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German Revolutionaries and the Rise of Fascism

There was unrest in Germany at the end of the war in late 1918, but Germany was different from Russia when the Bolsheviks took power. Germany had a stronger middle-class and a more stable rural population. In Germany was more support for law and order, and Germans who favored communist revolution — the Spartacists — had a stronger central government to contend with. This would be borne out in the events that unfolded in Germany from November to mid-January 1919.

Germany's monarch, the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, had abdicated and went into exile to Holland in November 1918, 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. Many Spartacists were giddy about what they saw as communist revolution coming to Germany as it had to Russia, but not their party's leader, Rosa Luxemburg. She doubted that Germany was ready for a successful uprising, but she was influenced 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 Germany's Chancellor, Friedrich Ebert, dominated the councils. On December 23, revolutionary sailors raided Ebert's office and took him prisoner. The following day, Ebert was rescued by government troops. On Christmas Day, government troops exchanged fire with the revolutionary sailors. Fifty-six government soldiers and eleven of the revolutionary sailors were killed. The Spartacist newspaper ran a headline: "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 intensified the fear that common Germans had for communists. This helped Germany's fascists. 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 their 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, in January 1919 federal elections were held — the first elections for the new Weimar Republic and the first German elections using proportional representation and women's suffrage. 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. The Spartacist Party (calling itself the Communist Party since November 1918) apparently was not among the 20 political parties that did. The Independent Socialists (USPD), some of whom had fought alongside the Spartacists, won 22 seats — hardly the level of mass support that Lenin believed was necessary for the kind of takeover he engineered.

On February 11 a new National Assembly elected Ebert as Germany's first president. The Spartacists were not going along. They were calling Ebert "the mass executioner of the German proletariat." In March political turmoil in Hungary included a united Socialist Party taking power and proclaiming a Soviet Republic. This excited a few in Germany who still believed that revolution was imminent. 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 of dreamers. 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 "kulaks." Automobiles were confiscated. The Spartacists hunted down 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. The prospect of unity on the political left against fascism appeared dim.


CONTINUE READING: Fascists to power in Italy

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