The battle of the Somme, 1916 (Ernest Brooks, Imperial War Museums, wikipedia)

“The Death Notice of Capitalism”: Hungarian and Global Losses at the End of the Fourth War Year

war loss

„The death notice of capitalism” – this is how, at the beginning of the fifth year of the war, Népszava described the series of data published by the German Wolff news agency. Wishful thinking – the paper wished for this indeed: they wished for writing the death notice of capitalism. But regardless of how much the majority of left-wingers waited for the collapse of capitalism in the 20th century, it did not disappear from the scene even despite the most brutal bloodsheds – either after World War I, or after World War II.

During the days around 28th of July in 1918, i.e. at the fourth anniversary of the outbreak of war, many strived to sum up the consequences of the past 48 months of war. We could describe it in one word: terrors. Or in one sentence: terrors that have changed the world. Everyone felt the change, but only a few recognized the direction. Everyone saw that the extent of the destruction of World War I was perhaps unprecedented. The area it involved was probably unparalleled too. The number of people affected was also unmatched – since the countries of five continents were involved.

Changes took place indeed; however, they did not affect the foundations of the world order, but rather modified the power relations within the world order, pursuant to the work of József Galántai historian, entitled Az első világháború (World War I). As far as fundamental changes are concerned, only the start of processes may be discussed: in his view, new history-forming forces emerged from the crisis deepened by the world war: the collapse of Socialism and the colonial system. Only a minor shift took place within imperialism, the system of colonial capitalist great powers: strangely, in Galántai’s view, it was England’s, and not Germany’s power that was shaken. The former lost the most: England was the number one world power before the war, and became “primus inter pares” after it, but it was clear that the US would soon overtake both in terms of significance and economic power. So the two winners were the US and Japan, in comparison, Germany remained a continental great power, its role did not change much in terms of global power relations.

However, looking back to 1918 in 2018, a serious turn can be noticed in world politics and the world system: Russia stepped on a path that separated it from the Western world: Since Peter the Great, the tzars looked toward and waited for inspiring ideas to modernise their empire from the West. The Leninist interpretation of Marxism-Leninism (the disintegration of the weakest link of capitalism), the intervening troops attacking the young Soviet Russia from all directions, as well as the conquest of the “Socialism in one country” concept in the twenties (instead of the spread of the world revolution) eventually placed the later Soviet Union into an orbit that can be regarded as a peculiar way of modernisation. This, of course, did not seem to appear when, at the end of the fourth year of the war, at the turn of July and August 1918, the terrors of the four years of the universal conflagration were aggregated by statisticians, since at that time there was a civil war in Russia, while on the Western as well as the Italian and Balkan fronts, soldiers of the Entente and central powers continued to kill each other.

Népszava‘s editorial on 6th of August in 1918 believed that the semi-official German telegraph office published its summary reports on the fourth anniversary of the war “with German thoroughness, diligence and – probably – reliability”. Pursuant to the editorial, the Wolff office summarized “what have been destroyed in the world during these four years, and to what extent humanity has become poorer, sicker and more miserable“.

Pursuant to Népszava‘s news from that day, the 6th of August (How much has the war cost so far?), the Wolff-agency estimated that the total cost of war between 28th of July, 1914 and 28th of July, 1918 was 650–700 billion marks. “Not even the third of this huge amount fell to the lot of the central powers”, wrote the paper, adding: “So the Entente’s war costs make up for almost three times the costs of the central powers even after the exit of Russia and Romania.” In Germany, the per capita military expenditure is 1800 marks, while in France, this amount is 2800, and in England, it is 3500 marks. Népszava and the Wolff-agency call the attention: “Central powers secured their loans almost exclusively in their own countries, while France and England took out huge loans abroad”. These are the loans – we can add – that shook the situation in France and England in the long term and made the US the leading state of the capitalist world. This is when America became the creditor of the great powers of Western Europe and this is when the collapse of the British Empire began. In order to visualize the aggregated damage of 650-700 billion marks, it helps if we recollect the news published in Pesti Hírlap about the income of German public limited companies. Pursuant to this, in the German Empire, 5148 public limited companies published their balance in 1917, and their cumulative share capital was 16.32 billion marks.

As written by Népszava, the majority of the 650-700 billion marks was not spent on food, clothes and payment for soldiers, but on weapons. The paper added: “However, these four years have thrown the world into a terrible sink of poverty and suffering and nothing shows better the degradation and madness of our social order, state structure and entire civil civilisation than these terrible numbers.”

As for blood loss, according to the Social Democratic newspaper, 11 million people died and 19 million were injured in the first four years of the war, i.e. the sum of the two terrible numbers was 30 million altogether. According to the work of Ian Westwell – entitled World War I: Day by Day – regarding the total number of the victims of the world war, the number of people died was lower (8 million), and the number of injured people was higher (21 million). However, pursuant to the data of Centre européen Robert Schuman, 9.7 million soldiers died, but together with the civilians (who died, among others, owing to deprivation, war crimes and epidemics, such as Spanish grippe), the number of deaths is 20 million, and the number of injured people is 21 million. Thus, the aggregated number of soldiers killed and injured is around 30 million, also according to this calculation.

The millions of dead and the hundreds of billions spent on the war are “not a glory, but a shame and sorrow of humankind. And these numbers should not be proclaimed proudly from rooftops but be written on the sky in a black frame as the terrible death notice of the entire humankind”, added the author of the Népszava article. The paper clarifies though: it is not the death notice of the entire humankind, though the grief belongs to masses indeed. Since the responsibility is not that of the entire humankind, “but rather of a certain state and social order. The operating costs of the survival of the capitalist state and social order are the millions of dead and hundreds of billions of military expenses. We firmly believe that a social order that demands such sacrifices from its people is not viable and cannot be sustained. The capitalist state and economic order can only ensure its state and social survival by extinguishing and ultimately plunging humanity into destitution.” This is why the title of the article wrote that it was the death notice of capitalism. Though the author was not right in this respect, in his view, the Latin saying Propter vitam vivendi perdere causas, i.e. “to destroy the reasons for living for the sake of life” is the “closest characteristic” of the social order that made 11 million people kill each other and destroyed huge financial assets within 4 years, and it is therefore ripe for destruction. According to the author, so many victims will wash away the “old world of capitalism and servitude and a new order of human affairs must be born of so much harm, sacrifice and suffering!”

It was not the first article of Népszava about the start of the fifth year of war: they had already written about the anniversary on 30th of July 1918. The left-wing paper did not want to mourn then for this reason: “We must not mourn the fact that the war has been ongoing for four years, that the monster born on the forever doomed day of July 28, 1914 has reached four years of age on July 28, 1918.” The article suggested, however, that if they must not mourn, they should at least look at what had happened during these four years. The paper strived to determine “in what aspects the faith of the world changed from July 28, 1914 to July 28, 1918.”. First of all, the author pointed out: “The humankind had never had a world war before. Even more, the cultured humanity had never accomplished any joint, large-scale actions. What a terrible irony and what a terrible tragedy it is that the first joint and large-scale venture of humankind is the World War. […] The World War is the first occasion when all groups of humanity realise that they are members of humankind, even though this membership and this recognition is for now expressed merely by slaughtering other groups of humankind.”

In addition to the massacre, however, other aspects also contributed to the decrease in population: soldiers killed each other on the battlefield, and the population growth fell sharply in the hinterland. In the issue of Pesti Napló on the 21st of July, Jenő Jobbágy summarized Hungarian losses from this aspect in his article entitled Fruitless Hungary “at the door of the fifth war year”. Jobbágy first referred back to a series of articles from previous August, stating that “The population of Hungary has fallen by far more than 1.5 million souls, together with battlefield losses, before the third anniversary of the war. But this number already included losses on the battlefield and the lack of reproduction as well.” As the author concludes: “A year has passed since then, perhaps the bloodiest of all, and Hungary has decreased again. In England […] this issue was last raised in the Parliament.” Responding to an interpellation, the British Minister of Domestic Affairs told that Great Britain had not lost much blood: “barely 1.57 percent of the total population, which is negigible compared to other warring states, e.g. Hungary’s seven-percent loss.” Jobbágy therefore browsed the population data of the Central Statistical Office and reviewed Hungarian losses again. British statistics, in his view, were false because, apart from the decline in the civilian population and the military losses, they also included “the lack of reproduction and this is how they got the shocking seven percent”, of course as regards Hungary. However, according to Pesti Napló, the British did not add these data to their own 1.57% loss.

According to Jobbágy, the Hungarian population was 21,497,773 before the war, and the annual average increase was 240-250 thousand people. This is the amount by which births exceeded the number of deaths. For example, in 1913, there were 735 thousand live births and 500 thousand people died. In 1914, in the first year of the war, there was still an increase, but Jobbágy explained it with the fact that “the statistical reports only include civil deaths. This year, even the number of births does not show a decline and only April 1915 is the first month when the absence of men is felt.” In 1914, the ratio of births and deaths was 746,911 to 506,149. The author eventually summarizes “the increase and decrease data of the four years from the middle of 1914 to the middle of 1918” among civil population: in the second half of 1914, a decrease of 120 thousand is registered, in 1915, this number is 40 thousand, in 1916, a decrease of 94.5 thousand is recorded. By 1917, this number is increased to 106,000. In the first three months of 1918, fact data are listed and a loss of 24 thousand is specified, and this number is also projected to the next three months (i.e. the calculation is based on a decrease of 24 thousand).

He then writes the following, in an extremely complicated manner, showing a five percent loss compared to the seven percent calculated by the British: „289,412 would be the decrease of civil Hungary in the four war years, but we shall deduct the reproduction in 1914, i.e. 120,015, therefore the decrease is »only« 169,397. This percentage becomes significant if we add the lost expected increase, which means, taken 250,000 births per year, exactly 1,000,0000 people. The sum of the two differences is 1,169,397; in relative numbers, this is the amount by which Hungary’s population decreased in addition to military losses. The real decrease is however 169,397. In order to combine civil and military losses, it would have been necessary to know the total number of military deaths. This cannot be obtained from our civil authorities because the cumbersome and slow administration has recorded only 120-130,000 war heroes and even less war orphans so far. Therefore Jobbágy estimates that the „annual death loss” resulting from the fights is 180–200 thousand on average. Therefore, in his view, Hungary lost, during the four years, 720–800 thousand people as “military dead”. In his view, this does not make up for 7 percent even together with the civil population loss of 169 thousand, “but the percentage of Hungarian devastation remains – again an »only« in quotation marks is required – well below 5 percent”.

The Central Statistical Office re-calculated Hungary’s losses in World War I in 2014. Here and now only the main findings of the completed study are quoted. These are not only about the ones lost in fightings, but also the losses due to the lack of natural reproduction. According to the CSO, the number of inhabitants still increased due to natural reproduction until the beginning of the war, but with the outbreak of the World War, a decline began. At that time, the population was lessened by, in addition to military human losses, the natural population decrease, resulting in a loss of 400,000 people. “Adding the number of the heroic dead, the people who disappeared and births that did not happen, the direct war-related decrease of Hungary’s population is almost 2 million in total”, states the study.

The authors also declare that the 2-million decrease “does not show the full extent of the destruction of the World War. The unfavourable mortality conditions of the post-war years, the poor economic situation, the shortage of productive ages and the adverse shift in the age pattern of the population as a result of the lack of reproduction all increased the loss. In addition, the destruction of the World War was also felt in the structure of the population per gender, age and marital status as well.” Thus, in the territory of historical Hungary, in the 1900 census, the number of women was 92.6 thousand more, and in 1910, it was 138.7 thousand more than the number of men. According to the CSO, “the shift in the gender ratio to women has been amplified by the war”, and “between the censuses of 1910 and 1920, the composition per marital status changed, in particular among women”. Thereby, due to the lack of marriages and battlefield losses, the ratio of married couples decreased and the ratio of “maidens and widows” grew.

All this shows that after the First World War, Hungary suffered from the negative consequences of the fights on the battlefield and the hardships in the hinterland for decades, and although capitalism did not collapse, in Hungary, the perception of capitalism has been very negative in the past hundred years. Obviously the First World War was not the only factor, but instead of “the death notice of capitalism“, Népszava or Pesti Napló could have justifiably written about “the death notice of historical Hungary“.

A kapitalizmus gyászjelentése = Népszava, 1918. augusztus 6.
Mennyibe került már a háború? = Népszava, 1918. augusztus 6.
Elkezdődött az ötödik esztendő = Népszava, 1918. július 30.
A német részvénytársaságok jövedelmei = Pesti Hírlap, 1918. július 17.
Jobbágy Jenő: Meddő Magyarország. A magyarság veszteségei az ötödik háborús év küszöbén = 1918. július 21.
Galántai József: Az első világháború. Budapest, 1980.
Ian Westwell: Az I. világháború napról napra. Debrecen, 2001.
World Was I casualties = Centre européen Robert Schuman
Háborúk, válságok, diktatúrák demográfiai hatásai. I. A Nagy Háború. Felelős szerk.: Dr. Rácz Attila. Budapest, 2014.

Created by: Iván Miklós Szegő