[Book] The First World War – A Marxist Analysis of the Great Slaughter

4. Into the Abyss

Some thirty years ago the Danish physicist Per Bak wondered how the exquisite order seen in nature arises out of the disordered mix of particles. He found the answer in what we now know as phase transitions, the process by which a material transforms from one phase of matter to another, such as the transition from water to steam or from steam to plasma. The precise moment of transition – when the system is halfway between one phase and the other – is called the critical point, or, more colloquially, the ‘tipping point’.

In studying avalanches, Per Bak used the analogy of sand running from the top of an hourglass to the bottom. The sand accumulates grain by grain until the growing pile reaches a point where it is so unstable that the addition of a single grain may cause it to collapse in an avalanche, which may be big or small. When a major avalanche occurs, the base widens, and the sand starts to pile up again, until the next critical point is reached. But there is no way to tell whether the next grain to drop will cause an avalanche or just how big an avalanche will be.

In point of fact, this idea was discovered long ago and found its most comprehensive exposition in Hegel’s Logic. Modern science has proven beyond doubt that the law of the transformation of quantity into quality has a ubiquitous character and is present in a vast number of cases throughout the universe. There are tipping points not only in avalanches and nuclear reactions but also in heart attacks, forest fires, the rise and fall of animal populations, the movement of traffic in cities and many other spheres.

Despite all the stubborn attempts of the subjectivists to exclude human society from this general law, history furnishes a vast number of instances that prove that quantity turns into quality repeatedly. The same dialectical law can be observed in such phenomena as stock exchange crises, revolutions and wars. What happened in 1914 is a very good example of this.

The tensions between the major European powers, which were ultimately rooted in the struggle for markets, colonies and spheres of interest, were increasing steadily in the decades before 1914. They found their expression in a series of ‘incidents’, each of which contained the potential for the outbreak of war. If they did not reach this logical conclusion, that was because the objective conditions were not yet sufficiently mature. These incidents are similar to the small landslides that precede a major avalanche in the above example.

The First World War could have broken out on several occasions before 1914. In 1905-6, an international crisis erupted when Germany clashed with France over the latter’s attempts to get control over Morocco. In 1904, France had concluded a secret treaty with Spain for the partitioning of Morocco, having also agreed not to oppose Britain’s moves to grab Egypt. This deal between two robbers, however, enraged another would-be robber, Germany. Under the hypocritical guise of supporting an ‘open-door’ policy in the area (which meant leaving the door open for the German robbers), Berlin was preparing to establish its own control in the region.

In a typically theatrical display of imperial power, Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Tangier. From the comfort of the imperial yacht on 31 March, 1905, he declared his support for the independence and integrity of Morocco. This was the cause of the First Moroccan Crisis. It provoked an international panic, which was resolved the following year by the Algeciras Conference. A gentleman’s agreement was reached between the different robbers whereby Germany’s economic rights were recognised, while the French and Spanish robbers were allowed to ‘police’ Morocco. Naturally, nobody ever asked the people of Morocco whether they either needed or desired such policemen on their streets, but they got them anyway.

The view from London

In the middle of the First Moroccan Crisis Sir Edward Grey was appointed British Foreign Secretary and remained in office until the outbreak of war. The Entente Cordiale between Britain and France was still recent and it was clear that, by stepping on the toes of French imperialism in North Africa, Germany was trying to test the new partnership or even destroy it. Berlin’s aim was to isolate France, expose Russia’s weakness, and British perfidy. Britain would have to decide whether or not to stand by the French. In the end it was compelled to do so.

The most important thing for British imperialism was to ensure its rule in Egypt. As part of the deal, London would support France in Morocco. If Britain had remained neutral in this conflict, the Entente Cordiale would have been as dead as a dodo and France and Russia might even have moved closer to Germany against Britain. Grey warned that:

[T]he French will never forgive us… Russia would not think it worthwhile to make a friendly arrangement with us about Asia… we should be left without a friend and without the power of making a friend and Germany would take some pleasure… in exploiting the whole situation to our disadvantage. (Williams, B., Great Britain and Russia: 1905-1907, in Hinsley, F.H., British Foreign Policy Under Sir Edward Grey, pp. 133-4.)

Nevertheless, Britain was still reluctant to get involved in any war on the European continent, and Grey did everything in his power to avoid any diplomatic commitment that could lead to such an entanglement. London entered into an agreement with Russia, while assuring Germany that there was no intention to encircle it. Although that was indeed the intention, he was anxious not to arouse German suspicion, which might provoke Germany into a war to destroy a hostile and threatening encirclement.

There were new tensions in the Balkans in 1907 when Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Bulgaria declared its independence, which led to a diplomatic clash between Austria and Russia. But, still reeling from a humiliating defeat in the war with Japan and the 1905-6 Revolution, Russia backed down.

The Agadir Incident

On 8 February, 1908, a new deal was signed between the French and German robbers, in which they solemnly ratified Morocco’s independence, while at the same time recognising France’s ‘special political interests’ and Germany’s ‘economic interests’ in North Africa. But robbers are never satisfied and are always casting envious glances at the loot in the other man’s bag. Not long after the deal was struck, the Second Moroccan Crisis (the Agadir Incident) exploded. This time, instead of the Kaiser’s yacht, the Germans dispatched the gunboat, Panther.

In April 1911, contravening the agreement of the Algeciras Conference, France despatched troops to Fez to suppress an uprising by the ‘natives’, who were apparently somewhat dissatisfied with the services of their foreign policemen. In response, the Germans sent the Panther to Agadir on 1 July. It was not that Berlin objected to the French killing Arabs. On the contrary, they backed it. But this action, taken allegedly to protect German interests, was in reality intended to intimidate the French. The robbers in Berlin demanded compensation from the bandits in Paris for keeping their nose out of Morocco.

Once again, the international scene was racked by tension. The threat of war was in the air. The British even started to make preparations for war. But conditions for an all-out war had not yet ripened sufficiently and, once again, a diplomatic solution was found. The robbers argued over a division of the colonial spoils. Behind the scenes the real aim of this deal was to split the Entente.

The gentlemen in London were annoyed that France had disturbed the status quo. This was decidedly ‘not cricket’. The British were inclined to the view that Germany was entitled to compensation – as long as someone else paid the bill. On the other hand, British interests demanded that the Entente be preserved and French toes not be trodden upon. A tricky situation indeed!

Germany wanted to humiliate France by demanding the whole of the French Congo in return for German non-intervention in Morocco. Such a demand, as Eyre Crowe, the foremost expert on Germany at the British Foreign Office, remarked, was “not such as a country having an independent foreign policy can possibly accept”. Since Britain held the balance in Europe, it was able to twist arms in Berlin, as well as in Paris, to get what it wanted: the preservation of the European equilibrium and the avoidance of war, which was a distinct possibility at that time. In the end, France was given the right, not just to police the ungrateful Moroccans, but to exercise a protectorate over them. In return, the Germans were thrown a few scraps of territory from the French Congo.

Morocco’s old colonial masters in Spain naturally complained at this grossly unfair decision, but a disapproving growl from the British lion was enough to silence them. The French were very happy, the Germans less so and the Spanish less still. But the British were satisfied and war had been averted. As for the Moroccans and Congolese, nobody thought their views on the subject worth recording.

The Naval Question

The Agadir Incident had carried Europe to the brink of war. But of far more fundamental importance to the interests of British imperialism was the alarming growth of German naval power. A basic principle of London’s foreign policy was that Britain must have naval superiority. But attempts to get Germany to limit its programme of naval expansion only aroused resentment and hostility in Berlin, which offered only to slow the pace of naval expansion, and then only on condition that Britain would remain neutral in a European war. The British refused to give any such undertaking, which would have alienated France and Russia and left her powerless and isolated.

The attempts of British diplomacy (the Haldane Mission) to placate Germany only created an impression of weakness, and weakness invited aggression. Admiral von Tirpitz replied angrily that he would not accept the suggestion of a reduction of his fleet by even a single ship. To persist in negotiations when there was nothing to discuss was an act of stupidity that merely served to convince the generals and politicians in Berlin that Britain would not fight in a European war, an idea that persisted right up to the summer of 1914 and played a fatal role in Germany’s calculations.

They went on to haggle over colonial and territorial exchanges like merchants in the market place. Germany agreed to give Britain a controlling interest in the southern section of the Baghdad Railway in return for Zanzibar and Pemba and a slice of Angola. But these were minor matters of an entirely secondary importance. By accepting the German offer of a reduction in the tempo of naval construction instead of reducing the size of the German navy, Haldane gave von Tirpitz and the Kaiser what they wanted and got almost nothing in return.

Emboldened by their success, the Germans again demanded British neutrality in a European war. Sir Edward Grey prevaricated. Instead of rejecting this insolent demand out of hand, he suggested an ambiguous formula to the effect that: “England shall neither make nor join in any unprovoked attack upon Germany”.

Here we have a truly classical example of the meaningless language of the diplomatic Pharisees. What is the meaning of the word unprovoked? The very notion of a promise not to make an unprovoked attack is absurd, since every country will decide to go to war whenever it suits their interests to do so, and provocations are the easiest things in the world to manufacture.

In underlining that word ‘unprovoked’, Grey was resorting to diplomatic trickery, angling to cast British imperialism as arbiter in a future conflict between France and Germany and not a combatant. But once again this showed weakness and confirmed the belief in Berlin that, in the event of war, Britain would not want to fight. Far from saving Britain from war, it brought war a lot closer.

The tipping point

Events then reached the tipping point at which there could be no turning back. When news of the Russian mobilisation reached Berlin at midday on 31 July, Germany had the excuse it needed to proclaim a state of ‘threatening danger of war’. The ‘Cossack menace’ gave the Kaiser and his generals the green light to justify before the German people and world opinion a move against Russia and her ally France. Here again the question of who fires the first shot is of no importance. German imperialism was acting in accordance with war plans that had been drawn up a long time before.

In response, France ordered military preparations for the protection of her frontier with Germany, though no troops were to move closer than about six miles from the German border. All this time the French president was straining every muscle and nerve to get Britain to declare her intention to support France in the face of the threat from Germany. But the British, to the furious indignation of the French, remained stubbornly non-committal, at least in public, intending to keep their hands free until the last minute and avoid any firm commitment.

In a desperate attempt to secure such a commitment, the French government assured London that “France, like Russia, will not fire the first shot”. But “who fired the first shot” can never determine who was really responsible for a war, or even who was the aggressor and who was the victim. It is always possible to manufacture an incident, to provoke someone into firing the first shot and thus to convince public opinion that the aggressor is really the victim and the victim is really the aggressor.

From the standpoint of British imperialism, the most crucial question was Belgium. The insistence on Belgian neutrality was, however, not dictated by sentimentality or any attachment to the sacred principle of self-determination. Britain was concerned about Belgium only to the extent that it was determined to stop any power dominating the continent and, more specifically, if the Belgian ports fell into the hands of an enemy power, that would present a serious threat to British naval supremacy and open the possibility of an invasion of Britain itself. These were the real reasons why the British ruling class had no real option but to enter the War.

The British issued a memorandum to France and Germany requesting assurances that Belgian neutrality would be respected. France gave an immediate unqualified assurance. Germany ignored the request. Threatened to the East by the Russian mobilisation, the German General Staff needed to deliver a crushing blow to the West, defeat France and knock her out of the war before the mighty Russian army had a chance to cross Germany’s eastern frontier.

Since the French had taken the precaution of strengthening their frontier defences against a German attack, the only logical road to take was through neutral Belgium. In London, yet another tense conversation took place between Grey and the French ambassador, Paul Cambon, in which the latter asked whether England would help France if she were attacked by Germany. Even at this late hour Grey’s reply was evasive: “…as far as things had gone at present… we could not undertake any definite engagement.” France and Germany were kept guessing as regards Britain’s intentions.

Now it was Germany’s turn to ask France to declare its intentions, and to do so within eighteen hours. France replied cryptically that she would “act in accordance with her interests”. In practice, there is nothing the French could have done to avert the danger of war. It was later revealed that, if France had opted for neutrality, Germany would have demanded the turning over to Germany of her vital frontier fortresses of Toul and Verdun, to be held as a pledge of French neutrality until the end of the war with Russia. It was the tale of the wolf and the lamb all over again, except that in this case it was the tale of two rival wolves snapping and snarling at each other, one older and fatter, the other leaner and hungrier.

Already, on 26 July, a document had been drafted in Berlin containing a demand for “benevolent Belgian neutrality”, that is to say, Belgium must give German troops free access to its territory. On 3 August, Belgium refused the German demands and Germany declared war on France. The following day, 4 August, German troops crossed the Belgian frontier and blasted the Belgian defensive fortifications with heavy artillery. The British reaction was immediate. London issued an ultimatum to Germany. Its rejection meant war with Germany. Two days later, Austria declared war on Russia.

The German army advanced, scoring relatively easy victories that gave Germany control over most of Belgium and some parts of northern France, with its rich agriculture and important industries. Everywhere, the German army looted, burned and pillaged, earning the hatred of the population. In Belgium, they shot anyone suspected of being a sniper or of opposing the German army in any way. They took hostages and inflicted brutal massacres of the civilian population.

The German atrocities in Belgium provided the British with a rich supply of gruesome stories about the ‘Hun brutality’, some true, some invented, all suitably embellished by expert propagandists. These stories were used to demonise the enemy, who are presented as inhuman monsters, and thus aid recruitment. But the propaganda about ‘poor little Belgium’ was entirely hypocritical. The British imperialists went to war because they saw German domination of Europe as a threat to Britain’s position in the world and German ambitions as a threat to the British Empire.

In his memoirs, Sir Edward Grey mentioned the remark he made on 3 August, 1914. It sounded like an obituary for the old world:

A friend came to see me on one of the evenings of the last week – he thinks it was on Monday, August 3rd. We were standing at a window of my room in the Foreign Office. It was getting dusk, and the lamps were being lit in the space below on which we were looking. My friend recalls that I remarked on this with the words: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our life-time”.

It was the start of the Great Slaughter.

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