[Book] The First World War – A Marxist Analysis of the Great Slaughter

11. Big Bandits and Small Bandits

In 1915, while Churchill was preparing his disastrous Gallipoli adventure, British diplomacy was attempting to win allies for its war against the Turks in the Balkans. The British mission in Sofia reported that Bulgaria might be prepared to attack Turkey, although this hope was soon dashed when Bulgaria joined the Central Powers to attack Serbia instead. In early March, Churchill received more encouraging news from Athens. The Greek Prime Minister, Venizelos, promised to send three army divisions to Gallipoli. He assured a gleeful Churchill that the King Constantine, known to be pro-German, would not object.

But Churchill’s joy was premature. Greek politics were a tangle of contradictions, in which promises were broken as soon as they were made, and intrigue and back-stabbing were a normal part of life. The Greek bourgeoisie, like all the other ruling cliques in the Balkans, had its own expansionist agenda. But it was split over which group of imperialist bandits to support. Venizelos was inclined to the Entente, while the King and his clique preferred the Germans as allies. The only question was: which side would guarantee them the biggest amount of loot.

The Germans aimed to control the Turks and prepare the ground for a German Empire in the East that would rival the British Raj in India. The construction of the Baghdad Railway before the war was a key part of this plan. But in order to succeed, Berlin needed to have both Turkey and Bulgaria on its side.

Russia wanted to seize Constantinople, get control of the Dardanelles and turn the Black Sea into a Russian Lake. Russia had put pressure on the British to launch an attack on the Turks. But the men in St. Petersburg were worried that, if the British got hold of Constantinople, they might be tempted to hang onto it. The Greek bourgeoisie also cast its hungry eyes on Constantinople, but the problem for the men in London was that, once the Greek army entered Constantinople, it might not be in any hurry to leave.

If the Greeks seized Constantinople it would mean conflict with Russia. That was one reason why the Greek King looked to Berlin rather than London and Paris. Meanwhile, in Rome, the Italian bandits were also looking forward to grabbing chunks of Turkish territory in the Balkans, even before they had entered the war. They were all sharpening their knives in anticipation of the great feast to come.

In this complex diplomatic game, the French and British imperialists did not want Russia to have Constantinople. The French feared that a Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean would present a challenge to their own power, while the British saw a potential threat to Egypt and the Suez Canal – that is, to British India. They planned to lead Russia by the nose during the war and then betray it at the post-War Conference table.

All of them had one eye on the enemy and the other firmly fixed on their ‘Allies’. The British Prime Minister Asquith told his cabinet that the discussions about the division of the Ottoman Empire “resembled that of a gang of buccaneers.” The comparison was very apt, but Asquith then added that if “we were to leave other nations to scramble for Turkey without taking anything ourselves, we should not be doing our duty.” (Quoted in Fromkin, D., A Peace to End All Peace, p. 142.)

The National Schism

megali ideaMegali IdeaThe ambitions of the Greek bourgeoisie for a Greater Greece found its expression in what was called the Big Idea or Megali Idea. In the Second Balkan War in 1913, Serbia and Greece had seized the lion’s share of Macedonia, which they had earlier promised to Bulgaria. Under the Treaty of Bucharest of 1913, Greece increased its territory by seventy per cent in size and its population grew from 2,700,000 to 4,800,000. The Greek state, which had hitherto been more or less ethnically homogeneous, was now in possession of the ‘new lands’ with populations of Muslims, Slavs and Jews.

The upheavals of war produced a massive exchange of populations. People who had lived together peacefully for centuries found themselves uprooted and forced from their homes. Greeks fled from Eastern Thrace, Asia Minor and Bulgaria into Greek Macedonia, while Muslim and Bulgarian inhabitants of the same region fled in the opposite direction. The ‘new lands’ of the Greek kingdom provided new material and human resources but only at the cost of increasing antagonism with its neighbours. But these successes fuelled the expansionist ambitions of the Greek bourgeoisie. Under the guise of liberating the Greek people, who remained under Turkish rule, they were preparing a war with Turkey that ended up as a national catastrophe.

An atmosphere of hatred was created that poisoned relations between Athens, Sofia and Constantinople. Serbian politicians and military men carried out even greater propagandist activity, setting their sights on western Greek Macedonia, where there was a large Slavic population, part of which wished to be united with its fellow Slavs. Constantine’s refusal to provide Serbia with military aid led to an increase of Serbian propagandist activity, although it diminished after Venizelos’ return as prime minister and Greece’s official entry into the war.

The war produced deep contradictions within the Greek political class, which came to the surface in early 1915. When Britain and France requested Greek military aid in the Gallipoli campaign in return for vague promises of future concessions in western Asia Minor, Venizelos agreed immediately and even offered limited territorial concessions to Bulgaria. But the Greek General Staff were implacably opposed to sending troops to the Dardanelles. They were more concerned with strengthening their stranglehold on ‘new lands’ in the northern region. They were also doubtful about the campaign’s chances of success – doubts that were soon shown to be well founded.

Relations between Prime Minister Venizelos and Crown Prince Constantine (later King Constantine I) deteriorated to the point of producing a rift in the country’s political regime. The result was a serious internal political crisis known as the National Schism. The split between the monarchist clique and the bourgeoisie over the control of power spread to the Greek officer corps. Mass mobilisations of supporters from both camps threatened civil war.

The leading members of the monarchist faction were pro-German. Constantine sided with the General Staff, and Venizelos was forced to resign. On that very day, however, the first Allied troops landed in Salonika. The aim of the so-called Macedonia campaign was partly to put pressure on Greece to enter the war on the side of the Entente and partly to support the Serbian army against the Bulgarian threat. In reality, neither objective was achieved. But on 26 June, 1917, backed by the Allies, Venizelos returned to Athens and resumed his post as Prime Minister. He then proceeded to purge the state machinery and the armed forces of royalists.

Soon after, the war came to an end. Bulgarian resistance finally collapsed with the fall of Skopje on 29 September, 1918. Crushed by the weight of war, Bulgarian peasants and soldiers rose in revolt behind the lines and Bulgaria was forced to capitulate. The war in the Balkans ended with the collapse of both the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires. Like the Serb, Bulgarian and Romanian ruling cliques, the rulers of Greece, greedy for expansion, attempted to exploit the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the antagonisms between the Great Powers in order to implement their own imperialist programme.

By a lucky accident, Greece found herself on the side of the victors of the Great War. She was pampered by the Allies for her services (although, truth to tell, they were minimal). Under the Treaty of Neuilly (1919), Greece was permitted to annex still more Bulgarian lands (Western Thrace) and received even greater concessions from the collapsing Ottoman Empire under the Treaty of Sèvres (1920). However, it was not at all ruled out that Greece might have entered the war on the side of Germany.

Turkey’s defeat in the war hastened the inevitable collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which was divided amongst the victorious Entente powers with the signing of the Treaty of Sèvres on 10 August, 1920. During the war a number of secret agreements were made regarding the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. In order to entice potential allies to the side of the Triple Entente, they had made contradictory promises about post-war arrangements. But when the time arrived to cash these promissory notes, the would-be recipients were frequently disappointed.

All of them – big bandits and small – were interested in grabbing territory from a disintegrating Ottoman Empire. During the war the British had promised Palestine to both the Arabs and the Jews, thus preparing the ground for decades of wars and bloodshed in the future. In the event, the British gave Palestine neither to the Jews nor the Arabs but kept it for themselves. The British and French imperialists seized large chunks of territory in the Middle East – including Syria, Lebanon and Iraq – that had been previously been under Ottoman rule.

A Greek Tragedy

ataturk-and-the-young-turksAtatürk and the Young TurksThe collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to a new revolution in Turkey with the seizure of power by Kemal Atatürk, a republican general who had successfully fought the Allies in Gallipoli. Although he was a ruthless anti-Communist who murdered and imprisoned the leaders of the Turkish Communist Party, he launched a progressive programme of modernisation in an attempt to drag Turkey into the twentieth century.

The victorious Allies, particularly British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who had promised Greece territorial gains at the expense of the Ottoman Empire, encouraged the Greek Army to invade Turkey. At Versailles, Venizelos pressed hard for his Great Idea, which would hand the large Greek-speaking communities in Northern Epirus, Thrace and Asia Minor over to Greece.

The Allies had already promised Greece territorial gains at the expense of the Ottoman Empire, including Eastern Thrace, the islands of Imbros (Gökçeada) and Tenedos (Bozcaada), as well as parts of western Anatolia around the city of Smyrna, which contained large ethnic Greek populations. Now Athens was determined to cash its promissory notes in full. Lloyd George informed the Greek leaders that, if they decided to attack Turkey, Britain would not stand in their way. This was giving the green light to the Greeks. It was also the start of a terrible Greek tragedy. The men in Athens were not slow to take the hint. In 1919 the Greek army invaded Turkey.

This was a predatory war, a war of expansion that ended in disaster. The English historian Arnold J. Toynbee wrote:

The war between Turkey and Greece, which burst out at this time, was a defensive war for safeguarding of the Turkish homelands in Anatolia. It was a result of the Allied policy of imperialism operating in a foreign state, the military resources and powers of which were seriously underestimated; it was provoked by the unwarranted invasion of a Greek army of occupation.

Initially, the Greeks’ advance appeared to be unstoppable. But then disaster struck. In August 1922, the Turkish forces counter-attacked, forcing the invaders into a disorderly retreat. Faced with a military disaster, the Greek government appealed to the Allies for help, but no help came. Having encouraged the Greeks to attack, the British and French promptly left them in the lurch. The Italian and French troops evacuated their positions, leaving the Greeks exposed.

The Greek leaders underestimated the Turkish response to an attack on their homeland. It stirred the fires of Turkish patriotism, just as the Gallipoli adventure had done. The Turkish counter-attack is known to the Turks as the ‘Great Offensive’ (Büyük Taarruz). The major Greek defence positions were swiftly overrun. On 30 August, the Greek army suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of Dumlupınar, when half of its soldiers were captured or killed, and its equipment entirely lost.

All these predatory wars were caused by the greed of the ruling cliques in all the Balkan countries, their insatiable thirst for land and loot. But, in every case, it was the poor civilians and soldiers – Greeks, Turks, Serbs, Bulgarians, Montenegrins and Macedonians – who paid the price. And it was a very heavy one. The Greek army had perpetrated atrocities on the Turks, burning villages, driving families from their homes and murdering civilians. Now the advancing Turkish army inflicted a terrible revenge on the Greek population of Asia Minor.

The Greek archbishop of Smyrna wrote to Venizelos, pleading for help. But no help ever came for these poor people. The archbishop himself was literally cut to pieces in a barbers’ shop. As a result, more than a million terrified local Greeks who had lived there for thousands of years were forced to abandon their ancestral lands. The Greek bourgeoisie’s dream of expansion had come to an end in a ghastly nightmare.

Approximately 2 million people (around 1.5 million Anatolian Greeks and 500,000 Muslims in Greece) were forced from their homes and turned into rootless refugees. The hauntingly sad music that the Greeks of Asia Minor brought with them is a tragic reflection of the plight of these dispossessed, despairing masses who ended up in the slums and tavernas of Salonika and Athens. It is the voice of people with no work, no home, no hope and no future.

At the end of the period, Greece emerged twice as big as before both in terms of territory and population, but at a terrible cost. The deep wounds inflicted on Greek society were never healed, creating the conditions for new and bloody conflicts that poisoned the political life of the country for most of the twentieth century. The policy of expansionism had led to endless wars, ethnic cleansing, massacres, diplomatic crises, political instability and constitutional chaos. It created misery for millions of Greeks and non-Greeks alike and prepared the way for future tragedies.

Romania, Hungary and Transylvania

Romania was yet another country with important strategic value for the Big Powers. The Romanian ruling clique had two contradictory war aims: to seize Bessarabia from Russia and Transylvania from Hungary. A difficult dilemma, since one would bring it into conflict with the Entente and the other with Austro-Hungary! But, in the end it obtained both objectives through a mixture of treachery and counter-revolutionary violence.

carl i king of romainaCarol IThe King of Romania, Carol I of Hohenzollern, had signed a secret treaty with the Triple Alliance in 1883, which stipulated that Romania would be obliged to go to war only in the event Austro-Hungarian Empire was attacked. Carol wanted to enter World War I as an ally of the Central Powers, but the Romanian public and the political parties were in favour of joining the Entente. Thus, in 1914, King Carol, with many a tear and sigh, was compelled to inform Czernin, the Austrian ambassador, that Romania was unable to fulfil its agreed obligations.

Bucharest declared its neutrality on the diplomatic pretext that, since Austria-Hungary had itself declared war on Serbia, Romania was under no obligation to join in. In reality, the Romanian ruling clique was waiting to see which side would prevail, and, more importantly, who would offer them the biggest slice of the cake when the fighting was over. In the end, it was the Entente Powers who proved more generous.

According to some American military historians, Russia delayed approval of Romanian demands out of worries about Romanian territorial designs on Bessarabia, claimed by nationalist circles as part of the Romanian land. According to British military historian John Keegan, before Romania entered the war, the Allies had secretly agreed not to honour the territorial expansion of Romania when the war ended. Yet again, the wheels of bourgeois diplomacy were well oiled with hypocrisy and duplicity.

Nevertheless, the British and French continued to entice the Romanians with the promise of a large slice of eastern Hungary (Transylvania and Banat), which had a substantial Romanian population, if it would declare war on the Central Powers. In the end, the Romanian government took the bait and renounced its neutrality. On 28 August, 1916, King Ferdinand issued a Proclamation, written in the true bombastic heroic style:


The war which for the last two years has been encircling our frontiers more and more closely has shaken the ancient foundations of Europe to their depths.

It has brought the day, which has been awaited for centuries by the national conscience, by the founders of the Romanian State, by those who united the principalities in the war of independence, by those responsible for the national renaissance.

It is the day of the union of all branches of our nation. Today we are able to complete the task of our forefathers and to establish forever that which Michael the Great was only able to establish for a moment, namely, a Romanian union on both slopes of the Carpathians.

For us the mountains and plains of Bukovina, where Stephen the Great has slept for centuries. In our moral energy and our valour lie the means of giving him back his birth right of a great and free Rumania from the Tisza to the Black Sea, and to prosper in peace in accordance with our customs and our hopes and dreams.


Animated by the holy duty imposed upon us, and determined to bear manfully all the sacrifices inseparable from an arduous war, we will march into battle with the irresistible élan of a people firmly confident in its destiny. The glorious fruits of victory shall be our reward. Forward, with the help of God!


In fact, this ‘heroic’ Proclamation was a bit late. Twenty-four hours before the ink was dry on the paper it was written on, the Romanian Army, without warning and with limited Russian support, had launched an attack against Austria-Hungary, advancing through the Carpathians and into Transylvania.

The defection of Romania was a major blow to the Austro-German Alliance, particularly to Austria. It not only deprived the Central Powers of an important spear directed against Russia’s southern flank, but also created a serious opening, threatening Austro-Hungary on the great Danubian Plain. However, against the armies of the Central Powers, the Romanian Army proved to be a paper tiger. Despite its size (over 650,000 men in twenty-three divisions), it suffered from poor training and equipment when compared to its German counterparts.

The Romanian offensive was initially successful, pushing back the Austro-Hungarian troops, but a counter-attack by the forces of the Central Powers drove the Russo-Romanian forces back in disorder. The Romanians suffered a crushing defeat and the Central Powers occupied Bucharest on 6 December, 1916. Romania was forced to sign an armistice with the Central Powers on 9 December, 1917.

Fighting in Moldova continued in 1917, resulting in a costly stalemate for the Central Powers. But the entire situation was transformed by revolutionary developments in Russia. The October Revolution, which was fought under the banner of peace, bread and land, ended Russia’s participation in the war. After the successful offensive on the Thessaloniki front, which put Bulgaria out of the war, the Romanian ruling clique saw its chance and hastily re-entered the war on 10 November, 1918 – just one day before it ended in Western Europe.

The minor robbers in Bucharest were in luck. Despite its inglorious performance in the fighting and the blatant opportunism of its ‘re-entry’ after the Central Powers had already been defeated, Romania got considerably more than its fair share of the booty when the big robbers assembled at Versailles to share out the loot. As we have seen, they had intended to deceive Romania and renege on their promises in order to satisfy Russia. But the Russian Revolution had changed all that. The French and British imperialists were terrified of the spread of Bolshevism in Europe.

Germany was also in the throes of revolution. In 1919, a Soviet Republic was set up in Bavaria. More serious still, a Soviet Republic was declared in Hungary. This had to be crushed, and the most obvious candidate for the role of the hangman was Romania. The Versailles robbers, therefore, hastily threw a bone in the direction of Bucharest in the shape of Bukovina, which they handed over to Romania, utilising, as usual, the convenient slogan of the ‘right of national self-determination’.

The Romanian bandits took the hint and proceeded to invade the territory of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, seizing control of Transylvania in the process. But the ‘right of self-determination’ overlooked the inconvenient fact that Transylvania was the ancestral home of a Hungarian-speaking population of 1,662,000 (31.6 per cent, according to the census data of 1910). As is so often the case, what is ‘self-determination’ for some becomes national oppression for others.

The Hungarian Soviet government lasted for 133 days, falling on 1 August, 1919. The Romanian army attacked Hungarian territory from the east, while the Serbs, egged on by the Allies, invaded southern Hungary, and the ‘democratic’ Czech bourgeois also joined in, attacking in the west with troops commanded by French and Italian officers. When the Romanian army entered Budapest, it launched a reign of terror against the Hungarian working class.

The landlords and capitalists took their revenge for the fright they had experienced. Wounded Red Army soldiers were dragged from the hospitals and murdered. The Whites used the most barbarous, medieval methods of torture, with 5,000 people losing their lives in this period. And the Pontius Pilates of reformism, those labour leaders who had protested loudly at the alleged ‘excesses’ of the workers and peasants now looked the other way, justifying murder and repression in the most cowardly way in return for the retention of their jobs and privileges. When it came to slaughtering workers and peasants, they showed no qualms of conscience about ‘ruthless acts of cruelty’.

The short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic was drowned in a river of blood by the combined efforts of the White armies of Romania, Czechoslovakia and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, all of them shouting the slogan of ‘self-determination’. Hungary was occupied for a while by the counter-revolutionary Romanian forces, acting at the behest of their masters in Versailles. Only in early 1920 did the Romanian army finally leave Hungary, having sated itself with plunder. The question of Transylvania has poisoned relations between Hungary and Romania ever since, yet another toxic inheritance of what they used to call the Great War.

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