Society Is Too Civilized to Collapse? A Lesson from WWI

Photo by: Artondra Hall

Preparing for a social collapse is silly. Society won’t collapse. People are too civilized and reasonable.”

This objection, or something like it, occasionally comes from friends or family who regard prepping as a fool’s errand. Some extra food or flashlight batteries might be grudgingly accepted as prudent, but security measures? Defense? That’s just crazy talk. We’re a modern, civilized nation, not savages, they say. We value the arts and sciences. Since childhood, we’ve been taught about tolerance, kindness and respect for each others civil rights, etc. If tough times come, they say, people will help each other out and respect each others’ rights. We’ll all band together and help each other get through. We won’t be at each others’ throats…they say.
These cultural optimists might concede that during in a disaster, like Katrina, some bad deeds might be done by a few bad people, but those apples were already bad. The vast majority of folks, they maintain, are civilized people, who value kindness and generosity. Civilized folks don’t suddenly become “bad” people.
Unfortunately, they can, and have. An example from history is the start of World War One. In just that one example, civilized men chose violence over civility.
In June of 1914, Europe was chock full of highly civilized people. The capitols were staffed by the upper crusts of their societies. Silk hats, gloves, suit coats with tails. Europe was the peaceful land of Bach, Beethoven, Dr. Livingston, fine wines, Louis Pasteur, Madam Curie. fairytale castles, Mozart and Strauss with his Blue Danube waltz — all very refined and civilized. The early 20th century was a time of amazing progress in science, technology and medicine. Every year seemed to bring some new marvel to benefit mankind — motor cars, aeroplanes, plastics, air conditioning and instant coffee (!). Meliorism (the notion that things just get better and better) was in vogue.
Yet, in just one month, none of that mattered. The first of 9 million began to die in Flanders’ fields. The traditional narrative (history written by victors) holds that the war was caused by bad apples. Those brutish, uncivilized Germans started the war. The truth is, it was all of them, not just the Germans. Despite the vast cultural refinements, leaders in Vienna, Moscow, Berlin, Paris and London too (all men who prided themselves as part of modernist enlightenment and progressiveness) threw all that civilization and refinement out the window in favor of what they knew would be a terrible and bloody war.
How could civilized men do such a thing? The short answer is: fear.
The spark, of course, was the assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife on June 28th by a ragtag band of Serbian-sponsored terrorists. But that killing did not start the war. It was merely the crisis that got played out of control.
The month-long run-up to war ran in two phases. The first phase involved each nation acting on fears of losing some “vital” national interest — prestige, influence, access to markets, etc. The second phase tapped into a deeper fear — the fear of doom. Like two gunfighters in an old western movie, the second man to draw was dead. In the summer of 1914, no one wanted to be second nation to “draw.”
The machinations of that first phase are a bit much for this blog post. Suffice it to say that all the nations played the game of brinksmanship over their various slices of pie.
The critical trigger to the more deadly second phase came on July 28th, when Russia tried to quietly mobilize their huge army against Austria. Perhaps their move was just ramped-up brinksmanship, but once the guns started coming out, no one could afford continue just talking. The stakes had changed. Progressive modernism and slices of influence pie did not matter anymore.
With Russia mobilizing, Germany was afraid of doom via attack on two fronts. (France and Russia were allies) In hopes of heading off a two-front fate, Germany demanded that France NOT mobilize as proof of their professed non-hostile intentions. The French refused to say. Germany was at a decision fork. If they mobilized immediately, they could be ready before the Russians (and French). If they waited — even a few days — they would let the Russians have the only gun out of its holster. Fear of that doom prompted Germany to opt for the violent course rather than the civilized course (keep negotiating). Once Germany began mobilizing, France was at the same sort of decision fork: keep talking or go for their guns. They opted for guns. The British, worried that Germany might defeat both the French and the Russians, thereby putting all of the channel coast under German control (which the British believed would somehow be doom for them), so the British promised to go to war with the French.
Come the first of August, the guns were loaded and troops on the move. Due to better planning, Germany was the first to get their gun out of the holster. She had only a few days head start, so opted to strike first and attempt to take out France before the Russians were fully ready (The Russians had a very slow holster). From there on out, it was war, and a war that quickly devolved into a bloody stalemate of trenches and mud.
Even after the shooting began, cooler heads might have prevailed. But the populace of the various nations also bought into the contemporary doom-anxiety thinking. They did not want THEIR nation to lose the war and be doomed, any more than their leaders did. WWI was the first major war in which propaganda was a significant tool of the various governments. The Allied nations spun the war as defending justice or stopping “evil” Germany from taking over the world (which the Germans didn’t want anyhow). The American propaganda machine one-upped the Allies to make the war the defense of “democracy” itself and ironically, “the war to end all war.” Civilized Americans joined the violence for fear that democracy and/or freedom would somehow be lost.
Millions of men became willing to kill as many total strangers as it took to stave off the specter of doom for THIER side. Even when the war stagnated, and hundreds of thousands died for no gain, no one was willing to stop fighting, lest their side lose — injustice prevail, democracy be ruined, whatever. So, the killing went on until exhaustion set in.
How do the origins of World War One fit a societal melt-down today?
Today, as back in 1914, most people find it easier to be civil when they’re comfortable. It is harder to be deferential and civil when cold, hungry or afraid. Troubles brew up occasionally, but as long as people feel there is hope of negotiating their way through it, civility often survives. It is when people feel threatened with a sudden loss of something vital (food, safety, etc.), that they are more prone to react with violence. It might be a desperation violence, rather than malice, but a bullet fired in fear hurts just as much as a bullet fired in anger.
The following scenario is a micro-analogy to the start of WWI in a more street-level setting. First there is jockeying for “interests”, which quickly escalates to fear and violence.
Imagine a group of civilized neighbors who, after a collapse scenario, were counting on the contents of a nearby food warehouse to get them through. They don’t own the food, but presume it would remain available for them since it was near them. Times would be tough, but they had a source of food. Civility prevails.
When the actual owner of the food orders it packed in trucks and shipped out to somewhere else, the neighborhood status quo is upset. As the trucks roll down the driveway, the civilized folk have to make a quick decision (rather like the statesmen of Europe did). If they believe their families will starve to death if they let the trucks depart, they might block the driveway to stop the trucks. If a truck driver makes threatening moves to get through the barricade, (he has his orders, after all) the potential threat of hunger is upgraded to an actual threat of personal harm.
Before the crisis, would these civilized neighbors, (lovers of poetry and fine cuisine) have dragged a trucker from his cab and beat him up? No. They would have been horrified at the thought. Yet, when forced into a snap decision, when the choice seems to be between violence or doom, many of them will opt for violence — just like the leaders of Europe did in July of 1914.
Back to my scenario; the angry and fearful mob drag the drivers out of the trucks and rush to open the backs to get “their” food. Who wants to show up late to a looting? No waiting in orderly lines, or asking “Have you any Grey Poupon?” The race is to the swift.
The warehouse manager might be a nice person, polite to his elders, kind to kittens, etc. He sees a mob of looters attacking his drivers. He does not have the luxury of time to wonder if they are vile criminals or just parents of hungry children. Each second of delay injures his men. The risk of inaction is too high. He shoots a warning shot over their heads.
The mob, realizing they are being fired upon from the warehouse, now have another enemy with “obvious” ill intent. The stakes have gone up. Some of the looters charge toward the office with sticks.
Should the manager let the mob into the office to discuss their grievances in a civilized manner? He has only a few seconds to decide. The apparent risk far outweighs the possible benefits. He shoots at the leaders. A few of the mob fall. The enraged looters regroup behind barricades. Some of the mob fetch guns. The manager and his armed staff are now in their office trench, afraid that the mob will kill them if they get in. The looters are in their barricade trench, afraid that their babies to starve if they don’t get in.
The warehouse becomes a model of World War One — two sides squared off, both assuming that the loser of the fight will be doomed. Fear put them there. Fear keeps them fighting. Kubayah finds no traction.  Civilization does not prevail.
Fear trumps civilization.

Mic Roland is a closet prepper in a semi-rural area of the “Free State,” with a soft spot for old movies.

This article first appeared on Ed That Matters.

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9 thoughts on “Society Is Too Civilized to Collapse? A Lesson from WWI

  1. kent

    Very well thought out & written analogy. This happened again just a few years later, starting WWII and a few times since and don’t forget it happen in the past also. The American, French, Russian Revolations…the American Civil War, The French & Indian War, The Crusaders, etc. and today with the Muslins& others fearing that someone is out to deny them of their of their beliefs.Self preservation & those we love & care for(friends & family)is a great motivation to action…Most everyone will act to save themselves. It is clear that Mr. Roland, as i am , is a student of history and should be heeded in his advise…Thanks to him for thoughts..

  2. DR

    War is a business. I believed the Allies’ accounts of the First and Second wars until I read the business strategy behind them. Here’s an outrage: The British nurse Edith Cavell, tending wounded soldiers in Brussels, complained that British supplies weren’t going to wounded men in Belgium but were being forwarded across the lines to the Germans.

    The War and Banking industries were alarmed. So they colluded with the Germans to accuse her of treason, and she was hung. Look it up: Edith Cavell.

    During the Second War Standard Oil tankers were refueling German U Boats in the Caribbean for gold payments.

    During the Second War, Allied bombers targeted working class areas in German cities but left wealthy areas alone.

    Same thing is going on now: the bank and war industries are pumping up the Chinese, leading to an incredible U.S.–Chinese war.

    These people must be purged.

  3. Mic Roland

    Actually Cavell was shot by a firing squad, not hung. But, the end result was the same, of course.

    While the punishment was ‘by the book’ and not some impetuous rush, it was very bad PR in a war that was launching the modern notions of wartime propaganda. Executing Cavell, no matter how officially legal, simply handed the British propaganda machine a big bag of PR gold. “Poor little Belgium.” “Poor Edith” — what inhuman brutes the Germans must be, eh? Propaganda does love a victim. Such propaganda worked handily to keep up the myth that only the uncivilized commit violence. The “civilized” absolve themselves of the stain. That myth remains in vogue.

    The fact that the British also executed many of their own soldiers — “for cowardice” — in the same war, is usually glossed over. It did not fit the civilized society image the machine was trying to maintain.

  4. theoldman

    “During the Second War, Allied bombers targeted working class areas in German cities but left wealthy areas alone”
    I was I Germany in 1950 and there was nothing , NOTHING that was not bombed, nothing.

  5. RangerVet91

    As most people know, history does indeed repeat itself. And next year, the 100th anniversary of WWI will be upon us. And just like the time right before WWI, the Progressives and elitists will have there way and start another war. A war to end all wars (well, as we know them anyways). I’ve seen war. It is absolutely something to be avoided at all costs. I can also tell you that the Russians and Chinese no longer fear, and most importantly, RESPECT the US military and our lack of leadership in the White House. Those missiles fired off the west coast and in the Gulf off the coast of Texas a couple years ago were a test.

    And trust me, we failed terribly. They know are defenses are weak and our mainland is vulnerable to attack (think EMP). They know that our government is more concerned about ruling it’s people with an iron fist then investing in the countries armed forces AND security. As of early next year, our ability to rage war, OR MORE IMPORTANTLY, TO EVEN PROTECT OURSELVES will be severely hampered by the fact that the defense budget has been cut to levels that threaten us all. At a time when our enemies are going full out in building UP their military’s and defenses, we’re doing the complete opposite. Now ask yourself……why? When we collapse, and we will, we will be a very, very weak nation. And if anyone thinks that China and Russia won’t take advantage of that, well good luck to you.

  6. Irish-7

    Awesome assessment, RangerVet91, simply brilliant. I wish more Americans had your keen insight as to the fate that awaits us. In the name of peace, the moronic Progressives degrade our capabilities to protect our interests. They vilify the defense industries as greedy Capitalists. Our Usurper In Chief is a lifelong Marxist. He and his ilk are deliberately collapsing our economy, bankrupting the nation with endless handouts and selling out to the Chinese. The media is a co-conspirator in the plot. We are an empire on the verge of demise. Our Founding Fathers look down from the Heavens at us with disgust. Through greed, apathy and incredible stupidity, we ruined the wonderful Constitutional Republic they gave us.

  7. Pingback: Society Is Too Civilized to Collapse? A Lesson from WWI | TheSurvivalPlaceBlog

  8. John doe.

    So what you’re saying is that because of world war 1….it somehow correlates with societal upheaval? I’m sorry I just don’t get your argument. The nations that went to war in the first war were nations, governments, there was order or at least a semblance of. Anarchy would be the result of societal collapse, with war, famine, disaster or plague possibly being an instigator. Getting past the fact that in order for world wide human society to collapse the amount of energy output required would most likely kill the entire planet anyway, when humans were evolving out of chaos we naturally banded together to form groups, then tribes, then nations, then civilizations. It’s why we are here now, what you’re saying is that humanity somehow has either lost or completely lacks the desire to work together and I have to argue that it’s simply not the case. Throughout history during times of social chaos or anarchy groups have always banded together, while they certainly were pitted against other groups. These are still groups of people, not individuals. Individual survival and preparedness for the sake of preparedness is all good. Planning for the apocalypse however is pointless, there are simply too many people that would work together. Or, if there actually were such a force that were so destructive that every facet of human civilization was halted and destroyed, we would go extinct. Nobody survives a nuclear war.

  9. Pingback: Conflicted: Patriots or Radicals – What Would You Do?

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