Word War II and Hubris

World War II started 80 years ago today with the German invasion of Poland. It ended six years later with over 70 million dead.

I would argue hubris was a significant contributor to World War II. Hubris is the wanton insolence or arrogance resulting from excessive pride or passion. It is the classic temptation of mortals who, finding themselves garbed in the unaccustomed robes of leadership or success, start imagining themselves bulletproofed against disaster -- and so tempt the fates. Their own belief that they will prevail is enough to qualify as excessive hubris when they are defeated.
I believe that there is a theme of hubris in the cause of the war and the eventual outcome, as set out below:

  • World War I. Russian hubris started the war. However, the arrogance of the British, French, and Germans encouraged it as each believed in they were right, and they would win the war quickly. Four and half years later and 40 million dead was the cost.

  • The Treaty of Versailles, due to the hubris of the victors, included the War Guilt clause which John Maynard Keynes referred to as a "Carthaginian peace." Although there were anti-war rallies at the end of World War I in Germany, many Germans remembered the humiliation of the War Guilt clause. It was this humiliation that made it easier for Hitler to convince the German people that there was a need for more war in the lead up to World War II.

  • German rearmament, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, began shortly after the Treaty was signed, but exploded after the Nazis came to power in 1933. Despite warnings from Carl von Ossietzky, Winston Churchill, and others, Western leaders were willing to condone a rearmed and powerful anticommunist Germany as a potential bulwark against the emergence of the USSR. I would argue that their hubris, like those of the Weimar political parties, led them to believe they could control Hitler while needing him.

  • The Munich Agreement and Chamberlain's "Peace in our time" was done to stop the outbreak of war. However, Hitler was potentially weak because of a planned coup by the German General Staff; and as Czechoslovakia had a modern well-equipped army, a war would Germany many lives. Finally, not defending Czechoslovakia made Hitler confident that the Western powers would never effectively oppose him. I would argue that hubris once more played as a role. Chamberlain believed that through appeasement, he could prevent war, and as his main concern was the USSR, he ignored all evidence and information to the contrary.

  • World War II began, as a result, of the British “guarantee” to the Polish colonels, who were on the verge of returning that part of Germany that Poland had acquired from the Versailles Treaty. The Poles, not realizing that the British had no way of standing behind the guarantee, refused to return the lands to German. The refusal was an act of defiance that was too much for Hitler and the superior Aryan race, Germany invaded Poland, and Britain and France declared war.

  • The Battle for Moscow, the first significant defeat of the Wehrmacht at the hands of an ascendant General Zhukov, was a turning point in the Russian campaign.

  • The Battle of Midway was intended to be the knockout blow that Pearl Harbor was not, where the American carrier fleet could be lured out and decimated by the Japanese. However, Japanese indecision and American luck resulted in a significant victory for the Americans, decisively turning the war in the US's favor.

There are many examples of hubris in business that reflect the destruction of organizations. The greatest to me in recent history was the Financial Crisis of 2008 where all the issuers of CMOs and CDOs believe that property values would always go up. Another recent example to me was the destruction of Sears and KMart by Eddie Lampert.

Thus in life and business, we need to stop hubris before it destroys us. The benefits of the Wisdom of Crowds is known to many. However, these benefits can turn to negatives when Crowds are: not diverse; there is no specific answer, and social influences impose too much pressure. Thus the adverse effects of crowds exist in most corporate environments. How do you keep it at bay? In Vistage, I tell members the role of Vistage is to question your assumptions and stop hubris. I hope you have a group that will help you prevent your hubris before it destroys you.