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.
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.
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.