Aug 26, 2007

Book Review: Nationality and the War

Toynbee, Arnold J.
London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1919 (1915)

Arnold J. Toynbee was a prolific historian and philosopher best known for his 12-volume opus A Study of History, released over the course of three decades. Nationality and the War was the second book Toynbee wrote, and the first edition was published just after the outbreak of the First World War. For Toynbee, nationalism was “the dominant political factor in Europe,” and he argued that the key to preventing future wars was to “purge” the concept of nationality of the “evil elements in nationalism under its many names, ‘Chauvinism,’ ‘Jingoism,’ [and] ‘Prussianism.’”

Toynbee followed a thematic approach in this text, examining nationalism within the context of individual European nations as they existed at the start of World War I. Footnotes are provided on the pages in which the reference occurs, and the author developed a useful cross-referenced index for the book. Also included in the 1919 edtion were a series of fold-out maps that offer readers greater understanding of the material discussed. Interestingly, Toynbee’s map of “The Nationalities of Europe” depicts a minute territory for Poles, roughly between the Oder and the Vistula Rivers (with no Baltic Sea access), while groups such as the Cossacks and Ukrainians are lumped together under the category of “Little Russians.” Toynbee also included a group he referred to as “Nestorians” near present-day Azerbaijan, while all Balkan groups carried the designation of “Southern Slavs.”

Toynbee’s writing exhibits some decided biases and prejudices on the part of the author of which twenty-first century readers should be aware. There is a strong streak of anti-Semitism in Nationality and the War that – while not uncommon for an early twentieth century European intellectual – still manages to shock this review. A Jew, he believed, was a person whose cultural and religious heritage meant that he “cannot be assimilated” into a European national group. Yet despite Toynbee’s acknowledgement of the existence of millions of Jews in Europe, the author did not include suggestions for how Jews should be incorporated into post-war Europe, nor did he reckon in this book with the growing Zionist movement in Palestine that would play a role in the eventual creation of the state of Israel.

1911 map of EuropeLeft: 1911 map of Europe; click to enlarge

Similarly, Toynbee expressed thinly-veiled disdain for a number of other ethnic groups in Europe. Poles, he argued, constituted a particularly inferior category of ethnicity that did not merit consideration as an independent nation. In the following passage, Toynbee speculated on the relative merits of placing minority populations under majority governments in places such as East Prussia:
We shall probably receive the impression that the German would suffer greater disadvantage by being annexed to a community of Poles, whose standards would be lower than his own, than the Pole would suffer by enrolment as a German citizen, which would be a kind of compulsory initiation into a superior civilization.
Yet Toynbee’s anti-Polish bias might be forgiven were he better versed in the history of East Central Europe. The author argued that the Napoleonic creation of the short-lived Grand Duchy of Warsaw resulted in the Polish population being “rescued from the foreign yoke” and that “for the first time it [Poland] experienced the benefits of self-government.” This statement seems to indicate that Toybee was unaware of the long history of Polish self-rule, that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was arguably the most powerful state in Europe in the sixteenth century, or that the parliamentary innovations of the Polish Sejm were on par with the constitutional monarchism that so enamored Toynbee in his native England.

The author also mocked the national ambitions of the Lithuanians, who he described as “the most backward race in Europe” and a group that “have drawn their civilisation at second hand, instead of creating a national tradition of their own.” As evidence for this claim, the author noted that the Lithuanians did not convert from their “primitive paganism till the fourteenth century;” this is clear evidence of Toynbee’s avowed attitude toward the supposed superiority of Christianity - especially Protestantism - as a civilizing and foundational force. Toynbee argued that the Lithuanians were incapanle of self-government, and in post-war Europe should only be granted a limited amount of autonomy while remaining firmly within the subjugation of the Russian Empire.

1856 map of Persia and AfghanistanLeft: 1856 map of Persia and Afghanistan; click to enlarge

Toynbee, throughout the text, struggled to restrain his contempt for Islamic peoples in Europe and the Near East, and the book is filled with passages brimming over with disdain for the Islamic world. Toynbee called for the complete dismantling of the former Ottoman Empire, and he argued that Islamic groups in the Balkans and elsewhere would welcome new Christian rules, as “the Turk has found by experience that good government by the foreigner and the infidel is a happier lot than the Dark Age of his native regime.” Persia, he argued, should be considered “outcast from the legitimate family of Islam,” and intervention by the Russians and the British in the late nineteenth century “have already done more for strong government in Persia… than the Persian nation has accomplished for itself.” In Toynbee’s eyes, Persia’s vast petroleum reserves justified British oversight, as the “backward” Persians were incapable of exploiting this increasingly important natural resource.

Beyond its prejudice and racism, it is with his poor understanding of Russia that Toynbee’s work most suffers, as the author exhibited an almost shocking ignorance of basic Russian history. In Toynbee’s eyes, Russian history “began little more than two hundred years ago,” as if the thousand-year tradition of Muscovite monarchy were a mere myth. Seemingly unaware of the strong tradition of radical factions in Russian politics, the author wrote that Russian liberalism “is in the ascendant, and will prevail.” This was written a mere two years before the Bolshevik Revolution, and while one can forgive Toynbee for a lack of clairvoyance, his unabashed trumpeting of the virtues of Western liberalism blinded the author from considering other post-war possibilities for Russia.

Left: British historian Arnold J. Toynbee

Yet despite the limitations of this text, Toynbee foresaw the dangers in a defeated Germany being forced to pay onerous reparations after the World War I, and the author argued that the best strategy for the Allies would be to “beat her [Germany] badly and then treat her well.” Toynbee believed that the dominance of the Prussian military would continue in post-war Germany if the Allies pursued a policy of retribution against the Germans in the peace settlements:
If we humiliate her [Germnay], we shall stengthen the obsolete ideas in her consciousness more than ever – perhaps no longer the idea of “Plunder,” but certainly that of “Revenge,” which is much worse… Germany was led to pursue the policy which has culminated in this war, by the oppressive sense that her development was being cramped by the actions of her neighbours… One thing is clear: whether Germany’s feeling of constriction has good grounds or not, we must avoid deliberately furnishing it with further justification than it has already.
Toynbee’s text, despite its aforementioned flaws, also provides modern historians with insight in a number of other areas. As a work with considerable Whiggishness, Nationality and the War is exemplary of the sort of imperial apologia produced by late nineteenth and early twentieth century British historians. Setting aside the author’s ethnic and racial biases, the book delves deep into a root cause of the First World War – nationalism – that gets less attention from modern historiography, which focuses more on economic, diplomatic, and militaristic explanations for the Great War. Finally, Toynbee’s forward-looking methodology offered some prescient glimpses into the future, as evidenced by his prediction that the “fundamental factor in world politics during the next century will be the competition between China and the new commonwealths” (the United States, Canada, and Australia). One might convincingly argue that modern historians could follow Toynbee’s example and better benefit society by spending some time pondering the paths upon which humanity currently wanders.


Man with the Muck-rake said...

Nationalism along with tribalism are perhaps two of the greatest contributors to human misery ever concocted by humans.

Although no doubt initially a survival technique in the dawn of civilization, neither has any credence in modern times.

Yet, time and again, specious leaders of tribes and nations call their people to some ugly deeds through this primitive appeal.

That lesson ought to be one of the examination questions for every graduating senior of an American high school.

Thanks for sharing this concept and book.

microdot said...

I agree, evolution has pretty much hard wired us to be unable to think more than one or two generations into the future. Worked great in the paleolithic era, this inbred shortsightedness will doom us if we don't realize that altruistic farsightedness is the new survival method for our specie.