[Book] The First World War – A Marxist Analysis of the Great Slaughter

15. How Revolution Ended the First World War

For the soldiers, the war was a seemly unending nightmare; for the civilians on the home front, especially the women, hardly less so. In the end, large tracts of Europe lay wasted, millions were dead or wounded. The great majority of casualties were from the working class. Survivors lived on with severe mental trauma. The streets of every European city were full of limbless veterans. Nations were bankrupt – not just the losers, but also the victors.

This bloody conflict was brought to an end by revolution – a fact that has been buried under a mountain of myths, pacifist sentimentality, and lying patriotic propaganda. By 1917, in all the belligerent states, the discontent of the masses was growing.


Internationally, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had a profound effect. In the factories and trenches it sounded a clarion call. An urgent priority for the Bolsheviks was to get out of the war. The Russian army was disintegrating. On the Eastern Front, there was mass fraternisation between Russian and German soldiers. They met together in no man’s land and exchanged caps and helmets, shared vodka and schnapps, embraced and danced together. Even some officers joined the festivities.

But the party was not allowed to last. The German General Staff realised the danger of this fraternisation and ordered a new advance. The Russian Army was in no position to resist. The war-weary peasants in uniform threw away their rifles and deserted en masse to return to their villages. The Russian army was rapidly collapsing. The Germans pushed deep into Russian territory. A truce was hastily called, followed by a peace conference that ended Russia’s participation in the war.

The conference opened in December at Brest-Litovsk (now in Belarus), where the German Army had its headquarters. As leader of the Bolshevik delegation, Leon Trotsky skilfully used the negotiations as a platform to launch revolutionary propaganda directed at the soldiers and workers of the belligerent powers. Trotsky strove to stretch the discussions out in the hope of a revolution in Germany and Austria, which would come to Russia’s aid. His speeches, which were translated into German and other languages and widely distributed, did have a considerable effect.

The revolutionary events in Russia transformed public opinion in Austria-Hungary. The rebellious mood was reflected in a wave of factory strikes, which forced the government to attend to the workers’ grievances, improving working conditions and easing wartime controls. They had a tremendous effect on the ranks of the army and especially the navy. But the development of the revolution in Austria-Hungary and Germany needed time and, for the Russian Revolution, time was running out.

Brest-Litovsk signing-CC BY-SA 3dot0 de Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R92623 The signing of the Brest-Litovsk treatgy - Photo: Bundesarchiv 183-R92623 CC BY-SA 3.0 de At one point, as a sign of impatience with Trotsky’s delaying tactic, General Hoffmann placed his jackboots on the table. In his memoirs Trotsky later commented that Hoffmann’s jackboots were the only thing that was real in that room. The Bolsheviks had no army to defend the Soviet power. The old tsarist army had practically ceased to exist and the Red Army had not yet been created. Threatened by enemies on all sides, the Bolshevik Revolution was in danger of being throttled at birth.

The German army advanced and seized control of Poland, the Baltic States, and the Ukraine. The Allied powers also intervened: the French in Odessa, the British in Murmansk, and the Japanese in the Russian Far East. Under these circumstances, the Bolsheviks were compelled to accept the harsh conditions imposed by German imperialism at Brest-Litovsk. This was a blow, but it gave the Bolsheviks some breathing space, to allow time for the revolution to develop in Europe. They did not have long to wait.

On 27 October, 1918, in the final days of the war, unrest again broke out after the Austro-Hungarian Army collapsed in the face of an Italian offensive. Naval vessels were soon operating under the control of their crews.

The crumbling edifice of the Habsburg Empire tottered and fell under the hammer blows of revolution. Between 28 and 31 October, 1918, the monarchy collapsed. Its armies were scattered and broken, and new national governments were springing up in the regions. The old Austro-Hungarian state had ceased to exist.

Collapse of Ludendorff’s offensive

Despite the dire state of German morale both at home and in the army, General Ludendorff launched a series of offensives in the spring of 1918 in what was to be a last desperate attempt to break the stalemate on the Western Front. Between 21 March and 4 April 1918, in the first round of these suicidal adventures, German forces suffered over 240,000 casualties. It was a futile waste of life.

By mid-June 1918, it was clear that this last gamble had failed. The Germans paid dearly for this adventure, with final losses of almost 700,000 soldiers. It is true that the losses sustained by the Allies were greater, but their numbers were boosted by the arrival of American troops. More than 200,000 fresh soldiers were arriving every month from May to October 1918. By late July 1918, more than 1 million men were part of the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. Germany’s position was now hopeless.  

The final Allied push towards the German border began on 8 August, 1918. As the British, French, and American armies advanced, the alliance between the Central Powers, already under unbearable strain, began to fall apart. Turkey signed an armistice at the end of October, Austria-Hungary followed on 3 November. Germany was left alone in the face of the renewed Allied onslaught.

By the autumn of 1918 the situation in Germany was critical. The German emperor and his military chief, Erich Ludendorff, realised that there was no alternative. Germany must beg for peace. But the situation was already spiralling out of control. Power was slipping out of their hands. After years of suffering, a war-weary and hungry country became rebellious. Discontent and hunger were rife in Germany. The whole country was a powder keg waiting for a spark to set off an explosion.

Faced with the threat of immediate revolution, Prince Max attempted to carry out reforms that would transform Germany into a constitutional monarchy. But things had already gone too far. A rumour that an order had been issued to attack the English fleet in the North Sea sparked off a revolt of the sailors in Wilhelmshaven and Kiel on 30 October. Everybody knew that the war was lost. The morale of the sailors was already at rock bottom. Such a suicidal attack, while armistice negotiations were underway, would have been yet another senseless loss of life.

The men passed a resolution stating their refusal to take the offensive. The officers replied by arresting some of the sailors, which led to a mass demonstration of the sailors on 3 November. These demonstrations were fired upon, resulting in eight deaths and twenty-nine wounded. The incident had an electrifying effect on both workers and sailors.

The Kiel workers joined the movement on 4 November, creating the first soldiers’ and workers’ council in Germany. From Kiel, the mutiny spread quickly to other provinces and cities, such as Lübeck and Hamburg. In Cologne, the councils were established within days. There was little resistance. The revolutionary councils demanded an end to the war, the abdication of the Kaiser, and the declaration of a republic.

The Council demanded the release of political prisoners, freedom of speech and press, abolition of censorship, better conditions for the men, and that no orders be given for the fleet to take the offensive. On 5 November, one northern newspaper wrote:

The revolution is on the march: What happened in Kiel will spread throughout Germany. What the workers and soldiers want is not chaos, but a new order; not anarchy, but the social republic.

The German Revolution had begun.

The German Revolution

Within only a few days, the revolt spread throughout the empire with little or no resistance from the old order. Everywhere, the workers joined forces with the troops in an unstoppable mass movement against the hated monarchical regime. Throughout the empire, Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils were formed and moved to take power into their hands. But which party was prepared to take power?

The Social Democratic Party had the support of most workers. It now put itself at the head of the revolution. But in 1917 it had split into the Majority Social Democratic Party of Germany (MSPD) and the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD). On 5 October, 1918, the Independent Socialists issued a call for a socialist republic. In Berlin, a committee of revolutionary shop stewards was formed and began to collect arms.

In Bavaria, on 7 November, 1918, a mass demonstration of thousands of workers demanded peace, bread, the eight-hour day, and the overthrow of the monarchy. The next day, the Independents organised a Constituent Soldiers’, Workers’, and Peasants’ Council, and this body proclaimed the establishment of a Bavarian Democratic and Social Republic, headed by Kurt Eisner.

Under the pressure of the masses, the socialist ministers resigned en masse from the cabinet of Prince Max. The Greater Berlin Trade Union Council threatened a general strike if the emperor did not abdicate. The general strike and mass demonstrations were called on the morning of 9 November. A Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council was formed, and the regiments and troops stationed in Berlin were won over to the side of the revolution.

In spite of these facts, and the reports from his military advisors indicating that his support, even in his entourage, was rapidly evaporating, Wilhelm continued to equivocate over abdication. Even if he was forced to give up the imperial throne, this deluded man believed he could remain as King of Prussia. Such pathetic delusions are always the last refuge of a regime facing the prospect of imminent overthrow.

A deputation of Majority Socialists, including Ebert and Scheidemann, went to see Prince Max. They informed him that the troops had joined the revolution and that a new democratic government had to be formed. Ebert was asked whether he wanted to take power on the basis of the constitution or the Soldiers’ and Workers’ Council. Prince Max had no choice but to announce the abdication of the Kaiser, although no word had been received from that quarter. Prince Max then handed over his office to Ebert, and the latter declared himself Reich chancellor.

The Social Democrats in power

Friedrich Ebert-Bundesarchiv Bild 102-00015  CC-BY-SA 3dot0 deFriedrich Ebert - Photo: Bundesarchiv Bild 102-00015 CC-BY-SA 3.0 deIn a state of panic, the German ruling class hastily handed power to the only people who they thought could control the working class. They transferred parliamentary leadership to the right-wing Social Democrats under Friedrich Ebert, who was working in cahoots with the army. Ebert believed that the simple transfer of power from Prince Max to himself represented the final victory of the revolution. For these gentlemen, the whole purpose of the revolution was merely to bring about a ministerial reshuffle at the top. Ebert would even have been satisfied with a constitutional monarchy as long as the new state was given a baptismal blessing by a constituent assembly.

That was the mentality of those who sat in comfortable ministerial seats. But the mood in the streets was very different. Was it for this that the workers and soldiers had fought and died? The working men and women soon delivered a resounding answer. The carefully planned scenario in the corridors of power was immediately rendered obsolete by the movement of the masses. A mass demonstration of Berlin workers surrounded the Reichstag building, forcing the Socialist leaders to react. At 2.00 pm on 9 November, the Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann mounted the balcony and proclaimed to the crowd:

These enemies of the people are finished forever. The Kaiser has abdicated. He and his friends have disappeared; the people have won over all of them, in every field. Prince Max von Baden has handed over the office of Reich chancellor to representative Ebert. Our friend will form a new government consisting of workers of all socialist parties. This new government may not be interrupted in their work, to preserve peace and to care for work and bread. Workers and soldiers, be aware of the historic importance of this day: exorbitant things have happened. Great and incalculable tasks are waiting for us. Everything for the people. Everything by the people. Nothing may happen to the dishonour of the Labour Movement. Be united, faithful, and conscientious. The old and rotten, the monarchy has collapsed. The new may live. Long live the German Republic!

Philip Scheideman stands in a window shortly before announcing the republic-CC BY-SA 3dot0 de Bundesarchiv Bild-P011502 (Click to enlarge photo) Philip Scheideman stands in a window shortly before announcing the republic - Photo: Bundesarchiv Bild-P011502 CC BY-SA 3.0 deWhen Scheidemann came in from the balcony, he was met by a furious Ebert. “You have no right to proclaim the republic!” Ebert shouted. “What becomes of Germany – whether she becomes a republic or something else – a constituent assembly must decide.” But the masses had compelled the Majority Socialists to proclaim a republic before the Constituent Assembly had even met. In his memoirs, Scheidemann says that he made this speech in order to frustrate Liebknecht’s proclamation of a soviet republic and Ebert’s secret plan to restore the monarchy.

Still living in the clouds, as doomed monarchs tend to do, Wilhelm asked the Defence Minister, Wilhelm Groener, and military chief, Paul von Hindenburg, what he should do. To his astonishment, they informed the Kaiser that the military could no longer support him. The very next day, 10 November, he boarded a train and fled to the Netherlands, where he would remain until his death in 1941. Allied demands for his extradition and trial were ignored by the Dutch monarch.

The end of the war

The First World War was thus ended by the German Revolution. At this point it was a bloodless revolution. Only fifteen people lost their lives in Berlin on 9 November. We must compare this with the huge numbers who were slaughtered like cattle on the killing fields of Ypres, Passchendaele, and the Somme. The new German government accepted the inevitable. There was no way Germany could continue the war.

The Social Democratic leaders had the illusion that they would be treated honourably by the victors. They were sadly mistaken. Had Ebert and Scheidemann paid more attention to Roman history, they would have remembered the chilling words spoken by the chieftain of the Gauls who sacked Rome: Vae victis! – Woe unto the defeated! The French and British treated the German delegation with complete contempt. They were not prepared to listen to even the most modest proposals for compromise.

Marshal Ferdinand Foch-Public DomainFerdinand Foch - Photo: Public DomainNot conciliation, but revenge was on the order of the day. The French imperialists were particularly vindictive. The signing of the Armistice took place not in Paris, but in the Forest of Compiègne, about 37 miles (60 km) north of the French capital. The venue, chosen by Ferdinand Foch, a French military commander, was not the marble halls of Versailles, but his own railway carriage. This nice little touch was calculated to deepen even further the humiliation of the Germans.

On 11 November, an armistice was signed that formally ended hostilities. With Foch’s jackboot on their necks, the German delegation swallowed hard and signed the terms dictated by the French Marshall. The following communiqué was issued:

Official Radio from Paris – 6.01 am, 11 Nov., 1918. Marshal Foch to the Commander-in-Chief.

1. Hostilities will be stopped on the entire front, beginning at 11 o’clock, 11 November (French hour).

2. The Allied troops will not go beyond the line reached at that hour on that date until further orders.


Marshal Foch

5.45 am

This was essentially a German surrender. The terms of the Armistice were severe. Germany was ordered to give up 2,500 heavy guns, 2,500 field guns, 25,000 machine guns, 1,700 aeroplanes, and all the submarines they possessed (as a matter of fact, they were asked to give up more submarines than they possessed). They were also asked to surrender several warships and disarm all of the ones that they were allowed to keep. Germany was to be rendered defenceless. If Germany broke any of the terms of the Armistice, such as not evacuating areas they were ordered to evacuate, or not handing over weapons or prisoners of war in the timescales given, fighting would recommence within forty-eight hours.

Little did the victors of World War I imagine that, just over two decades later, in 1940, another armistice would be signed in the very same railway carriage in the Forest of Compiègne. But this time it was Germany forcing France to sign an agreement to end the fighting on their terms. Adolf Hitler sat in the same seat that Marshall Foch had occupied in 1918. The carriage was taken and exhibited in Germany as a war trophy. It was finally destroyed in 1945.

The Social Democrats betray

As the deafening roar of artillery was silenced and the thick smoke of gunfire lifted, the workers and soldiers of the former belligerent nations looked up and saw their former enemies in a new light. The Russian Revolution shone like a beacon of light amidst the darkness. Had the German Revolution of 1918 followed the example of the Russian Revolution, the whole history of the world would have been transformed.

But because of the policies of the labour leaders, it was not carried out to the end, and was finally defeated. Liebknecht and Luxemburg established the new German Communist Party on 30 December, 1918. But they were still a minority, as Lenin and the Bolsheviks had been in the first months of the Russian Revolution. By an irony of history, it was right-wing German Social Democrats, the same men who had betrayed the working class by voting for the war credits in 1914, who were thrown up by the first impulsive movement of the German Revolution and stood at its head.

For Ebert and Scheidemann, like the Mensheviks in Russia, the achievement of a bourgeois republic was the end of the matter. They wanted to avoid any threat of a Bolshevik-style revolution. The Kaiser was gone, but the essential infrastructure of the old imperial state remained intact: the bureaucracy, the power of the military, the church, and the old elite remained firmly in place.

spartacists waving red flags-Public DomainGerman Spartacists waving red flags- Photo: Public DomainThe workers’ and soldiers’ councils existed side by side with a bourgeois National Constitutional Assembly in January 1919. But whereas in Russia the Soviets dissolved the Constituent Assembly, in Germany it was the other way around. Behind the façade of an elected assembly, all the old political and economic institutions remained intact.

Hiding behind the Social Democracy, the reactionary forces began to build a force capable of crushing the revolutionary workers. They recruited demobilised soldiers to form the paramilitary Freikorps, armed gangs dedicated to restoring the status quo and re-establishing ‘Order’. In January 1919, there was an uprising in Berlin, the Spartacist Revolt, which was brutally crushed. The Bavarian Soviet Republic was drowned in blood.

The new-born Hungarian Soviet Republic was crushed by Romanian troops in collusion with the French and British imperialists. Béla Kun’s confused policies contributed to this defeat, and Soviet Russia was too weak and beleaguered to give any assistance. Power passed to the counter-revolutionaries under Miklós Horthy, former Admiral of the Austro-Hungarian Navy, who crushed the workers and peasants under the heel of a White Terror.

Revolution and counter-revolution in Italy

A somewhat similar scenario unfolded in Italy, although it took rather longer and, as in Germany, the work of the counter-revolution was accomplished by internal forces, not a foreign invasion, as in Hungary. The social and political divisions engendered by the war effort fractured even further in the revolutionary crisis of 1919-20.

The Italian imperialist bourgeoisie had been persuaded to join the war on the Allied side by tempting offers of new territories in the Treaty of London in 1915. The treaty encouraged the illusions of the Italian imperialists, their vanity puffed up with dreams of recovering the grandeur of the Roman Empire. But these illusions were soon dashed. The British and French bandits took the lion’s share of the loot and left the Italians with a few crumbs.

There was a wave of mass strikes and factory occupations in Italy. In 1919, 1 million workers were on strike, followed by another 200,000 in early 1920. In those factories that were still operating, workers elected councils (soviets). By September 1920, 500,000 workers were on strike. Italy teetered on the brink of revolution.

The bourgeoisie, terrified by the threat of revolution, resorted to duplicity, offering to negotiate wage concessions if only the workers would abandon the factories. The ruse worked. The colossal revolutionary energy displayed by the working class dissipated for the lack of a determined revolutionary leadership. The workers ended their strikes, giving time for the ruling class to mobilise the forces of counter-revolution.

The proletariat had thrown down the gauntlet to the bourgeoisie, which was unable to solve the deep contradictions of Italian society. These could only be solved by forces outside the narrow limits of bourgeois democracy: either by the victory of the proletarian revolution, or of fascism. Italian bourgeois democracy had very weak roots. During the war, parliament rarely met. Real power was concentrated in the hands of a tiny clique of politicians, industrialists, and generals.

Fascism was a movement based on the petty bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat: embittered army veterans, former army officers and NCOs, the sons of the rich, and assorted de-classed elements. With its peculiar mix of chauvinism, imperialism, and social demagogy, it gave a banner under which all the disparate discontented elements could unite and acquire the appearance of unity, discipline, and purposefulness.

Benito Mussolini Fascists March on Rome 1922-Public DomainBenito Mussolini and the Fascists Marchin on Rome 1922 - Photo: Public DomainThe son of a blacksmith, Mussolini started his political life as a member of the Socialist Party. He was initially opposed to Italy’s entry into World War I, but later became a rabid chauvinist. Mussolini attacked the Italian government for weakness over the Treaty of Versailles. He united several right-wing groups into a single force and, in March 1919, formed the Fascist Party. Mussolini’s plebeian origins, his earlier credentials as a socialist, and his talent as a demagogue and mob orator made him the perfect leader for such a movement.

Under the pretext of fighting against the establishment, the main target of fascist violence were the revolutionary workers and peasants. The enraged petty-bourgeois nationalists provided a fertile recruiting ground for the reactionaries. Mussolini had used the fascist gangs as a battering ram to smash the labour movement and save the bourgeoisie from the threat of revolution.

Mussolini declared that only he could restore order. The bourgeoisie, terrified by the prospect of revolution, handed him the power he demanded after the theatrical March on Rome. But in return for his services, he compelled the bourgeoisie to allow him to place his jackboot on their necks. Over the next few years, he proceeded to dismantle the institutions of bourgeois democracy, taking the title ‘Il Duce’ (‘The Leader’). The failure of the workers’ leaders to take advantage of the revolutionary situation to take power led directly to the victory of fascism in Italy. In Germany, the betrayal of the Social Democratic leaders prepared the way for the rise of Hitler and another, far bloodier and destructive world war.

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