World War I was the bloodiest the world had ever seen. More than 16 million people perished; 20 million were wounded. The monstrous killing machines of the contending powers were only brought to a halt by revolution and the threat of revolution across Europe.

There are two dominant interpretations of the war. The first, peddled by the right wing in Britain and Australia, is that the war was both necessary and honourable. Necessary because democratic Britain had to stand up to Prussian militarism and expansionism. Honourable because it was fought in defence of Belgian neutrality, violated by German forces as they drove westwards en route to Paris in the first week of August 1914.

The cost in blood and treasure may have been horrendous, the right wing admits, but Britain and its allies were on the right side of history. This will be the dominant trope in the Abbott government’s $140 million propaganda exercise marking the centenary.

The more popular view of the war is that it was utter madness, a tragic waste of human life and resources with no obvious purpose. It was a war waged between incompetent generals who thought nothing of sacrificing the cream of each country’s youth in futile frontal assaults on lines of machine guns. Work by war poets Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and novels by Erich Maria Remarque and Ernest Hemingway confirm or highlight the appalling brutality and apparent futility of the war.

Unlike World War II, which is widely accepted, wrongly in my view, as a war to defeat fascism, the Great War appears to many to have no noble cause, no obvious heroes or villains. A simple glance at the adversaries in this war would confirm this. Their leaders were all representatives of tired, worn-out, inbred monarchies and aristocratic elites.

Any notion that Britain fought in defence of democracy is easily dispelled by its denial of the smallest voice to its hundreds of millions of imperial subjects. Even in the wealthy white dominions such as Australia, the population had no choice as to its involvement in the conflict. The same was true in the French and Russian empires. And at home, large numbers of British workers still lacked the vote. As for “plucky little Belgium”, whose rights were so dishonoured by “the Hun”, the country turns out to have been an imperialist power with a bloody record of butchering Africans in their millions.

While this second perspective paints a much truer picture of the war, it is wrong on one crucial point. While the war was pointless for the large majority of its participants – the soldiers in the trenches – it did have a purpose and possess an internal logic. Understanding it requires delving deep into the contradictions of world capitalism at the turn of the last century.

Monopoly capitalism and imperialism

The tensions that led to the conflagration have their origins in the long depression of 1873 to 1896, when the industrial economies experienced a long period of slow growth, deflation and unemployment.

Capitalism was restructured during the depression in three ways. First, by monopolisation. Small and medium firms went to the wall in the hard conditions, and markets became dominated by giant corporations that organised themselves into cartels as a way of managing prices and protecting profits. The industrial giants relied on government contracts and bank loans, creating a tight nexus between the state, financial capital and industrial capital. This process was most advanced in Germany and the US, which overtook Britain as the leading industrial powers by 1914. A key feature of the new capitalism was protectionism: all governments other than the British slapped high tariffs on foreign imports as a way of encouraging their infant industries.

The second trend was colonialism. In pursuit of cheap raw materials, captive markets and new investment outlets, the great powers raced to grab colonies for themselves in the “underdeveloped” world – China, Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. In 1876 only 10 percent of Africa was under European rule; by 1900, the figure was 90 percent.

Protectionism and colonialism were competitive, which explains the third aspect of capitalist restructuring during and after the long depression – an arms race between the established and emerging Western powers. British military spending more than doubled between 1887 and 1914, while German naval spending, aimed at eliminating Britain’s lead in battleships, more than quadrupled. The result was that governments, generals and arms manufacturers became inextricably linked.

While Germany, the US and Britain may have been the leading world powers, every European country began to respond in kind. Even backward Russia began to borrow extensively from France to build heavy industry to boost its military capacity and the tsarist state became heavily dependent on foreign capital.

World capitalism was now entering its imperialist phase. Competition between individual companies was no longer fought on the basis of “free competition” over prices but in monopoly battles for domination over entire markets. In this new era, state assistance, both economic and military, played an increasingly important role in determining the success of these monopolies. Without such assistance even quite large companies were incapable of breaking open new markets or forcing rivals out of old ones. More and more, success in the marketplace depended on the accumulation of military force.

Capitalist restructuring in the last quarter of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century therefore created the conditions in which the smallest spark – the revolver shot that rang out in Sarajevo in June 1914 – would ignite the powder keg which exploded five weeks later.

The drive to war

Germany entered the chase for colonies in the late 19th century only to find much of the world locked up by Britain, France and even Holland, Belgium and Portugal. It took what it could – South West Africa (now Namibia), German East Africa (now Tanzania) and German New Guinea – but these were far too small to satisfy the demands of German capitalism. Germany had to look within Europe and the near east for its opportunity. It tightened relations with the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. The Berlin to Baghdad railway, linking Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Balkans and the Ottoman empire, was a vital element in Germany’s strategy for capitalist expansion. It was a direct challenge to British and French interests in the increasingly important Middle East – the discovery of oil in Persia (now Iran) in 1908 made clear the prize at stake.

Germany’s rise in central Europe alarmed Britain. British strategy throughout the 19th century had been to play off the European powers against each other to ensure that no single state was able to dominate the continent. With Germany beginning to flex its muscles, Britain feared that Europe would fall under its sway. That would threaten British naval dominance, so important to the maintenance of its enormous empire.

Britain forged the Triple Entente, an alliance with France and Russia. France had extensive colonies but economically was far weaker than either Britain or Germany. Russia hoped to grab pieces of the splintering Ottoman empire, including Istanbul and a sea route to the Mediterranean. Britain was keen to protect its Channel ports and saw its alliance with Russia as a means to keep the latter out of Afghanistan and India. Old rivalries between the three were put aside to confront Germany.

The stage was set for war. When Germany gave the Austrian government a blank cheque to attack Serbia following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist, Russia mobilised against Austria in defence of Serbia and to protect its interests in the Balkans. France saw an opportunity to settle scores with Germany over Alsace Lorraine, which it had lost to its eastern neighbour in 1871, and Britain declared war on Germany as the Kaiser’s army marched through Belgium to avoid France’s fortified frontier. Many European governments also saw war as an antidote to what had become a growing revolutionary mood among their own working classes.

Total war

The build-up of heavy industry in the decades prior to 1914 meant that the conflict was waged on an industrial scale. In the early weeks, all sides believed that rapid advances would lead to the war’s conclusion in a few short months. By early 1915, however, when the list of casualties had already reached 3.5 million, belief in a quick victory had given way to an understanding that progress towards the enemy’s capital would be measured in metres rather than kilometres.

The new war was a mix of the old, with its mud, filth and gore, and the new, with its long-range shelling, poison gas, machine guns and tanks. The cost in human life escalated as the destructive power of weaponry multiplied. In a matter of hours, tens of thousands of soldiers could perish. By the end of the war Germany and Russia each suffered up to 2 million dead, Austria-Hungary and France more than 1 million each, and Britain 800,000.

Life in the trenches on the western front alternated between mind-numbing boredom and frantic terror in which one’s life, or those of everyone around, could be snuffed out in an instant. Add to that the never-ending battle with lice, maggoty food, bone-chilling cold and unbearable heat. And then there was the shell shock, something initially diagnosed as a bad case of “nerves”, but the impact of which destroyed men for the rest of their often short lives.

World War I was the first total war. Until 1914, war had been something remote for most European populations. Armies generally were small, numbering in the tens of thousands at most. This new war involved the mobilisation of entire societies and economies, not just in Europe but across North America, the Middle East, India, Australia and New Zealand. Conscript armies of hundreds of thousands or millions took to the field.

The cost of mobilising such huge armies – with their associated military hardware, transport, food, clothing and the wherewithal to keep soldiers in the field – was enormous. The burden of taxation grew sharply and inflation ravaged working class living standards. Hunger and even malnutrition set in. By war’s end, 750,000 Germans had died of starvation.

While the working class and peasants in and out of uniform paid a heavy price, the capitalist classes prospered. Huge contracts to supply the army offered every big capitalist, every senior officer and every high-up bureaucrat the chance to line their pockets. Popular hatred of these war profiteers grew enormously.

At the front, the average infantryman could easily see the gross inequality between the conditions of the generals, comfortably ensconced in mansions well behind the lines, and their own lot in the trenches. Even if they were not hostile to the war, the blatant injustice of the situation rankled.

Resistance and revolution

The outbreak of war was greeted with rapture among the middle class and capitalists. The working class and peasantry were not so easily swayed. Some went along with the war hysteria. A minority were resolutely opposed. As for the majority, only the support for the war by the social democratic and trade union leaders was able to win their consent – for the first couple of years at least.

From very early on there were episodic outbreaks of resistance to the war among the soldiers. The 1914 Christmas truce between German and British soldiers is the best known. Less dramatic was the practice of “live and let live” by which soldiers in opposing trenches would do their best to avoid actual engagement.

By 1916, support for the war was eroding. The Easter Uprising in Ireland, a country that supplied 200,000 soldiers for the British empire, was the first sign that imperial jingoism was breaking down. The successful battle against conscription in Australia in 1916 was another. But it was the February revolution of 1917 in Russia, followed quickly by massive mutinies in the French and Italian armies, that signalled that the masses were beginning to turn against the war. In April 1917, 200,000 German engineering workers struck against reductions in the bread ration.

Although the French and Italian mutinies were quashed by concessions and repression, mass desertions and voluntary surrenders became more and more frequent. The generals were beginning to run out of soldiers, such was the rate of battle loss and desertion.

In October 1917, the Russian workers overthrew a provisional government and pulled their country out of the war. The Russian revolution inspired rebellious workers and soldiers across the world. In the short term, the effect of the revolution was to allow the German generals to mount a fresh offensive on the western front in the spring of 1918. However, this quickly petered out because of desertions, which only grew during the summer and autumn –in the Austro-Hungarian forces as well.

In Berlin and Vienna, the mood had turned distinctly anti-war. A big strike wave in both cities in January 1918 had been crushed, but the continuing high rates of casualties and the ever worsening conditions of life ensured that bitterness continued to rise.

The Kaiser was desperate to reverse the tide of war which had begun to flow towards Britain and France following the entry of the US on the side of the Entente armies in 1917. In late October 1918, the Kaiser ordered the German fleet on a suicide mission to confront the British navy in the North Sea. Sailors at the Kiel naval base refused to sail and took over the town, sparking off the German revolution. All the institutions of imperial Germany crumbled in a matter of days.

The German revolt quickly spread. By war’s end three major empires – the Russian, the Austro-Hungarian and the Turkish – had collapsed. The conflict, which had started with high hopes among European rulers that it might cauterise revolutionary fever among their working classes, had transformed the entire continent into a cauldron of rebellion.