31 JANUARY, 1919: Dream Ticket

Ever since its centenary, I’ve been telling anyone who’d listen that the Armistice of November 1918 may have silenced the guns on most of the First World War’s major battlefronts but didn’t, even for a moment, bring about anything remotely close to world peace (11 November, 1918: Peace Off).  Anyone taking their view of history from mainstream media can be forgiven for thinking otherwise, because the commemoration industry has been all but silent since the Armistice, giving the impression that the planet was taking a much-needed breather from conflict in early 1919.

To be fair, the silence is only partly induced by a shortage of populist stories about British men and women at war.  The regular flow of battles and other dated events generated by the gigantic propaganda machines of empires at war has dried to a trickle, and without those kind of headlines modern popular media finds it hard to talk about history.  In that respect, the years immediately after the First World War are both something of a forgotten period (as are the years immediately after the Second World War), and something of a challenge to anyone trying to hang a blog on centenary dates.  So I’ll ease off on anniversaries for now, and wander around taking snapshots of a world in motion, starting in Hungary.

In common with the contemporary world, I’ve tended to refer to Hungary in the context of the Habsburg Empire, or Austria-Hungary, but though it was tied to Austria by a shared monarch, who was King of Hungary under a separate constitution, Hungary was a distinct cultural and political entity with considerable military and economic autonomy.

Wartime Hungarian governments were politically very conservative and concerned to protect the interests of a landed elite that had dominated the country for centuries.  They were more or less jealous guardians of a separate national identity and of national territorial ambitions, and in October 1918 the arch-conservative government of Alexander Wekerle made a botched attempt to completely separate Hungary from the failing Empire (16 October, 1918: With A Whimper).  The failure left a power vacuum in a country that was, like much of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, seething with every kind of political instability.

The imperial monarchy was patently on its last legs, and the conservative parliamentary government had been dismissed but not replaced.  The recognised political opposition – a strongly pro-Allied, avowedly liberal party, openly committed to US President Wilson’s Fourteen Points peace plan and led by its founder, Mihály Károlyi – was proposing an independent republic, and Károlyi had established a self-proclaimed Hungarian National Council (HNC), dominated by liberals and social democrats, as an alternative parliament in waiting.  Most moderate socialists, social democrats largely concentrated in the major towns and cities, were wavering between lukewarm support for Károlyi and alliance with the hard left, which was becoming a formidable force as revolutionary workers’ and soldiers’ councils sprang up all over the country’s industrial and urban regions.  Meanwhile Romanians, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Serbs, Bosnians, Croats and Slovenes within Hungary’s imperial frontiers had all erupted into separatist organisation, demonstration and agitation, and a full-scale border war was brewing against Romanian Army units in the east of the country.

So it was complicated, but whichever way you cut it revolution of some sort appeared inevitable in Hungary by late October.  It came, after a fashion, at the end of the month.

On 31 October Károlyi seized the day, mobilising the HNC, disaffected Hungarian Army troops and widespread popular support in Budapest to take control of public buildings in the capital.  What became known as the Aster Revolution, after the flowers handed out to gleeful soldiers and civilians on the streets of Budapest, had taken power by the end of the day, when King Carol IV (aka Habsburg Emperor Karl I) accepted the fait accompli and appointed Károlyi as prime minister.

Proclamation of the Hungarian People’s Republic in Budapest, 16 November 1918.

The new provisional government’s first act was to formally terminate the union with Austria, a gesture confirmed as fact on 13 November, when Karl announced his withdrawal from Hungarian political affairs.  Three days later Károlyi proclaimed a Hungarian People’s Republic, naming himself as interim premier and president, and set about attempting to make it a nation in more than name.

It was, with hindsight, a doomed enterprise.  While the hard left worked for soviet-style government of and by the people, conservatives sought to protect traditional power structures, and ethnic groups pursued separatist aims, support for Károlyi’s regime was (very broadly speaking) an uncomfortable mix of liberal democracy at the leadership level and basic nationalism on the streets.  The new government’s only hope of maintaining support, and of eroding opposition support, lay in sounding to the rest of the world like a liberal democracy with no responsibility for Vienna’s crimes, and trusting that Wilson’s principles would spare Hungary the kind of economic or territorial punishment guaranteed to fan the flames of more radical revolution.  The trouble was, that hope was never real.

Thanks to Lenin’s exposure of imperial Russia’s secret treaties, neither foresight nor hindsight was required to know that the Allies had agreed to give a lot of territory to a lot of people during the War, and that they needed to carve up Hungary (among other places) to even come close to keeping their promises.  It was also made clear, in a series of French and British territorial proposals during the weeks after the Armistice, that for all its independent posturing Hungary was to be treated as a fully culpable wartime partner of Austria.

A justifiable sense of pessimism about the forthcoming peace did nothing to quell political unrest in Hungary, and by late January, with the Paris conference underway, it was already obvious that Woodrow Wilson could do little or nothing to prevent a peace founded on Anglo-French priorities.  Without ever establishing secure control over the capital, let alone the political maelstrom of the wider nation, but trading on Károlyi’s liberal reputation and close French contacts as the nation’s best hope, the provisional government would hold on to office for as long as the fantasy of a lenient peace could be maintained.

Mihály Károlyi – looks worried, and so he should.

The fantasy finally evaporated on 20 March 1919, when the Allies delivered their territorial demands in a note to Budapest.  Having made plenty of noise about being the Allies’ natural friends in Hungary, and anyway under the implied threat of military occupation, the cabinet could hardly refuse the demands, but it couldn’t accept them either, so it resigned on the spot.  Károlyi, still president of the republic, announced that only the social democrats could form a new government, but was not aware that they had merged with Budapest’s communists on the back of a promise that the Soviet Union would restore Hungary’s pre-War frontiers.  Károlyi was expelled from office the following day when the communists, as is their way, ousted the social democrats and seized political control at the moment of power transfer, establishing a Hungarian Soviet Republic under the leadership of Bela Kun.

Communist leader Bela Kun was ready to reject any Allied peace terms and rely on support from the Soviet Union.

I’ll get back to Bela Kun and Hungary another day, but meanwhile this skim through the first Hungarian republic is intended as a reminder that, beyond the headlines about German punishment and American retreat, the imperial attitudes of the pre-War years were still at work shaping the new world as it emerged from the conflict. Their impact on smaller countries was often powerful, immediate and destabilising, generating outcomes that were as inimical to imperial thinking as they were to the peaceful prosperity of affected populations.  It could also be argued that the fate of Mihály Károlyi and his pitch for liberal democracy says something about the dangers of pinning a nation’s political fate on a deal that’s impossible to seal – but I wouldn’t bother mentioning it anywhere near Downing Street.

18 JANUARY, 1918: Showtime!

The Paris Peace Conference – probably the biggest, flashiest, most important international summit meeting ever convened ­– opened a hundred years ago today.  The anniversary comes at an appropriate time for we British, who have been re-learning what it means to go into negotiations without a clear agenda, and is anyway well worth commemorating as the start of a shambles that is generally considered one of the modern world’s defining moments.  A lot of people have written a lot of words about an event that merits a long book, and has inspired one or two very fine books – Margaret MacMillan would be my recommendation – but casual bloggers like me are allowed to relax into snapshots and hope some kind of big picture emerges from the collection.

So I’ll start by saying the Paris Peace Conference was set up to fail, in general because each of the three states making all the important decisions wanted something different from the peace, and in detail because they had been manipulating the conference for their own ends during the planning phase.

Press and public referred to the ‘Big Four’ throughout the conference, meaning Britain, France, the USA and Italy, but the title barely disguised the fact that Italy was one of the also-rans, in no position to argue with anything decided by the others.  Of those three, the USA had made its position abundantly clear, or rather its president was abundantly clear that the peace should embody his Fourteen Points in all their liberal sanctity and produce a League of Nations to police its enforcement.  The British government, informed by its electorate in no uncertain terms that a pound of flesh was required, wanted to satisfy the public and pay for the War, but above all (and as ever) wanted to rebuild prosperity by securing and enlarging Britain’s enormous empire, a process that ran directly contrary to Wilsonian principles.  The French negotiators wanted payment and imperial expansion, and like the British they considered Wilson’s liberal ideology dangerously anti-colonial, but above all they represented their public in wanting to take revenge on Germany, and to make absolutely sure that Germany would never again threaten France.

Liberal platitudes coming out of Europe weren’t fooling the Chicago Tribune.

All of the above is generalisation, in that the delegations themselves were crammed full of bigwigs and seldom of one mind, but you get the picture.  That the picture involved punishing Germany, Wilson notwithstanding, was made abundantly clear by the location and timing of the conference.  Held not in some neutral country but in Paris, it opened at the Salle d’Horloge on the Quai d’Orsay on 18 January, the anniversary of unified Germany’s proclamation under Kaiser Wilhelm I at exactly the same location in 1871.  All this had been arranged at the insistence of fiercely nationalist French premier Clemenceau, for once in tandem with French President Poincaré, but the British – in some ways as incapable of taking responsibility for European affairs as they had been in 1914 – were happy enough to let him have his way (for all that Lloyd George later claimed to have been against the idea).

At work in the Salle d’Horloge

Posterity has not been kind to the principal negotiators.  Wilson is seen as naive and inflexible, Lloyd George as the artful dodger concealing a greedy imperialist agenda, and Clemenceau as the equally cunning fury willing to sacrifice future peace for revenge. Months of negotiations lay ahead, and that should give me plenty of time to undermine those facile judgments, but whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the protagonists they were hobbled from the start by their collective failure to come up with an agenda before the conference began.

The French had put forward an agenda.  Based on the precedent of the peace congress that had ended the Napoleonic Wars, it proposed that the matter of Germany be dealt with first, followed by the many issues arising from the late war’s impact on the rest of the world.  The implementation of Wilson’s cherished plan for a League of Nations, something the French described as far too vague for consideration at an early stage, was to be left until last.  This very Gallic take on priorities was universally ignored, and no serious discussions about an agenda took place before 18 January, presumably because nobody wanted inevitable disputes to go public before the conference had started.

The result was noisy chaos.  While the figureheads debated general principles, a series of international commissions went to work to formulate Allied demands as the basis for future negotiations with German representatives.  It soon became clear, although it was never formally stated, that the Germans would not be invited to negotiate, a misunderstanding that meant the very harsh terms intended as opening Allied bids often ended up in the final treaty. Meanwhile delegates were still arriving in Paris from all over the world, many from regions seeking international recognition as independent nations, some making rival claims for control of the same territories, all demanding attention from the decision makers. Many of them – including (among many) delegations from Ireland, Vietnam, Tonga, all the new states in the Caucasus, Egypt and Korea, along with a Zionist delegation – were not accepted as voting members of the conference plenary session, and I’m going to list those that were because it makes for a good snapshot.

This is the Egyptian delegation arriving at the conference (and destined to be denied a voting voice).

The surviving Central Powers (Germany and Bulgaria) were not invited to the conference, and the Soviet Union, having signed a peace at Brest-Litovsk in 1918, was also excluded.  Otherwise, the Big Four aside, old European states were represented by Belgium, Romania, Greece, Portugal and tiny San Marino , while Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, Montenegro and Lithuania were new or aspiring European states. The ‘British Empire’ fielded a delegation that included Canadian representatives, but South Africa was merely a strong voice at the British imperial table through Jan Smuts, and Africa was otherwise represented only by independent Liberia.

Latin America sent delegations from Brazil, Cuba, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama, all of them invited on the coattails of declarations of war in support of the US, and the Arab Revolt was represented as ‘the Hejaz’.  Siam (modern Thailand) was a wartime ally and one of three Asian states recognised as voting members of the conference.  Another was China, which was primarily concerned with protecting its territory and economy against the third: the only nation outside the Big Four with any real clout, Japan.

Japan’s interest in the peace was purely regional, but two Japanese delegates sat on the Council of Ten, along with the premiers and foreign ministers of the Big Four, which became the principal arena for meaningful debate once it became clear that no full session would ever achieve anything.  Not that the Council of Ten achieved anything much, beset as it was by petitions from all over the world and arguments about basic agenda points.  By the time Wilson went back to the States for a month in mid-February, it had managed to agree that Germany should forfeit its colonies and to produce a (very rough) draft covenant for the League of Nations.

That’s a good place to stop for now, because a lot went on while Wilson was away from Europe and because, from March onwards, the Council of Ten would be recast as the Council of Four, comprising Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George and Italian premier Orlando. While the committees wrestled to resolve literally hundreds of diplomatic and political issues on every continent, these four men would have the punishment of Germany organised by late June and then, like a big football club in a minor cup competition, the stars would depart and let the fringe players get on with reshaping the world.

The show would go on for another year after that, and although British popular history is inclined to focus on the disastrous outcome of the treaty with Germany signed at Versailles, it can be argued that the most lasting, and certainly the most wide-ranging effects of the Paris Peace Conference – those that still need sorting out a hundred years on – were unleashed by the treaties with the rest of the world that followed.  I’ll get down with the diplomatic chutzpah at a later date and, because the conference was a show, I’ll find a time to look at how its performance played with the public, and how it helped redefine global relationships between mass politics and high politics.  Meanwhile this was a small reminder that, while your world was conceived in fire during the First World War, it was brought to life by the diplomatic fireworks ignited on the Quai d’Orsay.

15 JANUARY, 1919: Sticky Business

So the Great War was officially over but, like a big meteorite dropped into an ecologically diverse lake, it was still sending dangerous ripples in all directions as 1919 got going.

Pretty much every country in the world was trying to cope with major geopolitical, political, social, economic and cultural changes wrought by the conflict.  While the major combatants, or their surviving components, wrestled with the momentous consequences of losing or winning the war, the rest of the planet was busy trying to sort out the mess created by more or less voluntary commitment to imperial wars, by direct exploitation by warring empires (as either proxy battlegrounds or resource pools) or by the sudden absence of imperial landlords.  Even in Latin America, the region least directly affected by the First World War, economic upheaval and the spectre of US economic domination had fuelled political turmoil that was still playing out across the continent in 1919.

There were two major exceptions to this rule of thumb.  One was Japan, which had suffered a little economic and political upheaval while prosecuting a very canny and profitable war, but was proceeding along lines of national ambition that were essentially unchanged since the late nineteenth century.  The other was the United States, viewed by the rest of the world as having emerged from its short, victorious war fabulously rich, apparently very clever and generally admirable.  The War had triggered tectonic shifts in that nation’s economic, political and cultural life, but on the whole the US was acting as if it had been a mere blip, a temporary diversion, and as if it was back to business as usual, on the road to a serene, separate prosperity based firmly and (almost) exclusively in the New World.

The US president and his advisors may have been busy putting the world to rights, and the press was carrying news of returning servicemen along with the first official reports on their performance in the field, but the US public mind was once again focused on its home patch – and on 15 January it had some very strange news to absorb.  I had intended to spend today with the Estonian War of Independence, which was on the point of expelling Red Army forces from the country in mid-January, but although the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1915 had little to do with the First World War, it did shine a small light on its aftermath in the US… and it was too weird to leave alone.

Homecoming US troops got their parades, like this one in New York, but then it was back to business.

The Purity Distilling Company of Massachusetts, a subsidiary of United States Industrial Alcohol (USIA) since 1917, had been doing a roaring wartime trade in molasses, which were fomented to create ethanol, or grain alcohol.  Ethanol was useful for various culinary, industrial and agricultural processes, including the manufacture of munitions, and Purity couldn’t get enough of the stuff once war broke out in Europe.

Molasses landed from Cuba were stored at the company’s Boston facility and fomented before rail transfer to a distillery in nearby Cambridge, and rocketing demand required construction of an enormous new storage tank close to the waterfront.  The tank took its first shipment in December 1915, days after it had opened and before it had been fully tested for strength.  Peace brought the molasses boom to an abrupt end, but the prospect of prohibition in the US offered an alternative market during the one-year period of grace allowed before the legislation became active, and USIA sought to exploit it by stocking up big time as prices fell.

The tank

Locally renowned as a leaky source of free supplies to passers by, and inclined to internal rumblings, the Boston tank was spectacularly full in mid-January 1919, containing some 8.7 million litres of molasses that weighed almost 11.8 million kilos.  Whether because of leaks in the tank, a rapid rise in outside air temperature (which rose from -17C to 5C on 14 January), miscalculations about expansion during the fomentation process, or some or all of those factors in combination, the tank exploded just after 12.30pm on 15 January.

Preceded by a powerful shock wave that instantly reduced nearby wooden structures to splinters, a tsunami of molasses, reportedly either five or eight metres high and either 27 or 50 metres across, ripped out of the tank at a speed estimated at around 55kph.  The surge devastated the dockyard area, buckling girders supporting the overhead railway, derailing a train, tearing brick structures from their foundations and obliterating street furniture. People in its path were blown away, smothered or hit by flying debris from the tank.

The wave caused damage amounting to several hundred million dollars in modern terms, killed 21 people and injured 150.  Most of the dead drowned in molasses or were mortally wounded by debris, but a few died after being tossed into the harbour.  Once the tsunami lost momentum a flood spread through the streets of Boston’s North End, burying them under up to a metre of sweet, sticky goo, while rescuers arrived on the scene to dig bodies and survivors out of the morass.  The clean-up and rescue operation took weeks, and by the time it was finished visitors to the scene had spread a residue of molasses all over the city.

There goes the railway…

Investigators decided almost immediately that the tank had been too thin and held together with too few rivets, and US Industrial Alcohol was subject to a class action that reached court in August 1920.  The company was eventually found guilty of neglect in 1925, after which it settled out of court, paying compensation to the city of Boston, the Elevated Railway Company and the families of victims, each of which received $7,000 (around $120,000 today).

In historical terms, the vedict had important consequences for the US construction industry, prompting the city of Boston to introduce new building regulations that required all major structures to undergo official inspection before opening, and that were rapidly copied elsewhere.  Less obviously, and in a small way, the case said something about post-War attitudes to the rest of the world in the United States.

When the lawsuits against USIA came before their first hearing, in August 1920, the company claimed that anarchists had sabotaged the Boston storage tank to prevent use of the molasses for munitions.  It cited rumours of Italian anarchist conspiracies reported in the press since the Armistice, threats received by telephone and the discovery of a bomb at another of its installations in 1916.  Rubbished without much difficulty by prosecutors, the plea was a reminder that, while companies like USIA were selling business (and boozing) as usual for all they were worth, even they felt the shadow of the Great War and kept one eye on a world in revolutionary turmoil.  USIA’s decision to go with the anarchist argument also suggests it had reason to believe the public – or at least the public in cosmopolitan, coastal Boston – shared a concern for the wider world that no amount of isolationist wishful thinking could completely suppress.

This sense of involvement in world affairs, though sporadic and far more prevalent near coasts and frontiers, was part of the First World War’s enduring legacy in the USA.  It doesn’t get much space in a standard narrative that has the nation diving back into isolationism between the wars, yet it would have momentous, global consequences for the rest of the twentieth century, and it remains fundamental to the stark divisions exploited by modern politicians in the USA.  There, I knew I’d find an excuse for this one…

These are Finnish troops in Estonia, where they joined an invasion by some 3,000 native independence fighters that won a crucial battle against an equally small Red Army force at Utria on 17-20 January 1919. Important stuff for Estonians everywhere – sorry, Estonians.

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.