph Bourne, famous for observing that war is the health of the state, might have gone further: war is not only the health of the state, but the health of democracy too. There is hardly any aspect of war that is unwelcome to the modern collectivist-democratic state. War justifies every desired measure for the expansion of state power; it necessitates the removal of all intermediaries among or between the state and individuals, families, or other natural human units. War exalts the collective and tends to kill, maim, humiliate, or corrupt the individual. War lends an air of sacralization to the modern positivist, humanist civic religion. Our war-related national holidays represent high holy days, except that the sacrifice extolled is the sacrifice of individuals in the service of the state (or of "freedom" or whatever buzzword the state happens to be using as a synonym for its powers). Hence, from this perspective, the costs of war to individuals are transformed into clear profits for the state.

  • 1Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), ch. 2, "The Troglodyte World."
  • 2Leonard P. Ayers, The War With Germany: A Statistical Summary (Washington, D. C., 1919).
  • 3In addition, the Influenza Epidemic of 1918–19 carried off many more civilians (and more people worldwide than the entire death toll of the Great War). This epidemic was in some sense a natural occurrence, but completely owing to the war: it apparently started with a virus that was able to adapt because of the large numbers of men in American training camps in the Midwest, where it seems to have found the medium in which to adapt and break out of its original population and form. In fact, though the United States was hit hard (with some 675,000 deaths, including 43,000 soldiers and sailors), the virus seems to have made another adaptation in August 1918 that allowed it to move around the globe. Europeans died in like numbers, but the enormous total of deaths in India put the worldwide total as high as forty million, about two or 2.5 times the number of dead from all other causes in the First World War. For a short summary, see Pope and Wheal, Dictionary of the First World War, 104; see also Fred R. Van Hartesveldt, The 1918–1919 Pandemic of Influenza: The Urban Impact in the Western World (New York, 1992); and for a recent scientific assessment, Jeffrey K. Taubenberger, "Seeking the 1918 Spanish Influenza Virus," American Society for Microbiology News, 65, no. 7 (1999).
  • 4See Hunt Tooley, The Western Front: Battleground and Home Front in the First World War (Houdmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003), esp. Chapter VIII.
  • 5Stephen Castle, "Great War explosives dump is unearthed by Belgian farmer,"The Independent, March 20, 2001.
  • 6See Peter Gattrell, A Whole Empire Walking: Refugees in Russia During World War I (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1999); and Mark Levene, "Frontiers of Genocide: Jews in the Eastern War Zones, 1914–1920 and 1941," in Minorities in Wartime, 83–117.
  • 7The Prince, chapter XVII.
  • 8Murray N. Rothbard, "World War I as Fulfillment: Power and the Intellectuals," Journal of Libertarian Studies 9 (Winter 1984): 81–125; and reprinted in John V. Denson (ed.), The Costs of War: America's Pyrrhic Victories/em>
  • 9Randall Gray with Christopher Argyle, Chronicle of the First World War, 2 vols. (Oxford, New York: Facts on File, 1991), 2: 293.
  • 10Frederick the Great, for all his own statist economic enterprises, did in fact try to blend the old Prussian respect for law with the Enlightenment respect for the individual. The circulation of the story of 'the Miller of Sans Souci'—a story in which the Miller stands up to the young king by pointing to the power of law—demonstrates something of this devotion, whether the story is apocryphal or not. Rathenau's reference to Frederick the Great here is quite specific.
  • 11See "Address of Walther Rathenau on Germany's Provision for Raw Materials," 20 December 1915, printed in Ralph H. Lutz (ed.), The Fall of the German Empire, 1914–1918 (Stanford, 1932), 2: 77–90 (Hoover War Library Publications, No. 2).
  • 12Gerald Feldman, The Great Disorder, 864.
  • 13On the European side, see especially Constantino Bresciani-Turroni, The Economics of Inflation: A Study of Currency Depreciation in Postwar Germany (Northampton, UK: John Dickens & Co. Ltd., 1968 [1937]): 405–57; and Hans F. Sennholz, The Age of Inflation (Boston: Western Islands, 1979). On the American side, see Murray N. Rothbard, The Case Against the Fed (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1994): 118–30; and Rothbard, American's Great Depression, 5th ed. (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2000): 86–179.
  • 14John Dewey, The School and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1907), 19–44.
  • 15This discussion is based on the excellent analysis by John Taylor Gatto, The Underground History of American Education (New York: The Oxford Village Press, 2001), 232–36. The quotations are from Frances Kellor, Straight America (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 19. See also Murray N. Rothbard, "Origin of the Welfare State in America," Journal of Libertarian Studies 12 (no. 2, 1996): 221–23.
  • 16Elspeth Johnstone, "Vauquois—The Lost Village", a page of the "France at War" site of worldwar1.com.
  • 17See Hugh D. Clout, "The Revival of Rural Lorraine After the Great War," Geografiska Annaler, Series B, Human Geography 75 (1993): 73–91.
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