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100 Years Ago in Berlin: The Bitter Lesson of a Defeat

The Social Democrats and the military prepared to crush the revolution. A big majority of the working class desired socialism – but they had no major party of their own to lead the struggles. What lessons can be draw from this bloody defeat?

Nathaniel Flakin

November 27, 2018
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Part I | Part II | Part III

On January 4, the SPD fired Berlin’s police president. Emil Eichhorn was not technically a policeman. He was a journalist from the USPD who on the day of the insurrection had thought to lead a group of workers to the police headquarters. They took the “Red Fortress” at Alexanderplatz without a fight, as police officers fled. For two months, Eichhorn had run his own improvised socialist police force. He rejected his firing: “I received my position from the revolution, and I will only return it to the revolution!”

The USPD, the KPD and especially the Revolutionary Stewards called for a general strike to defend Eichhorn. The masses saw this revolutionary police chief as the last remaining gain from the uprising in November. So they poured into the streets to defend him. On January 5, half a million workers joined the strike, despite the bitter cold. The strike leaders were shocked – they had far more support than they realized. That day, Ebert had called his supporters to a counter-demonstration at the Reich Chancellery – only a few thousand petty officers and students showed up.

The strike committee, holed up in the Red Fortress, decided on a new objective for the strike. This was no longer just about defending Eichhorn: They constituted themselves as a Revolutionary Committee of 53 members – led by a triumvirate of Liebknecht (KPD), Georg Ledebour (USPD) and Paul Scholze (Stewards) – and declared the Ebert government had been removed. They had taken power. The following day, up to a million workers joined the strike in support of this new government.

The Revolutionary Committee had overwhelming mass support, yet few means to exercise power. They sent soldiers to occupy central train stations, while workers seized several newspapers, especially the Vorwärts. These were exceptions, however. Around 200 sailors were sent out to capture the War Ministry. Their commander was carrying typed orders from Liebknecht, Ledebour and Scholtze. He presented these to the doorman – who pointed out that the orders were signed, but lacked a stamp. The sailors, still confused by the formal illusions of power, turned around to acquire better orders – and disappeared into the crowds. The ministry was never seized.

The working masses stood a full day in the cold, and then a second, waiting for clear instructions for action. The Revolutionary Committee, stuck in endless deliberations in their headquarters, offered them no leadership. On the third and fourth day, the strike front began to crumble – mostly living hand to mouth, workers needed to go back to work. The Revolutionary Committee attempted to enter negotiations with the Ebert government – the one they had supposedly toppled!

The KPD played a contradictory role in this poorly planned uprising. Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck from the KPD’s Central (i.e. leadership) formed part of the Revolutionary Committee. Yet Radek advised strongly against trying to topple the government at that time. He called for an orderly retreat like the Bolsheviks had carried out after the July Days in Petrograd. His program included: new elections to the councils, the arming of the workers and the formation of workers’ guards, in order to retreat from a premature confrontation and prepare the next offensive. Luxemburg’s position in these critical days is less clear, but she criticized the leaders’ lack of action. Bourgeois historiography often refers to the January Fighting as a “Spartacist uprising,” even though it was nothing of the sort.

Ebert and Noske made a show of negotiating with the failing insurrectionists. In reality, they had spent the week gathering thousands of Freikorps troops around Berlin. As the strike collapsed, the counter-revolution entered the city.


The Freikorps marauded through Berlin, invading one workers’ district after another. The fighting soon concentrated in the Newspaper Quarter, particularly around the Vorwärts building. Some 200 workers had been occupying the building and publishing the “Red Vorwärts” for a week. By January 11 they were surrounded by white troops with artillery, grenade launchers, flamethrowers and even a tank. The proud building, erected with decades of donations from Berlin workers, was heavily damaged by bombardments. The occupiers sent out a seven-person delegation with a white flag to negotiate surrender – all were taken to a neighboring military barracks and beaten to death. The other 200 gave up shortly afterwards, and only by luck avoided a mass murder.

Luxemburg and Liebknecht eventually went into hiding, first in the proletarian neighborhood of Neukölln, then in the more bourgeois Charlottenburg. A counter-revolutionary patrol discovered them in a friend’s apartment. They were arrested and taken to a Freikorps headquarters in the Hotel Edon opposite the zoo. A commanding officer, Waldemar Papst, was uncertain what to do with his two famous prisoners. He called the Reich Chancellery and reached Noske – Ebert was in the same room following the conversation. Papst did not want to take responsibility for an execution. Noske refused to take responsibility as well, fearing that it would split the SPD. The bloodhound eventually told Pabst: “He would have to be responsible himself for what needed to be done.”

Following these implicit orders, the Freikorps executed Luxemburg and Liebknecht. She was beaten to death outside the hotel; he was driven into a nearby park and shot. The murderers claimed that she had been dragged away by a mob, while he had been shot “attempting to escape.” Jogiches and other communists reconstructed the crime precisely in the following weeks. Yet only one single soldier was ever convicted for the murder – Pabst and all the other officers received help to leave the country and later return. Pabst became a Nazi and later a citizen of the Federal Republic, protected by the FRG’s secret services. In 1962, he reported on his conversations with Noske and Ebert. Only in the 1980s did the Social Democrats finally accept their responsibility for the murder of the two communist leaders.

The defeat of the Berlin insurrection did not mean the end of the German Revolution. Mass struggles continued throughout 1919: in the Ruhr region, in Central Germany, in Berlin. There were short-lived Council Republics in Bremen and Munich. The Freikorps and the SPD were able to suppress each of these movements individually. Just in March of 1919, they massacred at least 1,200 workers in Berlin.

By 1920, the right-wing paramilitaries decided the workers’ movement had been completely crushed – therefore they no longer need their alliance with the SPD. The Kapp-Ludendorff-Putsch was their attempt to depose Ebert and take power themselves. They captured Berlin without resistance, with the old government fleeing to Leipzig, then to Stuttgart, unable to find troops willing to defend them. Desperate, Ebert and Co. called a general strike – the first and only national general strike in German history. Millions of workers heeded the call. The coup government, cut off from trains and telegraphs, collapsed after just three days.

The SPD government, saved by the strike, immediately decreed an amnesty for all the coup plotters. The very next day, the renewed SPD-Freikorps alliance was murdering workers from the Red Army of the Ruhr who had just defeated the coup. Struggles like this continued across Germany until 1923. There was never an official count of the dead. Communist sources from the period estimate that in the German Civil War of 1919-20, the SPD government murdered some 15,000 workers.

The Social Democrats claimed that they would bring peace as well as the socialization of the means of production, as long as they could keep the radicals at bay. They put up posters in Berlin proclaiming: “Socialization on the march!” But in front of these posters, right-wing paramilitaries were shooting at workers. A party founded 43 years earlier to smash capitalism had now become the central bulwark of capitalist rule.

The party question

Lenin once explained that the Bolshevik Party had been steeled by 15 years of “practical history (1903-17) unequalled anywhere in the world in its wealth of experience”, consisting of a “rapid and varied succession of different forms of the movement – legal and illegal, peaceful and stormy, underground and open, local circles and mass movements, and parliamentary and terrorist forms.”

Revolutionary socialists in the German Empire, in contrast, had experienced nothing but restricted legality from 1890 to 1914. Every official socialist gathering included a police officer noting down everything that was said and dissolving the meeting if he felt any speakers had violated the law. Socialist agitators learned to formulate their demands within this legal framework.

Inside the pre-war SPD, revolutionaries like Rosa Luxemburg had opportunities to defend their ideas in mass meetings and giant newspapers. But as the left was slowly pushed out of the party mainstream, they failed to organize their own factional structures. In late 1913, Luxemburg, Mehring and Karski attempted to establish a publication, the Sozialdemokratische Korrespondenz, but this was too little and too late. When the war broke out, they were reduced to sending out 300 telegrams in search of fellow opponents of the war – and received just a few responses. They had to build their illegal organization from scratch. Even though Poles like Luxemburg, Jogiches and Karski had extensive experience with conspiratorial work under Czarism, this was hardly applied in Germany. The Spartacus League, for example, was founded in Karl Liebknecht’s law office right under the noses of the military authorities.

Let us contrast this to the Bolsheviks under V.I. Lenin: When the war broke out, they had a party structure with parliamentary representatives, publications, couriers and bases in exile to present revolutionary positions to the workers’ movement across Russia. This was because the Bolsheviks had begun to organizationally delineate from reformist, pro-war socialists as early as 1903.

Even after forming their own revolutionary organization, the Spartacists hoped for a revolutionary refoundation of the old Social Democracy instead of calling for a new party and a new international cleansed of reformism. This was the logic behind joining the USPD at its founding. This mixing of political banners with inveterate centrists like Haase and Kautsky, who had refused to oppose the war, was a historic mistake that could only confuse the working class. If Luxemburg didn’t break with the centrists, why should rank-and-file workers do so?

Franz Mehring, in a letter to the Bolsheviks from 1918, defended the Spartacist tradition, but added the following point: “We were only wrong about one thing: namely when we organizationally joined the independent party after its founding – of course maintaining our own point of view – in the hope of driving them forward. We have had to abandon this hope. All such attempts failed because our best and most tested people were accused by the leaders of the independents as agents provocateurs, which is a beloved remnant of the ‘old proven tactics.'”

To paraphrase Leon Trotsky: The German workers lacked neither arms nor organizations in order to complete the socialist revolution. What they were lacking was a revolutionary party. It would be a complete exaggeration to say that Luxemburg defended a “theory of spontaneity” and believed that workers could complete the revolution without any kind of political leadership. However, she remained convinced that workers, after the reformist leaders betrayed them, would create a new leadership in the heat of battle. The attempt to found the KPD as the revolution was well underway proved hopeless. Luxemburg and her co-thinkers would have needed years to hammer out a program and build up a cadre.

Paul Levi – Luxemburg’s lawyer, who succeeded her as leader of the KPD after her murder – “said in 1920 that the principal mistake of the German revolutionaries was their refusal before 1914 to organize independently on the political level, even if the organization so created would have had to exist as a sect.” (Pierre Broué)

As German Trotskyist Walter Held explained some twenty years later:

While Lenin’s conception of 1903 found its highest confirmation in the planfully directed October uprising; Rosa’s conception suffered a terrible shipwreck in January 1919, and the German left presented us, besides a series of remarkable characters and martyrs to the cause, only the bitter lesson of a new defeat.

Were Luxemburg and Liebknecht naive?

Luxemburg and Liebknecht underestimated the need for a communist leadership to secure a working class victory. Did this mean they also underestimated their own role in history? Any student of the German revolution will wonder: Couldn’t they have saved themselves? When the defeat in the January Fighting became clear, could they not have fled to Jena, to Stuttgart or to Switzerland to reconstitute a KPD Center and prepare for the revolution’s next upsurge?

Luxemburg was still seen arguing and agitating on the streets around Hallesches Tor, mere meters from the Vorwärts building, as the Freikorps approached. She required convincing to go into hiding. There was a logic to her position: Had she gone underground and reemerged in Bremen, this would have been a huge moral victory for the SPD.

No one believed that Ebert and Co. were capable of a murder like this. When she was arrested, Luxemburg – who had only been released from a German prison two months earlier – gathered her favorite books for another prison stay. She had been jailed by both the Kaiser and the Czar – and not once had her life been threatened by absolutist monarchs. Why would Ebert represent a greater danger than Wilhelm or Nikolas? Luxemburg, after all, had been teaching political economy to Ebert at the SPD’s university just a few years previous.

After the July Days in the Russian Revolution of 1917, Lenin fled to Finland, but Trotsky allowed himself to be imprisoned by the Kerensky government. Trotsky’s life was never seriously in danger, and he was released by the next offensive of the working class – the mobilization against the Kornilov coup – a few months later.

At the time, it was difficult to imagine that the reformist leaders could commit such a historic crime. However, the Social Democrats already had the blood of millions of workers on their hands. Why would they draw the line at two more murdered socialists?

In addition, the German bourgeoisie had begun to draw lessons from the Russian Revolution one year earlier. They had realized that the Bolsheviks were more than a band of fanatics who would lose power after a few weeks. If the compact working class in Russia could take political power and expropriate capital, then the danger posed by Germany’s massive proletariat was incomparably greater.

As Lenin explained, under imperialism, the bourgeoisie cannot rule by itself. It needs to corrupt the top layers of the workers’ movement, the trade union bureaucrats and the workers’ aristocracy. Thus reformist organizations like the SPD transform into a kind of capitalist police within the workers’ movement. Just like the normal police, they need to be prepared to commit murder when the ruling class is threatened. This made the Social Democrats’ alliance with the Freikorps inevitable.

This phenomenon can be observed today, just like 100 years ago. When reformist socialists join a bourgeois government, they cannot avoid the responsibility for violent repression against their own base. This is the case of SYRIZA in Greece or Die LINKE in Germany who every day are responsible for evictions and deportations and police violence against workers and youth.

Lessons of a failed revolution

The failed Berlin uprising of early 1919 shows the dialectic of history. For decades, the German working class had worked to build up structures to fight for their liberation: newspapers, trade unions, associations of all kinds, and their own political party with a strong presence in parliament. Yet lacking a clear strategy for conquering power via revolutionary struggle, and hoping for a slow growth into socialism, these very instruments for liberation were turned into weapons against the workers. It was the social democratic structures built up by the sacrifices of generations of workers that saved capitalism from the revolutionary wave of 1918-19.

The German Revolution shows that every proletarian revolution will create structures of self-organization like councils. These structures, whether they are called “Räte” or “Soviets” or some other name, are necessary to pose the question of power. But the formation of councils all over Germany was not enough to secure power for the working class. A revolutionary party working within these organs of self-organization is necessary for the majority of the working class to deal decisive blows to the bourgeoisie and their helpers. Councils led by reformists were worse than useless.

There were not many Freikorps in Germany, in absolute numbers. Yet they had the decisive advantage that they were centrally organized. They could move from one city to the next, smashing the revolutionary movement wherever it raised its head. The workers, in contrast, had to fight with whatever meagre resources they had locally. This lack of centralized leadership was more than just an organizational question, Many workers, influenced by the USPD, believed that it would be possible to create a system reconciling the councils with a parliament. Thus, they maintained illusions in negotiation with the SPD government and their right-wing paramilitaries – who, in contrast, had no such illusions about the possibility to compromise.

Historian Sebastian Haffner titled his seminal work on the role of the Social Democracy in the German Revolution simply: “The Betrayal.” Ebert, Scheidemann, Noske and consorts did not only betray their promises to their supporters: socialization of the means of production and an end to capitalism. They even failed to reach their actual, much more limited goals: a constitutional monarchy, or failing that a parliamentary republic, with a strong social democracy. They created a “republic” based on proto-fascist paramilitaries, armed to the teeth, slaughtering tens of thousands of workers.

A new constitution guaranteed all kinds of democratic rights in the Weimar Regime – but these were meaningless as long as fanatical right-wing militarists and social democratic bureaucrats were massacring workers. The work of the SPD in the November Revolution led Germany straight into the barbarism of the Nazis – who then destroyed the SPD. In their own negative way, the social democrats thus proved Luxemburg correct: “Socialism of Barbarism.” Social Democracy saved Germany from “Bolshevism”, but only by delivering the country to barbarism.

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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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