War at the end of history

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Will Putin’s invasion of Ukraine lead to a new world order, or an era of grinding compromise?

It was the French Revolution that defined the stakes in modern war as an existential clash between nations in arms, in which fundamental principles of rule were in question. War was the world spirit on the march. That is what the German poet Goethe thought he witnessed at the Battle of Valmy in 1792, where a rag-tag revolutionary army unexpectedly turned back a much better-equipped counter-revolutionary invasion by royalist and Prussian forces. “From this day forth,” he wrote, “begins a new era in the history of the world.” Two days later, the French Republic was declared.

A “world-soul” on horseback is what Hegel thought he saw, as Napoleon cantered through the city of Jena in October 1806 on his way to the battle that would push the Prussian state to the brink of extinction. War was not simply a violent practice of princes, a duel writ large. War was History with a capital H – the “slaughter-bench”, Hegel would call it – “at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States, and the virtue of individuals have been victimised”. It was something both fascinating and horrifying. Transformative and yet also on the edge of tipping over into absolute violence, as in the horrors of guerrilla war in Spain, depicted by Goya. Two centuries later, in the commentary on the war in Ukraine, one can feel the same spirit stirring.

The spectacle of war has always evoked mixed emotions. On the one hand, enthusiasm and something akin to relief: here, finally, is real politics, real freedom. And, on the other hand, horror at the violence, suffering and destruction.

In the wake of Waterloo in 1815, both diplomacy and contemporary social science tried to put the genie back in the bottle. For all his grandeur, Napoleon had been defeated. Millions had died in the global wars sparked by the French Revolution, and his project of modernising empire had come to naught. The lesson, according to the followers of the sociologist Auguste Comte, was that the future belonged to industry, not to the soldiers.

War, however, refused to be tamed. Contrary to myth, the 19th century was not an era of peace. Colonial wars and massacres merged in the middle of the century with a surge of violence triggered by the formation of nation states: in Italy (1861), in the US (1865), in Japan (1868) and in Germany (1871). Massed armies, mobilised by railways and equipped with lethal modern weapons, wrought terrifying destruction. The violence escalated further in the 20th century, with the series of wars spanning Eurasia that began with the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 and ended in Korea in 1953.

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