This week in history: October 4-10

25 years ago: Cut in sick pay sparks strikes in Germany

Hundreds of thousands of German workers took part in strikes and protests the first week of October 1996, following the attempt by some of Germany’s largest corporations to rip up existing contracts and impose a new law allowing for a 20 percent cut in sick pay.

The strikes began as the companies, led by the industrial giant Daimler-Benz, announced that they would implement the cut on October 1, the day new legislation providing for sweeping attacks on social benefits went into effect. Included in the measures was a reduction in legally guaranteed sick pay from 100 percent of normal wages to 80 percent.

The package of cuts introduced by Chancellor Helmut Kohl was directed at production workers, the unemployed, the elderly and the sick. It represented a historic break with the nominal policy of the German bourgeoisie since the Second World War of social partnership and consensus.

Helmut Kohl

On the first of the month, more than 150,000 auto and engineering workers carried out limited strike actions and demonstrations. At Mercedes-Benz, 63,000 workers struck plants in Stuttgart, Bremen, Berlin and Brandenburg. Workers at the Opel and Ford plants and employees of Hoechst Chemicals also took part in protest actions.

Following the initial round of strikes, the companies rescinded the unilateral cuts and indicated that they would seek to impose these and other reductions in benefits by reopening contracts with the trade unions.

The provocative character of the action taken by leading German multinationals created certain tactical divisions among the German ruling class. Employers who supported immediate implementation of the cuts argued that the new law rendered existing contracts invalid. The ruling coalition was split on the issue. Kohl, who pushed the cuts through parliament, publicly opposed the companies’ action as an illegal abrogation of their contracts with the unions.

Behind these divisions was a fear within the German bourgeoisie of an explosive development in the class struggle. The budget cuts came together with similar measures announced by governments in France, Belgium and Italy, which all claimed that they had to destroy social benefits to meet the requirements for European economic union outlined in the Maastricht Treaty.

50 years ago: China’s breakthrough in treatment of malaria

On October 4, 1971, a major breakthrough was made in the treatment of malaria by researchers at the Yunnan Institute of Pharmacology in China. The scientists, led by Dr. Tu Youyou, discovered that a compound that they created, artemisinin, successfully cured malaria in mice and monkeys. The medicine then achieved successful human trials and ultimately saved millions of lives.

Tu Youyou (right) and a tutor in the Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, circa 1950s

The project to find the malaria treatment began in 1967 as a secret project of the Chinese military. Called Project 523 for its launch date of May 23, the initiative was ordered by Mao Zedong at the request of North Vietnam’s President Ho Chi Minh. The People’s Army of Vietnam, engaged in brutal warfare against American imperialism, was plagued by malaria epidemics. At times malaria reduced the northern military strength by about half. In the areas of the worst outbreaks the disease disabled 90 percent of troops.

The project involved over 600 scientists engaged in wide-ranging research. One effort, led by Dr. Youyou, in exploring traditional Chinese medicine for a possible treatment, came across an ancient book called TheHandbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies. Written by 4th century A.D. alchemist, Ge Hong, the volume advised the use of leaves from the Artemisia annua plant to treat malarial fevers. After refining the ancient doctor’s method for extracting the needed compound using modern methods, the scientists were able to produce ingestible capsules.

In August 1972 artemisinin was approved for human trials and after successful tests began to be implemented as a treatment in China and Vietnam. However, Mao’s Stalinist regime protected the discovery as a military secret, and it was not until the early 1980s that Chinese scientists were allowed to broadly share their discovery.

Artemisinin ultimately proved to be the world’s most effective malaria treatment. For her efforts, Dr. Tu Youyou would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2015. At the time the Nobel committee noted that in Africa alone the use of artemisinin saved at least 100,000 lives every year, and that since 2000 more than 3 million lives had been saved worldwide.

75 years ago: Japanese parliament adopts US-backed pacifist constitution

On October 6, 1946, Japan’s House of Representatives, the lower house of the National Diet, adopted a new national constitution, as it had been revised and presented by the House of Councillors, the upper house. The document, which placed far-reaching constraints on Japanese imperial ambitions, would come into force six months later in May 1947.

The constitution was largely drafted by the U.S. government and served to neuter its main imperialist rival for dominance in the Pacific. Following the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan’s surrender in September 1945 ending World War II, the US military established military and political control over the country.

The formation of a civilian administration and elections in April 1946 were largely directed by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, along with other top military brass. The text of the constitution itself was primarily drafted by Milo Rowell and Courtney Whitney, senior army officers with law degrees, operating under MacArthur’s authority.

While retaining the Emperor as “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people,” the document reduced the role of the institution, closely associated with Japanese militarism, to a largely ceremonial one. The constitution also included guarantees of individual and human rights that were limited in the previous Meiji constitution, as well as providing for a separation of powers.

Most significantly, Article Nine of the new constitution declared that the “Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” It stated that permanent “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained” by the Japanese state.

While the measures were presented as a blow to militarism and for democracy, the aim of the constitution was to create the conditions for stable capitalist rule and to shore up US hegemony in the region. Even as they drafted a constitution proclaiming rights and liberties, the US military authorities, together with the Japanese ruling elite, cracked down sharply on social opposition.

MacArthur and Hirohito

In January 1947, MacArthur banned a proposed general strike by 2 million workers. The following year, he demanded that all industrial action by government employees be illegalized. And in 1950, amid the US attack on Korea, he oversaw the banning of the Japanese Communist Party’s newspaper, as well as the sacking of its leaders and another 10,000 militant workers.

100 years ago: Kurds establish independent kingdom in British-controlled Iraq

On October 10, 1921, Sheikh Mahmoud Barzani issued a letter from the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah, in the British mandate of Mesopotamia, which included what is now modern Iraq, declaring his intention to found the Kingdom of Kurdistan. The Kingdom lasted until July 1924 when it was overrun by the British military.

Sheikh Mahmoud Barzani

The revolt was sparked by the conditions of the Treaty of Sèvres signed between Britain, France Greece, and Italy in 1920 with the Ottoman Empire, which had been defeated by the Allied imperialist powers in 1918. The treaty divided up the areas of the Middle East that belonged to the Ottoman Empire that did not have a significant Turkish population and handed them over to Britain and France.

These included the areas of modern Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Jordan and Syria. The division had been anticipated by the secret Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France in 1917, which had laid out the rough outlines of the partition of the region between the two great powers. The British and French mandates, sanctioned by the League of Nations, had sparked nationalist movements and revolts by the peoples of the Middle East, including Arabs, Druze and Kurds.

The establishment of the Kingdom of Kurdistan was the result of a series of revolts by Kurdish leaders, particularly Mahmoud Barzani, beginning in 1919. The British captured Barzani at the end of that revolt and exiled him for a year. On his return, the British appointed him governor of the area around Sulaymaniyah, but he revolted again and established the new state.

In 1924, the Kingdom was retaken by the British with overwhelming military force. Barzani escaped and waged a guerrilla war until 1931, when, after repeated aerial bombings of Kurdish territory by the British, he was captured and once again exiled.