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Volume 48 Number 24, December 15, 2018 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Marking the Centenary of the End of World War I

What Hakim Adi Had to Say

Hakim Adi is Professor of the History of Africa and the African Diaspora at the University of Chichester. He gave a presentation at the meetings held in South Shields and London to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.

Hakim Adi speaking at the meeting in South Shields

Prof Hakim Adi began his presentation by saying that he wanted to explain the often-hidden history of the First World War. It is frequently presented as a mystery, a great calamity where millions of people lost their lives, but it is left unclear as to what was actually going on and what caused the war. In particular, the massive opposition, especially by the working people of many countries including Britain, is also obscured.

It was a global war in which people from every continent participated and gave their lives, both as combatants and as a massive civilian population. Besides Europe, the conflict was fought in Africa, Asia and Western Asia, now often called the Middle East. The estimates of those killed and injured, said Prof Adi, amount to some 40 million casualties, including 19 million deaths of which 8 million were civilians; 23 million people were wounded. Britain suffered 750,000 deaths and 1.5 million wounded. He pointed out that the war involved 4 million people from the colonial empires. The way the war was fought in Africa meant that hundreds of thousands of Africans were conscripted into the armies of Britain, France, Germany and other countries fighting a war between the various, mainly European, empires. Indeed, it has been argued that the first shots in this war were fired in Africa. He gave the example of the French colonial empire, which drafted 500,000 African troops and 20,000 porters. In East and central Africa, 370,000 people lost their lives. The effects of the war, which included the global flu pandemic, killed a further million people in this region of the world.

Prof Adi went on to explain that the war completely transformed the world, resulting in the downfall of four major empires. The vast Russian empire was ended both by the consequences of the war and by the revolutionary activities of the Russian people. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, which dominated the whole Balkan region, collapsed as a result of the war, as did the German empire, including its colonies in Africa, and the huge Ottoman empire that had stretched from Europe to Asia.

Indian troops headed for East Africa, 1917

The First World War was therefore a tremendously significant event in world history, but we are often misled and disinformed about the nature of the war. Prof Adi quoted Boris Johnson, who in 2014 wrote in an article for the Telegraph that "Germany started the Great War", and Michael Gove who in the same year accused the BBC TV series Blackadder of perpetuating "unpatriotic" myths, and again placing the blame on Germany.

Either the war is presented as mysterious, a catastrophe, an accident, or, as is sometimes said, that it was a war to uphold Western civilisation, or something to do with defending Belgian sovereignty. In fact, said Prof Adi, if you look at the history of Belgium, that country was also a major colonial power and had been responsible for the deaths of 10 million Africans in the 30 years before the war, but the powers were not concerned about whether Belgium was upholding the rights of Africa. It was even claimed that this was a war against war. But the truth of the matter, he said, was that this is all disinformation designed to disarm us today about what their wars in general are about. Prof Adi used the illustration of the map of Africa on the eve of war to show that it was completely divided between the European powers. The big powers in Europe - Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal and others - had invaded the African continent, divided it up between themselves, and they continued to fight over it.

He said that the key thing it illustrated was that the world was divided between the big powers who continued to contend against each other for territory, raw materials and markets. But since the world and Africa were already divided, how was that redivision going to be made; in fact, they could only achieve that re-division by going to war. So, said Prof Adi, in the build-up to war, there were various incidents and agreements between the big powers, many of which were secret. Far from the war being an accident, we can see it arising out of the contention between these powers.

For example, in 1904, there was an agreement between Britain and France over Morocco. Britain and France agreed that France would have a free hand to do what it liked in Morocco, of course without consulting any Africans in Morocco, while France agreed that Britain could have Egypt without French interference. This agreement was also directed against Germany, because Germany was also interested in Morocco. This pact therefore contributed to the 1911 Agadir incident, when Germany threatened to intervene, and warships were mobilised, almost leading to war at that time.

British soldiers on the Somme, July 1916

Then in 1905 Britain and France conducted secret military manoeuvres directed against Germany. In the years immediately preceding the war there was a massive expansion of the British navy, also directed against Germany. War preparations were therefore already being made a decade before the war broke out.

In another example, Russia and Britain came to an agreement in 1907 over the division of central Asia, particularly the division of Persia. The agreement even allowed Russia to intervene in Persia to suppress a popular uprising against the Shah, which suited neither Britain nor Russia.

Prof Adi again stressed that we can see both that the world was being divided between the powers, and that the contention between them was not just over dividing territory but also military contention. Britain was building its navy, Germany was building its navy, and other powers were arming, all creating an instability and tension which eventually erupted into war. He also remarked that throughout this period, there was an anti-German campaign in the newspapers complaining about the militarism of Germany needing to be stopped, while keeping quiet about the militarism of Britain, France and other powers.

This contention and these secret treaties were not just something that preceded the war but continued throughout. In 1915, a new agreement was made with Russia over the redivision of Persia. In the same year, the secret treaty of London was made with Italy. At this time, Italy was on the side of Germany and the central powers; this treaty was to bring Italy onto the side of Britain and the entente, as it was called. The agreement secretly promised that when the allies had dealt with the Austro-Hungarian empire, Italy could have pieces of that empire as well as parts of the German colonies in Africa, other African territories, such as Somalia, and a share of Ethiopia.

European Empires before World War I

This division of the world between such powers as Britain, France and Italy, without consulting with the people of the countries being divided, was a very clear indication that the war was in reality about the redivision of the world. Prof Adi then emphasised perhaps the most infamous of all these secret treaties: the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, where Britain and France essentially carved up what is now called the Middle East, then known as Western Asia. France was able to get Syria and Lebanon into its sphere of influence, while Britain got Palestine. The rights of the Kurds and the Palestinians were completely ignored; many people argue that this agreement was the root cause of the current problems that exist in Palestine and the whole region. Of course, said Prof Adi, it was an agreement which reneged on previous agreements the British government had made with the Arab peoples of that region. These secret treaties that continued during the First World War illustrate very clearly what the war was about.

Prof Adi then went on to speak about the understanding of the war in the consciousness of the forces of the working people of many countries, particularly to the communists in Russia. He illustrated this with a pamphlet by Lenin written in 1914 just after the war had been declared, in which he explains that the war had been prepared for decades. It is a struggle over markets and resources, it is about the seizure of territory and subjugation of other nations. And in fact, because of this character of the coming war and the preparations for the war, this was well-known to many before it broke out. Many of the socialist parties of Europe had come together and declared that, should such a war break out, they would refuse to participate. Of course, when the war did break out, they reneged on that principle and for various reasons sided with their own governments and the lie that they were "defending the fatherland" or "motherland".

Prof Adi then spoke about the period leading up to the war. This was a very important period for the struggles of the working people in Britain and in other countries. The period leading up to 1914 is one of great struggle of workers for their rights and of people against colonialism in India, Egypt and elsewhere. The war, so to speak, came to the aid of the governments of the big powers in that it enabled them to hang onto their colonies, to grab new colonies, and to divert and suppress the struggles of their own people.

In Britain, the period leading up to the war is known as the "great unrest". It was the period of what was known as the Triple Alliance, between the miners, railway workers and transport workers, including the dockers, in which the biggest unions in Britain united to fight for their rights. The government even brought troops out, such was the militancy at that time. This was also a period of the struggles of women, such as the suffragettes, and major political unrest, where the working people in Britain were fighting for change. There was a fear among the rulers that the workers were so powerful, with the struggles in Britain and other countries such as in Ireland, where there was a General Strike in Dublin in 1913 led by James Connolly and Jim Larkin, that if the war had not broken out in 1914, this would have brought down their whole system.

Workers and Soldiers Council, Glasgow

Prof Adi then pointed out that these struggles continued during the war. There were many examples of these struggles in parts of England and Wales, and perhaps most particularly Scotland, where we talk historically of Red Clydeside. There were shop steward committees, which often acted separately from the trade union leaders, organising amongst the rank and file workers and often in opposition to the privations of the war. The war allowed the government in Britain to bring in the "Defence of the Realm Act", which effectively made it very difficult for workers to organise during the war, but the struggles of the workers continued against that law and workers continued to fight for their rights for wages and better conditions, as well as, in many instances, against the war itself.

Following the February Revolution in Russia that overthrew the Tsar in 1917, continued Prof Adi, the Leeds Council of Workers' and Soldiers' Delegates was established. He said that there were various examples of conferences of this type, which were calling for a general peace opposed to the continuation of the war, and in support of the Russian revolution. The revolution in Russia was a direct consequence of the war, which had intensified the problems. When the October Revolution broke out, it was a revolution against war and for peace, and had a world-shattering impact. This impact was felt in Britain as it showed there was an alternative to the war and to the way the country was being governed; the working people could be the agents of change and take things into their own hands and become the decision-makers.

Prof Adi then went on to talk about the conscientious objectors who were an organised force of many thousands of people who refused to fight in the war because of their political principles and because they were opposed to the war, whether because they were opposed to the war in general, or because they had political opposition and reservations. We know that those who objected to the war on the basis of conscience were treated extremely badly. Some were sent to the front lines, and if they refused to fight, they were executed. Others were imprisoned and forced to do hard labour for the duration of the war. Prof Adi gave a quote from Isaac Hall, a Jamaican conscientious objector who was imprisoned in Pentonville. His analysis of the war was not just that he was opposed to war, but that those powers that are fighting the war are the oppressors of him and others, and amongst the worse oppressors. He mentions Belgium in particular as one of the biggest murderers of Africans. For his stand, his moral objection, he was arrested and tortured in prison, but nevertheless refused to betray his principles. There were many thousands who took that stand. This opposition of the workers, conscientious objectors and others is something again that is hidden, giving the impression that the whole country was behind the war. In fact, quite the opposite was the case.

John Chilembwe, Baptist church minister, pictured on left

Prof Adi said he wanted to give an example from Africa, because in Africa there were many rebellions against the war which again nobody today, certainly not the government, ever mentions. One of the most famous is the rebellion led by John Chilembwe. He was a minister in what is today Malawi in South Africa, who led a rebellion in 1915 in opposition to Africans in Malawi being conscripted as porters or auxiliaries. Chilembwe objected to this conscription, saying that the war is nothing to do with his people. He led an armed rebellion for which he was executed. Today he is remembered as one of the national heroes of Malawi.

Prof Adi then returned to one of the most important consequences of the war: the revolution that broke out in Russia in March 1917 (February in the old-style calendar). There were two revolutions in 1917. The first revolution in March brought a government of a whole range of parties opposed to the Tsar, but the burning issue was: what was that government going to do about the issues that confronted the people, especially the war? The Provisional Government, as it was called, not only did not take any measure to end the war but actually tried to pursue it more vigorously because it was already in consort with the British and French governments. Thus followed the second revolution, the famous October Revolution, which was led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Prof Adi said that one of the key reasons for the success of the Bolsheviks was their simple slogan for "Peace, Bread and Land", pointing out that "peace" came first. They said to the people of Russia that these are the things we need and the only way we can get them is by empowering ourselves. Local councils, committees of workers, soldiers and farmers deputies, had become established across Russia, and it was those Soviets that were able to take power in the October revolution. Prof Adi pointed out that the question of war played a big role in persuading working people of Russia to take matters into their own hands. He said that one could say that this was the beginning of an anti-war government. That is what an anti-war government meant: it had to be a government of the people's empowerment.

Mass protest on International Women's Day, 1917 in Russia, demanding peace, land and bread

One of the first things that this new Soviet government did was to issue the decree on peace just a day after its existence - a day after the revolution it immediately declared for a general peace and started armistice negotiations with Germany. Germany exacted a very harsh peace, taking a lot of Russia's territory. Poland also took large tracts of territory from Russia. But, said Prof Adi, Lenin and the Bolsheviks aimed to bring peace and hasten the end of the war rather than hold on to the territory that the Tsarist empire had previously seized. Further, he pointed out, the new revolutionary government published all the secret treaties; it was through the Russian government's publishing these treaties that they found their way into Britain. The Manchester Guardian was the first newspaper in Britain to subsequently publish the secret treaties. The anti-war government in Russia was therefore extremely important: it immediately sued for peace, it raised the prospect that this peace could be brought about by the act of working people themselves, and it immediately exposed the nature of the war to everybody, as a war between two groups of robbers for dividing up the world between each other.

Prof Adi then moved on to looking at what happened after the war. Taking Africa as an example, he pointed out that British troops had invaded Togoland, which was a German colony, and there is evidence that these troops had already been mobilised - in other words, they were ready for war even before the war was declared - and were interested in grabbing these colonies. That was exactly what happened: the victors of the war took over these German colonies. They redivided Africa according to their interests. He gave further examples, together with examples of the legacy today of this division. Similar divisions took place over the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.

Essentially, the end of the war redivided the world, and in the process created new problems. The big powers carried on their wars. Regarding Ireland, Britain intervened to prevent the Irish people exercising their right to self-determination. Not only were there revolutions in Russia, but there were revolutions in Germany and attempts at revolution in other countries throughout Europe and the world in this period. The so-called "war to end all wars" did not resolve any problems, the tension or any of the major issues that existed before the war. Quite the opposite. It created the conditions for new problems and further war.

Prof Adi therefore concluded that when we look at exactly what was going on, both the contention between the big powers and the struggle of the working people in this period, there are very definite conclusions we can draw. Today, the world is similarly extremely unstable, with contention between the big powers in Africa, in central Asia, in the Middle East. Again, there are massive preparations for war. Britain is particularly central to the armaments industry - the export of arms. The world is a very unstable place and, just as the First World War showed, the struggles of the working people are crucial to bringing peace. Prof Adi emphasised that it is important that we learn the lessons of history: in this uncertain, unstable world, the struggles of ordinary people have become extremely important, especially the conception that we can usher in an anti-war government of our own.


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