IV. Concerning Some Cardinal Sins of Militarism

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Karl Liebknecht




The militarists are not all dull-witted. That is proven by the extremely clever educational system they have introduced. With noteworthy skill they rely upon mass psychology. The army of Fredericks composed of mercenaries and the scum of the population, had to be kept together for its mechanical tasks by pipe-clay drill and thrashings. That is no longer possible in an army formed on the basis of a civic duty and placing much greater demands upon the individual. This was clearly recognized at once by men like Scharnhorst and Gneisenau,[1] whose army reorganization began with the proclamation of the "freedom of the back." Yet, bad treatment, brutal insults, beatings and all kinds of cruel maltreatment belong also to the stock-in-trade of our present system of military education.

The attitude of military circles toward the maltreatment of soldiers is naturally not determined by considerations of ethics, civilization, humanity, justice, Christianity and other fine things, but purely by jesuitical expedients. The hidden danger which that maltreatment constitutes for the discipline and the "spirit" of the army itself[2] has not even to-day been generally recognized.[3] The ragging of new recruits and recalcitrants by the older men, the brutal barracks jokes and vulgar language of all kind, and the fairly frequent knocks and blows and hazing, are heartily apt proved without scruple and are even positively considered necessary by the majority of non-commissioned officers and even officers, who, estranged from and hostile to the people, have been trained to become the most narrow-minded petty despots. The fight against those outrages therefore meets almost at the outset, with an all but insuperable passive resistance. Privately, but not publicly, one may hear daily how superiors describe the desire for decent treatment of the "fellows" as a symptom of a silly humanitarian soft-headedness. Military service is a rude business. But even where they have thoroughly recognized the hidden dangers of disciplinary maltreatments they find themselves again in face of one of those disagreeable alternatives at which a system based on brute force and setting itself against the natural development must always arrive, and several of which we have already pointed out. For those maltreatments are indeed (as we shall show more conclusively) indispensable auxiliaries of the external drill which capitalist militarism, (for which the inward voluntary discipline is an unattainable goal), can not dispense with for want of a better method. We repeat that they are considered, not officially, it is true, but semi-officially, in spite of all the scruples and regrets we hear expressed, not as a legal, but as an indispensable means of military education.

But apart from military scruples, our militarists suffer from a bad conscience since they have been caught at their game, i.e., since the relentless Social Democratic criticism of the army institutions began and large portions of the middle-class commenced to disavow that military morality. With a gnashing of teeth militarism had to acknowledge that it was not simply devised and commanded by the supreme war lord, but that it depends, especially in regard to its material existence, on the popular representative body on which it looks with such scornful disdain --on the Reichstag which includes even representatives of the "mob"; in short, that it depends on the "rabble" and that under cover of their immunity the people's representatives in the Reichstag pitilessly exposed its nakedness again and again. In sullen rage it saw itself obliged to maintain the good mood of those plebeians, those Reichstag fellows, that despised and derided "public opinion." The problem was, not to put to too hard a test the devout belief in militarism possessed by the bourgeoisie who, as a rule, were ready to grant all possible military demands but who, especially in times of financial troubles, were not rarely apt to kick against the pricks, moreover, things had to be made easier for the bourgeoisie when the latter were dealing with their voters, largely anti-militarists, because of their social position, and ready to embrace Social Democracy when they recognize their class interests. Such weapons as were likely to be most effective had to be withheld or snatched from Social Democratic propagandists, so militarism had recourse to the tactics of hushing-up and concealment. The procedure of the military courts was secret, not a ray penetrated that darkness, and if one succeeded in penetrating it things were denied, disputed and extenuated with might and main. But the torch of Social Democracy sent its light farther and farther, even to behind the barracks walls and through the bars of the military prisons and fortresses. The military debates that took place in the German Reichstag in the eighties and nineties of the last century constitute a tenacious and passionate fight for the recognition of the fact that the atrocities of the barracks are not rare and isolated phenomena but regular, extraordinarily frequent, organic, constitutional occurrences, as it were, in military life. In that fight effective service was rendered by the publicity of the procedure of military courts in other countries, proving that military maltreatment is a regular attribute of militarism, even of republican militarism in France, even of Belgian militarism, even in a growing degree of the Swiss militia militarism.

The impression created by the army orders of Prince George of Saxony (of June 8, 1891 ), which were published by the Vorwarts at the beginning of 1892, and by the orders of the Bavarian war minister( December 13, 1891 ), and by the Reichstag debates, which lasted from February 15 to 17, 1892, was mainly responsible for the effect which the Social Democratic criticism exercised. After the usual "due considerations,, and scufflings the reform of our procedure in military trials was brought about in 1898 with a great amount of painful exertion. True, the reformed procedure still permitted the courts to a large extent to exclude the public and thus to cover the terrible secrets of the barracks with the cloak of Christian charity, but it succeeded (in spite of all the orders which almost suggested the most sweeping use of the powers of excluding the public and in spite of the much discussed disciplining of the judges in the Bilse case) in bringing down such a hail of appalling cases of maltreatment upon the heads of the public that all objections against the Social Democratic criticism were simply swept away, and the existence of the maltreatment of soldiers as a settled institution of "state-conserving" militarism was acknowledged almost everywhere, however reluctantly. More or less honestly the authorities attempted to grapple with this repelling institution which proved of too great an advantage to the socialist propaganda, and though they did not believe in any substantial success, they yet wanted to arouse the impression of dislike for the institution and readiness to try their best to abolish it. They began to hunt down with a certain amount of severity those guilty of maltreating soldiers, but militarism has after all a greater interest in maintaining military discipline, in training the people in arms to be docile fighters in the struggle against their own international and national interests than in attacking the maltreatment of soldiers. It is instructive to compare the sentences passed upon the basest tormentors of soldiers with those pronounced almost daily upon soldiers for often quite petty offences against their superiors, or for of fences committed in a state of excitement or intoxication by soldiers against their superiors. For the soldier there is a blood-thirsty, Draconic punishment for the smallest sin against the holy ghost of militarism; for the other offender there is, in spite of all, a relatively mild indulgence and understanding. Thus the campaign of the military courts against the maltreatment of soldiers, conducted parallel with a campaign to throttle every vestige of an impulse on the part of the subordinate to exhibit a consciousness of self-dependence or equality, naturally fails of practical result. The whole story is told by the case of the Hereditary Prince of Saxe-Meiningen who had sufficient courage to call upon the men themselves to assist in the campaign against maltreatment so as to be able to attack the evil more energetically than ever before at the root. He was, however, soon forced to quit the army on account of this bold step. The incident brightly illuminates the whole uselessness and hopelessness of the official campaign against the maltreatment of soldiers.

The little book written by our comrade Rudolf Krafft, a former officer of the Bavarian army, on "The Victims of the Barracks" treats valuable material with the expert knowledge that can only come from inside information. Regular compilations of trials for maltreating soldiers (or sailors), made by the Socialist press at certain intervals, furnish a positively overwhelming mass of material which has unfortunately not yet been edited. An important and thankful task is awaiting some one.

Being fundamentally opposed to militarism we have no delusions about it. Scharnhorst, in his "Order Concerning Military Punishments," writes: "Experience teaches that recruits can be taught the drill without beating them. An officer to whom this may appear impossible lacks the necessary faculty of instruction or has no clear idea of training." Of course, theoretically he is right, but practically he is far in advance of the times. The maltreatment of soldiers springs from the very essence of capitalist militarism. A large proportion of the men is intellectually, a still larger proportion physically, not equal to the military requirements, especially not equal to those of the parade drill. The number of the young men having a view of life that is dangerous and hostile to militarism, who enter the army increases continually. The problem is to tear that soul out of those "fellows," as it were, and replace it by a new patriotic soul, loyal to the king. Even the most skilful pedagogue finds it impossible to solve all those problems, let alone the land of teachers available to militarism, which must in this respect, too, be more economical than it would like to be.

The militaristic pedagogues have but a precarious subsistence. They depend entirely on the good will, on the arbitrariness of their superior, and must expect every minute to be thrown out of employment if they do not accomplish their chief task, that of forming the soldier in the image of militarism -- an excellent expedient to make the whole apparatus of the military hierarchy extremely pliant in the hands of the supreme command. It goes without saying that such superiors drill their men with a nervous lack of consideration, that they soon come to the point where they use force. instead of persuasion and example, and that such force, owing to the absolute power which the superior has over the life and death of his subordinate who has to submit to him unconditionally, is finally applied in the shape of maltreaments. All this is a natural and, humanly speaking, necessary concatenation in which the new Japanese militarism, too, has promptly got entangled. It is another dilemma of militarism.

The causes of such maltreatments are not to be met with everywhere in a uniform degree. It is above all the degree of popular education which exercises a strongly modifying influence, and it is not surprising that even French colonial militarism forms in this respect a favorable contrast to the Prussian-German home militarism.

It is exactly in this form of exercising disciplinary power, and just in that necessity by which it arises out of the system, that we Socialists find an excellent weapon with which to combat militarism fundamentally and most successfully, arousing against it an ever growing portion of the people and carrying class-consciousness into groups that otherwise could not yet be reached or could only be reached with much greater difficulty. The maltreatment of soldiers and military class-justice, one of the most provoking phenomena of capitalist barbarism, are not only dangerously undermining military discipline, they are also the most effective weapons in the war for the liberation of the proletariat. That sin of capitalism turns against capitalism itself in two ways. However much the sinner may repent, honestly in helpless contrition, or in the style of the fox in the fable, those weapons can not be taken away from us; for though he appears in sackcloth and ashes the sinner is irreclaimable.


Historical materialism, the doctrine of dialectical evolution, is the doctrine of the inherent necessity of retribution. Every society divided in classes is condemned to commit suicide. Every society divided in classes is a force that ever wills the evil and accomplishes the good and, even if it did not will the evil, must do the evil; it must perish through the original sin of its class character; it must, whether it wants to or not, beget the OEdipus who will slay it one day, but, unlike the fabled Theban, with the full consciousness of committing parricide. That is at least true with regard to the capitalist order of society, with regard to the proletariat. Of course, the ruling class of capitalism, too, would very much like to enjoy its profits in complete comfort and security. But since that comfort and security neither agree with the national and international capitalist competition nor with the permanent taste of those at whose expense it lives, capitalism erects for the protection of wage slavery round the sanctum of profit a cruel fortress of despotism, bristling with arms. Though militarism be a vital necessity of capitalism, the latter is naturally not pleased with the gigantic expense of militarism and considers it at heart as a very disagreeable burden. However, as it is impossible today to follow the old Cadmean recipe of sowing dragon's teeth in order to make the ground yield armed soldiers, there is nothing to be done but putting up with Moloch Militarism and feeding its insatiable appetite. The annual financial debates in the various parliaments demonstrate how painful a subject this quality of militarism is to the ruling classes. Capitalism, hungering for surplus value, can only be impressed by touching the financial spot, its constitutional weak spot. The expense of militarism is the only thing that keeps it in bounds, at least as far as it is borne by the bourgeoisie itself. The ethics of profiteering, however, seeks and finds a way out that is as easy as it is base -- the shifting of the greatest or a great part of the military burdens to the shoulders of those parts of the population that are not only the weakest, but for whose oppression and torture militarism is chiefly established. Like the ruling classes of other social orders the capitalist classes use their despotism, which is moreover based in the first place on the exploitation of the proletariat, not only in order to make the oppressed and exploited classes forge their own chains, but also to make them pay for themselves for those chains to as large an extent as possible. Not content with fuming the sons of the people into the executioners of the people they press the executioners' pay as much as possible out of the sweat and blood of the people. And though here and there one is sensible of the bitterly provoking effect of that infamous outrage, capitalism remains true to its faith unto death, its faith in the golden calf. To be sure, that shifting of the military burdens on to the shoulders of the poorer classes diminishes the possibility of exploiting those classes. That can not be explained away, and that likewise contributes to the annoyance of capitalism, ever intent on exploitation, at Moloch.

Militarism rests like a leaden weight on our whole life. It is particularly, however, a leaden weight for our economic life, a nightmare under which our economic life is groaning, a vampire sucking its blood, because it withdraws the best energies of the people from production and the works of civilization continually, year after year (In Germany there are at the moment of writing 655,000 of the strongest and most productive men, mostly between the ages of 20 and 22, permanently in the army and navy), and also because of its insane direct costs. In Germany the military and naval budget, which is increasing by leaps, amounted in the year 1906-07 (inclusive of the colonial budget, but exclusive of the supplementary estimates) to more than 1,300,000,000 marks, say one billion and a third.[4] The costs to the other military states are relatively not smaller,[5] and the military expenditure of even richer countries, such as the United States, Great Britain (which, in 1904-05, had an army and navy budget of 1,321,000,000), Belgium and Switzerland, is so extraordinary that it occupies a dominating position in the budgets of those countries. Everywhere the tendency is in the direction of a boundless increase, close to the limits of the ability to pay.

The following interesting compilation is found in the Nouveau Manuel du soldat:

"In 1899 Europe had a military budget of
7,184,321,093 francs.
It employed in a military capacity
4, 169,321 men,
who, if they were to work, could produce, at the rate of three francs per day per man, the value of
12,507,963 francs a day.
Europe further used for military purposes

710,342 horses
which, at a rate of two francs per day per horse, could produce a value of
1,420,684 francs a day.
Adding that sum to the 12,507,963 francs we obtain a total of
13,928,647 francs.
Multiplied by 300 that sum shows, together with the budget, a lost productive value of
11,915,913 francs."

But in Germany alone the military budget increased from 1899 to 1906-07 from 920,000,000 to about 1,300,000,000, more than 40 percent. For the whole of Europe the total amount of military "overhead charges," not counting the costs of the Russo-Japanese War, reaches at the moment of writing some

13,000,000,000 marks per annum,

say 13 percent. of the total foreign trade of the world. In truth a veritable policy of bankruptcy!

In the Russian Baltic provinces the military suppression of the revolutionary movement was for a long time confided to the very barons affected by that movement. In a similar manner America has realized the "unlimited possibility" of leaving the maintenance of capitalist order even in times of peace to the employers, as a concession to be exploited, as it were. Thus, the Pinkertons have fairly become a legal institution for the class-struggle. At all events, that institution, like its Belgian counterpart, the civic guard, has the advantage of reducing those effects of militarism which are disagreeable even to the bourgeoisie (maltreatment of soldiers, expense, etc.) and of partly withholding some highly effective material for agitation from the enemies of the capitalist order of society. However, as has been explained, that way out of the difficulty, which is moreover anything but pleasant for the proletariat, is as a rule blocked to the capitalist countries, and the introduction of the much less burdensome militia system is for a predeterminable time denied them because of the function the army has to perform at home in the class-struggle, a function which is even developing a pronounced feeling in favor of the abolition of the existing militias.

Comparing the entire budget of the German Empire for 190~6-7, which amounted to 2,397,394,000 marks, with that portion of it devoted to the army and navy, we notice that all the other items play only the part of small satellites to that mighty sum, that the entire fiscal system, the entire financial system group themselves round the military budget -- "as the host of the stars are mustered round the sun," as the poet says.

Hence militarism dangerously impedes, and often makes impossible even such progress in civilization as in itself would advance the interest of the existing social order. Education, art and science, public sanitation, the communication system: all are treated in a niggardly fashion since there is nothing left for works of civilization after gluttonous Moloch has been fed. The ministerial declaration that the obligations of civilization[6] did not suffer, convinced at most the East Elbian junkers with their low cultural demands whilst it could not wring more than an indulgent smile from the other representatives of capitalist society. Figures furnish the proof. It suffices to compare the one billion and a third of the German military budget of 1906 with the 171 millions that Prussia spent for all kinds of educational purposes, or the 420 millions that Austria spent for military purposes in 1900 with the 5 1/2 millions she spent for elementary education. The latest Prussian school maintenance law, with its niggardly settlement of the question of teachers' salaries, and the notorious Studt decree against the raising of teachers' salaries in the cities speak volumes.

Germany should be rich enough to fulfil all her tasks of civilization, and the more completely these tasks should be performed the easier it would be to bear their costs. But the barrier of militarism obstructs the road.

Quite especially provoking is the way in which the expenses of militarism are defrayed in Germany -- and elsewhere, in France, for instance. It can almost be said that militarism is the creator and preserver of our oppressive, unjust system of indirect taxation. The entire tariff and taxation system of the Empire, which amounts to a squeezing-out of the masses, i.e., the great needy mass of our population, and to which is due, for example, that in 1906 the cost of living for the mass of the people rose by no less than from 10 to 15 percent. as against the average for the period from 1900 to 1904, not only benefits the junkers (that parasitic class so tenderly cared for, very largely for militaristic reasons), but serves in the first line militaristic purposes. It is no less mainly the fault of militarism if our system of communication, the development and perfection of which is especially to the greatest advantage of a sensible capitalism equipped with a shrewd understanding of its interests, does not by far meet the demands of traffic and technical progress, but is used as a milch-cow for a special indirect taxation of the people. The story of the Stengel bill on imperial finances ought to make even a blind man see. It is possible to calculate almost to a cent that this bill was only caused by the necessity of stopping that 200-million hole which militarism had once again succeeded in making in the imperial treasury; and the kind of taxation resorted to, which presses heavily on articles of popular consumption, beer, tobacco, etc., and even on communication, that breath of life of capitalism, excellently illustrates what was said above.

No doubt, in many respects militarism is a burden to capitalism itself, but that burden is as firmly installed on the capitalist back as the mysterious strong old man was on the shoulders of Sin bad the Sailor. Capitalism is in need of militarism just as spies are needed in times of war and executioners and their assistants in times of peace. It may hate militarism, but it can not do without it, just as the civilized Christian may detest the sins against the Gospel, but can not live without them. Militarism is one of the original sins of capitalism, which may be susceptible of being mitigated here and there, but of which it will be purged only in the purgatory of Socialism.

  1. The men that reorganized the entire Prussian army system after the Prussian army had been shattered at Jena by Napoleon, in 1806. [TRANSLATOR.]
  2. In Manteuffel's sensible command of April 18, 1885, we read: "Insults attack the sense of honor and kill it, and the officer who insults his subordinates undermines his own position; for there is no dependence on the loyalty or bravery of him who allows himself to be insulted." . . . "In a word -- as the subordinates are treated by their superiors, from the general to the lieutenant thus they are."
  3. A slight indication is furnished by the mass of deserters and men liable to military service who disobeyed orders to join the army. No less than 15,000 German deserters perished in the French colonial army during the first thirty years of the existence of the "splendid German Empire," whilst the bloody battle of Vionville in the Franco-German War resulted in only I6,000 men being killed and wounded.
  4. Every soldier fighting in German Southwest Africa meant an annual expense of 9,500 marks to the German Empire in 1906
  5. In France, for instance, in 1905: 1,101,260,000 francs. Since 1870 France has spent some 40 billion francs for military purposes (exclusive of the colonies).
  6. "Kulturaufgaben" -- a very difficult word to translate correctly. The lately much derided German word Kultur does not merely signify material civilization, but civilized life in its widest aspect. [TRANSLATOR.]

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