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Storming onto the stage of history—the forgotten women of the German Revolution

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Author Judy Cox uncovers how women played a central role in the German Revolution of 1918
Karl Liebknecht: jailed in 1916 for saying 'Down with the war!'

Crowds gather in Berlin during the German Revolution

In November 1918 a revolution rocked one of Europe’s most developed capitalist superpowers. But the German Revolution has been written out of mainstream history.

Revolutions, we are told, are possible only in backward, unstable countries, not in modern parliamentary democracies. And, if revolutions do occur, they have nothing to do with women. As German historian Benjamin Ziemann claimed, “When the revolution came in 1918, its gender was male.” Historians have made little effort to unearth the role of women in the German Revolution, beyond references to the undeniable brilliance of Rosa Luxemburg.

But the hidden stories of Germany’s women revolutionaries show how millions of working class women and men not only helped end the First World War and overthrew the Kaiser (emperor). They wanted to go further and create a socialist society. 

The German Revolution began with a series of mutinies. The first sailor’s revolt erupted in late October 1918 when war-weary sailors refused the naval high command’s order to launch an almost-certainly doomed mission against the British navy. The next mutiny, in the port of Kiel, began on 3 November and rapidly developed into a city-wide uprising.

This could not have happened without the active support of the city’s women. Young socialist Gertrud Volcker joined the crowds marching through the streets of Kiel waving red flags. She later wrote, “The fight for freedom, democracy, human dignity, social equality and solidarity became my own struggle.”  

It was a struggle which was spreading across the coastal towns and cities of northern Germany. Workers called strikes, held mass demonstrations, occupied public buildings, freed political prisoners and disarmed cops and loyal troops. Workers’ and soldiers’ were councils set up and took over the running of local towns and cities. These councils enabled workers and soldiers to make direct decisions and offered an alternative to parliament, which was dominated by pro-war parties.

In Berlin, women helped to win the troops to the cause of socialism. One observer recalled, “The Kaiser Alexander Regiment had gone over to the revolution. The soldiers had rushed out of the barracks gates, fraternized with the shouting crowd outside. Men shook their hands with emotion, women and girls stuck flowers in their uniforms and embraced them. The officers were being stripped of the cockades and gold lace.”

Martha Arendsee recalled how women surrounded workplaces, cheering and encouraging workers to strike before moving on to barracks to call for the soldiers to join the revolution. By 1918, she’d been in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) for 12 years. She had been responsible for women’s work in Berlin from 1907 to 1916. In 1915 she accompanied the socialist leader Clara Zetkin to an International Women’s Conference in Bern, Switzerland, to organise opposition to the war. Socialist women like Martha embraced the revolution as a chance for ordinary working people to end the war and remake society from top to bottom.

The Prussian (German) monarchy had reigned for 300 hundred years, but in the autumn of 1918 it collapsed with barely a shot fired in its defence. Kaiser Wilhelm tried to cling on to power. But on Saturday 9 November his abdication was announced—without his approval—and he got a one-way ticket to the Netherlands.

The great artist and socialist Kathe Kollwitz wrote in her diary on that day, “Today, it is actually happening in Berlin. This afternoon I walked from the zoo to the Brandenburg Gate where leaflets were being handed out announcing the Kaiser’s abdication. A demonstration moved through the gate and I joined it. Trucks passed full of soldiers and sailors. Red flags. We saw soldiers who ripped off their cockades and threw them to the ground laughing. So this is really happening. We experience it but can hardly grasp it.”

Kollwitz headed to the Brandenburg Gate. Her section was joined by Clare Casper-Derfert, a manual worker and member of the Revolutionary Stewards, a group of trade unionists who were revolutionary socialists. She was distributing leaflets to workers going into the first shift at the munitions factory on Kaiserin-Augusta-Allee in Charlottenburg. The leaflets asked workers to down tools at 9am, and join a demonstration into the city centre. They were to join thousands of other workers, soldiers and sailors converging on the city in processions—which included, observers noted, large numbers of women and children.

After the march socialist youth leader Lucie Gottschar-Heimburg went to a local pub on Alexanderplatz and was shown how to take apart and clean a revolver. And then to load it. At first, the revolutionaries were reluctant to give young women guns, she said, but she was eventually given a revolver.

Black and white portrait of lifelong partners Lida Gustave and Anita Augspurg

Lida Gustave and Anita Augspurg

Women developed creative ways to develop their confidence. In Hamburg, northern Germany, Lida Gustave Heymann recalled the “convening of a large public assembly at which only women were supposed to speak”. The women present celebrated the fall of the Kaiser, the end of the war, the prospect of social change and their own right to speak out in public.

Lida knew something about involving women in politics. She and her life partner, Anita Augspurg, began their political lives on the radical wing of the German women’s rights movement. Together, they set up the first German branch of the International Abolitionist Federation, which campaigned for rights for sex workers and campaigned for their right to vote. In 1917 the two women committed themselves to socialism and joined the anti-war, radical socialists, alongside many thousands of women activists.

The international socialist movement had been shattered by the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. Europe’s socialist parties lined up behind their own ruling classes, apart from the Bolsheviks in Russia, the Serbian Social Democratic Party and the Bulgarian Social Democratic Workers Party (Narrow Socialists).

The German SPD, which was formally committed to Marxism, had come to focus on winning reforms within capitalism rather than replacing it altogether. Its leaders ended up seeking to defend the capitalist state, declared a truce in the class struggle and supported their government’s imperialist war effort. This was bitterly opposed by those on the left of the party, led by Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.  

Working class women were some of the first to break the pro-war consensus. Lobal Landau recalled attending a knitting circle where women were supposed to make warm clothes for the poor, but in fact produced and circulated anti-war leaflets.

By 1915, the patriotic demonstrations which greeted the declaration of war had turned into street protests against hunger and for peace, often led by women. The harsh “turnip winter” of 1916-17 prompted further discontent and women began to use food queues as an opportunity to plan actions and marches.

Resistance to inadequate food and fuel rations, war pensions and conscription spread to Germany’s factory workers. As men were called up to the front, women flocked into Germany’s industries. In 1916, 62 percent of all strikers were female. By 1917, the figure had risen to 75 percent. In April 1917, some 200,000 munition workers defied accusations of treachery by the German military high command and went on strike. It is rarely noted that around half of them were women.

Socialist women were able to position themselves as the most militant and resolute activists in the growing anti-war movement because they were experienced socialist campaigners. Many of the women featured in this article had joined the SPD around ten years before the war began. By 1914 some 175,000 women had enrolled in the party. By the outbreak of revolution in 1918, nearly a third of the SPD membership were women.

The outstanding leader of the socialist women’s movement was Clara Zetkin. Zetkin gathered a group of women to help her produce a socialist women’s paper, Equality, which reached thousands of women. Kate Dunker was a friend of Zetkin’s and the deputy editor of Equality. 

A police report from Leipzig in 1901 recorded that “the most spiritually stirring and outstanding agitator in the local social democratic women’s movement is the former teacher, now Mrs Duncker. She appears as a speaker in almost all women’s meetings in order to campaign against the respectable middle class women’s associations.” In 1910, Duncker had helped Zetkin to establish International Women’s Day at a socialist conference in Copenhagen. Dunker threw herself into anti-war agitation in Berlin where she spoke to women’s organizations, youth groups and workers’ education associations.

In Frankfurt another experienced socialist, Toni Spender, described how the “bulk of the opposition to the war was formed by women”. Sender was just sixteen when she left her wealthy family to support herself. She became a trade unionist and took part in militant protests for the right to vote. She joined the SPD, but resigned in protest at the party’s pro-war stance and became a revolutionary socialist.

Black and white portrait of Luise Zietz

Luise Zietz

Revulsion to the mass slaughter of young men in the trenches grew. Socialists saw the potential to build new radical organisations. In April 1917 they were expelled en masse from the party and formed the Independent SPD. It included both revolutionary socialists and reformists who opposed the war. Luise Zietz was one of many women who joined and contributed to this new anti-war, socialist party and ensured that it reached out to working class women.

Zietz was a talented speaker and organizer who became a leading figure in the Independent SPD and its women’s movement. She was one of the first women to be elected to the German parliament in 1919. Sender became the editor of the Independents’ daily newspaper. Minna Reichart, a working-class woman who was employed by the SPD in Berlin before the war, was elected to the Independent’s national women’s committee.

In November 1918, the right wing leaders of the SPD, the generals and the representatives of the old regime were temporarily united behind one aim—to derail the developing workers’ revolution. A newly installed SDP government rapidly granted reforms.

It lifted the censorship of the press, issued an amnesty for political prisoners, implemented a statutory eight-hour day and established unemployment benefits. On 11 November 1918, German women finally won the right to vote. It was partly to encourage workers to look to parliament and away from the alternative of workers’ councils, which were creating alternative, democratic centres of power.

In January 1919, the revolutionary socialist Spartacus group had left the Independent SPD and joined with others to launch the German Communist Party.

The workers’ councils were led by soldiers and sailors and experienced, usually male, workers. However, there are records of some women playing a significant role in the councils. Some of these women were Independent SPD members. Sender became the general secretary of the executive committee of the Council of Workers and Soldiers in Frankfurt. Gertrud Morgner, a tailor and head of the local Independent SPD branch, was deputy chair of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council in Jena.

Members of the newly-formed Communist party were also elected to the councils, including Erna Halbe. She had just been released from prison for producing and distributing anti-war literature and was the only woman on the 30-strong executive of the workers’ and soldiers’ council in Hamburg.

Long-standing revolutionary socialist Antonie Langendorf participated in the soldiers’ and workers’ council in Mannheim, where she helped to set up a Communist Party branch in 1919. Frieda Duwell was arrested in October 1918 for distributing Spartacus leaflets and became a member of the workers’ council in Hamburg. Martha Schlag, a former domestic servant and member of Spartacus, served in Chemnitz. Rosi Wolfstein was a friend of Rosa Luxemburg and a founder member of both the Independent SPD and the Communist Party. She sat on the workers’ council in Dusseldorf. The courageous women who overcame sexism prejudices to lead organs of revolutionary power were almost all members of radical socialist parties. 

Members of the new Communist Party had respect among radical workers, but the party was immediately plunged into an uprising in Berlin. Because a revolutionary socialist organisation wasn’t built ahead of the revolution, it wasn’t powerful or rooted enough to give decisive leadership to it. The SPD still held sway within the working class.

The uprising was defeated. Gustav Noske, a leading figure within the SPD, established the paramilitary Freikorp organisation, made up of middle class officers and shock troops loyal to the old monarchy. Noske incited the Freikorps to murder Luxemburg and Liebknecht, socialists whom he had worked with for decades. The deaths of these two socialist leaders was a huge blow, but did not signal the end of the revolution. Socialists had to negotiate a new political landscape full of danger and possibilities.

Some women stayed with the Independent SPD until 1920, when their 750,000 members divided with a majority joining the Communist Party. Sender stayed with the Independents and was elected to the Frankfurt City Council in 1919. She shocked her male comrades by declaring, “One of the men would have to deal with matters concerning household problems. I would not do it.”

Arendsee joined the Communists in 1920 and became the women’s secretary in Berlin in 1922-1923 and edited the magazine The Communist. From 1919 to 1921 she was a member of the Constituent Assembly of Prussia—a state within Germany—and from 1924 to 1930 she was elected to the German parliament.

Black and white portrait of Kathe Duncker

Kathe Duncker

Other women joined the Communist Party as soon as it was formed. Zetkin and Kathe Duncker both became leading figures. Dunker was arrested in January 1919, just after Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered. She escaped to Denmark but later returned to Germany. In 1921 she was elected to the local parliament in Thuringia, where she campaigned for nutritious school meals and creches. 

The women who built the German Revolution were overwhelmingly working class. Many had been members of Zetkin’s influential socialist women’s organisation, which gave them the training and experience they needed to become revolutionary agitators. A few women were sufficiently respected to be elected to worker’s councils and to local and national institutions.

Women were central to building opposition to the war, winning support for socialism and creating Germany’s revolution. Had their efforts succeeded, the Russian Revolution would not have been left isolated and the Nazis would not have been able to build a movement based on counter-revolutionary despair.

The women’s stories show how the revolution created a new world full of optimism. As Heymann recalled how in November 1918 “a new life began”. “Looking back the following months seemed like a beautiful dream, so improbably splendid were they,” she wrote. “The heavy burden of the war years had gone—one stepped forward elated, looking forward to the future.”

A huge potential for socialists to win support existed in Germany after 1919—but, tragically, there was no organisation capable of building on it. 


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