From Agadir to Armageddon: Anatomy of a Crisis
The Conquest of Morocco
Armageddon is generally supposed to be the first recorded battle of history, fought between Thutmose III, Pharaoh of Egypt, and some of his rebellious subjects near the site of modern Haifa in 1469 BC. By analogy, and thanks to the Apocalypse of St. John, it has come to stand also for the last battle, which will precede the Day of Judgment. It says something for the ethos of the First World War that Allenby’s victory over the Turks in northern Palestine in 1918 was hailed as the Second Battle of Armageddon—no doubt without prejudice, as the lawyers say, to the prerogative of the Lord of Hosts. Today the name is much in circulation again, since it is toward Armageddon that the tide of nuclear armaments is supposed to be sweeping mankind. And who, heaven knows, shall say that it is not?
Agadir is an altogether more obscure spot, a tiny port on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, momentarily celebrated in 1911 as the focus of a German foreign policy initiative and scarcely heard of before or since. What connects the two? Professor Geoffrey Barraclough sees the Agadir crisis as prefiguring and epitomizing the crisis that engulfs us today. Agadir set against each other the powers that, three years later, took up arms in the First World War. Agadir was supposed, at the time, to represent a conflict of the interests which each country held to be essential to its well-being. Agadir, in retrospect, seems a storm in a teacup. The crisis, in short, is an awful warning of the consequences of small-mindedness and short-sightedness. Contemplated and pondered upon, its history may help us to get outside ourselves and so to a safer distance from the disaster that otherwise impends.
The idea is an arresting one, since the First World War remains the prime example of unintended tragedies—despite the far greater suffering which the Second inflicted—and it is now widely accepted that the string of crises that preceded it were each a potential instance of its outbreak. The period, in short, presents us with a case study of general instability, highlighted by flashpoints that failed, between 1908 and 1913, to supply the fatal spark. Stumbling about like blind men in a powder magazine, the European powers succeeded more by good luck than by judgment in avoiding war between the Bosnia-Hercegovina crisis and the assassination at Sarajevo. We, with hindsight, may now succeed in plotting where the powder barrels stand and learn to avoid them. So, at any rate, the conventional interpretations of the last years of the belle époque seem to imply.
Professor Barraclough is more exacting. In his view, the powers were not blind but stupid, with the stupidity of those too selfish to calculate anything but their short-term advantage. Nationalism, long the favorite of Jeremiahs bemoaning the perverted moralities of that lost world, is not his target. His is a class enemy—the class of the bourgeoisie within the European states, and of those states themselves as the vehicles…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.