World War 1 – Introduction

In 1914, World War One broke out. This was not a ‘Great War’; it was a conflict between rival imperialisms, and despite the fact that all participating governments appealed to patriotic sentiment, there was significant opposition to it, particularly in Russia. The war was fought initially between two power blocks; the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy) and the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia). These alliances were not stable. Turkey joined the Triple Alliance in October 1914, Italy changed sides in April 1915 and the USA declared war on Germany in 1917.

There have been unending debates among historians about the cause(s) of the war citing such issues as the 30-year Balkan crisis, the alliance system itself, massive investments in armaments (including the ‘Dreadnought’ submarine race) and most importantly rival imperialisms. By 1914 the world had been divided up by the richest powers, with Britain, France and Germany having grabbed the lion’s share. Any dissatisfaction about the apportionment of the world and its resources among the Great Powers (Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia) could only be settled by re-division: inevitably this meant war. Whichever side won would be able to re-divide the world in their favour as was clearly shown in the series of treaties ending the war which addressed the dismemberment of the vanquished Ottoman, German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. This drive for territory helps to explain the lack of war aims, the shifting alliances and the secret treaties extant during WW1.

War disrupts society. World War One was no exception, but far from disrupting the existing trends within the labour movement it had the effect of stimulating them. The pre-war militancy of sections of the working class, women’s and labour movements in many European countries continued unabated, whilst the exigencies of war gave some labour leaders the chance to become fully enmeshed within the state apparatus. The gulf between the two widened to such an extent that it was difficult for both to co-exist within the same organisations, and hence there was a split in many European Social Democratic parties on the issue of support versus opposition to the war.

This division was not reflected in the stance of the Second (Socialist) International (1889-1916) which failed to live up to its earlier anti-war declarations. The resolutions of the Second International, in condemning colonialism (1907 Stuttgart Congress) and calling for workers to oppose war (1910 Copenhagen Congress), were promptly forgotten in the rush to arms. In consequence, the International itself collapsed during WW1.

However, divisions over the issue of the war were especially marked in many individual countries whose labour movements had affiliated to the Second International. This was particularly the case in Russia where it was a significant factor in accounting for the success of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. The war also divided the labour movement, the women’s movement and socialist parties in Germany and Britain. In Britain, the ‘unofficial’ opposition, reflecting the chasm between the leaders and the led, generated its own structures in the form of the Shop Stewards and Workers’ Committees Movement. Although no longer unofficial, the shop stewards of today can trace their origins to this wartime period during which rank and file workers kept effective trade unionism alive in the face of their leaders’ surrender.

Thus, World War 1 with its devastating number of casualties polarised opinion to such an extent that it led to revolutions in three countries and uprisings in many others. After four years of bitter battles on the eastern and western fronts, the total number of military and civilian casualties was more than 38 million. It is estimated that there were over 18 million deaths and 20 million wounded, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.