Editorial: The First World Slaughter

The First World War was a classic ‘imperialist’ war. Although billed by one side as a war against ‘Prussian militarism’ and by the other as against ‘Russian barbarism’, it was basically a war for a re-division of the world amongst rival imperialist powers.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century Britain and France had consolidated colonial empires in Africa and Asia, providing them with protected sources of raw materials, markets and investment outlets. As a late-comer that had only become a unified state in 1870, Germany had to be content with bits and pieces here and there and wanted ‘a place in the sun’ commensurate with its industrial and trading strength – a place that could only be obtained at the expense of Britain and France.

In the Balkans, the Hapsburg and Tsarist dynastic empires had long been vying with each other for control and influence over the successor states to the crumbling Ottoman Empire. It was in fact an incident in this strategic rivalry that sparked off the war – the assassination on 28 June 1914 of the Austrian Crown Prince by a Serbian nationalist. Austria declared war on Serbia. Its ally, Germany, joined it. Within six weeks Germany and Austria were at war with Russia, France and Britain. So began over four years of mass slaughter and destruction in Europe on the altar of capitalist interests, with skirmishes in the Middle East and Africa.

The media are now whipping us up to celebrate the ending of this mass slaughter in the glorious victory of the morally justified side – Britain and France, who not only retained their empires but extended them at the expense of the Ottoman empire and taking over Germany’s colonies. Germany lost everything and the Austro-Hungarian empire was broken up. But it didn’t settle the matter. Twenty years later capitalist Germany had a second, more desperate and aggressive go at trying to re-divide the world at the expense of capitalist Britain and France.

There are two lessons to be learned from this.

First, that capitalism is a war-prone economic and social system. Built into it are conflicts of capitalist interest over sources of raw materials, investment outlets, markets, trade routes and strategic areas and points to protect these. Hence the First World War, the Second World War, and all the lesser wars in between and since.

Second, those who did the fighting, killing and destroying, and died or were maimed, have been mere cannon-fodder in these wars. They were duped or conscripted to kill and destroy for interests other than their own.

Knowing what the war was really about – and having opposed it at the time – we in the Socialist Party are not taking part in the celebrations. We will however be remembering the millions who died or were maimed fighting for capitalist interests; the millions of civilians who died as a result of the privation and disease brought about by the war; and the buildings, infrastructure and historical sites destroyed. Capitalism has a lot to answer for.