Socialist Worker

The year world history hung in the balance

by Ian Birchall
Issue No. 1919

GERMANY WAS on the brink of revolution after the First World War. A workers’ revolt in this powerful country could have broken the isolation of the Russian Revolution and helped to prevent the rise of Adolf Hitler. It was a turning point in the history of the 20th century.

By 1923 Germany was a society about to collapse. Four years of war from 1914 to 1918 had been followed by five years of bitter class struggle, with the employers trying to restore their old profits by cutting wages and lengthening the working day.

Early in 1923 the Ruhr area in western Germany was invaded by French troops demanding “compensation” for the First World War.

Then Germany was hit by catastrophic inflation. Sometimes prices doubled in a single day. A week’s wage paid on a Saturday was not enough to buy a loaf by the following Wednesday. A miner had to work a whole hour to earn enough to buy a single egg. Workers felt they could not go on in the old way.

The Communist Party had over 200,000 members.

But there was also a threat from the far right. Adolf Hitler, already being financed by US car manufacturer Henry Ford, was busy building his first organisation.

There were frequent violent clashes between workers and police. The Communist newspapers were frequently banned—though they promptly reappeared illegally under new titles.

The Communist Party saw a real possibility of taking power. For that it needed three things— united action by the whole working class, victory in the battle of ideas, and finally guns.

Though there was a large Communist Party, the majority of workers were still loyal to the Social Democrats, a Labour-type party. And even left wing Social Democrats were distrustful of the Communists.

Communists had to argue hard for a united front in order to defend workers’ living standards and to respond to the danger from the far right.

The level of political discussion among workers was extraordinarily high. The food queues that existed everywhere provided a focus for argument. Sometimes there was looting, but often it was politically disciplined. Looters took enough for their own needs, not for profiteering.

Though poverty meant that many workers could not afford a newspaper, they would gather outside newsagents and read the papers on display, debating the alternatives facing them.

The need for arms to meet the threat from both the police and the extreme right became clearer. The Communist Party operated half legally, half illegally. Its comrades argued openly for their ideas, but at the same time there was a clandestine organisation, assisted by the Russian Red Army, preparing for armed struggle. Outside the barracks young women would try to persuade soldiers to bring out hand grenades.

One vital form of organisation were the Hundreds. The Hundreds were united front bodies, initiated by the Communists but drawing in Social Democrats and non-party militants. Sometimes they were formed by mass meetings in factories.

They aimed to fight both military and economic struggles. They were ready to confront any attacks from Hitler and his friends. They also worked with factory councils in forming price control committees. In some areas they requisitioned livestock in order to feed workers.

By late summer 1923 the crisis was coming to a head. Victor Serge, a journalist working for the Communist International, described the hectic pace and the enormous determination shown by workers:

“A million revolutionaries, ready, waiting for the signal to go onto the attack. Behind them millions of unemployed, hungry, battered, desperate people, a whole suffering population, murmuring, ‘We too, we too!’”

By October a workers’ rising seemed possible. But when left wing Social Democrats refused to agree to united action the Communist leaders abandoned the attempt. Some historians argue the working class was exhausted by years of war and conflict.

But the German Communist leaders were indecisive. The party had existed for less than five years.

Its leadership was divided and sometimes confused, relying excessively on instructions from Russia—instructions that were often themselves contradictory.

In the short term the government pulled things together. The Communist Party was briefly made illegal. The German ruling class had been badly mauled, but not put to death. No wonder that ten years later they felt safer with Hitler.

If the German Revolution had succeeded, Hitler would be a footnote in history. With a second workers’ state Stalin’s theory of “socialism in one country” would never have seen the light of day. We need to learn the lessons of a disastrous defeat—but also to remember the courage and creativity shown by German workers in 1923.

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Sat 18 Sep 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1919
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