Legacy Pasts


Not by speeches and votes of the majority, are the great questions of the time decided — that was the error of 1848 and 1849 — but by iron and blood.


There are members of the National Association – of this association that has achieved a reputation owing to the justness of its demands – highly esteemed members who have stated that all standing armies are superfluous. Well, what if a public assembly had this view! Would not a government have to reject this?! – There was talk about the “sobriety” of the Prussian people. Yes, the great independence of the individual makes it difficult in Prussia to govern with the constitution (or to consolidate the constitution?); in France things are different, there this individual independence is lacking. A constitutional crisis would not be disgraceful, but honorable instead. – Furthermore, we are perhaps too “well-educated” to support a constitution; we are too critical; the ability to assess government measures and records of the public assembly is too common; in the country there are a lot of Catiline characters who have a great interest in upheavals. This may sound paradoxical, but everything proves how hard constitutional life is in Prussia. – Furthermore, one is too sensitive about the government’s mistakes; as if it were enough to say “this and that [cabinet] minister made mistakes,[“] as if one wasn’t adversely affected oneself. Public opinion changes, the press is not [the same as] public opinion; one knows how the press is written; members of parliament have a higher duty, to lead opinion, to stand above it. We are too hot-blooded, we have a preference for putting on armor that is too big for our small body; and now we’re actually supposed to utilize it. Germany is not looking to Prussia’s liberalism, but to its power; Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden may indulge liberalism, and yet no one will assign them Prussia’s role; Prussia has to coalesce and concentrate its power for the opportune moment, which has already been missed several times; Prussia’s borders according to the Vienna Treaties [of 1814-15] are not favorable for a healthy, vital state; it is not by speeches and majority resolutions that the great questions of the time are decided – that was the big mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by iron and blood.

Pop history sees the trees of “blood and iron” but misses the forest surrounding it: loss aversion.  This mental bias intensifies man’s fear of loss, making it a stronger motivator for action than any hope for gain. Since the brain is a narrative computer that discovers truth by linking the most of vivid facts together through the most vivid of events, loss aversion often shows up in the form of negative fables. While positive fables link together facts with events to show how x + y + z = gain, negative fables gloomily argue that x + y + z = loss.

History, a game where the many try force square facts into round fables, often channels loss aversion as “no more” complexs.


  • No more Lehmans
  • No more Iraqs
  • No more Afghanistans
  • No more September 11ths
  • No more Srebrenicas
  • No more Rwandas
  • No more Vietnams

Is every stand that anyone takes in private or public life is only a thin veneer stretched over a no more complex? If so, history is little more than one no more after another. Otto von Bismarck’s own history, a history that let him to bait the (classical) liberals of the Prussian parliament with provocative talk of “blood and iron”, was strongly motivated by one “no more”: no more Olmützs.

The “punctuation” of Olmutz was a treaty signed between Austria and Prussia on November 29, 1850:

The reason for the treaty was a conflict between Prussia and Austria over  leadership of the German states. The German Confederation, dominated by Austria, had been dissolved in the Revolutions of 1848. It was partially succeeded by the Frankfurt Assembly. After the Frankfurt Assembly failed, in early 1850 Prussia  had proposed the Erfurt Union, a Prussia-led federation of most German states.

A conflict between the Electoral Prince of Hesse-Kassel and his subjects let Austrian chancellor Felix Schwarzenberg isolate Prussia. Austrian and allied armies advanced into Hesse-Kassel. On November 8, 1850, the Prussian army had come close to war with Bavaria (an ally of Austria). But Prussia decided to give in because Nicholas I of Russia had taken the Austria side in October 1850. By signing the treaty, Prussia gave up its claim to leadership of the German states. At the same time the German Confederation was restored. Prussia submitted to Austria leadership of the confederation, agreed to demobilize; agreed to partake in the intervention of the German Diet in Hesse and Holstein; and renounced any resumption of her union policy (abandoning the idea of the Erfurt Union).

To many Prussians, punctuation at Olmütz became humiliation at Olmütz, one more Prussian grievance to add to the large mound that Prussia had built up since it was demolished by Buonaparte in 1806. Prussia, always the most geographically illogical of European Great Powers, emerged from Buonaparte’s wars as the weakest European Great Power. After the Congress of Vienna, Prussia found itself with less of neighboring Saxony than it wanted but also found itself (dubiously compensated) with the distant territories of Westphalia and the northern Rhineland in what is now western Germany. This “award” of distant and backward territories (including the Ruhr, a rural backwater) violated 150 years of Prussian precedent: earlier Prussian rulers had struggled to consolidate their widely dispersed lands into a geographically contiguous bloc. Now Prussia was separated from its new territory by hundreds of miles of other, potentially hostile, German states. It was weak and Austria could bully Prussia anytime it felt like it.

The Prussian desire to free their kingdom from Austrian hegemony led to a furtive flirtation with (classical) liberal German nationalists during the “German Spring” of 1848. However, powerful factions within Prussia were more afraid of losing power to a rising (classical) liberal middle class than kowtowing to Austria. They energetically conspired to counter (classical) liberalism inside Prussia and outside in the German states. Their efforts included dispatching a younger conservative upstart, known for his outrageousness, to gum up the workings of the new unified (and (classically) liberal) German Parliament meeting at Frankfurt from the inside. So Otto von Bismarck arrived in Frankfurt, witnessed the attempt to unify Germany on a (classically) liberal foundation collapse despite many fine “speeches and majority resolutions”, and added “no more Frankfurts” to his personal no more complex.

Bismarck was among those who felt intensely humiliated by the Prussian capitulation at Olmütz. His conflict with Austrian ambassador Count Friedrich Thun und Hohenstein in the restored German Diet as they waged a duel of snub and counter-snub personalized the sting of the Prussian surrender. Twelve years passed. When Bismarck made his infamous “called shot” to Disraeli in June 1862, three months before he became minister-president of Prussia:

I shall soon be compelled to undertake the conduct of the Prussian government. My first care will be to re-organise the army, with or without, the help of the Landtag … As soon as the army shall have been brought into such a condition as to inspire respect, I shall seize the first best pretext to declare war against Austria, dissolve the German Diet, subdue the minor states and give national unity to Germany under Prussian leadership. I have come here to say this to the Queen’s ministers.

What Bismarck was really saying was:

  • No more Viennas
  • No more Frankfurts
  • No more Olmützs

Bismarck’s resolution that his no mores would be no more made him the Cavour of Germany. But his platoon of no mores led to legions of new no mores.

Defense analyst Adam Elkus frequently cites Jamais Cascio’s notion of “legacy futures“:

Reading a talk given by science fiction author Ken Macleod, I came across this bit:

I used the term ‘legacy code’ in one of my novels, and Farah Mendlesohn, a science-fiction critic who read it thought it was a term I had made up, and she promptly adapted it for critical use as ‘legacy text’. Legacy text is all the other science fiction stories that influence the story you’re trying to write, and that generally clutter up your head even if you never read, let along write, the stuff. Most of us have default images of the future that come from Star Trek or 2001 or 1984 or Dr Who or disaster movies or computer games. These in turn interact with the tendency to project trends straightforwardly into the future.

What immediately struck me is that we all have this kind of cognitive “legacy code” in our thinking about the future, not just science fiction writers, and it comes from more than just pop-culture media. We get legacy futures in business from old strategies and plans, legacy futures in politics from old budgets and forecasts, and legacy futures in environmentalism from earlier bits of analysis. Legacy futures are rarely still useful, but have so thoroughly colonized our minds that even new scenarios and futures models may end up making explicit or implicit references to them.

In some respects, the jet pack is the canonical legacy future, especially given how the formulation (originally from Calvin & Hobbes, I believe), of “where’s my jet pack?” has become a widely-used phrase representing disappointment with the future instantiated in the present…

Just like legacy code makes life difficult for programmers, legacy futures can make life difficult for futures thinkers. Not only do we have to describe a plausibly surreal future that fits with current thinking, we have to figure out how to deal with the leftover visions of the future that still colonize our minds…

A similar, and more powerful, hold can control the human mind: legacy pasts. The past of today is not the past of fifty years ago. Inconveniently, it’s not even the past of ten years ago. The Norman conquest of 1066 today is not the Norman conquest of 1066 of 1966, the Norman conquest of 1066 of 1866, the Norman conquest of 1066 of 1166, or the Norman conquest of 1066 of 1067. All the yesterdays between 1066 and 2011 changed 1066 and 2011, one looking by backwards, one by looking forwards. History is fluid that way. But some history is less fluid than other history. This musty history is a complex of legacy pasts. And the lack of fluidity in no more complexes is extreme even for legacy pasts.

World War I was a duel between legacy pasts. Germany acted on legacy pasts that made up a “more more” complex, launching an aggressive strike through Belgium to create “more” Sedans and “more” 1870s (and Alfred von Schlieffen’s thirst for “more” Cannaes). France nursed  legacy pasts that made up its no more complexes: it wanted no more 1870s and no more Sedans so they aggressively threw themselves at German artillery and machine guns. Britain had a  legacy past cast as “no more Phillip IIs Louis XIVs Buonapartes” that led it to war under the banner of “no more Kaiser Bills”. Russia wanted no more 1453s, no more 1878s, and no more 1908s.

The United States entered the war with its own set of no mores. John Milton Cooper relates this anecdote about noted war criminal Thomas Woodrow Wilson:

As he rode up in the White House elevator on the night of April 2, 1917, after delivering his war address to Congress, Woodrow Wilson reportedly remarked to his young cousin, “Fitz, thank God for Abraham Lincoln.”, Fitz Woodrow, a grandson of Wilson’s uncle Jimmy, later recalled asking why he had said that and got the answer, “I won’t make the mistakes he did.” Wilson did not explain to Fitz what mistakes he thought Lincoln had made…

Cooper searched Wilson’s papers, including Wilson’s own writings about Lincoln, but hasn’t been able to divine what Lincoln mistakes Wilson was trying to avoid or if he succeeded in avoiding them. The possibilities are endless because of Wilson’s own legacy past as a Southerner who lived most of his adult life among Northerners:

Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia on December 28, 1856, the third of four children of Reverend Dr. Joseph Ruggles Wilson (1822–1903) and Jessie Janet Woodrow (1826–1888). His ancestry was Scottish and Scots-Irish. His paternal grandparents immigrated to the United States from Strabane, County Tyrone, Ireland (now Northern Ireland), in 1807. His mother was born in Carlisle, Cumberland, England, the daughter of Rev. Dr. Thomas Woodrow, born in Paisley, Scotland and Marion Williamson from Glasgow…

Wilson’s father was originally from Steubenville, Ohio, where his grandfather published a newspaper, The Western Herald and Gazette, that was pro-tariff and anti-slavery. Wilson’s parents moved south in 1851 and identified with the Confederacy. His father defended slavery, owned slaves, and set up a Sunday school for them. They cared for wounded Confederate soldiers at their church. Wilson’s father also briefly served as a chaplain to the Confederate Army. Woodrow Wilson’s earliest memory, from the age of three, was of hearing that Abraham Lincoln had been elected and that a war was coming. Wilson would forever recall standing for a moment at Robert E. Lee’s side and looking up into his face.

Wilson’s father was one of the founders of the Southern Presbyterian Church in the United States after it split from northern Presbyterians in 1861. Joseph R. Wilson served as the first permanent clerk of the Southern church’s General Assembly, was Stated Clerk from 1865–1898 and was Moderator of the PCUS General Assembly in 1879. Wilson spent the majority of his childhood, up to age 14, in Augusta, Georgia, where his father was minister of the First Presbyterian Church.

Wilson studied at home under his father’s guidance and took classes in a small school in Augusta. During Reconstruction, Wilson lived in Columbia, South Carolina, the state capital, from 1870–1874, where his father was professor at the Columbia Theological Seminary.

Wilson attended Davidson College in North Carolina for the 1873–1874 school year. After medical ailments kept him from returning for a second year, he transferred to Princeton as a freshman when his father took a teaching position at the university.

Wilson’s complex no more complex might be a rat’s nest of native childhood sentiment fighting adult academic indoctrination. But, since Lincoln was the last president who’d fought a major war, it was logical for Wilson look back on Lincoln for more mores and no mores. But he did that through the lens of the legacy pasts that coalesced in his own mind and the minds of other Americans in the 52 years since the end of the Civil War.

Whatever the nature of Wilson’s personal complex of no mores, he set out to produce no more war, no more balances of power, no more authoritarianism, and no more evil on Earth. The result of his no mores was more war motivated by leaders who wanted No More Versailleses. Hitler wanted no more Versailleses to institutionalize German defeat, humiliation, and dismemberment. Mussolini wanted no more Versailleses to remind him of Italy’s 1919 wimpiness. The Japanese establishment wanted no more Versailleses to remind them that Europeans still looked down on them and denied them a place under the sun. Jyang Jyeshr wanted no more Versailleses that would acquiesce to the dismemberment of China by gwei lau. Stalin wanted no more Versailleses that would erect a cordon sanitaire around the great proletarian revolution. Churchill wanted no Versailles that left Germany a window to rise again. Roosevelt wanted no more Versailles that would let Germany doubt it had been defeated because the forces of good on the international stage lacked muscle.

World War II’s legacy pasts fathered our current crop of legacy pasts. All legacy pasts forever oscillate  between absolute truth and obsolete fiction. “No more Vietnams” will be countered by “No more Munichs”. “No more Iraqs” meet “No more Rwandas”. “No more Lehmans” face off against “No more stagflation”. “No more COIN” runs into “No more Fulda Gaps”. Humans create legacy pasts that support their personal agendas, making history a continuation of politics with the addition of other, more intensively indexed, footnotes.

Legacy pasts empower. Legacy pasts imprison. Legacy pasts may be more factual than truthful. They may be more truthful than factual. The Prussian military historian Carl von Clausewitz recommended immersive study  of narrow slices of history in excruciating detail to counter the human mind’s thirst for magically transmuting messy history into orderly checklists. Clausewitz argued that only a disciplined cultivation of unconscious and intuitive empathy that placed you alongside real people trapped in real moments when their future (and your past) was still new and hadn’t hardened into iron fable could compensate for the insistent pull that legacy pasts and no more complexes have over the mind. History may be a fable agreed upon but there’s no cure for history but history.

5 thoughts on “Legacy Pasts”

  1. “No More Pearl Harbors” has been stamped onto the US military for the las 70 years. Especially during the Cold War, the thought of a sudden, devastating surprise attack shaped every major military decision. Trouble is, few people study Pearl Harbor in enough detail to understand what really went wrong. Mostly what we commonly remember is just that it was a major surprise both in timing and scale. Pearl Harbor forever broke America’s long standing belief that we could remain aloof from the world if we wished.

    Our problems with simplified histories as the basis for war making is really no different from all the simplifications used in politics. All political decisions are made on vast simplifications. We simplify the economy, we simplify regulation and science, we simplify crime etc. How could we not? How do you have a public debate with millions of people that examines issues down to minute detail? It’s just logistically impossible.

    That is the primary reason why government decision making is always poor decision making. All the decisions are based on a cartoon version of reality. Shared narratives drive decisions.

    It doesn’t help that much of life isn’t actually understood well enough by anybody to really make decisions about. Even “experts” are wrong the vast majority of the time. Nobody understands the economy well enough to predict anything about it. Nobody can predict the course of technology. We really don’t have a predictive science for human behavior either as individual or societies. Nobody really knows which business models will work and which won’t. And so on.

    Government is basically flying the plane of society on uncalibrated instruments with the pilots quarreling and each announcing that they know without a doubt the planes exact altitude and heading.

    It’s no wonder we repeatedly plow into mountains.

  2. Examples of actions taken based on history

    1. The TSA agents rape about 1000 people a day. 1000s more are given doses of cancer or birth defect causing radiation. However no one dares stop TSA. No one wants responsibilty for a decision to stop all inspections, if, as a result, a group of people tried to hijack an airliner (even if they were stopped and killed by angry passengers) because of 9/11.

    2. Jews have a made themselves a promise “never again” because off 3 millenia of pogroms.

    3. No oil drilling by US firms in the Gulf, off-shore on the West Coast, off-shore on the East Coast because of oil spills.

    4. No ID checks on anyone who wants to vote Democrat or liberal, especially in the South, the East, the West and Detroit, Madison, and Chicago because of Jim Crow.

  3. Wars are created by geography. For example there is ‘Drang nach osten’ for Germans, probably because going west was too expensive.

    Russia is always seeking a warm water port that has unblockable access to the Atlantic and Pacific.

    Fotress America says the US has total safety behind its two oceans. Then goes to war when this proves false (eg. 9/11, Pearl Harbor, sinking the Maine and Lusitania). Until recently, US foreign was based on containment – control all access to the Atlantic and the Pacific (Mari Nostri).

    China is always rebuilding the Empire of the Qin, and the Romans wanted a shorter border than Rhine-Danube.

    Usually history is recreated to justify a decision caused by geography. Philosopher is another word for spinner.

  4. Joseph,

    I hope I read your article correctly.

    Cato the Elder used to end his speeches with “Carthago delenda est” a phrase that became very popular among romans at the time, in a way it was part of a complex of “no more Hannibals”, “no more military humiliations”.

    Mexico suffered from a long dictatorship under Porfirio Díaz, who betrayed the young liberal democracy instituted by Juarez and others and remained in power for over 30 years through a long series of rigged elections, he was ousted by revolutionaries. Ever since all official documentation in Mexico bears the legend “Sufragio efectivo, no reelección” (Effective sufrage, no reelection). The phrase No Reelection is actually a “no more Porfirio Díaz”, in our sad and long complex of no mores.

  5. Did anyone else’s mind immediately think of China with Joseph’s discussion of the no-more complex? No more ‘centuries of humiliation’ would seem to elegantly encapsulate the modus operandi of the Zhongnanhai post Deng.

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