“On 4 November 1918 they armed themselves and set off, in their thousands, for the industrial centres of northern Germany. Jan Valtin, a participant, remembered: “That night I saw the mutinous sailors roll into Bremen on caravans of commandeered trucks – from all sides masses of humanity, a sea of swinging, pushing bodies and distorted faces were moving toward the centre of town. Many of the workers were armed with guns, with bayonets and with hammers.”
By 9 November, with workers swarming into the streets of Berlin, the Kaiser abdicated: only the declaration of a republic, with a Labour government and the promised “socialisation of industry”, prevented outright Soviet-style revolution.
These incredible events do not fit easily into the narrative the mass media has been feeding us about the 1914-18 war. We’ve had TV presenters telling us most soldiers “actually enjoyed the war”; we’ve had the former education secretary declaring Britain’s most famous anti-war play – Oh What A Lovely War – to be full of left-wing myths.
But the termination of war by working-class action fits uneasily at a deeper level: for most of history the existence of a workforce with its own consciousness and organisations is an afterthought, or an anomaly. I’ve tried this quiz question again and again on highly-educated people and, even once they know the answer, there are looks of “does not compute”. – How did the first world war actually end? – Paul Mason