The Great War for Peace: the social costs

In this extract from The Great War for Peace, William Mulligan looks at the connection between the outbreak of the First World War and the beginning of the welfare state. Mulligan thinks about the way in which a ‘patriotic connection between citizens, soil and history sustained the sense of duty that underpinned mobilization in 1914’, and how in return for this service states provided increased financial support to families – a reworking of the social contract. The extract that follows explores part of the hidden history of total war: if states were going to involve all sectors of society in warfare, then they would need to evolve support structures to address the social costs.

The social costs of the Great War: ‘Separation Allowance’

Families also negotiated their mobilization. Returning briefly to Viatka, one Russian peasant petitioned for the release of his eldest son, Iakov, from military service on the grounds that his two other sons were in the Army and that Iakov had a young child. Family survival required tailoring mobilization to specific needs. It is worth bearing in mind that Robert Menzies, the future Australian prime minister and then a nineteen-year-old student with a commission in the University of Melbourne’s militia unit, resigned his commission. It was later argued that since his two brothers had volunteered, the family had made their collective sacrifice to the imperial war effort. The family unit was the basis of social organization, so that states, when mobilizing, had to go with the grain of family life. Moreover, conscripts made sense of the abstract claims of national defence by associating the war effort with the defence of their families and homes. The preservation of family became a key component of national mobilizations.

Successful mobilization required belligerent states to provide financial support to families, particularly in states with conscription where men had little or no control over their enlistment. Welfare states had expanded in pre-war Europe. The war deepened the state’s role in the provision of welfare, but it also reworked the social contract. Military service became a means of asserting rights to welfare provision, while governments, political parties, and social reformers held out the prospect of improved working conditions and welfare services after the war. In Russia a law passed in 1912 gave the dependents of every soldier the right to a monthly food allowance. Wives and children simply needed to present their claim, though some beneficiaries continued to think of welfare as a form of charity rather than a right. Austria had also passed a law in 1912, which gave a wife the right to a twice-monthly payment if her husband was the main earner and was drafted. By the end of the war there were 467,321 applicants for state support in Vienna alone. By the end of 1914, 2,750,000 German husbands had left home to serve in the Army. As family incomes in Germany plummeted, local authorities distributed Family Aid. By late 1915 over 4 million families, or 11 million individuals, received Family Aid subsidy in Germany. Though the financial support was often inadequate, the scale of support had created a new social relationship, in which state, soldier, and family were bound by mutual obligations. On 10 August 1914 the British government introduced a separation allowance, paid directly to the wife of a soldier. By the end of the war 1,500,000 British wives were receiving this allowance. In France the allowance was extended to all the dependents of a soldier (including elderly parents, for example). In addition to the standard rate of 1.25 francs a day, a soldier received an extra 50 centimes for each dependent child. Although the payments operated in different ways in each state, the protection of the family had become a test of the state’s legitimacy and authority. The family became a site connecting soldiers to the home front, society to the state, and present misery to the future expectation of peace. As the disruption of family life was one of the central experiences of mobilization, the preservation of the family during the war and its renewal after the conflict became a central element in imagining peace.

Mobilization was also mediated by a range of religious, political, social, and economic associations standing between the individual and the state. Churches, political parties, trade unions, commercial associations, charities, and intellectuals provided the social basis for national mobilization. Of course, these groups represented very different interests, but the demands of war required a vision of national unity. There was no time to negotiate national unity between the different associations and states in August 1914 – in fact, the idea of political negotiations between the state and different interest groups would have negated the purpose of national unity, which was to pretend that domestic political differences had been suspended or even overcome. Instead national unity was asserted and labelled – as in the Burgfrieden, or civil peace, in Germany, the Union Sacrée in France. Those negotiations would take place in coming years, after the mythical moment of national cohesion. However, the forging of national unity in 1914 entailed the assertion of claims by these groups of what the war was about. These claims ranged from the defence of certain material interests to the definition of the moral purpose of the war and the future conditions for peace.

Extract taken from Chapter 3 of The Great War for Peace by William Mulligan, available from Yale.
Great War

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