My name is Marc Mulholland. I am a Fellow (lecturer and tutor) in the History Faculty of Oxford University. My College is St Catherine's. I come from Ireland.

This is a blog relating to my book published in 2012 by Oxford University Press, Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear: From Absolutism to Neo-Conservativism.
Now on sale here and here. If you want 20 per cent off the price, I can arrange that! Send me a message or leave a comment, and I'll tell you how.

The thesis my book is examining was rather pithily summarised by Leon Trotsky in 1939: "Wherever the proletariat appeared as an independent force, the bourgeoisie shifted to the camp of the counter-revolution. The bolder the struggle of the masses, the quicker the reactionary transformation of liberalism." [Context is here]

However, my book isn't a defence of Trotskyism, or indeed any particular ideology. It's a study of an idea that took shape in Left, Right, and Centre variations.

This blog has tid-bits not included in the book, and other thoughts that occur.

You can see book details at the
OUP website.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

1914: Aggressive or Defensive War?

In 1907, the socialist parties of the Second International meeting in Stuttgart debated what position to take on war. Some delegates raised the problem that in modern military circumstances differentiating between (justified) defensive war and (unjustified) aggressive war might prove to be a difficulty. The German leader, August Bebel, waved away the problem:

It would be very sad if nowadays social democrats could not in every case determine with certainty whether a war is aggressive or defensive.
[Quoted in Georges Haupt, Socialism and the Great War: The Collapse of the Second International (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 25.]

However, the doubters were quite right. In an attempt to avoid mass, industrialised armies bogging down, it was vital for European mass-armies to attempt a quick victory by talking the offensive before the enemy had a chance to dig in. War had to be offensive. Major-General Sir Edward Spears, observing for the British Army French mobilisation in 1914, explained the rationale behind rigid timetables for war:

If the mobilisation is delayed or slow, the enemy will be enabled to advance with a fully equipped army against an unprepared one, which would be disastrous.
The time factor also makes it essential that the armies, once mobilised, should find themselves exactly where they can take up the role assigned to them. There is no opportunity for extensive manoeuvres: mobilisation is in itself a manoeuvre at the end of which the armies must be ready to strike according to the pre-arranged plan.
The plan is therefore obviously of vital importance. It has of necessity to be somewhat rigid, for it has to be worked out in every detail beforehand. From the moment mobilisation is ordered, every man must know where he has to join, and must get there in a given time. Each unit, once complete and fully equipped, must be ready to proceed at the appointed hour to a pre-arranged destination in a train awaiting it, which in turn must move according to a carefully prepared railway scheme. Each unit has also to drop into its place in the higher formations, and these again must find themselves grouped in position according to the fundamental plan. No change, no alteration is possible during mobilisation. Improvisation when dealing with nearly three million men and the movement of 4,278 trains, as the French had to do, is out of the question.

[This is quoted in a book now considered passé, but still very good in my view: A. J. P.Taylor's War by Time-Table: How the First World War Began (London: MacDonald & Co., 1969), p. 16.]

When war loomed, it was a race to ram troops into the offensive.

When the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, were assassinated by Serb nationalists in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, on 28 June 1914, Austria-Hungary determined to crush Serbia as the prime focus of Slav nationalism. Germany committed itself to supporting Austria on 6 July. Countenancing the possibility of a general war, Germany moved to activate the offensive Schlieffen Plan on 1 August, thus making war on Belgium and France inevitable. Bethmann-Hollweg, Chancellor of the Reich, predicted to a colleague that,

It will be a violent storm but very short : I count on a war of three, or at most of four months, and I have organised all my policy on that assumption.
[Quoted in Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond, British Strategy, Military and Economic: A Historical View and its Contemporary Lessons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1941), p. 131.]

By the time the Chancellor began to doubt whether a short war was possible, it was too late. The machine was in motion. Germany moved over 3 million men and 600,000 horses in 11,000 trains over a period of only 312 hours. [Hew Strachan, ‘Military Modernization, 1789 – 1918’ in T. C. W. Blanning (ed), The Oxford History of Modern Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, 2000), p. 87.]

The French, for their part, were committed to on the outbreak of war to launch Plan XVII, an immediate offensive against German held Alscace-Lorraine.

In 1914, almost everyone was attacking simultaneously: Austria against Serbia and Russia, Russia against Austria and Germany, Germany against Belgium and France, France against Germany. True, it was a pretty straight-forwardly defensive war for Belgium and Serbia (though Belgium was a major imperialist power, and Serbia itself was agressively militarist).

Of the major powers, Britain was not under immediate threat of attack: Germany wanted Britain to be neutral, not defeated.  Nonetheless, congruent with Britain’s interest that no one country dominate the resources of the continent, particularly if it had access to the channel ports by which Britain might be invaded, the United Kingdom committed itself, on 2 August, to the defence of France and Belgium. The Foreign Secretary believed that Britain’s commitment could be strictly limited: “We should risk little or nothing on land, and at sea we might shut the German fleet up in Kiel and keep it there without losing a ship or even firing a shot,” he argued. “With our trade intact, and our commerce secure, we should be very little worse off in the war than out of it.” [See here] Well that proved wrong! Italy only joined in 1915, in a clearly offensive war.

Overall, it was very hard for socialists in most countries to differentiate between offensive and defensive war in 1914. It's notable that socialists split between pro and anti war factions in Britain and Italy with least rancour (I'm excluding Mussolini, who left the socialist movement altogether), precisely because the choice was more open, and thus less agonising.
The collapse of the distinction between aggressive and defensive war was was less to do with a new 'stage of capitalism', as Lenin argued, than with military realities. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

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