The First World War was the defining event of the 20th Century and its legacy is still being seen today. The political landscape of Europe and surrounds were redefined in the immediate aftermath of the conflict as the two major power blocs – the Triple Entente and the Central Powers – clashed and were reconstituted.
Two of the largest entities in Europe, the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary, were obliterated and required a complete redrawing of the maps, while one of the Entente powers, Russia, collapsed inwards under the social weight of the largest war humanity had ever seen.
The social tensions that had accompanied industrialisation were laid bare in Russia and soon spread to other nations, where the organised working class had long been opposed to what was seen as a war between elites. The human collateral of mechanised conflict was most keenly felt by those who laboured in the factories and subsequently the trenches, leading to easy cross-pollination of ideas from the anti-war movement into the anti-capitalist workers movement.
If the First World War might be seen as Europe throwing the balls into the air, then the immediate post-war period was seeing where they landed. The map of Europe and the Middle East was about to be fundamentally redrawn, and the revolutions that came with the largest conflict in human history to date would set the stage for the even larger conflagrations to come.
1 – Ireland
“Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”
William Butler Yeats, Easter 1916
The Irish Revolution was arguably the first to be directly linked to the First World War, beginning in 1916. There were two key strands that came together to create the movement that lead to the Easter Rising and beyond. The first was political. In the British parliament, the Irish Parliamentary Party organised around the question of Home Rule, the right of Ireland to be governed from Dublin rather than London. These voices grew and grew to the point where Home Rule was agreed, in principle at least, in 1914 with the intention of devolving power to Dublin. This would never be implemented, however, as the First World War put paid to it before the ink was dry.
It also bears mentioning at this point the status of Ulster, in the north of Ireland, which was predominantly Protestant and had no interest in the notion of Irish Home Rule, as they feared that it would lead to “Rome Rule”, the supremacy of Catholics. There is nowhere near enough space in this or several articles to go into the finer points of this, but suffice to say Northern Ireland exists and this the one of the first major points of proposed partition on the island.
The second strand was economic. Contrary to the bourgeois nature of the Irish Parliamentary Party, the working classes were far less orderly in their attempts to wrest power from Britain. Indeed, many of them saw little point in independence and much more value in socialism, with leader James Connolly famously remarking:
“If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you.”
With thousands if not millions of Irish workers having left for Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and London, there was far more to bind those in the industrial cities of Ireland to their proletarian comrades in Britain. The working class of Dublin had been locked out of their workplaces in 1913 after strikes and formed the Irish Citizen Army to defend poor areas from police and would be the organ of the masses in the uprising.
It would be the dovetailing of these two movements – the nationalist and the socialist – that would unite in Easter 1916 in the streets of Dublin. The Rising of Easter Week was smashed by the British Army and the leaders executed, but the seed of revolution was planted. As soldiers returned (or didn’t) from the Somme and Gallipoli, it became increasingly obvious to most that the the ideals of the British state bore little resemblance to those of the Irish population.
Sinn Fein, the party that most supported independence, triumphed at the General Election of 1918 and began to meet in Dublin, not London, claiming to be the legacy government of that proclaimed in 1916. The wheels of the revolution were in place and after a War of Independence, the Irish Free State came into existence in 1922, with Northern Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom, the situation that remains to this day.