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COMMENTARY: WAR

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Overreaction

In 1914, Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria-Hungary, overreacted to the assassination of his heir presumptive, the archduke Franz Ferdinand. He started a war with Serbia – which he wrongly accused of having been involved in the assassination. He wanted to prevent the breakup of his landed empire in Europe, but the war that followed put an end to that empire.

In 1914, Russia's tsar, Nicholas II, listened to his military advisors, all of them overreacting to Franz Joseph going to war against Serbia. Instead of saving Serbia – which did well militarily against Austria-Hungary at the beginning of the war – the war was a disaster. The Russians did not protect Serbia by going to war, and the war ended tsarist Russia and the tsar and his family.

The German king, Wilhelm II, overreacted to the assassination of his friend, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and promised Austria-Hungary his full support, in other words a blank check, in dealing with the Serbs responsible for the assassination. And Wilhelm, along with his military chiefs, overreacted to Russia mobilizing its armies: it declared war and went on the offensive against Russia and its ally France, who were on their way to making war on Germany. It would have been better for Germany had it merely defended its borders. Britain would not have entered the war. Germany would not have looked like an aggressor. The United States would not have entered the war. And Germany did succeed in driving the Russians and the French from German soil.

The United States overreacted to the naval blockade war between Germany and Britain by going to war against Germany and its allies, President Woodrow Wilson claiming that he was saving the world for democracy and fighting a war to end all wars – which was nonsense.

The victors of World War I overreacted by imposing conditions on Germany at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the British having demonized the Germans and France fearing a future German invasion. This created a burden for the new democratic government in Germany that had replaced rule by Germany's monarchy and conservatives, and it contributed to the rise of an anti-democratic German leader who would indeed invade France.

In the 1920s people in the United States overreacted to the unpleasant realities of the Great War and to the failures and deceits of that war by becoming  reluctant to contribute to a military alliance committed to defending against another military aggression in Europe. And in doing so they made another terrible war in Europe more likely. In Britain also was an overreaction to the sacrifices that had been made in the Great War. Britain also erred on the side of pacifism.

Many Germans, Hitler among them, overreacted to their nation's humiliation. Rather than patience and a gradual negotiating away of negative aspects of the Versailles Treaty, as pursued by the German chancellor Gustav Stresemann, Hitler and his supporters wanted to smash the treaty without delay. In doing so, Hitler started another war, which resulted in another disaster for Germany.

Humanity's capacity for overreaction continues. Finding the right balance between overreaction and under reaction is forever humanity's challenge.

Copyright © 2005-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.