Who caused the First World War? Revisionist historians argue that the war had to be fought because Germany was aggressive and militaristic, a “rogue state” that threatened “the balance of power” and “the peace of Europe”.
Some German leaders were certainly preparing for war, and, once it started, some aimed at a German-dominated continental empire.
But it is equally true that other top Germans were much more cautious, doubting Germany’s ability to win, seeking to avert war and later making overtures for peace, which were rejected.
Germany’s ruling class of 1914-1918 was, in fact, divided. It is not difficult to understand why. The central issue was how to respond to the threat posed by the British empire.
The British are often depicted as reluctant victims of forces beyond their control, attempting to mediate in the interests of peace.
They entered the war only to defend the rights of neutrals – Belgium – and to restore “the balance of power”.
This is a travesty. The British already controlled the biggest empire in the world. The oft-repeated claim of revisionist historians that “democratic” empires like Britain were somehow preferable to “autocratic” ones like Germany is an attempt at whitewash.
The British could match the Germans atrocity for atrocity. The Germans were exterminating the Herero people of South West Africa, for example.
At the same time the British in neighbouring South Africa were machine gunning Zulu farmers to enforce a poll tax designed to drive them off the land and into the gold mines.
The British, moreover, would use their eventual victory in the war to grab a whole lot more colonies. They added another 1.8 million square miles and 13 million people to the empire, including Palestine, Jordan and Iraq.
In the years before 1914, Britain’s rulers, while feigning injured innocence, pursued a provocatively anti-German policy.
They formed alliances with France and Russia to “encircle” Germany and threaten her rulers with the war on two fronts they so feared.
It was this that forced German military leaders to plan for a pre-emptive strike against France as soon as war was declared. This allowed their enemies to cast them as “aggressors”.
The British also began building huge new “dreadnought” battleships, quickly outpacing Germany in a naval arms race. They soon had the bulk of their fleet concentrated in the North Sea, where it threatened the German coast.
Anglo-German rivalry fuelled the drive to war. The other great powers increasingly clashed over borders, colonies and commercial opportunities.
Why had the geopolitical competition between states reached such intensity by 1914 that it erupted into world war? Several earlier crises had passed off peacefully, and there had been no general European war since 1815.
The anti-war Russian socialists Lenin and Bukharin both published pamphlets on this question during the First World War.
They argued that imperialism and war resulted from the competition between rival groups of capitalists. Competition had driven small businesses to the wall and produced an economy dominated by big corporations and giant factories.
The increased scale of production had transferred competition onto an international stage. Continuing profitability and business growth had come to depend on global sourcing and sales. The state had therefore acquired a central role.
The state’s arms spending and wars were designed to advance the interests of its own capitalists at the expense of rivals from other states.
Economic competition between blocs of capital and geopolitical competition between states had therefore fused – producing the titanic confrontation that was the First World War.
Accidents of history and geography determined the different stances of the great powers. Germany was a continental power recently unified and fast developing.
Britain was an island with an established overseas empire, and, crucially, an economy in relative decline. In the middle of the 19th century, Britain had produced half the world’s iron and steel.
By the mid-1890s, Britain produced less iron and steel than either Germany or the US. The gap between Britain and her rivals was even greater in new industries like chemicals and electro-technics.
The British had always been prepared to intervene aggressively in Europe to prevent any one power dominating the continent. In 1914 that traditional policy was linked with a new determination to beat back competition from German capitalists.
Like the US’s leaders today, Britain’s rulers aimed to use military power to protect a weakening economy from faster-growing rivals.
Few, at first, saw through the patriotic fervour of 1914. The opponents of the war were a fairly small minority of socialists, trade unionists and pacifists.
But by 1916, mounting casualties and privation were producing mutinies, strikes and protests. From 1917 onwards, a wave of revolt from below, opposing both the war and the system that had spawned it, swept across Europe.
There was revolution in Russia, Germany, Austria and Hungary, and mass strikes and demonstrations in Britain, France, Italy and Turkey.
In Russia and Germany in particular, it was ordinary soldiers, sailors and workers who finally brought the slaughter in the trenches to an end.
Inspired by the vision that another world was possible, they refused to continue fighting and transformed an imperialist war for empire and profit into a revolutionary struggle against their own rulers.
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