AT the end of a year when the start of the First World War was remembered there is one puzzle yet to be resolved, even to be faced: Why did political and military leaders so readily accept the deaths of tens of thousands of people in the space of a few hours and repeat that disaster?
Did the saying of Winston Churchill that a campaign he was keen on “would only cost a few hundred lives” represent not just the hard heart of a single man but an attitude of mind shared by others of his kind? Many years before World War One it was said that there were too many people in the world, that a lot of people were a burden to the rest, especially in a new age when industrial work might depend not on vast numbers of small people but on smaller numbers of highly qualified and technically capable people. The elite. At its worst, this idea that we have too many people was voiced by writers like the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose thinking must have inspired much of the atrocities of even later wars. The write Ortega y Gasset believed that with the increase in education “unsuitable” people would begin to impose themselves on literature and policies about everything. The wrong people. This was not just the idea of an eccentric, such ideas developed well into the twentieth century, prominent people among writers, artists, musicians and the like were afraid of what they called the masses (that is, us) taking control and the result would be loss of prestige to them but also “these people” would destroy the high standards in everything.
This stream of elitism during the nineteenth century extended into the twentieth and was curbed only to an extent after the horrors of World War Two. How much of it remains? Does it still influence ideas about death as a solution to political problems? The most dangerous idea was that there were too many people in the world, they would drown out the elite, cause revolution, that by very numbers they would overwhelm what is best, and all who are best. With thoughts of this kind swirling around in the years before the First World War, many people, most people, “the masses”, were looked upon as a threat to those in power, just by being there. Senior army officers were either among the elite or put there. This does not mean that those in powerful positions were willing, deliberately, to send people out to be killed, but it may well mean that if a certain method of warfare which proved useful in colonial wars meant masses of people – the masses – being killed, this could be looked upon as an affordable loss. That twenty thousand young men should be killed in hours meant tens of thousands of potential families, families of “the masses”, were gone as well.
Churchill’s statement was not that of an individual hard heart, it was an indication of thinking which had become respectable, that death among the masses was necessary for the greater good of the best. This may seem too harsh a judgment based upon the idea of a few people, but they were an influential few people. Even after World War One HG Wells thought the “extravagant swarm of new births” the “essential disaster of the nineteenth century” and WB Yeats said “Sooner or later we must limit the sizes of the unintelligent classes.” But they at least considered eugenics a more merciful solution than the trenches.