Reassesing the First World War Part 3

Reassesing the First World War Part 3

Where some months ago we postulated that while for some, the Munich Agreement signaled the beginning of the Second World War, challenging this standard road to war, however, one has to go back to the contentious issue of war guilt, which became divisive and passionately debated as soon as the war had broken out, it was the “stab in the back” (that Germany didn’t lose the First World War) myth hence the Germans who had signed the Armistice on 11 November 1918 were stipulated as “November criminals.” Most historians agree the stab-in-the-back legend contributed to the rise of National Socialism. To this one can add that this belief led to Hitler’s push for rearmament and the revision of Germany’s borders parallel with the Manchurian Incident, a situation aggravated by the empire’s invasion of China in 1937 and then brought to a breaking point in 1941 when Ribbentrop, told Japanese ambassador Hiroshi Oshima, Germany, of course, would join the war immediately. There is absolutely no possibility of Germany’s entering into a separate peace with the United States under such circumstances. The Führer is determined on that point. The Japanese did not tell the Germans that the Combined Fleet had already been put to sea. Whereby Berlin had, in effect, issued Tokyo with a blank check, which it could cash at a moment of its own choosing.In early December German forces stood close to Moscow, and it seemed the Soviet capital would soon fall. Japan was at war in China but retained diplomatic relations with other world powers. On Dec. 11, in a speech before Germany’s Reichstag, Hitler announced his declaration of war on the United States. Hitler was well aware of American power, indeed obsessed by it. He was also sure that the United States would enter the war against him sooner or later. He thought the only solution was pre-emptive. Hitler may have believed that the Japanese who attacked Pearl Harbor would distract America long enough for him to reach his goal, and so he wanted to encourage Tokyo by adding his support.

There is no doubt that particularly 1917 was ‘climacteric’ when the Russian revolutions erupted and reconfigured global politics and power relations.1 During 1917, the war truly became a ‘total global tragedy’, which unraveled the social and political fabric of many belligerent and neutral communities. Over the succeeding months of total war, four major powers disintegrated into revolution and civil war – Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Germany. The others – Britain, France, Japan, China, and the United States – faced serious social and political crises from within. In the words of Michael Neiberg, these crises mark the year 1917 as the ‘starting point of the wars that would shape the rest of the twentieth century and beyond.2

In the context of the many revolutions and protests ‘from below’ that developed across the world in 1917, it is highly significant that China witnessed the collapse of its central government, the growth of civil unrest, and a return to ‘warlordism’ as numerous regional leaders took charge of their own regions.

Sun Yat-Sen, the politician and political philosopher who had been instrumental in advancing a Chinese-centric government movement in the pre-war years, even accepted German money to set up a rival central government late in 1917. Founded on the ‘Three Principles of the People’, which Sun Yat-Sen had first published in 1907, this new government proclaimed that only by advancing the principles of Mínzú (‘independence’ from foreign domination), Mínquán (‘rights of the people to political representation) and Mínshēng (‘people’s livelihood’ or rights to social welfare) could China move effectively into the future.3

The ‘Three Principles of the People’ were originally formulated as slogans for Sun’s revolutionary student group, the United League, one of the chief forces behind the 1911 Republican Revolution, which ended the Qing dynasty rule of China. After the failure of this revolution to establish democracy in China, Sun formed a new party, the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), utilizing his principles as a fundamental doctrine. In 1922 the Nationalists formed an alliance with the Chinese Communist Party. Beginning the following winter, Sun, in response to communist demands for a more formal party ideology, gave a series of lectures in which he sharpened and defined his three principles.

For the Japanese, the troubling element of the Russian revolutions was their impact on Japanese-controlled Korea and China, where the Bolsheviks’ support for the anti-imperial revolution helped to bolster protest actions against the Japanese. Chinese laborers returning from Russia brought revolutionary thoughts and structures with them, as did the 4,000 Korean ex-pats who fought for the Russian armies and returned home in 1917 and 1918. Altogether, the Russian revolutions inspired the Japanese government to entrench its conservatism and heighten its own imperial ambitions. It used the context of the collapse of the Russian empire to extend its control over Manchuria and the East Asian mainland and suppressed rising anti-imperial resistance movements in Korea and China.4 As Tatiana Linkhoeva argues, it was not the American President Wilson’s support for global self-determination that worried the Japanese in the wake of 1917, but rather Lenin’s powerful anti-imperial example.5

Whereby in Russia, today diplomats and graduates of the Foreign Intelligence Academy of the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) are thought that the Cold War started in 1917 and more particularly following a coup orchestrated by the US and the UK to topple the Lenin regime and kill Lenin. This idea was started by Secretary of State Lansing when he told President Wilson on 10 Dec. 1917 that the only hope for Russia lay in setting up a “military dictatorship.” Lansing’s idea was to choose one man and make him the boss of Russia on the side of America and the Allies. And in turn, David R. Francis, the American ambassador to Russia, asked Washington for 100,000 troops to take Petrograd and Moscow to support the coup against Lenin.

The United States’ shift from neutrality to belligerency in 1917 also fundamentally impacted how American internationalist groups reconceptualized their activism. 

The ‘Wilsonian moment’s emotive power,’ much like the emotional power of the Russian revolutions, its importance lay first and foremost in opening up space for anti-imperial ideas to be openly acknowledged as legitimate by the very governments that equally quickly and violently suppressed anti-imperial activism when it endangered the integrity of their empires.

The Balkan state of Greece was equally confronted by the global developments of Greece’s position in the war was complicated from the moment the Ottoman empire went to war in November 1914. From this point on, Greece’s political elite split themselves in two: some supporting the pro-Allied and anti-Ottoman agenda of the government, the other in favor of the pro-independence neutrality stance of the country’s pro-German monarch. Without agreeing to join the war as a belligerent, Greece’s government nevertheless allowed the Allies to establish a military front in and around the port of Thessaloniki (Salonika) in 1915. From this point on, Greece became embroiled in a de facto civil war of words, pitting monarchists against pro-government supporters. After various domestic crises, including an armed siege of Athens by a royalist paramilitary organization, the Allies blockaded southern Greece late in 1916, while the Venizelos government established a separate state in northern Greece. In the wake of widespread starvation across southern Greece in the winter of 1916–17, almost certainly due to the blockade, Constantine I abdicated in June 1917. His son, Alexander I, agreed to let his newly reunified country join the war against the Central Powers. In bringing his supporters together to support the country’s newfound belligerency, Constantine I explained that Greece only stood to gain from the deal.

While Greece’s formal turn to belligerency in 1917 masked a deeply strained political environment (and one that would see Greece tumble in and out of political crises, civil warfare, and coups for decades), it was sold to the Greek people as a way to ‘win’ in a war that cost so many so much. Much like the Liberian government, the Greek political elite felt compelled to embrace the internationalist principles of Wilson’s peace plan in order to safeguard the country’s long-term security. Almost by necessity, and in aid of future ambition, neutrality fell by the wayside.

From the vantage point of November 1918, it was pretty clear that the First World War had opened Pandora’s box.6 Its many transformations unmoored the principles of global and imperial governance that had enabled the world’s industrial great powers to thrive in the nineteenth century. All too ironically, these same great powers were responsible for the destruction they unleashed on the world. They collectively failed to prevent the war from breaking out in 1914, and their wartime policies enabled its evolution from a manageable inter-state conflict into an unrelenting monolith of total global violence. In the process, these same powers also helped to unbind the inherent inequalities embedded in the nineteenth-century world. These inequalities were more visible and globally connected in the war’s aftermath than ever before. They were now also infused with the grief and anger that the violence of the war had unleashed on the world. Sadly, many of these unbounded issues continue to plague the world today, be it in the experience of racial inequality, capitalist exploitation, the exercise of national and state prerogatives over the humanitarian need, or even in coordinating communities and governments to deal with a global pandemic so that as few people as possible die. The total global tragedy that evolved between 1914 and 1918 created an international environment of unsettledness that reverberates to our present. As such, the First World War is not ancient history but very much part of our collective living past.7

But by early 1917, the Chinese government was fearful that even these pro-Allied contributions would not protect its position in a post-war negotiation, especially if Japan demanded that the other Allied victors recognized its wartime gains in Tsingtao Manchuria and Siberia.8 Neutrality was no longer a guarantee of China’s international security and might endanger its post-war status. As a result, Germany’s resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare in February offered the Chinese government an opportunity to legitimately join the war on the Allies’ side and demand a seat at a post-war peace conference.9 Thus, when a U-boat sank the French passenger ship Athos, killing more than 540 Chinese men on their way to Europe as military laborers, China suspended its diplomatic relationship with Germany. From 14 March 1917 on, China was no longer formally neutral but a benevolent non-belligerent.10 On 14 August, it declared war.11

As early as March 1917, China’s government doubled its efforts to entice its subjects to volunteer for military labor service in Europe, built ships for the Allies, and flew military airplanes for France.12 It even toyed with sending a full-fledged expeditionary force to Europe.13

In the face of the collapse of his country and the imminent defeat of his armed forces, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated. A cobbled-together political agreement brought the German Republic on 9 November 1918. On 11 November, Germany’s new leaders signed an armistice agreement with the Allies. Europe’s Great War had ended.14

According to the above “stab in the back” myth, so many supporters of the Fatherland Party and other nationalist groups believed Germany was not defeated on the western front. As the main propagator of the ‘stab in the back’ (Dolchstoß) myth, the former Commander-in-Chief General Ludendorff proclaimed that Germany was defeated by an alliance of internal enemies, whom he counted socialists, communists, Jews, and all foreigners.15 For Germany to reclaim its honor and former glory and status, these ‘Others’ would need to be defeated first.

After a massive communist-inspired workers’ strike broke out across Germany in January 1919, which the Weimar government only managed to suppress by asking the Freikorps for assistance, both Rosa  Luxemburg and her KPD co-leader Karl Liebknecht were kidnapped, violently beaten, and then murdered at the Freikorps’ headquarters in Berlin. The Social Democratic newspaper Vorwärts proclaimed that Liebknecht and Luxemburg’ were the victims of a civil war they instigated.16 The newspaper’s rhetoric underlined how easily the use of extra-legal and paramilitary violence, even murder, was legitimated in the wake of the war and in aid of stabilizing Germany’s republic. The report also highlighted how easily groups and individuals could continue to demonize each other as ‘enemies of the state.’ The Spartacist uprising of January 1919 sparked a spate of political murders, including of some of Weimar’s leading politicians like Matthias Erzberger and Walter Rathenau.

Meanwhile, the Allied governments could barely agree on their priorities, let alone on conceding rights and privileges to external parties or their former enemies. On the one hand, the peace process was publicly infused with the enthusiasm and expectation of President Wilson’s fourteen points of peace, particularly his assertions of the rights of ethnic communities to self-determination.17 On the other, the text of the peace agreements gave very little credence to Wilsonian idealism, non-European groups’ claims to statehood, or even to the promise given to Germany in November 1918 that its peace treaty would be one ‘without victors or vanquished.’ In part, the negotiators in Paris could not do justice to all the competing claims in play. After all, their populations demanded that the enemy be ‘made to pay for the suffering they had endured during the war and in part because their agendas were oppositional.18 In the end, the victors’ demands came first. The Allies claimed enormous sums of money from their former enemies as reparations. They reclaimed land, reimposed their imperial power, and asserted administrative control over former German and Ottoman territories and people through an international ‘mandate’ system supervised by the League of Nations. They also looked to re-establish economic dominance over the seas and highways of global trade. Unsurprisingly, the peace treaties left few fully satisfied.

At another level, while the League opened up opportunities for a range of new countries and communities to take a whole part in international relations, including the former British dominions, it largely failed to satisfy the demands of most colonized peoples to take part on equal terms. As such, the League was criticized for the grave inequities it continued to allow, the imperialism it continued to facilitate, and the normative assumptions about western exceptionalism (and western capitalism) it continued to justify. Tan Malaka, the young Indonesian student, expressed his version of these contradictions.

Tan Malaka suggested the Dutch author might be better served learning about colonialism and imperialism. Furthermore, he might also like to reconsider the implications of his wish that the subject community becomes as greedy, nationalistic, and violent as their colonial rulers already proved to be.19

1. Jay Winter, ‘War and Anxiety in 1917’ in Maartje Abbenhuis, Neill Atkinson, Kingsley Baird, Gail Romano, eds, The Myriad Legacies of 1917: A Year of War and Revolution Palgrave, 2018, p. 15. 

2.  Michael Neiberg, ‘1917: Global War’ in Winter, ed., Cambridge History Volume 1, p. 130.   

3. Yen Ching Hwang, The Overseas Chinese, and the 1911 Revolution, with Special Reference to Singapore and Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Oxford University Press, 1976, pp. 115-24, 283; Edward S. Krebs, Shifu: Soul of Chinese Anarchism, Lanham, MD, Rowman & Littlefield, 1998, pp. 65-6, 75; Yin Cao, ‘Bombs in Beijing and Delhi: The Global Spread of Bomb-Making Technology and the Revolutionary Terrorism in Modern China and India’, Journal of World History, 30/4 (2019), pp. 559-89.)

4. Linkhoeva, ‘Russian Revolution’ pp. 264-6; John H. Morrow, ‘Imperial Framework’ in Winter, ed., Cambridge History Volume 1, p. 427. 

5. Linkhoeva, ‘Russian Revolution’ pp. 270-1.

6. Cf Leonhard, Pandora’s Box.

7. Cf Akira Iriye, ‘The Historiographic Impact of the Great War’ in T.W. Zeiler, D.K. Ekbladh, B.C. Montoya, eds, Beyond 1917: The United States and the Global Legacies of the Great War Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 34.

8. Stephen G. Craft, ‘Angling for an Invitation to Paris: China’s Entry into the First World War’ International History Review 16, 1, 1994, p. 16. 

9. Craft, ‘Angling’ p. 16.

10.  Craft, ‘Angling’ p. 15.

11. Jonathan Clements, ‘Labourers in Place of Soldiers’ in Sharp, ed., Sarajevo p. 240.

12. As quoted in Xu Guoqi, ‘Great War’ p. 119.

13. Xu Guoqi, Asia and the Great War: A Shared History, 2016, p. 124.

14. For a useful history: Stevenson, Backs pp. 514-28.

15. For more: George Vascik, Mark Sadler, The Stab-in-the-Back Myth and the Fall of the Weimar Republic Bloomsbury, 2016, pp. 1–3.

16. As quoted in Boak, ‘Women’ p. 36.

17. Manela, Wilsonian.

18. Cf Marcus Payk, ‘What We Seek Is the Reign of Law: The Legalism of the Paris Peace Settlement after the Great War.’  

19. Tan Malaka, ‘Is er een “Koloniaal Probleem?”’ Bijdragen aan Hindi Ja Poeh Tra 1, 1918–1919, pp. 161–164.

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