On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month the Great Powers of the World signed the armistice laying down arms after four years of the bloodiest war in history. That was 1918.
Now, we call it Veteran’s Day.
What caused the armistice was the refusal of soldiers to fight. They refused ‘to go over the top’ anymore. In Russia, France, England, Italy they refused to participate in the slaughter which had begun in 1914.
What we learn from Armistice Day is that the soldier is the front line of the peace movement.
Sailors and soldiers mutinied against the war, turning their arms not on so-called “enemies,” namely brother soldiers from across the world: instead, they turned their arms upon the officers who otherwise sent them to the butchery of the trenches or ordered them to a freezing death in battles at sea.
In late October 1918 at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven, the home ports of the German fleet, the sailors refused the orders of their officers. Soldiers were brought in to force the sailors to obey. Instead the soldiers embraced their cause, “Frieden und Brot” or Peace and Bread.
One such sailor was a former stoker named Karl Artelt who had shoveled coal into the fires which kept the steam engines of the battleships burning. On a voyage to the Far East he witnessed the Chinese revolution of Sun Yat-sen. Later, perhaps as the engines of the German naval squadron were transformed from coal to oil, he became a skilled metal worker in the engine room. In other words his experiences below decks put him at the central themes of his historical epoch – imperialism and the oil machine – and he used these experiences to overthrow the war mongers. Such men put an end to World War One.
Together soldiers and sailors formed direct democratic councils. On 9th November 1918 a socialist republic was declared in Berlin. Hindenburg and Ludendorf, the German generals, had to agree to an armistice.
So: Honor the soldier who takes direct action for peace. Honor the soldier who thinks. Honor the soldier who brings Empire to its end.
Remember the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month!
Bring the troops home!
PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at the University of Toledo. The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is the Magna Carta Manifesto. He can be reached at: email@example.com