100 years later — what caused World War I?

On June 28 just a century ago, Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old patriot from the oppressed nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, assassinated Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. Ferdinand was the symbol of the tyrannical rule of the decadent Habsburg Empire over Princip’s country.

The militarist rulers in Vienna, the capital of the empire, seized on the assassination in Sarajevo as a pretext to declare war on Serbia. This decree essentially launched what was to become World War I. That terrible slaughter killed 20 million people, mostly European workers and farmers.

This is the centennial of the war’s start and the corporate media have already begun to distort the history of the event. The goal is to deflect blame for the disaster away from the capitalist ruling classes, especially in the imperialist countries, whose oppressive and exploitative system made the war inevitable.

No doubt the major media of many of the European imperialist countries will continue this effort, as will their academic circles in historical conferences, in the same way they lie about today’s imperialist wars, from Iraq to Libya to Ukraine. The major U.S. newspaper of record, the New York Times, has been running a series on “the Great War” as part of this effort. Several articles published around June 28 played up Princip’s role in triggering the war.

No one who supports the self-determination of oppressed nations would fault Princip for wanting to strike a blow at a member of the ruling royal family of the oppressive empire. But whatever one thinks of his action, it is patently ridiculous to cite this individual act as a basic cause of a global conflagration.

The war had been in the making since the turn of the century. Some regional wars had already broken out in the Balkans. The Russo-Japanese war of 1905 saw Japan’s rising capitalist power defeat the semi-feudal Tsarist Empire. German, French and British imperialism had skirmished over the building of the Baghdad railroad.

Both sides were oppressors

The major states on both sides of the war were all oppressor nations. There was no “good side.”

Britain ruled over an enormous empire that included Australia, Canada, South Asia, some Caribbean islands and much of Africa. Its wars were one-sided battles where heavily armed colonial troops slaughtered heroic Indigenous peoples armed with spears.

Imperialist France’s empire was half as large, but still stretched from Indochina to the Caribbean, and included large tracts in West and North Africa. Even “tiny” Belgium controlled and exploited the vast Congo, squeezing the last drop of blood from the Congolese.

And that was the side considered the “democracies.” Their ally, the Russian Tsar, ruled over 12 time zones and hundreds of different nations and peoples with an iron hand.

The more militarist Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire were just as brutal toward their subject colonies, but the territories they controlled were smaller.

Washington did not enter World War I until 1917. It had joined the imperialist competition with a bang in 1898 by seizing Spain’s colonies in the Caribbean and the Philippines. A relative newcomer to the European battles, U.S. capitalists expanded their industry selling weapons to the British-French-Russian alliance, which Washington finally joined. Though a fledgling imperialist power at the time, the U.S. rulers were equally brutal to the Indigenous population on this continent, to their internal Black colony and to the newly conquered nations that had been ruled by Spain.

In 1881, many of the European powers had met in Berlin, in what can only be described as outrageous arrogance, to divide up Africa without consulting the Africans. They aimed at dividing the whole continent into colonies of the various powers by negotiation, while avoiding a war among themselves over the plunder. They feared that such inter-imperialist battles could give the African people an opening to fight for their freedom against all the colonialists.

This did happen later. When the European colonial powers were weakened by two world wars after 1945, the Africans were able to drive them out of much of the continent. Also, the existence of the Soviet Union at that later time served as a counterweight to imperialism.

Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin had pointed out in his seminal work, “Imperialism, the Final Stage of Capitalism,” written in 1915, that these colonial powers had divided up the entire world by 1900. The pecking order, that is, how much colonial plunder each got, was based roughly on their industrial, financial and military power at that moment.

The problem was that their relative strengths were constantly changing.

Germany’s industry grew much more rapidly than that of Britain and France after 1900, as did its military power. German economic expansion, however, was restricted by British and French control of territories, resources and markets. Something had to give.

How could rising imperialist powers redistribute the colonial territories in their favor? Only by war. This war would not be restricted to the colonies but had to occur among the metropolitan countries in Europe itself.

Need to battle national chauvinism

This sharp competition among the capitalist classes of the different powers expressed itself in national chauvinism and vicious hostility to other peoples. The capitalist ideologists and propagandists imposed this chauvinism on the populations as a whole to line up the people behind the war.

For example, the French capitalists had been willing to concede territory to the German capitalists in 1871 after a lost war between the two countries. But they made this concession only because the war austerity, as always heaped on the backs of the workers and poor, had led to a rebellion in Paris and the establishment of a revolutionary commune. The French made a deal with the German rulers that allowed them to crush the Paris Commune.

But in 1914, the hypocritical French capitalists insisted that the French workers must hate the German workers.

The workers’ movement in Europe, and especially its most revolutionary wing, attempted to combat this ever more dangerous national chauvinism. At earlier gatherings of socialists, and for the last time in Basel, Switzerland, in 1912, meetings of the workers’ parties of the Second International issued a manifesto on the war question. We cite the Basel Manifesto here to show that long before, and independent of, the assassination at Sarajevo, there was a growing war danger and the massive workers’ movement was aware of it:

“At its congresses at Stuttgart and Copenhagen the International formulated for the proletariat of all countries these guiding principles for the struggle against war:

“If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved supported by the coordinating activity of the International Socialist Bureau to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the sharpening of the class struggle and the sharpening of the general political situation.

“In case war should break out anyway it is their duty to intervene in favor of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.” [Emphasis in the original]

This very clearly means building working-class solidarity and refusing to side with “your own” ruling class against the foreign workers. It also meant taking the opportunity caused by the horrors of war to overthrow your own capitalist class.

Throughout the entire manifesto there was urgency in the call on the working class in all the countries to take whatever actions they could, from the parliament to the streets, to prevent the impending war.

The capitalist parties ruling the European imperialist democracies, France and Britain, as well as in the monarchies in Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia, entered the war without hesitation, even with enthusiasm. Each believed their state would win a quick victory. Their mouths watered at the thought of conquered territory and new colonies — as was shown later when originally secret treaties were finally published.

Regarding the Social Democratic parties, whether or not they could have stopped the war from starting, it was a blow to the world as well as to Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries throughout Europe that most of their leaders failed to follow this Basel Manifesto they had signed onto. Under enormous pressure from “their own” ruling classes, they lined up with the war drive.

It was a sobering lesson on the need for revolutionary parties to train themselves under all situations to stand up against national chauvinism and against imperialist war. The main enemy of the workers and the oppressed is the capitalist class at home. This is true in the U.S. today more than ever.

This article will skip the next three years of that horrible war, a period that will undoubtedly be reported on — with much distortion — in this centennial year. Those lies will need further rebuttal.

By the fall of 1917, Lenin and the other leaders of his own party, the Bolsheviks in Russia, did exactly what the Basel Manifesto called for: They turned the great imperialist slaughter into a war against the Russian ruling class and seized power for the workers and peasants.

A year later, the monarchies in Germany, Austria and Hungary, the defeated powers, were to collapse under mass pressure, although the revolts stopped short of social revolution.

It was not a Bosnian-Serb patriot, but the imperialist system, that caused the war. And a revolt of the workers, delayed but decisive, brought it to an end.