On the evening of the 1st of August 1914 – the Krupp factory sirens have just signalled the start of the next shift – news of the order to mobilise begins to spread among the citizens of Essen. Only a quarter of an hour later, the first group of those called up is being readied for departure in the offices of the Krupp administration. A large crowd is gathering in front of Essen’s main railway station, as had already happened the day before. Patriotic songs are sung.

A few days later, an ‘Appeal for a gesture from the heart for the War’ (i.e. for donations) appears in the ‘Allgemeiner Beobachter’, a social democratic newspaper published in the western German city. It contains the following:

‘Our brave troops are speeding over the borders for the Fatherland, fearless of death in their zeal and their faith in the justice of our cause, to demonstrate to the world what we are capable of when criminally provoked against our will to draw the keen German sword from its sheath.’

Along with the Lord Mayor of the City of Essen, the signatories included the Christian trade unionist Christian Kloft; Otto Hue, the Secretary of the social democratic Mine Workers’ Union; and Alfred Hugenberg, a Krupp Director. The last-named is also well-known as one of the founders of the ultra-nationalist ‘Pan-German League’.

From declarations of revolution to ‘castle peace politics’

The fact that, as the First World War began, an official of the Christian Metalworkers’ Union (CMV) could be found, intoxicated by the certainty of victory, at the side of the Krupp manager and representative of the new industrial tycoons and the mine owners, was not difficult to understand. Notwithstanding its criticism of the state of labour legislation and of socio-political conditions in Imperial Germany under the Kaiser, the CMV, politically linked with the Centre Party, shared their fundamentally monarchist and patriotic mindset.

This was not the case with the Free Trade Unions, who were part of the socialist movement and whose leaders included Hue. Up until then, like the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), they had advocated an internationalist position. The 1907 International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart agreed on the following resolution:

‘If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved…to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective[…] In case war should break out anyway, it is their duty to intervene in favour of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.’

This commitment to a transnational revolutionary anti-war policy was reaffirmed in 1912. As late as 25 July, just a month after the Sarajevo assassination and only a few days before the beginning of the first human catastrophe of the 20th century, the social democratic party had appealed to the government to ‘withhold from any kind of military intervention’. An appeal to the proletariat went on to say: ‘To delay courts danger! A world war is threatening! The ruling classes, who in time of peace gag you, despise you and exploit you, would use you as cannon fodder[….] We will have no war! Down with war! Long live the international brotherhood of peoples!’ The Essen branch of the SPD took up this appeal and, like many other sectors of the party, organised demonstrations towards the end of July. But after the German Reich declared war on Russia and France on 1 and 3 August, the parliamentary party of the SPD supported the government’s policy by voting in favour of war credits in the Reichstag on 4 August, in stark contrast to all the preceding proclamations.

Two days earlier, the General Commission of German Trade Unions had met under the chairmanship of Carl Legien, who combined this role with that of an SPD deputy to the Reichstag. This body included the leaders of the unions aligned with the social democratic movement. Not a word had been spoken about measures to prevent the looming threat of war. Instead the discussion had been around how to protect the assets of the unions from being requisitioned. In addition the possibility of voluntarily suspending strike action for the duration of the war was considered – and formally adopted two weeks later. In the space of a few days, international solidarity against the war had been replaced by support for the government in its quest for military victory, a policy of truce between the parties that came to be known as the ‘castle peace politics’ (‘Burgfriedenpolitik’), after a medieval German term referring to the imposition of a state of truce within the jurisdiction of a castle.

Shoulder to shoulder with the warmongers

The motivation for this abrupt change of direction on the part of the leadership of both the SPD and the Free Trade Unions is still a matter of controversy today. Probably a whole raft of factors played a part. Many perhaps believed that what was at stake was the defence of Germany against Tsarist Russian despotism. The widespread enthusiasm for war in the first August days will have played a role, as will the fear of a return of anti-socialist legislation. The fact that the ‘International’ effectively collapsed on the eve of the war may also have contributed.

It was not long, however, before the argument that this was a war of self-defence for Germany began to look threadbare. In fact, the German invasion of Belgium on 3 August, which brought Great Britain into the war, was already fundamentally irreconcilable with this argument. It then lost all credibility against a backdrop of ever more extensive debate within German political and business circles about the war aims, conducted in part in public and in part via confidential memoranda. ‘Belgium must be German,’ demanded Hugenberg’s ‘Pan-German League’, while the representatives of heavy industry worked on plans for the annexation of the iron ore and coal-bearing areas of Lorraine and northern France. Paul Reusch, General Director of the Oberhausen Gutehoffnung ironworks and one of the hawks agitators for war, declared: “If we want to conduct global politics, then we have to give England a bloody nose and expand our territory westwards.” These were not the views of mavericks or outsiders. Establishing German economic dominance in central Europe, and territorial gains in Belgium, Luxembourg, northern France, in the East and even in Africa, were the objectives of German government policy.

For the General Commission, all of this was not sufficient grounds to change the political line already taken, not even after millions of workers on both sides of the conflict had perished in the massive mechanised battles. It doggedly continued to maintain the verbal fiction of the war of self-defence. In reality, as can be seen in a pamphlet of May 1916, it believed the war was about ‘Germany’s share of global output and global trade,’ on which ‘a healthy level of employment in Germany’ was dependent. The logic of this position was that social progress – which the union leaders understood as involving not least the recognition of the unions by business owners and the state –  was guaranteed not by solidarity with the workers of all countries but by standing shoulder to shoulder with the representatives of national capital. This might appear to be in stark contradiction to the entire pre-war programme of the Free Trade Unions, but in fact it had already been foreshadowed in the statements made by some leading trade unionists. By Gustav Bauer, for example, the Deputy Chairman of the General Commission, who before 1914 had already declared the war to be a purely tactical issue: ‘the proletariat of the individual countries have to weigh up whether the war might be to their advantage and then to act correspondingly’. Victory for the capitalists of any country would result in a boom for the national industries, and therefore things would also get better for the proletariat there through wage rises and falling unemployment.

Auxiliary service for the Fatherland and protest movement

When the ‘Law concerning Auxiliary Service for the Fatherland’ was passed in December 1916, the trade union leaders believed they had achieved their goals. Committees of manual and clerical workers were now to be established in all workplaces of any significance for the war effort, and unions and employers were to decide on disputes in committees composed of equal numbers from both sides. One of these leaders, Alexander Schlicke of the ‘German Metalworkers’ Union’, was even appointed to a post in the War Office with responsibility for economic issues related to the war. The price for all this was the agreement of the unions to act as the organ for the militarisation of the labour force and of total mobilisation for war – a war that the Kaiser’s Empire, however, had long lost any chance of winning. ‘Everyone must take their place in the army of work on the home front’ declared the General Commission, and the German Metalworkers’ Union regarded the auxiliary service law as ‘a huge step forward’.

A growing number of unionised workers across the country did not share this view. In 1916, metalworkers in Hanover, Braunschweig and Berlin had gone on strike, in part in protest at the two-and-a-half-year jail sentence passed on the anti-war activist Karl Liebknecht. The poor food supplies caused by the war led in April 1917 to the strike movement spreading to all the industrial cities of the Reich. In Berlin alone, 200,000 people in 319 workplaces put down their tools. Political demands grew more ambitious. On 28 January 1918, 414 delegates representing around 400,000 strikers gathered in Berlin to demand, among other things, peace without annexations; the involvement of workers’ representatives in the peace negotiations; improvements in food supplies; the suspension of the militarisation of workplaces; the release of all political prisoners; and the democratisation of the entire state apparatus. The General Commission saw no reason for self-criticism, nor for a political change of direction. For its members, the mass anti-war movement was mere ‘playing at revolution’ and the work of ‘undercover agitators’. But the military and political collapse of the Kaiserreich proved inevitable. Since August 1918, the Supreme Army Command had been pressing for a truce and peace agreement in view of the disastrous situation. With the sailors’ mutiny at the end of October 1918 and the formation in the following weeks of workers’ and soldiers’ councils across the Reich, the old order was at an end.

The Krupp workers in Essen, who had long been considered loyal to the Kaiser, were from 1916 onwards also part of the protest movement. As late as September 1918, Wilhelm II had hurried to Essen to demonstrate the unity of “throne and anvil” . The plans went badly wrong. When he broke into patriotic rhetoric during a tour of the factory the workers who were gathered around responded with calls for peace. He is said to have made a hurried exit.

Ill-fated policy

With hindsight, one can only describe the course pursued by the General Commission (and by the majority of those in the allied social democratic movement) as calamitous. To be sure, even if the leadership of the Free Trade Unions had taken different policy decisions, it would hardly have been possible to prevent the outbreak of war. But their switch into the war supporters’ camp removed the possibility of organised resistance to the mass murder. Such resistance would have carried weight in the international arena, since the German trade union movement was by some margin the most powerful in the world, and moreover the other military powers involved were all pursuing more or less transparently imperialistic aims.

The path taken by the General Commission, and by the federal board of the Federation of General German Trade Unions (Chairman: Carl Legien) which emerged out of it in 1919, continued to exert a fateful influence on Germany after the war was over. Future President of the Reich Ebert, who emerged from the Revolution as a ‘People’s Deputy’, ensured the survival of the reactionary Officers’ Corps through an agreement reached with General Groener; similarly, Legien helped German heavy industry to survive the Revolution relatively unscathed through his agreement with the Ruhr industrialist Stinnes. 15 years later it was the army (the ‘Reichswehr’ or Reich defence) and industry, together with Hugenberg, whom we mentioned at the beginning, who destroyed the Weimar Republic and paved the way for the fascist dictatorship – whose first victim was the trade union movement. The SPD, driven into exile, declared in its Prague Manifesto of 1934:

‘The social democratic parties, as the only organised institution remaining intact (1918), took control of the state unopposed, and exercised that control from the beginning together with the bourgeois parties, the existing bureaucracy and even with the reorganised military command. The fact that they took over almost without alteration the existing apparatus of the state was the serious historical error…of the German labour movement.’


This article was originally published on Gegen Blende, the online journal of the German Confederation of Trade Unions, DGB.

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