Gregory Zinoviev

Two Eras of War – III


Source: New International, Vol.19 No.1, Jan-Feb 1953, pp.42-51.
Written/First Published: 1916 (approximately) in The War and the Crisis in Socialism
Transcription: Daniel Gaido & Ted Crawford.
Mark-up: by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A Discussion of National and Imperialist Wars

The war of 1864 opens the series of Bismarck’s national wars. After the death of King Friedrick VII of Denmark, Holstein, with its almost completely German population, and Schleswig with its predominantly German population indicated their desire to separate themselves from Denmark and to join Germany. The popular representatives of both states elected the Duke of Augustenburg as their regent. The question of the fate of both dukedoms became, in this manner, a national question. The German patriots raised a noisy agitation for the liberation of the dukedoms from the national oppression of the Danes. In January 1864 Prussia undertakes a war against Denmark, together with Austria, and it is won quickly. However, the dukedoms are not given to the German Duke of Augustenburg, as had been demanded by patriotic public opinion in Germany. Instead, Prussia and Austria decide to divide the spoils. Prussia gets Schleswig, Austria gets Holstein.

Immediately after the war of 1864 the question comes to a head: under whose hegemony will Germany unite itself. Prussia or Austria – this dilemma now stands most pressingly on the order of the day. Bismarck strives for a war against Austria, for the exclusion of Austria from the German league, and for the founding of a centralized “Little Germany” dominated by Prussia.

While arming for the war against Austria, Bismarck secures Russia’s neutrality (by support against the Poles), friendly relations with France (by granting compensations to Napoleon III) and with Italy (by handing Venice over to it).

In several decisive battles, Prussia is victorious over Austria with lightning speed, Bismarck takes away from Austria the Holstein which they had just recently won together, and annexes Hannover, Kassel, Hessen-Nassau and the free city of Frankfurt in addition. He does not want to destroy Austria completely, for he knows that through the German minority in Austria, the Germans have the opportunity to rule over many millions of Slavic Austrians. For this reason he is “modest” in his demands. He struggles against the insatiable appetite of the Prussian court circle. And he puts through his moderate demands which shortly make it possible for Germany to gain support for her foreign policy by an alliance with defeated Austria.

After Prussia’s victory of 1866, and after Austria’s declaration that she was leaving the German league, Napoleon III sought to prevent the complete consolidation of Germany by attempting to bring about two unifications: the North German and South German federations. The South German one, however, did not come into existence. The year 1866 becomes a year of victory for the “small German” policy. The organization of the North German federation is completed in 1866-67. It embraces the whole of Germany up to the four South German states. This is no longer a federation of states, but rather a federal state; it is not a federation of individual completely independent states, but a state which has been created by the amalgamation of separate, previously independent states.

In this manner Bismarck overthrows the three most legitimate princes of Germany for Prussia’s benefit. His “Christianity,” his piety suffers absolutely nothing by the ousting of the three revered and lawful “Christian” princes.

“It was a complete revolution,” remarked Engels about this. “Naturally, we are the last to reproach him for it. On the contrary, what we blame him for is that he was not revolutionary enough; that he was only a Prussian revolutionary from above; that he began a whole revolution in a situation in which he could only carry through half a one; that once he had started on the road of annexations, he was satisfied with four shabby petty states.” [1]

The establishment of the North German Federation does not yet signify the complete unification of Germany. Rather, this was a compromise between the drive for a complete national unification, and the particularistic tradition. Prussia placed herself at the head of the federation; she was the Presidium. The North German Reichstag was, to be sure, elected by universal ballot. But the Federal Council (Bundesrat) was counterposed to it, and Bismarck balanced back and forth between these institutions, supporting himself first on the one, and then on the other.

In any event, the creation of the North German Federation signified a decisive political step. The tendency to ignore the federation, to boycott the North German Reichstag; Wilhelm Liebknechr’s attempts not to recognize what had taken place, and his preference for Austria after 1867, were unquestionably mistakes. The unification of Germany under Austria’s leadership became an impossibility. Prussia had triumphed irrevocably.

Austria’s resistance was broken. But German unification had another, no less powerful enemy – bonapartist France, Napoleon III. Bismarck had promised Napoleon III appropriate “compensations” for his neutral behavior in the war of 1866. But he did not give them to him. After Bismarck had defeated Austria; after he had begun the unification of Germany around Prussia, the whole situation was such that he could not relinquish German territories to Napoleon III. Prussia’s great power policy did not permit it. In a conflict, the occasion for which was presented by Luxemburg, Napoleon III came out empty handed once more. He felt himself cheated. His prestige inside France, where he could only hang on by means of external military and diplomatic victories, began to sink. The disunity, the splitting up of Germany was a necessary prerequisite for Bonapartism in France. Meanwhile, however, Napoleon had to admit to himself that the final unification of Germany was close at hand, and that with it the golden days of Bonapartism were numbered.

Thiers later characterized this as the biggest stupidity of Napoleon III: that he had permitted the decisive steps to be taken toward the national unification of Germany and Italy (1859, 1866). For the hegemony of France could only be maintained as long as Italy and Germany were split up into a series of small and middle sized states. Now this fact became clearer to Napoleon III than it had ever been before.

The decisive moment came. Napoleon III had to say to himself: now or never. Either he had to weaken Prussia’s power in a war, tear loose the small states and re-establish the splintering of Germany, or – Bonapartism was through. The moment must also have appeared specially favorable to Napoleon III because he could count on the support of Austria (revenge for Sadowa), Denmark (revenge for Schleswig-Holstein) and even on the support of Italy.

On the other hand, Bismarck also wanted war against France. It was completely clear that the final unification of Germany would only come about after a victorious war against France. The military preparedness of Prussia was excellent, at that moment, as the experience of the years 1864 and 1866 had shown; it was significantly better than that of France. Prussia had already won two victories. The German petty states bent their knees in awe. Prussia’s diplomatic situation was not bad, as in the existing distribution of power Bismarck had a greater right to expect that Austria would remain neutral, and this was confirmed by the events themselves.

Bismarck also sought war, and he placed snares for Napoleon III everywhere. Both sides took pains to fashion the circumstances in such a way that the opponent would appear to be the aggressor. Bismarck was more adroit, and he achieved a declaration of war by France on Prussia in the summer of 1870. [2]

Bismarck’s plans were completely fulfilled. Prussia’s military preparation was actually superior to that of France. The particularist South Germany joined the united North against France with the best of mutual understanding. The jointly won victory over Napoleon III brought about the closest collaboration between North and South, and thus promoted the unification of Germany. The second French empire fell on September 4, 1870, after Sedan. Napoleon III was defeated, and the republic was proclaimed. During the siege of Paris, the founding of the united German empire was solemnly announced. The last enemy of German unity was overthrown. The unification of Germany from above had been achieved. One way or the other, the conditions for the successful capitalist development of Germany were irrevocably secured.

The Franco-Prussian war completely changed the political situation in Europe. It had brought about the unification of Germany, broken the almighty influence of the Pope and thus completed the unification of Italy; it had overthrown the second empire and created the third republic in France. To this extent this war was progressive. But the unification of Germany was accomplished from the top down by Bismarck and the Junkers. This had made possible the violent rape of Alsace-Lorraine. The war of 1870-71 had created the Alsace-Lorraine question, in the sign of which very reactionary power-groupings were formed later on. In addition, the war of 1870-71 did away with the neutrality of the Black Sea, and thus made the Eastern question an acute one once more.

These were elements which complicated the war of 1870-71. But of and by itself, this war was the last great national war in Western and Central Europe. With this war, the cycle closes of the great European wars whose objective problem it was to create large, united national states which were necessary for the successful development of capitalism, and which were thus historically progressive in character. Because of special circumstances, Germany was able to consolidate itself into a united national state later than the others. Hence it was Germany which completed the cycle of the great national wars. It was due to this belated achievement of unity that there was already at that time at hand in Germany a numerous working class, and that a more or less organized social democratic workers’ party existed which had to take an independent position in this war. We will speak about this position in greater detail in another chapter ...

“The national unification of Germany and Italy satisfied a painful longing which had been felt over an extended period by these nations. After the defeat of the Revolution of 1848 this was accomplished, to be sure, not by an internal movement, but rather by external wars. The Crimean War of 1854-56 overthrew serfdom in Russia and forced the government of the Czar to pay attention to the industrial bourgeoisie. The unification of Italy was accomplished in 1859, 1866 and 1870, and that of Germany in 1866 and 1870. A liberal era was brought about in Austria by the war of 1866, and in Germany too the universal franchise and a certain freedom of the press and of organization was introduced. The year 1870 completed these beginnings, and brought the democratic republic to France. And in England an electoral reform was put through in 1867 which gave the franchise to the upper layers of the workers and the lower ones of the petty bourgeoisie of which they had been deprived until then. Thus governmental foundations were created on which all classes of the European nations could build up their existence, with the exception of the proletariat.” [3]

In the period between 1789 and 1871 there were, naturally, also wars which one cannot describe as national. This we have already noted. A crass example of this was the war between England and China of 1841-42, which was brought about by the trade in opium. But we are not discussing such wars at the moment.

National wars are wars which are provoked by a lengthy epoch of national oppression at the hands of foreign powers. They are usually wars which have been preceded by stormy national movements among the peoples who had been subjugated under foreign rule. They are wars which were directed against absolutism and feudalism, They are wars whose objective problem it is to satisfy the need for the creation of large, economically closely integrated national states, a need which is brought about by economic necessities. They are historically progressive wars, which smooth the road for the rule of a youthful capitalism. They are wars in which the bourgeoisie plays a progressive, often even a revolutionary role. They are thus differentiated from the imperialist epoch of the supremacy of finance capital in which the bourgeoisie becomes reactionary in all capitalist countries and is doomed to decay. They are wars in the course of which the proletariat first begins to consolidate itself as a class, while in the imperialist epoch the proletariat becomes the sole bearer of the urge for freedom and the development does not take place in the context of a struggle between feudalism and the bourgeoisie, but rather in that of the struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat. These wars took place at the beginning of the capitalist era, and are fundamentally different from the present imperialist wars ...

National and Imperialist Wars

National oppression, the baneful consequences of the splintering of nations, naturally lay as a particularly heavy burden on the lower strata of the populations, on the workers and the propertyless, on the “democracy” in the widest sense of the word. It had to suffer most under foreign rule and the splintering of the fatherland. It is therefore obvious that it became the prime mover of the national movement which had as its goal the overthrow of foreign rule, and the foundation of the nationally united states. The slogan “defense of the fatherland” became at that time the battle-cry of democracy.

We have seen what a tremendous role the national movement played in France, Italy and Germany in the period between 1789 and 1871. This movement passed over the land like a raging hurricane and embraced millions upon millions of people who groaned under the yoke of national oppression. Whole peoples were shaken to their foundations, and all public and political life was dominated by this movement for decades. The defense of the fatherland from a new partition by foreign oppressors (France), the struggle for an end to the splintering of the nation which weighed like an awful nightmare on all aspects of public life (Italy, Germany) – these were the aims of all. They became the mainspring of the whole political development of Europe.

It was precisely at this time that the slogan “defense of the Fatherland” first appeared, and it soon enjoyed a tremendous popularity among the widest layers of the population.

At that time millions of people who groaned under the yoke of national “separateness” had to take up this slogan. It had a historically progressive content at that time for it was directed against absolutism and feudalism. It buttressed the fight against the remnants of the middle ages which now had to give way to governmental forms appropriate to the epoch of growing capitalism.

The national wars of 1789-1871 left ineradicable traces in the psyche of the widest masses of the people behind them. Whole generations took a direct part in these wars. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands sacrificed their blood and belongings in them. These wars created a tremendous number of heroes. Folk poets sang their praises, and legends grew up which passed from mouth to mouth. The simple folk song dealt with the struggle for national liberation, and it was a subject of discussion in church and school. This tradition was also supported by the most progressive and enlightened section of the bourgeoisie. It is easy to picture to oneself what deep traces all this must have left in the consciousness of the masses; how much hatred must have accumulated in Germany against France and in France against Germany, in Italy against Austria and in Austria against Italy. Specially in the lower layers of the city and rural populations. For in the period of the national wars there could not yet exist a numerous, developed proletariat. These wars formed the beginning of capitalism, and hence also the beginning of the proletariat as a class.

This accumulation of national hatred, brought into existence by century-long national wars; these inheritances from the period 1789-1871 are now being exploited by the ruling classes of the different countries for the purpose of giving to the present purely imperialist war the imprint of a national war. Thus they seek to make the hearts of millions of people beat faster when they hear the phrase: “defense of the Fatherland.” The whole enormous apparatus of the governments, the press, the parliament, etc., were set simultaneously in motion in all countries to exploit the mass psychology retained in the people as an inheritance from a previous age – to mobilize the masses for a cause which is alien to them under the national banner of “defense of the Fatherland.”

The ruling classes are successful in this exploitation in proportion to the durability of the traces in the mass psychology of each country left by national oppression and the national wars. It is remarkable that nowhere do the masses of the petty bourgeoisie and the more backward strata of the proletariat give such blind credence to the fable that the war of 1914-16 is a national war as in France and Germany. Nowhere did the bourgeoisie have such success with the slogan “defense of the Fatherland.” Nowhere did it call forth such an immense national exaltation as in France and Germany. This was, possibly, repeated in Italy, although the whole situation forced the true motives of the Italian imperialists to come quite clearly out in the open.

In France the traditions of the national wars from the epoch of the great French revolution are still alive, and the hatred for “the Prussians” who besieged Paris in 1870 lives too. On the other hand. the memory of the long, tortured period of national partition, of the time when France oppressed the German people and prevented its unification still lives in Germany. A boundless hatred exists in Italy against the Austrians, the ancient oppressor. And although now something quite different is at issue, although now the bourgeoisie and the governments of all countries – under the pressure of all-mighty finance capital – conduct a policy of plunder which has nothing in common with the interests of the people, the inheritance of the previous period makes itself very noticeable. In the imperialist war of our times the phrases about national defense, defense of the Fatherland, can be specially successful in France, Germany and Italy. Much more so than in Russia and England.

The bourgeoisie and its politicians and diplomats are completely conscious in their misuse of “national war” and “defense of the Fatherland.” Far more than that. They have systematically prepared the present imperialist war exactly as it actually developed. And the capitalist horse-traders and diplomats have expressed the idea quite openly before the war began that for their cause to succeed, and in order to weaken the resistance of the socialist masses of the workers, they must create for them the illusion that it is a war of defense. The German imperialists, for example, were very well aware that the German proletariat would be a powerful obstacle to their war and robber policy. They knew that to wage war successfully they had to fool this proletariat, and convince it that this is a war for the defense of the Fatherland. And they discussed quite openly how best to throw sand in the eyes of the German proletariat, how most skilfully to make the imperialist war appear to be a national war.

Ritzner, one of the most eminent representatives of German diplomacy published a book called Outline of World Politics (Grundzüge der Weltpolitik) shortly before the war broke out (he used the pseudonym Ruedorffer). He writes quite openly about the war preparations:

“If international socialism succeeds in completely separating the worker subjectively from the texture of the nation and transforming him into a mere member of the class, then it has triumphed. For the means of pure force alone cannot be effective in the long run. But if international socialism does not succeed in this, if inner bonds remain which tie the worker to the organism which is called the nation, even if unconsciously, then the victory of international socialism remains in question.”[4]

What must one do, however, to prepare a defeat for socialism and to free ones hands for imperialist wars – for the wars which, in the opinion of the same German imperialist Ruedorffer are necessary in the “interests of capital?” For this there is only one means: dress up the imperialist wars in the ideology of the national wars. Create the illusion in the laboring masses that they are “defending the Fatherland” in a supposed national war.

Ruedorffer continues:

“The governments may perhaps be compelled, out of regard for the peace theories of socialism, to give thought to a careful covering of their (imperialist) undertakings by national sentiments. This will change nothing in the cause which is to be served by modern policy, but rather will only change some aspects of its political forms and techniques” (!).

That which the German imperialist Ruedorffer acknowledges openly is not valid, of course, only for Germany, or only for the bourgeoisie and the governments of a single group of the warring powers. Rather, it is the basis of capitalist politics in general in the age of imperialist wars. We have only presented a typical example.

One cannot say to the masses of the people directly: go and sacrifice yourselves by the millions on the battlefields because “our” bourgeoisie needs Belgian and French colonies in Africa, or because “our” bourgeoisie wants to win this or that “sphere of influence” in one country or another, etc. The bourgeoisie needs a better means to arouse the enthusiasm of the masses: it appeals to the inheritance from the previous epoch; it enflames the national feelings by the popular watch-word “defense of the Fatherland.” This is a necessity for wartime. Just as one must prepare munitions and improve the technology for war, it is equally necessary to influence the consciousness of the people. One must give thought to “covering ... by national sentiments.” This is – according to the characteristic expression of the German diplomat Ruedorffer – the simplest method and “technique.”

How wonderfully this imperialist “technique” has been perfected, how flawlessly it has functioned in this war can be seen, for example, in the fate of Bulgaria.

The national traditions are specially lively in Bulgaria. The hatred against the Turks, by whom the Bulgarians had been oppressed for many years, was very great.

W.G. Korolenko had an opportunity to observe the Bulgarians in the Dobrudja shortly before the war broke out. He describes the following scene in a Bulgarian school in a small, remote village. Many Bulgarian school teachers of both sexes had gathered together to participate in a literary evening at which the liberation of Bulgaria was to be celebrated.

“Young teachers who look much like our own, but who have bold eyes, and glowing, enthusiastic faces, recited verses from their poets. And in the small schoolroom there reigned an atmosphere which was pregnant with the impressions of former struggles. ‘The Turks tyrannized you.’ These words were repeated over and again. Tanned, mustached, and crookednosed Bulgarian shopkeepers, old and young women listened eagerly to the poetic effusions, which reminded them of the national struggles which had just been won. Blood, death by the bayonette, courageous disdain for all afflictions, and revenge against the oppressors!”

The national hatred is directed against the Turks. And what do we see? The war begins – and with what ease German imperialism succeeds, in 1915, with the help of its Bulgarian “young people,” in giving this hatred a different direction. The Turks suddenly become the best of friends. It is willed thus by German finance capital, by German imperialism. And haven’t we seen other similar transformations in the course of this war?

The criterion of a war of aggression or a war of defense also came into being in the epoch of national wars between 1789 and 1871. The democracy and emergent socialism had to differentiate between wars of aggression and defense. This difference took form in the diplomatic pre-history of the wars, and was not to be found in establishing who declared war first, or who fired the first shot. From the point of view of historical progress the matter went much farther. An aggressive war was a war which had as its aim to protect and secure the inheritances of absolutism and feudalism, to perpetuate national oppression and partition, and to prevent the establishment of united national states. A war of defense was a war which sought to abolish the remnants of feudalism, and the aims of which corresponded to the economic need to establish a national state. This division of the wars of the previous epoch into wars of aggression and defense had left deep traces in the consciousness of the democracy. Today the bourgeoisie grasps at these residues as it would for a straw. Everything which can be is set into motion. The bourgeoisie and the government of each country spares itself no effort, no treasure, if only it can portray its war as a “defensive war,” and that of its opponent as a “war of aggression.” In the imperialist era the criterion of defensive and aggressive wars has suffered the same fate as the slogan “defense of the Fatherland.”

The bourgeoisie and the governments of Germany, Austria (and not only of these countries) exploits the inheritance of the period of the national wars exactly as it exploits the religious prejudices of the masses, the political prejudices of various layers of the population …. for instance that of the peasantry, etc.

And the imperialists succeed in this stupefaction of the people all the easier to the extent that they “internationalize” their methods. The fact that the famous “technique” is applied simultaneously in all countries on an all-European scale facilitates the imperialists in each individual country in their swindle.

The socialist opportunists in the various countries have adapted themselves unconsciously to this ideological-political exploitation, without taking into account that what is involved is simply a “technique” applied by the bourgeoisie. The German (and other) socialists should have availed themselves of the opportunity to assist the working class to resist this capitalist “technique” and to oppose nationalism which had again raised its head. Instead, the opportunist section of the socialists bowed to the bourgeois “technique,” and itself became social chauvinist. To offer resistance was certainly not easy. The “technique” of the bourgeoisie is very developed. It has succeeded in creating a nationalist mass psychosis. Yet this obligates the German (and the other) socialists not to capitulate, but to resist all the more vehemently.

National elements and purely dynastic interests can play a role in the imperialist wars of the present period. But this role is accidental and episodic. In the era of national wars, elements of a different nature were also present, as we have seen. But in the historic sense we can and must distinguish two different epochs: that of the national and that of the imperialist wars. And we must never forget that the representatives of imperialism, the representatives of all-mighty finance capital will always exert themselves to beautify the imperialist wars, to give them a “covering ... of national sentiments.”

The war of 1914-16 also contains national elements: the Austrian-Serbian conflict, the collisions in the Balkans are closely connected with national questions. The national question is generally of greater significance in Eastern Europe. Bu. in general the national element plays a quite subordinate role in this war and alters nothing in its generally imperialist character.

If it were still necessary to prove that imperialism is the main driving force in wars nowadays, this could best be illustrated by the war of 1914-16. Who has still not understood that in this whole war the mighty imperialist interests of England, Germany and France set the tone.

National wars, such as we have seen in the epoch between 1789 and 1871 are still possible only in Asia or in large, rapidly developing colonies. National wars can still be waged by China and India – wars for their liberation from the yoke of European states, for the abolition of foreign rule which seeks to split them up and enslave them. Such wars are also possible on the part of large African, South American and Australian colonies which strive for complete independence. But the imperialist age would impress its stamp on such wars also. These countries would emerge in any event not as subjects, but rather as objects of imperialism. But the stage of capitalism which has been reached in Europe would make itself felt through a thousand consequences in these countries as they are bound to Europe by many threads.

Marx and Engels surveyed with their mind’s eye the general historical evolution which is now taking place as easily as the year 1847 (as the Communist Manifesto was being composed.) At the time when capitalism was emerging, the struggle of the proletariat had to assume national forms. But by its very nature it must become ever more international, and it must lead on an international scale to the replacement of the capitalist mode of production by another one, which is different from it in principle.

“Although not in content, the form of the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie is at first a national one. The proletariat of every country must naturally first deal with its own bourgeoisie ... Insofar as the proletariat must first win political supremacy for itself, it is itself still national, although not at all in the same sense as the bourgeoisie.” (Written in 1847 – Author). “National differences and antagonisms between peoples are vanishing gradually from day to day, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.” [5]

“The workers have no Fatherland,” said Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. How far removed from this is the slogan “defense of the Fatherland,” which is defended by the German and other social chauvinists who misuse Marx’s name under the influence of the bourgeoisie.

The social chauvinists often have the “best intentions.” They believe that they are shoving the bourgeoisie. But:– “You think you are shoving, but it is you who are being shoved.” In actuality, the social chauvinists are only following the “technical” manipulations of the Ruedorffers of all countries. To the extent that they help the Ruedorffers to give the present war the stamp of a national war, the social chauvinists become at best the blind tools of imperialism.

But, we have got ahead of ourselves ...




1. Fr. Engels. l.c., p.717.

2. Karl Kautsky, The Road to Power, 1909, pp.63-64. This pamphlet was written by Kautsky before he turned to the right.

3. Karl Kautsky, The Road to Power, 1909, pp.63-64. The pamphlet was written by Kautsky before he turned to the right.

4. Ruedorffer, Grundzüge der Weltpolitik, 1914, p.173.

5. K. Marx and Fr. Engels, The Communist Manifesto.

Last updated: 17.6.2008