This week marks 100 years since the end of the First World War. The bloody conflict caused appalling suffering and loss of life.
A staggering 40 million military personnel and civilians are thought to have died as a result of the war. Many were killed in fighting—over one million during the Battle of the Somme in 1916 alone. Others died from war-related famine and disease.
Our rulers will make an enormous fuss about mourning the dead this week. But they will also say the war had to be fought.
They say an aggressive German state threatened the peace in Europe, and challenging it was in all of our interests. They make such an effort to push this view because the reality exposes the brutality of their system.
The war was not in everyone’s interests. It was an imperialist conflict waged to protect and further empires.
Millions of people suffered and died so that our rulers could fight over who controlled which bits of land. We are told to celebrate how the war brought “the nation” together. In fact many people saw through their rulers’ lies—and resisted. The war sparked a wave of revolt.
Workers across Europe, including in Britain, France and Italy, staged mass strikes and huge demonstrations. Armies mutinied, and revolutions erupted in Russia and Germany.
The armistice of 1918 came about because Germany’s rulers feared the navy and army mutinies would spread and the state would collapse—so they surrendered.
Action by ordinary workers and soldiers—not clever moves by their rulers—ended the slaughter. If they’d had their way, the deaths would have continued. The ruling class created an official industry of remembrance as part of a battle over the interpretation of the war.
The war created revolutionary movements that threatened their rule. So they tried to control that horror and push it in a direction that didn’t threaten the established order. This continues today.
People who refuse to go along with the official remembrance and wear a poppy come under attack. And people who say that the war shouldn’t have been fought are accused of disrespecting the dead.
The real people who disrespect the dead are those who are quite happy to keep sending working class people to die in wars today. Just like those who sent them to die 100 years ago.
The First World War is a symbol of everything that is wrong with the system. It shows how little our rulers value working class lives.
But it also shows that ordinary people have the power, even in the most desperate circumstances, to fight back.
The revolutions that ended the war gave a glimpse of a different way of running society, and of the potential for a world without wars. That’s what we should remember.