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The Past

In 1909, a best-selling book predicted WWI would never happen. Then it did.

Still, the author’s main argument wasn’t totally discredited.
A wake up call for America during World War I.
WWI propaganda poster / Wikimedia Commons / Collage by Big Think
Key Takeaways
  • Norman Angell’s book The Great Illusion argues war was becoming unprofitable, not impossible.
  • In retrospect, World War I and II proved his point rather than discredited it.
  • Even today, superpowers like China are trying to isolate themselves from the global economy. But should they?

In the spring of 1949, foreign ministers from Canada, the United States, and Western Europe met in Washington D.C. to sign the North Atlantic Treaty. Many thought the treaty, which effectively created the military alliance known as NATO, would not last, with The Washington Post writing that the signing ceremony was “more spectacular than the act itself.”

One person who did not share this sentiment was Norman Angell, a British journalist and politician who believed it was only a matter of time before humanity would say goodbye to war forever. In his 1909 book The Great Illusion, Angell argued that developed countries were becoming so economically dependent on each other that the costs of international conflict far outweighed its gains.

An old photograph of a man in a suit during World War I.
A photograph of Angell. (Credit: LoC / Wikipedia)

Sadly, his prediction was proven wrong by the outbreak of World War I five years later, and again by that of World War II in 1939. Angell hoped the North Atlantic Treaty, replacing previous attempts at unification like Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, would finally create the stabilized world order he had spent the better part of his career writing about. But did it?

War, what is it good for?

It is hard to overstate just how popular and influential The Great Illusion was back in its day. Originally published under the title Europe’s Optical Illusion, it sold over a million copies and was translated into 25 languages. Embodying fin de siècle positivism and progressivism, Angell’s infectious faith in a peaceful future earned him a Nobel Peace Prize; in academic circles, scholars spoke of “Norman Angellism.”

“War,” he wrote, “has no longer the justification that it makes for the survival of the fittest; it involves the survival of the less fit. The idea that the struggle between nations is a part of the evolutionary law of man’s advance involves a profound misreading of the biological analogy. The warlike nations do not inherit the earth; they represent the decaying human element.”

And yet, in the early 20th century, the conviction that war was unjustified coexisted with another, contradictory emotion: the fear of conflict with Germany. There, centuries of romantic literature and provocative military theory had taught people the exact opposite of everything Angell stood for: war wasn’t avoidable; it was inevitable. It wasn’t unnecessary or misguided, but a key aspect of the human experience.

Underpinning the tactics of generals Alfred von Schlieffen and Carl von Clausewitz, the historian Barbara Tuchman states in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Guns of August, were philosophers like Fichte, Hegel, and Nietzsche, “who saw the German people chosen by Providence to occupy the supreme place in the history of the universe” and “leading the world to a glorious destiny.”

The Great Illusion misunderstood

The unprecedented carnage of the two world wars severely damaged Angell’s credibility. If anything, these events indicated that the globe was becoming more warlike, not less. Still, several scholars insist The Great Illusion has been wrongfully cast aside by readers, and that its core tenets are as valuable today as they appeared when the book first appeared in stores.

One of these scholars was the labor historian Howard S. Weinroth, who argued Angell’s “thesis that modern wars are economically irrational has been misrepresented to read that they are utterly impossible.” In this Angell was undoubtedly correct; World War I, costing $208 billion, set the stage for the Great Depression, while World War II turned Western Europe from a global superpower into a pawn of the US.

A vintage photograph capturing the wreckage of a village during World War I.
World War I reduced much of Europe to rubble. (Credit: Miami University Library / Wikipedia)

“The more our commercial system gains in complication,” Angell wrote, “the more does the common prosperity of us all come to depend upon the due performance of all contracts. Commercial development is broadly illustrating one profound truth (…) the subject of rivalry between nations is business, the code which has come to dominate business must necessarily come to dominate the conduct of governments.“

Far from failing to account for the world wars, The Great Illusion helps explain why they occurred. Both in the 1910s and the 1930s, Germany and other belligerents found themselves in the grasp of leaders who valued things other than business. Generals and demagogues prioritized ideology, while kings and queens emphasized power and personal relationships with neighboring empires.

Norman Angellism today

Although largely forgotten, the work of Norman Angell remains relevant today. As Michael Rühle, a member of NATO’s Emerging Security Challenges Division, noted in an article, the same factors that contributed to the world wars — “excessive nationalism, radical ideologies and misguided isolationism” — are once again on the rise today, underscoring the need for international peacekeeping organizations.

Norman Angellism was not a static doctrine but evolved over the course of its creator’s life. By the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty, Angell had, in Rühle’s words, moved away from “the war-preventing power of economic interdependence,” focusing instead on “the principle of collective security — a system that included the potential use of force against a violator.”

While states sometimes work against their own economic interests, the peacekeeping potential of interrelated economies should not be underestimated. For example, political analysts suspect sanctions against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine have dissuaded China from laying claim to Taiwan, an island in the South China Sea that Chairman Xi Jinping wishes to reunite with the mainland.

At the same time, those political analysts identify the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative — an infrastructure development program to extend and isolate its sphere of influence in East Asia — as a possible strategy to make war with the West less expensive for China, and therefore more appealing. So, if the West wants to avoid war, it may want to treat its enemies — if not as friends — at least as business partners.


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