Both World Wars did not happen by chance, nor were they motivated solely by the zest of the politicians. Instead, they were able to draw support from broad masses of the population because the intellectual seeds had already been sown. The writers, artists, and other thinkers had already done their part, planting in the minds of the Europeans ideas that made them overlook the atrocities of the war and pay attention to its magnificent side.
In Europe of the early 20th century, the continent that de facto ruled the world, there appeared “a belief, again following on from the more basic belief in general European moral superiority, that war between European states would be ‘civilised’ and, less logically, short and sweet” (Reader 2003). This idea stemmed in part from the quick and relatively harmless character of the Franco-Prussian War as opposed to the long and wearisome Civil War in the US. The war was therefore regarded as a swift combat that will define the winner. The wealthy and aristocratic Europeans developed a reverence for death in battle and medieval chivalry, supported, for instance by the publications like Girded for Knighthood in Young England and novels of Robert Baden-Powell (Scouting for Boys among others) that glorified loyalty to the state and doing one’s duty (Reader 2003).
The Europeans in their respective nations were also brainwashed to fear each other. For instance, in Britain, Germany was depicted as a powerful new enemy, conspiring to ruin British dominance. The fear of foreign spies was instilled by scare novels like Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands “where the Germans plan to launch a surprise invasion from the Frisian islands using small, flat-bottomed boats hidden amongst the shoals and channels as troop-carriers” (Reader 2003). The nations in the Entente were instructed to fear those in the Triple Alliance, and the other way round.
Speaking of the Second War, it was precipitated by the rise of fascism, an ideology that regarded war as part of the ordinary course of events. To some extent, Hitler and other fascists drew their ideas from Darwin’s theory of the Origin of Species that preached “survival of the fittest.” Extrapolated onto the human society, this theory was used to explain the struggle between the nations for survival. Hitler’s theory of racial superiority in particular drew on the works of such Darwinist philosophers as Vogt, Haeckel, Treitschke, Langbehn, Lagarde, and Chamberlain that “glorified the survival of the fittest, scolded humanitarians for attempting to protect the racially unfit, and rejected the idea of social equality” (Encyclopedia Britannica). The philosophers that inspired fascism were for the most part conservatives that rejected the revolutionary tradition. For instance, De Maistre was opposed to the Enlightenment for overthrowing the power of the traditional institutions like the church, and Taine espoused the superiority of aristocrats over the ordinary people (Encyclopedia Britannica).
Naturally, after the two world wars shook Europe, racist ideas and glorification of the war became much less prevalent. The period after the Second World War saw the rise of pacifist movements. Ideas even vaguely resembling fascist ideology are viewed with suspicion, and Nazi ideology proper is so abhorred that even reproduction of the Nazi symbols is considered inappropriate. It would be too optimistic to say that such caution will prevent a new war, but so far it has helped to avert a global conflict.
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