31/1/1918 German strikes suppressed, trouble-makers sent to the front

Germany is in the grip of industrial unrest, which has spread from Berlin to other industrial centres. Hundreds of thousands or more workers have downed tools and millions have taken part in demonstrations.

This unrest has rattled Germany’s leaders. Now they respond with a crackdown. A state of emergency is declared and strike organisers arrested. Striking workers are drafted into the army. Some are sent back to work in their factories under pain of military justice if they demure, but the more militant are simply sent off to the Western Front, where they will bulk up the numbers of those taking part in the offensive Ludendorff is planning. They travel in trains daubed with such cheery slogans as “Cannon fodder for Flanders”.

For Germany’s leaders, even though they have been suppressed for now, the strikes are still worrying. Germany cannot continue the war indefinitely; if this is tried then industrial unrest will one day return and perhaps sweep away the established order. It is therefore vital that Ludendorff’s offensive brings the war to a victorious end.

28/1/1918 A wave of industrial unrest grips Germany #1918Live

Austria-Hungary has seen an outbreak of industrial unrest, with a reduction in the flour ration triggering an upsurge of dissatisfaction at the never-ending privations caused by the war. But the unrest does not progress to a full-scale attempt to overthrow the existing order in the Empire. Austria’s socialists are cautious and are not yet pushing for revolution; they appear to be following the masses rather than leading them. The Austrian authorities are able to placate the strikers by promising increased food rations once peace with Russia leads to improved access to grain from Ukraine.

But now unrest spreads to Germany. War weariness and anger at the erosion of their standard of living lead to an eruption of industrial action in Germany. Mass walk-outs in Berlin spread rapidly to other cities across the country. In the capital industrial action is co-ordinated by Richard Müller and his network of radical shop stewards.

Russia’s Bolsheviks had hoped that the Austrian strikes were a sign that their revolution was beginning to spread into central Europe. The German unrest ignites similar hopes. For the German authorities, this hope is a fear. They are determined to crush the industrial unrest, both to prevent revolution and continue the war but also to show Trotsky and the other Russian negotiators at Brest-Litovsk that revolution in Germany will not save them from having to agree to Germany’s harsh peace terms.

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Strikers demonstrate in Berlin (Poppycock – 24 January, 1918: All We’re Saying…)

16/8/1917 Hindenburg & Ludendorff sack the head of Germany’s Supreme War Office #1917Live

As part of their effort to militarise the German economy, Hindenburg and Ludendorff created the Supreme War Office, headed by General Groener. Groener’s responsibilities are broad, extending beyond the production of military supplies to encompass food and industrial production generally.

Part of Groener’s brief is to minimise industrial unrest in Germany. Groener’s policy in this regard is relatively subtle, attempting to conciliate unions while also being willing to threaten repression if they step out of line. Nevertheless, this summer has seen many strikes in Germany, as workers attempt to protect their living standards from erosion by inflation.

These strikes unnerve Hindenburg and Ludendorff who fear that Groener’s conciliatory policy has emboldened the unions. They also heed the complaints of industrialist that Groener’s work has been affecting their profits. So now Groener is dismissed as head of the Supreme War Office; he returns to the army to take up an operational command.

Ludendorff believes that industrial unrest is the result not of workers trying to defend their interests but of agitation by socialists and foreign spies. He hopes that harsh measures will stamp out this nonsense.

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Wilhelm Groener (Wikipedia)

Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff (Wikipedia)

20/6/1917 Industrial unrest grips France

The French army continues to be gripped by unrest. On the home front too a rebellious mood is evident. A rolling series of strikes has been taking place in French factories, both ones engaged in civil production and ones producing munitions for the army. Most of the strikers are women, who have replaced conscripted men on the factory floors.

The strikers’ demands are mostly economic rather than political, with the women seeking pay rises and equality of wages with their remaining male colleagues. But there is a political undercurrent too, with demands for the war’s end being heard.

Industrial unrest perturbs the authorities. Could France be on the brink of a revolution like that of Russia? The strikes are met with repression, with the police violently suppressing demonstrations by striking workers. But the strikes are not a complete failure, with employers finding themselves forced to increase wages in order to lure their workers back to the shop floor.

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Women in a French munitons factory, 1916

23/4/1917 German authorities buy off the Berlin and Leipzig strikers

Strikes erupted a few days ago in Berlin and Leipzig, triggered by a reduction in the bread ration. They soon assumed a political cast, especially in Leipzig, with demands being made for the release of political prisoners and an end to the state of emergency, as well as a government commitment to support a peace without annexations. In Leipzig a workers’ council emerged to coordinate the strikes, worrying similar to the soviets that appeared in Russia during the recent revolution.

Groener in the Supreme War Office (the army-led body charged with running the war economy) wants to invoke emergency powers to smash the strikes by drafting some 4,000 of the most radical workers into the army. But he is overruled and a more conciliatory response causes the strikes to peter out. Pay rises and a reduction in work hours bring the workers back to their factories, though workers in the more radicalised workplaces are threatened with being sent to the front. Hindenburg also appeals to their patriotism, warning that loss of production through strikes weakens the position of the men in the trenches.

16/4/1917 Unrest grips Germany

Germany is feeling the strain in this third year of the war. People have struggled through the recent Turnip Winter, in which potatoes were replaced by the unappetising and less nutritious turnip. Inflationary pressures are making it hard for people to make ends meet even when food is available. Within the expanded war industries meanwhile there has been an upsurge in radicalism. In Berlin Richard Müller plays a key role in organising a loose coalition of leftist union activists whose lack of caution is beyond anything seen previously in those affiliated to the mainstream Social Democrats. Many are now looking to events in Russia as an inspiration.

The authorities hope that the U-boat war can end before radicalism and discontent boil over into serious unrest. They are also using targeted repression, arresting Müller and sending him to join other socialists like Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in jail.

However the authorities are unable to completely contain the situation. Strikes erupt today in Berlin and Leipzig, triggered by a reduction in the bread ration. In Berlin the strikers also demand Müller’s release. In Leipzig the strikers have even more radical demands, seeking political reforms (universal and equal suffrage), the release of political prisoners, freedom of the press, and a declaration by the government that it was seeking a peace without annexations. Leaflets hail the example of the revolution in Russia and a central council is established to coordinate the Leipzig strikers.

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German demonstrators (World Socialist Web Site)

21/7/1915 The Welsh coal miners’ strike is over

The Welsh coal miners’ strike is over. David Lloyd George, the Minister of Munitions, has persuaded the miners to return to work. He has done so mainly by conceding the bulk of their demands. The Welsh mines are not publicly owned, but Lloyd George is able to make the mine owners accept the terms he has agreed with the miners.

Lloyd George appeals to all sides to put the strike behind them. He also urges extra efforts on the part of the miners, to make up for the production lost during the strike.

Lloyd George image source (Wikipedia)