Germany 1923: Crucible of world revolution

German revolution

First published at Spectre.

Confidence in the government of the Reich is completely shaken, the mood has bottomed out… Fury is general. The atmosphere is charged with electricity. One spark is enough to ignite the explosion. Here reigns the spirit of November 9.1

A mass crisis rocks the population of Germany after the First World War. Shattered are everyday people’s routines, expectations, and assumptions about the world around them. Social reality is irrevocably changed. All ties of meaning rooted in previous social relations are no longer reliable, and in the midst of this disorientation, rapid adaptation is demanded. After the initial shock, the world seems a lot more malleable. Things don’t have to be the way that they are. Couple that with relentless attacks on people’s sense of self, their dignity, and their ability to survive, and after a few months it seems reasonable to burn down a police station.

This scenario took place in Germany not just once, but four times in the space of four years, with revolutionary uprisings each time. These experiences shaped the worldviews of the German population at the outset of 1923, in the midst of disastrous hyperinflation, as the French Army marched into the Ruhr industrial region. The Weimar Republic was flammable material.

In 1923, the hour of the global Communist movement had struck. From within the young Republic on the brink of total collapse, the most powerful workers’ movement in the world prepared for revolution.

Five years earlier, a sweeping movement of workers’ and soldiers’ councils had overthrown the German monarchy in the November Revolution of 1918. In its wake, a precarious class compromise was reached between the Social Democratic trade unions and the representatives of German industry, institutionalizing the eight-hour day for workers at the same time as it protected German capital from expropriation and ensured its role in the post-revolutionary social order. Temporarily suppressed, the antagonism between capitalist profitability and the very survival of German working people would go on to animate a series of explosive conflicts in the political, social, and economic terrain.

The German workers’ movement had held out against international capitalist reaction for years longer than in France, Britain, and the U.S., maintaining at all costs the 8-hour day and high employment levels by sheer organized power expressed in regular political strikes and uprisings. In the face of wretched social conditions in Germany, workers had no other choice. With each shift by their erstwhile Social Democratic leaders in power to maintain the status quo at the expense of ordinary people, workers moved left and right, polarizing the social conflict intensely. Underneath the crisis, two visions competed to overtake the future: on the one hand, the genocidal anti-Semitic fascism of the growing Nazi threat in Bavaria, and on the other, the expansive realm of freedom and dignity articulated by the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).

From the foundation of the republic, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) stepped in to lead the governing coalition and manage the roiling class conflict. Under their leadership, the Weimar government restored some political stability through a bloody campaign of repression in 1919. But the following year, a short-lived reactionary coup and a military campaign to put down the subsequent left-wing uprising in the industrial heartland of Germany severely damaged the government’s democratic credibility. In the elections of summer 1920, leadership of the stable core of Weimar’s governing coalition shifted from the SPD to the Center party. By then, an international recession was settling in, prompting Britain, France, and the U.S. to initiate deflationary measures and provoking mass unemployment to restore economic profitability. Powerless against the insurgent workers’ movement, Germany’s leaders shrank from such a risky maneuver.

In Germany, the government maintained artificially high employment levels in the private sector at the cost of redundancy and inefficiency through a number of measures. Most notably, a November 8, 1920 decree (Stillegungsverordnung) represented “a profound interference with the rights of the factory owner and ran against traditional principles of capitalist economics” by restricting factories from closing and providing various other subsidizations of private firms.2 The precarious situation persisted for the next year and a half, with German industrial profitability maintained through a combination of export controls, conscious manipulation of the currency,3 and foreign short-term credit.4

1921-22: Year of the united front

During this period, a seemingly unending stream of rank-and-file workplace actions repeatedly forced employers to concede wage increases, which they often passed off as price increases in order to maintain smooth production during the export ‘boom’ that accompanied the depreciation of the mark. A steady inflation resulted, jumpstarted by the “wage push” of worker actions in August of 1921.5 Intensified workplace struggles at this time coincided with a new Communist policy in the trade unions and other spheres that came to be called the United Front.

The United Front policy shifted Communist strategy away from programmatic demands and propaganda and toward practical initiatives in workplaces and in the streets to secure the immediate needs of working people. Such “partial” struggles were conceived not as ends in and of themselves, but as means to unleash a dynamic of collective self-reliance and action among workers that could lead far beyond the circumstantial demands. Consequently, the United Front also entailed a shift in emphasis from representative politics and rhetorical sloganeering toward the self-activity of the rank and file, whose direct collective actions would build up confidence and trust among workers across party-political lines.6

From the summer of 1921 until mid-1922, the KPD creatively applied the new policy under the cool-headed leadership of Ernst Meyer, in the process building out the approach from a tactic to a method, and finally into the “overarching strategy” for the period.7 Through a series of economic and political campaigns, the KPD re-established its positions within broader working-class formations like the unions and overcame its isolation from workers of other parties, especially in Rhineland-Westphalia and the Ruhr industrial region.8

A new phase of the German revolutionary process began abruptly at the end of June 1922. On the Reparations Commission, the head of the bankers committee J.P. Morgan declared that no loans would be made available to Germany until the reparations debt was scaled down. Twelve days later when pro-Western German foreign minister Walther Rathenau was assassinated, confidence in the Germany currency and domestic stability were shattered, provoking a recall of foreign loans. In face of peaking industrial overcapacity and a sudden credit shortage, the newly autonomous German Reichsbank resorted to printing discounted private bills in order to prevent the collapse of the German economy.9 The economic recovery of Germany’s western competitors by the second half of 1922 began eroding Germany’s export advantage, bringing on stagflation and the close of the inflation boom, thus preparing the way for the onset of hyperinflation and entrenched polarization in industrial relations.10

The domestic situation in Germany shifted drastically at this time as well. The assassination of Walter Rathenau by extreme right-wing forces came after a series of political murders by the right. In response, the Communists successfully initiated immediate joint action by the workers’ parties to purge the state apparatus and Reichswehr of far-right extremists and dissolve anti-Republican armed groups. Every major city in Germany saw mass demonstrations within three days: “The crowds, massed under the floating banners, advanced like living walls of close-packed bodies. They filled the cities with the thunder of their tread, and made the air vibrate with the roar of their sullen anger.”11 However, the SPD subsequently distanced themselves from joint mass action with the Communists in favor of a parliamentary approach, namely cooperation with the People’s Party in the Reichstag to pass a “law in defense of the Republic,” which was ultimately to be implemented by the very police and the courts that had been permeated by the far right.12

In the wake of Rathenau’s assassination, a powerful demonstration of workers’ organizations had also occurred in Bavaria. But soon thereafter, far right forces including the NSDAP seized the moment to ensure any federal law would not impinge the autonomy of the Bavarian courts and police, which seethed with reactionary elements. While the Bavarian social democrats refused to mobilize against fascists and instead “put all their hope in the triumph of the federal government,” the nationalists made their moves. On the 16th of August, the NSDAP organized a joint demonstration with other elements of the Bavarian far right for “the defense of Bavaria against the Reich,” drawing 60,000 people. A veritable street massacre occurred when Nazi SA troops opened fire on left-wing protestors.13 “Just six weeks after the mass demonstrations of workers’ organizations, the extreme right in Munich had regained the initiative.”14

Hyperinflation and the re-emergence of the council movement

As the money and wage system began to disintegrate, working-class women began to take on the central role in securing daily necessities for their households.15 Women-led food riots at markets, a tell-tale sign of impending upheaval, flourished as inflation eroded purchasing power. In September, working women’s demonstrations and riots in Eberswalde, Braunschweig, Hamborn, Bochum, and Munich faced police repression.16 Already in August, “control committees” were formed to set and maintain prices and rents against the increasingly chaotic inflation. Initiated largely by women and youth, the control committees helped to coordinate the anti-inflation protests in various locales, laying a foundation for the re-emergence of the council movement that had been relentlessly suppressed two years prior.17

The onset of hyperinflation and the failure of a united front effort after Rathenau’s assassination prompted an adjustment in KPD strategy that coincided with staunch communist trade unionist Heinrich Brandler’s return to the leadership of the party. From early August 1922, the KPD’s united front policy shifted to open up more room for independent Communist initiative in strikes and political confrontations with capital while still maintaining an emphasis on cross-party rank-and-file action.18 Building on the movement of price control committees and the mass demonstrations after Rathenau’s assassination, the KPD decided in late August to hold a nationwide gathering of works (or factory) councils for mid-September.

Works councils had persisted in severely limited form after their independent role was subordinated to the free trade unions in October 1920. As wildcat strikes replaced more routine union bargaining strategies in the fall of 1922, the works councils took on new national prominence as more flexible and politically sensitive organizations led by rank-and-file workers more akin to shop stewards than union functionaries.19

Throughout the fall, the KPD leadership focused its efforts on the organic development of these movements. “It is not a question of agitation according to some general schema, but rather we must try in every locale to achieve practical results,” Brandler stated at an October 14 meeting with regional party leaders, going on to cite some control commissions’ success in procuring cheap potatoes and reduced prices.20 Hugo Urbahns’ comments at the same meeting emphasize the continued united front mission of the KPD in the new councils and committees: “In some locales control committees have formed directly out of communities,“ he reported, “Control committees confront concrete tasks and it is through them that we gain connections with the masses. In general, more value should be accorded the work in the control committees and organizational work.”21

But the workers’ movement wasn’t the only force reacting to the squeeze of hyperinflation. The employers’ offensive escalated dramatically in the autumn of 1922. In September, the umbrella industrial organization Reichsverband der deutschen Industrie decided to prioritize the creation of “domestic economic order” over foreign policy, and the increase of labor productivity over monetary stabilization, primarily to avoid stabilizing wages at too high a level.22 Employers targeted the eight-hour day as a means to push workers to work more hours for the same pay.23 By making the eight-hour day the centerpiece of their campaign, heavy industrialists took aim not just at the chief symbolic victory of the November revolution, but at the core of the entire post-revolutionary balance of class forces in the Weimar Republic. Conflicts around working time and the working day were crucial aspects of the immediate relationship of workers to their bosses, and simultaneously a question of acceptable employment levels in the ailing German economy.24

The heavy industrialists’ campaign reached its pinnacle in Hugo Stinnes’ famous speech on the fourth anniversary of the November Revolution calling for a ban on all wage conflict and strikes.25 The speech was followed five days later by the resignation of the Center government under chancellor Wirth, which was widely perceived as lacking in will and unable to force workers to increase productivity. For a year and a half, the galloping inflation had represented a means—albeit imperfect—of domestic economic reconstruction and relative social peace due to high employment. As the businessman Wilhelm Cuno took over the chancellorship and formed a government of technocrats, confidence in the currency plummeted and the Allies pressed for soaring reparations payments. Industrialists insisted on their demands to break the revolutionary labor movement, and for the economists at the helm of the Weimar Republic, the options that would maintain class peace had dried up. A consensus developed that stabilization was finally necessary. On whose terms the stabilization would occur, however, was fiercely contested. Financial columnist Georg Bernhard summarized the stakes at the end of 1922:

One must therefore accept the fact that the year 1923 will under all circumstances be a crisis year… Disturbances of the economic mechanism in a capitalist economic order cannot be eliminated without crises. And it is under all circumstances better that we have a stabilization crisis as a transitional crisis with hope for a rapid final recovery than an inflationary crisis, which has to end in complete stagnation and the dying out of the German economy or with a social revolution.26

As winter approached, the long-suppressed class conflict was emerging in earnest.

Spring 1923: The occupation of the Ruhr

At Christmas 1922, Georg Lukács sat down at his desk to put the finishing touches on his seminal History and Class Consciousness just as the German hyperinflation reached its pre-occupation peak. The New Year witnessed the theory of ‘reified’ social relations rooted in the exchange of commodities emerge onto an economy which was itself in a state of almost total dissolution.

Market riots and looting of food proliferated in almost every German city at the end of 1922, a desperate defense against the catastrophic inflation. Far from “spontaneous,” these movements found their logistical backbone in the neighborhood networks of housewives, which through their resourcefulness and solidarity provided the political initiative for the broader movement even as wage movements in the factories lost their meaning.27 At the beginning of the new year, these proletarian housewives set up control committees independently across many major cities and industrial regions.28

When French troops occupied the Ruhr industrial region starting on January 11, 1923, German heavy industry suspended their conflict with the government, and both shifted their priority toward a cross-class and cross-party economic resistance, otherwise known as “passive resistance.” Expected by all parties concerned to last for a relatively short duration, passive resistance involved sending aid to German firms and workers while coordinating noncooperation. The efforts aimed to secure a reduction of French reparations demands and an international loan, although the general consensus recognized that both would be paid for through increased German productivity.29 Sharp distributional conflicts that had surfaced in the latter half of 1922 were thus temporarily suspended. As Gerald Feldman notes, however, “the entire question of how the social and economic burdens of a settlement would be distributed within German society hung like a black cloud over the entire passive resistance effort.”30

Within the occupied Ruhr, German state institutions were suppressed by the French military, so the Cuno strategy of passive resistance relied on a collaboration of employer associations and trade unions. Reprising their wartime role of de facto executors of the conservative government’s national front, the trade unions attempted to retain some minimal influence on the government while also remaining independent enough to have influence over workers. Paralysis resulted. Over the course of the spring, as the hyperinflation severely ate into union finances and basic union functions went unfulfilled, union organization in Rhineland-Westphalia atrophied and credibility sharply declined.31

In their place, the works council movement quickly took over direction of the growing social explosion. Communist works councils in the Ruhr gathered less than two weeks after the occupation began, endorsing the KPD campaign for a “two-front war” against French and German capitalists. A full-fledged congress of works councils in Essen on March 11 drew much larger numbers than the previous October, including many free trade union delegates who attended despite threats of expulsion from their unions. The congress was dominated by the Communists, drawing strength especially from large steel mills and textile factories in which women workers predominated.32 Women in light industry and textiles in other regions, notably Berlin, Saxony, and Thuringia, also flocked to the KPD in union elections.33 Many women workers, often spurned as “wage-cutters” and competitors for male jobs, remained aloof from formal union politics however, and in the economic chaos articulated their demands through wildcat strikes.34

Two months after Mussolini’s March on Rome, fascism festered in Bavaria. The French occupation of the Ruhr accelerated the growth of racist far-right organizations in Bavaria to a degree not seen since August 1914.35 Under a new state of emergency law from the federal government, the Bavarian state had the opportunity to close down a planned NSDAP party convention in January. Instead, all left-wing assemblies were banned and when the Bavarian KPD approached the SPD to jointly occupy the convention center to prevent the Nazi gathering, the SPD declined and the convention went on undisturbed. By March 1923, a north-Bavarian KPD internal report spoke of a “kind of guerilla war between workers and the fascist organizations”: “In numerous locales of the district it came to multiple clashes, in the course of which the army, Bavarian state police, and Schutzpolizei, as well as the state bureaucracy, were always the protectors of the fascist organizations.”36

Already in the fall of 1922, Nazi meetings and demonstrations in Munich drew more participants than the meetings of the workers’ parties and unions. Munich was also the organizational headquarters of the Nazi’s Sturmabteilung, which could “dominate the streets of Munich relatively unchallenged already in December 1922” and continued to professionalize over the course of the spring. In response, left-wing self-defense organizations were formed, although given their smaller numbers, their tactical approach always relied on cooperation among the workers’ parties and action within a broader frame of large-scale mobilizations from local workers. An omnipresent consciousness pervaded Bavaria—from the debates in the Bavarian parliament to the internal reports of the police, to the discussions in the party presses across the political spectrum—that these street battles were but precursors to a larger civil-war style conflict.37

The national front against the French proved beneficial to the growth of the far right in the Ruhr as well. When the French expelled the German militarized police force in mid-February, it left only right-wing groups and employer’ agents to police public order. The KPD responded to the growing fascist threat by actively organizing rank-and-file paramilitary groups, the “Proletarian Hundreds,” not only in the Ruhr and Bavaria, but also Saxony and Thuringia. At first, KPD-controlled unions organized the Hundreds as an example to other locals in Rhineland-Westphalia. The formation of self-defense organizations spread across the region under the leadership of the factory councils and organized around the workplace rather than as hierarchical paramilitary organizations. The Proletarian Hundreds drew their numbers from rank-and-file workers across party lines, including many Social Democrats defying their own party leaders in order to join them.38

Cuno’s conservative administration stayed the course of passive resistance over the course of the spring. From February to April, the Reichsbank backed a mark stabilization effort with its remaining gold and foreign exchange resources while the government bankrolled the upkeep of Ruhr firms by issuing them large-scale credits. Combined with industrialists’ price restraint, the government efforts successfully arrested the fall of the exchange rate in February and March. But on April 18, the mark support action collapsed, giving way to a new period of rapid mark depreciation, the abandonment of pricing restraint in May, and the breakdown of the union-sponsored wage stabilization efforts that had been in effect during the mark support action.39 Social unrest revitalized on a mass scale.

The official institutions of reform, the free trade unions and the SPD, were by now inextricably bound up as the impotent junior partners in the national front of employers, state, and capitalist parties. The utter inability of the unions to secure the basic existence of workers in these conditions discredited them, and severely limited any direct role in strikes or protests in Rhineland-Westphalia after May 1923.40 By that time, French seizures and customs barriers had thrown numerous German workers out of work, and unemployment in the Ruhr and Germany had also reached its peak.41

Alongside the thickening networks of the factory councils and the control committees, the growing numbers of unemployed began to organize themselves. In mid-February, the KPD called for new elections to unemployed councils, which were gathering momentum as organizational forces. Over the heads of the union leaders, Ruhr unemployed councils escalated demonstrations and occupations of city halls in March and April. By late April, the unemployed councils, backed by the KPD but pushing beyond the Communist tactics in the moment, were presenting a serious challenge to the unions by demanding work, equality, and decent treatment for the unemployed—demands that employers would not grant and unions dared not take on.42 The syndicalist-dominated unemployed council in Mülheim led a protest on April 18 that developed spontaneously into insurrection, with four days of armed confrontation at hastily assembled barricades.43

The KPD leadership (the Zentrale), now with Brandler at the helm, maintained a steady course on the united front through the growing council formations, taking over unions and cooperatives, and calling for a “workers’ government” as a step toward cohering the forces for social revolution.44 Even as the communists won a growing proportion of votes in the factory council elections in 1922 and 1923, they warned against confusing these elections with the entrance of the masses into the revolutionary class struggle. According to their perspective, the KPD alone could not solve the problems of the working class. For that, workers must take things into their own hands. An article in the Kommunistischer Gewerschafter articulated the perspective on worker self-activity:

We must be very clear with the workers that they must fight for their liberation themselves, and that the party can only realize their demands when they are based on the actions of the working class. But is it enough simply to say to the workers to follow us into the struggle? No! We must first prove it to them through the praxis of their everyday lives.45

At the same time, the desperate movements in the Ruhr were posing a challenge to KPD leaders’ attempts to maintain the pacing of a coherent national strategy. A growing strategic cleft opened up within the KPD after the party’s 8th Party Congress at the end of January. A new left opposition around Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow, based largely in Berlin, challenged the leadership of the Zentrale, disparaging the united front strategy as opportunist collaboration. After the failure of the Left opposition to get elected to the leadership, relations with the Zentrale soured considerably, eventually necessitating mediation in Moscow by early May.46

As the blast furnaces and steel mills of the Ruhr began grinding to a halt in early summer, productive volume and exports fell substantially, dipping below 1920 levels.47 Steel industrialists sought and received government funding first for unproductive wage costs, then also for a whole array of unproductive operating costs, in an attempt to prevent plants from shutting down and thereby risking widespread unemployment.48 Although increasingly inadequate, the measures were maintained throughout the passive resistance efforts.49 Wages continued to fall and unemployment supports collapsed. In May, unemployment peaked in both the Ruhr and Germany. The national front between workers and employers (with union leaderships vacillating in between) began to disintegrate.50

Amidst failing arbitrations with employers, workers in Ruhr heavy industry and mining struck by themselves on May 16. The wildcat strike launched a torch into a field brimming with kindling. A mass rank-and-file strike wave enveloped Rhineland-Westphalia, bubbling over into open insurrection in some areas, and catching the KPD completely by surprise.51 Larry Peterson’s detailed study pinpoints the crux of the conjuncture for the Communists: “the gap between conditions in Rhineland-Westphalia and the rest of Germany was becoming too great for the KPD’s tactics to bridge.”52

The May strike wave in the Ruhr had differed significantly from previous mass strike waves in several ways. First, it brought in workers from deep into Social Democratic ranks, including even hitherto conservative workers. Secondly, the strikers were able to use the various council infrastructures to expand the strike independent of Communist coordination. At the same time, factionalism prevented the KPD from acting as a unified party until a compromise was reached in Moscow. Finally, the “offensive, rank-and-file dynamic” of the movement “led inexorably to spontaneous, self-defensive insurrections.”53 The specter of the March 1920 armed revolutionary uprisings had been summoned from deep within the mines.

The Communist Zentrale felt compelled to intervene. To avoid an isolated and exposed insurrectionary action, the KPD met in Essen on May 25 with district and subdistrict leaders to push for a controlled end to the strike. The next day they issued a national proclamation which placed “special weight on emphasizing only the wage struggle, the present impossibility of leading a political power struggle, and the necessity of forming a united front against fascists.”54 Over the following week, the KPD and allied left-wing unions of the region deployed all the resources at their disposal, including their moral authority as leaders of the revolutionary left, to stop the expansion of the strike and bring the movement under centralized control, persuading the wildcat strikers to accept an agreement reached by the free trade unions.

KPD leaders themselves were confident that had the KPD continued to politicize the strikes, full proletarian rule in the Ruhr would have been well within reach.55 Behind the works councils, unemployed councils, control committees and Proletarian Hundreds stood the Communist Party, though the real power of these bodies depended upon the support that rank-and-file workers gave them. These institutions—the living embodiments of the United Front—drew their strength from their direct rootedness in workplaces and neighborhoods, allowing them to transcend the traditional separation between “economic” and “political” organizations while initiating effective action in all spheres. Their rank-and-file structure and appeal were, in the words of Larry Peterson, “the keys to turning the amorphous discontent and spontaneous radicalism into a coordinated revolutionary movement.”56

However, the KPD leadership found itself in the unusual position of restraining the rank-and-file revolutionary outpouring they had worked so hard to cultivate. Their braking actions were motivated by a desire to avoid provocations and a dangerous retaliation by the German state in the occupied region while the rest of the country did not yet exhibit revolutionary unrest.57 As a report to the Comintern indicated, “The party could do nothing else, but in no case could it pose a proletarian ultimatum from the Ruhr region, i.e. to turn the massive economic strike into an isolated political action.”58 For the leadership of the KPD, the incendiary conditions of 1923 seemed to illuminate only two paths toward revolution: withhold the rank-and-file class forces when they arose in anticipation of a more opportune moment, or immediately, despite all the risks, launch an all-out insurrection against the German state.

Summer 1923: The struggle against fascism

Well into the revolutionary crisis year, the Communists were a formidable social force. KPD membership was just shy of 300,000, organized into 3,321 local groups, partially on the basis of factory cells.59 According to reports at its January party congress, the KPD had about a thousand union cells at its disposal, with concentrations especially in Berlin, Saxony, and Rhineland-Westphalia. Communist presence was greatest in the metalworking, mining, and construction industries, although they also had a substantial presence among other industries as well.60 But as the logic of the united front policy indicated, the real strength of the party was not solely in its numbers, votes, or even the genius of its top leaders. Communist political activity relied instead on the party’s cadre—their bench of experience and political perspicacity—in workplaces, councils, and communities.

By the summer of 1923, the KPD’s cadre was exhausting itself. The dearth of trained functionaries was a constant complaint of local organizations to the Zentrale, and forced vacations were already being implemented as an emergency restorative measure.61 Even in the midst of a pre-revolutionary situation, systematic political education was prioritized as a means of replenishing and expanding the party’s rank-and-file cadre. The Marxist philosopher Karl Korsch’s seminal Marxism and Philosophy, a book that would become a founding text of critical theory, was published in 1923.62 That summer, the Zentrale put Korsch and others to work, holding extensive courses on the factory councils and communist activity within them.63

Facing an economy in collapse and the violent threat of rising fascism, the KPD’s bid for hegemony involved more than winning basic needs and putting forward correct slogans. The communist vision of a way forward out of the crisis was made material by trained and experienced local organizers earning credibility and trust among ordinary German people fighting to survive and build a future. On the one hand, deep clefts existed in many cities between Communists and Social Democrats, preventing even basic cooperation against fascists.64 On the other hand, waves of the newly politicized found it difficult to trust the Social Democrats who had presided over so much crisis and repression. In late July, when Berlin police trampled a woman demanding potatoes in a food market queue, sympathetic bystanders gathered her up for much-needed first aid. They carried her not to the hospital, but to the local offices of Die Rote Fahne, the KPD newspaper.65

Fascism, too, was seeping deeper into the social fabric. May Day in Munich had come with a narrowly avoided Nazi coup. In the Bavarian provinces, Nazi forces deputized themselves as “emergency police” over the summer and raided union headquarters, Communist and Social Democratic homes, and Jewish shops, often with the backing of the Bavarian state.66 The Reichswehr in Bavaria at this point was engaged in actively arming the Nazis and suppressing any coverage of the collusion in the press, ultimately forcing the KPD newspaper in Bavaria to shut down until 1925.

The months of June and July saw an increase in both economic and political actions all over Germany, as well as an increasing threat from the fascists, now organizing in conjunction with the Black Reichswehr.67 The hyperinflation had a particularly incisive psychological impact on the German middle classes and peasants, stripping them of economic and social security and spurring rapid political radicalization. Whether their radicalizing trajectory led toward communism or fascism was a matter of political contestation.

While the future of German society and the world revolution hung in the balance, an expanded meeting of the Communist International’s leadership met in Moscow from June 12 to 23 to chart a course forward.68 Clara Zetkin, the venerable powerhouse of the international communist movement, began the key discussion with a pathbreaking and in-depth analysis of international fascism.69 Zetkin argued for the need to confront fascists with organized force in the streets, but building on her pioneering ideas on the role of communist culture and ideology since at least 1906, she also placed a special emphasis on the political and ideological dimensions of the struggle against fascism. She called for an expansive vision of communist politics and social life. The growing masses of the hungry and the desperate, she contended, were seeking a way out of the all-pervasive suffering of the time.

This involves much more than filling one’s stomach. No, the best of them are seeking an escape from deep anguish of the soul. They are longing for new and unshakeable ideals and a world outlook that enables them to understand nature, society, and their own life; a world outlook that is not a sterile formula but operates creatively and constructively.70

Zetkin’s bid for proletarian ideological and political hegemony of all social layers, including the bourgeois intelligentsia, represented the expansive core of the united front approach beyond the individual mechanism of workplace action. Even so, for Zetkin the united front did not mean class collaboration with capital or dilution of communist aims.

We must maintain our Communist ideology in all its strength and clarity. The more we go to the masses, the more necessary it is for the Communist Party to be organizationally and ideologically unified.… If we make concessions to the masses’ “lack of understanding.”… We lose what is most important for the seekers—that which binds them together: the flame of a new social life that warms and illuminates, bringing hope and strength in the struggle.71

In the discussion period that followed, the Comintern’s master propagandist and lead advisor of the German party, Karl Radek, echoed Zetkin’s remarks. In particular, he emphasized the psychological world of many Germans seeking a way forward from the crisis. His speech rested on the example of a German fascist named Schlageter, “our class enemy,” who had thrown away his life for a false cause. The Communists would resist the fascist tools of the profiteers and industrial magnates, Radek declared, and “oppose violence with violence”:

But we believe that the great majority of the nationalist-minded masses belong not to the camp of the capitalists but to the camp of the workers. We want to find, and we shall find, the path to these masses. We shall do all in our power to make men like Schlageter, who are prepared to go to their deaths for a common cause, not wanderers into the void, but wanderers into a better future for the whole of mankind.72

Building on Zetkin’s analysis and similar themes put forward by Brandler earlier that summer, the approach sought to win over or neutralize broader social layers pulled by far-right nationalism in Germany, and thereby remove a major threat to workers’ power.73

Mounting evidence that the secret but growing Black Reichswehr were preparing for a march with the fascists on Saxony, Thuringia, and Berlin, eventually convinced Brandler that a civil war was now inevitable. The KPD Zentrale rebuffed Grigory Zinoviev’s pressure to prematurely accelerate an offensive struggle, but did take new public steps against the threat of fascism. Brandler issued an appeal on July 11. The situation was so dire that the KPD had to mobilize the entire working class, but at the same time be determined to “sound the battle cry alone and take over the leadership of the struggle on its own” if the SPD and the bourgeois parties abandoned them.74 July 29 was declared Anti-fascist Day and mass demonstrations were announced throughout Germany. Soon thereafter, almost all German states declared the demonstrations banned, which escalated the stakes of the actions from a show of power and bid for anti-fascist hegemony to a potential confrontation with the armed state.

Attuned to the ill-preparedness of the party for such a confrontation, the majority of the Zentrale wanted to avoid a provocation or fighting at the day and place chosen by the enemy, but the left faction in Berlin would not tolerate a capitulation to the ban. After consultation with Radek and others in Moscow, the majority of the KPD’s leadership decided to replace the street demonstrations with massive indoor meetings wherever the demonstrations had been banned.75

The fall of Cuno

As the Anti-fascist Day went forward, the last week of July saw spontaneous militant actions throughout Rhineland-Westphalia spanning political divisions and industrial sectors.76 In the hyperinflationary conditions where payment was required every two to three days, strikes proved ineffective to secure payment and wage increases fast enough. Workers resorted to mass protests and occupations of factories and mines, which allowed them to maintain physical control over the means of production in heavy industry. Demands were now directed against both French occupiers and German employers in accordance with the KPD perspective on a “two-front war,” while calls for the overthrow of the Cuno government frequently arose.

As the free trade unions lost basic organizational capacity and the confidence of their members, workers turned to factory councils and the KPD for coordinated leadership of these spontaneous and explosive movements. But without reinforcements from activated councils in the rest of the country, the KPD feared a “premature revolution” and marshaled its entire regional apparatus to tightly control the broader council formations. Their goal was to keep the movement simmering while carefully avoiding an acceleration into a pre-revolutionary confrontation.

By August 9, after two weeks of continuous unrest, the movement in the Ruhr began pushing past KPD attempts to hold it back in many locales. Up to 400,000 workers across industries joined a constantly replenishing series of spontaneous mass protests, occupations and other escalating actions in the Rhineland. Proletarian guards completely controlled several towns. Unevenly, but with an elemental power, the revolutionary energy crackled out from the Ruhr, reaching Berlin overnight.

The Berlin trains were the first to be shut down by strikes in the early morning, followed by the printers, which threatened to cut off the endless torrent of devalued currency.77 Within hours, the government would run out of means of payment. Capital had lost confidence in Cuno to resolve the sprawling crisis in their favor. Dissatisfaction with the government spilled over into large layers of the middle classes and even leading sections of Cuno’s own governing coalition.

The previous day, SPD leaders had convinced the trade union leaders to withhold support for coordinated strike action, citing promises of government anti-inflationary intervention. Their efforts to calm the situation could not have been more out of step with the mood among the Social Democratic rank and file. Rolling strikes and factory occupations continued to shake the Ruhr. Gallows were erected in front of worker-occupied mines, an unambiguous message to employers.78

Amid major manufacturing plant shutdowns and strikes of gas and electricity workers in Berlin, the national congress of works councils convened in overflowing halls on the morning of August 11. Presiding was Hermann Grothe, a Communist and former revolutionary shop steward during the November Revolution. Grothe headed the works councils’ All-Reich Action Committee, which had been coordinating the council movement throughout the previous months and now had the support of 20,000 factory councils. It took little deliberation for the congress to adopt Grothe’s proposal for a three-day general strike and the formation of a workers’ and peasants’ government.

When the time came, three million workers and white-collar employees primarily in Berlin struck, bringing down the Cuno government in twenty-four hours. Afterward, the general strike persisted under the organization of the works councils. Meanwhile, an atmosphere of civil war was developing rapidly throughout Germany, with clashes between police and demonstrators resulting in numerous deaths in a dozen cities. Violent tremors rocked the port city of Hamburg: as police were disarmed and beaten and food warehouses raided, human chains of working women encircled the shipyards to secure strikes demanding worker control of production.79

After the fall of Cuno, a new grand coalition under Gustav Stresemann stepped up in an attempt to govern the growing firestorm in Germany, now with the participation of the SPD. Stresemann’s administration sought to reverse Cuno’s course and stabilize the economic situation with the help of the iron and steel syndicates.

On the morning of August 13, the factory councils leadership under Grothe called for the expansion of the general strike to replace the new grand coalition government with a workers’ and peasants’ government. The KPD leadership, which had been caught off guard by the militancy of the general strike, at first supported the factory council perspective, but vacillated in the face of the predicted impact of Stresemann’s promises. That afternoon, the KPD leadership decided to demobilize by bringing the political strike into economic channels and publicly called for a coordinated end to the general strike.80

In Central Germany however, the general strike had unleashed a renewed mass movement now seamlessly redirected against the new coalition government. On August 14, hundreds of thousands of workers at factory after factory in the regions of Saxony and Thuringia joined the general strike against Stresemann.81 The massive Leuna works of Halle ground to a halt and, with few exceptions, the general strike pervaded almost the entirety of the Halle-Merseburg industrial region, including agricultural workers and the middle class.82 In a town outside Leipzig, twenty-seven plants were shut down and striking women and men marched to the thunderous tones of the Internationale from the city center to the market.83 Throughout the strikes, workers were forced to engage in an “unceasing guerilla warfare with the police,” who were often heavily armed.84

Later that day, the factory councils followed the KPD lead, calling off the general strike on the grounds that they feared a continuation would lead to confrontations between workers.85 Even without a coordinated leadership, both political and economic strikes continued in Central Germany for four days longer.86 Swift repression followed in the weeks after, with 200 strikers arrested, a hundred thousand fired, and the SPD Minister of the Interior in Prussia prosecuting the leaders of the revolutionary works council movement.87

Did the mass political strikes and actions around Germany in August represent a revolutionary moment? Initially, Communist leaders had widely varying assessments of the possibilities during the general strike. While some depicted the strike as a victorious struggle by the revolutionary working class that had reached a qualitatively new level in the class struggle, others emphasized the “political exhaustion” of the Berlin movement after its initial upsurge.88 The report on the general strike movement to the Executive of the Comintern characterized it as a successful KPD-led struggle that had, however, been somewhat placated by the concessions it won in Berlin.89 Against these assessments stands the fact that the strike movement in the rest of the country was just beginning as the Berlin strike was called off.

Even as he praised the strike as a victory, Brandler saw in it the proletariat’s weakness, describing it as a rather powerless, spontaneous rebellion unleashed by the deterioration of the general situation.90 Brandler defended the course taken by the KPD later in August: “We consciously said that we do not want to be responsible for accelerating the movement at its beginning and driving it forward…we do not want to be the driving element from the outset.” Consistent with the new KPD approach during the Ruhr uprisings of May, Brandler insisted here again that “we wanted to wait and see the extent of the movement’s elemental strength.”91

Alone among KPD leaders, Ernst Meyer raised the question of whether more could have been won through the strike.92 After leaving the Zentrale at the beginning of the year, Meyer became regional leader of many of the KPD’s southwest districts in the summer, putting him in much closer contact to the party’s on-the-ground organizers, editors, and agitators than many other Zentrale leaders, even while he remained a de facto member of the KPD leadership.93 Meyer articulated a perspective rooted in the united front approach of the party under his leadership the prior year, centered on initiating smaller (or “partial”) actions that united workers through activity as preparation for escalated and—sometimes unpredictable—political confrontations. “The party should never be a step behind, but rather must always be a step ahead of the masses. That should never mean a hundred steps ahead however, which would leave us out of touch with the masses.”94 After the events of the following months, these differences in approach were subject to exacting analysis, the results of which would have major ramifications for the future of German and world communism.

German October

In Red Moscow, summertime was coming to an end. By late August 1923, economic despair and dissatisfaction with the New Economic Policy in Russia was rife among young Bolshevik ranks. The prospects for international revolution were seized on like salvation. Ruth Fischer recalled the Soviet capital “plastered with slogans welcoming the German Revolution. Banners and streamers were posted in the center of the city with such slogans as ‘Russian Youth, Learn German—The German October is Approaching.’” One worker from the Donbas region frustrated with local Soviet leaders’ “mockery of the working miner” succinctly clarified the stakes of the German Revolution for rank-and-file Soviet workers: “We would have settled the scores long ago—you can be sure about that—but look, one cannot be a traitor of the German Revolution.”95

On August 21 and 22, the Russian Communist Politburo settled on a bold new offensive course for the KPD, which Zinoviev had sketched out over the prior week.96 The final hour was nigh in Germany, Zinoviev claimed; technical and military preparations must be accelerated, for insurrection was no longer a matter of years but of months, soon to be weeks.97 Zinoviev’s perspective was accepted as inevitable by the Russian Politburo and preparations for a “German October” began. From then onward, the KPD focused all its energies and resources on the technical preparation of the insurrection and taking the party underground.

The new grand coalition government under Stresemann exhibited none of the ailing, incompetent, and indecisive features of the Cuno regime.98 The conversion to pricing in stable values revealed the drastic excesses of German prices over world market levels by the end of September, severely impacting what remained of Germany’s competitive export advantage and causing employers to renew their push for lower prices by means of reducing labor costs and longer hours of work.99 After its deferral at the beginning of the year, the coming end of hyperinflation allowed the class conflict at its bottom to come to light once more. For the heavy industrialists, the passive resistance interlude was a matter of profit, as Gerald Feldman has detailed: “The common denominator of all the plans and efforts by the industrialists to settle the Ruhr issue was precisely the effort to make the workers pay for the settlement with the gains of the Revolution.”100

To do so, the industrialists looked toward the growing far right in Bavaria to finally break the back of the radical labor movement. On September 26, the Bavarian parliament instituted an intensified martial law, appointed the radical nationalist Gustav von Kahr as state commissioner general invested with dictatorial powers, and proclaimed “struggle against Marxism” as the official doctrine of the Bavarian state.101 Friedrich Ebert, the Social Democratic President of the Republic, extended martial law to the entirety of the country, and the following day the Reichswehr in Bavaria subordinated itself to von Kahr’s far-right regime. The left-wing Central German states of Saxony and Thuringia were now squarely in their sites.

Passive resistance in the Ruhr ended on the same day as the Bavarian quasi-coup, thereby bringing about the long-delayed stabilization crisis. As government credits and wage supports were withdrawn, large-scale layoffs created a sudden spike in unemployment, just as the leaders of the coal industry declared the unilateral abrogation of the provisions of the eight-hour day in the beginning of October. The move was calculated to bring about the regime’s collapse and force the SPD out of the national government.102

Throughout this same period, the KPD Zentrale led efforts to shift the party toward a military footing. Lower-level party cadres were withdrawn from the broader council bodies that the Communists had helped to build up over the previous year. Their connection with the state of class confidence began to suffer. As the leadership bodies of the KPD obsessively fretted over the state of the party organization, they increasingly neglected basic political information gathering.103 Already by early September, the Communist leadership had difficulty determining the situation in the ranks of workers.104 The September 4 meeting of the Zentrale witnessed wild overestimations of the strength of the SPD left, which was judged to have a strong hold over the SPD and over the Social Democratic workers. In reality, the left opposition in the SPD came together for the first time outside of official institutions only on July 29 and held sway in only about 9 percent of the Reichstag delegation.105 Despite this, the assessments of the SPD left formed the basis for the KPD’s most ambitious move yet.

At the end of September, the Reichswehr officially had taken over public order in all of Saxony, and proceeded to try to intimidate Zeigner’s government by banning public meetings, the KPD newspaper, and the Proletarian Hundreds. Factory councils and other council formations openly defied the Reichswehr orders to assemble. On October 10, on the recommendation of Zinoviev and the Executive Committee of the Communist International, Brandler and other members of the party leadership entered into the governments alongside the SPD left in Saxony and Thuringia. Their goal was to use their positions as bases to procure much-needed arms—their stockpile of arms was described as “catastrophic”—and organize the insurrection. The new joint KPD-SPD Left “government of proletarian defense” called for the arming of the workers, workers’ control of production, emergency food measures, and the formation of a “workers’ government” on the national level.106

The Reichswehr escalated its aggression, seizing sole control over the Saxon police from the Saxon government on October 16. Bavarian troops on Thuringia’s southern border repeatedly clashed with Proletarian Hundreds.107 On October 20, the Bavarian Reichswehr seceded from the national army in preparation for a march on Berlin and a right-wing coup under von Kahr and Hitler. The following day, the southern border of Red Thuringia teemed with Black Reichswehr, Bavarian Reichswehr, and Nazis ready to swarm the workers’ bulwarks and overrun the Proletarian Hundreds.108

As the threat of martial law and an impending invasion by the Reichswehr grew, the factory councils met in Saxony on October 21. After hours of speaking, Brandler submitted a proposal for the factory councils to call a general strike, which was expected would lead to armed insurrection. In the event, the left SPD coalition partners led by Zeigner shrank from the initiative, and the KPD withdrew its proposal, giving up on any action and aborting the German October.

Shortly thereafter, on Ebert’s authority, the Reichswehr declared the Saxon government dissolved and invaded the Central German regions, gaining control after short battles with Proletarian Hundreds in the workers’ districts. By the power of the Enabling Act, the Stresemann government forced through an industrial relations arbitration against the resistance of the unions at the end of October, signaling the dissolution of the institutional arrangement (the Central Works Community) between employers and unions after five years. After the SPD was forced from the government, the eight-hour day was finally terminated.

As Charles Maier pointed out, the sudden shift in economic policy that marked the end of the inflation was predicated on decisive changes in the political sphere.109 Trade unions and Social Democratic parties were once again excluded from political decision-making. But their fear of wild and insurgent working-class resistance was assuaged by decisive military intervention that, unlike in 1919 and 1920, succeeded in breaking the back of the rank-and-file labor movement. Spawned by the November 1918 revolution, the initial historical period of the Weimar Republic had come to a decisive end.

The lessons of the German events

Soon after the failed German October, the myth-making and factional quarrels began.110 The heresy hunt that replaced analysis culminated in a tribunal-like convening in Moscow, the proceedings of which were published under the title The Lessons of the German Events.111 There and subsequently, historical explanations for the failure of the German Revolution have alternated between two poles emphasizing either “subjective” factors or “objective” conditions. Trotsky’s extremely schematic Lessons of October most prominently exemplified the former approach, while the assessment of Brandler’s close ally August Thalheimer exemplified the latter.112 The debate has largely remained between these two poles, even if blame for the outcome has occasionally been thrown on different figures in the Russian, Comintern, or German leaderships.113

By early August 1923, the potential for a broad-based social revolution was evident in the key industrial region of Rhineland-Westphalia. The factory occupation and “passive resistance” against both French occupiers and German employers there was “the broadest, longest, most general industrial conflict during the entire Weimar Republic.”114 Years of united front initiatives had positioned the KPD in earned leadership roles throughout the Ruhr council movements. Meanwhile, workers turned away from SPD and trade union leaders in droves due to their inability to confront employers and their integration into the passive resistance strategy of Cuno’s administration.

Cashing out on precious rank-and-file trust, the KPD intervened with the full force of the broad movement infrastructure to bring the movement into “safe” wage channels. Even while they were reining in the revolution in the Ruhr, mass movements flared up in the other key industrial centers of Berlin and then Central Germany. It is uncertain what the outcome of a full-scale revolution could have been in August 1923. However, an alternate KPD policy could have contributed directly to preventing the temporary stabilization of the new Stresemann government, especially in the occupied Ruhr, thus opening up a new political crisis and possibilities for the council movements to consolidate power.115

Instead, the KPD initiated a turn in their general strategic course already in April/May, when they first began exerting a centralized control over the council movements in order to contain mass unrest and political strike activity. Perhaps justifiably, KPD leaders feared a “premature” revolutionary uprising in part of the country that would invite isolation and repression. Here, it is worth noting the differences with the views of Rosa Luxemburg, who argued that the “proletariat is not in the position to seize power in any other way than ‘prematurely.’” The very idea of “prematurity” in the conquest of political power, Luxemburg wrote, is “a polemic absurdity derived from a mechanical conception of the development of society, and positing for the victory of the class struggle a point fixed outside and independent of the class struggle.”116

In many accounts of the German October itself, including at the time, attention is paid to technical barriers to an insurrection in October, including the lack of arms and an “insufficiently Bolshevized” party. But KPD members exhibited an extremely high degree of discipline and secrecy when they abandoned the council institutions at the end of September and kept aloof from mass protests throughout October.117 What was supposed to be a temporary measure ended up undermining the KPD’s aims, influence, and capacity.

Centralization itself did not inherently lead to such an outcome. In fact, the implementation of the united front policy depended on the party’s centralization over the prior years in order to carry out workplace initiatives flexibly and dynamically.118 Rather, the turn toward containment of social movements ran counter to the political logic of the KPD’s own general united front strategy. The shift had severe consequences at the same time the social crisis was escalating. The agents of the united front, the Communist cadre, shop stewards, and rank-and-file organizers outside the KPD were victims of this supposedly temporary turn. The movement could not be turned off and on by a spigot. Once the shift away from active leadership in class-wide institutions had been effected, the possibility to revive this movement was also eclipsed.119

The failure of the German October was not the case of inadequate leadership, but the case of missing ranks. Peterson summarized the dynamic succinctly:

By September, Communist leaders were convinced that to carry through the revolution they had to control, not only the party, but also the united front organs [factory councils, proletarian hundreds, control committees, etc.], or else abandon them in favor of organs they could control. The measures adopted to achieve this end then indeed stifled the formerly fluid, dynamic relationship between discontented workers and the KPD. The KPD finally severed its links to the mass protests to ensure the secrecy of the insurrection and prevent preemptive repression. When it came time to call on the rank and file to support the general strike, the crucial works councilors were no longer under Communist influence, and the other united front organs no longer led the unrest. Workers, desperately protesting by themselves in the streets in search of jobs, relief, and food, ignored the revolution.120

Over the course of 1923, the KPD general policy reflected a shift from viewing the revolution as a mass social movement from below toward an event carefully planned and executed at the signal of the revolutionary leadership. No such revolution as a purely party affair was likely to succeed in Germany in 1923.

The reassertion of financial stabilization in autumn rested on the termination of the eight-hour-day, a measure that encompassed working time and unemployment, and thus stood in as a much more comprehensive index of the balance of class forces and the resistance to economic rationalization in Germany. The defeat of the labor movement generally in 1923 and 1924 was the decisive shift establishing the preconditions for the post-1928 balance of forces in Germany. Moreover, whether implicitly or explicitly, the major actors during the final years of the collapse of the Weimar Republic built directly on the experience of 1923.121

Now, one hundred years later, what lessons, if any, emerge from these extraordinary events?

Most immediately notable is the demonstrable efficacy of the united front strategy developed in the first place by the KPD before it was generalized in the Comintern.122 The turn toward the united front completely changed the activity and nature of the Communist Party itself starting in late 1920, yielding extensive ripple effects in the unionized labor movement regardless of who led the unions. By early 1923, the full flowering of the united front policy had manifested in the revival of a powerful council movement. By abandoning the strategic method in practice, the KPD cut off the source of their successes.

As it was implemented in Germany, the united front was not just a new tactic, but a general answer to the problem of class formation and the development of a collective will in the working class. It bridged the political/economic division that had been so ingrained in Second International theoretical models. The approach provided a means of cementing bonds between working-class people that could move beyond immediate securement of needs toward larger visions of a future society with a dignified role for workers within them. The key to that bridge was working-class self-activity, including acting as the “driving element,” which was central to the united front strategy from its outset.123 Importantly, the KPD developed a robust (if still inadequate) political education program as a crucial element of this process designed to train a cadre in the fusion of workplace struggles with the larger political and ideological aspirations of the Communist movement.124

However, these efforts at class formation failed to integrate crucial elements of the class outside of the formal employment relation, namely women in the sphere of social reproduction and unemployed workers organized as such. These weaknesses of the strategy were certainly decisive limitations to its ultimate effectiveness. The KPD revived the united front policy briefly in 1926, before abandoning it forever.125 While its specific characteristics were undoubtedly tied to the socio-political landscape of Weimar Germany, the core elements of the approach, including collective self-activity, reliance on rank-and-file cadre, and initiation/escalation of broad, shopfloor struggles, clearly present stimulating starting points for other contexts.

Beyond this novel strategy, however, the German revolutionary experience in 1923 raises much larger questions of social history pertaining to the nature of a social revolution in an industrialized market economy. The dominant feature of Germany’s revolutionary conjuncture was of course the astronomical hyperinflation. Although it took on dynamics of its own by 1923, the hyperinflationary trajectory was locked in by the unprecedented strength of the German revolutionary movement itself already in 1920. In measurable ways, Germany’s 1923 revolutionary movement transcended the limited dichotomy that would pit “subjective” factors against “objective” conditions.

While countries like Britain and the United States experienced a depression and high unemployment in 1920, Germany was largely spared. As Gerald Feldman concludes, “this was not because the Germans had discovered the economics of full employment but, rather, because governmental leaders and industrialists felt compelled to continue ‘revolutionary economics’ in order to prevent political upheaval and discovered in inflation a formidable device for a chaotic but useful rebuilding of the German industrial plant as well as for a highly successful export offensive at the expense of their former enemies.”126 Justified fear of revolution fueled the prolongation and extension of inflationary measures, transforming what were once temporary stop-gaps into a doomed plan for economic reconstruction of the postwar economy.

Consistently until late 1923, German political authorities were compelled to concede to the unusually self-assertive and resilient radical labor movement constantly threatening domestic political and social stability. As Hermann J. Rupieper has pointed out, German government officials and bankers resorted to the printing press and avoided a deflationary policy largely due to fear of the socially and politically destabilizing consequences it would inevitably have. In practice, attributing the main cause of inflation to reparations became the only politically viable option for contemporaries.127 Hyperinflation was thus ultimately an index of the weakness or under-confidence of the government to take repressive stabilization measures in the service of restoring the market when faced with the threat of social revolution.

The German revolutionary movement that had surged and ebbed since 1918 was by 1923 not only contending for political power, but also inducing far-reaching government interventions into the decisions of the private sphere, prohibiting the market pricing of labor power, and thus posing a direct and serious challenge to the very logic and existence of the capitalist market in Germany. Hyperinflation, at least in the Weimar Republic, has to be understood as the obverse of a political movement’s inroads into the very mechanisms of the market economy.

The specificity of the 1923 conjuncture is undeniable. At the same time, it is clear that similar effects of a highly advanced revolutionary movement will likely be generated in any revolutionary situation that moves beyond the mere rotation of leading political figures toward challenging the socioeconomic system of capitalism.

The events of 1923 represented the high-water mark of the global postwar revolutionary wave. Its specific dynamics were tied to the socioeconomic conjuncture facing postwar Germany after multiple comprehensive crises and revolutionary uprisings. Today, it would bear little fruit to blindly replicate tactics from this completely different context and time. However, by grasping the constellation of forces and their interactions as open-ended problems, this vital historical period can become a springboard for thinking through the actuality of our own moment.

Underlying the strength of the German movement were organizations schooled in the struggle for material necessities in workplace actions and street demonstrations. But just as important as the strikes and guns were the human bonds between the many people struggling for a new world: the trust, courage, and cunning that come with the knowledge that the risks one takes are collectively meaningful. All of these together formed the backbone of the mighty German Revolution.

Sean Larson is Political Education Coordinator at Haymarket Books and a founding editor of Rampant Magazine. He holds a PhD in German Studies from New York University.
  • 1//
  • 2Oxford University Press, 1997), 241.
  • 3Princeton University Press, 1977), 81ff, 130ff, and 187ff.
  • 4Although the London Ultimatum of May 1921 did mark a turning point in the exchange rate of the mark, foreign capital continued to be invested at high rates in Germany for the rest of the year and only began falling off with Poincaré’s election in France in January 1922. Cf. Carl L. Holtfrerich, “Political Factors of the German Inflation 1914-23” in Inflation through the Ages, 413, and Carl-Ludwig Holtfrerich, “Internationale Verteilungsfolgen der deutschen Inflation 1918-1923” in Kyklos 30, 1977, 279–84.
  • 5Gerald D. Feldman, The Great Disorder, 407–09.
  • 6Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1993) ch. 11, 399–428, esp. 405–6.
  • 7UVK Verlagsgesellschaft, Konstanz, 2018), 173–6. See also Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 89–93.
  • 8Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 129–32.
  • 9ccf. Holtfrerich, “Political Factors” and Gerald D. Feldman, “The Political Economy of Germany’s Relative Stabilization during the 1920/21-Depression” in The German Inflation Reconsidered: A Preliminary Balance, ed. Gerald D. Feldman, Carl-Ludwig Holtfrerich, Gerhard A. Ritter, and Peter-Christian Witt (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1982), 201–2.
  • 10Cf. Gerald D. Feldman and Irmgard Steinisch, „Die Weimarer Republik zwischen Sozial- und Wirtschaftsstaat. Die Entscheidung gegen den Achtstundentag“ in Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 18 (1978), 381ff; Feldman, Great Disorder, 600–627; and Feldman, Iron and Steel, 319.
  • 11Haymarket Books, 2006), 618.
  • 12Cf. Broué, The German Revolution, 614–20.
  • 13Droste Verlag, 2022), 308–10.
  • 14Zehetmair, Im Hinterland, 310.
  • 15Verlag Roter Stern, 1979), 30.
  • 16Kontos, Die Partei kämpft wie ein Mann, 212.
  • 17Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 142.
  • 18Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 136–7.
  • 19Cf. Broué, The German Revolution, 718, and Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 143–45, 365–69.
  • 20Cf. “Protokoll der Zentrale-Sitzung mit den Bezirkssekretären aus den wichtigsten Industriebezirken vom 14.10.22” in Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisationen der DDR im Bundesarchiv Berlin (henceforeward SAPMO-BArch), RY 1/247, Bl. 89-91 here Bl. 89.
  • 21“Protokoll der Zentrale-Sitzung mit den Bezirkssekretären 14.10.22” Bl. 90.
  • 22Feldman, Iron and Steel, 322–3. On the 1922 RdI program, cf. Hermann J. Rupieper, The Cuno Government and Reparations 1922-23. Politics and Economics (1979), 36–42.
  • 23Cf. Bücher’s comments in the Special Committee meeting, Feldman, Iron and Steel, 325. The abolition of the “schematic” eight-hour day “was a matter of particular significance to the iron and steel industrialists because the twelve-hour day with its two-hour pause had long been considered essential to the functioning of their continuously operating plants, where an actual increase in labor productivity per hour by other than technical improvements was impossible.” Feldman, Iron and Steel, 338.
  • 24Campus Verlag, 1977), 175.
  • 25Feldman, Iron and Steel, 323, 332. “The high point of the industrialist campaign, however, came on November 9, 1922, the fourth anniversary of the German Revolution, when Stinnes, with the official sanction of the RdI [Reichsverband der Industrie, the umbrella organization of the industrialists – SL], delivered a major address before the Reich Economics Council which was widely reported and then circulated in brochure form for the ‘enlightenment’ of the public. In it, he declared quite bluntly that he had ‘always fought the stabilization of the mark at any price,’ that the time had not come for stabilization, and that ‘the precondition for any successful stabilization in my view is that all wage conflict and strikes are banned.’ As was to be expected, the extra two hours per day of work Stinnes felt essential was presented as a matter of ‘life and death’.”
  • 26Gerald Feldman, The Great Disorder, 576–77.
  • 27Kontos, Die Partei kämpft wie ein Mann, 31–32.
  • 28Kontos, Die Partei kämpft wie ein Mann, 224–26.
  • 29Feldman, Iron and Steel, 351–63, cf. also 387
  • 30Feldman, Iron and Steel, 359.
  • 31Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 161–63.
  • 32736–68, here 765.
  • 3387–111, here 88.
  • 34Canning, “Gender and the Politics of Class Formation,” 758–9.
  • 35Zehetmair, Im Hinterland, 366.
  • 36Quoted in Zehetmair, Im Hinterland, 368.
  • 37Zehetmair, Im Hinterland, 363–72.
  • 38Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 167–8, 370–71.
  • 39Walter de Gruyter, 1986), 20–25.
  • 40Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 181.
  • 41Campus Verlag, 1983), 209.
  • 42Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 171.
  • 43Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 172–3.
  • 44Haymarket Books, 2012), 20–26 and 119–292 passim.
  • 45“Nach den Betriebsrätewahlen,” in Kommunistischer Gewerkschafter, no. 11 (1923), cited in Schöck, Arbeitslosigkeit und Rationalisierung, 43.
  • 46The session of the ECCI lasts from 27 April to 4 May, protocol is in SAPMO-BArch RY 5/70.
  • 47University of California Press, 1994), 80.
  • 48Feldman, Iron and Steel, 362, 371–3; Feldman, Great Disorder, 671.
  • 49Princeton University Press, 1975), 357–8.
  • 50Feldman, Great Disorder, 673–5; Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 190.
  • 51Cf. Feldman, Great Disorder, 676–7; Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 177–183; Broué, The German Revolution, 707–8.
  • 52Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 176.
  • 53Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 183.
  • 54Dietz Verlag, 1966) Bd. VII, 2. Halbband 2, no. 341, 331–32.
  • 55Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 183–4.
  • 56Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 171.
  • 57VSA-Verlag, 2001), 206.
  • 58Cf. Möller’s report to the ECCI in SAPMO BArch RY 5/428 Bl. 135–39.
  • 59Lit Verlag, 2003), 158 [citing 8th and 9th Party Congress Reports]. These numbers are from September 1923. KPD membership in September 1922 was 224,389 in 2,481 local groups, while a year later it was 294,230 in 3,321 local groups.
  • 60the renewal of our cadre.… These are the most important lessons we must draw from this movement, the most important tasks that we as a party must achieve.” Heinrich Brandler, conference with regional leaders and editors on August 24, 1923, SAPMO BArch RY 1/248, Bl. 237–39.
  • 61Eumann, Eigenwillige Kohorten der Revolution, 242.
  • 62Reading Karl Korsch Today,” Spectre, January 14, 2022.
  • 63See, by way of comparison, letter to Karl Korsch 11. Juli 1923 in “Schriftwechsel des Reichsausschusses der deutschen Betriebsräte März 1923–Dez. 1924,” in SAPMO BArch RY 1/1555 Bl. 30.
  • 64Cf. Zehetmair, Im Hinterland, 362–74.
  • 65Haymarket Books, 2011), 56.
  • 66Zehetmair, Im Hinterland, 376–87.
  • 67Ingo Koch Verlag, 2005), 120, 185. The Black Reichswehr was being organized and armed clandestinely supposedly as reserves for a potential conflict with France sparked by the Ruhr occupation. It was organized against the dictates of the Versailles Treaty by the Reichswehr in cooperation with nationalist forces, as a rule financed privately.
  • 68Haymarket Books, 2019), 381–694.
  • 69Haymarket Books, 2017).
  • 70Taber, The Communist Movement at a Crossroads, 603.
  • 71Taber, The Communist Movement at a Crossroads, 604.
  • 72Taber, The Communist Movement at a Crossroads, 618.
  • 73See, by way of comparison, Jentsch, Die KPD und der “Deutsche Oktober” 1923, 118; Becker, Heinrich Brandler, 205; and especially Ralf Hoffrogge, “Der Sommer des Nationalbolshewismus?” in Sozial.Geschichte 20 (2017): 126–30. Some controversy around Radek’s “Schlageter speech” arose in the historiographical wave on the German Revolution of the 1970s, implying that Radek, otherwise famously a consummate internationalist and previously the architect of the destruction of a national Bolshevist tendency in Germany, was introducing a new departure in Communist ideology and strategy and gesturing toward allying with fascists, if only tactically. All serious historians of the period have dismissed such speculations. (See, for example, Pierre Broué, The German Revolution, 730; Wenzel, Die gescheiterte Deutsche Oktoberrevolution, 109–16; Jentsch, 115–16; Edward Hallett Carr, The Interregnum 1923–24 [Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969], 192–3.) On the other hand, despite moderate successes, the nuances of the approach were not always captured on the ground. The history was characterized by Otto Wenzel thusly: “Theoretically [the Schlageter line] was spotlessly constructed, but in practice it exhibited a significant defect. It overestimated the intellectual level of the communist supporters and it overestimated that of their enemies. Regular members did not think through the meaning of this whole speech, as is quite possible to do at the writing desk. The consequence was some confusion” (Wenzel, 116). This confusion was exacerbated by relentless Social Democratic attacks accusing the Communists of national Bolshevism. Given this context and the effects that the Schlageter line produced, it was not a particularly successful initiative of the Communists. Any alternative, however, would still have to confront the problem of the disoriented and politically radicalizing middle strata and the impending political crisis.
  • 74Quotations in Wenzel, Die gescheiterte Deutsche Oktoberrevolution, 151–2 and Jentsch, Die KPD und der “Deutsche Oktober” 1923, 120–121.
  • 75Broué, The German Revolution, 741.
  • 76See the detailed chronicle and assessment in Larry Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 190–204.
  • 77Dietz Verlag, 1963), 242–47, some of which is also covered in Broué, The German Revolution, 746–52.
  • 78Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 194.
  • 79Pluto Press, 1977), 45.
  • 80“Sitzung der Zentrale Jan.–Dez. 1923” in SAPMO BArch RY 1/260 Bl., 208–211.
  • 81Ersil, Aktionseinheit stürtzt Cuno, 372–78.
  • 82See, by way of comparison, Ersil, Aktionseinheit and Hoernle’s report to Zetkin in SAPMO BArch RY 5/129, Bl. 115.
  • 83Ersil, Aktionseinheit, 373.
  • 84Ersil, Aktionseinheit, 377.
  • 85Polbüro meeting of August 14, 1923 in SAPMO BArch RY 1/303 Bl. 231. According to Hoernle in correspondence with Zetkin, Brandler was skeptical of this possibility. See SAPMO BArch RY 5/129 Bl. 118.
  • 86Ersil, Aktionseinheit, 381–82.
  • 87Broué, The German Revolution, 753.
  • 88See Hoernle to Zetkin, August 25, 1923 in SAPMO BArch RY 5/129, Bl. 115. See also Broué, The German Revolution, 751 and Serge, Witness to the German Revolution, 76–79.
  • 89Möller’s initial report to the Executive Committee of the Comintern in SAPMO BArch RY 5/122 Bl. 77–80.
  • 90See Jentsch, Die KPD und der “Deutsche Oktober” 1923, 131.
  • 91From a conference with regional leaders and editors on August 24, 1923 in SAPMO BArch RY 1/248 Bl. 237-239. See also Wilde, Revolution als Realpolitik, 215.
  • 92Polbüro meeting on August 14, 1923 in SAPMO BArch RY 1/303 Bl. 232; see also, Wilde, Revolution als Realpolitik, 215.
  • 93See Wilde, Revolution als Realpolitik, 211–13.
  • 94Meyer’s perspectives written to the Southwest region on September 24. See, by way of comparison, Wilde, Revolution als Realpolitik, 216–17.
  • 95111–42, 124.
  • 96Zur kommunistischen Interpretation der kapitalistischen Welt 1921–1925 (Köln, Böhlau Verlag, 1971), 62, n. 19.
  • 97Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1969), 49. Brandler had also outlined a new perspective at a KPD Polbüro meeting on August 21 premised on the perceived total inability of the Stresemann government to resolve the crisis. Although Brandler’s perspective foresaw a “series of transitional phases” toward a workers’ and peasant’s government, it also involved “preparation of the party for civil war.” See Brandler on the political situation, “Polbüro Sitzung vom 21. August 1923” in SAPMO BArch PB Sitzungen Juli-Dez 1923 (RY 1/303) Bl. 235.
  • 98Wenzel, Die gescheiterte Deutsche Oktoberrevolution, 332–33.
  • 99Holtfrerich, The German Inflation 1914–1923, 24; Feldman, Iron and Steel, 400.
  • 100Feldman, Iron and Steel, 386–7.
  • 101Broué, The German Revolution, 776; Zehetmair, Im Hinterland, 401–5.
  • 102Feldman, Iron and Steel, 405, 409.
  • 103Pluto Press, 1977), 57–8.
  • 104Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), 258.
  • 105Lit-Verlag, 1983), 139. Previous to that, it was only through Levi’s journal, founded in February 1923, that they had any expression. After the resignation of Cuno, 43 members of the SPD left publicly voiced their dissent (through Levi’s journal) of the decision to enter Stresemann’s grand coalition. There were a total of about 171 SPD Reichstag delegates at the end of 1922.
  • 106For a very dramatic and detailed rendering of these events, see Broué, The German Revolution, 796–805.
  • 107Zehetmair, Im Hinterland, 408.
  • 108Zehetmair, Im Hinterland, 437–39.
  • 109Walter de Gruyter, 1984), 106–32.
  • 110As Bayerlein notes, “the way in which the balance-sheet of the events was shaped was at least as important for the communist movement as the cancellation of the revolution itself.” Bayerlein, “The Abortive ‘German October,’” 156.
  • 111Carl Hoym, Verlag der Kommunistischen Internationale, 1924).
  • 112Haymarket Books, 2017); and August Thalheimer, A Missed Opportunity? The German October Legend and the Real History of 1923, 1931. For an analysis of how these assessments were inseparably bound up with assessments of the Russian October Revolution and factional fights within the Russian Communist Party in 1924, see Fredereick C. Corney, Trotsky’s Challenge: The “Literary Discussion” of 1924 and the Fight for the Bolshevik Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017).
  • 113From the November Revolution to the Failed October 5 2 (Spring 1994).
  • 114It was second only to the miners’ strike/lockout of May 1924 in number of participants as well. See Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 197.
  • 115See Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 204.
  • 116Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution ch. 8, “The Conquest of Political Power.”
  • 117Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 213; Meyer-Leviné, Inside German Communism, 50–51.
  • 118Wilhelm Koenen, “Die Organisation der Partei. (Demokratischer Zentralismus in den kommunistischen Parteien),” in Kommunistische Rundschau 1 (October 14, 1920); Wilhelm Koenen, “Parteiaufbau. (Organisation der Vereinigten Kommunistischen Partei Deutschlands und demokratischer Zentralismus),” in Kommunistische Rundschau, December 6, 1920.
  • 119Although I follow his analysis closely, I disagree with Peterson’s thesis that, by the Communists’ own standards, the adoption of a perspective for revolution in the shorter term (and the viability of the united front fundamentally tied to the hyperinflation) had an all-or-nothing perspective as the “inescapable” result (Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 212–13, 215–16, and passim.). Although his study illuminates the wide variations through which the united front policy was manifested, Peterson follows Communist leaders of 1923 in neglecting the core element of initiation, or hegemonic leadership to be achieved through escalating partial actions in the united front strategy, first elaborated by Radek in 1921 and insisted on by Ernst Meyer in 1923 (see Leviné-Meyer, Inside German Communism, 50–51).
  • 120Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 215–16.
  • 12196–110. See also Schöck, Arbeitslosigkeit und Rationalisierung, 175.
  • 122Haymarket Books, 2016).
  • 123Worker Self-Activity and the Origin of the United Front in Germany 1920–21”; Schöck, Arbeitslosigkeit und Rationalisierung, 36–46.
  • 124See especially Edwin Hoernle, “Die Bildungsarbeit der KPD” in Die Internationale 5, no. 1/2 (July 23, 1922): 30–35; Riddell, To the Masses, 875–83.
  • 125138–165.
  • 12623.
  • 127Martinus Nijhoff, 1979), 195–98. See also Feldman, “Gegenwärtiger Forschungsstrand und künftige Forschungsprobleme zur deutschen Inflation,” Historische Prozesse, 10–1; and the conclusions reached by Holtfrerich’s comprehensive study, The German Inflation 1914–1923, 192ff. Opportunities to change this policy arose, but Reichsbank and Economic Ministry officials decided against changes at one critical juncture after another, including on February 18, 1921, then again on March 31, 1922, October 31, 1922, and March 31, 1923.