Sent to the slaughter
Remembrance Day reminds us that under capitalism peace is just the continuation of war by other means, writes Eddie Ford
At the weekend, the news was totally dominated by the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice between the Allies and Germany - even briefly pushing aside the near endless Brexit speculation. The terms of the armistice included the withdrawal of German forces to behind the Rhine, Allied occupation of the Rhineland and bridgeheads further east, the surrender of aircraft, warships and military material, eventual reparations, no release of German prisoners and no relaxation of the naval blockade of Germany. In other words, punishment terms.
The actual peace treaty, as opposed to the armistice, was not signed until June 28 1919 and took effect on January 10 1920 - ie, the infamous Treaty of Versailles, which enshrined the punishment. One of the most significant, and in many ways calamitous, provisions of the treaty required the defeated states to “accept the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage” - which became known as the War Guilt clause (article 231). Overall, the treaty demanded that Germany disarm, make ample territorial concessions, and pay reparations to certain countries that had formed the Entente powers - the total cost of these reparations was assessed in 1921 at 132 billion marks (then $31.4 billion - roughly equivalent to $442 billion in 2018 terms). Not for nothing has the Treaty of Versailles being regarded as a prime example of ‘victor’s justice’, or a “Carthaginian peace” - to use the words of John Maynard Keynes, a British delegate to the Paris Peace Conference - that would only prove to be totally counterproductive.
As we were constantly reminded by a stream of pundits and commentators, the suffering generated by the war was immense - almost too hard to comprehend. The total number of military deaths on the western and eastern fronts, and other battlefields, was nearly 20 million - whilst the civilian death toll was about eight million, six million of whom died of war-related famine and disease.1There were also about 23 million wounded military personnel, while around six million went missing, presumed dead. Disease, including the 1918 flu pandemic and deaths while held as prisoners of war, caused about one third of total military deaths for all belligerents.
But one thing our solemn presenters did not mention so much, if at all, was that in some senses the war continued, even as the ink was drying on the armistice paper - like in the Balkans, as the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires disintegrated. Needless to say, there were innumerable other minor wars and conflicts immediately post-World War 1 - like the third Anglo-Afghan War (1919), the Caco Revolt in Haiti (1918-20), the Waziristan campaign (1919-20) in the north-west frontier of India, and so on.
Thus the idea that it was ‘the war to end all wars’ rang hollow, even when the phrase was first used by Woodrow Wilson, or so it seems - though interestingly the Fabian HG Wells wrote a book in 1914 called The war what will end war arguing that only the defeat of German militarism could bring about such a result. On the other hand, David Lloyd George is reputed to have made the ironic comment: “This war, like the next war, is a war to end war.”
However, the mood of triumphalism, - especially in Britain and France - soon faded. By the late 20s onwards it had became obvious to anyone with a brain that a new global conflict was going to happen. Before that, though, Marxists such as VI Lenin and Leon Trotsky wrote about the “inevitability” of a new world war. Trotsky thought that it might be between Britain and the US. That did not happen of course, except in alternative history novels, but Trotsky correctly located the essence of the coming World War II: it would not be about standing up for freedom and democracy, and nonsense like that, but rather a struggle as to who would become the new hegemon - British was in visible decline. But, as we know, the US did not make its move in the 1920s, instead, after World War I, it retreated into ‘splendid isolation’ - its time was to come later.
An editorial in a recent issue of the Financial Times says the war was “about a struggle for mastery between Germany and Russia” (November 10). This is clearly wrong. Anyone who looked at Russia in 1914 will not have seen a power on the rise, with the ability to dominate or even conquer Europe. Russia was visibly in crisis, and had been since the Crimean War - and by the 1890s it was widely recognised that the country was facing revolution: the old regime could not act any longer act as the bulwark of reaction, as it had done in the first half of the 19th century. Even then, it is worthwhile noting that Russia could only play that role thanks to British diplomatic backing and finance, enabling the tsar to operate as the main counterrevolutionary force in Europe.
When all is said and done, World War I was really about Germany trying to secure its domination of Europe in order to become the top dog - not only in Europe, but also to ‘have its place in the sun’ and build its own empire, which obviously meant replacing British imperialism as the new global hegemon. But what appears to have happened is that Britain manoeuvred Germany into a premature war, calculating that it could win with very little direct intervention by its own forces - believing that its alliance with Russia, on one side, and France, on the other, would make defeat inevitable for Germany, which would be unable to fight on two fronts. And indeed Germany thought the same too - hence the Blitzkrieg military strategy - knowing it did not have the economy or overall strength to fight a prolonged war. When the strike against France failed to force a surrender, the German high command knew it was going to lose - it was just a question of when and how. Unsurprisingly then, Germany offered peace on many occasions from late 1916 onwards - but Britain refused, as did France. They wanted to crush their enemy.
In the end, however, there was British military intervention on a huge scale - millions dying in a dreadful war of attrition, the ‘strategy’ being simply to wear down the other side, no matter what the cost. Soldiers are disposable cannon-fodder - just keep sending them over the top. Of course, it was not just Britain, it had a huge global empire, from which it recruited over three million soldiers.2Indian troops played an important role - not only on the western front, but also carving up the Ottoman empire in the east. Given the balance of forces, Germany did not have a chance of beating the Allies.
Regarding the armistice and all that, an atrocious article appeared in the Morning Star by Peter Frost - ‘Will you wear a poppy, be it red or white?’ (November 8). We are informed that “not everyone is happy to wear the red poppy”, as “some see them as glorifying war and militaristic thinking” - hence in 1933 the first white poppies appeared, worn mainly by members of the Cooperative Women’s Guild.
But comrade Frost advises: “if you do chose to wear a poppy - red or white or both - wear them with pride”. They are, after all, “about the respect each of us feels for those who paid the greatest price in the ongoing futility of war.” It is quite remarkable how the Morning Star, a supposedly leftwing publication, has utterly collapsed into the bourgeois consensus. True, the Star condemns the imperialist slaughter, but somehow imagines we can commemorate the victims by using the same symbol as Britain’s pro-war nationalists
But strict conformity is required during this period. Every TV presenter must wear a (red) poppy. Official BBC guidelines, for instance, reminds its staff that poppies “may be worn on screen from 06.00 Saturday October 26 to 23.59 on Remembrance Day, Monday November 11” - purely voluntary, of course. The poppy police are forever vigilant. Quite surreally, almost like a David Cronenberg film, Jonathan Ross had one digitally superimposed on him during a transmission of Film 2003: a BBC spokesperson explained at the time that this was the “only way to ensure he was respectfully attired”. Similarly, in 2006 BBC presenter Huw Edwards - very prominent during the commemoration events - acquired a poppy halfway through a news bulletin following a complaint from a viewer. Alas, communists cannot imagine Jeremy Corbyn having the courage to defy that consensus and saying, ‘To hell with poppies’.
No-one can seriously deny that World War I was an imperialist war: it was the duty of all partisans of the working class to oppose it. That was certainly Lenin’s position, but he went further. Rather than resorting to pacifism or acts of individual protest, it was also your duty to turn the imperialist war into a revolutionary civil war - the main enemy is at home. This was a stance that the Second International had endorsed, although there were different interpretations as to how you do that - a general strike being one particularly popular idea. In the event, of course, the majority collapsed into separate forms of nationalism in 1914.
The comments made by various politicians who gathered in Belgium and France to mark the 100th anniversary were the usual mixture of fake history, hypocrisy, asininity and the sickly. The most interesting remark by far was by president Emmanuel Macron, who talked about the “re-emerging authoritarian powers” that were well-armed on Europe’s borders, and “attempted attacks in cyberspace and interference in our democratic lives”. Therefore, he said, what is needed is a “real European army” - as “we have to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America” (my italics). Donald Trump responded, as usual, with an angry late-night tweet, saying Macron’s comment was “very insulting.”
But what Macron was saying pointed to a real truth. Yesterday’s allies can very quickly become today’s enemy. The little spat between Trump and Macron underlines the point that under capitalism there is no real peace: just the continuation of war by other ‘peaceful’ means. It is all part of the same system, meaning that peace should never be considered the norm under capitalism.