Everything Is Fine, Until It Is Not

In 1917 there was published in Germany a book entitled Deductions from the World War (Folgerungen aus dem Weltkriege).  It was an analysis of lessons learned from the previous four years of intense fighting, and its author was a man named Baron Hugo Von Freytag-Loringhoven.  At the time he was a lieutenant-general, and he was working as the deputy chief of the German Imperial Staff.  An English translation of his book appeared in 1918.      

No one remembers his name now, but Freytag-Loringhoven was a highly competent and respected military professional.  Born in Copenhagen in 1855, he entered the German Imperial Army in 1877 as a junior officer, and served in various field commands and staff positions.  He possessed formidable analytic and organizational abilities; his English translator describes him as “the most distinguished living writer on militarism in theory and practice.”  In 1916 he was awarded Germany’s highest military decoration—the Pour le Mérite, the coveted “Blue Max”—for his work as a historian and an administrator, which was an extremely rare honor for a staff officer.  Clearly, Freytag-Loringhoven possessed a formidable intellect, and was no idle dreamer; yet he seems to have had little influence on the decision-making of his superiors.  After the war, he faded into obscurity, and died in Weimar in 1924. 

Reading his book is a strange experience, for it is a window into a specific moment at a turning-point in world history.  It is a document composed by a losing belligerent power in what was the world’s most destructive war.  Yet the book’s tone is confident and self-assured.  For it was written at a time when it still appeared—to the author at least—that Germany would be able to achieve a favorable settlement.  The reader will recall that in the First World War, defeat came with relative suddenness to the Central Powers.  Russia had been defeated in the East in 1917, and massive offensives were planned on the Western Front using new “storm” tactics that held great promise of achieving a breakthrough.  The Allied forces seemed on the verge of mutiny and collapse.  Events seemed to be moving in the right direction for Germany—until they were not. 

Baron Hugo Von Freytag-Loringhoven

Freytag-Loringhoven divides his book into six chapters:  the political and economic situation of the Central Powers, the psychology of national and massed warfare, the influence of technical science, leadership, predictions for the armies of the future, and the need for readiness.  He grasped, as few other military men in Germany did at the time, the importance of economic considerations in the present war, and that they would prove decisive in future wars.  In a veiled criticism of his narrow-minded superiors, he says: 

Things never quite repeat themselves in history.  But we may learn from history.  Not in order to be more prudent another time, but in order to be wise for all time, as Jacob Burckhardt says.  In this sense, the American Civil War might have furnished us many a hint which was left disregarded.  But we must confess…we found ourselves confronted with the problem of conducting a war governed by world economic considerations without immediately comprehending it. 

In the quote above, he is referring to the fact that it was the North’s superior economic power that proved decisive in the American Civil War. He takes a dim and pessimistic view of the public in modern states, seeing them as susceptible to suggestion and lies by unscrupulous leaders.  His words in this regard have chillingly modern overtones:

Among the factors which have contributed in recent times to increase this susceptibility of the masses must be counted the political elections, which have everywhere stirred up passions and prejudiced sound judgment.  They alone explain the events which have taken place in America.  In the several states there are over twenty offices which have to be filled annually by means of public elections.  And in these it is not the personal opinion of the voter that counts, but the party politicians and their whips.  It is the ingenuity and unscrupulousness of the latter, as well as their expenditure of large sums of money, that decide the issue.  It is, in fact, in the great democratic republics that we find the worst form of moral servitude.  The widely-diffused but superficial education of the masses renders them particularly open to suggestion.

There may be some merit to this view, but in practice the masses in more structured, traditionalist regimes have been just as susceptible to suggestion, perhaps more so.  Freytag-Loringhoven strikes an even darker tone when he says, “Thus we had to wage war against enemies who were under the influence of a mass psychosis.  This has engendered phenomena such as Europe had not witnessed since the time of the wars of religion…The notion that humanity as a whole had advanced spiritually had proved to be an error.  The vast distance between civilization and Kultur was clearly revealed.”  Freytag-Loringhoven has a deep appreciation of the importance of moral factors in war.  His words below could apply to any modern crisis:

In spite of all the technical improvements of the present day, the moral element proved to be, now as ever, the decisive factor in war.  In the case of the Central Powers, that lofty moral strength…showed its superiority to the zeal which a commercial and predatory war could kindle in our enemies.  The following words of Droysen [Johann Gustav Droysen, a German historian] completely apply to the German nation:  “Certainly it is not the fortune of war which decides the question of right and wrong between States, but to succumb in the struggle for existence is evidence of disorders or weakness such as history does not forgive.  Wealth and size and abundance of material resources are not sufficient…”

The overall tone of the book is one of grim and guarded optimism.  It had been a very hard road for Germany and Austria-Hungary, the author realizes, but the light at the end of the tunnel was at hand.  All the sacrifices and the suffering would be rewarded.  Or so it seemed to General Freytag-Loringhoven.  Everything seemed to be moving towards a favorable conclusion in 1917—until defeat intervened.  And lest we feel tempted to take a tone of superiority over the author of Deductions from the World War, we should bear in mind that all nations have succumbed to such wishful thinking.  Not only nations, but individuals.  How often did the American military and political leadership, before 1968, tell its people that the war in Vietnam was going well, and that there was a “light at the end of the tunnel”?  Of course, everything was going well, until it was not:  until the Tet Offensive in 1968 brought the curtain down on that theater of delusion. 

Freytag-Loringhoven was right about so many things, and yet good fortune still eluded him.  He was intelligent, prepared, analytical, and rational; he had done his homework, and one expects that fortune should have rewarded him for his efforts.  Yet it was not to be.  No matter how gifted a man may be—no matter how righteous a cause may be—good fortune may still fail to materialize.  All of this reminds me of one of the doctrines of the ancient Pythagoreans.  Pythagoras as a philosopher remains cloaked in a certain amount of mystery.  We know of his ideas only through the writings of others; he left nothing behind that he composed himself.  But he exerted an enormous influence on the intellectual, theological, and even political institutions that followed him, in both Italy and Greece.  His school in Magna Graecia was more than just a belief system; it had the attributes of a religion, replete with its own dietary laws, codes of conduct, habits and manners of dress, and rich cosmology gained from exposure to the intellectual currents of Egypt and the Near East.  It is not necessary for me to discuss Pythagoreanism in detail here, but I will mention one of its alleged precepts, as related by the Greek writer Aristoxenus.

Apparently, according to Aristoxenus, the Pythagoreans believed that fortune was not composed of one single, uniform thing.  One part of fortune was, in truth, divine (daimonios).  Some people receive a kind of divine inspiration that points them to what is right, and what is not right; and this is why some people are said to be “fortunate,” while others are “unfortunate.”  It is shocking, but nevertheless true, that some people become successful without doing any preparation or analysis beforehand, while others, who diligently conduct their preparations, do not find success.  Some people enjoy a kind of innate good fortune, or innate luck; their efforts often meet with a successful resolution due to their innate nature.  Others have a bad nature or disposition, and find that their efforts often come up short.  If the Pythagoreans believed this, then it seems to follow that some are just naturally lucky, and fated to enjoy success more often than failure, while others are naturally unlucky. 

Whether this is true, or even useful to consider, I do not know.  But we do know that fortune can produce reversals at any time, even when things seem to be moving in the right direction.  This is something I have observed many times in my own life.  One can be like our Freytag-Loringhoven, and do all the preparatory work, and get all of the analysis correct, and still be denied, with brutal suddenness, a favorable outcome for our efforts.  And then there are those who may seem to live charmed lives, constantly walking through the raindrops, never experiencing so much as a scratch from fortune’s claws. 

Yet this preceding sentence is something I personally do not believe, for it is clear that every man suffers his own blows from fortune.  I think the Pythagoreans let their mysticism, metempsychosis, and oriental fatalism get the better of themselves here.  It goes too far to say that all is predetermined. Fortune exempts no one from hardship.  But it is clear that the reversals of fortune can come with crushing abruptness; and so the wise man must count nothing gained until it truly is in his hands.  We must be prepared for sudden and shocking reversals at any time. Everything is fine, until it is not.    

Read more on the influence of fate in On Moral Ends: