The growing costs of the First World War, the worsening economic crisis, the Russian Revolution and Germany’s exceptional military defeat in autumn 1918 led to radicalising social moods in East Central Europe. In the years 1917-1918, the rising strength of the working class manifested itself in full in massive strikes, the largest in the region’s history. The economic strikes during the war, in which people from lower social classes participated, quickly became political.

The War’s Impact on the Industrial Workforce before and during the Russian Revolution in 1917

The Polish Kingdom

At the outbreak of the First World War, workers formed the largest social class in Warsaw. There were about 66,000 industrial workers, which together with the craftsmen and their families created a population of approximately 400,000 people in total. As a result of the devastation of industry in the Polish Kingdom caused by Russian scorched earth tactics and German invaders’ robbery economy, just 22 percent of workers were employed in 1916. At the beginning of the war, the tsarist government disbanded the trade unions, which were legal but few in number. They were only about to resume activity after the German conquest of Warsaw on 5 August 1915. The Germans needed the workers’ peaceful cooperation, who were seen as a substantial aid for the German economy. There were about 20,000 to 25,000 Jewish workers in Warsaw. They were represented by the Central Office of the Branch Trade Unions, which was connected to the Jewish socialist party “Bund”. After the outbreak of the war in Warsaw, Łódź Bund propagated anti-war printed material and helped unemployed workers. The party also organised a small number of active trade unions. The majority of Varsovian workers during the war did not possess a developed social consciousness, which manifested itself in initial passivity in the face of trade union actions organised by narrow group of activists.[1]

In spring 1917, numerous workers’ strikes took place in the main cities. In July 1917, Germans used mass repression against strikers, particularly in Warsaw. In comparison with 1916, the number of strikes in the Polish Kingdom grew in 1917.[2] Workers fought for the right to belong to trade unions and free access to striking factories for trade union delegates, and fought against strike leaders’ dismissal from work. By the end of the war, political slogans against occupation dominated in strikes. Emigrants who came back from revolutionary Russia also strongly influenced this situation.


Before the outbreak of war, Riga was one of the most industrialised cities of the Russian Empire. From the beginning of 20th century, industrialisation accelerated and closely tied Latvian industry with the Russian market. This connection had a disastrous impact on the Latvian economy during the war. During Russian evacuation from Latvian territories in 1915 in the face of the approaching front, the majority of factories and all their equipment were evacuated. Over 20,000 railway cars loaded with the property of various enterprises departed from Riga.[3] This caused the destruction of 90 percent of all Latvian factories and craftsmen’s workshops in Riga. A gigantic portion of the society was evacuated: 250,000 Latvians were conscripted to the Russian army and 850,000 civilians were displaced. Latvian labour was also paralysed. In Riga, occupied by the Germans from autumn 1917 until the end of the war, all demonstrations, public meetings and strikes were prohibited. Occupied Latvia was beyond the influence of Bolshevik Russia.


Estonia (except the islands of the Moonsund archipelago) did not serve as terrain for war operations until 1918, although the war exerted a deep influence on local conditions for the working class. In 1916, almost half of the Estonian industrial workers were under the age of eighteen. Russian authorities evacuated workers and industrial equipment from Poland, Lithuania and Latvia to southern Estonia. The number of workers in Estonian industry grew from 43,000 in 1914 to 50,000 at the beginning of 1917. In 1916, 93 percent of the 37,000 Estonian workers in the largest factories completed war orders.

The crisis touched many branches of the economy which were not directly connected with war production. Machines in factories, handled by men with lower qualifications than before the war, wore out. In 1917, inflation began to rise. Displaced workers from Riga radicalised moods. There were about thirty strikes at the beginning of 1917 in Tallinn and Narva. The country was transformed into an important base for the Russian army.[4] The February Revolution on Estonian soil began with a general strike in Tallinn, which began on 14 March 1917. The strike started in Bekker’s Shipyard; from there strikers marched out onto the streets and the strike quickly transformed into a street demonstration with over 18,000 participants. It had a political character, although the direct cause was economic. By 15 March 1917, the strike had spread to the whole city. 30,000 people marched towards the main port, where the ships of the Russian Baltic Fleet were anchored. The workers’ strike transformed into a street revolution against the tsarist regime. The municipal prison, police offices, and administrative and judicial buildings were taken over by the furious crowd. In Tallinn, the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Delegates Council was born. Estonia remained part of Russia until February 1918.

After the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd, the strike of Estonian post office and cable workers against Bolshevik control of their work burst out, but was quickly suppressed by the Red Guard. The process of nationalising the enterprises began; the first step in the policy was for working class committees to take them over. This caused work efficiency to fall and production to decline in big factories.


After the February Revolution, the chasm between the western-oriented bourgeoisie and the working class, which was fascinated with the rapid changes in Russia, grew. In Finland, there were strikes in the agricultural areas in response to the difficult economic situation. In 1917, 139,950 workers in Finland took part in 478 strikes. The entire Finnish economy relied on agriculture. It was the main means of living for 65 percent of the population; almost 84 percent lived in the countryside. The petty farmers, landless peasants and tenants, together with industrial workers, fought for thorough social reforms, the assurance of work, and legal protection. At the beginning of November 1917, as a reaction to the Bolshevik coup, the Finnish parliament resolved to introduce the eight-hour workday and the reform of self-government electoral rights. At the same time, the Trade Union of Finland was involved in the political fights in the country. This organisation saw Bolshevik Russia as an ally in the political campaign for the modernisation of the state. Members of the Social Democratic Party and trade unionists created the Central Workers Council, which began a general strike on 13 November 1917, during which twenty-two people lost their lives in violent clashes. Participants demanded that the state hand over its power to the Central Workers Council. During this general strike, parliament elected a new government, with Pehr Svinhufvud (1861-1944) as prime minister. In his government, there was no place for social democrats. The trade unions acted on their own, not under the direction of the social democrats. Taking Bolshevik Russia as an example, Finnish Trade Unions created the so-called Red Guard in October 1917 as their own military organisation. Among the “red” commanders, the most distinguished was the steel-industry worker Hugo Salmela (1884-1918). Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim (1867-1951) defined him as “clever and with personally spotless opinion”.[5] Eero Haapalainen (1880-1937), a journalist and trade union activist, became commander-in-chief of the Red Guard. During the Civil War, he also took on the role of delegate of internal affairs and war in the revolutionary government. The attitude of the Finnish politicians irritated Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924); the Finnish Social Democratic Party was not going to copy Bolshevik policy, and would respect the democratic system. Socialists risked being accused of cowardice by the Bolsheviks. Acknowledging the independence of Finland on 4 January 1918, the Bolsheviks also recognised the middle class Finnish senate, simultaneously awaiting its overthrow and the creation of a workers’ government.

The Politics of the Labour Movement in 1918 and Beyond: The Question of Independence

The Polish Kingdom

On 18 January 1918 in Warsaw, the greatest Polish strike of the war broke out. At the outset the postulates were purely economic, however, demands to end the war and establish Polish independence quickly appeared. It was the first strike on Polish soil whose character was transformed from economic to political. All the Polish working class parties organised this strike together. In Warsaw, the Council of City-Workers’ Delegates was appointed. Despite the violence of the German gendarmerie, the strikers were partly successful in their fight for a rise in pay. The social tension did not diminish; in spring 1918 it came to printers’ strikes. The workers of the municipal provision department went on strike. On 14 October 1918, a general strike was started by the Polish Socialist Party - Revolutionary Faction. It transformed in the official public manifestation with the political aim to remove the invaders by force. This time however, the revolutionary left parties did not take part in the strike, seeing only the fight for Polish independence, which in the opinion of Polish Marxists was counter-revolutionary, in the action. On 11 November 1918, workers – taking advantage of the German evacuation – took over the power station. The end of the occupation gave Polish workers the chance to influence the political scene. This aim was only fulfilled economically. The Bund participated in delegates’ elections to the workers’ councils. In 1919, the party had 9,500 members, mostly in Warsaw. In independent Poland, the Bund was a significant social and political force. At the beginning of independence, the government tried in vain to remove state workers’ right to strike – in particular that of railway men. In 1919, trade union membership had reached 1,158,000. The state introduced new laws during the years 1918-1920 which improved the situation of the working class. On 23 November 1918, the government issued a decree which introduced the eight-hour working day. On 3 January 1919, another decree on work inspection appeared, on 11 January 1919 the decree of insurance in case of disease, on 27 January 1919 the law about state offices of work-mediation, and on 8 February 1919, the law about the trade unions. Thanks to much improved trade union organisation in the years 1918-1921, the working class movement was successful during the strikes and gained a rise in pay.[6]


In 1918 in Lithuania (except the Vilnius region), the working class, as in the other Baltic states, intensified their strike actions, which were inspired by the Russian Revolution and directed against the German occupation. Workers’ economic strikes also had a political dimension. The manifesto issued on 16 December 1918 by the Temporary Revolutionary Peasant and Workers Government, guided by Bolshevik leader Vincas Mickevičius-Kapsukas (1880-1935), brought about important changes in the Lithuanian workers’ situation, at least in a propagandist sense. This document announced the introduction of the eight-hour workday. During the continuous fight for the state’s existence, reform of labour legislation slowed. In December 1919, the Christian-Democratic Party put such postulates as the right to strike as well as the eight-hour workday in factories into the programme. The law about the duration of work was accepted before parliament even met. The right to strike and activity of trade unions in Lithuania were, however, suspended as a result of the introduction of martial law, which lasted from February 1919 to September 1922.[7]


After the German retreat, the Bolsheviks were able to take control in Latvia. Their leaders tried to introduce modern labour legislation. At the beginning of 1919, the Pēteris Stučka (1865-1932) government agreed to an eight-hour workday as well as workers’ right to social insurance. After the fall of the Bolshevik regime and the end of the war, the Latvian parliament once again began to work on a new law on the length of the workday, which was the most important aim for the social democrats. Right wing and centre politicians aimed to limit the eight-hour workday to industrial workers. In the end, the Latvian social democrats lost the fight for a widely binding eight-hour workday. The law only applied to factory workers and craftsmen and ignored transportation and trade workers. In Latvia, state inspection of work existed, but the workers’ position was weak compared to that of the employers, and collective contracts were impossible. Later, and with resistance, protection of female and juvenile work was introduced. Labour legislation was limited by martial law, which lasted from 11 February 1919 to May 1924. Communist and social democratic workers’ meetings during that time were suppressed by the army.[8]


The evacuation of factories in Estonia was restarted by the Bolsheviks when the German offensive began on 18 February 1918. From Tallinn alone, 6,000 workers and their families were evacuated eastwards. Factories stopped production and the Germans began to carry away the engines and machines. Ruthless occupation inflicted a tragic blow on the Estonian working class. On 13 April 1918 in Helsinki, Germans executed the founder of the Estonian Labour Party, Jüri Vilms (1889-1918). Transformation of labour legislation was possible in autumn 1918, when the occupation ended. Regular functioning of the state however was paralysed by the war with the Bolsheviks. The Estonian left wing fought for the eight-hour workday effectively – the leader of the Socialist-Revolutionaries, Hans Kruus (1891-1976), was particularly active. The eight-hour workday was introduced generally in 1919.

In response to the declaration of martial law by Otto Strandman’s (1875-1941) government, factories went on strike. The inflated food prices fuelled the workers’ radicalisation. The state’s reaction to the growing cost of the Estonian-Bolshevik war was to print money, which resulted in gigantic inflation. In spite of this situation, the government succeeded in ending the strikes. The last striking factories returned to work on 29 May 1919.[9] Most restrictions on civil rights were abolished in 1922, but these limitations were restored in 1924 as a result of the renewed declaration of martial law after the failure of Bolshevik coup in Tallinn.


The new Finnish government, the “executive committee”, came into being at the end of January 1918, and declared itself the People’s Delegation. In fact, this was a revolutionary government under the leadership of Kullervo Manner (1880-1939). On 28 January 1918, Manner ordered the mobilisation of the Red Guard. The political programme and main war aim of the People’s Delegation during the Civil War was the introduction of profound social reforms, but only after the establishment of a socialist state, in the form of a parliamentary democracy. The Bolshevik dictatorship of the proletariat was cast aside. In the first half of February 1918 there were 100,000 men in the Reds’ forces, 70,000 of whom served at the front line. During the brutal war, the “Reds” and “Whites” committed many acts of terror, which the People’s Delegation severely condemned. In April 1918, twenty-one moderate working class leaders who did not join the fight appealed to both sides to cease the fight for Helsinki and end the war. According to their opinion, “the rising of the Reds”, as they defined it, was contrary to the traditions of the working class movement because it was against legal government. The support for working class values was falsely represented in the “Whites’” propaganda as confessing Bolshevism. This had an influence on the picture of the Civil War, which up into the 1960s was known as the national independence war against Bolshevik invasion. In this period, Finns started to perceive the ideological causes of the workers fighting on the “Reds’” side. From this moment, the workers were treated as cheated patriots, and were not accused of betrayal.[10]

Upper Silesia

Before 1914, there were about 250,000 workers in Upper Silesian industry, among them 192,000 in mining and metallurgy and 58,000 in the metal industry. The majority of workers and Upper Silesian peasants were of Polish origin. German heritage predominated among Prussian noblemen – landowners and manufacturers. The national identity of the Upper Silesian population at the beginning of the 20th century is a controversial matter. The use of the Polish language could be decisive in determining identity, because in this region and period Polish-speaking people could aspire equally well to German national identity. The majority of factories, for example the Bismarckhütte, were in the hands of landowners of German aristocratic families, like Pless or Stolberg. The administrative apparatus as well as the army and police were exclusively under German control. The trade unions were developing. Zjednoczenie Zawodowe Polskie (Polish Trade Unions) and Centralny Związek Zawodowy Polski (Central Polish Trade Union) played the most important role. The industrialists, too, were summoned into unions such as the Upper Silesian Union of Mining-Metallurgic Industrialists and the Industrial-Trade Chamber in Oppeln (Opole). At the end of the First World War, the whole region was destabilised economically; there was huge inflation and speculation. The radicalisation of the Silesian working class proceeded as result of revolutionary events in Germany and the rise of the independent Polish state.[11]

In winter 1919 in Upper Silesia, strikes were more frequent and engaged more workers: in 1917 in the Silesian Province 35,497 strikers took part in a total of sixty-six strikes, and in 1919, 452,408 men took part in 350 strikes. The character of strike action changed. During the war, it was mainly economic, whereas in the years 1918-1920 anti-war slogans were attached to the demands. People protested against both the presence of allied armies and against the Polish war with the Bolshevik Russia. The political demands were put out, such as neutrality in the Polish-Bolshevik conflict. Deep social reforms were demanded; the eight-hour workday, working class self-government, and the payment of the day’s wage when striking were particularly important. General strikes preceded the outbreak of all three Silesian uprisings in the years 1919-1921. The next wave of strikes appeared in spring 1919. Several hundred working class delegates’ councils was appointed. The German government began to dominate the councils – district councils were subordinated to the Central Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council of Upper Silesia, under the leadership of Berlin’s delegate, Police Commissar Otto Hörsing (1874-1937). He introduced martial law in the whole territory of Upper Silesia. The Upper Silesian German Communist Party already had 20,000 members in the first half of 1919. Its propaganda called the workers to social revolution, which would have helped to solve nationalistic problems.[12] For Poles, nationalistic and social aspirations were combined in the idea of liberation from the political control of the German state and Prussian Junker-elite as well as the industrialists. At the beginning of August 1919, Silesian Germans who had served in the formation of the “Border Watch” (Grenzschutz) began to return to their previous workplaces in industry. The Polish workers protested against this, because they were simultaneously laid off in masses. On 14 August 1919, 140,000 men were on strike. On 15 August 1919, Commissar Hörsing organised a meeting between employers and delegates of the Polish Trade Unions. The Polish Trade Union (Zjednoczenie Zawodowe Polskie) recognised the strike as a “wild action”, because no trade union headquarters took responsibility for it. It was also proposed to break of strike. On the same day, a massacre in a mine in Mysłowice took place, where the crowd of workers and their families, irritated that their German employer had discontinued payment, tried to break into the office and were shot by the Grenzschutz. Ten people were killed. Polish and German workers reacted with indignation, and the majority of mine and ironworks stopped working. During the night 17-18 August 1919, after the spontaneous outbreak of the First Silesian Uprising, the strikers from Bytom and Katowice were also involved; in total, industrial workers constituted 60 percent of the 20,000 insurgents. After the First Silesian Uprising, the wave of anti-Polish terror from the German authorities was held back by the end of September 1919 as a result of Polish-German negotiations. The sharpening nationalistic conflict dominated the class fight. The German mine board laid off a group of Polish workers for participation in the Polish national demonstrations on 3 May 1920.[13] On 20 July 1920, Germany officially confirmed neutrality in the Polish-Bolshevik war. Anti-Polish demonstrations were organised and the export of coal to Poland was stopped. Without permission of the Interallied Commission, German trade unions proclaimed a general strike. In response to aggressive German behaviour against the Polish Plebiscite Committee in Katowice on 20 August 1920, miners of Polish origin began a strike which paralysed the majority of mines. The Polish workers’ national activity during the plebiscite campaign in the second half of 1920 manifested in agitation for support for Poland.[14]


In 1918, the main factors that influenced the situation were the military defeat of Bolshevik rule and later retreat of German forces. These changes created the possibility for Eastern European nations to seize independence. At that time, the labour movement began political struggles for its rights. Labourers saw the cooperation with the first communist state in the world more as a chance than as a threat. From this point of view the world war could be changing course, given the strategic role of the industrial workers in the overthrow of despotic, tsarist Russia. From the Polish, Latvian etc. perspective the revolution in Russia gave hope for the fast changes in all European societies. There was need for new laws, which could strengthen the position of average workers in the face of employers. Social and economic demands were mixed with the new political consciousness in new states. This complex reality caused opposite results: the labourers were strong enough to create the most powerful trade unions in history; at the same time, however, the working class became strongly divided, which had such a tragic effect in Finland. Workers who became politically active brought intelligence and toughness onto the political scene of interwar European obstinacy in the fight for their rights; on the other hand, they spread dangerous radicalism and anarchy, which were successfully used by communist parties controlled by the Bolshevik Russia.

Paweł Brudek, Museum of Warsaw Uprising

Section Editors: Ruth Leiserowitz; Theodore Weeks