At the crossroads

As 2019 comes to an end, it would be wrong not to mark the centenary of one of the most momentous and least remembered events of the twentieth century: the German Revolution.

The revolution doesn’t have one sole year as its anniversary. It raged from 1918 to 1923, spreading from the mutinous naval yards of Kiel to the pits and steelworks of the Ruhr. In a manner that was hardly less vital than the revolution in Russia, the German workers’ strikes catalysed uprisings across Europe, igniting an almost global fever of rebellion that tore at capitalism’s foundations after the First World War. British prime minister David Lloyd George wrote at the time:

The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent, but of anger and revolt amongst the workmen against the pre-war conditions. The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other.

His observation was echoed – in much more glowing terms – by Russian revolutionary Victor Serge:

The newspapers are astonishing … riots in Paris, riots in Lyon, revolution in Belgium, revolution in Constantinople, victory of the soviets in Bulgaria, rioting in Copenhagen. In fact the whole of Europe is in movement, clandestine or open soviets are appearing everywhere, even in the Allied armies; everything is possible, everything.

Such developments were not confined to Europe. Australia and the United States experienced the greatest spikes in industrial rebellion of their entire histories during this period. The modern Irish struggle roared into being, and by the mid 1920s China was alight with an uprising that would have as profound an impact as almost any other revolutionary moment of the twentieth century. Revolt and a belief in liberation shook much of the world and was only stifled by the rise of Stalin, Hitler, Franco and other authoritarian leaders.

Yet if there is one year of the German Revolution to memorialise, it must certainly be 1919. That year saw the incendiary aftermath of the uprising that broke the German military from within and ended the First World War. It saw an explosion of workers’ democratic bodies that seized control of much of the country’s industry, as well as the foundation of the German Communist Party (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands – KPD), which within months boasted hundreds of thousands of members.

More notoriously, it saw the decapitation of the German revolutionary movement, with the country’s most renowned Marxists assassinated within weeks of the year’s beginning by the newly elected Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands – SPD). Many of these figures, including Karl Liebknecht, Leo Jogiches, Franz Mehring and Johann Knief, are barely remembered today, despite commanding the respect of millions of workers at the time. One remains a towering figure in the socialist pantheon: Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish wunderkind whose name terrified the bourgeois of Europe no less than that of Vladimir Lenin or Leon Trotsky.

Why are some revolutions forgotten while others remain so vivid in the public consciousness? The French and American revolutions continue to be celebrated as vital moments in modern history, despite the latter being a rather meagre uprising whose most iconic event was the kicking of tea into a harbour by slave-owning import smugglers. Yet the formation of the Paris Commune, one of the most extraordinary examples of democratic self-rule in recent history and an event that took place almost a hundred years more recently than the storming of the Bastille, is largely forgotten. The Spanish Revolution tends to be reduced to civil war and is largely treated as a side note in the biographies of its more famous combatants. The Northern European revolutions of the early twentieth century are almost entirely absent from history, while those of Central America are used to sell T-shirts and cigars. The stories of other revolutions – from Iran and Chile, to Mexico, Egypt and, of course, Russia – have been so bastardised as to hold almost no resemblance to what they actually were.

England offers a surprisingly useful example when thinking about how revolutions are memorialised and politicised. In the late twentieth century, a debate raged among historians about the survival of the English monarchy. The country is often depicted as the cradle of modernity – it was the first industrial superpower, the first global capitalist empire, the first place where the agrarian cobwebs of feudalism were torn asunder. It was also the site of a major urban revolution in the 1640s, an extraordinary uprising that saw a king executed and parliamentarism affirmed as the only just form of sovereignty. The English revolution bore many features of social struggle that would take centuries to make themselves apparent elsewhere, including large organisations of toilers and the poor, many of which upheld socialist ideals.

All of this left historians with an interesting conundrum: how the bloody hell did England still have a monarchy? Other countries, including those that industrialised much more slowly, have done well enough at getting rid of theirs – the Kaisers are gone from Germany, the Bourbons from France, the Romanovs from Russia. For many historians, the longevity of the English monarchy was evidence of the country’s backwardness compared to its European neighbours, with its relative decline over the last century a symptom of its failure to emancipate itself from the last vestiges of medieval superstition and incompetence.

For social theorist Ellen Meiksins Wood, however, the survival of the English monarchy is indicative of the absolute triumph of capitalism over the nation’s feudal past. In a country overrun with factories, mills and workshops, with an unrivalled fleet shifting merchandise and conquerors across the globe, and with its captains of industry so firmly in the saddle, the symbols of the past were reduced to harmless playthings ripe for cooption by capitalist oligarchs.

Wood likens this to Stalinist Russia, where gulags, mock trials and a suffocating state bureaucracy created a form of totalitarianism so self-assured that it could happily take the old symbols and cultural touchstones of rebellion against tyranny and rebrand them as its own.

A comparison can also be made with the US, which only began to formally celebrate its rebellious history when Independence Day was declared a national holiday in 1938, 162 years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. With the wave of workers’ struggles that ran from the end of the American Civil War until the 1930s finally extinguished, and the iron grip of the war economy and patriotic discipline setting in, the powerful were no longer too fearful of rebellion to deem it legitimate.

The German Revolution will never be subject to such a cultural revival. Whatever could be excavated from it to serve the causes of national pride or state legitimacy will remain buried, because any discussion of the uprising inevitably leads to a discussion of the means by which it was destroyed: the ruling class’ embrace of Nazism. When Max Horkheimer famously remarked, ‘If you don’t want to talk about capitalism then you had better keep quiet about fascism,’ it was Germany that he was thinking of. For both Hitler and the German bourgeoisie, the survival of capitalism required a counter-revolution, and fascism became the means by which to achieve it. The German Revolution’s disappearance from popular memory is a consequence of that strategy’s success.


At the beginning of the twentieth century, the German socialist movement was a beacon for the workers of the world. Its advance was evident from the time of Marx and Engels, the latter of whom reflected on the movement’s growth in 1892:

Today we have one soldier in five, in a few years’ time we shall have one in three, by 1900 the army, hitherto the most outstandingly Prussian element in Germany, will have a socialist majority. That is coming about as if by fate. The Berlin government can see it happening just as clearly as we can, but it is powerless.

Engels spoke of soldiers because the constitution of the army was a better measure of public consciousness than voting patterns, given that enlistment began at twenty years while voting was not permitted until twenty-five. The socialists who made up one soldier in five had another army of their own, the SPD, whose membership stood at over a million by the century’s beginning.

The party had a social and cultural significance far beyond that of any contemporary rivals. At a time before the welfare state or publicly accessible cultural institutions, the SPD provided the social infrastructure of many of its members’ lives. The party organised welfare programs and women/youth organisations; ran singing clubs, bars and sports groups; published ninety daily newspapers and employed almost 300 journalists, plus another 3,000 manual and clerical workers. It was because of this incredible reach and impact that Pierre Broué described the SPD as ‘a state within the state’. Ruth Fischer, a party member at the time, captured the significance of the organisation for its members:

The German Social Democratic Party became a way of life. It was much more than a political machine; it gave the German worker dignity and status in a world of his own. The individual worker lived in his party, the party penetrated into the workers’ everyday habits. His ideas, his reactions, his attitudes, were formed out of this integration of his person with his collective.

Although the party’s formal political position was Marxism, its revolutionary politics weren’t always reflected in its actions – a problem often attributed to the repressive legal conditions in which the party operated – and both Lenin and Engels criticised the party’s 1891 program for not arguing clearly for a revolutionary break with the existing order. Nonetheless, the scaffolding of the party’s ideals remained a vision of workers struggling for a liberated, classless society. The party program also affirmed internationalism, a central tenet of Marxism since The Communist Manifesto’s rallying cry of ‘Workers of the world, unite!’:

The interests of the working class are the same in all countries … The German Social Democratic Party therefore does not fight for new class privileges and class rights, but for the abolition of class rule and of classes themselves, for equal rights and equal obligations for all, without distinction of sex or birth. Starting from these views, it fights not only the exploitation and oppression of wage earners in society today, but every manner of exploitation and oppression, whether directed against a class, party, sex, or race.

The party’s activists understandably treasured the achievement of having built such an organisation. History, however, would be ruthless towards their sentimentality. In the period in which the party grew, the level of social conflict in Germany was very low. This inevitably drove a sense of detachment from revolutionary ideals, with party members focusing more on achieving minor parliamentary reforms than on waging battle on their oppressors. This narrowing of horizons was bolstered by the conservative functionaries who oversaw the running of the party and, crucially, by the bureaucracy of the trade unions, with whom the party leadership was intimately entwined.

The union leaders were perennially fearful of the party being weaponised in a way that could lead to workers’ struggles spiralling out of their control and damaging relations with the industrial and political elite. When the first Russian Revolution of 1905 broke out and it became apparent there was a serious hunger among German workers for mass strikes, not just to improve wages and work conditions but also to enforce political reforms – a strategy that was endorsed in the SPD’s conference of the same year – the union bureaucracy’s fears redoubled. In 1906, the leadership successfully obtained veto power over all party decisions and immediately overturned the campaign of general strikes.

As the decade progressed and the early tremors of economic crisis, political repression and possible war began to be felt, the German working class found itself in a difficult position. A huge organisation had been constructed that abstractly advocated for revolution, but which was welded in myriad ways to the existing order. Indications that the party would betray its ideals soon become apparent. In 1907, a section of the SPD leadership mounted a defence of German colonialism in West Africa. When working class struggle revived in 1910, it became clear that opposition to mass strikes was not confined to the union leaders, but also shared by a substantial section of the party, who generally worried that proletarian insubordination would sabotage parliamentary work. The overwhelming obsession with parliamentary reform raised another spectre: the inevitable conflict between the ambition for greater state power in Germany and the party’s internationalist pretensions, especially in the context of a Europe-wide arms race.

Yet through all of this a radical left persisted. Its most notable figure, the aforementioned Luxemburg, participated vigorously in party debates, while also producing two great works of the period: Social Reform or Revolution and The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions. But her intervention didn’t extend beyond the bounds of polemic. No organisation was constructed that could act as a counterweight to the highly bureaucratised party structures restraining the radical inclinations of the workers’ movement and keeping it anchored to the institutions of German capitalism.

When war broke out in 1914, the SPD overwhelmingly backed it (notable dissenters included Liebknecht, Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin), extinguishing the hope for human liberation that millions had placed in the party. Lenin, on hearing the news, at first thought that it was a forgery by the German High Command to demoralise anti-war activists. Another revolutionary, Nikolai Bukharin, recorded the day the SPD voted to fund the war effort as ‘the greatest tragedy of our lives’. Luxemburg contemplated suicide.

The war threw Germany and the rest of the continent into crisis. While patriotism briefly reigned, misery soon filled the cities of Europe, and millions would be driven to rebel. In Easter 1916, the rebels that William Butler Yeats had met ‘at close of day/ Coming with vivid faces/ From counter or desk among grey/ Eighteenth-century houses’ stormed the British army barracks in Dublin, and the terrible beauty of a continental revolt that would shake European capitalism to its foundations was born.

When workers’ strikes erupted across Germany in November 1918, the military high command, which had effectively taken over running the country during the war, found itself incapacitated, and Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate. The Prussian monarchy, which had reigned for hundreds of years, collapsed in a few short days.

Direct democracy flourished across the country. In the port town of Kiel, where the uprising began, 20,000 sailors elected a council of workers to run the docks. As other sailors poured back from the front and became radicalised against their officers, the revolt spread. In Hamburg, print workers took control of the newspapers. Their first edition read:

This is the beginning of the German revolution, of the world revolution. Hail the most powerful action of the world revolution! Long live socialism! Long live the German workers’ republic! Long live world Bolshevism!

Yet one citadel of the old regime remained: Berlin. The grip of the police and the high command on the city was strong. Spot fires of revolt were nipped in the bud, and public buildings were patrolled by armed detachments to prevent occupations. The SPD leadership was also most concentrated in the city and worked strenuously to prevent an uprising.

The city also harboured the most famous revolutionary in Germany: Liebknecht. A representative in the German parliament, Liebknecht had been the only person to vote against funding the war, and had been incarcerated for organising anti-war demonstrations after being conscripted and sent to the front. He was released from prison barely a week before the revolution broke out, largely due to fears that his incarceration would lend fervour to the workers’ struggle. On 8 November, Liebknecht issued a leaflet – with only his own name and that of another revolutionary, Ernst Meyer, to it – calling for a mass demonstration the next day.

The rally that took place destroyed the last vestiges of the old regime and sowed the seeds for the end of the First World War. Rank and file soldiers joined the protesting workers, stripping their officers of badges, cockades and other symbols of authority. The military officer and researcher Erich Volkmann – certainly no revolutionary – described the scenes:

The day which Marx and his friend desired all their lives had come at last. The Revolution was on the march in the capital of the empire. The firm tread, in step, of the workers’ battalions echoed in the streets. They came from Spandau, from the workers’ districts, from the north and east, and marched towards the city centre, the symbol of imperial power. To the fore were Barth’s assault troops, revolvers and grenades in their hands, with the women and children preceding them. Then came the masses in tens of thousands, radicals, Independents, Majority socialists, all mingled together.

At the rally’s conclusion, Liebknecht stood on the steps of the Berlin Palace and proclaimed victory to a massive crowd:

The rule of capitalism, which turned Europe into a cemetery, is henceforward broken … It only took four days. We must not imagine that our task is ended because the past is dead. We now have to strain our strength to construct the workers’ and soldiers’ government and a new proletarian state, a state of peace, joy and freedom for our German brothers and our brothers throughout the whole world. We stretch out our hands to them, and call on them to carry to completion the world revolution. Those of you who want to see the free German Socialist Republic and the German Revolution, raise your hands!

Tens of thousands of hands went up.

The monumental nature of these events cannot be understated. Up until this moment, the Russian Revolution could still be depicted an outlier, its early successes attributable to Bolshevik fanaticism rather than popular will. Yet suddenly in Germany, the most industrialised and commercially advanced nation in Europe, if not the entire world, millions of workers and soldiers were acting in much the same way as in Russia, democratising their workplaces, convening deliberative assemblies and refusing to continue the imperialist slaughter. The claim that developments in Russian were a consequence of the Tsar’s tyrannical rule, or the Machiavellian demagoguery of Lenin playing on a superstitious mob, could no longer be sustained.

But, as Liebknecht proclaimed, the quest for socialism was far from over. The anger of the proletariat had catalysed the revolution and achieved the overthrow of the monarchy, yet ordinary workers still didn’t control the revolution’s organisational forms – just as the SPD wanted it. The leadership was savvy: in much of the country, they were able to pre-empt workers’ initiatives, appointing bodies of their own to rule in the name of the class as a whole.

The situation that emerged was extremely volatile. The SPD could only fight to re-establish stability through an alliance with parts of the old regime, including those who had embraced far-right nationalism as a consequence of Germany’s defeat. Most notoriously, the party facilitated and resourced the creation of the Freikorps, hyper-reactionary paramilitaries deployed across the country to hunt communists (many Freikorps members went on to be leading Nazis, including Heinrich Himmler, Ernst Röhm and Rudolf Höss, the future commandant of Auschwitz). Long-term SPD apparatchik Gustav Noske oversaw the Freikorps and dubbed himself the ‘bloodhound’ of the counter-revolution.

Against them rose millions of workers who were unwilling to concede that the revolution’s work was done. However, unlike the SPD, whose apparatus was so efficient it could construct and deploy paramilitaries across the country in a matter of days, the workers’ resistance was fragmented, the tempo and intensity of rebellions varying wildly from place to place, and playing out largely independent of one another. Some parts of the country surged into virtual insurrections in the wake of the Kaiser’s fall, whereas others were far more cautious. In the more moderate areas, SPD representatives pursued various means of placation, while the Freikorps violently snuffed out rebellions elsewhere. When the moderate areas radicalised, they found themselves isolated, and the Freikorps would repress them in turn. By August, when the initial waves of rebellion had subsided and the Weimar Constitution was declared, tens of thousands of socialist workers had been killed.

The revolution would continue for several years; its full story is too long to outline here, though two great books tell it in detail: Chris Harman’s The Lost Revolution and Pierre Broué’s The German Revolution, 1917–1923. The theme that runs through both is the enormous organisational disadvantages of those fighting to realise their socialist dreams, relative to those repressing them.

Hundreds of thousands of members abandoned the SPD to establish the KPD. Formed in the maelstrom of revolution, with no shared history of collaboration and deliberation among its members, the KPD blundered through much of the tumult of the class struggle, achieving some important victories and notable strategic masterstrokes, but all too often unsure of itself, and unclear of how to respond to the ploys and manoeuvres of its enemies.

Terrified by the revolution, Germany’s bourgeoisie became zealots for dictatorship and nationalism. In 1920, former finance minister Wolfgang Kapp led a military coup that briefly abolished parliament and imposed the death penalty on strikers. While government ministers fled to Dresden, the working class again roared into action, their general strike evaporating the coup, eventually forcing Kapp and the military high command to flee.

These events foreshadowed the rise of nationalism elsewhere in Europe. Only a short time later, Mussolini marched to power in Rome, his triumph occurring as mass worker uprisings were being restrained and eventually wound back. The search for a German dictator would still take a few years, although the seeds of nationalism were already being planted by SPD policies and decisions.

Pouring over lost history is not merely an exercise in scholasticism. Confronted with the savagery of the First World War, Luxemburg penned words that resonate in a world facing a climate emergency, mass extinction, a global refugee crisis and a resurgence of fascism:

Friedrich Engels once said: ‘Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.’ What does ‘regression into barbarism’ mean to our lofty European civilization? Until now, we have all probably read and repeated these words thoughtlessly, without suspecting their fearsome seriousness. A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means. … Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration – a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism … This is a dilemma of world history, an either/or; the scales are wavering before the decision of the class-conscious proletariat. The future of civilization and humanity depends on whether or not the proletariat resolves to throw its revolutionary broadsword into the scales. In this war imperialism has won. Its bloody sword of genocide has brutally tilted the scale toward the abyss of misery. The only compensation for all the misery and all the shame would be if we learn from the war how the proletariat can seize mastery of its own destiny and escape the role of the lackey to the ruling classes.

Much has changed in the last hundred years, but society still stands at the crossroads. We owe it to those who fought and died for a better world to remember their struggles, and to learn from them.



Con Karavias

Con Karavias is a postgraduate international relations student at Monash University and has previously written for Overland, Cordite, Independent Australia and Red Flag.

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