Japan, WWI and Fascism
The elements in my heading above must seem a bit ill-assorted. They are not, however, as we shall see. Let us start with an excerpt from a book review of "Military Strategy and the Origins of the First World War" (Princeton University Press).
Most historians seem to agree that WWI was the key folly of the 20th century -- a folly that ultimately led to both the Hitler and Stalin disasters -- but how and why did it all happen? There are many answers to that but the review below by Richard Koenigsberg highlights a surprising but cogent explanation in terms of the war immediately preceding it: The Russo-Japanese war. That war -- resulting in the crushing and totally surprising defeat of a major European power by an Asian nation -- did make a huge impact at the time so it all fits that it should have been the key to WWI thinking.
Japan and Britain were allied at the time so there were considerable numbers of British observers embedded with the Japanese forces -- so what went on in the various battles was reported in detail in the British press and also therefore in the European press
Battles occurred when massive numbers of troops got out of their trench and attacked the opposing trench. Modris Eksteins describes the fundamental pattern:
"The victimized crowd of attackers in No Man’s Land has become one of the supreme images of this war. Attackers moved forward usually without seeking cover and were mowed down in rows, with the mechanical efficiency of a scythe, like so many blades of grass. “We were very surprised to see them walking,” wrote a German machine-gunner of his experience of a British attack at the Somme. “The officers went in front. I noticed one of them walking calmly, carrying a walking stick. When we started firing, we just had to load and reload. They went down in the hundreds. You didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them.”
By the time the war ended in November 1918, casualties had been staggering. Matthew White’s table summarizes the results: 65 million soldiers were mobilized to fight of which 9.5 million were dead, over 21 million wounded, and nearly 8 million taken prisoner or missing. Total casualties were over 37 million: 57.7% of all forces mobilized.
The mind boggles at these statistics. What could have been at stake to justify this massive episode of slaughter?
Howard suggests that it was neither the Boer War nor the American Civil War nor even the Franco-Prussian War that established the template for the First World War. Surprisingly, the 1905 Russo-Japanese war provided the model that France, Great Britain and other nations sought to emulate.
In February 1904, the Japanese navy launched a surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur. It took the Japanese army a year to establish themselves in the disputed province of Manchuria, capturing Port Arthur by land assault in a two-week battle involving over half a million men.
The general consensus of European observers-who followed this war closely-was that infantry assaults with bayonets were still not only possible but necessary. The Japanese had carried them out time and again, and were ultimately successful. In spite of enormous losses in these assaults (Japan suffered an estimated 85,000 casualties during the war); soldiers had broken through the enemy line against machine gun fire and other obstacles. Bodies were heaped on the ground as one wave of troops followed the next, but the attacks eventually resulted in victory.
Japanese bayonet assaults came, it was true, only at the end of a long and careful advance. A French observer described one Japanese attack:
"The whole Japanese line is now lit up with the glitter of steel flashing from the scabbard. Once again officers quit shelter with ringing shouts of "Banzai!" wildly echoed by all the rank and file. Slowly, but not to be denied, they make headway, in spite of the barbed wire, mines and pitfalls, and the merciless hail of bullets. Whole units are destroyed-others take their places; the advancing wave pauses for a moment, but sweeps ever onward. Already they are within a few yards of the trenches. Then, on the Russian side, the long grey line of Siberian Fusiliers forms up in turn, and delivers one last volley before scurrying down the far side of the hill."
Japanese losses in these assaults were heavy, but they succeeded; and so, European theorists argued, such tactics would succeed again. "The Manchurian experience," one British military theorist wrote, showed over and over again that the bayonet was "in no sense an obsolete weapon. The assault is the supreme moment of the fight. From these glorious examples it may be deduced that no duty, however difficult, should be regarded as impossible by well-trained infantry of good morale and discipline."
It was the "morale and discipline" of the Japanese armed forces, Howard tells us, that all observers stressed. They were equally unanimous in stressing that these qualities characterized not only the armed forces but the entire Japanese nation. General Alexei Kuropatkin, the commander of the Russian forces, noted in his memoirs that his nation's defeat was due not to mistakes in generalship, but Russia's inferiority in "moral strength." Lacking "moral exaltation" and the "heroic impulse," Russia did not have sufficient resolution to conquer the Japanese.
The issue of national morale and will was a central concern of European leaders who studied the War. British General Sir Ian Hamilton stated that the Russo-Japanese war should cause European statesman anxiety. People seemed to forget that millions "outside the charmed circle of Western Civilization are ready to pluck the scepter from nerveless hands as soon as the old spirit is allowed to degenerate." Much as some worry today that China might become the "greatest country in the world," supplanting the United States, so European leaders at the turn of the century worried that Japan might supplant Western nations as the greatest country.
The basis of national greatness was, essentially, the spirit of self-sacrifice. Hamilton said that England still had time to "put her military house in order;" to "implant and cherish the military in the hearts of children." It would be necessary to impress upon the minds of the next generation of British boys and girls a "feeling of reverence and admiration for the patriotic spirit of their ancestors." The cult of the offensive, it would appear, represented a desire to make manifest the national will-the capacity for self-sacrifice-and therefore to demonstrate the greatness of one's nation.
In the following report, British Brigadier-General Hubert Rees describes a battle in which his own brigade was massacred as they advanced on German lines:
They advanced in line after line, dressed as if on parade and not a man shirked going through the extremely heavy barrage, or facing the machine-gun and rifle fire that finally wiped them out. I saw the lines, which advanced in such admirable order melting away under fire.
Yet not a man wavered, broke the ranks, or attempted to come back. I have never seen, indeed could never have imagined such a magnificent display of gallantry, discipline and determination. The reports from the very few survivors of this marvelous advance bear out what I saw with my own eyes: that hardly a man of ours got to the German Front line.
In spite of the total failure of this attack, it is evident that General Rees regarded the destruction of his brigade in a positive light. He observed that not a man “shirked” in the face of the machine-gun and rifle fire. He was proud that even though his troops were “melting away under fire,” they continued to advance “in admirable order.” His men did not waver, break ranks, or attempt to retreat. The General gushed that he had never seen such a magnificent display of “gallantry, discipline and determination.”
His soldiers were slaughtered and “hardly a man got to the German Front line.” However, the General does not evaluate the battle in terms of success or failure. Rather, his reflections revolve around the morale and spirit demonstrated by his troops. The fact that his soldiers continued to advance despite being riddled with bullets leads General Rees to conclude that the attack had been “marvelous.”
(Excerpt from a review received by email from Library of Social Science. Full essay available here)
More on the surprising influence of Japan
As someone who drives a car made in Japan, and as one who occasionally dines at a Sushi train, I am one of the many who is aware of the large influence of Japan in the modern world. What seems to have slipped out of general awareness is how far back that influence goes. It has been influencing us for over 100 years.
Even when Commodore Perry anchored his black paddle-wheeler in Tokyo Bay in 1854 and signed a treaty opening Japan to the West, he was impressed by the rich Japanese culture -- and that impression has continued on from there. By the late 19th century there was quite a fad in Western Europe for all things Oriental, both Chinese and Japanese. This was very evident in Art Nouveau, the dominant art of the Belle Epoque. As one review says:
"Art Nouveau was not a style but a movement which was a reaction against the stuffy over-decoration of the nineteenth century. It took its early inspiration from the work of William Morris, Arthur Mackmurdo, and Walter Crane, and fused these with an enthusiam for Chinoiserie and Japonisme. And as a movement it errupted very suddenly in the 1890s, spread throughout Europe and even to the USA – and then ended just as abruptly in the first decade of the new century."
But while Westerners were enthusing (justifiably, in my view) about Japanese art, the Japanese were embarking on a uniquely determined attempt to catch up with the West technologically, something they had pretty much achieved as the dawn of the 20th century broke. Most Asian nations are still modernizing in the 21st century. Japan did it in the 19th. There is no doubt that they are a remarkable people.
And as I have previously pointed out, the culmination of that catch-up in the defeat of Russia in 1905 energized the West enormously. A civilization that was already esteemed became even more so -- to the extent of being taken as a model in many ways.
But Japanese culture, like Chinese culture, is a culture of honour/shame rather than a culture of moral absolutes so its influence was in some ways atrocious. Again as I have previously pointed out, its influence on military doctrine led to the mass slaughter of ONE'S OWN TROOPS being seen as a good thing!
And we see another awful instance of the power of honour/shame in the episode below:
I happened to be watching one of those TV progs about antiques the other day. This one was called "Flog It" and it encourages people to dig out old stuff they don't want, get it valued by experts and, if it is worth anything, either sell it to a dealer or put it into auction.
Apparently one of the things that can add extra value to an antique is its "provenance", i.e. its history, especially if it has some particular association with a person or event that makes the item "come alive" and become more interesting and collectible.
On this occasion an elderly woman was selling a set of medals. Alongside the medals she had an old, faded sepia photograph of two boys sitting either side of a young girl. She explained that the picture was taken just before World War I; the girl was her mother and the two boys her uncles - that she had never known. She went on to explain why she had never known them.
Just after the war broke out, one of her uncles was on a bus when a woman approached him and pinned a white feather on him. Readers will recognise this as a familiar insult used by women at the time to shame young men into joining the military and going out to fight in the war. The white feather did exactly what it was designed to do; the young man felt so humiliated by the woman's act that he promptly signed up. But he had to lie about his age in order to get in. Why? Because he was only fifteen years old. That's right: FIFTEEN. He looked older, but that was his precise age.
The medals on show on the programme were the ones he and his brother, who followed him into the army, won in their brief lives. Within a year of signing up, they were both dead on the killing fields.
Dead. Wasted. Before they could start their own families, before they even had a vote, before they had any chance of fulfilling their promise. Brave, honourable, but uselessly dead.
The presenter of the programme could not hide his shock at the story. It is good that people can still register such shock, because we should never forget the lessons. Did that woman who pinned the feather ever know what wickedness she had perpetrated? Did she ever care?
It occurs to me that in order to pin the feather on the young man, she must have deliberately taken it out with her that day. She must have had it in her bag or whatever, and was specifically looking for a young man to pin it on. It could not have been a spontaneous act: it was planned. She had a clear intent to inflict personal shame and misery, and ultimately complete destruction, on an innocent young man she didn't even know. She might as well have pulled out a gun and shot him. But she got clean away with it."
What kind of person is it that approaches a random stranger and calls him a coward knowing nothing about him, not his age, his occupation, his health and fitness, any of his history at all, the only type of person who does this is one who feels completely invulnerable, secure and confident in the knowledge that they would not be censored or criticized"
Fortunately, the follies of WWI were rapidly recognized as soon as the war was over and Western Christian values were more or less restored throughout Europe.
During WWI, Japan itself continued its alliance with Britain but mainly undertook naval operations (Would you believe Japanese navy warships assisting the British even in the Mediterranean?) -- so Japanese values continued on as before, leading them into the disaster of their conflict with the USA in WWII.
Japan, "Modernism" and the 19th century origins of Fascism
I would now like to say something about the deeper reasons behind the West's early fascination with Japan. I need to set out a lot of background to get to that point, however, and "Modernism" is a rather surprising key to that. It explains both the fascination with Japan before WWI and the emergence of Fascism after WWI.
"Modernism" is a much abused term that has had a number of meanings over the years but the version that I want to discuss here was a movement, mostly in art and literature, in the closing decades of the 19th century and continuing into the early 20th century. It took a hit from the shattering events of WWI but rather surprisingly survived. It was particularly prominent in France and Italy and in Italy eventually merged with Fascism.
It was a rather euphoric movement marked by a general rejection of previous traditions and a feeling that the modernists could create the world anew. It all sounds rather silly and egotistical nowadays but its relationship with Fascism gives it more than ordinary historical importance. Wikipedia has one summary of it here for those who want to read further.
There is a book (briefly summarized here) by a frequent writer on Fascism (Roger Griffin) which attempts the daunting task of defining modernism -- and the author's apologies for the boldness of that endeavour must be my apologies too.
I think his approach to Fascism via Modernism is fruitful but there is also something in the Marxist account of social changes having economic causes -- so I would extend the analysis to say that even modernism can be seen as an economic product. I think economic history explains just about all of modernism in fact. But economic phenomena do not exist in a vacuum either. Behind economic history is political history. So on to that:
After the defeat of the French by German forces in 1870, Bismarck rapidly accomplished his long-pursued task of unifying most of the German lands under the Prussian crown. Only Austria proved indigestible.
Bismarck saw the great danger of the unification, however. Unified Germany was such a formidible economic and military power that it had great potential to strike terror into the rest of Europe. And a logical response to that terror would be for the rest of Europe to "gang up" on Germany in what would have to be a brutal and destructive war, whatever the outcome.
Rather surprisingly to some, however, Bismarck was a man of peace, despite his earlier talk of "blood and iron". His only real devotion was to his Vaterland so, although he made skilled use of war to bring about the widely desired unification of Germany, he was just as ready to use peace on behalf of Germany once that was accomplished.
And Bismarck saw the fatal weakness in hostility to Germany: Great alliances would have to be formed if there was to be any hope of taking Germany on. So for the remainder of his term as Reichskanzler he used diplomatic means to frustrate that. His constantly changing foreign policy confused everyone and prevented any firm alliances from forming. So purely to protect Germany, Bismarck achieved something remarkable: Peace in Europe.
And that peace became rather permanent. People got used to not being at war. Proof that peace was possible made it the status quo which most people wanted to continue. So even after Bismarck left the scene in 1890 the peace continued for nearly a quarter of a century more -- until 1914.
And peace in Europe had a hugely energizing effect. Scientific, technical and economic innovations had already begun in various places but with European energies diverted to peaceful pursuits rather than war, those developments got a huge kick-along and great economic progress took place. Europe emerged from a peasant age into an industrial age. Even in Russia, heavy industries emerged and railways snaked out across the land.
But these vast economic changes had a psychologically disruptive effect. As the old order crumbled before the steam train its assumptions crumbled too. Aristocracy lost legitimacy and all values were questioned. Any thinking that had been widely accepted in the past became automatically suspect as belonging to the past only.
And that, basically, was modernism: A confidence that the old could be swept away and replaced by a new more exciting and more heroic vision of just about everything.
But again at risk of seeming Marxist, the new vision had its antithesis. Many people were suspicious of the new enthusiasms and were not at all ready to throw away the wisdom of the past. This "reaction" was brilliantly managed by Disraeli in Britain, not managed at all in France and rather hamfistedly managed by Bismarck in in Germany. Bismarck was not nearly as successful in domestic policy as he was in foreign policy, though again his policies kept his opposition off-balance as long as he was around.
So, of the major European powers, only Britain merged smoothly into the modern world -- with only a minimum of social disruption. The values of the past were largely preserved while considerable innovations to cope with changed economic circumstances were also made. Russia was of course at the other end of the scale, where adaptation to the new was disastrously managed.
Perhaps the most vivid evidence of the orderly British transition is the survival right into the present day of the House of Lords, still a highly esteemed body but quite unlike any other present-day upper house that I know of. So Britain had plenty of cultural modernism in its day but Fascism never made significant inroads into British political life, despite the efforts of Sir Oswald Mosley.
So now I come to where I disagree with the Marxists (with whom Griffin, mentioned above, seems to agree partly). I think the Marxists have got the wrong end of the stick altogether. Marxists see Fascism as a form of defence of the old order when it was clearly quite the opposite. They see it as a defence of traditional values when Fascists themselves saw themselves as the vanguard of the new. Particularly in Italy it is clear that Fascists were the modernists, not traditionalists. Extreme modernists such as D'Annunzio were simply co-opted into Fascism.
One can perhaps excuse the Marxist confusion a little in that both Mussolini and Hitler did make major allusions to the past -- Mussolini aiming to re-establish the Roman empire and Hitler glorifying Germany's imagined pre-Christian lifestyle. But it is starkly clear that these allusions are to an imagined and remote past rather than to the actual immediate past. Neither man was a traditionalist in any sense. Both had visions for their countries that were thoroughly modernist. The visions were rather vague and inchoate but that was part of modernism.
But the major point behind the Marxist critique is that the changes wrought by the Fascists were much less sweeping than those wrought by the Bolsheviks in Russia. The Fascists left most of the existing structure of society in place. Does that not make them defenders of the status quo?
But it must be remembered that the modernists were idealists rather than the hate-filled smash-everything monsters of Bolshevism. And the "hope and change" message offered by the modernists was every bit as vague as a similar message in the 21st century. Their ideals left very little guide for action. So their actions were rather limited when they came to power. They were clear that they needed to gain close control over society but they saw that this could be done by laws and regulation rather than by mass-murder -- so chose that more orderly path.
The one ideal that they aimed to implement was the thoroughly socialist ideal of a better deal for the workers -- and they in fact did that by much expanded social welfare legislation. And they intruded further into the lives of the workers than even social democratic parties had ever envisaged -- even providing cheap recreations for the workers (The "Dopolavoro" system in Italy and the "Kraft durch Freude" movement in Germany).
A KDF "Holiday ship"
The Fascist control of their society was extensive and intrusive but not obviously destructive. They were in that way closer to the social democrats than the Bolsheviks. So the transformation of society under the Fascists was more restrained than what happened in Russia but it was still obviously motivated by socialist ideals and was just as disastrous in the end.
But what about the nationalism of the Fascists? Where does that fit in? It was in fact one way in which the Fascists did NOT innovate or stand out. Nationalism was normal across the political spectrum in Europe at the time. There were few more ardent German nationalists than Friedrich Engels, for instance. Yes. THAT Engels: Karl Marx's co-author. And Mussolini saw that. He saw that the working classes of Europe had supported their respective nation-states in WWI and it was largely that realization which eventually caused him to give up Marxist class-war ideas and invent Fascism instead. Hitler too was repulsed by class-war ideas.
So one can conclude that the political manifestation of modernism in the form of Fascism was largely a poorly managed response to an economic transformation. A new world called for new ideas and Fascism purported to offer that.
I will close by pointing out very briefly the rather obvious tie-in to the fascination with Japan that prevailed for a while in Europe. Japan modernized at the most breakneck speed of all and yet still seemed to retain all its traditional values! No wonder the modernists were fascinated! In fact, Japan had something for everyone, which is why it had so much influence (now mostly forgotten) in the run-up to WWI.
Footnote: I am mildly pleased to see that the Wikipedia entry on Bismarck agrees fairly closely with what I have said about him. I don't always have orthodox history on my side!