May Day is far and away the most popular of several dates chosen around the world to mark the achievements and sacrifices of international labour. None too surprisingly, the idea of a day set aside for the purpose dates from the late 19th century – when mass literacy (and with it politicisation) had brought self-confidence and tactical sophistication to the international labour movement. Perhaps more surprisingly, May Day labour celebrations originated in the USA, in Chigaco, where the first such march took place in 1886.
That event, which became known as the Haymarket Massacre, featured an anarchist bomb attack and a police shoot-out with marchers. It triggered a press (and therefore ‘big business’) backlash against the left-wing labour movement that, though largely based on Hillsborough-style defamation of victims, played a significant role in the eradication of socialism as a legitimate political standpoint in the USA. That process, boosted after August 1914 by employers’ determination not to let politics interfere with a war-inspired production boom, was essentially complete by 1916 (and these days 1 May is officially Law Day in the US), but May Day had meanwhile caught on with European socialists.
So, a hundred years ago today, industrial cities all over Europe witnessed demonstrations by working people and their political organisers, and in the pre-War heart of moderate socialism, Germany, May Day saw the arrest of Karl Liebknecht for making an anti-War speech in Berlin. (That’s Karl getting his collar felt in the picture at the top, by the way.)
Liebknecht was a famous socialist, a revolutionary rather than a reformer and the only Reichstag deputy to vote against the War in 1914. As a reward for that piece of impudence, he had been sent to bury dead bodies on the Eastern Front, but had resumed his political career after being discharged on health grounds. He would stay in jail until the regime’s complete breakdown brought his release at the end of the War, when he would cement his fame as a martyr of the German Revolution that spilled into chaotic life in 1919. He may get more attention from me then, but for now I plan to use Karl as an excuse to see how German society was handling the shock of total war.
Back when this blog started, I put together a piece on Germany in 1914 (it’s under Big Guns), and what follows won’t make much sense without it. I left it at the outbreak of war, at which point the explosive, volatile brew of autocracy, rising social discontent and rampant economic expansion that was Germany in 1914 suddenly cohered into passionate national unity. Rampant popular enthusiasm for the War was matched in the Reichstag and by declaration of a political truce (Burgfrieden) for the duration, while the Kaiser, a man whose thinking only really moved in leaps and bounds, decided his troubles were over and that happy, unified German nationalism was here to stay.
The powerful industrial, landowning and military interests that sustained the regime, conservative to the core, weren’t so sure they trusted the change, and the Army immediately took over much of the civil administration under the Prussian Siege Law, which gave it enormous powers in time of national crisis. In other words the ruling elites of German society, unlike their counterparts in France or Britain, saw no need to nurture the nation’s good vibe with a spirit of compromise.
And so it went. Like every other belligerent power, Germany was in no way prepared to fight a long war, let alone one that embraced every aspect of national life. When faced with unimagined demands for manpower, war materials and money to pay for them, its leaders had no recourse to anything but top-down imposition of ever-increasing demands. By October 1914, the Army’s demands had already outstripped production, and reinforcements were dependent on current output. Massive government orders to big arms companies didn’t solve anything, merely pushed up the price of raw materials, and the situation worsened as the enemy (largely British) naval blockade tightened.
This wasn’t the bumper war German big business had bargained for, and in Germany big business talked, demanding and getting extension of the Prussian War Ministry’s powers, so that its War Materials Department (KRA) took control of goods distribution throughout Germany.
Essentially a means of focusing all national effort on supplying big arms and war materials manufacturers (and securing their profits), the KRA succeeded on one level, improving output and seeing the war effort through 1915, a year in which Germany still enjoyed material superiority over its enemies and industrial profits went through the roof. On the other hand the KRA’s system unbalanced the economy in ways that would eventually prove fatal, alienating smaller companies that were given only a token share of wartime business, and enabling the big boys to charge extortionate prices that encouraged inflation and multiplied financial problems that were anyway crippling.
Germany found most of the enormous sums needed to finance the war effort by raising taxes on a regular basis and, above all, by issuing war bonds, lots of them. That form of borrowing rapidly spiralled out of control, so that the victory soon represented the only possible way of paying back bond subscribers, a factor that goes some way to explaining the regime’s unwillingness to discuss a negotiated peace before 1918.
Meanwhile civilian shortages of food and manufactured goods were mounting – exacerbated by a bad harvest in 1915 and an agricultural manpower crisis – and by the beginning of 1916 Germans, no less than other Europeans, were becoming weary of the apparently endless military stalemate. All in all, given the explosive state of German society and politics in the immediate pre-War period (Big Guns again, I’m afraid), it would seem reasonable to expect a breakdown of political truce and a world of trouble for the ruling regime – yet the May Day march in Berlin that got Karl Liebknecht arrested (remember him?) was the first major anti-War demonstration to hit the streets, and only about 10,000 people from the far left took part.
So the military-industrial complex running Germany was holding its ground in April 1916, and the obvious question is: how? It’s easy to fall back on national stereotypes and stress the depth of German obedience to authority, and that perhaps played a part, as did the hope of victory that came with superficial maintenance of an efficient war effort, along with the determination of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s civilian administration, a haven for the more moderate among the conservative elite, to keep the Reichstag sweet with minor constitutional concessions.
Posterity has a bit more trouble remembering the extent to which Germans believed they were fighting a defensive war. Threatened by Russia and France, betrayed by the British, saddled with allies in constant need of support, the German body politic was still feeding on righteous indignation. Even Germany’s official socialist groups were still giving solid, outraged support to the struggle, and it was left to the small, anti-War Spartacus League, founded by Liebknecht and his allies in early 1916, to organise the May Day demonstration.
So, all surprisingly quiet on the German home front, but Liebknecht’s small gesture is as good a marker as any for a long, painful turning point in the middle of 1916. Verdun was already underway, the summer would bring the Somme on the Western Front and the Russian Brusilov offensive in the east, and they would demonstrate beyond doubt that Allied production capacity was expanding beyond Germany’s ability to compete in the long term. They would also undermine the relatively moderate sway of Bethmann-Hollweg in government and General Falkenhayn atop the Army, leaving the Kaiser’s ear open to the siren song of extreme right-wing industrial and military interests.
Led by the appalling Ludendorff, the far right believed salvation lay in compelling the German people to stop slacking, and in ruthless exploitation of conquered or allied territories. By May, they were already manoeuvring to establish what would effectively be a military dictatorship, and by the autumn it would be in place. Watch this space, things are about to turn very nasty in Germany…