German November 1918 Revolution: when the soviets “touched” Europe

Nihat Halepli

The November 1918 Revolution in Germany has a major place in the history of the world working class struggle. It started with the sailors’ uprising in Kiel and marks the first phase of the process of the German Revolution, which started in November 1918 and continued until 1923. 

The industrialization process started rather late in Germany, at the end of the 18th century, in relation to countries such as England and France. The process speeded up though at the end of the 19th century, and provoked a quick rise in the numbers of the German working class. At the beginning of the 20th century, industrial workers represented one-third of the general population.

The proletariat’s growth was reflected in the struggles of the working class, such as the struggle for higher wages and the right to work 8 hours a day. Those victories paved the way for the development of working-class organizations. From the late 1870s to 1913, the number of unionized workers had increased fivefold, reaching around 2.5 million.

Despite Bismarck’s “Socialist Laws” (voted with the aim of dealing a blow to socialists), repression was not able to prevent the SPD (Social Democratic Party) from gaining influence among the workers. After the law was repealed, the SPD grew larger and turned into the biggest workers’ party. The SPD was also quite influential within the women’s and youth movements. By 1913 the SPD had become the strongest party in the Reichstag (Parliament) with one million members.

On the other hand, growing bigger meant that a leadership cadre began to form within the party, whose wages and therefore living standards were higher than those of the working class. The party’s daily newspaper had around one and a half million subscribers. A party school was created in order for the cadre to be trained. The party owned institutions with a total of three to four thousand employees. The salary of a professional party secretary was equal to twice the salary of a skilled worker. The salary of the union administrators could be five or six times as much.

Three wings

The program adopted at the SPD congress in Erfurt in 1891, following the Socialist Law, was important in transforming the party into a mass party. However, an important political problem was still present in the programme and in Kautsky’s (one of the authors) approach; an approach that pointed in the direction of an “imminent” and “natural” collapse of the capitalist system due to its contradictions. This was a linear approach predicting that the working class would at some point automatically seize power. It led to an effective abandoning of revolutionary activity, limiting the party to short-term demands and waiting for the moment capitalism would fall like a ripe fruit.

It was Eduard Bernstein who, based on this approach, subsequently created a theory, which is now known as “reformism” (or “revisionism”); since capitalism can improve the living standards of the large masses by constantly developing, class struggle is no longer necessary and therefore Marxism is in essence obsolete. The struggle was confined inside the limits of the system, and socialism was pushed as a theoretical goal for the distant future.

On the other hand, a left wing, led by Rosa Luxemburg, was formed within the party. They were called the “radical left“ and defended the need for class struggle and Marxist analysis, advocating that the party should lead the revolution when mass strikes would break out. Apart from that, Kautsky’s “Marxist Centre” wing argued that mass strikes were only useful for putting pressure on parliament.

War credits approval

Already at the beginning of the 20th century, the German economy began to stagnate. In this context, large companies, which had an effective influence over the state, were propagating nationalism, colonialism, and therefore war and militarism. Capitalism, as Lenin analyzed, was taking more and more an imperialistic character.

The SPD had initially adopted a line against the war, which was evident in its publications and in the demonstrations it organized. Hundreds of thousands mobilized against the coming 1st World War until July 1914. But a month later, the SPD leadership joined forces with the bourgeoisie and its representatives supporting the war effort. As a result, ADGB, the trade union confederation, put an end to all trade union actions and ongoing strikes within the “Burgfrieden” framework, (in German, burgfrieden means a truce between conflicting groups within a fort). 

Spartacus

August Bebel was the SPD parliamentary group leader, trying to keep a balance between the different wings. After his death, Friedrich Ebert replaced him. This is when the parliamentary group voted in favor of the motion on war credits, on August 4, 1914. Even the 13 SPD deputies who were against the motion, voted in favour because of the party/group discipline rule. Only Karl Liebknecht abstained. On a second vote in December though, Karl Liebknecht was the only MP to vote against war credits. On another vote in March, Otto Rühle from the “centre” wing also joined Liebknecht.

By 1916, the left wing of the SPD included revolutionaries such as Rosa Luxemburg and Franz Mehring, and was known as the “International group”, named after their magazine, of which they only managed to publish one issue. At that moment, they began to produce illegal publications under the name “Spartacus” and from then on, they were known as the Spartacist League.

USPD

The war meant deteriorating economic conditions, high living costs, famine and misery for the population. Therefore the working class’ “patriotism” and war excitement eventually faded away, giving space to an increasing opposition to the war. There were 141 strikes in 1915, but 240 the next year.

This increasing opposition to the war created pressure within the SPD, which resulted in the formation of the Social Democratic Working Group (Sozialdemokratische Arbeitsgemeinschaft), which organized some 18 SPD deputies who came out against the war. When these were expelled from the SPD in 1917, they created the USPD, the “Independent SPD”; from then on the SPD would also be informally referred to as MSPD, Majority (Mehrheit)-SPD.

The USPD included representatives from all three wings of the MSPD; Bernstein also joined the USPD since he had adopted an anti-war stance, and so did the Spartacist League. The USPD quickly turned into a mass party. The Spartacists were participating in the party, while openly maintaining their own independent publications and structures.

The USPD was a left mass party without a clear Marxist program, revolutionary tactics or strategy. Nevertheless, it was strongly bonded to the working class, because it was capable of working openly, but also because it represented a massive split from the massive SPD. These were decisive factors in the Spartacist League joining the party, in order not be isolated from the radicalized masses and the working class.

Revolution

After the revolution in 1849, Germany had adopted the regime of parliamentary monarchy, since the bourgeoisie agreed terms with the monarchy. The main authority belonged to the Kaiser (the emperor), despite the existence of parliament. The government was accountable to him, and not to parliament.

Revolution in 1918 was on the doorstep of Germany and the rulers started panicking. They tried to reduce the pressure with some concessions, in fear of the influence of the Bolshevik revolution, which had taken place in Russia in 1917. Thus, a government under Prince Max von Baden as chancellor was formed; this government was accountable to parliament and, for the first time, two SPD members, Scheidemann and Bauer, took part in it. But that maneuver soon proved to be insufficient.

A rebellion started among the sailors, despite the fact that it was clear that the battle was going to be lost. The sailors had actually disobeyed the order of the German naval fleet’s high command to engage in a naval battle with the British. 47 sailors, considered as the leaders of the revolt, were arrested and brought to Kiel. Demonstrations demanding the release of the arrested, organized by the sailors and workers who came to their support on November 3, turned into clashes – it was the beginning of the revolution.

Soon after, the workers and soldiers set up their autonomous councils and took control of the city. The revolution spread quickly from Kiel, located at the northern tip of the country, to other northern cities like Lübeck, Bremen and Hamburg on the next day. One day later, it was reaching Leipzig in the east, Cologne in the west, and Munich in the south. Workers’ and soldiers’ councils were set up everywhere.

A general strike was called on November 9 in Berlin, demanding the end of the military dictatorship and the government. It actually brought the end of monarchy. On that day, hundreds of thousands of workers in Berlin shouting slogans like “Unity”, “Law and Freedom” and “Brothers, Do Not Shoot!” flooded the city centre with banners and posters. The soldiers either joined the protests or remained neutral. Three workers lost their lives when officers ordered a mass shooting. But Berlin was soon under the control of revolutionary workers and soldiers.

Despair dominated the opposite camp. Prince Max von Baden named the MSPD leader Ebert chancellor, without even waiting for the answer of the Kaiser. The Kaiser was actually somewhere in Belgium at that moment. Ebert’s and the capitalists’ main fear was that a socialist revolution was taking place. Ebert tried to convince the Kaiser to withdraw, and his exact words express this fear: “If the Kaiser does not abdicate, social revolution is inevitable. But I don’t want it, indeed I hate it like a sin”.

On the very date of the strike, November 9, Scheidemann spontaneously proclaimed the Republic, while addressing the demonstrating masses from the balcony of the parliament building. A few hours later, Karl Liebknecht proclaimed the Free Socialist Republic of Germany, explicitly stating that the task was not yet accomplished and that a workers’ and soldiers’ government needed to be formed. 

Dual power

Indeed, the revolution was not yet complete; the country was in a dual power situation, where both the old state machine and the workers’ bodies of power were functioning in parallel.

As a result, workers’ power was not stable. The bourgeois forces were working hard in order to prevent the working class forces from being able to rule. They tried to undermine the councils and establish a bourgeois parliamentary system. At the same time, Ebert worked out a secret agreement with the Supreme Army Command for joint action against the revolutionaries. It became known as the Eber-Groener Pact.

During the weeks of dual power, the worker-soldier councils’ authority was undermined. Ebert’s decisive move was at the first General Congress of Councils (Richsraetekongreß) on 16-24 December. Out of 492 delegates in this important congress, only 179 were workers; the rest were intellectuals, self-employed, union and party leaders. 75% of the delegates were MSPD members or allies; out of the remaining 25% of USPD delegates, only 10 were Spartacists.

The main issue to be decided by the Congress was if the new state would be a soviet (council) democracy or a parliamentary one. USPD’s proposal for a council democracy was rejected by 344 votes to 98. The delegates also transferred their powers to the Council of People’s Deputies, in a way that the worker-soldier councils conceded their own power to this Council.

KPD and January Uprising

Due to the USPD’s indecisive stance in the congress, the Spartacists left the party. On January 1, 1919, they founded the Communist Party of Germany, KPD, together with the the IKD (Internationale Kommunisten Deutschland).

On the other hand, the bourgeois forces launched hate campaigns against revolutionary leaders such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The government was looking for an opportunity to eliminate Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, and so to crush the revolution.

On January 4, 1919, the government dismissed USPD member Emil Eichhorn, who was the Berlin police chief. This automatically triggered unrest and a second wave of revolutions broke out. Protests turned into an armed uprising.

MSPD’s Gustav Noske, who was appointed commander-in-chief on January 6, brought into Berlin the Freikorps: these were volunteer armed groups, mostly demobilized reactionary soldiers of the old regime, many of whom joined the Nazis later. They had been assigned to maintain security and order since December. The January Uprising was drowned in blood by the Freikorbs. 156 people are reported to have lost their lives, but the number in reality was higher.

On January 15, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were abducted by soldiers and taken to Captain Waldemar Pabst’s room in the Eden Hotel, which had been converted into an operation centre. Shortly afterwards, the two revolutionary leaders were killed, after having been tortured. Pabst later boasted that he had committed the murders with Noske’s approval, apparently Ebert being in the background.

In the following weeks, all revolutionary worker-soldier councils in other cities were dismantled by the Freikorps. The last one to fall was the Munich Council Republic in May 1919. Communist leader Eugen Leviné was executed. The closing act of the first phase of the German Revolution was Rosa Luxemburg’s and Karl Liebknecht’s murders though. A second part of the German revolution was to follow in 1923.

Conclusion

The German November Revolution was a decisive episode for the world revolution. It was supported by the workers and soldiers of the SPD base, the largest party of the working class, but was suppressed by the betrayal of the SPD leadership.

The repression of the German Revolution actually meant that the last hope for the Russian revolution to escape its isolation was lost. As a result, the Soviet Republic was left alone, which in turn created the conditions that gave birth to Stalinism. Considering the decisive negative role that Stalinism played for the world revolution, especially in the 1930s and later, the defeat of the German Revolution can be considered to have determined the course of history. The next episodes in this course were the rise fascism and the biggest disaster in history, World War II.

An important factor for the defeat of the German Revolution was the betrayal of the Social Democratic Party leaders. What seemed as “minor” political problems inside the left movement, led to the acceptance of the capitalist way of doing politics, which in turn led to the crushing of the revolution. This, combined with the absence of a party with a tight organization and a clear strategy and program, similar to the Bolsheviks in the Russian revolution, led to the disaster. This should open an important discussion on the conclusions to be drawn in relation to the kind of party we need today, especially if the working-class movement wants to avoid the failures of the past.

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