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100 Years Ago in Berlin: German Revolutionaries Step on the Grass

According to an old joke, Germans will never make a revolution because that would require stepping on the grass. Yet 100 years ago, as the First World War drew to a close, the workers’ movement in Germany was preparing an insurrection against the kaiser and the capitalists. On November 9, 1918, the general strike began in Berlin—after years of preparation.

Nathaniel Flakin

November 9, 2018
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Part I | Part II | Part III

“Whoever is against the war will appear on May 1 at eight in the evening. Potsdamer Platz (Berlin). Bread! Freedom! Peace!”

Tiny slips of paper with this typewritten slogan had been distributed all over the German capital. It was April 1916, and the country had been at war for almost two years. Berlin, that grandiose imperialist metropolis, was eerily quiet. Half of Germany’s adult male population had been drafted.

Since 1890, the German workers’ movement had organized massive rallies on May 1. None had taken place in 1915, and none were planned for 1916. The right to assembly had been sacrificed to the “civic peace” agreed between the military authorities and the trade union bureaucracies.

The rally at Potsdamer Platz, normally Berlin’s bustling commercial hub, was illegal. A few thousand people showed up. A 45-year-old man in a gray soldiers’ uniform, with glasses and thinning hair, climbed above the heads of the crowd. “Down with the war!” he called out. “And down with the government!”

Immediately he was tackled by riot police and dragged away. This was Karl Liebknecht, a lawyer and Social Democratic member of parliament. During sessions of the Reichstag, he would use his parliamentary immunity to make fiery speeches against the imperialist slaughter. But he had also been drafted. At the close of every session, he was sent to the Eastern Front to dig trenches, then brought back to parliament the following week.

Liebknecht’s May 1 rally was only a moral victory. He was stripped of his parliamentary mandate, convicted of high treason and thrown in jail. Yet on the day of Liebknecht’s trial, the following month, over 50,000 workers from Berlin’s metalworking factories went on strike. “Freedom for Liebknecht!” was their slogan. Neither the military authorities nor Liebknecht himself knew who had organized the protest.

This workers’ action against the war, inspired by Liebknecht’s courage, marked the beginning of Germany’s November Revolution.

A German Civil War?

On November 9, 1918, a mass uprising by the Berlin proletariat toppled Kaiser Wilhelm II and ended the war. The Hohenzollern dynasty had ruled Berlin, Prussia and the German Empire for almost 500 years. One bourgeois journalist described the revolution like a sudden collapse: The following day, Theodor Wolff wrote that before the uprising, “a gigantic military organization seemed to embrace everything, in public offices and ministries an apparently invincible bureaucracy was enthroned. Yesterday morning all this was still there. … Yesterday afternoon nothing remained.” Yet the revolution was not as sudden as it appeared: It only exposed the contradictions that had been growing within German capitalism for decades.

Today, the November Revolution is largely forgotten. Most people in Germany are not familiar with the terms “German Revolution” or “German Civil War.” Yet the events of late 1918 and 1919 represent a turning point not just in the history of Central Europe, but in the history of human civilization. The bloody defeat of the November Revolution was a decisive moment in the transition from capitalism to socialism—one that socialists today need to study.

Formally Revolutionary

Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) was founded in 1875 by Wilhelm Liebknecht. Just three years later, it was prohibited by the “socialist laws” of Kaiser Wilhelm I. The party’s leadership and publications went into exile, while the membership organized on myriad legal fronts: hiking groups, singing associations, workers’ libraries and also corner bars. The only place in the German Empire that socialists could organize legally was inside the Reichstag: Once they were elected as individuals, their parliamentary immunity allowed them to speak as SPD representatives.

Under illegality, the SPD grew ceaselessly, winning 1.4 million votes in 1890. The next Kaiser Wilhelm (the second one) had to legalize the party, and its growth accelerated. In the elections of 1912, the SPD won just over 4 million votes (almost 35% of the total) and 110 seats in parliament, making it the largest party in the Reichstag.

Over all these decades, the SPD remained committed to its revolutionary Marxist roots—at least in theory. Forty years of growth for German capitalism had brought continuous improvements in the living standards of the working class—and many proletarians came to believe this would go on indefinitely until socialism was achieved. The SPD had grown parallel to the empire, building up dozens of newspapers, enormous national unions (including enormous bureaucracies) and the largest party in parliament.

The party slowly divided into three wings: (1) a right wing around Friedrich Ebert, a faceless bureaucrat without any kind of political vision, who wanted to slowly gain power within the empire, (2) a left wing led by Rosa Luxemburg, a theoretician and an agitator who had immigrated from czarist Poland, who believed that revolutionary action would be necessary to topple capitalism, and (3) a “Marxist center” associated with Karl Kautsky and Hugo Haase, which sought to maintain party unity between these irreconcilable wings at any cost. The center defended the “proven tactics” of the previous decades, which consisted of reformist practice combined with revolutionary speeches.

As an antimilitarist party, the SPD had consistently proclaimed “Not one man, not one cent” for the kaiser’s war machine. The Stuttgart Congress of the Socialist International in 1907 had resolved that if an imperialist war broke out, all socialist parties were to “intervene in favor of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.”

August 4

In the summer of 1914, as the tensions between the Great Powers inched the world closer to war, many expected the SPD to stick to its antimilitarist principles. On July 25, the front page of Berlin’s workers newspaper Vorwärts (Forward) carried a proclamation by the SPD leadership: “We do not want war! Down with the war! Long live the international fraternization of peoples!” The party organized peace demonstrations all over the country and sent its treasury to Switzerland, in preparation for a new prohibition. The military authorities, for their part, were ready to arrest all 110 of the SPD’s members of parliament as soon as war was declared.

Declarations of war began crisscrossing the world on August 1. The Reichstag was called on to vote for war credits on August 4. And every single SPD member of parliament voted—in favor. “In the hour of danger, we will not abandon our own fatherland,” declared Hugo Haase, chairman of the parliamentary group. When Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin, living in exile in Switzerland, received a copy of Vorwärts reporting on the vote, he was convinced it was a forgery by the German military. Luxemburg, who had been not only the sharpest critic of the party’s “revisionist” right wing, but had also seen through the empty phrases of the center, had said the day before that she was worried that the parliamentary group might abstain. Even Luxemburg could not imagine such a complete betrayal. After the vote, she told her comrades she was contemplating suicide in protest. The German workers’ movement was completely disoriented—not a single voice anywhere in opposition to the war!

Behind the scenes, negotiations had been taking place between the SPD leadership and the military. The social democratic bureaucracies would do anything to hold on to their legality and property. The generals also understood how to sell the war to the reformist left: Had not Marx and Engels demanded a revolutionary war by Germany against the Russian czar as far back as 1848? Were not the German workers’ limited democratic freedoms to be defended against the threat of Russian absolutism? This was supposedly all about Germany’s right to self-determination against the czar’s aggression. On August 3, the SPD’s parliamentary fraction held an internal vote on the war credits—78 were in favor, and only 14 were opposed. The SPD’s long tradition of “fraction discipline” meant that even the opponents submitted to the majority voted for the war. Haase, from the center, had opposed the war credits but agreed to read out the declaration himself—cheered on by the bourgeois and monarchist parties.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Germany was the central bastion of the international workers’ movement. It was an advanced industrial country with a well-organized labor movement led by a very powerful party with an enormous apparatus. This party considered itself a follower of the theories of Marx and Engels. Socialists all over the world saw the SPD as a model to follow and celebrated its electoral successes as their own.

This is why August 4 – the day when the SPD threw all its weight behind its own imperialist bourgeoisie in the First World War – was such an enormous material and moral defeat. This was followed by similar defections by the SPD’s “younger siblings”, the majority of the socialist parties of the belligerent countries.

Yet the thread of historical continuity was not completely broken. The extreme left wing of German socialism, led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, participated in attempts to rebuild the international, together with rebellious internationalists from the other countries at war.

A Man as Strong as an Oak Tree

The war was supposed to be over in a few weeks—the boys would be home by Christmas. But as the months passed and the trenches stretched across Europe, more and more young men came home in coffins. The German government gave up any pretense of a “defensive war” when it occupied neutral Belgium. Government ministers (and also leading SPD politicians) began talking openly about annexing territories in Belgium or northern France at the war’s end.

In December, the Reichstag needed to vote on a second tranche of war credits. Liebknecht had been touring Belgium and speaking with socialists there. This time, he broke discipline, declaring that the war was not about national defense: “It is an imperialist war, a war for the imperialist control of the world market.” Liebknecht voted no. A second SPD representative, Otto Rühle, abstained by going to the toilet. At last, a voice—a single voice—was raised against the slaughter. Liebknecht became a hero to millions. A German workers’ song later called him a “man as strong as an oak tree.” When a third vote was called, in March 1915, both Liebknecht and Rühle voted against war credits—and Liebknecht was sent to the front to dig trenches, barring him from any political activity outside parliament.

Liebknecht, to use the modern Chinese term, was a “red prince”—as the son of the party’s founder, he was better known for his name than for his political work. A lawyer by trade, Liebknecht had gained some renown as a defender of the socialist youth organizations and their right to autonomy from the party bureaucracy. In 1907, at 37 years old, he was elected chairman of the Socialist Youth International. For his book denouncing militarism, he was sentenced to a year and a half in prison for high treason. When social democrats suffered repression like this, the party often entered into the parliaments so they would gain immunity. Thus, Liebknecht got a seat in the Reichstag. Historian Sebastian Haffner described him as an “unknown backbencher” before 1914.

Centrists and Revolutionaries

The war continued through a first winter and then a second one. Working-class families had to largely give up potatoes—not to speak of meat—and survive off turnips. Discontent grew. In May 1916, young workers rioted in Brunswick against cuts to their wages.

The growing discontent was reflected in the SPD’s parliamentary group as well. By January 1916, the number of deputies voting against new war credits grew to 20—and soon all 20 of them were expelled from the party. In parliament, they constituted themselves as the Social Democratic Working Group. On Easter 1917, they founded the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD). The rump party later became known as the Majority Social Democratic Party of Germany (MSPD).

Luxemburg called the USPD a “party of half measures and ambiguities.” The Independents—including the old party center around Kautsky, but also revisionists like Eduard Bernstein—were pacifists, not revolutionaries. They wanted the war to end so they could return to the old social democracy and its “proven tactics”—but they had no intention to fight to end the war with an insurrection. Kautsky famously declared that “the International is not a useful instrument in war; it is fundamentally an instrument for peace.” These centrists broke with the social imperialist majority of their party only when they were expelled.

The left of the old social democracy, in contrast, organized as soon as the war broke out. A nucleus including Liebknecht, Luxemburg, the almost 70-year-old Franz Mehring, Julian Marchlewski (Karski), Ernst Meyer and Clara Zetkin founded the International Group” in early 1915. They published one issue of a legal magazine that was immediately confiscated by the military authorities. Luxemburg had been thrown in prison before the war for insulting the kaiser in a speech. She was free only briefly, then put in “protective custody” (i.e., held without charges) until the revolution. Yet with her boundless energy and literary talent, Luxemburg led the revolutionary left with letters smuggled from prison. Her supporters soon began to put out illegal flyers. Meyer, in charge of the printing, came up with the name Spartacus. Luxemburg thought the name was terrible, but the flyers circulated across Germany, and Spartacus became a symbol to millions. On New Year’s Day 1916, the Spartacus League was founded in Liebknecht’s law office.

The Spartacists joined the USPD when it was founded a year and a half later. This party offered the revolutionaries, who suffered from constant arrests by the police and the military, a legal framework in which to operate. The Spartacus League never had more than a few hundred members—they intended to use the USPD to reach the hundreds of thousands of workers organized there. Luxemburg’s texts never spared criticism of the vacillating, cowardly positions of the USPD’s leaders. In some cities where the left was relatively strong, such as Stuttgart or Chemnitz, the local Spartacists resisted joining the new centrist party. It was the League’s central leader during the war, Luxemburg’s lifelong companion Leo Jogiches, who successfully insisted that they all enter the USPD. In one city, Bremen, the radical left had been strong enough to take over the local party organization, expelling the reformists and centrists. These “Bremen Left Radicals” around Johann Knief and Paul Frölich never joined Spartacus precisely because they rejected joining the USPD and instead fought for a new revolutionary party—this group became the International Communists of Germany (IKD).

A First Strike

In June 1916, when Liebknecht was put on trial for high treason, more than 50,000 Berlin workers went on strike demanding his release. No one knew who had organized this mass action. It was not until the insurrection more than two years later that this conspiratorial group—lacking a publication, a spokesperson or even a name—came out into the open.

At the beginning of the war, shop stewards in Berlin (workers elected in the factories to represent their colleagues, known as “Obleute”) began meeting because they opposed the “civic peace” and the prohibition of strikes. Under the leadership of the metalworker Richard Müller, they quickly radicalized and came out in opposition to the war itself. Each of the several dozen members of this group was a delegate from a factory. Thus, they could gauge the mood of the entire Berlin proletariat and distribute calls to action in every workplace—all without ever revealing themselves in public. This group eventually became known as the Revolutionary Stewards.

With each winter, the workers starved while the capitalists made obscene profits. As Luxemburg put it, “The proletarians fall and the dividends rise.” After the Liebknecht Strike of 1915, the Revolutionary Stewards organized larger and larger actions. One hundred thousand workers came out onto the streets of Berlin in April 1917 (the “Bread Strikes”). The following January, a quarter of a million workers joined a weeklong strike (the “Munition Workers Strikes”). As the protests grew, they also became more political, demanding better rations for workers, but also immediate peace as well as democratic reforms. Women, who had flooded into the factories to replace the millions of men sent to the front, played a huge role in these strikes—one that was largely overlooked then and now.

The End of the War

By the end of the summer of 1918, the German general staff had decided the war was over. There were many reasons: The United States had entered the war, sending millions of fresh American troops to France. The German U-boat war in the Atlantic had collapsed. Austria-Hungary was collapsing with hunger riots in the capital and national movements in the periphery. The generals had hoped that the Brest-Litovsk treaty, forcing Russia’s Soviet government to cede huge territories to German protectorates, would allow them to withdraw forces from the Eastern Front and throw everything against the West. Yet revolutionary partisan fighting in Ukraine was so intense that the German armies were stuck there—and starting to get infected with revolutionary ideas themselves.

Protests in the German Empire were flamed when the working class saw that the new revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ government in Russia was calling for immediate and unconditional peace. What about the “defensive war” against the czar? After two failed offensives in France, with hundreds of thousands of dead on each side, the generals decided there was simply no possibility for a German victory.

The second in command of Germany’s Supreme Army Command, the reactionary fanatic and strategic genius Erich Ludendorff, had one central concern: How could he, after the inevitable defeat, maintain the power and prestige of the aristocratic officers’ corps? For four years, the generals had run the country as a dictatorship—now Ludendorff convinced the kaiser to establish a “democratic” government. For the first time, the chancellor would not be named by the kaiser but elected by a majority of the Reichstag. A liberal aristocrat, Prince Max of Baden, was named head of a government that included a social democratic minister without a portfolio. The SPD leadership had achieved the “democratization” of the Empire, along with a small slice of power.

This new “democratic” government would have to negotiate the humiliating conditions for surrender with the Allied Powers. Suddenly, the generals—who had just, in private, declared the war unwinnable—proclaimed that these conditions were unacceptable and that they would fight to the end. Ludendorff’s calculation was devious: Even though he had personally determined that they had lost the war, he could now create a legend that the German army was never defeated on the battlefield. He now claimed the German army had lost only because it was “stabbed in the back” by socialists who protested on the home front. This “stab-in-the-back-myth” became widespread in Germany for many decades.

The Sailors of Kiel

A month passed as Germany’s new government exchanged diplomatic notes with the Wilson administration in Washington. The soldiers remained in the trenches, but the fighting had mostly stopped. Word was out: Peace was just a question of time.

The German naval leadership had different plans. Since the collapse of the U-boat war in 1916, they had not had much to do. Their beautiful battleships had been stuck in harbor, helpless against the vastly superior British fleet. Admiral Reinhard Scheer decided that this was no way to end the war. He ordered the German fleet to sail out for a hopeless final battle—80,000 sailors were to drown to save the honor of their aristocratic officers.

The fleet had for years been a hotbed of socialist organizing. The sailors needed to operate these massive war vessels were recruited among skilled workers, where socialist organizations were strongest. Nowhere were the class contradictions of the imperialist military so prominently displayed: In the tight confines of a ship, a handful of aristocratic officers commanded hundreds of proletarian sailors. There had already been a series of mutinies in 1917, put down with executions.

When this final fleet order arrived in late October 1918, sailors rebelled. In ships anchored off the coastal town of Wilhelmshaven, they arrested their officers and raised red flags. These mutineers were eventually arrested and transported to the city of Kiel. There, larger mutinies took place as sailors refused to take the ships out. Instead, they went on shore and marched through the city, linking up with local workers and demanding freedom for their imprisoned comrades. There were street battles with the police and at least nine killed. On November 4, a soldiers’ council proclaimed that it had taken power in the city. The following day, the workers joined in with a general strike, shutting down Kiel and creating an organ that would define the German Revolution: the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council.

Emissaries from Kiel were sent out throughout the empire. The insurrection spread from town to town. Each day, more cities elected Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils. Each day, monarchs of the 22 statelets that made up the German Empire were forced to renounce the throne. But no one knew when the revolutionary wave would reach Berlin, the bastion of Prussian bureaucracy and militarism.

The German workers were not alone either. The workers’ and peasants’ government, led by the Bolshevik Party, had been in power in Russia for a year. Internationalist socialists around the world were following the developments in Germany with a renewed hope: hope of expanding the revolution to the West in order to storm the real bastions of world capitalism and take decisive steps towards transforming communism into the practical task of the hour.

In the next part, Wladek Flakin tells the story of the Berlin insurrection. Both revolution and counterrevolution gathered their forces for a showdown.

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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French, and in Spanish. He has also written an anticapitalist guide book called Revolutionary Berlin. He is on the autism spectrum.



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