Fighting on the wartime Western and Italian Fronts never really stopped, and British imperial forces were keeping reasonably busy with minor operations against Ottoman garrisons in the Middle East, but broadly speaking the First World War’s guns were pretty quiet during January 1918. As was the way during such interludes, preparations for future campaigns were in progress, but the absence of potentially world-changing military action also gave war-weary civilian populations a moment to consider their futures. This was particularly true for millions of socialists who had been on the cusp of significant political progress all over Europe before the War’s injection of nationalist fervour stifled their ambitions, and particularly incendiary in those belligerent empires under the most acute economic and social stress.
Though Ottoman Turkey was under acute stress, it was barely industrialised and had no socialist tradition to speak of, so its largely rural population remained disorganised, incapable of coherent protest while it suffered and starved. Not so the politically sophisticated workers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian heartlands, who reacted to the bleak midwinter of early 1918 with an eruption of mass discontent that dwarfed any previous protest in either state. It began in Austria-Hungary, and a hundred years ago today the winter’s first wave of mass strikes in Vienna was halted on the brink of all-out revolution.
Vienna was no stranger to wartime civil discontent. Food shortages had been a critical problem in the city since the brutal winter of 1916–17, when strikes had swept Vienna and spread south to the industrialised parts of Upper Styria. News of the February Revolution in Russia sparked a further wave of unrest in the capital, culminating in a strike of more than 40,000 metal workers in May 1917. They soon went back to work, but only after relatively moderate Social Democrat politicians had won important concessions from the government, including the relaxation of censorship, decriminalisation of public meetings and the recall of the Austrian parliament (Reichsrat), which had been dissolved in 1914.
Russia’s October Revolution had a similarly slow-burning but even more profound impact on workers in distant countries. The subsequent return of PoWs to Austria-Hungary from the Eastern Front raised the number and intensity of socialist agitators within the empire, and the Bolshevik commitment to immediate peace raised hopes of an end to the conflict. Meanwhile news of US President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, a putative blueprint for peace based on liberal values and the principle of ethnic self-determination, encouraged popular expectations of fair post-War treatment from the Allies.
Anger at delays to the peace process at Brest-Litovsk, popularly blamed on the Central Powers’ demands for territorial annexations, was already fuelling calls for strike action when desperate urban food shortages forced the government to halve the bread and flour rations, on 14 January. The dangerous brew of war-weariness, hope and frustration ignited into furious protest. Workers at the Daimler factory in the industrial town of Wiener Neustadt, just south of Vienna, immediately struck for peace (rather than improved pay or conditions), and by 20 January some three-quarters of a million workers around the empire had joined them, amid a wave of peace protests and food riots. Strikes hit the empire’s armaments, railway and metal industries, along with printing, retail and dozens of other domestic trades, and a few days later engulfed the industrially developed Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, once nationalist leaders had made it clear that Czech workers were acting independently from their Austrian counterparts.
For several days, as strikers organised themselves into workers’ councils (or soviets), the situation lurched out of control and revolution appeared imminent – but, as in May 1917, the Social Democrats played the role of intermediaries. The largest party in the Reichsrat, and openly committed to ending the War since 1916, they were able to take control of the politically inexperienced soviets and negotiate with the (well-meaning but deeply reactionary) government of Emperor Karl to win further concessions, including the introduction of a minimum wage. These were enough to convince a majority of workers’ groups to halt their action. Strikers in Vienna began returning to their jobs on 21 January, and most strikes were officially called off three days later.
If revolution had been staved off for the moment, Austria-Hungary was hardly calm. New strikes, demanding peace and an end to imperialist greed at Brest-Litovsk, broke out all over Austria, Bohemia and Moravia during the next ten days, and the government was forced to break up street protests using troops. Though the Army gradually restored a fragile semblance of order during the first week of February – at least in Vienna – it had become dangerously unreliable as an instrument of state policy. Troops from the empire’s non-German provinces frequently joined protesters, a pacifist mutiny broke out at the garrison town of Judenburg, which was also a major steel production centre, and the Navy put down a brief mutiny at the Adriatic naval base of Cattaro (now Kotor in Montenegro).
Vienna calmed down a little during the spring, but Austria-Hungary as whole remained in a volatile and precarious condition, wracked by civilian shortages, on the edge of disintegration into its ethnic components and crumbling from the ground up under revolutionary socialist pressure. The next crisis would be along in the early summer, by which time the end of the centuries-old Habsburg Empire was near.
When Vienna erupted in mid-January, the German Third Supreme Command had been considering annexation of its principal ally (an issue since the 1870s, when the rest of German-speaking central Europe united as one nation under Prussia), but by the end of the month Germany was facing its own socio-political crisis.
Food shortages no less acute than those in Austria-Hungary, the same angst around the Brest-Litovsk/Fourteen Points equation, and an opportunist desire to exploit the revolutionary atmosphere coming out of Vienna prompted a call to strike by Berlin union organisers. It began on 28 January, and by the end of the day half a million workers had downed tools. Revolutionary German socialists (of whom more another day) organised a central Action Committee that drew up a list of demands inspired by Bolshevik peace proposals at Brest-Litovsk – but while the government sent troops to break up factory meetings, and the far left demanded revolution on the spot, the protest was being hijacked by the moderate reformists of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the smaller but more streetwise Independent Social Democratic Party (USDP).
Invited to join the Action Committee by the far left – by celebrity revolutionary theorist and activist Rosa Luxemburg, to be precise – the SDP found allies in union organisers shocked by the scale of revolutionary activity they had unleashed. Violent clashes between strikers and scab workers on 30 January cemented moderate left-wing determination to end the strike, and while the SDP orchestrated calls for negotiation, it’s leader, Friedrich Ebert, announced his support for further military intervention by the state. Thus encouraged, the government began arresting radical strike leaders on 31 January, and threatened to impose martial law in Berlin if the strikes were not called off by 4 February.
Union leaders in Berlin obliged with a day to spare, but unrest had meanwhile spread across the military/industrial heartlands of northern Germany, affecting (among other towns and cities) Kiel, Dusseldorf, Nuremburg, Augsburg, Hamburg and Cologne. The military moved in hard and fast. Mass arrests, the execution of 150 ringleaders, and the conscription some 50,000 strikers for service with occupation forces in Eastern Europe had brought organised strike action to an end by about 11 February.
Watched keenly by Allied and neutral observers at the time, the Austro-Hungarian and German strikes of early 1918 barely register with the modern commemorative industries. Even big-picture historians generally give them no more than a passing mention as a preamble to the full-scale revolutions that followed military defeat. That may have been their status in Austria-Hungary, but the German strikes were in themselves an important turning point.
Radical elements behind the mass spread of industrial unrest in late January clearly failed to achieve their stated aim of immediate peace without annexations or indemnities, and failure sharpened the angry frustration of pacifists and revolutionaries in Germany – but the strikes did provide a shock to the ruling Third Supreme Command, and it reacted in typical fashion by doubling down. Having gambled against the odds in search of military success by pinning everything on submarine warfare, and in search of economic salvation by attempting to run an empire in Eastern Europe, Ludendorff and his ultra-conservative cabal faced the rising tide of revolution the only way they had ever known how, with another desperate roll of the dice.
More than ever convinced that a crushing victory over the Allies, and only that, would frighten the unruly German population into long-term obedience, Germany’s leaders intensified pressure for annexations at Brest-Litovsk, clamped down ruthlessly on popular dissent and pressed ahead with plans for a major spring offensive on the Western Front. In other words they lit the blue touch paper, at home and abroad, and hoped for the best, a climactic moment of madness that seems well worth remembering. My other, rather flimsy excuse for featuring the January strikes is their reminder of the enormous differences, in aims and methods, between social democrats and socialist revolutionaries in 1918, a distinction that remains relevant today, particularly but by no means only in the UK.