War and Revolutionary Defeatism
“It is better to bleed to death in class struggle, together with our class friends from other countries, than to bleed to death on a battlefield for profits of our enemies!”
(No. 1, September 1, 1915)
In 1914 the World War One – vitally important for Capital and long awaited – errupted and should have renewed the valorisation cycle of Capital through a mass destruction (2). A part of proletarians (70 millions) was forced to put on uniforms, it was gathered under national flags and under the command of its “own” bourgeoisie and in the interest of Capital should destroy its variable form (its class brothers, surplus labour power – about 10 million people died) as well as the fixed one (surplus means of production) and conquer new markets. Apart from this part, which was directly exposed to the danger of physical liquidation on the war-front, there was also another one. That was subjected to a higher level of exploitation in the rear: more work for lesser wages, war taxes and later only thiner and thiner rationing, hunger and military discipline at workplaces. It was proletariat, who – in peace as well as in war (which is only an extension of capitalist competition and social peace) – was paying with suffering and death for the reproduction of Capital as a social relation.
From its very beginning the war was not as unambiguously popular among Austro-Hungarian proletarians as it could appear according to the official pro-war enthusiasm. As a Czech left-wing poet, Josef Hora, wrote:
“I did not want, but I had to
With cartridges on my waist.
They ordered me to shoot:
Defend your motherland, you swine!” (3)
Some tried to avoid conscription by simulating a serious disease or hid themselves in the countryside despite harsh penalties for desertion. Since August 1914, when the war began, we can see more or less individual acts of class resistance – beginnings of revolutionary defeatism. Probably the most class conscious resistance against conscription appeared in Vienna districts Döbling and Simmering, where there were already in 1915 occasional gunfights between workers on one side and gendarmes and conscription commissioners on the other side.
German proletarians from the Czech Lands were also far from being all dull Austro-Hungarian patriots and they were quickly developing their own anti-war consciousness. For example, in September 1915 a German worker and front-line soldier, called Emil Friedrich, was arrested in the town of Ústí nad Labem for singing a song “Ich bin Soldat”, which was quite popular among German speaking soldiers and contained following verses: “…they forced me, drove me as a beast / instead of being at work I am standing on patrol / instead of being free I am saluting now… when we march to the battlefield, I have to murder my brothers…” Many German-speaking proletarians deserted, sabotaged carrying out orders and voluntarily chose captivity in the same way as “Czech” proletarians did (4).
However, since the beginning of the war an unclearly defined unwillingness to die (5) for the hated empire predominated among Czech and Slovakian speaking soldiers. This distaste often resulted from a mixture of rudimentary, instinctive class resistance against the war and an influence of national liberationist and Pan-Slavistic bourgeois ideologies. For example, when in September 1914 another battalion of the 28th Regiment was leaving Prague, soldiers were singing together with Prague inhabitants a Pan-Slavistic song called „Hey Slavs“ and they had a banner with a modified strophe of a well-known folk song: “The little red scarf, dance around, we are going against the Russians, and we do not know why!” It is obvious, that anti-war attitudes transformed themselves into a practical resistance. It did not take a long time and on April 3 1915, during heavy fights in the Dukla Pass two battalions of the same 28th Prague regiment surrendered without a single shot being fired to a single Russian battalion, because the soldiers were not willing to serve as the cannon fodder in the war massacre any more. And they were not the only ones. Already on March 11 1915 three companies of the Terezín 42nd Infantry Regiment and nine companies of the Písek 11th Infantry Regiment voluntarily let themselves to be taken as POW on the Russian front. On May 6 1915, during a Russian assault, their example was followed by a battalion of the Mladá Boleslav 36th Infantry Regiment, whose another two field battalions numbering 31 officers and 1.543 men surrendered without fighting in the night between May 26 and 27. Pan-Slavism would later lead a part of soldiers, who instead of fullfilling their duties, waging the war and dying, let themselves to be taken by Russians as prisoners of war (in 1917 there were about 300.000 Czechoslovakian POW in Russia), to join the tzarist army. Individuals and small groups of Austro-Hungarian soldiers were not deserting into captivity only on the Russian front, but also on the Serbian and later on the Italian ones.
In what way most Czech and Slovakian soldiers understood the meaning of desertions and surrendering without combat can be aptly illustrated by a statement made by one of them, Josef Hrubín. When a drunken Slovenian soldiers laughed at him, that the Czechs were not good soldiers, because they could only put their hands up and surrender to an “enemy”, he answered him, “If everybody acted in the same way, it would be the end of this suffering. Let emperors fight among themselves…” However, the Slovenian soldier was indeed a slavish person and denounced those subversive words to a Czech staff doctor, who did not hesitate and denounced Hrubín to his superiors. On January 7 1915 a military court in Lublin sentenced this coach driver from Prague-Žižkov to death and he was shot dead…
So called shirking was also a widespread phenomenon. In fact it meant sabotaging orders and avoiding combat. Today this invisible anonymous resistance can be primarily testified by “treacherous” songs of front-line soldiers as for example this one:
“The millstone is turning round
but we will not be turned round by the war…
On the river Drina, on the river Drina
we are sitting all the time on a latrine…
The fourth call up stand up!
But there is no body left!
Theresia lost Silesia!
Franz will lose everything!”
There is a clear expression of the fact, that proletarians consciously contributed to the defeat of “their own” state through their resistance, echoing in the last strophe. And here is an excerpt from one more such song:
“When a bugle will order us
to go into an attack
God knows, that all of us
will throw their rifles away!”
Acts of individual as well as collective desertions, sabotaging orders and voluntary captivity were definitely practical expressions of class antagonism, for workers in uniforms immediately refused to be a cannon fodder in interests of their own exploiters. And through this disobedience they were subverting the war effort of “their own” state and bourgeoisie and contributed to their defeat. We can talk – without exagerating – about a practical resistance against their own bourgeoisie even among proletarians from Czech Lands and Slovakia. Not only against the German and Hungarian bourgeoisies, which was “their own” in the same sense as the Czech and Slovakian ones: they immediately organised workers’ exploitation. Moreover an overwhelming majority of the Czech and Slovakian bourgeoisies was standing on positions of so called Austro-Slavism from the outbreak of the war almost till its end. This means it was a loyal faction of the Austro-Hungarian rulling class and it was also interested in the war.
The reason for this was quite simple. To an important extent the Czech bourgeoisie was an agrarian one and even an essential part of its industrial faction was linked to immediate processing of crops and meat and to doing trade with agricultural products. Agrarian and industrial capital managed by the Czech bourgeoisie was closely connected by supplier and trade links with mostly industrial capital of the German bourgeoisie from the Austro-Hungarian Czech Lands’ border areas. Everything was intertwined by financial capital of both national bourgeois factions. These factions were formed as national ones in a process of capitalist relations´ development in the Czech Lands. As one of the bearers of capitalist production and social relations the historically younger Czech bourgeoisie had to assert itself not only against a late feudal shell of the political system, but also against its own little bit older German sister, who could more easily use the German character of the absolutist state abd thus had a stronger political position. This is why the Czech bourgeoisie ideologized its power aspirations as national, which was to a certain extent equal to anti-German, aspirations. However, since 1848 till 1908 it had achieved a more or less equal social position as well as political representation and its economic interests were firmly anchored in the Austro-Hungarian framework and pretty overlaped with interests of the German bourgeoisie. Which means, that it identified its interests with the Habsburg state interests and strived only for as profitable position in its power structure as possible – a position corresponding to its own increasing economic importance. Thus in 1914 it did not even come to the mind of a large part of Czech bourgeoisie to question Austro-Hungary or war and to establish its own independent national state.
But at the outbreak of the WWI emperor proceeded to a considerable restriction of parliamentary power and political life and strengthening the very bureaucratic governmental apparatus, which again underlined its German character. Particularly Pan-Slavists (who had a problem with waging a war against Serbian and Russian “Slavic brothers”) radical bourgeois liberals and dyed-in-the-wool nationalists could not cope with all this. Thus a part of the Czech bourgeoisie more and more felt, that “everything Czech” was repressed again, but only several of its political factions and often just mere political personages took immediately at the beginning of the war a “treacherous” attitude, while believing, that the Czech bourgeoisie‘s future would never be ensured in Austro-Hungary and that it could profit far more in a different political system. A more realistic part of these nationalist dissidents orientated itself towards the Western part of Entente powers in a longing for a profound transformation of socio-political relations and a traditionalist part – in the newly brushed up Pan-Slavic sentiment – dreamed that it will put the Czech crown on the Russian tzar’s head. But they were mere minorities. Still in 1916, when Czech bourgeois political parties united themselves in the Czech Union, whose supreme body was the National Committee, they did not do it against the monarchy, but in order to coordinate joint reform actions within its framework.
As for Slovakia (part of the Hungarian Kingdom), it is necessary to say, that at the beginning of the WWI it was still almost untouched by industrialization. Slovakian and Hungarian bourgeoisie were at the time still numerically relatively weak and concentrated into a few industrial isles. Therefore it was predominantly an agrarian country. Though the Catholic Church and Hungarian nobility were still the biggest landowners, we can not talk about Slovakia as about a feudal country. Land was a commodity, agricultural production was quickly capitalizing itself, wage labour became its essence and profit its aim. However, unlike its Czech fellow-traveller, in the time of the world war the Slovakian bourgeoisie was so weak, that its own perspective of Slovakian national liberation could not occur to it at all, since it had nothing to lean on except of an uncertain anti-Hungarian sentiment. This is why in Slovakia the national liberation ideology was represented by mere individuals (Milan Rastislav Štefánik, Vavro Šrobár, Ivan Dérer…), who had no other choice than to join their aspirations with the Czech national liberation resistance for the time being and together with its leading ideologists to create the concept of “Czecho-Slovakian nation”. The rest of the Slovakian bourgeoisie was binding their interests to the monarchy up until its effective collapse in October 1918, when only the blind could not see, that Slovakia was going to become either a part of a new Czech state or it will stay in the Hungarian framework. Only then the most decisive part of the Slovakian bourgeoisie gambled on the Czech pledge (supported by the victorious Entente military power – so in fact there was no choice for them), that the new state would be the „Czechoslovakian“ one and would give it a stronger guarantee of an equal position and development than Hungary.
But let’s stay for the moment in years 1914-1918 and before arriving at struggles of our class, let’s have a brief look at the Left-wing of the bourgeois political spectrum.
1. Social-Democratic Alliance with Bourgeoisie
“Closed until the war ends.”
(Robert Danneberg, the secretary of the Socialist Youth International, placed a sign with exactly the same inscription as above – putting the counter-revolutionary role of Social Democracy well – on its Vienna office.)
Let’s start off with the Czecho-Slavic Social Democratic Workers Party (CSSDWP). Facing the world war it continued its policy of class collaboration as the whole Second International. Although it did not support the Austro-Hungarian monarchy’s war effort as openly and actively as for example the SPD in Germany, it suspended its reformist political and trade-unionist activities a was telling workers to wait with their struggle against exploitation till the end of the war. Právo lidu (the People’s Cause) (6) and its other printed organs were no different from another bourgeois newspapers. Thus the social-democratic party became an accomplice of the war slaughter, which proletariat was dragged into. In this situation, in 1916, a later leader of the left opposition in Social Democracy, Bohumír Šmeral, arranged an alliance of the party with other bourgeois parties in the Czech Union, because according to his marxist view this should have supported progressive reformist tendencies. In fact this step only further affirmed the counter-revolutionary character of the party.
He was criticised for this step by a nationalist faction (led by František Modráček), which emerged inside the CSSDWP during the war and which was already then – unlike the Czech Union – pursuing the national liberationist line and was accusing meral from betraying national interests by this alliance with the Austro-Slavist faction of the Czech bourgeoisie (7). But his head was also targeted by a partially classist critique for selling out proletarian interests by tying them to the bourgeois interests. This criticisment was not coming only from left ranks in the CSSDWP, but also from so called “Centralists”, who were grouped in the Czech Social Democratic Party (the CSDP) working mainly in Moravia. The CSDP split from the CSSDWP long ago to protest against a nationality based destruction of international trade unions in Austro-Hungary.
Though then left critics of Šmeral were thinking in a framework of bourgeois political parties, we have to affirm their critique in an extent, up to which they recognised that proletariat can never be allied with bourgeoisie and it must fight alone against the rulling class for its historical interest, which is the overthrow of Capital’s dominance. National liberation is in no way a part of this interest. One of the essential points of the historical communist programme – expressed and appropriated by proletariat in its struggles – is the watchword, “A proletarian has no country!” In this respect even “Centralists” were quite weak, because they were sometimes able to take a classist standpoint, but only to immediately neutralise it by their own variant of Social Democracy, which certainly did not disavow the right of nations for self-determination. This is why they became a part of a “socialist” wing of the national liberationist movement in the autumn 1918.
Inside the Czech Union the CSSDWP co-operated mainly with the Czech National Socialist Party (CNSP), which was another representant of historical Social Democracy in Czech Lands. It was formed in the 19th century, when the Austro-Hungarian social democratic party still had a unified international character and on a basis of radical slogans tried to organise the most militant proletarians. Even though it was recuperating workers’ struggles for better conditions into the capitalist framework (its destruction and overcoming by Socialism belonged to the realm of frequent but rhetorical exercises), it appeared to the then bourgeoisie, which was not willing to negotiate with workers almost at all, as a dangerous organisation. That is why petty-bourgeois radicals then established for workers the CSNP, which was meant to weaken the “anti-national” Social Democracy (in its very beginning it really still had some internationalist and classist elements), to organise workers on the national basis and strive for improvement of their lives through a peaceful colaboration with the Czech bourgeoisie. Since that time the CNSP had always been a party of scabs, socialpatriots and denouncers, but, nevertheless, it had an important capacity to tame many workers’ struggles.
However, a few decades later both parties will find a common counter-revolutionary language within the so called Socialist Council, which they would form in the nick of time in 1918 as a socialist body – subordinated to the National Committee – of the national liberation movement. It will be formed by all particular materializations of historical Social Democracy as a reaction towards working class dissatisfaction and militancy, which began to appear at the end of 1916 and beginning of 1917 and culminated in 1918 and tended to escape from control of bourgeois socialist political parties and trade unions.
This effort of the CSSDWP and national socialists to recuperate proletarian struggles against exploitation back into a bourgeois politics’ framework was eventually joined also by the Federation of Czech Anarchists-Communists (the FCAC). Though at least prior to 1910 Anarchists and Revolutionary Syndicalists were to a certain level an expression of class militancy, before the outbreak of the war a faction represented by Bohuslav Vrbenský prevailed inside the FCAC. This faction held counter-revolutionary national liberation positions and Anarchist Communism of the FCAC, as conceptualised by this social democratic tendency, in fact became a kind of political movement heading towards self-managed capitalism. At the beginning of the war the FCAC took the same stand as for example Kropotkin did: they stood against German imperialism, but sided with the Entente. (8) Thus, even though these libertarian Social Democrats in co-operation with National Socialist youth organised many anti-militarist actions and later participated to proletarian revolutionary defeatism, they did not stand on positions of classist internationalism and revolutionary defeatism, but on positions of Czech nationalism and pro-Entente pacifism. Wartime repressions forced “anarchists” to go underground, weakened them and even more deepened counter-revolutionary tendencies among them: a strive to subordinate class emancipation to national one and a desire for a massive influence. Thus the FCAC in its practice began to contradict historical class interests of our class, to which corresponded an effort to become an important force within bourgeois politics. Which means they stopped to be a force for its revolutionary destruction.
Intensifying proletarian struggles in the Czech Lands, gaining another impetus thanks to the Russian Revolution (beginning with the February one), got the most bourgeois local “socialist” party, the CSNP, to move. In order not to be left behind on a scrap heap of history, it had to integrate radical rhetoric, about revolution, destruction of monarchy, “socialization” of economy and an independent socialist republic, into its social-patriotic framework. This ideological manoeuvre was accompanied by a tactical one: the CSNP was calling for a formation of a united Czech socialist party. Though the FCAC (more and more sinking into bourgeois politics) at the end of the year 1917 rejected – because of its traditional ideological antipathy to “marxism” – an initiative directed towards merging with the CSSDWP, it enthusiastically heard the national socialist call and during Easter 1918 affiliated with them to form the Czechoslovakian Socialist Party (the CSSP) and to become its “Anarchist-Communist” Section. Eventually even representatives of both ideological families set against each other – “anarchist” anti-marxist Vrbenský and “marxist” Šmeral – sat next to each other in the Socialist Council to jointly realize the historical task and essence of Social Democracy‘s existence (whether it waves an “anarchist”, “marxist” or national flag): to take over the class movement and channel it in a harmless direction for Capital – in this case it was to be the national liberation.
2. Radical Proletarian Movement Is Emerging
“It is better to finish with the horrors, than to live in endless horrors! It is better to make a revolution, than slowly die from hunger!”
(Proletarian women’s slogan from the WWI wildcat strikes and hunger riots.)
But in this respect we are running ahead events themselves. What was the material reason for unification and co-operation of all forms of Social Democracy previously set against each other, was a rapid and sharp emergence of a new class movement, which to a large extent acted outside of the social democratic structures’ framework, but for the moment not against them. The then class movement was unable to make a conscious and programmatical rupture with Social Democracy and this is why it could be later recuperated by old and new forms of historical Social Democracy.
In 1916, however, working class had already been fed up with the war, exploitation and hunger and it set on the move, for by that time huge industrial centres had strongly experienced a lack of neccessities of life: their prices as well as speculation with them were increasing and food or eg. fuel rations were insufficient, moreover decreasing and on many occasions were not delivered to proletarians at all. Shortages of raw materials and labour power – despite an intensified involvement of working class women and youth in the wage relation – finished the temporary war boom and there was a fall in production, especially in consumer goods industry. For example textile factories in the city of Brno were at the time employing only 2/3 of their antebellum staff. It is for example memoirs of a female textile worker, Karla Pfeiferová, from Northern Bohemia, what allows us to have a look in a daily misery and consciousness of the then proletarians:
“Together with my two younger sisters I was working as a weaver in Mauthner’s textile factory in the town of Šumburk. The longer the war was, the bigger was the hunger in the country. We were starving while working and suffered from hunger also in the night. Workers – mostly women, because men were on the fronts – lived on chicory infusion and boiled beet without any fat. There was not enough of corn and bean flour bread and thus in the fourth year of the war female workers shambled weakened by malnutrition and many of us had swollen legs. However, the rich had enough of everything and working people were forced to watch, how backdoors of shops were opened for mistresses and their maids and how they took away from there packages of meat, sugar and everything, what working class families had not seen for years. We were working under military supervision and commanded by an Austrian first lieutenant. The director of the Mauthner’s textile factory, called Hamburger, was exempted from conscription as an indispensable person. Bourgeois sons were also indispensable. Masses were roused by this fact. I can remember, that once female workers were standing around the director’s car, in which baskets of food from a factory canteen’s store were carried away. “How long will the war slaughter last, when children will stop terribly starving?” This was a question moving minds of us all. But our anger was increasing even further, when bells were taken away from churches and priests gave them a god’s blessing. There were no more iron fences, brass doorhandles were replaced, and the awareness that church bells should be turned into murdering bullets, so that the bloody war could be prolonged, outraged religious people and churches were half empty. Nobody believed the news in papers anymore, not even in the social democratic press, which was – in the same way as the bourgeois press – propagating a neccessity to go on with fighting till a victory over the enemy.”
Another female proletarian, Františka Hrabálková from the town of Kroměříž, recalled the war suffering of workers in a similar way and described also how experience of proletarians from the front got into the rear:
“I went to a hospital to take care about the wounded. There were only news about victories and heroism in newspapers, but soldiers in the hospital told us something completely different. I was reading out to wounded soldiers, we discussed the news in the papers and in this way I learnt how to read between the lines. Every day I saw all around me young and strong men to die and suddenly I realised that after the war we would have to do something against this. I sweared to myself, that when the war would be over I would join an organisation, which would really struggle against capitalism, which brought about such a hell.”
When in October 1916 in Vienna a left-wing socialist, Friedrich Adler (9), shot dead the prime minister, count Stürgkh, his act of proletarian terror was just the most visible top of a much wider and powerful movement smouldering and roaring under the surface of wartime Austro-Hungary.
At the end of 1916 and beginning of 1917 the first smaller wave of wildcat strikes swept through the Czech Lands. Further waves followed. Especially since March till August 1917 there were – many times repeatedly – spontaneous strikes, hunger demonstrations and riots in Prague, Nymburk, Prostějov, Pilsen, České Budějovice, Mladá Boleslav, Hradec Králové, Most, Liberec, Pardubice, Kladno and Ostrava. Proletarians provoking these strikes did not wait for a blessing of trade unions and “socialist” parties keeping social peace, they bypassed them and hit Capital and its war machine with strikes for higher wages, hunger riots and mass anti-war demonstrations. An important role in these class struggles was played by women, who had to replace many men drafted from factories to the front. According to a nationalist “anarchist”, Luisa Landová-Štychová (who will together with the FCAC join the CSSP and personally will take part in counter-revolutionary activities of the Socialist Council – thus her recollections are primarily those of a social democrat participating in the effort to contain then class struggles, which she unwittingly also describes):
“…it was mainly women, who incited men for revolts and drove them towards strikes, sabotages and demonstrations. Women, the terrible avengers of their men suffering in the war and their children languishing because of hunger, were the ones to shout most loudly during strikes and demonstrations: “It is better to finish with the horrors, than to live in endless horrors! It is better to make a revolution, than slowly die from hunger!” It was then, when gendarmes and policemen were sending frightened reports to their superiors, that in the Czech Lands it was no more a question of mere hunger riots, but of a dangerous political movement.”
Though all these struggles were fought only by a minority of our class, while the rest was continuing the reproduction of capitalist slaughter in a suffering passivity, the struggles hit perceptibly all industrial centres, disrupted the war production and started to subvert the suicidal discipline and obedience of other workers. But at the moment the state still could – thanks to inactivity of the rest of our class – send the army against the strikes and demonstrations to repress them quickly and violently. In several places troops shot at rebellious proletarians. At the end of April 1917 a wildcat strike and a hunger demonstration in the town of Prostějov was suppressed in such a bloody way – soldiers mortally wounded also a thirteen year old schoolboy. Other cases of shooting at struggling workers followed: Pilsen, Kladno, Nymburk. On July 2 in the city of Ostrava there were six participants to mighty demonstrations against extortionate prices and poverty shot dead: four of them aged 16-22.
However the repression did not break the class movement. Workers continued to be driven into struggle by their exploitation and February revolutionary events in Russia gave them a perspective of their own. Because despite all capitalist barriers, separating us from our class brothers and sisters in other corners of the world, everywhere we are exploited in the same way and daily killed (on the front or at work) for Capital’s valorisation and everywhere we fight the same struggle against our position of an exploited and working class. Even then it was not otherwise and that is why the fall of tzarism and high level of Russian proletariat´s class struggle, which found its organisational form in soviets, had a tremendous impact on workers of all the world. The Czech Lands were no exception.
Thus in May 1917 the first workers council in the Czech Lands was formed in Prague. Of course, it was an illegal grouping, uniting workers feduciaries from several Prague factories in order to incite Prague proletarians into anti-war and anti-state actions. However, its activity was soon weakened by persecution, since many feduciaries were arrested and punished by marching to the front. The second workers council came into existence on November 18 under an influence of the news about the October revolution in Russia. Limits of this council were precisely criticised by the then Kladno militant from the Poldi steel mill, Karel Verner:
“Opportunists succeeded in getting moderates from the ranks of workers and party officials elected and representing a majority of members in this workers council. These subsequently let themselves to be diverted by a member of parliament, Ludvík Aust. He did not want to lead workers into revolutionary actions at all. He was a chairman of a district commission for nutrition, which was a wartime Austrian state authority. So he took the members of the workers council to beg for higher food rations at Prague and Vienna authorities. This is how a “revolutionary” mission of this workers council, from which workers expected to be led into struggles for liberation from the Austrian subjection, from hunger and poverty and for finishing the war, was fullfilled. Pleas at the authorities did not help anyway and workers had to defend themselves from starvation by spontaneous strikes.” (10)
The October revolution in Russia – an armed proletarian insurrection used and framed by the Lenin’s faction of the Bolshevik party – was generally speaking an important impulse for spreading class militancy into other, so far passive, sectors of proletariat. However, in Russia itself Bolsheviks took over the bourgeois state apparatus through the insurrection and under the label of “proletarian dictatorship” immediately started to reconstruct it and restore the dictatorship of Capital over proletariat. Nevertheless, for the moment the rest of the world did not have a slightest idea about this counter-revolutionary development in Russia. So, when the news about another revolution in Russia, the news, which was saying that proletariat took power and proclaimed peace, got in November 1917 in the Czech Lands, a new wave of wildcat strikes, riots and anti-war demonstrations arouse and the formation of the powerless workers council in the town of Kladno was only one of its moments (a weaker one). In factories, mines, manors, in one word everywhere, workers were spontaneously stopping their work, gathering and discussing about the proletarian revolution in Russia and about a neccessity to make such a revolution also at home. For example, a female worker, Růžena Rollová, who was working at the time in the Czech & Moravian car factory in Prague-Libeň, described in her memoirs a situation, which was characteristic for hundreds of workplaces:
“When the news about Russian events arrived, we stopped the machines and an unusual moment of silence set in the spacious car factory. Someone shouted: “Long live the revolution in Russia!” Foreman Fleischmann dashed out of his office, all ruddy in his face, and yelled: “Who stopped the machines?” A clear, joyfull burst of laughter was an answer to him. Instantly all the Czech & Moravian was stopped.”
In the Slovakian town of Vrútky the influence of revolutionary events in Russia found its reflection in a strike of local railway workers. This was crushed and its organisers went to a military prison in Prešpurk (todays Bratislava).
Unrest and subversive tendencies among proletarians were getting more and more widespread. In the middle of January 1918 a general strike broke out in Vienna and some of the local proletarians were calling for the dictatorship of workers and soldiers councils. Very quickly and moreover spontaneously the strike spread via the South Moravian industrial centre, Brno, into the Czech Lands, where tens of thousands of workers join the strike and demand an immediate end of the war and an improvement of their living conditions. The strike was going on since January 18 especially in Brno, Kladno, Prague, where it was preceded on January 17 by hunger riots and demonstrations, in Nymburk, Most and Moravian Ostrava. The Czechoslovakian Social Democratic Workers Party immediately tried to gain control over the general strike. It imported a counter-revolutionary demand of national self-determination inside the strike, in order to rob it of its subversive content and to divide Czech and German workers. Wherever it was able to do so, it sabotaged the strike and eventually, hand in hand with the Austrian social democratic party, quickly finished it, in order to prevent workers from taking much more decisive and internationalist steps.
A relative ease, with which Social Democracy was able to crush the general strike, points out at an importance of a previously mentioned weakness of the wartime proletarian movement: unlike for example communist minorities in Germany or Holland it had not realised yet, that social democrats, national socialists and so called “anarchists” are not their parties, but parties of their class enemy, bourgeoisie. But in spite of its short-windedness the January general strike also meant another step in radicalization of proletariat in the Czech Lands, for it gave our class a sense and awareness of its own strength. Sabotages in the industrial production and demonstrations against the imperialist war multiply. Luisa Landová-Štychová brought us a testimony about efforts of the state to militarily suppress the demonstrations, but also about beginnings of army units moral decomposition in the rear and about their fraternization with revolting sisters and brothers proletarians:
“These demonstrations were not an easy thing. They sent soldiers against us. But our women were very much ready. I think it was on January 22 1918. Women baked pancakes from few resources they had at home and prepared coffee or tea, for example only from morello leaves and coffee from acorns, collected tobacco from their fathers pockets, tobacco they were issued with in factories, and made cigarettes. Armed in this way we marched against soldiers. They were also fed up in 1918. Soldiers were marching against us with bayonets, but our women were not frightened. They speared the pancakes on their bayonets and dispersed among them with cans of coffee and tea. So we treated them and talked about fraternization of soldiers with the people and tried to persuade them to throw away their rifles and go along with us to make a revolution. And suddenly workers poured out of all factories to Prague, to Old Town Square or Wenceslaw Square.”
The last repercussion of the general strike was a widespread wildcat strike of miners in the region of Ostravsko. Work in mines as well as in all important plants was militarized and premises were guarded by military units. Moreover miners were conscripted for the army, but because of an important place their work had in the monarchy’s war effort, they were mobilized for a work front, where they were subordinated to a military command and could be shot dead for disobeying orders. Despite this starving miners inspired by struggle of their class brothers and sisters at home and in Russia staged at the end of January a strike, through which they opposed their exploitation and defied the armed state power. Immediately next day the military command proclaimed a martial law and announced that everybody, who would not resume work in 24 hours, would be executed. For this purpose a whole battalion of Bosnian soldiers was brought to Orlová-Lazy. But they refused to fullfill their police function. The command got uneasy, withdrew them and brought Hungarian soldiers, but in a general atmosphere of class struggles, revolutionary spirit, weakening of discipline, desertions on the fronts it did not dare to start with executing. So the soldiers led by foremen early in the morning went through workers colonies, draged miners out of their beds, in order to take them on a morning shift. But in the twilight outside it was easy for bunches of miners to escape. The strike went on for 14 days and eventually was crushed by arresting every tenth miner and sending them to the front.
The resistance was growing also in other coal mining districts. Miners were going down into the pits, but did not mine. The slogan of the day was: “If our spoons are empty, our shovels are empty as well”. We can learn more about miners struggle in the region of Mostecko from the class militant, Robert Brožík:
“Following October (11) things were getting really tough and strikes, at first mere strikes against starvation, as they were called, suddenly gained a different, political character. We started to make sabotages, we made a passive resistance in the mines, shirking was on the rise, we did not feel like working for Austria. (…) In the fields we stole grain and potatoes, simply everything what the night offered us at the moment, but our lives were in danger while doing this. More than once a mate of ours was shot or even killed – and jailing for stealing in the fields was a daily matter. We did not want to mine, but foremen in shafts ordered us around: “If today you do not make at least 20 coal-carts, we will put you in the jail, you scoundrel!” they yelled at us. Miners were often jailed for not fullfilling a norm or absenteeing on a shift. If we absented on a shift, we were reported to the command and it made sure that we will rest on Sunday – in the pit jail. In spite of this our self-confidence was growing, our discipline was weakening, our spirit changed into a more spontaneous resistance and slowly we also lost our fear of persecution. We tried to avoid being chased by field and local gendarmes by escaping into the woods, where we were meeting soldiers from “Green Cadres”. They were deserters, who did not return to their regiments after a leave and had to hide in the woods. Revolts of the hungry did not stop. There was a lot of foreign soldiers in the mining region, who immediately dispersed every bigger assembly of ours. There were Hungarians, Polish, but the most violent of them were Germans from the Salzburg 59th Regiment. We fought them almost as soon as we just spotted them somewhere, even children were stoning them. They chased us everywhere and when ordered from above they often accompanied us up to the pits; but they were affraid to go down with us, so they did not. There was a revolt after revolt, there were even demonstrations in distant villages. We were going for mass meetings to Most, Lom and frequently from Litvínov up to Duchcov, where the Revolutionary Workers Committee was stationed at the time.”
As we can see from the Brožík’s tale, the struggle against a high rate of exploitation began to take new and deeper dimensions. Since strikes themselves did not lead to meeting demands for better living conditions of proletariat, they gained even more classist character. Moreover, they were crowned by the revolt against labour discipline, the daily resistance against wage labour and the practical negation of exchange value materialized in stealing crops in the fields. All this naturally stemmed from the class antagonism and more and more favourable balance of powers between proletariat and bourgeoisie, which gradually strenghtened miners’ self-confidence. Perhaps nothing of all this immediately transformed itself into a full-blown proletarian autonomy and formation of a conscious communist nucleus, but the miners from the region of Mostecko practically affirmed in their actions essential points of the historical communist programme: the struggle against wage labour, exchange value and exchange relations. Moreover, they centralized their struggle not only among themselves, but also with other sectors of proletariat, including deserters, formed their own revolutionary class associations and set on to violently confront repressive forces of the state.
They were nowhere near to being the only ones representing such a level of militancy and development of the class movement. A similar situation existed in many other places of the Czech Lands: for example in Rosicko-Oslavansko mining region and particularly in Kladensko region. Proletariat was led by the neccessity imposed by class antagonism onto the same level of struggle also there. For example, in April 1918 hunger riots swept over the Rumburk district (we will hear more about this place). On April 4 in the evening hunger demonstrations broke out in the town of Šluknov. They were led by looting wives and children of front-line soldiers and lasted up till the next day’s afternoon, when they were suppressed by the army. On April 6 riots and looting spilled over to the village of Staré Křečany and town of Varnsdorf. At the end they swept the town of Rumburk itself on April 16. At six p.m. about a thousand women and children gathered in the streets and while shouting, “Hunger,” and, “Bread,” they started to smash windows and display windows and plunder shops. Soon some soldiers from the local garrison and other proletarians joined them. Only after five hours they were dispersed by gendarmery and military. On the following day a crowd of roughly 500 hundred workers violently prevented municipal potatoes to be transported away from a nearby village of Chřibská. But four days later a military assistance allowed this requisition.
On May 7 1918 there were hunger riots in Kladensko region. Predominantly working class women assaulted mills concentrated along the Kačák creek and looted stocks of flour and potatoes stored there. Looting as a very practical critique of commodity and exchange – ie. of production of goods to be sold and not directly used as needed – when proletarians directly appropriate, without money mediation, all, what they need, accompanied every hunger riot of that time and necessarily brought a violent clash with Capital and State. Thus during May hunger riots in Kladensko region one of workers expropriating commodities was shot dead by an owner of a mill, who was subsequently lynched by the furious mob. Once the riots were over, gendarmery arrested and imprisoned a lot of male and female workers.
The unbearability of their situation, a non-existence of reserves and clear awareness, that they had nothing to lose, but could gain everything, drew even proletarian children to a practical critique of commodities. When on June 21 1918 soldiers in Pilsen were loading up bread from a bakery, starving children begged them for at least a piece of bread, but in vain. So they stormed the wagon and took the bread themselves. The military patrol intervened and its commander ordered to shoot. Following this defence of private property five dead boys laid on a pavement of Koterovská street in Pilsen and others were seriously wounded. Their funeral was turned into a massive demonstration against war, hunger, exploitation and the Habsburg state.
Proletariat in the Czech Lands, but also in the whole Austro-Hungary, was becoming more and more militant and revolutionaryly spirited. At this stage proletariat began to make ruptures – through its class struggle practice – with capitalism and many aspects of Social Democracy. It set on its journey towards class autonomy, which leads via breaking free from cages and collars, which exist in thousand forms being used by Capital to tame us and contain in its social relations, and ends with communist revolution. And beginnings of workers autonomy were not developing only in the rear, but also on fronts.
3. Subversion in the Armed Forces
“We are no longer affraid of death and nothing worse can happen to us.”
(one of the Rumburk mutiny leaders)
In the same period (1917-1918) the Austro-Hungarian military was quickly desintegrating and poorly inhabited areas of the monarchy were swelling with deserters penetrated by a revolutionary spirit – these were the already mentioned “Green Cadres”. In the Czech Lands they gathered in woody areas, particularly in Moravia (in the Beskydy mountains and East-wards from the city of Brno), where only during the first half of the year 1918 gendarmes and the police arrested 7.380 deserters. Suspiciously hundreds of “Green Cadres” were hiding in the Šumava mountains and North-Bohemian woods. Groups of them frequently engaged in smaller expropriating actions against bourgeoisie while attacking mainly large-scale farmers and appropriating their profiteered food stocks, in order to directly satisfy their own needs, but also money. (12) In September 1918 there were also mutual violent clashes between gendarmery on one hand and “Green Cadres” and local inhabitants on the other in villages Chvalnov (13) and Zástřizlí in Kroměřížsko region. However, a far more massive and radical phenomenon were revolutionary bands of deserters – called “Green Guards” – in border areas between Hungary and Croatia. In Slavonia there were about 30.000 deserters in the so called “Green Brigade”. There they were attacking gendarmes clearly intentionally (14) and besides that they engaged in larger expropriations of bourgeoisie.
However, mass desertions were followed by open mutinies in the military. Revolutionary defeatism engulfed not only proletarians in the rear, but also whole military units, which disobeyed their officers, left their combat positions and their only slogan and aim was an immediate end to the war and/or revolution.
3.1. Sailors’ Mutiny in Boka Kotorska
In February 1918 sailors of the Austro-Hungarian war fleet in Boka Kotorska mutinied. Poorly fed sailors, exhausted by the war and enthusiastic about the news, that revolutionary Russia proclaimed peace, but also influenced by a strike in the town of Pula, which took place on January 25 and among other things it demanded peace, they defyed their officers.
A more radical nucleus of sailors (15) planned its own anti-war action for a lunch time on Friday February 1. The commanding staff somehow disclosed this plan and on February 1 in the morning ordered the crew of the admiral´s ship, Sankt Georg, to line up and warned them that any disobedience towards a will of officers will be punished. Nevertheless, precisely at the lunch time the mutiny broke out on a canton ship Gäa: the crew shouted, “Hooray – Peace – Hooray,” and the crew of the cruiser Sankt Georg, anchored nearby, answered with the same words. Red signal flags No. 2 were erected on the poles of both ships as a set symbol of the mutiny. On the admiral’s ship there was a bucket and a dirty rag hanged from the pole too. This symbolic hanging of the two hated work instruments, which sailors had to use everyday for tiding up the board, provoked bursts of laughter.
Development on the Sankt Georg was decisive for the mutiny, because there was the most numerous crew (about 900 men). A radical minority seized several rifles from powder stores beforehand, quickly gained the others on their own side and in few minutes they controled the whole admiral’s ship. In the course of this they seriously shot an officer, who tried to stop them. A ship brass band was originally supposed to play for officers during lunchtime, was eventually playing brassy marches and sirens were beeping. A cannon was also fired against a torpedo boat, which wanted to sail away without the red flag. 10 days after the cannoneer was sentenced to death for this by a martial court. Successively other ships joined these two, some of them only in the evening.
Revolting sailors swelled with an anger against everything, what embodyed their subjection, but also with happiness from a sudden liberation. They celebrated, drank ship wine, cheerily shouting threw office machines, gymnastic gears, pots full of awfull food into the sea and destroyed china in an admiral’s dining room. Hundreds of them packed their personal things and wanted to get on the land and leave for home.
On some of the ships officers were interned, on the others they were just disarmed and could freely move around. The mutineers forgot to prevent an interned squadron’s commander, viceadmiral Hansa, from accesing his personal radio, so he could send a message for the ground command about the mutiny. In order to gain time and channel the mutiny spirit into negotiation limits, he asked the mutineers to write down their demands. So instead of trying to expand their mutiny to the dry land (the only thing, which could have not only taken this class revolt further, but also saved their lives) they lost half a day by organizing a sailors committee and putting together a nine-point document called What we want. Their demands included a conclusion of peace, social demands and a guarantee of impunity for participants of the mutiny, which sailors themselves called “a demonstration, a manifestation for peace”.
Viceadmiral Hansa promised for example better food, more leaves and impunity for those, who did not shoot. Sailors began to split: some of them were satisfied, radicals did not believe him. Meanwhile the ground command was preparing counter-actions and repeatedly sent an ultimatum to the sailors committee to surrender and pull down the red flags, otherwise their ships would be shelled from coastal fortress batteries.
The mutiny in Boka Kotorska is usually connected with the name of the Czech noncommissioned navy officer and the Social Democrat, František Rasch. Though stalinists praised him as a revolutionary leader of the mutiny, nothing can be further from the truth. We can not identify even with a view of present-day bourgeois historians, who depict him more or less as Jesus Christ trying to save a bunch of running-wild sailors from sure death at the eleventh hour, while sacrificing his own life. From the classist point of view, Rasch used weaknesses of the mutiny in order to help to put it down.
Rasch got on the Sankt Georg’s board only on February 2 with an intention to play the role of a firefighter. He clearly testified his own understanding of what he did during the mutiny, when he was brought to a military court, which accused Rasch of inciting and organizing the mutiny. Rasch replied:
“There can not be any talk about incitement. What was there to incite, when I came the second day before noon on the board of Sankt Georg? On the contrary, I wanted to give this action back its character of a manifestation for peace, to prevent anarchy and to endow the action with order and organisation.”
Although he was not a member of the cruiser’s crew, many sailors knew him and trusted him. After several minutes they elected him as the ship committee chairman and he became the mutiny’s spokesman. Immediately he wrote down five new demands known as Memorandum. Through the Sankt Georg´s radio station he tried to get in touch with social democratic members of parliament in Vienna, the Czech Union’s leader and also count Karoly in Budapest, but as the ship senders were weak none of these telegrams reached their destinations. The leitmotif of all his calls was the demand of peace and asking for protection. He wished, that any of the political personages came to Kotor and took part in negotiations between mutineers and the navy command.
Meanwhile the ground army besieged the anchorage of the ships. The mutiny had no further direction and was drowning in dead-end negotiations with the command. Thus scepticism was gaining strength among the sailors. Some of the ships pulled down the red flag already on February 2 and returned under their officers’ control. During the night between February 2 and 3 the second centre of the mutiny, the ship Gäa, gave up and ship council pulled down the red flag. Rasch tried to wheedle them into persisting, while promising to make a line up of the Sankt Georg’s crew in the morning and organize a democratic voting on either continuation or finishing of the mutiny. He kept his promise. But only a handful of radicals wanted to continue. Thus Rasch ordered to finish the mutiny saying: “Pull down the flag and I am going to the under deck to surrender to Hansa.” On February 7 he was brought along with other mutineers to the court and on February 11 several of them were executed. It is not always gratitude, that is the wage paid by bourgeoisie to social democratic gravediggers of class mutinies…
From the events in Boka Kotorska we can clearly see how democratic practices, negotiation and mediators are alien and contradictory to the communist movement. When war ships were engulfed by the mutiny and revolutionary defeatism triumphed within their crews, at the beginning there was no general assembly and voting. The militant core of the sailors simply did what they wanted to do and must have done and through their deed and example expressing also desires and class interests of other sailors they gripped the rest of the crews. On the contrary in the moment, when mutineers accepted formulating partial demands, negotiating them, electing spokesmen, etc. – shortly, when they accepted democratism inherent to capitalist relations based on the fact that all people are isolated units, which can achieve a mutual unity only on an alienated level of mediation – they lost their organic unity established between the natural vanguard and the rest in the moment of the direct action. They abandoned a logic of their class struggle and returned back into the framework of Capital’s logic, where bourgeoisie represented by officers and the social democrat, Rasch, wanted to get them. Another lesson from this navy mutiny is, that if a proletarian insurrection does not strive and/or does not have a chance to generalize itself, it necessarily ends in slaughtering class fighters by bourgeoisie.
3.2. Behind the Rumburk Mutiny
Another mutinies in the Austro-Hungarian military were the result of developments on the Russian front. The German army made a successful offensive against the revolutionary Ukraine in February 1918. Many Austro-Hungarian soldiers, who voluntarily let the Russian military to take them prisoners of war in preceding years, got again in the monarchy’s hands during the occupation of the Ukraine. Moreover, because of this offensive the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty was ratified in March 1918 and thanks to this fact other prisoners of war were handed over to the Austrian military. The bolshevik government signed the peace with German and Austro-Hungarian imperialism in order to gain time and power to reconstruct the dictatorship of Capital in Russia. Bolsheviks thus yielded carrying out counter-revolutionary terror against Ukrainian proletarians to Germany and Austro-Hungary, which allowed them to carry out the same terror against Russian proletarians.
The grabbed prisoners were immediately sent in transports to the rear, where they were supposed to be formed into reinforcements for the Italian front. Because of their poor health status and political unreliability (a lot of them was influenced by the Russian events and started to think about making a proletarian revolution at home) they were first sent into reception camps. But these soldiers were fed up with the war and were refusing to continue fighting and dying for Capital’s interests. When they returned to the monarchy their anger was even strenghtened by poverty, hunger and death raging among their relatives at home. This is why for example the military command in the town of Litoměřice stated on May 15 1918, that, “it has been found out, that military men, who are on their holidays in their home-dwellings, negotiate supply matters with political authorities as elected speakers and spokesmen of the population or as members of sent delegations. There were even cases, when such military men took part in gatherings, demonstrations, manifestations and riots, which broke out in connection to a lack of food.”
So while proletarian revolutionaries in Russia opposed Lenin’s and Trotsky’s counter-revolutionary politics and waged a revolutionary war in the Ukraine, the returned prisoners of war at the end provoked a series of mutinies in Austro-Hungary during May and June 1918 in these military camps: Rumburk, Rimavská Sobota, Šumperk, Bratislava, Trenčín, Kragujevac, Judenburg, Piotrków, Miskolc, etc. All these mutinies were drowned in blood.
Let’s have a closer look at what happened in Rumburk, the German speaking town at the Northern border of the Czech Lands. It was exactly there, where the substitutive battalion of the Pilsen 7th Rifle Regiment was moved in 1915 during a large-scale moving around of army units. In that time units, in which German and Hungarian speaking soldiers prevailed, came to Czech cities and towns, while predominantly Czech units travelled to German and Hungarian cities and towns. The Austrian government tried to prevent a destructive influence, which wartime misery and exploitation had on troops morale in a home environment. In spring 1918 the Rumburk “ersatzbatalion”, as all substitutive battalions, was also preparing recruits, newly conscripted reserves and returnees (so called Heimkehreren) from the Russian captivity for a deployment on the front. In Rumburk itself there were stationed only the battalion’s headquarters, a staff company and the III. substitutive company. The rest of the battalion (which alltogether numbered 1.200-1.600 soldiers) was accomodated in surrounding villages and towns.
There were very bad living conditions in the battalion. There was a desperate lack of food and moreover it was frequently rotten. Cramped lodging spaces were overcrowded with soldiers, sanitation was more than poor and all this was crowned with a military drill. Former prisoners of war from the Russian front prevailed in the garrison (in May 1918 there had already been 839 of them in Rumburk). In addition to this, the state sent into the Rumburk camp workers (mainly from Pilsen and its surroundings), who were punished for their participation in wildcat strikes by conscription and a planned deployment on the front. In April 1918 some soldiers of the “K.u.K. Landwehr-Infanterie Regiment Pilsen Nr. 7” together with local female proletarians took part in hunger riots in the Rumburk region, while the rest helped to suppress them. Ordinary soldiers were in no way enthusiastic about these police operations against their own class, for they realized, that in the Pilsen region their own relatives were persecuted in the same way by German and Hungarian soldiers. However, their dissatisfaction gained a direction only with men, who returned from prison camps in the Ukraine and who were nicknamed as “Bolsheviks”.
But the Heimkehreren were not “Bolsheviks” in the today known counter-revolutionary meaning of the word. In fact, what was hidden under this denomination, was not very clear belief – formed by their own experience and Russian Revolution – that a general rebellion of the exploited could immediately stop the imperialist war, in which they were refusing to fight any more. Their “Bolshevism” also meant a strong mutual community and disrespect towards officers as they wanted to make meetings about every order. As far as we know, only a bricklayer from Pilsen, private Václav Burda, had a direct experience from a practical participation in the social revolution, as he fought some time in the Red Guard ranks in the Ukraine. (16) However, the key organizer of a minoritarian vanguard, which was to lead the mutiny, was private František Noha (a former turner from the Pilsen Škoda factory and subsequently a scene-shifter in the local theatre). It was him, who was clandestinely agitating among Rumburk soldiers for the mutiny and gathering a hard core numbering 19 men. He believed, that a mere direct action of the revolutionary minority is enough to incite a revolution:
“We will stir it up here as soon as there is more of us, Heimkehreren. Once we will start, we will immediately seize railways and telegraphs and things will get going. Our men are in all regiments, Czech, German, Hungarian and even Polish, simply everywhere. If the rear collapses, it will be the end of the war, the front will collapse because of a revolution at home…”
In line with this Noha’s conception, that everything will get going somehow automatically, the vanguard in fact almost did not prepare anything for the mutiny. They neither attempted at drawing a joint plan with local civilian workers nor subverted substitutive battalion´s units stationed in other towns and they did not even put together at least a rough plan of the action. All these shortcomings soon showed themselves in a chaotic course of their revolt and some of the rebels paid for them with their lives.
It is said, that they wanted to spark off the mutiny during June, but events imposed a much earlier date on them. Many Heimkehreren were to be included into the XLI transport and sent to the front already on June 6 1918, so they needed to hurry up. It is said, that the rebel minority started to spread a slogan among soldiers, which was saying, “On the 21st we will go for holidays!” On Monday May 20 a day ration of bread per person was decreased to 1/12 of bun, which only enriched a general dissatisfaction in the garrison. On the same day Noha and his “Bolsheviks” sharpened this discontent, when they unsuccessfully demanded payments of withdrawn soldier’s pay for the time they spent in captivity in the company commander’s office. On that Monday in the evening conspirators had a prolonged meeting followed by chanting, “Break down the war – heave-ho,” which could be heard for a while from dormitories of the III. substitutive company. After that it was calm up till the morning…
On May 21 1918, after six p.m., 67 men from the 7th platoon – whom the “Bolsheviks” had agitated – came for a line-up with loaded rifles in their hands and bayonets on, which was a direct breach of orders. When noncommissioned officers ordered them to lay down their weapons, private František Paur answered them shouting, “We won’t lay down our rifles, may be we will need them today!” Armed men started to demand food, soldiers’ pays and commandant Klepfer tried to calm them down with fairytales, that he was also suffering from hunger. A memorable cry sounded from the lined-up ranks of soldiers:
The surprised commandant yelled several times a question, “Who said that,” and than started to scold soldiers as bolsheviks, social democrats and Czech swines. But someone else from the platoon shouted, “Punch him!” Klepfer was hit with a rifle butt into his head and fell to the ground. Mutineers immediately beat present noncommissioned officers and seized another weapons, ammunition and hand granades. As a conscript, Karel Honsa, testified, “Bolsheviks ran into the school building and took out ammo boxes and rifles. They shouted: Come on, come on to get weapons…” Further they occupied a unit kitchen, freed prisoners and incited to revolt lodgings of the second part of the company.
Their act, expressing a revolutionary spirit of the III. substitutive company’s majority, became a stimulus for its general mutiny. There was no difference between Czech and German speaking soldiers (who constituted about 40% of the regiment) – one of them, Wenzel Plass (17), was even a member of the hard core and machinegunner Franz Schuss was to become an important figure of armed struggles awaiting the mutineers. At the given moment of a militant class action there was an organic unity among them, in which they took (though somewhat chaoticly and insufficiently) necessary steps for the triumph of their mutiny and for its generalization into a general proletarian uprising.
In this spirit mutineers stormed the town, while occupying the post office and the battalion’s headquarters and cutting a telegraph and phone connections. But they did not do this quickly enough and consistently, so the battalion’s headquarters managed to inform (at the time, when the HQ was seized by the rebels!) a military command in the town of Litoměřice, which immediately started to mobilize all available units to crush the mutiny. While taking the HQ building in Rumburk, present officers were driven out and their stripes were cut off. It was precisely there, where 23 years old corporal candidate, Stanko Vodička, a Czech nationalist, who would try to give the mutiny a national character (largely in vain) through his speeches, joined the rebels. Other dishonored and/or beaten officers were hiding in all possible places in the town and some even tried to save themselves by escaping into Saxony. Only a Slovinian major, Zupanc (popular among soldiers for his human approach), tried to talk the rebels into calming down, but all in vain. Noha climbed on a wagon in front of the HQ and interpreted major’s words to the others, “Major told me, that if I don’t stop this, I’ll be shot dead. And he gave us time till noon to calm down. What do you think about it? I think, that if we have started off something, we will finish it. An injury to one is an injury to all.”
Mutineers, who were provably joined by a proletarian freed from the prison (certain Růžička) as well as several local workers (18), really wanted to finish, what they had just started. Noha and Vodička were first at the head of some mutineers, who marched towards a nearby village of Horní Jindřichov, where they gained on their side a majority of the machinegun company (64 men) and four machineguns. Another part of the rebels, led by Vojtěch Kovář, went to incite to revolt another part of the battalion in the village of Dolní Křečany. Commandant Weiser tried to stop them, but he was able to gather mere 18 men, who were quickly disarmed without fighting. Rebels beat the commandant and called soldiers of the I. substitutive company to join them and 149 conscripts and 18 other members of the unit really did. At about 9 p.m. all revolters gathered on the Rumburk square and then occupied local railway station. However, even here the stationmaster easily managed to warn the Litoměřice command (again only after the occupation of the station!). Following that the mutineers set on a journey in two marches towards the city of Česká Lípa, where they wanted to incite to revolt the Hradec Králové 18th Infantry Regiment. This would have made any counter-action of the state more complicated and rebels could have continued in their journey towards Mladá Boleslav, Prague and Pilsen hoping, that their direct action would generalize itself into a revolutionary movement.
But the already realized revolutionary steps and this foggy conception were the end of the hard core’s plans. They did not even think about using a train for their journey to Česká Lípa, even if Noha and his company knew very well, that they are short of time. They also did not try to subvert another nearest parts of the 7th regiment stationed in Šluknov and Varnsdorf, let alone to suppress the bourgeois domination in general and realize the social dictatorship of proletariat, ie. revolutionary communization of social relations (19), in order to try to get the local German proletariat moving, as it was supportive towards the mutineers, but it more or less just passively watched their struggle and was unable to identify with it immediately and fully. Precisely these fatal weaknesses undoubtedly played their role in the mutiny’s defeat.
As mutineers did not undertake an imposition of a social dictatorship of human needs against the dictatorship of value valorizing itself, wage labour, exchange relations…, and at the same time they were determined to go on struggling a necessary military aspect of the mutiny began to get a character of a purely military operation. Stanko Vodička became an expression of this fact, when at the foot of Hill Dymník easily persuaded Noha and other “Bolsheviks” to form military units from the rebels, which would advance in a formation. Vodička commanded the advanced unit, Noha the main squad, Václav Burda the left flank, corporal Adolf Heinrich (a coffee roaster from Pilsen) the right flank and the marching formation was closed by unarmed fresh conscripts. Those, who rose up against the war, thus again accepted the capitalist logic of war. And without a general revolution they stood no chance to victory in this war. And the Heimkehreren militant core’s failure to assume the communization aspect of the revolutionary struggle was also Noha’s order, that mutineers could not loot and steal on their journey. There is no doubt, that he wanted to avoid hostility of a civilian population, nevertheless it would have been much more appropriate to organize expropriations of food from shops, warehouses and manors and its redistribution among civilian as well as military proletarians, who were starving.
At 11:30 revolters arrived at Krásná Lípa, where they occupied the post office, dispersed gendarmes and expropriated a train, which was however too small for all of them, and thus the main forces continued marching on their feet. In the railway station in Chřibská-Rybniště there was a gunfight with gendarmes, who escaped in a prepared cargo train. Rebels again occupied the post office, where they seized a wagon and horses for transportation of their machineguns. 30 mutineers led by Ladislav Freml were ordered by Noha to travel on the seized train and make a scouting towards the small town of Jedlová. There was an unsuccessful fight with a gendarmery assisting unit and a part of those mutineers was arrested. The rest of them escaped to woods, where they successively caught. In Falknov-Kytlice the main march of mutineers seized a lorry and they installed their machineguns on it. At about five p.m. they captured a scouting patrol of borderline riflemen, which was a forerunner of loyal army units sent to suppress the mutiny.
In Horní Arnultovice at Nový Bor they waged a short victorious fight against a borderline riflemen unit led by commandant Flibor. Under a fire of 35 years old Schuss and other machinegunners riflemen fled through Nový Bor (without being persued!) and digged in behind the town near Chotovický Hill. Their positions were on the hills along both sides of the road to Česká Lípa, which they blocked with fell down trees and turned wagons. Meanwhile the Rumburk mutineers entered Nový Bor, where they occupied the local military headquarters. Inside the building they seized some rifles, which they handed out to fresh conscripts, freed two prisoners, who joined them, but they searched in vain for some food… Despite this, not even after a 30 kilometres long march and fights it did not occur to the Heimkehreren vanguard to expropriate bourgeoisie! Following a short meeting they decided to continue marching towards Česká Lípa in spite of a nearing sunset and to incite soldiers of the 18th Infantry Regiment to revolt as soon as possible.
However, in the meantime a machinegun company of exactly the same regiment arrived at Chotovický Hill to reinforce Flibor’s positions. At the same time units of the 18th Infantry Regiment (20) led by lieutenant Michael were closing in on the mutineers from North of Nový Bor. When mutineers left the town and after seven p.m. bumped into fortified positions of borderline riflemen, Vodička at the head of roughly ten rebels tried to get as close as possible to the lines of the 18th regiment, waving a white scarf and shouting, “Hello, the 18th regiment don´t shoot,” in a hope, that he would get Czech soldiers from Eastern Bohemia on the side of the mutiny. The first volley was the answer. Subsequently, commandant Flibor called mutineers to lay down their weapons. Rumburk private Jan Pelnář sharply replied, “We have enough time for this! We will do this only when objective conditions will force us to do so, but not earlier! Fire!“ (21) Even though Rumburk soldiers were in an unfavourable position they started to shoot, took cover in ditches, tried to outflank riflemen through the wood. But soon they were attacked from the rear by Michael and his company and the situation became hopeless. Franz Schuss from the unit of the “Red Guardist” Burda died behind his machinegun and the left flank collapsed. Subsequently, other skirmishing orders of the mutineers started to fall apart as they were surprised by the strong resistance of loyal units, which were, according to original naive ideas, supposed to immediately join the mutiny. In the middle of all this Vodička in a nationalist fear of a fratricidal combat of the Czechs against the Czechs discouraged rebels from further fighting and shouted, “Prevent a bloodbath! Cease fire! Everything is lost, let’s surrender!” But more than him it was unreadiness of most revolting soldiers for a hard combat and the fact, that in the given moment they did not stand a chance for victory, what made them to surrender.
The freed civilian prisoner, Růžička, also fell on the battlefield behind Nový Bor. One day later 18 years old Vojtěch Krumpas died from his wounds. Another four rebels were seriously wounded and a lot of them lightly. 380 Rumburk soldiers, including Vodička, surrendered on the spot, others were dispersed and were escaping on their own from the reach of repressive forces. Only handfulls of them succeeded in withdrawing into the town, where they went on putting up an armed resistance. Only before 2 a.m. the army managed to clear the Post Office Street, where the last group of rebels was invincibly fighting. The first captured rebels were gathered in Nový Bor in a house of Jewish-German bourgeois (an exporter of glass and a retired commandant) Schwarz, who was sitting on a sofa in front of his house, smoking a cigar, and was railing against captives, threatening them with hanging and spitting at them, because they betrayed the emperor. Their 15 hours long attempt at self-emancipation of proletariat was over…
In following days there were massive gendarmery and military maneuvers going on around in an effort to catch groups of dispersed mutineers and thus prevent the revolutionary infection from spreading – it was intended to cover up the Rumburk mutiny as much as possible or at least to obscure it. Some of the groups had up to 50 members, who tried to get to Prague and Pilsen, where they wanted to hide and perhaps even to go on spreading their subversive spirit. There is plenty of evidence, that local poor German population did, what it could, to help fleeing rebels, “bolsheviks”, but despite of this fact, they were not able to get through the sanitary cordon. Might be this was the reason, why František Noha along with another Heimkehrer from the militant core, Josef Zelenka, returned back to North towards Germany. On Thursday May 23 they were both arrested by a military patrol in Rumburk in the then Schönbornergasse Street. Private Josef Veselý managed to escape home to the Pilsen region. Influenced by rumours, that a part of mutineers had formed a “Green Cadre” and was fighting in woods, he travelled back Northwards to join his struggling comrades – in Prague he was arrested by the military police, whose officer said, “Again, there is another one from the unfortunate 7th regiment.” One of the mutiny’s leaders, Adolf Heinrich, and six his companions also succeeded in escaping home to Pilsen. For some time they were hiding at their relatives’, but at the end they were forced by circumstances to denounce themselves at the regiment. Unlike his ten comrades Heinrich escaped execution. All Rumburk soldiers, who refused to join mutineers or deserted them at the very beginning and returned back to the town, were sent to front, because they were inconvenient witnesses of the mutiny…
On Saturday May 25 there was a drumhead court-martial with František Noha, Josef Zelenka, Vojtěch Kovář, Wenzel Plass and Stanko Vodička. Noha was identified as the leader of the whole mutiny and sentenced to death by a firing squad. There were another two death penalties: for Vodička, because he led one of the armed mutineers units, and for Kovář, because he incited to mutiny, arrested and assaulted officers in Horní Jindřichov. Plass and Zelenka were considered as ordinary rebels by the court and thus the first received 5 and the later 10 years of imprisonment. On May 29 1918, at 05:45, Noha, Kovář and Vodička were executed on an exercising ground behind the Rumburk cemetary. To get a deterrent example disarmed Czech-speaking soldiers of the 7th shooter regiment had to watch the execution. The firing squad’s commander was already mentioned philantropist, major Zupanc. German speaking soldiers of the Salzburg 59th Infantry Regiment were selected to carry out the execution. None of them, however, volunteered for the firing squad and one of those picked out for this “task of honour”, threw away his rifle and helmet immediately after the execution and started to cry, for which he was arrested.
Other mutineers were first held in extraordinarily inhuman conditions in Nový Bor and from there they were transported to the military fortress in the town of Terezín on May 29, where another trials followed (22). 21 rebels suspected of belonging among mutiny’s leaders stayed in Nový Bor. A drumhead court-martial sentenced to death all 21, but sentences of fourteen of them were changed into a longterm imprisonment, because they were said to be “mentally inferior”. The remaining seven, who really belonged to the original militant core, were executed on May 29 in the evening, in a wood behind a cemetary next to a road to Radvanec. They were: František Paur, Jindřich Švehla, Jakub Nejdl, Jan Pelnář, Jiří Kovářík, Antonín Šťastný and Jakub Bernard. The firing squad’s commander was the victor over mutineers, commandant Rudolf Flibor (23), and hundreds of bourgeois ladies, striving to take a revenge for those 15 hours of fear and dread, what would happend with their domination, came to feast their eyes on death of the “Bolsheviks”.
In spite of its weaknesses the Rumburk mutiny certainly belonged to the most important proletarian uprisings in the Czech Lands. It is important to understand that this mutiny, as well as revolutionary defeatism in general, did not originate from marvelous ideas, which hatched out of the blue in Noha’s head, but from the Capital’s attack on our class, carried out in the form of war slaughter and exploitation. Heaps of corpses on battlefields, suffering in imprisonment of war, starvation at home in the rear – exactly this material reality provoked the revolution in Russia, Noha’s and other Heimkehrers’ revolutionary positions, readiness of other soldiers to mutiny and thus the mutiny in Rumburk. Trotskyists will be disappointed, as were previously Stalinists (and all the heirs of the Kautskyist version of Social Democracy), that the soldiers’ hard core arrived at more than just a trade-unionist consciousness; just from their own experience and without a leadership of a bourgeois socialist party they developed their own conception of social revolution and revolutionary minority’s role in it. Despite vagueness and insufficiency of this conception they managed to subvert and attack repressive forces of the state in order to provoke a revolutionary ending of the war. Through their direct action they expressed spirit and desires of many other proletarians in uniforms or without them. But it is not possible to think that the whole mass of mutineers was on the same level of consciousness. Many of them probably did not think even that far as Noha’s “invisible leadership” did; they just wanted the end of the war and misery and thus they rose up irrespective of consequences. But in the given moment their revolutionary defeatist action united them as a class – across separated categories of nations and professions imposed on us by Capital. Various “anarchist” and councilist social democrats will be surely disappointed by the fact, that omnipotent spontaneity of masses, which is so much ideologized by them, did not really work. Noha, Kovář and other our comrades lost their lives, because among other things they relied exactly on this revolutionary spontaneity. It would not make any sense to ponder over the question, whether things would have gone differently, if they had been able to assume the role and tasks of an organic vanguard much more widely – they might get the passive civilian proletariat moving and might be not. But we can say for sure, that the spark of the mutiny did not started a revolutionary fire it, though undoubtedly the mutiny gained proletariat’s warmhearted fondness and passive support. Even though the Rumburk mutiny was an expression and a specific partial materialization of our class’ communist programme.
3.3. The „Tinkers“ Mutiny
Another large-scale mutiny in the ranks of the Austro-Hungarian army – though from the classist point of view it seems to limp behind the Rumburk struggle – was a mutiny in the Serbian town of Kragujevac. It was exactly there, where soldiers of the 71st Supporting Infantry Regiment were sent from the Russian front, following the ratification of the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty. They were predominantly proletarians conscripted in the region around the Slovakian Váh river and in Western Slovakia. Before the war many of them made their living as skilled hobos and this is why they were also called the “Tinkers Regiment”.
Conditions in the Kragujevac camp were as harsh as in all other Austro-Hungarian military camps. Soldiers had to sleep on the ground, received small food rations and a minimum soldier’s pay. Officers behaved in an exasperated way, they often bullied the soldiers and punished them. On the top of all this June 10 1918 was set as a date of departure for the Italian front. All this was contributing to a poor discipline of the men and so officers put an informer (Hubert Jindra) among the soldiers, who denounced to them every offence. It is necessary to add, that a lot of soldiers got tainted with the atmosphere of revolutionary Russia and all of them were fed up with the war.
One of the rebels, who were preparing the mutiny, was Viktor Kolibík, who made friends among Serbian soldiers and wanted to cross mountains and join them. It is hard to say now, whether he meant it as an attempt at fraternization with proletarians on the other side or just as a change of the imperialist camp. Given the infuence of nationalist and Pan-Slavic ideologies, the latter possibility seems to be more probable. But to judge the Kragujevac mutiny on the basis of stupid ideas of one or several figures, who took part in it, is good only for bourgeois historians. What is important, is the general character and meaning of the mutiny, which unambiguously stemmed from class antagonism and which was a mutiny against their “own” bourgeoisie and its war effort – it was a refusal of any further participation in the war and an effort to violently attack the bourgeois state in its immediate form of officers.
The mutiny itself started on June 2 1918 in evening hours. It was initiated by Martin Riliak, originally a tinker from the village of Horná Maríková. Soldiers quickly armed themselves and took over an ammunition store. Subsequently they looted a camp canteen and seized a cashbox containing 110.000 crowns, which was a huge amount of money in that time. On the other hand they did not succeed in looting a food store. In Kragujevac they assaulted the railway station and interrupted a phone connection. They also destroyed all the files of conscripted soldiers.
What is really unknown is the number of mutineers. Probably all the soldiers, supposed to leave for the front, took part and a lot of new recruits, without even a basic training, joined them as well. Nevertheless the mutineers were able to collect about 500 rifles (but the garrison had 3.000 men) and several machineguns.
The fate of the mutineers was sealed beforehand by their isolation, which was probably caused more by an impossibility than incapacity to subvert other military units and perhaps unite with local Serbian proletarians. The 6th Bosnian Regiment along with dragoons, machinegunners and mountain artillery had to be called in to crush the mutiny. Eventually the mutineers ran out of ammunition and had to surrender. A provost court sentenced 44 soldiers to death and they were executed on the spot. Another 81 soldiers were sentenced up to 15 years of heavy jail. But they did not finish their terms…
3.4. The Final Desintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Military
After the social revolution in Russia and fraternization of Austro-Hungarian and Russian soldiers caused the collapse of the Eastern front, it was the turn of Italian and Balkanian fronts, where army units were also infected by a wave of unrest. Soldiers disobeyed orders, avoided combat and deserted. In the middle of September the Bulgarian army (the Austro-Hungarian ally) completely desintegrated. Bulgarian soldiers surrendered en massé or retreated home, where they spread a revolutionary spirit. In Radomir they directly mutinied, invaded military headquarters and attacked their own officers. Thus on September 29 the Royal Council in Sophia was forced to accept an armistice equal to a capitulation. At the beginning of October 1918 it was absolutely obvious, that the Habsburg monarchy was collapsing and would have to surrender. A Hungarian diplomat, Julius Andrássy, wrote:
“As soon as I learned about the collapse of the Bulgarians, I did not doubt even for a while, that we would have to make peace at any cost, because if we missed the moment, revolution would be unavoidable.”
In the Crown Council meeting, which took place on October 22 in Vienna, the general staff’s chief, colonel general baron Arz, warned that there was national as well as social radicalism increasing in the military and that its behaviour was unpredictable. He could not rule out a possibility, that the army would “bolshevize itself” in a few days and gangs of “looting and plundering” soldiers would roll towards their homes. On the same day the Hungarian House of Representatives decided to single out honveds from the Austro-Hungarian army and to withdraw them home to defend the integrity of the Hungarian territory. This decision weakened the discipline also in the Hungarian military, whose units began to rebel against orders and strive for an immediate return home.
In spite of this fact, a part of them – because of Greater-Hungarian nationalism – was still able to actively carry out repression tasks in the Balkans. On October 23, 9 a.m., in the city of Terst the Croatian 79th Infantry Regiment, so called Jelačić’s Regiment, mutinied. Mutineers invaded honved barracks and disarmed Hungarian soldiers. Then they occupied the city, including a tobacco factory, a court and many other public buildings and captured a chairman of the city council. Following this they freed prisoners and in short street fights dispersed the city police, conquered the railway station and prised up rails. On October 25 another two Croatian regiments mutinied in the town of Karlovac. In Rjeka and other towns there were riots and bloody clashes with the Hungarian military. In Lublin huge anti-monarchist demonstrations broke out and workers announced a general strike for October 28 to protest against the Hungarian repressions in Croatia and Rjeka. The desintegration of the military was approaching its climax, but the revolutionary defeatist classist reply to the was slaughter was mixing with an influence of nationalism, which was at the same time decomposing and and state-composing. The consciousness of proletarians in uniforms was not a purely class one, on the contrary, to an important extent it was a false consciousness. Nevertheless, their practice was a class one. But the ideology and forces of national liberation, which were living and prospering from those weaknesses, in the same moment also led their attack against the Austro-Hungarian state in order to create new national states. In this way they were sometimes able to immediately recuperate revolutionary defeatism.
A good example of this is a mutiny of the Czech 30th Vysoké Mýto Regiment on the Piave front, which broke out on October 26 – on the same day when the German sailors mutiny started in the Wilhelmshaven harbour. According to recollections of the then non-commissioned officer, J. Kubišta, when soldiers of the 1st battalion were ordered to march into trenches and replace two Austrian divisions destroyed by a gas attack, they disobeyed the order and while “singing national songs” set on the march away from the front. They met the 2nd battalion, which also mutinied and was standing on a road to Sacila. But officers of the 2nd battalion were trying to persuade their soldiers, thus creating disunity, quarrels and confusion among them. In this moment the non-commissioned officer Kubišta called for soldiers to camp on the spot and each company to elect two delegates. The delegates meeting decided to form guards out of the most reliable men and to close with them all exits from the village, where the troops were camping. The regiment’s phone connection to the division command was immediately interrupted. German speaking officers and men were put under a supervision. Five delegates were sent to Sacila to incite the 29th České Budějovice Regiment to mutiny. At 2 a.m. on October 27 the 30th Regiment – more than 2.500 men – began to retreat towards the Slovinian border and Austrian units did not try to prevent it from doing this. On the contrary, many Austro-German soldiers spontaneously joined it. We can clearly see, that as soon as the original refusal to continue the war, which was surely contradictory (with both practically class and ideologically nationalist moments), was put into a democratist straitjacket, nationalist influences and elements quickly prevailed. So while Czech non-commissioned officers and officers, elected for delegates, in fact put all the Germans under arrest as dangerous people for the mutiny, at the same time they were leading Czech soldiers into a new capitalist prison – a “beautiful” Czech one.
During the night between October 26 and 27 1918 the Italian army launched an attack on the left bank of the Piave river. Austro-Hungarian soldiers, exhausted and full of an anger against the war and the old world, which drew them into the war, refused to fight, took their weapons, packed their things and left trenches. The Austrian minister of interior, Gayer, together with the general staff colonel Ronge asked the Czech social democratic member of parliament, Tusar, to take his colleagues and immediately go to the front, in order to stop the soldiers, until Austria ratifies a peace treaty. But Tusar refused, for the Czech bourgeoisie had already been pursuing a completely different policy at the time – no more it was a question of supporting the monarchy, but a question of national liberation from the monarchy. On October 28 Tusar was visited by admiral Holub, the fleet commander in the Balkanian harbour of Pula, and asked by him, that Czech deputies went to persuade soldiers to persist a little bit longer, while he said: “Sailors in Pula are revolting…, if the Italians attack, they will grab immense values.” However, he was also turned down. (24)
In several hours the front got unimaginably weakened and crowds of armed proletarians in uniforms were heading towards their homes – many of them determined to finish not only with the monarchy, but also with capitalism. They seized railway stations, trains, cars… everything they needed to get home. Hundreds years old idiotic respect towards private property and exchange value disappeared at the moment without leaving a slightest trace – it was one big “free ride”. On October 30 Právo lidu wrote, that the 35th Infantry Regiment left “the Piave front and along with other regiments set for a journey home. It is said, that the whole 40th Division forced its way into trains and ordered engine-drivers to go to Pilsen.” And more: “We have learnt, that after the news of the changeover (25) … many (Czech) soldiers and workers employed in Fischamend (26) factories seized 60 military lorries and said their farewells to Fischamend going across the border to Bohemia.”
When they got home, they arrived to a newly established Czechoslovakian state. In a bourgeois propaganda this seemed to be an end of the old world and a promise of a shining tomorrow. There was nationalist euphoria all around and railway stations were guarded by the first reliable armed forces of the new bourgeois state: members of Sokol (27), former Austro-Hungarian officers, non-commissioned officers and also ordinary soldiers, Boy Scouts and members of social democratic Workers Sport Unions, etc. They disarmed returning soldiers and deprived them of modest canned food supplies looted from military stores in an effort to prevent a general armament of proletariat and to make docile wage workers from rebellious soldiers again. New guardians of the capitalist order also tried to identify carriers of the revolutionary infection in the ranks of soldiers. The rulling class started to consolidate its dominancy…