NGO Profiles -4: Martin H. LEVINSON, PHD
Book: Chapter 11 in Sensible Thinking
for Turbulent Times
did not experience the tremendous upset
that World War I caused in Europe. Korzybski
had experienced the debacle of the Eastern
Front, with its devastation of Poland
and parts of Russia. He brought this memory
with him when the Russian Army sent him
to Canada and the United States in December,
1915, to oversee the acceptance of orders
for military supplies. Throughout the
chaotic years near the war's end, he kept
asking himself, "How could this be
The devastation and social collapse caused
by World War I (also called the Great
War) led Alfred Korzybski to formulate
general semantics (GS), a system for more
effective human evaluation. With this
system, Korzybski hoped humankind would
never again engage in such wanton and
needless destruction. That destruction
was brought about by nationalism, entangled
alliances, narrow ethnic concerns, and
desires for political gain—forces
that are still with us today.
Human beings, using language and other
symbols, have the ability to transmit
information across time. As a result each
generation is able to benefit from the
experience of previous generations. To
contribute to this process, which Korzybski
called "time-binding," this
chapter will map out some of the causes
of World War I and propose ten important
cautionary GS lessons for the leaders
of the world's nations. (Although World
War I occurred nearly one hundred years
ago, its legacy is more present than we
may think. The volatile politics of the
Middle East and of Balkan Europe stem
directly from World War I and its immediate
aftereffects. America's current preoccupation
to champion democracy throughout the world
is also a product of the Great War.)
The Start of World War I: An Orgy of Declarations
The precipitating event for World War
I was the assassination of Archduke Franz
Ferdinand, on June 28, 1914. Ferdinand,
the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne,
was killed by the Black Hand--a Serbian
nationalist secret society. Austria-Hungary's
reaction to the death was to issue an
ultimatum to Serbia, which, to the extent
that it demanded the assassins be brought
to justice, effectively violated Serbian
sovereignty. Austria-Hungary expected
Serbia to reject the severe terms of the
ultimatum, thereby providing an excuse
to launch a limited war against Serbia.
Serbia had longstanding Slavic ties
with Russia, but the Austro-Hungarian
government did not think Russia would
be drawn into the dispute, other than
perhaps issuing a diplomatic protest.
As a protection against the nearly unimaginable
possibility that Russia did declare war,
Austria-Hungary sought assurances of support
from Germany under a mutual alliance.
Germany quickly agreed, and even encouraged
On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary rejected
Serbia's reply to the ultimatum, which
for the most part was quite placating,
and declared war on Serbia. Bound by treaty
to Serbia, the Russian army mobilized.
Germany viewed the Russian mobilization
as an act of war against Austria-Hungary,
and declared war on Russia on August 1.
France, bound by treaty to Russia, responded
by declaring war against Germany, and
by extension Austria-Hungary, on August
3. Germany quickly responded by invading
neutral Belgium, so as to reach Paris
by the shortest route. Britain, allied
to France by a loosely-worded treaty which
implied a "moral obligation"
to mutual defense, declared war on Germany
on August 4. Britain was also obligated
to defend Belgium by the terms of a seventy-five-year-old
treaty. Like France, Britain by extension
was also at war with Austria-Hungary.
As the war began, Britain's colonies
and dominions abroad (e.g., Australia,
Canada, India, New Zealand, and the Union
of South Africa) offered assistance. The
United States declared a policy of neutrality--an
official stance that ended in 1917 when
Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine
warfare seriously threatened America's
commercial shipping. Japan, honoring a
military agreement with Britain, declared
war on Germany on August 23. Two days
later Austria-Hungary responded by declaring
war on Japan. Italy, although allied to
both Germany and Austria-Hungary, was
able to avoid entering the war, by citing
a clause permitting it to renege on its
obligations to both.
What was intended to be a strictly limited
war between accuser and accused, Austria-Hungary
and Serbia, had rapidly escalated into
global conflict. One main reason for that
conflict was an alliance system that brought
about a mindless mechanical reaction once
hostilities began. Otto von Bismarck,
first Prime Minister of Prussia and then
Chancellor of the German Republic, was
the prime mover in setting up this system.
Bismarck had constructed the German
nation through political machinations
and war against Austria and France. In
1866 he engineered war with Austria over
disputed territory. The resulting conflict,
"the Seven Weeks War," ended
with complete victory for Germany and
the establishment of a North German Federation.
To achieve similar results in the south--and
to unite all states under the Prussian
banner--Bismarck went to war with France.
As was the case with Austria, the Prussian
army demolished French forces. France
ceded Alsace and Lorraine to Prussia and
was forced to pay about a billion dollars
(using a modern exchange rate) in reparations.
The southern German states agreed to an
alliance with their northern counterparts,
resulting in the creation of the German
Bismarck sought to protect the German
Republic from potential threats. He was
quite aware that the French wanted to
revenge their defeat, particularly the
loss of Alsace and Lorraine. Bismarck
did not fear an alliance between Britain
and France because Britain had a policy
of "splendid isolation," choosing
to opt out of European politics. He looked
to Russia and his defeated foe Austria-Hungary
In 1873 Bismarck negotiated the Three
Emperors League, which tied Germany, Austria-Hungary,
and Russia to each other's aid in time
of war. Russia withdrew in 1878, leaving
Bismarck to adopt a Dual Alliance with
Austria-Hungary in 1879. This treaty promised
aid to each other in the event of an attack
by Russia, or if Russia aided another
power at war with either Germany or Austria-Hungary.
(Austria-Hungary used this agreement to
call Germany to her aid against Russian
support for Serbia--a nation that was
protected by treaty with Russia.)
In 1881, Italy joined Austria-Hungary
and Germany to form a Triple Alliance.
This specifically promised that if France
attacked one of the signatories, the other
two would join the fight against the French.
In addition, it declared that if any of
the three Alliance members were to declare
a preventive (preemptive) war, the other
two would remain neutral. The Triple Alliance
was essentially meaningless, because Italy
entered into a secret treaty with France,
under which Italy would remain neutral
if Germany attacked France.
In 1892, to counter the potential threat
of the Triple Alliance, Russia formed
an alliance with France. The Franco-Russian
Military Convention stated that if France
or Russia was attacked, or even was threatened
with attack, by a Triple Alliance member,
the other power would provide military
Britain began to realize that Germany
had expansionist designs and that a policy
of "splendid isolation" would
not offer sufficient security. Germany
was also embarking on a massive shipbuilding
program. In 1902, Britain agreed to a
military alliance with Japan, aimed at
limiting Germany's colonial gains in the
east. Britain also entered into a shipbuilding
competition with Germany. German ambitions
resulted in pushing Britain into the European
alliance system and, some have argued,
made war more possible.
In 1904, Britain signed the Entente
Cordiale with France. The agreement resolved
certain colonial conflicts and called
for greater diplomatic cooperation. Three
years later Russia signed an agreement
with Britain. Together, the two agreements
formed a tri-part alliance that placed
a "moral obligation" upon the
signatories to aid each other in time
of war. It was this provision that brought
Britain into the war in defense of France,
although Britain claimed she was honoring
the 1839 Treaty of London that committed
Britain to defend Belgian neutrality.
The nations of Europe had formed public
alliances and secret treaties to advance
their protection. But they had bound themselves
together like chain-gang prisoners. When
one gang member pulled hard on the chain
the other gang members had little choice
but to mindlessly respond.
Other Factors Leading to War
In 1905, antagonism between Russia and
Japan over Japanese interests in Manchuria
and Korea culminated in a humiliating
defeat of the Russian fleet. The scale
of the defeat contributed, in part, to
the attempted Russian Revolution of 1905
and led Tsar Nicholas II to look for ways
to restore Russian dignity. Military conquest
could offer that opportunity.
Meanwhile, in the Balkans, trouble was
brewing. In 1912, Italy defeated Turkish
forces and Turkey was forced to hand over
Libya and other territory to Italy. Soon
thereafter, Turkey was engulfed in war
with four small nations over the possession
of Balkan territories. Intervention by
European powers brought an end to this
First Balkan War. Later, in 1913, the
Second Balkan War erupted, with Bulgaria,
Romania, and Turkey fighting over territory.
Peace finally emerged but grievances had
not really been settled and tensions ran
high. Many small nations under Turkish
or Austro-Hungarian rule seethed with
nationalistic fervor. These Balkan nations
wanted a distinct voice and self-determination,
but they were united in identifying themselves
as pan-Slavic peoples, with Russia as
their chief ally. Russia encouraged this
belief, for aside from an emotional attachment,
it provided a way to regain a degree of
Austria-Hungary, a decrepit empire that
ruled over a collection of people with
very little in common, was greatly affected
by the troubles in the Balkans. Its aging
Emperor, Franz Josef, worked hard at keeping
together the various warring ethnic groups
that fell under Austro-Hungarian control.
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand by
Serbian nationalists gave Austria-Hungary
an excellent opportunity to flaunt its
authority in the region.
Russia, an ally of the Slavs--and therefore
of Serbia--had been struggling to hold
back internal revolution since its naval
defeat in 1905. The Russian government
saw war with Austria-Hungary as a means
to restore social order.
France wanted revenge for the military
defeat suffered in the Franco-Prussian
War of 1871. To this end France devised
a strategy, Plan XVII, whose chief aim
was the defeat of Germany and the restoration
of Alsace and Lorraine. An unwritten part
of this strategy relied on France's secret
weapon--the "élan" (vitality
and warlike spirit) of the French army.
Germany was in flux. One hundred and
ten socialist deputies had been elected
to the Reichstag in 1912. This made Chancellor
Bethmann-Hollweg's task of negotiating
between the Reichstag, an autocratic Kaiser
Wilhelm II, and the right-wing military
extremely difficult. He decided Germany's
best hope of averting civil unrest would
be war--preferably a short, decisive conflict,
but European-wide hostilities could also
do the job. On July 6, 1914, when Austria-Hungary
was considering what to do about Serbia,
Bethmann-Hollweg offered Austria-Hungary
a "blank check"--an unconditional
guarantee of support for any decision
made by Austria-Hungary.
Wilhelm thought a war could get Germany
more colonies and greater prominence on
the world stage. To achieve this, his
chief of staff implemented the Schlieffen
Plan--a two-front war against France and
Russia to be conducted with lightning
speed. (Wilhelm predicted, in the first
week of August, that German troops would
be back home "before the leaves have
fallen from the trees.") The German
plan did not consider Britain's entry
into the war. It was thought Britain would
stay aloof from the conflict and maintain
important British trading routes.
It has been suggested that if Britain
had declared an intention to enter the
war sooner, Germany would have backed
away from a conflict that promised to
be larger than originally anticipated.
The British Foreign Minister attempted
to mediate throughout July, reserving
at all times Britain's right to remain
detached from the conflict. It was only
as the war began that Britain's position
to enter the conflict became apparent.
Ten Cautionary General
Semantics Lessons for the Nations of the
This section details ten cautionary
GS lessons for our nations' leaders with
examples from World War I. The format
is as follows: a GS formulation and definition
followed by a brief critique with an example.
The last lesson diverges from this scheme.
Delayed evaluating (a potential to stop immediate, automatic behavior long enough
to sufficiently investigate the current
situation before action). Leaders should
think twice before deciding to take land
from another country. That country may
seek revenge (e.g., one reason France
went to war with Germany was to get back
Alsace and Lorraine).
Indexing (a reminder that no
two things are identical). Not all allies
are the same. So, a nation should not
trust all of them to remain supportive
if a war begins. Italy reneged on its
obligations to the Triple Alliance by
cutting a secret deal with France.
Logical fate (from assumptions,
consequences follow). A nation may be
able to head off hostilities by sending
clear signals to all parties in advance
(e.g., Britain might have given Germany
second thoughts about going to war by
announcing in July of 1914 that an attack
on Belgium would be an attack on Britain).
Dating (attaching dates to
our evaluations as a reminder that change
occurs over time). Nations seeking to
regain lost pride can be dangerous (e.g.,
one reason that Russia (1914) went into
World War I was to wipe away the humiliation
that Russia (1905) had suffered from a
naval defeat by Japan).
A map may not
adequately describe the territory (with words, details can be left out). Leaders
may give incomplete explanations for why
their nations are going to war (e.g.,
Germany and Russia entered World War I,
largely, to divert attention from their
problems at home).
Etc. (one cannot know all
about anything). It’s tough to predict
what will happen when a nation starts
a war. Austria-Hungary anticipated a very
limited war against Serbia. Russia’s
entry into the war, on the Serbian side,
came as a huge surprise.
Extensional orientation (search for the “facts” of a situation). Getting into
entangling alliances with other nations
can be risky (e.g., a key reason for World
War I was an alliance system that brought
about a mindless mechanical reaction once
inferences (failure to do so
can result in jumping to wrong conclusions).
Nations should not overconfidently assume
an easy victory in war. France figured
the "élan" of the French
army would guarantee a quick conquest
over Germany. Germany considered the Schlieffen
Plan foolproof and victory inevitable
in a matter of months.
Probability thinking (degrees of probability are involved in all our knowledge). Ethnic
pride is an important variable to consider
in deciding to wage war. It can be tough
to figure with precision how ethnic groups
will react to hostilities. Austria-Hungary
invaded Serbia to dominate an ethnic group
that didn't want outside control. Russia
came into the war against Austria-Hungary,
in part, because of Serbian appeals to
To have a peaceful
world, national leaders should learn and
apply the formulations of general semantics. It's unfortunate GS formulations weren't around at the beginning
of World War I. If they had been available,
and had nations used them, millions of
human beings would have been spared pointless
deaths. (More than eight million military
personnel and six million civilians died
in World War I.)
Some Practical Suggestions
for World Peace
If you are a government official engaged in foreign policy matters,
and you are reading this chapter, share
its contents with your colleagues.
If you are not a government official engaged in foreign policy
matters, but you know one, share the information
in this chapter with them.
Talk to your relatives, friends, and neighbors about the value
of using general semantics tools and ideas
to promote "rational" foreign
policy. Such an endeavor has a two-fold
benefit: it can sharpen your own thinking
about foreign policy issues, and it may
introduce the person you are speaking
with to a system that, since its formal
introduction in 1933, has been dedicated
to advancing human harmony and progress.
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Alan. The Complete Idiot's Guide to
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War I." www.firstworldwar.com.
-Hamilton, Richard F. and Holger H. Herwig
(Eds.). The Origins of World War I.
New York: Cambridge University
-Herwig, Holger H. The Outbreak of World War I: Causes
Sixth Edition. New York: Houghton
-Howard, Michael. The First World War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
-Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Vintage, 2000.
-Kendig, M. (Ed.). Alfred Korzybski: Collected Writings
Englewood, NJ: Institute of
General Semantics, 1990.
-Kodish, Susan Presby and Bruce I. Kodish. Drive Yourself
Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of General
-Revised Second Edition. Pasadena, CA:
Extensional Publishing, 2001.
-Stevenson, Davis. Cataclysm: The First World War as
New York: Basic, 2004.
-Strachan, Hew. The First World War. New York: Viking, 2004.
-Stokesbury, James. A Short History of World War I. New York: Perennial, 1981.
-Tuchman, Barbara. The Guns of August. New York: Ballantine, 1994.
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