There was unrest in Germany at the end of the war in late 1918, but Germany was different from what Russia had been when the Bolsheviks took power. Germany had a stronger middle-class and a more stable rural population. There was more support for law and order, and Germans who favored communist revolution — the Spartacists — had a stronger central government to contend with. The truth of this would be borne out in events that unfolded from November to mid-January 1919.
The Kaiser, Wilhelm II, had abdicated and went into exile to Holland in November, a couple of days before the armistice that ended the war. Wilhelm's cousin, Prince Max, handed the government over to a Social Democrat, Ebert. Spartacists were giddy about what they saw as communist revolution coming to Germany as it had to Russia, except for their leader, Rosa Luxemburg. She doubted that Germany was ready for a successful uprising, but she was swept up by the enthusiasm of the bulk of her party. Germany had its councils, similar to Russia's soviets, in whose name Lenin had taken power. But moderate socialists led by Ebert dominated the councils.
On December 23, revolutionary sailors raided Chancellor Ebert's office and took him prisoner. The following day, Ebert was rescued by troops. On Christmas Day, government troops exchanged fire with the revolutionary sailors, and 56 of the government troops and 11 of the revolutionary sailors were killed.
The Spartacist newspaper had a headline that read "Rise Proletarians! To Battle!" Thousands of workers took to the streets. Strikes broke out in Berlin. Armed Spartacists occupied the building that housed the Social Democrat newspaper, and they invaded other buildings. Communists in other cities followed suit and attempted to take control of their cities. When troops supporting the government entered Berlin they were applauded along the way by people opposed to the uprising – far from the mood in Petrograd in November 1917. Street fighting in Berlin was heavy, and the armed revolutionaries were poorly led and lacked coordination.
The fighting in Berlin ended on January 12 with a government victory. The disorder had caused a greater fear and hostility for communists among some in Germany, that was to make it easier for German fascists to build a movement. And the fact that the Spartacists were led by Jews — Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknect — fed Germany's anti-Semitism.
Following the Spartacist defeat, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were rounded up and taken to the hotel that armed government supporters were using as headquarters. Both were taken out the back door, clubbed with rifle butts, taken away and shot. Luxemburg's body was dumped in a canal, to be found days later.
Instead of a Bolshevik-style government for Germany, elections were held. Ebert's moderate socialist party won 163 seats, the Center (Catholic) Party won 91 seats, the German Democratic Party won 75 seats, a monarchists party won 44 seats, and Independent Socialists (USPD) won 22 seats. And on February 11 a new National Assembly elected Ebert as Germany's president.
Spartacists were calling Ebert "the mass executioner of the German proletariat." meanwhile, on March 3 a temporary Bolshevik success in Hungary excited a few German communists who still believed that revolution must be imminent in Germany. In the Bavarian city of Munich a few ragtag revolutionaries and anarchists led by a Jewish war veteran and poet in his mid-twenties, Ernst Toller, chased Bavaria's president, a Social Democrat, out of town and declared Bavaria a Soviet Republic. Toller's government of coffeehouse intellectuals declared that universities were to be open to all, that everyone was to be educated according to his own ideas and that teaching the history of civilization was to be suppressed because history was bunk. After one week, a small Spartacist army overthrew Toller and his group. The Spartacists raised a small army by offering good pay and free living quarters. They declared that the right to the streets belonged only to class-conscious workers. Picking up a leaflet dropped by airplanes was made a capital offense. The Spartacists called on workers to expropriate the bourgeoisie and to confiscate land belonging to "kulak," as Bolsheviks were calling relatively wealthy peasants. Automobiles were confiscated. The Spartacists hunted supporters of the former Social Democrat regime. Homes were broken into and plundered. Food was confiscated. Merchants were warned not to sell food or other goods at market prices. And money was produced in great abundance on government printing presses.
In Russia, news of the Spartacist regime in Bavaria was seen by the Bolshevik head of the Communist Internationale, Gregory Zinoviev, as encouraging. He believed that within a few months the communists would win in Germany. Lenin was encouraged, and on April 27 he sent a letter to Munich asking to be informed as to what concrete measures they were taking against the "bourgeois hangmen" who supported Ebert's government. On that same day, anti-communist military forces were spread around the outskirts of Munich, preparing an assault against the city's revolutionary regime. Some in that regime's army began to desert. The revolutionaries had taken some of Munich's leading citizens hostage, and the commander of the regime's army ordered them shot. Twenty of Munich's prominent citizens were killed and their bodies mutilated.
In a matter of days, Bavaria's Spartacist regime was overthrown. Known leaders of the revolutionary regime were shot on sight. Germany's Communists and moderate Social Democrats remained egregiously divided. Unity on the left would have helped defend what democracy there was in the new German republic, against fascism. But this was not to be.
CONTINUE READING: failed leftist Rising and Fascists to Power in Italy
Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.