An enormous amount of literature has been published about the First World War; rightly so, because it was a momentous event in European and world history. A lot has been published about the fate of the ‘common’ soldier on both sides of the conflict, who was literally crushed and dumped in the mud by forces beyond his control. For obvious reasons, little attention has been paid to the European countries that managed to stay out of the war vortex, and little attention has been given to the soldiers of these countries.
The following review by Pieter Brans looks at a new book by Ron Blom, a member of the cwi in the Netherlands, and his co-author, Theunis Stelling. This important and, given events in Iraq, timely, book, examines the army and conscription in the Netherlands during the First World War. It describes the important radical left wing movements inside the armed forces, which up until now have largely remained unknown. socialistworld.net.
‘Not for God and not for Fatherland’
The Netherlands was literally in the middle of the tremendous struggles and battles of WWI. And so were its soldiers, even though they did not fire a shot.
Apart from this fact, the Dutch soldiers faced many similar conditions to their counterparts in Belgium, Germany, France and Britain, as shown by the recent book, “Not for God and not for Fatherland: Left-wing soldiers, sailors and their organisations during the mobilisation of 1914-18”, by CWI member, Rom Blom, and his co-author, Theunis Stelling.
The Dutch army was mobilised for four years and suffered from low morale, bad food and billeting. This was in no measure comparable to the slaughter and terror that other soldiers experienced, but it was nonetheless a huge burden for working class Dutch soldiers.
Blom and Stelling’s book has the merit of exhuming the details of the soldiers’ experiences from archives. The authors have restored these ‘forgotten’ soldiers and their socialist organisations to a modest but deserved place in history.
The co-authors analyse the influence of the different left wing political currents, like social democrats (reformists and revolutionaries), anarchists, syndicalists and Christian socialists. Some activists opted to refuse military service, while others formed soldiers’ and sailors’ organisations, unions, committees and councils. The social democratic sailors’ union organised around 80 percent of the soldiers. The radical Soldiers’ Union in the Dutch Indies was able to recruit 50 percent of the European soldiers in the colony. The well-known revolutionary, Henk Sneevliet, spoke several times to soldiers in the Dutch Indies and left his mark on the union. In several Dutch cities soldiers’ councils were established, with the help of anarchists, syndicalists and left-social democrats.
Mutiny and ‘revolution’
The brief appearance of the councils came at the end of the war. A mutiny occurred in several army camps and the widespread feelings of dissatisfaction merged with those of the general population.
Ron Blom and Theunis Stelling show in detail how international revolutionary developments, and growing dissatisfaction over the protracted mobilisation, led one of the leaders of the Social Democratic Labour Party, Troelstra, to call for a revolution – which for lack of political and practical preparation was doomed to failure. The authors show that a revolution was ill-prepared and not founded on the general mood in society or amongst the armed forces. Nevertheless the radicalisation in society rendered some lasting political results, like winning of the eight hour day and universal suffrage.
‘Not for God and not for Fatherland’ illuminates the life of the soldiers and sailors. A lot of attention is paid to the concrete conditions in the forces. The authors make clear that the general picture of the Dutch military as a kind of ‘Dad’s Army’ was mistaken. It was only a minor military force by the standards of the time, but it still was an important tool for the ruling class and, unfortunately for them, a tool they were terrified was going out of their control.
The focus throughout the book is on how the collective experiences of many soldiers during their mobilisation combined and contributed to the general outline of the political development of a small European country. The reaction of workers to mobilisation and the terrible conditions they faced in the army and navy may not have led to revolution, but did greatly contribute to major political reforms.
Niet voor God en niet voor het Vaderland. Linkse soldaten, matrozen en hun organisaties tijdens de mobilisatie van ‘14-’18, (‘Not for God and not for Fatherland – Left-wing soldiers, sailors and their organisations during the mobilisation of ‘14-‘18) by Ron Blom and Theunis Stelling, 2004 (1,120 pages). Price 45 Euro.
Copies of the book (in Dutch only) can be ordered through the Dutch ‘Offensief’ (cwi) website.