Review: The real history of WWI

Alan Woods, The First World War: A Marxist Analysis of the Great Slaughter, Well Red Books, 2019

Has any event in history had more written about it, while being less well understood, than the First World War? Woods’ detailed and engrossing book directly challenges many commonly held myths, refuting the nationalist propaganda that too often substitutes for genuine historical analysis. He shows how the world was led to catastrophe by the imperial brinksmanship of ruling elites bent on power and economic expansion. The book also tells stories of rank-and-file soldiers: their pain, fear, misery and suffering, as well as their changing conceptions of the war and capitalist society more broadly. This political awakening would lead to workers’ revolutions across Europe and Asia – ending the war and shaking capitalism to its very foundations.

The War

It is true that the immediate origins of the war flowed from the decisions taken by statesmen and generals following the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip. But the real causes of the war are to be found, not in the haphazard realm of historical accidents, but in the solid ground of historical necessity, which, as Hegel teaches us, can be expressed in accidents of all kinds. (p7)

The war was sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by a Serbian separatist during a parade in Sarajevo. Over the following weeks the great powers of Europe declared war on each other across two broad alliances: the Allied powers (Britain, France and Russia, eventually joined by Italy and the United States, among others) and the Central powers (Germany and Austro-Hungary, soon to be joined by the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria). One is reminded of falling dominoes or a collapsing house of cards, not in the sense that any random event will automatically lead to catastrophe, but in the sense that the conditions for catastrophe were meticulously prepared beforehand by the contending powers.

Franz Ferdinand’s public visit to a country in the throes of a violent separatist movement seems like sheer stupidity, and his poorly executed assassination bordered on the accidental. However, the stupidity of the Archduke was an expression of the brazen arrogance of an empire that strove to subject the Balkans to its interests. The accident of his assassination was only the spark that lit a huge powder keg which had already been filled by powerful historical forces. It could have been detonated in many other ways.

Likewise, German expansionism cannot be explained by the fetishisation of German exceptionalism or Prussian militarism, or, as some historians do, by speculating about whether the Kaiser’s insecurity about his disfigured left arm may have given him a hyper-aggressive personality. By 1914 Germany had risen to become the preeminent industrial power of Europe, but its access to global markets and resources was blocked by the established colonial empires of Britain and France. Ultimately, it could only break this deadlock by smashing through it.

On the other side, the French wanted to contain and, if possible, dismember the German Empire in order to re-establish itself as the dominant power on the continent. Russia strove to control the Balkans, as well as the Black and Aegean Seas. Britain, for its part, is often portrayed as being unable to make up its mind about just who to support, only to stumble blindly into the war. It was continually engrossed in double-dealing alliances between France, Germany and Russia, to the point that Germany was not sure what exactly Britain might do right up to the eve of war.

However, the outward ambiguity of Britain’s intentions was actually a mask for its predatory cunning. Britain hoped to remain aloof from a land war on the continent, while its competitors (not only Germany, but France and Russia as well) bled each other dry. This tried and true strategy had historically allowed Britain to retain a commanding position over the affairs of Europe, but this time the strength of Germany forced Britain to play its hand. The United States, on the other hand, played Britain’s game much more successfully. Its corporations piled up vast fortunes as they funded and armed both sides of the war, only to swoop in during the final 19 months as the new masters of global finance and industry.

In truth the First World War cannot be explained by historical accidents, or the ideas and proclivities of world leaders. That method is akin to studying the formation of hurricanes, not by understanding the way vast quantities of energy flow dynamically throughout the Atlantic Ocean, but by analysing the way a butterfly flaps its wings in Africa. World War I was the climax of years of competition and military build-up. Germany overtook France and Britain economically and demanded a restructuring of the global order in its own interests. The Allies, in turn, could only defend their dominance against Germany’s surging power by utilising military alliances and trade barriers. This contradiction drove a great arms race and finally erupted in the most violent and destructive war the world had ever seen. In other words, the war was the ultimate expression of the competition for the accumulation that lies at the heart of capitalism itself.

This analysis exposes the sheer hypocrisy of the Allied powers as they claimed to fight for democracy and self-determination, even while they jealously protected their right to plunder vast colonial empires in Asia and Africa. Likewise, victorious France and Britain paid no mind to the desires of Arabs or Kurds when they carved up the Middle East with the Sykes-Picot agreement, laying the basis for a century of imperialism, sectarianism and violence in the region.

The soldiers

Beautiful? Oh, hell! It’s just as if an ox were to say, “What a fine sight it must be, all those droves of cattle driven forward to the slaughter-house!” (p155)

It is difficult to adequately describe the trauma of the First World War. It was unlike anything the world had ever seen. Upwards of 65 million military personnel were mobilised, 18 million people were killed and tens of millions more were physically and psychologically shattered. All of the productive power of early twentieth century capitalism was directed toward murder and destruction on a truly industrial scale. During the Battle of the Somme, which lasted 141 days, over a million soldiers were killed – nearly 70 thousand British troops died on the first day alone. Despite the mountains of dead, the front line hardly shifted at all for four gruelling, blood-soaked years.

For all of the nationalistic pomp and ceremony that usually accompany commemorations of the war, relatively little attention is paid to the bestial suffering endured by the soldiers that were sent to the front. Woods proves that, contrary to what we are told by nationalist warmongers, those who oppose imperialist wars in principle are best placed to solidarise with the people who are made to fight in them. He captures the experience of the rank and file soldiers, who were overwhelmingly drawn from the working class, mostly by using excerpts from the novels and poetry of the era.

Woods commits a chapter to Le Feu: journal d’une escouade (Under Fire: The Story of a Squad), a visceral novel by Henri Barbusse. There is no fighting at all until the end of the Le Feu. The soldiers spend their days in tedious boredom, languishing in trenches full of mud, parasites and excrement.

We are waiting. Weary of sitting, we get up, our joints creaking like warping wood or old hinges. Damp rusts men as it rusts rifles; more slowly, but deeper. And we begin again, but not in the same way, to wait. In a state of war, one is always waiting. We have become waiting-machines. (p155)

The waiting is ended abruptly as the novel falls into a hell reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno. When the dreaded whistles blow, soldiers scale the trench walls into “no man’s land”, sprinting headlong into a wall of machine-gun fire, desperately scrambling over barbed wire, mud-filled craters and unrecognisably mutilated corpses. At least they are assumed to be corpses – it becomes impossible to tell who is alive and who is dead in the muck. Anyone lucky enough to survive this crucible is rewarded with the privilege of bayonetting, or being bayonetted by, the young boys cowering in fear in the enemy trenches.

Woods’ use of literature doesn’t just paint a poignant picture of the horror that soldiers endured; he also illuminates their changing consciousness under the impact of the war. The book recounts several nightmarish poems by Wilfred Owen, the great English poet-soldier. Owen arrived at the front “full of boyish high spirits and patriotic fervour” (p83), but is soon transformed by his experiences. Owen’s The Dead-Beat describes a catatonic soldier who is mocked as a faker by his own doctor even as he dies of shell-shock (now known as PTSD) (p87). The following excerpt from another poem, Anthem for a Doomed Youth, portrays Owen’s bitter disillusionment with the war:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them, no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
(p89)

Tragically, Owen survived two years on the front line, only to be killed a week before the signing of the armistice that ended the war on 11 November, 1918. On the day that church bells rang out all over Europe, heralding the end of the war, his mother received the letter informing her of her son’s death (p91).

Resistance

Popular disillusionment and war-weariness was manifested in growing labour unrest and food riots, which were becoming increasingly common. Conversations on the street corner, in the marketplace, and in the factories turned to the injustice, not just of the war, but of an economic system that put all the burdens on the shoulders of the poor and the working class while the rich got ever richer. Talk of everybody making sacrifice sounded hollow to a woman standing in the bread queue while the rich drank champagne and went to parties. (p169)

The ruling classes of both sides endlessly predicted that victory was just around the corner; that “one more push” would be enough to tip the scales in their favour. However, the scale of death and carnage only increased with each new battle, without ever achieving a decisive advantage for either side. Meanwhile, all of society’s resources were thrown into the war effort. The masses of Europe were subjected to ever-worsening hunger and destitution, even as the rich filled their pockets with the gains of war profiteering. To whom could the workers look for aid? They were abandoned by most of their traditional representatives. Almost all of the socialist and labour parties of the time, and the leadership of the trade unions along with them, offered up their own membership for the slaughter.

Nonetheless, an isolated but important minority opposed the war from very early on. The first seeds of opposition were planted in Germany by Karl Liebknecht, the revolutionary socialist MP, who famously stood alone as he voted against funding the war soon after it began in 1914. Small groups of revolutionaries, led by Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, began rebuilding left opposition to the war in Germany. Another important step was taken in 1915, when a small conference of the anti-war left from across Europe met covertly in Zimmerwald, Switzerland. Among the attendees was Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks in Russia.

The book also highlights Eugene Debs, the icon of American socialism, who never backed down from opposition to the war, even as the United States became fully engaged in it. “A bayonet”, said Debs, “was a weapon with a worker at each end” (p133). His principled defiance earned him a mass following among US workers, which culminated in his winning a million votes for president from a prison cell in 1920. One of the most inspiring examples given by Woods is the Christmas Day truce in 1914, when as many as 100,000 British and German soldiers ignored their own officers to fraternise across no man’s land, exchange pleasantries, sing Christmas carols and play football (p83). As the war took an ever greater toll on workers and soldiers, opposition to the war increased and became more radical. In 1916, the Irish rose up against conscription to the British army during the Easter Rebellion in Dublin.

For the soldiers, the war was a seemly unending nightmare; for the civilians on the home front, especially the women, hardly less so. In the end, large tracts of Europe lay wasted, millions were dead or wounded. The great majority of casualties were from the working class. Survivors lived on with severe mental trauma. The streets of every European city were full of limbless veterans. Nations were bankrupt – not just the losers, but also the victors… By 1917, in all the belligerent states, the discontent of the masses was growing. (p195)

Revolution

This bloody conflict was brought to an end by revolution – a fact that has been buried under a mountain of myths, pacifist sentimentality, and lying patriotic propaganda. (p195)

The war inflicted more suffering on Russia than any other country. Russian workers, peasants and soldiers had endured more than two years of uninterrupted military defeat, more casualties than any other country, brutal oppression, mass hunger and deepening economic crisis. By February 1917, they’d had enough. They rose up in one of history’s great popular revolutions, overthrew the centuries-old tsarist dynasty, and set up democratic councils (known as soviets) in their factories, farms and barracks. The principled opposition of Lenin and the Bolsheviks to the war from its very beginning, along with their tireless agitation for bread for the workers and land for the peasants, eventually placed them at the head of the revolution. The masses of Russia, led by the Bolsheviks, overthrew capitalist power in October 1917, set up a new workers’ state and finally ended Russia’s involvement in the war.

The workers of the world took tremendous inspiration from the Russian Revolution, and tried to emulate it. Networks of radicalising shop stewards initiated and led mass strikes of hundreds of thousands of German workers in 1916. They led even larger strikes in early 1918, this time setting up workers’ councils similar to the Russian soviets. Meanwhile, mass strikes, demonstrations and mutinies drove Austro-Hungary to the brink of collapse (p177). Disastrous defeats at the Somme led to waves of mutinies in the French army, affecting nearly half of the French frontline forces (p175). These mutinies held the French back from any other major offensives in 1917, probably saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

By the end of 1918, the German high command knew that victory was impossible. They hoped, however, to increase their bargaining position in negotiations with the Allies by launching a final, desperate naval assault on the British Royal Navy. The sailors stationed at Kiel, however, were somewhat less enthusiastic about this proposal. They mutinied, and their rebellion quickly spread throughout the German military and into the working class. It became a mass revolution along the lines of the February revolution in Russia – overthrowing the German Kaiser and finally ending the Great War.

The end

The war had an enormous economic, political, and human cost… It dislocated economic life, destroying the means of production on a massive scale and condemning millions to hunger and privation. It resulted in the dissolution of the Austrian, Ottoman, German, and Russian empires, and culminated in a wave of revolutions between 1917 and 1920. Sailors and soldiers mutinied, while massive strikes broke out everywhere: from Berlin to Vienna, from Paris to Brussels to Glasgow, and stretching across the Atlantic to Chicago, San Francisco, and Canada. (p199)

The war was over, but this was not the end of things. The next five years would bring Europe to a boil. Germany, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Italy and France were rocked by mass rebellion. This mighty revolutionary wave had the potential to do much more than just end the war. Millions of workers rose up in the hope of eliminating the economic system that created the war in the first place; and all the poverty, inequality and oppression that came along with it. For the workers of Europe, who had endured unspeakable violence and hardship during the war years, capitalism’s legitimacy was shattered. They took hope and inspiration from the Russian Revolution. They wanted a new type of society that would be governed by the democratic interests of the mass of humanity, rather than the bloodthirsty impulses of capital.

Hope and inspiration, however, were not enough. The waves of post-war revolutions had no other organisations that were, like the Bolsheviks, willing and able to lead them. They would be gradually smothered under the weight of mass reformist parties, which proved to be infinitely more hostile to revolution than to capitalism. Russia, isolated and economically ruined, eventually succumbed to its own counter-revolution, led by Stalin. Humanity has paid a very high price for the defeat of the post-war revolutions. In the coming years capitalism would plummet into the worst economic crisis in its history. Fascism and Stalinism would subject the world to hitherto unimaginable dimensions of barbarity. The Treaty of Versailles, aptly described by Woods as the “peace to end all peace”, would only prepare the ground for a second, far more violent and destructive world war (p207).

Many lessons can be drawn from Alan Woods’ book. Imperialist war is as inseparable from capitalism as the accumulation of wealth. This is as vitally important today as it was a century ago. The imperialist competition for global resources and markets is, if anything, stronger now. The growing rivalry between the US and China is only one example, although it is particularly terrifying.

The ruling classes of Europe and North America, along with their lackeys in the reformist political parties and trade union bureaucracies, fought each other to the last drop of workers’ blood. However, they all put their differences aside when faced with revolutions that threatened their power. The natural allies of the working class weren’t found in the parliaments or boardrooms of either side of the front; they were in the factories and trenches on both sides. Indeed, if we are to oppose imperialism entirely, we must also oppose the capitalist order that gives birth to it in the first place.

Woods takes care to highlight the final chapter of Le Feu, the book by Henri Barbusse mentioned above, titled “Dawn”. In it the characters are inspired by Karl Liebknecht as they begin to look to an alternative idea of what the world might be. They begin to see the struggle against war as linked to the struggle between classes. Barbusse would go on to become a communist. Despite the fact that it was born from the blood and dirt of war, Barbusse described the Russian Revolution as “the greatest and most beautiful phenomenon in world history” (p166). Woods’ history of the First World War demonstrates that resistance and rebellion flow from the contradictions of the capitalist system, just as inevitably as war and imperialism do.

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