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Learning From Your Mistakes … When You Win

“Men ought either to be indulged or utterly destroyed,
for if you merely offend them they take vengeance,
but if you injure them greatly they are unable to retaliate,
so that the injury done to a man ought to be such
that vengeance cannot be feared.”

— Machiavelli, The Prince.


In the ancient world, wars were wars of conquest or survival. The Persian, Macedonian and Roman empires were the spear-won fruits of conquest, resulting in the total annihilation of their enemies. By the seventeenth century, however, the increased cost of war made such triumphs nearly impossible. The victors of the Thirty Years War (1618-48) were as devastated as the defeated. Nations lacked the infrastructure to mobilize for total war, and so it became a more limited activity. Small, expensive professionally-trained armies fought campaigns to obtain limited benefits in a series of king-of-the-hill conflicts between dynasties. Total victory, and the accompanying hatred and annihilation of the loser, was rare.

This pattern changed again with the rise of the nation-in-arms. Mass conscript armies, supported by large-scale propaganda campaigns at the home front, fought the wars of Napoleon, the American Civil War, and, approaching the Twentieth Century, the wars of German unification. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), after defeating the regular French army, the Germans had to face a people’s militia; Paris was besieged and bombarded. When the war finally ended, Germany annexed the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, claiming that they were historically German. But German Chancellor Bismarck himself recommended against the annexation, stating that it would cause continued enmity, and jeopardize any hope for long-term peace between the two nations.

Bismarck was correct; the annexation created resentment that only increased and helped generate the momentum leading to the First World War. (At least someone understood the Hydra.) Four years later, the horrific devastation of the war reinforced the victors’ attitude of debellation – harsh and absolute punishment of the losers to ensure that they are never able to rise again. The Paris Peace Talks were awkward as they tried to balance the ideals of the League of Nations, to create a unified bond of peace and mutual recognition, with the reality of seizures and break-ups of territory, and the reparations to be paid by the losers.

In The Economic Consequences of the Peace, John Maynard Keynes argued that the reparations inflicted on Germany were unjust and would lead to future conflict, the opposite of their intent. Historians continue to debate his arguments. What is true is that the sense of injustice created by the reparations was a major element of Hitler’s rhetoric, and this emotion echoes throughout his speeches in his rise to power. The causes of the Great War had been murky, and it was not clear who was the aggressor. Was Germany forced into aggression by Russian mobilization? Was it right that Germany should have to pay so much, and furthermore, later see the French occupy the Ruhr, the center of Germany’s industry? Hitler used this resentment – an emotion he himself felt to his core – along with the general economic collapse of the 1930s, to create the anger for justice and revenge that brought him public support and the role of Chancellor. Human beings have a strong desire to see justice – that is, our very limited emotional interpretation of it – carried out to restore our belief in fairness in the world.

Fast forward to 1945, and the end of the second global conflict in thirty years, unimaginably worse than the first one. This time the destruction of the defeated was as utter as any nation has suffered since Carthage. The French proposed that Germany’s industrial heartland be annexed, to ensure that France would have the industrial power to always serve as a check on future German ambition. US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. went even further, proposing to completely de-industrialize Germany, turning it into an agrarian society, incapable of waging modern war.

For the first few years, a variation of Morgenthau’s plan was used to guide post-war policy. However, by 1947, it was apparent that a crippled West Germany was delaying European recovery in general, and the continent would be unable to defend against Soviet encroachment. US Secretary of State George Marshall introduced the plan that bears his name, providing $1.5 billion to West Germany (and over $2.3 billion to France). Between 1948 and 1951, seventeen European nations obtained a total of almost $13 billion ($130 billion in today’s money) in aid through the Marshall Plan. Substantial sums were also provided to Asia, including Japan, during the same period.

Did the Marshall Plan fuel Europe’s post-war recovery? In the two decades after the war, France spent at least the same amount of money fighting two unnecessary wars in Vietnam and Algeria. It’s hard to say that they earned much benefit from the aid. West Germany was better able to invest the money, but economic historians argue that their growth had more to do with their own internal policies on currency stabilization, low taxes for the middle class, and investment in both capital stock and education. But all those polices had to operate in the context of investment, and much of that investment came from the Marshall Plan.

Which was the more peaceful Europe? The Europe of the 1920s or the Europe of the 1950s? Many factors led to the rise of Hitler, the global depression being one of them, but Hitler was molded by his experience living homeless on the streets of Vienna before the First World War, and the turmoil of anger and unemployment that followed the end of the war.

Which Europe are we more grateful for? The idea of a unified Europe was almost unimaginable in the context of the perceived injustice of punishment for losing. Only after the second war did it become real. A Frenchman in 1913, or a German in 1919, would have laughed in disbelief if you described to them how close their two nations are now.

When we win, we often want to be like Machiavelli’s Prince, and win utterly. It is when your opponent is defeated that he is weakest, helpless, and you can take the most from him. And, if somehow he rises to confront you again, then that means you were not severe enough in your punishment, and you should only punish him harder.

But it seems that no victory is complete, now. For every terrorist leader struck down, another pops up to replace him. The Marshall Plan looked at the idea of punition and decided that it wouldn’t work. The only way to make your enemy incapable of revenge would be to wipe them out completely. Or, conversely, rebuild them and take away the cause for anger. Make them more like you, not as a nation, but as a victor.

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