The shame of imperialism

As shown by Michael Gove’s stupid remarks, the bourgeoisie cannot admit its responsibility for the carnage of 1914-18. In this two-part article Chris Gray examines the origins of the ‘war to end all wars’

The assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand of Habsburg, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by Gavrilo Princip at Sarajevo on June 28 1914 began a sequence of events which brought the modern world into being. It led to the most profound series of crises of world capitalism, and transformed the outlook of the bourgeoisie from superior optimism to bemused desperation. It opened the present period of crisis in human history, a crisis which, unless resolved, threatens the total annihilation of the human race or a drastic curtailment of its numbers and life prospects; the alternatives are either advance towards world socialism or the collapse of civilisation in a continuation of the most brutal and degrading barbarism.

It is a matter of paramount impor­tance that the sequence of events lead­ing up to World War I be understood fully by all those who wish to save humanity from the deadly peril that faces it - and especially for the work­ing class, which alone is capable of leading humankind back from the edge of the abyss.

Penguin has recently published a book written by an Australian histo­rian, Christopher Clark (professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge), entitled The sleepwalk­ers: how Europe went to war in 1914. This book provides a first-class nar­rative of the diplomatic and military events leading up to the outbreak of World War I.

Clark points out that his book “is concerned less with why the war hap­pened than how it came about”.1 This is definitely an unavoidable preoccupa­tion for historians. If we want to be able to decide how people ought to behave, then we have to know in fact how they do behave. But inseparable from the analysis of how people behave is, in fact, the reasons why they behave as they do, and this is where Christopher Clark loses the plot, so to speak. I do not mean that his grasp of the actual course of events immediately prior to the outbreak of war is faulty, but that his focus tends to exclude factors present in the situation which need to be taken into account if we are to understand the dynamics involved.

Over 20 years before it broke out, Friedrich Engels pointed to the danger of European war:

Has not the annexation of the French provinces driven France into the arms of Russia? … And is there not every day still hanging over our heads the Damocles’ sword of war, on the first day of which all the chartered covenants of princes will be scattered like chaff; a war of which nothing is certain but the absolute uncertainty of its outcome; a race war which will subject the whole of Europe to devastation by 15 or 20 million armed men, and which is not raging already only because even the strongest of the great military states shrinks before the absolute incalculability of its final result?2

Bismarck was a bit more specific: he told Albert Ballin in 1891: “I shall not live to see the World War, but you will, and it will start in the Near East” (by the “Near East” he meant somewhere in the area between Belgrade and Basra).

In a telling speech to the German Reichstag delivered during the Moroccan crisis on November 9 1911, August Bebel gave a stark warning of what would happen if the powers lost their senses:

Then the catastrophe will come. The great order to march will be given, sending to the battlefields 16-18 million men, the flower of European youth, equipped with the best tools for murder and turned against each other as enemies.

… You are carrying matters to extremes, you are driving us to a catastrophe, and you will live to witness what we have so far seen only on a very small scale … The twilight of the gods of the bourgeois world is coming. Be sure of that: it is in the offing! Today you are about to destroy your own politi­cal and social order. And what will be the consequence? Behind this war stand mass bankruptcy, mass misery, mass unemployment, the great famine. You want to deny that? … Anyone surveying events objectively cannot deny the veracity of this statement.

What has the little Moroccan affair already shown this summer? The well-known run on savings banks, collapse of the stock ex­change, alarm in the banks! That was just a small beginning; as a matter of fact, it was nothing! What will happen when things become really serious? Then things will come to pass that you certainly do not want, but they will necessarily take place, I repeat, through no fault of ours, but because of you.3

Not only was there warning of the coming approach of war, but its nature was also signalled - by a Russian cap­italist, no less: one Ivan Bloch, who published a treatise in six volumes in 1898 entitled The war of the future. This was an astonishingly prescient work. Bloch registered the fact that the emergence of rapid, accurate, long-range weapons had given the defence a decisive advantage over attacking forces, since the deadly fire of infantry and artillery would make it very dif­ficult for attackers to get to grips with those they were attacking. This would lead to a stalemate, with armies locked into trenches for years. All able-bodied men would be sucked into the struggle and all available resources mobilised, leading to a fight dependent on the en­durance of the civilian population and a contest between the various protago­nists’ economic capacities: as Bloch pointed out, “you cannot fight unless you can eat”.

The result would be unrestricted warfare on the high seas: “cruisers and torpedo boats … [will] pursue merchant ships, fall on them by night and sink them, with passengers and crews and cargoes, with the object of cutting the communications and para­lysing the trade of the enemy”. Bloch asked: “How long do you think your social fabric will remain stable under such circumstances?”

Bloch’s writings were given pub­licity, being translated into French, German and English. But they were for the most part ignored for practical pur­poses, just as the historical truth about the war is kept under wraps nowadays for ideological purposes by Tory and Labour politicians alike.


The bourgeoisie is ashamed of World War I. It knows that it was primarily responsible for the carnage, but dare not admit this, because to do so would hasten its own downfall. So it uses every possible means to confuse peo­ple as to the actual causes of the war. An example can be found in the little pamphlet by Bernadotte E Schmitt, professor of modern history at the University of Chicago, which is pub­lished by the Historical Association.

According to Schmitt, World War I was not caused by “economic jealous­ies and rival imperialisms” - ie, the system of world capitalism was not responsible - for three reasons: first, because the loudest protests against the war came from business circles in Germany and Britain; secondly, because the powers had succeeded in carving up Africa without recourse to war; and, thirdly, because:

… in 1914 the ruling groups in European governments were not men who thought in terms of busi­ness and economic advantage. They were usually members of the he­reditary aristocracy, who thought in terms of strategy and military power and national prestige and who, in the crisis of 1914, paid little heed to the wails of businessmen.4

Thus it was not the system that was at fault. The cause of the war was, pro­fessor Schmitt informs us, “the con­flict between political frontiers and the distribution of peoples, the denial of what is commonly called the right of self-determination”5 (p6).

In this way the good professor tries, in effect, to shift the blame onto the previous system of fleecing humanity, known as feudalism - a system which is opposed to the division of human­kind into nations, favouring instead the maintenance of multinational empires, such as those of Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary. It was the necessity of keeping the subject peoples under that was responsible for the growth of German armaments, leading to the arms race and eventually to war.

Likewise the immediate causes of the war revolved around this factor: Austria and Serbia were locked in ir­reconcilable conflict on account of the existence of large Yugoslav minorities in Austria-Hungary, which chafed at their subjection to Austria and wished to emulate the Serbs by achieving in­dependence. To preserve her empire Austria was thus compelled to attack Serbia and try to incorporate it into the empire also. The position of Serbia in the system of international alliances meant that war could not be confined to the Balkans, but had to spread onto the wider stage: mobilisation by Austria was followed inevitably by mobilisa­tion in Russia, because the general staffs could not allow their rivals to get away first in the race: “Thus the alliances, which had originally served the cause of peace, when put to the final test, almost mechanically [bully for that “almost”] operated to convert a local conflict into a general war.”6

What is significantly missing from Schmitt’s account is any discussion of why the “system of alliances” arose as it did. As early as 1915 the Dutch socialist, Anton Pannekoek, pointed to the fact that the alliances represented a division of the imperialist world into two groups of powers: viz those who were ahead in the race and those who wished to catch up: ie,

… the league of the hungry (the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria and Italy), who wanted to acquire a world empire, and the league of the satisfied (the Triple Entente of England, France and Russia), who had large colonial areas, were ready to concede nothing and, if possible, wanted even more.7

This line-up of powers may seem acci­dental at first glance, but deeper analy­sis shows that it was consistent with the distribution of world power and the antagonisms present between the various imperialist agglomerations.

These observations do not, of course, account precisely for how and why the conflict broke out as and when it did. Schmitt has some pertinent re­marks on this topic:

France in 1905 was too weak to fight Germany. Germany in 1911 considered Morocco too dubious a cause; in 1908-1909 Russia was not militarily prepared to go to war when Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia; in 1912-1913, though bet­ter prepared, she said frankly that she would not fight for the sake of a Serbian port on the Adriatic. But each of these crises was followed (1) by a drawing together and tight­ening up of alliances until … the circle was complete, and (2) by a general increase in armaments …8


The other main factor which needs to be taken into account in any explana­tion of the origins of the conflict in 1914 is the emergence of a Serbian secret society dedicated to the group­ing of all Serbs into one state. Many Serbs were nominal subjects of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which was a ramshackle collection of na­tionalities headed by German Austria and Hungary, but including Italians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Rumanians, Ukrainians and Jews.

In 1908 the Dual Monarchy (as it was known) annexed Bosnia, and with it a significant additional segment of Serbs. This added fuel to the ammuni­tion dump. As Christopher Clark notes,

The almost universal enthusiasm for the annexation [by the Serbian state] of yet unredeemed Serb lands drew not only on the mythical pas­sions embedded in popular culture, but also on the land hunger of a peasantry whose plots were grow­ing smaller and less productive.9

The Bosnian crisis forced the Serbian government to tone down its own irredentist propaganda, but led to the formation on March 3 1911 of Ujedinjenje ili Smrt! (‘Unification or Death!’), popularly known as the Black Hand.10 This organisation was an early 20th century equivalent of Al Qa’eda. Its moving spirit was one ‘colonel Apis’, who was professor of tactics at the Belgrade Military Academy. The aim of the organisation was the ingathering of all Serbs into a single state (Bosnian Muslims and Croats included). Its modus operandi centred on assassination of political opponents - whence the targeting of archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip, who was recruited for such a purpose. He was not the only would-be assassin - four other young indi­viduals were also involved.11 Striking down the archduke was the act that blew up the ammunition dump, lead­ing as it did to the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to the Serbian government on July 23 1914, demanding the sup­pression of such activities.

Schmitt points out helpfully that:

Europe was not unaccustomed to the assassination of high political personages. Anarchists had as­sassinated the president of the French republic in 1894, the em­press of Austria in 1898, the king of Italy in 1900. In 1908 the king of Portugal and his eldest son had been killed in the streets of Lisbon. In Russia terrorism had removed one tsar and more than one grand duke. The king of Greece had been murdered at Salonica in 1913. But not one of these tragic incidents had caused any international difficulty, for they were obviously the work of depraved individuals or protests against notorious misgovernment.

The murder at Sarajevo, on the other hand, was regarded at once as having a grave international bear­ing; for the fact, speedily known, that the assassin was of Serbian race and the rumour that the plot had been hatched in Belgrade gave every reason to fear that a new crisis would be provoked in the long and bitter rivalry of Austria-Hungary and Serbia.12

The government of the Dual Monarchy, having judged the Serbian reply to its ultimatum unsatisfactory, declared war on Serbia on July 28.

This action led Russia, who consid­ered herself the protector of Serbia, to order, on July 29, a partial, and on July 30 the general mobilisation of her armies. If the immediate pur­pose of this step was to reinforce by a military threat the protest which Russia had raised against the policy of Austria-Hungary and to induce the latter to enter upon negotia­tions for a settlement of its dispute with Serbia, the ultimate intention was to attack Austria-Hungary in case negotiations were declined or failed. Germany, the ally of Austria- Hungary, thereupon intervened, on July 31, with an ultimatum requir­ing Russia to stop her mobilisation within 12 hours; and when Russia declined to heed the German de­mand, the German emperor, on August 1, declared war on Russia.

At the same time Germany ad­dressed a summons to France and, on the latter’s refusal to promise neutrality, on August 3 declared war on France. The German plan of campaign against France in­volved marching across Belgium, whose territory had been declared neutral in a treaty signed by the Great Powers of Europe in 1839. A demand made by Germany upon Belgium for a free passage for the German armies was not only re­jected by the Belgian government, but caused Great Britain to despatch a counter-ultimatum requiring Germany to respect the neutrality of Belgium.

On the refusal of the German government to comply, the British government, at midnight on August 4, declared war on Germany.13


The problem of the origins of World War I can be expressed as five ques­tions:

1. Why was the Austrian ultimatum so peremptory?

2. Why did Russia mobilise?

3. Why did Germany support Austria?

4. What was the French incentive to join in? and

5. Why did Britain enter the war?

If we turn to one of the classic works of Marxism, Rosa Luxemburg’s The Junius pamphlet (Juniusbroschüre), we shall find information which sheds light on the first question. Luxemburg starts from the same point as professor Schmitt - namely, the national minority problem in Austria - but goes deeper into the question:

Obviously the existence of virile and independent national states on the border of a monarchy that is made up of fragments of these same nationalities, which it can rule only by the whiplash of dic­tatorship, must hasten its downfall … Although its imperialistic ap­petites wavered between Salonika and Durazzo, Austria was not in a position to annex Serbia, even be­fore the latter had grown in strength and size through the two Balkan wars. For the forcible annexation of Serbia would have dangerously strengthened in its interior one of the most refractory south Slavic na­tionalities, a people that even now, because of Austria’s stupid regime of reaction, can scarcely be held in check. But neither can Austria toler­ate the normal independent devel­opment of Serbia or profit from it by normal commercial relations. For the Habsburg monarchy is not the political expression of a capitalist state, but a loose syndicate of a few parasitic cliques, striving to grasp everything within reach, utilising the political powers of the nation so long as this weak edifice still stands.

For the benefit of Hungarian agrarians, and for the purpose of increasing the price of agricultural products, Austria has forbidden Serbia to send cattle and fruits into Austria, thus depriving this nation of farmers of its most important market. In the interest of Austrian monopolies it has forced Serbia to import industrial products exclusive­ly from Austria, and at the highest prices. To keep Serbia in a state of economic and political dependence, it prevented Serbia from uniting on the east with Bulgaria, to secure ac­cess to the Black Sea, and from ac­quiring access to the Adriatic, on the west, by prohibiting the acquisition of a harbour in Albania. In short, the Balkan policy of Austria was noth­ing more than a barefaced attempt to choke off Serbia.14

Luxemburg goes on to explain how Austria had been looking for an ex­cuse for a conflict since at least 1909, when an attempt was made to spread rumours of Serbian conspiracies against the Habsburg monarchy.15 Hence Gavrilo Princip played straight into Austria’s hands when he fired that fatal shot in Sarajevo on June 28 1914.

It is clear from the above that “eco­nomic jealousies” were very much in evidence, despite the fact that the political set-up in Austria-Hungary was as much feudal as capitalist. Luxemburg shows that the Austrian government was operating in the in­terests of Austrian monopolies as well as on behalf of Hungarian landlords. To point to the social background of the Austrian government is beside the point: the alternative for the Austrian bourgeoisie could have been union with Germany and freedom for the national minorities of the Austro- Hungarian empire - a policy which would have meant the overthrow of Austro-Hungarian feudalism and the possibility of normal commercial rela­tions with Serbia, which would itself have gained greater freedom of action. But this policy the Austrian bourgeoi­sie never carried through; instead it compromised with the reactionary el­ements in Austria-Hungary at the ex­pense of its Slav rivals. The result was the holocaust of 1914, for which the bourgeoisie of Austria-Hungary must take its share of the blame.

Schmitt has some useful remarks on the question of Austro-Hungarian intransigence:

… the failure to establish the com­plicity [beyond reasonable doubt] of the Serbian government in the Sarajevo crime did not seem a valid reason against proceeding either promptly or vigorously …

On the other hand, the Austro- Hungarian statesmen never seem to have understood that the hostility of Serbia and the unrest in the southern Slav provinces were in large part the natural consequences of their own foreign and domestic policy for a generation past; at least they never admitted any such responsi­bility … Nevertheless, this consid­eration is fundamental. If Serbia had provoked Austria-Hungary, the latter had in various ways and at various times done grave injury to the neighbouring kingdom, and the ultimate aim of Habsburg pol­icy was the destruction of Serbian independence.

Furthermore, the regime which Francis Joseph and Conrad von Hötzendorf, count Berchtold and count Tisza wished to preserve had become an unworkable anachro­nism. Its political system was based on the ascendancy of two minority races, its social arrangements lagged behind the demands of the 20th cen­tury and bore most severely on those groups which were excluded from political power. All efforts to change the existing system had failed …16

The government in Vienna seems to have felt that action against Serbia as the fountain head of south Slav irre­dentism had become a matter of life and death. Hence the sabre-rattling and the provocative ultimatum.

The ultimatum demanded, inter alia, the cessation of anti-Austrian propaganda in Serbia and the suppres­sion of those organisations which were disseminating it. Action was demanded against those individuals responsible for the various acts of terrorism which had occurred.

The most controversial points were 5 and 6. Point 5 demanded that the Belgrade government “ac­cept the collaboration in Serbia of organs of the Imperial and Royal Government [of Austria-Hungary] in the suppression of the subversive movement directed against the ter­ritorial integrity of the monarchy”; and point 6 stated that “organs del­egated” by Austria-Hungary would “take part in the investigations re­lating to accessories in the crime”.17

Why no settlement?

Clearly the ultimatum was of the same order as the famous Latin grammar question ‘expecting the answer, no’. Consequently the Austrian government must have been disconcerted to learn that, as seasoned observers pointed out, the Serbian reply went a long way towards acceptance of the demands raised.

On one point only was there a definite refusal: the participation of Austrian officials in the judicial inquiry (point 5), but the offer was made to refer the entire dispute to the arbitration of the Hague Tribunal or of the Great Powers which took part in drawing up the declaration of March 31 1909 [at the conclusion of the Bosnian annexation crisis].

The note was not an integral ac­ceptance of the Austro-Hungarian demands. Nevertheless, the govern­ments of the Entente powers, their respective public opinions, and, it may be added, the press of the United States, considered the reply not only as a remarkable submis­sion to extraordinary demands, but also as a satisfactory settlement, or at least the basis of a settlement. Even the German foreign minister, who put off reading the note for several days, admitted that it provided a “ba­sis for possible negotiation”.18

Schmitt comments:

If Austria-Hungary had been will­ing to negotiate on the basis of the Serbian reply, she could have de­manded the rigid execution of the promises made, and, in default of Serbian performance, her diplomatic position would have been unassail­able. Unfortunately for her, she had not expected so great a surrender on the part of Serbia, and she was de­termined not to accept a diplomatic solution. Thus she was forced, if she was to impose a military solution, to take the false step of ignoring a con­ciliatory overture which conceded nine-tenths of her demands.19

In the circumstances negotiation would have been the best way out of the difficulty. Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, sensibly suggested to the German government that if Germany were to urge restraint upon Austria, the UK would exert pressure on Russia, and a conference could then be called to sort out the tangle. Indications are that in the ini­tial stages this course was approved of in principle by Germany, Italy, France and Russia,20 but this phase was effec­tively cut short by the Austrian dec­laration of war on Serbia on July 28.

As the powers began to dig their heels in and take steps to move to a war footing, the British ambassador in Moscow telegraphed home to re­port Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov’s view that:

Russia cannot allow Austria to crush Serbia and become predomi­nant power in Balkans, and, secure of support of France, she will face all the risks of war.21

But why did Russia come to Serbia’s aid? Here again Luxemburg supplies the answer:

… behind Serbia stood Russia, un­able to sacrifice its influence in the Balkans and its role of ‘protector’ without giving up its whole im­perialistic programme in the ori­ent as well. In direct conflict with Austrian politics, Russia aimed to unite the Balkan states under a Russian protectorate, to be sure. The Balkan union that had almost completely annihilated European Turkey in the victorious war of 1912 was the work of Russia, and was directly and intentionally aimed against Austria. In spite of Russian efforts, the Balkan union was smashed in the second Balkan war. But Serbia, emerging the vic­tor, became dependent upon the friendship of Russia in the same degree as Austria had become Russia’s bitter enemy.22

This was the result of Russia’s designs on the Dardanelles, traditionally the goal of Russian diplomacy, which were now being demanded by the Russian bourgeoisie in their search for an outlet to the Mediterranean.

But Russia’s drive towards the Dardanelles through the Balkans meant the defeat of Turkey - which brings us to the third part of the puzzle. I will begin the concluding part of this article by examining the attitude and interests of Germany.


1. C Clark The sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914 pxxvii, London 2012.

2. F Engels, introduction to Marx’s The civil war in France (1891).

3. Quoted by RB Day and D Gaido Discovering imperialism: social democracy to World War I , Chicago 2011, p519.

4. BE Schmitt The origins of the First World War pp5-6, London 1958.

5. Ibid p6.

6. Ibid p26.

7. A Pannekoek The prehistory of the World War (1915), quoted in RB Day and D Gaido Discover­ing imperialism: social democracy to World War I , Chicago 2011, p888.

8. BE Schmitt The coming of the war: 1914 Vol 1, New York 1930, pp53-54.

9. C Clark The sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914 London 2012, p33.

10. See ibid p38.

11. See C Clark The sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914 London 2012, pp47-64; and BE Schmitt The coming of the war: 1914 Vol 1, New York 1930, pp190-209.

12. BE Schmitt The coming of the war: 1914 Vol 1, New York 1930, p414.

13. Ibid pp1-2.

14. R Luxemburg The Junius pamphlet London 1967, pp37-38.

15. See ibid p39.

16. BE Schmitt The coming of the war: 1914 Vol 1, New York 1930, p373.

17. C Clark The sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914 London 2012, p455.

18. BE Schmitt The coming of the war: 1914 Vol 1, New York 1930, Vol. I, p535.

19. Ibid p539.

20. Ibid Vol 2, pp40, 44.

21. Ibid, p87.

22. R Luxemburg The Junius pamphlet London 1967, p38.