Towards World War

The lives of Europeans since August 1914 have been surrounded, impregnated and haunted by world war. At the time of writing most people on this continent over the age of seventy have passed through at least part of two wars in the course of their lives; all over the age of fifty, with the exception of Swedes, Swiss, Southern Irish and Portuguese, have experienced part of at least one. Even those born since 1945, since the guns ceased to fire across frontiers in Europe, have known scarcely a year when war was not abroad somewhere in the world, and have lived all their lives in the dark shadow of a third, nuclear, world conflict which, as virtually all their governments told them, was held at bay only by the endless competition to ensure mutual annihilation. How can we call such an epoch a time of peace, even if global catastrophe has been avoided for almost as long as major war between European powers was between 1871 and 1914? For, as the great philosopher Thomas Hobbes observed:

War consisteth not in battle only, or in the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known.

Who can deny that this has been the situation of the world since 1945?

This was not so before 1914: peace was the normal and expected framework of European lives. Since 1815 there had been no war involving all the European powers. Since 1871 no European power had ordered its armed men to fire on those of any other such power. The great powers chose their victims from among the weak, and in the non-European world, though they might miscalculate the resistance of their adversaries: the Boers gave the British far more trouble than expected, and the Japanese established their status as a great power by actually defeating Russia in 1904–5 with surprisingly little trouble. On the territory of the nearest and largest of the potential victims, the long-disintegrating Ottoman Empire, war was indeed a permanent possibility as its subject peoples sought to establish or enlarge themselves as independent states and subsequently fought each other, drawing the great powers into their conflicts. The Balkans were known as the powder-keg of Europe, and indeed that is where the global explosion of 1914 began. But the ‘Eastern Question’ was a familiar item on the agenda of international diplomacy, and while it had produced a steady succession of international crises for a century, and even one quite substantial international war (the Crimean War), it had never entirely escaped from control. Unlike the Middle East since 1945, the Balkans, for most Europeans who did not live there, belonged to the realm of adventure stories, such as those of the German boys’ author Karl May, or of operetta. The image of Balkan wars at the end of the nineteenth century was that of Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, which was, characteristically, turned into a musical (The Chocolate Soldier, by a Viennese composer in 1908).

Of course the possibility of a general European war was foreseen, and preoccupied not only governments and their general staffs, but a wider public. From the early 1870s on, fiction and futurology, mainly in Britain and France, produced generally unrealistic sketches of a future war. In the 1880s Friedrich Engels already analysed the chances of a world war, while the philosopher Nietzsche crazily, but prophetically, hailed the growing militarization of Europe and predicted a war which would ‘say yes to the barbarian, even to the wild animal within us’. In the 1890s the concern about war was sufficient to produce the World (Universal) Peace Congresses – the twenty-first was due in Vienna in September 1914 – the Nobel Peace prizes (1897) and the first of the Hague Peace Conferences (1899), international meetings by mostly sceptical representatives of governments, and the first of many gatherings since in which governments have declared their unwavering but theoretical commitment to the ideal of peace. In the 1900s war drew visibly nearer, in the 1910s its imminence could and was in some ways taken for granted.

And yet its outbreak was not really expected. Even during the last desperate days of the international crisis in July 1914 statesmen, taking fatal steps, did not really believe they were starting a world war. Surely a formula would be found, as so often in the past. The opponents of war could not believe either that the catastrophe they had so long foretold was now upon them. At the very end of July, after Austria had already declared war on Serbia, the leaders of international socialism met, deeply troubled but still convinced that a general war was impossible, that a peaceful solution to the crisis would be found. ‘I personally do not believe that there will be a general war,’ said Victor Adler, chief of Habsburg social democracy, on 29 July. Even those who found themselves pressing the button of destruction did so, not because they wanted to but because they could not help it, like Emperor William, asking his generals at the very last moment whether the war could not after all be localized in eastern Europe by refraining from attacking France as well as Russia – and being told that unfortunately this was quite impracticable. Those who had constructed the mills of war and turned the switches found themselves watching their wheels beginning to grind in a sort of stunned disbelief. It is difficult for anyone born after 1914 to imagine how deeply the belief that a world war could not ‘really’ come was engrained in the fabric of life before the deluge.

For most western states, and for most of the time between 1871 and 1914, a European war was thus a historical memory or a theoretical exercise for some undefined future. The major function of armies in their societies during this period was civilian. Compulsory military service – conscription – was by now the rule in all serious powers, with the exception of Britain and the USA, though in fact by no means all young men were conscripted; and with the rise of socialist mass movements generals and politicians were – mistakenly, as it turned out – sometimes nervous about putting arms into the hands of potentially revolutionary proletarians. For the ordinary conscripts, better acquainted with the servitude than the glories of the military life, joining the army became a rite of passage marking a boy’s arrival at manhood, followed by two or three years of drill and hard labour, made more tolerable by the notorious attraction of girls to uniforms. For the professional noncommissioned officers the army was a job. For the officers it was a children’s game played by adults, the symbol of their superiority to civilians, of virile splendour and of social status. For the generals it was, as always, the field for those political intrigues and career jealousies which are so amply documented in the memoirs of military chieftains.

For governments and ruling classes, armies were not only forces against internal and external enemies, but also a means of securing the loyalty, even the active enthusiasm, of citizens with troubling sympathies for mass movements which undermined the social and political order. Together with the primary school, military service was perhaps the most powerful mechanism at the disposal of the state for inculcating proper civic behaviour and, not least, for turning the inhabitant of a village into the (patriotic) citizen of a nation. School and military service taught Italians to understand, if not to speak, the official ‘national’ language, and the army turned spaghetti, formerly a regional dish of the impoverished south, into an all-Italian institution. As for the civilian citizenry, the colourful street theatre of military display was multiplied for their enjoyment, inspiration and patriotic identification: parades, ceremonials, flags and music. For the non-military inhabitants of Europe between 1871 and 1914 the most familiar aspect of armies was probably the ubiquitous military band, without which public parks and public occasions were difficult to imagine.

Naturally soldiers, and rather more rarely sailors, also from time to time carried out their primary functions. They might be mobilized against disorder and protest at moments of disturbance and social crisis. Governments, especially those which had to worry about public opinion and their electors, were usually careful about facing troops with the risk of shooting down their fellow citizens: the political consequences of soldiers firing on civilians were apt to be bad, and those of their refusal to do so were apt to be even worse, as demonstrated in Petrograd in 1917. Nevertheless troops were mobilized often enough, and the number of domestic victims of military repression was by no means negligible during this period, even in central and west European states not believed to be on the verge of revolution, like Belgium and the Netherlands. In countries like Italy they could be very substantial indeed.

For the troops, domestic repression was a harmless pursuit, but the occasional wars, especially in the colonies, were more risky. The risk was, admittedly, medical rather than military. Of the 274,000 US troops mobilized for the Spanish–American War of 1898 only 379 were killed and 1600 wounded, but more than 5000 died of tropical diseases. It is not surprising that governments were keen to support the medical researches which, in our period, achieved some control over yellow fever, malaria and other scourges of the territories still known as ‘the white man’s grave’. France lost in colonial operations between 1871 and 1908 an average of eight officers per year, including the only zone of serious casualties, Tonkin, where almost half the 300 officers killed in those thirty-seven years fell. One would not wish to underestimate the seriousness of such campaigns, all the more so since the losses among the victims were disproportionately heavy. Even for the aggressor countries, such wars could be anything but sporting trips. Britain sent 450,000 men to South Africa in 1899–1902, losing 29,000 killed and died of their wounds and 16,000 by disease, at the cost of £220 million. Such costs were far from negligible. Nevertheless, the soldier’s work in western countries was, by and large, considerably less dangerous than that of certain groups of civilian workers such as those in transport (especially by sea) and the mines. In the last three years of the long decades of peace, every year an average of 1430 British coal-miners were killed, an average of 165,000 (or more than 10 per cent of the labour force) injured. And the casualty rate in British coal-mines, though higher than the Belgian or Austrian, was somewhat lower than the French, about 30 per cent below the German, and not much more than one-third of that in the USA. The greatest risks to life and limb were not run in uniform.

Thus, if we omit Britain’s South African War, the life of the soldier and sailor of a great power was peaceful enough, though this was not the case for the armies of tsarist Russia, engaged in serious wars against the Turks in the 1870s, and a disastrous one against the Japanese in 1904–5; nor of the Japanese, who fought both China and Russia successfully. It is still recognizable in the entirely non-fighting memories and adventures of that immortal ex-member of the famous 91st Regiment of the imperial and royal Austrian army, the good soldier Schwejk (invented by its author in 1911). Naturally general staffs prepared for war, as was their duty. As usual most of them prepared for an improved version of the last major war within the experience or memory of the commandants of staff colleges. The British, as was natural for the greatest naval power, prepared for only a modest participation in terrestrial warfare, though it increasingly became evident to the generals arranging for co-operation with the French allies in the years before 1914 that much more would be required of them. But on the whole it was the civilians rather than the men who predicted the terrible transformations of warfare, thanks to the advances of that military technology which the generals – and even some of the technically more open-minded admirals – were slow to understand. Friedrich Engels, that old military amateur, frequently drew attention to their obtuseness, but it was a Jewish financier, Ivan Bloch, who in 1898 published in St Petersburg the six volumes of his Technical, Economic and Political Aspects of the Coming War, a prophetic work which predicted the military stalemate of trench warfare which would lead to a prolonged conflict whose intolerable economic and human costs would exhaust the belligerents or plunge them into social revolution. The book was rapidly translated into numerous languages, without making any mark on military planning.

While only some civilian observers understood the catastrophic character of future warfare, uncomprehending governments plunged enthusiastically into the race to equip themselves with the armaments whose technological novelty would ensure it. The technology of killing, already in the process of industrialization in the middle of the century, advanced dramatically in the 1880s, not only by virtual revolution in the speed and fire-power of small arms and artillery, but also by the transformation of warships by means of far more efficient turbine-engines, more effective protective armour and the capacity to carry far more guns. Incidentally even the technology of civilian killing was transformed by the invention of the ‘electric chair’ (1890), though executioners outside the USA remained faithful to old and tried methods such as hanging and beheading.

An obvious consequence was that preparations for war became vastly more expensive, especially as states competed to keep ahead of, or at least to avoid falling behind, each other. This arms race began in a modest way in the later 1880s, and accelerated in the new century, particularly in the last years before the war. British military expenses remained stable in the 1870s and 1880s, both as a percentage of the total budget and per head of the population. But it rose from £32 million in 1887 to £44·1 million in 1898/9 and over £77 million in 1913/14. And, not surprisingly, it was the navy, the high-technology wing of warfare which corresponded to the missile sector of modern armaments expenditure, which grew most spectacularly. In 1885 it had cost the state £11 million – about the same order of magnitude as in 1860. In 1913/14 it cost more than four times as much. Meanwhile German naval expenditure grew even more strikingly: from 90 million Marks per annum in the mid-1890s to almost 400 millions.

One consequence of such vast expenditures was that they required either higher taxes, or inflationary borrowing, or both. But an equally obvious, though often overlooked consequence was that they increasingly made death for various fatherlands a by-product of large-scale industry. Alfred Nobel and Andrew Carnegie, two capitalists who knew what had made them millionaires in explosives and steel respectively, tried to compensate by devoting part of their wealth to the cause of peace. In this they were untypical. The symbiosis of war and war production inevitably transformed the relations between government and industry, for, as Friedrich Engels observed in 1892, ‘as warfare became a branch of the grande industrie … la grande industrie … became a political necessity’. And conversely, the state became essential to certain branches of industry, for who but the government provided the customers for armaments? The goods it produced were determined not by the market, but by the never-ending competition of governments to secure for themselves a satisfactory supply of the most advanced, and hence the most effective, arms. What is more, governments needed not so much the actual output of weapons, but the capacity to produce them on a wartime scale, if the occasion arose; that is to say they had to see that their industry maintained a capacity far in excess of any peacetime requirements.

In one way or another states were thus obliged to guarantee the existence of powerful national armaments industries, to carry much of their technical development costs, and to see that they remained profitable. In other words, they had to shelter these industries from the gales which threatened the ships of capitalist enterprise sailing the unpredictable seas of the free market and free competition. They might of course have engaged in armaments manufacture themselves, and indeed had long done so. But this was the very moment when they – or at least the liberal British state – preferred to come to an arrangement with private enterprise. In the 1880s private armament producers took on more than a third of supply contracts for the armed forces, in the 1890s 46 per cent, in the 1900s 60 per cent: the government, incidentally, was ready to guarantee them two-thirds. It is hardly surprising that armaments firms were among, or joined, the giants of industry: war and capitalist concentration went together. In Germany Krupp, the king of cannons, employed 16,000 in 1873, 24,000 around 1890, 45,000 around 1900, and almost 70,000 in 1912 when the fifty-thousandth of Krupp’s famous guns left the works. In Britain Armstrong, Whitworth employed 12,000 men at their main works in Newcastle, who had increased to 20,000 – or over 40 per cent of all metalworkers on Tyneside – by 1914, not counting those in the 1500 smaller firms who lived by Armstrong’s sub-contracts. They were also very profitable.

Like the modern ‘military–industrial complex’ of the USA, these giant industrial concentrations would have been nothing without the armaments race of governments. It is therefore tempting to make such ‘merchants of death’ (the phrase became popular among peace campaigners) responsible for the ‘war of steel and gold’, as a British journalist was to call it. Was it not logical for the armaments industry to encourage the acceleration of the arms race, if necessary by inventing national inferiorities or ‘windows of vulnerability’, which could be removed by lucrative contracts? A German firm, specializing in the manufacture of machine-guns, managed to get a notice inserted in Le Figaro to the effect that the French government planned to double the number of its machine-guns. The German government consequently ordered 40 million Marks’ worth of these weapons in 1908–10, thus raising the firm’s dividends from 20 to 32 per cent. A British firm, arguing that its government had gravely underestimated the German naval rearmament programme, benefited by £250,000 for each new ‘dreadnought’ built by the British government, which doubled its naval construction. Elegant and shady persons like the Greek Basil Zaharoff, who acted for Vickers (and was later knighted for his services to the Allies in the First World War), saw to it that the arms industry of the great powers sold its less vital or obsolescent products to states in the Near East and Latin America, who were always ready to buy such hardware. In short, the modern international trade in death was well under way.

And yet we cannot explain the world war by a conspiracy of armourers, even though the technicians certainly did their best to convince generals and admirals more familiar with military parades than with science that all would be lost if they did not order the latest gun or battleship. Certainly the accumulation of armaments which reached fearful proportions in the last five years before 1914 made the situation more explosive. Certainly the moment came, at least in the summer of 1914, when the inflexible machine for mobilizing the forces of death could no longer be put into reserve. But what drove Europe into the war was not competitive armament as such, but the international situation which launched powers into it.