WW I: Necessary and sufficient condition

We need look no further than imperialism to establish the underlying cause of the carnage. Chris Gray completes his examination of 1914-18

The first part of this article covered the warnings of war given by such far-seeing individuals as Friedrich Engels, Otto von Bismarck, the German Social Democrat leader, August Bebel, and the Russian capitalist, Ivan Bloch.1 Bloch’s 1898 treatise The war of the future correctly foretold the prolonged deadlock in the trenches and the ruthless attacks on merchant shipping, which was vital to keeping the belligerent nations supplied.

Part 1 also looked at the relations between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, and at the design of the Russian tsarist government to exploit these in order to dominate the Balkans and if possible gain control of Constantinople (aka Istanbul). This second part attempts to outline how Germany, Turkey, France and Britain fit into the picture as actors in and perpetrators of a world system of imperialist capitalism.

German war aims

As we would expect, Rosa Luxemburg goes into great detail in The Junius pamphlet on Germany’s attitude to Russia’s drive towards the Dardanelles. She explains:

Turkey became the most important field of operation of German imperialism: the Deutsche Bank, with its enormous Asiatic business interests, about which all German oriental policies centre, became its pacemaker. In the 50s and 60s Asiatic Turkey worked chiefly with English capital, which built the railroad from Smyrna and leased the first stretch of the Anatolian railroad, up to ?smit. In 1888 German capital appeared on the scene and procured from Abdul Hamid control of the railroad that English capital had built …2

The Turkish government guaranteed the profits, and paid for the railway, and for more infrastructure besides, out of the surplus created by Turkish peasants. It is worth noting that AJP Taylor, well known for his study of Bismarck’s colonial ventures, pays little attention to this side of German imperialism in his books. But he would no doubt agree with Luxemburg’s general description of imperialism in Germany:

The unprecedented pronounced rapidity of German industrial and commercial development since the foundation of the empire brought out during the 80s two characteristically peculiar forms of capitalist accumulation: the most pronounced growth of monopoly in Europe; and the best developed and most concentrated banking system in the whole world. The monopolies have organised the steel and iron industry - ie, the branch of capitalist industry most interested in government orders, in militaristic equipment and in imperialistic undertakings (railroad building, the exploitation of mines, etc) - into the most influential factor in the nation. The latter has cemented the money interests into a firmly organised whole, with the greatest, most virile energy, creating a power that autocratically rules the industry, commerce and credit of the nation, dominant in private as well as public affairs, boundless in its powers of expansion, ever hungry for profit and activity, impersonal, and, therefore, liberal-minded, reckless and unscrupulous, international by its very nature, ordained by its capacities to use the world as its stage.

Germany is under a personal regime, with strong initiative and spasmodic activity, with the weakest kind of parliamentarism, incapable of opposition, uniting all capitalist strata in the sharpest opposition to the working class. It is obvious that this live, unhampered imperialism, coming upon the world stage at a time when the world was practically divided up, with gigantic appetites, soon became an irresponsible factor of general unrest.3

The tension with Britain which these operations generated was to some extent mitigated by Germany’s concession in June 1914 that Britain could have control over the final section of the railway terminating at Basra. This passed through southern Persia, an area deemed part of the British ‘sphere of influence’,4 but that hardly affects the significance of what was said previously about the relations between Turkey and Germany.

Luxemburg explains how the disintegration of Turkey and its partition by Britain, Russia, Italy, Greece, France and any other power strong enough to grab a share would have meant the end of large-scale operations by German capital there.5 And the protection of Turkey involved the bolstering-up of Austria-Hungary in the Balkans. Germany needed a strong ally, and was therefore obliged to respect its ally’s perceived interests.

Bernadotte E Schmitt quotes a long dispatch from the Austro-Hungarian ambassador in Berlin, count Szögyeny, dated July 12 1914, summarising as follows:

According to this analysis, the German action [risking war] is to be explained by three considerations: (1) the feeling that for once the polyglot Habsburg state was united on a question of foreign policy and that the opportunity to take advantage of that unity should not be neglected; (2) the belief that, if this case were promptly exploited, other powers would not interfere and that Austria-Hungary would therefore be able to score a resounding success, which would impress the discordant elements in the state and dissipate certain centrifugal tendencies. To put it another way, the German government agreed with its ally that only drastic action against Serbia could save the Dual Monarchy [Austria-Hungary] from dissolution. And count Szögyeny had judged the situation correctly, for a few days later Herr Zimmermann [undersecretary at the German foreign office] gave expression to these same views in a conversation with the Bavarian chargé in Berlin.6

Paul Rohrbach, apologist of German imperialism, gave it as his opinion that:

In the summer of 1914 Germany was prepared for war, while France was still labouring over its three-years military service programme, while in Russia neither the army nor the naval programme were ready. It was up to Germany to utilise the auspicious moment.7

He could have added that there was a chance that Britain would keep out because of troubles in Ireland and at home.

The line-up being as it was, the Russian response at this point was of crucial importance, in particular the Russian general mobilisation on July 30 1914. Schmitt comments:

From one point of view … the Russian statesmen ‘willed the war’ when in defiance of warnings from Germany they ordered general mobilisation … It might also be said that the Austro-Hungarian statesmen ‘willed the war’ when in defiance of warnings from Russia they went ahead with their war against Serbia.8

With the German government’s decision to back its Austro-Hungarian ally to the hilt - despite some last-minute attempts to rein them in - and its military plans which required a lightning first strike against France before dealing with the Russian threat, we have here all the necessary ingredients for the devil’s brew.

Schlieffen plan

At this point some consideration of the plans of the German high command becomes necessary. This was the famous Schlieffen plan, which dated from 1905. Basically the idea was to circumvent the strong French defensive line west of Alsace-Lorraine by a flanking movement through Belgium, which would sweep on past Paris, driving deep into French territory.9 The powers had, in fact, guaranteed Belgian neutrality by treaty in 1839, but this treaty was obviously not worth the paper it was written on. (NB: The French high command also toyed with the idea of going through Belgium, but subsequently opted for an attack in Alsace.)

The plan enjoined a strict timetable of operations: a key feature was the early seizure of the fortress of Liège, via which the German armies would have to debouch into the rest of Belgium in order to cross from there into France. A certain degree of Austrian cooperation was also required, and Helmuth von Moltke, who took over from Alfred von Schlieffen as overall German commander, became agitated when it appeared that the Austrians were not playing their military part:

… by the morning of July 30, when the news of Russian partial mobilisation was received in Berlin, Moltke was becoming desperate. The Moltke-Schlieffen plan depended for success on the ability of the German Eighth Army in East Prussia, supported by a powerful Austrian offensive in Poland, to hold back the Russian masses during the six weeks or so while France was being overthrown. However, reports from Vienna indicated that Conrad [the Austrian C-in-C] was concentrating against Serbia, and that the forces he was assigning to Galicia were entirely inadequate for an offensive.

This explains the excited conversation between Moltke and the Austrian military attaché on July 30 and the frantic telegrams sent by them to Vienna, which Moltke despatched on July 30, urging immediate mobilisation against Russia and promising unqualified German support … the tone of these telegrams ran completely counter to the efforts of Bethmann-Hollweg [the German chancellor] to restrain Austria and persuade her to negotiate. On July 31 those contradictory exhortations drew the sarcastic comment from the Austrian foreign minister, count Berchtold, “Who rules in Berlin? Moltke or Bethmann?” Berchtold said to the Imperial War Council that morning: “I have sent for you because I had the impression that Germany was beating a retreat, but I now have the most reassuring pronouncement from responsible military quarters.” The council then decided to submit the order for general mobilisation to the emperor Francis Joseph for signature.10

What was to be the French attitude? Rosa Luxemburg was probably right when she wrote that, in July 1914, neither the French government nor the French people as a whole desired war.11 But we have to remember the rivalry of France and Germany over Morocco - actually a more decisive consideration than the chance to recover Alsace-Lorraine. Schmitt sums up the French government’s position very well:

If France refused to support Russia in what, after all, public opinion outside of Germany and Austria- Hungary regarded as a good cause, Russia would be left to face the Central Powers single-handed; which obviously she could not do. In that event, Austria would overcome Serbia and either annex or partition the little country, for Italy would be helpless to prevent it; the balance in the Balkans and in Europe would be upset; the Austro-German combination would establish their diplomatic supremacy … It may be said, quite truly, that if France had declined to march with Russia, the peace of Europe would probably have been preserved. But it would have been a peace tolerable only to Austria- Hungary and Germany, a peace established by threats, and, faced with this prospect, the French government made its decision without hesitation.12

British war aims

Which brings us to the response of Britain. If we look at British imperialism’s position, there are parallels with that of France. But before going into that aspect of the situation we have to consider the claim made by Roger Casement in his pamphlet The crime against Europe. Casement argues that: “The war was, in truth, inevitable, and was made inevitable years ago” as a result of the alliance against Germany made by France and Russia.13 However,

Until England appeared on the scene neither Russia nor France, nor both combined, could summon up courage to strike the blow. Willing to wound, they were both afraid to strike. It needed a third courage; a keener purpose and a greater immunity.14

But in that case why did the war not break out in 1904 or shortly after? Casement argues that the Entente, or Britain, manoeuvred Germany into declaring war. But this is surely highly unlikely, given Sir Edward Grey’s efforts as UK foreign secretary to get the problem resolved by negotiation - it was not his fault that these were unsuccessful. Actually the UK cabinet did not ultimately decide to join in the war until it became clear that the German armies would not respect Belgian neutrality - with the consequent threat to seize the Channel ports.

It is true that the development of British and German capital was in some respects complementary: Germany was an important market for Britain, just as Britain and its colonies were for Germany. Also a successful agreement had just been concluded on the division of the Portuguese colonies - Britain’s clients. There were, however, deep causes of friction between the two powers. Germany’s railway building in Turkey posed a threat to Britain’s position in Egypt, and hence to British possessions in India and Asia generally, besides propping up a tottering empire, from which British capital hoped to take a tidy slice in the not too distant future. There was also, perhaps above all, the growth of the German fleet, which could only be interpreted as a challenge to British naval supremacy (Taylor says this was an unconscious challenge, but this is hardly accurate15). This challenge, combined with the Schlieffen plan for conquering France via Belgium in the six weeks it took for Russia to mobilise fully, was finally enough to weigh the scales in favour of war with Germany. As the great French historian, Elie Halévy, explains,

… the violation of Belgian neutrality by the German army … would mean, whatever pledges the German government might have given, the annihilation of Belgium as a nation … To go to the assistance of Belgium was therefore to embark upon a conservative, not a revolutionary, war - a war to protect at once the principle of nationality, the established order and the sanctity of treaties. But if Belgium had not been so close to the British coast, would England have been stirred so powerfully, or rather would she ever have guaranteed Belgian neutrality? If the English were disposed to regard the independence of Belgium as the keystone of the European balance of power, it was because her very existence was in a sense a masterpiece of British diplomacy. By creating Belgium, England had intended to make it finally impossible for the greatest European powers - France formerly, Germany at present - to occupy Antwerp and thus permanently threaten the mouth of the Thames with its navy.16

In fact, if we want to understand the attitude of the UK government at this point we need look no further than the memorandum composed towards the end of July by Sir Eyre Crowe, a permanent official at the foreign office, which stated, inter alia, that:

Should the war come, and England stand aside, one of two things must happen:

(a) Either Germany and Austria win, crush France, and humiliate Russia. With the French fleet gone, Germany in occupation of the Channel, with the willing or unwilling cooperation of Holland and Belgium, what will be the position of a friendless England?

(b) Or France and Russia win. What would then be their attitude toward England? What about India and the Mediterranean?

Our interests are tied up with those of France and Russia in the struggle, which is not for the possession of Serbia, but one between Germany aiming at a political dictatorship in Europe and the powers who desire to retain individual freedom.17

Sir Edward Grey later recorded a view which corresponds to the above:

To stand aside would mean the domination of Germany; the subordination of France and Russia; the isolation of Britain; the hatred of her by both those who feared and those who wished for her intervention in the war; and ultimately Germany would wield the whole power of the continent.18

What all this clarifies is the absurdity of the contention that Britain entered World War I solely and simply in defence of ‘gallant little Belgium’: British capitalist/imperialist policy is not given to basing itself on such idealistic considerations; the high moral stance is taken in order to sell the policy to the unsuspecting masses. The policy actually adopted was defended memorably in the House of Commons after the war in February 1922 by Austen Chamberlain, in which he declared:

Can we ever be indifferent to the safety of the French frontier or to the fortunes of France? A friendly power in possession of the Channel ports is a British interest, treaty or no treaty. Conversations or no conversations, it will always be a British interest, as it always has been a British interest, which this parliament and this country would be prepared to defend.19

The real cause

So who, then, or what, was responsible for World War I? Article 231 of the Versailles Treaty asserted that Germany and her allies were morally responsible, but historians these days are reluctant to pin the blame on any one power or group of powers.20

If the German government was guilty of intransigence in defiance of certain facts which later became clear, what about the behaviour of the Russian government, as described by Christopher Clark? Clearly all the major participants considered war theoretically preferable to certain conditions actually or potentially present: the Austrian government was determined to punish Serbia; the Russian government was not prepared to allow Austria-Hungary to redress the balance in the Balkans in its favour; the German government stubbornly backed its ally and, at a certain point, was equally determined to ensure that its military timetable would be adhered to; and the French and British governments decided that a Europe under the domination of the Central Powers was to be avoided at all costs. So were all equally responsible? Or was no power responsible? Or is there a simpler explanation which is staring us in the face?

It is tempting to point to the undisputed fact that the leaders of the belligerent nations were all men. Indeed, certain remarks by the participants are redolent of machismo: for example, the German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, wrote in his memoirs that not to have supported the Dual Monarchy in 1914 would have been an act of “self-castration”.21 But matters are a little more complex. The Austrian foreign minister, Leopold von Berchtold, said that not to have taken a firm stand against Serbia would have signalled impotence to neighbours to the south and east - well, maybe, but did the Dual Monarchy have to go so far as to declare war? This aspect shades into considerations of ‘face’, which are surely not the exclusive preserve of the male sex - eg, Russian foreign minister Sergey Sazonov asserted that if Russia were to abandon her historic mission as protector of the Slavs she would lose all authority and prestige in the Balkans.22

Patriarchy, of course, is a feature of both feudalism and capitalism, and indeed of all class-dominated societies. But it is not at all certain that things would have gone any better if women had been in charge. If working class women with an acute awareness of the human losses inflictable by the war had been running the show it is possible that common sense would have prevailed, but that is the most one can say. Upper class and bourgeois women seem to have agreed, on the whole, with the views of their male counterparts. The suffragettes, Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter, Christabel, were strong supporters of the British war effort, and if Margaret Thatcher had been prime minister instead of Asquith the response of HM government would surely have been identical to what it was at the time.

In fact imperialism was a necessary and a sufficient condition for the outbreak of war. There are, in my view, five reasons for believing this.

1. All the major powers involved were empires, and the relatively small Serbian state was certainly not free from imperialist pretensions and projects, as witness its drive for a port on the Adriatic, which involved a desire to rule over Albanians in the vicinity.

2. The system of alliances was the product of imperialism. Before Britain made an alliance with France it attempted unsuccessfully to conclude an agreement with Germany. Agreement with France as regards Africa was relatively easy to achieve, and was followed in 1907 by a ‘spheres of influence’ agreement with Russia in respect of Persia. Thus the powers with a head start in the race for colonies essentially ganged up on those European powers who were starting from a smaller base.

3. The Serbian Black Hand was itself a response to Austro-Hungarian policy against Serbia and to the set-up in the Austro-Hungarian empire as a whole.

4. The imperialist race for colonies produced a chain reaction of events and processes, which ended up in upsetting the European balance of power - as it was bound to, since two of the moribund empires - Austro- Hungary and Turkey - had European possessions. The Franco-German quarrel over Morocco in 1911 was followed by the Italian invasion of Libya; this exposed the weakness of the Turkish empire and led directly to the Balkan wars of 1912-13, which tilted the balance in favour of Russia and against Austria, and encouraged Serb irredentism. Result: Sarajevo.

5. At the end of the war Germany not only lost Alsace-Lorraine, but her colonies as well. Austria lost extensively in Italy and the Balkans, Hungary was reduced to a rump and, to crown all, Germany was saddled with a vast indemnity and German Austria was prevented from uniting with it.

Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky were clear on the connexion between imperialist capitalism and the war. Luxemburg spoke for all three of them when she wrote:

Imperialism is not the creation of any one of any group of states. It is the product of a particular stage of ripeness in the world development of capital, an innately international condition, an indivisible whole, that is recognisable only in all its relations, and from which no nation can hold aloof at will.23

Trotsky was equally forthright:

The war grew out of imperialistic antagonisms between the capitalist states, and the victory of Germany … can produce only one result - territorial acquisitions at the expense of Belgium, France and Russia, commercial treaties forced upon her enemies, and new colonies.24

Bernadotte E Schmitt has some interesting remarks on the situation revealed by the war:

Twentieth century Europe was confronted by two complicated and difficult questions: it was urgently necessary to make some kind of adjustment between the claims of a dozen rival nationalities, and it was almost equally important to ensure that the economic resources and opportunities of the world should not be monopolised by a few states. Yet there was no adequate machinery for the solution of these problems.25

Alas, Schmitt does not explain why this was - and we still face these problems.

Nevertheless it is clear from all the above that World War I was undoubtedly the creation of “economic jealousies and rival imperialisms.” Indeed, if AL Morton is correct,26 Germany’s operations in Turkey were a concerted attempt to break out of the ring of entrenched positions built up by British capital. Naturally enough, ‘business circles’ did not like disruption of trade relations in 1914, but that was a price they had to pay for the solution (temporary only) of international capitalist rivalries which had grown up in the age of imperialism.

No amount of horse-trading in Africa was sufficient to stem the mounting crisis of the opening years of the 20th century, and no amount of commercial common sense could ever have prevailed against the demands of the capitalist interests in the empires concerned. The system was rotten to the core, and in all essentials the same as that which we are forced to endure today.


1. ‘The shame of imperialism’, Weekly Worker, January 9.

2. R Luxemburg The Junius pamphlet London 1967, p25.

3. Ibid pp21-22.

4. See C Clark The sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914 London 2012, p338.

5. R Luxemburg The Junius pamphlet London 1967, p26.

6. BE Schmitt The coming of the war: 1914 Vol 1, New York 1930, pp318-19.

7. Quoted in R Luxemburg The Junius pamphlet London 1967, p40.

8. BE Schmitt The coming of the war: 1914 Vol 2, New York 1930, p253.

9. See LCF Turner’s summary of the Schlieffen plan in P Kennedy (ed) The war plans of the great powers 1890-1914 Boston 1985.

10. Ibid p215.

11. M-A Waters (ed) Rosa Luxemburg speaks New York 1970, p306.

12. BE Schmitt The coming of the war: 1914 Vol 2, New York 1930, pp228-29.

13. R Casement The crime against Europe Belfast 2002, p38.

14. Ibid.

15. See the evidence assembled by Rosa Luxemburg in The Junius pamphlet London 1967, pp22-23.

16. E Halévy History of the English people in the 19th century Vol 6, London 1950, pp674-75.

17. BE Schmitt The coming of the war: 1914 Vol 2, New York 1930, p38.

18. Quoted in ibid p280.

19. Reprinted in The Labour Monthly, Vol 2, March 1922. Thanks are due to Ted Crawford for drawing our attention to this statement.

20. See the article by Richard Evans in The Guardian July 13 2013.

21. See C Clark The sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914 London 2012, p359.

22. Ibid p473.

23. M-A Waters (ed) Rosa Luxemburg speaks New York 1970, p306.

24. L Trotsky The war and the International Colombo 1971, p39. This, incidentally, is implicitly critical of the position of pro-German socialists of the time, such as James Connolly.

25. BE Schmitt The coming of the war: 1914 Vol 2, New York 1930, pp6-7.

26. AL Morton A people’s histor