In 1909, a best-selling book predicted WWI would never happen. Then it did.

Published: 18 September 2023

By Tim Brinkhof
via the Big Think web site

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Still, the author’s main argument wasn’t totally discredited.

Key Takeaways
  • Norman Angell’s book The Great Illusion argues war was becoming unprofitable, not impossible.
  • In retrospect, World War I and II proved his point rather than discredited it.
  • Even today, superpowers like China are trying to isolate themselves from the global economy. But should they?

In the spring of 1949, foreign ministers from Canada, the United States, and Western Europe met in Washington D.C. to sign the North Atlantic Treaty. Many thought the treaty, which effectively created the military alliance known as NATO, would not last, with The Washington Post writing that the signing ceremony was “more spectacular than the act itself.”

Norman Angell

Norman Angell

One person who did not share this sentiment was Norman Angell, a British journalist and politician who believed it was only a matter of time before humanity would say goodbye to war forever. In his 1909 book The Great Illusion, Angell argued that developed countries were becoming so economically dependent on each other that the costs of international conflict far outweighed its gains.

Sadly, his prediction was proven wrong by the outbreak of World War I five years later, and again by that of World War II in 1939. Angell hoped the North Atlantic Treaty, replacing previous attempts at unification like Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, would finally create the stabilized world order he had spent the better part of his career writing about. But did it?

War, what is it good for?

It is hard to overstate just how popular and influential The Great Illusion was back in its day. Originally published under the title Europe’s Optical Illusion, it sold over a million copies and was translated into 25 languages. Embodying fin de siècle positivism and progressivism, Angell’s infectious faith in a peaceful future earned him a Nobel Peace Prize; in academic circles, scholars spoke of “Norman Angellism.”

“War,” he wrote, “has no longer the justification that it makes for the survival of the fittest; it involves the survival of the less fit. The idea that the struggle between nations is a part of the evolutionary law of man’s advance involves a profound misreading of the biological analogy. The warlike nations do not inherit the earth; they represent the decaying human element.”

And yet, in the early 20th century, the conviction that war was unjustified coexisted with another, contradictory emotion: the fear of conflict with Germany. There, centuries of romantic literature and provocative military theory had taught people the exact opposite of everything Angell stood for: war wasn’t avoidable; it was inevitable. It wasn’t unnecessary or misguided, but a key aspect of the human experience.

Underpinning the tactics of generals Alfred von Schlieffen and Carl von Clausewitz, the historian Barbara Tuchman states in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Guns of August, were philosophers like Fichte, Hegel, and Nietzsche, “who saw the German people chosen by Providence to occupy the supreme place in the history of the universe” and “leading the world to a glorious destiny.”

The Great Illusion misunderstood

The unprecedented carnage of the two world wars severely damaged Angell’s credibility. If anything, these events indicated that the globe was becoming more warlike, not less. Still, several scholars insist The Great Illusion has been wrongfully cast aside by readers, and that its core tenets are as valuable today as they appeared when the book first appeared in stores.

One of these scholars was the labor historian Howard S. Weinroth, who argued Angell’s “thesis that modern wars are economically irrational has been misrepresented to read that they are utterly impossible.” In this Angell was undoubtedly correct; World War I, costing $208 billion, set the stage for the Great Depression, while World War II turned Western Europe from a global superpower into a pawn of the US.

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