Berlin under the revolution: a journalist is born

RM Smyllie vividly depicts how arrival of rebellious sailors caused events to move swiftly

October 3rd, 2014: The Irish Times Editor’s Room exhibition at the Little Museum of Dublin is a snap-shot canter through some of the newspaper’s 150 year history, built around the persona of its most famous editor, RM Smyllie. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

One hundred years ago this week, a significant event occurred in the history of The Irish Times, with the publication of the first in a series of four articles bearing the title “Berlin under the Revolution”.

As well as being an important first-hand account of the fast-moving events in the German capital in November 1918, the articles were signed R Maire Smyllie and hence constitute the first journalistic record of the most colourful editor in this paper’s long history. As befitting someone who would soon begin his career with this paper, he quickly draws attention to the German newspapers that he and his fellow internees had access to. The subtitle of his first article, “As seen from Ruhleben”, highlights that his experience of the emerging political situation in Berlin came courtesy of the fact that he was an inhabitant of an internment camp located just a few miles from the centre of the city.

Smyllie had been both imprisoned and interned since the outbreak of war in 1914 when the hasty departure of his wealthy employer, for whom he had worked as the son’s tutor, left him stranded in Germany.

He arrived in Ruhleben camp just before Christmas 1914 and noted in an article published on Christmas Eve 1921, under his pseudonym “Nichevo”, that because German prison regulations did not dictate a clean-shaven appearance, he had developed “quite a respectable beard” which he decided to keep until after the festive season.

Returning to his initial article, we find Smyllie referring to the fact that strict press censorship, which he would be forced to endure in his capacity as editor during a subsequent international conflict with Germany, ensured “no hint of coming unrest or of the gradual awakening of the German people was allowed to creep into the newspapers”.

Camp guard

Where then did Smyllie and the other camp inhabitants get their information about the changing state of affairs in the country in which they were unwilling guests? He reveals that the camp guard included “wounded soldiers, who had been discharged from hospital, and had been sent to us to recuperate before leaving for the West [the western front]”. It was simply a matter of providing them with some item of food to get them to talk about what was really happening beyond the confines of the camp. The soldiers expressed no desire to return to the front line but were unwilling to desert because “there was nothing to eat in the country”.

News of the emerging revolution came courtesy of those provincial newspapers which arrived in the city, and Smyllie concludes his first article with a vivid depiction of how the arrival of rebellious sailors, though quickly disarmed by loyal government troops and interned in barracks, caused events to move swiftly.

Sailors revolted

“All these sailors had revolted, and the news quickly spread throughout the length and breadth of Berlin. They called upon their guards in the barracks to join the revolution and to help them to take over command of Berlin. Officers protested; they were either disarmed or shot, sometimes both. The soldiers joined the sailors, and formed one huge procession, marching through the streets to the various barracks, and calling out the garrisons to swell the throng, and at last the government could no longer close their eyes to the fact. Revolution had broken out in Berlin.”

The following day he returned to the city where he witnessed the looting of the Kaiser’s Palace, which he described as 'one of the most unworthy incidents of the revolution'

Some 10 years later, in November 1928, Smyllie revealed how he found himself at the centre of the Berlin revolution itself when a soldier friend named Fritz temporarily took him out of the internment to visit the city. They met “a group of sailors from Kiel, who had come down to Berlin to hurry things up”. One among the sailors addressed him in perfect English and, for his own protection, “handed me a revolver, and slipped an armlet over my sleeve, announcing to all and sundry that I was a properly accredited representative of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council – in other words, of the German Soviet”. Thus it was that the future editor became a German Bolshevik for a few hours on November 9th, 1918.

The following day he returned to the city where he witnessed the looting of the Kaiser’s Palace which he described as “one of the most unworthy incidents of the revolution, and, I regret to say some of the British prisoners, who ought to have known better – one was an Irishman – assisted in it”. He also witnessed the killing of an Iron Cross bearing young officer who refused to remove the cockade from his cap.

As soon as news arrived that the war was over, he and a friend went to the flat of “a dear old German lady, whose kindness throughout the war was one of the reasons of my survival” where they sought shelter and spent a few anxious nights, as fighting between officers and Bolsheviks was ongoing, until Smyllie was able to board a train to begin the long journey home to Sligo.

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