Two revolutions that ended the Great War

Part I: The Russian revolution and the demoralisation of the German army

It is now becoming apparent even to those who stood remote from socialist theories and forecasts that this war will not end as it began, that is, by the conclusion of peace in the usual way between the old imperialist governments. The Russian revolution has shown that the war is inevitably leading to the disintegration of capitalist society in general, that it is being converted into a war of the working people against the exploiters. Therein lies the significance of the Russian revolution. Lenin, 28 August, 1918

Once they have finished solemnly intoning the mantra about the guns of the Great War falling silent on eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the bourgeois historians themselves fall silent: a hundred years later, they can offer little in the way of explanation for why and how the First World War ended in November 1918, just as they are reluctant to discuss the origins and causes of the War in 1914. One is left with the impression that the war ended by the conclusion of peace in the usual way between the old imperialist governments, when Germany and the Central Powers surrendered to the Allies; the truth is far more interesting and significant.

Russian equipment and prisoners of war, among 100,000 captured after the Battle of Tannenberg, 1914. Ill-equipped Russian army suffered disproportionate losses.

The beginning of the end had come in Russia a year earlier. For three years, modern armies of the two imperialist alliances had hurled themselves against each other, bringing death and destruction to Europe on an unprecedented scale. But of all the belligerent powers, the despotic Russian monarchy and its empire were the most poorly-equipped – materially, socially, and politically – to sustain the costs of the War. The imperialist chain snapped at its weakest link. However, the bourgeois provisional government that took power after the monarchy was overthrown in February refused to call a halt to the war; Russian casualties and economic dislocation continued to mount throughout 1917. Famine loomed. It was only when the working class took power in November, under the leadership of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, that Russia withdrew from the conflict.

Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin in 1917

One of the first acts of the Bolshevik government was to issue a decree calling for “immediate negotiations for a just, democratic peace … for which the overwhelming majority of the working class and other working people of all the belligerent countries, exhausted, tormented and wracked by the war, are craving—a peace that has been most definitely and insistently demanded by the Russian workers and peasants ever since the overthrow of the tsarist monarchy —… an immediate peace without annexations (i.e., without the seizure of foreign lands, without the forcible incorporation of foreign nations) and without indemnities. … The [Bolshevik] government considers it the greatest of crimes against humanity to continue this war over the issue of how to divide among the strong and rich nations the weak nationalities they have conquered, and solemnly announces its determination immediately to sign terms of peace to stop this war on the terms indicated, which are equally just for all nationalities without exception. At the same time the government declares that it does not regard the above-mentioned peace terms as an ultimatum; in other words, it is prepared to consider any other peace terms, and insists only that they be advanced by any of the belligerent countries as speedily as possible, and that in the peace proposals there should be absolute clarity and the complete absence of all ambiguity and secrecy.”

Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, January 1918. Officers from the staff of Field Marshall von Hindenburg meet the delegation of Soviet Russia. Photo: public domain

Mass pressure against the war was already mounting in all the belligerent countries, and with the victory in Russia to which this decree gave expression it rose still further. Huge protests and strikes against hunger broke out in Berlin in January 1918; for a while it seemed possible that the pressure of such actions might be sufficient to force the rulers to the negotiation table. But the rulers managed to hang on a while longer. The Bolshevik decree was rejected by all the great powers, and revolutionary Russia was forced to conclude a separate peace with the invading German army on extremely unfavourable terms.

Under the terms of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty signed by the Bolshevik government in March 1918, German troops would occupy territories containing one-third of the population of the former Russian empire. These territories constituted almost all of the economically advanced regions of Russia, accounting for 73% of its coal production and 89% of its iron ore production. The German generals then marched their troops beyond these agreed boundaries, occupying independent Finland and Ukraine as well as additional Russian territories. Independent Soviet governments in Ukraine, Belorussia (Belarus), Latvia, Estonia, and Finland were overthrown in this invasion. With the czarist army shattered and the Red Army not yet built, there was little the Bolsheviks could do to resist this onslaught.

Map shows territory of former Russian empire ceded to Germany in Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

The Entente powers then also launched their own invasions of Russian territory – British and Japanese troops occupied Vladivostok in the Far East, British and US armies landed in the northern cities of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk and grabbed the surrounding territories. These and other forces linked up with the local counter-revolutionary landlords and capitalist forces, and by May 1918 Russia had descended into full-scale civil war. Only the continuing war between the Entente and Central powers prevented them from organising a larger scale invasion. Against the odds, Soviet power held out.

Peace with Russia gave Germany some new advantages in its war with the Allies, enlarging its base of industrial and agricultural production and freeing up fifty divisions of troops for the western front. But that was insufficient to overcome the disadvantaged position Germany had held since the United States joined the War in April 1917 on the side of the Allies, bringing its immense industrial capacity and up to two million fresh troops. In 1918 the war escalated, along with its human cost in death, injury, and economic dislocation. Famine spread in both Russia and Germany. It is estimated that 700,000 people in Germany alone died from the effects of hunger during the war.

Monument in Cologne to Albin Köbis and Max Reichpietsch, revolutionary sailors shot for leading movement for peace in 1917. Photo: Gordito1869

The costs of war had already generated moods of mutiny and revolution within the armed forces of the belligerent powers. Mass protests against hunger had begun as early as 1916 in Germany. An organisation of revolutionary sailors formed in the German navy, and grew to involve 4,000 by July 1917. Led by sailors Max Reichpietsch and Albin Köbis of the Friedrich der Grosse, this organisation decided to fight for a democratic peace and to prepare for an uprising. Struggles broke out in the navy in early August. Sailors of the warship Prinzeregent Luitpold, which was at Wilhelmshaven, took absence without leave to fight for the release of their comrades who had earlier been arrested for staging a strike; on August 16, the firemen of the Westphalia refused to work; at the same time the crew of the cruiser Nürnberg, which was out at sea, staged an uprising. The sailors’ movement spread to the ships of several squadrons at Wilhelmshaven. These manifestations were put down with great savagery. Reichpietsch and Köbis were shot and other active participants were sentenced to long terms of hard labour.

Mobile kitchen in the streets of Berlin, 1916. Photo: Deutsches historisches Museum (DHM, German Historical Museum) Berlin (inv. PH003346 and inv. PLI02889)

In another sign of growing opposition to the War, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) split in early 1917, losing almost half of its membership to the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). The SPD had been the main party of the working class, with a million members in 1914. At the outbreak of the war in 1914 the SPD had betrayed the working class by supporting the war, and since then it had functioned in close alliance with the imperialist government. The breakaway USPD was a politically heterogeneous formation, including in its ranks many of the revolutionary workers in Berlin and Munich, but also some class-collaborationist leaders, including Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky.

Mutinies broke out in 54 divisions of the French Army in 1917, and later, a wave of workers struggles culminated in a strike by 250,000 workers in Paris in May 1918. Britain, desperately short of troops, attempted to impose conscription of Ireland in early 1918, but was prevented by a general strike from carrying it out.

400,000 workers strike for peace, Berlin, 29 January 1918

But all eyes were on Germany. In the four decades before the war, German industrial production had multiplied six times, making Germany second only to the US in total industrial output, and creating a powerful, organised working class that held the hopes of the working class of Europe and the world. In late January, a strike broke out in Berlin that spread to involve a million workers in fifty cities. A workers’ council was formed in Berlin, which demanded “peace without annexations or reparations, on the basis of the peoples’ right to self-determination” on the model of the Bolshevik declaration. The strike was broken and 50,000 strikers were drafted and sent to the front. But a leadership had emerged that would play an important role in later events.

Lenin commented (CW Vol27 p546-47) “The attraction exercised by the Russian revolution found expression in the first action of the German workers on a grand scale since the outbreak of the war, when they reacted to the Brest negotiations by a gigantic strike in Berlin and other industrial centres. This action of the proletariat in a country doped by the fumes of nationalism and intoxicated with the poison of chauvinism is a fact of cardinal importance and marks a turn of sentiment among the German proletariat. We cannot say what course the revolutionary movement in Germany will take. One thing is certain, and that is the existence of a tremendous revolutionary force there that must by iron necessity make its presence felt.”

Over the summer of 1918, the German army began to disintegrate under this iron necessity. The moods of rebellion that had already infected the troops occupying the Ukrainian, Belorussian, Latvian, Russian and Finnish territories – as a consequence of their entanglement in the Russian civil war – now spread to the Western Front. German gains made in its Spring 1918 offensive in France were reversed over the summer, and the German army was pushed even further back. Lenin commented in late August (CW Vol28 p86):

“The price Germany had to pay for crushing the revolution in Red Latvia, Finland and the Ukraine was the demoralisation of her army. The defeat of Germany on the Western front is largely due to the fact that her old army no longer exists. What the German diplomats joked about the “Russification” of the German soldiers – now turns out to be no joke at all, but the bitter truth. The spirit of protest is rising, “treason” is becoming a common thing in the German army.”

Revolutionary workers and soldiers, Budapest, October 1918. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed in that month

The armies of Germany’s allies collapsed even more quickly. A peasant rebellion in Bulgaria in late September brought mutinous troops and peasants into the capital, causing the Bulgarian Czar to abdicate and its largely-peasant army to crumble. The army in Italy of the decaying Hapsburg monarchy of Austria-Hungary shattered in the last week in October; the non-German national territories of the empire declared independence, and the Hapsburg empire was no more. A massive demonstration of workers and soldiers in Vienna demanded the proclamation of a republic: the Austrian revolution had begun. Austria unilaterally appealed to the Allied powers for peace.

The German High Command also requested negotiations for an armistice in October, but this was rejected by the United States, which instead demanded a series of increasingly humiliating concessions as Germany’s military situation continued to deteriorate. The war dragged on. Meanwhile, the Berlin workers’ leadership established in the January strike, now operating under the name of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards of the Large Factories of Greater Berlin, began arming groups of workers, with the support of the Soviet embassy, and making preparations for an insurrection.

By October, it was clear that revolution was also imminent in Germany. Lenin wrote on October 3 (CW Vol28 p101-4):  “Germany is in the throes of a political crisis. The panicky bewilderment both of the government and of all the exploiting classes in general has become abundantly clear to the whole people. The hopelessness of the military situation and the lack of support for the ruling classes among the working people have been exposed at one go… The government has morally resigned and is in a state of hysterical indecision, wavering between a military dictatorship and a coalition cabinet. But a military dictatorship has, virtually speaking, been under test ever since the outbreak of the war, and now it has ceased to be feasible because the army has become unreliable…”

Second of two parts: The euphoria and tragedy of the German revolution


One response to “Two revolutions that ended the Great War

  1. Pingback: The euphoria and tragedy of the German revolution | A communist at large·

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