Seizing the Opportunity to Destroy Western Civilization

A fable agreed upon
A fable agreed upon

Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines black swans as events that:

  1. Are totally unpredictable by mortal minds.
  2. Have a disproportionately large impact.
  3. Have retroactive predictability imposed on them through the foresight of 20/20 hindsight.

Taleb frequently points to the outbreak of World War I as an example of a black swan. He scoffs at historical accounts that present the outbreak as the result of trends that built up over the preceding decades, dismissing them as manifestations of the narrative fallacy:

Narrative fallacy: our need to fit a story or pattern to a series of connected or disconnected facts.

As evidence of the narrative fallacy in histories of World War I, Taleb cites Niall Ferguson’s The Pity Of War on the failure of bond investors to price the possibility of war into their trades right before the war broke out. Ferguson now returns the favor in Complexity and Collapse, citing Taleb in his excoriation of historians who peddle epic theories of social collapse likeGiambattista Vico, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, Paul Kennedy, and Jared Diamond. After any major historical event, Ferguson complains:

…historians arrive on the scene. They are the scholars who specialize in the study of “fat tail” events—the low-frequency, high-impact moments that inhabit the tails of probability distributions, such as wars, revolutions, financial crashes, and imperial collapses. But historians often misunderstand complexity in decoding these events. They are trained to explain calamity in terms of long-term causes, often dating back decades. This is what Nassim Taleb rightly condemned in The Black Swan as “the narrative fallacy”: the construction of psychologically satisfying stories on the principle of post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

Drawing casual inferences about causation is an age-old habit. Take World War I. A huge war breaks out in the summer of 1914, to the great surprise of nearly everyone. Before long, historians have devised a story line commensurate with the disaster: a treaty governing the neutrality of Belgium that was signed in 1839, the waning of Ottoman power in the Balkans dating back to the 1870s, and malevolent Germans and the navy they began building in 1897. A contemporary version of this fallacy traces the 9/11 attacks back to the Egyptian government’s 1966 execution of Sayyid Qutb, the Islamist writer who inspired the Muslim Brotherhood. Most recently, the financial crisis that began in 2007 has been attributed to measures of financial deregulation taken in the United States in the 1980s.

Ferguson proclaims that the real truth is found in the opposite direction:

In reality, the proximate triggers of a crisis are often sufficient to explain the sudden shift from a good equilibrium to a bad mess. Thus, World War I was actually caused by a series of diplomatic miscalculations in the summer of 1914, the real origins of 9/11 lie in the politics of Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, and the financial crisis was principally due to errors in monetary policy by the U.S. Federal Reserve and to China’s rapid accumulation of dollar reserves after 2001. Most of the fat-tail phenomena that historians study are not the climaxes of prolonged and deterministic story lines; instead, they represent perturbations, and sometimes the complete breakdowns, of complex systems.

I’m going to quibble with the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History here.

It’s true that you have little to no ability to predict the future on your own. You can’t control what happens to you but you can control how you react to what happens to you. So what controls your reaction? The same sort of narrative that Taleb calls a fallacy.

Narrative reduces personal experience to a linear progression where cause and effect seem to have a purposeful order. These narratives can then be shared with others, leading to the best definition of history ever: history is a fable agreed upon. Most personal narratives will never be the equivalent of the histories of Herodotus, Thucydides, or Gibbon; or even the fables of Aesop, La Fontaine, or Orwell. Most are simply humble habitual ways of thinking. As habits of thought, such narratives largely control how you react to unfolding events, whether it’s pricking your finger or waging a world war.

Once we recognize the high degree of control that narratives have on the actions of historical actors, the fundamental problem with Ferguson’s critique is revealed: narratives are forged by the very “long-term causes, often dating back decades” that he dismisses in his article. He underestimates the power of inertia: once past childhood, barring serious mental illness or brain trauma, narrative and the behavior it shapes keeps within a restricted range. So narrative is present before a black swan, during a black swan, and after a black swan (assuming you survive the black swan). Black swans may shake the flow of a narrative to its foundations but they may also help confirm and even reinforce it. Through such confirmation, you may come to see a black swan as more of an opportunity than a disruption. You may get the chance to play your narrative out in real life.

Strategy is a reconciliation of cultural narrative, political power, and the outside world. It is a narrative of narratives that somehow weaves these three threads into what at least seems like a coherent tapestry. While the intent of some strategies is proactive and aimed at acquiring some selected degree of control over the future, in practice most strategies are reactive and aimed at maintaining a tenuous degree of control over the present. An unpredictable kaleidoscope of black swans and more prosaic events passes before the strategist’s eye until he sees some pattern that conforms to his narrative. Then he strikes.

But nothing guarantees that the strategist’s eye will be unerring. Strategy is hit or miss, with the emphasis on miss. While the course of events will continue to escape the control of mortal man, the strategist can maintain control of his reaction by maintaining control over his narrative. This may be why Clausewitz elevates steadiness of character over every other virtue: the strategist who endures may be the strategist who triumphs. Steady pursuit of a narrative may reveal more strategic opportunity than a constantly shifting narrative.

Behold I am become black swan, the destroyer of worlds
Behold I am become black swan, the destroyer of worlds

Let’s return to Taleb’s example of a black swan: the outbreak of World War I. Mr. and Mrs. Archduke Franz Ferdinand suffered a black swan. But that black swan, as the summer of 1914 went on, suddenly aligned with the narratives of two men. Together, these narratives combined to destroy Western civilization.

Count Leopold Berchtold
Count Leopold Berchtold

Count Leopold Anton Johann Sigismund Josef Korsinus Ferdinand Berchtold von und zu Ungarschitz, Frättling und Püllütz followed a narrative that Serbia had to be permanently cut down to size in order to strengthen the tottering Austro-Hungarian monarchy. The Slavs of Austria-Hungary, unrepresented in a Dual Monarchy dominated by an alliance of Germans and Magyars, were restive. They were especially restive in the newly annexed province of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Neighboring Serbia wanted Bosnia for itself so elements of Serbian military intelligence, possibly with the connivance of the Serbian government, conspired to assassinate Franz Ferdinand through a terrorist proxy. Through some good luck, they bagged the archduke, sparing the lives of many innocent animals. Franz Ferdinand, a figure almost universally loathed within the imperial court, had finally done something useful. His unforeseen death had created a series of events that strongly correlated with Berchtold’s narrative.

With the assistance of Count Francis Conrad von Hötzendorf, whose anti-Serbian narrative was even stronger, Berchtold consulted with Imperial Germany. More importantly, they consulted with the major villain of the piece.

Helmuth von Moltke the Younger
Helmuth von Moltke the Younger

Helmuth von Moltke (the Younger) is the single individual most responsible for World War I. Moltke, the Chief of the German General Staff, had the narrative: Russian military reorganization would be complete in the next few years and then Germany would be outnumbered on two fronts by the Franco-Russian alliance. The Russian army would be larger, better armed, and better supported by a rapidly growing industrial base and economy. Of even more concern, the western Russian rail network, paid for by French money and designed to bring millions of freshly mobilized Russian troops to the borders of Eastern Germany, would soon be completed. In Moltke’s narrative, Germany’s strategic disadvantages relative to France and Russia were growing worse by the day.

Action was needed. Conveniently, as a key part of his narrative, Moltke had a plan: the Moltke Plan. The basic outlines of the Moltke Plan were inherited from Moltke’s immediate predecessor, Count Alfred von Schlieffen. Under the Moltke Plan, Germany would concentrate the bulk of its forces against France in the west, marching through Belgium to envelop the French army from the west. The German army would play defense in the east until France was knocked out of the war. Then German forces would be switched to the east to defeat Russia. Millions of happy Germans would dance in the streets and pointy helmets would be all the rage with the ladies.

With this narrative, complete with official war plan, Moltke repeatedly proposed a preemptive war against Russia in the years leading up to 1914. Germany’s civilian politicians turned him down every time. But Berchtold had finally given Moltke’s narrative the opportunity to be played out in real life. Moltke gave Berchtold his full backing, anticipating that any potential Austro-Hungarian attack on Serbia would invite Russian intervention. Russian intervention would be the excuse Moltke needed to have his preemptive war. The Moltke Plan would be on. Real life would follow Moltke’s personal narrative.

With German assurances, Berchtold, the pawn in Moltke’s narrative, manipulated the situation to force Serbia into a corner by giving them an ultimatum that would effectively reduce Serbia to an Austrian puppet. Serbia accepted most of Berchtold’s ultimatum but not all of it. Affecting outrage, Austria declared war. Berchtold had played out his narrative.


Now Moltke’s narrative came to the fore. Moltke had kept his superiors, especially Wilhelm II, in the dark concerning the exact details of his arrangement with Berchtold and the full implications of the Moltke Plan. Moltke led Wilhelm and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg along until it was too late for them to do anything, even if they had wanted to. When they tried to pull back, Moltke protested that stopping mobilization would throw off the General Staff’s plan, a plan which he himself, of course, had drawn up, and leave Germany vulnerable to French and Russian attack. The point of no return came. Russia partially mobilized and Germany launched a full mobilization for the Moltke Plan. France mobilized the next day and Germany declared war. The dominoes began falling.

Both Berchtold and Moltke’s narratives were forged by “long-term causes, often dating back decades”. They were men with extensive life experience: in 1914, Moltke was 66 and Berchtold was 51. Such men are usually set in their ways and their personal narratives rarely change. Black swans are characteristic of Extremistan, a domain where small inputs yield large outputs. This is not the world of the human brain. The human brain lives in Mediocristan, where everything turns out average.Taleb has an insightful axiom that history jumps instead of crawls. Narratives, in their small, obscure, and highly localized corner do just the opposite: narratives crawl; they don’t jump. While Ferguson’s proximate causes can lead quickly to the breakdown of complex systems, states, and empires, they both feed and are fed by the narratives that the people caught up in events have accumulated over the years. Though they are small and fleeting, it is through the marks they leave on narrative that long-term causes leave their mark on history.

And an iron ran through it...
And an iron ran through it…

Originally posted on The Committee of Public Safety.

39 thoughts on “Seizing the Opportunity to Destroy Western Civilization”

  1. Thanks, it’s a great summary of what’s wrong with the “unanticipated outbreak” of WWI position. Yes, the assassination was an unexpected spark, but the tinder was being assiduously piled up for quite a while in advance.

  2. “Frustrating Taleb’s contention that history jumps instead of crawling, narratives crawl; they don’t jump. While Ferguson’s proximate causes can lead quickly to the breakdown of complex systems, states, and empires, they both feed and are fed by the narratives that the people caught up in events have accumulated over years. It is through the marks they leave on narrative that long-term causes leave their mark on history.”

    But the problem is that the choice on who has a chance to ‘implement’ their own narratives is not subject to long term causes, but may well be random, and as a result the ‘appeal to narratives’ does not break the point that there is no such thing as a long-term ‘narrative’ in History. Only if you can prove that Berchtold and Moltke were bound to be able to implement their narratives and didn’t just got lucky to be there when they got their chance, can you actually disprove Taleb’s point. Two years before, there was the 1912 Agadir Crisis, but WWI did not start in 1912.

  3. Perhaps there is an analogy with accident investigations.

    Let’s say a certain airplane has vicious aerodynamic stall characteristics, and a stall warning system that sometimes fails without notice. A pilot gets too slow in a turn, the airplane stalls, and recovery does not occur.

    The NTSB report will say something like:

    Primary Cause: Pilot failed to maintain proper airspeed.
    Contributing Causes: Failure of stall warning system; undesirable stall characteristics of aircraft

    One could say that this accident was “caused” by the pilot’s inattention to airspeed; one could equally well say that given the other problems identified, it was only a matter of time until this happened.

    Probably similarly with WWI.

  4. “Probably similarly with WWI.”

    Yet during the Cold War we lived for several decades under much more tense and uncertain times (e.g. the political differences between NATO and the Warsaw Pact were far deeper than those between the Entente and Alliance powers), and what “was only a matter of time” did not happen.

    I do not deny we had several close shaves, but the ‘narrative’ of MAD did not happen despite people expecting it and generals planning incessantly to win a WWIII.

  5. Narrative frustrates Taleb’s contention. It does not make it absolutely untrue. Taleb is correct that history jumps instead of crawling. But it’s also true that history’s jumping is occasionally hobbled or accelerated by a force that does crawl instead of jump: narrative. Narrative both feeds and is fed by historical jumps. They are an interactively complex problem.

    Unforeseeable jumps put Moltke’s uncle in a position where he became a famous general who could pull his nephew up by mere association. Unforeseeable jumps made Berchtold a dissolute aristocrat in the foreign service instead of just another dissolute aristocrat drifting between Viennese social clubs. But they arrived in their positions and further jumps that aligned with their preferred narratives occurred while they were in those positions. Their personal narratives, shaped by how they interpreted the historical jumps they had experienced during the preceding decades, could then shape further jumps, a mix of intended effects and unexpected consequences. Indeed, further jumps in the next year would relegate both Moltke and Berchtold back to the powerless obscurity from which they emerged.

    To argue that the course of history is entirely determined by long term trends is sheer folly. To then turn around like Niall Ferguson and argue that it’s all the result of short-term causes is also folly. The truth lies in the muddling middle.

  6. If WWI had been delayed just a few more years, wouldn’t Moltke — in response to his own narrative — have had to stop promoting the idea of a preventative war because it would be too late, Russia would have grown too strong for that sort of war to work?

  7. To wit, when we are living “in the moment”, the present can be full of contradictory occurances.
    Yet from a historical perspective (written by historians), only the most logical dots are connected. As was said, from 20/20 hindsight, patterns emerge. And that can be the great fallacy of the intelligent reader; searching for a narrative that may be less than inclusive, and factually faulty. Thus creating the notion in the head of the nominally intelligent and logical person that everything has a pattern, if we could only connect the dots faster!!

    This is the danger then, of “intellectualism”, rather than an honest intellectual appraisal of all the facts, however conflicting, that don’t always fit into a pre-conceived narrative.
    The black swan is truly a paradigm shift, or narrative breaker. If it is a true a “black swan”, then the current widely accepted narrative of the present moment will not anticipate it.

    Is there such a thing as a “white swan”, in as much as the unexpected “good” thing that happens, such as the apparent spontaneous collapse of the Soviet block and the fall of the Berlin Wall?

  8. I still think that the premise of “Dreadnaught” has merit. In my book I have a section on Wilhelm, his father and grandfather. Frederick, the father of Wilhelm and Crown Prince, was pro-English and married Victoria’s oldest daughter. He was a very stable and methodical man. Unfortunately, he developed cancer of the larynx. His wife was obsessed with her English doctors although medicine, and especially surgery, was far better in Germany at the time. Frederick would not have consented to the plans of Moltke. He died immediately after assuming the throne and his son blamed the English doctors who botched the treatment of his father. It’s quite a story. That, added to his jealousy of his cousins’ navy, made him subject to his volatile nature and he allowed the crisis to develop. It’s far from the whole story but it was a factor.

    I also think, and have shocked some English friends with the opinion, that England should not have joined France in 1914. They had no choice in 1941 but in 1914 it might have been better to play perfidious Albion.

  9. “Yet during the Cold War we lived for several decades under much more tense and uncertain times (e.g. the political differences between NATO and the Warsaw Pact were far deeper than those between the Entente and Alliance powers), and what “was only a matter of time” did not happen.”

    Apparently people do learn something from history.

    Immediately before WWI, the people in charge had no experience with a catastrophe that would change the world. By the time of the cold war, they had experience of two such events.

    During the cold war, everyone went the extra mile to prevent the situation blowing up (literally) in their face. In the opening stages of WWI, there was a greater willingness to accept that they were in it, and might as well proceed with their plans.

    I’m not saying that they learn a lot, but they do learn something …

  10. I don’t think WWI is the best place to have an argument over black swans and crawls. Europe was a kindling pile that had been building for hundreds of years. A tiny continent packed with a multitude of the most arrogant, self-regarding, self-entitled, militaristic empires since antiquity, jammed in against each other in an area about the size of the US east of the Mississipi.

    The sheer fact of scope – the number of imperialist states divided by the land available times the number of mutually hostile subcultures – renders the question moot. It may not have been the oft-referenced powderkeg, in the sense that a powderkeg will almost never fail to explode, but it was certainly flammable material that someone was going to ignite eventually.

    Of course, one reason no one would have been *able* to see the war coming is that the discipline for that form of geopolitical analysis and historiography didn’t exist yet, it was in fact brought into being by that war and its successor.

  11. I believe what this article attempts to prove is that WWI was not a Black Swan rather than Black Swans don’t exist. Regular outbreaks of war and mass violence are the norm for human societies, not Black Swans. A true Black Swan would be 200-300 years of world peace.

    If memory serves, most peoples of the earth were not involved in WWI and it hardly destroyed Western Civilization. To the extent that it weakened monarchy and/or centralized power to dominate individuals it can be viewed as having strengthened Western Civilization…the Soviet Union notwithstanding.

    So what then is a historical jump of Black Swan proportions? How about the Enlightenment? Reason and science flourished, mankind’s lot improved so dramatically that the process continues today. Population growth jumps and stays high. The power of the individual grows relative to the group and, thus, creates even more opportunities for enlightened discoveries (which have, indeed, occurred). I think historians will only be able to create a “narrative” for the Enlightenment if we let statists and luddites (global warming?) snuff it out.

  12. Joseph, thank you for an excellent post, which has earned you a plate of barbeque if you are ever in my vicinity.

    If I may be forgiven a cliché or three, the narratives that dominate our lives are analogous to tides, while the seemingly-sudden events that wreak havoc are the individual waves, or perhaps the statistically unusually large ones.

    In Strauss and Howe’s version of this, the narrative is an alternation of parental styles that creates a repeating four-part cycle of generational outlooks, and as such is surprisingly predictable. Of course, the individual events are not, but how they will be perceived and reacted to is at least relatively predictable.

    I hope to do a post on this soon with special attention to their predicted Crisis of 2020, which I believe is already underway. In the meantime, readers with nothing better to do for the next hour can watch a talk I gave last autumn, which may be found in six parts here. It references Taleb and Black Swans extensively. Apologies in advance for the sound quality and my several hundred utterances of “um.”

  13. Von Moltke the Younger as the villain of the piece? Stuff! Nonsense! If you delve deeply into things you will see that the absolutely critical decision ensuring a general European War, rather than a limited war among Austria, Serbia and, perhaps, Russia, was Russia’s decision to mobilize. Russia had, until 1910 or so, plans pursuant to which it could mobilize against either Austria or Germany or both. After 1910, those plans were no longer updated and Russia only contemplated a mobilization against both Germany and Austria in concert with its French allies. In the face of the Crisis following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the Tsar waivered whether or not to mobilize or not when he learned he could not mobilize only against Austria. The man who was most responsible for pressing him to mobilize was the French Ambassador, Maurice Paleologue. The French Premier was at sea during critical parts of the crisis (returning from a visit to St. Petersburg) and there was no one to reign in Paleologue in his incitement of the Tsar. Without Paleologue’s urgings, it is probable that that given the choice between a general war and a negotiated settlement of the situation between Austria and Russia’s Serbian clients, the Tsar would not have mobilized. Had Russia not mobilized, Germany would not have moblized. Without German mobilization there would not have been a general war in 1914. Paleologue is the villain of the peace, not von Moltke the Younger – who was a mere epigone to von Schlieffen, whose last words were “make sure the right wing is strong!”

  14. So if WWI was the result of these three playing out their individual narratives, why was the outbreak of the war greeted with enthusiasm by the populations of every belligerent? (Russia, perhaps, excepted) And on another matter, what about the French “blank check” issued to the Russians? It seems quite a stretch to pin Moltke as the single most responsible individual when the French could have restrained the Russians. After all, the Russians really didn’t have a direct interest in the preservation of Serbia. Nobody asked Russia to proclaim itself protector of the South Slavs.

  15. There is a branch of math, Perturbation Theory, which addresses these things. Saw a edu-TV show a few days ago about giant ‘killer’ waves arising seemingly randomly in the ocean. Upon closer examination these things turned out to be the confluence and aggregation of lot’s of little waves, each coming predictably on it’s own course, but each arising randomly.

    Eco’s “Foucalt’s Pendulum” limned this pretty well too. Humans just can’t stand to live with Uncertainty, so they weave the Narrative to cover and hide that beast. It is a psychological sheild. To borrow a phrase, it is an opiate of the masses.

  16. @Douglas Cohen

    Such a scenario, barring unforeseen events, might have played out that way if Moltke had lived that long. He was not in good health and his health continued to deteriorate until his death, a mere two years later, in 1916. It’s important to remember that Moltke’s narrative was not entirely unique to him. An important feature of narratives, perhaps their key feature, is that they can be shared. Other German leaders, such as Erich von Falkenhayn, his actual successor as German Chief of Staff in 1914 and a probable successor even if WWI had never happened, shared elements of Moltke’s narrative. Events may have intervened to shape their narratives away from the conventional wisdom that prevailed in 1914. Or a black swan might have popped up that strongly correlated with their narrative and something WWIish might have happened anyway. It’s not impossible that Russia might have had issues as well.


    There is such a thing as a white swan. A white swan, however, is a consequential event that is foreseeable. Taleb, who had spent the last decade warning about the financial models (like VAR) used by the major financial institutions, has called the global financial crisis a white swan, since it could be foreseen. Money quote:

    “It was my greatest vindication. But to me that wasn’t a black swan; it was a white swan. I knew it would happen and I said so. It was a black swan to Ben Bernanke. I wouldn’t use him to drive my car. These guys are dangerous. They’re not qualified in their own field.”

    Curiously this means that Taleb and Ferguson, who are now homeboys, disagree on whether the crisis was caused by proximate factors or the result of long term trends.

    Taleb would call an unexpected and consequential good event a “positive black swan”. Black swans are not automatically positive or negative, though the term is most often used to describe negative events.

    @Michael Kennedy

    I think the common criticism of Imperial Germany’s governing structure makes valid points. Bismarck designed the system for himself, Wilhelm I, and the Elder Moltke. He assumed a pliant emperor, an amenable Chief of Staff, and a militarily and politically competent chancellor with the full backing of the emperor. When Wilhelm II came along, the system broke down. Wilhelm II was willful enough to want to make actual political decisions and prefer chancellors that would be his tool but not competent or persistent enough to consistently manage his chancellors or generals. His chancellors were too politically weak to supervise or even engage with the general staff. Schlieffen and Moltke were left in a virtual vacuum as far as war planning was concerned. Tirpitz enjoyed similar autonomy, though Wilhelm II was far more involved in naval affairs.

    @RM3 Frisker FTN

    No one ever expects the Guardian of Forever.


    This is another place where narrative has an influence on history. One specific example is The Guns of August, based on the events of 1914. While historians can and do quibble with author Barbara Tuchman’s version of history, her specific narrative had a specific impact on leaders in the early 1960s, particularly JFK and particularly during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This created a narrative where the primary fear of nuclear policymakers was an accidental misunderstanding between the superpowers leading to war and the best fix was initiatives like installing a hotline between Soviet and American leaders. While misunderstanding is one risk, it underestimates the possibility that a participant in a nuclear war may understand exactly what they’re doing, which is a factor also in play in August 1914.


    WWI is a great place to have a discussion about black swans and crawling for this reason: WWI has been deliberately and repeatedly cited by both Taleb and Ferguson as one of the most prominent black swans of human history. I think that for the vast majority of people in Europe and other affected parts of the world, WWI was a black swan. Note the above quote where Taleb claims the global financial crisis was a white swan to him but a black swan to Bernanke. I don’t know if they lacked geopolitical analytic frameworks either. Note this analysis from Colonel Edward M. House, Thomas Woodrow Wilson’s éminence grise, after a tour of Europe in May 1914:

    “The situation is extraordinary. It is militarism run stark mad. Unless someone acting for you can bring about a different understanding, there is some day to be an awful cataclysm. No one in Europe can do it. There is too much hatred, too many jealousies. Whenever England consents, France and Russia will close in on Germany and Austria. England does not want Germany wholly crushed, for she would then have to reckon alone with her ancient enemy, Russia; but if Germany insists upon an ever increasing navy, then England will have no choice. The best chance for peace is an understanding between England and Germany in regard to naval armaments and yet there is some disadvantage to us by these two getting too close.”

    In terms of quality, that’s not much worse than what passes for contemporary geopolitical analysis.


    I agree with Taleb that WWI was a black swan. I disagree with Niall Ferguson’s contention that long-term causes had nothing to do with the outbreak of WWI.

    @Jay Manifold

    BBQ is tasty.

    @Barry Dauphin

    Too late.


    Having “delved deeply” into WWI, there is plenty of evidence supporting Moltke’s primary responsibility. The books to read are:

    Europe’s Last Summer: Who started the Great War in 1914? by David Fromkin

    Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War by Annika Mombauer

    Others may disagree with the arguments of these books, but that is the nature of historical discourse. Caveat emptor.

    @J. Frederick

    WWI was the result of the interplay of narrative and events, many of which stretched back over decades. Thucydides said the motives behind most wars is fear, honor, and interest. Russia’s motive was honor. After their defeat by Japan, the other European powers were able to repeatedly exploit Russia’s weakness. Important members of the Russian establishment, especially the male Romanovs, were hellbent on war, especially since they’d been ineffective in their attempts to intervene in the Balkan Wars. Russia also had territorial aspirations in the Balkans. Russian expansionism had its own logic, which was not necessarily logical. But then again, a lot of history doesn’t make logical sense.

  17. Failure of imagination, failure of nerve, are normal “white swan” themes in history; we think of “black swans” as tactical events gone bad, metastasizing to global consequences unforeseeable.

    Often enough, doing nothing will sufficiently set events in train. When Hitler re-occupied the demilitarized Rhineland in 1936, contrary to the Treaty of Versailles, the German General Staff prepared to remove Hindenberg’s reviled “Bohemian Corporal” at the first sign of French resistance. But France was in thrall to Popular Front dissension, and British appeasers thought of the territory as “Germany’s backyard.” Thirty-two thousand Wehrmacht troops marched in, entirely unopposed.

    Had France mounted even token force, there would have been no World War II– no Manhattan Project, no Iron Curtain, no perilous decades of Cold War. But who could know?– and sheer inertia always plays a part. Action and inaction both entail grave risks, perhaps not right away but soon enough. Alas, default to zero is a decision in and of itself.

    Perhaps the key, then, is to act consistently on principle, seeing prevention as the only cure. But this too is destabilizing in terms of potentially damaging a status quo. Since 1946, Western European nations have experienced their longest remission of major-state hostilities since the Fall of Rome (1814 to 1870 was a decade less).

    Fault lines accumulate… when seismic geopolitical crisis comes, it will undoubtedly have been “foreseeable in hindsight” and yet remain a scandalous surprise. But since 1914, times if not human nature have fundamentally changed: Amidst a demographic cataclysm, as our 12,250-year Holocene Interglacial Epoch fades, nuclear holocaust allied with bacteriological and chemical WMDs will make our next Swan very black indeed.

  18. I bet I could get lucky if I cruised the bars with a hat like that. It just screams studmuffin.

    Well, Wilhelm II certainly considered himself a studmuffin although you never know what goes on behind closed doors.

  19. The thing which made WW1 actually happen was Germany’s mobilization plan, which was pure von Schlieffen. Up until German mobilization, the important events of 1914 were just talk. For all the Continental powers except Germany, it would have still been talk after mobilization. Mobilization called up large numbers of troops and placed them on the frontiers, where they would be useful for either offensive or defensive campaigns, depending on the tactical situation as it might happen to develop. Mobilization itself committed no country to either offense or defense … except Germany. The Schlieffen plan called for immediate attack in the west against France, and a lightning campaign to surround the French army in the fashion of the closing campaign of the 1870 war. The victorious German troops would then transfer east, to meet the Russian forces which would by then have completed their relatively ponderous mobilization. Strategically, the Schlieffen plan couldn’t tolerate a German mobilization which simply placed troops on the frontiers, followed by more talk; while the talk was proceeding, so would Russian mobilization, presenting Germany with a two-front war; a contingency the students of von Clausewitz were determined to avoid at any cost. Von Schlieffen’s plan – a rather good one, considering the position of Germany in the center of Europe, surrounded by enemies – had the fatal strategic drawback that it removed a degree of freedom in the diplomatic negotiations, a degree of freedom which everyone, including the Germans, was counting on. Of course the Schlieffen plan had other weaknesses; tactically, it failed after the Marne, when both sides began to dig in. The war of maneuver, essential for Germany to free up the forces needed to meet the Russians, died in the trenches.

    It seems to me that the fatal strategic flaw in the Schlieffen plan, the equation of mobilization with attack, is hard to pin on the younger von Moltke. Even more relevant is the fact that the Schlieffen plan didn’t appear mysteriously or spontaneously. It was a reasonably natural outgrowth of Germany’s strategic situation, as it had developed gradually since 1870. The fact that it led to war when the mobilization plans of other countries led only to more diplomatic folderol should not have been a surprise, certainly not to the German diplomatic corps. So whose fault was that? Was it the fault of the Kaiser and Berchtold, for being unaware that German mobilization automatically meant war? But why should they have been so unaware? It was hardly a new plan. Schlieffen retired in 1906; the essential features of the plan had remained static. And I have trouble seeing von Moltke as a scheming spider pulling strings of deception from the center of a web of darkness. The uncle, possibly; but not the nephew. Similarly, the geopolitical position of Germany and the Franco-Russian treaties which ringed it with enemies were no surprises, either. The start of the war looks like a mix of long-term and short-term causes, none of which should have been terribly unexpected.

  20. Thanks for the interesting discussion.

    I will extend my initial remarks to say that everyone expected a quick war*, so the extended nature of what actually occurred, with its frightful number of casualties, was definitely a Black Swan type of thing.

    *Should they have expected it? That’s not so certain, but it does seem like no on really paid attention to the lessons of the American Civil War or that little tussle down in southern Africa.

  21. “Should they have expected it?” The war everyone looked back on was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 which was over quickly enough. And I think they were right to take it as the model for the next war. Crucially, it was the last big, European War.

  22. As evidence of the narrative fallacy in histories of World War I, Taleb cites Niall Ferguson’s The Pity Of War on the failure of bond investors to price the possibility of war into their trades right before the war broke out.

    However, the conventional “result of trends that built up over the preceding decades” explanatory model of WWI would suggest that the possibility of war was already priced into bonds by investors; therefore no dramatic August 1914 bond price jump would confirm the conventional model rather than refuting it as Ferguson and Taleb suppose.

  23. As evidence of the narrative fallacy in histories of World War I, Taleb cites Niall Ferguson’s The Pity Of War on the failure of bond investors to price the possibility of war into their trades right before the war broke out.

    However, the conventional “result of trends that built up over the preceding decades” explanatory model of WWI would suggest that the possibility of war was already priced into bonds by investors; therefore no dramatic August 1914 bond price jump would confirm the conventional model rather than refuting it as Ferguson and Taleb suppose.

  24. Mathematical digression:

    In cryptography there is this method called a ‘one-time-pad’ which is impossible to crack (not very difficult like RSA or other encryption algorithms, but mathematically proven to be impossible). You digitise your message, multiply it by a random number, and the result is then transmitted in the open. Anyone intercepting the result cannot by any method of analysis or brute force (even if they manage to invent a quantum computer) reconstruct your message unless they know what the random number was; they cannot even approximate what the message was. Call it the Second Law of Thermodynamics for numbers: random always wins.

    Back to History:

    “Taleb is correct that history jumps instead of crawling. But it’s also true that history’s jumping is occasionally hobbled or accelerated by a force that does crawl instead of jump: narrative.”

    It does not really matter how strong and deterministic the narratives of the individuals are; the opportunity for those individuals to act upon their narratives (and the shaping of those narratives over time) is random*, and hence it is impossible to predict what their effects will be. The randomness of life and death kills any predictive value there may be in individual (or collective) narratives. Historians trying to predict the present from the events of the past cannot avoid this no matter how much scholarship they pour into their books: random always wins.

    This does not mean that any of the events described in, for example, “Dreadnought” are not true (the life of Wilhelm II did shape the way he saw himself and his nation, and did affect how he behaved in 1914), just that they have no predictive power, that is, it was impossible to consistently predict in 1870, 1900 or 1912 that those events would lead to WWI. Only the actions in 1914 can be tied to the start of WWI with any degree of predictive causality. That means that if History is “a fable agreed upon”, the moral of the WWI fable is not “do not have insecure heads of state” but “do not give blank cheques”; causality cannot be stretched any further.

    * What if Bismark, who did not like Moltke The Elder, decided to hobble Moltke The Younger’s career just to annoy his uncle; what if Churchill had died in one of the innumerable occasions he almost ‘bought it’; what if the doctor who crippled Wilhelm II’s arm had been a bit more careful and the Kaiser had grown up a bit less insecure, and a bit less paranoid about his English relations; what if…

  25. If Russia was hellbent on war as you assert, isn’t that at least somewhat inconsistent with Moltke being primarily responsible? Germany was urging Austria-Hungary to move quickly against Serbia and occupy Belgrade so as to present Europe with a fait accompli and avoid a general war, but Berchtold dithered. The Austrians may well have failed even if they had moved immediately, especially given that the Serbs repulsed the first Austrian offensive in 1914 and actually counterattacked into Austrian territory, but we’re talking about narrative intent here, not results.

  26. Terrific essay. I look forward to your book of essays. How many people and how many Chicago Boys have published (even self-published) books of essays, which are better by having volunteer editors comment on the first drafts?

    “A huge war breaks out in the summer of 1914, to the great surprise of nearly everyone.”

    I vote equivocation. The war was huge in 1914 only in that involved so many important nations. But it was destructive in 1918 in that it lasted years, slew millions, and collapsed many governments. Even if the outbreak was the result of long-term trends combined with a semi-unpredictable event (the assassination*), the consequences were not foreseeable. “Black swan” arguments trade on our knowledge of disastrous consequences to elevate the importance of the the war starting. If it had been over in six months, with Servia crushed and Russia chastised, would it still have been a black swan or just an Agadir with more shooting? (And Agadir wasn’t the only European crisis between 1900 and 1914.)

    * The assassination should have been better anticipated. The terrorists were funded by governments bent on assassination as a policy tool and it’s not as if Franz Ferdinand was the first Austro-Hungarian noble assassinated, or the only European noble the target of assassins. As best I can guess right now, the assassinations of European nobles ceased after the 1934 assassination of the King Alexander. Assassins then moved onto non-nobles (e.g.Ernst vom Rath).

  27. in my opinion, WW I happened because the Germans wanted to dominate Europe.
    Did not their aims include subjugating France, controlling the west coast of Europe and establishing client states or colonies in Eastern Europe? Did not their plan include siezing portions of
    western Russia?

    Given the opportunity to strike, they did.

    I firmly believe that the German nation made a decision that caused their opponents to make decisions and at any time prior to the invasion of France, war could have been avoided.

    Having been joined, the war had toi be concluded and it is a pity that the Germans, who were roundly defeated were not conquered.

  28. Should they have expected it? That’s not so certain, but it does seem like no on really paid attention to the lessons of the American Civil War or that little tussle down in southern Africa.

    The American Civil War was fought with the tactics of the Napoleonic Wars but the Minie’ ball had made those tactics obsolete. That was the proximate cause of the massive casualties. Repeating rifles were actually available but ignored by Union ordnance authorities. They thought soldiers would waste ammunition. In the few instances where units equipped themselves with Henry repeating rifles, they proved that widespread use by the Union would have ended the war in a year. WWI introduced the machine gun yet French tactics hadn’t changed. Only the tank broke the stalemate. Tactics did not deal with the machine gun except for trenches, which were widely used in the Civil War for similar reasons.

    Most of the deaths in South Africa were from typhoid. Fortunately, vaccines were available for WWI. Tetanus was a major problem in 1914 until a tetanus antiserum became available. Interestingly, there were no tetanus cases in the American Civil War because the South, where most of the war was fought, did not use horse manure as fertilizer whereas, it was widely used in Belgium where much of WWI was fought.

  29. Traditionally, we have described historical events as either the result of steady, long term inputs or as sudden and inexplicable discontinuities. These two types change appear irreconcilable because they both can’t be explained using the same linear description. Newton and Leibniz still hold great sway over our minds (even those of us with little mathematics background) and we intuitively search for the steady inputs that drive a system smoothly along in a linear fashion. Since calculus cannot handle discontinuities, our intellectual constructs based on calculus cannot handle them either.

    This problem dogged biology for over a century as biologist sought to create calculus based models of biological phenomena such as the change in population over time of various interlinked species e.g. predator-prey relationships. Smooth calculus could describe 90%+ of the population changes over time but the graphs were punctuated by sudden discontinuities whose appearance was hard to predict and whose outcomes seemed random.

    It turned out that all biological systems, from the biochemical reactions of cells to functioning of entire ecosystems, are governed by feedback loops. The mathematics of feedback loops cannot be described by linear calculus because feedback loops operate in a strongly non-linear fashion. In a linear system, the degree of change in a system that an input causes is directly proportional to the scale of the input. In a non-linear, feedback dominated system, very small inputs can be amplified to dominate the entire system and very large inputs can be reduced to insignificance. At certain points in a system’s history, it reaches an unstable point in which very small inputs are amplified to jump the system to a vastly different state in a very short period of time. It is also quite common that such events create bifurcation after which two (sometimes more) more significantly different states are equally probable. For example, in a predator-prey relationship, a bifurcation has an equal chance of leading to a population collapse as it does to a population explosion. Any minor inputs, usually to small to measure, can drive the system to an extreme.

    I think it legitimate to view history (and all other studies of humanity) as a subset of biology. As such we can view history as governed by non-linear feedback loops. Long periods of seemingly linear progression are suddenly interrupted by non-linear change. The source of such discontinuities can often be traced back to a small number of otherwise minor events that get amplified by feedback loops into the dominant input for the system.

    WWI would fit this pattern. The militarism that gripped the continent was a source of instability that dampened the negative feedback against going to war. Then the assassination of the archduke, a minor input at most times, was amplified into a world changing event. The inherent vagaries of war (for want of a nail) created many, many opportunities for minor events to become magnified into hinges of history.

    The problem with these non-linear systems is that in hindsight you can in principle identify almost all the inputs, no matter how small that drove the system to its real-world state. This leads to the illusion that system is predictable and that you can use the system’s behavior in the past to predict it’s behavior in the future.

    In reality, we can’t measure all the inputs of historical systems and we don’t know what other outcomes where equally probable past the bifurcation point. For example, the same conditions in the lead up to WWI might have triggered a long period of peace and demilitarization if the archduke had never been shot or if some other, even smaller and ignore input had been different.

    Niether can we predict future events with any reliability because our ability to measure minor inputs and assign them the proper weight in our models is largely non-existant. We cannot predict the consequences of our actions when our human systems reach bifurcation points.

    I imagine it will take historians another couple of decades to start thinking of history in biological terms.

  30. Interesting essay and even more interesting discussions.

    I find it fascinating that some super literate intellectuals are essentially arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. After all, we’re not talking about hard science (or engineering) where future interactions can be predicted 99.94% of the time. If Mr. Taleb predicted the financial crash, good for him. I presume he made bazillions of dollars organizing his portfolio to profit from his foresight. Or, did he behave like a prudent man and organize his finances based on the risk that he might be right? As in, reduce exposure to equities, buy more commodities, maybe put larger amounts of cash into FDIC guaranteed banks under the FDIC limit. There is an almost unlimited spectrum of available choices that one could opt for if you had the foresight to anticipate the now famous “black swan” we are living through.

    We inhabit a “market place” of six billion people making trillions of choices every day. No one person or organization can effectively game this information problem. And those six billion people are getting feedback every minute. Occasionally, someone gets it right. What more can be said?

  31. History, as we read about it, is as much an effect of human psychology as the actual events from which it is comprised. Just another way of saying ‘History is a fable agreed upon’.

  32. Who’s the gent in the photo? I thought “Joseph” Smith but what connexcion would he have to this theme?

  33. A pedantic point, but something like the financial crisis is a gray swan not a black or white one. It was not just predictable, but predicted. It was only the timing and precise properties that were uncertain.

    The discussion on this post suggests World War 1 was a gray swan, not a black or white one.

  34. I’m sorry no one took me up on my statement that the Germans were the bad guys in the First World War. Lately, I have noted much comment that infers the war guilt was collective. Perhaps the passage of time has blurred the line. The centennial of the war is approaching. Its almost 100 years since the “Guns of August”.

    I made my comments because I think that this interesting but esoteric discussion may contribute to the blurring. Perhaps the blurring may in part result from our ability to realize how people who lived in other epochs thought.

  35. Pish and tosh.

    All I see here is hindsight. Fine for historians and wannabee historians to argue about, and certainly there was a chain of causation worth trying to understand (tho 96 years later we’re still arguing about it). But I would still tend to side with Taleb that it would have been quite extraordinary for someone to say on June 27, 1914, that it was unsafe of the Archduke and his Mrs to go to Sarajevo because if anything untoward happened to them it would be followed by B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L,…,Z, and finally at AA the Brits would come in on the side of France.

    C’mon. I don’t think Taleb or Ferguson would deny that events have causes, but the issue is can you make valid predictions with a high enough degree of accuracy, timeliness, certainty and relevance to DO anything about it? And most of human experience suggests that there are indeed major inflection points that no one saw coming and in the context of the times, it would have been quite extraordinary if anyone had.

    By all means try to understand and learn from the past, but don’t kid yourself that you’ll be able to avoid all those Black Swans. The trick is to plan and position yourself so the unexpected, whatever it is, is not catastrophic. At least, that’s what Taleb concluded.

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