As the war progressed, the enthusiasm for it was replaced by revolutionary dissatisfaction; the composition of the workforce also changed.
Despite the huge enthusiasm for the war even within large sectors of the working class in the summer of 1914, discipline in the factories was nevertheless enforced by practically dictatorial means. There were large changes in the structure of the workforce in the course of the war. The conscription of the permanent staff led to most of the workers being replaced. The role of skilled workers, organised in trade unions, was increasingly taken over by semiskilled labour; women replaced men. The wage reductions that were the consequence of the replacement of the workers were accompanied by falls in real wages caused by inflation. The decline in purchase power was also linked to the restriction of the trade unions’ scope for manoeuvre in the field of wage policies in the first years of the war. War absolutism, whose legal basis was in Section 14 of the Constitution, was only relaxed in autumn 1916. This led to a revival of the importance of trade unions.
The process of political radicalisation in particular of the young workers who had not been brought up in the tradition of trade union discipline, and who reacted with increasing anger to the dramatic decline in living conditions, became more intensive as the war continued. The authorities spoke of the “rabble”. As early as spring 1916, triggered by bottlenecks in the supply of food and the exorbitant increase of food prices, there were demonstrations, strikes and food riots on the territory of what was to become Austria and in the centres of industry in Czechoslovakia. In 1917, labour struggles and demonstrations took on a new dimension.
The unrest amongst the workers reached its peak at the beginning of 1918 in what was known as the ‘January strike’, a huge wave of strikes in all centres of the armaments industry, which brought the Empire to the edge of economic collapse. The strike also provoked a mutiny amongst the sailors at Cattaro. At the height of the strikes, over 700,000 workers had laid down tools. There was also a political aspect to the strike, with the workers giving expression to their solidarity with the Russian Revolution, which was under pressure from German demands for annexation (the Brest-Litovsk peace negotiations). At the same time, the German Reich also experienced a major strike movement involving over 1 million people.
In 1918, there was not only a rise in social disputes. The fall in worker output resulting from the shortage of food and the increasing interruptions to the production process due to shortages of materials and fuel meant that there was hardly any question of regular production conditions. In October 1918, finally, the front itself began to collapse. Czech and other ‘national’ regiments refused to continue fighting. The flood of war-weary soldiers returning from the front formed an alliance with the radicalised workers in the industrial centres to create a revolutionary mass that would also determine social and political life in the peace that was about to begin.
Translation: David Wright
Hautmann, Hans: Die verlorene Räterepublik. Am Beispiel der Kommunistischen Partei Deutsch-Österreichs, Wien 1971
Maderthaner, Wolfgang: Die eigenartige Größe der Beschränkung. Österreichs Revolution im mitteleuropäischen Spannungsfeld, in: Konrad, Helmut/Maderthaner, Wolfgang (Hrsg.): ... der Rest ist Österreich. Das Werden der Ersten Republik, Band 1, Wien 2008, 187–206
März, Eduard: Bankpolitik in der Zeit der großen Wende 1913–1923. Am Beispiel der Creditanstalt für Handel und Gewerbe, Wien 1981
- The underlying causes of the First World War
- The folly of the erstwhile rulers
- Schumpeter’s imperialism theory: Did big business press for war?
- A state living beyond its means
- Problems of the war economy
- High mark and decline of the economic war effort
- Shifts in the production structure
- The change in the social balance of power in the course of the war