During World War I, the Western Front — a 400-plus mile stretch of land that wove through France and Belgium from the Swiss border to the North Sea — was the most decisive location of the conflict. The story herein, which was replicated at multiple points along the front, is true.
What Caused World War I?
From the beginning of the 20th century, crises had been brewing in North Africa and the Balkans as the bourgeoisies of Europe fought for control of resources and for colonies and allied countries in which to expand their markets. Then came 1914.
It was the summer of that year. Franz Ferdinand of Habsburg-Lorraine, the Archduke of Austria-Hungary and heir to the throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo along with his wife Sophie. The attack by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip unleashed the first great slaughter in history: World War I. It was a conflict on a scale far exceeding what anyone had ever imagined.
The conflict had been brewing since at least 1878. Otto von Bismarck —the Chancellor of Germany in the late 19th century — famously predicted what would happen:
Europe today is a powder keg and its leaders are like men smoking in an arsenal… A single spark will set off an explosion that will consume us all. I cannot tell you when that explosion will occur, but I can tell you where: Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans will set it off!
The assassination of the Austrian heir was part of a series of escalations and competitions between the European bourgeoisies, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
First Austria demanded compensations from Serbia for the assassination of its heir. Serbia agreed, but nevertheless Austria began to make more and more exorbitant demands, which ultimately led to it declaring war on Serbia for “non-compliance.” Russia at the time considered itself the protector of Serbia, another Slavic nation, and Tsar Nicholas was forced to declare war on Germany if it attacked Serbia. This happened despite the fact that the Tsar and the Kaiser — who were kin — tried their best to avoid war.
Russia’s ally, France, also declared war on Germany, and Germany responded likewise. On August 3, the Germans entered neutral Belgium, a route into France. The Belgian king asked his English counterpart for help. The alliances that had been created at the end of the 19th century dragged Europe into a bloodbath.
The Tsar, the Kaiser and the King of England were first cousins thanks to marriages by Queen Victoria—known as “Europe’s Grandmother”—, but even a peace treaty signed at the behest of these monarchies would not have solved anything. As Leon Trotsky described it in his 1917 article “Two Faces (Internal Forces of the Russian Revolution)”:
The Tsar and his Black Hundred fought for their power, for this alone. The war, the imperialistic plans of the Russian bourgeoisie, the interests of the Allies, were of minor importance to the Tsar and his clique. They were ready at any moment to conclude peace with the Hohenzollerns and Hapsburgs, to free their most loyal regiment for war against their own people.
If the capitalist slaughter was to be avoided, it was to be at the cost of unloading (in any case) the crisis on the working masses, as the countries of Europe had been doing since 1848. The war begun in 1914 was to decide the fate of the colonies on the battlefields of Europe. It had only one objective: divide up the planet through gunfire and cannons.
Thus began an orgy of nationalist speeches exalting the populations of the European countries, full of stories of massacres by the enemy — Germans raping women, the English slaughtering children, and so on. Great masses of people paraded joyfully, with bouquets of flowers given by mothers, daughters, and wives. Their governments had all promised that the war would be over before Christmas.
When the fighting began, cities were evacuated, buildings became fortresses, and bullets were whizzing around everywhere. Soldiers ended up horrified by the show they were witnessing first-hand; later, many would be diagnosed with “shell shock,” coined in World War I and the forerunner of the infamous post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As the months passed, everyone soon realized that the war would last longer than they had thought. A thousand miles of trenches were carved into the ground like a huge scar in Europe.
As winter set in, the snow began to wreak havoc in the ranks. Gangrene, hypothermia, trench foot, and pneumonia caused more casualties than enemy charges. On December 19, an offensive was launched that left both the Entente and Germans exhausted and demoralized; to try to boost morale, the governments began campaigns to send supplies to the front lines, such as clothing, tobacco, chocolate, and so on. With morale so low, the High Commands on both sides feared that the troops would revolt on Christmas Day.
On Christmas Eve, Entente soldiers were surprised to see the enemy trench filled with decorations. The Germans had decorated their posts with Christmas trees and, perhaps with a little alcohol in them, were singing Christmas carols. The Allies recognized the song and responded by joining in in their native tongues. For one night, what sounded on the battlefield was not bombs and the screams of the wounded, but Christmas carols. Europe truly had a Silent Night.
Many fantasized that an armistice would be signed the next morning and everyone would go home. But others knew that the war would not be settled that night, and so they decided it would be fine to sing along with those they believed to be their enemies. Through the snow and mist, a figure emerged from the enemy trench; the British soldiers prepared to fire, but were surprised to see something strange: the German soldier was not holding neither a grenade nor a rifle, but rather a tree decorated with candles.
The Christmas tree tradition (Tannenbaum) was not very well known outside of Germany, at least among the masses, before that night. It was only after the events on the Western Front in 1914 that the tradition began to spread widely across Europe.
Curious, the English soldiers peered into No-Man’s Land and saw the soldiers they considered their enemies yelling their greetings and good wishes. Many soldiers came out of the trenches on both sides and shook hands. Suddenly, the German who (allegedly) “raped women” had a name, a face, and was as human as the Englishman with whom he was speaking.
As the hungry, tired soldiers gathered in the mud and snow, the High Commands and the governments (the king, the kaiser, the tsar, and the president, some enjoying hot meals with their general staff) regarded this image with fury. Such an “armistice,” undeclared, could slow down the course of the war.
There had been continual attacks in the days preceding this, and the bodies of the dead from No-Man’s Land were allowed to be collected and buried together. Soldiers recited the 23rd Psalm (“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want …”). At different points along the front, they even exchanged gifts (helmets, coats, boots, etc.) and some played a game of soccer. Drawings and photographs emerged of these soldiers from both sides, and in some places the truce extended into the New Year’s Day and even February. Many years later, the event was commemorated in the film Joyeux Noël (2005), and the giant British grocery chain Sainsbury’s made a mini-film as an extended Christmas advertisement on the hundredth anniversary. Their poignant images cause viewers to shed many a tear.
The bourgeoisie, though, has devoted itself to distorting this event as an unprecedented phenomenon, a miracle they adulate as revealing the “humanity and humility” of the soldiers or, even worse, the “chivalry” typical of the 19th century that still persisted in 1914 as a remnant of the Belle Époque that the world war destroyed. But unlike the Holy Scriptures, the “miracle” of the Christmas Truce did not fall from Heaven: it was the result of the composition of the armies.
The reality is that the rulers had an urgent need to have enough men for the war, and conditions forced many workers and peasants to enlist in the armies with the promise of good pay. Once they reached the battlefield, they understood in the starkest way that this was not their war — which is why, unlike the aristocratic officers, the workers did not march smiling to the front lines. They did not have the discipline that characterized professional soldiers because before being soldiers in that war, they were members of the world working class who recognized each other that cold Christmas morning of 1914.
Lessons to be Learned: For a Revolutionary Socialist International!
A fundamental part of the development of World War I was the lack of prospects for the future. Then as now, the problem was the same: there was no International of the working class dedicated to destroying the power of capital. The Second International, the one founded by Friedrich Engels in 1889, a few years before his death, had begun to have reformist and centrist tendencies with it; this happened because the International grew in a context of capitalist growth, and despite the fact that it had mass, legal parties that participated in elections and that it controlled huge trade unions and union confederations. Nationalism and social chauvinism flourished, and the Second International’s rightist wings led the working class of Europe to carnage. On August 4, 1914, the deputies of the Social Democratic Party — the Second International’s largest — voted in the German parliament to provide financial support for the war, and almost all the International’s major parties across Europe fell in line. It was this act that compelled the ultimate break of the Bolsheviks in Russia from Social Democracy.
Some socialists, such as Karl Kautsky in Germany, had gone over to the side of pacifism and viewed with suspicion the prospect of violent revolution. They advocated the establishment of socialism by means of elections, without contesting the economic power of capital. Others — as was the case with the Italian Socialist Party, and Mussolini in particular, before he turned to the right and toward fascism — thought that going to war with Germany, the great capitalist country, was the order of the day. The premise was that a German defeat would mean capitalist defeat.
It took a year for the International’s left wing to regroup, first at a conference in Zimmerwald (1915) and then in Kienthal (1916), and push for the creation of a new, revolutionary international. Had such an organization existed in 1914, with a strong presence in the trade unions, factories, and the centers of work and study, the call to the butcher shop of war would have been rejected. On the front lines, socialist militants would have confronted the fragility of the Christmas Truce and called for peace among the working class, for internationalism, and to convert the war between the imperialist powers into a civil war against the bourgeoisies of their respective countries.
But it was only the Bolsheviks in Russia, disciplined and organized, winning a majority in the soviets and in the trade unions, and winning government power through revolution, that called for peace in Europe and for a war against Big Capital.
Today, the task for revolutionaries is the same as it was in 1914: to forge a revolutionary socialist International that calls for peace and stands against the bloodbath of the bourgeoisie, and that raises a program against reactionary wars, such as the 2020 fight over Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan (armed by Turkey and Israel) and Armenia (armed by the Russian oligarchy that emerged after capitalist restoration).
Such an international would forge a strategy to defeat reactionary formations such as the Islamic State, Hamas or Hezbollah, which keeps the working class of the Middle East divided between Sunnis and Shiites and Muslims and “heretics” (Christians and other minority religions). It would support self-determination for all oppressed peoples, such as the Kurds who are divided among Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq; the Palestinians, whose leadership lends credibility to their Israeli counterparts and helps keep historic Palestine divided out of fear of an alliance between the Israeli working class and the oppressed Palestinian masses as their recent General Strike showed; the Sahrawi people, who have been dominated since the 1970s by Morocco, with the complicity of Europe; the Catalan people in the Spanish State, who for years have been fighting for self-determination; the Irish people, who remain divided between Catholics and Anglican Protestants.
Only an international organization with combat parties and with a presence in the factories and other workplaces, in schools and universities, in the women’s movement, the LGBTQ+ movement, that allies itself with the peasant masses and native peoples can put an end to capital. That is why we promote the movement to build an International for socialist revolution.
First published in Spanish on December 25, 2020, in La Izquierda Diario.
Translation, adaptation, and some additions by Scott Cooper