The German Communist Party and the crisis of 1923

Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebnecht, murdered by the Social Democrat government.

By Graham Milner

The German Communist Party (KPD) was founded in the very heat of revolutionary struggle. One of the party's major problems from the beginning was that it was formed as a separate organisation too late to influence significantly the course of the German Revolution of 1918-19. If there had been in existence at this time a mass revolutionary party along the lines of Lenin's Bolshevik party, then there could well have been a radical reconstruction of German society into a republic of workers' councils. Instead of such an outcome, the stunted bourgeois-democratic regime of Weimar came into being, in which most of the existing state machine, including the army, judiciary and civil service, was preserved intact.[1]

Instead of leading to a socialist victory then, the January 1919 "Spartakus-week", in which the young Communist Party was pitted in armed revolt against the Ebert-Scheidermann government, produced a disastrous defeat. Rosa Luxemburg, who had argued against the staging of the precipitate revolt and in favour of KPD participation in the National Assembly elections set for January 19, 1919, and Karl Liebnecht -- the two central leaders of the party -- were assassinated on the instructions of the Social Democratic (SPD) government. Thus the Communist Party lost its two most experienced leaders, a factor that had grave consequences for the party's future development.[2]

The KPD became the German section of the Communist International, founded in 1919 on the initiative of the successful Bolshevik revolutionaries in Russia. In the early years of its history the Comintern's sections exercised a considerable degree of autonomy and initiative in decision-making, unlike the situation that was to prevail after the Stalinisation of the International in the later 1920s.[3] In fact, it could be argued that more influence from Moscow in these early years would have been useful in forestalling mistakes, mainly of an ultraleft character, by some parties.4

The KPD became a mass party when a large section of the USPD (Independent Socialists) decided to join the Comintern in 1921,[5] but ultraleft errors resulted in the mounting of the catastrophic "March Action", a failed coup attempt of that year, which isolated the party from the main ranks of the German proletariat and led to grave losses in membership.[6] The experiences of January 1919 and March 1921 led to a situation in which the party leadership was extremely concerned not to repeat ultraleft "putschist" errors, to the point where, when an insurrection did become a feasible possibility, the opportunity was missed.

The tactic pursued by the KPD after the failure of the March Action concided with a change of direction in Comintern policy. This tactical innovation was the "united front" -- an attempt to win over the masses of wavering SPD members and supporters in the working class by forming a tactical alliance against the common enemy, i.e. the capitalists and their governments.[7] This tactical line was still in place when the crisis events of 1923 unfolded.

One commentator has described in considerable detail the KPD's effective "street presence" in early Weimar Germany,[8] as well as its use of culture -- art, theatre and literature -- as an effective weapon in the class struggle.[9] A historian has claimed that the party had a rather heavy "male supremacist" approach, marginalising women members and supporters,[10] but this view is contradicted by Duncan Hallas's account, which has described effectively enough the Communist movement's progressive stance on women's issues.[11] Flechtheim's claim that the KPD was never a serious threat to the Republic, but merely served to act as a bogey for the far right to concentrate on, echoes views common during the Cold War.[12] In fact, the KPD was by far the strongest Communist party in Europe outside the USSR, and it had genuine mass implantation in the German working class.

The events of 1923 in Germany constituted an extreme crisis. As Werner T. Angress points out: "Not since 1918 had the country been so ripe for a major political and social upheaval as in that fateful year, 1923."[13] Chris Harman sees the crisis as three-pronged: consisting of the "great inflation"; the occupation of the Ruhr by French and Belgian troops, and the growth of the far right.[14]

The inflation crisis began towards the end of 1922. Its roots have been traced to the era of World War I, when the German government issued bonds and went heavily into debt.[15] In 1923, it was to the government's advantage to see the currency depleted in value. By early 1923 the rate of exchange of the German mark to the US dollar began to fall catastrophically, and as the year progressed the value of the mark fell further and further. The government continued to print paper money in fantastically high denominations. The inflation hit hardest those on fixed incomes -- pensioners, small investors and middle-class people; the middle classes in fact saw their savings wiped out. Industrialists with real assets, and speculators in foreign currency, made fortunes -- the example of Hugo Stinnes, the Ruhr magnate, who raked in vast amounts at this time, was one of the more notorious.[16] It has been pointed out that the working class was also hit hard, by falling real wages and massively increased unemployment.[17]

The Ruhr industrial area of Germany was occupied after the German government defaulted on reparations payments.[18] French and Belgian troops moved in and attempted to extract coal and other resources by force after their governments failed to persuade the Germans by "peaceful" means.[19] The government of Wilhelm Cuno -- a magnate of the Hamburg-America shipping line and a member of the Stinnes-financed German People's Party (DVP) -- launched a policy of "passive resistance". But the economic consequences were devastating and contributed to the fueling of hyperinflation by late April.

CLR James describes the deepening of working-class radicalisation in the Ruhr:

The workers in the Ruhr district took matters into their own hands with mass strikes, organised a militia, disarmed the fascist bands, fixed prices in the local markets, punished profiteers and in fact exercised political power in large areas.[20]

Alongside the radicalisation to the left came a growth in fascist and far-right activity. Bavaria continued as a centre for right-wing agitation and some sections of the middle classes, made desperate by the inflation crisis, sympathised with the right. Adolf Hitler, at this time a significant figure in Bavarian provincial politics, attempted to take advantage of the situation, as we shall see below.[21]

The radicalisation to the left proceeded apace and by the summer of 1923 a genuine revolutionary situation unfolded. A massive strike wave developed and a movement to elect factory councils began to raise the political question of workers' power, especially in the Ruhr. As Chris Harman writes:

A local conference of the factory councils on 20 May brought together 20 delegates from 60 workplaces, and in the week that followed the strike closed all mines and most of the big factories in the core area of the Ruhr between Dortmund and Essen... At this high point of the struggle there were 300,000 strikers, about half the miners and metal workers of the Ruhr.[22]

Armed formations of workers were created all over the country, known as "Proletarian hundreds", mainly to fight the extreme right.[23] At this time many commentators noted the drift in support within the working class from the Social Democratic Party, with its mass trade union formation (the ADGB), to the KPD.[24] The Communist Party's membership grew by 70,000, or about a third.[25] Helga Grebing, no friend of the revolutionary left, acknowledges that "the mood of the workers became so revolutionary that it seems safe to assume... that, in the summer of 1923, the majority of the German workers were in sympathy with the German Communist Party".[26]

The social-democratic historian Julius Brauthal accepts that a "revolutionary situation" existed in the summer of 1923, but attributes the failure of the left to act decisively to the divided character of the labour movement in Germany -- a product, as he sees it, of the splitting of that movement by the Comintern.[27] But L. Peterson, in his excellent survey of the labour movement in Rhineland-Westphalia in this period, places the blame for the paralysis on the SPD and ADGB bureaucracies, which at every stage attempted to stymie any action by the working class.[28]

The KPD's policies had been vitiated from the beginning of the Ruhr crisis by the line emanating from Karl Radek, a Polish-born revolutionary active in the Comintern leadership and at that time in Germany, who had publically praised the activities of a Freikorps partisan named Schlageter, shot by the French occupying forces for "terrorist" outrages.[29] Radek's attempt to forge an alliance with the fascist right around a nationalist program disorientated the KPD. Furthermore, the party was wedded to a defensive implementation of the united front line at a time when an offensive stance was required.[30] A proposed "Anti-Fascist Day" scheduled for July 29 was cancelled after vacillations by the Brandler leadership.[31] Yet this non-event was followed by a huge strike wave. Even the government's printing works, so essential to the production of paper money, was shut down.[32] The Cuno government was forced out, to be replaced by a coalition regime headed by the National People's Party (DNVP) leader Gustav Stresemann.[33] The KPD, faced with this vast crisis, had shown -- in the words of Rosa Levine-Meyer, at this time a party member -- "no clear strategy and no appreciation of the obvious revolutionary possibilities".[34]

As Chris Harman explains: "One immediate effect of the Cuno strike was to waken the international Communist movement -- and the leaders of the Russian Communist Party -- to what was happening in Germany."[35] The leaders of the Russian party believed that a revolutionary opportunity was opening in Germany and, with the, at first, reluctant agreement of Brandler and the KPD leadership, preparations for an armed insurrection were put in place. Trotsky even wanted a specific date to be allocated.[36] Considerable resources were devoted to the technical preparations for the rising.

In Saxony and Thuringia, strategically placed in central Germany, Communist ministers entered the Landtags (provincial legislatures) -- strongholds of the left social democrats. These "workers' governments" were to be the springboards for a general insurrection to be carried out on the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, November 7.[37] But the German central government, perceiving the threat from the left, moved against the Zeigner government in Saxony, sending in troops under the emergency article 48 of the Weimar constitution.[38] A conference of left forces called at Chemnitz in Saxony to discuss tactics resulted in the rejection by left social democrats of a call for a general strike proposed by Brandler and the KPD.[39] Consequently, the plan for the insurrection, dependent upon social-democratic support, was called off. The feverish preparations for the general uprising, which had been underway for weeks, petered out inconclusively.

But the "revolution" did not quite expire without a shot being fired. Due to a failure in liason, Communist forces in Hamburg were not informed of the Chemnitz conference decision, and went into action as pre-arranged. Hamburg was not a centre of Communist strength by any means,[40] but the absence of support for the armed rising by KPD members there in October was in any case clearly in evidence, as the few insurgents found themselves rapidly outgunned by the police and auxiliary forces brought to bear against them.[41] Ernst Thalmann, later to be the central leader of the KPD, and the party's presidential candidate in 1932, played an important role in the Hamburg "insurrection", and his role in it was romanticised by the Stalinised KPD and later by GDR historians.[42]

It is true, as Harman writes, that millions of starving, desperate Germans were hoping for action from the left in the crisis of 1923, but nevertheless the verdict of most historians is that the "revolution" of November 1923 could not possibly have succeeded against the highly disciplined and well-organised Reichswehr (the German army), to say nothing of right-wing paramilitaries and Freikorps elements.[43] The revolutionary crisis had really ended with the formation of the Stresemann cabinet, and with that government's termination of the campaign of passive resistance, its stabilisation of the mark and its promulgation of "fulfilment" regarding reparations payments.

Trotsky retained the view that only a conscious forward policy by the KPD could have tested the relationship of forces in November 1923, and he remained critical of the KPD leadership for not taking advantage of the crisis.[44] Some Trotskyist writers, such as CLR James[45] and Oscar Hippe[46] have attributed the "failure of nerve" in November 1923 to Stalin's influence in the Comintern, but, as Harman points out, in fact Stalin's influence at this stage was not sufficient to have such an effect.[47]

The immediate consequences of the defeat of the "German October" were considerable, not just for the KPD but for the German working class as a whole, as Ben Fowkes observes.[48] The eight-hour day and other social and economic gains accruing from the revolution of 1918-19 were lost -- in mining and heavy industry working hours were extended to 59 a week.[49] With the intervention of Zinoviev's Comintern leadership into KPD affairs, and the dismissal of Brandler and Thalheimer, the German party was to lose the freedom of movement it had previously enjoyed -- a process that continued later into the 1920s, as the Stalin faction gained hegemony over the international Communist movement.[50]

But the broader implications of the failure of the German Communists in 1923 spilled over into the international arena. The growing factional conflict in the Russian party, as the triumvirate of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin jockied for hegemony over Trotsky and his supporters, while Lenin was incapacitated and dying, became tied in with recriminations over the debacle in Germany. EJ Feuchtwanger has argued in his history of Weimar Germany that, had the November insurrection been successful, it could have had a major influence on the outcome of the infighting around the succession to Lenin. It would probably have helped Trotsky and at least hindered the advance of Stalin.[51]

Ruth Fischer, the leader of the KPD "left", in her idiosyncratic memoir, paradoxically defends Brandler's role in the 1923 events, describing how he was made a scapegoat for the failure of the "German October" by the Comintern, and that he had "every right to feel himself unjustly treated".[52] One does not have to concur with Hans Mommsen's stated disbelief in any revolutionary potential among the German working class in 1923[53] to recognise the accuracy of Arthur Rosenberg's observation, made in the 1930s, that the defeat in Germany in 1923 came as the second (decisive) defeat for the Comintern in Europe after Mussolini's triumph in Italy.[54]

Those political forces in Germany seeking to emulate Mussolini's 1922 "March on Rome" also made their bid for power in 1923. Hitler's then little-known band of street brawlers and racist fanatics, the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP), attempted to seize power in the Munich "Beer Hall putsch" of November that year.[55] The Stresemann government succeeded in steering the Weimar republic through this minor crisis also, but in retrospect the attempted Munich putsch of Hitler and his allies seems historically more prescient than the failed Communist rising of 1923.

Franz Borkenau, in his perceptive history of the Comintern, argues that the unsuccessful Hitler putsch of 1923 appears as a prelude to the Nazi triumph of January 1933, much as the abortive Russian revolution of 1905, and the Moscow Bolshevik rising of that year, stand to the victory of Lenin in 1917.[56]

Two major consequences of the failure of the "German October" were: first, it contributed towards the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet state; and second, it contributed towards the destruction of the KPD as a revolutionary party, thus removing it as a serious obstacle to the Nazi triumph in 1933. The history of this failure thus has a tragic dimension that should not be forgotten.


1. On the German Revolution, see Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-1923 (London, rev. ed., 1997), chapters 3, 4; and Richard K. Watt, The Kings Depart: The German Revolution and the Treaty of Versailles 1918-19 (Harmondsworth, 1973), parts 2 and 3.

2. See J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (Oxford, abridged ed., 1969), chapters 15 and 16.

3. On Comintern history, see Duncan Hallas, The Comintern (London, 1985); Fernando Claudin, The Communist Movement: from Comintern to Cominform (Harmondsworth, 1975).

4. See the documents on the debate around Lenin's pamphlet Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder in Helmut Gruber (ed.), International Communism in the Era of Lenin: a Documentary History (New York, 1972), part 2, ch. 5.

5. Ben Fowkes, Communism in Germany Under the Weimar Republic (London, 1984), ch. 3.

6. Ibid.

7. On the "united front", see ibid., ch. 4; for background see Jane Degras, "United Front Tactics in the Comintern 1921-1928", David Footman (ed.), St. Antony's Papers No. 9: "International Communism" (London, 1960), pp. 9-22.

8. See Eric D. Weitz, Creating German Communism 1890-1990 (Princeton, N.J., 1997), ch. 5.

9. W.L. Guttsman, Workers' Culture in Weimar Germany: Between Tradition and Commitment (Oxford, 1990), ch. 3

10. Weitz, Creating German Communism, ch. 6 "The Gendering of German Communism".

11. The Comintern, pp. 51-3.

12. O. Flechtheim, "The Role of the Communist Party", in T. Eschenburg, et al., The Road to Dictatorship 1918-1933 (London, 1970), p. 109.

13. Stillborn Revolution: The Communist Bid for Power in Germany 1921-23 (Port Washington, N.J., 1972), vol. 2, p. 288.

14. The Lost Revolution, pp. 223-4.

15. On the inflation crisis, see G.D. Feldman, The Great Disorder: Politics, Economics and Society in the German Inflation 1914-1924 (Oxford, 1993), esp. book two, parts 5, 6; Steven B. Webb, Hyperinflation and Stabilisation in Weimar Germany (Oxford, 1989); and G. Holtfrerich, The German Inflation 1914-1923: Cause and Effects in International Perspective (Berlin/New York, 1986).

16. Harman, The Lost Revolution, pp. 223-24.

17. See R.J. Evans and D. Geary (eds), The German Unemployed 1918-1936 (London, 1987), pp. 3-4; also Charles S. Maier, Recasting Bourgeois Europe: Stabilisation in France, Italy and Germany in the Decade After World War One (Princeton N.J., 1975) pp. 362-3.

18. Background to the reparations clauses in the Versailles Treaty, see Watt, The Kings Depart, ch. 15.

19. See Bruce Kent, The Spoils of War: the Politics, Economics and Diplomacy of Reparations 1918-1932 (Oxford, 1989), ch. 6.

20. World Revolution 1917-36 (London, 1937), p. 176.

21. On Hitler in this period, see Joachim Fest, Hitler (Harmondsworth, 1977), book two, chapters 3, 4; and Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (Harmondsworth, rev. ed., 1962), book one, ch. 2.

22. Harman, The Lost Revolution, p. 243.

23. Ibid., pp. 241-42.

24. Angress, Stillborn Revolution, vol. 2, p. 291; Franz Borkenau, The Communist International (London, 1938), p. 247; Julius Braunthal, History of the International 1914-1943 (London, 1967), p. 275; and L. Peterson, German Communism: Workers' Protest and Labor Unions: the Politics of the United Front in Rhineland-Westphalia 1920-1924 (Dordrecht, 1993), p. 214.

25. Harman, The Lost Revolution, p. 246.

26. History of the German Labour Movement: A Survey (Leamington Spa, 1985), p. 116.

27. History of the International, vol. 2, pp.283-4.

28. L. Peterson, German Communism..., p. 216.

29. Warren Lerner, Karl Radek: The Last Internationalist (Stanford, 1970), pp. 120-3.

30. A point made by John Hiden, Republican and Fascist Germany: Themes and Variations in the History of Weimar and the Third Reich 1918-1945 (London, 1996), p. 65.

31. Harman, The Lost Revolution, pp. 257-60. See also James, World Revolution, pp. 176-7.

32. Harman, The Lost Revolution, p. 264.

33. Ibid., pp. 266-68.

34. Inside German Communism: Memoirs of Party Life in the Weimar Republic (London, 1977), p.7.

35. Harman, The Lost Revolution, p. 271.

36. See Leon Trotsky's arguments in The First Five Years of the Communist International, vol.2 (New York, 1972), p.349.

37. Harman, The Lost Revolution, pp. 278-9.

38. Richard Breitman, German Socialism and Weimar Democracy (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1981), pp. 106-7.

39. Angress, Stillborn Revolution, vol. 2, pp. 441-42.

40. Harman, The Lost Revolution, points out that there were only 1400 Communists in the city, compared with 78,000 SPD members.

41. See the account of the rising in Richard Comfort, Revolutionary Hamburg: Labor Politics in the Early Weimar Republic (Stanford, 1966), pp. 124-8.

42. See ibid., p. 127. For the GDR view of the "German October", see Andreas Dorpalen, German History in Marxist Perspective: The East German Approach (Detroit, 1985), pp. 338-46. Larissa Reissner's highly romanticised account, Hamburg at the Barricades (London, 1977), contributed to the mythology of this event in Communist history.

43. See E.H. Carr, The Interregnum 1923-24 (Harmondsworth, 1969), p. 220. On the Reichswehr's position, see Harold J. Gordon, The Reichswehr and the German Republic 1919-1926 (Princeton, N.J., 1957), p. 366. Other commentators who have pointed out the futility of the proposed November rising include Angress, Stillborn Revolution, vol. 2, p. 475; Borkenau, The Communist International, p. 251; and Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-1929 (Oxford, 1970), p. 143.

44. See "The Lessons of October", The Challenge of the Left Opposition, 1923-1925 (New York, 1975), pp. 199-258.

45. World Revolution, pp. 180-81.

46. And Red is the Colour of Our Flag: Memories of Sixty Years in the Workers' Movement (London, 1991), pp. 75-6.

47. Harman, The Lost Revolution, p. 295.

48. Communism in Germany Under the Weimar Republic, p. 109.

49. Ibid. See also Comfort, Revolutionary Hamburg, p. 128.

50. See Angress, Stillborn Revolution, vol. 2, p. 478; and Carr, The Interregnum, p. 251.

51. From Weimar to Hitler: Germany 1918-33 (New York, 2nd ed., 1995), p. 131; James, World Revolution, p. 187, emphasises the point.

52. Stalin and German Communism (Cambridge, Mass., 1948), p. 349.

53. The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1996), p. 149.

54. A History of Bolshevism: From Marx to the First Five Year Plan (New York, 1967; 1934), p. 213.

55. On the Munich putsch, see Fest, Hitler, book two, ch. 4; William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (London, 1964), pp. 87-107; and Robert G.L. Waite, Vanguard of Nazism: The Free Corps Movement in Postwar Germany 1918-1923 (New York, 1969), ch. 9.

56. The Communist International, p. 248.