What did they die for?
This essay was written for the recently published Irish Anti-War pamphlet World War 1: what did they die for?
World War 1, which began on 28 January 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918, was the largest and deadliest war in history up to that point in time and subsequently has only been exceeded in terms of scale and casualties by World War 2.
It was fought between the Allied (or Entente) Powers, principally Britain, France and Russia plus the United States after 1917, and the Central Powers, principally Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. However, over forty countries were drawn into the conflict including places that were completely peripheral to the main issues, such as Panama, Nicaragua and Liberia, or nations whose very existence remains unknown to most people today, such as the Dervish State, Jabal Shammar and the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (1918-20).
In all it claimed at least 37 million casualties, which can be divided roughly (by their very nature these figures cannot be exact) into 16 million or so dead and 20 million or so wounded. On the Allied side (the victors!) there were 5,525,000 military dead, including about 49,000 Irish, and nearly 13 million military wounded compared to 4,386,000 military dead and 8,388,000 wounded on the side of the Central Powers (the vanquished!). To these figures have to be added over 4 million missing from the Allies and 3.6 million missing from the Central Powers. Given that casualties on the ‘winning’ side substantially exceeded those on the losing side it is very clear that victory was purchased with the lives of soldiers.
The question that leaps out from these bare but grim statistics is simply, ‘What did they die for?’ When one looks more closely into how they died – for example the 20,000 British soldiers, including over 3,500 Irish, who died marching into machine gun fire on the first day of the Battle of the Somme or the hideous calculated deaths from the poison gas used by both sides - the question only becomes more urgent.
British troops blinded by poison gas in 1918.
Attempts to answer this question usually come from the perspective of a particular nation – what did Irish soldiers die for?, or British? or German? And so on. This is understandable, particularly in the case of Ireland where precisely the absence of any clear national interest is so striking. As Yeats’s Irish airman put it:
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
WB Yeats An Irish Airman Foresees his Death.
Nevertheless a nation-centred question favours a nationalist answer - ‘they died for their country’, British for Britain, Germans for Germany, etc.. Instead in this essay I want first to pose the question in general terms, to ask what the war was about as whole for its various participants and on that basis return to the matter of what the Irish might be said to have died for at the end. I want to begin by considering the two currently dominant views of the origins and nature of the war: these are a) that the war was basically the responsibility of Germany or Germany and Austria-Hungary, and b) that the war was essentially an accident, or series of accidents – the various governments sleepwalked into it.
It was Germany’s Fault.
The view that the war was caused by German (and Austria-Hungarian) aggression was, of course, the line of the British, French and Russian governments, strongly backed by their respective media, at the time, as well as the basis on which Irish people were urged to participate and the premise for the punitive terms of the Versailles Treaty at the end of the War. It will also be the assumption underpinning the British Conservative government’s plans to commemorate the War’s centenary.
Proof that this view is still very influential in academic circles was provided by the BBC. In February of this year they asked ten leading British historians to answer the question ‘Who started World War 1?’ [http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26048324]. Of the ten, six answered unequivocally Germany or Austria-Hungary and Germany. One answered Austria-Hungary and Germany plus Russia, three also apportioned some blame to Britain, France, Russia and Serbia and one held Serbia mainly responsible.
Sir Max Hastings said
No one nation deserves all the responsibility for the outbreak of war, but Germany seems to me to deserve most. It alone had the power to halt the descent to disaster at any time in July 1914 by withdrawing its “blank cheque” which offered support to Austria for its invasion of Serbia.
Professor Gary Sheffield stated,
The war was started by the leaders of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Vienna seized the opportunity presented by the assassination of the archduke [Franz Ferdinand] to attempt to destroy its Balkan rival Serbia. This was done in the full knowledge that Serbia’s protector Russia was unlikely to stand by and this might lead to a general European war.
Germany gave Austria unconditional support in its actions, again fully aware of the likely consequences. Germany sought to break up the French-Russian alliance and was fully prepared to take the risk that this would bring about a major war. Some in the German elite welcomed the prospect of beginning an expansionist war of conquest. The response of Russia, France and later Britain, were reactive and responsive.
Professor John Rohl argued
WW1 did not come about by accident or because diplomacy failed. It broke out as the result of a conspiracy between the governments of imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary to bring about war, albeit in the hope that Britain would stay out.
And Professor Gerhard Hirschfield stated
Long before the outbreak of hostilities Prussian-German conservative elites were convinced that a European war would help to fulfil Germany’s ambition for colonies and for military as well as political prestige in the world.
The strength of this viewpoint, apart from being music to the ears of the British establishment, is that it does correspond to a number of well known facts about the actual outbreak of hostilities. It is true that the Austro-Hungarian government responded to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip (which had not in itself caused much stir in Vienna) with a ten-point ultimatum to Serbia that was deliberately designed to be unacceptable. It is true that Austria-Hungary proceeded to mobilize even when Serbia accepted the ultimatum with the exception of two minor points. It is true that the German government gave unconditional backing to Austria-Hungary in this in the full knowledge that this was likely to lead to war with Russia and its ally France [Though they hoped Britain would stay out]. Thus it is clear that Austria-Hungary and Germany both wanted war in August 1914 and that, as the German historian Fritz Fischer was to show in his famous work Germany’s Aims in the First World War, the German government consciously wanted to use the war to establish its own empire in mitteleuropa, i.e. a corridor of German power from Berlin to Baghdad, as well as expanding its empire in Africa.
However, this position has two major weaknesses. The first is its focus on how the war actually started in contrast to the wider historical context in which the war was prepared. The second is that establishing the culpability of Austria-Hungary and Germany is not at all the same as establishing the innocence of Russia, France and Britain.
The question of ‘who fired the first shot?’ or ‘who started it?’, the traditional question posed in relation to the playground scrap, is completely inadequate in determining responsibility for wars. For example, the Algerian War of Independence was undoubtedly ‘started’ by the Algerian FLN on 1 November 1954 with a series of attacks on French targets, if we leave out of account the inconvenient fact that Algeria had been subject to brutal French colonial rule since 1830. Similarly the Irish War of Independence was ‘begun’ by Irish Volunteers who refused to accept the further prolongation of centuries old British rule.
Gary Sheffield argues that Austria-Hungary acted ‘in the full knowledge that Serbia’s protector Russia was unlikely to stand by and this might lead to a general European war’ and that, ‘Germany gave Austria unconditional support in its actions, again fully aware of the likely consequences’. But if Austria- Hungary and Germany were fully aware the likely consequences, why did this not also apply to Russia, France and Britain?
And if the likely consequences were European War we also need to ask why that was the case. Take the example of Russia which we are told was Serbia’s protector. Why was Russia Serbia’s protector? The idea that Tsarist Russia, that prison house of smaller nations from the Baltic to Central Asia, was deeply committed to the rights of the Serbian people has about as much credibility as the idea that America waged the Vietnam War out of its passionate concern for the freedom of the South Vietnamese (who they had been more than happy to hand back to the rule of the French). No, Russia was Serbia’s protector for the same reason that Austria-Hungary wanted to crush it – because this served their imperial interests in the area. From the standpoint of its geo-political interests, Russia, whether Tsarist, Stalinist or run by Putin, has always wanted to control as much of the Balkans and the Black Sea area as possible, regardless of the wishes of the local people. In reality Russia was not in the least forced or obliged to go to war over Serbia – it did so because it calculated that this was in its interests.
Exactly the same applies to France and to Britain. Nothing obliged them to go to war in solidarity with Russia except their own calculation of their own imperialist interests. To the argument that they were ‘honour bound’ to do so because of treaties they had made there are several powerful replies. Why did they make those treaties in the first place? Britain, France and Russia were not ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’ allies: For much of the 18th and 19th century Britain treated France (not Germany) as its main enemy and they fought several major wars. In the Crimean War of 1853-56 Britain and France fought against Russia. The term ‘jingoism’ dates from a popular music hall song in 1877
We don't want to fight but by Jingo if we do We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money tooMoreover, the rulers who signed these treaties never showed any compunction about tearing them up when it suited them. The Italian government was part of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria but in August 1914 opted out of the alliance (on the grounds that it only covered defence) and stayed neutral until May 1915 when they declared war on Austria-Hungary, so clearly the treaties were not sacred. But, of course, there is a much deeper question involved here. Is it reasonable to sacrifice the lives of two million French and British citizens to keep ‘the word’ of a few aristocrats and emperors?
We've fought the Bear before, and while we're Britons true
The Russians shall not have Constantinople
We've fought the Bear before, and while we're Britons true
The Russians shall not have Constantinople
The role of Russia is important here for another reason. Germany had a (deserved) reputation for militarism and authoritarianism. Consequently the argument that Germany started the war was, and is, supplemented with the argument that it was necessary to resist Germany in the name of democracy and freedom. In truth there was very little to choose between Germany and France and Britain in this regard. In 1871 the German army had collaborated with the French army to suppress the Paris Commune, slaughtering 30,000 people on the streets of Paris in one week. Britain, obviously, recognized neither democracy nor freedom in any of its innumerable colonies, beginning with Ireland, and Britain was far short of being a democracy in 1914 with only a small minority of men and no women having the vote. But the fact that France and Britain were fighting in alliance with Russia destroys the argument completely as Tsarist Russia was known worldwide as the declared enemy of democracy, freedom and any kind of liberal progress. Because of this the British pro-war propagandists of the time played down the role of Russia, concentrating on the behaviour of Germany, and this is still true today.
Conversely in Germany the pro-war propagandists of the time played up the war against Russia precisely so that they could present themselves as defending progress and ‘civilization’ against backwardness, reaction and barbarism. This was especially the case with the social democrat and ‘socialist’ advocates of the war In her anti-war pamphlet, ‘The Junius Brochure’, Rosa Luxemburg quotes extensively on this theme from the German social democratic press of August 1914.
When it comes to defending our country against bloody Czarism we will not be made citizens of the second class…
…the Social Democrats, since the fight is against Russian Blood-Czarism, against the perpetrator of a million crimes against freedom and culture, will allow none to excel them in the fulfillment of their duty…
We are fighting to defend ourselves not so much against England and France as against Czarism. But this war we carry on with the greatest enthusiasm, for it is the war for civilization.But, as Luxemburg went on to point out, the German Kaiser and Russian Tsar were not only blood relatives and close personal friends, but had been political allies and partners in crime in crushing democratic, national and working class movements right up to the outbreak of war.
The role of ‘bloody Czarism’ in Germany was the mirror image of the role of ‘Prussian militarism’ in Britain. In both cases shining the spotlight on the (real) crimes of their chosen enemy, while leaving the rest of the scene in darkness, helped the rulers in each camp to conceal their own motives from their respective populations, i.e. those who would do the actual dying. In this respect World War 1 was much like most wars. Governments and their associated media always claim to be waging a defensive war against an evil enemy.
It was a chapter of accidents
There are many historians, politicians and journalists who like the idea that history is basically a chapter of accidents. They favour, as they often put it, the notion of a cock-up to a conspiracy. In this case the argument that no single country or group of countries was to blame, but rather the various governments of Europe sleepwalked into war, almost against their best intentions, enjoys considerable currency and support.
One famous historian who popularized this view was A.J.P.Taylor with his 1963 book The First World War. ‘The statesmen,’ he argued, ‘were overwhelmed by the magnitude of events. The generals were overwhelmed also … All fumbled more or less helplessly… No one asked what the war was about.’
More recently, John Keegan, probably Britain’s most eminent military historian, maintained that:
The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice.And Niall Ferguson in The Pity of War claimed that, ‘It was something worse than a tragedy…It was nothing less than the greatest error of modern history.’ The error, he argued, was on the part of the British government which should have stood aside and allowed Germany to dominate Europe (including defeating France). This would have produced a ‘continental Europe …not wholly unlike the European Union we know today – but without the massive contraction in British overseas power entailed by the fighting of two world wars’. [Ferguson is a strong supporter of the British Empire]. He also suggests that this might have spared the world the Russian Revolution and Hitler.
Most recently Christopher Clark, in The Sleepwalkers –how Europe went to war in 1914, has produced a sustained polemic against the idea of German war guilt and any blame centered approach:
...the quest for blame predisposes the investigator to construe the actions of decision-makers as planned and driven by a coherent intention. You have to show that someone willed war as well as caused it…the view expounded in this book is that such arguments are not supported by the evidence.
The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol. There is no smoking gun in this story; or rather there is one in the hands of every major character. Viewed in this light, the outbreak of war was a tragedy not a crime.The ‘sleepwalkers’ thesis clearly cuts across those who would seek a militaristic or nationalistic ‘celebration’ of the war as a war for ‘democracy’ or ‘freedom’ or those, like the victors at Versailles, who wanted to pin all the blame for terrible slaughter on Germany. Beyond that, however, it can sit with a range of political standpoints. For the right wing Niall Ferguson it goes along with presenting the War as an error from the point of view of preserving the British Empire. For the military historian, John Keegan, who was actually a supporter of the Vietnam War, it permits an air of resigned neutrality and objectivity. At the same time it can be linked to a more radical perspective which condemns the war as the responsibility of stupid and unaccountable crowned heads – of the main protagonists only France was a republic – or depicts it, as in the famous Blackadder series, as the fault of a foolish, out of date class of aristocrats wedded to a mindless jingoism of king and country for which they were quite happy to sacrifice the great unwashed.
But regardless of the politics with which it is associated the ‘sleepwalkers’ thesis is unconvincing history. Like the idea of it all being Germany’s fault, it fits some of the facts of the immediate outbreak of war: the almost accidental character of the assassination in Sarajevo (the Archduke’s carriage took on a wrong turning into the path of Princip); the fact that British Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, probably did not want to go to war at that time and tried to avoid it; that to some extent the same was true of both the Kaiser and the Tsar; that many (though not all) of the leaders on both sides appear to have anticipated only a short war and so on. However, like the German war-guilt analysis, the sleepwalkers thesis shows its inadequacy when we look at the bigger picture.
For a start it is reasonable to ask why, if the war was somehow a mistake, the respective governments – on finding themselves caught up in an ongoing catastrophe – did not extricate themselves from it by making peace. Even in late 1916 after the terrible slaughters of Verdun and the Somme, and even in 1917 after the Russian February Revolution and the fall of Tsarism, these rulers were determined to fight on whatever the human cost. When, after the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks took Russia out of the war, the Entente powers denounced them bitterly.
But the main point is one that has much wider implications for historical method. It is possible to sleepwalk over a cliff only if there is a cliff in the vicinity available to be walked over. It is possible for kings, emperors and politicians to stumble blindly into a catastrophe provided that a catastrophe is waiting to happen, that the necessary conditions for it have been prepared.
In the case of the First World War it is abundantly clear that it was a war which had been prepared over a considerable period and that informed people were well aware that it was coming. The division of Europe into two antagonistic power blocs had developed over decades. The Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy had been formed in 1882 (and survived, at least nominally, until Italy’s defection in 1915); the Triple Entente between Britain, France and Russia was initiated by the entente cordiale signed in 1904 and formally established in 1907. There was a prolonged naval arms race between Britain and Germany from 1906-1914 which involved Britain in the construction of 29 Dreadnoughts (battleships) compared to the 17 built by Germany. And well before the Sarajevo assassination there was a series of ‘international incidents’– the Tangier Crisis of 1905/6 , the Agadir (in Morocco) crisis of 1911 and the first and second Balkan Wars in 1912 – each of which had the potential to spark a war.
Above all there is the fact that anti-militarists across Europe were acutely conscious of the approach of war and repeatedly warned against it. By far the most important anti-war force at the time was the Second (or Socialist) International including the mass German Social Democratic Party with its one million members. In 1907 the congress of the Second International at Stuttgart passed a lengthy anti-war motion stating that
The Congress confirms the resolutions adopted by previous international congresses against militarism and imperialism …
Wars between capitalist states are, as a rule, the outcome of their competition on the world market, for each state seeks not only to secure its existing markets, but also to conquer new ones. In this, the subjugation of foreign peoples and countries plays a prominent role…Wars are favored by the national prejudices which are systematically cultivated among civilized peoples in the interest of the ruling classes….
The Congress, therefore, considers it as the duty of the working class and particularly of its representatives in the parliaments to combat the naval and military armaments with all their might..
If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, supported by the coordinating activity of the International Socialist Bureau, to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective,.In 1910 at the 8th congress in Copenhagen ‘a resolution was made on the International’s position on war and struggle, firming up the proposals made… at the congress in Stuttgart.’ And then in 1912 at Basel:
‘The discussion mainly centred on the threat of world war which was hanging over Europe; not only did the congress urge the Balkan states to band together in resistance to Austro-Hungarian imperialism, it also identified that “the greatest danger to the peace of Europe is the artificially cultivated hostility between Great Britain and the German Empire,” which was a reference to the arms race and growth of petty nationalism in these two countries…
Essentially, the congress was called at Basel to reinforce the International’s firm stance of “war on war” which had been declared in Stuttgart and Copenhagen, and a call to Socialists to “exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective.”
The war, therefore, was anything but accidental or unexpected. If it had not broken out it in August 1914 it would most probably have done so in 1915 or 1916. If we are to understand what the First World War was really about and answer our initial question of what the sixteen million died for we need to examine how and why this international situation developed; in short we need to look at the big picture.The Big Picture
By looking at the big picture I mean first of all examining the system of state rivalry that developed in Europe over about five centuries along with the relationship of those rival states to the rest of the world. World War 1 was both a culmination of that long process and a product of significant shifts and developments within it.
Let us take 1492 – Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas - as a point of departure Obviously this is partly arbitrary – there can be no single ‘starting point’ in processes of this kind; nevertheless it is a significant milestone not because Columbus ‘discovered’ America (a falsification from several points of view) but because his occupation of Hispaniola (St.Domingo/Haiti) inaugurated the European conquest of all the Americas and indeed the epoch of European domination of the whole world. As Karl Marx noted in the Communist Manifesto it ‘opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie’ and ‘gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known’.
For much of the 15th century Portuguese explorers had been inching their way down the west coast of Africa and in 1488 Bartolmeo Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope. At the same time the Portuguese began to come into conflict with Spain regarding the ownership of the Americas. In 1494 Pope Alexander VI intervened to draw a dividing line through South America, with Spain being granted everything to its west and Portugal everything to its east.
Before long a new rival appeared on the scene: England, in the shape of Francis Drake and other pirates/ explorers/ heroes (depending on your point of view) preying on gold-and-silver laden Spanish galleons along the Spanish Main (the Spanish controlled coast of Central and South America). This, along with English support for the Dutch Revolt against Spain in the Low Countries, evoked as a response the unsuccessful Spanish attempt to invade England by means of the Armada in 1588.
What happened with the Dutch is interesting here. The English supported the Dutch Revolt, which began in 1556, in order to weaken its main enemy, Spain. But as soon as the Dutch Republic established its independence from Spain in around 1600, becoming Europe’s first fully bourgeois state in the process, it set about acquiring its own global empire. This stretched from New Amsterdam (New York) and Pernambuco (part of Brazil) in the west to Batavia (the Spice Islands or Indonesia) in the east, and from Spitzbergen in the far north to the Cape of Good Hope in the far south. It then came into sharp conflict with its erstwhile supporter, England, and the result was four Anglo-Dutch Wars in the mid-17th century largely over control of trade routes, which included a Dutch attack on the Thames estuary and the naval Battle of the Medway in 1667.
The 18th century began with two major wars: the Great Northern War (1700-1721) which was essentially between Russia and Sweden (with minor British and other participation) and which established Tsarist Russia, under Peter the Great, as a major power at the expense of Sweden and Poland-Lithuania; the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) which pitted Britain against France over who should rule Spain but also included what was known as Queen Anne’s War fought in North America. This ended in a compromise at the Treaty of Utrecht with the French nominee getting the Spanish throne but France ceding territory to Britain in North America.
The rivalry between Britain and France continued and, after a series of minor conflicts, resulted in the Seven Years War (1756-63) which drew in Prussia, Russia, Austria, Spain and others and was fought in Europe, North America, South America, Africa, India, and the Philippine Islands. Britain emerged successful establishing its dominance over France in North America and India.
But this was rapidly undermined by the American Revolutionary War (1775-83) which saw the establishment of the United States. Then came the French Revolution of 1789. The European Monarchies – Britain, Prussia, Austria, followed by Russia – responded to this in 1793 with the French Revolutionary Wars ending in French victory and the Peace of Amiens of 1802. With France now ruled by Napoleon war soon broke out again and eventually a grand coalition of all the European powers defeated Napoleon and France at the Battles of Leipzig and, finally, Waterloo and secured the (temporary) restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. These wars were fought on an international scale with battles, especially naval battles, from the West Indies to Egypt to India.
The 19th century, after Waterloo, proved relatively peaceful in Europe. There were a number of wars between specific states such as the Crimean War (1853-56) between Russia and Britain, the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 (the last two of which established a united Germany). And there was also the particularly devastating American Civil War (1861-65). However, between 1815 and 1914 there was no major European war involving all or most of the major powers.
This overview is, by its nature, incomplete and selective. Not only does it omit numerous minor European conflicts it systematically omits the innumerable, virtually continuous wars of colonial conquest being waged by European powers, and especially Britain, throughout this period, from Cromwell in Ireland to the Opium Wars in China via many ‘Indian wars’ in North America, ‘Zulu Wars’ in Africa and so on. Nevertheless the purpose of the overview is to enable us to see a pattern which will be of assistance in understanding the First World War, and this it does.
The pattern is simple and clear: it is that with the emergence of the system of nation states and the development of the capitalist economic system the principle European states repeatedly fought each other for the purpose of acquiring territory both in Europe itself and throughout the rest of the world.
Of course, from time to time, religion, patriotism, honour, glory and such like were invoked to justify these wars and, perhaps, sincerely believed but the main driver of the process as a whole was the acquisition of land, labour, raw materials, trade and markets which, in combination, formed the basis of political power. In short they were empire building and by the time we get to 1914 all the main players held substantial empires and, apart from France, openly described themselves as such.
It is important to remember that while today neither Obama or Putin or Merkel or Cameron would dream of saying that they were taking military action to defend or extend their respective empires, this was not the case at all in the late 19th and early 20th century when, at least as far the mainstream discourse was concerned, ‘defense of the empire’ was seen as an entirely legitimate and laudable policy goal.
Another ‘pattern’ or point of continuity worth noting is that throughout this period it became an ever more entrenched ‘principle’ of British foreign policy that no single power should be permitted to establish hegemony over continental Europe. This was not out of some spirit of fair play – Britain had no problem with its own hegemony over the entire Indian sub-continent – but on the, very realistic, grounds that any such European hegemon would be highly likely to pose a threat to Britain’s global empire.
However, although it is true that the First World War constituted a culmination of these four centuries of development this is not the whole story. We also have to explain why the 19th century post-Napoleon saw relative peace, at least within Europe, and why that relative peace then turned so dramatically into total war.
To understand this we have to look at the nature of European and global capitalist economic development in this period. The main body of the 19th century was, as Eric Hobsbawm (following Marx) called it, ‘the age of capital’. It was when industrial capitalism, emerging from the late eighteenth century industrial revolution in Britain, came into its own and started to dominate the world – a time of factories and mills, steam power and railways, coal, iron, steel and engineering. As we know it was Britain who took the lead in this and became for a while ‘the workshop of the world’ and the single most powerful country, economically and militarily, with, of course, by far the world’s largest empire.
But as the century wore on industrial capitalism began to forge ahead in a number of countries – in the United States, Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Northern Italy and, eventually, even parts of Russia – and at the same time the earlier ‘free competition’ between large numbers of small firms began to be replaced by the dominance of giant monopolies and finance capital.
As a result of this, and partly in response to ‘the long depression’ of 1873-9, the corporations and banks increasingly looked outside Europe for investment opportunities. Moreover, they turned to their respective governments and their armed forces to provide the necessary political and military backing for these ventures. In short the last quarter of the 19th century saw a huge rise in imperialism with formal annexation or colonization increasingly replacing the earlier establishment of informal control or influence.
This affected the whole world but was particularly exemplified by the ‘Scramble for Africa’, initiated by King Leopold II of Belgium’s acquisition of the Congo. In 1876 only 10 percent of Africa was under European rule. By 1900 more than 90 percent was colonised..
For a period it was possible for each of the European powers to expand their colonial possessions in competition with each other but without colliding head on. The United States could expand westwards to California (at the expense of the Native Americans) and Tsarist Russia could consolidate its hold on Kazakhstan and Central Asia while menacing Constantinople. But this could not continue indefinitely. Before long, actually by the beginning of the 20th century, almost the whole world was divided up between them. Writing in 1894 the great German sociologist, Max Weber, saw where this would lead:
Only complete political confusion and naïve optimism can prevent the recognition that the unavoidable efforts at trade expansion by all civilized bourgeois-controlled nations, after a transitional period of seemingly peaceful competition, are clearly approaching the point where power [MW’s emphasis}alone will decide each nation’s share in the economic control of the earth.Lenin, somewhat later, made the same basic point.
Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.And
…the colonial policy of the capitalist countries has completed the seizure of the unoccupied territories on our planet. For the first time the world is completely divided up, so that in the future only redivision is possible, i.e., territories can only pass from one “owner” to another, instead of passing as ownerless territory to an ownerIt is this struggle for division and redivision of the world that produces the world war. To this general conclusion one further point must be added. The imperialist division of the world as it occurred in the late 19th century was not in proportion to the economic strength of the main players. Britain, and to a lesser extent France, because they had acquired many of their respective empires in an earlier historical period, were massively over represented in terms of colonial possessions. Whereas Germany, which was the most dynamic and powerful economy within Europe at that time, was hugely under represented because it was such a late developer having only become a unified nation state in 1870.
It is this which explains why in 1914 Germany appears as, and can easily be presented as, the main aggressor, and therefore guilty of ‘starting’ or ‘causing’ the war. From the point of view of the rulers of Germany, Britain (‘perfidious Albion’) and France are greedy; they have more than their fair allotment of colonies and are arrogantly refusing to share them. From the point of view of the rulers of Britain, they are content with the existing arrangement and are ‘only’ trying to defend their legitimate property (India, Rhodesia, Kenya, Ireland etc.etc.) from an aggressive and belligerent upstart.
But there is no reason at all why we should take the point of view of either the rulers of Germany or the rulers of Britain, or regard Britain’s determination to protect its vast empire as more legitimate than Germany’s aspiration to acquire one, or vice versa.
From the standpoint of the ordinary people of all the belligerent states there was no reason to back one set of imperialists against or to choose between them. What is abundantly clear is that the rulers of all the imperial powers involved were willing to sacrifice, and go on sacrificing, the lives of millions of ‘their’ citizens for the sake of defending or extending their respective empires.
And this is the answer to our original question. What did the sixteen million die for? They died, on whichever side they fought, for the imperial ambitions of their respective ruling classes. It is a bleak and tragic answer. But it has to be said, for what we are dealing with is not only a tragedy but also, what Ferguson and Clarke and others try to deny, a crime – one of the most terrible crimes in the history of humanity.
Bringing it all back home
When we consider the Irish dead, the 49,000, this conclusion is particularly galling for not only did they not die ‘for Ireland’ or for freedom or for any justifiable cause, they died for precisely the empire who had for so long oppressed Ireland. To put this in perspective we should note that in the 30 years of ‘the Troubles’ in the North approximately 3500 died (of whom 705 were British soldiers), in the Irish Civil War the death toll was 3-4000, in the War of Independence it was about 2000, and in the Easter Rising it was 466 (116 British Army). The loss of Irish life in the First World War therefore was more than four times that in all these conflicts put together. One has to go back to the suppression of the 1798 Rebellion to find any comparable blood letting in Ireland (apart, of course, from the famine).
The pro-war propaganda and recruitment posters of the time are available online and can be seen at http://www.ww1propaganda.com/world-war-1-posters/irish-ww1-propaganda-posters?page=3 . Here are examples: they are sickening viewing.
The ‘Play a man’s part’ poster on the right is the kind of crude stuff for which Wilfred Owen’s great poem ‘Dulce et decorum est’ was the definitive answer. The poster on the left is deeply ironic in that the scene depicted was to destined come to Irish homes in a few years, not at the hands of German soldiers but in the shape of British Black-and- Tans, many of them veterans of the World War.
The Irish politicians who collaborated in this – the likes of John Redmond and John Dillon - and sent so many young Irish men to their deaths in the vain hope that the British Empire would reward them with a painless granting of Home Rule committed an unpardonable betrayal of their own people.
The Catholic Church began (though it later changed its position) by supporting the war ‘to save Catholic Belgium’. This was a piece of cynical deception on numerous grounds: the German assault on Belgium had nothing to do with it being Catholic but was solely to do with its location between Germany and France; Ulster Protestants (2000 of whom died on the Somme) were also urged to defend ‘poor little Belgium’, with the ‘Catholic’ left out; Belgium was small but not poor and a significant and exceptionally brutal imperialist power in Africa; Britain was not fighting to defend Belgium at all but the British Empire.
Bringing the war back home doesn’t just mean relating the First World War to Ireland, its also means relating it to the world and Ireland today.
Two points, in particular, need to be made. The first is that the imperialism that gave us the First World War has changed its shape in various waysbut as an economic and political system is still very much with us and still producing deadly imperialist wars, notably in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the very real threat, as the conflict in the Ukraine shows, of a revival of the Cold War. This means that anti-war campaigning remains a crucial political task.
The second is that Ireland has been served well by its neutrality – a legacy of its history of struggle against British imperialism – but that neutrality is now under threat in a number of ways. It is already massively compromised by the ongoing use of Shannon airport by the US military for troop movements and rendition flights, as recently highlighted by the Margaretha D’Arcy case. In addition it is clear that under Eamon Gilmore Irish foreign policy is consistently, if quietly, subordinate to that of the US and the EU and that the present government of Ireland, especially its Fine Gael component, contains a number of latter day Redmonds who would like to end Ireland’s neutrality and even join NATO. Fortunately recent opinion poll evidence shows that the large majority of the Irish people want Ireland to remain neutral.
Needless to say everything argued in this article about the imperialist nature of the First World War and the terrible slaughter it engendered reinforces the case for Irish neutrality and opposition to imperialism today.
 Nearly 2,000 soldiers from cities, towns, villages and town lands of Ulster were killed in the first few hours of fighting, an event which seared itself into the folk memory of their community.
 See the graphic description in Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Strange Meeting’. The use of poison gas performed by all major belligerents throughout World War I constituted war crimes as its use violated the 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases and the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare, which prohibited the use of "poison or poisoned weapons" in warfare.
 Up to August 1914 the German Social Democratic Party (SDP), which was a mass party of a million members, had been strongly anti-war but when the war actually broke out its leaders (along with the leaders of most of Europe’s socialist parties) switched to supporting the war in the name of ‘Defence of the Fatherland’.
 All quotes from various Social Democratic newspapers 3-11 August 1914, cited in Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet, Merlin Press, London, pp.69-71.
 See above p.80.
 A.J.P.Taylor, The First World War, p.11, p.62..
 Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War, Penguin, 1998 p.462.
 As above, p.460.
 C. Clark, The Sleepwalkers - How Europe went to war in 1914, Penguin, 2013, pp.560-1.
 Which is why, to this day, Portuguese is spoken in Brazil but Spanish in most of the rest of the continent.
 This is something Christopher Clark’s much praised The Sleepwalkers strikingly fails to do. You can learn in The Sleepwalkers that Edward Grey spent most of his time at Balliol College playing real tennis before graduating with a third in Jurisprudence and what the mayor of Sarajevo was wearing on the morning of the assassination but you will search in vain for analysis of the world or European economy. Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War is only marginally better in this respect.
. ‘In the same period Britain, France, Russia and Germany established wide spheres of influence extending out from colonial enclaves in China; Japan took over Korea and Taiwan; France conquered all of Indochina; the US seized Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spain; and Britain and Russia agreed to an informal partitioning of Iran… [In Britain] total investment in foreign stocks rose from £95 million in 1883 to £393 million in 1889. It soon equaled 8 percent of Britain’s gross national product and absorbed 50 percent of savings.’ Chris Harman, ‘Analysing Imperialism’, IS Journal 2.99, 2003. http://www.marxists.org/archive/harman/2003/xx/imperialism.htm.
 Max Weber, cited in Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, London 1987, p.56.
 V.I. Lenin, Imperialism –the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Peking 1973, p105
 As above p.90
 Literally ss I write these lines an article has appeared in praise of John Redmond by Eamon Delaney in the Irish Independent claiming him as a heroic figure that Ireland has forgotten http://www.independent.ie/lifestyle/redmond-the-man-that-ireland-forgot-30197615.html
 For a very comprehensive discussion of how imperialism has developed over the last 100 years see Alex Callinicos, Imperialism and Global Political Economy, London 2009. For a devastating exposure of the record of British imperialism, see John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried :a People’s History of the British Empire, London 2006.
 For example, Minister for Injustice, Alan Shatter.
 A Red C poll in September 2013, commissioned by the Peace and Neutrality Alliance, showed 78% of the Irish people in favour of maintaining neutrality. http://www.no-to-nato.org/2013/10/21/pana-red-c-opinion-poll-on-irish-neutrality-and-international-situation-september-2013-irish-people-support-a-policy-of-neutrality