The shocking events of August 1914

One thing you will not find in the contemporary writings marking the centenary of the beginning of the Great War is a satisfactory explanation of the causes of that war. Even a hundred years after the event, bourgeois commentators are hard-pressed to explain how and why that bloody slaughter happened in the first place. While the Second World War is explained and justified – falsely – as a struggle of the democracies against German Fascism, the First World War lacks such a convenient pretext and justification.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria 1914

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria 1914

By some accounts, it seems almost as if in 1914 war fell out of a blue sky: the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian Empire, was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo. Austria held Serbia responsible and decided to punish Serbia by a little war. Russia responded with a mobilisation to defend its ally Serbia. Germany responded to the Russian mobilisation by declaring its support for Austria against Russia and its allies France and Britain, and invaded Belgium in order to attack France. Britain and France declared war on Germany on August 4 1914, taking their world empires with them. And thus the world was at war, unprepared, and almost by surprise.

Was it really nothing more than a series of misjudgements, over-reactions, manoeuvers and misunderstandings by the European powers that plunged the world into a conflict that would cost nearly twenty million lives? Was the cause a ‘mentally unstable’ and ‘bellicose’ Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany? Of course not. These events were the triggers, not the causes, of the war. Why then are so many commentators content to limit their investigation to a minute examination of this relatively unimportant chain of events?

The truth is that a serious examination of the causes of the Great War is a matter of great discomfort for the bourgeoisie – both then and now. The causes of the war were deeply rooted in the nature of the capitalist system they defend. The war signalled the end of capitalist expansion in Europe, and the beginning of the decline of world capitalism. The developments that led to war were not resolved by the war. It required the historic defeats imposed on the European working class in the 1930s and a second World War to make them recede temporarily – and now they have begun to make themselves felt again, not least among the struggles of the oppressed nations of Europe. No wonder the bourgeoisie is afraid to mention the causes.

French troops in Morocco during Agadir crisis 1911-12

French troops in Morocco during Agadir crisis 1911-12

The Great War did not arrive unannounced; far from it. France and Germany had already come to the brink of war in 1911 over their rival claims to the colonial possession of Morocco. The Balkan Wars of 1912-13 again threatened a wider European war. And Russia’s entry to the Great War was preceded by a massive upsurge of the labour movement, including a strike wave in 1914 that rivalled the revolution of 1905 in its breadth. (To a lesser extent, the same was true of Germany.)

These events, rather than the diplomatic manoeuvring of July 1914, indicate the real causes of the world conflagration.

Capitalist economic and social relations had developed within the boundaries of the European nation-states over the preceding half-century. By the opening of the twentieth century, these nation-states – with their national markets and currencies, their national systems of taxes and tariffs – had become a fetter to the further expansion of capitalism. Each capitalist power needed wider markets for its products and wider fields of investment than the nation-state could supply. Each needed to secure the vital sources of raw materials for their industries, the coal and oil, rubber, mineral ores, food and fibre that often lay beyond their own borders. By 1914, they could secure these things only at the expense of their rivals. It was the age of modern imperialism. The imperialist powers embarked on an arms race in preparation for the inevitable conflicts – they were hardly ‘unprepared.’

German soldiers in South West Africa (Namibia) 1904

German soldiers in South West Africa (Namibia) 1904

In the frenzied grab for colonial possessions, Morocco was only one of many. Britain and France had divided Africa and Asia between them; Germany and Italy arrived late at the feast, but followed the same pattern.

African fighters against German imperialism in South West Africa 1904

African fighters against German imperialism in South West Africa 1904

Germany’s subjugation in 1907 of South West Africa (now Namibia) cost the lives of an estimated 60,000 people of the Herero tribe, out of a total population of 80,000. The British ruling class saw Germany’s colonial aspirations as ‘upsetting the balance of power’ – that is, British power.

Nor was the grab for colonial territories limited to the European powers: imperialist Japan annexed Korea in 1910 and joined the effort by Britain and France to carve up China. In the closing years of the nineteenth century the United States annexed Hawai’i, then waged war against Spain and took its possessions in the Caribbean and the Philippines. In the Pacific, newly-emerging imperialist states in Australasia cast a greedy eye over Germany’s Pacific possessions, especially tiny Nauru, rich in phosphate for fertilisers needed by Australasian agriculture.

The growth of the great European powers also meant the subjugation of smaller nations within Europe itself. The empire of Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina. Russia also had designs on the Balkan peninsula, seeking to gobble up pieces of the crumbling Turkish empire, and add them to its existing ‘prison-house of nations’, which stretched from Central Asia to Poland and Finland. As Bolshevik leader Gregory Zinoviev wrote, in the Balkan Wars “the national question played a role, but it was completely drowned out by imperialist themes. The small nations were playthings in the hands of the imperialist cliques.”

The third major factor was the growing working class movement. The early years of the twentieth century saw a rise in workers struggles, after a long period of relative quiescence. Russia erupted in revolutionary struggles in 1905. A strike wave swept France in 1906, in response to a mining disaster in which 1099 miners were killed. Mass working class political parties were built in a number of European countries, which came together in the Socialist International. In Germany membership of the Social Democratic Workers Party (SPD) had grown to over a million by 1914; the party won four million votes in 1912, more than any other party. With leaders like August Bebel and Karl Kautsky who had worked alongside Marx and Engels, the German party was by far the most authoritative voice of revolutionary socialism.

Debates in Socialist International in lead-up to war are documented in this book, available from Pathfinder Press

Debates in Socialist International in lead-up to war are documented in this book, available from Pathfinder Press

It was the international working class movement that raised the alarm about imperialist militarism and the approaching war. Meeting in Stuttgart in 1907, the Socialist International declared that  “the struggle against militarism cannot be separated from the Socialist class struggle as a whole…wars between capitalist states are the outcome of their competition on the world market, for each state seeks not only to secure its existing markets but to conquer new ones. In this the subjugation of foreign peoples and countries plays a prominent role. These wars result furthermore from the incessant arms race by militarism, one of the chief instruments of bourgeois class rule and of the economic and political subjugation of the working class.”

Gustave Hervé

Gustave Hervé

Gustave Hervé, a French socialist, author of a book entitled “Leur Patrie” (“Their fatherland”) argued that “The fatherland is a fatherland of the ruling classes. It is not a concern of the proletariat.”  Hervé urged the International “to meet any declaration of war, no matter how it originates, with a military strike and with insurrection.” Hervé was jailed for two years for ‘provocations to murder as well as disobedience and insurrection.’

But within this mass Socialist movement an opportunist current was gaining strength, a current that increasingly identified its interests with those of its own bourgeoisie. Borrowing language from an earlier epoch, when the bourgeoisie fought progressive wars to establish the unified nation-state, they talked about ‘defence of the fatherland.’ SPD leader Georg von Vollmar told the Stuttgart congress, “It is not true that “international” means the same thing as “anti-national”. It is not true that we have no fatherland. …I know why Socialism must be international, but my love for humanity can never prevent me from being a good German, just as it cannot prevent others from being good citizens of France or Italy.”

SPD leader Gustav Noske said in the German Reichstag in 1907, “Our position on the military system flows from our conception of the principle of nationalism. We call for independence for every nation. But from this it follows that we also value preserving the independence of the German people. Our, position, of course, is that it is damn well our duty and obligation to see to it that the German people are not shoved up against the wall by some other nations.”

Noske’s speech caused outrage among the SPD membership. The party majority reaffirmed its opposition to German militarism right up to the eve of the war – in words, at least.

Caught between their organic need to defend and extend their colonial possessions and spheres of influence on the one hand, and the fear of working class insurrection on the other, the imperialist powers hesitated. How would the Socialist International respond in the event of war being declared?

The events of August 1914 answered that question: the International shattered. With very few exceptions, the leaders of the Socialist parties in the warring countries abruptly abandoned their internationalist position and fell in behind the war effort of their respective bourgeois rulers. “Defence of the fatherland” became their universal cry.

Dutch Marxist Herman Gorter wrote at the time, “The stronger imperialism became, the greater the danger of war and the nearer it approached, the more timid was the International.  The bourgeoisie which, thanks to its own putrefaction, has a better nose for moral rottenness in general, immediately sniffed out the scent of the rottenness of the [1912 Basel] congress and the International. It sensed that it had nothing to fear from this congress.”

Bolshevik leader Zinoviev wrote in 1916, “Many Socialists shared the foreboding that something was rotten in the state of Denmark. But we shall not be wise in hindsight. We honestly admit: the possibility of anything remotely resembling what we witnessed on August 4, 1914, occurred to none of us.”

A Bolshevik in St Petersburg, Alexander Shlyapnikov, described the scene on the day of Russia’s mobilisation in August 1914: “The police stations worked all night delivering the call-up notices. In the morning the dark-red mobilization notices stood out all over the city … Knots of people crowded around the leaflets, talking over the events in an anxious, despondent mood. Hundreds of workers families thronged the police stations, which had been converted into recruiting offices. Women wept, wailed, and cursed the war. … Without changing into their work clothes, the workers assembled at the workshops, came to an agreement, and went out into the streets singing revolutionary songs. … Crowds of thousands demonstrated in the streets, singing revolutionary songs and crying out “Down with the war!”

“During the first few days of the war the conscious workers were convinced that Western European democracy, headed by the organized proletariat, would not permit this carnage, this mutual self-destruction. What we then learned staggered us with its absurdity. Telegrams and newspaper articles reported that the leaders of German Social Democracy were trying to justify the war and were voting for war credits. At first we thought the government telegrams were false…But soon there was verification as hundreds of refugees from Germany and people returning from abroad brought confirmation. … The workers bombarded us with questions: what did this behaviour of the German Socialists mean, those Socialists whom we had always depicted as our model?…A conception emerged of ‘not doing worse for Russia than the German Socialists were doing for Germany’. It was a big job for us to explain to the conscious workers that betrayals by some should not lead to betrayals by all…”


The impact of these events was felt around the globe, not least in the British colonies of Australasia, then just emerging as imperialist powers in their own right. The labour movement in New Zealand had long agitated against the imposition of compulsory military training and more broadly against the politics of imperialist chauvinism and militarism.

The anti-patriotic stance taken by Gustave Hervé had aroused the admiration of class-struggle fighters in Australasia. Harry Holland and James Moroney of the Socialist Labor Party sent messages of solidarity to Hervé in jail from Sydney. Hervé’s response to Holland, sent from Santé prison in December 1910, says “Tell our socialist comrades from Australasia that their fine letter has been like a ray of sunshine in my cell… all the dearer to me having come from so far away. And knowing that the little unpleasantness that has overtaken me – for the third time in five years – has earned me the sympathy of comrades in the antipodes has made me feel that our International is no longer an idle word, but is becoming a living reality…”

In August 1914, Gustave Hervé lamented the collapse of “our beautiful dream of an international general strike against the war” – and promptly became one of the most frenzied of the French pro-war chauvinists, changing the name of his newspaper from “La guerre social” to “La Victoire” and writing another book called, “My country, right or wrong.” Later he became a monarchist and a supporter of the fascist Mussolini.

Such were the shocking blows dealt to working class fighters the world over by the shattering of the Socialist International in the first days of the Great War. It would take some time for the movement to reorient itself.

6 responses to “The shocking events of August 1914

  1. You(re right to mention Gustave Hervé, for he is a model of many would be Socialists at this crucial time ( and the execution of Rosa and Karl by Ebert’s Socialist government as well as, far before, the slaughtering of workers by the “liberal” bourgeois who had just used them to get rid of the last king of France in the 1848 revolution show us it’s a long term obstacle ), but you should mention the murder of Jean Jaurès, on July 14, 1914 ! Jaurès was not a Bolshevik ( yet ?), but his Socialism was based on a profound integrity . He had started fighting hardly against militarism and the coming imperialist war . His prestige and his weight were immense, and the French working class, able to create the Commune without Marxist leaders, was maybe on the point of starting the international resistance – hence what more ?
    Yes, the shooting of Jaurès, the shooting of Lenin, have been ponctual anecdotes with vertiginous consequences .

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Phildange. But I must disagree with you about Jaurès.
      In his last speech before he was murdered, on July 29 1914, Jaurès said, “As French Socialists, our duty is clear. We do not have to force a peace policy on our government. It is carrying out such a policy…the French government wants peace and works to maintain peace. It is the best ally of the peace efforts of the splendid British government, which took the initiative for conciliation.” A few days after this speech, both Britain and France declared war. By that time Jaurès had already been assassinated, however, I find it hard to believe that, given his stance in this speech, he would have done anything other than capitulate, along with Hervé and the rest of the leaders of the International, and support the war effort of French imperialism.
      In 1916 Zinoviev wrote an interesting reflection on the debates between Jaurès and the opportunist German leaders that had taken place at the Stuttgart congress nine years earlier, a time when, in Zinoviev’s opinion, opportunism had already won the upper hand in the International. Zinoviev wrote, “The main struggle was between the majorities of the German and French parties: on the one hand, Bebel and Vollmar; on the other, Jaurès and Vaillant. In fact the differences between these two camps were far narrower than they might appear to have been…Both Bebel and Jaurès spoke plainly about ‘defence of the fatherland.’ Neither explained the clear difference between genuine defence of the fatherland as in earlier national wars and the fraudulent character of this slogan in present-day imperialist wars. … [Jaurès’s resolution] openly said that all means should be used to prevent war, “right up to mass strike and insurrection.” The sacred words were spoken. Does this mean that Jaurès and his followers were better revolutionaries than Bebel and his supporters? By no means! We must search elsewhere for the key to Jaurès’s position. Like Bebel,…he too recognised defence of the fatherland in a ‘defensive’ war. But he also sensed that his French fatherland was weaker than the Germans’. Hence his efforts to secure the agreement of Socialists of other countries – first and foremost the Germans – to aid France if it were forced to wage a ‘just’ war. … Both the French and German majority stood on one and the same principled position. The difference flowed only from the fact that one belonged to a country in a stronger military position, the other to a country in a weaker military position…”
      If we are looking for models, we need to recognise that the Bolsheviks were almost alone in maintaining their revolutionary internationalism in this time. Sad, but true.

  2. OK I must have mistaken something about Jaurès, but his path was not easy and from what I know his Socialism was sincere, if not completely achieved . Anyway he was shot for his pacifist opinions, even if by mistake . Sure, my admiration is complete towards the Bolsheviks, but they were lucky enough to be oriented by Lenin and Trotsky together, nothing less !

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