In France and Australia, 11 November is commemorated as the day when the First World War ended. A sombre day of reflection. As an Australian I am not alone in having a great grandfather who, after surviving Gallipoli, was gravely wounded in France’s trenches. The vast majority of Australia’s dead in the First World War died defending France. Of course, our losses pale in comparison to the 1.4 million French who lost their lives.
The military cemeteries of northern France are a dark reminder of the real and very human costs of war.
What makes this Remembrance Day still more sombre is the shocking return of war to Europe. In this new European war, Australia and France are again working side-by-side. We are training Ukrainian soldiers and giving them the weapons that they need to fight against their invaders.
Russia might not be fighting us directly. But we are in its sights. The Russian president assumes that our countries, as democracies, are not good at war. For him, democratic politicians always give up the fight, when a war becomes too costly for their voters.
Putin makes the same assumption about Ukraine. In his mind, Ukraine, as an emerging democracy, is no match for Russia – a larger country without the ‘shortcomings’ of democracy.
On this 11 November, it seems to be important to reflect on whether our democracies can successfully wage war. History encourages such reflections on current affairs. Nevertheless, some might doubt that the history of Greece 2500 years ago can do this.
I am in France because French historians of ancient Greece long ago refuted this doubt.
After the Second World War, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Claude Mossé, Cornelius Castoriadis and other ancient historians from France completely transformed the study of ancient Greece. They put beyond doubt that Ancient History is ‘good to think with’. Studying ancient Greece can shake up our common assumptions. It allows us to look at the contemporary world anew.
The ancient Athenians are famous for their remarkable political and cultural successes. Classical Athens perfected direct democracy. It was the leading cultural innovator of its age. The plays of this ancient Greek state continue to be staged.
Much less well known is the other side of this success story.
Classical Athens won a decades-long war against the world’s largest empire. In expelling the Persians from Greece, this city-state became a superpower. The classical Athenians completely transformed the art of war. Their armed forces were unmatched in their size and professionalism.
Athenian democracy itself was a major reason for this remarkable military success. Democracy made ordinary Athenians believe that the state was now theirs. The result was that greater numbers of them were willing to fight and even die in defence of the country.
In Athens’ democratic debate tended to weed out bad proposals for wars and supported the efficient prosecution of those wars that were waged. It also taught soldiers to take the initiative in battle. Democracy reduced corruption in the armed forces and encouraged ongoing military reform.
Democratic Athens, therefore, refutes the common assumption that democracies are bad at wars. It seems that the Russian president is wrong to assume that we, as democrats, are going to give up the fight. Difficult as it is during a war, Ukrainians certainly have another good reason to continue to democratise. In their trenches, democracy gives them a major advantage over the Russian invaders.
Nonetheless, Athenian democracy is not just a cause for hope in this new intra-European war. It also calls into question a common assumption about the close connection between democracy and peace. It is common to assume that democracies are intrinsically peace seeking.
We assume that contemporary democracies are reluctant to start wars and never fight each other. Because of this assumption, we think that democratic institutions alone reduce the likelihood of war. As democrats, we believe that we are pacifists by definition.
Athenian democracy also shakes up this second common assumption. The Athenians were better democrats than we are. At the same time, the democratic institutions that they had perfected did not stop them from creating a veritable killing machine.
After expelling the Persian invaders, the classical Athenians waged a decades-long war against fellow Greeks. In doing so, they killed tens of thousands of people and wiped entire communities off the face of the map.
They filled their military cemetery in the Ceramicus with thousands of completely pointless war dead.
For us, this bellicose ancient democracy must also serve as a serious warning. Democratic institutions do not automatically make us pacificists. When we seek peace, other things must be the focus: peaceful values, shared identities and conciliatory public discourses. If we truly want peace, these are the things that we should foster at home and abroad.
David M. Pritchard, an Australian ancient historian, is a research fellow at the Nantes Institute for Advanced Study (France) and the author of Athenian Democracy at War (Cambridge University Press 2020).