The Great Class War 1914-1918

Lorimer - 2015

Book Review

Historian Jacques Pauwels applies a critical, revisionist lens to the First World War, offering readers a fresh interpretation that challenges mainstream thinking. As Pauwels sees it, war offered benefits to everyone, across class and national borders.

For European statesmen, a large-scale war could give their countries new colonial territories, important to growing capitalist economies. For the wealthy and ruling classes, war served as an antidote to social revolution, encouraging workers to exchange socialism’s focus on international solidarity for nationalism’s intense militarism. And for the working classes themselves, war provided an outlet for years of systemic militarization — quite simply, they were hardwired to pick up arms, and to do so eagerly.

To Pauwels, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 — traditionally upheld by historians as the spark that lit the powder keg — was not a sufficient cause for war but rather a pretext seized upon by European powers to unleash the kind of war they had desired. But what Europe’s elite did not expect or predict was some of the war’s outcomes: social revolution and Communist Party rule in Russia, plus a wave of political and social democratic reforms in Western Europe that would have far-reaching consequences.

Reflecting his broad research in the voluminous recent literature about the First World War by historians in the leading countries involved in the conflict, Jacques Pauwels has produced an account that challenges readers to rethink their understanding of this key event of twentieth century world history.


“The Great Class War provides an eloquent synthesis of evidence that World War One’s causes, events, impacts on different individuals and groups, ending, and aftermath are all best understood in terms of a focus on different social classes in the various countries caught up in the sweep of this momentous war. Pauwels goes beyond interpretations that reduce the war to conflicts among competing imperial and national groupings, in which the wealthiest industrialist and jobless, homeless workers are confounded to show that the class dynamics of particular countries determined who wanted war, who benefited from it, and who bore the brunt of suffering from it. Readers of this masterful book will recognize the extent to which so much of the literature on World War One, with its focus on secret treaties, bumbling diplomacy, inept military leaders, and particular battles simply obscures the fundamental character of the war and its differential impacts on various groups of people.” 
(Alvin Finkel, Professor Emeritus at Athabasca University and author of Our Lives: Canada After 1945 and Social Policy and Practice in Canada: A History)

“Written at a definite angle to most existing approaches, The Great Class War shifts the emphasis from military history and geopolitical rivalries to the conflicts raging inside the World War’s belligerent societies. With this engagingly written account, Jacques Pauwels delivers a popular counter-history of the conflict whose dissenting verve seems long overdue.”
(Geoffrey Eley, Karl Pohrt Distinguished University Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)

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But Jacques Pauwels’ book on WWI is great

In all countries socialists renounced the class struggle and proceeded instead to go to war for their fatherland and their people.

Jacques R. Pauwels, The Great Class War 1914-1918, p. 69

War is anathema. I hate war and I am sure the majority of humanity does. So why does war still happen? Earlier wars continue to evoke a mythology that pervades the public discourse. Since much of humanity remains mired in war, it is crucial to cut through the crap of disinformation that beguiles people and involves them in wars that they don’t want. If indeed a knowledge of history prepares humans to avert the mistakes of the past, then for the sake of present and future humanity learning about critical past events is important. People must also learn how to discern what best approximates the truth. When seeking to identify the etiology of monstrous events such as wars, the requisite question is: who benefits?
In his book The Great Class War 1914-1918 (Lorimer, 2016), historian Jacques R. Pauwels lifts the fog of war. The Great Class War 1914-1918 identifies those who want war, those who scurrilously manipulate information, consciousness, and the citizenry to wage war.

Pauwels examines the war among nations and among classes within a nation. WWI (what Pauwels refers to as the Great Class War, and one understands what he means, but because of the double entendre, I prefer to avoid calling a war “great”) has its roots much further back in history. Pauwels takes the reader back to the French Revolution, an uprising against the aristocrats and bourgeoise, and he brings readers to the time of the Paris Commune and up to WWI and beyond.
Pauwels presents the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand as a pretext for war. However, the war was launched by elitists1 who feared the hoi polloi eating into profits by forming unions and demanding higher wages, and demanding greater democracy. There was also competition among nation states to grab colonies and gain economic advantage. The elitists believed that a war would crush revolutionary zeal, aspirations for democracy, and replace socialism with nationalism.
The Great Class War discusses factors antebellum and year-by-year through WWI, the immediate aftermath and postbellum, even discussing the casus belli for WWII and connecting events to the present day. The focus throughout the book is on the classism at the root of the war. Pauwels’ thoroughly compelling narrative leads the reader to the ineluctable conclusion that elitists have been manipulating and leading the masses, unwilling or not, to the killing fields.

Lincoln in Dali-vision

Pauwels draws on myriad threads in weaving his marvelous portrait of the class war. He draws from art, film, song, poetry and other writings. He hits at the various angles to the war, likening this to Salvador Dali’s “Lincoln in Dali-vision.” He praises Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory as a vivid depiction of classist conditions within the French military. I was spurred to watch the film, which I would urge others to watch as well.
Pauwels explores the many-sided tensions/rivalries/fights at play: socialism vs capitalism, internationalism vs nationalism, union leadership vs the rank-and-file (“… union leaders travelled around the country to encourage the rank-and-file not to strike but to volunteer for the army.” p. 196), conservative political parties vs social democrats vs communists, officers vs soldiers, civilians vs military, feelings of one country’s troops about another country’s troops, etc. The author looks at language, propaganda (“Civilians appeared to swallow whatever authorities and the ‘yellow press’ told them…” p. 357), imperialism, monarchism, colonialism (“In many ways, the first World war thus functioned as the last phase of the “scramble for Africa.’” p. 293), religion (“The gospel of patriotism and bellicosity was preached from the church pulpits…,” p. 186), Social Darwinism, revolutions, counterrevolution, the Russian Revolution, dirigism, why the USA entered the war (“If the United States stayed out of the war, it would not be present when the Chinese prizes were distributed among the victors…” p. 449), and much more than can be a book review can do justice to. So get the book.

by Kim Petersen / July 25th, 2016

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European elite spurred First World War to quell dissent, scholar argues

Ever since the assassination in 1914 of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, the Archduchess Sophie, historians have tried to explain how it led to a catastrophic worldwide war.
Before 1914, Europe’s great powers had settled a series of dangerous international crises. Did the assassination crisis somehow escape their control so that, in the words of then-British prime minister Lloyd George, they simply “slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without any trace of apprehension or dismay?”

Or were some deeper forces at play? Some historians fault the rigidities of the European alliance system and its accompanying arms race. Vladimir Lenin said that war was an inevitable product of capitalist imperialism. Others pointed to the upsurge of nationalism, especially but not only in eastern and central Europe. H.G. Wells blamed history teachers for implanting in students’ minds in all countries the bellicose patriotism that made war possible, and perhaps even inevitable.
In his book The Great Class War: 1914-1918, Brantford, Ont.-based independent scholar Jacques Pauwels offers a different explanation.
Building on the work of the historian Arno Mayer and others, Pauwels argues the First World War was not simply a war between states, it was also a war between social classes. It was “wanted and unleashed by a European elite” of aristocrats and capitalists who saw in war a means to reverse the growing democratization of society that threatened their position and power.

The elites expected the demands of war would instil in the working class the discipline, sense of tradition and respect for authority they saw as so obviously lacking, as the pre-1914 wave of strikes and of socialist and feminist agitation demonstrated.
In addition, radical and socialist calls for social and political reform would be buried in a new mood of national solidarity and militant patriotism. As Pauwels puts it, war would be “a prophylaxis against social revolution.”
In making his case, Pauwels sets the Great War in the context of what historians call the long 19th century, beginning with the French Revolution of 1789 which, with its watchwords of liberty, equality and fraternity, helped inspire reformers and revolutionaries alike.
At the same time, Pauwels acknowledges that at the beginning of the war most people enthusiastically supported their country’s war effort. However, he also points out this enthusiasm had its limits. In 1917, Russia was engulfed in revolution. A French army mutinied. On all sides a certain war weariness set in and the conflict lost its glamour.
Consistent with his argument that the war was fought not only between countries, but also between the working class and its social superiors, Pauwels gives us a picture of the event as experienced by those who actually did the fighting and worked in the war industries.
His account of the war as a struggle between classes is clearly argued, but he might have strengthened his case by paying more attention to the interpretations of those who see things differently. To take only one example, British historian Ruth Henig has argued that “domestic considerations were as likely to act as a brake on an aggressive foreign policy as to have provoked one.”
Exactly how, even assuming the elites were as unified in their thinking as Pauwels suggests, did their fears and hopes shape any specific decision of Europe’s political leaders as they struggled with the deepening crisis they faced in July 1914 and, in some cases, sought to use to their advantage?
Nonetheless, Pauwels has given us a thought-provoking account of the Great War that casts it in a different light from that presented in most standard histories of the subject.
Ken Osborne is an emeritus professor at the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba. Many years ago he taught Grade 12 students about the First World War at Daniel McIntyre Collegiate.

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“Romanticism and War”: Contextualising a Theory of Interpretation | Dissident Voice

In 2014 I reviewed what was promoted as a significant revision in the interpretation of what in Britain and continental Europe is called “The Great War” and since 1945 has been popularly called the “First World War”.1 The revisionary aspect was the author’s contention — expressed in his title The Sleepwalkers — that the cause of the great slaughter between 1914 and 1918 was far less the intentions of the belligerents than their general incapacity to grasp the full consequences of their actions. The argument is explicitly a challenge to the narrative still taught in most school history books, as far as I can tell, that the assassination of the Austrian heir apparent in Sarajevo triggered a chain reaction culminating in the German invasion of France via Belgium (the pretext by which Britain joined France in battle against the German Empire). This chain reaction is usually attributed to the quasi-automatic operation of overt and covert diplomatic agreements—in commercial terms, the unfortunate mechanisms of “fine print”. As I argued in my review The Sleepwalkers promised far more than it could have fulfilled since the author’s relatively sympathetic treatment of Germany almost entirely omits the role of the British Empire, then certainly the world’s supreme economic and military power.
Jacques Pauwels new book The Great Class War 1914-1918 on the other hand is genuinely revisionary. Like his earlier book, The Myth of the Good War, this book examines the prevailing stories as to why and how the First World War started.2 However, unlike The Sleepwalkers, The Great Class War actually offers an explanation for the common—yet rarely analysed in mainstream scholarship—assertion that the war was foremost an imperialist war—a war between empires and also a war for empire. The fundamental problem with the common assertion is that generally no serious discussion of imperialism is offered. The obvious reason for this omission is that to discuss imperialism would undermine the entire narrative by which it is maintained that imperialism essentially collapsed in 1918—with the exception of a brief, if exceedingly bloody interlude between 1939 and 1945.3 The collapse of the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the impending collapse of the remaining European world powers which resulted from the great catastrophe of August 1914, obscured the triumph of the American Empire which by 1945 had become the Anglo-American Empire, an ostensibly new form of power projection rebranded since 1989 as “globalisation”.
Of course, there was a serious analysis of the causes of World War I written by Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism,4 but this essay receives scant attention in mainstream historical writing, especially in the genuinely important segment—popular history. This is Dr Pauwels’ forte. In The Myth of the Good War, Dr Pauwels presents a concise examination of the central myth of the American Empire, namely, that to the extent it even exists it was disinterested and in that sense also “exceptional”—as all things American are generally considered “exceptional” (especially by Americans themselves). In his earlier book Dr Pauwels reviews the extant writing and documentation on US involvement in World War II and shows that it is entirely possible to interpret the official stories and record in such a way that one is compelled to see the second world war as a war against the Soviet Union waged by the US and its overt as well as covert allies. In this way he follows an argument made by the American historian Carroll Quigley.5 Quigley concluded from his study of the Anglo-American elite (focusing on the legacy of Cecil Rhodes) that the British ruling class and their US cousins pursued policies, which were, in fact, consistent with the British understanding of imperial domination and the manipulation of continental European politics to further the ends of the British Empire. This view coincides largely with the concept of the “vertical” and “horizontal” wars that form the centre of Jacques Pauwels’ study of the Great War.

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