The Road To Hell: Part I

A brief history of the fallacy of liberation from the wars of the French Revolution to the end of the long 19th century.

Louis Léopold Boilly's 'Les conscrits de 1807 défilant devant la porte Saint-Denis, 1807'. The Jacobins claimed the levée en masse was not an instrument of state coercion, but an extraordinary recruitment measure intended to harness the French people’s pre-existing enthusiasm, patriotic fervour and ideological commitment to the Revolution Louis Léopold Boilly /

On the 25th of August 1944 Allied troops marched into the city of Paris – ending four long years of Nazi occupation. Local residents swamped the arriving troops and celebrated in the streets even as Free French troops and members of the resistance fought street battles with the remnants of the German garrison. However the sound of gunfire was drowned out by the bells of Notre Dame, which were soon joined by every church in the city. In the streets and laneways French flags were unfurled from windows and balconies while residents brought out hidden bottles of champagne and joined in drunken choruses of ‘La Marseillaise’. 

Parisian women cheer U.S. soldiers in a jeep during the parade on the Champs Elysées Avenue on August 26, 1944 in Paris, to celebrate the Liberation of Paris during the Second World War.

The next day the commander of the Free French army, General Charles de Gaulle, led a procession down the Champs-Élysées between enormous crowds of joyous Parisians. Allied high command had made sure that the liberation of the French capital remained a predominantly French affair but a large contingent of foreign press ensured that descriptions and recordings of the celebrations were published and broadcast all over the world. In a dispatch from the newly liberated city, renowned U.S. war correspondent Ernie Pyle described the warm welcome he received on his way to the Hotel Scribe.

“As our jeep eased through the crowds, thousands of people crowded up, leaving only a narrow corridor, and frantic men, women and children grabbed us and kissed us and shook our hands and beat on our shoulders and slapped our backs and shouted their joy as we passed… the kissing and shouting and autographing and applauding were almost overwhelming. The pandemonium of a free and loveable Paris reigned again. It was wonderful to be there . . . it was already hard to believe that there ever had been a war; even harder to realize there still was a war.”

These scenes of celebration were soon overshadowed by the nightmarish images recorded by Allied forces as they liberated Nazi concentration camps in Germany. Nevertheless both the triumph and the horror of the liberation of Europe had a profound effect on the popular imagination. The liberation of Paris, in particular, remained an enduring symbol of liberalism and democracy throughout the long Cold War and images of the cheering crowds along the Champs-Élysées became fixtures of school textbooks and documentaries in the ‘western’ world. In response to the holocaust the international community adopted the mantra of the survivors – ‘never again’ and in 1948 the United Nation ratified the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Nevertheless most scholars of political science and international relations struggled to incorporate the psychological and legal impact of these events into their models of war and conflict. Instead, theorists like Hans Morgenthau offered a much more pragmatic and pessimistic view of international relations. According to Morgenthau’s ‘realist’ school of thought, there was no such thing as an ‘intentional community’ and any given nation’s  foreign policy decisions could only be understood in terms of an ongoing struggle for power rather than a reflection of a particular political ideology. According to this framework, governments can be expected to pursue policies that either grew their state’s influence or, at the very least, maximise its prospects for survival. 

While this somewhat cynical theory helps explain things like trade agreements, defensive alliances and arms races, it struggles to explain why states decide to wage war and why they so often fail to achieve their political objectives. 

Morgenthau’s conception of foreign affairs came to dominate thinking about inter-state war in the latter part of the 20th century even though many wars and conflicts didn’t seem to fit the realist paradigm. Why, for example, did U.S. officials rush to occupy Vietnam after witnessing the steady destruction of the French army in the same jungles and rice paddies? Why did the USSR invade Afghanistan in 1979 when they had so much to lose and so little to gain? Why did the United Kingdom go to war with Argentina over territory that held no strategic or economic value to either side – spending blood and treasure on a conflict that one commentator compared to ‘two bald men fighting over a comb’? How do these pragmatic theories of international relations explain NATO’s bombing campaign in Kosovo or Australia’s belated decision to send peacekeepers to Timor Leste? 

The motives behind these decisions are varied and difficult to untangle, but part of the explanation surely lies in a persistent desire, on the part of politicians and statesmen, to wage war for righteous causes. Indeed, almost every inter-state conflict in the last century has been predicated on claims, however flimsy, of defending human rights in some foreign territory. Realists tend to dismiss these justifications as a smokescreen for more pragmatic, geopolitical goals, and yet a close examination of these conflicts often reveals a surprising degree of sincerity on the part of the invaders. 

Our collective amnesia regarding war aims is not all that surprising. It’s easy to forget how particular invasions were justified once the resulting conflict has devolved into stalemate or spiralled into civil war. ‘Regime change’ consistently proves to be much harder than war planners expect and, in the face of resistance, occupying forces inevitably resort to brutal measures to suppress resistance and retain control of their hard-won territory. This vicious cycle further destabilises the occupied territory – making it harder for the would-be liberators to achieve whatever it was they set out to achieve. 

Delusions of liberation and assumptions of local support play a major part in these military fiascos. For convenience, we might call this phenomenon the ‘fallacy of liberation’ and define it as ‘the tendency for invaders to assume that local populations will welcome their intervention’. Given the impact that this fallacy has had on countless lives and national destinies it’s worth reflecting on where it has come from, how it has evolved, and why it has become a prerequisite for modern war. 

Strategic optimism and the origins of nationalism

In 1973 Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey published The Causes of War. This century-spanning meta-study of human conflict attempted to identify patterns of political behaviour that could be used to anticipate future wars. While the fallacy of liberation is not explicitly mentioned it falls neatly within a broader problem that Blainey identified – that of unwarranted optimism on the part of belligerent nations. Central to Blainey’s thesis is the idea that those who initiate war almost always overestimate their own capabilities while discounting the threat posed by their opponents. In a chapter titled ‘Dreams and Delusions of a Coming War’ Blainey puzzles over why European rulers of the modern era continued to assume that the next war would be short and decisive when so many previous conflicts had dragged on for years or ended in some sort of mutually unsatisfactory political stalemate.

“Why did nations turn so often to war in the belief that it was a sharp and quick instrument for shaping international affairs when again and again the instrument had proven to be blunt and unpredictable? This recurring optimism is a vital prelude to war. Anything which increases that optimism is a cause of war. Anything which dampens that optimism is a cause for peace”

More often than not, historians like Blainey choose to focus on the differences in capability between the two opposing sides – the size of their armies, their relative strengths in military technology and their respective economic circumstances. From there they try to understand why each side failed to arrive at a realistic assessment of the other. This approach certainly provides some insight. Blainey notes that the conventional wisdom in England on the eve of WWI was that any conflict would necessarily be short because nations like Germany and Austria-Hungary did not have the economic resources to sustain ‘total war’. German planners, on the other hand, believed that the effectiveness of their modern weaponry would ensure a swift outcome. Four years, and tens of millions of lives later, both these assumptions had been proved wrong. 

But misconceptions regarding economic and military capabilities only represent a small part of the equation. The main drivers of irrational optimism are not economic or technological but ideological. In particular, the belief that oppressed or rebellious populations will welcome foreign intervention has had an enormous influence on the expectations of war planners. This fallacy of liberation has been compounded by the chronic underestimation of nationalist resistance movements. Time and time again would-be invaders have looked at the superficial capabilities of their adversaries – meagre standing armies, outdated weaponry, low morale and internal rivalries – and concluded that nothing stands in the way of a quick and easy conquest. Time and time again these same invaders have followed through with their plans only to find themselves facing a fierce and determined insurgency.

But where did this fallacy begin? For the monarchs and emperors of early-modern Europe only a thin pretext was required in order to mount an invasion. War manifestos published in the European middle ages typically invoked the sovereign’s right to self defence or the obligation of some pre-existing treaty. On other occasions it was enough simply to claim a birthright to the coveted territory. The public’s opinion of the legality of the war – both foreign and domestic – remained marginal at best. Thus the death of a reigning monarch in Europe often provided an opportunity for foreign rulers to lay claim to the empty throne via some sort of complicated genealogical sleight of hand. Perhaps the most aggressive proponents of their hereditary rights were the Habsburg rulers of the Holy Roman Empire who laid claim, at one point or another, to parts of northern Italy, Switzerland, Austria, modern Germany and Netherlands as well as vast tracts of Eastern Europe. For the Habsburgs, justifying war meant finding some tenuous family connection to a disputed territory and waiting for a crisis of succession to arise.

During this period the vast majority of smallholders, tenant farmers and peasants recognised that, as long as marauding armies didn’t physically lay waste to their village, their rights and responsibilities would remain largely the same – even if the region they inhabited was annexed by some foreign lord. Incumbent rulers, therefore, could not rely on patriotism to boost enlistment or to prop up military morale. Neither could they expect a rush of recruits when their territory was invaded. 

But, starting in the late 18th century, the rulers of Europe began to place greater emphasis on their historical ties to the region they governed and, over time, these connections became crucial to their political legitimacy. Meanwhile, their subjects – who had traditionally seen themselves primarily as members of a particular town or village – also began to consider themselves part of a wider ethnic group with a shared history and culture. This shift towards unified national identities required rulers to change the way they approached war and conquest. Not only did foreign wars come to rely on domestic public support but the attitudes and loyalties of those living on the army’s line of march also had to be taken into account. 

Armed Missionaries

The Wars of Revolutionary France (1792 – 1815)

The transformation from subject to citizen was spurred on by the French Revolution of 1789 which enshrined the concept of ‘natural rights’ and equality under the law. Following the overthrow of the French monarchy, triumphant revolutionaries pushed to extend their political program across Europe in spite of objections from many prominent leaders of the revolution – who instinctively cautioned against wars of liberation. In a debate at the Paris Jacobin Club in 1791 French statesman Maximilien Robespierre declared that:

“The most extravagant idea that can arise in a politician’s head, is to believe that it is enough for a people to invade a foreign country to make it adopt their laws and their constitution. No one loves armed missionaries.”

Nevertheless, when the new republic launched counter-attacks into neighbouring states, French troops were sometimes greeted with enthusiasm by the residents of the cities they captured – many of whom had spent their lives under distant autocratic rule. When the city of Mainz surrendered to French troops in 1793 local residents celebrated by planting ‘trees of liberty’’ and founding their own offshoot branch of the Jacobin Club. 

The Battle of Lodi, painting by Louis-François, Baron Lejeune, 1804. After seizing the bridge over the Adda, the French defeated the Austrians and proceeded to occupy Milan.

At the turn of the 19th century, French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte began exporting the revolutionary ideals of liberté, égalité and fraternité to the rest of Europe at the point of a bayonet. In this task he was aided by an army of unprecedented size (if somewhat underwhelming professionalism). The new demands of French nationalism required all men between the ages of 18 and 25 to undertake military service and, while hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen deserted before deployment or simply refused to register, the resulting army was still larger than anything that had preceded it. 

As many military strategists have recognised, ‘quantity has a quality all of its own’ and the victories of Napoleon’s Grande Armée convinced other European states to introduce their own systems of mass conscription. But the sudden responsibility thrust upon the disenfranchised masses to fight, and perhaps die, for their nation-state encouraged many to demand a greater say in the political process. Little by little, European rulers grudgingly began to allow democratic processes to play a greater part in government. Legal scholar Mark Osiel summarised this trend in a 1999 paper on the laws of war.

“As larger (and lower socioeconomic) sectors of society were required to carry arms abroad in national defense, they often acquired correspondingly greater rights of citizenship at home, first civil and political, then social and economic. The modern welfare state was, in many ways, the ultimate, unintended result of mass military mobilization. But the causal relation ran both ways: the citizen’s enhanced sense of entitlement in turn fostered a greater sense of obligation to protect the fellow citizens who recognized and honored those entitlements”

Conscription also forced attacking armies to consider the political allegiances of the population whose territory they intended to invade. Just as nationalism allowed belligerent states to summon up large conscript armies it also allowed their victims to respond with their own emergency conscription edicts. Patriotic (from the Latin patriota ‘fellow countryman’) defenders benefited from their familiarity with the landscape, shorter supply lines, support from the local population and, perhaps most crucially of all, the morale boost that comes from defending home and hearth.

Louis Léopold Boilly (1761-1845). “Les conscrits de 1807 défilant devant la porte Saint-Denis, 1807”. Huile sur toile. Paris, musée Carnavalet.

Just as they had in Brussels and Mainz, French forces were given a warm welcome when they marched into Milan in 1796. “People of Italy, the French army is here to break your chains,” Napoleon proclaimed, “our only quarrel is with the tyrants who have enslaved you”. Likewise many Polish and Lithuanians viewed the French army as liberators from Russian despotism.

Despite representing the vanguard of this transformation Napoleon clearly underestimated the strength of conviction that nationalism could inspire. His early victories seem to have blinded him to the possibility that foreigners might love their country as much as his French troops supposedly loved France. In 1808, Napoleon crossed the Pyrenees and marched into Spain with an army of more than a hundred thousand men. The pretext for this invasion was a peace-keeping mission that Napoleon claimed was necessary to mediate a growing dispute between rival Spanish political factions and institute much needed reforms. “With my banner bearing the words ‘Liberty and Emancipation from Superstition,'” Napoleon said, “I shall be regarded as the liberator of Spain.” In less than three months his troops took Navarre and Catalonia and forced the Spanish king to abdicate the throne in favour of Napoleon’s brother Joseph. 

Painting of Napoleon accepting the surrender of Madrid on the 4th of December 1808.

One of the men who served as Napoleon’s aide-de-camp in the Peninsular wars – Louis de Ségur – described what it felt like to serve in an army of occupation in towns and cities that were growing more hostile by the day.

“With regard to the relations of the army with the inhabitants, discipline was strictly kept up on our side; but we lived as complete strangers the one to the other. The difference of habits, of language, of character, the constraint of military life, the national pride which was disgusted at this invasion – disguised under the form of an alliance and whose aim was becoming more and more suspected – alienated us. As for religious observances, we had no orders in that respect and made no profession of faith so this fervent Catholic land of Spain must have thought we had no religion at all; so, what might have been a common tie between the two nations became an additional obstacle.”

In his rush to conduct regime-change, Napoleon underestimated the reaction of the Spanish people. The Spanish king may have been unpopular but, crucially, he was Spanish whereas Joseph Bonaparte could only ever be considered a foreign usurper. Uprisings broke out as news spread that Joseph had assumed the throne and the French occupation force responded by carrying out mass executions of suspected rebels in Madrid and the surrounding regions. Many of these atrocities were recorded in an infamous series of paintings and sketches by Spanish artist Francisco Goya. 

The first weeks of the conflict proved disastrous for the regular Spanish army but, in July 1808, a battle between French and Spanish forces near the town of Bailén resulted in the surrender of 19,000 French troops – the first major defeat for Napoleon’s army since 1801. 

By the end of the year, Napoleon had called up an additional 140,000 French conscripts, but these reinforcements soon found themselves bogged down suppressing local rebellions in towns and villages across the country. Ultimately the ‘guerrilla’ (literally ‘little war’) tactics employed by Spanish irregulars prevented Napoleon’s army from cementing his control over Spain and, as the war dragged on, Britain seized the opportunity to arm and support Portuguese and Spanish troops with an expeditionary force. In 1812, these British forces received a rapturous welcome from the newly liberated citizens of Madrid. British soldier William Grattan was quoted in one recent history of the Peninsular War to illustrate the joy that accompanied the arrival of British troops.

“…for miles leading to the capital the roads were crowded almost to suffocation with people of all ranks who seemed to be actuated by one simultaneous burst of patriotism, and it was with difficulty that the march was conducted with that order which we were in the habit of observing…an old friend of my own, and a remarkably plain-looking personage, was nearly suffocated in the embraces of half a dozen fair Castilians. When he recovered himself and was able to speak, he turned to me and said, ‘How infernally fond these Madrid women must be of kissing, when they have hugged nearly to death such an ill-looking fellow as me.” 

Both the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia soon joined the British coalition – forcing Napoleon to recall tens of thousands of French troops to defend his sprawling empire. The remaining French forces in Spain held out for another year before they were defeated at the Battle of Vitoria and Joseph was forced to abdicate the Spanish throne. Years later, writing from exile on the island of St Helena, Napoleon reflected on this misadventure:

“The unfortunate war in Spain ruined me. All my reverses originated there. The Spanish war destroyed my reputation throughout Europe, increased my difficulties and provided the best possible training ground for English troops. I trained the English army myself, in the Peninsula.”

Napoleon’s army was eventually defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 but European nationalist movements continued to flourish – either inspired by the French example or fortified in reaction to it. As political scientist David A. Welch pointed out in Justice and the Genesis of War:

“it was during the Napoleonic wars that nationalism rose to the top of the international hierarchy of values, where it has arguably remained ever since. The period from 1789 to 1815 was an important watershed in international politics – politically, ideologically, militarily, socially, and economically. The world that emerged from it was, in its general form, the world that is still with us today.”

Napoleon’s early campaigns within Europe also firmly established a precedent for justifying invasions and occupations on the grounds of defending ‘natural rights’ and liberating oppressed peoples. While the population of Europe enjoyed a long period of relative peace and consolidation over the following decades, the major powers – France, Britain and Russia – all justified wars and various acts of ‘coercive diplomacy’ by invoking their duty to defend the rights of ethnic and religious compatriots overseas. 

Most of this apparent concern was focused on Christian minorities living within the increasingly fractured Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless concern for the welfare of Christians in the ‘near east’ still took a back seat to the Great Game between the major European Powers and alliances were constantly revised in order to maintain the balance of power. Thus the French and British navies worked alongside the Russians to evict Ottoman troops from Greece in 1827 only to end up fighting against Russia (and alongside the Ottomans) during the Crimean war in 1853. Less than a decade later France sent troops to Syria to protect Maronite Christians while Russia led a coalition to liberate Balkan territory from Ottoman rule following the brutal suppression of a nationalist uprising in 1876. The population of Crete also suffered heavily as a result of uprisings against Ottoman rule, but in 1897 the Great Powers finally intervened on their behalf and managed to secure Cretan independence.

The supposedly ‘isolationist’ political class of the United States also justified colonial expeditions on the basis of defending human rights. In particular, the U.S. involvement in the Spanish-American War was spurred on by graphic accounts of atrocities committed against the Cuban population by their Spanish overlords. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt defended the U.S. invasion of Cuba on the grounds that:

“there are occasional crimes committed on so vast a scale and of such peculiar horror as to make us doubt whether it is not our manifest duty to endeavor at least to show our disapproval of the deed and our sympathy with those who have suffered by it.”

Even the overtly predatory expeditions carried out by Asian and European Colonial powers at the turn of the 19th century (like the Anglo-Boer war and the suppression of the Chinese ‘Boxer’ Rebellion) were justified on the basis of protecting ethnic or religious compatriots overseas. 

By the turn of the 19th century the mosaic of monarchies, duchies and principalities that made up the map of Europe had coalesced into a handful of unified nation-states hemmed in by the empires of Russia, Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey. This process of consolidation accelerated dramatically in the early part of the 20th century as the Ottoman Empire withdrew from the Balkans. After decades of negotiations and defensive alliances aimed at maintaining a delicate ‘balance of power’ amongst the dominant European powers, the First World War was triggered, in large part, by unresolved disputes over nationality and self-determination in the former Ottoman Empire. 

The war was also a catalyst for new nationalist independence movements as British officials used promises of independence to incite rebellions against Ottoman rule in Arabia and Mesopotamia while Irish and Indian nationalists took advantage of the upheaval to press for self-rule. When the war finally ended in 1918 many of the old empires had collapsed and the political map of Europe and the Middle East had begun to resemble its current configuration.

Charles Esdaile (2008), Peninsular Eyewitnesses: The Experience of War in Spain and Portugal 1808–1813
Paul L. Dawson (2020), Napoleon’s Peninsular War: The French Experience of the War in Spain from Vimeiro to Corunna, 1808-1809
Mark J. Osiel (2017), Obeying Orders Atrocity, Military Discipline and the Law of War
Geoffrey Blainey (1973), The Causes of War
Ernie Pyle (1944), Brave Men
Alexis Heraclides, Ada Dialla (2015), Humanitarian Intervention in the Long Nineteenth Century: Setting the Precedent
Peter Gellman (1988), Hans J. Morgenthau and the Legacy of Political Realism

Richard Pendavingh

Photographer, designer and weekend historian. Editor of The Unravel. Writes about design, tech, history and anthropology.

1 Responses to ‘The Road To Hell: Part I’

  • Great introduction, look forward to further instalments. Did not know about the Cuba concentration Camps – wow.

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