The German Revolution of 1918-1923 not only saw the collapse of the monarchy, but the real possibility of communism spreading into the heart of Europe. Communist historian Doug Enaa Greene lectures on the course of the revolution and the reasons why it didn't succeed. Presented at the Center of Marxist Education.
By Doug Enaa Greene
March 3, 2015 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- "Spartacus stands for the fire and the spirit, the soul and the heart, the will and the deed of the proletariat revolution. Spartacus stands for all the misery, longing, and determination of the class conscious proletariat. Spartacus stands for socialism and world revolution...”
These words of German Communist Karl Liebknecht echoed the hopes of millions of workers and revolutionaries across Germany. From 1918-23, the communists of Germany fought at terrible cost and with great courage against not only the armed might of the bourgeois state, but of the social democrats in order to make a revolution in Germany, so that the Russian Revolution would be the prelude to the world revolution.
I. The November revolution
By late September 1918, it was becoming clear to the German High Command that the war was lost. Even though the war had ended with Russia following the conclusion of the harsh treaty of Brest-Litovsk with German hegemony in Eastern Europe, the war in the west was going badly. Two offensives by Germany in March and August failed to knock France out of the war. A major Allied counteroffensive, now supported with massive numbers of American equipment soldiers, who arrived at the rate of 10,000 a day, had caused the Germans to retreat. The Germans were running out of reserves, soldiers were growing restless and the country was short of food and supplies due to the Allied blockade.
At the end of September, General Erich Ludendorff informed Kaiser Wilhelm II that Germany couldn't hope to win the war. He encouraged the Kaiser to request a cease-fire to the Allies and to recommended that a more democratic government, in line with Wilson's 14 points, be formed to ensure more favorable peace terms. Although it could argued that Ludendorff wanted a civilian government to take the blame for capitulation and to save the face of the army. On October 4, the liberal Prince Max of Baden became Chancellor of the Reich – and despite his reluctance – he requested an armistice on the basis of the 14 points. The following day two social democrats entered the government and the price for their admission was the introduction of a more parliamentary and democratic system in Germany. Although these reforms were meant to preserve the Emperor as a constitutional monarch, but as negotiations with the Allies continued, it was clear that Wilhelm's position was untenable.
As Germany's allies of Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria sued for peace and the Allies marched toward the German border, the war-weary populace longed for an end to the fighting. Yet the Naval Command hoped to go out in a blaze of glory. So on October 24, 1918 the Imperial Navy issued an order for the fleet to sail and engage the British Royal Navy on the high seas. However, the sailors saw no reason to die in a sucidial gesture. These sailors, some of whom had connection with the underground organizations of the far left, mutinied – beginning at the base in Wilhelmshaven. A left radical sailor, Ernst Schneider describes the scene as follows:
On their return to their ships and barracks some of the comrades heard the heavy tramp of marching troops. Shots were fired, and the cry went up, "down with the war" ...Continuing towards the battleship Baden, it was seen that the small units had also been taken over by the revolutionary sailors. On board the Baden they elected a new commander. He was a member of the committee.
The navy moved quickly to arrest the mutineers and they succeeded in throwing a few hundred in jail. Yet the sailors were not crushed, they were armed and had links with workers in the cities, such as in Kiel. By November 3, despite arrests and the resistance of the officer corps, the sailors and workers held a mass meeting in Kiel demanding not only the release of their comrades, but an end to the war. The government responded by sending in troops to crush the mutineers, which led to a clash and very soon a general revolt. The following day, sailors and workers had taken control of Kiel and established a workers' and soldiers' council– and two days later this spread to Wilhelmshaven. By November 7, the revolt had spread to all of the major coastal cities of the Reich. In Bavaria, a “Workers' and Soldiers' Council” forced the last King, Ludwig III, to abdicate. On November 9, the Revolution at last reached Berlin with crowds of soldiers and workers carrying red flags, forcing the Kaiser to abdicate.
On that day, two declarations were made. One was made at the Imperial Palace, by Karl Liebknecht, the anti-war leader of the revolutionary left organization – the Spartacus League. Liebknecht had spent the last two years in jail, but was freed on October 23, when the government amnestied all political prisoners. Now he said to the workers and soldiers of Germany:
The rule of capitalism, which turned Europe into a cemetery, is henceforward broken. We remember our Russian brothers. They told us when they left: ‘If within a month you haven’t done as we did, we shall break with you.’ It only took four days. We must not imagine that our task is ended because the past is dead. We now have to strain our strength to construct the workers’ and soldiers’ government and a new proletarian state, a state of peace, joy and freedom for our German brothers and our brothers throughout the whole world. We stretch out our hands to them, and call on them to carry to completion the world revolution. Those of you who want to see the free German Socialist Republic and the German Revolution, raise your hands!
Earlier in the day, forewarned of Liebknecht's proclaimation, Philipp Scheidemann, a social democratic minister addressed another massvie crowd in front of the Reichstag. Although he preached for calm and respect for order, Scheidemann succumbed to the whims of the crowd and ended his speech with the words, “Long live the Republic!” He was attacked by fellow Social-Democrat Fredrich Ebert, now chancellor, who “did not want a republic, he wanted to save the monarchy, even now.”
Yet Scheidemann, Ebert and Liebknecht called themselves socialists and, until fairly recently, they were in the same political party, but their speeches showed that they had vastly different futures in mind for Germany.
II. Contending forces
a. Social Democratic Party
Both Ebert and Schiedemann were members of the Social Democratic Party – which was the flagship Marxist Party of the Second International and the largest party in Germany. However, the SPD had shown its Marxist commitments to be hollow by championing the war effort of the Imperial Government and supporting the class peace during the war to the detriment of the workers. In reality, despite the verbal commitment of the socialist party to revolution, its practice seemed to be in accord with Eduard Bernstein’s revisionist theory of evolutionary socialism (both in Germany and internationally). According to David Renton, “the SPD settled for a means of operating that emphasized parliament as the main place where change would happen. Ironically, then, the result of Eduard Bernstein’s seeming defeat was that his ideas triumphed.” The class basis of the SPD's reformist practice came from workers in small or medium-sized enterprises, the parliamentary politicians, trade union officials and the entrenched party apparatus.
Both Ebert and Scheidemann represented this reformist apparatus which was now catapulted into power. Ebert once said that he hated revolution “'like sin.' If he hated anything more it was the lack of discipline in his Party. 'It will lead to the collapse of the Party...Ebert looked upon...the Left not only [with] disfavor but also with contempt: a pigsty lacking all discipline and structure.” Now that the SPD was in power, he hoped to slowly introduce social reforms, but nothing more. He believed that the revolutionary workers, the councils, and especially the Spartacists would bring Germany to ruin.
On the same day that the Republic was proclaimed, Ebert made an oral agreement with General Wilhelm Groener, now head of the army. In the Ebert-Groener Pact, the new government promised to respect the autonomy of the army and in exchange, the army would support the government's efforts to maintain law and order, and prevent the spread of Bolshevism. Groener later described the deal as follows:
The officer corps could only cooperate with a government which undertook the struggle against Bolshevism...Ebert had made up his mind on this... .We made an alliance against Bolshevism...There existed no other party which had enough influence upon the masses to enable the re-establishment of a governmental power with the help of the army.
Ebert and the SPD realized that their position would be extremely difficult to maintain without the cooperation of other political forces – chiefly those of the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). The USPD was formed as a split from the SPD in 1917, by socialists who opposed the war. However, the USPD was not a homogenous party with a clear agenda – but contained contradictory elements including reformists and centrists such as Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky along with the Spartacist League. Thus, while elements of the USPD wanted the revolution to go all the way to socialism, there were plenty of ears receptive to reformist cries for unity and gradualism.
So on November 9 – the SPD made a proposal to the USPD to share the responsibilities of government(which the latter accepted). Ironically, the new provisional government of Germany was named the Council of People's Commissars – the same as the current Soviet government. However, it was the avowedly counterrevolutionary SPD members who were in charge of the Council of People's Commissars. The SPD was determined to prevent the councils from leading to the same type of dual power system which had emerged in Russia after the February Revolution.
While in charge of the Councils, the SPD Majority would do everything possible to curtail the councils from becoming the foundation for a new socialist state. They opposed all demands for sweeping away the old state apparatus and for infringing on the rights of private property. The SPD argued that the time was not ripe for socialization and that important decisions should be left to a future National Assembly who would write a new constitution - which would be elected in January 1919 and subsequently wrote the Weimar Constitution.
One of the most important figures in the SPD crusade to restore “order” was the Reichstag delegate Gustav Noske. During the Kiel mutiny, Noske had been elected to lead the council and managed to secure military and civilian cooperation with the revolutionaries. Noske stayed at Kiel until December, managing to restore the authority of the officers and discipline for the troops. He impressed the SPD back in Berlin with this achievement. Following a mutiny of the leftwing Volksmarine before Christmas, which the SPD put down with 30 killed, the USPD left the government in protest.
Shortly after, Noske was invited to join the government as the People's Representative for Army and Navy. Noske organized and gave support to the 4,000 strong Freikorps – disciplined and dedicated paramilitary organizations of far rightwing anticommunists veterans – whom he would use to put down the Spartacist Uprising and worker councils across Germany in 1919. Many of these Freikorps would later form the backbone of the Nazi Stormtroopers. Noske accepted this role gladly stating: “It is all right by me...Someone has got to be the bloodhound.”
b. The Spartacist League
At the core of the revolutionary left was the Internationale Group – formally renamed in November 1918 as the Spartacist League (after the gladiator slave who led a revolt against Rome). The Spartacists were composed by a constellation of impressive and dedicated activists such as Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Leo Jogiches, Franz Mehring, Eugen Levine, Paul Levi, Paul Frolich, August Thalheimer and Heinrich Brandler.
Aside from Liebknecht, the chief leader of the Spartacist League was the Polish-Jewish revolutionary activist and theorist Rosa Luxemburg. Luxemburg had a history of struggle dating back to the 1880s in Russia, Poland and Germany. She was the author of biting polemics against revisionism, studies of imperialism and had spent most of World War I in prison for her revolutionary anti-war opposition. On November 8, Luxemburg was released from jail and resumedleadership of the League along with Liebknecht. In the newly founded paper, Rote Fahne (Red Flag), Luxemburg proclaimed that the Revolution was still incomplete: “The abolition of the rule of capitalism, the realization of the social order of socialism – this and nothing less is the historical theme of the present revolution.”
The November Revolution found the Spartacists operating not as a separate revolutionary party, but as a left current within the USPD. They were not an organization prepared for the outbreak of revolution – possessing only a few hundred members, lacking a regular newspaper, and with most of their members inexperienced in day-to-day class struggle. By contrast, both the SPD and USPD were large organizations possessing more than a 100,000 members each – along with holding leading positions in the councils. Yet the Spartacists had a much wider influence than their numbers suggested – among the revolutionary shop stewards, radicalized workers and soldiers. Yet the League “had a very limited following in the councils, which was mainly confined to Brunswick and Stuttgart – they had no one on the executive of the councils in Berlin.”
Although the Spartacists were a faction of the USPD, they were unable to counteract the influence of the right-wing leadership which supported early elections for a constituent assembly and for rolling back the power of the councils. At a mid-December meeting of the Councils, a vote of 485 to 185 supported the USPD right's calls for early elections and opposed transferring power to the councils.By contrast, the Spartacists insisted that the old state machine of Germany needed to be swept away.
According to Luxemburg, “From the uppermost summit of the state down to the tiniest parish, the proletarian mass must therefore replace the inherited organs of bourgeois class rule – the assemblies, parliaments, and city councils – with its own class organs – with workers’ and soldiers’ councils.” This vote caused the USPD to splinter, as the leadership supported the SPD against the left mood of the base. Furthermore, it was further proof to the Spartacists that both the SPD and the USPD were opposed to the revolution.
Other events in Germany were also causing political polarization. The Army High Command in alliance with Ebert planned to abolish the councils, disarm the Spartacists and establish a military government in Berlin. On December 6, ten divisions of loyal troops moved on the Chancellory and raided the headquarters of the Rote Fahne newspaper and attacked a Spartacist demonstration and killing 14. Another group of soldiers attempted to arrest the leaders of the Berlin Workers' Council. Yet this was thwarted by the workers, who managed to free the council members.
The Spartacists organized strikes and a mass demonstrations of 150,000 on December 8 to fight the coup plotters. When Groener's troops fraternized with the revolutionary workers, the coup collapsed. Although the ruling class had lost this round, they were determined to try again. Meanwhile, vitriolic anti-Spartacist articles began to appear in the press – blaming the revolutionaries for bringing Germany to ruin, warning of the perils of Bolshevism, and demanding death for Luxemburg and Liebknecht. One poster read as follows:
The downfall of the Fatherland is imminent!
It is not being threatened from without, but from within:
By the Spartacist Group.
Strike its leader dead!
You will then have peace, work and bread!
Signed Soldiers from the Front.
As mentioned earlier, a few days before Christmas there was fighting between the government and the People's Navy Division. The Division had not supported the coup attempt on December 6th which gave them the reputation of being Spartacists. As a result, Ebert wanted them disbanded – and to that end – he refused to pay them. The dispute escalated on December 23, when the sailors occupied the Chancellory, cut the lines of communication and placed the Council of People's Commissars under arrest. However, the sailors did not press their advantage and overthrow the Ebert government – rather they insisted on payment. This gave Ebert time to move in loyal troops who attacked the next day – resulting in 67 casualties. Although the government troops withdrew, the sailors once again did not take advantage.
The result of “Ebert's Bloody Christmas” - as the Spartacists called it – was not only demonstrations by the revolutionaries, radicalization of the Berlin workers, along with the USPD's withdrawl from the government. This gave Ebert and the SPD majority full control of the government and led to the installation of Noske. Now, both sides were now preparing for civil war.
For the Spartacists, the clashes of December caused them to move from being a loose leftwing network in the USPD to becoming a centralized commmunist party. After presenting an ultimatium to the USPD for an emergency congress to address the situation, which was rejected, they went ahead and held their own congress in Berlin on December 29. On this fateful day, 112 delegates representing approximately 3000 members and tens of thousand of sympathizers founded the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). However, the founding congress revealed that the KPD had several major weaknesses – the revolutionary shop stewards were not representated (they refused to break with the USPD) and the delegates possessed an unrealistic view of their own power.
Despite Rosa Luxemburg and Paul Levi's objections, the KPD had voted to boycott elections for the National Assembly in January. Luxemburg believed that while the Councils had effectively been disbanded, the KPD was not strong enough to launch a new revolution on its own – therefore, the revolutionaries should use the National Assembly election campaign to popularize their ideas and recruit new members. The KPD also voted, this time with Luxemburg’s support, that the trade unions were outmoded and therefore revolutionaries should instead work to convince workers to join the councils. This position caused the KPD's negotiations with the shop stewards to collapse.
Trotskyist historian Pierre Broue assesses the KPD's founding as follows: “The new-born Communist Party was from the start isolated from the masses, and it was doomed to impotence before it had swung into action.” The dawning of 1919 thus saw Germany with a newly formed, inexperienced and impatient Communist Party along with masses of workers now ready for war against the Social Democrats. And very soon, both would face their baptism of fire in the bloody streets of Berlin.
c. The Soviet Republic
The echoes of hope of the revolution in Germany were felt above all in Soviet Russia. The Soviet Republic was in the midst of a brutal civil war and foreign intervention. To the Russians – starving in a country amidst economic breakdown at last saw their isolation ending with the onset of revolution in Germany. It seemed that the world revolution was at last dawning.
Only months before, at the Seventh Party Congress in March 1918, Lenin had declared: “It is absolutely true that without a German revolution we will perish. We will perish perhaps not in Petersburg nor in Moscow, but in Vladivostok, or some other remote place whither we will have to retreat but in any case, under all possible or conceivable eventualities, if the German revolution does not begin, we perish.” It was in hope of holding out until revolution broke out in the west that Lenin had urged the Soviets to sign the humiliating treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany, which had stripped Russia of its most populated and industrialized regions.
This risky gamble now appeared to have paid off. By October 1918, as it was becoming clear that revolution was on the agenda in Germany, Lenin contemplating risking all the gains of the Russian Revolution to secure victory for the Germans. He even contemplated raising an army of three million soldiers to help:
The Russian proletariat will understand that in the near future the greatest sacrifices will be required for the sake of internationalism. The time is approaching when circumstances may demand from us help for the German people to liberate itself from its own imperialism against Anglo-French imperialism...World history in the last few days has remarkably speeded up the course towards a worldwide workers' revolution.
Lenin was not alone among the Bolshevik leaders with his revolutionary optimism. The Commissar of War, Leon Trotsky declared shortly after the downfall of the Kaiser: “If the proletariat of Germany does try to take power, the fundamental duty of Soviet Russia will be to acknowledge no national frontiers in the revolutionary struggle. The revolutionary struggle of the German people will be our struggle too. It is clear to everyone that Soviet Russia feels that it is only the vanguard of the German and European proletarian revolution.” And as we shall see later, the Soviet leaders were very serious about following up their statements with action.
In the meantime, the Soviets – through their embassy in Germany via revolutionaries such as Karl Radek did all they could to give encouragement to the revolutionary ambitions of the Spartacists and for them to make a break with the Independents. The Soviets believed that with the foundation of the KPD, the time had now come to at last establish a Third International to organize revolutionaries on a global scale.
III. Spartacist rising
Less than a week after the founding of the Communist Party, open fighting erupted in the capital. The immediate cause was the dismissal of the Berlin Police Chief and left USPD member – Emil Eichhorn. Eichhorn was seen as a supporter of the revolutionary left – who had organized 2,000 workers and soldiers to keep order. After a series of false charges was brought before him, Eichhorn was told by the Ministry of the Interior to resign. He was to be replaced by a right-wing member of the SPD. Eichhorn refused to leave his post. To the KPD, left USPD and revolutionary workers – this move against Eichhorn was clearly seen as a provocation and a threat to the revolution.
The Berlin USPD and revolutionary shop stewards adopted a resolution supporting Eichhorn, and with the support of the KPD they moved into action. When the government remained defiant, mass demonstrations were called for January 5. Hundreds of thousands of workers came out marched and to police headquarters where they formed a revolutionary committee. Upon hearing that the Berlin garrison supported their action, the Committee moved to overthrow the SPD-led government. On January 6, workers occupied the SPD paper, Vorwaerts and other newspapers, railway headquarters and food warehouses throughout the capital. 500,000 workers soon took to the streets. Despite the revolutionary enthusiasm and the masses in the streets there was no plan or strategy of what to do next. Even though the KPD knew that the correlation of forces nationally didn't support a bid for power, their paper and especially, Liebknecht urged the workers take revolutionary action.
Liebknecht, acting without the party's backing – threw his support behind the insurrection. Rosa Luxemburg knew that the workers were being led into premature action and a trap. Yet once the insurrection was in motion, Luxemburg believed it was a matter of honor and principle for communists to stand by it. And even as the insurrection fizzled out, Luxemburg could not bring herself to retreat – despite the urging of Karl Radek.
Meanwhile, the counterrevolution was organizing itself for the confrontation. On January 10, Noske and his Freikorps made their first attack. The following day, the Freikorps with artillery and mortar fire retook the Vorwearts building. Very soon, the counterrevolution had retaken the streets of Berlin and the White Terror was unleashed.
Even though the Spartacist Uprising was a defeat, Liebknecht summed it up as follows:
Yes, the revolutionary workers of Berlin were defeated. Ebert, Scheidemann, and Noske won. They won because the generals, the bureaucrats, the Junkers, the priests, the moneybags, and everyone with a narrow mind and empty heart supported them, assuring their victory with cannons, bombs, and mines. However, there are defeats that are victories, and victories that are more deadly than defeats.
Those who were defeated during the bloody week of January can be proud. They fought for something big, for the noblest goal of the agonizing masses. They have spilled blood for a sacred cause, and their blood has been sanctified. From every drop of it avengers will emerge; from every frazzled fiber new fighters for the mighty cause will grow, a cause as eternal and unfading as the firmament.
Luxemburg herself wrote the following in her final article, Order Prevails in Berlin:
How does the defeat of “Spartacus week” appear in the light of the above historical question? Was it a case of raging, uncontrollable revolutionary energy colliding with an insufficiently ripe situation, or was it a case of weak and indecisive action?
Both! The crisis had a dual nature. The contradiction between the powerful, decisive, aggressive offensive of the Berlin masses on the one hand and the indecisive, half-hearted vacillation of the Berlin leadership on the other is the mark of this latest episode. The leadership failed. But a new leadership can and must be created by the masses and from the masses. The masses are the crucial factor. They are the rock on which the ultimate victory of the revolution will be built. The masses were up to the challenge, and out of this “defeat” they have forged a link in the chain of historic defeats, which is the pride and strength of international socialism. That is why future victories will spring from this “defeat.”
“Order prevails in Berlin!” You foolish lackeys! Your “order” is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will “rise up again, clashing its weapons,” and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing:
I was, I am, I shall be!
On January 15, after the rising was put down, both Liebknecht and Luxemburg were captured by the Freikorps. They were taken to police headquarters for “questioning” and while there, both of them were shot while “trying to escape.” None of the officers involved, despite being identified, were ever charged for their murders.
In a swift blow: the German working class had lost two of its finest leaders. Others were to follow in the coming months - Leo Jogiches, Franz Mehring, and Eugen Levine. The Spartacist Uprising had clearly drawn a line of blood between the SPD and the KPD that would never be overcome. The Communists would never forgive or forget the assassination of their leaders at the hands of the Social Democratic death squads. And who can blame them? The Social Democrats had shown exactly what side they were on – despite their verbal opposition to violence and illegality – they had no qualms with supporting not only World War One, but celebrated murdering communists in the streets in order to defend the bourgeois state.
And as communist philosopher Alain Badiou recognized, there was an eerie similarity between the crushing of the uprising in Berlin and the ancient Roman slave revolt - both of which shared the name of Spartacus:
When in 1919 the communist insurgents of Berlin, led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, brandished the name of ‘Spartakus’ and called themselves ‘Spartakists’, they too made it so that the ‘forgetting’ (or failure) of the slave insurrection was itself forgotten and its maxim restored—to the point that the sordid assassination of the two leaders by the shock troops of the ‘socialist’ Noske (Luxemburg was battered with rifle-butts, her body thrown into the canal, Liebknecht shot and dumped in a morgue) echoes the thousands crucified on the Roman roads.
IV. The Bavarian Soviet Republic
Shortly after, elections were held in Germany on January 19 for the National Assembly. Although the KPD urged a boycott, an overwhelming majority of the population – at least 80% - voted. The SPD received 11.5 million votes (165 deputies) and USPD 2.5 million votes (22 deputies) for a shared total of 45%. The right-wing bourgeois parties obtained about 15% of the vote. Eventually, the new Assembly would draft the bourgeois democratic constitution in the city of Weimar that would formally establish the Weimar Republic.
Meanwhile, civil war was raging across Germany. Armed revolts occurred throughout the country as Councils were (temporarily) established. Noske and his Freikorps were relentless in putting them down – whether in Bremen, Cuxhaven, and elsewhere. The working class was determined not to surrender, but defended their gains with arms in hands – at the cost of thousands of lives. Following the crushing of the Bremen Council in February, mass strikes erupted in the Ruhr, the Rhineland, Saxony and Berlin. In Berlin, a March 4 mass strike was supported not only by the KPD and USPD, but even by the SPD. The Berlin strike soon escalated into street fighting again. A state of siege was declared and the Freikorps were sent in. By the time fighting ended on March 16 – at least 1200 had been killed. Civil war brewed in Hamburg and Thuringia.
It is to the Council Republic in Bavaria, which held out the longest that we now turn to. Although Bavaria had been the first state in Germany to cast off the monarchy and declare itself a “socialist republic” - the government was decidedly non-radical. Under USPD member, Kurt Eisner, the “socialist republic” pledged itself to protect property rights. The situation in Bavaria was chaotic with at least 6000 councils in existence, unemployment was growing and Eisner had little political support. During elections in December, the USPD received only 2.5% of the vote. The SPD hampered efforts at socialization and instead pressed for a restoration of law and order. Considering that the SPD had far more electoral support than Eisner, his position grew so untenable that he decided to resign and in order to allow the SPD to form a stable government. However, on February 21, as Eisner was going to turn in his resignation, he was assassinated by a right-wing monarchist.
Eisner's murder was a warning to the workers of the power of reaction. In Munich and Nuremberg, there were general strikes while the working class and soldiers armed themselves. Although power was effectively in the hands of the council of Munich, the SPD continued to press for the restoration of a normal parliamentary government. On March 7, Johannes Hoffmann of the SPD formed a new government, but the situation deteriorated further – unemployed skyrocketed, currency was growing worthless and in the midst of a cold winter - coal was running out. The workers and the far left continued to agitate for the seizure of power and whole-scale socialization.
And it was not just their own desperation which caused the working class to demand radical ends. External events were having a decided impact. The workers knew about the fighting throughout Germany. Further abroad, from March 2–6, 1919 – the Communist International held its first congress. On March 22, a Soviet Republic took power in Hungary. In Austria, the workers' councils remained an important force. It was not hard to imagine that Bavaria, if the revolutionaries took power, could be one link in a chain of socialist republics from Germany to Russia.
Events continued to speed up, when following another governmental crisis, the SPD, USPD and KPD held discussions about forming a Soviet Republic. However, the Communists, under Eugen Levine ultimately rejected these plans. Levine argued against the seizure of power as follows:
We know from our experience in northern Germany that the Social Democrats often attempted to provoke premature actions which are the easiest to crush.
A soviet republic cannot be proclaimed at a conference table. It is founded after a struggle by a victorious proletariat. The proletariat of Munich has not yet entered the struggle for power.
After the first intoxication the Social Democrats will seize upon the first pretext to withdraw and thus deliberately betray the workers. The Independents will collaborate, then falter, then begin to waver, to negotiate with the enemy and turn unwittingly into traitors. And we as Communists will have to pay for your undertaking with blood?
Despite the Communist withdrawal, on April 7, a Soviet Republic was proclaimed in Bavaria. The new Soviet Republic, despite its namem was a farce – the government was disconnected from the masses, decrees were passed without any power to implement them, and the old state apparatus remained firmly in place. The ministers of the Soviet were little more than cafe eccentrics and bohemians playing at revolution. At one point, in a bizarre move, the Soviet declared war on Switzerland for refusing to loan them 60 locomotives. However, the SPD took the whole farce seriously and prepared for a confrontation. Hoffman fled from Bavaria and reformed his government in Bamberg. While there, he blockaded food supplies into Munich and amassed 8,000 troops in order to retake the city. Following an abortive counterrevolutionary uprising in Munich, there was a mass movement of workers moved into action and crushed the coup. And more than that – the farce of the first Soviet Republic collapsed and the Communists assumed power – establishing a second Soviet Republic.
The leader of the Communists of Bavaria and the Second Soviet Republic was Eugen Levine. Levine was from a wealthy Jewish Russian family and a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party during the time of the 1905 Revolution. Following the collapse of the Revolution, Levine came to Germany to study where he became involved with the anti-war left and was one of the founders of the Communist Party. Levine had escaped from the January fighting in Berlin and made his way to Bavaria. Eugen Levine, more than any other KPD leader, had the qualities of a German Lenin and Trotsky – he understood the importance of organization, possessed a keen grasp of the situation, foresight, courage, and the will to win. Once in power in Bavaria, Levine and the KPD began organizing production and defense – such as forming a Red Army -to meet the enemy onslaught. Revolutionary measures were at last taken to repress the bourgeoisie.
Levine knew that the situation in Bavaria was hopeless when he took over. The enemy had thousands of troops ready to move in and the Soviet Republic was utterly disorganized. Yet he knew that communists cannot choose their moment of engagement, that sometimes it is forced on us by the enemy. And that even if the struggle is doomed, sometimes there is no alternative but to stand and fight.And that it is more honorable to go down fighting than to surrender without battle. In a letter to his wife, Levine explained his reasoning as follows:
The workers, the best of them, will fight whatever our instructions. A revolutionary is no less ready to give his life in upholding the honour of his cause than the patriot who fights to the last ditch preferring death to surrender. The workers would only despise a leader who fell below their own standards of revolutionary honour and preached, in advance, the laying down of arms. It might seem irrational but then no great achievements were ever accomplished without this spirit.
The White Army will, in any case, find a pretext for a bloodbath. They need this, and the extent of the slaughter will be determined by political calculations alone, by nothing else. Is workers' blood so cheap as to let it flow unopposed for the satisfaction of newly converted pacifists?
I know it is difficult to accept this hard truth. Toller's protestations of his abhorrence of bloodshed are much more appealing. Yet during the war our roles were reversed: The party of the soft-hearted Independents was not afraid of bloodshed and supported the capitalist government in the alleged "defensive war," and we were in the front lines of the fight against such carnage. It all depends on your aims and on where you stand. Could there be a more clear-cut defensive war than the one which is forced upon us? No one would be happier than the bloodthirsty Communists if the Independents could persuade the White Army to abstain from fighting. We don't want the fight, nor do we need it.
Are you convinced? Hard days lie ahead. We must at least be able to feel that they could not be averted.
On May 1, Hoffman's soldiers, reinforced by 30,000 of Noske's Freikorps "liberated" Munich. The Soviet Republic issued its last statement, “don't make the hangmen's task easy. Sell your lives dearly.” At least one thousand workers died during the desperate street fighting. Levine was captured shortly afterward and tried by a military tribunal where he was sentenced to death. Before his execution, Levine made his final speech justifying his actions and defending the Bavarian Soviet. The speech, justly famous, contained the following words of courage and defiance:
We Communists are all dead men on leave. Of this I am fully aware. I do not know if you will extend my leave or whether I shall have to join Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. In any case I await your verdict with composure and inner serenity. For I know that, whatever your verdict, events cannot be stopped... Pronounce your verdict if you deem it proper. I have only striven to foil your attempt to stain my political activity, the name of the Soviet Republic with which I feel myself so closely bound up, and the good name of the workers of Munich. They - and I together with them - we have all of us tried to the best of our knowledge and conscience to do our duty towards the International, the Communist World Revolution.
V. New leadership
Despite the ferocity of civil war across Germany throughout the first half of 1919, the SPD-led government was able to maintain control. The Freikorps were able to put down the isolated and uncoordinated worker uprisings and council republics. The lack of a communist party capable of giving leadership to the revolutionary movement was a lesson that German workers ultimately learned at great cost. The new leader of the KPD, Paul Levi stated: “There is not a single Communist in Germany today who does not regret that the foundation of a Communist Party did not take place long ago, before the war...”
In spite of the fearsome repression of 1919, the KPD had grown substantially from 3,000 to 90,000 members. However, the party membership was shot through with revolutionary impatience or “ultra-leftism” -- opposed to working within trade unions, boycotting elections and believing that revolution was on the immediate agenda – not recognizing that the experience of 1919 was one of defeat. And moreover, the KPD had also seen most of its experienced and dedicated leaders wiped out during the counterrevolutionary. Moving into the leadership was an old Spartacist organizer, lawyer, and lover of Rosa Luxemburg – Paul Levi. Levi recognized that a change of course was needed for the KPD since the majority of the workers still had illusions in the SPD, USPD and the electoral process. He also recognized that revolution was far-off, arguing that the situation in Germany was different than Russia since the capitalist class was well-organized, far more capable of withstanding crises and that the labor aristocracy was too entrenched. Levi was determined to drive the ultra-leftists out of the KPD, fearing that the Party would be reduced to an impotent sect if he didn't succeed. At the KPD's Second Congress in the fall of 1919, he succeeded in having his line imposed. However, Levi's victory cost half the membership of the KPD – who left and in turn formed the Communist Workers Party of Germany (KAPD) in April 1920. Matters were not helped when Lenin and the Comintern welcomed the KAPD as a sympathizing section of the Comintern in November 1920, much to the annoyance of the KPD.
Although Lenin and the Comintern hoped to win over the ultra-leftists, Levi believed instead that the Party needed to win over the masses of militant workers who remained inside the USPD. As mentioned earlier, most of the USPD did not join the KPD when it was founded. Still, the USPD remained a mass of contradictions – containing a radicalizing rank-and-file enamored of the Bolshevik Revolution along with reformists and centrists in the leadership who had supported the SPD counterrevolution. At the same time, the USPD was a fast-growing mass party of the workers, going from 100,000 in 1917 to 300,000 in March 1919 and 800,000 in the fall of 1920. Many of these USPD workers did not support the counterrevolution and grew infuriated at their party's leadership coziness in the SPD.
Meanwhile, the new Weimar Republic had not fundamentally changed the underlying capitalist structures of Germany. The capitalists, junkers and army officers remained. While the counterrevolution of 1919 had dashed the KPD's hopes for a socialist Germany, for the far right things had not gone far enough; the country had not only been defeated in the war but had to endure the draconian Versailles Peace and a new 'illegitimate' republic. For the right, the clock needed to be rolled back. So to this end, on March 13, 1920 a group of right-wing officers and politicians, including Wolfgang Kapp, sent troops into the capital in order to establish a military dictatorship. Ebert fled Berlin. When Noske called upon the officers to put down the rebellion, they mutinied.
The workers of Berlin, led by both SPD and USPD rose up in a general strike. The workers understood that the coup plotters wanted to crush not only the far left, but all working class organizations and the republic. Within two days, the military government in Berlin was completely paralyzed by the general strike. The KPD leadership, which was in Berlin, refused to endorse the strike, declaring:
Should the working people in these circumstances go in for the general strike? Yesterday, the working class was still shackled with Ebert and Noske’s chains, and disarmed. In the worst of conditions, it cannot act. We believe our duty to be to speak out clearly. The working class will undertake to struggle against the military dictatorship in the circumstances and by the means which it will judge to be appropriate. These circumstances do not yet exist.
Levi, who was in prison at this time, was furious at the passivity of the KPD and how they squandered this opportunity. Yet seeing the mood of the masses, on the following day, the KPD reversed its stance and supported the strike. Still the damage was still done. The general strike had electrified Germany, spreading from Berlin to the Ruhr, and Bavaria. The military was completely unable to beat back the waves of workers. In the Ruhr mining region, the strike led to armed clashes between the authorities and the working class – now organized into a 50,000 strong Red Army. Within days, the coup completely collapsed. Levi criticized the KPD, arguing that the party should have advanced the following slogans: “the arming of the proletariat; a struggle against the putschists until they unconditionally surrendered; and the immediate arrest of their leaders and accomplices.”
Levi believed that if the strike had been conducted in this way – it could have set the stage for going far beyond merely resisting the coup and building towards a future communist offensive. Although the KPD was too weak to go it alone, if they had transformed these slogans into action – they could have taken a leading role and won over the workers from the reformist parties. As it was, the KPD missed their chance. Levi's position and clear strategic thinking won him a great deal of support within the USPD.
The June elections also showed the development of a possible new political alignment in Germany. The SPD lost nearly half of their vote, wining just 6 million votes with 102 deputies. By contrast, the USPD vote doubled to 5 million with 84 deputies – who were largely concentrated in the major industrial centers. And the KPD, who entered the elections for the first time managed to obtain 589,000 votes and four deputies, including Clara Zetkin and Paul Levi. It seemed that the working class was finally moving away from the Social Democrats.
In October 1920, the fissures in the USPD came to a head at their convention in Halle. Speaking at the convention was the leader of the Comintern, Grigory Zinoviev, arguing for affiliation to the International in a speech which lasted four hours. On the opposite end, the exiled Menshevik leader Julius Martov argued against joining the Comintern. In the end, the majority of USPD delegates voted to join the Comintern with half of the USPD membership joining the 50,000 Communists to form a 450,000 strong united Communist Party of Germany in December. The remainder of the USPD, wound up moving closer to the SPD, eventually rejoining the Party in 1922.
Levi's tactics had paid off – now Germany possessed a mass revolutionary communist party free from reformist control. According to Pierre Broue, the new party contained
men of the prewar radical old guard, the nucleus of Luxemburg’s faithful supporters, but also people who had always been left-wing Social Democrats, such as Däumig, Geyer, Hoffmann and Eichhorn, of whom Lenin said that they were ‘the living ties’ between the Party and the working masses whose confidence they enjoyed. With them were the militant workers, the organising cadres of the class, the leaders of the big mass strikes in Berlin during the War, the builders of the workers’ councils, and the nucleus of the Berlin revolutionary delegates during the War and the Revolution, such as Richard Müller, and people such as Wegmann, Eckert, Scholze, Malzahn and Paul Neumann, whom Lenin described as ‘the steady, well-organised fighting rank and file of the revolutionary proletariat’, and ‘the basis and mainstay’ of communism ‘in the factories and trade unions’.
Levi was the new leader of the reformed KPD and it appeared to him that the steady work of building a movement capable of leading a future revolution could now truly begin.
Yet the new party was wracked with factionalism that resulted in 6 out of 12 members of the central committee resigning shortly after its foundation. Levi was also looked upon with suspicion by Radek, who believed that his zeal against the ultra-left hid opportunistic tendencies. Furthermore, the new mass base of the KPD was eager for revolutionary action and not inclined to listen to Levi's sober analyzes of the situation. At the same time, leading members of the Comintern – such as Bela Kun, Zinoviev, and Nikolai Bukharin agitated inside the KPD for the “theory of the offensive.” This theory argued that a communist party through sheer force of will could launch an insurrection regardless of the objective situation that would electrify the masses and lead to the conquest of power. Zinoviev and Kun hoped if the KPD took insurrectionary action that it would “break at all costs the isolation which doomed the Bolsheviks to the costly strategic retreat of the NEP, by forcing, if necessary, the development and artificially accelerating the speed of the revolution.” Members of the KPD central committee such as Forlich, Thalheimer and Brandler supported the theory of the offensive.
The result was the disastrous March Action. The initial spark occurred in the KPD stronghold of Mansfield among the miners, who suffered heavy unemployment. The rising tensions with armed workers caused the Social Democratic police chief to send in the cops to occupy the mines. Their objective was to disarm the workers and restore order. This led to major strikes, supported by the Communists, who went further and argued for armed resistance. On the 24th, the KPD called not only for a general strike in support of the workers, but for an armed insurrection across the country. Yet the workers of Germany were unmoved. The call to revolution, according to Pierre Broue “was not followed. Fights between workers broke out everywhere: the strikers, few in number, took on the ‘blacklegs’ who remained in the majority, the Social Democrats and the trade unions indignantly denouncing the attempted ‘rising’ of the communists... .Here and there Communist officials organised false attacks on themselves in order to provoke the indignation of the masses and bring them into the struggle.” By the end of the month, the KPD called off the strike and was driven underground.
The end result was an unmitigated disaster for the KPD – 200,000 members left, leaving the party with 150,000. Levi was enraged by what had happened and wrote an angry polemic condemning the March Action and its authors back in Moscow – notably Kun and Zinoviev. Levi's criticism was not accepted by most of the party in an atmosphere of state repression directed against communists. Nor was Levi supported by the Comintern. Levi had also made his criticism public, in a violation of Party discipline and this resulted in his expulsion. The Comintern upheld his expulsion, and despite appeals by Zetkin to Lenin for Levi's reinstatement, Lenin said Levi had brought this on himself by deserting his leadership role and blaming others for what he had been unable to stop. However, Lenin still hoped that once tempers calmed down, Levi would return to the KPD. As it would turn out, Levi left the revolutionary movement altogether, rejoining the SPD in 1922 and committing suicide in 1930.
Lenin's final judgment on Levi was more measured, and it says something about how he viewed the remaining leaders of the KPD: “The man has lost his head entirely...He, at least, had something to lose: one can’t even say that about the others.”
VI. United front
Despite the expulsion of Levi, his positions were more or less adopted by the KPD after prodding by the Comintern, especially by Lenin and Trotsky. In June, Lenin attacked Kun's Theory of the Offensive, declaring it: “‘Is it a theory anyway? Not at all, it is an illusion, it is romanticism, sheer romanticism.’” Eventually, the KPD came around to the strategy of winning the majority of the working class through the united front.
The first major manifestation of the united front tactic occurred in January 1921 (before the March Action) when the KPD published an open letter addressed to the SPD, USPD and the trade unions. The open letter proposed that joint action be undertaken around a series of immediate demands such as defense of wages, ensuring food for workers and disbandment of the right-wing paramilitaries. The Open Letter did not disguise that the KPD was committed to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, and its differences with other parties but emphasized that they were willing to work with them in joint struggle:
When we propose this basis for action, we do not hide for a moment from ourselves nor from the masses that the demands which we have listed cannot end their poverty. Without giving up for a moment our propaganda amongst the masses for a struggle for the dictatorship, the only road to salvation, without ceasing to appeal to the masses and to lead them in the struggle at every favourable moment for the dictatorship, the United German Communist Party is ready for common action with the workers’ parties to win the above-mentioned demands.
‘We do not hide what separates us from the other parties and puts us in opposition to them. On the contrary, we declare that we do not seek from the organisations which we are addressing agreement in words alone to the activities which we propose, but action for the demands which we have listed....
‘If the parties and trade unions which we are addressing refuse to begin the struggle, the United German Communist Party will be obliged to carry it on alone, and it is convinced that the masses will follow it. Starting today, the United German Communist Party addresses all the proletarian organisations of the Reich and the masses grouped round them, calling on them to announce in public meetings that they are willing to defend themselves together against capitalism and reaction, and to defend jointly their common interests.’
When the other parties and unions rejected the KPD's call for a united front, the communists called on the workers in those organizations to ignore their leaders and work with the KPD in joint action. According to KPD leader August Thalheimer, there were meetings in favor of the demands of the Open Letter across Germany. Despite efforts by union leaders to expel supporters of the united front, their efforts failed. And when the trade unions put forward their own demands to ease the condition of the unemployed in order to deflect the KPD's appeal, the party “parried this manoeuvre by declaring that, after it had criticised the inadequacy of these demands, it would nevertheless fight for these same demands. It continued the united front campaign by calling on the working class to join the struggle for these demands, and not to leave it to the trade union leaders.”
August Thalheimer identifies the preconditions for adopting the united front as follows: “the ebb of the revolutionary wave, which had removed the immediate struggle for power from the top of the agenda, and, on the other hand, the growing unemployment and increasing poverty of the working class....The features of this first united front campaign were first of all an approach to the leaderships of the ADGB, the SPD and the USPD for a joint struggle on a programme of immediate demands. After these leaderships refused to join the campaign, there was a turn to the trade union members, to the local trade union organisations, to the factories and to the working class in general.”
Despite the disaster of the March Action, the KPD's Open Letter was upheld by the Comintern's Third Congress in June 1921. The Comintern agreed that in a situation where the struggle for power was not on the agenda, that it was the job of communists to win over the majority of workers to their positions through struggle around immediate and transitional demands. The united front campaign put pressure on the reformist and trade union leaders, forcing them to get involved in mass struggle. According to Thalheimer, “the campaign itself extended the influence and organisational support of the party through the trade union posts and factory councillorships that were gained, which were decisive levers in the party’s campaign.” The KPD's efforts led to mass meetings of factory delegates across Germany, where their support grew.
On August 26, when the moderate centrist leader Mathias Erzberger was murdered by far right paramilitaries, this caused outrage amongst the working class. The KPD attempted to channel this energy by supporting calls for workers to disarm the far right and purge the state apparatus of monarchists. This resulted in demonstrations throughout Germany, and in a few cities such as “Berlin, Jena, Hamburg an attempt was made to continue to take the struggle beyond the factories, and to link the economic needs of the workers to the general fight against reaction. The party gave the struggle against reaction concrete form in its call for the creation of workers’ control committees. Both the USPD and the SPD opposed this slogan.”
The KPD also called upon the workers to resist, by any means, a right-wing government in order to defend their living standards. Significantly, the Party supported efforts by the SPD and USPD to fight for those demands, saying that the KPD was in favor of “any policy aimed at winning ‘positions of power’ for the working class.” This meant that the KPD would not necessarily oppose SPD governments in Thuringia, so long as it carried out an agreed upon minimum programme.
This brings up the question of the KPD and the Comintern's elaboration of a “workers' government” as part of the overall united front strategy. A workers' government was seen as a stepping stone, or transitional demand, on the road to the dictatorship of the proletariat. During the Kapp Putsch, the KPD had expressed its openness to a workers' government being formed:
The KPD believes that the formation of a socialist government free of the slightest bourgeois or capitalist element would create extremely favourable conditions for vigorous action by the proletarian masses. It would enable them to reach the maturity which they need in order to realise their political and social dictatorship. The Party declares that its work will retain the character of a loyal opposition as long as the government does not infringe the guarantees which ensure the freedom of political activity of the working class, resists the bourgeois counter-revolution by all possible means, and does not obstruct the strengthening of the social organisation of the working class.
Communist saw their agitation for a workers' government, whether as a loyal opposition or by taking posts as ministers, was viewed as part of a deepening class struggle, that was to be supported outside of parliament by the armed working masses that would be the jumping off point for creating a dictatorship of the proletariat. This was not a fantasy, there were several provinces where the SPD, USPD and KPD could conceivably join together for a parliamentary majority. And as we shall see, the KPD would attempt to from workers' governments in 1923 as part of its strategy to conquer power.
United front ampaigns continued throughout 1922 as the KPD continuing to wage struggles defending the living standards of the proletariat. When the conservative German politician Walther Rathenau was assassinated by the far right on June 24, 1922 because he was Jewish, the KPD again called upon the SPD and USPD to undertake action against the death squads. By the end of 1922, the KPD had managed through principled action to repair a great deal of damage from the March Action - winning respect across the left and gaining approximately 100,000 members (at least half the number they'd lost in 1921) bringing the party's total to 250,000. And as 1923 dawned, the Party would once again be faced with a revolutionary situation in Germany.
VII. The occupation of the Ruhr
As part of the Versailles Treaty, Germany was expected to pay heavy reparations to the French on a regular basis. The reparations were more than Germany could afford and by 1922, they were regularly defaulting on their payments to the French. In order to force Germany to pay, the French moved troops into the Ruhr on January 11, 1923. The German government issued an appeal to the population for passive resistance to the invasion: Germans were not to collaborate with the French, cease production and reparations payments were halted. Passive resistance was supported by all German political parties from the Nazis to the Communists.
Through February, the conflict in the Ruhr escalated as Germans clashed with French soldiers, resulting in violent reprisals. As workers went on strike, they were actually supported by the German government. Far right paramilitaries throughout Germany gained new volunteers with the complicity of the army – particularly in Bavaria. Although passive resistance was conceived to be a common struggle among Germans of all classes – the industrialists took it a different way. As Pierre Broue recounts, “The industrialists, although made wary by some vigorous actions on the part of the occupying authorities, did not lose sight of even their short-term material interests. Coal was not distributed to workers’ families, as the Communists and, in many cases, the unions and the factory councils demanded. It remained stockpiled at the mines until the lorries came to collect it for the occupiers, and at best the employer went no further than an energetic protest. The industrialists’ ‘passive resistance’ was looking increasingly like a charade.”
Furthermore. German industrialists also looked upon passive resistance as a way to wipe out their debts and regain profits: “It seems that from November 1921, the magnates of German industry decided that the general situation must deteriorate before it could improve; runaway inflation would wipe out the German debt, bring the state to its knees before them, exhaust the working people, and leave the great capitalists alone as masters of the situation. The mark fell steadily throughout 1922, and its fall became precipitous when the Ruhr was occupied.” The collapse in the value of the mark led to hyperinflation in Germany – money was worthless and a barrel of marks was needed in order to buy a loaf of bread.
Although sources give varying figures, the exchange rate of the mark to the dollar throughout 1923, we can see from the following just how worthless German currency was:
Not only were wages and savings wiped out, but for the working class there was also a sharp increase in homelessness and unemployment. For the capitalists – the crisis was an opportunity to gain immense fortunes by buying goods dirt cheap.
According to Broue, “ It is said that Stinnes acquired 1,300 firms in the most varied sectors of activity, and that he confessed that he could not give a full account of his own affairs. The export industries made fabulous profits. On the one hand, the low level of rents and wages, and the fall in the real value of their debts, enabled them to charge prices against which no one could compete, and, on the other, they were paid in foreign exchange. Large businesses could deposit capital abroad in foreign currencies. They set up firms in Switzerland, the Netherlands and South America to hide their gains, and created intermediary companies through nominees to enable them to evade the law against capital exports. In short, the big capitalists collected their profits in dollars or gold, and paid their debts in paper – to their very great benefit.”
Thus, there was a sharp divide between how the crisis was experienced by the Germany proletariat and bourgeoisie, while the state seemed both powerless and unwilling to do anything about it.
In this atmosphere, it was becoming clear to millions of workers that the reformist socialists offered no way out of the crisis and that the existing methods of the union leaderships to defend living standards were inadequate. The SPD vote was decreasing (while the left in its ranks grew), while the influence of the KPD increased At least 70,000 members joined the Party throughout 1923, but the KPD's reach spread much farther.
The KPD had influence over at least 2,433,000 union members, or approximately one third of the organized working class. The KPD was also influential in the factory council movement, which carried out many of the functions of the unions. According to Broue, “The movement of factory councils developed extremely quickly during 1923, encouraged by the militant activity of the Communists as much as by the decomposition and passivity of the reformist trade unions. These were very flexible organisations, without full-time officials, led by rank-and-file workers who were nearer to the old Social-Democratic tradition of ‘shop stewards’ than the functionaries of the trade-union apparatus.”
Of the 20,000 factory councils, the Communists had a majority in 2000. Communist-led councils also organized committees to control prices on food and rents and to fight speculation. The control committees allowed the KPD to mobilize not only workers, but women and the unemployed. However, the councils only represented individual work places and they did not have members among the armed forces.
Lastly, the KPD also took leadership of the proletarian hundreds – which were self-defense militias set up by the workers to protect their organizations, demonstrations, pickets from attacks and to engage the police and the fascists. Following the first call for the hundreds by the factory councils on March 11, they expanded rapidly. As Broue recounts, “In May 1923, there were about 300 proletarian hundreds in Germany. According to Gast this had increased to about 800 by October. This gives a total force of about 100,000 men, one-third in Saxony alone, and one-half of the total in Saxony and Thuringia together, where they were legally authorised.” The government took notice and the hundreds were banned, although not the Fascist paramilitaries.
The situation was developing rapidly as clashes erupted between the KPD and the Nazis. By June and July, a strike wave was engulfing the country. In Saxony and Thuringia, the left-wing elements of the SPD grew receptive to KPD demands to arm the working class. The government remained powerless. In August, a national strike against inflation, wage cuts and food shortages brought down the government. It seemed to the KPD that at last, revolution was on the agenda.
VIII. The lost revolution?
As part of its strategy, the KPD initially began making overtures to win over the rank-and-file fascists in March, but this line was soon dropped.In order to show that the KPD was capable of leading and coordinating a nationwide mass movement, the Party called for an “Anti-Fascist Day” on July 29 to rally against the far right. The Party's plan caught fire, being championed by the masses and denounced by the SPD and the conservatives. There was fear in the government that if the expected demonstration went off, it would lead to clashes between the left and right, which led to the demonstration being banned. Rather than challenging the ban, Party leader Brandler telegraphed Moscow and upon the advice of Stalin called off the planned demonstrations. The offensive anti-fascist demonstrations were replaced with mass meetings instead.
While the KPD shrunk from an offensive in July, the following month, as he have seen, mass strikes erupted across Germany which brought down the Cuno government. By early June, it was becoming clear to the KPD that a revolutionary situation was developing. As Broue says, “they considered that they had sufficient time to strengthen their influence within and around the proletariat, an approach that enjoyed the full support of the ECCI. During the session of the enlarged ECCI in June, no one posed the conquest of power in Germany as an immediate task.” In August, the Comintern was also convinced that the German Party needed to begin making preparations to launch a bid for power. In September, Brandler, then in Moscow requested that Trotsky be sent to Germany to lead the uprising. This was refused, and as we shall see, Trotsky and the Soviet leaders had other plans. Stillthe KPD planned for an insurrection in early November, to coincide with the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
The KPD was now preparing for war. In Germany, the party already had a military wing – which was aided by Red Army generals – that divided the country into six districts with a clear chain of command linking together the proletarian hundreds. However, the Party was desperately short of arms and despite the efforts of Comintern agents to procure them, and without them they would be no match for the German Army. In order to gain access to weapons – Brandler and the KPD agreed to enter the Social Democratic governments of Saxony and Thuringia (in line with the policy of the workers' government). The Social Democrats in these two provinces were under pressure from their base to form an alliance with the communists. On October 12, Brandler formally entered the Saxony government of the left Social Democrat, Zeigner.
Brandler knew that the Berlin government viewed the communists entering into government in Saxony and Thuringia as a threat and planned to remove them. They had sent the army in. At the same time, there was an important meeting held by the workers' conference of unions and left parties in Chemnitz to discuss the critical food situation. Brandler and the KPD hoped to gain support from the conference for a general strike in face of the army's advance that would result in an armed uprising throughout the country. The social democrats balked at the action and refused to support the communists. Shortly afterward, the KPD called off their planned insurrection. The Comintern supported the KPD's retreat. In Saxony, there were only 11,000 rifles for the hundreds and the Party itself only had 800. The Reich government, having assumed emergency powers, dissolved the Saxon government and then sent in the army into Saxony and Thuringia, ousting the communists and restoring bourgeois rule. Only in Hamburg on October 23-4, a few hundred communists, who did not receive the call that the insurrection was called off, rose up in sporadic fighting against thousands of police. In the end, the Communist Party was banned and its members arrested. The revolutionary moment in Germany had passed.
Before discussing the reasons for the failure of the German Revolution, we need to clarify the role of the USSR and the Comintern in this affair. Although it is acknowledged that the Russian workers, Red Army soldiers and the Soviet party enthusiastically supported the German Revolution, many left-wing historians such as Isaac Deutscher don't take seriously the Comintern plans to foment revolution in Germany. Deutscher says, “even if conditions in Germany had favored revolution , the artificiality and clumsiness of the plan and the remoteness of its direction and control would have been enough to to produce a failure.” And it is certainly true that the planning in Moscow was done with a great deal of wishful thinking, lack of adequate information and divorced from conditions on the ground in Germany.
Yet we now know that, the Soviet Union was willing to risk a European war in support of a German Revolution. Once the Soviet leadership was convinced that a revolution was on the agenda, they began mobilizing the Red Army to intervene. The CPSU expected that in the advent of a successful communist insurrection in Germany that the Poles, British and French would move in troops. They mobilized the Red Army and moved troops to the Polish border in expectation of war. Soviet diplomats engaged in high level negotiations with the Baltic states in order to ensure that trading routes to Germany remained open and that their troops could freely travel. Yet the Red Army was prepared to disregard its existing treaties in order to rescue the German Revolution. Although there was the beginnings of the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky within the Soviet Party on a myriad of policies, on the issue of the German Revolution, there was no disagreement. Trotsky was charged by Soviet Communist Party with preparing for the Red Army for revolutionary war. Only when it became clear that there was going to be no German Revolution did the Red Army stand down. Thus, far from not having a plan, the Soviet leadership acted in coordinated and clearheaded manner in 1923. And the end of hopes for a German October showed that the USSR was not going to break out of the capitalist encirclement in the foreseeable future and they would have go it alone.
There are a number of reasons for the failure of the German Revolution. Despite the subsequent scapegoating of Brandler by the Comintern and KPD, this was completely unfair. Pierre Broue believes that while the situation was revolutionary in 1923, the KPD had to had four major weaknesses:
One: “we must not forget that the KPD’s leaders had only had a few years’ experience, amidst difficult conditions.” Secondly, while the KPD possessed talented cadre there was no leader with the caliber of Lenin capable of taking charge of the KPD. And lastly, there was the negative influence of the SPD that made workers fear a centralized party, “The conservative character of the trade-union bureaucracy and the SPD’s apparatus had turned the most combative elements amongst the workers against the concepts of centralisation and organisation. The Communist leaders who emerged from prewar Social Democracy carried all its imprint in their tendency to passivity, and in their propensity for tailing behind events. All of this Broue believes ultimately led the KPD into an impasse and left it dependent on the mistaken directives of the Comintern, and in the end caused them retreat without a fight in 1923.
German Communist activist Rosa Levine-Meyer argues in a similar manner, although leaving the question open as to whether revolution was on the agenda, but she believes that the chances of victory were never seriously considered and in the end,
A retreat may have been inevitable. But not such a catastrophic and defenseless retreat. The workers were never able to find out by their own experience whether the revolution was 'betrayed' or whether they lost the battle in a square fight, not yet being strong enough to achieve their goal. They felt humiliated and cheated.
All of this may be true, but it does not necessarily mean that a revolution was possible in Germany. Like Broue, KPD leader August Thalheimer and others correctly recognized, the high point of the revolutionary wave was the August strike which brought down the Cuno government. The new government of Gustav Stresemann knew that without concessions than they would face a revolution. Stresemann brought the Social Democrats into his government, who proceeded to grant some of the demands of the August strike, heightening reformist illusions and he managed to stabilize the mark on August 14 and to end passive resistance in the Ruhr by September. When the KPD ultimately make their bid for power, the opportunity had already passed.
August Thalheimer identifies several other reasons for the failure of the “German October” as well. For one, the party did not win over the majority of the working class: “During 1923 it did not succeed in winning over the majority of the working class to struggle for power by means of the United Front. But this is a partial truth for without the previous success gained through the United Front tactic, the question of taking power in 1923 could not even have been raised.” And it became clear at the Chemnitz conference, the lack of majority support left the KPD isolated. Secondly, the Party's planning was done according to unrealistic timetables in Moscow. And lastly, when the KPD began organizing for an insurrection, it was not only done at an unfavorable moment, but they focused wholly on the technical side of insurrection and not on the political:
The main error of the Party consisted of this - that it believed the already drafted plan, it went on with it and thus omitted to take measures towards the political preparations for the struggle for power just limiting itself technical-organisational preparations....What kind of error is this? Is a 'right' or 'left' mistake? I believe that it is a pronounced left error to want to engage in a uprising. On the basis of purely technical organisational preparations without sufficient political preparations and preconditions.
Thus, the KPD misjudged the moment, lacked a majority behind it and neglected the political side of the insurrection.
In the end, there was to be no Communist revolution in Germany. The Soviet Republic remained isolated and had to build socialism alone. Less than ten years after the defeat of 1923, Nazi tyranny would reign triumphant across Germany. In thwarting a communist revolution, the Social Democrats ultimately paved the way for the Nazi counterrevolution. And while the German Communist Party fought heroically, they had to form a party in the midst of battle, losing their key leaders in the opening rounds, and they made a number of costly mistakes. And the German Communists also faced a capitalist class unlike that the Russian, which unfortunately possessed the ability to withstand the revolutionary onslaught and economic crisis.
“Despite Everything” in John Riddell, ed., The Communist International in Lenin's Time: The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power (New York: Pathfinder Books, 1986), 270.
Ernst Schneider, “The Wilhelmshaven Revolt: A Chapter of the Revolutionary Movement in the German Navy 1918-1919,” Marxists Internet Archive. http://www.marxists.org/subject/germany-1918-23/schneider/wilhelmshaven-revolt.htm
Pierre Broue, The German Revolution, 1917-1923 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006), 149.
Sebastian Haffner, Failure of a Revolution: Germany 1918-19 (New York: The Library Press, 1972), 77.
David Renton, Classical Marxism: Socialist Theory and the Second International (Cheltenham: New Clarion Press, 2002), 21.
Haffner 1972, 81-2.
Broue 2005, 169.
Haffner 1972, 134.
For more on Rosa Luxemburg's life see Paul Frolich, Rosa Luxemburg (London: Pluto Books, 1994).
Rosa Luxemburg, “The Beginning,” Marxists Internet Archive. http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/11/18b.htm
For more on the shop stewards see Hoffrogge, Ralf. 2011. From Unionism to Workers' Councils: The Revolutionary Shop Stewards in Germany, 1914-1918. Ours to Master and to Own: Workers' Control from the Commune to the Present, ed. Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzelini, 84-103. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Rob Sewell, “GERMANY: From Revolution to Counter-Revolution: In the Throes of Revolution,” Marxists Internet Archive. http://marxists.org/subject/germany-1918-23/sewell/chapter2.htm
Broue 2005, 199-200.
Rosa Luxemburg, “What Does the Spartacus League Want?” Marxists Internet Archive. http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/12/14.htm
Haffner 1972, 102-115.
“GERMANY: From Revolution to Counter-Revolution: In the Throes of Revolution,” (note 15).
Broue 2005, 228-234.
For the foundation of the KPD see ibid. 209-226.
 Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution: Volume III (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967) 393.
VI. Lenin, “Everything to Help the German Workers” in Riddell 1986, 27-9.
Leon Trotsky, “Military Writings Volume 1: THE CIVIL WAR AND THE INTERNATIONAL REVOLUTION,” Marxists Internet Archive. http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1918/military/ch37.htm
For Luxemburg during the Spartacist Uprising see Frolich 1994, 288-305.
“Despite Everything” in Riddell 1986, 269-71.
Rosa Luxemburg, “Order Prevails in Berlin,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1919/01/14.htm
For Broue on the Spartacist Uprising see 2005, 227-258.
Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds: Being and Event, 2 (New York: Continuum, 2009), 64-65.
Unless otherwise noted, information on the Bavarian Soviet was drawn from Harman 2003, 123-41.
For more on the Bremen uprising see Gabriel Kuhn, ed., All Power to the Councils! A Documentary History of the German Revolution of 1918-1919 (Oakland: PM Press, 2012), 149-166.
Broue 2005, 261-80.
Rosa Levine-Meyer, Levine: The Life of a Revolutionary (Glasgow: Saxon House, 1973), 89-90.
Ibid. 217-8. For differing assessments by the KPD of the Bavarian Soviet see “The Munich Experience: An Opposing View” in Paul Levi, In the Steps of Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Writings of Paul Levi (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 47-53 and “The Munich Experience” by Paul Frolich in Helmut Gruber, ed., International Communism in the Era of Lenin: A Documentary History (New York: Fawcett Books, 1967), 179-84.
Broue 2005, 453.
For Levi's background see Levi 2012, 1-32.
Broue 2005, 309.
Ibid. 79, 334, 435.
Pierre Broué, “Germany 1921: The March Action,” Marxists Internet Archive. http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/broue/works/1964/summer/march-action.htm
“Our Path: Against Putschism” in Levi 2012, 119-165.
For Levi's break with the Comintern and subsequent history see ibid. 16-31. Also see Broue 2005, 527-552.
Quoted in Broue 2005, 876.
August Thalheimer, “The Struggle for the United Front in Germany, 1920–23,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/thalheimer/works/ufront20-23.html
Broue 2005, 439.
“The Struggle for the United Front in Germany, 1920–23,” (footnote 52).
Broue 2005, 568.
See John Riddell, “A ‘workers’ government’ as a step toward socialism,” John Riddell Marxist Essays and Commentary, https://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/a-workers-government-as-a-step-toward-socialism/ and Broue 2005, 647-63.
Broue 2005, 614-625.
W.D. Angress, Stillborn Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-23 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), 285, 350.
Broue 2005, 712.
Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-1923 (Chicago: Haymarket, 2003), 246.
Broue 2005, 717.
Harman 2003, 257-61.
Isaac Deutscher, Marxism, Wars and Revolutions: Essays from Four Decades (New York: Verso Books, 1984), 162.
Harman 2003, 272.
August Thalheimer, “A Missed Opportunity? The German October Legend and the Real History of 1923,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/thalheimer/works/missed/index.htm
Broue 2005, 789, 805-809.
Ibid. 809. Rosa Levine-Meyer, Inside German Communism: Memoirs of Party Life in the Weimar Republic(London: Pluto Press, 1977), 52.
For the Hamburg Uprising see Larissa Reissner, Hamburg at the Barricades and Other Writings on Weimar Germany (London: Pluto Books, 1977), 41-110 and A. Neuberg, Armed Insurrection (New York: New Left Books, 1970), 81-104.
Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-1929 (New York: Verso Books, 2003), 118.
David Stone, “The Prospect of War? Lev Trotskii, the Soviet Army, and the German Revolution in 1923,” International History Review 25.1 (Dec. 2003): 799-817.
Broue 2005, 908.
Levine-Meyer 1977, 56.
August Thalheimer, “A Missed Opportunity? The German October Legend and the Real History of 1923,” Marxist Internet Archive. http://www.marxists.org/archive/thalheimer/works/missed/1.htm
August Thalheimer, “A Missed Opportunity? The German October Legend and the Real History of 1923,” Marxist Internet Archive. http://www.marxists.org/archive/thalheimer/works/missed/3.htm#7