At the end of the First World War, the epicentre of revolution moved from Petrograd to Berlin. Why did the German communists fail where the Bolsheviks had succeded?

The First World War was ended by military defeat and revolution. The relationship between the two was intimate.

Once it was clear they could not win the war, the Central Powers made a series of compromise peace offers. Each was rejected.

The Entente Powers – Britain, France, Italy, and the USA – wanted total victory and a free hand to carve up the world in their own interests.

In these circumstances, the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Bulgarian leaders were determined to continue fighting. The imperialist greed of the world’s ruling classes would have condemned humanity to endless slaughter.

What prevented this was revolution. First, the Russian Revolution ended the war on the Eastern Front. Then, a year later, a wave of revolution and nationalist revolt ended the fighting in the Middle East, the Balkans, and on the Western Front.

Nor did it stop at the borders of the defeated Central Powers. The contagion spread to Britain, France, and Italy. ‘The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution,’ complained British Prime Minister Lloyd George in a letter to his French counterpart in 1919. ‘The whole existing order in its political, social, and economic aspects is questioned by the mass of the population from one end of Europe to the other.’

At the end of the war, the epicentre of the revolutionary storm moved from Petrograd to Berlin, from the edge of Europe to its heart. History would turn on the outcome of the German Revolution.

Victory in Germany would have brought the richest industrial economy and the largest working-class in Europe over to the side of socialist revolution, bringing immediate succour to the beleaguered Bolshevik regime in Russia, establishing workers’ power from the North Sea to the Pacific, and, in all probability, ensuring that the revolution would go global.

Had this happened, the whole future course of human history would have been different. There would have been no Great Depression, no Nazism, no Stalinism, no Second World War, no Cold War. The stakes in 1919-1920 could not have been higher.

Germany’s ‘November Days’ revolution had seen mass demonstrations, mass strikes and mutinies, and the rapid formation of a network of workers’, soldiers’, and sailors’ councils.

The Russian Revolution had shown that such a network represented a potential alternative state structure based on direct democracy. But the German councils chose to hand over power to a traditional parliamentary-type government.

A new administration formed of SPD and USP ministers was endorsed by an assembly of 1,500 workers’ and soldiers’ delegates. This event revealed both the strength of the councils – their backing was needed – and the weakness of their politics – they put their trust in professional career politicians.

The German socialists had split into three groups. The leaders of the SPD (German Social-Democratic Party) were pro-war and anti-revolution. Their main aim was to make Germany safe for capitalism by destroying the very movement that had elevated them to power.

SPD leader Frederick Ebert became German premier in November. General Groener was soon on the phone. The High Command would recognise the new government provided it supported ‘strict discipline and strict order’ in the Army and committed itself to the ‘fight against Bolshevism’. Ebert and Groener became firm allies.

The leaders of the USP (Independent Social-Democratic Party) were ‘centrists’. Their ranks included social-democratic ‘revisionists’ like Edward Bernstein, more radical parliamentary socialists like Karl Kautsky, and Marxist intellectuals like the economist Rudolf Hilferding. What united them was their combination, in varying proportions, of revolutionary rhetoric and reformist practice.

In January 1919, SPD electoral support was five times that of the USP (11.5 million as against 2.3 million votes). By June 1920, the two parties would be almost neck-and-neck. This is one measure of the dramatic shift to the left among German workers during Europe’s two great years of revolution after the First World War.

The third group was the Spartakus League, or the KPD (German Communist Party) as it became on 1 January 1919. A revolutionary socialist group led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, it was similar in character to the Russian Bolsheviks. In November 1918, the USP probably had ten times as many members as the Spartakus League.

The SPD was the dominant party in government, and the SPD leaders were working hand-in-glove with the Army High Command. Because the soldiers were infected with ‘the spirit of revolution’, Social-Democrat minister of the interior Gustav Noske authorised the generals to create a new paramilitary force, the ‘Free Corps’ (Freikorps).

The combination of military defeat, economic crisis, and social upheaval had torn the old world apart. Many Germans moved to the left. Others, including many junior officers, NCOs, elite soldiers, and military specialists, moved to the right.

The Free Corps was recruited from these hard-right elements. It immediately gained a reputation for brutality, anti-semitism, extreme nationalism, and violent hostility to the workers’ councils, the unions, and the Left. Many Free Korps thugs would end up in the Nazi Party.

Berlin was the capital of the revolution and the strongest base of the newly formed KPD. On 4 January, the SPD-dominated government sacked Berlin’s chief of police, the USP member Emil Eichhorn, for refusing to take action against working-class protests.

Hundreds of thousands of workers poured onto the streets, many of them armed. An ‘Interim Revolutionary Committee’ was installed at police headquarters. But the leadership was uncertain, local troops remained hostile, and support for the action outside Berlin was minimal.

The Berlin activists had been goaded into action before the revolution had ripened. The revolutionary capital was isolated. Not only the Free Korps but many soldiers from outside Berlin were willing to participate in what turned out to be the bloody suppression of the ‘Spartakus Rising’.

Karl Liebknecht was knocked unconscious and shot. Rosa Luxemburg’s skull was smashed with a rifle butt, she was then shot, and her body was thrown into a canal. The German Revolution had been decapitated.

The KPD was a new party. Its support outside Berlin was limited, it lacked the authority of a more established organisation, and many of its cadre were inexperienced and prone to adventurism.

In July 1917, the Bolsheviks had reined back the Petrograd proletariat to prevent a premature seizure of power in the capital. In January 1919, the Spartakists failed to do the same in Berlin – and paid a terrible price.

Nonetheless, the setback was not necessarily fatal. The crisis continued to mature across Germany. Support flowed from the SPD to the USP and the KPD. The Free Korps faced increasingly effective resistance from armed workers and revolutionary soldiers. By March 1920, an estimated 20,000 had been killed in a series of regional civil wars.

At this point, the German ruling class launched a ‘law and order’ coup, sending troops into Berlin, overthrowing the SPD government, and appointing a conservative bureaucrat called Kapp in its place.

This time it was the Right that had moved too soon. The head of the main union confederation called a general strike. Millions of workers responded. They also formed new councils and took up arms. The ‘Ruhr Red Army’ freed Germany’s greatest industrial region of all right-wing troops.

The ‘Kapp Putsch’ collapsed in a few days, and the SPD ministers returned to office. The coup had exposed the true nature of the ruling class, and German workers moved sharply to the left. Its defeat had also revealed the strength of the revolution, and confidence soared.

But the potential was not realised. The KPD drew back from preparing a proletarian insurrection. The Kapp Putsch did not, like the Kornilov Coup of August 1917, pave the way for socialist revolution.

Too bold in January 1919, the KPD leaders had learnt their lesson too well, and now, in wholly different circumstances, proved far too timid.

Timing is all in the art of revolution. The summer of 1920 is almost certainly a moment when revolutionaries could have led the working class to victory in the heart of Europe. History’s price for their failure is incalculable.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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