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Institute of General Semantics


Author(s): Martin H. Levinson
Source: ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Vol. 62, No. 2 (April 2005), pp. 157-164
Published by: Institute of General Semantics
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"AlthoughWorld WarI occurred nearly one hundredyears ago, its legacy

is morepresent than we may think.The volatilepolitics of the Middle East
and of Balkan Europe stem directlyfrom World WarI and its immediate
America's currentpreoccupation withchampioning democracy
throughoutthe world is also a product of the Great War.









MartinH. Levinson,Ph.D.*
MostAmericansdid notexperiencethetremendousupsetthat WorldWar
I caused in Europe. Korzybskihad experiencedthedebacle oftheEastern
Front,withitsdevastationofPoland and parts ofRussia. He broughtthis
memorywithhim when the Russian Armysent him to Canada and the
UnitedStates in December, 1915, to oversee theacceptance of ordersfor
militarysupplies. Throughoutthe chaotic years near the war s end, he
keptasking himself,"How could thisbe prevented?
- M. Kendig
AlfredKorzybski:Collected Writings1920-1950, p.xxi

devastationand social collapse caused by WorldWar I (also called the

-L GreatWar) led AlfredKorzybskito formulategeneral semantics,a system formore effectivehumanevaluation.Withthis system,Korzybskihoped
humankindwould neveragain engage in such wantonand needless destruction.
That destructionwas broughtabout by nationalism,entangledalliances, narrowethnicconcerns,and desiresforpoliticalgain - forcesthatare stillwithus
* Martin
H. Levinson,
as director
theETC "Books"feature.

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ETC April 2005

Korzybski noted that human beings, using language and othersymbols,

have theabilityto transmitinformation
across time.As a result,each generation
is able to benefitfromthe experience of previous generations.In order to
contributeto thisprocess, which Korzybskicalled time-binding,
and withthe
learningaboutthepast can help avertlarge-scaleconflictsinthefuture,
I will map out some of the causes of WorldWar I, and propose ten important
cautionarygeneral semantics lessons for the leaders of the world's nations.
(AlthoughWorld War I occurrednearlyone hundredyears ago, its legacy is
morepresentthanwe may think.The volatilepoliticsof theMiddle East and of
Balkan Europe stemdirectlyfromWorldWar I and its immediateaftereffects.
America's currentpreoccupationwithchampioningdemocracythroughout
world is also a productof the GreatWar.)
The Start of World War I: An Orgy of Declarations
The precipitatingeventforWorldWar I was theassassinationofArchduke
Franz Ferdinand,on June28, 1914. Ferdinand,theheirto theAustro-Hungarian throne,was killedby theBlack Hand - a Serbiannationalistsecretsociety.
Austria-Hungary'sreactionto the death was to issue an ultimatumto Serbia,
which,to theextentthatit demandedthe assassins be broughttojustice, effectivelyviolated Serbian sovereignty.
expected Serbia to reject
the severe termsof the ultimatum,therebyprovidingan excuse to launch a
limitedwar against Serbia.
Serbia had longstandingSlavic ties withRussia, buttheAustro-Hungarian
governmentdid not thinkRussia would be drawn into the dispute,otherthan
perhaps issuing a diplomatic protest. As a protection against the nearlyunimaginablepossibilitythatRussia did declare war,Austria-Hungary
assurancesof supportfromGermanyundera mutualalliance. Germanyquickly
agreed, and even encouragedAustro-Hungarianbellicosity.
On July28, 1914, Austria-Hungaryrejected Serbia's replyto the ultimatum,which forthe most partwas quite placating,and declared war on Serbia.
Bound by treatyto Serbia, the Russian armymobilized. Germanyviewed the
Russian mobilizationas an act of war againstAustria-Hungary,
and declared
war on Russia on August 1. France, bound by treatyto Russia, respondedby
on August
declaringwar againstGermany,and by extensionAustria-Hungary,
3. Germanyquickly responded by invading neutralBelgium, so as to reach
Paris by the shortestroute.Britain,allied to France by a loosely wordedtreaty
which implieda moralobligationto mutualdefense,declared war on Germany
on August 4. Britainwas also obligated to defendBelgium by the termsof a

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Mappingthe Causes of World War I to Avoid ArmageddonToday


old treaty.Like France,Britainby extensionwas also at war

As thewar began, Britain'scolonies and dominionsabroad (e.g., Australia,
Canada, India, New Zealand, and the Union of South Africa) offeredassistance. The United States declared a policy of neutrality- an officialstance
thatended in 1917 when Germany'spolicy of unrestricted
shipping.Japan,honoringa miliwith
Germanyon August23. Two days
laterAustria-Hungaryresponded by declaring war on Japan. Italy,although
allied to both Germanyand Austria-Hungary,
was able to avoid enteringthe
war,by citing
permitting renege its obligationsto both.
Entangling Alliances
What was intendedto be a strictlylimitedwar between accuser and acand Serbia, had rapidlyescalated into global conflict.
cused, Austria-Hungary
One main reason forthatconflictwas an alliance systemthatbroughtabout a
mindlessmechanicalreactiononce hostilitiesbegan. Otto von Bismarck,first
Prime Ministerof Prussia and thenChancellor of the German Republic, was
theprimemoverin settingup thissystem.
Bismarckhad constructedtheGermanstatethroughpoliticalmachinations
and war againstAustriaand France. In 1866 he engineeredwar withAustria
over disputedterritory.
The resultingconflict,"the Seven Weeks War," ended
withcompletevictoryforGermanyand a NorthGermanFederation.To achieve
similarresultsin the south- and to uniteall statesunderthe Prussianbanner
- Bismarckwentto war withFrance. As was the case withAustria,the PrussianarmydemolishedFrenchforces.Franceceded Alsace and Lorraineto Prussia
and was forcedto pay about a billion dollars (using a modernexchangerate) in
reparations.The southernGermanstatesagreed to an alliance withtheirnortherncounterparts,
resultingin the creationof the GermanRepublic.
Bismarcksoughtto protecttheGermanRepublic frompotentialthreats.He
was quite aware thattheFrenchwantedto avenge theirdefeat,particularlythe
loss of Alsace and Lorraine.Bismarckdid not fearan alliance betweenBritain
and France because Britainhad a policy of "splendid isolation," choosing to
opt out of European politics. He looked to Russia and to defeatedfoe AustriaHungaryforalliances.
In 1873 BismarcknegotiatedtheThree EmperorsLeague, which tied Gerand Russia to each other's aid in time of war. Russia
withdrewin 1878, leaving Bismarck to adopt a Dual Alliance withAustriaHungaryin 1879. This treatypromised aid to each otherin the event of an

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ETC April 2005


attackby Russia, or if Russia aided anotherpower at war witheitherGermany

or Austria-Hungary. (Austria-Hungary used this agreement to command
- a nationthatwas
Germany'sassistance against Russian supportforSerbia
protectedby treatywithRussia.)
In 1881, Italyjoined Austria-Hungaryand Germanyto forma TripleAlliance. It specificallypromisedthatifFrance attackedone of thesignatories,the
othertwo wouldjoin thefightagainsttheFrench.In addition,itdeclaredthatif
any of the threeAlliance memberswere to declare a preventive(preemptive)
war, the othertwo would remainneutral.The TripleAlliance was essentially
meaningless,because Italyenteredintoa secrettreatywithFrance,underwhich
Italy would remainneutralif GermanyattackedFrance.
In 1892, to counterthepotentialthreatof theTripleAlliance, Russia formed
an alliance withFrance. The Franco-RussianMilitaryConventionstatedthatif
France or Russia was attacked,or even was threatenedwithattack,by a Triple
Alliance member,the otherpower would providemilitaryassistance.
Britainbegan to realize thatGermanyhad expansionistdesigns and thata
policy of "splendidisolation"would notoffersufficient
also embarkingon a massive shipbuildingprogram.In 1902, Britainagreed to
a militaryalliance with Japan,aimed at limitingGermany'scolonial gains in
the east. Britainalso enteredinto a shipbuildingcompetitionwith Germany.
German ambitionsresultedin pushingBritaininto the European alliance system and, some have argued,made war more possible.
In 1904, Britainsigned the EntenteCordiale withFrance. The agreement
resolved certaincolonial conflictsand called forgreaterdiplomaticcooperation.Three years laterRussia signed an agreementwithBritain.Together,the
alliance thatplaced a "moralobligation"upon
two agreementsformeda tri-part
thesignatoriesto aid each otherin timeofwar.It was thisprovisionthatbrought
Britainintothewar in defenseof France,althoughBritainclaimed to be honoring the 1839 Treatyof London thatcommittedBritainto defendBelgium neutrality.
The nations of Europe had formedpublic alliances and secrettreatiesto
advance theirprotection.But theyhad bound themselvestogetherlike chaingang prisoners.When one gang memberpulled hard on the chain the other
gang membershad littlechoice but to mindlesslyrespond.
Other Factors Leading to War
In 1905, antagonismbetweenRussia and Japanover Japaneseinterestsin
Manchuriaand Korea culminatedin a humiliatingdefeatof the Russian fleet.
The scale of the defeatcontributed,in part,to the attemptedRussian Rvolu-

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Mappingthe Causes of World War I to Avoid ArmageddonToday


tionof 1905 and led Tsar Nicholas II to look forways to restoreRussian dignity.Militaryconquest could offerthatopportunity.
Meanwhile, in the Balkans, troublewas brewing.In 1912, Italy defeated
Turkishforcesand Turkeywas forcedto hand over Libya and otherterritory
Italy.Soon thereafter,
Turkeywas engulfed war withfoursmall nationsover
thepossession of Balkan territories.
by European powers brought
an end to thisFirstBalkan War.Later,in 1913, theSecond Balkan Warerupted
with Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey fightingover territory.Peace finally
emergedbutgrievanceshad notreallybeen settledand tensionsranhigh.Many
small nationsunderTurkishor Austro-Hungarianrule seethedwithnationalistic fervor.These Balkan nationswanteda distinctvoice and self-determination,
buttheywereunitedin identifying
themselvesas pan-Slavicpeoples,withRussia
as theirchiefally. Russia encouragedthisbelief,foraside froman emotional
it provideda way to regaina degree of lost prestige.
a decrepitempirethatruled over a collection of people
withverylittlein common,was greatlyaffectedby thetroublesin theBalkans.
Its aging Emperor,Franz Josef,worked hard at keeping togetherthe various
control.The assassinawarringethnicgroupsthatfellunderAustro-Hungarian
tion of Franz Ferdinandby Serbian nationalistsgave Austria-Hungaryan excellentopportunity
to flauntits authorityin the region.
Russia, ally the Slavs - and thereforeSerbia - had been struggling
to hold back internalrevolutionsince theirnaval defeatin 1905. The Russian
as a means to restoresocial order.
governmentsaw war withAustria-Hungary
Francewantedrevengeforthemilitarydefeatsufferedin theFranco-Prussian Warof 187 1. To thisend Francedevised a strategy,
Plan XVII, whose chief
aims were the defeatof Germanyand the restorationof Alsace and Lorraine.
An unwritten
partof thisstrategyrelied on France's valuable "secretweapon"
- the"lan" (vitalityand warlikespirit)of the French
Germanywas in flux. One hundredand ten socialist deputies had been
elected to the Reichstag in 1912. This made Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg's
taskof negotiatingbetweentheReichstag,an autocraticKaiser WilhelmII, and
militaryextremelydifficult.He decided Germany'sbest hope of
avertingcivil unrestwould be war - preferablya short,decisive conflict,but
European-widehostilitiescould also do thejob. On July6, 1914, whenAustriaHungarywas consideringwhatto do about Serbia, Bethmann-Hollwegoffered
a "blank check" - an unconditionalguaranteeof supportfor
any decision made by Austria-Hungary.
Wilhelmthoughta war could getGermanymorecolonies and greaterprominence on the world stage. To achieve this,his chief of staffimplementedthe
SchlieffenPlan - a two-front
war againstFrance and Russia to be conducted

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ETC April 2005

withlightningspeed. (Wilhelmpredicted,in thefirstweek ofAugust,thatGerman troopswould be back home "beforetheleaves have fallenfromthetrees.")
The Germanplan did not considerBritain's entryintothe war. It was thought
Britainwould stayaloof fromtheconflictand protectimportant
It has been suggestedthatif Britainhad declared an intentionto enterthe
war sooner,Germanywould have backed away froma conflictthatpromisedto
be largerthanoriginallyanticipated.The BritishForeignMinisterattemptedto
mediate throughoutJuly,reservingat all times Britain's rightto remain detached fromtheconflict.It was only as thewar began thatBritain'spositionto
enterthe conflictbecame apparent.
Ten Cautionary General Semantics Lessons for the Nations of the World
This sectiondetailstencautionaryGS lessons forournations' leadersusing
GreatWar examples. The formatis as follows: a GS formulation
and definition
followedby a shortexegesis withan example. The last lesson departsfromthis
1. Delayed Evaluating (a potentialto stop immediate,automaticbehavior long enough to sufficiently
investigatethe currentsituation
beforeaction). National leaders should thinktwice beforedeciding
to take land fromanothercountry.That countrymay seek revenge
(e.g., one reason France wentto war withGermanywas to get back
Alsace and Lorraine).
2. Indexing (a reminderthatno two thingsare identical).Not all allies
are thesame. So, a nationshould nottrustall of themto remainallies
ifa war starts(e.g., Italyrenegedon itsobligationsto theTripleAlliance by cuttinga secretdeal withFrance).
3. Logical fate (fromassumptionsconsequences follow).A nationmay
be able to head offwar by sendingclear signals to all partiesin advance (e.g., Britainmighthave givenGermanysecond thoughtsabout
going to war by announcingin Julyof 1914 thatan attackon Belgium would make participationobligatory).
4. Dating (attachingdates to our evaluationsas a reminderthatchange
occurs over time). Nations seeking to regain lost pride can be dangerous (e.g., one reason thatRussia (1914) enteredintothewar was
to wipe away the humiliationthatRussia (1905) had sufferedfrom
naval defeatby Japan).

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5. A map may not adequately describe the territory(with words, details can be leftout). Governmentsmay give incompleteexplanationsforwhytheirnationsare going to war (e.g., Germanyand Russia enteredWorldWar I, largely,to divertattentionfromtheirproblems at home).
6. Etc. (one cannotknow all about anything).It's toughto predictwhat
will happen when a nationstartsa war (e.g. Austria-Hungaryanticipated a verylimitedwar against Serbia. Russia's entryintothe war,
on the Serbian side, came as a huge surprise).
7. Extensional orientation(search forthe "facts" of a situation).Gettingintoentanglingalliances withothernationscan be risky(e.g., a
keyreasonforWorldWarI was an alliance systemthatbroughtabout
a mindlessmechanicalreactiononce hostilitiesbegan).
8. Distinguishbetweeninferencesand facts (failureto do so can result
in jumping to wrong conclusions). A nation should not overconfidentlyassume an easy victoryin a war (e.g., Francefiguredthe"lan"
of theFrencharmywould guaranteea quick conquestover Germany.
GermanyconsideredtheSchlieffenPlan foolproofand victoryinevitable in a matterof months).
9. Statistical Thinking(degrees of probabilityare involved in all our
knowledge). Ethnicpride is toughto fight.It may be wiser fora nationto not waste timeand resourcesbattlinggroupswho view such
invaded Serbia to domiactionsas oppression,(e.g., Austria-Hungary
nate an ethnicgroupthatdidn'twantoutside control.Russia entered
in part,because of Serbian appeals
thewar againstAustria-Hungary,
to pan-Slavism).
10. To have a peaceful world,national leaders should learn and apply
theformulationsofgeneral semantics. It's unfortunate
theseformulationsweren'taround at the beginningof WorldWar I. If theyhad
been available, and had nationsused them,millionsof humanbeings
would have been spared pointless deaths. (More than eight million
militarypersonneland six millioncivilians died in WorldWar I.)
How can we make these generalsemanticstools known to world leaders,
and persuadethemto use them?Here are a few suggestions:
If you are a governmentofficialengaged in foreignpolicy matters,
and you arereadingthisarticle,shareitscontentswithyourcolleagues.

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If you are not a governmentofficialengaged in foreignpolicy matters,but you know one, send thisarticleon to them.
Talk to yourrelatives,friends,and neighborsaboutthevalue of using
GS tools to promote"rational"foreignpolicy. Such an endeavorcan
have a twofoldbenefit:it can sharpenyourown thinkingabout foreign policy issues, and it may introducethepersonyou are speaking
in 1933, has been
withto a systemthat,since its formalintroduction
dedicatedto advancinghumanharmonyand progress.


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