Germany 1919 The Spartacist uprising
NINETY YEARS ago this month the German workers rose in the ‘Spartacist uprising’ – a turning point in the German revolution of 1917-1923 which led to the tragic deaths of revolutionary socialist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. To mark this event, we reproduce below an article by Tony Aitman from Militant (the forerunner of The Socialist) written in January 1989.
THE REVOLUTIONARY wave of 1918 and the overthrow of the monarchy had led to a state of ‘dual power’ – the imaginary power of the government and the real power of the thousands in the workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ councils (equivalent of the Russian soviets).
Thousands more workers were coming into activity for the first time. If they had been conscious of their power, they could have built a new workers’ state. But they looked for a lead first from the organisations they had built, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Independent Socialists (USPD).
On 10 November 1918 the provisional executive of the Berlin workers’ and soldiers’ councils appointed a government of three from the SPD and three from the USPD. Immediately this government tried to stem the tide of revolution by rallying the scattered forces behind the capitalists into a loyal army. And it called for a constituent assembly as a counterweight to the workers’ councils.
The question of leadership was crucial. The USPD had split from the SPD in 1917 with widespread support. It hovered between reform and revolution, using the language of Marxism but failing to act.
It contained both reformists like Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein and revolutionaries like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, leaders of the revolutionary Spartacists, who could have played a vital role in leading the movement to victory.
The capitalists now relied only on the SPD to save the day. Government soldiers attacked the Spartacists. The High Command, in compliance with SPD leader Friedrich Ebert, brought ten divisions into Berlin to take power from the workers’ councils – only to see them go over to the workers!
Monarchists, counter-revolutionaries and SPD leaders called openly for the murder of the Spartacist leaders. SPD minister Gustav Noske organised the notorious Freikorps, military units from the dregs of the old imperial forces and right-wing groups, forerunners of Hitler’s Nazis.
On 29 December, in a baptism of fire, the Spartacists founded the Communist Party (KPD). Berlin was in crisis. The three USPD ministers had resigned. There was fear of a coup and growing clashes between Freikorps and workers.
Noske, the right-wing Social Democrat who had assumed the title of People’s Commissar of Defence on 6 January 1919, showed whom he was ‘defending’ when he told a meeting of Freikorps leaders that “one of us has to be the bloodhound”.
The government provoked a bloody show-down by trying to remove USPD member Eichorn as Berlin police president. The USPD and KPD, with the revolutionary shop stewards’ movement, set up a revolutionary committee and called a demonstration for 5 January.
Thousands marched to the police headquarters to support Eichorn. Believing that military garrisons in Berlin, Spandau and Frankfurt were supporting them, the committee called for the overthrow of the Ebert-Noske-Scheidemann government.
Next day 500,000 workers took to the streets. Newspaper offices, railway headquarters and food warehouses were occupied. The leadership of the revolutionary committee, including KPD leaders Liebknecht and Piek, called for insurrection.
But this had not been discussed with the KPD leadership and, despite the tension, it was also premature. As in Petrograd, Russia, in July 1917, Berlin workers were in advance of the rest of Germany.
These wrong tactics, just when the counter-revolution was preparing for confrontation, were to prove catastrophic. On 10 January Noske sent reactionary troops against the KPD. Within a week, 158 had been killed and hundreds wounded. The terror continued unabated. KPD leaders were arrested. One, Jogiches, was later murdered ‘trying to escape’.
Then on 15 January, Liebknecht and Luxemburg were brutally murdered by Freikorps officers. Their killers got away virtually scot-free. As the Freikorps attempted to ‘restore order’, thousands of workers were killed.
At the end of February, the general assembly of Berlin councils called a general strike. 30,000 Freikorps troops under Noske entered the city. When the fighting ended, 2,000-3,000 workers were dead and at least 10,000 wounded.
The capitalists were back in power. The working class had lost their most able leaders. However, this counter-revolution was temporary. The organised working class recovered its political strength and the KPD grew rapidly as the crisis in capitalism deepened, culminating in a new revolutionary opportunity in 1923.
The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power
The Communist International in Lenin’s Time: Documents: 1918-1919 – Preparing the founding congress.
Edited by John Riddell (various authors)
The documents in this book, most of them never published before, record the first months of the 1918-1919 German revolution.
Published 2003 by Pathfinder. 687 pages paperback. £24
1917: the year that changed the world
Lessons of the Russian Revolution
Published November 2007.
48 pages paperback. £3.00
See also 90th anniversary of murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht by Peter Taaffe in the February 2009 issue of Socialism Today. Details on page 8.
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