Between 1918 and 1923 revolution erupted in Germany. Open class warfare gripped the country with uprisings, mass strikes and army mutinies. Armed workers clashed with counter-revolutionary paramilitaries.
On at least three occasions the fate of German capitalism hung by a thread as workers threatened to take power into their own hands.
A socialist revolution in Germany—then the most advanced industrial state in continental Europe—would have brought into question the very survival of the capitalist system itself.
It would have ended the isolation of revolutionary Russia, and raised the possibility of revolution spreading across Europe.
Only at the end of 1923 could Germany’s bosses breathe a sign of relief that they had survived with their wealth and power largely intact.
The revolution began in November 1918 when sailors in the German navy stationed at Kiel mutinied.
For four years workers had faced bloodshed in the trenches and hunger at home as German capitalists fought the First World War with their rival imperialist powers.
Some 1.7 million workers were killed during the war and the “Turnip Winter” of 1916-17 saw 750,000 people die of starvation.
The accumulated bitterness people felt against their rulers burst out.
The mutiny quickly turned into an uprising that spread through Germany’s northern cities, reaching Berlin in days. The monarchy was swept away as the Kaiser stepped down.
Throughout the country, workers, soldiers and sailors established their own elected councils, often backed by armed force. These effectively held power. Although the state machine was not completely broken, it was largely helpless.
Despite this, workers’ councils eventually handed power back to the capitalist state, giving Germany’s rulers a vital breathing space to organise against the revolution.
Right wing paramilitary squads, the Freikorps, were established from mostly middle-ranking army officer volunteers. They launched a campaign of terror throughout 1919.
Why did the majority of workers relinquish the power they held?
There were two reasons. Firstly, the German ruling class was able to co-opt the organisation that had the support of the vast majority of workers—the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
The SPD was a mass working class organisation founded on socialist principles. With over a million members, it was the biggest working class organisation in the world at the time.
It stretched into every corner of German life, with over a dozen daily newspapers, cultural groups, workplace groups and MPs in parliament.
The SPD was a reformist party. It sought to win change under capitalism, not overthrow it. But the party’s size and strength meant that it was an important defensive shield for workers against the bosses. It championed and drove forward workers’ rights.
Unfortunately the leaders of the SPD, which still called itself Marxist, proved their loyalty to the state when they voted to support the war in 1914.
In alliance with the ruling class they helped implement rationing, war measures and attacks on working conditions.
Before the war, the SPD was a political pariah, held largely in contempt by the ruling class. Now the state rushed to open the doors of the highest political offices to the party. Its leader Friedrich Ebert became chancellor—the head of government—in the new republic.
The ruling class hoped that the SPD would contain the mass revolutionary movement that had erupted.
As a leading capitalist politician, Gustav Stresemann, put it, “A government without the Social Democrats during the next two to three years seems to me quite impossible, since otherwise we shall stagger from general strike to general strike.”
The second reason that the revolutionary movement was defeated stemmed from the weakness of workers’ independent organisation.
The majority of workers still looked for change to come from above, even if this was to be supplemented with mass pressure from below. That meant looking to an SPD-led government as the way to improve their lives.
Only a minority initially believed that it was necessary to go further and take power themselves and totally transform society.
The SPD still exercised significant influence over workers’ ideas, and its leaders sought to use this to limit the revolution and “restore order”.
But even workers who initially looked to the SPD still wanted real changes. Ideas changed massively in the process of the revolution, and so did their demands.
The overthrow of the Kaiser was followed by wave upon wave of strikes as people demanded better pay and conditions. The number of strike days leapt from 5.2 million in 1918 to 54 million in 1920.
Workers flooded into trade unions. Before the revolution there were 1.5 million trade unionists in Germany. By December 1919 there were 7.3 million.
Increasingly the terror of the Freikorps was directed not just against the revolutionary left but the working class as a whole.
The combination of the SPD entering an alliance with the ruling class and the lack of workers’ independent organisation meant that by March 1920 the ruling class felt able to stage a military coup and dump the SPD.
But, as Karl Marx once observed, sometimes the whip of counter-revolution can drive a revolution forward. Workers responded with a massive general strike.
The armed workers’ power of 1918 reappeared across large parts of Germany and the coup collapsed.
The deepening polarisation of society was matched by a radicalisation inside the working class. The SPD lost support to parties to its left.
Initially it was the wartime split from the SPD, the Independent SPD (USPD) that grew rapidly.
But it too was unable to provide effective revolutionary leadership. The USPD then split. Hundreds of thousands of its members joined the most consistent revolutionary force—the German Communist Party (KPD).
The KPD was only founded after the overthrow of the monarchy, and was therefore weak at the start of the revolution.
By 1920 millions of workers looked to it for leadership. But the KPD made a series of disastrous mistakes.
In the first phase of the revolution, a militant minority of workers moved to take power immediately without having won the support of the majority.
So in Berlin in January 1919 the “Spartacist rising” was crushed by the Freikorps with the connivance of the SPD leadership. In the days that followed, the Freikorps captured and murdered two key leaders of the revolutionary left, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.
In March 1921 the KPD attempted to turn a bitter defensive strike by miners in central Germany into a national direct struggle for state power.
The rising was a catastrophe. The young party lost its confidence and its membership halved.
The KPD needed to find ways of drawing workers still influenced by reformist ideas into common struggles for immediate gains. This could prove in practice that revolutionaries offered the best way of defending and extending the revolution.
The leadership of the KPD did start to adopt this approach between 1920–23, entering into a series of united fronts. They grew in size and influence as a result.
The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky described the united front as based on the principle that working class people from a variety of organisations and political tendencies should join together to achieve a common goal—often a single issue.
So the KPD appealed to the SPD for unity and action over the question of defending workers against the far right as well as economic demands.
Its leaders ignored these calls, but the KPD made appeals over their heads directly to the party’s grassroots.
As a result, between 1921 and 1922 the KPD gained around 40,000 members—the Social Democrats lost roughly the same number.
By 1923 a new revolutionary crisis emerged, shaking German capitalism to its core. French troops had re-occupied the key Ruhr industrial region. The economy in turn was nearly paralysed by the onset of hyperinflation.
Mass strikes broke out. The missing ingredient of the opening phases of the revolution also now existed—a mass Communist Party with real influence in the working class.
But the leadership of the KPD now made the opposite mistake from 1919. It was unable to break from the method of working with parts of the reformist left, even as influence drained away from them, and to lead an insurrection.
The opportunity to put an end to German capitalism passed.
The key weakness of the revolution was that there was no independent revolutionary workers’ party organising before the uprising started—in the way that the Bolsheviks had in Russia.
That would have allowed the accumulation of political experience and of at least some influence among the most militant workers.
In turn that would have made it much easier to overcome the many difficult problems that the revolution threw up.
The defeat of the German revolution had terrible consequences. It left the Russian Revolution isolated, paving the way for the rise of Joseph Stalin.
Later the Great Depression culminated in Adolf Hitler coming to power.
Germany’s years of struggle showed that socialist revolution is possible even in advanced capitalist countries with mass reformist traditions—Germany in 1918–23 more closely resembled Britain today than it did Russia in 1917.
But the key lesson is the need to begin building a revolutionary socialist party even during periods that are not yet revolutionary.
The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918–1923, by Chris Harman
The German Revolution, by Pierre Broué
Witness to the German Revolution, by Victor Serge
All these books are available from Bookmarks bookshop: www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk or phone 020 7637 1848