When the firing stopped on that November morning fifty years ago, and an unnatural quiet descended on a landscape pulverised beyond recognition, an armistice had been arranged but peace had certainly not arrived. Many who were present at the time have described the uncanny feeling as the nightmare closed, and how odd it was to be able to walk erect in places where, only a short while before, it was certain death to raise their head.
For four years the great nations of capitalism had hurled themselves at each other with deadly-effect; the butchery had been unparalleled. Now, that at least was over, but the toll of life still went on. Plague, in the form of Spanish influenza, swept the world and the blockade of Germany, with its cynical and heartless use of starvation to achieve political ends, continued.
The war had revolved around the question of Germany. The older capitalist powers had fought to contain and cripple a new, dangerous rival. Germany had tried to gain political domination in line with its expanding economic and military power. The established powers had grabbed the most profitable areas of the world as sources of raw materials and outlets for their manufactured goods; they controlled the most important strategic points such as the Suez and Panama canals.
German capitalists found themselves forced to expand under unfavourable conditions. They began to prepare to challenge their rivals. They built up a huge and efficient army, began to challenge British supremacy at sea by amassing a large navy. The whole of Germany was organised for war.
Railway systems were laid down to enable the rapid transport of troops to strike points, in case the great fear of a war on two fronts came to reality. In 1914 the time had arrived for the great throw.
The throw failed. Germany was battered, but by no means deterred. The German army was still intact and stood almost entirely on foreign soil. The tremendous offensives of the previous few months had forced them back, but failed to break them. But Germany was disintegrating behind the armies. Modern wars are fought on the factory floor, and in the food queues as well as in the front fine and Germany had had enough.
In October the German admirals decided to send the High Seas Fleet in one final “do or die” attack against the British, but the sailors had mutinied. By 3 November 1918, Kiel was in their hands; within a few days the Kaiser had gone and a Social Democrat was Chancellor.
Germany made frantic last efforts to salvage something from the wreck, but was eventually forced to accept harsh terms in which it was stripped of its colonies. These were not worth an awful lot, as the best areas had been grabbed before Germany had arrived on the scene, but they were to become a mania in the next decade and to enable the German ruling class to build up war fever again, when the time came.
Germany was disarmed, conscription was abolished, its army was limited to 100,000 men. It was allowed no air force, only a small navy, and no submarines, heavy artillery or tanks. German rivers were internationalised. But in spite of this Germany still remained intact. German industry was basically untouched and the army general staff remained. It was only a matter of time before the ambition of the German capitalist class would persuade them to try again.
The most far reaching effect of the war was the break up of Austria-Hungary. The ancient Hapsburg Empire had covered a vast area in Central Europe. Although, with the rise of the German Empire, it had been somewhat overshadowed by its pushing neighbour, it was still a powerful block. At the end of the war it disappeared as Central Europe was “balkanised”.
The German-speaking Alpine provinces of the former empire, with Vienna as the capital, became the new Austria. The rump of pre-war Hungary, stripped of 75 per cent of its territory and 60 per cent of its population, became the Republic of Hungary, with Buda-Pest as its capital. The old Kingdom of Poland was recreated more or less as it had been before the 18th century partition between Austria, Prussia and Russia. Austria Hungary’s southern provinces of Croatia, Bosnia and Dalmatia were joined to Serbia and Montenegro to become Yugo-Slavia.
Most important from the point of view of future development, was the creation of Czechoslovakia. This was the ancient Kingdom of Bohemia and Moravia with Slovakia and Ruthenia. The outer mountainous ring of Bohemia was occupied by German speaking peoples. This was to become a flash point twenty years later.
France, conscious of its inferiority in numbers with Germany. in the next twenty years built up a system of alliances with these small nations in an effort to ring Germany and adjust the balance. This again was to become a telling point in German war propaganda.
Russia was in a state of turmoil, torn by civil war and invaded by foreign armies, its casualties from war, famine and political murder were numbered in millions. Taking advantage of its weakened state, and believing in the imminent collapse of its government, the allies helped to strip Russia of much of its more advanced areas.
Finland broke away and became an independent state. The Baltic areas, that had been some of the most industrial parts of the old Empire, became Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania and Russian Poland went into the new Polish State.
But Russia came back as one of the most powerful states in the world, and its rulers showed they had nothing to learn, when it came to ruthlessness in pursuit of their aims. They were to have one new weapon that had not existed since the French Revolution—a fifth column in the shape of their supporters in many countries, the local Communist Parties.
The Great War ended after millions of workers had died, but nothing was solved, nothing could be solved. The problems of capitalism still remained. The dragon’s teeth of a new conflict were well and truly sown. What is more tragic, the working classes of the world had really learned nothing. They were to fight again in a generation.