The Russian Revolution, we are constantly told, led inevitably to the horrors of Joseph Stalin’s rule. The events in Germany at the same time are far less known than what happened in Russia. If that revolution had been successful, the names of both Stalin and Adolf Hitler would have been unknown to history.
At the end of the First World War, workers’ councils sprang up across the country and a republic was set up. German capitalism, wounded by the war, was struggling to stay alive in the face of workers’ struggles, massive inflation and foreign invasion. For five years the Communists grew in strength as revolution seemed imminent.
Anyone who wants to know more about this vital episode of our history should welcome the appearance of Pierre Broué’s book The German Revolution 1917-1923, finally available in English as a paperback edition.
In this very readable account Broué brings out the sheer excitement of the period, the wonderful creativity of working people and the way they invented new forms of democracy.
But he also shows the complications and difficulties, and the book is full of lessons for today. History does not repeat itself, but the study of history can help prepare us for the new challenges of the future.
In many ways the German Revolution is more relevant to us than the Russian. Russia in 1917 was still largely an agricultural country. Germany was a developed industrial society, with a long history of trade unionism and socialist organisation. It was not enough to simply copy the Russian experience.
Broué describes the many debates about strategy and tactics, about how to build a movement that could succeed in specifically German conditions.
Many of the arguments are still around today. A rising wave of struggle always produces what Marxists call “ultra-lefts”, people who have just come into the movement, without experience of past defeats and difficulties, and who are impatient for action. They dismiss working in trade unions, or standing in elections, as a waste of time.
The Russian socialist leader Vladimir Lenin spent many hours arguing with ultra-lefts of assorted varieties, trying to win them over. The German Communists, unfortunately, tried to resolve the situation with expulsions, leading to a disastrous split.
The vital question was the united front. By 1921 there was a mass Communist Party, with around half a million members. But the majority of workers still supported the Social Democrats, who were miles to the left of Tony Blair’s Labour Party, and claimed to be Marxists.
It was not enough for the Communists to simply proclaim that revolution was the only solution. They had to show in practice that revolutionaries were the best fighters for reforms.
Only by building a united front around the defence of workers’ conditions in the face of the terrible inflation and government repression was it possible to start raising the questions of workers’ power. The Communists had to prove the superiority of their politics in practice.
Broué shows the difficulties faced by the German Communists. A united front has to be based on honesty, mutual respect and experience of joint activity. But in 1921 the German Communists launched a stupid, irresponsible offensive, known as the “March Action”.
They had tried to bully their way to an insurrection, instead of taking time to win over their fellow workers. So it is scarcely surprising that a couple of years later the Social Democrat workers were unwilling to trust the Communists.
Often stories of failed revolutions end with the lesson “there was no revolutionary party”. In Germany there was a revolutionary party, but it was unable to meet the challenges required of it.
The Communist Party had workers’ leaders, good organisers and theoreticians, people who could coordinate strikes and organise demonstrations. It had good speakers for mass meetings and parliamentary debates, underground conspirators and talented journalists.
Crowds of unemployed workers on the streets were looking for a solution, swayed one day by the Communists, the next by the fascists. They needed a clear lead, a party which could centralise the struggles and decide how to take the movement forward.
But the German Communist Party was newly formed, and it faced the near impossible task of building a revolutionary party actually in the course of a revolutionary situation. All too often it hesitated, veered from right to left and back again.
Its finest leader, Rosa Luxemburg, was murdered in 1919, but the fact that one leader was so important was itself a sign of weakness. Certainly the German Communists got some bad advice from Russia, but the real problem was that they were so dependent on the Russians, so lacking in self confidence and experience.
Broué’s book is based on years of laborious research, but it is never boring or pedantic. Broué was a revolutionary first and an academic second. He knew which side he was on and he knew what was at stake.
Adolf Hitler played only a minor role in 1923, but his shadow looms over the defeated revolution. Fascism triumphed because the German Communists were strong enough to wound their enemy, but unable to kill it outright.
Extracts from Broué’s chronicle of a revolt
As the First World War came to an end in 1918 German soldiers, sailors and workers rebelled and mutinied in the northern port of Kiel (pages 139-40)
The sailors remembered the fate of the mutineers in 1917, and sought support from the workers. On 1 November, they met in the trade union centre in Kiel, and decided to hold a public meeting the next day. On 2 November, police occupied the trade union centre, and the sailors gathered on the parade ground.
One of them, Karl Artelt, a USPD [Left Socialists] member who had been sentenced to five months imprisonment in 1917, proposed organising a street demonstration on the next day, and the sailors called for support in handwritten leaflets.
On 3 November, there were several thousand sailors and soldiers intending to demonstrate, though their numbers were small compared with the size of the garrison. The demonstration was forbidden, and military units patrolled the town.
Despite an appeal for calm from a trade union official, the sailors decided to demonstrate. They ran into a patrol which opened fire; there were nine killed and 29 wounded. The resulting shock set the men of the garrison in Kiel into motion, since now the sailors could not turn back.
Meetings aboard ships took place that night. Artelt took the initiative of getting the first sailors’ council of the German Revolution elected on board a torpedo boat. In the early morning, he found himself at the head of a committee appointed by 20,000 men. The officers were overwhelmed.
The commander of the base agreed to all the demands which Artelt presented to him in the name of his comrades: the abolition of saluting, shorter periods of service, more leave, the release of those arrested.
That night the whole of the garrison was organised in a network of soldiers’ councils. The red flag floated over the naval vessels, and many officers had been arrested by their men.
On shore, the USPD and SPD [Social Democrats] jointly called for a general strike and for a workers’ council which would fuse with the sailors’ council.
In March 1920 right wingers attempted a putsch which would have reversed all the gains made by workers since the end of the war. But workers of all parties came together to organise a general strike (pages 355-6)
On 14 March, one after another the trains ceased to move. By five o’clock in the evening, there were in Berlin no trams, no water, no gas and no electricity. Skirmishes between soldiers and workers were breaking out nearly everywhere.
Workers had already responded on the previous day. In Chemnitz, a committee of action was formed, including the trade unions and all the workers’ parties, on the initiative of the Communists under Brandler’s leadership.
It seized the initiative, in the absence of troops, and formed a workers’ militia, the Arbeiterwehr, which occupied the station, post office and city hall.
The reality was that by the 15th, the Kapp-Lüttwitz [putschist] government was completely paralysed. The Belgian socialist Louis de Brouckère wrote: “The general strike now grips them with its terrible, silent power.”
Nothing moved in Berlin, where the regime could not get a single poster printed. In the Ruhr, on the contrary, when the Lichtschlag Free Corps began to move, it immediately came under attack from bands of armed workers. In the same way, there was fighting in Leipzig, Frankfurt, Halle and Kiel.
The sailors in Wilhelmshaven mutinied, and arrested Admiral von Leventzow and 400 officers. In Chemnitz, a committee of action formed of representatives of the workers’ parties called on the workers to elect their delegates to workers’ factory councils.
A few hours later, these delegates, elected by 75,000 workers on a basis of lists and proportional representation, in turn elected the workers’ council of the city, ten Communists, nine Social Democrats, one Independent and one Democrat.