Squandered Lives and Snuffed Out Genius: Mises, Tolkien, and World War I

Recently in The Times, Richard Morrison discussed, “The musicians silenced in the carnage of the Great War,” this being the centennial year of World War I. Morrison explored the war’s, “cataclysmic effect on the musical world,” and how “it left an indelible mark on musical composition—partly because almost a whole generation of brilliant young composers were killed, and partly because those that survived were changed for ever.” Morrison ends on a poignant note:

“As with so many of that horribly ill-fated generation, you wonder what might have been—had mankind not slaughtered so many of its brightest and best.”

This sentiment can be extended beyond music to all fields of human endeavor. Every life is precious for its own sake, but we can only have a full accounting of the costs of war if we also reflect upon the squandered potential of its victims.

Of course we can never know exactly what was lost to civilization in a war, but one way of getting an idea is to consider what we almost lost.

For example, World War I might have easily cost us most of the contributions of Ludwig von Mises, the greatest economist, and one of the greatest champions of liberty, who ever lived. In his wonderful biography of Mises, Guido Hülsmann wrote of how much danger Mises was in as an artillery officer on Austria-Hungary’s Northern Front:

Mises in uniform.

“Artillery was not only the main agent of destruction, but also one of its prime targets. Mises’s battery constantly had to change position, often under fire. Heavy rainfall set in, hampered their movements, and proved that k.u.k. uniforms were not waterproof.”

As I have written in my biographical essay about Mises, this was an incredibly close call for humanity:

“One of history’s greatest geniuses was a single air burst away from having his career nipped in the bud.

How tragic that would have been! Mises had not yet even written his great 1920 essay Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth, which contained the single most powerful argument against central planning that had ever been formulated.”

Neither had he yet elaborated the true, praxeological foundation of sound economics (which he would accomplish in the 1930s) or reconstructed on that foundation the entire edifice of economics as a rigorous, systematic, and complete science of the market (which he would accomplish in the 1940s). Imagine how subsequent Austrian economists would be have had to grope in the dark had he never made those discoveries. There would have been no Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, a book that forever changed the life and career of Friedrich Hayek (who also might have died in the World War I), and no Human Action, a book that forever changed the life and career of Murray Rothbard .

Mises himself was almost a tragic example of a phenomenon he would do so much to illuminate: the state’s calamitous misallocation of resources. In all their wisdom, the planners in Vienna decided that the mind that had already formulated the Austrian Theory of the Business Cycle and would soon discover the Socialist Calculation Problem was best employed figuring out how to effectively blow up Russians, and that the hand that would later pen Human Action might just as well instead lie cold and dead somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains.

Another such near-tragic misallocation, one made on the other side of the same war, was that of J.R.R. Tolkien, who would later author the beloved epic The Lord of the Rings. The lore of Middle-earth, still germinating in Tolkien’s imagination—a narrative world that would mold an entire genre and bring joy to millions of readers and movie-goers—might have been snuffed out unwritten in the Battle of the Somme.

Source: Governors of the Schools of King Edward VI in Birmingham, via John Garth. Garth’s caption: “A face in the crowd: Tolkien, fourth from left in the middle row, stands for inspection with the new Cadet Corps at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, on 4 April 1907″

Luckily, Mises and Tolkien survived the awful war. But what of those who did not? How many Miseses and Tolkiens laid dead in the trenches? How much bourgeoning genius was nipped in the bud?

Again, we can never know the answer to this question, but we can get an even better idea by also reflecting on the war casualty rates in the circles of these great men.

Hülsmann wrote wistfully of the pre-War intellectual ferment at Mises’s University of Vienna, and of its tragic end (emphasis added).

“What glorious days when one could study under Böhm-Bawerk, Wieser, Philippovich, and Mises! But these days were numbered. The all-star Austrian faculty lasted only three semesters. In August 1914, Böhm-Bawerk died and Mises was sent to the front. His best students perished in the war.

And before the War, Tolkien had enjoyed a deep and inspiring camaraderie as one of four friends in a tight literary circle called the Tea Club Barrovian Society (T.C.B.S.). As John Garth wrote earlier this year in The Daily Beast:

“They dreamed of making art that would create a better world, and for Tolkien a T.C.B.S. gathering in December that year was followed by ‘finding a voice for all kinds of pent up things and a tremendous opening up of everything’?—?the beginning of Middle-earth.”

But the dreams and lives of this circle were to be almost entirely devoured by the nightmare of the Great War. On July 15, 1916, T.C.B.S. member Geoffrey Smith wrote to Tolkien of the death of another member, Robert Gilson:

My dear John Ronald,

I saw in the paper this morning that Rob has been killed. I am safe but what does that matter? Do please stick to me, you and Christopher. I am very tired and most frightfully depressed at this worst news. Now one realises in despair what the T.C.B.S. really was.

O my dear John Ronald what ever are we going to do?

Yours ever.
G. B. S.

Five months later, Smith too was killed. Just before setting off for his fatal mission, Smith wrote Tolkien one last letter that is truly heart-rending:

My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered tonight—I am off on duty in a few minutes—there will still be left a member of the great T.C.B.S. to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. For the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the T.C.B.S. Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four! A discovery I am going to communicate to Rob before I go off tonight. And do you write it also to Christopher. May God bless you my dear John Ronald and may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them if such be my lot.

Yours ever,
G. B. S.

Fortunately for us, John Ronald did get to say those things. But what did Geoffrey never get to say? We will never know, but surely it would have been something splendid and profound, given the greatness of soul evinced in these letters and that he must have had to be so inspiring to Tolkien. And what did Mises’s “best students” never get to say about markets and human society?

Perhaps Tolkien himself said it best, when he wrote:

“The utter stupid waste of war not only material but moral and spiritual, is so staggering to those who have to endure it.”

To paraphrase Robin Williams’s John Keating in the film Dead Poet’s Society: They’re not that different from you, are they? They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Because you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. “Stop the wars, boys.”

Here we are, a century later, and the Washington-driven western hegemony that emerged from the World Wars is afflicted with the same imperialistic hubris and entangled in the same kind of “collective security” tripwires that detonated the conflagration that almost consumed Mises and Tolkien, and that did consume Mises’s best students and Tolkien’s best colleagues. President Barack Obama has not only just relaunched the very war in Iraq that he was elected to get us out of (much as Woodrow Wilson dragged us into World War I after winning re-election with the slogan “He kept us out of war”), but, unbelievably, has embroiled us in a proxy war with nuclear Russia. Just the other day, a member of the Ukrainian junta serving as Washington’s proxy darkly insisted that yet another “great war has arrived at our doorstep,” in which “tens of thousands” could die. And the neocons (like Victoria Nuland, who started the whole mess), “humanitarian” interventionists (like Susan Rice), and bumblers (like John Kerry) guiding Obama’s foreign policy seem to be doing everything they can to realize that unthinkable outcome: cheered on, of course, by the war drum beaters in the media.

How much unrealized genius already lies under the rubble in Donetsk, or in other urban centers demolished by American-supplied weapons like Gaza and Aleppo? How many dancers, doctors, and dreamers will never come to be? And how many times over will that number grow if we don’t finally stand up to the warmongers and war makers before it’s too late: before world conflict once again spins completely out of control as it did a hundred years ago?


Also published at DanSanchez.me and Medium.com.

  • RIC

    Excellent column. Unfortunately, the power "elite" decided long ago that there was no need to educate the masses, which might then pose a threat to their "leadership." People like Tolkien and Mises succeeded in spite of the educational system set up in Western nations, not because of it. An illustrative quote:

    “In our dream we have limitless resources, and the people yield themselves with perfect docility to our moulding hand. The present educational conventions fade from our minds; and, unhampered by tradition, we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive rural folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or of science. We are not to raise up among them authors, orators, poets, or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians. Nor will we cherish even the humbler ambition to raise up from among them lawyers, doctors, preachers, statesmen, of whom we now have ample supply."

    – Rev. Frederick T. Gates, Business Advisor to John D. Rockefeller Sr., 1913

    Rockefeller went on to fund foundations which began the deliberate dumbing down of citizens through an educational system that teaches obedience and acceptance of dogma which supports "elite" world views. Charlotte Iserbyt wrote a book on this subject which is now available on the internet for free, here: http://www.deliberatedumbingdown.com/index.html

    • Sam Lowry

      When I was a teenager, I was given "America's Great Depression" by Murray Rothbard. I read a lot, but it wasn't the kind of thing I was particularly interested in at the time. I respected the person who gave it to me so I read it anyway. It was interesting, but initially didn't have that much of an impact on me. Only later did it help me realize that what I was being fed in high-school history class was complete garbage. That's the moment I became a libertarian.

    • nomorewaryouprats

      What is heartbreaking in Smith's letters to Tolkien is the initial shock of Gilson's death, followed by the despairing recognition of (and resignation to) his own mortality. One hundred years later the same devils are running the same infernal machine. The abyss is staring back.

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  • George Hockman

    Well done Dan.

  • Werner

    A huge amount of European genetic potential was wiped out in both World Wars. Because of that deliberately-planned genocide we may go extinct as a separate race and civilization. If those wars hadn't happened, there could possibly be about a billion more White people in the world today.

    • Sarah Rice

      So true and so little understood by the masses.

    • Monster from the Id

      I doubt it was deliberately planned.

      Hanlon's Razor: "Never assume malice where stupidity will provide an adequate explanation."

      Stupidity usually provides an adequate explanation.

      • Valerianus

        Attributing most everything to stupidity is a convenient way of allowing plotters to do their work unimpeded in the dark. You might as well say that the British Empire came into being because The City of London (British finance, for the philistines), the East India Company, the West India Company, the Monarchy, No. 10 Downing Street, and Whitehall were too stupid to understand what they were doing.

      • Peter Grafström

        Monster from the id
        You say you doubt it was deliberately planned. Depends on whether you mean the extinction of the europeans or if you mean the war.
        The british alone made it happen in order to crush and humiliate Germany. The germans were praised and described as the hope of europe and the world as late as 1913 by some british authors who were not part of the propaganda crew.
        Admiral Fischer who modernized the british fleet, knew already in 1906 that the war was planned to start in august of 1914. Key individuals in Russia and France owed their careers to British funding and hidden diplomacy. The Serbian terrorist organisation the black hand was funded by the British in a roundabout manner making it look like the money came from Russia. There was nothing the germans could have done to avoid the war. The germans were the last to mobilize clearly refuting any accusations of war guilt.
        Docherty & Macgregors Hidden History from 2013 is an excellent source explaining how a secretive group of powerful individuals strongly associated with Oxford University completely fooled everybody and infiltrated the parliament. The liberal prime minister Campbell Bannerman had no idea his closest associates were betraying him. http://firstworldwarhiddenhistory.wordpress.com
        For readers who prefer to read this excellent book in german contact the authors on that website and ask about the german edition which I have been told is to come.

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  • Bramblyspam

    While I certainly don't approve of war's destruction, this kind of article about "lost potential" just irritates me. Proper analysis requires you to look at both the positives and the negatives on the balance sheet. If you're going to count the prematurely deceased Tolkiens and Miseses, you also need to count the prematurely deceased Stalins and Hitlers.

    Anyway, we can agree that war sucks, and WWI sucked more than most.

    • dan

      Your WRONG. Its wars like WW1 that BRING the Hitler's and Stalin's to power.

      With no WW1 Hitler would have been unknown to history and Stalin would have been a two-bit bandit.

      • Caesar_Saladin

        I will have to side with Brambly on this, at the risk of garnering some down votes myself. He is quite right- wars have a way of removing from us the potential of the 'best and brightest' but they also remove from us the potential of the 'worst of the worst'. We can't simply say that war takes only the best of us.

        On the other hand, the argument can be made that Hitler wasn't molded into the person we know by the horrors of WW1- certainly his later wartime decisions had to have been colored by his personal experiences in the trenches, but politically he had not been 'radicalized' (to use the now-popular term) until after the war. Had he not been sent to listen in on a certain political party, he might never have been turned in his thinking that propelled him and the NSDAP to power. He could have just as easily been sent to listen in on the Communists and been swayed to their view point. Or, as Dan noted, he might have just faded into history, without having ever beeen involved in anything of note. Then again, just think of how history would look had he used his drive and political skill in a different, better direction? The officer who sent Hitler on his investigation of the early NSDAP was the man who unwittingly set the wheels in motion- not the meat-grinder of WW1.

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  • DanD

    While wars are imminently planed, more dynamically while they are executed, and especially after they are over (for both the victor and vanquished), a populace feels that they need a harsh and brutal governor to keep the enemies from entering the gates. Thus? Stalin and Hitler.

    A truly civilized person gives all persons the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, the jingoistic monster has no doubt about his own vicious agenda. That agenda includes killing off all potential rivals who are smarter –and perhaps even more humane — than himself. The more humane his intellectual superiors are, the easier it is to slaughter them.

    DanD

    • Caesar_Saladin

      The difference I see between Stalin's and Hitler's rise to power is that Stalin more or less bullied his way into the top ranks of the Communist Party in Russia, while Hitler took a more public, political route. The people of the Soviet Union never really got an opportunity to choose Stalin as a leader, but Germany overwhelmingly voted Hitler into power. Both of them had a knack for having opponents who had fatal 'accidents', and both were driven to gain the reins of command of their respective nations; Stalin took the short route and powered his way into office, essentially appropriating power to himself, while Hitler took the longer route and gained the votes and support of Germany along the way. If only both nations could have seen where their leaders were to take them…

  • HIDE BEHIND

    Why limit it to the few of WWI or of many a wars, look upon a whole national scene and see where creative genius has been shunted into military and idustrial private corporate research.
    We let government tell us of the side benegits from military research, Tang anyone, but in truth they are mere throw away research projects obsoleted by newer military findings.
    What could minds not concerned with new biological chemical and newrr geneticly combined weapons of war, what andnwhere wouldbour students learn of in Colleges without havingvto partake as undergraduates military sciences of minds andvpopulace control.

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