The Political Factors of the War
[The Independent; December 1, 1917]
With the fourth year the world-wide war assumes a new aspect. A military decision is not yet in sight and it seems likely that during the coming months political influences will be more important than army maneuvers. Even the battles now being fought are dictated more by the intent of affecting public opinion than of making conquests. The recent attacks of French and British on the Hindenburg line, the German demonstration toward Petrograd and the Austrian invasion of Italy, are obviously designed to strengthen the war sentiment at home and the peace sentiment in the enemy country. In every European belligerent nation there is an anti-war movement that is daily gathering force and becoming more outspoken.
As each country entered the war a wave of patriotism swept over the land and washed away the barriers between parties, sects and classes. Conservatives and liberals, clericals and anti-clericals, capitalists and socialists, joined hands and rivaled one another in devotion and self-sacrifice to the national cause. A "party peace" was declared; a sacred union was established; coalition cabinets were formed; local issues were buried; personal ambitions were subordinated. This era of good feeling has lasted longer and resisted greater strain than could have been expected, but it now shows signs of breaking up everywhere. Rumors of revolution are afloat in regard to various belligerents and however little their foundation their mere existence points to a rise of mutual suspicion and a breakdown of the national unity.
Let us consider what information we have as to the internal condition of each country in turn.
In Russia the process of national disintegration has reached its hight and has practically removed that country from the list of belligerents. When Kerensky said recently that Russia was "worn out" and henceforth the Allies "must take the heaviest part of the burden on their shoulders," his words were received with incredulity, but a few days later they were unfortunately confirmed by the news that Kerensky was a fugitive and the capital in the hands of anarchists determined upon immediate peace. Finland has declared herself an independent republic. Ukrainia has practically seceded. The Poles, Letts, Lithuanians, Cossacks, Georgians and Armenians demand independence. The establishment of the Russian republic is the greatest victory for democracy yet gained by the Allies and the freedom of these 170,000,000 is the greatest stake in the war. But that is likely to be lost either thru external conquest or internal dissensions unless peace comes soon so that the Russians can get a chance to organize with the aid of their allies a stable government.
Austria-Hungary is in almost as serious a situation. This polyglot and composite monarchy has hitherto astonished the world by its stability, but is now subjected to internal strains that threaten to disrupt it. The southern Slavs have affiliated with their Serbian brethren and plan to join with them in founding a new nation, Jugoslavia. The Magyars have lost their chief reason for clinging to Austria now that the Russian menace is removed. The aspirations of the Czechs and Slovaks to start an independent Bohemian republic have received the promise of support by the Allies, and efforts of the Austrian Government to suppress them by wholesale hangings have failed. A few months ago a couple of Bohemian regiments in Galicia went over in a body to the Russians, tho they regretted it shortly afterward, for the Russians slipt away and left them to bear the brunt of the Austrian attack, which virtually annihilated them. Austria-Hungary has been almost equally humiliated by the repeated defeats she has suffered when fighting her own battles and by the arrogance of the German officers under whom she has won her only victories. The drive on Italy is intended to restore confidence and put a stop to internal dissensions, but it is doubtful if it will succeed in its political aim even tho it attains its military object. When this unparalleled Austrian victory was announced in the Reichsrat the Czech and Slovak deputies refused to rise and cheer. Suppose our troops in France had conquered two thousand square miles of German territory and taken two hundred thousand prisoners in two weeks; what would be thought if when the good news were reported to Congress the members from New York and Pennsylvania sat in sullen silence?
It is useless to consider Turkey, for that empire never was unified. The whole of Arabia is now in revolt and all the subject peoples, Armenians, Syrians, Greeks, Jews, are eager to be freed from the Ottoman yoke. Turkey has nothing to gain and everything to lose by the continuance of the war.
Bulgaria is so war-weary that the English press is openly talking of making a separate peace with her. She gained in her first brief campaign all the territory she aspired to and now is only anxious to hold as much of it as she can. Many of the Bulgarian leaders were educated in Roberts College and are much attached to America. The entrance of the United States into the war has shaken the confidence of the Bulgars in the justice and the success of the German cause. The Government majority in parliament is reduced to nine and desertions on the Salonica front are becoming, very numerous now that winter is coming on. "Fully fifteen per cent of these deserters have lived in the United States," says a British officer at Salonica.
"Germany has crost the political Rubicon and in the space of five days changed from an autocracy into a democracy. This has been the most momentous week since the founding of the empire." These are the words of Mathias Erzberger, leader of the Center or Catholic party of the Reichstag. From our standpoint the accession of the aged, reactionary and autocratic Count von Hertling in the place of the relatively moderate-minded Herr Michaelis seems a doubtful gain for democracy, but, nevertheless, it means a great advance for Germany. Last July Herr Erzberger turned against the Government and denounced it for the blundering diplomacy and submarine campaign that had made an enemy of America. The Socialists who had hitherto supported the Government joined with the Clericals and by a vote of two to one passed a peace resolution. It was commonly said here at the time that the Kaiser was an autocrat and would disregard an adverse vote in the Reichstag as he had before. But it did not prove so. Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg went out of office and Michaelis went in, but his protest concurrence in the Reichstag resolution was distrusted, so he has now been replaced by a man who is not a Prussian but a Bavarian, not a Protestant but a Catholic, not an imperialist but an open advocate of an immediate peace without annexations or indemnities. Here is what a Reichstag deputy, Herr Gothein, said of the situation in October:
The overwhelming majority of the soldiers at the front are also not inclined to fight longer for any kind of aims of conquest, but only for Germany's vital security and for the peace aims of the Reichstag resolution. At home the prolonged hours of work and the insufficient nourishment, especially the latter, have increased in the great cities and in the industrial districts the longing for peace, as have also the increasing ruin of the middle class and the sorrow and care in countless families. Strikes are to be feared in working-class circles if the war continued for aims of conquest. Even for this reason an unambiguous repudiation of the annexationists is an indispensable necessity. One of the weightiest tasks now is to decide people at home to hold out.
The revolutionary spirit of Russia has spread to Germany and infected the German navy. We have the best of evidence to that effect, nothing less than the Word of the German Secretary of the Navy, Admiral von Gapelle. This is his statement:
It is, unhappily, a sad fact that the Russian Revolution has turned the heads of some persons in our navy, and has introduced revolutionary ideas among them. Their insenate plan was to recruit representatives on all ships, to cause the crews to refuse to obey orders, to paralyze the fleet, and to force peace upon the country.
It is said that the crews of four battleships at Wilhelmshafen took part in the mutiny and the captain of the "Westfalen" was thrown overboard and drowned. Such a revolt is practically unprecedented in docile Germany and a curious, perhaps significant feature of the affair is that only one of the mutineers was shot for it, altho many were sentenced to prison.
Several months ago it was intimated in the British Parliament that Italy was threatened with a collapse like that of Russia due to internal causes. It is now admitted the break in the Italian line, thru which the Teuton invasion poured, was due to the disaffection of the troops, who threw down their arms and surrendered by the thousand. The overthrow of the Boselli Cabinet and the removal of General Cadorna followed. It will be remembered that in the days when Italy was hesitating whether to enter the war or remain neutral the anti-war party was led by ex-Premier Giolitti. When in spite of his opposition Italy espoused the cause of the Allies he acquiesced and has loyally supported the Government until recently. But on October 18, a week before the Austro-German drive began, he returned to Rome and organized an opposition party of eighty-eight members. Violent speeches were made in the Chamber and when the news of the defeat came the Government went down. The new Premier, Orlando, is a former follower of Giolitti's and dependent upon him for parliament support. The Socialists, Republicans and Syndicalists, who just before the war were engaged in a riotous anti-militarist campaign, have supported the war hitherto, but recently have resumed the agitation. Another uncertain factor is the papal party. The old quarrel between the Vatican and the Quirinal has never been made up, altho the intensity of the feeling has some what died down. The Pope still regards himself as a prisoner in the Vatican and the King as a usurper in Rome. Austria as the chief Catholic country of the world is supposed to favor a restoration of the temporal Sovereignty of the Pope, or at least some amelioration of his position. The Allies have been free with their charges that the Pope is pro-German because he did not break with Germany on account of the rape of Belgium, but it seems to us rather that he, like the President, has been simply trying hard to maintain an impartial neutrality in a warring world. His peace note was more favorably received in Austria and Germany than by the Allies, but that does not imply that it was pro-German. It merely means, that the Teutons are more anxious to begin peace negotiations now than the Allies. And those who in Italy, France and Belgium support the Pope in his peace movement ought not on that account to be called disloyal or accused of a desire to submit to ignominious conditions.
In France at the outbreak of the war the Socialists, even the most fanatical anti-militarists like Hervé, rallied to the side of the Government. All parties buried the hatchet and the most orthodox Socialists like Guesde entered the cabinet, altho this was contrary to the principles of the party. "Now, however, a large part of the Socialists have withdrawn their support from Premier Painlevé, and he, altho a Socialist, has been compelled to resign. At the Socialist congress in Bordeaux last month patriotism was passionately denounced as the cause of wars and "peace at once without annexations, without indemnity" was demanded by nearly half the assembly. But finally a compromise resolution was adopted demanding that the Allies revise their war aims and renounce all their plans for conquests, and, favoring the holding of a Stockholm conference to discuss the terms of a just and lasting peace.
In England the party truce has broken down and the old parties are breaking up. A new party has been formed. Republicans are beginning to speak out after a silence of more than a generation. The London Times has published a series of articles to prove that
there exists at the present moment a revolutionary movement in this country which has gathered considerable momentum, has long passed the stage of mere talk and has realized itself in formidable action.
Some Liberal papers are demanding that the Allies state their peace terms and if possible open negotiations. The Manchester Guardian says:
We acknowledge cordially the great effort America is making, and doubt neither her whole-hearted resolution, nor her power. But for Europe and this country the outlook, if the war is to run two years more, is devastating.
In Ireland the Sinn Feiners have again proclaimed an independent republic, and more troops, are required there to maintain order than the United States has sent to France. In South Africa the party favoring an independent republic is rapidly rising to a majority. In Canada the struggle between the English and French over conscription has become intense. Australia has been paralyzed by a strike and the Labor party is decidedly dissected.
The United States, fresh in the fray, shows less internal strain and greater national unity than any of the other "belligerents.
In this brief survey of the political conditions we have disregarded rumors and wild speculations and have merely enumerated the known factors which, whatever their relative importance, should be frankly recognised for they must be taken into consideration. Some count on one side and some count on the other. How much any of them count cannot be said. They introduce a new and incalculable element into the war problem and may decide the result.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald