February 25, 2020

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European elite spurred First World War to quell dissent, scholar argues

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/9/2016 (1263 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Ever since the assassination in 1914 of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, the Archduchess Sophie, historians have tried to explain how it led to a catastrophic worldwide war.

Before 1914, Europe’s great powers had settled a series of dangerous international crises. Did the assassination crisis somehow escape their control so that, in the words of then-British prime minister Lloyd George, they simply "slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without any trace of apprehension or dismay?"

Or were some deeper forces at play? Some historians fault the rigidities of the European alliance system and its accompanying arms race. Vladimir Lenin said that war was an inevitable product of capitalist imperialism. Others pointed to the upsurge of nationalism, especially but not only in eastern and central Europe. H.G. Wells blamed history teachers for implanting in students’ minds in all countries the bellicose patriotism that made war possible, and perhaps even inevitable.

In his book The Great Class War: 1914-1918, Brantford, Ont.-based independent scholar Jacques Pauwels offers a different explanation.

Building on the work of the historian Arno Mayer and others, Pauwels argues the First World War was not simply a war between states, it was also a war between social classes. It was "wanted and unleashed by a European elite" of aristocrats and capitalists who saw in war a means to reverse the growing democratization of society that threatened their position and power.

The elites expected the demands of war would instil in the working class the discipline, sense of tradition and respect for authority they saw as so obviously lacking, as the pre-1914 wave of strikes and of socialist and feminist agitation demonstrated.

In addition, radical and socialist calls for social and political reform would be buried in a new mood of national solidarity and militant patriotism. As Pauwels puts it, war would be "a prophylaxis against social revolution."

In making his case, Pauwels sets the Great War in the context of what historians call the long 19th century, beginning with the French Revolution of 1789 which, with its watchwords of liberty, equality and fraternity, helped inspire reformers and revolutionaries alike.

At the same time, Pauwels acknowledges that at the beginning of the war most people enthusiastically supported their country’s war effort. However, he also points out this enthusiasm had its limits. In 1917, Russia was engulfed in revolution. A French army mutinied. On all sides a certain war weariness set in and the conflict lost its glamour.

Consistent with his argument that the war was fought not only between countries, but also between the working class and its social superiors, Pauwels gives us a picture of the event as experienced by those who actually did the fighting and worked in the war industries.

His account of the war as a struggle between classes is clearly argued, but he might have strengthened his case by paying more attention to the interpretations of those who see things differently. To take only one example, British historian Ruth Henig has argued that "domestic considerations were as likely to act as a brake on an aggressive foreign policy as to have provoked one."

Exactly how, even assuming the elites were as unified in their thinking as Pauwels suggests, did their fears and hopes shape any specific decision of Europe’s political leaders as they struggled with the deepening crisis they faced in July 1914 and, in some cases, sought to use to their advantage?

Nonetheless, Pauwels has given us a thought-provoking account of the Great War that casts it in a different light from that presented in most standard histories of the subject.

Ken Osborne is an emeritus professor at the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba. Many years ago he taught Grade 12 students about the First World War at Daniel McIntyre Collegiate.

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