In 1918-33 revolution and counter-revolution followed hot on each others' heels. The barbarity of the Nazis is well documented. Less well known are the events that preceeded Hitler's rise to power. Rob Sewell gives a picture of the tumultous events - the 1918 revolution, the collapse of the Kaiser's regime, the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic, the Kapp putsch in 1920, the French occupation of the Ruhr in 1923 and the ensuing revolutionary upheavals culminating in the abortive Hamburg uprising, finally Hitler's rise to power in 1929-33.
In 1918-33 revolution and counter-revolution followed hot on each others' heels. The barbarity of the Nazis is well documented. Less well known are the events that preceeded Hitler's rise to power. Rob Sewell gives a picture of the tumultous events - the 1918 revolution, the collapse of the Kaiser's regime, the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic, the Kapp putsch in 1920, the French occupation of the Ruhr in 1923 and the ensuing revolutionary upheavals culminating in the abortive Hamburg uprising, finally Hitler's rise to power in 1929-33. Above all this book shows, in the decisive (and tragic) role of the German workers' leadership, the answer to one of the key questions of the modern era: how was it possible for the mightiest labour movement in Europe to be trampled under the iron heel of fascism?
Introduction to the First Edition
“The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent but of anger and revolt amongst the workmen against prewar conditions. The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other.” (Lloyd George in a secret memorandum to the French Premier Georges Clemenceau, March 1919)
The German Revolution of November 1918 had an earth-shattering effect on the course of international events. It put an end to the carnage of the First World War in which some 10 million lost their lives and more than twice that number were wounded. It gave a colossal impetus to the developing revolution that was to sweep over Europe in the next twelve months. Last but not least, it was a startling inspiration to the Russian working class in their efforts to break their isolation, and extend the socialist revolution to the west.
On hearing news of the revolution, Lenin issued an immediate statement to the Russian workers:
“News came from Germany in the night about the victory of the revolution there. First Kiel radio announced that power was in the hands of a council of workers and soldiers. Then Berlin made the following announcement: ‘Greetings of peace and freedom to all. Berlin and the surrounding districts are in the hands of the Council of Workers and Soldiers’ Deputies...’
“Please take every step to notify German soldiers at all border points. Berlin also reports that German soldiers at the fronts have arrested the peace delegation from the former German government and have begun peace negotiations themselves with the French soldiers.”
As soon as the news of the German Revolution spread, tens of thousands of Russian workers spontaneously organised demonstrations. In describing its impact, the Bolshevik Karl Radek recalled:
“From every corner of the city demonstrations were marching towards the Moscow Soviet...Tens of thousands of workers burst into wild cheering. Never have I seen anything like it again. Until late in the 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.”
As with the February Revolution in Russia, the German masses poured onto the stage of history. They took destiny into their own hands. A red flag flew over every barracks and over every ship in the German Imperial Navy. Alongside a feeble government, the workers’ and soldiers’ councils ruled all the main cities of Germany. The old state apparatus had collapsed and the streets were now controlled by armed workers. In Berlin, a new government of Peoples’ Commissars had been appointed by the Executive Committee of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils. The Hohenzollern dynasty followed the Romanovs into oblivion. The Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, had fled to the Netherlands, followed by the rulers of four German kingdoms, five Grand Duchies and twelve Principalities.
As with the example of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, another age-old absolutism, that of the Hohenzollerns had collapsed. Under the hot breath of revolution, King Ludwig III of Bavaria simply packed his bags and left! The King of Wuerttemberg humbly pleaded that no red flag should fly over his palace after his departure! This was the comic opera of the revolution; far more serious were the discussions over terms of surrender taking place between the Allies and the German High Command in Marshall Foch’s railway carriage in the Forest of Compiègne.
A condition for signing the armistice was a demand that the German military immediately surrender the 30,000 machine guns in its possession. The German delegation replied that if this demand was acceded to, “There would not be enough left to fire on the German people should this become necessary.” Under this truly compelling argument the Allies agreed that 5000 machine guns could be retained for this precise purpose!
The war had given birth to revolution. In Germany, power was now in the hands of the workers, soldiers and sailors. The revolution represented the greatest blow to world capitalism since the Russian Revolution of October 1917. Tragically, however, the German proletariat failed to seize this opportunity of consolidating power in its hands and creating a German socialist republic as a springboard for the revolution in Europe. Very rapidly the workers’ councils handed power over to the Social Democratic leaders, who in turn began to rescue German capitalism.
Why did the socialist revolution fail? Why was this historic opportunity missed?
The Rise of Organised Labour
GERMANY HAD been the cradle of Marxism. Both Marx and Engels spent a great amount of time educating and developing the German labour movement. The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) ever since its foundation had given its allegiance to Marxism and was seen as the embodiment of the German revolutionary tradition. It was the most powerful party of the Second International (the body which grouped together the main socialist parties before the First World War) and was the strongest workers' party on a world scale. By 1912, the SPD had one million members, over 15,000 full time party workers, assets worth more than 21 million gold marks, 90 daily newspapers and 62 printing offices. It had numerous periodicals together with its own socialist news agency, and a massive Central Socialist School.
It had a parliamentary vote of 4.3 million, which was more than one third of the total electorate. Its affiliated trade union membership amounted to more than 2.5 million. Its strength as a party was incomparably greater than the Bolshevik Party had been on the eve of the October Revolution. It appeared that the German labour movement was on a sound footing and that the socialist revolution was assured. Unfortunately its strength and resources were not used to effect the overthrow of capitalism, but became a means of advancement for a developing labour bureaucracy.
The relative social peace which existed in Europe between the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871 and the end of the upswing in 1912 resulted in the trade unions and social democratic parties becoming powerful mass organisations. But the development of the German social democracy within this framework of an organic upswing of capitalism infected its leaders and its officialdom with the habit of compromise and gradual progress. The pressure of the mass organisations in this period of upswing resulted in increased living standards for the workers. Such a situation instilled into the labour leadership illusions that reforms could be won indefinitely. As the trade unions expanded in membership, as their resources developed dramatically, then gradually the leaders at each level raised their income and conditions of life higher than the masses. In the words of Marx, 'social being determines social consciousness'.
The decades of peaceful gradual development transformed the character of social democracy. The labour leaders had bent under the sustained pressures of capitalism. For the developing careerists Marxist phrases were used at May Day processions, on workers' holidays and other such occasions, whereas in day to day work they adapted themselves to bourgeois society. The trade unions and the SPD had become rich and powerful, and had begun to harbour careerists and place-seekers at every level. These privileged layers now had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, in effect becoming not an instrument for the overthrow of capitalism, but of mediation between the classes.
In the late 1890s, a party leader, Eduard Bernstein, began to articulate the outlook of these privileged sections by arguing for a complete revision of Marxism. He urged the party to recognise reality and the changed situation since Marx's time. For Bernstein, capitalism had now changed and had overcome its contradictions of boom and slump, class lines were becoming blurred and therefore the class struggle obsolete. He formulated his opportunist viewpoint in the phrase: 'The final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything.' Bernstein was the forerunner of all those later reformist leaders who challenged the ideas of Marxism as not corresponding with the real development of society. The ideas of Kinnock, Gonzales, Mitterrand, Papandreou, are nothing new, but simply a vulgarised rehash of those expressed by Bernstein at the turn of the century.
In the German SPD Karl Kautsky and other leaders took up the fight against Bernstein's revisionism. Kautsky's attack on Bernstein, 'How dare you renounce our heritage', was not a defence of genuine revolutionary Marxism. For Kautsky, the ideas of Marxism had become like tablets of stone. He was a typical centrist, Marxist in words and phrases but reformist in deeds. His vulgarised Marxism was an attempt to reconcile reform and revolution. For Kautsky, theory and ideas were completely divorced from reformist practice and the day-to-day demands of the movement. The centrists' whole being became adapted to reforms within capitalism. Kautsky was to end up after 1914 preaching national defence! The party congresses of 1901 and 1903, as well as the 1904 Congress of the Second International, passed resolutions condemning the new revisionism of Bernstein. But they meant very little in practice. The SPD secretary, Ignaz Auer, expressing the real cynical feeling of the bureaucracy, wrote to Bernstein in 1899,'My dear Ede, one does not formally make a decision to do the things you suggest, one doesn't say such things, one simply does them.'
In the Second International Kautsky was regarded by friend and foe as the 'Pope of Marxism'. His struggle against Bernstein was supported by Lenin who at that stage regarded himself as a follower of Kautsky. Prior to 1914, Lenin regarded the Bolsheviks as a 'Bebel-Kautsky' wing of the Russian Social Democracy. 'What we have claimed', stated Lenin in 1906, 'that our fight for the position of revolutionary social democracy against opportunism is in no manner whatsoever the creation of some 'original' Bolshevist tendency - has been completely confirmed by Kautsky...' It was only the brilliant revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg, who could observe Kautsky's actions at close hand, who clearly recognised the limits of his pseudo-Marxism.
All individuals and great theories are put to the test by events. There was no bigger event than world war. Resolutions had been passed at the international Congresses of Stuttgart in 1907 and Basle in 1912, against the prospect of imperialist war and to issue a call to fight it by every means, including a general strike. Despite this, the declaration of war in August 1914 shattered the International.
The world war indicated the impasse of imperialism, where the productive forces had outgrown the nation state and private ownership of the means of production. German capitalism, which had arrived on the scene very late, had effectively missed out on the division of the globe by the imperialist powers, especially Britain. The only way German capitalism could break out of the straitjacket of the national market was by a violent re-division of the world. World war became inevitable.
In nearly every country, the leaders of social democracy capitulated to their own bourgeoisie, jettisoning the ideas of class struggle and internationalism. On 4 August, the SPD chairperson read out a statement in the Reichstag:
"We are faced with the iron fact of war. We are threatened with the horrors of hostile invasions...
"It is for us to ward off this danger and to safeguard the culture and independence of our country. Thus we honour what we have always pledged: in the hour of danger, we shall not desert our Fatherland...Guided by these principles, we shall vote for the war credits."
To confuse the workers and justify their capitulation and their alliance with the reactionary junker aristocrats and bourgeois parties, they used suitable quotations from Marx and Engels written in 1848 and 1859, ripped out of context.
The prestige of the German party within the International had been such, that Lenin at first thought the issue of the SPD journal Vorwaerts carrying the news of the SPD voting for the Kaiser's war budget, was a forgery of the German general staff.
Rosa Luxemburg described the International as a 'stinking corpse' which had betrayed the proletariat, delivering it bound, hand and foot, to the capitalists' military machine.
Internationalists and the War
Those who remained true to the ideas of internationalism on a world scale were reduced to a tiny handful. When they gathered in Zimmerwald in 1915 they joked that the world's internationalists could be brought together in two stage-coaches. Lenin, Trotsky, Liebknecht, Luxemburg, John MacLean and James Connolly together with others were reduced in various countries to tiny groups. Nevertheless, they struggled to maintain the principles of Marxism and the ideas of internationalism. They differentiated themselves from the social chauvinists, or social patriots, as the old Labour leaders who supported 'their own' ruling class in the war were called. The internationalists defended the fundamental ideas; of the class nature of imperialist war, of the class nature of the state, the right of nations to self determination and the need for the socialist revolution. The Zimmerwald Left, holding a consistent revolutionary position became the embryo of the future Third International.
Within the German SPD a small minority around Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg fought against the pro-war policies of the leadership. In December 1914 Liebknecht became the sole SPD deputy in the Reichstag to openly vote against the Kaiser's War Credits. But in a short space of time, dissent spread rapidly through the party organisation, with provincial groups passing resolutions against the war policy. In April 1915 the first and only issue of the journal Die Internationale edited by Rosa Luxemburg and Franz Mehring appeared, but was suppressed by government censorship. The Luxemburg-Mehring-Liebknecht section of the party thus became known as the 'Internationale Group', the nucleus around which the future German Communist Party was to crystalise. On New Year's Day 1916 its first congress was held in Liebknecht's house which took the decision to launch a clandestine journal called Spartacus, named after the Roman revolutionary slave. From then on the group's members became known as the Spartacists.
Under the impact of the war, a far larger opposition grouping began to emerge within the SPD, which reflected itself in growing opposition amongst the Reichstag (parliament) Deputies. In March 1915, 25 SPD deputies voted against the War Credits, in August 1915 it rose to 36, and by December, 43 of the 108 SPD deputies said they would no longer respect group discipline.
Disillusionment with the war began to affect the masses. On May Day 1916, after agitation conducted by the Spartacists in the factories of Berlin, a mass demonstration took place on the Potsdamer Platz of 10,000 workers demanding: 'Down with the War! Down with the government!' Karl Liebknecht was arrested for anti-war agitation and in June was sentenced to 2 years 6 months hard labour. On the day of his trial over 50,000 munition workers downed tools, as demonstrations took place in Stuttgart and further strikes in Bremen and Braunschweig. As a result of these troubles the authorities clamped down, arresting hundreds of Spartacist workers who were given severe prison sentences. In July 1916 Rosa Luxemburg was re-arrested. But the repression was too late, the ice had broken, and in November 30,000 workers demonstrated in Frankfurt against the war.
Birth of the USPD
The growing opposition amongst the workers to the nightmare of the trenches put enormous pressure on the rank and file of the SPD. This emboldened the opposition not only within the Reichstag but throughout the party at large. By March 1916 a big minority refused to vote for the budget in the Reichstag. In June they fought against new taxes which 'in the last resort serve the imperialist war which we will not tolerate'. This large opposition current won widespread support among the membership and took control of the Party organisations in Berlin, Bremen and Leipzig as well as other key industrial centres. At its first national conference in January 1917 this opposition - amorphous in composition - began to take a more organised form. For this they were promptly expelled, taking 120,000 into the new Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD or Independents).
Together in this new party were Marxists and revisionists. Revolutionaries and reformists were suddenly united in their general opposition to the war. Individuals like Karl Kautsky, Bernstein (who had moved to pacifism), Luxemburg, and Liebknecht were all members of the USPD. The Spartacist group constituted itself as an autonomous section of the new party. The Independent's break with the SPD reflected a growing ferment, not only in the ranks of the SPD, but also in the ranks of the working class as a whole. Tens of thousands of militant workers, radicalised by the war and the effects of the February Revolution in Russia, entered its ranks. It became a classical centrist party, wavering between the ideas of Marxism and reformism.
Centrism, as defined by Leon Trotsky, 'is composed of all those trends...that are between reformism and Marxism.' It arises from the process of transformation of the mass organisations, which does not develop in a straight line, but in a contradictory, dialectical, fashion. Centrism is an unstable phenomenon which straddles different material interests, from reformism - representing those of the labour aristocracy - to Marxism - representing the interests of the proletariat. What is of key importance is the direction in which the centrist party is developing. Due to its unstable character, it either goes over completely to revolution or reverts back to a classical reformist organisation. The new USPD was moving towards a revolutionary standpoint.
By 1917 war weariness engulfed the mass of the German people. The soldiers in the front were sickened by the war, its bloodshed, brutality, poison gas, hunger and above all the incompetent general staff. Given the economic blockade surrounding Germany, the conditions of the working class in the factories had declined dramatically. Supplies of coal began to run out, and in the bitter winter of 1917-18 thousands of starving children died of cold. Rations were drastically cut. Adult consumption stood at 1000 calories a day and infant mortality increased by 50 per cent since 1913. In the trenches loss of life was astronomical. The French calculated that between August 1914 and February 1917 one Frenchman was killed every single minute.
The Russian Revolution
News of the successful Bolshevik revolution in November 1917 had an electrifying effect under these conditions. In every barracks and factory, workers discussed the victory of the Russian working class. It was a sea-change in the situation; a ray of hope in the darkness of world war. The Soviet government's first decree to the peoples of the world was for an immediate armistice and a democratic peace based on self-determination and the renunciation of annexations. The Bolsheviks then went on to publish the secret agreements of the Tsarist regime and the old Kerensky government with the Allies and repudiated all the territory that had been promised to Russia. Soviet Russia was leaving the war.
The announcements had a powerful effect on the psychology of the international working class. In 1917 a massive mutiny affected 54 divisions of the French army, and in December a strike wave began that led in the following May to a walk-out of 250,000 workers in Paris. The strikes in Britain in 1918 encompassed well over a million workers. In January 1918, 700,000 workers in Austria-Hungary joined a general strike in support of the Bolshevik's peace proposals. In February Austro-Hungarian sailors joined in the protests, temporarily controlling half of the war fleet. A sailor condemned to death for his actions in the mutiny stated before his execution, 'What happened in Russia emboldened us. Over there, a new sun has risen that will shine not only for the Slavs but for all the nations, and it will bring them peace and justice.'
Already in April 1917 Germany had experienced the second mass strike against the war. Two hundred thousand workers struck in Berlin and Leipzig. This was followed in January 1918 by the greatest strike of the war years, when over one million armament workers downed tools against the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which the German regime had forced upon the Bolshevik government. This demonstrated the profound effect of the propaganda conducted by Leon Trotsky during the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk. The January strike was organised in the main by an opposition trade union group called Revolutionaere Obleute (The Revolutionary Shop Stewards). They had come together because of their opposition to the war and the political truce of the Labour leaders. They later joined the USPD and, like the Spartacist League, maintained a separate existence within the Party. When the strike ended in defeat, over 50,000 strikers were drafted into the army and sent to the front. Lenin later commented that this action marked 'a turn of sentiment among the German proletariat'.
In The Throes of Revolution
THE OLD REGIME felt the ground moving from under its feet. The growing revolutionary ferment at the front combined with the strike waves in the cities engendered a panic stricken mood in the ruling class. In the words of the Secretary of State, Hintze, 'It is necessary to prevent an upheaval from below by a revolution from above.' As a result 'parliamentary' government was quickly established with the Kaiser's cousin, Prince Max von Baden, at its head. Included in its ranks, as a measure to appease the masses, was the Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann. In October an amnesty was announced for political prisoners, resulting in the release of Karl Liebknecht, who was greeted by 20,000 Berlin workers. But the amnesty did not apply to Rosa Luxemburg who continued to be held in 'protective custody.'
But the reforms were too late. The military fronts began to collapse and there were more than 4000 desertions in 1918. Generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg of the General Staff had written to the new government proposing an armistice to the Allies but was refused. On 28 October 1918, the German High Command, in a desperate gamble, decided on a decisive naval battle on the North Sea in order to save the honour of the German Navy, risking the lives of 80,000 men. This proved the final straw.
Jan Valtin, a member of the Spartacist League of Youth, relates what happened in his autobiography Out Of The Night:
"Toward the end of October, 1918, my father wrote that the High Seas Fleet had received orders for a final attack against England. No secret was made of it. The officers, he reported in his blunt fashion, revelled all night. They spoke of the death ride of the fleet. Rumour had it that the fleet was under orders to go down in battle to save the honour of the generation that built it. Their honour is not our honour, my father wrote.
"Two days later the fleet was under way. People in Bremen were more surly than ever.
"Then came stirring news. Mutiny in the Kaiser's fleet! Young sons of the bourgeoisie who had been sporting sailors caps now left them at home. 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: 'Will the fleet sail out!...No, the fleet must not sail! It's murder! Finish the war!' youngsters in the street yelled, 'Hurrah!'"
The mutineers at Kiel had seized the ship Thueringen, dropped the anchors and disarmed the officers. The battleship Helgoland then followed suit. The fleet began to return to port. As a result of the mutiny 580 men from both ships were arrested and jailed. Valtin continues:
"That night I saw the mutinous sailors roll in to Bremen in caravans of commandeered trucks - red flags and machine guns mounted on the trucks. Thousands milled in the streets. Often the trucks stopped and the sailors sang and roared for free passage...
"I circled toward the Brill, a square in the western centre of the town. From there on I had to push my bicycle through the throngs. The population was in the streets. From all sides masses of humanity, a sea of swinging, pushing bodies and distorted faces was moving toward the centre of the town. Many of the workers were armed with guns, with bayonets, with hammers. I felt then, and later, that the sight of armed workers sets off a roar in the blood of those who sympathise with the marchers. Singing hoarsely was a sprawling band of demonstrating convicts freed by a truckload of sailors from Oslebshausen prison most of them wore soldiers grey coats over their prison garb. But the true symbol of this revolution, which is really nought but a revolt, were neither the armed workers nor the singing convicts - but the mutineers from the fleet with their reversed headbands and carbines slung over their shoulders, butts up and barrels down...
"At the foot of the Roland statue a frightened old woman crouched. 'Ach du liebe Gott', she wailed piercingly 'what is all this? What is the world coming to?'A huge-framed young worker who gave intermittent bellows of triumph and whom I had followed from the Brill, grasped the old woman's shoulders. He laughed resoundingly. 'Revolution', he rumbled. 'Revolution, Madam.'"
On 3 November the revolution had begun with the naval mutiny at Kiel. Forty thousand sailors and dockers surged through the streets and a workers' and sailors' council took control of the town. On 4 November the revolution spread: red flags flew over every ship. On 6 November, sailors', soldiers' and workers' councils were now in power in Hamburg, Bremen and Luebeck. On 7 and 8 November Dresden, Leipzig, Chemnitz, Magdeburg, Brunswick, Frankfurt, Cologne, Stuttgart, Nuremberg and Munich all followed suit. It was not until 9 November that workers' and soldiers' councils were established in the capital, Berlin, the previous centre of revolution - at the supreme army headquarters!
Over the last decade or so, a new breed of careerists floated to the top of the SPD, people like Friedrich Ebert, Gustav Noske and Philipp Scheidemann. It is ironic that individuals like Eduard Bernstein had moved to the left during the war and ended up in the centrist USPD. The new Social Democratic leaders looked with contempt at the ordinary workers. Scheidemann for instance, exclaimed with absolute horror that he 'was carried shoulder high by soldiers decorated with the Iron Cross!' He urgently warned the Emperor's Palace: 'We have done all within our power to keep the masses in check,' and urged the Kaiser to abdicate in order to quell the anger of the workers.
'I Hate Revolution Like Sin'
Noske's counter-revolutionary actions were clearly revealed when he was sent to Kiel to put down the naval revolt. Ebert made no secret of his undying support for the monarchy. These new leaders of the SPD clearly saw their role as doing everything in their power to hold back the revolution. Their scandalous actions were not the product of naivity but conscious treachery.
The head of the government, Prince Max von Baden approached Ebert and asked: 'If I should succeed in persuading the Kaiser, do I have you on my side in the battle 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 was determined to hang on. He had completely lost touch with the situation and talked of the impertinence of his subjects towards their King and the need, if necessary, to repress them with 'smoke-bombs, gas, bombing squadrons and flamethrowers!' General Groener told him bluntly: 'Sire, you no longer have an army'.
Armed soldiers were roaming the streets of Berlin but still the Kaiser dithered, and refused to abdicate. The ruling class had to act fast as the SPD, under pressure, resigned from the newly appointed government. Without delay Prince Max, anticipating the Kaiser's reply, announced the King's abdication. Wilhelm II was astonished to hear the news secondhand!
The revolutionary wave sweeping Germany was similar to the events of that of February 1917 in Russia. Workers, soldiers and sailors took power into their own hands and spontaneously formed councils which took charge of the situation. As yet the masses did not differentiate between the different shades of rival socialists. 'Out of sheer loyalty, 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...loyalty to his organisation has become a matter of instinct to the worker.' (Evelyn Anderson in Hammer or Anvil). In February 1917 in Russia the masses made no distinction between the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries (SRs). Trotsky explained how the Mensheviks and SRs had more resources at their disposal, more agitators, more propagandists, more links with the intelligentsia, and were able to use these points of support to influence the masses who had moved into struggle. In Germany as in Russia, only direct experience would put the workers' loyalties to the test. In the short term, despite the treacherous role of the SPD leaders, who opposed the revolution, the masses saw their traditional organisation as the embodiment of the party that had awakened them to political life. In this context, the USPD played an important but secondary role.
Long Live the Revolution!
The armed mass demonstrations that convulsed Berlin now forced the terrified Max von Baden to act over Ebert's appointment as Chancellor (Prime Minister):
"The revolution is on the verge of winning. We cannot crush it but perhaps we can strangle it...if Ebert is presented to me from the streets as the people's leader, then we will have a republic; if it is Liebknecht, then Bolshevism. But if the abdicating Kaiser appoints Ebert as Reich Chancellor, then there is still a little hope for the monarchy. Perhaps it will be possible to divert the revolutionary energies into the legal channels of an election campaign."
A short time later Scheidemann was busy eating soup in the Reichstag restaurant when he heard loud cries from the crowd outside. He ran to the balcony and spontaneously announced that Ebert was now Chancellor. Then, as if in an afterthought, he shouted 'long live the Great German Republic!'.
As soon as Ebert had heard this news he was absolutely enraged. According to Richard Watt's history, The Kings Depart, 'His face turned livid...he banged on the table with his fist. He was furious at Scheidemann's presumption. "You have no right to proclaim a republic!".' But it was too late...
The SPD leader's first act as Chancellor was to ask von Baden to accept the Regent's office, hoping to restore a constitutional monarchy. Ebert's first appeal to the masses was: 'Fellow Citizens! I call on you all for support in the difficult work that awaits us...Fellow Citizens! I urgently appeal to you: leave the streets! Maintain law and order!'
Effective power was in the hands of the workers', soldiers and sailors' councils which had sprung up throughout the length and breadth of Germany. Delegates had been elected in mass meetings in every factory, barracks, and ship in order to see their interests represented. These councils were the same as the soviets (Russian word for a workers' council) that had spontaneously sprung up in Russia in 1905 and again in 1917. But the workers and soldiers, as with their Russian counterparts after February, were not conscious of their power. If they had been they could have formed a basis of a new German workers' state. Instead they gave this power to the SPD/USPD coalition.
Events moved quickly. On 10 November a joint meeting of the Berlin Workers' and Soldiers' Councils elected a provisional executive committee, which in the absence of an elected government took effective power into its hands by appointing a government of people's commissars. The new government was composed exclusively of members of the SPD and USPD: three majority socialists (SPD), Ebert, Scheidemann and Landsberg; and three Independent Socialists (USPD), Haase, Dittmann and Barth. Although they rested on the workers' councils, these leaders soon came to an accommodation with the old state bureaucracy and the German High Command.
What kind of Democracy?
The aim of Ebert, Scheidemann, and the other social democratic leaders, was to re-establish law and order as quickly as possible, so that effective control and power could be handed back to the ruling class. Whereas the Spartacists looked to the calling of a national congress of workers' and soldiers' councils as the basis for a genuine socialist workers' republic, the SPD leaders looked to the establishment of a Constituent Assembly.
As the immediate threat of revolution began to subside, the German bourgeois, who yesterday had supported the autocracy, now came forward as ardent democrats. The bourgeois parties were reorganised and renamed, and in turn put their full weight behind the call for a constituent assembly as a means of undermining the position of the workers' councils.
The question of calling a constituent assembly gave rise to a great deal of controversy. In its struggle with the autocracy, the demand for such an assembly had long been part of the democratic demands of the SPD. Amongst the broad masses, as a reaction to the anti-democratic governments of the Kaiser, there was widespread support for this democratic demand. But the November Revolution had thrown up another power in the form of workers' and soldiers' councils, which in Russia had become the basis of workers' rule. The Spartacists, who were a tiny minority of the German working class at this stage, took an ultra-left attitude towards the convening of a national assembly.
In Russia, in the struggle with Tsarism, the Bolsheviks had put foward the slogan of a revolutionary constituent assembly as part of their program. They took account of the profound democratic aspirations of the workers, peasants and other exploited layers after years of autocratic rule. Depending on the relationship of class forces in a revolutionary situation, a constituent assembly can provide a forum for the representatives of the working class to win the widest mass support for a programme of revolutionary change.
Even with the establishment of soviets in February 1917, the Bolsheviks still put forward the demand for a constituent assembly, which at this stage had been resisted by the provisional government. This did not prevent the Bolsheviks from April onwards putting forward the central demand of 'All power to the Soviets'. It did not in any way inhibit them from explaining the advantages of soviet democracy over a constituent assembly.
On the contrary, Lenin took up very forcefully the criticisms of Karl Kautsky against soviet power in his book The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Lenin argued against Kautsky's distortions of Marx in relation to the state. Kautsky failed to recognise the importance of soviets as the organs for workers' democracy. In relation to Germany he argued for the need to combine workers' councils with the bourgeois state. He ignored the opposing irreconcilable class interests represented by the workers'councils on the one hand, and the Ebert government on the other. He was unable to grasp the significance of the 'dual power' situation that had arisen after the November revolution. Either the workers' and soldiers' councils would consolidate their position in society and lay the basis for workers' democracy, or the German bourgeois would re-establish its position and rebuild its state apparatus. There could be no middle way, as Kautsky argued.
Recognising the vital importance of the workers' councils in the revolution, the Spartacists baldly denounced all those who attempted to promote the idea of a constituent assembly. They failed to understand that while layers of workers still had illusions in parliamentary forms and in their reformist leaders, the most advanced, revolutionary wing of the proletariat would have to campaign to destroy those illusions and undermine the influence of reformism. While wide sections of the workers still looked to the constituent assembly as a way forward, and as the Spartacists had not yet gained overwhelming support, it was incorrect for the revolutionaries to reject on principle any idea of a struggle around the calling of a constituent assembly.
They denounced the leaders of the SPD and the USPD as 'disguised agents of the bourgeoisie' for their support of an assembly. Rosa Luxemburg called the national assembly a 'cowardly detour' and 'an empty shell'. For the Spartacists the question was posed starkly and simplistically in terms of bourgeois democracy versus socialist democracy. The Spartacists had a completely ultra-left attitude, as did the Bremen Left - who even walked out of the Dresden Workers' and Soldiers' Council as they could not mix with SPD 'counter-revolutionary elements'! Although they were courageous revolutionary fighters, they lacked an understanding of strategy and tactics. They were swept along by the workers' struggles and intoxicated by the revolution.
One of their demands read: 'Abolish all parliaments and transfer all power to the workers' and soldiers' councils!' This simply played into the hands of the reformist leaders who rested on the democratic sympathies of the masses, and they were able to denounce the Spartacists as 'terrorists', 'anti-democratic' etc.
On 16 December, the National Congress of the Workers' and Soldiers' Councils strongly supported the National Assembly and brought forward its opening to 19 January. A month earlier, the executive committee of the Berlin Workers' and Soldiers' Council had taken the same position. Karl Radek recalled when he first arrived in Germany in mid-December:
"I looked the paper (Rote Fahne) over. I was seized with alarm. The tone of the paper sounded as if the final conflict were upon us. It could not be more shrill. If only they can avoid overdoing it!...
"It was the question of how to relate to the Constituent Assembly that sparked controversy...It was a very tempting idea to counterpose the slogan of the councils to that of a constituent assembly. But the congress of councils itself was in favour of the constituent assembly. You could hardly skip over that stage. Rosa and Liebknecht recognised that...But the Party youth were decidedly against it, 'we will break it up with machine guns'."
The Bolsheviks and the Constituent Assembly
Lenin, on 26 December 1918, had clearly put forward the Bolshevik position:
"This demand for the convocation of the constituent assembly was a perfectly legitimate part of the programme of revolutionary social democracy...While demanding the convocation of a constituent assembly, revolutionary social democracy has ever since the begining of the revolution of 1917 repeatedly emphasised that a republic of Soviets is a higher form of democracy than the usual bourgeois republic with a constituent assembly."
Lenin constantly explained that it was one thing to have a fully worked out theoretical position and another to apply it to concrete conditions. In November 1918 in Germany power was in effect in the hands of the workers' and soldiers' councils, but the proletariat was not conscious of its dominant position. As in February 1917 in Russia, the workers and peasants handed over power to the 'compromisers', who in turn handed it back to the bourgeoisie.
While the Bolsheviks, between February and October 1917, called for 'All Power to the Soviets', they also put forward the call for a Constituent Assembly, which had long been part of their programme. Even after October, when the workers' soviets took power into their own hands, the Soviets went ahead in November with elections for a constituent assembly. It was seen as a means of consolidating support for the revolution among the more politically backward sections of the middle class and the peasantry, of legitimising the achievements of the soviets among all strata and in every corner of the country. The elections, however, reflected the weight of many sections who were lagging far behind the radicalised workers and peasants of the cities and surrounding areas. When the Constituent Assembly was convened in January 1918 it included a majority of delegates (predominantly right-wing Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks) opposed to the soviet government.
In Germany the call for a constituent assembly was still linked, in the eyes of advanced workers, with revolutionary aspirations; in Russia in 1918, when the soviets, the real democratic organs of the masses, had already carried through a social transformation, the constituent assembly was seized on by the landlords, capitalists, and supporters of the 'White' generals as a vehicle for counter-revolution. With a completely changed relationship of forces, the formal 'democratic' rights of a reactionary constituent assembly could not be allowed to threaten the socialist revolution, and the Assembly was therefore dispersed by the soviets. Under the conditions prevailing in Germany in 1918, where the working class had not taken power, the question of the constituent assembly was posed in a completely different way.
Lenin in his book Left-Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder, in dealing with many of the ultra-left tendencies within the young communist parties, attempted to draw all the experiences and lessons from the development of Bolshevism. In order to educate these young layers, Lenin explained: 'Tactics must be based on a sober and strictly objective appraisal of all the class forces...' Lenin continued, 'It is very easy to show one's "revolutionary" temper merely by hurling abuse at parliamentary opportunism.' At all times it was necessary to take into consideration in your propaganda and slogans, the present consciousness of the working class. 'You must not sink to the level of the masses, to the level of the backward strata of the class. That is incontestable,' states Lenin. 'But at the same time you must soberly follow the actual state of the class consciousness and preparedness of the entire class (not only of its commonest vanguard), and of all the working people (not only of their advanced elements).' In dealing with the German 'left' communist attitude towards parliament, he explained:
"We must not regard what is obsolete to us as something that is obsolete to the class, to the masses...How can one say that 'parliamentarianism is politically obsolete', when 'millions' and 'legions' of proletarians are not only in favour of parliamentarianism in general, but are downright [according to the German lefts - RS] 'counter revolutionary'!? It is obvious that parliamentarianism is not yet politically obsolete. It is obvious that the 'lefts' in Germany have mistaken their desire, their political ideological attitude, for objective reality. That is the most dangerous mistake for revolutionaries to make."
Lenin hammered home the need to constantly assess the consciousness of the working class, with all their illusions, in order to tailor material propaganda and slogans to find the greatest echo. The illusions of the masses will not be overcome by simply repeating abstractly the importance of soviets but by showing positively in action the correctness of revolutionary ideas and by going through the experience with them. The ultra-left or sectarian simply shouts from the sidelines whereas the genuine Marxist would participate in the struggle of the workers with all their illusions, constantly attempting to raise their level of consciousness at each stage in the development of the struggle.
The arguments for boycott of the National Assembly, when the masses were overwhelmingly in favour of participation, were completely wrong. In the end, despite the KPD boycott, 83 per cent of the population voted, a bigger percentage turnout than in any pre-war election.
Similarly, their demand after 8 December for 'Down with the Government' was ultra-left and entirely incorrect, given their tiny support in the population, and simply miseducated their 3000 members and fed the impatience of workers who were looking towards insurrection. Lenin had warned against the misuse of such a slogan on 22 April 1917:
"The slogan 'Down with the Provisional Government' is an incorrect one at the present moment because, in the absence of a solid (ie a class conscious and organised) majority of the people on the side of the revolutionary proletariat, such a slogan is either an empty phrase, or, objectively, amounts to attempts of an adventurist character."
The tasks of the Bolsheviks were: (1) To explain the proletarian line; (2) To criticise the petty bourgeois policy; (3) To carry on propaganda and agitation; (4) To organise, organise, and once again organise.
Lenin fought against any traits of putschism or Blanquism in the Bolshevik Party. Their main task was to win a majority to their side by patient explanation, and not by ultra-left talk which could seriously miseducate the cadres and disorientate the party. Again in April, Lenin wrote:
In the theses I definitely reduced the question to one of a struggle for influence within the Soviets of Workers', Agricultural Labourers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies. In order to leave no trace of doubt in this respect, I twice emphasised in the theses the necessity for patient and persistent 'explanatory' work 'adapted to the practical needs of the masses'.
It was the failure of Luxemburg and Liebknecht to train the Spartacist cadres sufficiently in strategy and tactics that allowed the ultra-lefts to hold sway over the Spartacist organisation.
By 11 November, the Spartacists had formally changed their name from Internationale Group to Spartacists League and opened up negotiations with the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the USPD. Although they had a much wider influence than their membership the Spartacists had a very limited following in the councils, which was mainly confined to Brunswick and Stuttgart - they had no one on the executive of the councils in Berlin.
Towards the end of November, the German High Command in connivance with Ebert, made plans to occupy Berlin with loyal troops to establish a strong government. 'Ten divisions were to march into Berlin', General Groener later explained, 'to take power from the workers' and soldiers' councils. Ebert was in agreement with this...we worked out a program for cleaning up Berlin and the disarming of the Spartacists.' An attempted military coup took place on 6 December, when troops marched on the Chancellory declaring Ebert President. Ebert prevaricated and demanded time to consult his government colleagues. Meanwhile groups of government soldiers raided the Spartacist newspaper Rote Fahne, attacked a Spartacist-led demonstration, killing 14, while another arrested the executive committee of the Berlin councils. Spontaneously a crowd of workers marched on the Reichswehr soldiers, freed the executive members and foiled the coup attempt.
The SPD leaders played down the event, blaming the Spartacists for provocation. Seizing the opportunity the Spartacist League organised mass demonstrations and even strikes against the attempted putsch. The anger of the Berlin workers was reflected in the 150,000 strong demonstration called on 8 December. The Spartacists issued an urgent appeal: 'Workers, soldiers, comrades! The revolution is in danger! Preserve your handiwork of the 9 November!...The criminals are Wels and company, Scheidemann, Ebert, and company...throw the guilty men out of government! The revolution must be saved...forward to the task! To the fight!'
Groener's troops began to arrive in the capital, greeted by Ebert. But within a short space of time they began to fraternise with the radicalised Berlin workers. The ruling class was forced to bide its time.
On 16 December a national congress of the workers' and soldiers' councils convened in Berlin. Rules for the election of delegates were left to regional bodies which resulted in a congress that was completely out of step with what was happening in the rest of Germany. Four-fifths of the 489 delegates were members or supporters of the SPD, 195 were party and trade union full-time officials - which out-numbered the 187 registered waged or salaried workers! Predictably, the vast bulk of the congress supported the calling of the constituent assembly, bringing it forward to January 1919.
Although the majority of the national congress supported the SPD, their politics were far from conservative. Resolutions were passed by big majorities demanding the abolition of the standing army and the establishment of a peoples' militia. They also demanded that all badges of rank be removed and all soldiers be allowed to elect their officers with immediate right of recall. Furthermore, soldiers' councils would be responsible for the maintenance of discipline throughout the armed forces. Later a key congress resolution on the economy demanding the immediate nationalisation of all key industries was passed by an overwhelming majority.
The SPD ministers, however - faced with an officers' revolt - had no intention of carrying out these demands, but on the contrary they established closer links with the German High Command.
On 23 and 24 December there were clashes between the regular army and mutinous sailors in Berlin. The government had demanded that 80 per cent of the naval troops be discharged and its headquarters evacuated. Their refusal led to government troops being used against them, which resulted in 67 casualties. This was not the first time that the Reichswehr was used in this way, but it resulted in USPD ministers resigning from the government in protest and being replaced by majority socialists (SPD), including the ambitious Gustav Noske.
Throughout December an alliance of monarchists and counterrevolutionary elements of various descriptions (together with the SPD leaders), conducted a vicious witch-hunt against the Spartacist League. The Anti-Bolshevik League, financed with government money, plastered posters on walls in towns and villages slandering the Spartacist leaders. A murderous atmosphere was being created to instigate a pogrom against Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Giant posters appeared:
The downfall of the Fatherland is imminent!
It is not being threatened from without, but from within:
By the Spartacist Group.
Strike its leader dead!
You will then have peace, work and bread!
Signed Soldiers from the Front."
Founding of the Communist Party
The situation polarised extremely rapidly. In late December under the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution, pressure mounted within the Spartacist League to transform itself from a loose-knit federal organisation into a centralised communist party. To begin with it gave an ultimatum to the USPD, to which it was affiliated, to organise an emergency congress to discuss the new situation. With its inevitable rejection, the Spartacists went ahead on 29 December with their own conference, attended by 127 delegates, including the Free Socialist Youth, and founded the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). As with other newly formed communist parties, they were saturated with ultra-left tendencies, which was reflected in their decision, despite Rosa Luxemburg's advice, by 62 votes to 23 to boycott the National Assembly elections due in January.
In moving the boycott resolution, Otto Ruehle bristled with hair-raising phrases: 'We must continually stimulate the living politics of the street...it will be our task to try and break it (the National Assembly) up by force. And if this does not succeed then let it go to Schilda. Then we will establish here in Berlin a new government. We still have two weeks!' Two further motions were debated which aimed at declaring membership of the trade unions incompatible with that of the new party. Communists were to join the workers' councils instead, and 'were to continue in the most determined manner the work of fighting against the trade unions!'
Many in the young German Communist Party failed to recognise the turn of the masses towards their trade union organisations. Before the November revolution there had been 1.5 million trade union members; by the end of December 1918, there were 2.2 million; by the end of 1919, 7.3 million. It was with great difficulty that the party leadership managed to prevent these resolutions being put to the vote. But within one week the KPD were to experience a baptism of fire.
Counter-Revolution Raises its Head
IN MOST REVOLUTIONS, where events are drawn out, particularly after the initial flush of victory, the masses can feel the gains of the revolution slipping from their hands. The advanced sections of the proletariat, realising the dangerous situation, begin to become impatient and attempt to recapture the initiative. Such was the situation in late December 1918 and early January 1919 in Germany.
Similar parallels can be seen in the Russian Revolution, where in June and early July 1917, advanced layers of workers, particularly in Petrograd, moved towards the overthrow of the Provisional Government. In the 'July Days', workers in revolutionary Petrograd organised armed mass demonstrations against Kerensky, in response to the attempt by the Provisional Government to provocatively move out the Machine Gun Regiment to the front. Lenin saw the dangers of a premature move to seize power: 'We must be especially attentive and careful, so as not to be drawn into a provocation...one wrong move on our part can wreck everything...'
The Bolsheviks, however, did not stand aside from the revolutionary workers of Petrograd but, on the contrary, intervened at the head of the demonstrations in order to ensure their peaceful and organised character. That did not prevent reaction moving against the Bolshevik Party in July, but at least it was able to maintain intact the advance guard of the Russian proletariat. The Bolshevik Party's actions won it enormous prestige amongst the working class, and prepared the ground for winning the majority of workers and peasants to the side of the party and preparing the ground for the success of the October Revolution.
Again similar occurrences can be seen in the Spanish Revolution during May 1937 in Barcelona. There the Republican government, under the pressure of the Stalinists who acted as a counter-revolutionary force, attempted to seize back the Barcelona telegraph exchange from the anarchists. This provocation resulted in a prolonged armed clash with the Republican government, and ended with the bloody suppression of the revolt and the banning of the workers' organisation, the POUM. This time, because there was no strong Bolshevik Party, the defeat in May was a crushing blow to the advanced revolutionary sections of the Spanish proletariat. It was to lay the basis for the defeat of the Spanish Revolution and the final victory of Franco in 1939.
The 'Spartacist Uprising'
In Berlin in early January, there existed a state of crisis. The three USPD ministers had just resigned from the government. Fears of a coup had begun to circulate, the campaign by the extreme right against the Spartacists was in full swing, and an anxious and frustrated mood began to develop amongst the advanced workers. After its formation, the Communist Party of Germany began to conduct a relentless campaign against the Social Democratic Government and for the need to extend and complete the socialist revolution. Reaction, in league with the right wing ministers, was preparing a bloody showdown with the Spartacists and the ranks of the Independents in order to strike a decisive blow against the revolution and prepare the way for the restoration of the old order.
In 1925 General Groener, at a trial in Munich, described the plot hatched between the general staff and Ebert and Noske: 'On 29 December Ebert summoned Noske to lead the troops against the Spartacists. On that same day the volunteer corps assembled, and everything was now ready for the opening of hostilities.' Again, General Georg Maercker's memoirs recorded: 'In the very first days of January a meeting attended by Noske, who had just returned from Kiel, took place at General Staff Headquarters in Berlin with the Freikorps leaders concerning the details of the march (into Berlin).' Gustav Noske, who, on 6 January, had assumed the title of 'People's Commissar of Defence', answered the call to deal with the Berlin workers with the words: 'One of us has to be the bloodhound'. Noske was to relish this new-found role.
At the end of December a price of 10,000 German marks had been put on the head of Karl Radek, the Bolshevik representative in Germany, by the Anti-Bolshevik League. At the same time a campaign of denigration was carried out against Emil Eichhorn, the police president of Berlin and a member of the USPD. He had organised a new 'left' police force of 2000 workers and soldiers. The action against this man was to be used as the provocation to force the Spartacists, the ranks of the USPD and the Berlin workers into premature action. On 3 January, after a series of false charges, Eichhorn was called upon by the Ministry of the Interior to resign. The right-wing Social Democrat, Eugen Ernst, was to be appointed in his place. As expected, Eichhorn refused to budge.
At the time of this provocation, the Berlin Executive of the USPD, which was in discussions with the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, immediately adopted a resolution supporting Eichhorn. They then met with KPD leaders to discuss joint action. With the refusal of the government to back down, the USPD Executive in Berlin, together with the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the KPD, called for a mass demonstration on 5 January. This resulted in hundreds of thousands of workers marching to police headquarters. A 'Revolutionary Committee' was established representing the Berlin USPD, the KPD and the Revolutionary Shop Stewards. They were informed that the Berlin garrison was supporting their stand and that they could rely on military assistance from Spandau and Frankfurt. The Committee therefore decided, given their apparent support, to resist the dismissal and use the opportunity to attempt the overthrow of the Ebert-Noske-Scheidemann government.
In December groups of revolutionary workers had occupied the editorial offices of Vorwaerts, the journal of the SPD. They had been persuaded to leave, but now, once again, the suggestion was made of a further occupation. After accomplishing this, other important news printing offices were also occupied. The next day, 500,000 workers took to the streets, as many large factories went on strike. Further demonstrations were called by the Revolutionary Committee, which then went into permanent session, but without plans or detailed strategy of how their aims could be met.
The workers not only occupied the Vorwaerts and the press quarters, but also the Reich printing office, the railway headquarters, food warehouses and other buildings. Even the Reichstag was occupied for a brief period. Noske later wrote:
"Great masses of workers...answered the call to struggle. Their favourite slogan 'Down, down, down' (with the government) resounded once more. I had to cross the procession at the Brandenburg Gate, in the Tiergarten, and again in front of general staff headquarters. Many marchers were armed. Several trucks with machine guns stood at the Siegessaule. Repeatedly, I politely asked to be allowed to pass, as I had an urgent errand. Obligingly, they allowed me to cross through. If the crowds had had determined, conscious leaders, instead of windbags, by noon that day Berlin would have been in their hands."
The official position of the KPD at this time was against an attempt to overthrow the Social Democratic government. Given the balance of forces nationally such an action would be a pure adventure. But the general tone of the KPD newspaper Rote Fahne was full of attacks on the government and urged the workers to take action. The two KPD representatives on the committee, Karl Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck, without the party's authority, backed the resolution supporting insurrection. Liebknecht was a workers' leader, a man of action captivated by the mass movement. For him the revolution was a gut reaction. He was no theoretician, and lacked a firm understanding of the tactics and strategy that were needed to carry through a successful revolution. The 'Revolutionary Committee' had endless discussions, but failed to give any coherent direction to the mass movement, which began to dissipate. This prolonged vacillation and indecision had catastrophic consequences in confusing and disorientating the proletariat.
The White Terror
The forces of counter-revolution had prepared for a bloody confrontration with the workers of Berlin. On 10 January an attack was opened up by the Potsdam Freikorps regiment. On 11 January Noske moved in with a further contingent of troops led by monarchist officers. The government was determined to take back the Vorwaerts building by force. In the early hours, heavy artillery and mortar attack created enormous damage and many injuries. For the rebels, the situation became hopeless and the 300 workers remaining in the building were forced to surrender. Within a week, 156 people officially had been killed and hundreds wounded. In the words of Paul Froelich, 'the White Terror had begun.'
The counter-revolution acted quickly. In a short space of time, two leading KPD members, Leo Jogiches and Hugo Eberlein, were arrested. The government minister Philipp Scheidemann had put an unofficial price of 100,000 German marks on the heads of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. A frenzy was whipped up by the bourgeois press to deal with these Bolsheviks once and for all. Even the SPD paper Vorwaerts joined in the hue and cry. On 13 January they published a poem which ended with a verse:
"Many hundred corpses in a row - Proletarians!
Karl, Radek, Rosa and Co. -
Not one of them is there, not one of them is there!
On 15 January Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were arrested by reactionary Freikorps officers. Both were taken to the headquarters of the Cavalry Guards Division for 'investigation'. Liebknecht was the first to be escorted out and shot, allegedly trying to escape. Then Rosa Luxemburg was led out. As she left the building an officer used his rifle butt to smash her skull. Her corpse was then thrown into the Landwehr Canal, where it was not discovered until 31 May. The officers responsible for the murders, apart from two short sentences, got away virtually scot free. The German proletariat had lost two of its most outstanding leaders.
Sectarians have drawn completely erroneous conclusions from the so-called Spartacist Uprising. Of course, the existence of a mass revolutionary party on the lines of the Bolsheviks in 1918-19 could have transformed the situation completely. But the question arises of how such a party can be built. Chris Harman in his book, The Lost Revolution, takes Rosa Luxemburg to task:
"Her tactical error is not to he explained by anything that happened in December or January, but by a much earlier error - when in 1912 and 1916 she underrated the importance of building an independent revolutionary socialist Party...[in] contrast with Lenin's repeated insistence on the political and organisational independence of revolutionaries from 'centrists'..."
This is fundamentally false, stands Lenin on his head and repudiates the whole experience of Bolshevism. Rosa Luxemburg's failure to build a mass revolutionary party was not due to the fact that she had not broken earlier with social democracy to form an independent sect, but to her failure to create a well-organised and homogenous tendency within the SPD at a much earlier time. The Internationale Group was not established until early 1916, and was a loose federation of groupings. In that sense she underestimated the importance of organisation.
Harman fails to recognise that Bolshevism evolved within the framework of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Lenin's Bolsheviks formed the revolutionary wing of social democracy and carried out a theoretical struggle, a political struggle, with the Mensheviks within the same organisation. It was not until 1912 that the Bolshevik faction constituted itself as an independent party. On the international arena Lenin considered himself a supporter of Karl Kautsky, right up until 1914. At that time, Rosa Luxemburg was far more correct in her criticisms of Kautsky than Lenin was, as she had the experience of Kautsky's day-to-day activities. Until 1914, Lenin regarded the German SPD under the Bebel-Kautsky leadership as the model for every party of the Second International. The Bolshevik criticism of the Mensheviks was seen in the same light as Kautsky's attacks on the revisionists around Bernstein.
When mass communist parties were formed in Germany, France, and Italy, they did not arise from small groupings or sects, isolated from the mass organisations, but emerged from enormous splits within the old social democracy - the traditional parties of the working class. Precisely the reason why the British Communist Party remained a sect was because of its failure to win over the workers in the mass organisations, particularly in the Labour Party. Even after its formation as an independent party in 1920, Lenin forcefully argued that the new British Communist Party should affiliate to the Labour Party. This, too, was the position adopted at the Second Congress of the Comintern. Why was this? It is in complete contradiction to Harman's interpretation of Lenin. It was an attempt to create a mass British Communist Party out of the Labour Party by winning over its rank and file on the basis of events. Lenin's approach was to combat the ideas of reformism and revisionism, but never allow the forces of Marxism to he isolated from the ranks of the working class. That would mean falling into the sterile mistakes of sectarianism.
Following the bloodletting in Berlin, new elections for the National Assembly (the Reichstag) took place on January 19. The KPD wrongly boycotted the elections. The SPD, however, polled 11.5 million votes, whereas the USPD got just under 2.5 million. Thus, the two workers' parties, which formally stood for Marxism and socialism, polled around 45 per cent of all the votes cast. The right wing bourgeois parties managed to scrape together a mere 15 per cent of the vote.
The first action of the SPD was to approach the Independents to enter the new government. But when they refused, approaches were made to the bourgeois parties: the Democrats and the Centre Party, which agreed not only to participate but even accepted the programme of socialisation!
After the defeat of the 'Spartacist Uprising', counter-revolutionary forces, of the Freikorps and other 'loyal' divisions, took the initiative in a number of provinces to restore law and order. In February their troops had occupied Bremen and forcibly removed the Workers' and Soldiers' Council. Other military actions followed in Bremerhaven and Cuxhaven. In central Germany government-backed troops ousted the councils in one town after another. The workers, however, did not give up their gains without a fierce struggle in which thousands were killed during prolonged street battles.
The Freikorps - semi-fascist military formations - were set up in December 1918, led by reactionary upper-class officers. These attracted the most degenerate mercenary elements who began their post-war military careers fighting Bolshevism in the Baltic States. On their return to Germany, much of this scum, from General Ruediger von der Goltz's 'Iron Division', still wore the swastika emblems of the Baltic Freikorps on their steel helmets. Noske was to rely heavily on this reactionary rabble in his attempts to restore 'law and order'.
At the end of February 1500 delegates gathered at the general assembly of the Berlin councils to discuss solidarity action with the workers of Central Germany. The composition of these councils reflected a changed balance of forces within the working class, with supporters of the SPD now outnumbered by the Independents and KPD representatives. Further demands were put to a reconvened assembly which included the organisation of a workers' militia, the dissolution of the Freikorps and the freeing of political prisoners. To obtain their demands, 90 per cent favoured the calling of a general strike. Within 24 hours a massive strike gripped Berlin.
Barricades were erected and fighting broke out as the Freikorps attempted to restore normality. The government acted swiftly, giving Noske dictatorial powers over all Berlin. He immediately gave orders for 30,000 Freikorps troops to enter the city. On 9 March the Workers' and Soldiers' Council decided to call an end to the strike, but this failed to placate Noske and the Freikorps. On the contrary, he announced 'any person who bears arms against the government troops will be shot on the spot.' By the time the fighting ended some 2-3000 workers were dead and at least 10,000 were wounded. On 10 March, Leo Jogiches, the chairman of the Communist Party, was murdered in a police station, 'while trying to escape'.
The Bavarian Republic
Bavaria had been the first state in Germany to overthrow its monarch. On 7 November 1918 Kurt Eisner, a member of the USPD and recently released from jail, became the first head of the Bavarian Republic in Munich. It was an extremely unstable regime, which was reflected in Eisner and the USPD being humiliated in the Bavarian Landtag elections which gave them only three seats. For just over one month he maintained his position by manoeuvring between his own party, the SPD and the workers' and soldiers' councils. On 21 February, he was murdered by a right wing officer, Count Arco Valley.
The assassination provoked enormous turmoil throughout Bavaria. In Nuremburg and Munich general strikes took place, and armed workers roamed the streets. After a brief interlude, the SPD climbed into the vacuum and created a government under Johannes Hoffmann. Within a very short time this government was forced to flee Munich and seek assistance from Noske's Freikorps.
Munich was plunged into a state of semi-anarchy. With economic conditions deteriorating rapidly the number of unemployed rose to 45,000. As soon as the news reached Munich of the establishment of a soviet republic in Hungary, Ernst Toller, a playwright and leader of the USPD, proposed the establishment of a government of workers' and soldiers' councils. But this eccentric government, which the KPD refused to enter, represented a comic opera rather than a serious power. The first act of the Foreign Minister, for instance, was to declare war on Switzerland because it refused to loan 60 steam-trains to Bavaria! The regime collapsed within six days.
By this time, Hoffmann had gathered 8000 troops ready to march on Munich. In Munich itself, an attempted coup by the Republican Security Force led to a mass movement of workers, ending in the defeat of the coup. The threat of counter-revolution propelled the masses to the left. In the words of Marx, 'revolution sometimes needs the whip of counterrevolution to push it forward.'
Mass meetings throughout the city passed resolutions demanding that power be handed over to the communists. At first the KPD leaders were extremely cautious and opposed the calls for a soviet republic. But the pressure from the workers became irresistable. As with the Paris Commune of 1871, exceptional conditions gave power into the hands of the working class. As in any struggle, sometimes there are no choices, sometimes there are no perfect conditions, sometimes there is no alternative but to make a stand. The Communist leader Eugen Leviné, despite his reservations about strategy and tactics, agreed to take charge of the situation. A new soviet republic was declared on 7 April based on newly elected workers' councils in the factories, whose immediate task was to organise resistance against the imminent threat of Hoffmann's troops.
Leviné understood that the only way the soviet republic would survive would be through the spread of the revolution to other major cities of Bavaria and beyond. The workers gritted their teeth and took inspiration from the newly formed soviet republic in Hungary, the existence of powerful workers' councils in Austria, a strike wave in the Ruhr, and a state of emergency in Stuttgart. The fear of the bourgeoise was expressed by one Colonel House, writing in his diary for 22 March 1919: 'Bolshevism is gaining ground everywhere. Hungary has just succumbed. We are sitting upon an open powder magazine and someday a spark may ignite it.'
A few weeks earlier the new communist Third International, the World Party of Socialist Revolution, had been established in Moscow, raising hopes of a rapid revolutionary development throughout Europe. In the words of Trotsky:
"...it is unquestionable that in the year of the First Congress (1919) many of us reckoned - some more, others less - that the spontaneous onset of the workers and in part of the peasant masses would overthrow the bourgeoisie in the near future...such moods and expectations were by and large justified by the objective situation at the time."
In any case, in Munich, there was no alternative but to fight. Better to go down fighting, and leave a communist tradition, than to capitulate without a struggle.
The Hoffmann troops quickly encircled the city robbing it of food and fuel. As suffering mounted and discontent spread the counter-revolutionary troops were reinforced by 30,000 of Noske's Freikorps. On 1 May Munich was 'liberated'. The final Communist declaration stated: 'Don't make the hangmen's task easy. Sell your lives dearly.' Over 1000 workers were killed during the street battles. The Communist leader Eugen Leviné, before his execution, made a defiant speech against the counter-revolution which ended: 'I have known for a long time that we Communists are but dead men on leave. It is up to you, gentlemen, to decide whether my ticket of leave will once more be extended or whether I must join Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. You may kill me - my ideas will live on.' Scores were shot by impromptu Freikorps court-martials, others were simply beaten with rifle butts or kicked to death. Few leaders escaped the 'White Terror'.
The Kapp Putsch
ONCE THE THREAT of revolution had subsided, and the workers' councils began to dissolve, the bourgeois looked for the removal of the Noske-Scheidemann-Ebert government. On 13 March 1920, 12,000 troops from the Ehrhardt Brigade and the Baltikum Brigade under General Luettwitz, entered Berlin in order to establish a military dictatorship, and declare Wolfgang Kapp, a founder of the old Fatherland Party, as the new Chancellor.
Noske, the Commander-in-Chief, called upon Reichswehr officers to put down the rebellion, which they refused point blank to do. The head of the army, General Hans von Seekt, simply announced he was going on 'indefinite leave'. To save its skin, the government fled from Berlin, firstly to Dresden, where a Freikorps general threated to put the entire cabinet under arrest, and then to Stuttgart.
As a matter of self-preservation the SPD, USPD and trade union leaders appealed to the workers to put down this military putsch and defend the republic. A general strike was called which so paralysed Berlin that Kapp could not find a single secretary to issue the decree that he had assumed power!
In a completely ultra-left fashion the young KPD issued a statement that the workers should remain neutral as it was a fight 'between two counter-revolutionary wings'. Within 24 hours the KPD were forced to reverse their position 180 degrees. The German workers were solid in their determination to defeat the military coup and the communists had no alternative but to participate in the struggle.
The coup electrified the whole country. From Berlin, the strike spread spontaneously through the Ruhr, Central Germany and Bavaria. Such was the counter movement that, in nearly every city and town, the military were driven out by mass demonstrations of workers and the middle class. The sheer scale of the resistance to General Luettwitz was gigantic.
In the Ruhr armed workers began to join forces in a 'Red Army' that put the Reichswehr to flight. They were estimated as 50,000 strong, fully equipped with modern weapons and artillery. They became, for a period, masters of the Ruhr.
Workers took action all over. Typically, in Chemnitz, the post office, railway station and town hall were occupied by armed workers. The Executive Council established on 15 March was made up of ten KPD members, nine SPD, one USPD and one Democrat, and extended its authority over a radius of 50 kilometres.
The spontaneous movement of the masses against the coup was similar to the later actions of the Spanish proletariat in July 1936 after Franco's revolt. As in Spain, with a revolutionary leadership, the German workers could have taken power easily.
Lenin had compared the Kapp putsch to the Kornilov uprising in August 1917 in Russia. In a similar way the forces of counter-revolution attempted to overthrow the Kerensky government and restore the old regime of the Tsar. Unlike the KPD, the Bolshevik Party immediately threw itself into the forefront of defending the revolution, organising a united front with the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries in order to defeat reaction. It was a huge blunder for the German KPD initially to advocate neutrality in such a struggle. Such ultra-leftism simply put up barriers between themselves, the social democratic workers and ordinary trade unionists.
A Swing to the Left
The consequences of the Kapp putsch brought about a great shift in the political landscape. After its failure, Noske resigned. In June 1920 the USPD became the second largest party in the Reichstag with 81 deputies; in the Landstags of Saxony, 'I'huringia and Brunswick it became the largest party. Its membership had grown spectacularly to 800,000. It published 55 daily newspapers. In the Reichstag elections, the USPD had got 4,895,000 votes, more than double its January 1919 figure, whilst the SPD, due to the masses' shift to the left, lost half the votes it won in January 1919, falling to 5,614,000. The SPD still, however, remained the biggest party in the Reichstag. On the other side of the spectrum, the vote for the extreme right also doubled at the expense of the liberals, indicating a growing polarisation of the situation in Germany.
In Bavaria, General von Nohl, ungrateful for past services, forced out the SPD Premier Johannes Hoffmann and established a more right wing government. In the Ruhr, however, the armed workers who had succeded in driving out the Freikorps and the Reichswehr forces now refused to lay down their arms as requested by the central government.
The new coalition government, under SPD member Hermann Mueller, decided to despatch government troops - who had previously refused to fight Kapp - to restore order in the Ruhr, which they did eagerly and with much brutality. Hundreds were killed and hundreds more executed to restore 'normality'.
Towards a mass Communist International
The year 1920 was a turning point not only for the KPD but also for the Communist International. The founding congress of the Third International, in March of the previous year had laid down the fundamental principles of the socialist revolution and the nature of soviet power. The success of the Bolshevik revolution was now having a big effect within the ranks of the mass parties of social democracy, with large layers pressing for affiliation to the new International. Negotiations concerning affiliations were opened by a whole series of mass workers' organisations: the Independent Labour Party in Britain, the French Socialist Party, the USPD of Germany, the Italian Socialist Party, the Norwegian Labour Party, and a number of others.
The possibility of creating a mass Communist International was in the offing. But the danger also existed of bringing into the new International reformist and centrist leaders who were attempting to keep a firm grip on their radicalised rank and file. In order to win over the genuine revolutionary membership, and to separate them from their opportunist leaders, the Comintern formulated 18 conditions for affiliation to the new International. When some of the opportunist leaders were prepared to swallow these conditions, three more were added to effectively exclude them.
The KPD had grown from 3-4000 members in January 1919 to 78,000 immediately after the Kapp putsch, despite an ultra-left split-off. It was nevertheless tiny in comparison to the two other mass parties, which had approaching one million members apiece. Under the impact of events, however, the ranks of the USPD was moving away from reformism and towards the ideas of Marxism. At its March 1919 conference, the USPD came out in favour of the dictatorship of the proletariat and a soviet government. In December it broke with the Second International and began negotiations with the Comintern. In October at its Halle Congress the USPD, after a four-hour appeal by the president of the Comintern, Zinoviev, voted to accept the 21 conditions and affiliate to the Communist International. Negotiations then opened up with the KPD with a view to the creation of a merged united Communist Party, which was founded in December with a membership approaching a half a million workers. The German Communist Party was now a truly mass party, which under the guidance of the Comintern, began to make preparations for the socialist revolution in Germany.
In December, the 140,000 strong French Socialist Party voted to affiliate to the new International. The whole of the old Socialist Party apparatus, its headquarters, its secretariat, and its daily paper L'Humanité with a circulation of 200,000 became the weapons of the new Communist Party. In Czechoslovakia also a mass Communist Party was formed out of the Socialist Party, numbering 350,000 members. With the split in the Italian Socialist Party, 50,000 members were drawn into the ranks of the newly founded Italian Communist Party.
These mass parties did not emerge from small sectarian groups on the fringes of the labour movement, but arose from the traditional mass organisations of the working class that were experiencing political turmoil due to the colossal events of the period. The mass of workers do not learn from theory, but from experience. They tend to take the line of least resistance and develop enormous loyalty to their traditional mass organisations that they have built up over generations. It was on the basis of titanic events that these parties were thrown into ferment, reformism became compromised and the rank and file moved towards the ideas of genuine Marxism.
The First Congress of the Communist International in March 1919 met amid great hopes of a rapid development of the European revolution. By the time of the Second Congress in 1920, it became obvious that more serious organisational and political preparation would be needed for the proletariat to gain victories in Western Europe. Along with the creation of mass communist parties went the urgent necessity of imbuing them with an understanding of revolutionary strategy and tactics. In the words of Trotsky: 'The art of tactics and strategy, the art of revolutionary struggle can be mastered only through experience, through criticism and self-criticism...the revolutionary struggle for power has its own laws, its own usages, its own tactics, its own strategy. Those who do not master this art will never taste victory.'
Lenin's Struggle Against Ultra-Leftism
In 1919 and 1920, a number of ultra-left tendencies appeared within the ranks of the newly formed Communist parties. This reflected a revolutionary impatience, which in turn was a reaction against the opportunist actions of the old reformist leaderships. This ultra-leftism was an attempt to find a short-cut to success. It failed to appreciate the strong grip of reformism on the minds of the mass of the workers, and the patient work that was needed to break these illusions.
One of Lenin's most important works, Left Wing Communism - An Infantile Disorder, was devoted to this problem. Lenin saw ultra-leftism as a natural problem occuring in the newly formed communist parties, whose membership had been won to an irreconcilable struggle against capitalism and those who defended it. He compared it to a childhood illness which was a necessary part of growing up. Lenin's book, together with the discussions at the Second Congress, was aimed at educating the leaders of the various communist parties in the tactics and methods of bolshevism. For the child-like 'lefts' and sectarians of today, who repeat all the mistakes of the ultra-lefts of the past, these writings and ideas remain a closed book. As Lenin explained:
"It is beyond doubt...those who try to deduce the tactics of the revolutionary proletariat from principles such as: 'the Communist Party must keep its doctrine pure and its independence of reformism inviolate: its mission is to lead the way without stopping or turning, by the direct road to the communist revolution' will inevitably fall into error."
The task of the communist leaderships was to innoculate itself against infantile-leftism and absorb the method, tactics and strategy of Bolshevism in order to equip itself for the revolutionary battles that were unfolding in the main capitalist countries, particularly Germany.
After the unification of the new party, a central committee was elected under the joint chairmanship of Ernst Daeumig and Paul Levi, who had been a close friend of Rosa Luxemburg. At Levi's insistence, the ultra-left group was expelled from the Party, and established themselves as the short-lived German Communist Workers Party (KAPD). In February 1921, after violently disagreeing with the Comintern's decision to split the Italian Socialist Party, Paul Levi resigned from the party leadership. In his place came Brandler, Meyer, Froelich, and Thalheimer.
To assist the KPD, the Comintern had despatched the Hungarian Communist leader Bela Kun to Berlin, after the crushing in blood of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. (The Hungarian Revolution is dealt with in Militant International Review Number 18). But as leader of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, Bela Kun had made big mistakes, and was infected by ultra-left ideas. This tendency was fed by Zinoviev, the head of the Comintern, Bukharin and Radek, who poured scorn on the defensive struggles of the SPD organisations.
The 'March Offensive'
The new leadership of the KPD, egged on by the Comintern representatives, looked increasingly for a showdown with German capitalism. Their blind impatience became the framework of the new theory of the so-called 'offensive'. The whole essence of this theory was that the advance guard - the KPD - could by its own actions 'electrify' the passive proletariat into taking revolutionary action.
The situation in Germany was extremely tense after French troops had occupied Dusseldorf because of the government's failure to pay reparations in full. The party's central organ Rote Fahne stated: 'The workers of central Germany are not taken in by the 'anti-putschist' rumours alleging that a spirit of cowardice and apathy has arisen in the German working class.'
On 27 March a decision was taken by the German leaders to launch the revolutionary offensive in support of the miners of central Germany, whose Mansfeld coalfield had been occupied by the security police to prevent 'sabotage and attacks on managers'. This provocative occupation was conducted under the orders of the SPD President of Saxony, Otto Horsing, who attempted to pacify the area and purge it of Communist influence. The miners conducted armed resistance under the leadership of Max Hoelz, an heroic revolutionary figure, who had earlier been expelled from the KPD. The KPD called on the working class throughout Germany to arm itself in solidarity with the miners. They had completely misjudged the mood and the action remained mainly isolated to the central German area.
Out of desperation the Party attempted to provoke the workers into action. A KPD leader, Hugo Eberlein, was sent 'to provoke an uprising in mid-Germany', and, according to many sources, even went so far as to advocate the sham kidnapping of local KPD leaders, dynamiting a munitions depot, blowing up a workers' co-operative in Halle, and blaming it on the police in order to fuel the anger of the workers. Fortunately, little came of these crazy plans. Groups of communist workers occupied the Leuna Works and called for support, but were driven out after a bitter confrontation. The Communist Party organised the occupation of the docks in Hamburg in support of a partial strike, but again it was soon dispersed. The workers remained passive, leaving the KPD members to fight it out alone with the police.
This infamous 'March Action' resulted in hundreds of deaths and thousands being imprisoned for their involvement. The ultra-left actions of many good communists widened the split between them and the reformist rank and file. Within a short time over 200,000 members had deserted the KPD in disgust.
A few days after the debacle, Paul Levi issued a bitter attack on the Party's action, which was broadly correct. However, he wrongly published these criticisms outside the party's ranks, and as a result was disciplined and subsequently expelled from the KPD.
Lenin was alarmed at the putschist actions of the KPD and strongly condemned those responsible. 'The theses of Thaelheimer and Bela Kun are radically false...That a representative of the Executive proposed a lunatic ultra-left tactic of immediate action "to help the Russians" I can believe without difficulty: this representative (Bela Kun) is often too far to the left.'
The United Front Policy
At the Third Congress of the Comintern in June 1921, both Lenin and Trotsky conducted a rigorous struggle against the so-called 'Theory of the Offensive' and the fallacies of the 'March Action'. The Congress also recognised a new turn in the international situation that had arisen. The first great revolutionary wave had now ebbed and capitalism had succeeded temporarily in stabilising itself. 'In 1919', stated Trotsky, 'we said it (the revolution) was a question of months, and now we say it is a question perhaps of years.' As the immediate struggle for power had been temporarily postponed, the tactics of the Comintern had to be concentrated on the united front policy: fighting in day to day struggles on wages, conditions etc., bringing around it the ranks of the reformist organisations. The united front was used to unify the workers' organisations in action against a common enemy. It did not mean the abandoning of any programme or mutual criticism under the guise of a spurious unity. In essence, it meant: 'March separately under your own banners, but strike together'. It was precisely through this joint action of the mass parties that the KPD could demonstrate the superiority of militant struggles over the limitations of reformism. In this new period of temporary, relative stability, the communist parties had to step up their activities in partial struggles to win the majority of the working class to their programme. In a nutshell, it was not a question of the Conquest of Power, but the Conquest of the Masses. The new KPD slogan became: 'Towards the Masses!'.
The turn of the German Communists towards united front work saw a steady revival in the party's influence. The annual report presented to the Leipzig party conference in 1922 described the considerable progress: amongst women, youth and children's sections, the co-operatives and trade unions. Alongside its press agency, the party now had 38 daily newspapers and numerous periodicals. They possessed over 12,000 councillors, with an absolute majority in 80 town councils and were the biggest party in a further 170. In the trade unions they possessed nearly 1000 organised fractions with 400 members in leadership positions.
Even according to the ultra-left Ruth Fischer, 'In the second half of 1922 the party was gaining in numbers and influence. In the third quarter of 1922 it had 218,555 members. It showed a sharp rise from the 180,443 of the previous year, just after the March Action.' The KPD was by far the biggest communist party in Western Europe.
On 24 June 1922, the foreign minister Walter Rathenau was murdered by the extreme right wing 'Organisation Consul', a gang of ex-army officers. There was widespread revulsion - as with the Kapp putsch and moves towards united working class action, which the KPD used to the maximum effect. On 4 July a monster demonstration organised by all the workers' organisations proved an outstanding success. It provided the KPD with the opportunity to prove in action the superiority of militant leadership and policies. Yet, because of this, the SPD broke off relations with the Communists four days later.
POLITICAL MURDERS COMMITTED (January 1919 - June 1922) BY PERSONS BELONGING TO THE
|Number of political murders committed||354||22|
|Number of persons sentenced for these murders||24||38|
|Confessed assassins found 'Not Guilty'||23||-|
|Political assassins subsequently promoted in the Army||3||-|
|Average length of prison term per murder||four months||fifteen years|
|Average fine per murder||two marks||-|
(Source: Vier Jahre Politischer Mord, EJ Gumbel)
At this time inflation began to take off. Years of successive governments reverting to the printing press to plug their budget deficits had completely undermined the currency. It took 300 marks to buy one dollar in June: by December it was 8000 marks, and by January 1923, 18,000 marks to the dollar. This had a shattering effect not only on the workers but the middle classes, particularly those on fixed incomes, who faced absolute ruin.
By this stage the German bourgeois became increasingly determined to regain all the concessions won by the proletariat in the November revolution. In 1918 under the threat of revolution, the capitalist class were prepared to grant huge concessions: trade union recognition, agreement to withdraw support from company unions, establishment of shop stewards' committees, universal suffrage, all de-mobbed soldiers to be able to return to their former employment and the shortening of the working day to 8 hours. In October 1922 as inflation reached new heights, the German bourgeoisie prepared their offensive. The powerful industrialist Fritz Thyssen addressed an open letter to the government which stated 'Germany's salvation can only come from a return to the 10-hour working day.' The former Minister Dernburg fumed: 'every 8-hour day is a nail in Germany's coffin'!
Two weeks later another leading industrialist, Hugo Stinnes, declared:
"I do not hesitate to say that I am convinced that the German people will have to work two extra hours per day for the next 10 or 15 years...the preliminary conditions for any successful stabilisation is, in my opinion, that wage struggles and strikes be excluded for a long period...we must have the courage to say to the people: 'for the present and for some time to come you will have to work overtime without overtime payment.'"
The battle lines were drawn. Living standards were to be driven down to starvation levels to put German capitalism back on its feet. With hyper-inflation and the state facing bankruptcy, the SPD-Liberal coalition of Wirth collapsed, giving way to the right wing bourgeois government led by Wilhelm Cuno, director of the Hamburg-Amerika Line.
The Crisis of 1923
THE DEFEAT OF Germany in the 1914-18 war had massive political, social and economic consequences. The Allies were determined to obtain their pound of flesh from the defeated Germany. The clear aim of the victor powers, as expressed in the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, was the crushing of German militarism and the bleeding of the German economy. As compensation for the Allies, Germany's colonies were divided between Italy, France, Belgium, Japan and Britain, the latter taking the lion's share. Germany itself was also dismembered: the Saar mines were transferred to France, as was Alsace-Lorraine, with its two million population and three-quarters of German iron production. The southern part of Silesia, with its industries and mines were ceded to Poland, whereas the north part of Schleswig went to Denmark.
The Allied nations seized 5000 cannons, 30,000 machine guns, 3000 mine throwers, 2000 aeroplanes, 100 submarines and eight cruisers. The German army was drastically reduced to 100,000 men, an adequate instrument to be used if needed against revolution.
In May 1921 the hard-headed Allies demanded the full payment of 132,000 million gold marks as reparations. To overcome any major difficulties, and show their generosity, payment in kind was arranged, whereby Britain was to receive tonnage for tonnage and class for class all her lost shipping during the war. The French were given 5000 trains, 150,000 railway wagons, 10,000 lorries and 140,000 cows. The Belgians also received their payment in cattle. Germany had been completely humiliated and economically stripped by the Allies. But the German bourgeoisie were able to make enormous profits from the inflation, while the mass of the population faced starvation and severe hardship.
The French Occupy the Ruhr
The reparations became an impossible burden on the economy. In January 1923 Germany defaulted on the payments. Within days, the French General Degoutte, at the head of 60,000 troops was despatched by the French Prime Minister Poincaré to occupy the Ruhr. In that industrial heartland of Germany was concentrated 80 per cent of her steel and 71 per cent of her coal production.
National revulsion spread like wildfire throughout Germany at the French occupation: half a million people demonstrated in Berlin alone. The government, under pressure from below, organised a campaign of 'passive resistance'. Workers in the Ruhr were asked not to cooperate with the French, and to make the occupation as difficult as possible. Measures of resistance, strikes, go-slows and sabotage, slowed down the French, who resorted to 10,000 expulsions in the first six month period of 1923. A wave of militancy gripped the towns of central Germany as inflation gave way to hyper-inflation. Living standards were cut to the bone, as the industrialists Thyssen, Krupp and Stinnes accrued greater and greater profits. Stinnes bought up a vast industrial empire on credit that was later repaid with worthless paper marks. Rubbing his hands, he argued forcefully that 'the weapon of inflation would have to be used in the future too...'
The price of a single loaf of bread in Berlin escalated from 0.63 marks in 1918 to 250 marks in January 1923. Then prices rose astronomically - a loaf was now 3465 marks in July, 1.5 million in September, reaching a peak of 201,000 million marks in November 1923!
Boxfuls of worthless money were required to buy the basic necessities, as workers dashed off as soon as they were paid before their wages became worthless. Million mark notes were used to paper walls. As one commentator explained, 'An object which had been previously worth 24 cents now cost a sum which would formally have equalled three times the entire wealth of Germany!' By mid-1923, the Reichsbank was using 300 paper factories and 150 printing firms to supply Germany with the necessary money. Those on fixed incomes literally starved. The German petty-bourgeoisie was in absolute turmoil and looked desperately to the labour movement for a way out of the situation.
The struggle that had begun as one of national resistance against the French turned into the fiercest class struggle that Germany has ever seen. 53,000 Krupp workers at Essen, on 31 March, attempted to stop French troops requisitioning lorries carrying food supplies. The incident resulted in 13 dead and 40 wounded. On 13 April, at Mulheim, the workers seized the town hall, established a workers' council and attempted to organise a workers' militia.
In May a huge strike wave swept across the country demanding the overthrow of the Cuno government. More and more the German workers began to look to the Communist Party for a lead. All the conditions for revolution were now rapidly crystalising in Germany. Unfortunately the KPD lagged way behind the situation. Radek, speaking at a meeting of the German Central Committee in May stated: 'Today we are not in a position to establish the proletarian dictatorship because the precondition is missing, the revolutionary will amongst the majority of the proletarians'!
By August, inflation accelerated to an incredible degree. Prices were now doubling every few hours. Spontaneous strike movements, numbering roughly three million, culminated in an all-out general strike which began in Berlin and spread throughout the country. Its generalised aim became the overthrow of the Cuno government which epitomised all that was rotten. Apart from the movement against the Kapp putsch, this strike was the largest and most intense ever experienced in Germany. Whereas in March 1920 the trade union leaders called for strike action, now it arose spontaneously. Out of utter desperation hundreds of thousands drifted away from the Social Democrats towards the KPD. On 12 August the Cuno government resigned. The Communist leaders could no longer ignore the political situation that was developing. By the end of the month they were summoned to Moscow to discuss the new turn in the situation. Meanwhile the party's leading theoretician, Thaelheimer, was still talking of 'a long road'.
Preparing for Insurrection
The leaders of the International in discussions with the German Communists concluded that Germany was rapidly approaching revolution, and that technical preparations for the insurrection should be undertaken. To break the KPD's routinism, Trotsky urged that the Party set a date for the insurrection but this was rejected by Radek and the German KPD leader Brandler. The German Party had already established its secret military organisation, the M-Apparat, which had been strengthened by Red Army experts. In many towns and factories, armed defence groups had been established throughout the year, which were organised into 'Proletarian Hundreds'. They numbered 300 in May and by October reached 800, with more than 100,000 men in total. These had first come into being during the Rathenau Campaign of 1922.
By the end of September inflation spiralled out of control. A day's wage of a Hamburg docker came to 17 billion marks. Industrial production began to decline drastically and the 'resistance' in the Ruhr was costing the German bourgeois far too much. As a result, on 26 September the Stresemann government announced the end of passive resistance.
The KPD laid elaborate plans to enter the left Social Democractic governments of Saxony and Thuringia, which were under serious threat from the central government. Any action against these left governments was to be used as the excuse for launching a revolutionary counter-offensive. Plans were laid for a national general strike which would he the basis for an insurrection. In October, on Brandler's arrival back from Moscow, he and two other leading Communists entered the government in Saxony. Three days later, KPD representatives entered the government of Thuringia.
For the central government, such developments could not be tolerated. The situation was reaching a climax.
With the support of President Ebert, the Reichswehr stepped up their pressure against Saxony and Thuringia. General Mueller issued a direct order banning the Proletarian Hundreds in Saxony, giving them three days in which to give up their arms. The ultimatum was ignored. On 21 October Mueller's troops entered Saxony. Everything was coming to a head. The KPD leaders acted swiftly to alert the Party and bring forward the plans for insurrection.
A trade union conference at Chemnitz was hastily chosen as the launching pad for a national general strike of defence. Unfortunately the delegates attending the conference were hopelessly out of touch with the developing situation. After Brandler had spoken outlining the case for a general strike to oppose Mueller, he was fiercely opposed by the Social Democratic Minister Graupe. He threated that if the resolution calling for a general strike was put to the meeting then the Social Democrats would walk out. After this farcical stand, Brandler felt that there was no alternative but to abandon the plans for a general strike and insurrection. Within a few days the government troops were able to remove the head of the Saxon government, Zeigner, without any resistance. A partially supported general strike simply petered out.
The Hamburg Rising
After the Chemnitz conference, and the decision to call off the uprising, KPD emissaries were despatched throughout Germany to carry the news. Unfortunately the one sent to Hamburg arrived too late and the plans for insurrection were already being carried through. On 23 October, 1300 KPD members seized 17 Hamburg police stations, and a number of barricades were erected in workers' districts. The next day they issued a call for a general strike, which fell on deaf ears. For three days hundreds of brave Communists fought heroically against the police in the Barmbeck and Schiffbek districts of Hamburg. Eventually the insurrection collapsed.
The German Communist Party had been put to the test once more and had failed. It was a crushing defeat and a demoralising blow for the workers who looked to them for a lead. Brandler was made the scapegoat and removed from the Party leadership. In March 1924, at the Fifth Congress of the Comintern, the leaders of the KPD were blamed for the defeat in order to deflect criticism from the role of the Comintern leaders. It was years later, after his split with Zinoviev, that Stalin's personal role in the defeat became apparent. In a letter to Zinoviev and Bukharin he wrote:
"Should the Communists strive to seize power without the Social Democrats, are they mature enough for that? If today in Germany, the power, so to speak, falls, and the Communists seize hold of it, they will fall with a crash...the bourgeoisie plus the right Social Democrats will...exterminate them. Of course the fascists are not asleep, but it is to our interest that they attack first...in my opinion, the Germans must be curbed, and not spurred on." (My emphasis - RS)
There is no doubt that Brandler, and the rest of the KPD leaders, feared a repetition of the ultra-left mistakes of 1921, and therefore bent the stick towards the policy of the united front and the need gradually to win over the mass of the workers. But as the situation changed drastically, the KPD leaders still continued the policy of yesterday, rather than reorientating the party towards the new situation. But the leaders of the International, particularly Zinoviev, and Bukharin, had a duty to correct the mistakes of the German Communists. Instead, together with Stalin and Radek, they deliberately held back the KPD at the crucial time. Instead of drawing out all the necessary lessons, Zinoviev, Stalin and the other leaders talked of the defeat as simply an 'episode', and that Germany continued to march towards revolution under the leadership of the illegal KPD. Whilst blaming Brandler, they reasoned that the situation in 1923 had been 'over-estimated'. They managed to turn everything on its head.
The Lessons of October
Whereas the leaders of the Comintern attempted to cover up their hesitations and mistakes in relation to Germany, Trotsky used every possible avenue to spell out the lessons of the defeat. In his article 'Through What Stage are we Passing?' he explained:
"It is very difficult for a revolutionary party to make the transition from a period of agitation and propaganda, prolonged over many years, to the direct struggle for power through the organisation of an armed insurrection. This turn inevitably gives rise to a crisis within the Party. Every responsible communist must be prepared for this. One of the ways of being prepared is to make a thorough study of the entire factual history of the October revolution. Up to now extremely little has been done in this connection, and the experience of October was most inadequately utilised by the German Party...a growth in the Party's political influence was taking place automatically. A sharp tactical turn was needed. It was necessary to show the masses, and above all the Party itself, that this time it was a matter of immediate preparation for the seizure of power."
Trotsky then went on to elaborate a number of changes that would have to take place to meet the new situation:
"It was necessary to consolidate the party's growing influence organisationally and to establish a basis of support for a direct assault on the state. It was necessary to shift the full party organisation onto the basis of factory cells. It was necessary to form cells on the railways. It was necessary to raise sharply the question of work in the army. It was necessary, especially necessary, to adapt the united front tactic fully and completely to these tasks, to give it a firmer and more decisive tempo and a more revolutionary character. On the basis of this, work of a military/technical nature should have been carried out.
"The question of setting a date for the uprising can have significance only in this connection and with this perspective. Insurrection is an art. An art presumes a clear aim, a precise plan, and consequently a schedule. The most important thing, however, was this: to ensure in good time the decisive tactical turn toward the seizure of power. And this was not done. This was the chief and fatal omission."
Trotsky went on to explain that the KPD having burnt its fingers in the March Action, avoided, for a protracted period of time, the very idea of organising the revolution:
"The party's political activity was carried on at a peacetime tempo at a time when the denouement was approaching. The timing for the uprising was fixed when, in essentials, the enemy had already made use of the time lost by the party and strengthened his position. The party's military preparation, began at feverish speed was divorced from the party's political activity, which was carried on at previous peacetime tempo. The masses did not understand the party and did not keep step with it. The party at once felt its severance from the masses, and proved to be paralysed. From this resulted the sudden withdrawal from first class positions without a fight - the bitterest of all possible defeats."
These valuable observations were later developed extensively in Trotsky's brilliant pamphlet Lessons of October published in September 1924, which compared the vacillations of the German leadership with that of Zinoviev and Kamenev on the eve of the October Revolution.
THE 1923 DEFEAT in Germany had profound consequences. The defeat provided the political premise for the stablisation of capitalism. Within the USSR, it dashed the hopes of the Russian masses, who closely followed the revolutionary events in Germany. The demoralisation strengthened the grip of the growing bureaucracy, which had developed out of the isolation of the Russian Revolution under conditions of economic and cultural backwardness. The death of Lenin in January 1924 provided a further setback for the soviet working class. These events sharpened the struggle between Stalin, the figurehead of the bureaucracy (who had formed an unprincipled block with Zinoviev and Kamenev), and the newly formed Left Opposition headed by Leon Trotsky (which fought for Party democracy and a plan to co-ordinate industry and agriculture). It was on the basis of these setbacks that Stalin came forward in the autumn of 1924 with the anti-Bolshevik theory of 'Socialism in one country', which reflected the desire of the bureaucracy for a stable existence.
By the beginning of 1924, the KPD had been banned, the eight-hour day abolished, and the government embarked on a programme of economic recovery based on the introduction of a new and stable currency, the Reutenmark.
The imperialist powers, alarmed by the revolutionary events of 1923, were terrified by the perspective of 'Bolshevism' sweeping through Germany and Europe. As a result, their attitude towards the Weimar Republic turned 180 degrees with the acceptance of the United States' government's Dawes Plan. This financial agreement secured the withdrawal of French troops, and instead of bleeding Germany white, American imperialism poured in colossal sums to rebuild German industry. The payment of reparations was drastically reduced, while German big business received a loan of 5000 million dollars to rebuild the economy. By 1929 she had paid 8000 million Reutenmarks in reparations, and in return had received 13,000 million Reutenmarks in loans of various types. These quasi-'Keynesian' methods had a stimulating effect on the German economy.
Output in 1923 was 55 per cent of 1913 levels (the peak of pre-war production); by 1927 it was 122 per cent of the 1913 levels. By 1927 the average monthly production of iron ore and steel amounted to 1136 million tonnes and 1395 million tonnes respectively, as against 1397 million tonnes and 1429 million tonnes in 1913. This economic upturn, based on international credit and loans, resulted in a period of falling inflation and economic stability. By this time, foreign indebtedness increased to one half of the national income. It was a period of 'borrowed prosperity'.
With trade and industry returning to 'normality' the number of industrial disputes rose sharply. In 1924 there were more working days lost as a result of strikes and lock-outs than in any other year between the two world wars: 13.2 million days were lost through strikes, and 22.6 million days due to lock-outs. Despite this increase in trade union activity after the October defeat, membership of the trade union federations declined from 7.8 million in 1922 to around 4.6 million in 1924. In the period after 1924, strike figures fell rapidly as state arbitration was increasingly used to settle disputes.
Germany's economic revival, and the relative stability that went with it, coincided with the considerable increase in support for the Social Democratic Party. And although it was out of office until 1928, it still remained the single largest party within the Reichstag. Almost without interruption, the SPD ran the government of Germany's most important state, Prussia, which included the capital, Berlin, and two-thirds of the country's population.
On the other hand, the KPD, which had experienced its biggest defeat in October, had been declared illegal by General von Seekt. After the October debacle, Brandler was removed from the KPD leadership by the Comintern and the party was now led by the ultra-lefts, Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow. Despite everything that Lenin had written, the new leadership introduced an adventurous policy of creating separate 'red' trade unions which completely isolated them from the offical labour movement and resulted in the loss of over one million votes at the election in December 1924. The proportion of trade unionists in the Berlin branch of the KPD fell to less than 30 per cent in 1924.
The degree to which the party's influence had declined in the official organisations was shown by the decline in KPD delegates to the Trade Union Congress: in 1922 they had 88 delegates, but by 1925 it was reduced dramatically to four. The ultra-left leaders were a complete disaster; and, once again, at the behest of the Stalinist Comintern, they were expelled and replaced by leaders more in tune and more pliant to Moscow. Within a year, with a more opportunist policy being pursued by the Communist International and with the creation of the Anglo Soviet Trade Union Committee, the KPD began to push for trade union unity.
The 1925 Presidential Election
The death of President Ebert in 1925 resulted in a new election being called in which seven candidates took part. The right parties had put up a joint candidate, Doctor Jarres the Burgomaster of Duisburg, who won the first ballot. Next to him came the Social Democrat, Otto Braun (the then Prime Minister of Prussia), who had received the second largest vote. He had every chance of gaining the additional three million votes to win outright. Yet out of the blue the Social Democrats decided to withdraw their candidate in support of the Catholic Centre Party's Doctor Wilhelm Marx. He had headed a government in early 1924 which introduced severe deflationary measures against the working class and ruled by emergency decree. Far from being a front runner, Wilhelm Marx had only received half as many votes as Braun!
In the final ballot the right had also changed their candidate to Field Marshall von Hindenburg (advertised as 'the Saviour'). The Social Democrats had justified their support for the reactionary Dr Marx as a policy of the 'lesser evil'. This shallow policy was to have dire consequences for the German working class. The Communist Party put up Ernst Thaelmann as their candidate. By a very small margin, the militarist Hindenburg was elected President of the Republic.
A further consequence of the economic revival was the demand by the old Hohenzollern monarchy for compensation for the 1918 revolution! This had been raised to one degree or another over the previous five years, so the SPD and KPD agreed to join forces to end this scandal once and for all through a referendum. They campaigned boldly for the complete expropriation of the property of the old nobility, no compensation, and the establishment of a fund for war invalids, old age pensioners and the unemployed out of these proceeds. The campaign was one of the most successful ever mounted by the workers' parties. Despite not achieving an overwhelming majority, the combined left forces won 14.5 million votes, which compared extremely favourably to the 10.5 million they had both recorded in the December 1924 general election. It was the most successful joint action since the Kapp putch of 1920.
The period 1925 to 1929 were years of maximum stability for the Weimar Republic. Unemployment had fallen to 65,000 by 1928, and retail sales were up 20 per cent over their 1925 level. Prosperity began to return to Germany.
The 1928 General Election
By the general election of 1928, the boom was reaching its peak. It gave rise to feelings of increased social and political stability, which resulted, after a four year interval, in the return of the 'Grand Coalition' headed by the Social Democrats under Herman Mueller.
Without exception, the bourgeois parties faced a decline in support. Hitler's Nazi Party gained only 12 seats (out of 474), with 810,000 votes, reflecting the doldrums that the fascists were in. The Nationalist vote fell by one third to four million. On the other hand, the KPD increased its vote to 3.2 million, and the SPD to over nine million.
Despite the SPD and KPD having gained a total of 42 per cent of the seats in Reichstag, the liberal-social democratic coalition, true to its past performance, pursued pro-capitalist policies on all questions, which were to give rise to wide-spread disillusionment.
By this time, the Communist International had become transformed into a foreign policy tool of the Stalinist bureaucracy. The defeat of the British general strike, and the Chinese Revolution from 1925 to 1927, due to the false policies of Stalin and Co, further reinforced the position of the parasitic bureaucracy. After a decade of colossal sacrifices and international defeats, the Russian masses were in a state of severe exhaustion. Each international set-back strengthened the Stalinist bureaucracy, which raised itself above the working class as an independent arbiter. By late 1927, the Left Opposition had been expelled and within a few months, Trotsky deported to Siberia. Stalin, as the figurehead of the bureaucracy, then began a purge of all opposition elements, including Bukharin's Right Opposition.
In a similar fashion, the Stalinists carried though a purge in all sections of the Comintern, appointing loyal, pliant, obedient stooges in their place.
The 'Third Period'
In August 1928, after the Comintern had burnt its fingers pursuing opportunist policies in Britain and China, the Sixth World Congress ushered in a new ultra-left turn in international policy. A key resolution was passed stating that the period of capitalist stability had ended and a new 'third' period had opened. To the schema of the Comintern leaders, the so-called 'first period' was the revolutionary years of the immediate post-war, the 'second' was one of relative stability, and now the 'third' was one of wars and revolutions. The reality, however, was very different, as capitalism was still experiencing an economic upswing and continued political stability. In fact, it was not until April 1929 that the boom in Germany reached its peak - the Stalinists had no inkling of the future stock market crash of October 1929. This erroneous 'Third Period' policy was to prepare the way for an absolute catastrophe internationally and particularly in Germany.
The Stalinists stated that the main danger now emmanated from the left! Parties were ordered to break with the official trade unions and reestablish 'Red' unions wherever possible. Collaboration with social democracy became the worst possible crime, and the social democrats internationally were denounced as 'social fascists' and therefore the main enemy! In the words of Stalin: 'Fascism and social democracy are not opposites, but twins.'
In Germany the KPD issued a pamphlet entitled: What is Social Fascism?, which stated that workers had to concentrate on 'the struggle against fascism in its present most dangerous form ie its social democratic form.' Thaelmann, the Party's leading theoretician, stated that with the election of the Social Democrat Mueller administration, fascism had triumphed!
The seasonal unemployment in the severe winter of 1928-9 added to the growing number of sackings resulting from the increasing rationalisation of industry. In February 1929 the unemployed totals rapidly began to climb upwards. For different reasons, up to half a million were excluded from state benefit. Increasing bitterness swept throughout Germany, which the KPD attempted to capitalise on by organising hunger marches and demonstrations. Due to their insane ultra-leftism the KPD were isolated from the broad labour movement and soon under these conditions became a party of the unemployed.
Social tensions were growing rapidly. On the spurious pretext of preventing outbreaks of violence, the SPD police president of Berlin, Karl Zorgiebel, issued a banning order on the 1929 traditional May Day demonstrations. The KPD called on the workers to defy this instruction and defend their rights as they had done previously under Bismarck and the Kaiser. There was a big response, as thousands streamed out of the working-class districts and flooded the squares, paralysing all traffic. The police waded in brutally, firing on unarmed demonstrators. By 3 May, 25 workers had been killed, 36 severely wounded and hundreds more injured. This repressive action caused many Social Democratic supporters to desert to the Communists. Zorgiebel became a symbol of hatred for the workers as Noske had been in the early years of the revolution.
The Crash of 1929
The rebuilding of German capitalism through massive foreign loans had by 1929 produced an industry that was the most advanced in the world. Huge combines were built up for which the internal German market was completely insufficient. 'We need markets, but the markets of the world are closed to us', grumbled Krupp. 'Great Britain has erected tariff walls. In France, Italy, Sweden, the Balkans, in fact everywhere, German trade is up against barriers which little by little are becoming insurmountable.' The Wall Street crash of October 1929 and the following slump in world production proved a catastrophe for German capitalism. In 1929 German exports amounted to 13,000 million marks, but by 1933 they had slumped by more than half to 5000 million marks. Banks failed, foreign credit evaporated and Germany lurched into crisis.
The introduction of a new revised policy by the Allies, the Young Plan, seemed to compound the problems of German capitalism. On the basis of the projected recovery, Germany would now pay higher reparations in cash until 1988. The Crash forced the great powers to abandon this utopian scheme. The German bourgeois responded to the crisis with mass sackings. In the first fortnight of January 1930, 40,000 were thrown out of work; Krupp had reduced his staff from 100,000 to 50,000; the Gutehoffnungs-Hutte from 80,000 to 36,000. Within six months unemployment had increased from just over one million to three million. In the words of one historian, 'Germany became once more a country of beggars'.
By March the 'Grand Coalition' of Mueller had collapsed, torn apart by economic policy differences. It was the last Weimar government to rest on a parliamentary majority. Germany now faced a catastrophe. Within a few years unemployment would spiral upwards to over six million - on official figures. A decisive section of the German bourgeoisie now began to recognise that the only possible solution to the crisis was fascist reaction. Their attitude was summed up by Krupp, when he said 'we want only loyal workers who are grateful from the bottom of their hearts for the bread we let them earn'. In 1918 the German capitalists had been forced to give big concessions: the eight-hour day, trade union recognition, unemployment insurance, universal suffrage and other reforms, in order to prevent revolution. They gave these concessions whilst grinding their teeth and biding their time for revenge.
Fascism's Rise to Power
UP UNTIL 1929 the fascist grouplets had no real base in the population. Ever since the war a multitude of small groups and petty military leagues were established by disgruntled army officers, and other reactionary elements. Hitler's fascist organisation was just one amongst many: the Viking Bund, Oberland League, Thule Society, the Pan German League and so on.
Hitler's group was established in 1919 and in the following year took the name National Socialist German Workers' Party, from which the name Nazi was abbreviated. In its precarious, early existence it attempted to attract disaffected reactionary elements from the Reichswehr. Yet apart from attracting a small number of disgruntled cranks, misfits and reactionaries, its influence was extremely limited. Only by uniting with other fascist groupings was there any possibility of affecting the situation.
The Munich Putsch
In 1923 Hitler had joined forces with a number of anti-republican nationalist groupings and Freikorps units in Bavaria, which together formed the Deutscher Kampfbund (German Fighting Union), with Hitler as one of its three leaders. They were inspired by Mussolini's victory and dreamed of imitating his march on Rome. On 8 November 1923, without the main support of the army tops, Hitler, Roehm and Ludendorff staged an abortive putsch. The fascists were easily dispersed and Hitler arrested. The fiasco was a massive blow to the Nazis. The fascist leader, Hanfstaengl, moaned to his co-thinkers about the thousand dollars he had lent to the party: 'What good is it now to have a receipt and a mortgage on the office furniture?' Recruits became scarce and money was even harder to come by. Splits opened up in the fascists' ranks.
On Hitler's premature release from Landsherg prison he was met with the crushing news that the Social Democrats had massively increased their vote by 30 per cent (to nearly eight million) in the general election. The Nazi party together with a number of fascist groups under the name of Nationalist Socialist German Freedom Movement, had seen their vote collapse from two million in May 1924 to less than a million in December.
Nazism was in deep decline. Although for the German bourgeoisie it was not the time to back the fascists, they supplied them with just enough funds to keep them in existence. By the time of the general election in May 1928 Nazi support had shrunk to only 2.6 per cent of the total vote.
Big Business Turns to Hitler
By 1930 the situation had changed drastically. As a consequence the German bourgeoisie decided to put its full weight behind the fascist movement. Big business poured in millions of marks into the Nazi party. Fritz Thyssen, head of the steel trust, in his book I Paid Hitler, openly admitted handing over one million marks to Hitler personally. He was also instrumental in winning sections of the bourgeoisie over to the Nazis: 'I did in fact bring about the connections between Hitler and the entire body of Rhenish-Westphalian industrialists...in consequence of this a number of large contributions flowed from the resources of heavy industry to the treasuries of the National Socialist Party.' Thyssen estimated that this brought in over two million marks each year. According to the historian William Shirer, 'In fact the coal and steel interest were the principal sources of the funds which came from the industrialists to help Hitler over his last hurdles to power in the period between 1930-33.'
Up until this point, the Nazi party did not look a threat to the labour movement or the Republic. Yet within two years it went from becoming the weakest party in the Reichstag to the second largest.
For the ruling class repressive, brutal measures in defence of its interests are nothing new. They are prepared to take the most ruthless action in defence of their power and income. But the turn towards fascism marked a decisive stage, a qualitative change, in the attitude of the bourgeoisie. Fascism is a special form of reaction connected to the death agony of capitalism. Trotsky once commented that it was 'the distilled essence of imperialism'.
For capitalism under 'normal' conditions, the best form of government is its cheapest form: bourgeois democracy. The capitalists see the state armed bodies of men in defence of private property and their appendages - as a costly, necessary evil. If not held in check, by parliamentary government then the state bureaucracy and military caste can grow out of proportion and consume an enormous amount of the surplus value. Bourgeois democracy also provides a valuable safety valve for the discontent of the masses. To paraphrase Marx, the masses could say what they liked as long as the monopolies decided. Capitalism in crisis, however, forces the bourgeoisie to drive down wages to below subsistence levels, to force the worker into a semi-slave existence. Democratic rights won by the proletariat - freedom of speech, the right to organise, to strike, to vote - become obstacles to the capitalist class in their effort to drive down conditions. The capitalists turn towards greater state repression and even the establishment of Bonapartist regimes (military-police dictatorships). Yet Bonapartism is still insufficient to destroy completely the organisations of the working class, and a special form of reaction is therefore required to perform this task - fascism.
In Germany the proletariat had won big concessions from the bourgeoisie during the 1918 revolution. Farm labourers in eastern Germany for the first time won the right to organise. As a result the chief industrialist, Stinnes, warned: 'big business and all those who rule over industry will some day recover their influence and power!' They were forced to stomach the concessions and bide their time. They now looked to fascism to restore their profits over the bones of the German proletariat.
A Movement of the Middle Class
Unlike other forms of reaction, fascism is the mass movement of the ruined middle class who have been organised as a human battering ram against the labour movement. The crisis of capitalism completely crushes the petty bourgeois and drives them into a frenzy. In Germany unemployment rose to four million in 1931, five million in 1932 and over six million in the following year. Inflation had earlier thrown whole layers of the middle class into penury. The suicide rate increased dramatically during these years. Many professionals fell below the level of the skilled worker. A professor was paid less than an ordinary worker. Not a small number were turned into vagabonds. After 1923, 97 per cent of Germans were without any capital, resulting in a startling polarisation of wealth.
The rationalisations of the boom years created enormous concentrations of capital as small industries and businesses were quickly swallowed up. In the crisis after 1929, at least the organised workers could fall back on the limited protection of trade union contracts and unemployment allowances. But for the German petty bourgeois - the bankrupt shopkeepers, the unemployed professionals, those on depreciated fixed incomes - they were in a state of utter desperation. They had lost everything, with many being thrown into the streets. In the past, sections of the middle class were pushed into the ranks of the working class, but now, with mass unemployment, they were turned into paupers. This situation resulted, as Trotsky explained, in the 'despair of the petty bourgeois, its yearning for change, the mass neurosis of the petty bourgeois, its readiness to believe in miracles, its readiness for violent measures; and the growth of its hostility to the proletariat, which has deceived its expectations.'
The fascists fed the frustrations and the despair of the ruined peasants, the unemployed youth, the devastated small business people crushed by the monopolies, and the lumpen proletariat - the spivs, prostitutes, gangsters and criminals. Through anti-capitalist demagogy they pulled this despairing mass together, imbued it with a mission of salvation, and filled it full of illusions in overthrowing the system. Due to its intermediate social position and heterogeneous make-up, the middle class is incapable of playing an independent political role: it is forced to either support the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. In the immediate post war period the bulk of them looked towards the workers' organisations as a way forward. The failure of the workers' parties to transform the situation drove them back towards the bourgeoisie.
But the mass of the petty bourgeois are disenchanted by the actions of capitalist politicians who stand for the maintenance of the status quo. The ruling class therefore has to shape a new weapon to dupe the middle class. It finances the fascists, builds them up, and uses them to exploit the problems and discontent of the petty bourgeois.
The fascist organisation originates as anti-labour gangs, harassing workers' organisations, and attracting bands of mercenary thugs from the dregs of society. These layers formed the basis of Hitler's Storm Troops, the Sturm-Abteilung (SA), and the SS (Elite Guard). This human trash, made up of the lumpen proletariat in the main, can only become a serious mass force under special circumstances. Not only must there be deep economic crisis, and disillusionment with the workers' parties, but they need in particular the financial and political backing of the ruling class. 'We need a Fuehrer', sighed Moeller van den Bruck as early as 1923. In the late 1920s, many industrialists began to yearn for a 'strong man of destiny to liberate us from our misery'.
Before 1930, the Storm Troops were used mainly to break up workers' meetings, but later they were brought onto the streets to break up demonstrations, provoke workers, and carry through asassinations. Originally they were very weak, and, if the labour movement had swiftly used its strength against them, they would have been crushed. Even Hitler later confessed: 'Only one thing could have broken our movement - if the adversary had understood its principle and from the first day had smashed, with the most extreme brutality, the nucleus of our new movement.' Unfortunately, the labour leaders turned to the bourgeois state for assistance to 'curb the facists'!
Germany, in 1930, had reached a turning point - for the masses, frustration had turned to despair. The feeling that 'so kann es nicht weitergehen' (things can't go on like this) became widespread. The SPD and the KPD, whilst keeping their own support broadly intact, failed to capture the millions of petty bourgeois facing horrendous conditions: it offered them no hope, no solution. They deserted the main bourgeois parties and turned to Hitler on mass, who promised them real salvation. The Nazis, however, completely failed to win support amongst organised labour. In 1931 the Nazis got only five per cent of the vote in the factory committee elections, and by March 1933, despite all their efforts, it had declined to a mere three per cent. Hitler's appeal was to the upper and middle classes - and the amorphous non-political mass who did not bother to vote. The gigantic vote for the National Socialist Workers' Party in September 1930 meant a serious change in the balance of forces.
The SPD vote had declined since 1928 by 6 per cent, but the Communists' had risen considerably (by 40 per cent) to over 4.5 million. The National Socialist Workers' Party, in contrast, had increased its votes vote by over 800 per cent (nearly 6.5 million), going from the ninth largest party in the Reichstag to second!
Stalinism and 'Social Fascism'
The Stalinists completely lost any sense of proportion and declared the election a massive victory for communism. A prominent party leader, Hermann Remmele, stated: 'the only victor in the September elections is the Communist Party.'
Trotsky and the International Left Opposition, alarmed by the deteriorating situation, immediately issued an appeal to the leaders and ranks of the KPD to organise a united front with the social democrats to stop the fascists. The Nazis represented not only a grizzly threat to the proletariat of Germany, but that of Europe and Russia as well. A fascist victory would inevitably mean war with the USSR. The Stalinists replied in the following terms:
"In his pamphlet on the question, How will National Socialism be Defeated?, Trotsky gives always but one reply: 'The German Communist Party must make a block with the social democracy...' In framing this block, Trotsky sees the only way for completely saving the German working class against fascism. Either the CP will make a block with the social democracy or the German working class is lost for 10-20 years. This is the theory of a completely ruined fascist and counter revolutionary. This theory is the worst theory, the most dangerous theory and the most criminal that Trotsky has constructed in the last years of his counter revolutionary propaganda." (Ernst Thaelmann, September 1932)
The main enemy for the Stalinists was not Hitler but the Social Democrats! In fact the party, through Heinz Neumann, proclaimed that: 'Fascist dictatorship is no longer merely a threat, it is already here.' The KPD issued orders for 'social fascist' meetings to he broken up. Thaelmann even coined the slogans: 'Drive the social fascists from their jobs in the factories and the trade unions!', 'Chase them away from the factories, labour exchanges and professional schools.'
Jan Valtin vividly describes the breaking up of a Social Democratic transport workers' union conference in 1931:
"The Communist Party sent a courier to the headquarters of the Nazi Party with a request for cooperation in the blasting of a Trade Union Conference. Hitlerites agreed, as they always did in such cases...As soon as the conference of Social Democrats was well under way, I got up and launched a harangue from the gallery...We refused to budge. As soon as the first trade union delegate touched one of us, our followers rose and bedlam started. The furniture was smashed, the participants beaten, the hall turned into a shambles." (Out of the Night)
This crazy position was backed up by the Stalinist Comintern: 'We shall not be able to strike and destroy the class enemy of the workers, the bourgeoisie, unless our main attack is directed against Social Democracy, the chief prop of the bourgeoisie.'
The 'Red Referendum'
In August 1931, to capitalise on their growing popularity, the Nazi Party launched a referendum to overthrow the Social Democratic government of Prussia. At first the KPD correctly attacked it. Then, three weeks before the vote, under orders from Stalin's Comintern, they joined forces with the fascists to bring down the main enemy, the Social Democrats. They changed the name of the plebiscite to a 'Red Referendum' and referred to the fascists and the members of the SA as 'working people's comrades'!
Fortunately, the referendum failed to get a majority. With the recent electoral successes of the Nazis, such a referendum victory would have brought Hitler to power two years earlier.
The lunatic actions of the German Stalinists failed - but they learnt nothing. 'Today the Social Democrats are the most active factor in creating fascism in Germany,' declared Thaelmann. It was a mad adventure that served to disorientate the proletariat and facilitate the success of the fascists.
When the German Communist Party finally considered the proposal for a united front it became a meaningless slogan, insisting that it was 'from below', excluding the SPD leaders. As Trotsky aptly put it: 'this was a united front with itself'!
Echoing its German counterpart, the British Daily Worker of 8 May 1931, explained: 'fascism cannot be fought by supporting social democracy, for this means supporting fascism and the capitalist offensive'. Again, the same journal declared, 'the socialists are the left and the fascists are the right hand of the same capitalist body'. By the end of 1932 the British Stalinists published a series of questions and answers about Germany:
"Q: Cannot the socialists and communists unite? Cannot all workers' organisations - the Communist Party, the Socialist Party and the trade unions and the cooperatives come together and do something to resist the drive of fascism?
"A: It is undoubtedly necessary to create working class unity but this must be unity between the workers in the factories and the streets, and not unity between the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, which is not a working class party...for the Communist Party to unite with such a party would be to become an accomplice in the drive to fascist dictatorship."
Within a month, the German Stalinists had organised a united front with the Nazis in the Berlin transport workers' strike! The tram workers took unofficial action over a proposed wage cut. To everyone's surprise, the Nazi Party supported the strike. They joined forces with the Communist Party attacking trams and ripping up tram lines. Street collections were organised for strike funds, and in Berlin appeared the alarming and confusing sight of a Communist and a Nazi standing together and shouting in unison, while they rattled their collecting tins: 'For the strike fund of the RGO' - 'for the strike fund of the NSBO'. The RGO was the Revolutionary Trade Union Opposition (communist), and the NSBO the (fascist) National Socialist Factory Cell Organisation.
This spectacle repulsed ordinary socialists and trade unionists and caused a loss of sympathy for the strike. Within a week the strike was called off.
The fall of the Mueller Government in 1930, followed by the even more right wing administration of Heinrich Bruening with its unpopular deflationary policies, prepared the way for Hitler's electoral gains in September. The Bruening Government, as it lacked a parliamentary majority, ruled by decree in a semi-Bonapartist fashion, but was nevertheless supported by the SPD Reichstag deputies'as the lesser evil'. In December 193 1, Trotsky made a desperate appeal to the ranks of the KPD:
"Worker-Communists, you are hundreds of thousands, millions; you canot leave for any place; there are not enough passports for you. Should fascism come to power, it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only a fighting unity with the social democratic workers can bring victory. Make haste, worker-Communists, you have very little time left!"
Hindenburg Becomes President
No fewer than five elections took place in 1932. In March new presidential elections were held with three main candidates in the run off: Hindenburg, Hitler and Thaelmann. The Social Democrats, who had opposed the arch-militarist Hindenburg in 1925, now decided to support him 'as the lesser evil'. The result:
The Hitler movement had doubled its strength in 17 months. The labour leaders, who completely underestimated the seriousness of the situation, consoled themselves with Hindenburg's victory.
Under pressure, the Bruening government had banned the SA and the SS. Within six weeks of this order, Hindenburg had appointed Franz von Papen in place of Bruening. After a short interval, von Papen rescinded the ban on the fascist military organisations, which unleashed a terror campaign without parallel, with hundreds dead or wounded, and with every locality reporting deaths from assassinations by the Nazis. New elections were then announced for the end of July.
On the pretext of a violent street battle with the Nazis in Hamburg, where 18 lives were lost, von Papen appointed himself the new head of Prussia, after dismissing the Social Democratic government. Workers throughout the country looked to the SPD leaders for a call to action.
The 'Iron Front', the military defence organisation of the labour movement which included the Social Democratic-republican Reichsbanner, had demonstrated its power in mass marches and were determined to fight in defence of the Republic. The Social Democratic Minister of the Interior calmed workers' fears: 'Rest assured that I shall mobilise the Reichsbanner as auxiliary police and arm them when the hour of danger comes.' The Reichsbanner alone had three million members with a hard core of a highly trained military elite consisting of 400,000 men.
Unfortunately, the SPD leaders capitulated ignominiously, deciding instead to challenge the actions in the reactionary courts. The KPD issued the call for a general strike, but after its disgraceful role in the 'Red Referendum', it fell, not surprisingly, on deaf ears.
Within days, the KPD reverted to its attacks on the 'social fascists'. In the elections on 31 July, the National Socialist Workers' Party became the largest party in the Reichstag. The results for the major parties were:
It was a stunning success for the fascists, who had dramatically increased their vote at the expense of all the other bourgeois parties, except the Centre Party. As a whole, the working class electorate remained solidly with the workers' organisations, and there was a steady increase in support for the KPD at the expense of the Social Democrats. The Communists declared themselves as the 'sole victor'! When the Reichstag met on 12 September, von Papen received a vote of censure, resulting in the Reichstag once more being dissolved and new elections called for 6 November.
Thaelmann once again warned against 'opportunist exaggeration of Hitler Fascism', and again reiterated the party's strategy of directing its 'main thrust' against social democracy. Even where the Communist Party leaders partially recognised the strength of fascism, they rejected it out of hand with the phrase 'After Hitler, our turn!'
But in the Reichstag elections in November, the Nazis were taken aback at the results. The fascist movement had peaked early, losing two million votes. The results were:
The Nazis' vote was now less than the combined SPD-KPD vote. This was the last 'free' election of the Weimar Republic, where two-thirds of the population voted against the Nazis.
Hitler Becomes Chancellor
In November, von Papen resigned and Schleicher was appointed Chancellor. Without any sound parliamentary base, Schieicher's regime of crisis was to last only 57 days. On 30 January 1933, President Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of a coalition cabinet.
Leon Trotsky and his supporters called for armed resistance and the mobilisation of the full resources of the German labour movement in a life and death struggle with fascism. Mass demonstrations took place throughout all the main cities in Germany, and expectations were high that the labour leaders would call them into action. The workers waited impatiently as the labour leaders dithered in this critical situation.
So certain was Hitler of victory, he was prepared to use 'legal means' as a stepping stone to absolute power. He was willing initially to make the compromise of heading a coalition government with the National Party, with the Nazis holding only three of the eleven cabinet posts. Yet Hitler was in a decisive position from which he prepared the ground for his next move.
The German Social Democratic leaders issued 'an appeal for calm.' On 7 February, the head of the Berlin Federation of the Party gave instructions: 'Above all do not let yourselves be provoked. The life and health of the Berlin workers are too dear to be jeopardised lightly; they must be preserved for the day of struggle. The labour leaders justified their actions by explaining that Hitler's appointment was constitutional!
Hitler then persuaded Hindenburg to declare elections on 5 March, after the failure to get sufficient parliamentary backing for the coalition government. 'Now it will be easy,' wrote Goebbels in his diary on 3 February, 'to carry on the fight, for we can call on all the resources of the state. Radio and press are at our disposal. We shall stage a masterpiece of propaganda. And this time, naturally, there is no lack of money.' In seeking further financial backing from the German industrialists, Hitler promised to eliminate 'the Marxists'. Goering, now Minister of the Interior for Prussia, stressed the need for financial sacrifices as this election was the last 'for the next hundred years!'. The Hitler government had banned all Communist meetings and closed down their press. Social Democratic rallies were either banned or broken up by SA gangs. Fifty-one anti-fascists were murdered during the election campaign.
Goering then purged hundreds of republican officials and replaced them with SA and SS officers. He issued a statement to the police to avoid at all costs hostility to the fascist military organisations but to show no mercy to those hostile to the state. He then organised an auxiliary police force of 50,000 men, of whom 40,000 were drawn from the SA and SS. On 24 February, Goering's police raided the KPD headquarters, Karl Liebknecht Haus, which was stripped of propaganda and materials to be used as 'proof' of a Communist conspiracy to launch an immediate putsch.
The Reichstag Fire
On 27 February, the Reichstag was burnt down by the fascists, who blamed it on the KPD. On this pretext, they completely suppressed the Communist Party. Goering shouted 'This is the beginning of the Communist revolution! We must not wait a minute. We will show no mercy. Every Communist must be shot where he is found. Every Communist deputy must this very night be strung up.' The next day, President Hindenburg signed a decree suspending all the sections of the constitution covering free speech, free press, assembly, etc. The Communist Party called on all anti-fascists to 'fight the counter-revolution' by voting for List Three (KPD)! But the KPD offered no resistance. In the incredible words of Torgler: 'The Communist Party could expect nothing from an armed insurrection, and aspired for only one thing: to survive without accident until the elections, when it expected to win a marked success.'
About 4000 Communist Party officials, together with Social Democratic and liberal leaders, were arrested. A swarm of Storm Troopers rushed through the streets of Germany, breaking down doorways, torturing and beating suspected communists. Throughout the election campaign, only the Nazis and the Nationalist Party were able to campaign without interference. The mass of petty bourgeois were wound up into an absolute frenzy against the 'Bolshevik plotters' and the need for the Nazis to restore order. According to Daniel Guerin in Fascism and Big Business, on the night of 5 March, the leaders of the Reichsbanner divisions in the principal cities of Germany went to Berlin begging to be given the order to fight. They received the reply: 'Be calm! Above all no bloodshed.' On 5 March the election results were known:
Despite all the murders, terror, intimidation, destruction of the opposition, Hitler had failed to win an absolute majority. The results gave the Nazis 288 seats in the new Reichstag, which together with its coalition partners, the Nationalists, amounted to a total support of 340 seats - a majority of 16 - well short of the two-thirds majority needed to 'legally' change the constitution and establish totalitarian rule.
The fascists, however, did not see it as a problem. Firstly, the KPD were now illegal and their deputies in hiding or in jail. Secondly, Goering felt the SPD deputies could be dealt with simply 'by refusing admittance'. On 23 March, Hitler put forward in the Reichstag an Act granting him emergency powers, which was passed by 441 to 81 Social Democrats. The Fuehrer had become dictator of Germany.
The Nazi Terror
IN THE WORDS of one historian, 'the gutter had come to power.' A united front of the SPD, the KPD and the trade unions could have transformed the situation completely. The German labour movement was the strongest in the world. Such a force could have split the wavering middle class from the fascists and ground the Hitler movement into the dust.
The National Socialists, however, were able to take power, scandalously, without any resistance ('without even breaking a window pane', to use Hitler's words). The labour leadership were completely bankrupt. To appease the Nazis, Otto Wels, the chairman of the SPD, resigned from the Bureau of the Labour and Socialist International. The SPD leaders took disgraceful disciplinary action against the Berlin Socialist Youth and others who took clandestine measures against the fascist regime. They denounced their own comrades abroad who attacked Hitler. They grovelled before the Fuehrer as the iron-heel of fascist reaction bore down on the neck of the German working class.
In early May, the police had occupied the SPD buildings and press and had confiscated its property. Yet the leadership stooped even lower to appease Hitler, and voted - at least those who were not in prison - for his foreign policy.
A month later, in a reign of terror, the SPD was outlawed. The Catholic Bavarian People's Party dissolved itself, as did the Centre Party, followed by the People's Party and Democrats. On 29 June, Hitler's coalition partners, the National Party, 'voluntarily liquidated itself' as the SA took over its offices.
On 14 July a new law was decreed: 'The National Socialist German Workers' Party constitutes the only political party in Germany.' Hitler had done in months what it took Mussolini years to accomplish.
Smashing the Unions
The trade union movement fared no better. Hitler declared the First of May a National Labour Day, to which the trade union leaders humbly offered their full cooperation. The official organ of the German TUC, Gewerhschaftszeitung, published an article for its May Day edition with the following scandalous statement: 'We certainly need not strike our colours in order to recognise that the victory of National Socialism, though won in struggle against (the Social Democrats)...is our victory as well'!
After the National Labour Day mass demonstration of 100,000, Goebbels wrote: 'Tomorrow we will occupy the trade union buildings. There will be little resistance'.
The next day the SA occupied the trade union headquarters, dissolved the unions, confiscated the funds and arrested its leaders. They were loaded into trucks and taken off to the Nazi concentration camps. Theodor Leipart and Peter Grassman, leaders of the Trade Union Confederation, proclaimed their readiness to cooperate with the fascist regime. 'The Leiparts and Grassmans,' declared Doctor Robert Ley, assigned by Hitler to reorganise the trade unions into a German Labour Front, 'may hypocritically declare their devotion to the Fuehrer as much as they like but it is better that they should be in prison.' And that is where they were carted off.
The end was shameful and inglorious. There was no resistance to the totalitarian nightmare, only abject capitulation by the labour leadership.
The Stalinist Response
The Communist Party was incapable of recognising the catastrophic defeat that had taken place; they simply talked wildly of a new revolutionary upswing. Their organisation had been smashed to pieces and yet the Comintern declared: 'The current calm after the victory of fascism is only temporary. Inevitably, despite fascist terrorism, the revolutionary tide in Germany will grow...The establishment of an open fascist dictatorship, which is destroying all democratic illusions amongst the masses(!) and freeing them(!) from the influence of the Social Democrats, will speed up Germany's progress towards the proletarian revolution.'
The Stalinists proved incapable of distinguishing between revolution and counter-revolution. They simply continued as though nothing fundamental had happened. Despite the fact that the SPD was banned, its leaders imprisoned and its organisations wrecked, the German Communists still declared that the 'social fascists' were the main enemy! The KPD Central Committee at the end of May declared: 'The total removal of the social fascists from the state machine and the brutal suppression of the Social Democratic organisations and their press can do nothing to change the fact that the Social Democrats were, and still remain the chief prop of capitalist dictatorship.' (My emphasis - RS)
They were oblivious to the consequences of this crushing defeat. They were oblivious to their erroneous policies which had split the labour movement and led to this disaster. On the contrary, the Comintern Executive met in April and noted, 'That the political line and the organisational policy followed by the Central Committee of the German Communist Party up to and during Hitler's coup was perfectly correct'. The degenerate Comintern simply asserted that black was white, and described its German policy as a 'resounding success'! As with the Second International in 1914, so now, the Stalinist Third International had become 'a stinking corpse'.
Trotsky realised the scale of the defeat - probably the worst in history which put the betrayal of the labour leaders of 1914 into the shade. The perspective of world war opened up as Hitler feverishly undertook a massive rearmaments programme with the backing of British imperialism.
The Night of the Long Knives
After supressing organised labour, Hitler then moved to crush the restless idealogues inside the Nazi party who were demanding a 'Second Revolution' to achieve 'Socialism' by nationalising the monopolies, the banks, breaking up the department stores, etc. In reality, the reverse was happening as the bourgeois ruthlessly used its supremacy after the destruction of the trade unions to organise a regime of terror in the factories.
The only promise Hitler kept was the persecution of the Jews, who were used as a scapegoat and an outlet for the growing disillusionment of the petty bourgeois. Hitler had betrayed the middle class basis of fascism. The SA, under Roehm, made up of hard-line fanatics who demanded the 'second revolution', were disarmed and liquidated in June 1934 in the famous 'Night of the Long Knives'. These mercenaries were ruthlessly murdered after their dirty work was done.
The Nazi state apparatus was now in place. All opposition had been crushed. The bourgeoisie had handed over its political power to the fascists as the price for destroying the workers' organisations. But once in power, fascism began to lose its mass base and formed itself into a Bonapartist police state. Its mission had been accomplished with the destruction of organised labour and the atomisation of the proletariat, which would take, as Trotsky predicted, some 15 years to fully recover.
The multi-million German labour movement - with a Marxist tradition extending over 75 years - was the most powerful and respected in the world. It possessed gigantic resources and held a powerful sway over the life of Germany. Its military republican organisation - the Reichsbanner, which later went into the Iron Front - was well armed and extremely powerful. The German labour leaders possessed the authority and resources to sweep fascism off the streets.
Hitler could have been broken if the labour movement had acted swiftly. But its leadership was rotten. It acted as a brake at each stage of struggle. The KPD, the most powerful Communist Party outside of the USSR, in pursuing the ultra-left policy of the 'Third Period', deliberately split the workers' organisations, paralysing them on the eve of its most decisive battle against fascism. Whilst many of its leaders were able to escape abroad, its rank and file faced the full brunt of the Nazi terror. Two-and-a-half thousand Communists were murdered on the spot. A further 130,000 were taken off to the concentration camps, to meet their death in the gas chambers, through beheadings, through the torture chambers of the SS, worked or starved to death, or simply shot. Jan Valtin, an eyewitness of the terror described the situation in Ploetzensee Prison:
"Those among us who awoke early in the morning, waiting for the bell to command us to rise, soon learnt to recognise the sounds accompanying an execution: the clatter of feet on Death Row at six in the morning, the creaking doors of the shed at the other end of the cobbled square facing Death Row - the shed where the guillotine stood hidden behind a canvas curtain: The sudden rattling of keys in ponderous doors, sometimes the sounds of a futile struggle, roars of rage and screams for help, or a booming voice singing the Internationale and ending with a hoarse shout of farewell from the hundreds who lay listening in their cells still alive."
A whole generation, composed of many of the best revolutionary fighters, paid dearly for the crimes of the bankrupt leadership of Stalinism and social democracy - whose actions and policies bear the complete responsibility for the victory of Hitler.
Can Fascism Rise Again?
Today capitalism is facing a new world economic crisis, similar to the 1930s. The capitalist class through various forms of government bourgeois and social democrat - are attempting to take back the gains of the post war period.
Although fascism destroyed the organisations of the working class, it placed state power completely in the hands of Nazi upstarts. The price the German bourgeoisie had to pay for crushing the proletariat was its political expropriation. The fascist mercenaries, with all the resources of the state at their disposal, could not be directly controlled by the ruling class. In the hands of the Nazis, the state apparatus became largely independent. Hitler became consumed with his own importance, and pursued policies which ultimately rebounded on the German capitalist class. The unsuccessful plot of July 1944, when a number of generals attempted to assassinate Hitler and stage a coup, reflected a belated attempt by a section of the old ruling class to reassert control. A megalomaniac, Hitler dreamed of a 1000-year old Reich. His refusal to come to a deal with the allied Anglo-American powers during the Second World War resulted in the collapse of the Third Reich and the loss of half of Germany to Stalinism. Whereas the ruling class was able to restore the situation in Italy by replacing Mussolini with Marshal Badoglio in 1943, in Germany, a similar attempt failed abysmally in the 'General's Plot' of 1944. Fascism proved a costly experiment. The bourgeoisie internationally learned a painful lesson which could not be repeated. It was also no accident that the rise of fascist barbarism in Germany was mirrored in the USSR by the consolidation of Stalinist totalitarianism. Both were products of the delayed world revolution.
Today, with a completely different international balance of forces, the basis for reaction has been largely undermined. The middle classes have largely become 'proletarianised' with many white collar workers becoming drawn into the trade unions. The students, who were a bastion of reaction in the past, have now become radicalised and have moved to the left. In the post-war period, with the decline of the peasantry, the proletariat internationally has become the decisive force on the planet.
At the present time, the weak, fascist gangs, such as the Italian MSI, are kept in reserve as an auxiliary, to be used when required to help create the conditions for a military coup. They have long ago abandoned any hope of independent power themselves. The bourgeoisie also, having burnt their fingers in Germany and Italy, now prefer the instrument of military-police dictatorship to carry through the programme of reaction. In turn, these regimes, as in Chile, attempt to ape the methods of fascism, while lacking its mass basis. The military officer caste, unlike the plebian fascist gangs, have far greater ties and links with the ruling class, and therefore are under much greater control.
In Britain and the advanced industrial countries, the basis for mass reaction does not exist. The general trend in society is towards the left. Over the next decade the crisis of capitalism will further radicalise the proletariat and middle classes and push them in the direction of socialist revolution. The proletariat will be given many chances to overthrow the capitalist system. Yet, if it fails repeatedly to take advantage of these opportunities and is held back by its leadership, then the resulting disillusionment, particularly amongst the middle class, will lay the basis for a ferocious capitalist reaction where millions would perish.
The present new generation of workers and youth must learn the lessons of Germany between 1918 and 1933, through the years of heroic revolution and bitter counter-revolution, in order to arm themselves for the titanic events that will enfold in Britain and internationally in the coming period.
In the words of George Santayana, 'Those who do not learn from history will be doomed to repeat it'. The task that lies before us is to transform the labour organisations from top to bottom and rearm them with a Marxist programme and leadership, capable of grasping every favourable opportunity. We need a leadership capable of mobilising the colossal power of the labour movement to put an end to capitalism and Stalinism once and for all - and with it the system that gave birth to the monstrous fascist regimes of the inter-war period.
"A FINAL WORD: I belong to a generation that has been sacrificed by history. The men and women who came to communism in the glow of the October Revolution carried along by the great momentum of the rising revolution certainly did not imagine that fifty years later, nothing would be left of Lenin but the body embalmed in Red Square. The revolution has degenerated and we have gone down with it.
"This century has brought forth two monsters, fascism and Stalinism, and our ideal has been engulfed in this apocalypse. The absolute idea that gave meaning to our lives has aquired a face whose features we no longer recognise. Our failure forbids us to give advice, but because history has too much imagination to repeat itself, it remains possible to hope.
"I do not regret the commitment of my youth, I do not regret the paths I have taken. In Denmark, in the fall of 1973, a young man asked me in a public meeting, 'Haven't you sacrificed your life for nothing?' I replied, 'No.'
"No, on one condition: that people understand the lesson of my life as a communist and a revolutionary, and do not turn themselves over to a deified party. I know that youth will succeed where we have failed, that socialism will triumph and that it will not have the colour of the Russian tanks that crushed Prague."
(From The Great Game, the autobiography of Leopold Trepper, ex-Stalinist and organiser of the wartime Russian spy network in Nazi Germany.)
August 3: SPD group in the Reichstag decide by 78 votes to 14 to approve government's requested war loans.
August 4: Outbreak of First World War. SPD in German Parliament votes unanimously for the first War Loans Bill.
December 2: Karl Liebknecht votes alone in the Reichstag against the second War Loans bill.
September 5-8: Left of Second International meet at Zimmerwald, Switzerland, in anti-war conference.
March 8 (February 23 in the old style): The Russian Revolution starts.
April 6-8: USPD formed.
November 7 (October 25): The Bolshevik-led Russian Revolution overturns Provisional Government.
December 22: Start of peace negotiations between Russia and Germany at Brest Litovsk.
January 14: Mass strikes in Austria-Hungary.
January 28: Revolution in Finland - workers' government installed.
January 28: Strikes break out of over one million in Berlin and over 50 other cities.
October 3-4: Prince Max of Baden appointed Chancellor; SPD leaders join the government.
October 16: 5000 join Berlin demonstration of USPD in Berlin to demand overthrow of government.
October 27-8: Naval mutinies break out in Kiel.
October 30: Social Democrat government formed in Austria after mass demonstrations.
October 31: Start of Hungarian revolution.
November 4: Workers' and Soldiers' Council formed at Kiel.
November 7-8: Revolutionary uprising of workers, sailors and soldiers spreads throughout Germany. Bavarian monarchy overthrown; republic declared in Munich, led by SPD-USPD-Peasants' League coalition.
November 9: Republic declared in Berlin; Ebert becomes Chancellor over SPD-USPD coalition. Rosa Luxemburg released from prison.
November 10: Formation of government of the Council of People's Representatives of three SPD members (Ebert, Scheidemann and Landsberg) and three USPD members (Haase, Dittmann and Barth).
November 11: Armistice signed with Allies. Spartacus League formed.
November 12: Council of People's Representatives announces its intention of 'implementing the socialist programme'. Republic declared in Austria.
November 16: Republic declared in Hungary.
November l9-December 17: Strikes start in Saxony and the Ruhr.
December 6: Right wing putsch in Berlin fails.
December 16-20: First national Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Councils in Berlin decides to call elections for a National Assembly on 19 January 1919 and also calls for immediate socialisation measures.
December 29: Founding congress of KPD opens. USPD members leave the Council of People's Representatives.
December (late): Freikorps troops move into Berlin; increasing clashes with workers.
January 4: Prussian SPD government fires police chief Eichorn, provoking fighting.
January 5: Revolutionary Committee in Berlin; 'Spartacist Uprising'.
January 8: Noske's troops attack workers' positions.
January 12: Last resistance of Berlin workers crushed hy Noske's troops.
January 15: Liebknecht and Luxemburg murdered by Freikorps.
January 19: Elections for National Assembly. KPD boycott; SPD/USPD get 45% of vote.
February 6: National Assembly meets at Weimar.
February 11: Ebert elected President of the Republic.
February 13: Scheidemann forms first Weimar coalition government of SPS, DDP (German Democratic Party) and the Centre Party (Catholics).
February 21: USPD prime minister of Bavaria, Eisner, assassinated by monarchist.
March 2-6: Founding Congress of Communist International.
April 7: Bavarian Soviet Republic delared in Munich; eventually crushed (May 1) by Reichswehr and Bavarian Freikorps.
April 8-14: Second national Congress of Workers', Peasants' and Soldiers' Councils meets; supports a bourgeois parliamentary republic.
June 28: Treaty of Versailles.
February 24: NSDAP programme announced by Hitler.
March 13-17: Kapp-Luettwitz putsch; Ebert and ministers flee.
March 24: Noske and army chief Reinhardt resign.
June 6: Reichstag elections. SPD vote drops from 37.9% to 21.6%, USPD rises from 7.6% to 18%. KPD gets 2%.
July: Second Congress of Communist International.
October: Halle Congress of USPD; majority agrees to join with KPD as part of Communist International.
March 27: 'March Action' called by KPD.
July 26-9: Hitler becomes leader of Nazis.
January 10: Germany defaults on reparations.
January 11-12: French and Belgian armies occupy the Ruhr. Government urges 'passive resistance'.
September: Hyper-inflation reaches peak. Mass strikes.
September 26: State of Emergency in Bavaria.
September 27: State of Emergency throughout Germany declared by Ebert.
October 23: Abortive Hamburg rising.
October 29: Suppression of Socialist/Communist governments in Saxony ancl Thuringia.
November 2: SPD ministers resign.
November 8-9: Hitler's Munich putsch.
May 4: Second Reichstag elections.
December 7: Third Reichstag elections.
February 28: Ebert dies.
April 27: Hindenburg elected President.
May 20: Fourth Reichstag elections; Nazis only get 12 seats out of 474; SDP and KPD get 42% of vote.
September 14: Fifth Reichstag elections; Nazis get 107 seats, SPD 143, KPD 77.
July: Financial crisis.
April 20: Hindenburg re-elected President.
April 13: SA and Nazi para-military groups suppressed.
May 30: Von Papen appointed Chancellor.
June 17: SA ban lifted.
July 20: Von Papen deposes Prussian government.
July 31:Sixth Reichstag elections; Nazis get 230 seats, SPD 133, KPD 89.
November 6: Seventh Reichstag elections; Nazis get 196 seats (33%), SPD/KPD 221 (37%).
November 17: Von Papen resigns.
January 30: Hitler appointed Chancellor.
February 27: Reichstag fire.
February 28: Mass arrests of KPD members and occupation of KPD premises.
March 5: Eighth Reichstag elections; Nazis get 288 seats, SPD/KPD 201.
March 6: KPD banned.
March 23: Enabling Act passed through Reichstag giving Hitler dictatorial powers.
SPD - Social Democratic Party of Germany. Founded in 1875 following merger of Marxist and Lassallean parties - adopted this name in 1891. Was seen as leading Marxist party in Second International, with over one million members in 1914. Became Marxist in words, but reformist in deeds; support fell to 250,000 in 1918, but rose again to one million in 1919.
USPD - Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (or Independents). Formed in April 1917 by opposition expelled from SPD. Participated in provisional government November-December 1918. 120,000 members in 1917; 750,000 in 1919. Majority joined KPD (see below) in 1920; minority rejoined SPD in 1922.
KPD - Founded 1918 by Spartacus League (see below) and the International Communists. Merged, with membership of 78,000, with the majority of USPD in 1920 to form United Communist Party (VKPD - later just KPD).
KAPD - Formed in 1920 by ultra-left split from KPD. It split and disappeared rapidly. The policies of some of its leaders were criticised by Lenin in Left-Wing Communism.
Spartacus laague - Grew from a revolutionary tendency in SPD in 1914 opposed to the war. Known as the Internationale Group from 1916; then as the Spartacus group (from the name of the leader of the most famous slave rebellion against Rome). With members that included Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, Franz Mehring, and Leo Jogisches, they left the SPD, joining the USPD in 1917, and forming the Spartacus League as a public faction of the USPD in November 1918; they split from the USPD and formed the KPD in December 1918.
NSDAP - The National Socialist German Workers' Party - the Nazis. Formed in February 1920, on basis of 25 point programme drawn up by Hitler, out of pro-war German Workers' Party.
Second International - Also known as the Socialist International, was set up in Paris in 1889 following the collapse of the First International - the International Workingmen's Association - in 1876. It came to include parties that claimed to he 'Marxist', such as the SPD, and others such as the British Labour Party.
Third International - The Communist International (Comintern). The First World War put to the test the statements of the Second International about the international solidarity of the working class and their anti-war resolutions. Virtually every section - the most notable exception being the Russian - turned to support their own ruling class in the war effort. This split the International in nearly every country; the Russian Revolution gave impetus to the creation of a new International based on those groups who had stood out against the tide of chauvinism, and the Third (Communist) International was set up in 1919. At first the leading body of world socialism, it degenerated under Stalin, becoming a tool of the Russian bureaucracy, until ignominiously wound up in 1943.
SA - Sturmabteilung - the Stormtroopers, or Brownshirts. Set up in 1921 by Hitler as a paramilitary force, involved in street fighting and 'protecting' meetings. A force many thousands strong, they came to represent a threat to Hitler; many members wanted the 'second revolution' (the 'social' revolution after the 'national' one), and a journal known as Red SA circulated. The SA's own leadership and independence were finally liquidated by, Hitler and the SS on 30 June 1934, the 'Night of the Long Knives'.
SS - Schutzstaffel - the Blackshirts. Originally set up as a personal bodyguard for Hitler, was reorganised in 1929, later controlling the Gestapo (the Secret Police) and the concentration camps through its Death's Head units.
Freikorps - Set up by the old Army Command and paid by the government War Ministry, they were used by the Social Democrat Noske in 1919 to crush the revolution; they were right-wing mercenaries, led by Imperial officers. The Freikorps murdered Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Hitler took the Swastika from their insignia, and the SS the Death's Head.
Reichswehr - The regular army of Weimar Germany, made up of old units and the Freikorps, later to become the Wehrmacht.
Reichsbanner - Para-military wing of the SPD, set up in 1924, with over one million members by 1925. They could have provided a powerful force against Nazism, but the cowardice of the SPD leadership left them impotent.
Proletarian Hundreds - Workers' self-defence organisations set up in 1923.
Rote Fahne - The central paper of the Spartacus League, and then of the Communist Party.
Vorwaerts - Central paper of the SPD.
Eduard Bernstein - 1850-1932. Member of the SPD, first theorist of reformism within the Second International, in Evolutionary Socialism ; opposed war from a pacifist standpoint, but opposed to revolution. Briefly in USPD.
Heinrich Brandler - 1881-1967. SPD member from 1901, became leading member of Spartacists and, as chairman, of the KPD between 1921-4, where he stood on the right of the party. Expelled from KPD in 1929 as a supporter of Bukharin, after which he organised his own group, the KPO.
Hugo Eberlein - 1887-1944. joined SPD in 1906; opposed war in 1914. Member of Spartacus and KPD central committees. Was a delegate to First Congress of Third International, and played a leading role in the Comintern as a supporter of Brandler. He was exiled after 1933 to the USSR, where he was arrested by the GPU during Moscow purge trials. He was supposed to have been handed over to Hitler by Stalin in 1940, but died in prison.
Friedrich Ebert - 1871-1925. SPD leader, collaborator of Bebel. Supported chauvinist position during war; Imperial Chancellor in 1918; chairman of Council of People's Representatives November-December 1918-19; worked with army to crush January rising; president of Germany 1919-25.
Emil Eichorn - 1863-1925. Ex-glassworker, worked for SPD from 1893, heading press bureau 1908-17; member USPD 1917-20. His dismissal as chief of Berlin police - he had taken over control in 1918 - in 1919 provoked January uprising. Joined KPD in 1920, died 1925.
Kurt Eisner - 1867-1919. Editor of SPD paper Vorwaerts 1900-1906. At first supported war, but moved into pacifist opposition. Founded Munich USPD. Imprisoned January 1918; led November 1918 revolution in Bavaria, and made prime minister. Assassinated by monarchist February 1919.
Ruth Fischer - 1895-1961. Joined Austrian Social Democrats aged 19; first member Austrian CP, 1918. After moving to Berlin, led ultra-left opposition. Head of KPD 1924-5, expelled 1926, when she formed the Leninbund. Later became anti-communist.
Paul Froelich - 1894-1953. joined SPD aged 18; on extreme left of party; supporter of Lenin's position at Kienthal conference 1916; elected to KPD central committee at founding congress; active in Bavarian revolution. Expelled from KPD as a 'rightist' in 1928, he joined Brandier's KPO (the right opposition Communist Party Opposition), then of centrist SAP (Socialist Workers' Party). After nine months in a concentration camp in 1933, went into exile; returned to West Germany and rejoined SPD in 1950.
Hugo Haase - 1863-1919. SPD member of Reichstag 1897; co-chair of SPD 1911-16; opposed voting for war credits in 1914 but did so under discipline of parliamentary group; voted against war credits 1916; co-chair of USPD 1917. A member of Council of People's Representatives November-December 1918, he - was assassinated by a monarchist in 1919.
Adolf Hitler - 1889-1945. Leader of NSDAP, the Nazis.
Max Hoelz - 1889-1933. Ex-metal worker, joined USPD 1918 and KPD 1919; organised armed guerrilla action against Kapp putsch. Sentenced to life imprisonment for organising fighting in Central Germany during March Action, he was released in 1928, went to Moscow and died in an accident in 1933.
Leo Jogiches - 1867-1919. Active in revolutionary movement from early youth; close collaborator of Luxemburg; founder of Polish revolutionary Social Democracy, and active in 1905 Polish revolution; escaped to Germany 1907; organiser of Spartacus group during war. A member of the KPD central committee, he opposed the January 1919 uprising, and was arrested and murdered by the Freikorps in March 1919.
Wolfgang Kapp - 1858-1922. Founder of extreme right wing German Fatherland Party in 1917, led 1920 putsch attempt to re-establish monarchy and military dictatorship.
Karl Kautsky - 1854-1938. Collaborator of Engels; founder and editor of Die Neue Zeit. Regarded as chief theoretician of Marxism until 1914, when he adopted pacifist stand, apologising for majority. Founder of USPD; supporter of right wing, and opposed socialist revolution in Germany; rejoined SPD 1922.
Bela Kun - 1886-1939. Joined Hungarian Social Democrats aged 16; joined Bolsheviks while prisoner of war in Russia; founded Hungarian CP 1918; head of Hungarian Soviet government March-June 1919. In exile in Russia, became Red Army commissar; supporter of ultra-left group, he was sent to Germany 1921 and inspired March Action. Worked in Comintern apparatus until 1937; arrested and killed without trial during Moscow frame-ups.
Paul Levi - 1883-1930. Member of SPD from 1906; revolutionary opponent of war; worked with Lenin in Switzerland during war; member of Spartacus League and KPD central committee, central leader after Jogiches's murder in 1919. Opposed ultra-left 1919, president of VKPD 1920; he resigned in 1921 and was expelled for publicly denouncing the March Action in 1921. Joined USPD 1922, then SPD, where he organised a left opposition until his death.
Eugen Leviné - 1883-1919. Took part in 1905 Russian revolution as Social Revolutionary. Joined SPD, then USPD, then Spartacus League during war; leader of KPD. Reorganised Bavarian CP 1919; leader of second Bavarian council republic. Executed by Social Democratic government after its overthrow.
Karl Liebknecht - 1871-1919. Son of SPD founder Wilheim, joined party 1900. Set up Socialist Youth International 1907, and jailed in the same year for writing Militarism and Anti-Militarism. Reichstag deputy from 1912, first member to vote against war credits in December 1914. Founded Spartacists; jailed 1916 for anti-war agitation. Amnestied in 1918, he took part in preparations for November actions and led the Revolutionary Committee during Berlin January uprising. A leader of the KPD, he was murdered by the Freikorps in 1919.
Rosa Luxemburg - 1871-1919. Joined movement in Poland in 1887; exiled in 1889; leader of SDKP (Polish Social Democrats); joined SDP in Germany 1898; on Second International bureau from 1903; leader of left wing against revisionist right and, after 1910, against Kautskyist group; leading revolutionary opponent of war; founder of Spartacus group. In prison for most of the war, she became the chief writer for Die Rote Fahne November 1918-January 1919. Founder and leader of the KPD; she opposed the call for the January rising, although this was not reflected in her articles. Her arrest was ordered by the Social Democratic government for her participation in the uprising, and she was brutally murdered by the SDP-instigated Freikorps at the same time as Liebknecht.
Arkadi Maslow - 1893-1941. Russian-born, led ultra-left in KPD with Fischer from 1921. Leader of KPD 1924; imprisoned 1925-6; expelled from party 1926. Co-founder with Fischer of Leninbund; in exile from 1933.
Gustav Noske - 1868-1946. Right wing SPD leader; member of Council of People's Representatives 1918-19; minister of war in Social Democrat governments December 1918-March 1920; organised suppression of January 1919 uprising; resigned after the Kapp putsch and became president of province of Hanover until dismissed by Nazis in 1933; imprisoned twice by the Nazis, once in 1939 and once after Generals' Plot.
Karl Radek - 1885-1939. Active in Polish revolutionary movement from the age of 18; involved in 1905 Polish revolution; in Germany 1908, supported the SPD left. A member of the Zimmerwald Left bureau with Lenin in 1915, he joined the Bolsheviks in 1917, who sent him secretly to Germany in 1918; arrested February 1919 and freed January 1920; supported March Action, and supported calling off of October 1923 insurrection. He played a leading role on the Executive Committee of the Communist International. He became part of Trotsky's opposition to Stalin 1923-29, being expelled from the CP in 1927 and deported to Siberia. He capitulated in 1929 and became a major apologist for Stalin, but was arrested in 1937 during the Moscow frame-up trials and died in prison.
Philipp Scheidemann - 1865-1939. Right-wing SPD member, in Reichstag from 1898. Central leader of party after Bebel's death in 1913; led SPD support for war in 1914, and became co-chair in 1917. He was appointed minister without portfolio by the Kaiser in October 1918, and declared the republic in November of that year. A member of Ebert's Council of People's Representatives, he presided over the suppression of the 1918-19 revolution, becoming Chancellor in 1919. He was forced into exile by the Nazis in 1933.
Ernst Thaelmann - 1886-1944. SPD member from 1903, he led the USPD left in Hamburg 1918-1920. Joined VKPD 1920 and mobilised unemployed during March Action of 1921; played an important role during Hamburg rising of 1923. He led KPD after the removal of Fischer and Maslow in 1925 with the support of Stalin, being arrested March 1933 and executed by the Nazis in 1944 at Buchenwald.
Otto Wels - 1879-1939. Right wing SPD member; military commander of Berlin, responsible for crushing of left in January-March 1919. He led the opposition to Hitler in the Reichstag in 1933, calling for 'lawful non-violent opposition'; exiled in Paris from 1933.