The date is June 1919, which marked the end of the First World War through the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Germany had been defeated and was forced to pay heavy reparations (in the form of money, territory and military capability) for the losses and destruction caused, in addition to facing the humiliation that comes with a strategic military failure.
Over the following 20 years, the German economy and people struggled to rebuild its strength, and it was these conditions of privation that led to the rise of a proud, charismatic and nationalist leadership — one that promised an end to the hardship. Economic policies enacted included reducing unemployment through large scale public works (autobahns), building self-sufficiency in food and raw materials and the active rearmament of Germany through the ‘Four Year Plan’ starting from 1936.
“The policy of reducing Germany to servitude for a generation, of degrading the lives of millions of human beings, and of depriving a whole nation of happiness should be abhorrent and detestable… nations are not authorised to visit on the children of their enemies the misdoings of parents.”
- John Maynard Keynes
Preparing for the Second World War allowed Germany to build factories, boost manufacturing, and provide ordinary people with jobs. The economy was stimulated and revived, people could find work and experience a return to a semblance of what had existed before, but directing a country’s ambition towards the ultimate objective of destruction and conquest does not sustain an economy for the long haul.
Consider, as a baseline analogy, a hypothetical example of an individual, isolated and self-sufficient nation state. For a functional, prosperous economy to exist, it has to be built on a core foundation of manufacturing — the process of converting low value raw material into something that can be considered more valuable. This can be a physical good or a provision of services, but what is important is that each output goes on further to enable and facilitate the production of other goods and services.
A factory produces commodity cloth that a skilled tailor uses to fashion a bespoke suit for a lawyer, who then goes on to successfully prevent an innocent-but-accused-as-guilty client from wasting 10 years in jail — time and energy which instead goes back into society. The lawyer wins the case, goes on to help more clients, buys more suits, which then employs more tailors and cloth producers — leading to a flywheel effect.
The flourishing of micro manufacturing and trade activities allows for the establishment of ever greater flywheels that continually foster productive economic activity. And this is only considering a hypothetical, isolated and self-sufficient nation state.
The modern world we live in today is far more complex, comprising of individual but intimately networked nation states, with obvious and not-so-obvious trade relationships that enable even greater flow of information, materials and people — all of which goes on to unlock even more productive economic activity.
In times of war, a nation diverts its resources and energy (provided by its people) away from production-with-the-intent-of-creation towards production-with-the-intent-of-destruction. The economy is initially stimulated from the efforts of manufacturing arms and wartime resources, but eventually conditions reach a zero-sum game. A nation’s resources gets consumed, it loses its young people through military skirmishes and all of the efforts do not get captured in any sort of meaningful flywheel.
It is useful to use the complicated logistics of managing a live battlefront to further explore how far reaching an active war effort can be, what the results of applying second order thinking might look like.
Some prerequisite ingredients for hosting a battlefront:
Wartime does not discriminate. The young and able are the first to be deployed onto the front lines, but the resources that a battlefront demands will eventually propagate into the rest of society — be it in the driving of trucks, the running of an administration or in the production of food.
This is why the whole world is watching Ukraine and Russia — the localised events will have downstream consequences on a global scale.
Recently, I was watching a news feed that showed an interviewer talking to Ukrainian people on the ground, ordinary civilians who appeared to be waiting in line to.. receive arms. This is the video.
It is extremely difficult to imagine what it must be like to be in such a position.
As a civilian in a country facing off with a foreign aggressor, the choices for one to make, it would seem, are quite limited — to leave everything behind and to run towards higher ground, or to make a stand. I hold great respect for those civilians for choosing to stand their ground — it is not as if it would be an easy decision between great and terrible, but instead to choose the lesser between two evils.
“We tend to take it for granted, but it is an astonishing novelty in human history. For thousands of years, military expenditure was by far the biggest item on the budget of every prince, khan, sultan and emperor. They hardly spent a penny on education or medical help for the masses.
The decline of war didn’t result from a divine miracle or from a change in the laws of nature. It resulted from humans making better choices. It is arguably the greatest political and moral achievement of modern civilisation. Unfortunately, the fact that it stems from human choice also means that it is reversible.”
- Yuval Noah Harari in “What’s at stake in Ukraine is the direction of human history.”
I write all of the above, not as a political commentator, an expert historian or an economist. I am sure that I have left gaps or made inaccurate assumptions, I do not have the ability to verify all of the available information nor am I in the position to provide informed updates on the current evolving situation.
I write from a place of someone trying to make sense of what it actually means for countries to wage war against one another. To realise, first hand, that behind the ‘countries’ are people as well as weapons and resources.
Perhaps I have been too ignorant all the way up to this point, but never have I ever tried to think about war from the perspective of I.
What if, the battlefront was not on some distant and foreign land. What if it was here?
Would I choose to flee or to make a stand? Would there even be a choice for someone like me?
How might my family have the highest chance of being safe? What would they have to do? Where would they go?
Superfluous questions to be asking? Perhaps, but they are valuable to consider in advance of the arrival of contingency scenarios—because once the worst case does happen, it would be too late to afford to think before acting.