The Journal of Contemporary Legal Issues


There has been a long-standing curiosity about why Europe destroyed itself in 1914 by starting the catastrophe known as World War I. In the past decade some of this interest was no doubt due to the coincidental fact that one hundred years had passed since the events in question took place. But the origins of the War hold a much deeper interest than that. Part of that deeper interest stems from the perceived impact that War had on the subsequent history not only in Europe, but in the rest of the world—the Russian Revolution, the end of colonial empires, World War II, the Cold War that followed, all being prominent examples of such impact. As many historians would concur, “World War I was, without question, the defining event of the twentieth century.” Even more of that deeper interest in the origins of World War I stems from the starkly negative nature of that impact: World War I was a catastrophe for Western civilization of a magnitude not seen since the fall of Rome. One aspect of that catastrophe has been psychological: never again were we to experience the kind of Enlightenment confidence in the goodness of our cause, the power of our reason, the inevitability of our progress as a society to a state of greater decency and prosperity, as was had by many of our pre-1914 European ancestors. We miss that confidence and understandably want to know how our predecessors allowed themselves to deprive us of it.

A third strand in the contemporary interest in the War stems from our perception of how much was lost with the War besides our self-confidence. Coupled with genuine puzzlement as to what there was to gain from fighting such an immensely costly war, this generates the view that the War—and the policies that lead up to it—was a colossal mistake on all sides. This creates the puzzle as to how the “best and the brightest” of their generation could have made such a mistake. World War I was not some accident nor was it some natural catastrophe like a pandemic or an asteroid strike. It was the product of a set of deliberate choices made by the leaders of the most advanced countries on earth. The puzzle is how they could have been so misguided as to destroy the system they all so admired and from which they derived such benefit.

Historians are fond of George Santayana’s familiar saying that those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it. That view of the utility of historical knowledge generates a fourth strand in the motivations of those who seek to understand why World War I happened. Mistakes can be repeated, and the avoidance of them is a good reason to understand how and why they were made in the past. One of the best-known books about how World War I came about was Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, first published in 1962 during the years of John F. Kennedy’s presidency and the West’s cold war with the Soviet Union. President Kennedy found Tuchman’s depiction (of how the bungling of Europe’s leaders produced a war that none of them wanted) so applicable to his own time and to the dangers of the international crises that he faced, that he distributed the book to his cabinet and to then British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, urging that “We are not going to bungle into war” as did the leaders of 1914.

A fifth interest—one that has its own history as it has waxed and waned amongst historians of the War—lies in the question of guilt and responsibility. If the War was the mistake that it was, who made it and with what culpability? Such an interest predominated in the decade or so after the War, scholars in the Allied countries typically explaining the War in terms of evil German war aims and in terms of the actions that executed those aims, and scholars in Germany pointing the finger elsewhere, typically at Russian actions and aims. At the present stage in this dialectic of responsibility, one can find reputable work blaming virtually any one of the major participants—France, Russia, England, or even the United States, as well as Austria and/‌or Germany.

An easily missed sixth interest in explaining World War I is different than the five interests mentioned above, although it is in some ways the most obvious interest. In the early 1920’s at the New York Explorer’s Club the ill-fated Everest mountaineer, George Mallory, was reportedly asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest. His famous answer, perhaps apocryphal, was: “Because it is there.” World War I happened, and, like any other event of human history, why and how it happened can be explained. Doing so will illustrate the features that mark an historical explanation as a good one, or, indeed, as an explanation at all. This sixth interest is thus one born of a curiosity about the nature of historical explanation. The explanation of the War offered up by historians provides a convenient example through which to examine this question in the philosophy of history. The example is more than convenient; because of the widespread interest in the origins of the War, explanations of it are so well developed that one has much material with which to work in extracting the nature of historical explanation in general. (Indeed, the material is so vast as to be daunting to digest and summarize.)

In what follows I have no ambition to advance some novel view explaining why the War occurred. The existing literature is rich enough in exploring all the explanatory possibilities that I suspect that no such radically new view in any event exists. Rather, I will pick and choose amongst existing historical views to develop the explanation of the War that I can then use to bring out the philosophical suppositions of this kind of historical explanation. In so constructing a view I thus claim no originality of historical insight—beyond whatever historiographical originality resides in: revealing the philosophical suppositions involved in giving this kind of historical explanation; classifying explanations into different types, choosing between genuinely incompatible and in that sense competing explanations, recognizing those that are not competing with one another, eliminating redundancies in explanations, assessing the relative strengths of non-redundant, complementary explanations, and constructing an intelligible narrative of the resulting structure of explanations.





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Larry Alexander & Steven D. Smith

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