“The truth is that the more guns you send out the more men will be killed. It does not matter to me what kind of men they are: they are all members of the human family; they are our brothers.” It’s easy to empathise with Sylvia Pankhurst speaking in May 1917 at what the poster on my wall describes as a “Mass Meeting to Celebrate Russian Freedom.”
But it was only a minority of the Left, who took an unequivocal position against the war. It will be news to Michael Gove, but the purpose of history is not to award posthumous points and prizes for “correct” decisions but rather to seek to understand, however imperfectly, how and why the past took the shape it did; to try and understand the motivations and actions of all the actors; not just the ones we can easily identify with.
To explore the mindset of those who reluctantly supported the war – and no one on the left did so with glee –it is interesting to see how Justice, the BSP weekly that ended up as a Hyndmanite “pro-war” organ, covered the July crisis and the early weeks of the war. It is noticeable how much faith was put in the German SPD and its paper Vorwärts. On 2 July Justice’s front page declared “We rejoice to note, not only in.’Vorwaerts’, but among the journals of our French comrades and elsewhere, that one result of the murder of the heir to the Austrian Imperial throne and his wife is the recognition of the imperative need for a close understanding between England, France and Germany.”
Justice condemned Britain’s “infamous and disastrous” war with the South African republics, France’s “equally infamous” takeover of Morocco, its loans to the Tsar’s “Government of butchery,” and the “fatuous policy of secret agreements.” of Gray, the British foreign secretary. Though neither “anti-nationalists nor pacifists “ it insisted , “Social-Democrats as internationalists are all for peace.” German militarism, it said the following week, was being exposed by the trial of “our comrade Rosa Luxembourg” for insulting the Prussian army.
The issue then receded for the two middle weeks (16 and 23 July). There was an attack on “The ridiculous nature of our own particular brand of Imperialism,” concern over the coming conference of the Socialist International – about motions to be debated on “alcoholism” rather than anything to do with the war danger. The “King’s conference” on Ulster and Irish Home Rule was given attention and Hyndman;s leader on 23 July demanded “Home Rule for India.”
Then on the 30 July big headlines appeared: “WAR! Austria attacks Servia. Will Europe be Embroiled? “ International socialist solidarity seemed still able to prevent this. The BSP executive said that it “heartily congratulates the Social-Democrats of Vienna, Berlin and Paris” in calling for aggressive actions to be avoided by their governments. Much was made of the widespread anti-war demonstrations. The SPD had, Justice said, already held 27 such meetings in Berlin alone.
The next issue appeared two days after Britain declared war. The columns of the front page with the headline “THE WAR: SOCIALIST EFFORTS FOR PEACE “ were lined with black as were those of the editorial page and the one mourning the recently murdered Jaurès. In line with its old principle, “The people to decide on Peace or War,” Justice demanded a referendum: “The least that could have been done was take a poll of our entire population as to whether they were ready to go into this terrible business without any adequate preparation, and without any knowledge whatever as to what was being done in their name.”
Last minute efforts to try and save the peace were reported. 30,000 had reportedly attended the joint BSP/ILP Trafalgar Square peace demonstration the previous Sunday But a new factor appeared in the report of the statement of the general council of the Belgian Socialist Labour Party.which said that “in defending the neutrality and even the existence of our country against militarist barbarians we shall be conscious of serving the cause of democracy and the political liberties of Europe.”
Trust in the SPD’s opposition to war remained for an almost unbelievably long time On 13 August theBSP Manifesto distinguished the German people from “the Prussian military caste which dominates the German Empire.” Justice repeated the claim of a Manchester Guardian correspondent in Paris that a French socialist deputy had been told of anti-war demonstrations in Berlin and that Liebknecht and other socialists had been shot. The paper found it difficult to accept reports that the SPD had supported war credits.“We must confess that ...the attitude of the Social-Democratic Party in the Reichstag appears to us only explainable on the assumption that martial law having been declared in Germany the Reichstag outside of the governing circles was ignorant of the real position of affairs.” Justice conceded at as regards the threatened attack by Russia the vote was '”perfectly justified.” The Reichstag had been adjourned till late November but when it resumed, the BSP paper declared “We are sure that then the 110 Social-Democratic deputies will follow the noble example of Liebknecht and Bebel during the Franco-Prussian war.”
Justice reported that Vorwärts had rejected the “advances of the Kaiser” and would “persist in its desire for peace. It was clear that the German people had been misled. On 17 September it concluded that “The naïvete of Vorwarts is almost incomprehensible” but then, on 24th it gave front page coverage to Liebknecht’s insistence that the idea of unanimous support for war credits by SPD deputies was an “inadmissable legend.” The same issue protested against efforts “to inflame the passions” by “unconfirmed reports of German atrocities.”
Even at the start of October Justice was still hoping for signs of opposition from its German equivalent. “Vorwaerts suppressed” it headlined, adding that this showed that “our contemporary” was “doing its best under all the difficulties of martial law” and that “The suppression of ‘Vorwaerts’ vindicates its honour more than anything else could have done.”
Reluctant support for the war started to appear. In August a Hyndman editorial began by declaring that the BSP was “at one with the extremest of pacifists in our determination to avert war” but with the invasion of Belgium “we were bound, not by secret agreements and private understandings, but by the solemn international treaties and agreements at the Hague.” C H Norman, whose anti-war and anti-conscription activities would later see him in prison, challenged this. He believed that “Britain should mind her own business, and not send hundreds of thousands of Englishmen to France to their deaths.” He deplored Britain finding itself on the same side as Russia. An editorial note agreed with every critical comment but asserted that “his just hatred of the Russian bureaucracy causes him to ignore every other past and present aspect of the European situation.”
In his own letter Hyndman replied that Norman “would have allowed Belgium to be destroyed and annexed, France to be finally crushed and annexed, and Europe to be held in tutelage by Germany.” To have failed to declare war on Belgium’s behalf “would have been infamous.” He endorsed Norman’s denunciation of imperialism, including that of Belgium, but linked this to the most notorious event of the German invasion “l know that the late King Leopold's rule in the Congo was abominable. Was Louvain sacked and burnt on that account?”
Hyndman was not alone in believing in the justice of participation in the war. It was, he said, “a choice of evils.” A German victory would be far worse for humanity than an Allied one. ”I think that the working classes of Belgium and of France had every moral and political right to expect our support,” Fred H Gorle declared, while another candidate for the BSP executive committee, Frank Tanner was “convinced that the triumph of Prussia militarism would be a severe blow to popular liberty in France, Belgium and Great Britain, as well as in Germany itself” The issue was one of expediency “I desire the defeat of Prussian militarism, not as a patriot, but as a democrat ,and would cheerfully pray for the defeat of ‘my’ country were I convinced that the cause of Socialism would benefit thereby.”
By this time divisions in the BSP over the war were growing fast with some branches, including Stepney, and Bow and Bromley, protesting at the executive’s position. The unfolding tragedy of the war had already been amply illustrated by a remarkable appreciation that appeared in Justice on 17th September following the death of Dr Ludwig Frank, SPD deputy for Mannheim, who had volunteered at the beginning of the conflict. His earlier contributions to the international socialist movement were praised and the piece ended with an anguished cry. “A bullet took him away near Luneville. Who fired the shot? Perhaps the very French comrade whose hand he warmly grasped but a short while ago. O, the madness of it all.”