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Thursday, April 6, 2017

Ludwig von Mises on World War I

"By pressing a button one can expose thousands to destruction."

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Ludwig von Mises’s second book, published at the end of World War I, Nation, State, and Economy. Here he explains why the “Great War” was such a watershed event in human history, and he warns that there must be a turn from the politics of revenge, else the world risks yet another conflict. 

With the World War mankind got into a crisis with which nothing that happened before in history can be compared. There were great wars before; flourishing states were annihilated, whole peoples exterminated. All that can in no way be compared with what is now occurring before our eyes. In the world crisis whose beginning we are experiencing, all peoples of the world are involved. None can stand aside; none can say that its cause too will not be decided along with the others.

If in ancient times the destructive will of the more powerful met its limits in the inadequacy of the means of destruction and in the possibility available to the conquered of escaping persecution by moving away, then progress in the techniques of war and transportation and communication makes it impossible today for the defeated to evade the execution of the victor’s sentence of annihilation.

War has become more fearful and destructive than ever before because it is now waged with all the means of the highly developed technique that the free economy has created. Bourgeois civilization has built railroads and electric power plants, has invented explosives and airplanes, in order to create wealth. Imperialism has placed the tools of peace in the service of destruction. With modern means it would be easy to wipe out humanity at one blow.

In horrible madness Caligula wished that the entire Roman people had one head so that he could strike it off. The civilization of the twentieth century has made it possible for the raving madness of the modern imperialists to realize similar bloody dreams. By pressing a button one can expose thousands to destruction. It was the fate of civilization that it was unable to keep the external means that it had created out of the hands of those who had remained estranged from its spirit. Modern tyrants have things much easier than their predecessors.

He who rules the means of exchange of ideas and of goods in the economy based on the division of labor has his rule more firmly grounded than ever an imperator before. The rotary press is easy to put into fetters, and whoever controls it need not fear the competition of the merely spoken or written word. Things were much more difficult for the Inquisition. No Phillip II could paralyze freedom of thought more severely than a modern censor. How much more efficient than the guillotine of Robespierre are the machine guns of Trotsky! Never was the individual more tyrannized, than since the outbreak of the World War and especially of the world revolution. One cannot escape the police and administrative technique of the present day.

Only one external limit is posed to this rage for destruction. In destroying the free cooperation of men, imperialism undercuts the material basis of its power. Economic civilization has forged the weapons for it. In using the weapons to blow up the forge and kill the smith, it makes itself defenseless in the future. The apparatus of the economy based on division of labor cannot be reproduced, let alone extended, if freedom and property have disappeared. It will die out, and the economy will sink back into primitive forms. Only then will mankind be able to breathe more freely. If the spirit of reflectiveness does not return sooner, imperialism and Bolshevism will be overcome at the latest when the means of power that they have wrested from liberalism will have been used up….

It would be the most terrible misfortune for Germany and for all humanity if the idea of revenge should dominate the German policy of the future. To become free of the fetters that have been forced upon German development by the peace of Versailles, to free our fellow nationals from servitude and need, that alone should be the goal of the new German policy. To retaliate for wrong suffered, to take revenge and to punish, does satisfy lower instincts, but in politics the avenger harms himself no less than the enemy. The world community of labor is based on the reciprocal advantage of all participants. Whoever wants to maintain and extend it must renounce all resentment in advance. What would he gain from quenching his thirst for revenge at the cost of his own welfare?…

It should not be the goal of our policy to drag our enemies into our destruction with us. We should try not to be destroyed ourselves and try to rise again out of servitude and misery. That, however, we can attain neither by warlike actions nor by revenge and the policy of despair. For us and for humanity there is only one salvation: return to the rationalistic liberalism of the ideas of 1789.

  • Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) taught in Vienna and New York and served as a close adviser to the Foundation for Economic Education. He is considered the leading theorist of the Austrian School of the 20th century.