A History of the German Republic, Arthur Rosenberg 1936

Chapter III: Spartacus and Noske

A general meeting of the Spartacus Union was held in Berlin on 30 December, to make an official announcement on the subject of the split between the Spartacists and the USPD. A new party was constituted under the name ‘The German Communist Party’ (KPD) by the Spartacus Union. At Lenin’s instigation the Russian Bolshevists had dropped the term Social Democracy, since it was considered to have been compromised by reformist activities. Instead, Lenin gave his party the name of Communists, for so Marx and Engels had called themselves at the time of the revolution of 1848. The change of name of the Spartacus Union signifies an external approximation to the victorious party of the Russian Revolution, but in point of fact there remained great differences between Russian and German Communists.

The meeting adopted a programme drafted by Rosa Luxemburg. The important parts of it read as follows:

The Spartacus Union is not a party that wishes to rule without the assent of the mass of the workers. The Spartacus Union is only that section of the proletariat that is filled with the deepest consciousness of the aims to be pursued. As such it will indicate to the whole broad mass of the working class what is its historic mission, and at every stage of the revolution will uphold the ideal of socialism and support the interests of the proletarian world revolution in all national questions.

The Spartacus Union refuses to share the task of government with the understrappers of the bourgeoisie, with men like Scheidemann or Ebert. It would regard such cooperation as treason to the principles of Socialism, as playing into the hands of counter-revolutionaries, and as paralysing to the revolution.

The Spartacus Union, moreover, refuses to come to power merely because men like Scheidemann and Ebert have failed, and the Independents have arrived at a cul-de-sac by throwing in their lot with such persons.

The Spartacus Union will never assume governmental power except in response to the plain and unmistakable wish of the great majority of the proletarian masses in Germany; and only as a result of the definite agreement of these masses with the views, aims and methods of the Spartacus Union.

The proletarian revolution can only come to full fruition and maturity gradually, step by step, by the long and painful road of bitter experience, by defeats and victory. The victory of the Spartacus Union will not come at the beginning but at the end of the revolution. It is identical with the victory of the vast mass of the socialist proletariat.

Rosa Luxemburg’s programme is a clear denial of utopianism and experimentalism. It abjures any dictatorship of the party in the manner of Bolshevism over the masses of the workers. Rosa Luxemburg did not wish to assume power if chance threw it into her hands, but only if the great majority of the German proletariat agreed unconditionally with the ideals of the Spartacus Union. Rosa Luxemburg was convinced that a socialist republic could only rise in Germany after a long and difficult process of development. In her speech to the party meeting she actually prophesied that the Scheidemann – Ebert government would collapse within a short time under the stress of antagonism, and would be succeeded by a ‘military dictatorship under Hindenburg’.

The majority of the Spartacist delegates at the party meeting adopted Rosa Luxemburg’s programme without giving much thought to its significance. Actually the party meeting was animated by a spirit of fanatical utopianism. In matters of abstract theory the delegates allowed Rosa Luxemburg to say what she liked. But in political practice they went their own independent way. The important question of the moment was the attitude to be adopted to the National Assembly. The Congress of Councils had determined that the elections to the National Assembly should take place on 19 January. Rosa Luxemburg and Liebknecht were convinced that the elections would take place and that by no sort of coup could the National Assembly be prevented from coming into existence. Hence they were in favour of taking part in the elections. Rosa Luxemburg told the infuriated delegates the truth:

Comrades, you are taking your radicalism too easily. However stormily we may press onward, there must be no lack of the necessary reflection and calm thought. We are not going to imitate the Russian example in the matter of this election. When the National Assembly was dispersed there, our Russian comrades had already got the Trotsky – Lenin government. We still have Ebert and Scheidemann. The Russian proletariat had long experience of revolutionary struggles behind them. We are at the beginning of the revolution. We have nothing behind us except the miserable attempt at a revolution of 9 November. So we must ask ourselves what is the surest way of educating the masses.

Karl Liebknecht asked: ‘Were our parliamentary activities in the Reichstag altogether worthless?’ But the delegates, the representatives of the fanatical utopianism of the members, disregarded the authoritative voices of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. They refused by sixty-two votes to twenty-three to take part in the elections to the National Assembly. This was not merely a manifestation of their desire to make a gesture indicative of their rejection of middle-class parliamentarianism. It was also the belief of the delegates, contrary to that of their leaders, that the middle-class republic would be abolished within a few weeks by mass revolutionary action. The decision was indirectly an incitement to rioting and coups d'état. It had nothing in common with Rosa Luxemburg’s programme.

On 30 December, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were faced with the same decision as Dittmann and Haase had been ten days previously – whether they would appear as supporters of the policy which they believed to be the only right one, or whether they would be loyal to an out-of-date party organisation. Marx and Engels never made the smallest concession to any members of the party who chanced to be present. They always steadfastly went their own way. The history of the Communist Union, as well as of the First International, witnesses to the truth of this statement. Lenin would have split his party afresh every week if political necessity had demanded it. The leaders of the German Revolution believed that above all else they must be loyal to their union. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in agreeing with the nonsensical majority decision of the meeting virtually surrendered the leadership of the Communist Party, and sanctioned in anticipation any act that might be perpetrated by some adventurers within the party.

The fateful consequences of the vote were seen at the meeting itself. The decision destroyed the promising negotiations for a fusion of the Spartacus Union with the Obleute. The account of the negotiations given by Karl Liebknecht to the meeting is very curious. Among other things, he told them:

Suddenly Comrade Richard Müller rose and said that first of all the demand must be made that we should give up our tactics of continuous rioting. I replied at once that he seemed to be upholding the Vorwärts; that his remark was the more uncalled for since all the actions that had hitherto been carried out by the Spartacus Union had been actions decided upon and carried out by the Obleute themselves.

In theory Liebknecht acted rightly in repelling Müller’s attack. Up to that time the Spartacus Union had never attempted a coup d'état. It was not responsible for the sanguinary events of 6 December and 23 December, and had in general carried out its demonstrations in agreement with the Obleute. Nevertheless, Müller’s fears were understandable. The Obleute in Berlin had large bodies of workers behind them. These workers regarded with some mistrust the unruly elements who were at that time calling themselves Spartacists in Berlin and throughout the Reich.

The Obleute laid down five conditions for fusion with the Communist Party. First, the Spartacus Union must rescind its decision against taking part in the elections. Second, the committee of the future united party entrusted with the formulation of policy must be constituted equally from both sides. Thirdly, the Spartacus Union and the Obleute jointly should ‘formulate with precision the tactics governing their street demonstrations’. Fourthly, the Obleute demanded a decisive voice in the control of the press and in the propaganda of the Communist Party. And fifthly, the words ‘Spartacus Union’ should not appear in the name of the new party.

Union was impossible on this basis, and the negotiations came to nothing. The two sides were in agreement on matters of principle, but Liebknecht was hampered in his negotiations with the Obleute by the short-sighted resolution passed at the party meeting; and the Obleute feared reckless experiments, not on the part of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht themselves, but on that of their followers, and were anxious to safeguard themselves against them. Däumig, Ledebour and Richard Müller wished to pursue a Communist policy, but they did not wish to be associated with the type of person who was at the time designated ‘Spartacist’ by the general public. Their disapproval went so far that they demanded the erasure of the word ‘Spartacus’ from the name of the party. Thus the two left-wing Socialist Parties in their fortuitous association became involved in domestic quarrels and were quite incapable of action. The course of events in January 1919 can only be understood if it is realised that in fact the leaders of both parties, of the USPD as well as the KPD, were equally powerless.

After the resignation of Dittmann, Haase and Barth, the Reich government stood in need of new men. The Central Council appointed the Majority Socialists Wissell, Noske and Löbe as new Representatives of the People. Löbe refused to act. The other two accepted office. Wissell was one of the ablest economists in the party. Noske had been sent to Kiel at the beginning of the revolution by Prince Max of Baden’s government. There he managed to win the confidence of the revolutionary sailors, and he had guided the movement into orderly channels. His efforts in Kiel had made his name known throughout Germany. The election of Noske was in no sense regarded as a challenge to the revolutionary working class.

The resignation of the Independents from the Reich government was followed by that of the Independent ministers in Prussia and in the other federal states. The Majority Socialists remained in power everywhere, either alone or else in alliance with the middle-class democratic parties. The sole exception was the Bavarian Prime Minister, Kurt Eisner. He was indeed a member of the USPD, but pursued an entirely independent policy and did not let himself be influenced by the vacillations of the Independent party leaders. From the end of that year the course of Bavarian policy lay along lines different from those followed by the rest of the Reich. The Bavarian socialist working class endeavoured to preserve its unity. At first under the leadership of Eisner, and after his death still in his sense, they sought to pursue a democratic and socialist policy until the proclamation of the Bavarian Soviet Republic in April caused the destruction of their hopes and endeavours.

The withdrawal of the Independents was followed by the dismissal, with a few exceptions, of all the higher civil servants who were USPD members. The most important exception was Eichhorn, the Berlin Chief of Police. He refused to resign. Indeed, he was determined to remain at his post in all circumstances and at no matter what risk. Politically this attitude of Eichhorn’s is quite incomprehensible. He was a radical Independent whose views approximated to those of the Obleute. The Chief of the Berlin Police was probably the most important executive organ of the Prussian government. It was really Eichhorn’s political friends who had refused to cooperate with the Majority Socialists in the government. The Obleute had from the very beginning called for consistent and uncompromising opposition. They looked upon it as treachery for socialists to work with Scheidemann’s followers. If, however, Eichhorn remained as Chief of Police, he would be obliged to carry out the orders of the Majority Socialist Minister for the Interior, and might even in certain circumstances be obliged to order his men to fire on members of his own party. Eichhorn was the very man who should have handed in his resignation with particular firmness and with all speed towards the end of the year. Nevertheless, he determined to remain, not in order to serve the Majority Socialist Ministers, but in conflict with them. Eichhorn regarded his position as head of the Berlin police as a stronghold of the revolutionary proletariat that must not be surrendered. From this point of view the posts of the Independents in the Council of the Representatives of the People were to an even greater extent strongholds of the revolutionary working class, and Dittmann and Haase should in no circumstances have resigned from the government.

Eichhorn’s retention of his post was justifiable neither logically nor politically. It was afterwards sought to excuse it by saying that in every democracy the police must be a communal concern. Hence the Chief of the Berlin Police should not be responsible to the government, but only to the communal head of the Berlin working class – the Executive Committee. This theory of a communal police is tenable as an ideal, but at a time of revolution the chief of police in the capital can only be conceived as a government organ. The Prussian government, which was in the hands of the Majority Socialists, refused to tolerate its demonstrative opponent in the Berlin Police Headquarters. On 4 January 1919, the Prussian Minister for the Interior dismissed Eichhorn in due constitutional form. But Eichhorn refused to relinquish his post, and from that refusal originated struggles of historic significance.

Only in the German Revolution, with the hopeless political confusion and backwardness then prevailing, with the lack of political clear-sightedness of almost all the persons and movements composing it, was it possible for grave crises to arise out of incidents like the eighty thousand marks demanded by the sailors, and out of the moods of a single individual named Emil Eichhorn.

When Berlin heard of the dismissal of Eichhorn, the greatest indignation was shown by the revolutionary workers. A new dictatorial blow against the opposition was imputed to the Ebert – Scheidemann government. Negotiations at once began between the leading groups among the socialist opposition in Berlin. Among these were now not only the Obleute and the Spartacus Union, but also the official USPD. A general call to action was resolved upon and was published in Berlin on the morning of 5 January. The proclamation said amongst other things:

Workers! Comrades! The Ebert government with its accomplices in the Prussian Ministry is seeking to uphold its power with the bayonet, and to secure for itself the favour of the capitalist bourgeoisie whose interests it has always secretly supported. The blow that has fallen upon the Chief of the Berlin Police was in reality aimed at the whole German proletariat, at the whole German Revolution. Workers! Comrades! That cannot, must not, be borne! Up, therefore, to a mighty demonstration! Show the oppressors your power today, prove to them that the revolutionary spirit of the November days is not yet dead in you. Meet today, Sunday, at two o'clock in the Siegesallee to form a great mass demonstration! Come in your thousands! Your freedom, your future, the fate of the revolution are at stake. Down with the tyranny of Ebert and Scheidemann, of Hirsch and Ernst! Long live revolutionary international Socialism! [1]

A learned thesis might be devoted to the discussion of whether this proclamation was intended as an incitement to armed rioting. If the words of the proclamation are taken quite literally, it only exhorts the Berlin workers to mass demonstrations. But ignorant workers might equally well regard it as a call to overthrow the rule of Ebert and Scheidemann by force.

The workers answered the summons in their thousands. The masses surged from the Siegesallee to the Alexander Square, where Eichhorn addressed the populace from a balcony of the police headquarters. A few Spartacist storm troops occupied the buildings of the Vorwärts, and in order to do the work thoroughly this time, other bodies of men seized the offices of the publishing houses of Mosse, Scherl and Ullstein in the inner city. The whole of Berlin believed that a second revolution had begun. The revolutionary demonstrators, many of whom were armed, occupied the streets, and the government did not appear to be taking any counter-action. On 6 January there was another gigantic demonstration of revolutionary workers in the Siegesallee, which had again been arranged by the three allied organisations. It was assumed that the three organisations would now jointly form a red government and carry through the revolution to an end.

Then it appeared that nobody really wanted a revolution, and that there were obviously misunderstandings on all sides. The USPD had not intended a rising and had made no preparations. What was still more surprising was that even the majority of the Obleute and their followers assumed a perfectly peaceful demeanour. Däumig and Richard Müller did not wish for an armed struggle, and it was due to their influence that the mass of revolutionary workers from the heavy industries in Berlin refrained from any rioting. The only men who were really determined to fight were the small number of Eichhorn’s personal followers whom he had collected in the police headquarters, a few thousand radical-utopian Spartacists who had fortified themselves in the newspaper offices, and, finally, a small section of the Obleute with their personal following under the leadership of Ledebour and Scholze. In general, the troops in Berlin were neutral or were in favour of the government. Even the People’s Naval Division suddenly discovered a loyalty to their oath and proclaimed their neutrality.

By the evening of 6 January it was obvious that the revolutionary action that had been begun with such passionate enthusiasm was a miserable failure. Rosa Luxemburg realised the folly of the undertaking. The Spartacus Union had taken no initiative in an action started solely in the interest of a member of the USPD – Eichhorn. But if the USPD and the Obleute went forward, the Communists could not lag behind. When others fell away, Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg felt it to be their duty to remain with the struggling workers. Both sacrificed their lives for an action, the uselessness of which was recognised by each of them.

The rest of the leaders and workers who were in favour of actual fighting formed a revolutionary committee headed by Liebknecht, Ledebour and Scholze. This might be called the Revolutionary Government in opposition to Ebert and Scheidemann. Nevertheless, even in Greater Berlin, it was only acknowledged by a small number of persons, and had no influence at all in the Reich.

This course of events was the worst that could possibly happen to the revolutionary socialists. They should have known exactly what they were aiming at on 4 and 5 January. Two courses were open to them. First: if the moment to strike had not yet come, they should have remained on the defensive, opposed the government only by means of agitation, and have warned the masses against making any unconsidered move. If utopian bands had nevertheless resorted to direct action on their own initiative, all responsibility for their actions might have been disclaimed with a clear conscience. Second: if the decision to fight had to be taken, it should have been carried out with the greatest possible energy and with every possible means. A serious, well-planned revolt would in any event have been better than a wretched disintegration of the movement. At that time many Berlin workers still possessed arms or were able to procure rifles. If the USPD leaders together with the Obleute had called the Berlin working classes to arms in order to save the revolution, many thousands of Berlin workers would have answered the call. Power could easily have been seized in Berlin on 5 and 6 January. A new government should then have been formed of trustworthy persons on as wide a basis as possible, and communications should have been established with Eisner in Munich, with Leipzig, Halle, Bremen, the Ruhr, etc. Whether the radical socialists could have captured the Reich even on those conditions is doubtful. But at least it would have been reasonable revolutionary policy.

Instead, the few thousand utopian fighters were deserted after having been misled by the ambiguous wording of the proclamation. The rising was obviously a failure, and all the organisations which had been involved in provoking the demonstration on 5 January could only be regarded as politically vanquished, the USPD and the Obleute no less than the Communists.

The leaders of the Spartacus Union sacrificed themselves for the sake of the wrecked movement. [2] The Obleute did nothing in those critical days. Finally, the USPD sought to save what was still possible to save, and offered the fighting units its services as intermediary. The government was glad to agree to mediation, but very naturally made it a preliminary condition that the occupied newspaper offices, and especially that of the Vorwärts, must first be evacuated. Meanwhile, it became obvious that no power on earth would remove the occupiers from the offices of the Vorwärts or any of the other newspaper buildings by peaceful means. Hence the attempted mediation failed. The occupation of the newspaper buildings on 5 January was an utterly senseless proceeding. Either the revolutionaries held the power in Berlin or they did not. If they did hold it, they should first and foremost have occupied the government offices in the Wilhelmstrasse, and then any inconvenient newspapers could have been suppressed by a single decree. But if they were not rulers of Berlin there was no sense in occupying the Vorwärts building. However, as has been shown above, the Vorwärts building had for the radical-utopian workers the value of a political symbol. That symbol had now been seized for the second time, and this time it would not be surrendered again. It was due to the utopian fanaticism of the Spartacist garrison that the struggle was carried on à outrance.

The Government of the People’s Representatives, which on 5 January had been practically helpless in Berlin, now decided hastily to organise a well-equipped guard. The representative Noske was made Commander-in-Chief of the government troops which were about to be raised, and which were to suppress the Berlin rising. When Noske was given his commission, he said he would have to be a bloodhound and that he accepted the responsibility. It was not to be expected that a government supported by the confidence of the great majority of the nation should capitulate before a few thousand armed men. It was impossible to avoid using force against the utopians. Noske’s fault does not lie in the fact that he accepted the responsibility for suppressing the rising. His mistakes in January and in the following months were not moral but political. The doom of the German republic was not sealed by Noske’s use of force, but by the kind of troops he used to apply that force.

The units which placed themselves at the disposal of the government during the week following 6 January were divided into two camps, which may be shortly designated as the democratic and the counter-revolutionary camps. The experience of the past weeks had brought it home to many workers and officials of the Majority Socialist Party that they could not hope to achieve anything without armed forces. A number of Free Corps were therefore formed in Berlin that were composed almost exclusively of Majority Socialist workmen. Kuttner, a member of the editorial staff of the Vorwärts, was especially active in the organisation of these troops. The Socialist volunteers were divided into three regiments which now took up the fight against the Spartacists. In addition, it was found possible to rouse for active service a part at least of the former Imperial troops quartered in barracks. These troops were also democratic and Majority Socialist.

Noske, however, did not rely so much upon these democratic units as upon others which were formed in the neighbourhood of Berlin by officers of the former Imperial Army. [3] The High Command and the generals had from the very beginning longed for a situation to arise in which they might at Ebert’s command shoot down the extremist workers. The first attempt of this description had been undertaken at Christmas against the sailors in Berlin. It had failed. Now the experiment was repeated on a larger scale and with more forcible measures. Supported by the means and the authority of the republican government, a number of former Imperial officers began to collect volunteers. They established Free Corps, which were to render unconditional obedience to their officers, and whose views were to be determined by the officers. These volunteers were recruited from among the unemployed and from young men eager for fighting and adventure. They felt themselves to be the heirs of the pre-revolutionary army and soon developed a strong esprit de corps. The officers of the Free Corps were imbued with a passionate hatred of the revolution which had destroyed the Imperial Army and the Empire. Even though they were obliged for the time being to serve the Majority Socialists, they were all the more pleased to settle accounts with Spartacism. Under this heading were comprised all extremist and revolutionary elements. Law and order must first be re-established in Germany by stamping out Spartacism, and then progress could be made.

Fighting between the government forces and the rioters in Berlin lasted until 12 January. The government troops recaptured one after another all the newspaper buildings occupied by the rebels and also the police headquarters. Their military task was not a hard one, since the mass of the Berlin workers did not take part in the fighting, and the ‘enemy’ consisted of no more than a few thousand rebels, who were badly led and spread over a number of buildings. If the individual actions of Berlin’s week of rioting are examined, it is found that the main work was done by the democratic government troops. They could undoubtedly have suppressed the rebellion without the help of the Free Corps.

This was the fatal mistake made by Noske, Ebert and Scheidemann. In the first place they should have put their faith in the socialist troops which were in process of formation in Berlin. Similar units might have been formed in Breslau, Magdeburg, Hanover, Hamburg, etc, composed of workmen loyal to the government. The government could have held its own with ten thousand reliable republican and democratically-minded volunteers in Berlin, and fifty thousand throughout the Reich, and would not have found it necessary to place itself in the power of militarist counter-revolutionaries. Immediately after the end of a war in which millions of socialist workmen had borne arms, it would certainly have been possible, with a little goodwill and a certain amount of energy, to raise a republican guard. But the Majority Socialist government had not the confidence to embark upon a military task of this kind. They believed in the promises made by the officers and thought that only troops of the old type could be really useful. Even after 13 January it would still have been possible to raise a democratic army in Germany. Only a few weeks later, it was clear that matters were taking quite a different trend. The officers of the old army were continually raising further Free Corps, the nuclei of the democratic forces were left to atrophy, and very soon the German republic had a counter-revolutionary army, led by former Imperial officers.

The fighting in January 1919 proved to be the turn of the tide of the German Revolution. It was then that the offensive force of the revolutionary working class was broken. The advantages accruing to the Majority Socialists from this victory were only apparent. In reality it was a victory for the officers and through them for the middle classes. A clever critic has described the events of January as the Battle of the Marne of the German Revolution. Just as the great offensive of the German army came to a standstill at the Marne, and the decision which was taken in September 1914 could not subsequently be reversed, so it happened with the German Revolution after January 1919. The turn which events took then proved decisive, nor could all subsequent efforts avail to alter the result.

What the German republic might expect of its soldiers was shown immediately after the quelling of the January rising by the murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Of the leaders of the rising, Eichhorn and Scholze had managed to leave Berlin. Ledebour was arrested. He was later brought to trial, made a brilliant defence, and thus fought his way to freedom. Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg could easily have left Berlin and found an asylum somewhere in the Reich. But a mistaken sense of honour would not let them ‘desert’. Hence they remained in Berlin despite the fact that the hatred of the middle class and of the officers was concentrated upon the two Spartacist ‘ringleaders’.

The great revolutionaries of the past realised what their persons meant in the movement. They never minded leaving their own country if it was necessary in the interests of the cause. Marx and Engels went to England in 1849 with a perfectly clear conscience, and it never occurred to them to submit themselves to the justice of the counter-revolution. Lenin left Petrograd in the summer of 1917 in order to escape persecution by the Kerensky government. He vanished into the underworld of Finland and did not return until he could reappear without danger. Rosa Luxemburg was a woman of genius, possessed of the finest intellect in the German labour movement, but there were in her remnants of a lower middle-class ‘decency’. This is the only possible explanation for her acquiescence in the majority vote at the party meeting, her participation in the mad January rising (which again was caused by her desire to be loyal to her union), and, finally, her refusal to fly – a refusal for which she paid with her life.

On 15 January, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were arrested and treacherously murdered by officers of the Free Corps. No doubt the murderers believed that they were doing their country a service by killing the Spartacist leaders. The government of the republic, however, was sufficiently short-sighted to permit the revival not only of the old army, but also of the old military tribunals. Thus the trial of the guilty officers was conducted by their own comrades, and they were sentenced by their comrades. The verdicts were as might be expected. Some of the accused were acquitted, and those who were condemned were aided to escape.

The death of Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg was a very heavy loss to the socialist labour movement. Both were upholders of a deliberately reasoned and scientific socialism that took into account actual conditions. If they had lived longer they would certainly have brought about the separation of their own party from the utopians, and they would have been the most suitable leaders of a truly socialist mass movement of the German proletariat. Above all, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht as leaders of the KPD would never have permitted themselves to be used as the tools of Russian state policy. They would have possessed sufficient authority to reject the so-called ‘Leninism’ after 1921. The fateful tendency that caused the German radical socialist movement to become the slave of a Russian peasant policy, and to be paralysed by it, might perhaps have been avoided if Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg had lived longer.

There is not a shred of evidence to prove that the Majority Socialist Representatives of the People desired or agreed to the murder of Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. On the contrary, it was a terrible blow to the government of the republic. The moral support which the suppression of the rising had brought the government was destroyed by it. The mass of the German workers realised with horror the kind of troops Ebert and Noske had raised for the protection of the republic. The indignation of a large section of the German working class with the Majority Socialist Party really dates from 15 January 1919. Although the occurrence was too recent to have much effect upon the elections for the National Assembly on 19 January, it was nevertheless a potent factor in causing millions of workers to turn their backs on the SPD. The fact that the government lacked the power to prosecute the culprits itself, and allowed their trial by a court-martial, made a calamitous impression upon the proletariat.

After law and order had been re-established by the suppression of the rising in Berlin, similar revolts took place in other parts of the Reich. During the first half of 1919, government troops were sent on punitive expeditions to Bremen and Hamburg, to Leipzig, Halle and the central German mining districts, to Brunswick, to Thuringia, and on several occasions to the Ruhr. In addition, there were numbers of small local skirmishes and clashes. It would be a lengthy and wearisome task to inquire into the rights of each individual case. Only the political significance of the situation as a whole is of historical importance.

It is necessary to emphasise the undoubted truth that the government, and Noske in particular, never sent out the troops without definite reason. The occasion for intervention by the government troops was generally provided by local unrest or left-wing revolts. Nevertheless there was a very definite purpose behind the fact that the government forces went in turn to all parts of Germany where the councils still exercised any considerable local power. The middle classes and the members of the Majority Socialist Government were of opinion that the councils had become superfluous since the elections for the National Assembly, and that normal administrations on the old pattern should be reintroduced everywhere.

In those districts where the councils were able to continue their work, and did not yield place to bureaucracy, clashes and disorder naturally occurred. In towns where the workmen’s councils were still in power, their authority was as a rule not extensive. After the demobilisation of the old army, and the consequent disappearance of the soldier’s councils, the workmen’s councils had no proper troops at their disposal. Hemmed in on the one side by middle-class bureaucratic opposition, and on the other by utopian forward movements, they could not develop much real strength. Any government that had understood the meaning of the new popular democracy would have done all it could to strengthen the councils and to teach them the use of their executive functions. But Ebert and Noske, in agreement with the middle classes and the generals, regarded the governmental activities of the workmen’s councils only as sedition and disorder, especially when strikes, demonstrations or occasional attempts at a coup d'état took place. The resistance shown to the government forces on these expeditions was nowhere great. Nevertheless almost every intervention on the part of these troops cost the lives of some workers. From every place occupied by them came complaints of misdemeanour by the troops. Cases occurred where workmen – even perfectly innocent men – were mishandled or shot. Martial law was proclaimed in specially disturbed areas, and the freedom of the press and the right to hold meetings was curtailed. Anyone suspected of opposition tendencies might be taken into protective custody; arrested persons were mishandled in prison; and numerous cases of prisoners ‘shot during attempted flight’ occurred.

These local encounters and affrays were particularly violent towards the end of February and the beginning of March 1919. A general meeting of the Berlin workmen’s councils in March decided upon a general strike as a demonstration against the government. The political aim of this, as of similar actions, was the carrying out of nationalisation which had come to a total standstill, and the disbandment of the volunteer troops. The People’s Naval Division still existed in Berlin. But it now feared that it would be disbanded by the High Command of the newly-constituted army. Hence the greater number of the sailors took advantage of the general strike to attempt a revolt against the government. Few of the Berlin workmen, however, joined in the rising. The strike leaders were the old members of the Obleute (Däumig, Richard Müller). They had no connexion with the rising. The government forces, which were numerically much stronger, were able without much difficulty to crush the sailors. At the beginning of the rising, wild rumours regarding alleged acts of violence by the rioters spread through Berlin and caused Noske to allow himself to be persuaded to publish a fateful decree. He ordered that every rioter found with a weapon in his hand should be shot. Noske intended that this decree should act as a deterrent and that thereby the disorders should be brought to a swift conclusion. But he should have known the temper of his volunteers better, and should have realised what might be the consequences of permitting them to execute men freely. The suppression of the rising in Berlin was accompanied by mass executions. Numbers of people were killed who had nothing to do with the riots. The worst case of this kind is connected with the name of a Lieutenant Marloh of the government troops. A group of thirty members of the People’s Naval Division, who had taken no part in the rising, came peacefully to collect their pay. Marloh arrested the sailors and shot every one of them.

The political result of the civil war that was waged during the first half of 1919 in Noske’s name was the total destruction of the political power of the councils. Any workmen’s councils that continued in existence were absolutely devoid of influence. Thus the attempt to found a democracy to succeed to the revolution was an utter failure. As a result, the disarmament of the working class was carried out systematically and with the greatest thoroughness by the officers. On the other hand, the volunteer army under the command of former professional officers grew more and more extensive. By the middle of the year the real power in Germany lay with the Free Corps and not with the National Assembly. Hand in hand with it went the systematic armament of the propertied middle class, of estate owners, students and so forth, who enlisted in temporary volunteer regiments and civil defence leagues. This whole vast extension of the – if not monarchist, at least middle-class capitalistic – counter-revolution was carried on under the slogan: ‘For Law and Order against Spartacus.’ The Majority Socialist Ministers either could not, or would not, see the peril. The Prussian Minister, Wolfgang Heine, vied in his blindness to existing facts with Ebert and Noske.

The German working class saw in this development the victory of the counter-revolution. It seemed to the workmen that the revolution had been useless, and that they had once more fallen into the hands of the officers and capitalists with still less guarantee of their own rights than they had enjoyed in Imperial days and even during the war. During the year following the election of the National Assembly, Majority Socialism lost about one-half of its followers. Thanks to Noske’s policy the USPD experienced a mighty revival. Those workers who indignantly turned their backs on Social Democracy either wanted to have nothing more to do with politics or they joined the Independent Party. This renaissance of the USPD in 1919 was completely artificial. For the party was a chance product, convulsed with the severest internal strife and, in truth, long since ready for dissolution. Now, however, indignation against Ebert, Scheidemann and Noske gave the USPD an artificial unity. The Berlin paper Freiheit, brilliantly edited by Hilferding, with its outspoken criticism of the government and of Majority Socialism, became the mouthpiece of an increasingly large section of the German socialist working class.

After the fighting in January 1919, the Communist Party had been driven into illegal existence almost everywhere in Germany. The intellectual leadership of the party after Rosa Luxemburg’s death was taken over by Paul Levi, who was soon involved in violent conflict with the utopian wing. The authority of the party leadership over the membership was slight. The leaders of the KPD were not implicated in local actions and attempted coups by groups of extremists. Curiously enough, the KPD gained nothing from the radicalisation of wide sections of the working classes in 1919. While the USPD grew more powerful, the influence of the Communists did not spread among the working classes. This was partly due to the prevalent mistrust not only among the middle classes, but also among the greater part of the German proletariat, of the unreliable Spartacists. Paul Levi and his Marxist friends recognised that the Communist Party must at all costs be swept clean of adventurers and other undesirable elements that were cluttering up its ranks. Not until that had been done could the KPD become a mass movement. The leaders of the party therefore gradually prepared for a purge.

The militico-political development associated with the name of Noske spread over all parts of Germany from the end of January 1919. Only Bavaria formed an exception. Here there were no Free Corps, no reconstruction of the old military system, no arming of the middle classes, and, above all, no internecine war among the socialists. The exceptional situation in Bavaria was primarily the work of the Prime Minister, Eisner. It is especially noteworthy that Eisner enjoyed the confidence of the revolutionary sections of the working classes, despite the fact that in the question of nationalisation he was at least as cautious as Ebert and Scheidemann. It is clear from this that in the German Revolution, minds were divided over the question of democracy much more than over the question of socialism. The Bavarian government, led by Eisner, did not deliver lachrymose moral sermons to the population, but it endeavoured to animate the new democracy with forcefulness and optimism. Eisner showed himself to be a master teacher in indicating the future tasks of the councils to them in his speeches. In contradistinction to the remainder of the Reich, Bavaria had succeeded in including at least a section of her peasantry in the soviet organisation. The Peasant Association (Bauernbund), which was influential especially in the south of the state, had espoused the revolutionary cause and introduced the soviet idea in the villages. Furthermore, a larger percentage of troops remained in the Bavarian barracks than in the rest of the Reich, and the revolutionary enthusiasm of the Bavarian soldiers was considerably stronger. Even after Christmas 1918, Eisner could rely upon the support not only of workmen’s councils, but also of soldiers’ and peasants’ councils capable of action. And he did all in his power to strengthen the Bavarian councils.

Of course difficulties gradually increased for Eisner as well as for the people. The retrogressive movement of the German Revolution also exercised an influence upon Bavaria. A large number of the Bavarian peasants who belonged to the Centre, as well as the other middle classes, would have nothing to do with government by councils. And there were plenty of officials of the old school among the Majority Socialists, who strove to make the Bavarian course congruent with that of the Reich as a whole. The representative of those Majority Socialists who more or less stood for the Ebert – Scheidemann course in Bavaria was Auer, the Minister of the Interior. Thus the opposing tendencies in German Socialism were incarnated in two members of the Bavarian Cabinet.

Eisner was obliged to agree to the election of a new Diet in Bavaria. But he was determined to preserve the definite rights of the council organisation beside the Diet. Polling took place on 12 January 1919. The results gave the pro-soviet revolutionary parties eighty seats – the SPD being reckoned in this camp. The middle-class parties obtained one hundred seats – the centre, which called itself the ‘Bavarian People’s Party’, obtaining sixty-six, the Democrats twenty-five, and the Conservatives nine. In the other camp, the SPD had sixty-one seats, the Peasant Association sixteen, and the USPD only three. It was very embarrassing for Eisner that his own official organisation, the Independent Socialists, had only polled so few votes. But his policy was approved by the majority of the Bavarian Social Democrats, by the Peasant Association, and, above all, by the red soldiers and the councils. If it should prove possible to hold the three soviet parties together as a block under Eisner’s leadership, they had 45 per cent of the seats in the Diet. In other words – a sufficient parliamentary representation if the armed workers and soldiers were added to their supporters.

Eisner and his colleagues quietly remained in office after the elections. But the agitation against Eisner among the middle classes, and especially in the middle-class press, increased, and the conservative wing of the Majority Socialists began to vacillate. When Eisner was on his way to the opening of the newly elected Diet on 21 February, he was assassinated by a counter-revolutionary student, Count Arco. The German Revolution, and the German socialist working class especially, lost the only constructive statesman who had appeared since November 1918 in Kurt Eisner. In the days of hesitancy and mediocre leadership that lay ahead, Eisner’s loss was to be felt only too keenly.

The news of Eisner’s murder caused immense perturbation among the workmen and soldiers in Munich. An enraged follower of Eisner’s pushed his way into the sitting of the Diet just as the news of the murder was being announced, shot at Auer, and killed a middle-class deputy. Auer was as innocent of the death of Eisner as Scheidemann of the death of Liebknecht. But in both cases revolutionary workers thought that political opponents were morally implicated in the deed. Auer was severely wounded and was taken to hospital. The Diet dispersed hastily as a result of the outrage. The Munich working men armed themselves, the soldiers put themselves on an active service footing, the Bavarian Congress of Councils met again and took over the actual power in the state.

It is the best proof of Eisner’s personality and of his statesman-like work that after his death the Bavarian masses at first acted in unison in the spirit of his teaching. The SPD, USPD and the Peasant Association met and decided to collaborate in the defence of the Bavarian revolution. They formed a coalition government under the premiership of the Majority Socialist, Hoffmann, which was supported by the councils and the red soldiery.

When calm had been once more restored, the Diet was summoned to a short session at Munich. Out of fear of the armed revolutionary masses the middle-class majority in the Diet decided to express their confidence in the Socialist government and to endow it with the necessary powers. Bavaria remained quiet. Events in Bavaria were obviously extremely unwelcome to the Reich government and to the Weimar National Assembly. In view of the defiant attitude of the Bavarian workers, soldiers and peasants, intervention was nevertheless not attempted. Thus it appeared in March 1919 as though the revolution had maintained itself in Bavaria alone, while in the rest of the country revolutionary achievements were being rapidly undone. Bavaria presented a model for a reasonable combination between the councils and the constitutional parliament.

Whether it would have been permanently possible for Bavaria to continue along her own lines beside the totally different tendency in the rest of Germany is doubtful. It is at least certain that the hopeless collapse in April would not have occurred if Eisner had lived, or if there had been someone of equal ability to carry on his work among the proletariat. The new Socialist ministers were good men and utterly loyal to the Socialist cause. But none of them had the authority and forcefulness that were necessary in the particularly difficult circumstances in Bavaria. As the result of the elections on 12 January showed, the Majority Socialist Party was numerically vastly superior to other Socialist Parties. In Bavaria there was one Independent or Communist to every twenty Majority Socialists. Nevertheless, because the SPD in Bavaria had almost the whole of the proletariat behind it, it comprised within itself all the various tendencies that had sought other organisational forms in the rest of Germany. Those who in Berlin would have been adherents of the Obleute, or of the utopian-radical wing of the Spartacus Union, mostly called themselves Majority Socialists in Bavaria.

At the beginning of April a wave of unrestrained utopianism swept over Bavaria and destroyed Eisner’s work. It was a form of utopianism emanating from Majority Socialist officials and workers. The utopian-radical workmen in Bavaria were dissatisfied with existing conditions. They regarded the juxtaposition of the councils and the Diet as a half-measure which could not last. A Soviet republic had been declared in Hungary. The workers of neighbouring Austria were in a state of ferment; and it was expected that Vienna would follow the example of Budapest. From Austria the wave swept on to southern Bavaria. The utopians in Augsburg and Munich felt that the hour had struck for them too, and that a Soviet republic would be proclaimed in Bavaria. In reality, Bavaria had been a Soviet republic since Eisner’s revolution in November. But it was a rational Soviet republic based upon existing conditions. The new Soviet republic that the extremists wished to establish was not only to imply the official suppression of parliament, but also a fantastic abolition of all private property and a propaganda campaign against the rest of Germany. While Eisner had succeeded in winning over the peasants to his side, or else in ensuring their neutrality, the new Soviet republic would be bound to evoke the bitter enmity of the Bavarian peasantry and middle classes. It would be bound to break the unity of the proletariat which had hitherto weathered all storms, and to provoke the intervention of the Reich.

Attacks of utopianism have to be reckoned with in every revolution. But revolutionary discipline must be strong enough to suppress them. After Eisner’s death there was no one in Bavaria who could control the masses at a critical hour. Nor could the Majority Socialist Party, which peacefully united all shades of opinion from Noske’s to Bolshevism, dam the wave of utopianism.

It was indeed the Majority Socialist officials themselves who in Augsburg and Munich demanded the union of the proletariat and the proclamation of a Soviet Republic. Opposition was weak in southern Bavaria. By 7 April the new Soviet Republic had won Munich. The USPD believed that it could not stand aside from the movement of the masses. On the other hand, Munich Communists, under the leadership of Levine, took an altogether reasonable and realistic view of affairs. They declared that the new Bavarian Soviet Republic was nothing but a wretched farce; and, moreover, a farce which had been staged by persons who had hitherto been the fiercest opponents of Communism. Hence the KPD at first refused to have anything to do with the Soviet Republic. The list of the new Bavarian Representatives of the People made a sorry showing. In the general confusion then prevailing in Munich all manner of obscure adventurers, sometimes of a definitely pathological character, had pushed themselves into the limelight. Such individuals now proposed to be the leaders of the Bavarian Soviet Republic as People’s Commissars. Only one man of any note was among the new Representatives of the People – the anarchist philosopher Landauer, who, however, was only interested in ethical and cultural questions and was incapable of restraining political folly.

Northern Bavaria did not support the Soviet Republic. The Majority Socialist Prime Minister very naturally refused to recognise the Munich Soviet Republic. He and the other Majority Socialist ministers went to Bamberg, where they carried on the work of the government and prepared an attack on Munich. At the end of a single week the adventurous existence of the Soviet Republic in Munich was over. The visionaries who had hoped to play the part of saviours of the people were deposed. Now, however, Levine regarded it as the duty of the Communist Party to leap into the breach and to save the honour of the soviet faith. They organised another Soviet Government and, supported by a section of the Munich workmen and soldiers, sought to offer resistance to the advancing government troops. If the Bavarian Soviet Republic was a farce on 7 April, it was no better a week later. There was no reason for Levine and his friends to have revised their originally correct opinion, to adopt an utterly hopeless cause, and thus to make the defeat of the proletariat even more complete. Levine succumbed to the same inhibitions as Rosa Luxemburg had done in January. A mistaken feeling of revolutionary honour appeared to prescribe that ‘the masses must not be left in the lurch’, although such tactics would force Marxists to sacrifice their better insight, their very existence, to the whims of any adventurer who could collect a number of revolutionary workers around him. [4]

The Reich government sent a number of Free Corps to Munich to overthrow the Soviet Republic. They were joined by the newly-formed Bavarian volunteer forces. The Bavarian volunteers, who were recruited from the middle classes and led by former royalist officers, wished to have a reckoning with the Bavarian revolution and with Eisner’s work. The fury of the government troops was increased when it became known that the Soviet authorities had shot a number of middle-class hostages.

On 1 and 2 May the government troops took Munich. Hundreds of people were put up against the wall and shot. Among the victims was Landauer. The most ghastly episode occurred when a troop of volunteers raided a meeting of twenty peaceable Catholic journeymen, insisted that they were Spartacists despite their protests, and murdered the lot. Levine was taken into custody, condemned to death by a drumhead court-martial, and shot. His steadfastness and bravery during the trial and execution won him the liveliest sympathy even among those who disagreed with his policy.

The Hoffmann government returned to Munich when the bloody work was done. It had been impossible for the government to exercise any sort of control over the behaviour of the troops during the capture of Munich. The Bavarian Diet elected a democratic coalition government, composed of representatives of the Social Democrats, Bavarian People’s Party and the Democrats. The Social Democrat Hoffmann remained as Premier. The history of Bavaria during the years 1919 and 1920 shows how completely unrepresentative a parliament can be of the actual social forces in times of revolution. The Diet embodied middle-class parliamentary democracy. From January to April it was too far right for the prevailing social forces, and was therefore powerless. But after May 1919, the Diet was further left than the real forces. Hence it could do no more than form a shadow-government and exercise shadow-rule. The true power in the state was held by a fanatical militarist counter-revolutionary party with strongly monarchist sympathies. Since their experience of a Soviet republic, the middle classes and the broad mass of the peasantry had almost as a body gone over to the counter-revolutionary camp. The working classes were disarmed and powerless. The red soldiery had not existed since May 1919. In these circumstances the Democratic – Socialist government was trembling in the balance, as was shown in the following year by the effects of the Kapp Putsch in Bavaria.

With the entry of the volunteer troops into Munich, the adjustment of Bavaria to the rest of the Reich was complete. The attempt to maintain the achievements of the revolution, and in particular of the soviet democracy, had failed in Bavaria.


1. Hirsch and Ernst were Prussian Ministers.

2. Rosa Luxemburg and the January revolt. On 4 May 1921 Paul Levi made a speech to the Central Committee of the KPD in which he justified his criticism of the March revolt of 1921. Levi published the speech in pamphlet form, Was ist das Verbrechen? (Berlin, 1921). In the course of his speech, Levi mentions January 1919 (p 33 et seq): ‘It has further been objected that Rosa Luxemburg’s attitude during the January rising in 1919 was very different... It is said that although Rosa Luxemburg was not in favour of that action, she nevertheless wrote articles and appeals for it... I, too, was then opposed to the movement, and I, too, wrote leaflets and articles. And why? From the completely different point of view that great masses of people were making a mistake, and not that a small collection of leaders was driving the right-thinking masses to destruction... Comrade Pieck was at the meeting in Puttkammer Street when we came into conflict with Karl Liebknecht’s attitude. You will remember that Karl Liebknecht was stubborn, and that it was Leo Jogiches who made the suggestion to publish a strong declaration in the Red Flag while the rising was in progress; a declaration which should definitely repudiate Karl Liebknecht; which should simply announce that Karl Liebknecht was no longer the representative of the Spartacus Union among the Obleute. You know exactly how much Rosa Luxemburg disliked Karl Liebknecht’s attitude and how severe her criticism was. She would have made known her criticism as soon as the rising was at an end.’ Thus it becomes obvious how awkward and ambiguous was the situation in which Rosa Luxemburg found herself when she was obliged to agree publicly to the January action while privately she disapproved of it. As a member of the so-called revolutionary government, Karl Liebknecht was even more involved in the rising, and so the two came into conflict with one another. Rosa Luxemburg thought that Karl Liebknecht was giving too much support to the rising. In the general ambiguity, however, which attitude is to be regarded as right, and which as wrong? Undoubtedly if Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht had lived longer the misunderstanding would have been cleared up. For though Karl Liebknecht was sometimes carried away by the excitement of battle he was never a utopian. Pieck was a Communist leader. Leo Jogiches was an eminent Polish Socialist who had worked in the ranks of the Spartacus Union during the war and in the early days of the revolution. He was ‘shot while trying to escape’ by the police in Berlin in March 1919.

3. All Volkmann’s sympathies are with the former Imperial officers and their Free Corps. Nevertheless, he writes of the result of the January fighting as follows (EO Volkmann, Revolution über Deutschland (Oldenburg, 1930), pp 185-87): ‘The soldier is the decisive factor in the game. Not the Free Corps of General von Lüttwitz, but the undisciplined mobs in the barracks of Berlin and Potsdam, and a few republican fighting associations raked up during the last few days. Their lust for battle suddenly becomes uncontrollable. They are jealous of the Noske guards and want to get the better of them. They do not wish to be supplanted... Twenty-four hours later the chaos at headquarters has been cleared up, and order among the Berlin and Potsdam units has been so far restored that Major von Stephani, the commander of the regiment composed of the Potsdam contingents, can be given the order to attack the offices of the Vorwärts... In the newspaper quarter the Majority Socialist republican militia is fighting with the “Reichstag” regiment raised by Kuttner, the editor of the Vorwärts, from among the workers who are willing to fight... The attack upon the last as yet unconquered fort – the chief police station – will be launched during the night of 11-12 January. The “Cockchafers,” under Sergeant-Major Schulz, which of all the Berlin regiments has always been most loyal to the Ebert government, will bear the brunt of the battle.’

4. During his trial before the Munich courts, Levine said (cf Freiheit, 6 June 1919): ‘During the night of 4-5 April I was fetched by a friend to go to a meeting at the War Ministry, where the proclamation of a Soviet republic was being planned. It was incomprehensible to me. In my opinion only the workers could proclaim a Soviet republic, not individual persons. There were present at this meeting anarchists, independents and right-wing Socialists, like Niekisch, Schneppenhorst, Dürr, etc. I made clear to the meeting what my standpoint was – which was also shared by my party – and protested vehemently against their proceedings. I said that I considered the time most inauspicious and much too early. Bavaria is not a self-sufficient economic unity. It could not maintain a Soviet republic unless the whole of Germany were doing the same... We sent a delegation to the Central Council... and protested in the name of the party against the puerile undertaking. Nevertheless, a specious Soviet republic was proclaimed, and we fought against it for as long as there was any fight left in us.’ Regarding the events of the night of 13-14 April, Levine spoke as follows: ‘At the meeting of the industrial councils the mood was: “We will not yield.” I remember saying: “I am afraid you are lost either way. Now it is a case of at least going under honourably. If you decide to fight, then we as Communists will not leave you in the lurch.” We regarded it as our duty as labour leaders to stand by the proletariat. We warned, we let them abuse us, but as soon as this pseudo-Soviet republic – and thereby the proletariat itself – was threatened, it was our duty not to leave the workers in the lurch. We should have been traitors if we had done so.’ In conclusion, Levine said: ‘I have known for a long time that we Communists are only dead men on holiday from the grave. It lies in your hands, gentlemen, to extend my reprieve or to send me to join Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. You may kill me, but my ideas will live.’