Leon Trotsky
War and the International

The War of Defence

“The thing for us to do now is to avert this danger (Russian despotism), and to secure the culture and independence of our land. Thus we will make good our word, and do what we have always said we would. In the hour of danger we will not leave our Fatherland in the lurch.... Guided by these principles we vote for the war credits.”

This was the declaration of the German Social Democratic fraction, read by Haase in the Reichstag session of August 4th.

Here only the defence of the fatherland is mentioned. Not a word is said of the “liberating” mission of this War in behalf of the peoples of Russia, which was later sung in every key by the Social Democratic press. The logic of the Socialist press, however, did not keep pace with its patriotism. For while it made desperate efforts to represent the War as one of pure defence, to secure the safety of Germany’s possessions, it at the same time pictured it as a revolutionary offensive war for the liberation of Russia and of Europe from Czarism.

We have already shown clearly enough why the peoples of Russia had every reason to decline with thanks the assistance offered them at the point of the Hohenzollern bayonets. But how about the “defensive” character of the War?

What surprises us even more than what is said in the declaration of the Social Democracy is what it conceals and leaves unsaid. After Hollweg had already announced in the Reichstag the accomplished violation of the neutrality of Belgium and Luxemburg as a means of attacking France, Haase does not mention this fact in a single word. This silence is so monstrous that one is tempted to read the declaration a second and a third time. But in vain. The declaration is written as though such countries as Belgium, France and England had never existed on the political map of the German Social Democracy.

But facts do not cease to be facts simply because political parties shut their eyes to them. And every member of the International has the right to ask this question of Comrade Haase, “What portion of the five billions voted by the Social Democratic fraction was meant for the destruction of Belgium?” It is quite possible that in order to protect the German fatherland from Russian despotism it was inevitable that the Belgian fatherland should be crushed. But why did the Social Democratic fraction keep silent on this point?

The reason is clear. The English Liberal government, in its effort to make the War popular with the masses, made its plea exclusively on the ground of the necessity of protecting the independence of Belgium and the integrity of France, but utterly ignored its alliance with Russian Czarism. In like manner, and from the same motives, the German Social Democracy speaks to the masses only about the war against Czarism, but does not mention even by name Belgium, France and England. All this is of course not exactly flattering to the international reputation of Czarism. Yet it is quite distressing that the German Social Democracy should sacifice its own good name to the call to arms against Czarism. Lassalle said that every great political action should begin with a statement of things as they are. Then why does the defence of the fatherland begin with an abashed silence as to things as they are? Or did the German Social Democracy perhaps think that this was not a “big political action”?

Anyway, the defence of the fatherland is a very broad and very elastic conception. The world castastrophe began with Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia. Austria, naturally, was guided solely by the need of defending her borders from her uneasy neighbour. Austria’s prop was Germany. And Germany, in turn, as we already know, was prompted by the need to secure her own state. “It would be senseless to believe,” writes Ludwig Quessel on this point, “that one wall could be torn away from this extremely complex structure (Europe) without endangering the security of the whole edifice.”

Germany opened her “defensive war” with an attack upon Belgium, the violation of Belgium’s neutrality being allegedly only a means of breaking through to France along the line of least resistance. The military defeat of France also was to appear only as a strategic episode in the defence of the fatherland.

To some German patriots this construction of things did not seem quite plausible, and they had good grounds for disbelieving it. They suspected a motive which squared far better with the reality. Russia, entering upon a new era of military preparation, would be a far greater menace to Germany in two or three years than she was then. And France during that time would have completely carried out her three-year army reform. Is it not clear, then, that an intelligent self-defence demanded that Germany should not wait for the attack of her enemies but should anticipate them by two years and take the offensive at once? And isn’t it clear, too, that such an offensive war, deliberately provoked by Germany and Austria, is in reality a preventive war of defence?

Not infrequently these two points of view are combined in a single argument. Granted that there is some slight contradiction between them. The one declares that Germany did not want the War now and that it was forced upon her by the Triple Entente, while the other implies that war was disadvantageous to the Entente now and that for that very reason Germany had taken the initiative to bring on the War at this time. But what if there is this contradiction? It is lightly and easily glossed over and reconciled in the saving concept of a war of defence.

But the belligerents on the other side disputed this advantageous position of being on the defensive, which Germany sought to assume, and did it successfully. France could not permit the defeat of Russia on the ground of her own self-defence. England gave as the motive for her interference the immediate danger to the British Islands which a strengthening of Germany’s position at the mouth of the Channel would mean. Finally, Russia, too, spoke only of self-defence. It is true that no one threatened Russian territory. But national possessions, mark you, do not consist merely in territory, but in other, intangible factors as well, among them, the influence over weaker states. Serbia “belongs” in the sphere of Russian influence and serves the purpose of maintaining the so-called balance of power in the Balkans, not only the balance of power among the Balkan States but also between Russian and Austrian influence. A successful Austrian attack on Serbia threatened to disturb this balance of power in Austria’s favour, and therefore meant an indirect attack upon Russia. Sasonov undoubtedly found his strongest argument in Quessel’s words: “It would be senseless to believe that one wall could be torn away from the extremely complex structure (Europe) without endangering the security of the entire edifice.”

It is superfluous to add that Serbia and Montenegro, Belgium and Luxemburg, could also produce some proofs of the defensive character of their policy. Thus, all the countries were on the defensive, none was the aggressor. But if that is so, then what sense is there in opposing the claims of defensive and offensive war to each other? The standards applied in such cases differ greatly, and are not frequently quite incommensurable.

What is of fundamental importance to us Socialists is the question of the historical role of the War. Is the War calculated to effectively promote the productive forces and the state organizations, and to accelerate the concentration of the working class forces? Or is the reverse true, will it act as a hindrance? This materialistic evaluation of wars stands above all formal or external considerations, and in its nature has no relation to the question of defence or aggression. And yet sometimes these formal expressions about a war designate with more or less truth the actual significance of the war. When Engels said that the Germans were on the defensive in 1870, he had least of all the immediate political and diplomatic circumstances in mind. The determining fact for him was that in that war Germany was fighting for her right to national unity, which was a necessary condition for the economic development of the country and the Socialist consolidation of the proletariat. In the same sense the Christian peoples of the Balkans waged a war of defence against Turkey, fighting for their right to independent national development against the foreign rule.

The question of the immediate international political conditions leading to a war is independent of the value the war possesses from the historico-materialistic point of view. The German war against the Bonapartist Monarchy was historically unavoidable. In that war the right of development was on the German side. Yet those historical tendencies did not, in themselves, predetermine the question as to which party was interested in provoking the war just in the year 1870. We know now very well that international politics and military considerations induced Bismarck to take the actual initiative in the war. It might have happened just the other way, however. With greater foresight and energy, the government of Napoleon III could have anticipated Bismarck, and begun the war a few years earlier. That would have radically changed the immediate political aspect of the events, but it would have made no difference in the historic estimate of the war.

Third in order is the factor of diplomacy. Diplomacy here has a twofold task to perform. First, it must bring about war at the moment most favourable for its own country from the international as well as the military standpoint. Second, it must employ methods which throw the burden of responsibility for the bloody conflict, in public opinion, on the enemy government. The exposure of diplomatic trickery, cheating and knavery is one of the most important functions of Socialist political agitation. But no matter to what extent we succeed in this at the crucial juncture, it is clear that the net of diplomatic intrigues in themselves signifies nothing either as regards the historic role of the war or its real initiators. Bismarck’s clever manoeuvres forced Napoleon III to declare war on Prussia, although the actual initiative came from the German side. [27] Next follows the purely military aspect. The strategic plan operations can be calculated chiefly for defence or attack, regardless of which side declared the war and under what conditions. Finally, the first tactics followed in the carrying out of the strategic plan not infrequently plays a great part in estimating the war as a war of defence or of aggression.

“It is a good thing,” wrote Engels to Marx on July 31, 1870, “that the French attacked first on German soil. If the Germans repel the invasion and follow it up by invading French territory, then it will certainly not produce the same impression as if the Germans had marched into France without a previous invasion. In this way the war remains, on the French side, more Bonapartistic.”

Thus we see by the classic example of the Franco-Prussian War that the standards for judging whether a war is defensive or agressive are full of contradictions when two nations clash. Then how much more so are they when it is a clash of several nations. If we unroll the tangle from the beginning, we arrive at the following connection between the elements of attack and defence. The first tactical move of the French should—at least in Engels’ opinion—make the people feel that the responsibility of attack rested with the French. And yet the entire strategic plan of the Germans had an absolutely aggressive character. The diplomatic moves of Bismarck forced Bonaparte to declare war against his will and thus appear as the disturber of the peace of Europe, while the military-political initiative in the war came from the Prussian government. These circumstances are by no means of slight importance for the historical estimate of the war, but they are not at all exhaustive.

One of the causes of this war was the growing ambition of the Germans for national self-determination which conflicted with the dynastic pretensions of the French Monarchy. But this national “war of defence” led to the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine and so in its second stage turned into a dynastic war of conquest.

The correspondence between Marx and Engels shows that they were guided chiefly by historical considerations in their attitude towards the war of 1870. To them, of course, it was by no meaps a matter of indifference as to who conducted the war and flow it conducted. “Who would have thought it possible,” Marx writes bitterly, “that twenty-two years after 1848 a nationalist war in Germany could have been given such theoretical expression.” Yet what was of decisive significance to Marx and Engels was the objective consequences of the war. “If the Prussians triumph, it will mean the centralization of the state power—useful to the centralization of the German working class.”

Liebknecht and Bebel, starting with the same historical estimate of the war, were directly forced to take a political position toward it. It was by no means in opposition to the views of Marx and Engels, but, on the contrary, with their perfect acquiescence that Liebknecht and Bebel refused, in the Reichstag, to take any responsibility for this war. The statement they handed in read:

“We cannot grant the war appropriations that the Reichstag is asked to make because that would be a vote of confidence in the Prussian government.... As opponents on principle of every dynastic war, as Social Republicans and members of the International Labour Association, which, without distinction of nationality fights all oppressors and endeavours to unite all the oppressed in one great brotherhood, we cannot declare ourselves either directly or indirectly in favour of the present war.”

Schweitzer acted differently. He took the historical estimate of the war as a direct guide for his tactics—one of the most dangerous of fallacies!—and in voting the war credits gave a vote of confidence to the policy of Bismarck. And this in spite of the fact that it was necessary, if the centralization of state power arising out of the War was to prove useful to the Social Democratic cause, that the working class should from the very beginning oppose the dynastic-Junker centralization with their own class-centralization filled with revolutionary distrust of the rulers.

Schweitzer’s political attitude invalidated those very consequences of the War which had induced him to give a vote of confidence to the makers of the War.

Forty years later, drawing up the balance sheet of his life-work, Bebel wrote:

“The attitude that Liebknecht and I took at the outbreak and during the continuance of the war has for years been a subject of discussion and violent attack, at first even in the Party; but only for a short time. Then they acknowledged that we had been right. I confess that I do not in any way regret our attitude, and if at the outbreak of the war we had known what we learned within the next few years from the official and unofficial disclosures, our attitude from the very start would have been still harsher. We would not merely have abstained, as we did, from voting the first war credits, we would have voted against them.” (Autobiography, Part II, p.167).

If we compare the Liebknecht-Bebel statement of 1870 with Haase’s declaration in 1914, we must conclude that Bebel was mistaken when he said, “Then they acknowledged that we had been right.” For the vote of August 4th was eminently a condemnation of Bebel’s policy forty-four years earlier, since in Haase’s phraseology, Bebel had then left the fatherland in the lurch in the hour of danger.

What political causes and considerations have led the party of the German proletariat to abandon its glorious traditions? Not a single weighty reason has been given so far. All the arguments adduced are full of contradictions. They are like diplomatic communiqués which are written to justify an already accomplished act. The leader writer of Die Neue Zeit writes—with the blessing of Comrade Kautsky—that Germany’s position towards Czarism is the same as it was towards Bonapartism in 1870. He even quotes from a letter of Engels: “All classes of the German people realized that it was a question, first of all, of national existence, and so they fell in line at once.” For the same reason, we are told, the German Social Democracy has fallen in line now. It is a question of national existence. “Substitute Czarism for Bonapartism, and Engels’ words are true today.” And yet the fact remains, in all its force, that Bebel and Liebknecht demonstratively refused to vote either money or confidence to the government in 1870. Does it not hold just as well, then, if we “substitute Czarism for Bonapartism”? To this question no answer has been vouchsafed.

But what did Engels really write in his letter concerning the tactics of the labour party?

“It does not seem possible to me that under such circumstances a German political party can preach total obstruction, and place all sorts of minor considerations above the main issue.” Total obstruction !—But there is a wide gap between total obstruction and the total capitulation of a political party. And it was this gap that divided the positions between Bebel and Schweitzer in 1870. Marx and Engels were with Bebel against Schweitzer. Comrade Kautsky might have informed his leader writer, Hermann Wendel, of this fact. And it is nothing but defamation of the dead for Simplicissimus now to reconcile the shades of Bebel and Bismarck in Heaven. If Simplicissimus and Wendel have the right to awaken anybody from his sleep in the grave for the endorsement of the present tactics of the German Social Democracy then it is not Bebel, but Schweitzer. It is the shade of Schweitzer that now oppresses the political party of the German proletariat.

But the very analogy between the Franco-Prussian War and the present War is superficial and misleading in the extreme. Let us set aside all the international relations. Let us forget that the War meant first of all the destruction of Belgium, and that Germany’s main force was hurled not against Czarism but republican France. Let us forget that the starting point of the War was the crushing of Serbia, and that one of its aims was the strengthening and consolidation of the arch-reactionary state, Austria-Hungary. We will not dwell on the fact that the attitude of the German Social Democracy dealt a hard blow at the Russian Revolution, which in the two years belore the War had again flared up in such a tempest. We will close our eyes to all these facts, just as the German Social Democracy did on August 4th, when it did not see that there was a Belgium in the world, a France, England, Serbia, or Austria-Hungary. We will grant only the existence of Germany.

In 1870, it was quite easy to estimate the historical significance of the war. “If the Prussians win, the centralization of state power will further the centralization of the German working class.” And now? What would be the result for the German working class of a Prussian victory now?

The only territorial expansion which the German working class could welcome, because it would complete the national unity, is a union of German Austria with Germany. Any other expansion of the German fatherland means another step towards the transformation of Germany from a national state to a state of nationalities, and the consequent introduction of all those conditions which render more difficult the class struggle of the proletariat.

Ludwig Frank hoped—and he expressed this hope in the language of a belated Lassallean—that later, after a victorious war, he would devote himself to the work of the “internal building up” of the state. There is no doubt that Germany will need this “internal building up” after a victory no less than before the War. But will a victory make this work easier? There is nothing in Germany’s historical experiences any more than in those of any other country to justify such a hope.

“We regarded the doings of the rulers of Germany (after the victories of 1870) as a matter of course,” says Bebel in his Autobiography. “It was merely an illusion of the Party Executive to believe that a more liberal spirit would prevail in the new order. And this more liberal regime was to be granted by the same man who had till then shown himself the greatest enemy, I will not say of democratic development, but even of every liberal tendency, and who now as victor planted the heel of his cuirassier boot on the neck of the new Empire.” (Vol. II, p. 188)

There is absolutely no reason to expect different results now from a victory from above. On the contrary. In 1870 Prussian Junkerdom had first to adapt itself to the new imperial order. It could not feel secure in the saddle all at once. It was eight years after the victory over France before the anti-Socialist laws [28] were passed. In these forty-four years Prussian Junkerdom has become the imperial Junkerdom. And if, after half a century of the most intense class struggle, Junkerdom should appear at the head of the victorious nation, then we need not doubt that it would not have felt the need of Ludwig Frank’s services for the internal building up of the state had he returned safe from the fields of German victories.

But far more important than the strengthening of the class position of the rulers is the influence a German victory would have upon the proletariat itself. The War grew out of imperialistic antagonisms between the capitalist states, and the victory of Germany, as stated above, can produce only one result— territorial acquisitions at the expense of Belgium, France and Russia, commercial treaties forced upon her enemies, and new colonies. The class struggle of the proletariat would then be placed upon the basis of the imperialistic hegemony of Germany, the working class would be interested in the maintenance and development of this hegemony, and revolutionary Socialism would for a long time be condemned to the role of a propagandist sect.

Marx was right when in 1870 he foresaw, as a result of the German victories, a rapid development for the German labour movement under the banner of scientific Socialism. But now the international conditions point to the very opposite prognosis. Germany’s victory would mean taking the edge off the revolutionary movement, its theoretic shallowing, and the dying out of the Marxist ideas.


Bismarck’s clever manoeuvres: See note 1.


Anti-Socialist Laws: Prepared by Bismarck since 1862, were put into operation even before they were passed by the Reichstag in October 1878. All extra-parliamentary activity of the Socialists was banned. The laws were repealed in 1890, the year Bismarck was dropped.