An article by Cobden Centre fellow David Howden for Mises.ca.
Today many of us are wearing a poppy on our lapels in a show of remembrance. What exactly are we remembering?
The Great War from 1914-18 saw many changes to the world. Many of them were bad, though as we shall see some good did come from one of, if not the worst war of all time.
Over 64,000 Canadians lost their lives fighting in Europe, almost 1% of her population. A further 150,000 were injured. The comparable statistics today, updated for population growth, would be nearly 315,000 dead soldiers and almost 700,000 wounded. Remember that these are just Canadian soldiers. The final global death toll was 17 million (including the civilian deaths in the neutral countries of Scandinavia) and over 21 million wounded.
In fact, in this regard one could argue that Canadians came away relatively unscathed. Romania lost 10% of its population, Serbia 16%, and the great Ottoman Empire almost 14%. This latter figure excludes the additional 100,000 Turks who died fighting the subsequent Turkish War of Independence following the signing of the Armistice in 1918.
The First World War was not only the first war to be waged on a truly global scale, it was the first to inflict the magnitude of destruction it did. Soldiers of previous battles were felled by disease more often than in direct combat. Advances in technology changed that, and even though the 1918 outbreak of Spanish influenza killed many more (current estimates place the deaths from the flu at 50-100 million), the Great War killed more people in four short years than most of the previous European wars combined.
In remembering the Great War it is easy to focus on the deaths of those who sacrificed their lives, but it is also important to reflect on what caused the War and what it achieved.
It’s true that advances in modern warfare and logistics made the War able to be fought on a wider scale than ever before. It is also true that a series of alliances – both formal and informal – agreed upon prior to the War brought belligerents into the melee with only tangential interest in it. Canada’s allegiance to Great Britain at the time might be thought of in this way, as could any number of the other Dominions and Colonies including Australia, India, New Zealand and Newfoundland.
Some simple economics also played an important role. Prior to the War most countries of the world had a monetary system linked to the gold standard. Government deficit spending was curtailed under this system as borrowing would be limited by the extent of a country’s gold reserves. The expression “to have a war chest” has its origins in the necessity of a sovereign to carry a chest of gold to war to pay soldiers. Wars under the gold standard were quite limited affairs, curtailed by the supply of gold available to keep soldiers paid (and motivated).
The War brought with it the breakdown of the gold standard as all belligerents resorted to monetary inflation to finance the growing expenses. This one simple fact goes far in explaining why the scope of the War and the resources driven into it were so great. The lack of a spending anchor under a fiat money regime allowed countries to print money and run deficits in order to finance the increasingly expensive battles, expensive both in money and lives. While governments could print money to paper over the cost of the War, soldiers were much less reproducible. As we shall see, the use of conscription was the counterpart to inflation and allowed the War to continue being waged once volunteers ran out.
The Great War was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Unfortunately the signing of the Treaty of Versailles to officially settle it proved to be the peace to end all peace.
A not well-known 36-year old economist by the name of John Maynard Keynes found fame penning his The Economic Consequences of the Peace in 1919. Keynes had two profound criticisms of the Treaty. First, that Europe could not survive and prosper without an integrated economic system, something that the Treaty precluded. Second, that the Treaty violated many terms of the Armistice signed 95 years ago on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. The armistice included terms relating to war reparations, territorial adjustments and general even-handedness in economic matters.
Keynes presciently predicted that the Treaty of Versailles would be the cause of a future war, and 20 years later he was proven correct. Poor economic conditions in Germany as a result of war reparations and the loss of culturally and economically important territories set in motion a series of events that brought Adolph Hitler to power and resulted in the invasion of Poland by both Fascist Germany and Communist Russia in September 1939.
Six years and 50-85 million additional deaths later the world had a new Great War. This one necessitated a numbering system to distinguish the first Great War from the Second.
All of this death and destruction could easily be pegged on one person. The Bosnian Serb student Gavrilo Princip may have fired the shot that killed the heir to the Austo-Hungarian throne, the young Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on June 28th, 1914. But Princip was not alone in his distaste for the ruling class of that Empire.
Indeed, general unease concerning many sovereigns and governance structures were warming like kindling, ready to ignite Europe at any time. Secession problems in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and brewing revolutions in both the Russian and Ottoman Empires were slowly creating the conditions for civil wars.
The British Empire under the rule of King George V was also going through its own coming of age problems, though nothing severe enough to spark bloody revolution. Indeed, the Great War ushered in an era that saw Britain’s Colonies and Dominions reorganise into a peaceful and voluntary structure. In few places was this push more apparent than in Canada.
A bloody Battle of the Somme resulted in Prime Minster Robert Borden’s pledge to send 500,000 soldiers to Europe by the end of 1916, despite a population in Canada of only 8 million at the time. Conscription was enacted to offset the dwindling supply of volunteers to join the War cause.
Almost all French Canadians opposed conscription, feeling no allegiance or duty to aid either England or France. The Conscription Crisis of 1917 was primarily a backlash of Francophone Canadians against the forced military service imposed by Ottawa to aid his Majesty’s war. Uneasiness about being Catholic soldiers under predominantly Protestant commanding officers also fuelled the flames.
The Conscription Crisis exposed Ottawa to many difficult questions. One problem was that by forcing labour, the Canadian government had no knowledge who would be the best soldier, toolmaker or farmer. Someone had to stay back and supply those who went to fight, but the government lacked any rational way to make this decision. More importantly, there was the apparent rights issue. Canada had never before enacted conscription, and the idea of forcing someone to fight in a war against their wishes is morally repugnant. More to the point, fighting a war in a distant land to aid a government which one never voted for created its own problems. The problem lives on today for pacifists around the globe, as well as those who choose to refrain from political participation.
Indeed, in a bid to garner support for conscription the Military Service Act of January 1st 1918 included exemptions to remove oneself from the forced call of duty. By autumn of that year these exemptions were removed, in a move that offended not only the French but also English-speaking Canadians. This move by Robert Borden not only shut the Conservative Party out of Quebec for over 50 years, but also caused them to lose the next general election in 1921 to the Liberal’s of William Lyon Mackenzie King.
At the very least, the Conscription Crisis put in motion a debate as to what role and duty, if any, the Dominions and their citizens had in regards to the United Kingdom. The culmination of these debates was the Statute of Westminster, signed into law by the Parliament of the United Kingdom in 1931 and passed on to all realms within the Commonwealth for ratification shortly thereafter. Amongst other things, the Statute legislated equality and self-governance for the Dominions that ratified it. (Not all colonies did so: Newfoundland Colony did not ratify the Statute, and remained a Dominion of the British Empire until joining Canada in 1949.)
The Commonwealth of Nations today survives as an organisation of 53 countries, most of which were territories of the British Empire. It represents a quarter of the world’s land mass, almost a third of its population and 15% of the globe’s GDP. It is a voluntary group which exists due to some loosely shared values paired with some established statutes.
Racial equality is a requirement for inclusion, and this was tested with the withdrawal of South Africa under apartheid, as well as its eventual readmission after its end. Not all member states recognise the Queen as the head of State, though some (like Canada) do. We have a shared history, heritage and traditions (like wearing a poppy on Remembrance Day). Chief among these is obedience to the common law, one of the greatest forces of civilisation in history. A dedication to peace, liberty and free trade are all points for inclusion, secured by the values of the 1971 Singapore Declaration.
There are no formal laws dictating that member countries must trade or associate with one another, but they do. The voluntary nature of this institution is apparent in the immigrants that flow between Commonwealth nations as well as the fact that Commonwealth members trade up to 50% more with other Commonwealth members than with non-members.
Inclusion in the Commonwealth does not yet instil by law the free movement of goods, people or money across borders, but it would be wise to do so. Some countries give preferential treatment to immigrants or investors from other Commonwealth countries, and the benefits are clear. Economic prosperity reigns when people, goods and money go to where they are treated best. Informal preferences within the Commonwealth promote this.
There is discussion of making the Commonwealth into a broader free trade union, as is the case with the European Union. This should be welcomed as it would solidify into law those benefits which heretofore are only informally recognised.
A word of caution is in order. Should the Commonwealth choose to formalise its union it must do so in its own way and according to its founding principles. Liberty and freedom are among these, and the voluntary nature of the union must also be upheld. (This in distinction to the mandatory nature of the European Union which now results in ill feelings of coercion or otherwise being forced to behave in ways undesired by many citizens of the member states.) Infringements to freedom and liberty, such as those occurring in South Africa under apartheid must be met swiftly and surely with exclusion from the union.
United we stand, but only if you want. Countries can choose to break the rules that have promoted peace and prosperity for so long, but must do so of their own accord and separately of Commonwealth benefits.
There is historical precedent for this. South Africa was forced to withdraw from the Commonwealth in 1961 under growing opposition from other members to legislated discrimination based on race. The Commonwealth reopened its arms at the fall of apartheid, and South Africa was readmitted in 1994 (less than one year after the fall of apartheid). More recently Zimbabwe was suspended for its human rights violations, ignoring the rule of law and suspension of its constitution, and the country’s government decided to formally withdraw in 2003.
Zimbabwe – when your government gets its act together and restores the conditions for peace and prosperity so cherished by the rest of us we will be waiting with open arms.
The Commonwealth has no positive obligation to set straight those countries that pursue different policies than us; who are we to decide? But not playing by our rules will not be tolerated and will be costly for belligerent countries. This is established by the final article of the Singapore Declaration, which states:
These relationships we intend to foster and extend, for we believe that our multi-national association can expand human understanding and understanding among nations, assist in the elimination of discrimination based on differences of race, colour or creed, maintain and strengthen personal liberty, contribute to the enrichment of life for all, and provide a powerful influence for peace among nations.
Coercion is rejected as a policy tool to enforce these values. Even though the Millbrook Commonwealth Action Programme does set out that Commonwealth Nations must concern themselves with other members’ internal situations, it limits repercussions to sanctions, suspensions and expulsions from the group as punishments for persistent violations to its core values.
The continued voluntary nature of the Commonwealth sets it apart from other groups, such as the European Union, and goes far in explaining why this very large and diverse grouping of countries has stood together for almost 65 years. Countries have been free to leave in that period as well as apply for admission, but the core values shared by these member states – freedom and liberty – have not been altered. We are the better for it.
And so today we remember, not just the evils and injustices of 95 years ago but of the benefits that we have today as a result. The freedom and liberty that Canadians enjoy are in no small part the result of the injustices suffered during the Great War.
Canada’s Conscription Crisis in particular was a critical albeit costly coming of age moment. The Statute of Westminster that it resulted in freed Canada and the other Dominions from forced service to a Crown it never voted for. In its place was formed a voluntary Commonwealth of Nations, joined by certain principles and rights but not irrevocably so. Countries can choose to not adhere to these principles, but the Commonwealth will have nothing to do with them if they choose this path. Despite being a stalemate for many years the Great War did accomplish much. The formation of the voluntary union of the Commonwealth might not have been so without it.
And for this, in addition to the thoughts of those who perished and their families, we remember.