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The radical history of Remembrance Day

Jesse McLaren

November 11, 2014

While Stephen Harper uses WWI to justify sending more troops to die for Canadian capitalism, the real history of Remembrance Day is of war resisters and revolution.
In 1914, colonial powers that had divided the world amongst themselves then went to war with each other, sending millions of poor and working class people into the slaughterhouse of the trenches. This was not a war to defend freedom and democracy because none existed: Canada was in the midst of running its concentration campus (residential schools), homosexuality and abortion were illegal, women were not even considered “persons”, and the vote was denied to Indigenous people, immigrants of Asian origin, women, people with disabilities, and men without property.
Protests and strikes against war and austerity
The experience of war led people to increasingly oppose it. In 1916 German revolutionaries organized a May Day demonstration, and when Karl Liebknecht was arrested 55,000 workers went on strike in solidarity. On International Women’s Day in 1917, women textile workers went on strike against food shortages and against the war, toppling the Tsar, but the new government continued the war. In April of that year, 200,000 German metal workers went on strike against a cut in bread rations, and in July sailors protested food shortages and demanded elected food committees—only to see the military command execute rank-and-file leaders.
On November 7 a socialist revolution swept Russia—winning factory and land control, abortion on demand and collective kitchens and crèches, decriminalization of abortion, self-determination and national and religious minorities, and an offer of an immediate armistice. In January 1918 workers councils appeared in Budapest and Vienna, and half a million workers in Germany went on strike.
But the German ruling class smashed the strike and continued the war. When the offensive failed, the military offered a coalition government with social democrats in order to preserve the monarchy.  Ebert, the secretary of the social democrats SPD, agreed: “If we don’t come to some understanding with the bourgeois parties and the government, then we will have to let events take their own course. Then we will be resorting to revolutionary tactics…A similar development would take place to that experienced in Russia.”
Mutiny and revolution
But when the German command ordered one last offensive of sailors at the end of October, it sparked a mutiny and a revolution. As Chris Harman wrote in The Lost Revolution, “Events in Kiel laid a pattern that was followed in virtually every town in Germany. The evening after the first demonstrations in the streets, a mass meeting of 20,000 elected a sailors’ council. At its head was stoker, Karl Artelt, who had been sentenced to give years in prison for his part in the previous, unsuccessful mutiny. By the next morning this council was the authority in the town. News of the events in Kiel soon travelled to other nearby ports. In the next 48 hors there were demonstrations and general strikes in Cuxhaven and Wilhelmshaven. Workers’ and sailors’ councils were elected and held effective power…Meanwhile a group of armed soldiers, headed by another revolutionary, Paul Frolich, took over the printing works of the daily paper, the Hamburg Echo, and produced a paper for the workers’ and soldiers’ council titled Rote Fahne (Red Flag). ‘This is the beginning of the German revolution, of the world revolution. Long live socialism. Long live the German workers’ republic. Long live world Bolshevism.”
By November 9 the revolution reached Berlin, as an eyewitness described: “The Kaiser Alexander Regiment had gone over to the revolution; the soldiers had rushed out of the barracks gates, fraternized with the shouting crowd outside; men shook their hands with emotion, women and girls stuck flowers in their uniforms and embraced them…Endless processions of workers and soldiers were passing without a break along the road…Everyone in the procession had a red badge in the button hole or on the breast; the marshals of the procession, marching alongside with rifles slung over their shoulders, were distinguished by red armbands. In the midst of this slow marching throng, great red flags were carried.”
On November 10 the Kaizer abdicated and on November 11 the armistice was signed—a product of war resisters and revolution. The news was electric when it reached Russia, raising hopes of ending their isolation. As Karl Radek wrote, “Tens of thousands of workers burst into wild cheering. Never have I seen any like it again. Until late in the evening workers and Red Army soldiers were filing past. The world revolution had come…Our isolation was over.”
The next few years saw general strikes from Winnipeg to Britain, uprisings from Egypt to Ireland, and revolution across Europe. But while the German revolution had toppled the government and ended the war, it had not yet won social and economic transformations. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “The revolution remained exclusively political. This explains the uncertain character, the inadequacy, the half-heartedness, the aimlessness of the revolution. It was the first stage of a revolution whose main tasks lie in the economic field: to make a fundamental conversion of economic conditions…Socialism will not and cannot be created by decrees; not can it be established by any government, however socialist. Socialist must be created by the masses themselves, by every proletarian. Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there must they be broken.”
The struggle in Russia had built a mass revolutionary organization over years, which united tens of thousands of activists from every movement. When revolutionary sentiment surged in July 1917 the Bolsheviks had the experience and the roots to channel it away from a premature uprising until the revolution had won a majority a few months later. But the German Communist Party was only formed at the height of revolution, and was too small and inexperienced to play such a role. When the German regime provoked a premature uprising in January 1919 the KPD went along with it, and was decapitated.  Social democrat Ebert said he hated revolution “like sin,” and along with the German military command organized an elite mercenary force—the Freikorps—who murdered Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Over the next few years the defeat of the German revolution and resulting isolation of the Russian revolution led to Nazism in Germany and Stalinism in Russia. This was part of the global counter-revolution that saw governments around the world crush their own rebellions, while sending armies to isolate and crush the Russian revolution: the Canadian government crushed the Winnipeg general strike and sent thousands of soldiers to invade revolutionary Russia.
Lest we forget: socialist revolution ended the “war to end all war,” but capitalism triumphed and led to another century of war. The task of ending the capitalist system that drives war, by organizing a socialist alternative, remains.
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