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What We Should Remember on Armistice Day

World War I was a catastrophic, barbaric conflict that left tens of millions of people dead and set the stage for anti-democratic rollbacks for years to come.

At the outset of the war, socialists and anti-war leftists warned about how it would end: with untold numbers dead, a ready-made system for state-sponsored repression, the defeat of necessary reforms to curtail the rapaciousness of Gilded Age capitalism, and the rise of a fractured peace that would set the stage for a renewed war. They were right on all counts.

On this Armistice Day, amid an era of “endless war” — one that has also laid bare the repercussions of relentless militarism — we should recognize the failure to heed their warnings: that wars waged in the name of democracy invariably rely upon the sacrifice of it.

A Catastrophic War

Almost a year after World War I erupted in Europe, the conflict ground to a stalemate. Neither the Entente Powers (France, England, Italy, and, until 1917, Russia) or the Central Powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire) made headway in a war waged on two fronts.

On the Western front, the war deadlocked on the border of Belgium and France for three years. The monthslong battles of Somme (1916) and Passchendaele (1917) — which together saw close to 1.5 million casualties — were microcosms of a war dependent upon modernity and the destruction that emanated from it. The use of chemical weapons, tanks, and, above all, machine guns, was ubiquitous, with Europe’s aristocratic generals willingly accepting the bloody outcome. Douglas Haig, the British general in command at the Battle of Somme, oversaw casualties of nineteen thousand soldiers in the first day of battle, many in the first hour, due to artillery shelling and machine gunfire. He downplayed the results in his diary as a “day of ups and downs,” thinking the deaths of his men “cannot be considered severe” overall. (Haig would later earn the moniker “Butcher Haig.”)

As the war unraveled, socialists decried Europe’s willingness to prolong the fighting. German anti-war socialists split from Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) over the SPD’s support for the war and formed the International Socialist Party (ISP), which drew inspiration from the radical labor union the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the United States. (German and American socialists regularly collaborated and shared ideas on housing rights and universal health care prior to the war and opposed the war together, too.) Anti-war socialists in the United States urged Woodrow Wilson to avoid preparing for war in 1915, with socialist Helen Keller urging the “workingman” to reject a conflict spearheaded by elites eager to “beat down his wages or wreck his unions” in search of war profits.