Oh! What a Lovely War When war became ‘not only inevitable but also desirable’ by Stuart Christie

OhWhataLovelyWarWith the current centennial chatter on the whys and wherefores of the First World War, not much has been said about the preceding general European social crisis as a force for international tension in 1914. The debate on the origins of the war has long revolved around ascribing responsibility for the bloody conflagration on this or that state or on the breakdown of the standard operating procedures of the various alliance systems of the great powers. 1 The other main focus of historical attention has centred on the Marxist-Leninist theory of imperialism, which contends that international rivalry, aggravated by the need for markets and sources of raw materials, made the war inevitable. Marxist historian A.L. Morton (A People’s History of England, 1976) has highlighted some of the key points of conflict around which the international politics of the period turned: trade rivalry between Britain and Germany; the economic struggle between France and Germany over the iron deposits in eastern France and the coal mines of western Germany; Russia’s desire for easier access to the Mediterranean. These problems had, however, existed for some time and, in spite of the series of international crises which marked the decade prior to 1914, none, as James Joll (Europe Since 1870, 1983)

has pointed out, had led to violent conflicts. Not one of the great powers had been prepared to go to war for the purely selfish, local interests of any one of the Balkan states as against its neighbours. What then differentiated the situation in July 1914 from other similar crises, and initiated the process that many people throughout Europe had been predicting for the past nine years? Perhaps one answer lies in an additional contending factor — the rising curve of social discontent throughout Europe that marked the early years of the twentieth century.

Although their actions provided the ‘justification’, the Serbian anarchists, nationalists and government officials who plotted the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in the hope of throwing off Austro-Hungarian tutelage, these elements were not in themselves responsible for plunging Europe into the bloodbath this can be seen by the fact that almost six weeks elapsed between the murder in late June and the August mobilisations. Neither would it be argued that this act, which eliminated the would-be emperor of Austria-Hungary, was unusual. Many other prominent statesmen and rulers had met similar violent ends in the years leading up to 1914; in fact there had been several unsuccessful attempts upon the lives of Austro-Hungarian royalty during the immediate pre-war years. Indeed, throughout Europe the reaction to the assassination of the heir to the Hapsburg throne has been described as calm, almost to the point of indifference. Adolf Hitler described in Mein Kampf the circumstances in which he heard the news: ‘I happened to be sitting at home and heard of it only vaguely.’ Hitler’s only concern was that it might have been the work of ‘indignant’ German students provoked by the pro-Slav stance of the heir apparent. The European stock exchanges, a useful barometer of international tension, hardly registered a tremor.

Although the consequences of the assassination of archduke Ferdinand may not have been immediately obvious, James Joll emphasises that it came at a moment which for a number of reasons, especially to the Germans, seemed ‘one at which the chances of success were greatest’. For the German High Command and the political and industrial elite, says Joll, the assassination occurred at, in their estimation, the most propitious moment both to confront Russia and France and so launch Germany as a world power, and to counter pre-revolutionary and social tensions on the home front. The minimum German war aims, as spelled out in Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s September 1914 ‘Memorandum’, were to secure the German Empire in the east and west, to displace France as a great power and to push Russia back as far as possible from the German frontier while breaking her influence over non-Russian Europeans.

It seems likely then, as Professor Fritz Fischer (Germany’s Aims in the First World War, 1967) says, that in pursuit of all these general aims the German government was prepared to risk everything. To this end they systematically encouraged their Austrian allies to provoke war with Serbia in spite of the potential international consequences. Secondly, once war had broken out they adopted what were obviously previously discussed plans for territorial annexations and the establishment of a German-controlled new order in Europe. There can be little doubt that it was German pressure which decided the Austro-Hungarian government that the alleged complicity of the Serbian government in the assassination plot provided the necessary justification for reducing Serbia to the status of an Austrian satellite — in the full knowledge that this would provoke the mobilisation of Russia, with all that might entail for the rest of Europe. One final and intriguing point is why the archduke or his advisers chose the occasion of the anniversary of the annexation of Kosovo for the state visit. The provocative nature of such an event could, perhaps, be compared to a visit by British royalty to Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day in 1916.

So, while German imperialism and militarism seem to have been largely responsible for much of the original tension leading up to the outbreak of hostilities as well as setting events in motion, it should also be emphasised that the diplomatic intrigues of other countries as well as the ferocious imperialism and the rapidly worsening internal situation of all other major European countries played an important part in the tragic sequence of decisions of August 1914. In order to understand more fully these generalised internal crises facing the Great Powers and the means by which they were successfully deflected we need to consider the condition of the various actors in the drama, beginning, in rough order, with the industrially and financially less developed and ending with the main protagonists, Germany and Britain.

For Austria-Hungary itself, the Sarajevo outrage was tailor-made to the needs of the fast-failing regime. The latifundist system of massive estates under feudal ownership and rule on the land, allied with a heavily usurious brand of capitalism, provided the background for a very potent social revolutionary dynamic which outweighed even the nationalist and separatist stresses of that polyglot empire. In Vienna, the ancient capital, a descending lassitude mirrored the crumbling rule; a number of contemporary authors write of the city’s strange atmosphere, and Hitler described it as being ‘immersed in that livid sultriness which customarily announces the hurricane [while] from time to time a beam of brighter light flared up, only to vanish again in the spectral darkness‘. Writer Norman Stone (The Eastern Front, 1976) briskly explains the real constraints on choice: ‘Official circles in Austria-Hungary calculated that general conflict in Europe was their only alternative to civil war!‘ Thus, the unusually harsh Austro-Hungarian ultimatum served on Serbia, with the full agreement and support of Austria’s ally Germany, was merely a pretext for war with Russia. The immense significance of Austria-Hungary’s internal problems demanded war as a last-ditch solution.

Critical to the success of this tactic was the organisational hegemony of the Austrian Social Democratic Party, the Marxist mass party, which was actually committed to the maintenance of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and its federative reorganisation. When war came the labour leadership presented and justified it as an unavoidable defence against the menace of Russian expansionism. The social democratic and Marxist left cast their parliamentary votes in favour of war and immediately instituted war measures against all strikes and other forms of rank-and-file insubordination. Although there was some initial disaffection among the Czechs, some of whom threw down their arms on receiving orders to march against Russia, hostilities were initiated without serious resistance. It was only a matter of months, however, before more serious disaffection spread among the rank and file of workers and soldiers and seriously affected the prosecution of the war. Food riots were common throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire by 1915, and by the following year these had spread to Vienna.

Russia in the months after February/March, into a prominence they would otherwise never have achieved and so contributed greatly to the deformation of the revolution. Like its Hapsburg counterpart, the Romanov empire was too far gone to avoid extinction. The people had rallied to the Kremlin’s call to-arms in August 1914 not out of any loyalty to the czar but from pan-Slavism — an emotional response to Austro-Hungarian aggression against small Slavic Serbia. Nine years earlier, Russia’s war with Japan had been a clear attempt to direct internal ferment into more patriotic channels, and it was the defeat of 1905 that had sparked off the revolution that year. By 1914 only a victorious war could conceivably offer hope for the status quo. Barring war, as Germany’s Prince von Bülow observed: ‘within a short time revolution would have broken out in Russia, where it was ripe since the death of Alexander III’. The Russian state had been on the defensive since 1909 and the temper of the workers was becoming increasingly revolutionary. The more desperately reactionary policies of the Romanov regime following Prime Minister Peter Stolypin’s assassination in 1911 served only to heighten popular discontent. When troops attacked the workers in the Lena goldfields in April 1912 with unusual savagery the effect, rather than the cowing of the workers, was one of arousing workers all over Russia to a new wave of militancy. Edmund Wilson (To the Finland Station, 1940) notes that ‘by 1913 and 1914 there was a strike wave even bigger than that of 1905’. By the end of the first seven months of 1914 industrial unrest throughout Russia had reached an unparalleled intensity, much of it ‘politica1ly and socially motivated’.

Italy, turbulent throughout the 1890s and the early years of the 20th century, arrived at the pre-war years in an equally volatile state. Propaganda in favour of conquest and expansion at the expense of Austria-Hungary had failed to make any impact on the workers who were clamouring for more radical changes; at the elections of 1913 only three Nationalists were elected to the chamber. Rioting and strikes on a wide scale, culminating in the famous Red Week of early summer, marked the months preceding the war. Violent confrontations with the authorities broke out on the Adriatic coast during demonstrations by anarchists and republicans that quickly developed into a general strike and countrywide riots. F.L. Carsten (The Rise of Fascism, 1967) provides particulars: ‘In the Romagna and the Marches of central Italy there were violent revolutionary outbreaks. Local republics were set up in many smaller towns, and the red flag was hoisted on the town hall of Bologna. Officers were disarmed and the military barracks besieged in many places.’

The overwhelming sentiment for neutrality cancelled Italy’s alliance with Austria-Hungary, and rendered war too dangerous a card to be played in the hope of defusing revolutionary tension — for the time being. By mid-May 1915, the Turin workers declared a general strike against the war while the Socialist Party leadership, like other social democratic parties throughout Europe, prevaricated over its position regarding Italy’s imminent participation in the war. With the rank-and-file demoralised by the Socialist Party’s refusal to support their initiative the strike came to an end on 19 May. In the meantime, the ‘revolutionary syndicalists’ had become the first section of the Italian left to advocate war, arguing that reactionary Austria must not be allowed to defeat progressive France. On 23 May Italy entered the war against the Central Powers.


In France, the April 1914 elections, whose main issue was the 1913 law prescribing three years military conscription, returned what has been described by Alfred Cobban (A History of Modern France, 1965) as ‘the most pacific chamber the country has ever known‘. The conscription law had been completely repudiated. At a time when their rulers were caught up in what von Bülow (Memoirs, London 1931) describes as ‘war fever’, the people of France were clearly in an anti-militaristic mood. The German ambassador to London, Prince Lichnowsky (My Mission to London 1912-1914), provides further insight into the mood of the period in a diary entry of 27 April when he described the French people as calm and ‘thoroughly pacifist‘, while noting the difficulties that internal affairs were presenting to the government. The April polls ‘proved’ to Cobban that ‘even in the existing state of international tension French opinion was profoundly pacific and non-aggressive’. In June, President Poincaré was forced to appoint a left-wing regime under René Viviani, but although reversal of the conscription law was the first order of business, the Radical and Socialist deputies agreed not to press for this in exchange for some vague promises regarding the possible future passage of an income tax law. With the final stages of the war crisis playing itself out in July, it was Viviani who finally defused the tense situation by issuing a call for national unity to the left. At the height of spontaneous anti-war demonstrations he announced: ‘in the serious circumstances through which our country is passing, the government counts on the patriotism of the working class  … ‘ It is not outside the bounds of possibility that the murder of French socialist leader Jean Jaurès by a chauvinist fanatic might have triggered off long-suppressed working-class emotions and sparked off a popular rebellion. Whereas in the 1890s there had been hundreds of small, localised strikes there were, in 1913, over a thousand involving more than a quarter of a million people. Much alarm was generated by the scale and persistence of these strikes, which historians such as David Thomson (Europe Since Napoleon, 1965) have viewed as ‘symptoms of a profound unrest and social sickness’. The hypocritical rhetoric of the socialist leaders proved effective and this, together with the euphoria of war, fired the imagination of the people. This made for an avalanche that took along with it many who had hitherto been vehemently opposed to war, including respected anarchist writers such as Peter Kropotkin and Sebastian Faure, who were convinced that German militarism presented the major obstacle to social progress in Europe. On the other hand, some German anarchists such as Max Nettlau saw Russia as the main danger to the development of socialism and threw their support behind the Central Powers.as the main danger to the development of socialism and threw their support behind the Central Powers.

The French war euphoria soon proved thin, however, and by the end of 1916 the bellicose spirit had almost completely evaporated with the prospect of a long-drawn-out campaign. Desertions were occurring at an estimated rate of 30,000 a year, and by the spring of 1917 wholesale desertions were replaced by outright mutiny, causing open panic among the military high command. Entire divisions from the Champaign front were involved, officers were shot by their own men amid cheers for world revolution, and there was even talk of marching on Paris. But the war’s mammoth losses — which in France included a figure approaching one and a half million dead — together with the long list of betrayals and disillusionment caused by the rank and file of the working-class movement placing its trust in political leadership in the pre-war period, ensured that not even a parody of a revolution would erupt in France for many years to come.

In Germany, the authoritarian welfare state created by Bismarck enforced a state of affairs in the immediate pre-war year that, together with an increasing political isolation, was far from being conducive to stability. The scandal surrounding Prince Eulenberg which dragged out for almost two years after 1907, with its airing of intrigue, blackmail and corruption within the Kaiser’s immediate circle, caused state prestige to sink dramatically. Ballin, the Hamburg industrialist, spoke to the government in 1908 of the ‘growing domestic crisis‘ hoping that a tax decrease might help matters. The alternative of war had, in fact, been proposed as early as March 1909 by the Chief of the Military Cabinet, Lyncker, who considered an ‘external conflict desirable‘ to move the nation out of internal difficulties. There was, as Prince Von Bülow recalled, ‘ a general disgruntlement’ which he summarised thus: ‘If in Bismarck‘s day people talked of “disgust with the Empire”, it was now a case of “disgust with the government” — a “disgust” which gained ground every day.‘ More specifically portentous was another highly placed opinion, also recounted in Von Bulow’s memoirs: ‘At the end of 1912 I heard from Dusseldorf that Kirdof, one of the biggest Rhenish industrialists . . . had declared that if this goes on another three years Germany will have landed in war or revolution.‘ In late 1913 and early 1914 the arrogant behaviour of German officers towards civilians in Alsace (which was French until 1870) constituted what became known as the ‘Zabern Incidents’ and aroused such widespread indignation that the Reichstag passed a massive no-confidence resolution, albeit one without any real effect.

It was a period of waning government power matched by a growing working-class resistance to arbitrary authority. In this context the successful mutiny of 1,300 merchant seamen aboard the giant SS Vaterland at Cuxhaven in the spring of 1914 is similarly revealing. Ernst Schneider, a German socialist historian, described the political and social tensions of Germany at the time as ‘typical of a pre-revolutionary period‘, concluding that without war in 1914 ‘the conflict between the Imperial government and the majority of the German nation would have continued to intensify to a point where a revolutionary situation would have been created‘. Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg oon the very eve of war complained bitterly of the absence of nationalist fortitude in the land, lamenting this as a ‘decline in values’ and a ‘spiritual degeneration’.

Throughout Germany, the rank and file of the labour movement, at that time the largest and most powerful section of the socialist Second International, pressed for stronger measures against the looming war. The mass of the workers, organised under the aegis of the Social Democratic Party, believed that the call for mass action against the war would eventually come from their political leaders. Instead, the socialist and trade union leaders demonstrated their political opportunism and fell back on the tradition, begun by Marx himself, of defending war by advanced powers against less developed ones as ‘progressive’. On 30 July the SDP leaders assured the Prussian Ministry of State of the left’s unquestionable loyalty to the regime. Four days later the SDP announced in the German parliament: ‘In the hour of danger we stand by our Fatherland,‘ and in so doing delivered the final coup de grâce to the hopes and aspirations of the radical and anti-militarist rank and file of the German workers

Britain, wavering between neutrality and partisanship, was also seething in ferment and to many the time seemed ripe for increasingly radical directions. R.C.K. Ensor (England 1870-1914, 1967) felt that an undistracted concentration upon home issues may well have brought about a revolution, especially, he thought, as reflected by the ‘pre-war loss of balance about home rule’. The social and parliamentary impasse over self-determination for Ireland — whether it should encompass the whole of the country or exclude Ulster in the North — reached boiling point in the summer of 1914; the south was ready to fight for united home rule while the loyalty of British troops was uncertain.2 Colin Cross (The Fall of The British Empire 1918-1968, 1970), commenting on the Irish crisis — as well as the industrial strife and suffragette violence which contributed much to the political temperature of the period — wrote: ‘Had there been no European war in summer 1914, Britain might well have lapsed into . . . anarchy [sic]’. As the Irish moved towards rebellion, a divided England appeared, according to Cross, nearer to civil war than at any time’. Diplomat and author Harold Nicolson ssaw the background of the industrial upheavals of 1910-14 with its rapidly unfolding ‘revolutionary spirit’ as creating veritable panic among the upper classes; ‘this incessant labour unrest’, plus home rule agitation, brought the country, in his view, ‘to the brink of civil war‘. King George V himself warned participants in a Buckingham Palace conference on 21 July 1914 that ‘The cry of civil war is on the lips of the most responsible and sober-minded of my people’.

Clearly then, class tensions were quickly reaching breaking-point — being ‘too great’, in the words of Arthur Marwick (The Deluge, British Society and the First World War, 1965), ‘to be contained in the existing social and world setting’. As early as 1911 William Archer had also conjectured that some great catastrophe might be necessary for a new and viable world social order. Labour conflicts had steadily increased in intensity from 1910 onwards and on the eve of the outbreak of war the new Triple Alliance of miners, railwaymen, and other transport workers (including seamen and dockers) was making its preparations for the biggest strike of all. As the avalanche gathered momentum the government, as Cole and Postgate (The Common People 1746-1946, 1964) point out, was ceasing to govern and ‘parliamentary institutions were falling into disrepute. The spirit of revolt was spreading from one section of the people to another, and manifesting itself in a demand for new leadership and a new philosophy of life’.

Despite all the warning voices that had been raised on the danger of war and the anti-militarist mood of a substantial part of the peoples of Europe, the declaration of war itself came as a complete surprise to almost everyone. The years of crying wolf had, perhaps, taken their toll and the people were suddenly faced with a fait accompli. The declaration of war had a dramatic and fragmentary effect on the revolutionary wave that had been gathering impetus throughout Europe over the previous five years. The social democratic parties eagerly closed ranks behind their respective national governments while the machinery of the trade union movement became incorporated into the state structure to ensure more complete control over the labour force.

The cathartic effect of war on the psyche of the nation is best expressed by Randolph Bourne (War Is the Health of the State, 1918), an American commentator of the early years of the twentieth century: ‘The moment war is declared … the citizen throws off his contempt and indifference to government, identifies himself with its purposes, revives all his military memories and symbols, and the State once more walks, an august presence, through the imagination of men. Patriotism becomes the dominant feeling, and produces immediately that intense and hopeless confusion between the relations which the individual bears and should bear towards the society of which he is part.’

To sum up; what then was the difference between the situation in Europe in July 1914 and the earlier international crises which preceded it? Although the machinery of war was set in motion by the aims of German imperialism and militarism, and aggravated by the unexpected breakdown in the system of international alliances, the serious nature of the internal political problems faced by all the great powers must have played no small part in making the war, in James Joll’s perceptive words, ‘not only inevitable but also desirable’. Certainly, no tangible evidence exists that any European government deliberately courted war as a means of resolving their internal political difficulties, but the inescapable fact remains that the coming of war fulfilled the unifying function ascribed to it by Randolph Bourne. More importantly, perhaps, the incorporation of the trade unions into government and the anchoring of the labour movement to the social democratic parties not only tolled the death knell for the pre-war revolutionary dynamic —it also ensured it would take many years before it could even begin to recover.

See also the full version of Bill Bryden’s powerful 1994 drama THE BIG PICNIC on the CB film site


1. ‘The Triple Alliance was the military alliance among Germany, Austria–Hungary, and Italy, (as opposing the Triple Entente which consisted of an alliance between Britain, France and Russia), that lasted from 1882 until World War I in 1914. Each member promised mutual support in the event of an attack by any other great power, or for Germany and Italy, an attack by France alone. In a supplementary declaration, Italy specified that its undertakings could not be regarded as being directed against Great Britain. Shortly after renewing the Alliance in June 1902, Italy secretly extended a similar guarantee to France. By a particular agreement, neither Austria–Hungary nor Italy would change the status quo in the Balkans without previous consultation.

‘When Austria–Hungary found themselves at war in August 1914 with the rival Triple Entente (Britain, France, and the latter’s ally, Russia), Italy pledged to support the Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, and later the Ottoman Empire (Turkey). However, because Germany and Austria–Hungary had taken the offensive while the Triple Alliance was supposed to have been a defensive alliance, Italy did not enter into the war. Later on, Italy entered the conflict on the side of the Entente against Austria–Hungary in May 1915 and Germany in August 1916.’ — Wikipedia

2. ‘With Irish Home Rule due to become law in 1914, the British Cabinet contemplated some kind of military action against the Ulster Volunteers who threatened to rebel against it. Many officers, of whom the most prominent was Hubert Gough, threatened to resign rather than obey. Although the Cabinet issued a document claiming that the issue had been a misunderstanding, the Secretary of State for War J.E.B. Seely and the CIGS (professional head of the Army) Sir John French were forced to resign after amending it to promise that the British Army would not be used against the Ulster loyalists.’ – Wikipedia