Lest We Forget: Why We Went to War

September 8, 2014 4:20 am

Much is being made of the centenary of the beginning of World War One. And why not? It’s right and proper that we remember the fallen; the dead; the maimed; the millions who marched off to take part in, what was till then, the most industrialised slaughter known to humanity.

It’s estimated the entire conflict, from 1914 – 1918, cost something in the region of nine million lives. It caused whole industrial economies to convert to a war footing, a planned  economy, where every man and woman were called into some form of service – whether in the armed services or in the world of work. This was true of all the main belligerents.

The conflict helped topple crowned heads of Europe that had held power, some of them, since the Middle Ages: the empires of Russia, Germany, Austro-Hungary and Turkey all met a sorry end after centuries of holding sway throughout the continent of Europe and beyond.

Their victorious rivals,  mainly the empires of Britain and France, though themselves on the brink of financial ruin, were not slow to take advantage of any post-war colonial vacuum and moved quickly to re-draw the global maps as possessions, and their peoples, swapped hands – and imperial masters – until the next, far more bloodier conflict (estimated deaths numbering 50 – 60 million) took place barely a generation later.  Thereafter, scarcely a year has past, up to our present time, when there hasn’t been some bloody conflict breaking out somewhere in the world.

So, how did this major military conflict come to pass in 1914?

War to end all wars

It seems, since time began, there have always been wars.  The tribe that held the best land with its abundance of water, woodland for fuel, plains for game, soil for crops, stood a better chance of, not only survival, but  growth. A larger population would provide the warriors, the farmers, the hunters and gatherers – and war would bring booty, riches, treasure, prestige and, crucially, slaves.

The earlier social models would pass from a form of ‘primitive communism’, where families and extended clans (groups of families) would share the tools that helped to hunt and gather resources for survival. As these clans established more permanent settlements to farm the land and breed cattle, inevitably, more land would be needed for those resources. Often this would mean inter-marriage with other clans…or war. And so the process would continue. Tribal economies gave way to slave-based economies where social roles would be more clearly defined: a warrior class headed by a chieftain or king; a lower class who formed the main body of farmers or peasantry; with a growing class of slaves who did much of the more hard, disagreeable work. One of the greatest examples of the slave-based economy was the Roman Empire which lasted more than four hundred years. Following the process, and taking it to its logical conclusion, an empire, in order to maintain itself, had to expand to continue to feed its centre.

This permanent state of affairs meant war could never cease. War brought power, prestige and riches to the ruling classes of any given political entity. Only when such ancient empires as Rome overextended themselves did they give way to the next phase of history as it broke up into its component parts to be beset on all sides by developing feudal forces like a bear overcome by a pack of wolves.

Rise of Imperialism

As ancient empires rose and fell, newer entities superseded them based on new models of social organisation, newer technological developments, all at different levels of combined and uneven stages of development depending on climate, geography, demographics.

The peoples of the greater land masses such as Africa, Asia, Russia, the Americas, always had seemingly endless square miles of available land to move into to accommodate population growth. In the smaller European continent – which was, geographically speaking,  a small peninsula to the Eurasian landmass, there was less land to go around. Its inhabitants had to, therefore,  quickly find resources, literally conquer nature, develop scientific means of production moving away from ‘medieval religious mysticism’ that could often apply a brake to scientific or logical enlightenment.

Where a Russian peasant might move further into the steppes to find virgin forests for fuel, an English peasant might have to sink a shaft to burn coal, from coal came the ability to smelt iron ore. The European states would look outward beyond the seas and ‘discover’ new worlds populated by primitive stone age societies, the more easier to conquer and exploit and enslave. Overseas empires were ready in the making as, not only goods were transported, but the trade in human beings to work plantations of cotton, silver, sugar, mines of silver, gold, untold wealth.

The entity known as Britain became especially adept at the ’empire business’ as, by and large, full scale war within its borders was more or less banished after its Civil War in the 1640s (give or take any number of brief uprisings) and the men of wealth and enterprise began to invest their plantation wealth into a thriving industrial sector.

Where Britain led in its industrial revolution, and in exploiting trade with its growing colonies, others, like France and Spain, were either already out there getting bypassed or quickly trying to catch up. It was a series of imperial wars that built the British empire, a business in which Britain excelled with its industrial muscle behind it and left most of its rivals standing.

Balance of Power

The British ruling class was at its triumphant zenith between 1689 and 1900. It had learned through trial and error, experience and empiricism. It learned the importance of compromise, how to bend against the wind, when to apply pressure, how to play off competitors against each other. They saw off rivals – the Dutch maritime empire 1656 – 1668; the Spanish 1588 – 1602; and the ‘traditional enemy’ France 1400 – 1815 and lost an empire (the American War of Independence) but learned the diplomacy of the ‘balance of power’, never allowing any one power in Europe from getting too powerful. They formed alliances and pacts, treaties and friendly relations, all the while jealously guarding colonies and extending trade,  commerce and banking services.

While our ruling classes were mindful of maintaining the ‘balance of power’ among other European powers, each imperial power had to, in turn, pay heed to their internal balance of class forces. All of these changes didn’t leave their peoples dormant in thought or deed. As new modes of production came into being, where technology helped changed societies and industry altered the shape of economies impoverished peasantry was forced into the mills and factory systems of the new capitalist economies – or else looked to immigration to the colonies. Those who stayed put had to seek alleviation from poverty and exploitation. In some countries, revolution forced the issue (France 1789), throughout Europe (1848), whether the struggle for democracy, republicanism or better living conditions. Or else labour movements came into being calling for extension of the democratic franchise.

Our ruling classes tried, on the one hand, to suppress such movements, or granted concessions when they gained in strength and tipped the balance of class forces.  Political reform was, by the 19th century, firmly on the agenda for most modern economies. As industrial economies increased wealth then so political consciousness was raised around ‘who created that wealth’ and ‘who owned the means of producing that wealth’ – new battle lines were already drawn between the forces of ‘capital and labour’. Liberal social reform or more left wing ‘social democracy’ were two relatively new strands of political thought that altered the ‘balance of power’.

A Divided Globe

By the mid-19th century, the world was by now divided between the great powers.

Britain’s empire accounted for a quarter of the earth’s surface. The Russian tsars held down the vast expanses of the Eurasian landmass and the decrepit Chinese emperors held sway in the sprawling Asian mainland interior. The former colonies of South America, once under the heels of the Spanish and Portuguese, were now nominally independent states yet regarded very much exclusive clients of the colossus of their northern neighbour, the USA.

Like a giant cake, the African continent was cut up and dealt out to the European powers by the 1890s in the so-called ‘Scramble for Africa’. By the turn of the century, there were literally no more colonies to go around. Therefore, any further re-division of the globe could only mean war.

The problem for the British ruling class was that newer rivals were closing in fast by 1900. There was the aforementioned USA, now with its expansive interior fully settled and a huge industrial sector backed by rich, diverse resources meant its productivity was already outstripping that of Britain.

Similar was the case of the recently united Germany (1870) positioned at the very heart of the European continent having pushed France into second place. Germany’s powerful industrial might was making inroads across Europe and beyond, rivaling Britain’s high seas merchant and naval fleet and even picking up some colonies and, like America, already surpassing Britain’s productivity. Behind them were the likes of the second league imperialists like Italy and Japan, the big regional ‘players’ like Russia and Austro-Hungary and the decaying, floundering old empires like China and the Ottomans (Turkey).

Germany pulled closer to the Austrian ruling class to take advantage of its Balkan possessions that led towards the Ottoman and the potentially lucrative oil of the Middle East, a region Britain eyed with its own interests. Russia vied with the Austrians for any openings into the fellow slav states in the Balkans,  like Serbia.

Britain feared further encroachment in Africa or the high seas trading routes. France feared the powerful German army and resented the loss in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 of its eastern border lands Alsace-Lorraine. Naturally, alliances began to form to maintain a balance of power – Britain joined with France and Russia against Germany, Austro-Hungary, Italy and Turkey. The economic, diplomatic and territorial rivalries continued with the often sabre-rattling of army maneuvers and a massive warship building arms race ensured heightened tensions and flashpoints.

War is Inevitable

It didn’t matter whether the Austrian heir Archduke Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated or not, sooner or later, war would have ensued such were the high stakes between the imperialist states. Russia was looking for inroads into the Balkans; Turkey, long regarded the ‘Sick Man of Europe’, was at real risk of being dismembered by Russia, Germany, Britain and France. As war was felt to be inevitable, a heightened sense of preparation was the order of the day. It was all too easy to sleepwalk into conflict – which is what happened within a month of the Austrian royal couple’s assassination.

Likewise today, while the global economy is in constant flux. As industrial economies conduct their never-ending search for markets and profits and resources during boom or slump, wars will continue to break out. Small wonder that, in such a lucrative region as the Middle East, there is almost constantly a barbaric state of affairs whether all out war, terroristic actions, uprisings or murderous military-police dictatorships installed.

This is what we are seeing today. Whoever controls resources controls the world and it’s the persistent search for profits that throws oil onto fire at a such horrendous cost to all of us.

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