[lit-ideas] Hermann Hesse, Iran, and the future

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Lit-Ideas " <Lit-Ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Wed, 22 Feb 2012 12:34:30 -0800

No sooner did I write that I was not engaging in political arguments, than I
experienced some irresistible thoughts forcing their way onto the page.  I
only add by way of apology that I don?t intend any of the following to be a
?Right vs. Left? argument.  


On page 50 of Consciousness and Society, The Reorientation of European
Social Thought, 1890-1930, H. Stuart Hughes writes, ?. . . despite the
seriousness of their scholarship and the dignity of their personal
situation, the German professors were the prisoners of their own exalted
station.  The public treated them with a respect and followed their abstract
debates with a passionate interest that may strike us as a little short of
miraculous, but, like most of the state government that employed them, it
expected of its professors a thoroughly conformist attitude toward the
national community.  And the professors were not too loath to conform: some
of them might criticize with violence the internal character of the regime,
but in the realm of foreign policy virtually all remained within the
nationalist frame. . . .?


In earlier times there were ample examples of Barons opposing Kings, but
those working on a Baron?s land could not hope to oppose the Baron with
equal impunity.  It isn?t until we move forward into the era of Democracy
that such an act becomes practical, that is, that a person can oppose their
nation?s foreign policy and expect not to end up in jail or worse.  Germany
in the time-period Hughes is interested in wasn?t there yet.  Hermann Hesse
was ?there? as an individual.  He supported the war effort at the beginning
of World War One, but nevertheless in 1914 wrote an essay entitled "O
Friends, Not These Tones" ("O Freunde, nicht diese Töne") urging a
recognition of Europe?s common heritage.  Hughes describes Hesse as moving
to Switzerland because he was disgusted by the growing militarism.?


We can assume along with Hughes that the militarism of Germany in the two
World Wars was unjustifiable, but we cannot build a principle from that and
apply it to all nations.  France as we know was not nearly as militaristic
during this period.  We can read about France in Roger Shattuck?s The
Banquet Years.  It was deeply influenced by anarchistic and pacifistic
arguments.  While it was right for Hesse to oppose Germany?s militarism, the
pacifists and anarchists who opposed French militarism were (and I suspect
few would disagree with me here) wrong.  Had the French been supporting
their military at the time the German?s were building theirs, World War II
could, many historians argue, have been nipped in the bud, that is, reduced
to a minor altercation.  


At this point I propose a simplistic principle:  It is good to support just
wars but not good to support unjust wars.  I assume here the rejection of
the pacifistic argument.  Few who lived through the conclusions of that
argument during the Vichy period in France would wish to live it again.  


A more serious objection to this principle has to do with its definition:
How do we go about distinguishing just wars from unjust wars?  If we are
heirs of the Enlightenment we can argue that wars for humanistic and
?enlightened? reasons are more likely to be just than those which are not.
But some consider themselves ?heirs? and take a Marxist viewpoint.  Others
reject the Enlightenment and think all points of view equal.  Therefore
these latter argue, the tyrannies of Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il must not
be opposed militarily because all regimes, all governments, all people are


In this, as in struggles of the past, the victor will get to write the
histories.  If Francis Fukuyama is correct and Liberal Democracy comprises
the end of history then none of the objections from Socialists, anarchists,
Islamists, Revolutionaries or any other political viewpoint will stand
against it in the long run.  


Moving up the mountain and standing above it all, if Fukuyama is proved
right and every form of government opposing Liberal democracy is eventually
converted; then in looking back at the various wars we fought or are about
to fight, the arguments may hinge on whether it was better to fight a war or
let matters play themselves out.  We haven?t fought a war with Iran yet; so
is it better for Liberal Democracies to fight against Iran and prevent them
from using nuclear weapons, or is it better to let them have their weapons
because in the long run they will become a Liberal Democracy and it won?t
really matter what they do now?   Think of Vietnam for comparison.  Millions
were killed during the war so those opposing the war could later say ?I told
you so.?  But Millions of people were killed by the Communists after the war
so those favoring the war could say ?I told you so.?  Since then Vietnam has
been slowly mellowing.  The day may come when historians write that nothing
that went on during that war really mattered in the long run.  Will it be
possible to one day say that about Iran?  


A difference between Vietnam and Iran is that the former admired Communism,
a political philosophy that has been discredited in almost everyone?s eyes;
while the latter is devoted to Shia Islam which is not likely to become
discredited in a comparable way.  Shia Islam has fought against Sunni Islam
for hundreds of years.  Perhaps they will fight against Liberal Democracy
for as long?  At the end of those hundreds of years (we are still sitting on
our mountain) we may argue that we should have had a war in 2012 to deny
them nuclear weapons.  But if we do have that war, it may be (from our
mountain perch) that some argue that it took a few hundred years longer but
in the end Iran was just like Vietnam.



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