Socialist Party archives - 1919 Revolution in Germany

This article is part of the series collected by the Socialist Party, the CWI in Ireland, on aspects of Labour History.

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1919 Revolution in Germany

Mick Barry, Militant Irish Monthly, Feb. 1989, No. 169

"Then came stirring news. Mutiny in the Kaiser's fleet. I saw women who laughed and wept because they had their men in the fleet. From windows and doors in the front of the food stores sounded the anxious voices: 'The fleet must not sail!' 'It's murder!' 'Finish the war!' "(Jan Valtin, Out of the Night.)

This was Germany in November 1918. The mutiny that the women celebrated was the beginning of a social revolution which would succeed in ending the war and overthrowing the Kaiser. It would also see the workers take power in virtually every city in Germany.

The mutiny began when rumours swept the ports that the German navy was to be sent on a 'death ride' - a hopeless battle with the British to save Germany's honour when the war was already clearly lost.

The Germany workers had already made known their opposition to the war. The patriotic fervour of August 1914 at the beginning of the 'six weeks march to Paris' had long since given way to revulsion. Spurred on by Russia's February Revolution Germany metalworkers struck against food rationing in 1917 and spurred on by the Bolshevik Revolution a German general strike for peace had rocked the country in January 1918 bringing out 500,000 workers in Berlin alone.

But now came the most serious blow. The naval mutiny at Kiel described by Valtin resulted in 40,000 sailors and dockers taking over the town and setting up a workers' and soldiers' council along the lines of the Russian soviets.

Within five days of the establishment of the Kiel council, sailors' soldiers' and workers' councils ruled Bremen, Lubeck, Dresden, Liepzig, Chemnitz, Magdeburg, Brunswick, Frankfurt, Cologne, Stuttgart, Nuremberg and Munich.

In Russia itself the news had an electrifying effect. The Bolshevik leader Karl Radek described the scene: "Tens of thousands of workers burst into wild cheering. Never had I seen anything like it. Until late evening workers and Red Army soldiers were filing past. The world revolution had come. The mass of the people heard its iron tramp. Our isolation was over."

Meanwhile the Kaiser had fled Berlin. The Prime Minister, Prince Max, realising that the forces of the old order could not stop the revolution, decided to find out whether other forces could do so. In a private conversation with Ebert, the leader of the biggest workers' party in Germany (the Social Democrats), he asked: "If I should succeed in persuading the Kaiser (to abdicate) do I have you on my side in the struggle against the social revolution?" Ebert replied; "If the Kaiser does not abdicate, the social revolution is inevitable. I do not want it - in fact, I hate it like sin."

But the Kaiser did not have time to abdicate voluntarily. A massive workers' demonstration in Berlin the following day won over government troops and marched in the Reichstag (parliament). A leading Social Democrat, Scheidemann, went to the Reichstag canteen to a balcony where he attempted to pacify the crowd. Nothing he said had any effect, so he shouted, "Long live the German Republic!" A massive roar of applause shook the building.

Now that the autocracy had fallen the key question in Germany politics would be the kind of democracy installed - capitalist 'democracy' or workers' democracy. Scheidemann and Ebert knew the kind they wanted. Meanwhile, a few hundred yards from Scheidemann the revolutionary socialist Karl Liebknecht also was speaking from a balcony. Liebknecht too knew the kind of democracy he wanted. He asked that those who supported the world revolution would raise their hands. Thousands of hands rose up.

Up until the previous year Ebert, Scheidemann and Liebknecht had all been members of the Germany Social Democratic Party (SPD). The SPD had been founded in 1875 as a Marxist party and had grown to become the strongest workers' party in the world. By 1912 the SPD had one million members, 15,000 full-time party workers, 90 daily newspapers and the biggest parliamentary bloc of any party in Germany.

However, the years 1875-1912 were not only for a period of growth for the SPD it was also a period of book for international capitalism. Under pressure from the SPD and the trade unions, German capitalism could afford to concede increased living standards for the working class. The SPD leaders fell into the trap of believing that reforms could be won indefinitely - thereby ending the need for revolution. More and more the party became reformist in practice and revolutionary only in words.

Few saw this clearly. Lenin himself was blind to this weakness and still considered himself a follower of the SPD leader Karl Kautsky. Within the SPD though, the Polish Marxist Rosa Luxemburg saw the danger at an early stage. However, she stopped short of organising an opposition Marxist faction in the party.

It was only the shock of major events which revealed this weakness in the SPD's leadership. With the declaration of the imperialist war in 1914 the SPD surrendered to the pressure of Germany capitalism and voted for the Kaiser's war credits.

This betrayal was not only a German but also an international phenomenon. In country after country, the Social Democrat leaders capitulated to their 'own' capitalist class and backed the war effort. Those who remained true to socialist internationalism were reduced to a tiny handful: Lenin, Trotsky, the Bolsheviks, John MacLean in Scotland, James Connolly in Ireland and a handful of others. This handful of others included both Luxemburg and Liebknecht in Germany.

Liebknecht became the first SPD deputy to vote openly against the war credits in December 1914. With growing opposition to the war in the working class a large opposition grouping began to emerge in the SPD. This opposition was reflected in the ranks of the SPD Reichstag deputies - by December 1915 40% of SPD deputies were voting against war credits. The opposition won control of the SPD in Berlin, Bremen and Leipzig but were expelled in 1917 and 120,000 workers joined the new Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD.)

The USPD was a classic example of a centrist party, wavering between the ideas of Marxism and reformism. Crucially, it contained tens of thousands of workers radicalised by the war and Russia's February Revolution who were moving away from reformist ideas and towards the ideas of revolutionary Marxism.

The workers who established the workers' councils and overthrew the Kaiser were clear that they wanted a socialist society. What they were not clear about was the difference between the rival shades of socialist opinion. In this situation, the mass of workers' turned towards their traditional organisations - the SPD.

In Berlin, the workers' council elected an executive of 18 SPD leaders and 6 USPD. This council, in turn handed 'power' to a 'revolutionary government' made up of 3 SPD leaders, 2 USPD right-wingers and USPD left-winger.

Evelyn Anderson explained the support for the SPD in her book Hammer and Anvil: "Out of sheer loyality, hundreds of thousands of workers stuck to their old party which they had helped to build, no matter how violently they disagreed with its policy ----loyality to his organisation has become a matter of instinct to the worker."

In the first Russian Soviets, the Russian reformists (Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries) had won big majorities - only on the basis of the experience of the masses and the patient explanation of the Bolsheviks was this position reversed.

The leadership of the workers' councils had given power to the SPD/USPD coalition. The SPD leaders, as we have seen, did a deal with the capitalist class. This was a classic example of dual power - an unstable stalemate in the class war, which can only be resolved on the basis of the defeat of the government or the defeat of the workers' councils.

The only force the Social Democrats could turn to in an attempt to solve this stalemate was the army at the front. However, they had to be very careful about this so as they would not be seen by the workers to betray the revolution. Before bringing the frontline troops back the Social Democrats were forced by the councils - the real power in the land - to introduce the 8-hour day, trade union rights, welfare benefits and the release of political prisoners. They also announced a general election for January where they hoped to strengthen their hand.

Engel's saying that the capitalist state was 'armed bodies of men acting in defence of private property' had been well understood by the German High Command. At the recent Armistice, when the Allies had demanded the surrender of 30,000 German machine guns the High Command had protested that they needed 'enough to fire on the German people, should this become necessary.'

Clearly this was now 'necessary'. But there was one small problem - they needed soldiers to fire the machine guns and when the soldiers marched home from the Front the majority went over to the side of the revolution. A military coup on December 6 hailed, and the Social Democrats had to rush to disassociate themselves from it. Another military attack on workers' power in Berlin failed in the 'Battle of Christmas Eve'.

The Social Democrat leaders were so short of reliable troops now that they had to combine the old officer corps with elite troops to form a new force known as the Freikorps - forerunner in many ways of Hitler's nazis.

Communist Party

Meanwhile, a workers' police force had been established in Berlin and Liebknecht was even able to form a 'Council of Deserters, Stragglers and Furloughed Soldiers'.

By the end of the year working class pressure forced the USPD leaders to resign from the government. The SPD remained in 'power' alone, but support was slowly slipping away and by the end of 1918 Ebert was even considering moving the government away from Berlin.

Another significant event happened at the end of 1918 - the founding of the German Communist Party (KPD). Luxemburg, Liebknecht and the Spartacists formed the backbone of the new party which had between 3,000 and 4,000 members. This presented a real step forward. Previous to this, Germany's Marxists had only acted as isolated individuals (as in the pre-1914 SPD) or as part of loose-knit federal groups like the Spartacist Group.

As with many of the early European Communist Parties, the German party was full of revolutionary élan but suffered from ultra-leftism. This was shown in its attitude to the January elections where conference voted 63-23 (against Luxemburg's advice) to boycott. Instead of leaving the field open to the right-wing parties, the Social Democrats and the Independents, the KPD should have used the election to deepen its influence in the working class and argue for real socialist change.

The year 1919 opened with the dual power crisis unresolved. On the one hand, the SPD government did not feel at all confident about trying to crush the councils with its limited number of troops. On the other hand, the KPD did not have enough influence in the councils (21 delegates ate the December national congress as opposed to 90 USPD and 288 SPD) to make the overthrow of the government an immediate possibility.

The government decided to organise a provocation and ordered the resignation of Berlin's leftwing police chief Eichhorn. The Berlin USPD, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the KPD correctly called a mass demonstration for January 5 to defend Eichhorn's position. On the day, hundreds of thousands of workers marched to Berlin police headquarters -but the demonstration threw the leaders off balance and they decided to attempt to overthrow the government. A 'revolutionary committee' was established representing the Berlin USPD, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and (breaking party discipline) Liebknecht and Pieck of the KPD.

This attempt to seize power was premature and played into the hands of the SPD leaders who could picture it as an attack on both the government and the council majority. Although the workers were probably strong enough to rule Berlin alone this was not the case around the country where deep illusions still existed in the SPD government. A victorious insurrection in Berlin would have been isolated and open to severe counter-attack.

With the 'revolutionary committee' declaring for the government's overthrow workers seized the newspaper offices, the railway headquarters, food warehouses and other buildings including the Reichstag. A massive general strike hit Berlin on January 6th and workers marched to the buildings where the 'revolutionary committee' met. But having called for insurrection the committee now proved unable to provide the necessary tactics and strategy. A KPD leader describes what happened:

"What was seen on Monday in Berlin was probably the greatest proletarian demonstration in history…they were ready to of anything, to give everything, even their lives. There was an army of 200,000 such as Ludendorff had never seen. Then the inconceivable happened…..

"The masses were standing from nine in the morning in the fog and cold. Somewhere their leaders were sitting and conferring. The fog lifted and the masses were still standing. Their leaders conferred. Noon came and in addition to the cold, hunger came, and the leaders conferred.

"The fog came again and with it the dusk. The masses went home sadly. They had wanted great things, but they had done nothing. Because their leaders conferred, they sat the entire evening and the entire night and conferred. When dawn came, they were still conferring and conferring again."

This indecision was fatal and emboldened the government. When the government failed to surrender immediately, the USPD offered negotiations and this weakness further emboldened them.

The new Social Democrat Defence Minister Noske boasting that "someone must be the bloodhound" had prepared the forces of counter-revolution. Now they struck. On January 11, troops commanded by monarchist officers moved in. Within a week 156 (officially) were killed, hundreds were wounded and the so-called 'Spartacist Uprising' was crushed. On January 15 Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were arrested, 'interrogated' in Freikorp HQ and then murdered. The Germany working class had lost its two greatest leaders and the momentum had now swung towards the counter-revolution.

At eh end of January, the general election resulted in humiliation for all the old right wing parties and 45% of the vote for parties committed in words to socialism - 38% for the SPD and 7% for the USPD. The SPD formed a coalition government with smaller capitalist parties.

The capitalist class now demanded that the government move decisively against the workers' councils. But this would prove very difficult to achieve. The state machine was still weak and could only take on the workers one city at a time.

They moved first against the workers of Bremen when an 'independent socialist republic' had been declared. It took armoured cars and bombing to defeat the workers after days of vicious street fighting in which 100 died. The Freikorp them marched to the Ruhr where mass arrests and summary executions were used to defeat a general strike.

No sooner had the Freikorp marched onto Central Germany where miners were demanding socialisation of the mines than Berlin flared up again. As more and more workers came to se the role of the SPD, the party lost its majority in the Berlin workers' council to a coalition of the USPD and the KPD. The new leadership called a general strike against repression for early March. The strike was met with artillery, aeroplanes and bombs and was defeated with 2,000 killed and 20,000 wounded.

Leadership

Had these revolts been co-ordinated and linked together there is no way they could have been defeated. But having rebelled separately they were now defeated separately. With the crushing of the Berlin strike, the Freikorp went on a blood rampage through Magdeburg, Braunschweig, Hamburg and Chemnitz. But the most bloody battle of all took place in Munich.

The German Revolution showed the colossal power of the working class in modern society. The German workers were able to overthrow the virtual military dictatorship which ruled the country during the war and the ancient monarchy too. They exploded into the trade unions, pushing union membership from 1.5 million to 7.3 million within one year. They came within an ace of taking power in their own right.

Furthermore, when defeated in this attempt, they were sufficiently strong to prevent the counter-revolution installing a military government. As the right-wing German national People's party leader and future Prime Minister Stresemann pointed out in 1919: "A government without the Social democrats during the next 2-3 years seems to me quite impossible, since otherwise we will stagger from one general strike to general strike."

The counter-revolution had been forced to take a 'democratic' form - for the moment at any rate. The revolution also showed the absolutely critical role played by leadership in the struggle to change society.

It is quite clear that German capitalism was only able to survive in late 1918 courtesy of the Social Democrat leaders. Conversely, it is clear that had the SPD remained true to its Marxist principles it could have taken power peacefully in November 1918 and carried through the socialist transformation of society, establishing a socialist government based on the workers' councils.

However, it is also clear that had the German Marxists pursued the correct strategy and tactics they would at the very least have had a favourable opportunity to lead the socialist revolution in 1919.

Lessons

No Bolshevik party existed in Germany until two months after the revolution began. However, as we have seen, it was clear to Rosa Luxemburg more than 10 years before the revolution began that the SPD leaders were likely to be a barrier on the road to socialism. This should have been the time to start building a Marxist faction inside the SPD, steeling it in Marxist theory so as to avoid the ultra-leftism that manifested itself in early 1919.

On the other hand, it is clear with hindsight that the Marxists broke too early from both the SPD and the USPD. Tremendous opportunities existed to win the 120,000 leftward moving workers in the USPD in late 1918 and early 1919.

But the Spartacists split from the USPD when they commanded the allegiance of less than 5% of its members. Even more so, opportunities existed to win massive support for genuine Marxism in the ranks of the SPD. SPD membership jumped form a war-time low of 243,000 in early 1917 to over a million again in 1919. The worker who joined the SPD did so not out of support of counter-revolution but out of support for socialist change.

Had the Marxists operated as a faction inside both parties, patiently explaining their ideas they would have ad a real chance of becoming the majority faction in the German labour movement before the spring of 1919, preparing the way for a co-ordinated national struggle and the seizure of power.

The German revolution will go down in history as one of the greatest working class struggles of all time. It is up to us to take heart from the heroic example of Luxemburg, Liebknecht and the German working class and learn from the lessons of the German defeat, building a strong Marxist tendency and laying the basis for victory in the class battles which lie ahead.

Other articles related to this are one by by Trotsky from 1919 on the loss of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, with a second from our paper on Luxemburg.



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