Spartacus Blog

The People we should be remembering on Remembrance Sunday

Saturday, 7th November, 2015

John Simkin

Remembrance Sunday is held on the second Sunday in November, the Sunday nearest to 11th November, Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of hostilities in the First World War at 11 a.m. in 1918. It is to "commemorate the contribution of British and Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women".

Maybe this year, we should spare a thought for those men and women who fought to stop the First World War taking place. Some of them also lost their lives. In the years building up to the war a group of politicians, including Jean Jaurés and Edouard Vaillant in France, Karl Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg in Germany, Eugene V. Debs and Victor Berger in the USA, Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald and George Lansbury, were active members of the Socialist International, an organization of socialist and labour parties.

At a conference held in Basel in November, 1912, it was agreed that "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."

It was decided that the best way to deal with the situation if a war broke out was for members of the Socialist International to call a general strike in their own countries. At the end of the conference. members drafted a statement: "The Congress therefore appeals to you, proletarians and Socialists of all countries, to make your voices heard in this decisive hour! Proclaim your will in every form and in all places; raise your protest in the parliaments with all your force; unite in great mass demonstrations; use every means that the organization and the strength of the proletariat place at your disposal! See to it that the governments are constantly kept aware of the vigilance and passionate will for peace on the part of the proletariat! To the capitalist world of exploitation and mass murder, oppose in this way the proletarian world of peace and fraternity of peoples!"

The international crisis continued and further conferences took place. However, members of the Socialist International, completely underestimated the power of newspapers to create a desire to go to war. During the war fever that swept through Europe during the summer of 1914, members of the Socialist International continued to argue for peaceful negotiations between the European governments.

Germany declared war on France on 3rd August, 1914. The following day Britain declared war on Germany. The majority of men were willing to fight in a war because they were convinced they were going to win. Newspapers in all the participating countries told their readers it would be all over by Christmas. Soon after the outbreak of the war the editor of The Star newspaper made an attack on Lord Northcliffe, the owner of The Daily Mail: "Next to the Kaiser, Lord Northcliffe has done more than any living man to bring about the war."

Karl Liebknecht was the only member of the Reichstag who voted against Germany's participation in the First World War. He argued: "This war, which none of the peoples involved desired, was not started for the benefit of the German or of any other people. It is an Imperialist war, a war for capitalist domination of the world markets and for the political domination of the important countries in the interest of industrial and financial capitalism. Arising out of the armament race, it is a preventative war provoked by the German and Austrian war parties in the obscurity of semi-absolutism and of secret diplomacy."

Opposition to war was greater in Britain. Three members of the cabinet, Charles Trevelyan, John Burns, and John Morley, resigned in protest. All the main leaders of the Labour Party, including Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden, George Lansbury and Fred Jowett, spoke out against the war and with their Liberal colleagues went on to form the peace movement, the Union of Democratic Control.

Jean Jaurés, the leader of the French Socialist Party, continued to call for peace talks and urged men not to join the armed forces. However, on 31st July, 1914, Jaurés was assassinated by Raoul Villain, a 29-year-old French nationalist who wanted to go to war with Germany. Such was the patriotic feelings in France that when Villain appeared before a jury he was acquitted.

None of the British leaders of the peace movement were assassinated but they suffered a great deal for their beliefs. They came under tremendous pressure from a British press that had been urging war for some time. On 1st October 1914, The Times published a leading article entitled "Helping the Enemy", in which it wrote that "no paid agent of Germany had served her better" that Ramsay MacDonald had done.

The newspaper also included an article by Ignatius Valentine Chirol, who argued: "We may be rightly proud of the tolerance we display towards even the most extreme licence of speech in ordinary times... Mr. MacDonald' s case is a very different one. In time of actual war... Mr. MacDonald has sought to besmirch the reputation of his country by openly charging with disgraceful duplicity the Ministers who are its chosen representatives, and he has helped the enemy State ... Such action oversteps the bounds of even the most excessive toleration, and cannot be properly or safely disregarded by the British Government or the British people."

In December, 1914, Keir Hardie had a stroke. Sylvia Pankhurst later recalled: "I knew that Keir Hardie had been failing in health since the early days of the war. The great slaughter, the rending of the bonds of international fraternity, on which he had built his hopes, had broken him. Quite early he had a stroke in the House of Commons after some conflict with the jingoes. When he left London for the last time he had told me quietly that his active life was ended, and that this was forever farewell, for he would never return. In his careful way he arranged for the disposal of his books and furniture and gave up his rooms, foreseeing his end, and fronting it without flinching or regret." Hardie died on 25th September, 1915.

Horatio Bottomley, argued in the John Bull Magazine that Ramsay MacDonald was the leader of a "pro-German Campaign". On 19th June 1915 the magazine claimed that MacDonald was a traitor and that: "We demand his trial by Court Martial, his condemnation as an aider and abetter of the King's enemies, and that he be taken to the Tower and shot at dawn."

On 4th September, 1915, the magazine published an article which made an attack on his background. "We have remained silent with regard to certain facts which have been in our possession for a long time. First of all, we knew that this man was living under an adopted name - and that he was registered as James MacDonald Ramsay - and that, therefore, he had obtained admission to the House of Commons in false colours, and was probably liable to heavy penalties to have his election declared void. But to have disclosed this state of things would have imposed upon us a very painful and unsavoury duty. We should have been compelled to produce the man's birth certificate. And that would have revealed what today we are justified in revealing - for the reason we will state in a moment... it would have revealed him as the illegitimate son of a Scotch servant girl!"

Up unto this time MacDonald was unaware he was illegitimate. MacDonald received many letters of support, including this one: "For your villainy and treason you ought to be shot and I would gladly do my country service by shooting you. I hate you and your vile opinions - as much as Bottomley does. But the assault he made on you last week was the meanest, rottenest lowdown dog's dirty action that ever disgraced journalism."

The greatest struggle against the war took place in Germany. In February 1916, a group of left-wing socialists, including Karl Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Leo Jogiches, Paul Levi, Ernest Meyer, Franz Mehring, Wilhelm Pieck, Julian Marchlewski, Hermann Duncker and Hugo Eberlein formed an underground political organization called Spartakusbund (Spartacus League). The Spartacus League publicized its views in its illegal newspaper, Spartacus Letters.

On 1st May, 1916, the Spartacus League decided to come out into the open and organized a demonstration against the First World War in Berlin. A young man, Helmut Herzfelde, was in the crowd that day and heard Liebknecht and Luxemburg call for everyone to resist Germany's involvement in the war. Several of its leaders, including Liebknecht and Luxemburg were arrested and imprisoned. Wieland Herzfelde, said that the speeches at the rally had a great influence on his brother. It was at this point he decided to dedicate his art to politics. Wieland later wrote: "We are the soldiers of peace. No nation and no race is our enemy." Herzfelde, changed his name to John Heartfield in 1917 in "protest against German nationalistic fervour".

German right-wing nationalists never forgave Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg for their peace campaigns and they were both murdered in January 1919. However, the leaders of the movement did much better in Britain. On 22nd January, 1924, Ramsay MacDonald became prime minister. MacDonald's appointments as ministers of the government included several members of the peace movement, Philip Snowden (Chancellor of the Exchequer), Charles Trevelyan (Education) and Fred Jowett (Commissioner of Works).

Kathe Kollwitz, Memorial for Karl Liebknecht (1919)
Kathe Kollwitz, Memorial for Karl Liebknecht (1919)

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