SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 181 September 2014

The big lie: the defence of small nations

Among the many articles written by LEON TROTSKY during the course of the first world war is the one below, exposing the cynical manipulation of the struggle of ‘small nations’ for liberation by the major powers, very relevant to events today. The article was written in 1916 but first published in the journal, Kommunist (No.151), Petrograd, 1919. This is the first time it has been translated into English – by Pete Dickenson.

A direct impetus to the immeasurable events of the present war was given by a few Serb youths, almost boys, who killed the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in July 1914 in Sarajevo. National romantic-revolutionaries, they, least of all, expected the global consequences of what unfolded from their terrorist act. I later met a member of this revolutionary organisation in Paris, in the first months of the war. He belonged to the group that organised the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but he went abroad before the murder and, in the first days of the war, joined as a volunteer in the French navy as a ‘translator’. At that time, the allies organised a landing on the Adriatic coast of Austro-Hungary in Dalmatia(1), having the intention to support an uprising in the South-Slav provinces of the Habsburg monarchy.

For this purpose the French warships stocked a Serbian press to print revolutionary proclamations and enrolled dedicated young Serbs who were to make these appeals and generally raise a rebellion for ‘national independence’. Officially, they were known as translators. Since, however, the Serbian revolutionaries on the warships of the Republic were made of far too combustible material, a silver-haired Serb spy was placed on the flagship for ‘internal’ surveillance of the young enthusiasts. It is very likely that this wise foresight should to be attributed to the Russian embassy in Paris, which in general in all such operations has uncontested hegemony [leadership] among the allies.

The entire enterprise, as we know, came to nothing. The French ships circled in the Adriatic, came up to Pula, but after several inconclusive volleys returned home. Why? asked the uninitiated with bewilderment. But in French journalistic and political circles the explanation had already been given in private: ‘Italy is against it’. An uprising in the southern provinces of Austria-Hungary could clearly only be under the banner of the national unification of the South Slavs. Meanwhile, Italy considered that Dalmatia should belong to her ‘as of right’ – obviously, by the right of her imperialist appetite – and she lodged a protest against the expected allied landings. At that time it was necessary to pay a price for the benevolent neutrality of Italy, as for its later intervention in the war: that is why the French ships so unexpectedly turned back with their press, Serb ‘translators’ and silver-haired sleuth.

"How do you explain this?" the young Serbian revolutionary who I mentioned above, asks me. "It turns out that the allies, without ceremony, are simply selling the Serbs to Italy. Where is the war for the liberation of small nations now? And in that case what are we, the Serbs, dying for? I didn’t volunteer only to facilitate, with my blood, the transition of Dalmatia to Italy. And in the name of what did my friend in Sarajevo, Gavrilo Princip(2) and others perish?"

He was in despair, the young man with a dark, slightly pock-marked face and feverishly glittering eyes. The true background of the war of ‘liberation’ was revealed to them from its Dalmatian angle… From him I learned many details about the internal life of the South-Slav revolutionary organisations and, in particular, about the group of boys who killed the heir to the Habsburg throne, the head of the Austro-Hungarian military party.

The organisation, with the romantic name, Crna Ruka (the Black Hand), was built on strictly conspiratorial Carbonari(3) principles. The new members went through mysterious rituals: a knife was put to the bared chest, an oath of loyalty was taken on pain of death, etc. The strands of this organisation, which had branches in all the South-Slav provinces of the Habsburg monarchy and was filled with self-sacrificing students, were gathered in Belgrade, in the hands of officers and politicians equally close to the Serbian government and to the Russian embassy. Agents of the Romanovs in the Balkans, as is well known, have never stopped using dynamite.

That Vienna was dressed in official mourning did not prevent the masses of the urban poor being quite indifferent to the news of the death of the heir to the Habsburg throne. But immediately the press got to work on public opinion. In the events of the present war, it is hard to find sufficiently graphic words to describe the truly villainous role played by the press all over Europe and around the world. In this orgy of baseness, the Austro-Hungarian black and yellow press, not over-blessed with knowledge or talent, indisputably occupies not the last place. Since the assassination in Sarajevo, on a command from the unseen Centre – the diplomatic cauldron where the destiny of peoples is decided – hacks of all political shades mobilised as many lies as has been seen since the creation of the world.

We, the socialists, with quiet contempt, could see in the Cain-like work of the ‘patriotic’ press on both sides of the trenches, irresistible proof of the moral decadence of bourgeois society, if… if only the prominent Social Democratic organs had not followed the same path. That is what was doubly terrible to us, because it was an unexpected blow. However, as far as the Vienna Arbeiter Zeitung (Workers Paper) is concerned, it was only half-unexpected. In the seven years of my life in Vienna (1907-14), I got close enough to get acquainted with the mindset of the leadership of the Austrian social democracy and least of all expected any revolutionary initiative from its side.

The purely chauvinistic character of the articles of Leitner, foreign editor at the paper, was already sufficiently known before the war. Back in 1909, I had to speak out in Neue Zeit(4) against the Prussian-Austrian line of the central organ of the Austrian social democracy. During trips to the Balkans I have often heard from the people there, especially from Serb socialists (particularly from my unforgettable friend, Dmitry Tucoviča, killed serving as an officer during the war), indignant complaints that the Serbian bourgeois press all gloatingly quoted the chauvinistic rhetoric of the Arbeiter Zeitung against the Serbs, as proof that international solidarity of workers is only a fairytale. Despite all this, I did not expect from the Arbeiter Zeitung the unbridled misanthropy of this newspaper in the first period of the war.

After Austro-Hungary’s well-known ultimatum to Serbia, a patriotic demonstration began in Vienna. The participants were predominantly teenagers. There was not real chauvinism in the crowd, but excitement and infatuation, waiting for some great events and changes, for the better of course, because nothing could get worse... And the press frenziedly exploited this mood, worked it up and aggravated it.

"Everything now depends on the behaviour of Russia", a Social Democratic member of the Reichsrat, Leopold Winarski, who died last year, told me. "If the tsar intervenes, the war will become popular here". And, really, there is no doubt that the spectre of a tsarist invasion of Austria and Germany extraordinarily agitated the imagination of the Austro-German masses. The international reputation of the tsarist regime, especially in the epoch after the counter-revolution(5), had a very definite character and, it’s possible to say, led the Austro-German politicians and journalists to declare war against eastern ‘liberation’ despotism. This does not justify in the slightest, of course, the Scheidemanns(6), who immediately started the translation of Hohenzollern lies into ‘socialist’ language. But it reveals to us the whole of the abyss that our Plekhanov and Deutsch7 fell into – who, in their declining days, discovered their vocation as advocates of tsarist diplomacy in the era of its greatest crimes.


1. Dalmatia is part of present day Croatia.

2. Gavrilo Princip (1894-1918) assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand. In fact, Princip was still alive at the time Trotsky spoke to the Serb activist.

3. The Carbonari were Italian revolutionaries who fought in the 19th century against Austrian rule.

4. Die Neue Zeit: the theoretical journal of the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).

5. A reference to the reaction that followed the defeat of the Russian revolution of 1905.

6. Philipp Scheidemann (1865-1939) and other right-wing leaders of the SPD bear the responsibility for the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

7. GV Plekhanov (1856-1918) and LG Deutsch (1855-1941): founders of Russian Marxism.

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