Germans do not see strikes as an option for political advancement. Strikes for political aims are de facto banned. Withdrawing one’s work is considered only a means within a labour struggle, but not for any other goal.
But last year, I learned that a strike once had a major impact on the political landscape in Germany: In March 1920 a giant pro-democratic general strike prevented a right-wing regime from coming to power for 13 years.
I came upon this event in an autobiographical account by my great-grandfather, who was a mayor in a small German municipality during the First World War. Apparently, he was one of the co-founders of the local group of the far-right Deutsche Vaterlandspartei (German Homeland Party).
In March 1920, the Treaty of Versailles obliged Germany to reduce its troops immensely. But some anti-democratic forces in the military refused to dissolve their troops and challenged the newly elected government in an attempted coup. As an anti-democrat, my great-grandfather supported the coup openly. The putsch failed, and he lost his job.
Why did the putsch fail? That’s where we come to the striking part: on the one hand, the putschists had no common plan.
Most significantly, 12 million pro-democratic workers stopped their work for several days, and showed that the infrastructure and means of production was in the hands of the people and the people did not support the coup. Without buses, trains, newspapers, telephones or mail, and in Berlin without water and electricity, the regime couldn’t hold onto power.
In his text, my great-grandfather wanted to convey some doctrines to his descendents which to me seem rather frightening.
But what I learned was something different: although I tend to be suspicious of the collective will of the German people, there was one moment when it performed a powerful, pro-democracy action.