Human beings live in the present, but mentally they can also travel through time into the past and the future. Man’s distinctive capacity to situate personal existence in a space-time continuum, looking back at a past that preceded the present, serves the purpose of giving the bearings for future action. It is also possible to look ahead into the future.

Harald Welzer, Climate Wars1

The war, which broke out in the summer of 1914, was unexpected. At first it did not occurr to either the politicians, or the ordinary citizens, that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand should become a cause of a bloody conflict, which would last for several years, kill millions of people, and rearrange the political order of the world. Initially, the killing at Sarajevo did not even incline anyone to change their vacation plans for July: to go to the seaside, to the waters (in July 1914, the Serbian Staff Commander was resting in Styrian Bad Gleichenberg) or in the case of Wilhelm II – to the yacht; the outbreak of war surprised many while they were vacationing within the territory of the henceforth enemy state. All the more surprising, in this context, is the initial war euphoria among European societies (at least in big cities; the country maintained calm reserve), and later on the resulting ability to adjust to nuisances and horrors of the lasting conflict. Why, then, was the unknown anticipated with such enthusiasm, and why have people dealt so long with something which – from the perspective of the Spring of 1914 – appeared so terrible?

Most probably, the reasons were many – the influence of wartime propaganda coupled with rekindled national and patriotic attitudes, the sense of strength and stability of one’s world (western Europe had not seen war for over 40 years), the persuasive force of collective sentiment, or the common, human capacity to adapt to nearly any conditions. There is also something deeper, which we might call a “premonition of war,” or “expectation of war.” It is true that in 1914 very few people had expected events to develop the way they did. The war, even for professional soldiers, was a theoretical concept – it was known through books, military maps, and reports by war correspondents in the press. At the same time, various visions of war to come had been circulating in the air for a while now. Even if they turned out to be off the mark (actually: especially if they were off the mark), they still created a sphere of the “imaginable” – sometimes they acted as self-fulfilling prophecies, but more often they played out ironically, that is they provided schematics for explaining the reality, which they did not always match. By that token, the predictions indeed could conceivably come true, but in a manner wholly different from the prophet’s intent.

Spirit or matter? “War of today” or “war of the future”?

Predicting what the next war is going to look like is a task eagerly undertaken by both military experts and all manner of theoreticians and visionaries. The first do this out of duty, using a volume of data, calculations, and estimates. The others write passionately, often creating some half-fantastic visions. In practice, both are mistaken. In their plans, military experts usually replay the battles of the past, even if they title their books On War of Today, as a German general, cavalry lieutenant and military theoretician Friedrich von Bernhardi2 called his rather bulky opus, published in 1912. The work is symptomatic and fairly representative of many military leaders’ state of mind before 1914. The author notices, as many others do, changes in the warfare craft resulting from new developments in technology (rifles, guns, planes, etc.), while at the same time he believes that the best way of dealing with these is through a high morale and courage of the soldier, who shall bravely charge, as it happened in the French-Prussian war of 1870–1871 or during the campaign of Frederick the Great. A quick, massive attack was preferable to passive defence, while fortitude would trump deadly technology. Consequences of such manner of thinking about warfare became apparent already in the first months of the Great War when brave soldiers equipped with only bayonets were sent to fight against machine guns. It was well into the war when the military leaders noticed that such a strategy not only generates thousands of victims, but it is also inefficient.

If Bernhardi’s book (and more broadly, the manner of thinking it represents) is a good example for the possible consequences of erroneous predictions believed to be right, then at the other end of the spectrum there is a correct prophecy, which nobody would listen to. Falling into this latter category is a five-volume work by Jan Gotlib Bloch Przyszła wojna pod względem technicznym, ekonomicznym i politycznym [The future of war in its technical, economic, and political relations], published in 1900, simultaneously in Polish, German, English, Russian, French, and Dutch (and in 1904, also in Czech). Bloch himself is an interesting figure – not a military man, but a Polish financier and railway industrialist of Jewish origin (the owner of railway lines from Łódź to Koluszki, and from Dąbrowa Górnicza to Dęblin, among others), who devoted the last years of his life (until his death in 1902) to studying war and promoting the idea of “settlement of international disputes by peaceful means.”3  He is justly considered to be the father of contemporary pacifism. His opus magnum was a result of efforts by a special office in which “researchers” (as we would call them today) employed by Bloch accumulated a wealth of data and detailed reports – therefore the book is filled with tables and calculations. The implications, however, vary from those found in military reports.

The Varsovian industrialist carries out a detailed analysis of how the technological development impacts warfare: he writes about ballistics, warships, but also, for example, about bicycles. He devotes many pages to the structure of the army, tactics, numbers, mobility, battlefield, and so forth. Yet the value of his analysis lies above all in including the social and economic context: he estimates amounts of war spending, possible effects of the war for financial markets, questions of food and fuel provisions, and more. In this respect, notwithstanding the somewhat archaic language and garrulous manner, his considerations are much more akin to modern strategic analyses developed by think tanks of all sorts than to the works of his contemporaries one hundred years ago.

To quote his arguments in a nutshell: in Bloch’s opinion, development of modern killing technologies coupled with several-million-strong armies created by public conscription and the level of economic and ideological mobilisation, which modern states are capable of, may cause the future war to be more bloody and destructive than ever before. In such circumstances, war “would be calamitous in equal measure to the losers and the winners, and it may pose a threat to the whole social order, or else lead the nations to terrible complications.”4  In contrast with those who were to lead the war, the author did not believe in a quick resolution, and he predicted that the conflict would go on for years, bringing the people and the resources of the warring parties to ruin. “I do not for a moment deny that it is possible for nations to plunge themselves and their neighbours into a frightful series of catastrophes which would probably result in the overturn of all civilised and ordered government. That is, of course, possible …”5  The more-or-less balanced forces of the opponents predicted that it would be difficult to achieve a strategic advantage that would bring an unequivocal victory, so the winner would be not the state, which won a decisive battle, but the one, which was able to endure the economically and socially ruinous fighting for a longer time. A reasonable conclusion that follows – Bloch believes – is a statement that war will be simply irrational and extremely unprofitable. Modern states should therefore desist from their armament efforts, and strive for resolving disagreements using political means. The author assumes that with each year, the awareness of the tragic consequences of war will grow, and therefore, its probability will decrease.

The Polish financier was creating a detailed vision of the future, which – he hoped – would never come. He trusted in that a rational profit and loss calculation would win over irrational emotions. And here lies he error of his predictions: those, to whom the book was addressed, did not perceive it as a cold, rational analysis of the pending threat, but as a whim of a Jewish banker who wants to “morally disarm” the nations of Europe.

Warsaw under siege

Among more or less captivating speculations and calculations of Bloch, the Polish readers, his contemporaries, probably found one sub-chapter particularly interesting: “Protection of Warsaw in case of siege.” When he was writing his book, the city of Warsaw between the strongholds at Dęblin (Ivangorod) and Modlin (Novogeorgievsk) was a fortress counting more than 600 thousand people, located within a few days’ march from the border – therefore a vision of a long and exhausting siege was quite realistic. Author of The future of war believed that the town should therefore become well equipped for such an eventuality, although he probably had little faith in anyone following his advice in the matter.

At first glance, the structure of the chapter appears rather strange – more than a half is devoted to the description of living conditions and supplies situation in Paris in the years 1870–1871, which the author considers the most revealing example of a large city under siege. We learn about the ways of gathering provisions, about eating horses, cats, dogs and rats (even the prices of their meat are noted), ways of controlling fires and so forth. Finally he arrives at the analysis of Warsaw’s position if it would come to war. The analysis boils down to two questions: problems with provisions and migrations of people – how much food should be stored (cereals, preferably grain); which suburban peat could replace the interrupted deliveries of coal from Dąbrowa; how to substitute railways with river transport; whither to evacuate from the city under siege and what to do with those who stayed, and more. Bloch predicts and suggests solutions, which will actually find their application during World War I: such as regulating and limiting private consumption or the official subdivision of citizens into those who may stay in town during the siege, those who must, and those who should remain there. He postulates also the involvement of state and indicates a crucial role of city authorities at wartime (which is very perceptive – in 1916, the Mayor of Vienna bitterly complained “during peace,  nobody demanded that I deliver potatoes.”6) Despite the suggestions, one might have an impression that according to the author, nothing bodes well for Warsaw under siege, while the spectre of hunger, epidemic and paralysis of the city seems to him quite real.

Interestingly, he never uses the term “conquest” – what could be the lot of the largest Polish city when the enemy enters it following the prolonged siege? What would the capture of the town look like, and what losses could it bring? Will Warsaw be destroyed? We shall not learn that from the pages of The future of war, perhaps as a result of censorship, or perhaps this would have been difficult to describe plainly at the end of the 19th century (he would have had to write, for instance “let the reader imagine that artillery fire is directed at the royal castle, then St. John’s cathedral and the Old Town. How many tons of rubble would have to be removed, and where should it be taken?”) Instead, we find recollections of the bombardment of Paris, which must be sufficient for those readers able to read between the lines. At the twilight of the 19th century, a vision of purposefully destroyed town remained beyond the scope of rational analysis – a description of panic exodus from the captured London could have found its way, at most, to science fiction literature such as Herbert George Wells’s The War of the Worlds.

Kraków under siege – in the near future

However, about a dozen years later, the boundaries of imagination have been pushed further, and description of a city’s wartime fate no longer required the fantastical costume, mere storytelling sufficed. In 1911, in Kraków and Warsaw simultaneously, Gebethner i Wolff published a novel titled Przewrót. Powieść z najbliższej przyszłości7 [The Revolution. Novel from the Near Future], written by Ludwik Szczepański, Krakovian journalist at “Ilustrowany Kurier Codzienny” [Illustrated Daily], a mountaineer, and a supporter of “sexual reform.” During World War I, Szczepański was heavily involved in publication efforts of the Supreme National Committee, writing pamphlets which explained the sense of this senseless war, and publishing collections of legionnaire songs (for his anti-German attitude, he was even briefly imprisoned in an Austrian jail).

His pre-war novel is also about war: it tells the story of a family, the plot is set against military and political background, and starring is a lengthy siege of Kraków fortress. There is a diplomatic ultimatum, which becomes a cause for war; there is wartime censorship of press and ensuing unverified rumours; there are soaring wartime prices, and so forth. The drafted soldiers read out loud Franz Joseph’s manifesto “To my peoples,” which proclaims war and public conscription, while “in the face of enemy’s advantage, the Austrian army is retreating continuously, but in a perfect order.”8  Military conflict on the pages of The Revolution is a war of massive dimensions, engaging civilians, using hitherto unknown means of fighting (for instance, armoured cars, “machine cannons,” or “aeromobiles” – planes, which the author was clearly fascinated with), in which artillery fire plays a key part. Everything keenly resembles the conflict of 1914 except for one detail – the enemy. In Szczepański’s book, Austria is waging a war against the alliance of… Germany, Russia, and Serbia with Montenegro, while Kraków, under siege from the Prussian and Russian armies, is being heavily bombarded by the Prussian Zeppelins (England, which had won a quick naval war against Germany, is maintaining neutrality in this conflict, as is France). The whole thing concludes with revolutionary chaos in Russia, the victory of the Danube monarchy, black-and-yellow banner flying over Warsaw, and plans for a peace conference in Kraków.

Although Szczepański tries to legitimise the story in all sorts of ways, dressing it the costume of expert military and political discussions, even back in 1911 an average observer of political life would have noticed that such a geopolitical and military scenario was fairly unlikely: the copy of the book I perused is filled with handwritten notes of criticism and underlined passages, and the person who marked them barely hides his irritation, for instance when he comments on a fragment of a fictitious speech by mayor Juliusz Leo: “All of the above speech is an extreme example of the author’s naivety in the war and military sphere.”

It is only fair to note that during World War I, Austrian banners indeed flew on the Warsaw Royal castle, after a while, and Russia was indeed swept by revolution in the end. In 1914, Kraków was under siege, but the Russian army stopped at the outskirts, and the city was not under direct bombardment, contrary to what Szczepański had imaged. In spite of that, when you read some fragments of his novel today (for instance those describing the living conditions, and the provisioning situation), they may seem as an excerpt from a diary written in the city under siege, and published twenty years later.

Yet this is not the most valuable thing about Szczepański’s vision. The Krakovian journalist has shown the war as something very real, not removed in time and space: Kraków’s forts under fire, bullets falling on the town centre, mayor Juliusz Leo issuing wartime directives, and so forth. Bombs ruin tenement houses in the Market Square, Wawel Castle and St. Adalbert’s church are badly damaged, many objects from the Czartoryski Museum are destroyed… The blitz ruins the pumping station of Kraków’s waterworks at Bielany, and both cities (Kraków and Podgórze) are faced with the necessity of digging thousands of wells, or treating water from the Wisła river. There is a bloody battle raging over Bielany – “all hills turned into volcanoes, spurting a ceaseless stream of fiery lava of bullets,” and finally what is left of the Camaldolese monastery, which had changed hands repeatedly, is “just a blood-stained heap of rubble, a collective grave of a dozen hundred of soldiers.” Krakovians,  residents of inner city tenement houses, who took their Sunday walks to the Czartoryski Museum or bicycle trips to Bielany, were able to confront their daily life with a vision of war.  

In Bloch’s work, “the war of the future,” albeit analysed in detail, could have seemed fairly unlikely, as after all, it was unprofitable. In Szczepański’s novel, the military conflict is within reach. What makes it all the more interesting, is the fact that the writer was not a controversial, “dark,” modernist poet – like for instance Tadeusz Miciński – eager to prophesy “a ferocious war from the Urals all the way to the Aegean Sea,”9  but the author of popular publications, books “for reading.” He did not divine the “people’s war” as Mickiewicz would have put it, but merely imagined a future (or even, a fictional) conflict, placing it within the categories of his own reality. In this way, he smoothly included war into a set of ideas we use to think about the world, in a manner of speaking.

The sense of making predictions

The conclusion of Szczepański’s book, despite the earlier images of horror, is a very optimistic one. In the future which his protagonists see ahead of them, very soon “better times will come, and there will be a revolution in European relations. […] We are flying into the future bright. Development of the aviation technology will render borders obsolete, it will free the man from police and military chains, it will change our attitude to distance, it will bring  peoples and nations closer to one another. […] A new era will start for humankind; progress which had put on seven-league boots thanks to the invention of a locomotive, will now grow wings.”10

It seems to be yet another display of the naïf faith in saving grace of progress and technology – the avant la lettre vision of the “end of history” to suit the beginning of the 20th century. At the same time, the book can be seen as a prediction, strikingly accurate in many details, dealing with the nature of the conflict, which was about to ensue. Here we find a paradox, characteristic for every future prognosis, every attempt to draw analogies between the past and the future: from the accurate indication of future facts (events) it does not necessarily follow that the meanings transcribed thereto will turn out equally accurate. It is not possible to assign events with meanings other than those that we already know, and that is the reason for our errors, because future sometimes brings with it something until now inconceivable. We know that from the reading of prophecies and analysis of the future written a century ago, because now we can confront the vision with reality, which ensued after they had been issued. If there is one conclusion to be drawn for ourselves from the over-one-hundred-years-old reflections upon war, it is the firm belief that there’s never too much planning and predicting of the future. Sometimes they might make the future just a little better, at other times they might help in getting used to whatever follows. But even if they do not help us understand, or to change the future, one day, they will certainly help someone to understand our times. And that, contrary to what you might think, is no small profit.