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Remembering the workers who ended WWI

By: 
Robyn Karina

November 11, 2016

We’re told every November 11 to remember wars with national pride. Everyone, including each and every unknowing child, is expected to patriotically wear their fake poppy over their heart, and honour the “sacrifice” of war, the sacrificing of working class people for ruling class profits.

When it comes to the First World War, let us not remember warmly the military officers and government leaders who agreed to stop the war only once they knew they wouldn’t make any gains by its continuation. We have had more than enough movie and TV dramas about these “heroes.” Instead our remembrance should be given to those that fought against the war – within and without – not those gladly tearing flesh and earth with bullets, bayonets, and bombs.

From war to revolution

Workers forced to slaughter each other by the command of an elite class from above for no other reason than the latter’s capitalist greed for power and wealth, in a word, imperialism – few things are as horrific. Yet out of the gloom of these nightmare years of 1914-1918 came not only the calls for the end of war forever and for international socialism but, most importantly, the physical action to bring them about. After the Russian revolution stopped the war on the eastern front, the German revolution brought peace to the western front.

As the war neared its end in 1918, Germany’s allies Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria began pursuing peace negotiations, leaving Germany isolated. Some German generals even advised for an armistice, as the Allie forces neared and discipline in the ranks crumbled, but the Kaiser and his government refused. The gamble for glory was worth the risk of losing some 80,000 more lives of those lowly workers.

So on October 24 a last ditch effort was issued by the Imperial Navy, the fleet in Kiel was to take on the British Royal Navy. It was suicidal and everyone knew it – even the officers talked relatively open about the “death ride” to save the honour of Germany. The war-battered sailors, many of whom were from socialist working class backgrounds, saw this all and decided for themselves that enough was enough.

Throughout the innards of ships and naval bases, radical ideas and plans brewed behind the commanding officers’ backs. In the shadows of lower decks and the open night air a “whispering campaign” and secret organising was developed. Unlike the spontaneous Russian mutinying sailors of the battleship Potemkin during the 1905 Russian Revolution, these German sailors planned with revolutionary order and discipline.

The mutineers took over ships across the fleet, raised the red flag, and aimed their canons at the ships that hadn’t rebelled yet. Some, such as those on the battleship Baden, as anarchist sailor Ernst Schneider observed firsthand, elected rank and file sailors as new commanders. With such cries as "down with the war," these sailors propelled the true end of the war and the beginning of the German Revolution.

The Navy was quick to suppress the uprising, and got 580 arrested, but many others, armed and moved by revolutionary ideas, got away to continue the struggle. On November 3 there was a protest for the release of those sailors imprisoned, which had calls for “peace and bread”—echoing the Russian revolution—accompany it. Upon reaching the military prison the demonstrators were fired on, and so they fired back.

The next day reinforcements to crush the rising came but they proved useless, as soldiers either joined the revolutionary forces or left the area completely. The streets swarmed with forty thousand sailors and dockers as they began setting up workers' and soldiers' councils – also known as soviets – which gave them direct democratic control of their town.

That same day thousands of sailors armed themselves and set off in ships flying red flags towards the industrial centres of northern Germany to spread the revolutionary fire that had started. By November 6, the revolutionary councils were in power in Hamburg, Bremen and Luebeck. Within the next two days every major coastal city had them spring up. Finally on the 9th, the capital, Berlin, was taken by the armed working class masses.

That day the Kaiser, despite his willingness to repress the masses into submission with “smoke-bombs, gas, bombing squadrons and flamethrowers,” was forced to abdicate. His rule had ended by the hands of the workers of Germany, and the next day he ran to the neutral Netherlands to live out the rest of his life in exile.

Armistice

With him gone the government was left in power. It was lead by the Social Democratic Party of Germany – a much different party than before the war, now being actively hostile to the revolting mass workers. At the party’s head was Friedrich Ebert, who earlier admitted to Prince Max von Baden, before the latter was forced to abdicate as well: “If the Kaiser does not abdicate the social revolution is inevitable. I do not want it—in fact I hate it like sin.”

Two separate declarations were made on November 9. The first came in the morning by Philipp Scheidemann, a SPD minister, calling for a republic (this infuriated Ebert who wanted to save the monarchy if possible). Another was made later in the day by Karl Liebknecht of the Spartacus League – which was to rename itself the Communist Party of Germany a month later – in which he cried:

“We must not imagine that our task is ended because the past is dead. We now have to strain our strength to construct the workers’ and soldiers’ government and a new proletarian state, a state of peace, joy and freedom for our German brothers and our brothers throughout the whole world. We stretch out our hands to them, and call on them to carry to completion the world revolution. Those of you who want to see the free German Socialist Republic and the German Revolution, raise your hands!”

It’s amazing to note these three men all considered themselves socialists, and that all three were at one point in the same Social Democratic party, yet they all desired immensely different outcomes for the working class and Germany in general.

Ebert’s first interaction with the revolutionary masses in the streets, after Scheidemann blunder, was to plea that they “leave the streets! Maintain law and order!” With the explosive German Revolution right under them, the aim of Ebert and the SPD government was to quell it so as to suffocate it later when a greater counter-revolutionary force could be amassed. Thus, the workers from below pressured the new ruling Social Democratic leaders above – fearful of workers’ revolution, workers’ control, and workers in general – to sign the armistice of November 11.

We won’t hear any of this history this Remembrance Day, for it doesn’t fit the ideological narrative of the ruling class. Instead, retellings of famous battles, especially those against Hitler’s forces in the Second World War, will be told through movie and TV dramas. The fact that the First World War was brought to its end because of revolutionary working class sailors taking direct armed action against not only the war but the capitalist state – this will not by most be remembered.

It is for this reason we must make as many people know these truly brave sailors that were willing to risk their lives so as to end the imperialist war that was slaughtering millions. Let us remember those that fought against war and for socialist revolution. The German sailors that mutinied, finishing the anti-war struggle that working class socialists started at the war’s outset in 1914, will be on our minds this November 11. For taking an active stand to end that absurd bloodletting, that barbarous carnage of the First World War, these heroes will be remembered.

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