Rob Sewell’s GERMANY: From Revolution to Counter-Revolution

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 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.”