One hundred years ago today, Germany declared war on Belgium and Britain declared war on Germany. Starting with the assassination of an Archduke in Sarajevo on 28 June, an escalating series of mobilisations and declarations over five weeks ended up being the first truly World War.
The belligerent powers denounced the crimes of their opponents and declared that the aim of this war was to end all wars, but they were lying. They were committing crimes as great as the ones they denounced. They wanted to re-draw the world’s borders so as to steal territories, markets and colonies from each other. Australia invaded German New Guinea in September 1914, not to liberate it, but to seize it for Australian capitalism. Other German colonies around the world were likewise seized, either during the War or afterwards, to augment empires.
Neither was the war fought to defend freedom and democracy. The people of the Great Powers’ colonies had little freedom and less democracy and neither alliance had good credentials on the home front on that issue. The semi-monarchical governments of Germany and Austria-Hungary and the rotting feudalism of the Ottoman Empire were obviously inferior to the internal regimes of Britain and France. Britain and France, though, were allied with Russia – that great bastion of Czarist reaction that for centuries had been Europe’s worst enemy of social and political progress. Any victory for the Czar was a defeat for liberty and equality.
A disaster waiting to happen
Nothing noble about it, World War I was a disaster waiting to happen. Over the course of the previous twenty or thirty years, two great imperial alliances had taken shape in Europe and they were contending for dominance. Britain and France were at the zenith of their power and Germany was rising strongly. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were deep in decline, while Russia was a powder-keg – a late developer, growing rapidly but with a social structure completely unsuited to a modern economy.
As the rival alliances developed, they came ever more into conflict with each other. An arms race, centring chiefly on naval power, emerged in the mid-1890s, while each international issue brought the powers closer to war. The Balkan War of 1912 almost started World War I, but diplomacy narrowly managed to confine it to local actors. If the assassination in Sarajevo had not triggered the war, it would have been some other incident in the year or two after that. The war was not a matter of if, but when.
Betrayal by workers’ organisations
n the years before the outbreak of war, unions and parties in the labour movement vowed to fight against war and to hold a general strike in the event that one was attempted. Many fine resolutions were passed, not least by the Second International, an organisation which housed most parties claiming to follow in Marx’s footsteps.
When the war actually started, however, it was a different matter. Almost every section of the Second International betrayed the working class and lined up behind their own national capitalist class. The Russian Bolshevik Party was one of the few to hold the line. Amongst the Anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists, things were better, but even they were not solid. The Australian IWW fought against the war from the very first, but the French CGT split and the majority joined the “sacred union” with their own capitalists. Peter Kropotkin, the great theorist and single most famous Anarchist of his day, was pro-War, but most other prominent Anarchists were against it. Freedom, the London Anarchist newspaper which had been Kropotkin’s major publishing base, split with him over the issue.
Four years of slaughter
The two imperial alliances in the War were of comparable strength and the military technology of the time gave a strong advantage to the defenders. A few dozen soldiers, assisted by trenches, sandbags and barbed wire, could hold the line against hundreds or sometimes thousands of attacking enemy troops. Artillery could only partially offset this – and besides, two could play at that game. As a result, military offensives regularly turned into bloodbaths and battlefields into slaughterhouses. Governments and generals on either side responded only by redoubling the effort.
While the continuing carnage merely solidified the commitment of the belligerent governments and the capitalists they served, the working class gradually changed its position. As the primary victims of the war, and with no victory in sight, they started to listen to the radicals denouncing the War. And naturally, the ones who had denounced it earliest had the greatest credibility.
Revolution ended the War
Later in the War, military technology changed, with the use of aeroplanes and tanks, and the Triple Entente was boosted by the arrival of the United States, but by then dissent had developed too far to be stopped. Mutinies started breaking out in the trenches of most of the belligerents and the first power to break was the one with the greatest social tension – Russia.
Russia had immense social problems, but none of them could be addressed while war raged. As discontent increased and the economy began to crack, the workers and the peasants turned against the War. On International Women’s Day 1917, a women’s demonstration for bread sparked a growing series of strikes in Petrograd. A few days later, when things were becoming desperate, the Czar’s Cossacks were ordered to fire on demonstrations containing large numbers of women. When the Cossacks refused, it was the end of the line for the Czar. He abdicated shortly after and was replaced by the Provisional Government.
The Provisional Government, however, performed no better. No problems could be solved while the War continued, and all factions in the Provisional Government supported the War. As a result, society polarised and revolutionaries gained greater support. The Bolsheviks, the Left Social Revolutionaries and the Anarchists grew strongly – though the Anarchists would have been in a better position if they hadn’t been split in half by Kropotkin’s pro-War stance. By October, the Provisional Government was gone and the Soviets had taken power. Under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, the Soviets accepted the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. It contained savage concessions, including the occupation of Ukraine, and the Anarchists had advocated a different strategy (abandoning the front), but at least Russia was out of the War.
Mutinies spread to other armies. French troops staged a massive mutiny in 1917 (while the Germans on the Western Front were thrown at British lines in order to prevent their contamination by subversive ideas). In 1918, the Central Powers started to break down and military setbacks compounded, increasing discontent. In October, the sailors of the fleet mutinied at Kiel and by 9 November, the Kaiser was gone. With its allies already having defected, the German Government signed the Armistice two days later.
The war to end all wars
Governments around the world, especially in the victorious countries, are celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the greatest slaughter that the world had seen. They want us to be patriotic and to swallow their lies about World War I, so as to make their current lies about current wars more credible. In reality, the working class has no country and no reward from participating in any of the capitalists’ wars.
There is only one war which is worth the fight of the working class – the class war. Capital wages a ceaseless war against workers in every country. Conflicts between national capitalist classes give rise to periodic wars between them, fought with the blood of the working class. It is only by winning the class war that the working class can end all wars. When we make a revolution and abolish capitalism worldwide, we will abolish war forever. We will have a society of peace and solidarity, of liberty and equality, a federated world community of peoples. We will have a new world.