The End of “The Great War”

Against the Current, No. 197, November/December 2018

Allen Ruff

WORLD WAR I drew to a close a hundred years ago with the cease-fire on Europe’s Western Front, the Armistice of November 11, 1918. It then came to a formal conclusion with the German signing of the Allied-dictated “Treaty of Versailles” in late June, 1919 and subsequent Paris accords imposed upon Berlin’s co-belligerents, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Turkey and Bulgaria.

At its end, the war left old class-based social and political antagonisms and national grievances unresolved and created massive new ones. As such, it would have immense impacts on social and political currents down to the present — making the study of the war’s events much more than an academic pursuit.

The “Great War” had come about as a result of imperialist rivalries and, in the view of historian Arno Mayer and others, parallel attempts by various ruling circles to divert or blunt increasing domestic, internal class tensions — decades of mounting class conflict and increasing challenges from the organized labor and socialist movements.

The class struggle, temporarily derailed as it were in 1914 by chauvinist calls for “national unity” and defense of respective homelands, did not go away, but resurged in one country after another as the prolonged cataclysm inflicted ever increasing tolls upon the popular classes.

The conflict marked the appearance of modern “total war,” protracted warfare that targeted not only each belligerent’s combatants but their productive capacities and resources. As such, it exacted an unprecedented toll on the laboring classes at “the rear” while necessitating their full social and economic mobilization and sacrifice.

A monstrous zero-sum game demanding “total victory” — the unconditional surrender of the vanquished and a vindictive penal “peace” — it precluded the chances of a lasting, stable postwar world.

Harnessing the latest in scientific development, technological innovation and mass production techniques for military ends (the airplane, the tank, the submarine, poison gas and the machine gun), the war’s industrialized mass slaughter resulted in an estimated 40 million casualties, dead and wounded, the majority of them civilian. (By 1914, to be sure, each of Europe’s dominant “civilized nations” had long engaged in the mass murder of millions deemed racially inferior and expendable worldwide.)

Contagious disease, especially typhus and influenza, continuing into the postwar years, took perhaps the heaviest toll, numbering in the tens of millions among populations weakened by hunger and exposure. Leaving entire societies physically devastated, the war and its aftermath additionally created millions of displaced — an estimated four to five million refugees set in motion between 1914 and ’22.

Massive Transformations

Nowhere among the European belligerents (except perhaps in England) did the war’s destruction, deprivations and forced movement of populations allow the prewar social order to remain unscathed as the conflict telescoped and intensified pre-existing social cleavages.

Well before its conclusion, the issue had become not whether the war would change the political and social face of Europe — but how extensive and deep the transformations would be. It ended with not only a major power reshuffling of the global order, but also societies torn by internecine conflicts, many of which took on the character of protracted civil wars with varying degrees of political and class violence.

The war additionally exacted far more than the immense physical and material toll. Unrelenting suffering and loss, especially during the conflict’s latter two years, affected the perceptions, thoughts and desires of Europe’s masses.

As the cataclysm plodded on, fanning flames of resentment and desperation, it forced countless millions to think about fundamental issues involving war and peace, justice and oppression and the folly of their leaders’ wisdom in ways that had never before seemed possible or required. As a result, the world would never be the same. (Kolko, 105).

Various classes fared differently in different countries, of course. Those cushioned by old accumulated wealth and class privilege, and the beneficiaries of industrial and finance capital, did well as war demand, as usual, generated immense profits.

So too, did black marketeers and profiteering middling merchants even as war-induced inflation, scarcities and rationing of necessities gnawed at the wellbeing of urban middle and white-collared classes — those rentiers, shopkeepers, civil servants on fixed incomes and petit professionals, layers that would soon display widespread receptivity to reactionary postwar political currents.

And while those remaining in the countryside, at least in those agricultural regions not laid waste or stripped of resources, fared better in general than those in the cities, the laboring classes as a whole faced the greatest hardships, both as military fodder and as hard-pressed home-front toilers.

The war’s devastation, dislocations and hardship, most significantly, paved the way for the Russian Revolution — the regime change of March (February) 1917 and then the November (October) Bolshevik-led soviets’ seizure of state power, in class terms the first successful social revolution since 1789.

The October Revolution and the opposing counterrevolution shaped the way the war ended and the contours of the immediate postwar era.

War’s End and Social Upheaval

The war moved toward a conclusion not solely because of the often attributed Allied counteroffensive following a failed last-ditch German effort to take Paris in Spring 1918. The end had already come into view by mid-1917 as war weary battered troops on all sides, encouraged by news of Russia’s February Revolution, proved increasingly reluctant to fight any further.

Following a disastrous failed offensive that April, for example, mutinies and associated disruptions occurred among nearly half the French infantry divisions deployed on the Western Front. In Germany, a harbinger of later events came that August in the form of a short-lived mutiny of 4000 sailors in the northern port of Wilmershaven.

On the Austro-Italian front at Caporetto in that fall, some 250,000 hard-pressed Italian troops surrendered to the enemy in what amounted to a mass desertion.

Paralleling such rising discontent in the military, ongoing strikes and mass demonstrations in cities such as Berlin, Turin and Vienna took on an increasingly political character. In Eastern and Central Europe especially, military rebellions and left-organized home front demonstrations and strikes demanding bread and peace increasingly doomed the Central Powers’ further prosecution of the war.

In Berlin in January, 1918 a demonstration organized by radical shop stewards, largely employed in the city’s munitions factories and independent of the trade union and Social Democratic (SPD) leadership, brought out some 400,000 workers and touched off solidarity demonstrations by millions nationwide. Protesting not just deteriorating conditions, they called for “peace without reparations” and democratic reform in what amounted to a dress rehearsal for later events.

That same month witnessed a mass general strike against the war in Budapest, again a preview of things to come. Mass strikes by hundreds of thousands in Vienna and surrounding industrial towns during the same period also made increasingly political demands. A February 1918 sailors’ mutiny aboard Austro-Hungary’s Adriatic fleet, though brief, sent its own signals.

In Allied Italy, strikes in war industries, unrest among the white-collared middle classes, women-led protests in food markets and rural peasant mobilizations surged in the late spring.

In Germany by the following fall, the Reich’s high command faced an untenable situation — the threat of a U.S.-bolstered Allied offensive threatening a push into the German heartland, an incredibly hard-pressed, famished and radicalizing working class at home, and increasing rebelliousness in the military, especially in the navy.

With initial armistice discussions already underway in early October, the German leadership finally capitulated as the growing threat of revolution, kicked off in early November by a mass rebellion of sailors throughout the country’s northern ports, spread among workers in Berlin and beyond.

By the 9th, with workers’ and soldiers’ councils forming in numerous locales, the Kaiser abdicated and the reigns of government passed to a conservative SPD leadership fearful of communist-lead dual power forming from below. The Armistice came two days later.

The Absent Presence at Paris

While representatives from 24 nations and additional aggrieved peoples convened at the Paris Peace Conference beginning on January 18, 1919, several major players remained conspicuous in their absence.

The defeated Central Powers, denied any say in the deliberations, awaited the victors’ terms. Technically denied a presence since it had already signed a “separate peace” with Berlin, the infant “Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic” was also excluded. The threat its very existence posed to ruling classes everywhere nevertheless pervaded the conference deliberations and framed the outcomes.

What transpired at Paris did not take place in a vacuum but was shaped by widespread and still-contested social and political ferment set in motion by the war and the Bolshevik example.The Soviet regime’s calls for international revolution aside, its immediate actions had already made it an absolute pariah guilty of committing a host of crimes against the capitalist order.

On November 8, 1917, the day after it took power, the Revolution issued a “Decree on Land” that formally passed crown, church and private estates to the peasantry and erased its debt.

A Lenin-authored “Peace Decree” that same day announced Russia’s intention to withdraw from the war and appealed for an immediate armistice and transparent peace negotiations “involving representatives of all peoples or nations…involved in or compelled to take part in the war.” Significantly, it called for peace without territorial annexations or reparations.

Days later, the Revolution began publishing a host of secret Entente treaties signed by the Czarist and Provisional governments retrieved from the Russian Foreign Office. Soon distributed abroad, those compacts for the postwar division of territorial spoils exposed the Allies’ actual war aims and discredited the various “defensive war” justifications of the alliance.

Included among them were a 1915 agreement between Paris, London and St. Petersburg which established that upon victory, the Czarist Empire would receive Constantinople, France would recover Alsace-Lorraine and London could take control of Persia.

Revealed as well was that April’s “Treaty of London” signed by Russia, Britain, France and then-neutral Italy, promising significant territorial gains to the latter for joining the war against Austria-Hungary.

Other revelations included accords defining the future division of the Ottoman Middle East. Among these was a copy of the Anglo-French “Sykes–Picot Agreement,” the basis for postwar partitioning which, along with double-dealing British promises to both Arab and Zionist leaders, mapped the region’s coming century of conflict.

The trove also contained an August, 1916 promise for territorial aggrandizement that brought Romania into the war; a July 1916 Russo-Japanese accord for the “mutual defense” of their holdings in China; an Anglo-French-Belgian agreement divvying up Germany’s African holdings, and much more.

Russia’s foreign debt, already the largest in the world in 1913, had more than tripled during the war. The Bolsheviks suspended payments on it in early January, 1918.

The next month, sending shock waves through the international capitalist order, Petrograd repudiated billions of dollars of pre-existing and war-incurred private and state-to-state debt primarily owed French, as well as British, Italian and Japanese creditors and investors.[For Eric Toussaint’s detailed discussion of Russia’s revolutionary debt repudiation, see — ed.]

Entente indignation then became apoplexy with the Bolsheviks’ signing of a formal “separate peace” with the Central Powers, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of March 3, 1918. While assuring the survival of the infant Revolution at immense material and territorial cost, it enraged the Allies as Russia’s exit allowed the German high command to shift major forces westward for their massive push on Paris.

To the horror of ruling classes worldwide, word of Brest-Litovsk — initially the negotiations and an accompanying months-long cease fire, and then the actual agreement — galvanized increasing demands for peace among the war-weary everywhere.

Peace and Specters of Revolution

Still swirling as the Peace Conference convened, the German Revolution that began the previous November provided a key backdrop for the deliberations at Paris. The smoke and rubble from Berlin’s premature communist-led “Spartacist Uprising” of January 4-15, 1919 had barely cleared when the attendees first convened days later.

The revolt was crushed with the approval of now-governing SPD reformists by well-armed Frei Korps militias deployed by the military command, but news of Berlin’s class war did not escape the dignitaries’ notice. Neither could word of additional revolutionary insurgencies.

The short-lived Bavarian or “Munich Rate-republik” (soviet), soon defeated by German reaction, was established in April 1919. The month prior, the Hungarian Soviet Republic led by Bela Kun took power in Budapest, lasting until the following August when it was overthrown by a French-backed Romanian invasion. All this deeply intensified concerns at Paris.

Events in Italy, enveloped at the time in the social and political post-war “Biennio Rosso” (Red Biennium, 1918-1920), added to the bourgeois attendees’ unease as did a global spike of social unrest — in Britain, Egypt and India for example.

Beginning well before the Armistice, in the summer of 1918 and continuing during and after the Paris conference with its endless talk of “the right to self-determination,” some fourteen countries (among them Britain, France, the United States, Japan, Poland, Canada, Greece, Serbia and Romania), all present at the peace conference, sent an estimated 180,000 troops to assist the counterrevolution against the Soviet Republic.

As part of the Armistice agreement, the Allies even allowed Germany, overnight a counterrevolutionary ally, to keep its troops in those Russian territories ceded at Brest-Litovsk in order to keep the Soviet government from retaking them. (In the west, in contrast, disarmed German forces were required to withdraw east of the Rhine.)

That attempt to strangle the Revolution would continue until the Red Army proved victorious in late 1920. (A Japanese occupation army would remain in eastern Siberia until 1922.)

Accompanied by mass famine, the civil war took more Russian lives than the World War, an estimated 1.5 million combatants and eight million civilians.

Additional realities shaped the Paris deliberations as the end of the war left no old government standing between the French border and the Sea of Japan. (Hobsbawm, 29) Various conservative nationalist movements and diverse democratic and revolutionary forces looked to fill the resulting power vacuums.

“Self-determination” had come to hold different meaning for various movements of nations and peoples, ethno-linguistic and confessional groups and classes often pitted against each other. Demands for independence and republican rule and statehood, hopes for some new order versus the restoration of reconfigured ruling class power, and the question of dictatorship versus popular democracy and the extension of franchise reverberated globally.

Such evolving facts on the ground impacted upon the results at Paris.

Versailles Results and Consequences

The major terms of the Versailles Treaty were ultimately decided during numerous closed deliberations among the “Big Three” — Britain, France and the United States. (Initially, there had been a “Big Five” but a rebuffed Japan withdrew and Italy sporadically played a junior role.)

Their agreements were then distributed as accomplished facts for the other delegates’ ratification and for the signatures, under threat of resumed hostilities, of Germany’s representatives. While the “Big Three” had differing priorities regarding Germany and its co-belligerents, they were joined in their determination to overthrow the Bolshevik regime or to at least halt the revolution’s spread.

The Treaty’s final version included a “war guilt clause” that tagged Germany, alone among the imperial powers, with responsibility for the conflict.

Under threat of a resumption of open hostilities and the continuation of a “starvation blockade” by the British navy, Germany’s representatives signed the “Versailles Dictat” which burdened the nation with impossible reparation payments, loss of territory east and west that left millions of German speakers beyond newly imposed frontiers, French troops on its soil, the drastic reduction of its military, and forfeiture of all its colonial possessions.

In order to approach paying off the onerous reparations (approximately $442 billion in today’s money), the SPD-led Weimar Republic would soon take to printing vast sums of fiat money to finance the purchase of exchangeable hard currency. The result was a disastrous hyperinflation that prolonged popular class hardship and compounded national resentments across the ideological spectrum.

In brief, what British economist John Maynard Keynes, present at Paris, labelled a doomed “Carthaginian peace” created new resentments and grievances that fanned the smoldering coals of ultra-nationalism and eventually, support for Nazism.

Allied Italy also came away from Paris a loser, denied the territories promised it upon joining the Entente cause in 1915. As a result, the perception that the country paid a heavy price in a meaningless war and had come away with a “mutilated victory” (vittoria mutilata) became an important element of ultra-nationalist grievance and fascist propaganda.

Other results included a cobbled-together Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia comprised of diverse ethno-linguistic and confessional groups — a future source of gnawing social and political conflict — an enlarged Romania, a resurrected Poland, Baltic states and Finland, and a greatly diminished Austria and Hungary.

The war’s outcome also energized nationalist demands and often conflicted anti-colonial movements of subject peoples in India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Iraq, the Philippines, China, all across the former Ottoman Empire, Africa, Central Asia and elsewhere.

Imperial Japan, offering to join the Entente in exchange for German territories in China and the Pacific, had entered the war in August 1914. It proceeded to seize German holdings in China and the Pacific, and in 1917 made secret agreements with Britain, France and Italy that promised annexation of those territories at war’s end. But as Japanese imperialism sought to expand on the mainland, it came head up against British, and especially U.S. strategic interests in the Asia/Pacific.

Long aware of the discriminatory treatment and racist exclusion of its citizens in the U.S. and British “white dominions,” and determined to win recognition as an equal among the imperial powers, Tokyo’s Paris representatives not only laid claim to the former German possessions but introduced a motion to include a “racial equality” provision in the Covenant of the League of Nations, then under deliberation.

The proposed stipulation would have granted “…to all alien nationals of states, members of the League, equal and just treatment in every respect making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality.” That would have conceded the major powers’ recognition of Japan as an equal. But Britain and especially the United States, with Woodrow Wilson playing a key role, blocked its passage.

To placate Tokyo, Wilson then voiced support for Japan’s China and Pacific territorial claims which, in turn, were included in the final peace treaty. Nonetheless, the rejection of the racial equality clause subsequently strengthened the hand of the nation’s ultra-nationalists and militarists looking to grab even more of China.

Additionally, word of the Japan concessions set off widespread nationalist and anti-imperialist demonstrations, beginning at Beijing on May 4, 1919. What became the “May Fourth Movement” laid foundations for the coming of Chinese communism and the nation’s 20th century history.

The Paris treaties designated compulsory postwar “exchanges of populations” by states forced millions to move: 1.3 million Greeks repatriated to Greece from Turkey while 400,000 Turks went eastward; 200,000 Bulgarians moved to their “national home,” and upwards of two million Russian nationals escaping the revolution found themselves homeless. (Hobsbawm, 50-51)

The mandated expulsions and displacement of ethnic and national minorities occurred on such a scale that a new term, “stateless people” came into being. “Genocide” would enter the vocabulary to describe that first modern attempt to eliminate an entire population under cover of the war, the Turkish annihilation of perhaps two million Armenians.

Imperialism’s New World Disorder

A major result of the war, the Bolshevik Revolution inspired numerous class insurgencies and anti-colonial struggles worldwide as it simultaneously induced reactionary responses among the defenders of the bourgeois order.

With the defeat of the postwar revolutionary upsurge in Europe, most significantly in Germany but also in Italy, Hungary, Austria and elsewhere in 1918-1920, that first audacious attempt to build a new society from the ruins of the war was forced to go it alone, made to face the immense obstacles inherited from the harsh legacies of uneven and combined backwardness, made worse by the War’s devastation, civil war, encirclement and economic blockade.

Relatedly, the unsuccessful Civil War attempt to overthrow the revolution by force marked the turn by Britain, France and the United States toward differing strategies of containment. Indeed, it was the Bolsheviks’ understanding and perceived necessity to internationalize the Revolution and the imperial powers’ determined hostility and direct intervention against it — long before the outcome of the Second World War — that marked the true beginning of the Cold War. (Morrow, 305)

The United States came out of the war positioned to challenge Britain not only as a center of the global capitalist order but as a leading counterrevolutionary bulwark. Already looking toward an enhanced postwar position, it had entered the conflict not as a formal member of the Entente, but as an autonomous “Associated Power” not bound by pre-existing Allied agreements and free to pursue its own strategic objectives.

On January 8, 1918, Woodrow Wilson outlined his proposed terms for a postwar peace process, his “Fourteen Points,” often lauded as the failed initiative of an idealist liberal statesman hampered later by British and French vindictive priorities at Versailles and by stateside Republican opponents.

That Wilsonian vision called for the removal of all economic barriers,“free trade,” while maintaining U.S. interventionist prerogatives; diplomatic transparency, self-determination for Europe’s national minorities, and a “League of Nations” to mediate international disputes.

This package can best be understood as a liberal counter to Lenin’s November, 1917 “Peace Decree” and an attempt to frame a postwar environment favorable to U.S. interests. Espousing the rhetoric of “self determination” for national minorities and the equality of nations, Wilson at Versailles in essence played various nationalist cards against the Bolsheviks’ class-based appeal.

The creation of a zone of small Eastern European nation-states, a conservative “quarantine belt” against the “Bolshevik bacilli,” did become a shared goal among the often contentious imperialist powers at Paris and indeed a reality after 1920.

But while the major Allied powers agreed with the goal of overturning or isolating the Soviet heresy, the British, and especially the French, in no rush to resuscitate and reintegrate the historic rival and capitalist dynamo at the heart of Europe, remained committed to exacting retribution and blocking future German ambitions.

They remained leery, as well, of war-enhanced U.S. power wrapped in the rhetoric of liberal Wilsonian internationalism.

Towards New Catastrophe

“Free of foreign entanglements,” the United States never ratified the Versailles Treaty nor joined the League of Nations, but signed separate peace treaties with Germany, Austria and Hungary only in 1921. Not part of the reparations regime, it continued to do business with Germany, and it was American short-term loans and private capital investment that assisted the Weimar’s economic recovery in the mid-1920s.

That returned economic stability allowed the country to meet reduced reparations payments owed Britain and France, which then used the funds to pay down their war debts to the United States — a circular system that worked well until the crash of 1929. (Morrow, 293)

The ascent to superpower hegemony and “American Century” aspirations would have to wait until after 1945. But under the rhetorical haze of “self determination for oppressed peoples” and a “liberal internationalist” right to intervene anywhere, U.S. policy became the determined opponent of independent nationalist and anti-colonial efforts, and all movements even remotely tainted by the communist virus, whether in reality or in the imaginings of Washington and Wall Street.

The two interwar decades, largely due to the conflict’s outcomes, were marred by incessant instability. They witnessed horrific civil wars, bitter class conflict, the international capitalist crisis that was the Great Depression, the Soviet turn toward the building of “socialism in one country,” and fascism’s reactionary assault upon both socialism and liberal democracy.

Years filled with crises, they witnessed the reemergence of imperialist rivalry and aggression as competing powers, the First War’s emboldened winners and aggrieved losers alike, readied and rehearsed for what amounted to the next round of what has been called the “Second Thirty Years’ War” of 1914-45.

Among the contenders, were a revived expansionist Germany and Italy, and the United States and Japan. The latter had both come out of the First War already situated to challenge Britain, which would never be the same afterwards, for leadership of the capitalist order. The past became prelude.

Selected Readings

The historiography on the World War and its aftermath is massive, of course. Below are several titles, older and more recent, that contain valuable insights.

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes — A History of the World, 1914-1991 (Pantheon/Random, 1995)

Gabriel Kolko, Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 (New Press, 1994)

Mark Mazower, The Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century (Random/Vintage 1998/2000)

Arno Mayer, The Politics and Diplomacy of Peace­making — Containment and Counterrevolution at Versailles, 1918-1919 (Knopf, 1967)

John H. Morrow, Jr., The Great War — An Imperial History (Routledge, 2004)

Adam Tooze, The Deluge — The Great War, America, and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 (Penguin, 2014)

Enzo Traverso, Fire and Blood —The European Civil War, 1914-1945 (Verso, 2016)

November-December 2018, ATC 197