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How a workers’ uprising ended the First World War

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Volkhard Mosler opens our new series by looking at how revolt spread from the front to the factories in 1918
Issue 2128
Rosa Luxemburg was a leading revolutionary socialist in Germany
Rosa Luxemburg was a leading revolutionary socialist in Germany

It is widely claimed that the 1918 November Revolution in Germany failed. But it succeeded in ending the First World War – the biggest and bloodiest war in human history up to that time.

It also won major reforms, which the working class movement had failed to achieve in over half a century of struggle. These included universal suffrage, the eight-hour day and legal rights for collective bargaining.

The uprising in November 1918 started with a soldiers’ mutiny on navy battle ships in Kiel and Wilhelmshafen in north Germany.

Some 80,000 marines had been ordered to go to Skageragg for a ‘manoeuvre ‘, but they believed they were being sent into battle at a time when the new government had agreed to peace talks.

When the First World War started in August 1914, the vast majority of ordinary people believed the lies of their governments – that victory was in their interest and would bring a better life for all. But now anger at the war had led to disillusionment with mainstream politics.

Germany’s social democratic party, the SPD, supported the war – leaving resistance confined to a small number of revolutionary socialists around Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, an MP, who made a stand against the war.

The original belief in the benefits of the war soon turned into desperation. For soldiers that desperation led to hatred of their officers – as millions of German soldiers had been killed and wounded.

In August 1917 the first mutiny in the navy was defeated and the leaders of the uprising were imprisoned – two of them were executed.

But just over a year later soldiers showed that they had learned from this defeat. Following an uprising among the soldiers, officers moved to arrest 300 insurgents.

In response, the left socialists among the soldiers left their ships and met with workers in the docks. They elected speakers and called for a joint rally in November.

This turned out to be an armed mass demonstration – about 10,000 soldiers and workers marched through the streets of Kiel demanding that their comrades were freed.

A group of officers shot at them, killing women and children at the head of the demonstration. Soldiers shot back, killing the leading officer.

This was the turning point and there was no way back. The armed demonstration turned into an uprising. The prisons were stormed and the 300 soldiers set free.

The next day soldiers elected speakers at mass rallies and built a soldiers’ council to make decisions and coordinate the running of the ships in their own interests. That evening the soldiers’ council took command of over 40,000 armed marines.

On 5 November a general strike shook the docks and factories of Kiel. The red flag was raised in the port and on the ships. Only the ship ‘König’ (the ‘King’) was held by its officers. But in a short battle the leading officer was shot.

Within two days the uprising of Kiel was followed by successful mutinies in all the big harbours including Hamburg, Wilhelmshafen, Cuxhafen and Rostock.

From there the uprising spread and by 9 November it reached Berlin, the capital. Marine soldiers were in the front line and everywhere they went workers backed their struggle.

It was a spontaneous uprising, but the ideas behind it had been advanced by Karl Liebknecht and the people around him.

On 1 May 1916 he and his Spartacus League had organised the first mass anti-war rally in the middle of Berlin. He was arrested despite the immunity he enjoyed as an MP.

He was only able to shout, ‘Down with the war!’ before being arrested and imprisoned until its end.

In May 1915 Liebknecht had written a leaflet that was distributed widely and illegally in factories and among soldiers.

It said ‘International proletarian class struggle is the socialist task of the hour. The main enemy of each people is at home. The main enemy of the German people is German Imperialism.’

Internationalism and class struggle are vital weapons for fighting imperialism. The lessons of the uprising in 1918 against the bloody war machinery remain valid for today.

Volkhard Mosler is a writer for the German socialist magazine Marx21. Go to »

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