The Great Illusion  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Great Illusion is a book by Norman Angell, first published in the United Kingdom in 1909 under the title Europe's Optical Illusion and republished in 1910 and subsequently in various enlarged and revised editions under the title The Great Illusion.



In The Great Illusion, Angell's primary thesis was, in the words of historian James Joll, that "the economic cost of war was so great that no one could possibly hope to gain by starting a war the consequences of which would be so disastrous." For that reason, a general European war was very unlikely to start, and if it did, it would not last long. He argued that war was economically and socially irrational and that war between industrial countries was futile because conquest did not pay. J. D. B. Miller writes: "The 'Great Illusion' was that nations gained by armed confrontation, militarism, war, or conquest."

According to Angell, the economic interdependence between industrial countries would be "the real guarantor of the good behavior of one state to another", as it meant that war would be economically harmful to all the countries involved. Moreover, if a conquering power confiscated property in the territory it seized, "the incentive [of the local population] to produce would be sapped and the conquered area be rendered worthless. Thus, the conquering power had to leave property in the hands of the local population while incurring the costs of conquest and occupation."

Further, the nature of modern capitalism was such that nationalist sentiment did not motivate capitalists, because "the capitalist has no country, and he knows, if he be of the modern type, that arms and conquests and jugglery with frontiers serve no ends of his, and may very well defeat them."

Angell said that arms build-up, for example the naval race between England and Germany that was happening as he wrote the book in the 1900s, was not going to secure peace. Instead, it would lead to increased insecurity and thus ratchet up the likelihood of war. The only viable route to peace would be respect for international law, implemented in a world court, in which issues would be dealt with rationally and peacefully.

Critical reception

The Great Illusion was a best-selling popular success and was quickly translated into eleven languages, becoming something of a "cult", spawning study groups at British universities "devoted to propagating its dogma." The book was taken up by Viscount Esher, a courtier who was charged with remodeling the British Army after the Boer War. Also enamored of the book was Admiral John Fisher, the First Sea Lord, who called it "heavenly manna". Historian Niall Ferguson uses the receptiveness to the book of these paragons of the British military and naval establishments as evidence that it was not the pacifist work it superficially seemed to be, but instead a "Liberal imperialist tract directed at German opinion", with the aim of discouraging Germany from continuing its bid to become a great naval power, a program which had begun the fierce, and expensive, naval arms race between the United Kingdom and Germany. The fact that Angell was employed as editor of the Continental Daily Mail by Lord Northcliffe, a press baron whom Ferguson refers to as an "arch-scaremonger", is to Ferguson further evidence of a deeper, non-pacifist purpose to the book.

It is sometimes said that the outbreak of World War I disproved Angell's argument in The Great Illusion, but Angell had not maintained that a war was impossible, rather that it would be futile. Although some aspects of Angell's argument have dated, his discussion of economic interdependence "was important and innovative."

Interwar edition

A new edition of The Great Illusion was published in 1933; it added "the theme of collective defence." Angell was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1933. He added his belief that if France, Britain, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other countries had bound themselves together to oppose all military aggression, including that of Hitler's, and appealed to world justice for a solution to the countries' grievances, then the great mass of reasonable Germans would have stepped up and stopped Hitler from leading their country into an unwinnable war, and World War II would have been avoided.

In popular culture

  • The Great Illusion is mentioned in the 1929 novel Death of a Hero by Richard Aldington. It was used as evidence by the main character that the coming world war would not happen.
  • One of the characters in the D. K. Broster story "The Window" (1929), set in pre-World War I France, mentions having read Angell's book, and uses it to argue that "it is impossible that there should be a great war nowadays".

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Great Illusion" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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