Plagued by hunger and increasingly frustrated with the continuing Great War, hundreds of thousands of long-suffering German workers prepare for a massive strike in Berlin.
Although the year 1917 had brought a string of military triumphs to the Central Powers—Kaiser Wilhelm, on a visit to the Western Front in December, told his troops that the year’s events proved that God was on the side of the Germans—it had also seen hunger and discontent on the home front rise to unprecedented levels. There were a total of 561 strikes in 1917, up from 240 the year before and 137 in 1915. Real wages—or the ratio of wages to cost of living—were falling, with disastrous effects for industrial and white-collar workers alike.
War with Russia had cut Germany and Austria-Hungary off from a crucial supply of food and the Allied naval blockade in the North Sea, in effect since early in the war, had exacerbated the resulting shortages. At the beginning of 1918, the thorny negotiations between Russia and the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk promised to delay a much-needed influx of food and resources even longer. Discontent flared first in Austria, where flour rations were cut in mid-January. Strikes began almost immediately in Vienna and by January 19 there was a general strike throughout the country.
Food shortages were even worse in Germany, where some 250,000 people had died from hunger in 1917. On January 28, 1918, 100,000 workers took to the streets of Berlin, demanding an end to the war on all fronts. Within a few days, the number was up to 400,000. The Berlin strikers enjoyed support in a string of other major cities, including Dusseldorf, Kiel, Cologne and Hamburg. By one estimate, more than 4 million took to the streets across Germany.
The reaction of the German government and the army—frightened by visions of Bolshevik-style revolution and worried the workers’ revolt would further delay the peace talks at Brest-Litovsk—was swift and decisive. On January 31, a state of siege was declared and the ringleaders of the strikes were arrested and court-martialed. One hundred and fifty were imprisoned, while 50,000 more were drafted into the army and sent to the front.