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100 Years Ago in Berlin: Revolution and Counterrevolution in Germany

In the first days of the German Revolution, workers’ and soldiers’ councils formed across Germany. The Social Democrats allied with the military to save as much of the old order as they could. The Communists tried to organize the forces of the revolution. This fight came to a head at a national congress of the councils.

Nathaniel Flakin

November 18, 2018
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Part I | Part II | Part III

After the sailors’ uprising in Kiel on November 4, revolution swept across Germany. In Berlin the Revolutionary Stewards deliberated with Karl Liebknecht, who had been released from prison on October 23. Liebknecht demanded a general strike be called immediately, but the stewards wanted more time for preparations, based on their years of experience in underground organizing. Both sides finally agreed on a date: Monday, November 11. Then a member of their group was arrested carrying detailed plans for the uprising. Haphazardly, they moved the date for the general strike forward to Saturday, November 9. Saturday was a workday in imperial times.

Richard Müller, leader of the Revolutionary Stewards, later recalled walking to the train station Hallesches Tor on Friday evening: “Heavily armed infantry columns, machine gun companies and light artillery passed me by in an endless procession. There was no doubt, they were here to drown the people’s revolution in Berlin in blood.” Did the insurrection have a chance?

On Saturday morning, workers gathered outside their factories. Thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands formed long columns marching toward the city center. They passed barracks, hoping to win soldiers to the movement. At one of these, an officer shot into the crowd, killing three workers. A few soldiers joined the demonstrations, displaying their rifles proudly in the front row. Yet most of the Berlin garrison had no idea what was going on—they decided to stay in their quarters to see what would happen.

By midday, hundreds of thousands of protesters filled Berlin’s central government quarter. Kaiser Wilhelm II had traveled to the army headquarters in Spa in occupied Belgium a week earlier. In increasingly desperate telegrams throughout the morning, Prince Max, the head of government, reported on the growing chaos. He demanded that the kaiser resign immediately—the only hope to contain the revolution. Yet Wilhelm’s court delayed. By noon, Prince Max simply proclaimed that the kaiser was gone—and then resigned himself. On his way out the door, Prince Max named Friedrich Ebert from the SPD as the new imperial chancellor.

The Social Democrats had been catapulted into government, and the kaiser fled to the Netherlands. What would they do? For the previous week, they had searched for a compromise to salvage the throne. Perhaps they could crown one of Wilhelm’s sons and install a regent?

Ebert and co. were forced to recognize that if they refused to immediately call for a republic, the masses would toss them into the dustbin of history. When demonstrators surrounded the Reichstag on November 9, Ebert famously refused to abandon his lunch to speak to them. Ebert’s deputy, Philipp Scheidemann, went to the window and called out: “Long live the German Republic!” Ebert chastised him, saying, “You have no right to proclaim the republic.” But the deed had been done. Ebert, who had opposed the republic with all his cunning in backroom negotiations, was now the head of a new republican government.

Two hours later, Liebknecht gave a speech from the balcony of the kaiser’s City Palace, several blocks away, proclaiming the Free Socialist Republic of Germany. There was no going back.

Dual Power

Ebert was now imperial chancellor, but he understood that the old government no longer had any legitimacy. He approached the Independent Social Democrats, and that same night the two parties agreed to form a new government: Three MSPD and three USPD members called themselves the Council of People’s Deputies. It was a close copy of the name of the Soviet government in Russia.

The next day, Ebert used a secret telephone line to the military headquarters to establish contact with Wilhelm Groener, the new head of the general staff. The two agreed to fight “Bolshevism” and the workers’ and soldiers’ councils. In other words, the head of a (nominally) council government was secretly allied with the kaiser’s generals to fight the councils. When the revolution had forced Prince Max to hand the chancellery to Ebert, the latter declared, “I hate the revolution like sin.” As Ebert recalled years later, the Social Democrats realized they needed to place themselves at the head of the revolutionary movement to cut off the movement’s head at the appropriate time.

For millions of workers just awakening to political life, the SPD did in fact appear to be leading the revolution. Late in the night of November 8, the Social Democratic leaders understood that they could no longer stop the insurrection. So they put out a special edition of Vorwärts calling for a general strike. Since the Revolutionary Stewards had no printed materials to speak of, it seemed like the SPD had called the strike itself. Ebert and co., who had aggressively supported the imperialist slaughter, and who had expelled any member of their party voicing even moderate opposition, now called for “peace” and for the “unity” of the two socialist parties.

On November 10, thousands of workers’ and soldiers’ delegates gathered at the Zirkus Busch to elect an executive council of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils of Greater Berlin. The Revolutionary Stewards, organizers of the meeting, had planned to get their entire group elected by acclamation. Ebert was able to disrupt this maneuver.

The proposed candidates were all members of the USPD—should not both socialist parties be represented? Soon, the soldiers in front of the stage were clamoring for “parity.” Liebknecht spoke about the criminal record of the MSPD, but he was shouted down. The meeting thus elected the Executive Council—which was to be the central organ of power until a national congress of councils could be convened—made up of half MSPD and half USPD members. Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg both refused to participate. The meeting confirmed the Council of People’s Deputies as a provisional government—the Executive Council was supposed to control the government’s work.

This assembly had been chaotic: Anyone could show up and present themselves as a “delegate.” Many of the soldiers screaming in front of the stage represented no one but themselves and the Social Democrats who had brought them to the meeting. Even people with a mandate were often petit bourgeois adventurers with no base in the workers’ movement—which is not uncommon at the beginning of a revolution. The assembly at Zirkus Busch was, at most, a very initial step toward a genuine workers’ democracy, skillfully manipulated by the SPD bureaucracy.

This first workers’ council in Berlin was not unlike the experience in Russia in February of 1917: The workers’ representatives limited themselves to confirming a provisional government that had been put in place by the old powers. The dual power in Germany was taking shape. Yet at this first stage, both the old and the new powers were headed by the same man: Friedrich Ebert. Many workers imagined that the councils and a parliament could exist side by side—this was the position of the USPD.

The forces that wanted to the councils to take all power, the Spartacists, were an almost invisibly small minority. The Revolutionary Stewards had no clear strategy—they let one of their members, the worker Emil Barth, join the Council of People’s Deputies alongside Ebert, while Richard Müller focused on the Executive Council.

“All Power to the Workers and Soldiers!”

In Russia, the Councils of Workers,’ Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies—called “Soviets” in Russian—were based on a long tradition of proletarian democracy. Lacking legal organizations, workers were accustomed to electing their own strike committees. The Soviets thus consisted of delegates elected from the factories and barracks. These delegates were subject to recall at any time. As the Russian Revolution advanced from February to October and the masses radicalized, they picked fewer Mensheviks and more Bolsheviks to represent them in the Soviets.

The German workers’ movement, in contrast, had built up gigantic apparatuses over decades. Every workers’ organization had a permanent leadership that was subject to democratic control only at periodic congresses. Precise bureaucratic organization seemed perfectly natural to the workers who had passed through the school of German Social Democracy. (“The German worker has been educated in the spirit of organization and discipline. That has its strong and its weak sides,” as Leon Trotsky later commented.)

When it was time to elect councils in Germany, workers across the country chose their established leaders. In a typical German town, at a large demonstration in the central square, a list of candidates for the council would be read out—often the local leaderships of the SPD, the USPD and the trade unions. These were elected by acclamation. There were no organic links to the factories and barracks, and no mechanism for recall.

The Supreme Army Command followed the SPD’s tactics: If they could not prevent councils from being formed, it was better to have councils they directly controlled. As the revolution started, the generals encouraged the election of soldiers’ councils—but only as advisory bodies to the officers. Soldiers often elected their own commanders into these pro-regime councils. There were also a few episodes in which the revolutionary left, having formed a council in the first days of the revolution, resisted new elections to prevent SPD representatives from joining.

Karl Radek, a representative of the Bolsheviks in Germany, later wrote that the councils in Germany “existed in name only.”

When the National Congress of Councils convened on December 12 in the Prussian House of Lords in Berlin, a month after the insurrection, the left was shocked: Out of 485 delegates, 288 were from the SPD. Only 90 were from the USPD, including 10 Spartacists. Newspaper editors, parliamentary deputies, and party and trade union bureaucrats made up a larger bloc (195) than blue- and white-collar workers (179). Observers noted the similarities of the proceedings to a Social Democratic party congress. Luxemburg and Liebknecht, who had not been elected to the Berlin Executive Council, did not have mandates and were denied the right to address the congress.

Instead, Liebknecht assembled 30,000 workers outside the building with the demand “All Power to the Workers and Soldiers’ Councils!” But over four days of deliberations, the delegates made the opposite decision. The congress decided to call elections for a National Assembly for January 19. The councils had decided to hand power back to an organ of bourgeois democracy. Müller called the meeting a “political suicide club.”

The question had been posed: parliamentary republic or council republic? This was merely organizational shorthand for the real question: bourgeois dictatorship or proletarian dictatorship? The USPD leaders, under the pressure of the revolutionary masses, had been giving increasingly radical speeches. At the congress, however, they sought a compromise: They wanted a constitution in which workers’ councils would be anchored in the constitution alongside a bourgeois parliament. They were centrists, vacillating between revolutionary words and reformist deeds, and thus they sought to make the situation of dual power permanent. Both the SPD, which had become the most important defender of the bourgeoisie’s interests, and the Spartacus League, formulating the historical interests of the proletariat, realized this was a dangerous illusion. One side or the other would have to conquer undivided power, and soon.

The Communist Party in Berlin

After the congress, the Spartacists decided they could no longer remain in the USPD. At least one-third of the Berlin USPD supported the revolutionary left, but the party leadership refused to call a congress. On New Year’s Eve of 1918, the Spartacus League joined with the IKD from Bremen and delegates from across Germany to found a new party.

On New Year’s Day of 1919, the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was founded, adopting a program written by Luxemburg. The new party was not just numerically weak, with an estimated 10,000 members, but it also suffered from the “infantile disorder” of ultraleftism. Many delegates had awoken to political life just a few weeks earlier. Having witnessed the German monarchy collapse in a matter of days, they were convinced that the socialist revolution would develop just as quickly.

The most controversial discussion at the KPD’s founding congress revolved around the elections to the National Assembly, scheduled to take place in less than three weeks’ time. Luxemburg and Liebknecht rejected this bourgeois constituent assembly—but argued in favor of participating in the elections as a tactic to present a communist program to the masses. Luxemburg, far more than her young adherents, understood that the German revolution was closer to its beginning than its end. Yet she remained in the minority. Otto Rühle from Dresden summed up the majority’s perspectives: Why prepare for an election campaign when the Communists would be in power in less than three weeks?

Sixty-two delegates voted to boycott the elections, with only 23 supporting Luxemburg’s proposal for a Communist election campaign. The same majority was in favor of Communists leaving the trade unions, though Luxemburg was able to prevent a vote by calling for more discussion at a later date. The majority of the new Communist Party had a completely unrealistic estimation of the situation and few links to the workers movement. The Revolutionary Stewards, for their part, rejected joining the new party and remained in the USPD. The new KPD did not even have a week to define its policy before being thrown into revolutionary struggle.

The Proto-Nazis

As the revolutionaries were founding a new party, the Social Democrats focused on gathering bodies of armed men to defend “public order.” After peace was declared on November 11, the armies were melting away. The government ordered divisions to march to Berlin. Yet before they reached the city, half the soldiers had disappeared—by the next morning, only a handful remained. After four years of the most barbaric massacre that humanity had yet experienced, any person with a shred of sanity left wanted to return home as quickly as possible.

There were, however, small numbers of men who had grown accustomed to endless murder and had no other home besides the army. Under the command of right-wing officers, they joined paramilitary Freikorps (roughly “Free Companies”). These men received handsome salaries, paid from big capitalists’ donations to the Anti-Bolshevik Fund. They were right wing, but could not have coherently described their ideology. In an earlier times, they would have been monarchists, but after Wilhelm II’s flight, they had no use for the monarch. As Sebastian Haffner explained, “What they dreamed of and hoped for, what they fought and also murdered for, was something other than the Monarchy—something which would one day be put into words by a man who in those days was active as an obscure [army informant] in Munich.”

Haffner was referring to Adolf Hitler, who would build his fascist movement around nuclei of former Freikorps soldiers. The Freikorps were the first to use the “hooked cross” (i.e., the swastika) as a modern symbol of far-right politics. They were virulently antisocialist, convinced that the German army had been stabbed in the back by socialists. And yet, for the moment they served the SPD government, since it was leading the fight to defend the old order. The SPD, for its part, needed these right-wing paramilitaries since there was no one else who would fight revolutionary workers.

On December 23, as Christmas approached, the SPD and the military attempted to get rid of the People’s Navy Division. This corps, consisting of 3,000 men, was the largest revolutionary military unit in the capital. They were organized around sailors from Kiel and had been housed in the City Palace since the early days of the revolution. Now the government refused to pay them if they did not accept a new commander from the SPD. On Christmas Eve, counterrevolutionary troops surrounded the palace and issued an ultimatum to the sailors—and proceeded to bombard the building with machine guns and artillery. Thousands of workers gathered in the city center to support the People’s Navy Division, and together they forced the attackers to retreat.

Ebert had coordinated the attack with Groener. In public, he denied all knowledge of it, but no one believed him. After “Ebert’s Bloody Christmas,” the three USPD members resigned from the Council of People’s Deputies. Ebert replaced them with MSPD members. He dropped the word “council” from the government’s name and began referring to himself as the imperial chancellor. It was difficult to find a war minister, that is, a Social Democrat who would accept responsibility for putting down the workers movement. Finally, Gustav Noske volunteered. “Someone has got to be the bloodhound,” he said. Noske understood that the SPD had no chance to beat Berlin’s revolutionary movement in a direct confrontation. Their only hope lay in a provocation: draw the revolutionaries into a decisive battle before they could organize their forces.

In the next part, Wladek Flakin tells the story of the revolution’s defeat. What lessons can we draw from this history?

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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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