Honoring the Mutineers, “Lest we Forget”


12 december 2018
Auteur(s): Nicholas Johnston
Don’t listen to them, remember the mutineers!

On Sunday November the 11th, leaders from dozens of nations gathered to commemorate the war. Characteristically they offer no honor nor mention to the insurrections which hastened the war’s conclusion.

by Nick Johnston

Soon in Leuven Editor

Every Armistice Day comes with solemn exhortations to remember, ‘lest we forget’ the war. A compelling image of compassion is broadcast by all in language of global community and reconciliation. Politicians with poppies on their lapels say they’re committed to peace and honoring the struggle and sacrifice of people the world over. Yet this is a charade of omission. Were it not for widespread mutiny, the war would have carried on and more would have been lost. Peace was won by insurrection, not by the governments and generals. We owe honor to the disobedient who refused to fight, and instead marched on their own governments. The respect they are due is denied them by those today who know their power and profit relies war and neglect of the virtue of defiance.

Politicians, the entertainment industry, and journalists try to make the picture of what was sacrificed in the First World War as ‘complete’ as possible. The BBC reminds us of the participation of soldiers from the British Raj, video games depict conscripts from European colonies in Africa, women’s groups emphasize the role and impact of women in the war, and here in Leuven from Martelarenplein to Abdij Keizersberg, Germans and Belgians came together to reconcile through a communal remembrance of what was lost here. The imperative is to keep the memory of those who suffered and sacrificed alive, and celebrate the peace which brought the bloody chapter to a close. Many are gratified by the apparent inclusivity of the narrative, and the concerted efforts to mend once burnt bridges. Yet few sing the praises of those who refused to continue to fight in the hopeless war of kings and imperial profiteers. 

The capitulation of the Central Powers was decisively accelerated by the mutineers and revolutionaries who opposed the order which had conscripted them and shipped them off to die. Had there not been mass movements of disobedience and defection, the war would have lasted longer, and the cemeteries at which world leaders today speak would be larger. 

The capitulation of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was decisively shaped by worker’s and soldier’s strikes. One case can illustrate this well. In October of 1918, despite the immanence of defeat growing clear, German admiralty planned a full scale mobilization of their navy to engage the British fleet in the North Sea. In response, sailors in Kiel mutinied, and would set in motion a wave of uprisings. In the coming days, delegations of sailors traveled across Germany and spread the revolution to Wilhelmshaven, Hannover, Frankfurt, Bremen, Munich, Aachen, and beyond. The capacity of the Kaiser to conduct the war, let alone a naval offensive was broken not by the British or the French but by Germans themselves. 

The sailors did not stay in their ports, however, but marched inland side by side with defected soldiers and workers. It is salient for us to note that there were such uprisings even here in Belgium. In the week before Germany’s capitulation, Brussels and Verviers had established soldier’s and worker’s councils which featured cooperation between the German soldiers who wanted to return home, and the Belgian workers who wanted to take control back of their cities. The occupied cities had fallen from effective control of the German military. These mutineers pulled the rug out from under the feet of the Kaiser and his generals. In the coming days, the Kaiser and all other monarchs of Germany abdicated, a Republic was declared, and the war brought to an end. Indeed, these rebels would earn the hatred of the fascists in coming decades. Hitler and his ilk would blame them for German defeat in the war. However, what earned them hate from fascists, should warrant respect from us. Refusing to sail saved countless ships and the sailors on them, and made peace the only option for Germany.

That these events are not remembered is symptomatic of a purposeful neglect of the role which socialist ambitions played in some uprisings. However, one needn’t hoist a red flag in order to support those who refused to fight in the course of the First World War. From the Christmas Truce on the Western Front to the Mutiny at Kiel, we can see the shared virtue of disobedience and its capacity to win peace regardless to political affiliation.

On Sunday November the 11th, leaders from dozens of nations gathered to commemorate the war. Characteristically they offer no honor nor mention to the insurrections which hastened the war’s conclusion. Indeed, how could they? They have too much in common with their predecessors. Erdogan, Putin, Trump, Merkel and their peers have blood on their hands, money in their pockets, and nationalist fantasies in their heads. The West sells arms to Erdogan whose military commits war crimes in Afrin, and Saudi Arabia which does the same in Yemen. World leaders defile the past as they fuel and perpetuate wars for profit and political ambition in the present. Don’t listen to them, remember the mutineers.

Picture of the Soldier’s Council from the Ship Prinzregent Luitpold anchored at Kiel