Author Nick Goodell

“The hated, cursed war and the hated, cursed, post war”: Soldiers Returning from the Western Front


In this chapter, I assess the experience of soldiers on the Western Front in the November Revolution. What was it like to be on the ground on the front when the revolution hit? What motivated soldiers to rebel? What was their conception of what was occurring? What did the process of soldiers returning home through revolution look like? Here, I narrate and assess some experiences of soldiers in the revolution, and then compare the experiences of those in the Kriegsmarine to the civilian or worker experience, that of the millions of members of the army who worked in support or bureaucratic roles back home. I will explore these questions and build upon the experience of the working class in the November Revolution presented so far. We will see a recurring theme emerge in these experiences, that of bodily survival being a driver for them. I’ll show that it was the desire to survive the war that led the men to organize politically. The next section will offer some short observations about the German army on the Western Front at the end of the war, exploring the material and psychological conditions there that drove some to embrace the armistice and revolution. The third section will detail the lives of soldiers on the front during the revolution and armistice, also offering some commentary on the experiences of those soldiers who were working back home or in quasi-civilian roles. In the last section, I will offer some concluding remarks about the experiences of soldiers in the revolution.

The Western Front at the End of the War

While it may have been increasingly clear to those back home in the final days of October that the war was nearing a close, to the average German soldier im Felde (in the field) this was not so. Up until the final days of October, soldiers were fiercely fighting for the Kaiser in France and Belgium, though on a slow retreat. After the intensely bloody offenses of Ludendorff in the spring of 1918, the Allies under Foch and Haig had pushed back in the summer, steadily gaining ground while the Central Powers frantically tried to maneuver its dwindling reserves. Though on the retreat, a solid defensive line was maintained until the armistice was called on November 11, and it was never decisively broken. This notion that Germany was somehow undefeated militarily sparked the famous ‘stabbed in the back’ myths which would be featured so prominently as the rallying call for the Nazis in the coming years. It was the civilians, it would be said, that had called for the end of the war. The German troops were undefeated in the field, and they held the line until they were betrayed by the politicians of the spd.

This myth rests in stark contrast to the facts—that it was Ludendorff and the High Command itself who initially declared the war to be lost as early as September 29, 1918. According to Colonel von Thaer, who was present, Ludendorff voiced at a meeting on this day and at subsequent meetings of Reichstag and military officials his view that “there was no relying on the troops any longer” and that “with the help of the high battle morale of the Americans the enemy would gain a major victory.” This victory would result in the West front’s “flood back across the Rhine in complete disorder, bringing revolution to Germany.”1 When Friedrich Ebert learned of Ludendorff’s words, he “turned deathly pale and could not utter a word.”2

Though the High Command had internally admitted defeat, its troops did stay fighting in the field until the armistice. The major breakthrough that Ludendorff anticipated never really came, though the lines were pushed back with more or less force and casualties throughout.

If, from above, we see the High Command emotional and in despair over the situation, we from below see the grim reality of remaining in the trenches: soldiers coping with low morale, mental and physical exhaustion, loneliness/alienation, and constant combat, all while attempting to survive a deadly retreat.

As Scott Stephenson has shown, it was these factors of life im Felde—chiefly, mental and physical exhaustion, loneliness/alienation, and constant combat—that directly impacted how soldiers would react to and partake in the November revolution.3 Soldiers on the front also still had stringent personnel management structures in place, and there was a clear military hierarchy present in their everyday lives. This hierarchy almost quite literally owned their bodies, determining when they ate, slept, relieved themselves, how they interacted with each other, officers, and the enemy, and forcing them into relentless and high-stress combat situations.

In addition, being far from home, these soldiers were less likely to have civilian interaction that would change their opinions on the war. They had limited access to outside information about the war, the strikes back home, or other news. This means that many of their actions would be inspired largely by conditions at the front alone, rather than, for example, by news of the Bolshevik Revolution. Survival of the front, and the psychological impacts that this constant stress and regimentation of everyday life produced pushed the politics of home far from the soldier’s mind. This has led Stephenson and others to call the revolution on the front somewhat “apolitical” in nature, in that it did not necessarily treat with party politics—domestic or international.4

In contrast, the situation of those im Urlaub (on leave) or those who were civilian conscripts working in the factories, on public works projects, in the war-time bureaucracy etc., was quite different. Those im Urlaub or in quasi-civilian roles back home interacted much more with the striking civilians and were exposed to more criticism of the war. Experiencing the food rationing system and shortages like the Turnip Winter were also also unique to those back home. As I shall later show, these two worlds of those im Felde and those im Urlaub would collide in interesting and surprising ways as soldiers returned home at the end of the war.

Armistice and the Return from the Front

I will now detail and analyze the first-hand accounts of two soldiers on the Western front in the revolution.

Herbert Firl was a young soldier on the Western front who would later vividly recall his revolutionary experiences in an sed Erlebnisberichte (experience report). His company of about 80 men went to the front on November 2, and would return within two weeks after the revolution and armistice.5

On November 7, while revolution was spreading throughout Germany, Firl was at the front, where (in his case) this news had not yet reached the troops. On that day, his company and a unit of machine gunners were ordered to start marching “only with rifles.” Gas masks, steel helmets, and other accessories were tossed away. The general came by car and gave a speech to the troops, attempting to encourage them to prepare for new battles. He told them that peace talks were in progress, and that the soldiers would get better living quarters soon. Alongside this, other amenities and basic pleasures were promised to the troops.6

During this speech, however, “the guns boomed.” Firl recalled that about 16 hostile airmen circled over the troops the whole while, threatening at any moment to shoot them. The troops “grumbled: how can they let us sit here in this field, where we can all be shot in one lump!” Calls begin to shout to “skin” the general.7

Soon, the general left, and they saw who Firl cynically dubbed as the “hero” no more. The men, now under a hail of bullets from the airplanes above, scoffed at the departed general’s words. They did not believe that better quarters were coming “as such things should always be better.” Nor did the men believe that peace talks were happening. Soon, they had to leave the village, as a heavy bombardment began to fall on it. Firl’s company then marched for several hours until they stopped at a barn at 11 o’clock at night to rest.8

At about 2am, a nameless Private climbed to the rafters of the barn and roused the men with a speech. Firl recalled some parts of this man’s speech, whom he referred to as “Private X”:

“after four and a half years of war, it was time not for us, but for Wilhelm and August” to do the fighting: “While we perish in the mud, our officers feast and feast. Because we endure and hold our own, our wives and children must go hungry, and we must die, because those at home are holding their own.” The private proposed that the troops take advantage of the opportunities provided by the new influx of Eastern front reinforcements. As these reinforcements had “lain in the East for years,” they should sit on the front and face the bombardment so that Firl’s own comrades did not have to. Then, an officer came and shouted, threatening to have the whole company arrested. “ ‘By whom? Shall we arrest ourselves?’ we roared back.”9

After the speech, as “everyone came slowly out of their straw,” the lieutenant ordered the troops into combat readiness. This, however, raised questions about why the heavy gear needed to be brought with, if the troops were only supposed to be in combat ready mode. To this, the lieutenant had no answer.10

Rain kept the company inside the barn that morning, November 8, with the “Tommies” (the British) all the while keeping up their artillery barrage on the area. After hours waiting in the barn, the company finally marched to the trenches, whereupon they were met with a thick fog.11

Firl and his comrades stayed in the trenches until November 10, and, that evening, orderlies brought word that a truce was to begin at 8 pm:

Nevertheless, the bullets whistled and the heavy guns made the ground tremble. We stood with the clock in hand in the narrow shelter and listened. Should the truce have started? The wiser among us thought that the truce might start at 9 o’clock, because the French clocks were different. But at 9 o’clock it was still the same show. Damn it all! Everyone cursed and one could see that everyone had had their hopes up that peace had finally come. Now it was said that it could also start at 8 o’clock in the morning, but in the morning, no one was looking at the clock anymore, since the roaring [of the guns] did not sound like it was close to going [away] as it should if there were a truce…. At exactly 12 o’clock12 there was suddenly complete silence. Everybody jumped up. What’s happening? A terrible thunder [goes off] from the 38er placed behind us in the village. While we wait, breathless, two more tremendous explosions follow, then there is complete rest. One man jumps up onto the edge of the trench. A whistle. The infantry activity was not set yet. There comes message: immediately withdraw to the ready line. A short while later we are already in place and receive orders to hold elections at 4 o’clock for a soldiers’ council and to get paid…. Everyone was talking only of truce or peace. In front of the regimental office it was discussed. What is this soldiers’ council? Maybe a bread commission? Only one thing we all knew, namely, that now the rule of the officers was over. There were no more supervisors anywhere. A noncommissioned officer suggested that the sergeant be taken as the council leader, since he knew best in everything….13

At 4 o’clock, the men took their pay, as they were told. At a table sat two people with a list of the company members, and everyone had to vote. The sergeant had received only one vote, even though he had been suggested by the men themselves. The other candidate had been the Private X who made the speech in the barn, and he received the rest of the votes.

At 5 o’clock, they assembled again. The lieutenant explained that, according to his reports, the government had resigned, and that a Greater Soldiers Council was being established in Metz. The Private X went off on the lieutenant’s horse to the council in Metz to get more information, telling the soldiers before leaving to stick to the march plan for the first day. They were also not “to throw away rifles” and they were “to give utmost care to the superiors.”14

The men did not harm the sergeant and lieutenant physically, but they stripped them of their uniform stripes and immediately organized both the writing room and the regimental kitchen to fit their needs. About an hour later, the men were already marching towards Metz and were homeward bound. Though they were “tired and hungry from the day before, we marched very proudly, even though the rations had not yet been raised.” The streets were full of columns:

all yelling at each other: “Armistice, now it’s come home!” Officers higher than company commanders were nowhere to be seen. Yes, even these were already partly gone. Everyone had to march in rank and file. The lieutenant marched on the side and when he asked us—there were no more commands—if we did not want to rest, for it was hot, [the men replied] no need, go on! Steel helmets and gas masks were thrown away, heaps of military equipment were already piled up on the roadsides. The gray ribbons and the caps were torn down, everywhere the color red was sought out. Anyone who had something red tied it as a ribbon. To show that we were no longer soldiers like before, we hung the rifle down. We philosophized about what was going on in the homeland….15

In Firl’s story, we see the psychological and physical factors of the wartime experience that Stephenson highlighted as impactful on revolutionary activity. Survival and well-being—limiting physical exertion, taking only needed gear into combat, avoiding combat, and getting enough food and rest—were first on Firl’s mind and the minds of other soldiers with him. We see this emphasis on bodily survival repeatedly.

In the barn, the Private X who would be elected to head up the soldiers’ council had proposed that the veterans of the West front take advantage of the newcomers from the east so that they could remove themselves from the front, heightening their own survival chances. Nor were the men pleased when they were exposed to unnecessary danger from circling aircraft while waiting in an open field during a general’s speech—“where we can all be shot in one lump!” they complained.16 When they moved out from the barn, all questioned why it was necessary to take heavy combat gear, viewed by the soldiers as extra weight that might slow them down in combat and lead to their death, let alone make the physical demands of the day’s march that much harsher.

After the armistice, the immediate emphasis was still on survival and limiting physical exertion. When it was clear that military order was breaking down, the men took over first the kitchen of the regimental house. This gave them direct control of the food supply, something they had not had since their conscription. When the soldiers’ council was first being established, the men were hopeful that it might be a body to address food security and distribution. “What is this soldiers’ council?” they asked, “Maybe a bread commission?”17 The goal was to secure physical well-being for the foreseeable future. This involved too not taking any unnecessary equipment on the march back home. To limit the physical demands of the march, “Steel helmets and gas masks were thrown away, heaps of military equipment were already piled up on the roadsides.”18 Human life, rather than the successful continuation of the German military machine, was now to come first.

Survival was more than the immediate avoidance of danger or the constant struggle to remain healthy, however. It meant the pursuit of peace or any means possible to leave the front. While bullets whizzed overhead on November 10–11, Firl and his comrades anxiously held the clock, desperately waiting for the appointed time of armistice to arrive. They incessantly questioned when the truce might be coming, and rumors were clearly running wild amongst them. Did they mean 8 am? Did they account for the time difference between French and German clocks? When initial truce hopes were dashed on the night of the 10 after it passed 8 pm, “Everyone cursed and one could see that everyone had had their hopes up that peace had finally come.”19 Especially for those in combat, the armistice was the ultimate guarantor of survival, and once a rumor of it came it preoccupied the men’s minds.

But, this bodily survival was quite political, even if it may not have been associated with any formal/surrogate political organizations like the uspd, the spd, or the Spartacists. This is evident from the Private X’s quite socialist speech in the barn. He said that it was unjust for the men to be there, risking their lives for so little food and basic supplies, especially when the officers had so much and could “feast and feast.” Though Firl did not report on the reaction of the men to the speech in the barn, we can assume it was at least neutral, if not positive, given that they all refused to arrest him and jeered at the officer who threatened them with arrest. To some of the men, survival meant taking back what the officers had so unjustly taken, to reclaim the kitchens and redesign the regimentation of their lives so that they could have enough to live. Hence, the old scheduling of meals and the takeover by officer supply depots at the regimental houses were the first occurrences of the armistice for the men in Firl’s company.

Another point to be made about Firl’s account of the armistice on the front is that there is no description of any kind of elated celebration by the soldiers on the battlefield. Once the first man stepped to the edge of the trenches, all happened quickly to get the men out of there. In just a few hours, they were paid, had organized soldiers’ councils, took over the regimental house, established communication with the Greater Soldiers’ Council at Metz, and started on their way back home. They wanted to return to their families and their people to celebrate peace at home.

The armistice did not just mean a ceasefire to these men. Rather, it meant leaving the battlefield altogether. As they shouted at each other in the streets, the armistice had to “come home.”20 It was not something that could stay on the front. This shows too that they conceived of armistice as something that they would bring by their own actions and agency. It was only once the men elected to march home that the armistice could “arrive” there.

That they were prepared to leave the battlefield within only a few hours’ time shows too their feelings towards the war. Four and a half years into a conflict that had claimed the lives of their comrades and caused them so much emotional and physical distress, the men were very ready to commence the armistice, to leave these horrors and their lives as soldiers behind.

This transition in their minds from soldier back to civilian life occurred over these few days as a part of the armistice process. The soldier returned to civilian life by taking charge of his affairs, physically removing or altering that that stood in his way in a very confrontational, headstrong, masculine fashion. As we saw, the soldiers took back control over their survival factors—they regained control first over their own bodies, over whether they were put in danger, where they were allowed to sleep, when they were able to eat and what, where they could rest and stay. Next, the abstract systems of their regimentation and of their danger were repurposed or stripped away. On the march home, Firl and his fellows hung their rifles down, “To show that we were no longer soldiers like before.”21 They flung all their badges and equipment away and sought anything red to tie around themselves, in a symbol of unity with their fellows of the revolution. The lieutenant’s own horse was taken by the private elected to head the soldiers’ council so that he could go to Metz to obtain more information for the troops. Their superiors, actors and symbols of the military authority, were mostly gone, with those ranked “higher than company commanders were nowhere to be seen.”22 Those officers that remained were literally brushed to the side, as the lieutenant, marching on the side of the street, out of rank with his troops, was. They had their badges and ribbons stripped away, a protest against those that had quite literally endangered soldiers’ lives for so long with their orders.

Yet, they still marched in rank and file, with the streets full of columns. They marched “very proudly” even though they were exhausted from many days in the field with little rest and poor quarters. The marched still in part because they were told by their newly elected authority, the nameless private of stirring oration from the barn, to do so. This was therefore partly a choice which the men were “very proud” to carry out.

However, pressures from the new spd government also called for the maintenance of order in the military as much as possible. At home, numerous leaflets had been disseminated after the continuous days of revolutionary street action from the start of the month. Soldiers were repeatedly addressed as a special, separate body of the population in these proclamations, with one starting: “Inhabitants and soldiers of Greater Berlin!”23 Another one closed with: “Workers, soldiers, see to it that quiet and order are observed.”24 “Quiet and order” meant that soldiers were to come home in rank rather than flooding back as great, unorganized masses—masses armed to the teeth.

As a special category of the population separate from workers and civilians, a new office was created to manage the affairs of returning soldiers. The Demobilization Office, under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Josef Koeth, was established initially to deal with the anticipated growth of the problem of soldier unemployment. In the coming weeks, Koeth’s office would build unemployment benefit programs for former soldiers and would see to it as best as his office was capable that their arms were handed over to the new Republican Army. The Demobilization Office also worked to keep some regulations on the large-scale industry in place so that some employment opportunities existed for the returning soldiers. In this broader, macro-economic sense, Gerald D. Feldman has argued that the demobilization process in Germany was actually quite similar to that in other Western nations after the war, even though it was part of the revolution.25 In this context, the order and organization of Firl’s and other companies on November 11 was not unusual, but explicitly planned for by the spd government. The maximum organization of those troops returning home was essential if the spd government was to stay afloat. Otherwise, the millions of returning, armed troops, faced with unemployment and economic hardship, could quickly turn into an armed mass.

Finally, we can account for why the men marched home in that there was probably a sense of nationalist pride. Though the idea of the German nation was up in the air at this point, the soldiers probably felt some semblance of a sense of honor and showmanship in their marching, if not for the fact that they deemed themselves to be the carriers of the armistice itself, the ones who had the honor of “bringing the armistice home.”

The initial revolutionary experience for those at the front was therefore one of returning home, of transitioning to civilian life, and regaining agency in those areas that it was previously denied to the men. In carrying out the armistice, however, these soldiers would interact with millions of other Germans, spurring some to action. We see this in the case of two other stories, Max Hoelz and Otto Henning.

Max Hoelz was a twenty-nine-year-old, working-class communist at the end of the war who would later organize the Red Army of the Voigtland region around Falkenstein. He had been working in some capacity since the age of seven, when he had had to go out into the fields with his family. Conscripted into the war, he was wounded and went in and out of hospitals and various behind-the-front work for the army. Towards the end of the war, he was discharged as unfit for service.26 With his pension of forty marks per month, he searched for a job related to his prior work as a mechanic, and eventually became a supervisor for a construction company of some two hundred workers to make concrete, fences, chicken wire, and other implements for the army. Though not himself a soldier at the end of the war, his comments about trying to travel while so many soldiers were headed back home in early November 1918 gives us more insight into the experiences of soldiers coming from the front.27

The construction company Hoelz worked for was just outside Alsace, and therefore close to the front. Receiving word that his wife was ill, he began his return journey to her on November 7. What he saw on his next few days of travel was “a picture that I would never have thought possible.” The trains were so crowded with troops returning home that he was only able to board by climbing into the Frankfurt train through a window, where he and two others then stayed in tightly packed quarters for the rest of the several-hour-long train ride. As he rode, Hoelz later wrote, he felt a sense growing in him that there were other important events developing besides his wife’s health at home in Falkenstein. About hearing of the formation of soldiers’ and workers’ councils through talks with others on their ways home, he wrote: “What I heard and experienced then became, in the truest sense of the word, a revelation to me. On the 9th of November I arrived at home in Falkenstein. My first question was about the [status of the] Workers’ and Soldiers Council.”28

Hoelz, who had previously only had one socialist leave an impression on him back in 1917, was inspired by what he saw to pursue the building of the soldiers’ and workers’ council in Falkenstein. This council he would lead until he was ousted by its co-leader, at which point he began organizing the Red Guard in the Voigtland—his illegal, armed band of militants. That what he saw on his journey home, what he said that he “experienced” in talking with soldiers headed back from the front, influenced him so much that he began to partake in the revolutionary action himself speaks to the type of heavy influence that the actors of the armistice had on those around them. If they were able to move Hoelz—and many millions like him to action—then perhaps they were correct when they conceptualized the armistice as only arriving home once they did.

Otto Henning was a soldier sent back in July of 1918 to work in the fields and at a construction company to supply the army. In October, Henning was put into a special company of soldiers that was to be used against strikers and protesters in Germany. In early November, he was sent to a suburb of Hannover to guard with the other troops of this special detachment an important railway junction. Their commander told them: “Trains arrive here [at Hannover] from Wilhelmshaven, Kiel and Hamburg, and all of them stop here. All sailors and soldiers on the train that are not on leave are to be arrested; in case of resistance weapons are to be used.” Two machine guns were put in position to be able to fire on those arriving if needed. The commander then stressed further that “he had been informed by telephone that resistance was to be expected because the sailors were for the most part armed.” This, noted Henning humorously, was a great mistake to tell the troops, as their whole unit was comprised of those who had been undesirable elements in the army. A “lively discussion” amongst the troops led to their conclusion: “[to] Wait, see what comes and not immediately apply our weapons.”29

Two to three hours later, a train came in. Sailors and soldiers with red ribbons on their caps and some with red armbands descended from the train. “Do not shoot, comrades!” they said. “The emperor, has fled to Holland, the war has ended, the government has fallen, in Berlin [there is] revolution and under the leadership of Friedrich Ebert a provisional government of People’s Commissars has been formed, in which the spd and the uspd are represented.” Henning and his comrades “agreed with the sailors immediately and only our captain with his three officers did not understand what was going on.” What made them realize that they had lost power, Henning wrote, was that the sailors then helped the troops to drive their train back to Minden, where they then organized a soldiers’ council. There were then demonstrations on November 9 of “infantry, pioneers, and artillerymen under red flags…of 5,000 soldiers, as they had never seen [in] this city of officers.”30

In Henning and Hoelz’s stories we see the masses of soldiers and sailors bringing the armistice to their comrades on their ways home. Hoelz’s “revelation” was that so many people could be so easily mobilized for the cause of peace, which was exactly what shocked Henning’s superiors at the Hannover station and Johann Fladung’s superiors when troops were disarmed at the station he was at.31 Yet, what we saw of soldiers at the front was in a certain sense true to those behind the front as well: the war was so hated that, at their first good looking opportunity, the men would abandon it with all possible haste—primarily for their own survival. It took only a “lively discussion” and a comrade to explain that the Kaiser had fled and there was revolution in Berlin for Henning’s unit to join up, just as it took Hoelz only a short time amongst these same types of revolutionary soldiers to be converted wholly to their cause and believe that he had new duties alongside tending to his ill wife.

The sociologist Asef Bayat has used the term “passive network” to explain how people can come to be easily united into action with no or little previous active or formal organizing. The network forms through the “instantaneous communication among atomized individuals, which is established by a tacit recognition of their common identity, and which is mediated through space.”32 Though the men in these units might not have had explicitly aired their grievances with each other, they had common experiences of the war and of the hated Prussian militarism, of being separated from their families and being told to shoot the undesirables of the government. In this way, they had developed a shared identity through their mutual hatred of the Prussian militarism and the war. This concept helps explain in part how so many soldiers and sailors were easily mobilized into armistice and revolutionary actions to secure peace. This passive network through shared identity was powerful enough that it took only a few sentences explaining the situation and red armbands or spending a short time amongst these people to become enraptured in it. So it was that soldiers in the trenches, marching home, taking the train home, or threatened with disarming at train stations quickly came together into cohesive forces of revolution.

These stories also speak to the material reality of millions of people jamming the roadways and railways in the revolutionary fall of 1918. Hoelz’s description of trains so full that he had to cram into the window to ride, are similar to stories told of transportation networks all over Berlin at the time. Everywhere the trains were full of soldiers and sailors on the return—this demobilization should be thought of as a massive migration and reorganization of peoples all its own. Yet, the newspapers did not comment on this material reality of armistice and of mass troop transport or warn people away from the mess that had been made of public transport. They instead focused on the words of the important politicians and vague news about which towns had declared soldiers’ and workers’ councils.33 Little information was presented by the press about the trains, which were overcrowded, rerouted, delayed, and physically damaged by the revolution in unexpected ways. Much anxiety was had over the fates of loved ones, friends, returning soldiers and sailors, and more. Carl Keuschner, the working-class arms smuggler from Chapter One, remembered waiting the night of November 9 on the platform until midnight for a train to come that he thought was bringing his wife from Wismar. When it came, however, she was not on board. The train’s wagons had been “without light and window glass,” and had held very few passengers. Afterwards, because the street cars were not running, he had to walk “about six kilometers along the way back to my place located in Neuköllner Sonnenallee through the unlit Berlin.”34 His story is a small sample of the chaos engulfing transportation networks during the revolution, which would get worse as more soldiers and sailors joined the armistice.

Though the transportation was in chaos, for many it was a thrilling form of chaos. As we saw in Hoelz’s story, one could easily become enraptured in the moment. Over the course of a train ride, he became convinced by the mood of the soldiers there that he must help form a council in his own hometown, thoughts which were so powerful that they competed with his anxieties for his ill wife. Similarly, as we saw with Johann Fladung’s story in Chapter One, one never quite new what to expect from arriving trains during the revolution. Though they did not bring Keuschner his wife on the night of November 9, they did bring to some stations crowds full of revolutionary soldiers, ready to arm or disarm themselves at a moment’s notice.

The arrival of soldiers back home in the fall of 1918 was a process which lasted until late December. Those who came home were met with a drastically different world than perhaps the idyllic visions of home that they had had on the front. While it offered some aid, the Demobilization Office was unable to cope with the hordes of soldiers returning to the cities during this time. Exact figures on the numbers of soldiers on the streets of Berlin are difficult to verify, but, we know that there were 75,000 unemployed there in December 1918, the greater part of which would have been soldiers.35 Karl Grünberg, a working-class writer who, a few weeks after the revolution sought to join up in the Republikanischer Soldatenwehr (the Republican Guard, the militias raised in defense of the revolution) in Berlin, wrote that the city was “teeming” with soldiers—both those unemployed and those in the garrisons. He figured that the spd would have no trouble finding volunteers like him to join up.36

The thrill of the revolutionary exaltation then quickly wore out for some. The working-class communist Hans Marchwitza described the scene of soldiers coming home in Sturm auf Essen, his novel about the Ruhr valley armed struggles of 1919 and 1920:

It is the year 1918, and winter. Snow falls. The men who survived the war come home. The colliery houses to which they return are gray and crooked, and their plaster looks like the shabby fur of old mining pens. The “trench animals” are again to become fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, the women scream, mothers cry, sisters howl: “He is back, O my God!” O my God! The children ask the strange man who is their father: “Do you bring bread?” The word “bread” looks like the scent of flowers in a fairy tale. “Holy Bread,” stammer the old people, trembling with hunger, while accepting with reluctance the piece they have received. “The dead believed in us.”

A hated, cursed war was followed by a hated, cursed post-war.37

As Marchwitza depicted, soldiers returning home found their families, cities, and lives that they knew before the war turned upside down and inside out by material hardship. Unemployment, increasing inflation, and the food rationing system had combined to make life in wartime and postwar Germany very difficult. Families barely recognized their men returning to them—faces haggard and minds numb from the trenches, some missing limbs or with scarred, battered bodies. This was just as the men hardly recognized their own families—barefoot, dirty, malnourished children, and careworn, thin, wives and relatives.

The Spanish flu was also raging across Europe at this time, and it took as easy victims the many malnourished people of wartime and postwar Germany. Karl Grünberg, wrote of the flu (German Grippe): “This epidemic, which had been raging since the summer, had taken dangerous forms among the undernourished. Everywhere on the street, in the trams and in the factories, people with peculiar gray faces were found. Doctors, pharmacists and the gravediggers were hardly able keep up with the work they needed to do.”38 Grünberg himself was stricken with the Grippe, which he called the Hungertyphus (hunger typhus). He lay with fever in bed in mid-November, just after the November 9 revolution in Berlin, with an “agonizing cough.” His room-mate and his two inn-keepers had also been stricken, with his room-mate being forced to go to the emergency rooms of the hospital. Of going to the pharmacy, he wrote that “every second person in line standing behind me received the same ready-made mixture, which tasted disgusting but did not help.”39 With the little that medicine could then do for the Grippe, those unfortunate enough to catch it were in for a miserable time as Grünberg had, with hospitalization or death non unlikely.

Many of the soldiers that returned would be stricken with the disease, just as many of their friends and family that they were returning to already had contracted it. The Spanish flu would claim at least 14,000 soldiers of the German army in its second wave from October to November of 1918.40 Some soldiers were sent away from the front therefore not due to the armistice, but to go to hospital for the Grippe or to die from it. This was the case for the 22-year-old private August Brodschelm, who died of the Grippe on November 8, 1918, as well as for 24-year-old Private Franz X. Bauer, dead of the same on November 19, 1918.41 For the thousands more like these two, young privates, slow, painful death from the flu was their experience with the revolution and armistice.

The “hated, cursed, postwar” Marchwitza discussed was a situation of very real material hardship and uncertainty—the revolutionary social imaginary, that leap into the open air of history in which anything seemed possible, gave way by December to an endless freefall in which even survival seemed unlikely.42 In January of 1919, 800 Germans a day were dying of dietary deficiencies. In the first three months of 1919, about a third of all children born would die in a few days, with Düsseldorf seeing a child mortality rate of 80 percent. Living in Germany in December 1918 were 300,000 unemployed, a quarter of whom were in Berlin alone. This figure would jump to about 1.1 million unemployed in Germany by February 1919.43 The affects of the postwar economy on the working class were coupled with the spd government’s refusal to socialize the economy, leading to increasing radicalization in the winter and spring of 1919. This was the “hated, cursed, postwar” that awaited many of the elated soldiers of Firl’s unit as they marched home near Metz on November 11. It would soon be more than just the children who were asking the all-important question—“Do you bring bread?”—in the fall and winter of 1918.

For the fathers, brothers, and friends returning as former soldiers, being unable to help provide for loved ones due to the flu, unemployment, and the rising inflation would have been demoralizing and emasculating. With armistice, they had only just regained some sense of control over their own fates, and then they saw it very quickly taken away from them again with the chaos of the revolution. This would lead many to radicalization, into the waiting arms of the Spartacists/kpd, the Shop Stewards, and the new, radical unions that would form in the Ruhr Valley in the months to come.


In this chapter, we have seen how and why some soldiers revolted in November of 1918. What revolution initially meant to many coming back from the Western Front was simple: armistice. The end of the war meant an end to the control of the Kaiser and officers over their bodies, minds, spirits, and psyches. It meant the liberation to have control over one’s own fate again, and to have physical security from harm and well-being. As a part of this process, officers, who had so often been the source of the abuse of well-being and the hoarders of army resources, were stripped of the ranks, pushed to the sides of the columns, and had their old headquarters occupied. In their places, the men elected new leaders from their own ranks, men whom they trusted would fight for their survival.

What the men felt was revolutionary was their bringing the armistice home, the armistice which they were the reification of. Contained partially in their concept of armistice was their concept of revolution. Coming home was as much a part of the act of revolution for the men as was the stripping officers of their ranks and the election of new leaders through the council systems. This meant that the revolution did not typically take place in the trenches. Rather, it took place as they were on their ways home.

Upon arriving home, the men were met with the shock of the postwar economy and malnourished, needy families and friends. If it was thrilling for Max Hoelz to ride with the soldiers and be with them in their moments of revolutionary bliss—the bliss of possibility and freedom—coming home was shock of reality. The real economic woes and challenges that lay ahead for the soldiers returning from the front throughout the November days would become critical drivers of their radicalization and further participation in the revolution. The realization that the war that they had been fighting was contributing to such misery at home must have been one of the final blows to the identities of soldiers as such before they shirked it off. The speech of the socialist Private X from the barn described the situation well: “Because we [soldiers] endure and hold our own, our wives and children must go hungry, and we must die, because those at home are holding their own.” While the war continued, men were dying and suffering in defense of those back home while those back home were dying and suffering in defense of those very same men. In the fall of 1918, it was not civilians who “stabbed in the back” “undefeated” German army. Rather, the longer the German Army fought, the more they drove the knife into themselves and the more defeated they became. In November, soldiers realized this, and tried to top the knife by returning home.

Nick Goodell is an activist and a doctoral student in History at Vanderbilt University.

  1. Haffner, Sebastian, Failure of a Revolution (Chicago: Banner Press, 1986), p. 38.↩︎
  2. Ibid., p. 37.↩︎
  3. Stephenson, Scott, The Final Battle: Soldiers of the Western Front and the German Revolution of 1918 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 9–10.↩︎
  4. Ibid., Introduction and Ch. 1.↩︎
  5. Bundesarchiv at Berlin Lichterfelde, SgY 30–0216 Firl, Herbert, p. 1.↩︎
  6. Ibid., p. 2.↩︎
  7. Ibid.↩︎
  8. Ibid.↩︎
  9. Ibid., p. 2.↩︎
  10. Ibid., p. 3.↩︎
  11. Ibid.↩︎
  12. 11 o’clock French time, hence the 11–11–11 Armistice Day celebrations.↩︎
  13. Ibid., p. 4.↩︎
  14. Ibid., p. 4.↩︎
  15. Ibid., p. 5.↩︎
  16. Ibid., p. 2.↩︎
  17. Ibid., p. 4.↩︎
  18. Ibid.↩︎
  19. Ibid.↩︎
  20. Ibid., p. 5.↩︎
  21. Ibid., p. 5.↩︎
  22. Ibid.↩︎
  23. Burdick, Charles B., and Ralph H. Lutz, editors, The Political Institutions of the German Revolution 1918–1919 (New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1966), p. 45.↩︎
  24. Ibid., p. 44.↩︎
  25. Feldman, Gerald D., “Economic and Social Problems of the German Demobilization, 1918–19,” The Journal of Modern History 47, no. 1 (1975): 1–47.↩︎
  26. The discharge was also likely due to his constant misbehavior. Alongside a medical assistant who Hoelz slapped when they treated him “too roughly,” he also beat up a “fat sergeant” who continuously accosted him “in a defiant tone for not running fast enough” on his injured feet.↩︎
  27. Hoelz, Max, “Last Months of the War in the Hospitals and as a Technician in Alsace,” Vom Weißen Kreuz zur Roten Fahne, (1929).↩︎
  28. Ibid.↩︎
  29. Bundesarchiv at Berlin, Lichterfelde, SgY 30–0373 Henning, Otto p. 1–2.↩︎
  30. Henning, p. 2–3.↩︎
  31. See p. 46 in Chapter One.↩︎
  32. Bayat, Asef, “From ‘Dangerous Classes’ to ‘Quiet Rebels’ Politics of the Urban Subaltern in the Global South,” International Sociology, 15 no. 3 (September 2000): p. 533–557.↩︎
  33. For examples, see the front pages of the Berliner Tageblatt and the Vossische Zeitung from November 11 and 12.↩︎
  34. Bundesarchiv at Berlin Lichterfelde, SgY 30–0464, Keuschner, Karl, p. 4.↩︎
  35. Geary, Dick, and Richard J. Evans, editor, “Radicalism and the Worker: Metalworkers and Revolution 1914–23,” Society and Politics in Wilhelmine Germany (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1978), p. 274.↩︎
  36. Grünberg, Karl, and Wolfgang Emmerich, editor, “Als meiner Soldatenratszeit,“ Proletarische Lebensläufe: Autobiographische Dokumente zur Entstehung der Zweiten Kultur in Deutschland Band 2: 1914 bis 1945 (Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH, 1975), p. 187.↩︎
  37. Marchwitza, Hans, Sturm auf Essen (1930), ch. 1.↩︎
  38. Bundesarchiv at Berlin, Lichterfeld, SgY 30–1116, Grünberg, Karl, p. 26.↩︎
  39. Ibid., p. 28.↩︎
  40. Wever, Peter C., and Leo van Bergenc “Death from 1918 Pandemic: Influenza During the First World War: A Perspective from Personal and Anecdotal Evidence,” Influenza Other Respiratory Viruses, 8 no. 5, (September 2014).↩︎
  41. Ibid., Section “Influenza Produced no Heroes.”↩︎
  42. Ibid.↩︎
  43. Geary, p. 274–275.↩︎