“Cities and thrones and powers”. World Politics, 1904-1954

It is difficult to parcel history. We place the feudal age between 500 and 1,500 A.D., and at once have to add there was chattel slavery after the beginning and capitalism before the end of it. When did modern European history begin? A dividing line has to be drawn, and sufficient reason found for it Most historians agree on the French Revolution as the convenient starting point: there is an intelligible, unbroken series of events that began in 1789. The Socialist Party was founded ten years before it reached its climax.

The outbreak of war in 1914 is often represented as a surprise—England on its August holidays, douched by the unforeseen. In fact, everyone knew it was coming. The Dual and Triple Alliances of the eighteen-nineties defined the position with painful clarity: the great European nations ranged in two hostile groups, each piling armaments and watching for advantage. Popular papers in Britain carried pictures of German militarism—stiff-legged marching regiments, the Kaiser in his spiked helmet —while Haldane reorganized the British army on German lines and France, Austria, Russia and Italy trained their conscript armies. No country could afford to fall behind: “You cannot when other nations are spending huge sums of money which are not merely weapons of defence but are equally weapons of attack,” said Lloyd George.

While the larger powers circled and feinted, the small ones were at one another’s throats. Montenegro, Serbia, Novibazar, Albania—a dozen states in the Balkans with names that, twenty years later, ring of mustachios and musical comedy. Each of them was land-hungry and full of aggressive nationalism; all of them were caught in the struggle between Russia, Germany and Austria, for passage to the Mediterranean and the East.

Politically, it was a Machiavellian decade of plot and counter-plot—fundamentally, the seethings of a grand-scale eruption of imperialism and international competition. From 1870 onwards Germany had undergone a swift economic growth like that of Britain a hundred years before. Huge industrial combines emerged, trade multiplied, colonization started; shipping increased, and there was tariff protection against American and British goods. Britain had made its empire, held the markets and the sea routes; Germany was the rival, the strongest competitor. Many of the other European nations’ were still semi-feudal, but their growing commercialism (or that of their neighbours) drew them into the vortex.

The war changed the nature of European politics. Inevitably, it changed the map; its course included the Russian Revolution and the American entry to the arena. The relics of feudalism were swept away. While Russian aristocrats scurried across Europe for asylum, the Austro-Hungarian empire which had dominated central Europe was reduced to a small republic. The technical needs of twentieth-century warfare gave tremendous impetus to industry everywhere. And, at the end of the war, America was creditor to all Europe on a near-fantastic scale. Production for profit there had to be.

The Peace Treaties were shrewdly savage arbiters of the new balance of power. The principle that the beaten country must pay had been imposed by Germany on France in 1871; now it was imposed on Germany by France and Britain. The attitudes of the victorious nations differed, however. Britain had “raked in”— German ships, spheres of influence in the Middle East, spoils for the Dominions—and needed now a prosperous, buying-and-selling Germany; France’s desire was for Germany stripped and subjugated. America withdrew politically but remained economically, bestriding the narrow, exhausted European world like a colossus.

By 1922 it was evident that, whatever had been intended at Versailles, German economic recovery had to be not merely allowed but encouraged. It is worth saying at this point, that the Socialist Party was not mistaken in its commentary before, during or after the war. The four years’ havoc was the inevitable climax to the commercial struggle which had spread and intensified for a hundred years. German militarism, which mostly took the blame, was simply the expression of a rapid, aggressive capitalist growth; given slight variations in nineteenth-century history, the enemy could as easily have been France or Russia. Many people in Britain were not patriots in the conventional sense but believed that to break German capitalism would bring jobs and prosperity. In the first wartime issue of the Standard facts and figures were quoted to prove them wrong, and wrong they were: mass unemployment began in 1920 and continued till 1939. The post-war world was shaped by capitalism, not by statesmen.

The steps to rehabilitate German economy were precipitated by the Germans’ attempt to evade astronomical debts by devaluing the mark. In a few months half a million marks were worth only a penny, and when the Germans reformed their currency the franc fell in turn. America, France and Britain, with scarcely an altruistic motive between them, collaborated to make Germany solvent and revive its industry. Five years’ flourishing trade and high profits followed. They ended as abruptly as they began when the 1929 crash caused the withdrawal of American money from Germany and the collapse that paved the way for Hitler.

Meanwhile the “new civilization” was transforming Russia, and its votaries formed the Third International. The war had killed the second; its members, the social-democrats and the labour leaders’ supported the conflict they had pledged themselves to oppose. The doctrine of capitalism’s impending collapse became a spearhead of “left-wing” political theory, seemingly given weight by the instability of finance, commerce and governments in Western Europe. The Russian Revolution’s effect on post-war world politics was mainly indirect, inspiring new ideologies and policies; the looked-for European uprising never came, and it was twenty years before Russia figured largely on the scene.

The peace treaty had set up the League of Nations, a permanent, elaborately-organized machine for conciliation and arbitration between nations. America was not a member, nor was Germany until 1926. Its Court of Intemational Justice at The Hague was to consider all quarrels between member-states; it sought reduction of armaments, above-board diplomacy, and co-operation between governments. There is a story that Abraham Lincoln, when his two little boys were in tears and a stranger asked the matter, answered: “Just what’s the matter with the whole world—I’ve got three apples and each wants two.” It was much the same for the League, except that “wanting two” was economic necessity and the other nations’ reactions to disputes depended not on their ideals but on their interests. From 1925 onwards, every country was rearming. When the League disapproved, they left it.

The inter-war period has been called “the long weekend.” By the mid-thirties, Monday morning’s business was plain. After the depression, competition was fiercer than ever before. Cheap mass-produced goods from America and the East flooded across the tariff frontiers of Europe; the Lancashire mill girl stood in Japanese stockings and waved a Japanese Union Jack at the Coronation of George the Sixth. Italy, empire-hungry, flouted the League and attacked Abyssinia; Britain, with less fuss, annexed a hundred thousand square miles of Southern Arabia, breaking twenty-year-old pledges to the Arabs. Japan, too, lapsed from agreements with the western nations when driven by the same commercial interests to attack China. Pacts and treaties could mean little in the inescapable struggle for markets and empires.

The Spanish Civil War provided a bargaining counter for the European powers, and established anti-Nazism and anti-Fascism as positive political faiths for which the coming world war was to be fought. From early 1938, when Austria was seized, all eyes were on Nazi Germany. Needing still to expand, barred from movement to the west, the Germans went to Czechoslovakia, the most highly industrialized section of the old Austro-Hungarian empire. The hour seemed to have come. The British government, however, incompletely prepared for a European war and with little prospect of gain from it, delayed the outbreak.

Through 1939, frank preparations were made in every country. Japan, still attacking British interests in the East, was Germany’s ally. The signal for war was the Russo-German pact in August, and the invasion of Poland its swift consequence. The prevention of another power’s dominating Europe was traditional, necessary foreign policy for Britain; Germany, still aggressive with success, had spread across the centre and the east and was within sight of the Rumanian oilfields and the way to the Mediterranean.

Russian imperialism showed its hand long before Russia entered the war; the hand was taken by Britain and America at the Yalta Conference in 1945, when the division of the post-war world was privately arranged. Russia was granted territory and spheres of influence in the Orient, and took them in Eastern Europe. Both coming late into the fighting, America and Russia tower in the war and its aftermath. The doctrine of the balance of power gave way to clear recognition of two great hostile camps of nations across the world, with convalescing Japan the unknown quantity and United Nations continuing the League of Nations’ losing struggle for world harmony.

The pattern of these fifty years, then, has been one of expansion; commercial expansion, and with it expansion in the conflicting political units. In 1904, Europe was the bone of contention for a crowd of scuffling puppy-nations. Today it is the world, contested by two great powers and their dependencies. The proposal of a federated Europe, first made in 1940, has been taken seriously since the war; national boundaries, so long considered an obstacle to Socialism, are being erased by capitalism.

Fifty years’ international strife. The Socialist Party has commented on but never entered it; it has opposed all wars because the working class can gain nothing from them, has been pilloried for saying so, and lived to see that it was right and the others wrong. World politics are capitalist politics: bluffings, courtship, threatenings and ultimately killings for markets, materials and communications. Not many people care much for the rights of small nations, but everybody cares for his interests in small nations. Men of goodwill and ill will have wrestled to control the consequences of competition; the truth is that they will continue as long as capitalism continues.


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