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battleship guns firing

Guns fired aboard a dreadnought battleship. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As Remembrance Day approaches, John Westmoreland highlights the vital role played by revolutionary sailors 

War is the ultimate expression of nationalism. 

In the build up to war humanitarian feelings are branded as treachery, weakness, and irresponsibility. The onset of war sees the ruling class glory in its role where victory on the battlefield is used to bolster national mythologies about character, race and leadership.

The First World War was a war on many fronts. It was a war on enemy nations of course, but it was also fought ruthlessly against the enemy on the home front. 

Why and how such a barbaric war could ever happen is the crucial question, and the answer is denied today just as it was then. Each country fought to defend and extend their empires. The First World War was an imperialist war.

That the First World War was an imperialist war is what Remembrance Days are designed to deny. A war for profit and greed that killed millions is not only inglorious, it strips away nationalist mythology and exposes the rule of the capitalist class for what it is. 

The imperialist carnage ended with the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918. It never ended because the ruling classes of Europe had suddenly become decent. It ended because the working class in Russia and Germany stopped it – through strikes, demonstrations and revolution. Nationalist hysteria in 1914 gave way to socialist internationalism in 1918. This article will focus mainly on the mutinies in the German fleet which led directly to ending the war.

Why did sailors become revolutionary first?

In Russia and Germany the sailors were the first section of the armed forces to revolt and join with workers to oppose the war. This requires explanation.

The navy is no more nor less hierarchical than the army. The military discipline facing soldiers was no less harsh than that facing sailors. The crucial difference is that the naval officers were much closer physically to the sailors than was the case in the army, and class divisions were visible. 

For example, the officers’ quarters on board ship were luxurious and spacious on the upper decks, while the ratings had to suffer the noise and tumult of the lower decks. The waiter service and fine dining enjoyed by officers was visible to the sailors, whereas soldiers in the trenches never saw their commanding officers except on parade. Shore leave and entertaining visitors was always available to officers but denied to the sailors. The idea that there must be national unity to fight the war was always weaker among sailors for these reasons. Especially as food shortages got worse.

A second important difference between sailors and soldiers is that the sailors (both the Russian Baltic fleet and the German fleet were largely in port throughout the war) were in frequent contact with workers who spoke the same language. This was very different from German soldiers stationed in France or Russia who depended on military discipline to stay alive. 

In both Russia and Germany mutinies among sailors led to the setting up first of elected councils to petition their officers over food, duties and leave, and then to joint sailor-worker councils to call for an end to the war itself.

The Russian Revolution

Throughout 1917 and 1918 discontent over conditions grew into revolutionary opposition to the war among German sailors. The German fleet was mainly used defensively - to shut out the British fleet. The main German naval forces were at Kiel in the Baltic and Wilhelmshaven at the British end of the Kiel Canal.

Rosa Luxemburg had noted that by the summer of 1915 the enthusiasm for war had dissipated. In 1914 foreign spies had been hunted by patriotic crowds, but now the deadlock in the trenches and the British blockade of German ports meant that the crowds were now hunting bread and potatoes.

In the summer of 1916 generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff had imposed military rule on Germany with rationing and the ruthless suppression of opposition to the war. Opponents of the war could be simply conscripted and sent to the front. This happened to the revolutionary socialist Karl Liebknecht even though he was well over forty years old. However, military rule was a political mistake. The shortages and misery were now blamed directly on the military leadership, with the Kaiser at its head. Nationalism was a weakening force.

When news of the Bolshevik revolution hit Germany an alternative to war came with it. German workers did not immediately become Communists but their attitudes to the war changed. For example, the anti-Slav racist propaganda that the ruling class had terrified the population with in 1914 was exposed as a con. The Bolshevik appeal to immediately end the war without any annexations hit home. No longer could the Russians be portrayed as a barbarous horde threatening German civilisation. This in turn sharpened the criticism of the military leaders who demanded that Germany must fight on to victory.

The Russian revolution had a huge impact on German sailors.

Mutiny!

The first mutinies took place aboard ships in Kiel and Wilhelmshaven in 1917 – before the Bolshevik revolution. The context for the mutinies was the aftermath of the ‘turnip winter’ and the threat to cut the bread ration. The mutinies involved refusal to obey orders. The pent-up hatred of the officers burst out. The demands of the sailors at this stage were hardly revolutionary, but their democratic approach was a direct attack on nationalist class rule and resulted in two of the leaders – Reichpietsch and Kobis – being executed. The executions educated the sailors. It led to better organisation and closer links with the workers.

The next wave of revolt took place in January 1918. The demands of the sailors were now the same as striking workers and reveal the impact that the Bolshevik revolution had made on them.

(1) an end to war, peace without annexations; (2) inclusion of workers’ representatives in the peace negotiations; (3) abundant food supplies; (4) lifting of the state of siege (removal of troops from the docks); (5) demilitarisation of industrial concerns; (6) immediate release of all political prisoners; (7) democratisation of the state and electoral reform.

(Helga Grebing, The History of the German Labour Movement, page 99)

Here we can see that the demands are internationalist and democratic – not framed by war-time nationalism – but they are still demands rather than commands. By November the situation had changed massively.

On November 4 rioting sailors captured the city of Kiel. Along with dockers they formed a Soldiers and Workers Council with revolutionary powers. By November 7 virtually the whole Fleet had joined the movement, which quickly spread across Germany: Hamburg, Bremen and even Munich in Bavaria by November 7. On November 9 the movement hit Berlin. The workers took over the Schloss - the palace from where the Kaiser had addressed the crowds on the eve of war. And now the Kaiser abdicated! The nationalist cause lost its figure head and the generals who had known they were finished stood aside. Just two days later the Armistice was signed by the new government. The sailors’ mutinies had led directly to peace. 

Remember the fallen

Sadly, the revolution that ended the war did not end the system that created it. That’s why the story of the sailors who ended the war is not going to be heard on November 11. The quest to assert an imagined national unity still consumes the ruling class. And that will mean solemn speechifying by politicians, and stage-managed remembrance services festooned with poppies where war mongers like Tony Blair will stand solemnly next to royalty, generals and arms dealers.

The whole point of remembering the revolutionary sailors is that war for the nation, then as now, meant a war against democracy, compassion and solidarity. The sailors took those same ideals and used them as weapons for international peace. We can do the same.

John Westmoreland

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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