Front Page Titles (by Subject) 5.: The Social Democrats and War - Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War
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5.: The Social Democrats and War - Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War 
Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War, edited with a Foreword by Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Indiana, 2011).
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The Social Democrats and War
Marx was not a pacifist. He was a revolutionary. He scorned the wars of emperors and kings, but he worked for the great civil war, in which the united proletarians of the world should fight the exploiters. Like all other utopians of the same brand, he was convinced that this war would be the last one. When the proletarians had conquered and established their everlasting regime, nobody would be in a position to deprive them of the fruits of their victory. In this last war Engels assigned to himself the role of commander in chief. He studied strategy in order to be equal to his task when the day should dawn.
This idea of the coöperation of all proletarians in the last struggle for liberation led to the foundation of the First International Working Men’s Association in 1864. This association was hardly more than a round table of doctrinaires. It never entered the field of political action. Its disappearance from the scene attracted as little notice as had its previous existence.
In 1870 two of the five Social Democratic members of the North German Parliament, Bebel and Liebknecht, opposed the war with France. Their attitudes, as the French socialist Hervé observed, were “personal gestures which had no consequences and did not meet with any response.” The two nations, the Germans and the French, says Hervé, “were heart and soul on the battlefields. The Internationalists of Paris were the most fanatical supporters of the war to the knife. . . . The Franco-German War was the moral failure of the International.”*
The Second International, founded in Paris in 1889, was an achievement of one of the many international congresses held in cities blessed by a world’s fair. In the twenty-five years which had passed since the foundation of the First International the concept of a great world revolution had lost a good deal of its attraction. The new organization’s purpose could no longer be presented as coördinating the military operations of the proletarian armies of various countries. Another object had to be found for its activities. This was rather difficult. The labor parties had begun to play a very important role in the domestic policies of their countries. They were dealing with innumerable problems of interventionism and economic nationalism, and were not prepared to submit their own political tactics to the supervision of foreigners. There were many serious problems in which the conflict of interests between the proletarians of different countries became apparent. It was not always feasible to evade discussion of such annoying matters. Sometimes even immigration barriers had to be discussed; the result was a violent clash of dissenting views and a scandalous exposure of the Marxian dogma that there is an unshakable solidarity among proletarian interests all over the world. The Marxian pundits had some difficulty in tolerably concealing the fissures that had become visible.
But one neutral and innocuous subject could be found for the agenda of the International’s meetings: peace. The discussion soon made plain how vain the Marxian catchwords were. At the Paris congress Frederick Engels declared that it was the duty of the proletarians to prevent war at all costs until they themselves had seized power in the most important countries.* The International discussed various measures in the light of this principle: the general strike, general refusal of military service, railroad sabotage, and so on. But it was impossible not to touch on the problem of whether destroying one’s own country’s defense system would really serve the interests of the workers. The worker has no fatherland, says the Marxian; he has nothing to lose but his chains. Very well. But is it really of no consequence to the German worker whether he exchanges his German chains for Russian ones? Should the French workingman let the republic fall prey to Prussian militarism? This Third Republic, said the German Social Democrats, is only a plutodemocracy and a counterfeit republic; it is not the French proletarian’s business to fight for it. But the French could not be persuaded by such reasoning. They clung to their prejudice against the Hohenzollerns. The Germans took offense at what they called French stubbornness and petty bourgeois sentiments, although they themselves made it plain that the Social Democrats would unconditionally defend Germany against Russia. Even Bebel had boasted that in a war with Russia he himself, old fellow as he was, would shoulder a rifle.* Engels, in a contribution to the almanac of the French workers’ party for 1892, declared: “If the French Republic aids his Majesty the Czar and Autocrat of all the Russias, the German Social Democrats will be sorry to fight them but they will fight them nevertheless.”† The request which Engels put in these words to the French was in full agreement with the naïve demands of the German nationalists. They, too, considered it the duty of France to isolate itself diplomatically and either remain neutral in a war between the Triple Alliance3 and Russia or find itself without allies in a war against Germany.
The amount of delusion and insincerity in the dealings of the Second International was really amazing. It is still more astonishing that people followed these loquacious discussions with eager attention and were convinced that the speeches and resolutions were of the highest importance. Only the pro-socialist and pro-Marxian bias of public opinion can explain this phenomenon. Whoever was free from this could easily understand that it was mere idle talk. The oratory of these labor congresses meant no more than the toasts proposed by monarchs at their meetings. The Kaiser and the Czar too used to speak on such occasions of the comradeship and traditional friendship which linked them and to assure each other that their only concern was the maintenance of peace.
Within the Second International the German Social Democratic party was paramount. It was the best organized and largest of all socialist parties. Thus the congresses were an exact replica of conditions within the German party. The delegates were Marxians who interlarded their speeches with quotations from Marx. But the parties which they represented were parties of trade unions, for which internationalism was an empty concept. They profited from economic nationalism. The German workers were biased not only against Russia but also against France and Great Britain, the countries of Western capitalism. Like all other Germans they were convinced that Germany had a fair title to claim British and French colonies. They found no fault with the German Morocco policy but its lack of success.* They criticized the administration of military and naval affairs; but their concern was the armed forces’ readiness for war. Like all other Germans they too viewed the sword as the main tool of foreign policy. And they too were sure that Great Britain and France envied Germany’s prosperity and planned aggression.
It was a serious mistake not to recognize this militarist mentality of the German masses. On the other hand, too much attention has been paid to the writings of some socialists who, like Schippel, Hildebrand, and others, proposed that the Social Democrats should openly support the Kaiser’s aggressive policy. After all, the Social Democrats were a party of opposition; it was not their job to vote for the government. Their accommodating attitude, however, was effective enough to encourage the nationalist trend of foreign policy.
The government was fully aware that the Social Democratic workers would back it in the event of war. About the few orthodox Marxians the administration leaders were less assured; but they knew very well that a wide gulf separated these doctrinaires from the masses, and they were convinced that the bulk of the party would condone precaution-ary measures against the Marxian extremists. They ventured, therefore, to imprison several party leaders at the outbreak of the war; later they realized that this was needless. But the party’s executive committee, badly informed as it had always been, did not even learn that the authorities had changed their minds and that there was nothing to fear from them. Thus on August 3, 1914, the party chairman, Ebert, and the treasurer, Braun, fled to Switzerland with the party funds.†
It is nonsense to say that the socialist leaders in voting for war credits betrayed the masses. The masses unanimously approved the Kaiser’s war. Even those few members of Parliament and editors who dissented were bound to respect the will of the voters. The Social Democratic soldiers were the most enthusiastic fighters in this war for conquest and hegemony.
Later, of course, things changed. The hoped-for victories did not come. Millions of Germans were sacrificed in unsuccessful attacks against the enemy’s trenches. Women and children were starving. Then even the trade-union members discovered they had been mistaken in considering the war a favorable opportunity to improve their standard of living. The nation became ripe for the propaganda of radicalism. But these radicals did not advocate peace; they wanted to substitute class war—civil war—for the war against the external foe.
Anti-Semitism and Racism
[* ]Hervé, L’Internationalisme (Paris, 1910), pp. 129 ff.
[* ]Kautsky, Sozialisten und Krieg (Prague, 1937), p. 300.
[* ]Kautsky, op. cit., p. 307.
[† ]Ibid., p. 352.
[3. ][The Triple Alliance (1882) allied Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy against Russia. —Ed.]
[* ]Andler, op. cit., p. 107.
[† ]Ziekursch, Politische Geschichte des neuen deutsche Kaiserreichs, III, p. 385.