Recently in The Times, Richard Morrison discussed, “The musicians silenced in the carnage of the Great War,” this being the centennial year of World War I. Morrison explored the war’s, “cataclysmic effect on the musical world,” and how “it left an indelible mark on musical composition—partly because almost a whole generation of brilliant young composers were killed, and partly because those that survived were changed for ever.” Morrison ends on a poignant note:
“As with so many of that horribly ill-fated generation, you wonder what might have been—had mankind not slaughtered so many of its brightest and best.”
This sentiment can be extended beyond music to all fields of human endeavor. Every life is precious for its own sake, but we can only have a full accounting of the costs of war if we also reflect upon the squandered potential of its victims.
Of course we can never know exactly what was lost to civilization in a war, but one way of getting an idea is to consider what we almost lost.
For example, World War I might have easily cost us most of the contributions of Ludwig von Mises, the greatest economist, and one of the greatest champions of liberty, who ever lived. In his wonderful biography of Mises, Guido Hülsmann wrote of how much danger Mises was in as an artillery officer on Austria-Hungary’s Northern Front:
“Artillery was not only the main agent of destruction, but also one of its prime targets. Mises’s battery constantly had to change position, often under fire. Heavy rainfall set in, hampered their movements, and proved that k.u.k. uniforms were not waterproof.”
As I have written in my biographical essay about Mises, this was an incredibly close call for humanity:
“One of history’s greatest geniuses was a single air burst away from having his career nipped in the bud.
How tragic that would have been! Mises had not yet even written his great 1920 essay Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth, which contained the single most powerful argument against central planning that had ever been formulated.”
Neither had he yet elaborated the true, praxeological foundation of sound economics (which he would accomplish in the 1930s) or reconstructed on that foundation the entire edifice of economics as a rigorous, systematic, and complete science of the market (which he would accomplish in the 1940s). Imagine how subsequent Austrian economists would be have had to grope in the dark had he never made those discoveries. There would have been no Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, a book that forever changed the life and career of Friedrich Hayek (who also might have died in the World War I), and no Human Action, a book that forever changed the life and career of Murray Rothbard .