By John Newsinger
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WW1: A just war or imperial conflict?

This article is over 8 years, 1 months old
We are told that the Great War was fought to stop German aggression. But the bloody conflict pitted imperial states against each other in a war for colonies.
Issue 393

Surely we have nothing to complain of in this war. We shall get Mesopotamia, Palestine, the German colonies in South Africa and the islands in the Pacific, including one containing mineral
deposits of great value… I am told that Mesopotamia contains some of the richest oil fields in the world.” So said British Prime Minister Lloyd George on 23 April 1919.

For many years the dominant attitude in Britain towards the First World War was that it was a tragic exercise in futility. Millions of young men from both sides were killed or maimed in a new kind of industrial slaughter.

Led into battle by upper class incompetents, thousands died for territorial gains that were measured in yards. Indeed, so bankrupt were the generals on both sides that in the end the conflict became a war of attrition to be decided by who collapsed from exhaustion first.

The horrors experienced by the soldiers in the trenches were part of everyday historical knowledge.

There was no cause at stake worth the scale and intensity of the suffering experienced by young men on both sides.

What we are seeing today is a determined attempt to overthrow this popular understanding of the war, to transform it from the Futile War into the Necessary War. Leading the way in this enterprise has been Max Hastings, whose book Catastrophe has sold over 140,000 copies in hardback alone.

For Hastings, the war was fought to preserve European freedom from German tyranny. An insatiable, aggressive German militarism had to be defeated no matter what the cost.
This view has been enthusiastically supported by David Cameron, by the Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, and by Mayor of London Boris Johnson.

Indeed, Johnson has loudly proclaimed that Tristram Hunt, Gove’s ineffectual shadow, should be sacked if he was not prepared to place the blame for the conflict on Germany.

The war is portrayed as a conflict between civilisation and barbarism. It was fought to defend our homes and our way of life from an enemy to whom we offered no provocation and who attacked us because that was their nature. They had to be defeated because our very existence depended upon it.

Of course, sometimes wars have to be fought for “humanitarian reasons”. This last is really the biggest lie because great powers never ever go to war for humanitarian reasons. At the time the justifications for the Great War ran through the whole catalogue of these pretexts, from a humanitarian war to save “plucky little Belgium” through to a struggle for survival and a defence against tyranny.

The reality was very different. The war was a clash of empires, a war to re-divide the globe fought between great capitalist states that mobilised historically unprecedented resources of men and material for the slaughter.And of these empires, the British Empire was the largest, the most rapacious and still the most powerful.

Far from the British government going to war to preserve the independence of Belgium,the British state had, in the course of the 19th century, extinguished the independence of more countries than the rest of the great powers put together.

Rogue state
Belgium was one of the most brutal colonial exploiters of the time, a country whose conduct in the Congo was appalling enough to cause an international scandal.

Britain, not Germany, was the great rogue state of the 19th century. In the course of the century the British Empire had dramatically expanded. This was not accomplished by unprovoked aggression, but by massacre,rape and pillage.

The conquest of the Indian subcontinent had been completed after a great rebellion had been put down with a degree of savagery that shocked European opinion.

Burma had been conquered and Afghanistan invaded twice, although neither of the Afghan adventures was a success. China had been attacked three times to open the country up for the import of opium and hopefully incorporate it into Britain’s informal empire.The British controlled opium trade was, by general consent, one of if not the worst crime of the 19th century, the work of the “British Imperial cartel”. And in 1882 Egypt had been invaded and occupied.At the end of the century the Egyptian exercise was completed with the invasion of Sudan. Sudanese independence was extinguished at the battle of Omdurman on 2 September 1898, in which the British slaughtered some 16,000 Sudanese for the loss of 48 British soldiers. At the end of the day British soldiers proceeded to bayonet and shoot the hundreds of wounded. The young Winston Churchill complained about “the inhuman slaughter of the wounded” to his mother.

British Imperial ambitions saw an attack on the Transvaal and Orange Free State, white settler republics in South Africa — that resulted in the so-called Boer War, in October 1899.

This war excited particular outrage, especially on the Continent, because the British were seen as employing the methods of colonial warfare against Europeans, burning farms, slaughtering livestock and herding women and children into concentration camps.

No sooner was this war over than a British military expedition invaded Tibet. Machine guns and modern artillery massacred Tibetans armed only with muskets, bows and arrows, and spears. At Chumik Shenko the British slaughtered some 700 Tibetan soldiers while only 12 British soldiers were wounded. The British pillaged on a massive scale, thieving both from ordinary Tibetans and looting the monasteries. Colonel Laurence Waddell was in charge of the official looting of Tibetan antiquities, stealing some 2,000 rare books and manuscripts and eventually sending 400 mules loaded with loot back to India.

Much of this ended up in the British Museum and at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Waddell, a veteran of numerous colonial wars, became Professor of Tibetan Life at University College, London. This was the reality of British imperialism.

In the aftermath of the South African War (1899-1902) the British ruling class recognised that the empire had expanded to the maximum extent possible without encroaching on the territory of other imperial powers and thereby risking a major war. Instead, there was a determination to hold what had already been seized, protected from rivals by the strength of the Royal Navy. British naval supremacy rested on British industrial supremacy and this had been compromised by the turn of the century by the rise of Germany and the US.

This is not to say that the imperial powers could not cooperate. A great rebellion against colonial oppression and exploitation in China, the Boxer rebellion, was crushed by a joint expeditionary force of British, French, American, Russian, Japanese, Austrian and Italian troops in 1900-1901. As far as the US was concerned, its imperial expansion throughout the 19th century had been largely at the expense of the Native American peoples and of Mexico.

Only towards the end of the century had the US began projecting its economic and military power more forcefully, seizing the Philippines from Spain in 1898, effectively incorporating Central America into its informal empire and consolidating its position in China. For the British Empire, the United States was so far only a potential threat. Much more immediate was the German challenge. Germany was not prepared to accept British naval supremacy. This was seen as allowing the British to exclude Germany from overseas markets, giving them an effective stranglehold over German trade and seriously constraining German influence abroad.

Global interests
Germany’s global interests were at the mercy of the Royal Navy and this was something that the German ruling class was no longer prepared to tolerate. The decision was taken to build an ocean-going navy, a decision that the British considered tantamount to a declaration of war. At the outbreak of the war Britain had an overwhelming naval supremacy, maintaining 49 battleships to Germany’s 29, a disparity that was even greater in terms of fighting power. One consequence of the emergence of the German threat was a British rapprochement with the French and Russian empires. In the Mediterranean and Africa, the French had been seen as the biggest rival, while the Russians were seen as a serious threat to India.

The excuse for the British invasions of Afghanistan and of Tibet had been the supposed Russian threat. Britain had supported the Japanese during the Russo- Japanese War of 1904-1905. Conflict between these imperial states was now subordinated to the shared need to support each other against German imperialism. The established powers were sinking their differences in order to defend their empires against the increasingly powerful German state that was demanding its place in the sun.

The greatest beneficiary when these empires did finally go to war in August 1914 was, of course, to be US imperialism. One argument for the Great War being a “necessary war” is that Europe was saved from German tyranny. Freedom and democracy, we are told, triumphed over dictatorship. There are a number of problems with this. First of all, the British, French and Russian empires were all maintained by the forceful subjugation of millions of people, ruthlessly exploited, denied all democratic rights and civil liberties and brutally repressed when they dared to protest.

Germany’s empire was ruled by exactly the same methods. Indeed it had fought brutal colonial wars in south west and in east Africa in 1904-1907. Britain’s Russian ally was a brutal tyranny, an absolute monarchy, maintained in power by a secret police regime and by the official encouragement of murderous anti-Semitism.

Between 1903 and 1905 there was a succession of state-sponsored pogroms in Russia in which some 3,000 Jewish men, women and children were killed. In 1911, in a notorious “blood libel” case, a Russian Jew, Mendel Beilis, was accused of the kidnapping and ritual murder of a Christian child to use his blood to celebrate Passover. Even though the police knew the identity of the killers, and Beilis’s Christian workmates testified that he was working at the time of the kidnapping, he was still put on trial accompanied by a ferocious wave of anti-Semitic propaganda. In the event, even a jury packed with known anti-Semites felt it had to acquit Beilis, inflicting a great humiliation on the regime in 1913.

Once the Great War had begun, over half a million Russian Jews were to be driven from their homes by the Russian army, forced to march eastwards, away from the advancing Germans who were proclaiming they were was going to free the Jews from their Tsarist oppressors!

What of Germany itself? While the German Reichstag had not the powers of parliament, it was nevertheless elected by manhood suffrage, something not accomplished in Britain until after the war. More important, Germany had the strongest Socialist movement in the world that confidently expected to win a parliamentary majority sooner rather than later.

Whatever the limitations of bourgeois democracy in Germany, the country was not a bastion of tyranny in contrast to “liberal Britain”. Indeed, even though imperial rivals, the British and German royal families were related, with the British dynasty, the Saxe- Coburg-Gothas, having to change their family name to Windsor once fighting had begun. Even more embarrassing, there were at least two serving German officers who were members of the House of Lords.

Once the war had begun Britain and its allies quickly reached agreement regarding the territorial gains they expected with victory. Germany was to be eliminated as an imperial rival and stripped of its colonies. When Turkey entered the war, the prospect of the division of the Turkish empire in the Middle East excited considerable enthusiasm among the British ruling class. Famously, the British promised independence to the Arabs, Palestine to the Zionists (the Germans were on the verge of making a similar promise) and agreed to partition the region with the French. But, as Lloyd George observed, Britain came out of the war with “a nice fat profit”. What were the millions of dead when the empire had got hold of Mesopotamia’s (Iraq) oil fields, “some of the richest…in the world”, and had crushed a dangerous rival. This was not a futile war. It was not a necessary war. It was a criminal war.

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