Revenge for Humiliation as A Possible Cause of WWI


Revenge for Humiliation as A Possible Cause of WWI


Thomas Scheff*

Prof. Emeritus, UCSB


International Journal of social research

The causes of WWI: a problem that most historians have found difficult or even impossible to solve. My review of a book, The Sleepwalkers (2012), by the historian C. Clark, illustrates this problem (Scheff 2018). It is a best seller, and has been highly praised by reviewers. One example: “For a century the question of the origins of World War I has bedeviled historians. But no one who examines the question will be able to ignore “The Sleepwalkers’’. (David M. Shribman, March 23, 2013. Boston Globe.)
However, like most attempts, Clark’s book doesn’t solve the puzzle. His solution is not clear, but it seems to be that both Germany and France were more or less equally at fault. However, the majority of attempts by other investigators seem to place Germany at fault, but with little or no systematic evidence. In particular they do not propose a clear and obvious MOTIVE for starting the war. It seems to me, however, that it was France that had such a motive:
There is a hidden aspect of Clark’s book that neither the author nor any of the reviewers’ mention: humiliation as a possible cause of the war. When I searched Clark’s text, there were 18 mentions of humiliation, the first on page 51, the last on page 558. A large part of this usage occurs when the author quotes the major players in WWI: they use it to explain motives. For example, Edward Gray, Prime Minister in England during WWI is quoted as saying “If Britain were forced to choose between peace and the surrender of her international pre-eminence …peace at that price would be a humiliation intolerable …to endure.” (pp. 210). He seems to be saying that avoiding humiliation is a motive that would cause England to go to war.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell, as a young man in England during WWI, went to jail rather than fight, as he explained at the time: “Men…fear the sense of humiliation they would have in yielding to the demands of another nation. Rather…than endure the humiliation, they are willing to inflict upon the world all those disasters which it is now (in 1915) suffering and all that exhaustion and impoverishment which it must long continue to suffer.” (Russell 1917/2010, 88-99). After the war ended, Russell rejected his earlier statement.
Marx (1975, p. 200) was in his twenties when he wrote something similar in one of his letters to Ruge: “…if a whole nation were to feel ashamed it would be like a lion recoiling in order to spring.” Later he became a “historical materialist” and never again voiced his youthful idea: could a war be caused not only by material concerns like land and resources, but also by non-material ones, like a whole nation feeling ashamed, as Marx put it? Perhaps as he grew older, he joined the trend in modern societies toward ignoring emotions as not as real as material things, actions and thoughts.
There are by now many, many studies of war and violence. Some, however, do not propose a theory of causation, but merely record the facts. Those that do propose a cause usually offer a material one, even though most do not name Marx or historical materialism. For example, theft, as in colonialism, is an example of material things causing violence: one nation steals the land of another nation by brute force.
The spreading of a religion is a non-material cause that has also been proposed. The Crusades to conquer Palestine are one example. In addition to material causes and beliefs, there is also a miscellany of causes that have been suggested. Marx’s and Russell’s early idea of shame as a cause of war is one of that miscellany.


Keywords: Revenge for Humiliation,  Possible Cause of WWI

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How to cite this article:
Thomas Scheff. Revenge for Humiliation as A Possible Cause of WWI. International Journal of Social Research, 2020; 4:42. DOI: 10.28933/ijsr-2020-02-1005


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