Friday, November 9, 2018

The Socialist Republic of Wilhelmshaven by Ernst Schneider

Celebrating the Workers Ending the First World War not the Capitalists who caused it

AT THE END of October 1918, there was a spate of cases of insubordination and disobedience among the sailors at the base of the North Sea Fleet, and an outburst appeared inevitable.

Warships of all classes and types were alongside the docks and quays of Wilhelmshaven. Major ships including the battleship Baden and the battle cruiser Hindenburg, were ready for action and awaiting orders from the chief of the Fleet. Ships anchored outside the docks and in the river Jade - the cruiser squadron, torpedo boat and destroyer flotillas - were also ready for action.

Rumours circulated to the effect that it had been decided to engage the enemy in a final encounter, in which the German Fleet would triumph or die for the glory of the "Kaiser and the Fatherland".

The sailors of the Fleet had their own views on the "Glory of the Fatherland", when they met they saluted one another with a "Long live Liebknecht". The crews of the ships moored at the quayside were to be found most of the time, not on board, but in the workshops and large lavatories ashore. 

Officers, contrary to custom, carried revolvers, and ordered the men to return to their ships. 

The men obeyed, but meanwhile, others had left their ships and swelled the number ashore. 

The situation was favourable, the Committee passed the message: "Guarded meeting after dark at the New Soldiers' Cemetery. 

Send delegate from every unit."

According to the rules of the secret organisation, delegates had to proceed to the meeting alone or at most in pairs, and at suitable distances so as not to attract attention. 

The meeting took place, and showed how general was the response to the call of the Committee. The meeting place was guarded by sailors. Those present, stood, knelt, or sat between the graves. 

There was no time for discussion or speeches. The names of the ships moored in the harbour and river were called out, and out of the dark the almost invisible delegates just answered "Here". One comrade spoke, briefly but firmly. "The time has come. It is now or never. A

ct carefully but resolutely. Seize officers and occupants. Occupy the signalling stations first. When control has been gained, hoist the red flag in the maintop or gaff. 

Up for the red dawn of a new day!"

In accordance with the rules of the organisation, all had to stay in their places for ten minutes after the speaker had left. Fortunately, it was a dark night.

On their return to their ships and barracks some of the comrades heard the heavy tramp of marching troops.

Shots were fired, and the cry went up, "down with the war". The sound of marching came from sailors some 300 in number - under arrest, who were being taken under escort to the train to the prison Oslebshausen near Bremen. 

They were warmly cheered by the passing sailors. When a dozen or so sailors were passing the building of the Admiralty, they noticed that the guard house was occupied by soldiers from a town, Marksen, in East Friesland.

It was a machine-gun detachment. The sailors without hesitation carried out an attack, and in a moment had captured fifteen machine-guns. The commandeer of the detachment, an old sergeant-major, after a short palaver, declared himself in solidarity with the sailors. 

The sailors then marched to Door A of the Imperial shipyard, and upon reaching the watch, found it already in the hands of the revolutionaries. Continuing towards the battleship Baden, it was seen that the small units had also been taken over by the revolutionary sailors. On board the Baden they elected a new commander. He was a member of the committee.

By this time the dawn had come. Shots were heard on board a small light cruiser lying in dry dock, and the white ensign was seen to be still flying in the maintop. After a struggle of about an hour, every ship except the Hindenburg was in the hands of the revolutionaries. From the Hindenburg the white ensign still flew. The commander of the Baden signalled "Surrender or we shoot." A struggle was observed on board the Hindenburg and a detachment of stokers and firemen of the Baden prepared to board the Hindenburg and give a hand.

But before they reached their destination, the white eagle ensign was hauled down and the red flag hoisted. At the same time, a signal was received from the cruiser squadron that there too, the revolutionaries had gained the upper hand.
At the orders of the Committee, a mass meeting was held outside the building of the Admiralty.

A great crowd of 20,000 attended and later marched round the naval base, headed by the15th Torpedo Half-Flotilla.

A comrade announced that all the commanders and admirals of the North Sea Fleet had been deposed and as long as they kept to their quarters, they would suffer no harm, but if they moved, they would be dealt with.

Three of four commanders entered the Admiralty building and informed the Admiral what had happened. His Excellency answered regretfully, that he could not do anything for the moment. He was informed that for the moment nothing would happen to him if he remained quiet and stayed at home.

By this time, the crowds of war workers were streaming into the streets. It is regretted to have to state the fact that sections of the workers were still waiting for a call from their anti-revolutionary leaders, and had to be "forced to be free".

Their behaviour, as also was their leaders' and the bulk of "the white collar proletarians" was consciously - or unconsciously - reactionary during this period. Events moved quickly.

Big demonstrations took place and processions converged at the training ground. After speeches and reports on the events, elections of workers' and sailors' councils were held. Every ship had its council and delegate. The same was done for each factory and town district.

That evening a meeting of the delegates took place, which constituted itself as the Revolutionary Government.

A council of twenty-one sailors was elected, which was, so to speak, the Administrative Government. This in its turn elected a body of five members with executive powers.

But when the first meeting of this council of five took place, it transpired that four of the members were not revolutionary socialists. 

The fifth member told the others that the revolution could not be made by namby-pamby revolutionaries, and that he could not successfully work with them. Circumstances however, allowed them to carry on for some time.

In fact, there was from the beginning, two governments in Wilhelmshaven, the Council of Five, with its headquarters in the Officers Casino, and the Revolutionary Committee, backed by the revolutionary socialist seamen with headquarters on board the Baden and in the "Thousand Man Barracks.

The following anecdotes about two of the members of the Council of Five will serve as an indication of the calibre of the majority of the Council.

A naval stoker, who spoke like a lay preacher, but was of questionable character, and was associated in some way or another with the Admiralty and other authorities of the Imperial regime, and also in close connection with Ebert, Noske, Scheidemann etc., who, on November 4, 1918, when the revolutionary sailors stormed the shipyard barracks, begged his fellow stokers to barricade the main gates.

They told him - with a kick - to behave himself. When the gates were then smashed in, he straightened himself, jumped to the entrance, and shouted with a theatrical gesture: "Der Freiheit eine Gasse" [A path for freedom - a quotation from a poem on the death of Arnold Winkelried.]

This man styled himself - under instruction from his imperial masters - President of Oldenburg, East Friesland and Wilhelmshaven, but in practice he kept very much in the background.

Another actor, an even more pitiable member of the Council of Five whose surname was unfortunately the same as the author's - tried to make friends with the reactionary army of officers who were then approaching to attack Wilhelmshaven, and had for this purpose large posters printed and put up during the street fighting, which read: "I am not the Spartakist Ernst - who is the leader of the Revolutionary Committee, and I have nothing to do with his communistic arrangements. 

My name is Joseph -, and I am a Social Democrat."

This Joseph was punished on the spot by working-class women, who drove him out of Wilhelmshaven with broomsticks. 

And like the Joseph of the Bible, he fled to another land - in this instance, Russia - and became a wealthy merchant.


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