World War I was a mess

The centennial of Armistice Day is coming up this autumn.


For eleven thousand years, as soon as any peasant could put his name to a few bags of coins he would grab his spade, run outside, and dig a hole in the ground. His talents were going directly into that hole, so that when the government came around to announce the latest round of taxes, he could shrug his shoulders and tell them there was nothing left to take.

Gradually the regular system of tithes and dues helped inject some predictability into the fiscal system, but farmers were still burying their valuables in the ground for centuries. You never really know when someone’s going to need to commandeer your cash and leave you with an IOU.

The shocking thing about the Great War wasn’t the death toll or the carnage of modern weaponry or even the ruinous trench-warfare strategies. The most shocking thing was simply how much the citizenry paid their rulers so they could fight one another. They paid taxes, of course. But stranger still, they voluntarily lent their states money on top of what they legally owed.

I’d be curious to know why, exactly. One possibility is that all the major European states had had stable finances for roughly a century. The bankruptcies of the Bourbons were a distant memory. Another possibility is that all of the citizens had soberly considered the costs of defeat (look at Weimar Germany; look at Russia) and made the civic-minded decision to cooperate for the common good.

A third possibility is that 1914-1918 unleashed modern propaganda on a naive and undefended continent for the first time. Propaganda has surely become more devious in the last century, but I suspect it has never truly regained its original potency.

The disaster of WWI wasn’t just that the European populations cheerfully lent their states whatever they needed to intensify the war, but that they truly expected to be paid back. There the propaganda succeeded too well.

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