By Kevin Ovenden
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1874

Rote Fahne: the Red Flag of the German revolution

This article is over 20 years, 4 months old
We continue our series on rebel newspapers with a look at the German revolutionary paper Rote Fahne (Red Flag)
Issue 1874

In your area there may well be a longstanding Socialist Worker reader who has a video of the marvellous film about the Polish/German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. If so, borrow it. Among other outstanding scenes is one where Rosa Luxemburg’s friends implore her to leave Berlin as the forerunners of the Nazi stormtroopers hunt her down.

She decides to stay, not least to ensure that her paper, Rote Fahne, is distributed properly so militant workers get a clear idea about how to deal with the counter-revolutionary offensive. A couple of days later, on 15 January 1919, right wing paramilitary thugs beat her to death. Luxemburg gave her life to the struggle of working people and the revolutionary movement.

The paper she edited, Rote Fahne, was born in November 1918. By that point the First World War had raged in Europe for over four years. The bitterness of workers and soldiers in Germany at death and hardship exploded, much as it had the previous year in Russia. The first few days of November 1918 saw a mutiny by sailors in the north German port of Kiel spread rapidly into mass strikes and desertions across the whole country.

The upsurge of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people forced the government out, destroyed a centuries-old autocratic monarchy and ended the war. Rote Fahne was founded in the industrial city of Hamburg. A group of armed soldiers led by Paul Frölich, a comrade of Luxemburg’s, took over the printing presses of the daily paper the Hamburger Echo.

They produced a paper, Rote Fahne, for the workers’ and soldiers’ councils that had become the organising focus of the revolution and were challenging to take power.

From the beginning it breathed the revolution. Rosa Luxemburg, who had been released from prison thanks to the revolt, became one of its editors. Luxemburg felt free to urge the movement on in the pages of Rote Fahne in a way that had not been possible in other left wing papers.

She was an enormously gifted writer, agitator and thinker. She was born in 1871 to a Jewish family in Poland. She became active in the underground socialist movement in her mid-teens while she was at high school. Fearing arrest, she was forced to leave Poland at the age of 18.

She rapidly rose to prominence inside the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which was the biggest and most influential socialist party in the world. Her instincts came into conflict with the conservative hierarchy of the party.

The crunch came with the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. The SPD and other Labour-type parties across Europe collapsed into supporting their respective states. Luxemburg and her followers found themselves in a tiny minority. As the war went on, opposition increased.

After the revolution broke out in November 1918 Rote Fahne found a ready audience among the most militant soldiers, sailors and workers. Its reports on mass strikes and protests highlighted the slogans and views of those who wanted to take the movement furthest.

Luxemburg’s articles tore apart the SPD leaders, who had betrayed the movement in 1914 and who now sought to put themselves at the head of the revolution in order to halt it.

The tragedy was that the organisation around her was too weak to challenge the SPD successfully. It and the paper were not well known compared with the SPD and the union leaders’ machine.

They were able to isolate the revolutionaries, unleashing a smear campaign and armed right wing forces against them. But Luxemburg’s confidence in the capacity of workers to rise up and fight again remained undimmed. her final editorial for Rote Fahne ended:

”Order reigns in Warsaw!’ ‘Order reigns in Paris!’ ‘Order reigns in Berlin!’ Every half a century that is what the bulletins from the guardians of ‘order’ proclaim from one centre of the struggle to the next. ‘Order reigns in Berlin!’ You stupid lackeys. Your ‘order’ is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will rise up again and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!’

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