MAY 20th, 1910 – The royal and political heads of Europe are (still peacefully) gathered for the funeral of Edward VII, king of Great Britain and Ireland, of the British Dominions beyond the Seas, and Emperor of India. Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany, is also present at the funeral of his uncle. Once again, Wilhelm is confronted with the grandeur of his British relatives.
It is no secret that Wilhelm II was extremely jealous of his British uncle first and then of his cousin, king George V, because of the many colonies they owned (picture on the left, king George and members of the WAFF). This kind of envy can only exist towards people one feels closely related to. It’s easier to keep on admiring those who do not belong to our own social environment than those who are close to us. The great William Shakespeare constantly shows the paradoxical nature of human relationships, where contagious conflicts precisely arise between people who often admire each other first. Already in the prologue of Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare sets the stage for an escalation of a conflict between families “both alike in dignity” – a conflict that only comes to an end when Romeo and Juliet sacrifice themselves:
“Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.”
So it’s not the difference or inequality as such that potentially creates enmity but our tendency to imitate those we somehow identify with. It’s – as René Girard would have it – a mimetic (i.e. imitative) law of human conflict, which Plato already refers to in his dialogue Lysis (215d) when Socrates says:
“By a universal and infallible law the nearer any two things resemble each other, the fuller do they become of envy, strife and hatred…”
These universal truths are repeated throughout history, time and again, as in a never ending circle. If we would ever experience a global war because of a lack of natural resources, then the origins of such a war would lie in the mimetic nature of human desire. We are not simply happy with the things we physically need. We want what others have, we imitate the desires of our fellow men, even if we don’t necessarily need what they have. That’s why our ecological footprint is too big. And that’s why we could create scarcities of natural resources. We’re not just happy with the satisfaction of our hunger. We want the grape instead of the cucumber if our neighbor is eating grapes, and this tendency is already present in our ape cousins (for more on this click here to see one of Frans de Waal’s experiments).
Both the origins of World War I and World War II have to do with people wanting grapes although they already had cucumber. The death of millions of Europe’s children eventually ended the first orgy of violence, but – to quote Shakespeare on this – “the parents’ strife” only momentarily came to a halt. World War II indeed meant that “from ancient grudge came new mutiny”, violence spreading itself like a contagious disease…
SPRING 1914 – Germany is one of the wealthiest and most dynamic countries in the world, having the highest material prosperity in the world. In 40 years time the population has increased by 65 % to 68 million inhabitants. Germany is also an industrial giant. Essen has the biggest steel and weapon factory in the world with 81,000 people working there. Daimler-Benz, Siemens, AEG, BASF and Bayer are leading companies.
During that time Kaiser Wilhelm II had the biggest land army in the world and he invested some of his private money to buy and develop cannons. Growing up he had seen the richness of the British Empire and he tried to emulate this for his own country. Therefore he supported Germany’s naval expansion and eventually did obtain an empire in Africa and the western Pacific, although not as large as he wanted (on the right, Wilhelm II visiting the African Colonies). The so-called Great Naval Race of the early 1900’s was an extension of his need to do better than his relatives by trying to build more battleships than the British Royal Navy had.
JUNE 28th, 1914 – Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated by nationalists in Sarajevo. Kaiser Wilhelm II encourages the Austrians to adopt an uncompromising line against Serbia, effectively promising them German support in the event of war.
This move of Wilhelm II caused a chain reaction he did not foresee. Russia and her allies France and Britain entered the war against Germany and Austria. At first, Wilhelm did try to scale back the mobilization of Germany’s armed forces, but he was overruled by the grandiose war aims of certain generals and politicians. Germany went into war, not because of a lack of resources or poverty, but because of an excess of (mimetically enhanced) pride. The rest of Europe and the world would follow. The war and its aftermath would mean the end of German royalty.
NOVEMBER 11th, 1918 – Armistice is signed between an exhausted Germany and the Allies in the French Forêt de Compiègne. The event takes place in the railway car of French commander-in-chief Marshal Foch. The Germans feel humiliated.
JUNE 22nd, 1940 – Adolf Hitler meticulously imitates what Marshal Ferdinand Foch had done 22 years earlier. Hitler orders to get Foch’s railway car out of Compiègne’s museum and forces the French to surrender in the same way and on the same spot as the Germans in 1918. This vengeance – a mimetic mechanism – announces a second wave of global war, terror and horrific sacrifice, ending in 1945.
Commemorating the wars and its victims, we can only hope for a European Union that deserves its Nobel Peace Prize.