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Berlin’s days of hope turned into despair

This article is over 15 years, 2 months old
Our series concludes as Volkhard Mosler describes the moves to crush the revolution in January 1919
Issue 2131
Friedrich Ebert
Friedrich Ebert

The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) betrayed the ideas it had fought for for over 50 years when it decided to support the slaughter of the First World War.

The leading German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg called the SPD a “stinking corpse”. But it proved to be a very lively force when it came to saving capitalism.

After the outbreak of the revolution on 9 November 1918, the SPD leadership took control of the central government and built close ties with the army high command.

Its support for the war had meant a split in the SPD. Around 200,000 of its members left to join the new, more left wing USPD.

But at the same time the SPD won half a million new members in smaller towns and among white collar workers. There was no other political force with over a million members and it still had a major influence over the trade union leaders.

The SPD officially supported the revolution and promised socialism after a new parliament had been elected. But its leaders desperately wanted to dismantle the workers’ and soldiers’ councils that had emerged from the revolution as they threatened the old order.

To do this, the SPD helped in the reorganisation of the army. Two months after the outbreak of revolution, General Groener commanded over 10,000 armed men called “Freikorps”. These were volunteers who were mostly middle ranking officers.

Gustav Noske, an SPD MP since 1906, became minister for the army and the navy. His first act was to speak to leading officers and the army high command.

He declared, “Someone must become the bloodhound” that would put down the revolution – and he was the man to do it.

The Freikorps moved into Berlin in the first days of January.

The aim of their operation was to provoke the most left wing sections of Berlin’s workers into a premature uprising against the SPD-led government.

Friedrich Ebert, the SPD leader of the government, sacked Emil Eichhorn, a USPD member and the popular police chief of Berlin. He had taken office in the first days of the revolution and consistently opposed counter-revolutionary measures.

The Berlin Workers and Soldiers Council had given Eichhorn his mandate and he refused to stand down.

On 5 January, the Berlin USPD and the newly founded Communist Party called for a general strike.

Hundred of thousands of angry workers poured into the streets.

A revolutionary committee was created out of this movement. It brought together the Communists, the USPD and radical shop stewards.

This committee issued a call for the toppling of the Ebert government, which was in effect a call for a second, socialist, revolution, as many were demanding in the streets of Berlin that day.

But the forces were not in place for such a revolution to take place. There was no organised military occupation of central government buildings, for instance.

After a day of demonstrations the masses went home.

The Freikorps removed the most militant groups of protesters from the SPD newspaper printshops they had occupied.

The leaders of the Communist Party had opposed the call for the overthrow of the Ebert government.

Luxemburg understood that the SPD was too strong and the revolutionary socialists too weak for there to be a successful revolution at this moment.

Even if the revolutionary forces had been victorious in Berlin, the majority of the working class in the rest of Germany still had faith in the SPD and the trade union leaders.

The fact that the call for workers’ power failed even in Berlin showed the weakness of the Communist Party.

It only became a mass party the following year after the USPD split and the majority of revolutionary shop stewards in Germany joined it.

The Communist Party in January 1919 could not give the correct lead to the revolutionary workers.

Instead it was led by the spontaneous mood on the streets, which changed very quickly from high to low.

The Freikorps caught and murdered Luxemburg and fellow Communist leader Karl Liebknecht two weeks later.

The SPD still refuse to take responsibility for their murders and the 30,000 workers who were killed as the government crushed the revolution.

Despite the repression, socialist revolution remained on the agenda in Germany until 1923, and if it had occurred history would have been very different.

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