3 – Germany
“Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.”
Rosa Luxembourg, Spartacist League leader, 1916
The question of whether there was actually a revolution in Germany in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, or whether there was a succession of failed uprisings that eventually begat the Weimar Republic is one about which historians still argue. The timeline from the end of the war until the takeover of Hitler in 1933 is one with several potential revolutions, sprung from both sides of the political spectrum, all of which have left their lasting effect on German society to this day.
The situation in Germany at the end of the war was dire to say the least. The army and the navy were split on whether the war was over at all – the ground forces had given up, but the Naval Command ordered another attack on the British – and the various revolutionary forces that had been quietly (or in the case of the Communists, not so quietly) active during the war were able to take advantage of the situation.
The Communist Spartacist League, lead by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht and inspired by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, had been staging strikes in Berlin and other cities throughout 1918 and after a series of mutinies on naval bases on the Baltic Coast, the Kaiser abdicated on November 9th. With the leader gone, one of the strangest incidents in German history took place.
The German Socialist Party (SPD), which had supported the war and sought to undercut the Communists by advocating for a parliamentary system as opposed to the Soviet-style overthrow that the Spartacists wanted, declared a republic from the balcony of the Reichstag, the parliament building in Berlin. However, just a mile away at the Berliner Stadtschloss, the seat of the city government. Thus, two left-wing republics were declared on the same time, the second far to the left of the first.
Armistice with Germany was signed but the battle for control of Germany was only beginning. As 1918 became 1919, groups of nationalist ex-soldiers known as Freikorps began to clash with workers across the country, while in Berlin the two parallel governments organised themselves. The Spartacists acted first, enacting a putsch against the new parliament in Weimar that was brutally crushed by the new regime with the help of the Freikorps, who murdered Liebknecht and Luxemburg.
Elsewhere, similar Soviet councils sprang up in Bavaria – where a republic was also declared – while strikes paralysed the Ruhr Valley, Saxony and the Rhineland. By May 1919, when the uprising in Bavaria was crushed, the far left revolutionary period was over. The SPD, lead by Friedrich Ebert, increasingly began to exert its authority and something approximating parliamentary rule would emerge in Weimar.
By June 1919 all aspirations that the SPD had of a socially organised Germany were dashed by the punitive conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, which slapped the battered Germans with reparation payments, economic sanctions and other conditions that severely limited any scope for reconstruction. In March 1920, a right-wing coup in Berlin, known as the Kapp Putsch, was orchestrated by the Freikorps. It forced the government to flee but was thwarted by a combination of mass strikes and resistance from the government bureaucracy, while in the industrial Ruhr area, a leftist uprising began that was put down by a combination of Freikorps and regular military.
Another coup attempt – the Munich Beer Hall putsch led by Hitler and the nascent Nazis – would be foiled in 1923, plus another leftist revolt in Hamburg before a period of stability. Economically in tatters, the Weimar government was forced to battle catastrophic hyperinflation as well as the heavily armed groups of rightists and leftists that were permanently in competition in the streets. The revolutions of 1918 and 1919 might have failed, but they foreshadowed the brutality and violence that was coming. Rosa Luxemburg spoke of “socialism or barbarity” as a stark choice, and she was not wrong.