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Bad Conrad, Bad Bad Conrad

August 5, 2014

badconrad

Not me.  Not today.  This guy.  Conrad von Hotzendorf, Austrian Chief of Staff in 1914.

This Conrad is one of those people who can be blamed for the outbreak of World War One – if you’re in the business of blaming individuals.  This Conrad actually wanted a war in 1914, although not the war he actually got.  Military historian John Keegan takes the view that Conrad functioned at a level of very precise and specifically disastrous bellicosity.  Conrad could either have been less bellicose and backed a less extreme Serbian ultimatum, or he could have immediately launched a punitive war against Serbia within a week or two of Arch Duke Ferdinand’s assassination, a war which the other powers might have deplored but might have ignored.  Instead, he was determined to fight Serbia, but not until the gruesome machinery of the European alliance system had kicked in.

Of course, there were larger forces at work.  Militarism, Imperialism and Racism created an ideological sense of inevitability which in turn allowed politicians to feel prisoners of their own railway timetables.  Conrad was himself a militarist imperialist racist who believed that Germanic peoples were demonstrably superior to Slavs and that Serbia needed to be punished for encouraging Slav nationalism generally.  Of course, Conrad had his racist imperialist militarist counterparts in Russia, Germany, France and Britain.  But sometimes it’s good to put a face to an “ism”.  Or is it?

“Singling people out” feels entirely wrong in term of political and historical logic, but entirely right in terms of narrative connection.  The problem with the tone of too many classical Marxist treatments of World War One is that people like Conrad seem to be so much the prisoners of massive historical forces that getting mad at them seems otiose.  Where is agency?  Where is culpability?  And therefore – where does the anger go?

If Conrad had not been Austrian Chief of Staff, probably another Slavophobic militarist imperialist would have been.  The forces that made Conrad would have made someone else in a similar mould?  To focus too much on the mistakes of individuals makes the event seem too contingent – a sequence of casting errors, and therefore harder to interpret.  If an under-personalised sense of anti-war rage makes us feel like prisoners of history, so an over-personalised “war from the top” discussion makes us feel like prisoners of sheer randomness.

But there’s room for the head and the heart, for the rage and for the analysis, if the grand trajectories of political ideology that produce the Conrads of this world in no way exculpate the Conrads in detailed terms.  History made Conrads rather than Conrad making history, but Conrad as a construct spoken by a historical dialectic is no more appealing than a Shavian hero.

Bad Conrad.  Bad bad Conrad.

 

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