4 JANUARY, 1919: The Revolution Will Not Be…

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.

Karl and Rosa, dashing but doomed.

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.

Against the alliance of landowners, capitalism and new militarism… that was the Spartacist message in 1918.

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.

These were the January revolutionaries in Berlin, occupying the newspaper district…
… and these were the hardened veterans responsible for wiping many of them out.

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.

Pictures of the soldiers’ strike? You’re kidding… so here’s one of the 1918 strike by British police.

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.

26 DECEMBER, 1918: Waving And Drowning

It’s Boxing Day 2018, and in Britain we’re either shopping or slacking, the latter a clear dereliction of our duty to save the nation by spending more than we can afford.  Some of us are watching professional sport but these days that counts as a form of shopping, as does taking a holiday during the ‘festive’ season.  What we are not doing, with parliament on vacation and world news restricted to natural disasters or routine ceremonials, is politics – which, given Britain’s current political circumstances, says something about how completely we buy into the primacy of commercial Christmas over everything else in late December.  It wasn’t quite like that in 1918.

Christmas was big by 1918.  The habits we now call traditions were well established, though as bare bones compared with today’s sophisticated exploitations, and the implied pause for religious reflection was taken seriously by a very large chunk of the population.  Then again, the holiday did not, as it does today, blot out the real world, and on Boxing Day 1918 the attention of the informed nation, and especially that of more than seven million people living in and around London, was firmly fixed on one event that had nothing to do with nativity.  For the first time in history, a sitting US president was visiting Europe, and on 26 December he was arriving in Britain.

Even by the fanfare standards surrounding the office today, Woodrow Wilson wasn’t just any old sitting US President.  As 1918 drew to a close he was by far the most famous person in the world, and although it’s probably fair to say he loomed less large in the thinking of radical socialists, he was at the absolute peak of his personal influence over world affairs.  Millions of people in dozens of countries regarded Wilson’s ideas as the greatest, if not the only hope for the peaceful development of human civilisation, and hoped that the power of his office combined with his much-vaunted commitment to principles would deliver just that.  In an age when reputations were relatively immune to mass scrutiny on a personal level, he was rock star, Messiah and geopolitical colossus rolled into one.

They loved him in Paris – but the romance wouldn’t last.

Up there on his pedestal, Wilson did have enemies.  A small but fierce minority in many countries – wartime winners and losers alike – regarded Wilson as a potentially deadly threat to civilisation as they liked it, less violent than the bogeyman menace of Bolshevism but much more in their face.  Significant in that they represented many of the most powerful people in those countries, these minorities ended 1918 determined to scupper Wilson’s liberal agenda for the forthcoming peace negotiations by any means acceptable to their populations.  Broadly speaking, and judged largely through the medium of the popular press, those populations were deeply committed to the principles embodied by Wilson’s Fourteen Points peace plan, but rather more committed to either gaining rewards or escaping punishment for their parts in the late war – so Wilson’s overseas enemies felt they were in with a chance.

Wilson was probably the most famous person in his own country, though Charlie Chaplin could give him a run for his money, but he was never a particularly messianic figure.  Though granted a certain hallowed status by press, politicians and propaganda while the USA was actually at war, his ungainly and unsuccessful intervention in the midterm elections had reduced him to the ranks of ordinary, if high-profile politicians by late 1918.  This meant Wilson was open to personal criticism, like any other political leader, and his much-heralded departure for Europe on 4 December 1918 – an extended visit that would keep him away for more than six months, apart from a one-month spell back in the US – was seen by some US observers as evidence of his arrogance, self-importance and belief in his own legend.  I’ll get around to the controversies surrounding those chosen or not chosen to accompany Wilson’s delegation when the peace conference itself gets going, but for now I want to concentrate on the President’s instant impact on European life.

Wilson travelled aboard the SS George Washington (a German liner interned in 1914), arrived at Brest, France, on 13 December and proceeded to Paris.  He had visited France before, as president-elect in 1912, but this time the population gave him the full superstar treatment, thronging every street through which he passed and every perch from which he could be seen.  He remained in France until Christmas, accepting adoration wherever he went, and took the boat train next day to London.

Wilson’s advisors – well aware that the newly re-elected Lloyd George government regarded the President and his ideas with deep suspicion – expected a more restrained welcome from the British, but they were wrong.  From the moment Wilson’s train arrived at Charing Cross station he might as well have been in Paris.  The streets were packed with civilians in party mood, military honour guards accompanied his progress and he triggered a major outbreak of flag draping and waving.  Only the fact that he rode the two-mile carriage journey to Buckingham Palace accompanied by a king distinguished the day from its French counterpart.

Wilson with President Poincaré in Paris – the smiley face made a big impression in every country Wilson visited, largely because the world was used to…
… stern, serious Woodrow.

Wilson beamed a lot that day in London, and gave a short speech to the adoring multitudes from the Palace balcony, but he’d been to Britain several times before becoming president and didn’t stay long in the capital.  After a meeting with Lloyd George he travelled north for a little rest and relaxation, setting in motion what would become something of a presidential tradition by visiting Carlisle, the birthplace of his mother, and stopping on the evening of 29 December in Manchester, where he was given the full rock star welcome next day and delivered a speech at the Free Trade Hall.  He returned to Paris on New Year’s Eve, but just for the night before setting off for Italy.

Speaks for itself, and for Carlisle.

The Italian welcome for Wilson put Britain and France in the shade, at least in terms of hyperbole, with plenty of popular calls for sainthood to match his local nickname as the ‘god of peace’, accompanied by a torrent of praise for his beatific good looks from a gushing press.  If there is an explanation for this extreme excitement that doesn’t involve national stereotyping, it lies in the difference between contemporary Anglo-French and Italian attitudes to the USA.

The Italian population, like the British and French, was cheering because it was understandably and madly in love with peace, and besotted enough to overlook the fact that Wilson’s brand of peace expressly rejected many of their most cherished national ambitions – but Italians also saw Wilson (and by extension the USA) as a protector against their other powerful allies.  Italians had spent much of the last three years carping about a perceived lack of material support or strategic respect from the British and French, and since the Bolsheviks had made public all the wartime secret treaties to which Russia was party, they had known the promises that brought them into the War could not and would not be kept. Simply put, most Italians expected the British and French to stitch up Italy at the forthcoming peace conference, and wanted to believe that Wilson was principled enough, powerful enough and sufficiently steeped in traditional US hatred of empires to stop them.

Different city, same reaction – crowds greet Wilson in Rome.

Wilson stayed in Italy until 6 January, fitting in talks with King Victor Emmanuel, Prime Minister Orlando and Pope Benedict XV, the latter an irritant to an Italian government on very frosty terms with the Vatican.  With no time to undertake a proposed visit to Belgium – which eventually took place in June – he returned to Paris in time for the official opening of the peace conference on 7 January.

I’ll no doubt fall to chatting about the peace negotiations during the next few months, but today is about Woodrow Wilson’s pioneering display of global superstardom.  A spectacularly bloated product of circumstance and a somewhat arrogant academic’s self-belief, Wilson’s triumphant progress as something between Christ and the Beatles was something new in the world, and announced an age of mass adulation for individual leaders fuelled by ever-expanding, increasingly efficient global communications networks.

Be careful what you cheer for.

You see where I’m headed here?  Wilson’s reputation as the great bringer of peace fell apart as soon as it was seriously tested, and his ideas collapsed when they were applied to geopolitical reality.  From the moment the peace conference got underway his star was on the wane, and it never recovered.  At home and abroad, he proved to be a let-down, and the lesson for his adoring millions should have been clear – but we never did get the message that media fantasies always let you down, and whole populations have been falling for global superstardom ever since.  So a happy new year to both my readers, and put those flags away.