The Lessons of August 1914

Arthur Boyd, Nebuchadnezzar on fire in field (1968)

August 1914:

Mass War Enthusiasm and the Collapse of Socialist Internationalism

On Anzac Day 2010, is there anything that can learned from August 1914?

Growing inter-imperialist rivalry and attendant increasing arms expenditures, militarism and bellicose imperial nationalism on the part of national ruling classes were key features of the European context in the lead-up to 1914. What is less well known is that in the decade before the outbreak of the First World War hundreds of thousands of working class people in Germany and elsewhere had participated in socialist anti-militarist rallies. In accordance with the principle of socialist internationalism, European socialist parties and trade unions had cooperated across national boundaries to diffuse ruling class foreign policy crises like the Fashoda conflict between England and France, the Morocco crisis between Germany and France, the Trieste crisis between Italy and Austria and the Swedish intention to invade Norway. The Stuttgart Resolution of the Socialist Second Internationale of August 1907 had even boldly declared:

Wars are furthered by the people-to-people prejudices systematically inculcated in the interest of the ruling classes in order to thereby deflect the mass of the proletariat from its own class tasks and from the requirements of international solidarity.

Wars are thus inherent in capitalism; they will only cease when the capitalist economic order has been eliminated… […]

Thus the working class – which has to predominantly provide the soldiers and most of the material sacrifices – is a natural enemy of war; since war also stands in opposition to its own goal: the creation of an economic order based on socialism and which realises the international solidarity of all peoples. [1]

The same resolution further noted the duty of socialist parliamentarians to refuse to grant any state budgetary contributions to arms purchases, to help educate working class youth in the spirit of international fraternity and socialism, to use all means necessary to prevent the outbreak of a war or to work for the swift ending of one that has broken out and use the subsequent economic and political crisis to mobilise the people and thereby accelerate the elimination of capitalist class domination.    

Again, a mere two years before the war and flanked by anti-war demonstrations throughout Europe numbering hundreds of thousands, the European Socialist Congress meeting in Basel ended with a manifesto that equally boldly declared:

Governments ought not to forget – given the current state of Europe and the mood of the working class – that they cannot declare war without danger to themselves […] Proletarians feel it is a crime to shoot at each other for the benefit of capitalists’ profits, dynastic ambition or the high honour of secret diplomatic treaties. [2]

In August 1914, however, despite such internationalist propaganda and firm resolutions by their mass parties, all European working classes and their social-democrat mass parties at once, and in fact extremely enthusiastically, heeded their imperial masters’ calls and headed off for the trenches to slaughter the very fellow-proletarians against whom their own socialist representatives had previously sworn never again to wage war.

In the last days of July and the early days of August there were deliriously jingoistic crowd scenes, sometimes of hundreds of thousands of people all euphorically clamouring for war all over Europe, in Berlin, St. Petersburg, Vienna, Paris and London. According to Modris Eksteins, there is even evidence that these scenes may have also ‘pushed the political and military leadership of Europe toward confrontation’.[3]   Interestingly, the last significant anti-war rallies in Germany had been just days before, on July   (The Berlin police commissioner in fact described the working class attendance at these social-democrat protest rallies as ‘extremely strong’ and explained the necessity of using firearms to prevent the crowds from entering the central business district.)[4]

Only a few days later, confronted by the Russian mobilisation and the jingoistic crowds, the German Social Democratic Party – the by far largest political party in the Reichstag, the largest socialist organization in the world and the leader of the Socialist Internationale – fully accepted the nationalist war cause (of course, as usual, defined as a war for the ‘defence of the nation’ particularly against the usual demonic monster, this time of ‘barbaric Russian despotism’). On August 4th, the parliamentary party unanimously voted as a faction for the granting of the government’s request for the taking up of war loans.[5] As SPD president and future chancellor Friedrich Ebert explained to his party colleagues: 

We are showing that we are not unpatriotic folk [vaterlandslose Gesellen: literally ‘folk without country’, the derisive phrase used by the Kaiser to characterise the Social Democrats]. This is about the good of the whole nation. We must not abandon the Fatherland when it is in trouble. This is about protecting women and children […][6]

Founding SPD-father August Bebel’s proud dictum about the SPD being a ‘pre-school for militarism’ had again been confirmed.[7] 

The popular enthusiasm for war, of course, did not last long. Mass disillusion and disgust and even mass strikes (e.g. in Germany) apparently started frequently appearing on the ‘home fronts’ after about 1916 and paved the way for the pan-European social radicalisation that was to follow. At the western battle fronts themselves, however, despite some mutinies in the French army and increasing levels of insubordination elsewhere, ‘among British and German troops there was, with the exception of some relatively minor incidents, almost absolute loyalty to the very end’ as millions of soldiers, all initial notions of ‘adventure’ or ‘higher values’ gone, horror-hypnotised and numbed of all thought and feeling, doggedly continued to let themselves be led to slaughter, i.e. ‘do their duty’, ‘play the game’ and ‘comport themselves correctly’ in the usual patriotic spirit of ‘our country, right or wrong’[8]. As lambs to slaughter, right to the bitter end.

German libertarian socialist and émigré economist Paul Mattick acidly summarises the self-defeat of the European working class movement in World War One and what it revealed about this movement:

In the First World War the working class movement revealed itself to be a part of bourgeois society. Its different organisations in every nation proved that they had neither the intention nor the means of opposing capitalism and that they were mainly interested in securing their own existence within a capitalist social structure. [9] 

On this reading, the European working class movement ‘secured its own existence within capitalism’ at the cost of not only symbolically, morally and organisationally destroying itself as a viable social alternative to capitalism, but also of literally destroying a great part of itself by colluding in the mass slaughter of millions. In slaughtering their fellow workers, they thus fell, hook line and sinker – despite years of socialist insights, conference resolutions and anti-militarist propaganda – for the classic ‘safety valve’ strategy that war has always had for the ruling classes:

Hence the sense of joyous release that so often has accompanied the outbreak of war, when the daily chains were removed and the maimed and dead to come were still to be counted. […] Respect for property gave way to wanton destruction and robbery; sexual repression to officially encouraged rape; popular hatred for the ruling classes was cleverly diverted into a happy occasion to mutilate or kill foreign enemies.

In short, the oppressor and the oppressed, instead of fighting it out within the city, directed their aggression toward a common goal – an attack on a rival city. Thus the greater the tensions and the harsher the daily repressions of civilization, the more useful war became as a safety valve. [10]


One may wonder whether it would it be any different in our day and age if, within the context of increasing and multi-layered social and ecological crises, inter-imperial rivalries (e.g. between the US, China, India, Russia, Japan) again led national ruling elites to open the safety valve and call on their perennial war option. Have enough people learned from history?

[1] The text is a translation of mine from the German of the resolution reprinted in the German non-dogmatic socialist periodical links (1977).

[2] Cited in B. Engelmann, Wir Untertanen, p. 115. (Own translation, P. L-N).

[3] Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring, p. 56. Of course, not only the working man and woman, but all classes were gripped by the nationalist ‘war fever’ of 1914. Eksteins points out how this was in fact ‘the first middle-class war in history’ (p. 177), not only in its predominant values of ‘duty’ and ‘getting the job done’ but even in the sense that members of the professions and lower middle classes enlisted the most in Britain and suffered the most casualties in France (p. 190). In Germany liberal academics like Max Weber and Friedrich Naumann, artists like Franz Marc and writers and poets like Ernst Toller, Rainer Maria Rilke and Hermann Hesse were all initially enthusiastic. Even anarchist patriarch Peter Kropotkin supported the Entente side from his exile in England. Sixties hippy guru Hermann Hesse at the time confessed that ‘I esteem the moral values of war on the whole rather highly’ and, an apparently very common feeling among men of the time, praised the war’s quasi-therapeutic effect of being ‘torn out of a dull capitalistic peace’ (p. 94). In England, poets like Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy and Rupert Brooke all wrote enthused war poems. Brooke’s sonnet sequence 1914 characteristically echoes Hesse’s praise of war as an adventuresome youthful leap out of the ennui of dreary middle class daily life in a seemingly moribund capitalism:  Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,/ And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,/ With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,/ To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,/ Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,/ Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,/ And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,/ And all the little emptiness of love!

(quoted in: T. Barker (ed.), The Long March of Everyman 1750-1960, p. 172).

[4] B. Engelmann, op.cit., p. 320.

[5] A few days later only two MPs, the left wing (soon to be murdered) Karl Liebknecht and (later libertarian council-communist) Otto Rühle, broke ranks with their party and dissented from their vote.

[6] B. Engelmann, op.cit., p. 321 (own translation, P. L-N).

[7] Bebel’s statement was made in parliament after the fall of Bismarck as a response to Chancellor Caprivi’s recognition of the enthusiasm demonstrated by Social Democrat soldiers in the army. The remark is worth quoting in full (own translation, P.L-N.): ‘That does not surprise me at all and only proves that the gentlemen of the right and of the government have quite erroneous opinions about the work ethic of Social Democrats. I even believe that the readiness with which my party comrades submitted to the discipline expected of them is an expression of the discipline which life teaches them. Social Democracy is thus a pre-school for militarism, as it were.’ (cited in R. Rocker, Absolutistische Gedankengänge im Sozialismus, p. 45). Engels and Lenin had similar authoritarian opinions about the wonderful disciplinary effects of the capitalist factory system.

[8] M. Eksteins, op.cit., pp. 175-189.

[9] P. Mattick, ‘Otto Rühle und die deutsche Arbeiterbewegung’ (1945), in Spontaneität und Organisation, p. 10 (own translation, P. L-N).

[10] L. Mumford, The Myth of the Machine Vol. 1: Technics and Human Development, pp. 225-226.

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on April 25, 2010.

6 Responses to “The Lessons of August 1914”

  1. Wow, you really do express yourself with such clarity and power! I hope that you are writing a book. And if you are let me know when it is published so that I can go and buy it and continue to learn from you! We do need to stop the killing. I’ve recently joined a group “Artists for Freedom” so that at least I can contribute in a compassionate way to the immense suffering of human beings. And yes, I do hope we are on the edge of a monumental turn around….no more killing.

  2. Generally I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this post really forced me to do so, Excellent post!

  3. Thanks again, Laara. This was originally part of a book, but couldn’t really finish it and have turned more to getting poems published at the moment. Glad you’ve joined what sounds like an engaged group of artists. We need all our efforts to raise general awareness of all our complex challenges in these critical times, but don’t forget the art. Kind regards, P.

  4. Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!

    Christian, watch south park online

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: