Introduction by 'Dave Graham'
This pamphlet 'The Wilhelmshaven Revolt' with its sub-title 'A Chapter of the Revolutionary
Movement in the German Navy, 1918-1919', was written in 1943, towards the end of
the Second World War, by 'Ikarus.'
Unlike so many studies of important events in the international history of the working
class movement which, are written by professional historians after the event, this
pamphlet was written by an actual participant in the events known as the 'Wilhelmshaven Revolt'. It was written from recollection of the events, for, as the author's note
indicates, a complete archive of invaluable documents, leaflets etc., in possession
of the author had to be destroyed around 1935, after Hitler took power in Germany.
These archives were destroyed in the interests of many people including the author himself
who were being hunted by the Gestapo. Finally, it became unsafe for the author to
remain in Germany since the important part he had played in the revolt was known
to the Nazis and there was a price on his head. He became a refugee in Britain under very
difficult circumstances and naturalisation was refused him for many years by the
British government and this explains why in 1943 he had very good reasons for writing
under the nom de plume of 'Ikarus'.
His real name was Ernst Schneider and before the 1914 - 18 war as a young man he
had been a member of the Social Democratic Party. This Party prior to the war was
the biggest in the Second Intentional, the 'jewel in the crown' of the pre war socialist
movement. He was a member of this Party's Left Wing as were so many of this party's 'young
socialists'. When war broke out in 1914 he was associated with the 'revolutionary'
left wing tendency associated with the names of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht,
which declared that the war was 'imperialist' and should not be supported. However
the names of these revolutionaries although well known to the German working class
were not the whole of the anti war movement. As the author makes clear there were
several tendencies inside and outside the Social Democratic Party.
It is almost certain that being a seaman - both Merchant and Imperial Navy, Schneider
would have been aware from an early stage of the arguments between these various
groupings in the Social Democratic movement. Certainly Bremen and Hamburg were major
centres of the 'International Socialists' [later International Communists - IKD] who were
founder members of the short lived KAPD in the period 1920 - 1923. Readers who wish
to know more of the politics and political organisations as well as the character
of the German working class movement of the time should see our pamphlet 'Origins of the
Movement for Workers Councils in Germany - 1918 - 1929'. We have also prepared a
more detailed account of the different conceptions within this movement, and situating
them in a wider international working class movement.
Why we Publish this History Now
Our purpose in reproducing this pamphlet, which was obviously intended to be part
of a much larger work, is to show in detail how an active militant took part in a
class wide movement. Not to 'bring socialist consciousness' from the outside as the
Bolsheviks argued for the Russian working class, but as the pamphlet makes clear from within
the workers own movement. The other notable aspect of this pamphlet is the degree
to which the German working class organised itself. Many activists were aware of
the problem of 'masses' and 'leaders' revealed by the wholesale defection of the Social Democratic
Party, organisation and apparatus to the cause of German imperialism. But as the
pamphlet shows, 'confidential men', 'revolutionary committees', and so on, in fact
a whole underground organisation almost, was in existence. Although many have argued
for 'spontaneous' organisation - this story shows that in actual fact such organisation
was nothing of the sort as usually understood, or at least 'spontaneous' in the sense that it was totally determined by the position the workers found themselves in.
And not only this, the workers also knew that they must spread and extend their own
movement by all means or else lapse back immediately into defeat, even at the expense
of turning on the very organisations - the Soldiers and Workers Councils - that they
themselves had just lately set up. Unfortunately as this story shows these lessons
had been absorbed only by a minority of the German working class. The majority proved
unable or unwilling the break with the 'old movement' both as an idea and an organisation.
The reasons for this we go into in a pamphlet which we have published entitled 'An
Introduction to 'Left-Communism in Germany 1914 - 1923'.
When 'Ikarus' was conscripted he was allocated to the German Navy [Kriegsmarine] since
he had previously been in the mercantile marine in which he had played an active
part in the seamen's struggles prior to 1914. He was one of a whole generation of
militant mercantile seamen with an understanding and direct experience of union organisation.
In this context we are not talking of the reformist trade union activity that is
most peoples experience. The German trade unions [Gewerkschaften] had at the outset
of the war signed an agreement with the German military known as the 'Arbeitsgemeinschaft'.
Like their British equivalents, who were paymasters of the British Labour party,
the German trade unions financed the Social Democratic party - so the 'Arbeitsgemeinschaft' where the unions signed the workers 'rights' away [right to strike, freedom
of assembly etc.] in return for a modest wage increase to cover 'inflation' had its
political side as well. The Social Democratic party did its best to support the German
war effort, and proved the surest friend of the German ruling class at the time 'Ikarus
So for the German workers their 'Union' [their word later] with its features of workshop
organisation [Betriebsorganisation], with its direct democracy, its 'confidential
men' [Obleute] and so on, was their answer to the fact that their own movement, the
one they had supported and built, had now turned against them.
They therefore had to create new forms of organisation and new political perspectives
for themselves in order to push their struggle forward. Their solution, their 'Union'
led to the creation of Workers Councils all over Germany.
But before this 'union' could come into existence, it was necessary to organise 'unofficially'
and in an 'underground' fashion. The official unions were working hand in glove with
the Military [the 'Arbeitsgemeinschaft'] - so the 'normal' activities permitted in a 'democracy' - mass meetings, demonstrations, etc., were impossible. 'Ikarus'
describes some the ways in which this was got round and need for the 'rules of the
organisation' to which he alludes. All this experience should be digested today when
so much of what ordinary workers understand as 'normal' trade union activity is effectively
prohibited by the state. The unions instead preferring their cosy deals with management
leaving the mass of workers uneasy and insecure, with the ever present threat of unemployment.
When it came to the seamen's own organisation the reader should note how only one
member of the Revolutionary Committee actually became a member of the 'Council of
Five', the executive committee as it were of the revolt. And at a crucial moment,
there arose the practical question of deposing this council for its timorous activity. The reader
will have to make up their own mind as to what should or could have been done in
For now it should be obvious that as soon as the existing Soldiers and Workers Councils
stopped moving forward, they immediately became reactionary
That this was no accident or 'one off' should be noted. The existing state even though
formally it had ceased to exist with the abdication of the Kaiser was in practice
hardly touched by the so called 'democratic revolution' of November 1918. The state's
strategy ably assisted and led by the Social Democrats - the very party most workers
still supported - was to do as much to confuse and demoralise the workers as possible
before attempting any physical assault on them.
To do this they needed information and intelligence, hence the army of spies, 'agents
provocateurs' and so on referred to. [In passing we should note that this was a certain
corporal Hitler's first role when officially he was 'convalescing' in 1919 after
being gassed. He acted as a spy for German Military intelligence on the workers meetings
and organisation in Bavaria, the German army paid him and financed the movement he
set up, amongst others]
During this period the 'Freikorps' and other para-military organisations also had
their 'confidential men', and their own secret ways of organising and recognising
one another. Although such secret societies were not new having had some influence
during the French Revolution, what WAS new was their organisation virtually as a department
of the state.
Since the time we are talking about of course such organisations are now commonplace
within the ruling circles of all societies. [It does however go some way to explaining
Hitler's constant paranoia about the military plotting against him - he knew from
personal experience how they organised and what they were capable of.]
'Ikarus' ends his pamphlet with two conclusions - which seem to us to have been borne
out by the passage of time. Firstly he says,
'The key to the understanding of history, lies in the historical development of labour.'
Although this is somewhat abstract, we too know how society is never static, constant
change and development is inevitable but this change is socially determined; that
is changes in the conditions of our labour and life are determined by the class struggle itself. We have to become conscious of this struggle to be better able to influence
its course and development, and thereby take charge of and transform the labour process
'Becoming conscious' leads onto his second conclusion - looking towards new forms
and ways of organising politically. Many members of the movement he describes were
rightly, highly suspicious of the existing political organisations of the working
class. They realised political organisation was a necessity and could not be avoided, but political
parties are no better informed than anybody else. The 'success' of a revolutions
did not and does not lie in being 'for' or 'against' a party - only the masses themselves can be truly revolutionary. Revolutionary minorities have to work out how to
relate to this movement of the masses in newer and better ways than we have seen
so far. They could make a decent start by understanding first of all what is to be
truly revolutionary - like 'Ikarus'.
This pamphlet is the story of what happened when the Councils managed to seize an
area in and around the port of Wilhelmshaven. To see how crucial this area is - readers
should consult the map and see how the major industrial areas of Bremen and Hamburg
and even Berlin itself are within easy striking distance.
It was therefore as a consciously revolutionary socialist that he, like many others
began to quietly build up propaganda units on the various ships of the High Seas
Fleet. Their agitation was made easier by the attitude of the professional officer
class which was as 'Prussianised' as the as the German army officer class if not more so.
Background to the 'Wilhelmshaven Revolt'
At the outbreak of the war the morale of the German Navy was good. On the 31st July
1914. the First Scouting Group and the First Squadron had left Wilhelmshaven to
meet the rest of the fleet which was on its way from the Baltic through the Kiel
Canal. The combined fleet assembled in Jade Bay on 1st August but the warships remained at
anchor there for more than three months. It was thought at this time that the German
Navy might not have to fight the British fleet but the weaker French and Russian
fleets. However five days later Britain declared war on Germany.
Nevertheless Admiral Reinhold Scheer who was to command the High Seas Fleet at Jutland
and who in 1914 was then in command of the Second Squadron retrospectively in 1917
explained the origins of the 1917 mutinies by pointing out that: 'The general situation made it necessary to hold the big ships in reserve and this deprived their crews
of the constant vigorous activity which was needed to convince them that they must
The two major strategic reasons why the German high command adopted a cautious attitude
was firstly its awareness of the superiority of the British Navy [which had 29 dreadnought
capital ships to Germany's 19] and its belief that the land warfare would go quickly in favour of Germany. It was expected that the French army would be quickly
defeated and France would surrender and that the British Expeditionary Force would
be mopped up, and that the German Army would then turn against Russia. It was thought
then that Britain recognizing the impossibility of fighting alone would then agree to
a peace settlement from which Germany would gain her colonial outlets which German
capitalism desired. The German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg had indicated that at
the peace conference it was 'absolutely essential that we should have a big fleet'. It was
therefore unwise to inflict upon Britain any grave reverse since he did not believe
that the British intended to wage war seriously. This deterrent strategy was one
of the reasons why a big German fleet had been built. It was intended that the fleet would
be so big that the British would be unwilling to challenge it. None of the basic
strategic conceptions of the German High Command both army and navy turned out to
be viable propositions.
The German High Seas Fleet apart from the major collision at Jutland, occasional sorties
and the emphasis on submarine warfare had long periods of inactivity. Ships went
on exercises, some went out to tempt the enemy from time to time but always the ships
spent long periods in their base ports Kiel and Wilhelmshaven and the crews were constantly
being sent on leave. It was this constant contact between returning crews with their
families, portworkers, dockyard engineers etc. which not only kept the crews acquainted with the progress or otherwise of the big land battles, the growing shortages
of food but also permitted them to keep in touch with the growing anti-war movement
in the factories and workshops.
Ernst Schneider was one of a number of politically conscious naval ratings who kept
in touch with the growing factory committees which began to organise not only industrially
but politically, in opposition to the Social Democratic Party's official policy
of supporting the war. At the same time the emergence of independent political tendencies
also went on, reflecting the intense political activity going on in industry.
He briefly enumerates these eight broad groupings which developed after August 4th.
1914 although some of these tendencies had begun to emerge even prior to the war
as a reaction against the class collaborationist policies of the Social Democratic
Ernst Schneider was well equipped with political understanding even prior to 1914.
but his actual experiences during the war added to and developed his consciousness.
For him 'theory' and 'practice' were combined: but it was praxis that determined
his political thinking, note how for instance he immediately sought out Radek in Berlin,
only to be told to restrain the very movement he was part of. He draws his own conclusions
from this just as we should also. His political maturity is shown by this pamphlet
which was obviously to have been a part of a much larger work.
He did not finish it.
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