There are a lot of issues that are debatable about the First World War. There is one fact, though, that ought to be beyond debate, and which ought to be acknowledged on all sides in the national conversation during this centenary year.Reasonable people can differ, for example, on how important imperial rivalry was in causing the war. What all reasonable people should agree on, however, is that if, by some miracle, the major European powers had managed to stabilise their relationships and stave off what we call ‘the world war’, that would not have brought world peace.
If Germany and Britain had reached an agreement on the relative strengths of their naval forces and the scope for growth of the new German empire; if avaricious European nations had agreed on how to divide up the Ottoman empire between them (the burning question in the Balkans, for example); if the great powers had come to an amicable agreement on how to carve up the rest of the world (for example, Russia and Britain on Central Asia): this would have deferred war in Europe, but it would not have ended the ceaseless violence against Europe’s colonies.
There is one very simple question missing from the debates about the war. Why do we call this a ‘world war’? Why was it not a ‘European war’?
The conventional picture (in Britain) of the First World War focuses exclusively on the long years of trench warfare in Belgium and northern France. Even the eastern front, whose death toll exceeded one million people, and may have been three-quarters of that on the western front, is now only dimly remembered as the background to the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Mobilising empires for war
There are three reasons we call this a world war. The First World War involved the rallying of financial and economic resources – and people – all around the world. It involved fighting men drawn from all around the world. It also involved fighting all around the world.
In other words, the most obvious fact about the First World War is that it involved the global mobilisation of imperial resources by the empires of the day. (See accompanying article for some more details.)
Considering just the narrowly-defined financial contribution of the British colonies to the war (£48m in gifts and loans), Marika Sherwood of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies posed the question: ‘One could ask: without the colonial contributions, could the Allies have won the war?’
The First World War was, in simple descriptive terms, an imperial war. It was also, in simple descriptive terms, an imperialist war, in the sense that the major European powers seized whatever opportunities they could to acquire colonial possessions or dependencies during the war.
It is no accident that the French and British empires reached their greatest size after the First World War, after taking territory from Germany and from the Ottoman empire during the war. In 1922, Britain controlled almost a quarter of the world’s territory, and a fifth of the world’s population (458 million people). The French empire was about a third of size geographically and commanded a quarter of the people.
A colony is a war
The Roman historian Tacitus wrote: ‘To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, this they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace’. Winston Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, was candid on the subject in a secret memo in January 1914:
‘[W]e are not a young people with an innocent record and a scanty inheritance…. We have got all we want in territory, and our claim to be left in the unmolested enjoyment of vast and splendid possessions, mainly acquired by violence, largely maintained by force, often seems less reasonable to others than to us.’
Colonialism inevitably involves both direct and structural violence.
Two of the innovations that contributed most to the industrial slaughter of the First World War – barbed wire and the machine gun – were both used first to maintain control in colonial situations.
Soon after being perfected in the US in 1874, barbed wire was soon used to stop Native Americans roaming the Great Plains, and then to imprison Native American peoples in reservations after they had been uprooted from their own lands. ‘The devil’s rope’ was then used in other colonial projects. Barbed wire was critical, for example, to the construction of the first concentration camps by Spain (in Cuba in 1896) and Britain (in South Africa in 1900).
The machine gun was equally important to late-nineteenth-century colonialism. The Gatling gun was used extensively by the British in Africa. Its successor, invented by Hiram Maxim in 1884, was less prone to jamming, and has been described by historian Martin Gilbert as ‘the weapon most associated with [British] imperial conquest’. ‘Whatever happens we have got / The Maxim Gun, and they have not,’ as Hilaire Belloc wrote in his satire on empire, ‘The Modern Traveller’.
The whole point of an empire is the exploitation of human, agricultural and other resources within the colonies for the benefit of the imperial nation and its citizens. This inevitably leads to structural violence, which arises from institutional arrangements without an obvious agent inflicting harm.
The most glaring form of imperial structural violence during the pre-1914 period was famine.
While famine had been a regular feature of Indian life before the British government took power over India officially in 1858, famines after 1858 were quite different in number and quality. This was partly due to the commercialisation of Indian agriculture, the use of railways and roads to draw remote areas into a national marketplace, the imperial commitment to export foodstuffs, and considerable British interference in rural Indian society, including heavy taxation.
In general, historian Richard Sheldon suggests, the disruption of indigenous social and economic structures increased the ‘frequency, scale and magnitude’ of famines in India. In 1866-67, the Orissa famine caused 800,000 deaths. The following two years saw another 400,000 famine deaths in Rajasthan, central India and the northern Deccan. The national famines of 1896-97 and 1899-1900 caused a total of 10 million Indian famine deaths. In total, Sheldon remarks, ‘between 30 and 40 million persons died in the wake of famine in the half-century following Britain’s final military conquest of the India subcontinent in 1857’.
While the worst famines in Indian history were taking place, annual grain exports from India increased from three to 10 million tons, equivalent to the annual nutrition of 25m people, during the period 1875-1900, author Mike Davis notes in his book Late Victorian Holocausts. By 1900, India was supplying nearly a fifth of Britain’s wheat consumption – while famine was raging in India itself.
The intensification of famine was the most obvious aspect of a process of subordination and exploitation that, for example, turned India from the world’s leading exporter of cotton textiles into an importer of Lancashire textiles.
Genocide in the Congo
British mythology has it that Britain went to war to protect ‘plucky little Belgium’. Putting aside what we now know about British war aims, it is important to remember that during the period 1884-1908, Belgian rule caused the deaths of about half the population of the ‘Congo Free State’ (according to a careful assessment by Adam Hochschild in King Leopold’s Ghost).
In other words, Belgian rule reduced the population of the Congo by around 10 million through murder, starvation, brutal working conditions, disease, and plummeting birth rates. All to amass rubber and ivory wealth for plucky king Leopold II and the plucky Belgian state.
This story illustrates a larger truth: that there was a world war – waged by European colonialism – long before 1914.
This is the kind of ‘peace’ that would have been preserved if Germany had not invaded Belgium and the European powers had reached an agreement on how to rob and steal from the rest of the world.
To put matters simply, a truce between gangsters is not peace.
The fact that these simple truths are not the starting point for current discussions of the First World War points to the continuing hold of a deeply imperialist mindset. Not only in right-wing circles.