2014: World War I
Talk given at Marxism Festival in Amsterdam, May 3 2014.
[Edited 4/3/15 to remove a claim about Glasgow Trades Council which I could not substantiate. Thanks to Edward Crawford for pointing this out.]
Understanding the 1914-1918 war is an important problem for socialists. A well-organized and widely-supported socialist movement in Europe collapsed at the outbreak of war. Enemies of socialism claim that that this means that national loyalty was stronger than identification with class. In Britain the Minister of Education has argued that “those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order”. Even the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm claims that members of socialist parties “flocked to the colours with spontaneous zeal.”
It is certainly true that there was widespread support for the war: in Britain where there was no conscription, two million men volunteered for military service in the first year of the war. But this was not completely spontaneous. There had been long-term ideological preparation for the war. This was the first European war since the introduction of compulsory education in many countries.
In France in the late nineteenth century some peasant children did not know what country they lived in. To have a school-teacher in each village provided a rival to the priest who directly represented the French state The whole institution of secular education was crucial in ensuring a population that was ready for war in 1914. In Britain from 1905 all schoolchildren celebrated Empire Day. Children would listen to lectures about the history of the empire, sing rousing songs, salute the flag, and often received sweets.
This was reinforced at the outbreak of war with a major ideological offensive. Pictures were published of a baby whose hands German soldiers had cut off, and in one version, eaten. French schools were invited to subscribe to a series of cards entitled “German crimes”. In September 1914 a Scottish newspaper carried a story, soon repeated in the London press, of a British nurse in Belgium who was said to have had both breasts cut off by Germans. In fact the nurse in question had never been in Belgium and the whole story was invented by her seventeen-year-old sister. In all countries false rumours were in circulation. In London and Paris shops which had names that sounded German were attacked and looted; the police did little to prevent this.
The ideological offensive was backed up with direct intimidation. In Britain many employers sacked young men to encourage them to volunteer. The government asked charities not to assist unemployed men so as to encourage them to enlist. Many landowners announced that after the war they would only employ men who had fought at the front. In London in May 1915 there was a strike of 7000 tram workers. When the strike was defeated the employers sacked all men of military age and told them to “volunteer”.
In France the government had a list of people known for antimilitarist activities, including trade union leaders, who could be rounded up in case of a national emergency. War minister Adolphe Messimy warned: “Give me the guillotine and I guarantee victory….These people shouldn’t imagine that they will simply be sent to prison. They must know that we shall send them to the front line; and if they won’t go, well, they’ll be shot from in front and behind. Then we shall be rid of them.”
Despite this there was widespread opposition at the very start of the war. The North London Herald League held its first anti-war meeting on 5 August 1914, the day after the declaration of war, in North London, and continued to hold regular meetings. Although it had only around fifty members at the outbreak of war, it was able to grow quite rapidly within the first six months of the war.
In Russia on the day that the army was mobilised the workers of about twenty factories struck in St Petersburg in protest against the war. In some places the workers met the reservists with shouts of “Down with the war” and with revolutionary songs.
In Germany some of the SPD papers did not go along with the party’s support for the war. In November 1914 Clara Zetkin wrote in Gleichheit, the SPD women’s paper: “Let us not allow the working masses to forget that the war has been caused by worldwide economic and political complications, and not by ugly and despicable qualities in the peoples with which Germany is fighting. Let us have the courage when we hear the invectives against ‘perfidious Albion’, the ‘degenerate French’ the ‘barbaric Russians’ etc. to reply by pointing out the ineradicable riches contributed by these people to human development, , and how they have assisted the fruition of German civilization.” Shortly after this article was published Gleichheit was suppressed.
And once the recruits, conscripts or volunteers, had joined the army, the military authorities did not rely on “spontaneous zeal”. Soldiers had to be encouraged – or terrorised – to make them fight. In the British army soldiers “could be condemned to death … for brief desertion or for an act of simple insubordination”. One man was shot merely for refusing to put on his cap.
One British officer described his work in training soldiers to be killers: “I, for my part, do what I can to alter completely the outlook, bearing and mentality of over a thousand men… The German atrocities ….help to bring out the brute-like bestiality which is so necessary for victory….The British soldier is a kindly fellow…It is necessary to corrode his mentality…”
In 1914 a company of North African infantry in the French army refused an order to attack. They were punished by one soldier in every ten being shot.
Once they discovered the realities of war, many soldiers were reluctant to fight. The Christmas Day truce between British and German soldiers in 1914 is famous. What is less known is that in some areas the truce lasted well into January and in one section of the front it actually went on until the middle of March 1915, despite the best efforts of the army command to get the slaughter going again. In many parts of the front a system of “live and let live” developed, where soldiers on both sides developed an unspoken agreement not to cause casualties. The term “live and let live” meant an agreement between antagonists, where each diminished the other’s risk of death and injury by a deliberate restriction of aggressive activity, but only on condition that the other side showed similar restraint.
A crucial factor in mobilising workers to fight was the failure of most of the working-class organisations to offer any real opposition to the war. Governments made great efforts to draw labour leaders into support for the war. The need to win the political support of the political organisations of the working class was recognised.
In Britain Arthur Henderson of the Labour Party was brought into the war cabinet. In France Jules Guesde, the leader of the intransigent Marxist wing of the Socialist Party, came over to full support of the war; Socialist Albert Thomas became Minister of Labour. In Italy Benito Mussolini, previously an anti-militarist activist, played a key role in ensuring Italy’s entry into the war and the Socialist Party’s support for it. In Germany many SPD members and trade union functionaries were given positions in the lower ranks of the administration. In Russia old-time revolutionaries like Plekhanov and Kropotkin came out in favour of the war effort.
For many Socialist leaders preserving their organisation seemed more important than opposing the war. One witness who attended the meeting of the Second International leadership just before the outbreak of war noted that the main reason for their nervousness was their apprehension regarding the threat to their organisation. They spoke above all about the organisation being threatened by dissolution, the party offices being closed, the press being muzzled, and the delivery vans of the party paper being requisitioned by the army.
One of the German Social-Democratic deputies who voted for the war credits on August 4 declared at a workers’ meeting in Berlin “We would have been arrested”. The workers shouted in reply: ‘Well, what would have been bad about that?’
But as the war proceeded more and more workers – in the armed forces or in the factories – came to recognise the futility of the war effort.
On May Day 1916 Karl Liebknecht led a small peace demonstration in Berlin. He was quickly jailed, but 50,000 Berlin munitions workers stopped work on the day of the trial, the first political protest strike in wartime Germany.
In France, where the trade unions had done systematic antimilitarist campaigning, it seemed in 1914 as though all their efforts had been in vain. But in 1917 the French army was shaken by mutinies involving nearly half the infantry divisions on the Western front. How many of those who took part may have remembered antimilitarist propaganda from four or five years earlier?
In Russia, where the Bolsheviks had done systematic work in the army and navy throughout the war and before, and where the whole economic and administrative structure of the Tsarist regime was brought to the point of collapse by the pressures of the war, the army simply crumbled in 1917. Between February and October 1917 there were some two million desertions – by the end of the year one deserter for every three men in the field.
1914 was a terrible defeat for the European working-class movement. But opposition was never entirely crushed and class consciousness survived. By the end of the war it erupted into the most powerful revolutionary movement that the continent has yet seen.