WWI: An Imperialist War

Commemorations of WWI have already begun in the West. Over ten million died in battle and another twenty million, soldiers and civilians alike, died from hunger and disease. In “War is the Health of the State“, an excerpt from his book, A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn wrote: “No one since [1914]…has been able to show that the war brought any gain for humanity.” It is important, therefore, to set the record straight and demonstrate that WWI was an imperialist war.

There were a number of motives for this war, one being a determination of the ruling elite. This is not surprising because it was a war that occurred after a “midst of exultation…about progress and moderation,” among Western elites at the beginning of the 20th century.1 As British military historian John Keegan wrote, “in a continent in which a handful of powers exercised control over a large cluster of subordinate peoples…it was inevitable that relations between all should be infused with suspicion and rivalry.”2 After all, secret plans by European powers previous to 1914 showed that a war could even be sparked by a tiny dispute. The European “advanced capitalist countries…were fighting over boundaries, colonies, spheres of influence, [and] they were competing for Alsace-Lorraine, the Balkans, Africa, [and] the Middle East.”3 The drive for world domination was because imperialism had transformed from being about colonies into “a total system…whose logic was total militarisation and total war, regardless of the social dislocation this caused” and the massive negative effects “on the working class, the traditional petty bourgeoisie, and the peasantry.”4 According to Keegan, there was another motive. He wrote that by the beginning of the 20th century, “bankers had recovered their confidence [and] gold-based capital was circulating freely and a return on overseas investment…form[ed] a significant amount of private and corporate incomes to Britain, France, Germany, Holland, and Belgium.”5 Chris Harman confirms this view, stating that while “individual capitalists looked to expand their capital through economic competition,” groups of capitalists who were “tied together by national states” wanted to “expand their capital through military competition and warfare.”6 Despite all of this, Britain, France, Germany, and Austria-Hungary feared failing in war more than war itself, since each European power “felt its position threatened in some way” by every other power.7 This perception of threats from other European states was simply because European policy was guided by “the age-old quest for security in military superiority” rather than a “search for a secure means of averting conflict.”8

In August 1914, this brutal war had begun. It was a “trench war,” unlike any previous to it, and it was made even worse by the fact that European military theorists had discounted trenches before the war, thinking their soldiers could easily advance to the ranks of the enemy. To make matter worse, military plans were secret from the civilian leadership, and no policy at the time mirrored modern national security policy. Additionally, communications, such as the telephone, failed those in the trenches, and European powers engaged in warfare, according to Keegan, “as if on a dead march and dialogue to the deaf, to the destruction of their continent and their civilization.”9 There was an ugly side to this war, as with every war. It was the first war where “deaths by enemy action exceeded those caused by disease” on the battlefield.10 Examples of such brutality include the alleged “widespread atrocities” by the German army when they advanced into Belgium in 1914, the first use of tanks in warfare, and the use of poison gas, which was first used by the French and soon followed by Germany, England and so on, becoming the weapon of choice in many cases but also arousing “a peculiar horror among all combatants.”11 All the while there was “extreme dislocation in society,” the stilling of class struggle, the flourishing of governments, and the booming of patriotism.  There was also a drive to snatch colonies from other imperial powers with Britain and France seeking to attack Germany’s African colonies while Japan did the same in the Pacific.” 12

The war hit hard at home. There were “acute labor shortages” and a severe shortage of supplies at the beginning of the war, causing the governments of Britain, France and Germany to put production “under ministerial control.” This meant that in countries such as Britain and Germany, there was an increasing integration of “monopolised industry and the state,” because “success” in war, for the generals and politicians, depended on the state “taking control of much of the economy.”13 Such integration of industry and the state during WWI is directly related to a question the vice-president of the libertarian-minded Future of Freedom Foundation, Sheldon Richman, asked in a recent article: “Could the men responsible for the war have wrought anything like the horrors they inflicted had they not controlled a state apparatus — an army, a navy, a compulsory revenue-collection agency, and a bureaucracy to conscript (enslave) the nation’s young males?” This question is also relevant today, with the advent of the military-industrial-complex and the permanent war economy in the United States.

Propaganda started on a massive scale in WWI and it has been used in every war since. Governments, as professor John Maxwell Hamilton writes in a recent Washington Post op-ed, worked to “persuade their citizens to serve in the military, or if they stayed home, to conserve their precious resources, pay higher taxes, pay war bonds,” and stick with the war even as the death toll increased. This government propaganda was made possible because of a new industry: advertising. In the early 20th century, the advertising industry had become “enormous and influential” and its members, ranging from artists to copyrighters, “applied their talents to war propaganda from the outset” and when the war intensified and enthusiasm flagged, they even molded their propaganda in order to vilify “the enemy.”14 In this environment, social change would not be expected, but there were obvious changes from the beginning of the war in 1914 to the Armistice in 1918. As women took uniformed positions in the military, in the UK and the US, the push for a women’s right to vote intensified, and was eventually successful, but for other women, the war did little to improve their lives since millions became unmarried or widows, making the war “a women’s tragedy.”15

For the U.S., like the European powers, there were economic and imperialistic motives at play. As robber-baron J.P. Morgan later testified, “the war opened during a period of hard time,” by which he possibly meant a time that his business wasn’t making enough profit to satisfy him.16 The U.S. was deeply tied to the war even before 1917. It “had been shipping great amounts of war materials to Germany’s enemies,” which is why it is logical that Germany would doubt American neutrality.  President Woodrow Wilson and top administration officials, like William Jennings Bryan, wanted new “foreign markets” and more specifically the opening of markets in “weaker” foreign countries. A new foreign market came with the advent of war. England had become “a market for American goods and for loans at interest” and when Wilson lifted “the ban on private bank loans to the Allies,” J.P. Morgan could begin lending money, which was not only profitable for him, but, it tied “American finance closely to the interest of a British victory in the war against Germany.”17 Such loans began the U.S.’s undeclared war on Germany, which ended when the U.S. Congress declared war in 1917. Howard Zinn argued that the American entrance into the war was also because of something more fundamental: that capitalism in America “needed international rivalry—and periodic war—to create an artificial community of interest between the rich and poor, supplanting a genuine community of interest among the poor,” that showed itself during social movements, and in 1917, “this demanded a national consensus for war.”18

The population had to be brought into this “national consensus.” Mirroring the European propaganda effort, the Committee of Public Information (CPI) “was a catalyst for opinion molding,” and is a lesson about government morphing information to exclude what is inconvenient for the objectives of said leaders, as argued by professor John Maxwell Hamilton (cited earlier in this article) to change public opinion. The CPI was created to spread propaganda in favor of the war effort and wash away the peace-loving, anti-interventionist feelings of the American public. At the same time, three laws were passed in an effort to outlaw dissent: the Espionage Act, the Conscription Act, and the Sedition Act (the last two have since been repealed). Through the massive propaganda campaign, the population was convinced to support the war, even though there was a vocal and noble opposition, meaning that the goal of cementing American status as a world power could continue to move forward.

For the US, like in every other country that participated in the war, a few profited while the majority were swindled. The wealthy took “direct control of the economy” and dominated wartime government agencies. In 1934, the Nye Committee, also called the Senate Munitions Committee, investigated reports that weapons manufacturers had “unduly influenced the American decision to enter the war in 1917” since these same manufacturers “had reaped enormous profits” at the cost of 53,000 dead American soldiers, but they did not find any evidence of an “active conspiracy among arms markers.” Despite this, others did find such a conspiracy. A 1934 book entitled Merchants of Death, which warned about the dangers of the “war system”, was co-authored by F.C. Hanighen, one of the founders of the conservative news site, Human Events, and American author, H.C. Engelbrecht, arrived at conclusions that the Nye Committee did not. Their book not only said that “war appears as the greatest and most important activity of government” and that huge profits were earned by the arms manufacturers, calling out companies such as DuPont, but that the arms merchants were “a group of unscruptulous villians who [were]…using every device to profit from human suffering and death…a well-organized, ruthless conspiracy to block world peace and to promote war.”

In the aftermath of a war, which had been profitable for a few and harmful to many, there was a growing chorus of opposition to war itself. The Allied powers, and American capital backing them, “won” the war, but such a “victory” was only beneficial to those who profited and the elites in advanced capitalist countries, but it rang hollow for the disempowered, the working class, and everyone else who was suffering. For example, as the war progressed, the Germans asked the Allies for peace but with conditions: they had to control “Belgium’s industrial economy” and incorporate the “French coal or iron basin of Languvy-Briey within the wider German industrial area.”19 Not surprisingly, the Allied powers did not agree with those terms. The provisional government of Russia, despite its determination to continue the devastating war, was correct when it called WWI imperialist and monstrous. The Bolshevik government, which followed the provisional government, prevented further bloodshed in Europe by giving land over to the Germans, ending their advance into Russia, which Vladmir Lenin described as Russia voting “for peace with their feet.”20

Newspaper editor William Allen White, in November 1933, said it best about WWI: “Ten million men were killed and many more maimed, fifty billion dollars worth of property destroyed, the whole world saddled with debts…and for what?…no one knows…war is the devil’s joke on humanity.”21 These words should be remembered as should the horrible and unnecessary nature of WWI, and all wars, in hopes that it can convince people to struggle for peace, rather than for death or destruction.

  1. Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to present (5th edition, New York: HarperCollins, 2003. 360. Print). []
  2. Keegan, John. An Illustrated History of the First World War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. 8. Print). []
  3. Zinn, 254. []
  4. Harman, Chris. A People’s History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millenium (London: Verso, 2008. 409. Print). []
  5. Keegan, 3 []
  6. Harman, 409 []
  7. Keegan, 8 []
  8. Ibid, 10 []
  9. Ibid, 17 48 []
  10. Ibid, 32 []
  11. Ibid, 74, 176, 203 []
  12. Zinn, 359; Harman, 408 []
  13. Harman, 408-9 []
  14. Keegan, 26 []
  15. Ibid,134 []
  16. Zinn, 362 []
  17. Ibid, 363 []
  18. Zinn, 303-4 []
  19. Keegan, 353 []
  20. Ibid, 317 []
  21. Wittner, Lawrence. Rebels Against War: The American Peace Movement, 1941-1960 (New York: Columbia University, 1969. 3. Print). []

Burkely Hermann is an activist who wants to change the world for the better by imagining alternatives to the status quo of neoliberal global capitalism. In order to illuminate these alternatives and outline the status quo, he runs numerous online blogs, writes numerous articles, and uses his tech savvy skills to fight for social justice. Read other articles by Burkely.