Despite more than four years of fighting to bring stability to the world’s geopolitical systems, or perhaps because of the path taken by the struggle, the survivors among Europe’s traditional stakeholders entered 1919 braced for a battle to preserve the political systems that kept them in place. Speaking in the broadest possible terms, they had been very afraid of mass revolution in 1914, and pleasantly surprised when the outbreak of war provoked nothing of the sort, but by the beginning of 1919 they were terrified of it.
The roots of the fear weren’t hard to find. The siren song of socialism demanded change and, having been all but silenced by the national crises of 1914, had come roaring back as a political force since the ghastly military stalemate of 1916. The spectre of revolution, which had loomed ever larger over Europe’s comfortable classes through the nineteenth century, had developed undeniable substance by toppling the mighty Russian Empire in 1917, and seemed to menace every unstable or war-torn body politic during the turbulent denouement of 1918.
As 1919 got underway, viewed from a conservative perspective, it looked as if revolution’s day had come. Not just Russia, and not just the many small, faraway countries thrown into revolutionary turmoil by wars – in early January it seemed Bolshevism was about to swamp Germany and was even, if your conservatism came with an alarmist streak, flexing for action in Britain.
I’ll start with Germany, which was showing every outward sign of going the way of imperial Russia. This isn’t the place for detailed analysis of a very complex and often incoherent story, but the bare bones were reasonably straightforward.
The collapse of the imperial regime had left relatively moderate socialist politicians of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and its left-wing splinter group the Independent Social Democratic Party (USDP) in charge of a state disintegrating under pressure of war economics and along all the crevices of its endemic political divisions. As reformists or ‘gradualists’, seeking peaceful change within the framework of parliamentary politics, these guys had long been an accepted part of the German political landscape, and had spent the years before the War pushing back against radical socialist demands across Europe. They didn’t want a revolution governed by soviets or peoples’ councils. They wanted a reformed version of normalcy and, in the optimistic belief that their allies in the military represented a genuine faith in representative democracy across the officer corps, they were prepared to use troops and right-wing militias (known as Freikorps) to get it.
The revolutionary left had also been a force in pre-War Germany, and had been actively fostering and preparing for revolution, regionally and nationally, since the eruption of street protests, street violence and soviet-style politics that had followed the Keil Mutiny in November (11 November, 1918: Peace Off). After the ‘Christmas Crisis’ in Berlin, during which sailors’ councils occupied the imperial chancellery but were forced to withdraw after a fight with troops and Freikorps units, the most radical elements formally split from the SDP and USPD, forming the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) at the end of the year.
Germany was a de facto federation of states, and each faced its own political upheavals as royal or aristocratic government collapsed, but the centre of national power lay in Berlin and the industrial north, where the Spartacist League dominated revolutionary politics and the KPD. The League and its dashing young leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, went on to become poster children for romantic revolutionaries everywhere during the twentieth century, and its ‘Spartacist Uprising’ of January 1919 is seen as the defining crisis of the German Revolution, but its actual impact was fleeting, limited and damaging to its cause.
While the moderate parties and radical union leaders (organised as the Revolutionary Stewards) remained committed to participation in forthcoming parliamentary elections, the Spartacists wavered for a couple of days before opting to seek revolution ‘on the streets’ (despite Luxemburg’s preference for a parliamentary campaign). To their surprise, an opportunity to spark said revolution broke out almost at once.
On 4 January 1919, a Saturday, Chancellor Ebert dismissed Berlin police chief Emil Eichhorn, who had refused to act against protesters during the Christmas Crisis. Eichhorn’s call for a demonstration of support from those he had spared was backed by the USPD, the Revolutionary Stewards and the KDP, and was answered by hundreds of thousands of protesters, many of them armed, in Berlin the following day. While Ebert’s government made arrangements to hire Freikorps units as peacekeepers, revolutionary groups occupied newspaper offices and the city’s police HQ, where a 53-strong revolutionary committee was formed.
The committee failed to reach any kind agreement on what to do next, but did call a general strike, which brought another half a million or so people onto the streets of Berlin on 8 January. By that time the USPD had opened talks with Ebert and the KPD was effectively split between those who wanted revolution right then and those who thought it doomed to fail without deeper popular support. The former won the argument, but the latter had it right.
Talks between Ebert and the USPD broke down later that day, triggering a call by the Spartacists for armed uprising and a call from Ebert to Freikorps commanders. Easily and often derided as naive, calling in the Freikorps was not an unpopular move by the new government. Even centrist and moderate left-wing newspapers had been calling for firm military action against revolutionary groups since the turn of the year, and their right-wing counterparts were demanding mass executions of revolutionary ‘traitors’. Ebert and his ministers, their regime staggering in the shadow of Kerenski, had reason to hope that restoration of order could bring consensus around the idea of a liberal democratic Germany.
The fight that followed in Berlin was extremely one-sided, as combat veterans with state-of-the-art weaponry routed poorly armed, undisciplined, outnumbered revolutionaries. Freikorps troops took full control of the city during next three days, losing seventeen dead but killing more than 150 insurgents, including Luxemburg and Liebknecht, who were arrested on 15 January and shot during the night. Berlin’s conquerors never received any official government sanction and their actions were never officially investigated, but they did save the infant German republic, albeit at the cost of its dependence on independent right-wing groups. Revolution in Germany was far from done, and would define its regional politics into the 1920s, but revolution by an extra-parliamentary coup d’état at the centre would never come so close again.
I hadn’t intended to spend quite so long in Germany today, but information got the better of argument. My point was to illustrate how fragile the established world order felt to its stakeholders in early 1919, by way of providing context for the fleeting moment of revolutionary Zeitgeist experienced by Britain at the same time.
Britain had suffered a lot of strikes in the latter part of 1918, including a police strike, but 3 January 1919 saw the beginning of a strike by serving soldiers. Of course it looked like a mutiny to those convinced revolution was coming, and technically that’s exactly what it was – and it was a big one. It began in Folkestone, where some 3,000 men refused orders to embark for France, reached troops at Dover the next day and spread to dozens of camps in southern England during the next few days.
The rest of the month saw similar incidents, involving tens of thousands of servicemen (and a few women), at camps across the UK provinces and among British troops still stationed in northern France. The government and military authorities did their best to keep the whole thing quiet, and succeeded to some extent. The original ‘mutinies’ on the south coast received some press coverage before the government stepped in, and basic news of major incidents at Southampton and around Calais was reported, as were the negotiations with senior officers that brought them to an end (in mid-January and the end of the month respectively), but the public had no idea how widespread the trouble had become.
From the perspective of a British government in the habit of imposing wartime censorship and well versed in the mechanics of contemporary mass politics, this smelled like revolution in the making. The soldiers’ actions might, it was felt, be the prelude to formation of political councils and demands, revolutionary behaviour that could spread to infect the civilian workforce and trigger scenes parallel with those in Germany. Right in tune with the times, this view made smothering the story, and keeping it smothered in the aftermath, a government no-brainer – but it was nonsense just the same.
Modern historians tend to refer to the soldiers’ actions in January 1919 as a strike, and they are right. Peace had arrived, and conscripted soldiers quite naturally wanted to get home as soon as possible, or at the very least enjoy a relaxation of wartime routines. Instead they were being kept in uniform, subjected to full military discipline and discharged at snail’s pace. Far from being demobbed, many troops were being ordered to or readied for further overseas service, either as occupying forces or to fight in those parts of the world the British Empire still considered war zones. Everything we know about the demands of the soldiers and the concessions made to them suggests that they were on strike over working conditions, and the actions were all brought to a peaceful end once the demob process was speeded up, leave granted to those still in uniform and guarantees given against transfer overseas.
Hindsight tells us that the post-War British were, as usual, more interested in peace, quiet and comfort than in revolution – but thanks to the (understandable) paranoia of their ruling classes the soldiers’ strike of early 1919 has been consigned to the misty lands of myth and legend. Britain wasn’t denied a workers’ paradise or saved from Bolshevik tyranny (delete as preferred) by government repression in 1919, but national propaganda’s enduring need to keep the strike a secret means that most people today have never heard of it, while the shortage of detailed information about it (particularly the lack of published contemporary memoir) has enabled polemicists on both right and left to claim it as a key moment in modern British history. The strike did achieve its aims, and had important short-term effects on British military thinking, in particular helping to dissuade the government from committing large numbers of troops to the war in Russia, but any association with revolution existed purely in the minds of the converted.