1 Aug 2014

How did the first world war actually end?

Quiz question: why did the first world war end? We’re about to witness a commemoration in which the human preference for restraint and dignity will be under pressure from the televisual tendency for wittering on without knowledge or feeling.

WW1 headstones

So one crucial piece of knowledge should be, for schoolchildren and for TV presenters alike: how and why did it actually end?

Well, on 24 October 1918, with the German army retreating and its discipline disintegrating, the right-wing aristocrats who ran the German navy launched a suicidal mass foray from the base in Kiel, where they’d been holed up. It was quite clear, rebel sailor Ernst Schneider later wrote, that this was to be a “death ride”.

But the sailors had other ideas. The crews of German battleships were drawn from the families of skilled, socialist working class. Since Easter 1916 the entire underground culture of the German ports – Hamburg, Kiel, Wilhelmshaven – had been pervaded by far-left agitation. There was a “whispering campaign”: under the cover of seamen’s yarns in the lower decks, in the lockers, the munition rooms, crow’s nests of the fighting masts – even in the lavatories – an underground organisation was built up, Schneider remembered.

The sailors’ organisation met in in the dark, kneeling between the stones of a war cemetery. This was no Potemkin-style, spontaneous outburst. With extreme order they took over the bridges, ran up red flags and pointed the guns of rebel ships at the hulls of those that did not rebel.

Mutinous sailors

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”.

‘Stab in the back’

For Hitler, the German workers’ role in ending the war became the “stab in the back”: it was his ultimate justification for eradicating the German labour movement after 1933. In the British imperialist version of events the Kiel sailors become useful ancillaries: Yanks and tanks turn the western front and, naturally, the Germans throw the towel in once their front starts to crumble.

But to social historians the German workers’ role in ending the war is no surprise. Because exactly 100 years ago this week, they had also turned out in their hundreds of thousands to try and prevent it starting. The German socialist party was a massive social institution – with libraries, schools, choirs, nurseries – and during the fatal slide to war they called their members onto the streets in every major city.

Then, under the pressure of war fever and fearing their institutions would be outlawed, the socialist leaders swung behind the war effort.

We know now, thanks to the publication of records and memoirs, that it was entirely possible to have stopped the first world war. Key members of the British cabinet were against it; large parts of the social elite in most countries, including Germany, were stunned and appalled by the unstoppable process of mobilisation.

But within 18 months of its outbreak, dissident German socialist MPs were leading mass strikes, demonstrations and riots against the war. Despite censorship, mobilisation and the natural moral solidarity people have with troops sent to the front, the German arms industry was repeatedly hit by strikes after 1916.

When they reached Berlin, the first thing the insurgent sailors did was try to seize its radio tower: their aim was to send a message of solidarity to Russian sailors at Kronstadt in the eastern Baltic Sea, who they had been fighting until a year before.

Stereotypes and ideology

Why don’t we know this story? In one sense, it is all too familiar: the Kiel mutiny is part of the staple diet of high school history. But by the time we get to popular representations of the 1914-18 war they are wrapped in stereotypes and ideology. In TV dramas about the period before and during the war, the most popular working-class characters are servants. That’s how the elite experienced the working class – as domestic skivvies. Representations of life in factories and working-class communities are rare. Even when it comes to comedy, there are way more officers in the cast of Blackadder Goes Forth than there are men from the ranks.

People who command armies, and politicians who order them to fight, have to believe “the nation” is united behind them: that’s as true for Hamas, the Israelis, the Ukrainian army and the Donetsk rebels today as it was for Hindenburg in 1914. And the war ideologies of the present demand the war ideologies of the past be perpetuated.

The best antidote to ideology is detail. But the autobiographies of those who took part in the Kiel mutiny are, themselves, clouded by their subsequent politics: a few emerged after 1945 as ruthless bureaucrats in East Germany. Others, like Ernst Schneider, who ended his days working on the London docks, remained inveterate anarchists.

But once you get to the detail, the big picture becomes clear.

Alongside the tragic and glorious place names of the 1914-18 war – Ypres, Gallipoli and the Somme – we should also remember Kiel and Wilhelmshaven, for it was here German workers finally did what they had been trying to do since August 1914: they stopped the war.

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65 reader comments

  1. Paul. Brown says:

    He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past. George. Orwell

  2. stephen lewis says:

    Thank you for a very informative piece that puts a whole new complexion on events of 100 years ago

  3. Philip Edwards says:

    So why are you and others like you in mainstream media creating the same mentality that started the First World War (and the Cold War)?…….That is, demonizing Putin and Russia instead of showing the history and motivation of Western invasion and interference in Ukraine. Then ask why NATO even exists in a post Cold War world.

    I challenge you to produce a news segment showing how Brit media has demonized in cahoots with the establishment that owns and controls it. You can throw in the Yank effort too, Fox News and the rest of the warmongering nutcases. And even the mainland European propaganda.

    Then you could take a close look at Parliament’s Select Committee on Defence, who its members are, how they were selected and what are their individual backgrounds and attitudes. Then read their latest crazy report. Then ask yourself why you are so willing to close your eyes to the same kind of situation you describe in this blog.

    I won’t hold my breath.

    Physician, heal thyself.

    1. S says:

      Thank you for speaking the truth

    2. A. Willimott says:

      Dear Philip,

      I can’t imagine I’m the first adult that has had to throw you a life jacket when you’ve found yourself so sorrowfully out of depth.

      I am a currently a post-doctoral research fellow at The School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies and rarely bother interfering with the loud idiocy of people like you. Vladimir Putin has presided over and engineered a stunning abrogation of freedom and democracy in his own nation – take any (academically valid) indicator you wish (The Big Phil Edwards Sliding Scale of Celebrating Homophobia and Xenophobia doesn’t count I’m afraid).

      As for your stunning display of ignorance vis a vis Ukraine, I can only assume you’re trolling. Not only is Putin happy to accept Crimean secession in spite of his brutality in suppressing a wholely equivalent secession attempt by Chechnya, he has also deployed Russian technical specialist in Ukraine to aid rebels. All of this is in response to his puppet being deposed and Ukraine’s subsequent intention to cultivate further ties with the EU not Putin’s cretinous customs union in the post-Soviet space.

      Read a book, any book. Mr Men would do.

      1. pops says:

        What blatant propaganda you spout. And you have the audacity to patronise others.

      2. Liz McLennan says:

        Thank you for some refreshing honesty!

      3. David Britten says:

        For all his sins, it must be recognised that Putin is surrounded by NATO weaponry, and the constant approach of NATO to Russia’s borders must be a cause of concern. Remember if you will, America’s reaction to the potential of Soviet weaponry being place in Cuba? Add to this the fact that Putin intends to challenge the dominance of the petro-dollar, and you can see that America now has a reason to attack Russia as it has attacked all other countries that tried to do the same thing; Iraq, Libya and next likely to be Iran.

      4. S. Walton says:

        It is worth remembering that Russia putting missiles into Cuba was a direct *response* to the U.S. putting missiles in Turkey and Italy. Those Jupiter missiles had the range to hit Moscow.

      5. Jelle says:

        dear mr Willimott,

        yes, you have been trolled. ‘Philip’ is probably not his real name, Pjotr, Alexander or Vladimir would be closer to the mark. He is no doubt a professional troll, paid by the Russian state to spout their propaganda on as many (newspaper) fora as possible. This is something the Russian state has understood very well: modern day propaganda is semi-social. If you keep repreating the message people will start to believe it, or at least doubt the official story.
        It is very likely that other nations have understood this strategy too, I find it somewhat remarkable that a postdoc in ‘slavic studies’ would not know about Putins army of commenters. Or perhaps he does, but is in the employ of another commenter army?

    3. Festive Festival says:

      @philip Well done for staying massively on-topic. You’re an editor’s dream really aren’t you? You might want to go back to watching rt.com rather than accusing one of UK news media’s most thoughtful journalists of restarting the first world war FFS.

    4. Mike Harding says:

      I don’t think you can accuse Paul Mason of toeing any party line here – or in his many other pieces. What you have here is an honest and fairly Left look at the real reason the Germans capitulated in 1918. For your villains look at the Daily Mail nowadays and in 1914 when it was a warmongering rag. And read The Secret Origins of the First World War by Doherty and Macgregor to see how Rhodes and the Rothschilds engineered a war with Germany to further their own ends.

    5. Sandancer says:

      Western invasion in Ukraine? You mean the Ukraine that had been invaded and ruled over by Russia for centuries. Yes, it has been invaded twice by dictatorial western regimes, but this is nothing compared to the centuries of suffering inflicted on Ukraine by Mother Russia.

  4. JP56 says:

    A very informative article Paul and very interesting comments about the social prism WWI is viewed through in this country. Obviously got a lot of time on your hands in Gazza – no Northern Soul Dance Clubs in the vicinity!
    By coincidence I was watching a repeat of Michael Palin’s programme on the last soldier’s killed on 11th November 1918 last night and he mentioned the sailor’s mutiny in Hamburg as being a key factor in the end of the war,
    I also listened to a German historian on 5 Live News this evening saying he was very appreciative of the joint commemorative events where allies and enemies join together in respect & remembrance.
    I fear that certain sections of the establishment & media in this country do not necessarily hold these ideals but may use this as an opportunity to go back 100 years and shout ‘Rule Britannia’
    I fervently hope not because there are many historical parallels between then and today – I am sure i am not alone in considering the Balkans and the redrawing of the formation of Iraq as boring stuffy history when at school in the 1970’s!

  5. Phil says:

    Thanks for this. I’d known about Kiel for a long time but never realised how decisive it was. Next time anyone says mass working class action has never changed anything…

  6. David Kirkham says:

    This goes some way to answering a question I asked myself when Jeremy Paxman started on about how WW1 was necessary, blah blah, earlier this year. “Why, when the populations of the world were faced with death in their millions over what was the biggest family feud in history, was it not used to spark a world-wide revolution?” I can see now that many tried to do exactly that; yet as always history from the left field view is hidden from our eyes with paranoid regularity. I might have continued on with history if I’d known about this and other historical events from a perspective I related to. I feel that the only way to prevent another global conflict is for a true renaissance of the human spirit that people tried to ignite to stop WW1.

  7. John Wheatley says:

    Interesting but as ever wholly partial.

    The internal disturbances in Germany were brought on by military defeat in the field, overwhelmingly by British Empire forces (as they were), in 1918, . Added to this was the expectation of being completely outnumbered by fresh US troops in the future. And by October all Germany’s allies were out of the war – beaten militarily.

    After August 1918, and long before the internal disturbances kicked off, the German soldiers at the front were surrendering in droves – a sure sign of anticipated defeat.

    Any analysis which excludes the importance of the military victory denies the achievement of the ordinary soldiers and their officers in 1918. That is wrong

    1. Ed Roberts says:

      I tend to agree with you and Raedwulf that the piece is a little heavy on the revisionism but on balance am glad that Paul Mason has penned this article. The point is that histories tend to be written by victors (in this case Allied and aristocratic or American), so the role of working class Germans and Russians tends to have been underplayed.

      I agree that military exhaustion (German losses were almost double those of the British Empire) was the principal driver to armistice but the fact that German workers had been agitating against the war in 1914 and going on strike from 1916 onwards is worth airing.

      You also err, in my view, in talking up the role of the “overwhelmingly British Empire forces” in bringing about the defeat in the field in 1918. Americans had already arrived and were making a material difference, to say nothing of the French army that continued to provide by some distance the greater part of the forces deployed by the Allies on the Western front throughout the war. This patriotism, perhaps understandable on this day above all others, is I believe reflected in your unwillingness to give PM’s piece a fair hearing; it’s not the British wot won it, despite what we might like to believe.

      1. Matthew Willis says:

        It was in no small part ‘the British wot won it’ as the British-led offensive at Amiens effectively broke the four-year stalemate of trench warfare (suggested reading ‘1918: A Very British Victory’ by Peter Hart). None of which is to diminsh the contributions of the other Allies of course, without whom victory would not have been possible – neither should the significance of the breakthrough at Amiens be understated.

  8. Rab Carswell says:

    I watched some of the WW! remembered stuff on the BBC, but switched off when the Royals and “leading” politicians started to came out of the woodwork.
    These people should never be allowed near war commemoration ceremonies,including the annual one at the Cenotaph. They stand there – hypocrites and chancers alike – with studied looks of concern, as if their predecessors had no involvement in the origins of the so-called “Great War”.

    1. Mike Drew says:

      Remember, leading politicians lost sons in the war. Some like Churchill even fought themselves. They believed they were doing what was best for their country

  9. Anne Lyons says:

    Thank you so much for this insight and also for all the reporting from Gaza, particularly that piece from the WW1 cemetery there on 4 August.

  10. Bob Hanson says:

    A very interesting and informative piece. I did not know any details of the German naval mutiny, only that it had happened.

    But you fail to mention that Hindenburg, Ludendorff and most of the German millitary high command had already begun armistice negotiations.

    Also this: “…the narrative the mass media has been feeding us about the 1914-18 war…” is just silly. No such mass media narrative exists. I’ve only ever heard and been taught about the war as a hellish disaster, “lions led by donkeys”, breakdown of the social order etc. That is the way WWI is taught in our schools. It’s the mainstream view.

    To pretend that it’s subversive to hold this position because a few academics and public figures have pointed out that the realities of 1914-18 were a little more nuanced than we are usually told is dishonest. Nobody thinks the Great War was great.

  11. Paul Evans says:

    A timely reminder for something people forget, the gigantic power the working class actually has when it organises. What a pity the iPad generation haven’t the sense to realise this.

    A fantastic blog, Paul.

  12. Sean Lang says:

    I’m sorry, but this is completely wrong. The war ended because the German army was comprehensively defeated and broken in the field. Ludendorf recognised it and advised the Kaiser to make peace before the allies moved into Germany. The will of the army to fight on was completely broken. The Kiel mutiny was a consequence of the collapse; it wasn’t the reason the war ended. The idea that the war ended through a workers’ revolution is as much a myth as the stab in the back idea; in fact, it’s the flip side of the same thing.

  13. garrett says:

    nice that Jan Valtin gets a mention here. His book Out of the Night was a fantastic account of his life through the rise and fall of revolutions in the 1920s and the failure of the Communist Party to fight fascism, to the rise of Hitler and his eventual escape to the US. This book sold millions in 1940 but is unknown now. http://www.amazon.com/Out-Night-Memoir-Richard-Julius/dp/1902593863

  14. Matt H says:

    Great piece, nice to hear that side of the conflict receiving some attention. It raises questions about what ‘the masses’ can do to stop wars these days – 1M people marched against the Iraq invasion but it went ahead anyway. I guess it would have to be strikes etc but no one wants to endanger the lives of our troops once they are deployed.

    To those who say we are demonising Putin and co today in the same way as was seen before WW1, I’d say Putin does a good job of demonising himself. The Russian system is one I wouldn’t wish my worst enemy to live under and it’s getting more oppressive and corrupt by the day. You try posting a comment like this ona blog in Russia and see what happens!

  15. sylvie hebert says:

    “History should always be studied in the morning,before anything can happen” (Lucy in Peanuts,the comic strip)

  16. John Webster says:

    Great article – and I did know. And you need also to understand how Versaille created circumstances in which the socialists and some communists embraced national socialism in the thirties, and how Hitler divided the left with the Communist Party refusing to work with the socialists who they branded as Social Fascists.
    The big lie comes in here. People believe what they want to believe. It can be seen today in Gaza. Even when we can see people being slaughtered in a conflict where one side is overwhelmingly powerful, they argue that they are only defending themselves. Their own side supports them.
    All of the commentators seem to miss the point about Gaza. Netanyahu is galvanising internal opinion for a ‘final solution’ – the complete eradication of the Palestinians. They will absorb the Occupied Territories (just like Hitler did the Sudatenland saying that the majority of settlers there want to be part of Israel) and then exterminate and terrorise the remaining Palestinians into exile or permanent imprisonment in places like Gaza which they can relatively easily control. ‘Greater Israel’ will become a buffer against ‘fundamentalist Islam’ – just like Germany became a buffer against the Communist Soviet Union. And the west (they think) will support them.

  17. jeff kelland says:

    the armistice was in 1918
    the treaty ending the european war was 1919
    turkish 1924?
    or 1990?

  18. Magnus Ryner says:

    Superb! Well done!

  19. GPG says:

    Just enough truth to be convincing, distorted just enough to be misleading. By the time of this rebellion (24th) defeat for Germany was certain. Britain was through the Hindenburg line (5 Oct), mass desertions from the defeated German Army had begun (6 Oct), the Aliies refused to negotiate with Ludendorff on the basis that he was effectively a military dictator, so he resigned on 26 Oct (already knowing Germany was defeated after his 1918 offensive failed and it was clear the Americans would deploy 80-100 Divisions in the field by 1919, larger than the combined Armies of Britain and France – in fact after the defeat of his offensive, Ludendorff had transferred power back to the Reichstag – 29 Sept – demanding an immediate peace, but the Reichstag also wanted his resignation before negotiating, and refused to accept the transfer of power). The Great War was fought and won by the development of Combined Arms tactics, coordination at the operational level of war and the huge sacrifices men made as the painful lessons were learnt along the way. This article highlights a fascinating and important story, then builds myths upon it. Was there enough popular support to stop the war? No. Even the German Peace Association announced in August 1914 ‘There can be no doubt about the duties of a pacifist during the war… We German pacifists have always recognised the right and obligation of national self-defence. Each pacifist must fulfil his common responsibilities to the Fatherland just like any other German.’ In 1870 Marx wrote ‘the French need a thrashing’. In 1918 there was no General Strike in France, Germany or Britain as they launched the war, because the left did not enjoy enough popular support. Mass mobilisation proceeded across Europe without a hitch. Protests against the war were dwarfed by protest in favour. The leader of the Austrian Socialists spoke for many when he said ‘The party is defenceless…Demonstrations are taking place in the streets…Our whole organisation and our press are at risk. We run the risk of destroying thirty years’ work without any political result’. As this article notes, significant protests did not emerge until 1916. An enjoyable article, a heroic story, but a distortion of history overall.

  20. Jock says:

    This is not quite accurate about the German Social Democratic Party. It was riddled with nationalists and imperialists. Its leaders (Sudekum, Ebert etc) had also given a green light to the German Military by promising the German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg that they would not oppose the war on July 29th because they “wished to serve the cause of peace”. [See G Haupt “Socialism and the Great War” p.211-2 OUP 1972]. They had Blair-speak even then! In fact Karl Leibknecht was the only social democrat to vote against war credits in 1914 and was later joined by Otto Ruhle both founder members of the German Communist Party in December 1918. The SPD’s act in 1914 was the greatest betrayal of the working class in history.

  21. Gerard Cunningham says:

    Why is Easter 1916 identified as the starting point? Is this coincidental, or was it related to the Irish Rising?

  22. Ben Wilson says:

    So was opposition to Germany’s socialist govt a motivator for the harsh conditions imposed on Germany after the war?

  23. Robert Johnson says:

    Thank you for your work in trying to add clarity at this momentous centennial. Your analysis is however, misleading. The Kiel Mutiny is a part of the end. Not the whole. The conditions at home in Germany of economic isolation and semi-starvation due to the Allied blockade also made the Fall of the Hohernzollerns / Army Govt. possible.

    The failure of the German spring offensive, which was not due to “workers action” but rather to the willingness of the Allies to appoint a unified command and fight a bloody series of battles of attrition, made the end possible.

    That the Allied Navies successfully controlled the seas making any move from the Imperial German Navy sure suicide, made the Kiel Mutiny possible.

    That the Allies did receive fresh reinforcements in the Summer of 1918 to the tune of 300k men per month made the end possible.

    The Hundred Days Offensive resulted in the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line with the majority of rearguard actions taking place before the Kiel mutiny started in late October 1918. The war was not terminated by “working class action.” It was ended by the combination of external force of arms and internal pressures. But the internal pressures were caused by the external force of arms. The Kiel Mutiny did not occur in a vacuum.

    Lastly although you mean well, the implications of your final statement that the German workers had been trying to stop the war since 1914 is too feel good, too Anglo-American, and far too much of a disservice to socialists and the working class in the Imperial German Military.

    The Germans of all classes who were on the fronts fought as hard and as steadfastly while they thought the war could be won as any other belligerents. It was when the war was obviously over that will to live overcame the will to fight. And thank goodness that it did.

    To somehow imply that German workers worked to stop the war from its inception actually plays directly into the hands of the legend of the stab in the back and is far too close to old Nationalist interpretations of the war’s end to be allowed to stand without counterpoint.

    Robert in Munich

  24. Paul Conneally says:

    Of course we should remember the war and those who died but not through the tinted spectacles that the government and media appear to be placing on us with much of the WW1 ‘commeration’ events and commentaries. That there was a brotherhood / sisterhood of left wing workers that stretched beyond and distended the boundaries of nations at war is a hidden story and is dangerous in some’s eyes even to this day. That ideas around worker solidarity might not be held within national borders and could (even now) threaten such borders work in counterpoint to the nationalist and patriotic fervour which pervades the current remembrance activities which are scheduled to continue for a whole four years. German workers, in the forces, rebelling and playing a major part in ending a war that they never fully supported puts a different shine on history and shows how workers across Europe including those within the British troops had a yearning for peace and unity at heart. A united Europe led by united workers is something to strive for still and something that sends a chill up down the spines of our own current masters of war.

  25. Raedwulf says:

    Distorted rubbish. You display your obvious political bias very early on.

    “the right-wing aristocrats who ran the German navy”

    Bar Republican France, everyone’s everything was run by aristocrats, who are, by definition, largely right of centre. That was the sodding social order at the time! And they didn’t “launch” anything. “Wanted to launch”, yes; “launched”, no. But accuracy wouldn’t suite your journalistic aim nearly so well, would it? “Right-wing”. Yes, I can tell straight away that you disapprove & believe the world should be run a different way, so this is not going to be a balanced appraisal, is it?

    I’ve read a very great deal about all stages of WWI, I’ve been deeply interested in it for decades, and this is a lot of “This is what I want to believe in spite of the reality” tripe. It’s epitomised by “We now know it was entirely possible to have stopped the war”. Of course it damn well wasn’t! If it was possible, it would have been stopped. It wasn’t & it wasn’t!

    It is my personal opinion that WWI was a war of omission, not commission. Not even Hotzendorf, hawkish as he was, wanted a World War. He thought he could confine the conflict to squashing Serbia. But he was wrong, and the juggernaut ran out of everyone’s control.

    This is a rose-, if not red-left, tinted vision of the past that has little basis in the reality. For the record, however many times I take the Political Compass test, I invariably come out slightly left of centre, and slightly the libertartian side of the authoritarian / libertarian North / South poles. You are obviously a dedicated left-winger & you interpret history through that filter. This is a poor & biased article.

  26. Vida says:

    Very interesting article but reading it I’m left with the view that it was the action of the German sailors that finished the war. I think it’s also important to know that Russian soldiers, a bit earlier than the Germans, left the front in their droves refusing to fight any more and it was their action that led to Russia suing for peace and contributed to the revolution of 1917. There were also actions taking place in Britain and a very strong anti-war movement building up in Europe and the US of women – WILPF. The point I think I want to make is that there have always been people who are anti-war and often in very large numbers but the warmongers always seem to have the upper hand so until we work how to sort it no amount of historical knowledge is going to change anything.

  27. GPG says:

    Just enough truth to be convincing, distorted just enough to be misleading. By the time of this rebellion (24th) defeat for Germany was certain. Britain was through the Hindenburg line (5 Oct), mass desertions from the defeated German Army had begun (6 Oct), the Aliies refused to negotiate with Ludendorff on the basis that he was effectively a military dictator, so he resigned on 26 Oct (already knowing Germany was defeated after his 1918 offensive failed and it was clear the Americans would deploy 80-100 Divisions in the field by 1919, larger than the combined Armies of Britain and France – in fact after the defeat of his offensive, Ludendorff had transferred power back to the Reichstag – 29 Sept – demanding an immediate peace, but the Reichstag also wanted his resignation before negotiating, and refused to accept the transfer of power). The Great War was fought and won by the development of Combined Arms tactics, coordination at the operational level of war and the huge sacrifices men made as the painful lessons were learnt along the way. This article highlights a fascinating and important story, then builds myths upon it. Was there enough popular support to stop the war? No. Even the German Peace Association announced in August 1914 ‘There can be no doubt about the duties of a pacifist during the war… We German pacifists have always recognised the right and obligation of national self-defence. Each pacifist must fulfil his common responsibilities to the Fatherland just like any other German.’ In 1870 Marx wrote ‘the French need a thrashing’. In 1918 there was no General Strike in France, Germany or Britain as they launched the war, because the left did not enjoy enough popular support. Mass mobilisation proceeded across Europe without a hitch. Protests against the war were dwarfed by protest in favour. The leader of the Austrian Socialists spoke for many when he said ‘The party is defenceless…Demonstrations are taking place in the streets…Our whole organisation and our press are at risk. We run the risk of destroying thirty years’ work without any political result’. An enjoyable article, but a distortion of history.

  28. GPG says:

    Any chance if you correcting an article that multiple people have pointed out is wrong. Not just a bit biased but actively misleading. Surely C4 news expects better and adjusts it’s reporting based on the facts? It would be very sad to think that C4 news would let this stand in light of the multiple inaccuracies. It’s one of the few news channels that still enjoys respect for its honesty, but honesty demands correcting inaccurate reporting.

  29. Matteo Calosi says:

    Are you seriously helping to perpetuate the Stab in the Back Legend? You do realize you’re saying Hitler’s view of how WWI ended is basically correct (Germany didn’t actually lose but it was all the fault of those jews and commies who made a revolution while our armies were doing fine, so let’s get rid of them and get our lands back)? What “historians” exactly would support you given that the tendency for decades has been to emphasize the Legend part of the Dolchstoßlegende?

    1. Jock says:

      Ludendorff had actually told the Kaiser in August 1918 that with the halt to Operation Michael then Germany had lost the war. It was the same Generals who after the war fabricated the dolchstoss legend. In fact though it was workers from Russian onwards who did put a stop to the war. The German working class had been dropping from starvation and disease for months before the Kiel and Wilhelmshaven sailors were asked to commit suicide in November 1918 but by then the workers of Russia, Austria, Hungary and elsewhere had already made their move. However the worst part of this article is, as I posted earlier the sanitisation of the role of the Social Democratic Party in aiding an abetting the Imperial war machine in 1914. Someone above rightly quoted the Austrian Social Democrat leader (Adler) to the effect that they supported Vienna’s attack on Serbia because they wanted to protect their own accumulation of positions over 30 years. The same was true for the German SDP and trade union leaders who voted for war credits in Berlin..

  30. John Webster says:

    But 1919 was the year of potential revolution in Europe when the left in Britain, France and especially Germany was stronger than they’ve ever been (precisely because the ‘ruling class’ had been weakened) and big money made sure that the ultra-right was supported to undermine them.
    What this string of comments demonstrate is that the Kiel sailors mutiny was the final thing that proved too much for Germany and the mythology/ propaganda around this did strengthen the socialist movement (Luxembourg etc) as well as the ultra-right reaction to it.
    And I hope we can all agree that it was the Treaty at Versailles that fueled the discontent that Hitler capitalised on and lead to a widespread feeling of injustice in Germany across all social groups and many socialists and communists became National Socialists. That’s the lesson we have to learn. Justice is central to any conflict resolution.

    In the Middle East right now, Israeli intransigence and brutal ‘high tech’ oppression of Palestinians coupled with the US/UK hangover from the intervention in Iraq is creating a powder keg that shysters like Tony Blair want to exploit to ‘protect western civilisation’. Belt out the jingoism, demonise the opposition as baby killers, polarise the conflict, use overwhelming military force – all these are signs that are being repeated.
    Let’s learn a lesson or two from the past. I think the Israeli’s may be going for broke. If they don’t implement the Likud charter and take over the whole of Israel there will be no ending for them. Israel is on a different planet to the rest of us at the moment.
    This will lead to a massive escalation of conflict that could suck us and the USA in and cost us dear. The big myth about war is that you can control it. Once it starts it has a life of its own. It lasts until its exhausted and then what appear to be insignificant events can lead to the coup de gras. That’s what the Kiel sailors mutiny was in 1919.

  31. GPG says:

    @John Webster: The historical facts that a number of people have laid out above don’t show that the Kiel Mutiny was the Coup de Gras or the final decisive action. They show respect for a heroic story but also put it in context. Ludendorff had tried several times to bring the War to an end before the Kiel mutiny because he knew it was lost. Set in the wider context the Kiel mutiny is one, relatively minor factor amongst myriad others. The war would have ended without it, at the same time, and in the same manner. Absent the other factors: the failure of Ludendorff’s 1918 offensive, the US entry into the war, British success in breaching the Hindenburg line, mass desertions from a defeated Army on the front, the war would not have ended at the same time or in the same manner. A crucial difference. Paul Mason has distorted the historical facts to support a left wing narrative (I consider myself left wing too, but this is dishonest and misleading). Paul Mason isn’t talking about 1919 and what came after. He is suggesting the Left could have stopped the war, and were responsible for it ending, and neither of these is true. Which is why, in the interest on honest and objective reporting Channel 4 News must correct this article. Otherwise this is advocacy, not objective journalism.

  32. GPG says:

    Paul Mason writes “The best antidote to ideology is detail.” Seems a little hypocritical, when you think about it.

  33. dodger says:

    We have to put a large number of mass acts of resistance to WW1 into a contextual chronology stretching back to 1916-17 before we can really analyse this. Here are some important ones (there are many more):

    1. First Russian revolution (March 1917), troops fraternise
    2. French army, strikes/mutinies (April 1917), 68 divisions out of 120 affected
    3. Italian mass surrenders on Izonso front, 300,000 surrender, 300,000+ ‘leave’ the front (late 1917)
    4. Second Russian revolution (Nov 1917) Russian army mutinies and Bolsheviks take Russia ‘out of the war’
    5. Industrial/political unrest on home front in Germany, France, Britain, Russia etc. (throughout 1917-8)
    6. British mass surrenders, 75,000 (March 1918)

    Allied powers invade Russia (April 1918)

    7. German mass surrenders 350,000 (August 1918)
    8. German Navy mutinies and outright German revolution begins (Oct 1918)

    Truce between allied powers and Germany/Austria (Nov 1918)

    9. British armed forces strikes/mutinies (in UK and France) 250,000 involved (Jan 1919)
    10. French Black Sea Fleet mutiny (April 1919)
    11. France and Britain pull out of Russian campaign (April 1919)

    If anything Mason does not see the bigger picture. As Niall Ferguson pointed out; all the major powers were rushing to get a limited ‘victory’ or at least a reasonable truce before their own armies collapsed and potentially a Bolshevik style revolution at home took them out.

    So how did the war end again? Assuming a purely military perspective is somewhat short-sighted but not unsurprising.

    The real questions are:

    How many lives did the rebellious soldiers, sailors and workers of all the imperial powers who refused the war save?

    Would the war have continued in Europe and Russia if these events had not occurred?

    Is ‘revolutionary defeatism’ (that is bringing down your own nation’s ruling class) the best strategy for stopping wars and saving lives?

  34. Hugh3 says:

    GPG is correct to argue that the Kiel mutiny did not stop WW1. But it was the threat of mutinies and revolution that compelled Ludendorff to call for an armistice in 1918. His fear was that the German Army would collapse and that retreating soldiers might then ‘carry the revolution into Germany’.

    Once Ludendorff called for an armistice, Lloyd George then agreed to it, seeing it as far preferable to any risk ‘that Germany may collapse and Bolshevism gain control.’

    A year earlier, the Austrian Emperor had been desperate – but unable – to end the war, fearing the spread of what he called a ‘new enemy, more dangerous than the Entente: international revolution’.

    In other words, in the wake of the Russian revolution, it was the threat of a wider European revolution that compelled all sides to stop the war.

    See these sources for more on this fascinating subject:
    N.Hollander, ‘Elusive Dove’ p 173; D.Moran, ‘The People in Arms’ p128-9; Hull p253-4, 275-6; Goemans p106ff., 261-5; A.Read, ‘The World on Fire’ p37-8.

  35. marc says:

    Unfortunately, the Americas have been satisfied to believe that the Americans won the war…

  36. Stuart D says:

    This is a brilliant piece – I completely respect the people who fought against the scourge of Hitler but he only came about because of the same people that caused the first world war

    The people that fought and those who fought and died did so under a lie. If you were to believe the rhetoric of the media, out doing themselves on the annual diet of “lest we forget” then it was a jolly war where just the skivvies died under the orders of people with little or no knowledge of military tactics and scant regard for human life.

    With what we see coming from Westminster, the degradation of people, vulnerable people and the fact that greed drives the agenda and not the needs of the people we have forgotten, and for some, they will never know because the media is a purveyor of mindless junk.

    When I see the very politicians that are causing so much harm to “the hard working families” of this country it turns my stomach!

  37. Apfel Braun says:

    Hi Paul,

    Good article, important point. I am currently a postgraduate student specialising in history of the GDR. With this in mind, I would genuinely like to know who exactly the sailors that became “ruthless bureacrats” were?

    I suspect that you were ignoring your own advice here and not allowing the “detail” to interfere with your British Left approach to the Eastern Bloc here, but I would love to be corrected.

    Many thanks comrade,


  38. Martha Frokka says:

    I think you’re slightly misleading on why Hitler was so opposed to this “workers” movement. His ideology was just another strain of socialism, and he replaced it with his own workers movement, which propaganda was splashed all over the country. He was simply in competition with the ideology that was running the Soviet Union at the time.

    People tend to forget that Communism and Nazism was all part of the same ideology. And all hell bent on mass workers movements in control.

    1. John Webster says:

      Martha Fokker – Nazism was the very antithesis of socialism. Hitler wasn’t ‘competing’ with it – he wanted to exterminate it. His real target was always the USSR – he wanted Britain as an ally. Hitler never had a problem with capitalism, indeed it was big money that backed him.
      Hitler ‘created’national socialism and was encouraged to do it by big money precisely to blunten the threat of real socialism which would have meant big business being taken over by the state. Why the hell do you think he invaded the Soviet Union? Why do you think 26 million Russians died?

      1. Robert Johnson says:

        Hey John,
        Quick note, Hitler didn’t create national socialism. Others coined the term well before him. Mussolini as an example.

        And Martha was far more accurate than you gave her credit. Hitler wasn’t what other socialists would call genuine. But to him they weren’t either. He and Mussolini had different and heretical views. Mussolini replaced socialism with fascism. Hitler decided they were one in the same and that the “real” socialists were the heretics.

        Seán, it’s one thing to appreciate an alternative point of view, but it needs to be accurate first.


      2. Jock Dominie says:

        I suspect that Martha comes from a purely ideological stance (Stalinism and Fascism/National Socialism were all totalitarian therefore all the same) but it is a gross travesty. Socialism before the war was indeed a mixed bag (and as I posted before Paul sanitises the SDP in Germany by not citing their support for the war. The war is the key issue. It split the international socialist movement. Mussolini who had been editor of the Socilaist paper Avanti was kicked out for advocating entryism into the war and financed by British and French money started a new paper Il Popolo d’Italia to carry on doing this. The Socialist movement split went deeper and Lenin was the first important leader to call for turning the imperialist war into a class war (or civil war as he wrote it). This is the key division between all kinds of national socialists and the future internationalist communists. It was only when Stalin abandoned internationalism when gave up on world revolution in 1924 that he took the Russian revolution back to the national socialism of the Second International. He then, of course, took part in all the imperialist manoeuvres leading up to the Second World War. But between fascism/national socialism and the revolutionary communism of the final years of World War One there is a huge divide. Fascism was seized upon by the capitalist class in the disgruntled countries after 1919 as a useful tool to defeat the communists. It did not fail them.

  39. Bob says:
  40. sylva portoian says:

    British People Remember
    To Add Another Leaf to Your Red Poppy
    For The Genocided Armenians (April 24, 1915)

    Before the World War I . . .
    Our Genocide began.
    You lost young soldiers,
    Martyred with their guns,

    Who went passionately,
    Defending their Crown;
    They did not return, . . .
    Were lamented by their nation

    By parents, wives, offspring,
    And their countrymen.
    You lost your bravest men . . . and
    We felt your sadness.

    We lost almost all our Artful, Literate
    Voiceless, Devoted, Enslaved populaces
    Slaughtered . . . raped . . . dehydrated . . .
    Famineated on the sunny Der Zor sand!

    When you remember your Armistice Day*,
    Please remember, for your soldiers’ sake,
    Our slaughtered unborn sons
    Who never grew to become young men!

    They fell to defend their dignity . . .
    Their faith, yours and each honest human.
    Along with democracy . . . human rights . . .
    Awake . . . return to your faith . . .

    Remember the Armenian Genocide.
    Add another leaf to your red poppy,
    And make Remembrance Day
    More humanitarian.

    We have not yet regained our rights,
    To our historic homeland . . .
    Our Biblical Mount Ararat of civilized hearts,
    Where the martyred proud reign.

    From my Poetry collection “A Poetic Soul Shined of Genocides” 2008 will be published in my new collection, 2015
    “BRING-OUT Our Genocided Skulls & Artful Hands” 2015

    1. antony goddard says:

      Russian – Turkish rivalry certainly contributed to the globalisation of that war… dragging in India whose pay corps formed the cadre of British operations in the Middle East…T.E.Lawrence was not afraid to mention this background administration was just as important as the antics of generals.

  41. Seán Doherty says:

    I can’t vouch for the accuracy or otherwise of your historical analysis but I do know that it is refreshing to see someone swimming against the tide. The vehemence of the bile directed against you is testament to the nature of those directing it rather than the quality of your analysis. I am always deeply suspicious of anyone who trumpets their credentials before launching into an embittered polemic. I’m sure the men who built the gas chambers and invented Zyklon B were eminently qualified in their field but that doesn’t mean they weren’t a shower of rotten b******s. Well done Paul! (I teach languages in a secondary school and know a bit about Irish and French history.I did Business Studies as well but would have been better off studying how construct a chocolate fireguard)

  42. Jani Loikkanen says:

    Interesting piece, and I for one had managed to entirely skip Kiel et al in my brief sojourn in WWI history. As to the significance of the Kiel uprising in ending the war, I therefore cannot comment. But the necessity of mass demonstration of public opinion in guiding politicians and attempting to negate aggression is something I can definitely get behind. I now live a few hundred miles from the Russian border, and I have to say that for me Putin is one piece of legislation away from being the next Stalin. By Russian law he is allowed to only serve two consecutive terms, which he did, and switched places with his prime minister for four years and then ascended once more to the throne. You will likely see a similar reshuffle once the next eight years is up, although I suspect that some entirely impartial member of the Duma will propose a bill to name Putin president for life.

    There is a strong Russian presence in all the countries on her borders, economic migrants who come in and buy up failing farms and tracts of forest. Considering the “need to protect ethnic Russians” that has been Putin’s policy in Chechnya, South-Ossetia and now Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. The pattern varies, but the weave is the same. As such I feel very insecure living next door to Putin, and doubly so since the government in my country is currently blundering headlong into a Nato-membership.

    I, personally, am not entirely opposed to membership, but we are currently in the same position as Britain, that the government is making decisions about the present state of our country that will likely resonate for the next century. In Britain it is the intimidation of the populace into not protesting against fracking, selling off the NHS and the Green Belt, electoral irregularities in Scotland and so on. In Finland it is selling off national parks for logging, propping up environmental black sheep like the Talvivaara Mining Co and constructing more nuclear power instead of harnessing more hydro- and wind turbine electricity. And Nato. Not in a considered or calm manner, but in a spirit of fearmongering, we are being placed at the forefront of the Nato-Russia conflict.

    I for one don’t feel we need any more excuses for Putin to come calling round ours…

  43. Tom Stanworth says:

    Too much revisionism here. Completely ignores the US entry into the war at a time when Germany was already at military breaking point, making it crystal clear that defeat was coming.

    As for Blackadder Goes Forth featuring too many officers, this is absurd. It was a satire that pointed fingers at the ‘ruling elite’ and so needed plenty of officers to make ars*s of themselves. Talk about missing the point….

    FWIW one of the overriding themes of WW1 history is ‘ordinary working class men getting slaughtered at the behest of the ruling elite’ so I completely disagree with the author’s implied assertion that working class men have somehow been overlooked as a result of TV shows. That’s just silly. It sits at the very core of widespread perceptions of the war, those who ‘wanted it’ and those who died in their millions because of it.

  44. Andrew Livingston says:

    Wow. Not one mention of Putin in the entire article and yet you’d think from the comments the article was about him.

    Shows a lot about you folks and not a damn thing about this article or anything else.

  45. Wilfried Bohm says:

    My mother, born 1915, told of her earliest memory, standing on a balcony in Wilgelmshaven, 1918, shooting in the streets below, shouting “You mustn’t shoot, you mustn’t shoot!”.

  46. Matthew Willis says:

    Interesting, and contains a great deal of truth, but the emphasis concerns me. In attributing the end of the war substantially to the mutiny of the High Seas Fleet, the author comes dangerously close to endorsing the ‘stab in the back’ myth, which the Nazis employed to suggest that it was betrayal at home (by socialists, Jews etc) and not defeat on the battlefield that lost Germay the war. By 1918, the High Seas Fleet was irrelevant. It had largely been bottled up in port after the Battle of Jutland, and its existence had done nothing to contribute to the blockade of Britain, which might have caused the UK to withdraw from the war. Germany was starving to death, and conditions and morale in the fleet were appalling – it is not clear that without this pressure, the mutiny would have taken place. The so-called ‘death ride’ was not a death-or-glory operation, it was an attempt to assert that Germany still had some military strength in order to influence negotiations.

    On the other hand, after the Battle of Amiens, the Germany army was retreating on every part of the Western Front. It had no more reserves while the Allies could now count on large numbers of US troops arriving throughout 1918-19 (plus British troops from home service and the Middle East). Germany had one last throw of the dice, the Spring 1918 offensive, to end the war and it failed, leading to widespread reversals before a resurgent and confident Allied counter-attack. I believe I’m right in saying that the German army fell back every day from the end of August to the armistice in November. It was not a question of if the Germans would be pushed out of France entirely, but when, and there would have been precious little to stop the Allies rolling right over Germany if they’d wanted to. The surrender was unconditional because Germany didn’t have any choice in the matter. Beware of folk saying Germany was not defeated militarily in WW1, their agenda may be suspect. (Not suggesting that is the case with Mr Mason, of course – I just disagree with his conclusions and feel he might risk giving ammunition to the far right).

  47. Richard Milton says:

    The First World War ended because the Ludendorff offensive launched by the Germans in Spring 1918, in an attempt to win before the Americans arrived in force, was a failure and used up the Germans’ remaining supplies of food, ammunition and equipment, as well as exhausting the morale of troops on the western front.

    The events you describe here no doubt happened, but I can’t see what purpose is served by pretending they were the decisive events in ending the war, other than to make left-wing propaganda on behalf of the working classes by retrospective rewriting of history.

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