Why World War One?

The long Failure of Western Arms.

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw and the Munitions People.

(Nearly a decade before the War, and well before the arms manufacturers were called, "The Merchants of Death" Shaw and others saw that they were running the show. From War or Peace Vol 1 ch5)


Undershaft and his Ilk.

George Bernard Shaw made this very observation in his play Major Barbara, written in 1905 close to the time when the Great War was formed, for usually wars are engineered a decade or more before they take place. Prescience is always worth a bit more. In the play, the arms manufacturer, Undershaft, tussles with the Salvation Army lass, Major Barbara, each on their own terms. Undershaft was probably based on a combination of Krupp and Basil Zaharoff. He responds to his son, a hopeful politician, thus:


UNDERSHAFT [with a touch of brutality] The government of your country! I am the government of your country: I, and Lazarus. Do you suppose that you and half a dozen amateurs like you, sitting in a row in that foolish gabble shop, can govern Undershaft and Lazarus? No, my friend: you will do what pays US. You will make war when it suits us, and keep peace when it doesn't. You will find out that trade requires certain measures when we have decided on those measures. When I want anything to keep my dividends up, you will discover that my want is a national need. When other people want something to keep my dividends down, you will call out the police and military. And in
return you shall have the support and applause of my newspapers, and the delight of imagining that you are a great statesman. Government of your country! Be off with you, my boy, and play with your caucuses and leading articles and historic parties and great leaders and burning questions and the rest of your toys. I am going back to my counting house to pay the piper and call the tune.


Shaw here was speaking the unspoken. The arms traders, of course, did not let on that they were running the show. It was done quietly. They may also not have been hoping for what we now know as World War One. Indeed, nobody could have known what it would be like. But they knew that war does not harm their business and put no obstacles in its way. When war arrives suddenly everyone wants weapons and seemingly without concern for the price. Wonderful! The peacemakers lagged way behind and were easily outplayed; they were outsiders while Krupp and Armstrong were consummate insiders, effectively for war, day in and day out. There was nothing inevitable about this War, except that the agendas of the arms manufacturers and the ethos they created came to shape international politics and popular culture. The First World War was the munitions industry’s first great success.