The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918 to 1923
1. Before the Storm
The SPD was, originally, “revolutionary in theory, gradualist in practice.”
The party had become increasingly conservative as it went from being radical to having paid functionaries doing daily, non-revolutionary activities. This administrative strata of party officials came to be the conservatising force within the party, bringing the party to a standstill when it came to revolutionary activity.
2. 4 August 1914
Karl Liebknecht was the first member of the SPD to violate party discipline and voice his opposition to the war credits (First World War)vote. Later, others included Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin. By 1915 German enthusiasm for the war had already started to wain.
The scene has fundamentally changed. The six week march to Paris has become a world drama. Mass murder has become a boring monotonous daily business, and yet the final solution is not one step nearer. Bourgeois rule is caught in its own trap, and cannot ban the spirits that it has invoked… Gone is the ecstasy. Gone are the patriotic street demonstrations, the chase after suspicious looking automobiles, the false telegrams, the cholera poisoned wells. Gone the excesses of a spy hunting population, the coffee shops with their deafening patriotic songs… The show is over… No more do trains filled with reservists pull out amid the joyous cries of enthusiastic maidens. We no longer see their laughing faces, smiling cheerily at the people from train windows. They trot through the streets quietly, with their sacks on their shoulders. And the public, with a disturbed face, goes about its daily tasks. — Rosa Luxemburg, as quoted by the author
As the First World War went on, daily life for most German workers became nightmarish. All the progress that they had made was evaporated by the war.
The right Social Democratic arguments for the war were that it was a defensive war against “Tsarism.”
In 1917, 200,000 workers went on strike due to a cut in the bread ration.
In November 1917 the 1917 October Revolution occurred, denouncing the Tsarist government, exposing the secret cables that led to the war, and renounced Tsarist Russia’s colonial possessions.
Towards the end of the war German and Austrian troops were floating the idea of a general strike to prevent the war from going on any longer. The SPD, on the German side, only seemed to muddle the situation, as it seems that the workers had more radical demands than the SPD.
What attitude toward the war did I find in the leading circles of Austrian Social Democrats? Some were quite obviously pleased with it… These were really nationalists, barely disguised under the veneer of a socialist culture which was now melting away as fast as it could… Others, with Victor Adler at their head, regarded the war as an external catastrophe which they had to put up with. Their passive waiting, however, only served as a cover for the active nationalist wing. — Leon Trotsky, as quoted by the author
Altogether in the summer of 1918 there were probably three or four thousand revolutionary socialists in the whole of Germany. They had no united organisation, no tradition of working within a common discipline, no way at arriving at an agreed strategy or tactics, no mechanism for selecting from among themselves leaders who were reliable and had cool heads. Yet these revolutionaries were about to enter one of the most intense periods of class struggle in the history of capitalism.
The German Revolution began with sailors in Kiel refusing orders to deploy.
3. The November Revolution
After the events in Kiel, worker’s councils took power in the north west of Germany.
The SPD actively opposed the sailor insurrection at Kiel and condemned it.
In Berlin, the Reich believed that it would be spared from violence, as the army could theoretically suppress any revolutionary movement. What they didn’t count on was the soldiers of Berlin joining the revolution! A crowd overpowered the capital and the socialists took control of Berlin on November 6th.
In the aftermath of the takover of the government, the only institutions that had power were the worker’s and soldier’s councils.
The SPD rushed into the action to take control of the situation, and on November 10th a “revolutionary government” was formed. It was headed by the same people who had just a few days earlier worked to suppress the revolution. The SPD organized a revolutionary assembly and proclaimed Germany a socialist republic.
Within a week the revolution had broken out all over Germany. Demonstrations and meetings of workers were held. But there was no longer any threat. They were festivals of friendship. Red flags flew, red ribbons flaunted in buttonholes, and faces laughed. It was as if the dim, rainy November days had turned into spring. Everyone bathed in mutual trust. The revolution had begun, and it had begun with a universal fraternisation of the classes. — P Frölich, as quoted by the author
4. Days of worker’s power
In the days of the November revolution soldiers formed soldiers’ councils, which sprang up spontaneously.
It was clear in the early days of the revolution that, although the German state was controlled by councils, those councils were confused about what they intended to do.
The SPD worked to curtail the movement of councils so as to reign in and crush its power. They also looked for support in the bureaucrats of the Kaiser’s state, keeping judges, officers, teachers, etc. in their posts.
On the second day of the revolution in Berlin, 10 November, Ebert had been confirmed in power by the stormy meeting of workers’ and soldiers’ delegates in the Circus Busch. Shortly afterwards he was confirmed in power in a quite different way. He received a phone call from General Groener, who told him that the Imperial High Command would recognise the government.
‘What do you expect of us?’ Ebert asked. ‘Field Marshal Hindenberg expects the government to support the officer corps in maintaining strict discipline and strict order in the army.’ ‘What else?’ ‘The officer corps expects that the government will fight against Bolshevism and places itself at the disposal of the government for such a purpose.’ Ebert asked Groener to pass on ‘the government’s thanks to the Field Marshal’.9
Hindenberg had exercised a virtual military dictatorship in the last two years of the war. Now Ebert was pledging to maintain control over the armed forces for him and the rest of the old officer caste. Fourteen years later they were to use this control to install Hitler in power.
In December there was an attempted coup and counter-revolution by the military, though the military was split on how it felt about the SPD being in power, so it collapsed.
The Freikorps, an officer corps who mostly came from aristocratic backgrounds and highly-trained soldiers, called stormtroopers, had nothing to lose in the revolution and therefore were staunchly anti-revolutionary.
On 22 December the Social Democrat government agreed that one of the imperial generals, Märcher, should organise these officers and stormtroopers into a highly paid mercenary force, the Freikorps.
‘Most of the leaders were monarchist in spirit. Conspicuously lacking were the moderate, organised workers’.16 After seeing the Freikorps on the march, the conservative historian Meinecke commented, ‘It was as if the old order rose again.’
Yet when he first saw these troops on parade on 4 January, the Majority Social Democrat Noske turned to Ebert and said, ‘Just be calm. Everything is going to be all right again.’
5. The Spartakus Days
Rosa Luxemburg felt that the demand to overthrow the Ebert government was simply a rallying cry.
In December the Spartakists and the Independent Social Democratic Party agreed that the Ebert government had to go. The Spartakists occupied several important buildings throughout Berlin. This period of the revolution is known as the Spartakist Uprising.
The government managed to blame the Spartakists for the unrest in Berlin in December and January.
The Revolutionary Committee of the Spartakists was too uncoordinated, and once they realized the government wasn’t going to collapse, they opened negotiations.
The French Jacobins pointed out that ‘those who half make a revolution dig their own graves’, and Karl Marx reiterated the point when he argued that ‘the defensive is the death of any insurrection’. An uprising can only succeed if the masses feel they have a chance of success. They are not drilled military formations, trained to maintain their ranks in retreat as in advance. They are men and women who will give their all if they believe they are going to achieve liberation, but who will quickly disperse and drift back to their normal, hum-drum lives in the factory, the tenement, the pub, if they feel that that objective has been abandoned. A revolutionary movement that is sure of victory will forget everything else. But the moment the leaders acknowledge that the old order is to continue, by negotiating with it, the rank and file will begin to worry about their jobs, their homes, the attitude of the foreman and the local policeman. Even under the best conditions, negotiations with the enemy mean that support begins to crumble. This was what happened now. A bad situation for the revolutionaries was turned into an appaling one.
Ebert gave the command to the Freikorps to march on Berlin and crush both the SPD soldiers as well as the Spartakists. The violence was attributed to the Spartakists and even the SPD called for their deaths.
The Berlin proletariat was sacrificed to the carefully calculated and artfully executed provocation of the government of the day. The government sought the opportunity to deal the revolution its death blow; the January movement offered this opportunity. — Eichhorn, deposed revolutionary police chief, as quoted by the author
In the author’s opinion the biggest problem with Rosa Luxemburg was that her and her party did not have the power of the masses behind them.
A key difference between the Bolshevik seizure of power and the German Revolution was that the Bolsheviks were incapable of holding the masses back, unlike the SPD. They were more unified than the German socialists, and were able to mobilize the mases.
6. The months of civil war
The SPD was extremely popular even throughout the revolution, and many workers were sympathetic to it and helped it crush the revolution.
The government used the Freikorps to crush not only any revolutionary sentiment, but worker sentiment in general across Germany.
The situation in the Ruhr developed more or less organically. Miners began unofficial strikes for six hour work days, and began fighting with official trade unions once those strikes broke out.
The behaviour of the Freikorps worried even one of their own generals. Märcher wrote to his superior Lüttwitz on 25 January:
In actual fact the population of Berlin were kept for ten days in terror of their lives by irresponsible elements of the Freikorps. The latter are becoming a danger to the capital and I consider it quite probable that before long fighting will take place between the various korps.
One historian has claimed, on the other hand, that sections of the Freikorps began to hesitate in the execution of their duties:
The experience of firing on German workers, of searching their flats for arms and facing the hate-filled glances of the workers in the streets, was too much even for the Freikorps. Their officers became alarmed at the change in the attitude of the troops and abruptly pulled them out of the capital.
7. The Bavarian Socialist Republic
In 1918, Kurt Eisner, the founder of the Bavarian SPD, was murdered.
The government in Bavaria was extremely unstable, and the German communists managed to seize power briefly for six days before losing control again. Out of the failure of the first republic, the workers’ councils formed a council republic, thereby creating the Bavarian Socialist Republic.
The Bavarian Socialist Republic formed independently of the events in Berlin, and wanted nothing to do with the Reich government.
After about two months, the Freikorps entered Bavaria and executed as many communist revolutionaries as they could find, ending the Bavarian Socialist Republic.
8. Balance of the first year
By the summer of 1919 the power of the SPD was beginning to wain, as much of Germany saw that the cause for so much disorder was the Freikorps.
Germany’s industry had been decimated by the First World War: production had been halved and working conditions were getting worse. Meanwhile, strikes shot up. The Social Democrats worked to break these strikes.
The process of movement from ‘democratic’ and ‘social democratic’ ideologies to revolutionary socialism was by no means as complete everywhere as in Hamborn. Different traditions and different struggles interacted in different parts of Germany to produce differing degrees of radicalisation.
There is always a relation between the readiness of people to envisage social change and the possibilities of success in the struggle for it. An experience of successful struggle opens the minds of large numbers of workers to the notion that their class can go further and revolutionise society. By contrast, struggles that end in defeat can all too easily rob such ideas of any credibility. People feel that if they cannot act together to change small things, then they certainly cannot change big ones. Even people who previously believed in a total transformation of society can retreat. As a defeated, demoralised class fights among itself for day-to-day survival, former revolutionaries can all too easily come to think that the best that can be done is to cling to what is rather than fight for what might be.
Hence it is that after any great revolutionary period, only a minority of the participants continue to adhere to explicit, thought out revolutionary theories. The rest will be won back to such ideas only when they gain new credibility from fresh achievements of collective struggle.
At the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the SPD believed in the benevolence of the Allied powers. However it was clear that the Allies would not let Germany off the hook so easily, and so the SPD sided with the nationalists and voted for the treaty. The SPD was trying to avoid revolution at home.
9. The Kapp putsch 1920
The Kapp putsch was an event whereby a group of right-wing generals marched into Berlin and declared the government overthrown. Such generals included Pabst, the one that had helped kill Rosa Luxemberg, and the general that had crushed the Bavarian Soviet.
The putsch was successful in terms of controlling the government, however the military could not keep control given the sheer mass of striking workers.
The Social Democratic government struggled to adequately deal with this problem. Their lack of action caused a rift with their long-established trade union relationship, and many of the putschists went unpunished.
10. The March madness of 1921
The KPD hurt many of its chances to take revolutionary action by not having a clear and direct plan, and frequently it alienated its membership when it did take action.
The central question dividing communists in 1921 was whether or not to take immediate action or to wait for the masses.
11. Year of crisis 1923
It was in 1923 that Germany seemed as though it were at the end of its history. This was the year that Germany experienced runaway inflation, the mythological kind you often hear about.
The inflation crisis ended up undoing all the gains the workers had made in the revolution of 1918.
It was in this time period too that the nationalist right in Germany began to emerge: The Allies began ask for reparations and the government, which could not afford the Versailles reparations, said ’no’. France invaded Germany and nationalist rallies were held across the country. Nationalist sentiment was as high as it had been in 1914. It was in this nationalist fervor that a nascent Nazi party began to gain prominence. The Nazis were also used to control the left and the workers.
The KPD gained some power back in this period too, organizing strike actions and winning over union members.
12. The hot summer
In the summer of 1923 there were formations of workers’ defense organizations called the “Proletarian Hundreds” which were a bulwark against the rising right wing. They were only sometimes associated with the KPD and organized spontaneously.
Inflation continued to skyrocket during the summer of 1923. This led to a wave of strikes.
National Communism was born in this time.
Many of those who since attacked this policy have identified it with the National Bolshevism of Laufenberg (the Hamburg ‘left Communist’) which Radek himself had bitterly denounced in 1919, and with the National Communism preached by the Stalinised Communist Party of the early 1930s. Both of these made considerable concessions to the Nazis’ own ideology—and in the 1930s there was also a tendency to a rabid nationalist phraseology that had little to do with working class internationalism. The tone of the Communist statements of 1923 was very different.
The Communist leaders did not grasp this. They pursued an aggressive united front policy—building the Hundreds, the Control Committees, the factory councils, and drawing under the influence of the party many previously Social Democratic workers. But they did these things on a purely defensive basis, without preparing their party to use the positions won in the defensive struggle to go over to the offensive.
The party was taken by surprise by the May-June strike wave: as we have seen, it took it four days to intervene effectively in the Ruhr strike. This need not in itself have mattered. It is often the case that the spontaneous militancy of workers takes established leaders, even revolutionary leaders, by surprise. But even when the party had grasped that a new militancy was developing, its posture was still defensive. It seemed to be embarrassed by the militancy of the Hundreds in the Ruhr—possibly because of the influence within them of syndicalists and former members of the KAPD. And it urged an early ending of the strike, without noticing the pressure for action that was growing elsewhere in Germany.
When strikes did break out elsewhere, the party certainly did its best to encourage them. But Rote Fahne, for example, did not give the impression that the party leadership realised there had been a qualitative change in the mood of the class. Indeed, there seems to have been a lessening of party activity during the strike wave compared with the beginning of May, when there had been a series of big propaganda meetings and mass demonstrations by the party in Berlin.
13. The German October
The revolution approaching in Germany is the most important international event of our time. The victory of the German Revolution will be still more important for the proletariat of Europe and America than was the Russian Revolution of six years ago. The victory of the German Revolution will transfer the centre of world revolution from Moscow to Berlin… — Stalin
The abortive uprising in 1923 marks the end of the German Revolution.
14. Legacy of defeat
Ultimately the ruling class of Germany betrayed the SPD for the Nazi party.
Those who had believed in capitalism with a human face, in ‘the orderly march towards socialisation’, in ‘the anchoring of the councils in the constitution’, only ensured that all Europe was subjected to a medieval barbarism armed with the monstrous devices of modern technology.
The KPD, rather than continue revolution, aligned themselves with the SPD.
The degeneration had come full circle. The whole world has had to pay the price.
- Open document (Hedgedoc) at https://doc.anagora.org/20210504205409-the_lost_revolution_germany_1918_to_1923
- Video call (Jitsi) at https://meet.jit.si/20210504205409-the_lost_revolution_germany_1918_to_1923