The summer of 2014 is probably the most appropriate moment to remember a 19th century maverick genius: Jan Gotlib Bloch, otherwise known as Jan Bogomil Bloch, Johan von Bloch, Ivan Stanislavovich Bloch or even, among his French readers and admirers, as Ivan de Bloch.
Born in Radom, then a city in Russian Poland, in 1836, educated in Berlin, Bloch made a fortune in the construction of railways in the Russian Empire. While he converted to Calvinism, clearly for social rather than spiritual reasons, he remained close to his former Jewish brethren, fought anti-Semitism, funded investigations on the Jewish contribution to Russian economic development, and supported nascent Zionism.
His greatest achievement was a six-volume book published in Paris – and in French – in 1898, some four years before his death: La Guerre de l’Avenir (“Future War,” translated into English as “Is War Now Impossible?”).
Drawing from the best available information on military and strategic affairs, and in particular on the rapid and global improvement of military technologies, Bloch warned that a major war between industrial countries in Europe would result in a stalemate on the ground, the entrenchment of large armies, enormous casualties, financial bankruptcy, the break up of social organization and finally revolution.
In other terms, he accurately predicted what was to take place from the chain reaction of August 1914 to the overthrow of the Russian, Austrian and German monarchies in 1917 and 1918, and the rise of Communism.
Bloch may thus be praised as one of the real founding fathers of geopolitics as we understand it today, the study of power relations between states, nations and other human groups. Much more so, one would venture to say, than Harold Mackinder, whose major concepts, “Heartland” and “World Island,” have always been as questionable as fashionable, or Karl Haushofer, who, for all his talent and insight, never took off from pan-Germanic fantasies about organically growing states and lebensraum.
What makes Bloch even more endearing is that he erred on a major point: he was convinced (or claimed to be convinced) that European leaders and statesmen would realize in time the dangers of a global war, and avert it.
One may accumulate information and knowledge without even being able to understand it: that was the failure of Bloch’s contemporaries, who did not grasp, as he did, that war’s modernization would change the very nature of war, and raise its cost to unbearable heights. One may also accumulate enough information and knowledge to perceive what the future’s broad outlines might be, and at the same time ignore (or feign to ignore) one particular factor – in Bloch’s case, that policy making does not rest on rational considerations only.
Our challenge, 112 years after Bloch’s demise, and 100 years after the outbreak of the catastrophe he had so strikingly foreseen, is to avoid both his contemporaries’ intellectual frivolity and his own psychological generosity. Indeed, one should connect the dots between the various battles currently fought in the Middle East, and remember that there is no such a thing as a merely rational approach to peace, or peace for peace’s sake.
Over the past weeks, many Western statesmen have expressed shock and horror at the so-called Islamic State’s reign of terror in Syria and Iraq, and at the same time failed to recognize the similarities between the Islamic State and Hamas. Many who are bewildered when the Islamic State undertakes the genocide or expulsion of Christians and Yazidis and Shi’ites do not realize that Hamas, Hezbollah, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and even to a large extent Fatah and the PLO call for genocide and the uprooting of Israeli Jews.
Three former conservative prime ministers of France, Alain Juppé, Jean-Pierre Raffarin and François Fillon, have called for a French humanitarian initiative for both the Middle Eastern Christians and Gaza civilians – and have thus drawn an implicit parallel between the Islamic State and Israel; it did not dawn on them that Israel is fighting in Gaza the same Islamist radicals that slaughter Christians a few hundred miles further east.
Pope Francis, a saintly spiritual leader, rightly endorses now the bombing of the Islamic State’s forces in order to protect Syrian and Iraqi Christians; a few weeks earlier he had no such qualms, “praying for peace” with both the Israeli outgoing president Shimon Peres, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas, who had included Hamas in a national unity government.
It comes hardly as a surprise that many Arab countries understand much better what is at stake and have tacitly supported Israel. They stand on the front line, don’t they? And feel the heat.
© Michel Gurfinkiel, 2014
The author is the founder and president of the Jean- Jacques Rousseau Institute, a conservative think-tank in France, and a Shillman/Ginsburg Fellow at Middle East Forum.