Spartacist Uprising 1919 Facts & Worksheets

Spartacist Uprising 1919 facts and information activity worksheet pack and fact file. Includes 5 activities aimed at students 11-14 years old (KS3) & 5 activities aimed at students 14-16 year old (GCSE). Great for home study or to use within the classroom environment.

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Fact File:

Student Activities:

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

  • What was the Spartacist Uprising?
  • What were the eventful years that led to the uprising?
  • What were the causes and results of the uprising?

KEY FACTS AND INFORMATION

Let’s know more about the Spartacist Uprising 1919!

  • The Spartacist Uprising was mainly a struggle for power between the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) led by Friedrich Ebert and the radical communists led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.
  • Liebknecht and Luxemburg led the uprising to overthrow the post-war government. The uprising had serious repercussions for the Weimar Government. It was short-lived, and ended with the execution of its leaders.

  • The German revolution had just begun a few months earlier. Although they did not definitively seal their fate, the January fights, which history retained as the Spartacist Uprising, constituted the first decisive defeat inflicted on a revolutionary process that ended only in 1923.

NOVEMBER 1918, THE REVOLUTION AND ITS CONTRADICTIONS

  • At the beginning of November 1918, the anti-war sentiment had never been so developed in the German population, fed by a Revolutionary Left whose capacity for initiative had become unbalanced with the meagre forces at its disposal.
  • After violent clashes with Loyalist troops, rebel sailors elected a council of soldiers who, on November 5, were the only authority in the city.
  • The German revolution had just begun.
  • The same pattern was reiterated in all major cities in the following days: demonstrations and mass rallies, the occupation of buildings by armed groups, strikes, and elections of workers’ and soldiers’ councils.
  • The Prussian monarchy that had reigned for centuries collapsed in a few days without anyone really trying to defend it.
  • While the Social Democrats wanted to avoid a revolution at all costs, it reached Berlin on November 9, when the call for a general strike launched by the Revolutionary Left was widely followed in factories.
  • The regiments, which the military leaders believed to be safe, broke up as the soldiers came out of the barracks to fraternize with the crowd that invaded the streets.
  • Hundreds of thousands of people swept to the places of power, led by the revolutionaries.
  • Having been offered power by the Reich, which wanted to “prevent the upheaval from below by the revolution from above,” the Social Democratic Party of Germany or SPD leaders proposed to the Independent Social Democrats (USPD) to form a “revolutionary government”.
  • It was formed on November 10 and called the Russian “Council of People’s Commissars”.
  • On the same day, there was an assembly of workers and soldiers’ delegates.
  • The SPD had set in motion the apparatus to guarantee its domination, assuring the predominance of the soldiers, who it influenced more than the workers.
  • It was easy for the SPD to get the delegates, most of whom had their first political experience, to admit that the success of the revolution meant only unity among the socialists, and to present the Revolutionary Left as divisors.

  • The most famous leaders were united, the revolution seemed already over.
  • A Berlin Executive Committee of Councils was elected, proclaiming its right to control the government.
  • In fact, it was the only real power.
  • The situation opened by the creation of workers and soldiers’ councils opened the way for a rapid polarisation of German society.
  • In fact, councils were the only powers in the country.
  • However, not only did they reflect the rapidly changing mindset of the masses, but they were not organised into a coordinated system capable of leading the country as a whole.
  • They were extremely heterogeneous: while some were led by revolutionaries, most remained dominated by the SPD, which operated skilfully on the basis of the low political consciousness of the majority of delegates.
  • The goal of the Social Democrats was to manage the movement to destroy its power.
  • Thus, while it was difficult to stabilise the minds of the masses, it was possible to stabilise the councils, in particular by opposing every attempt to renew the delegates by re-elections likely to benefit the left.
  • The German revolutionary process which had broken the imperial power was thus faced with two major contradictory directions: would it be directed to the power of a National Assembly or to that of the councils, towards a bourgeois or socialist democracy? On the one hand, the German bourgeoisie had found itself.

DECEMBER 1918, RADICALISM AND ITS ILLUSIONS

  • The evolution of political power struggles crystallised rapidly in the question of the armed forces.
  • As radicalisation developed in the army – marked by the soldiers’ hatred of old discipline and their willingness to return to civilian life – the SPD began to seek support in the peaks of the military apparatus.
  • In early December, when the press launched a fierce campaign against the left, some sections of the army led by a group of officers attempted a coup in Berlin.
  • The latter aborted, especially because those who led it did not have very clear objectives and the Prime Minister of the SPD Friedrich Ebert hesitated to take the power that the putschists proposed to him.
  • The bloody clashes were followed by huge rallies and demonstrations organised by the left.
  • Not only did this have the effect of radicalising the Berlin workers, but the soldiers involved in the action, including the People’s Marine Division, began to ask questions.
  • The forces at the disposal of the revolutionary left were reinforced: the regular demonstrations organised by the League of Red Soldiers (under the Spartacist influence) attracted more and more people and the security forces controlled by Emil Eichhorn, which the November revolution had installed at the post office.
  • The Revolutionary Police consisted of two-thirds volunteers and one-third

JANUARY 1919, A STINGING DEFEAT

  • From the first days of 1919, the influence of the Revolutionary Left in Berlin grew rapidly.
  • Sensing that its legitimacy was shrinking, the government understood that its only alternative was to take the Revolutionary Left by striving to provoke a premature coup that could serve as a pretext for a bloody crackdown.
  • The counter-revolution found precisely what the revolutionaries lacked: a clear direction capable of analysing the balance of power and an instrument for implementing its policy, a trained and disciplined troop.
  • The Social Democrat and defence minister Gustav Noske, who had joined the government to set up the forces of repression that crowded the city’s doorstep, the Freikorps, played his role with lucidity: “One of us must act as an executioner”.

Government Provocation and Mass Reaction

  • The response of the workers exceeded all their expectations. On January 5, hundreds of thousands, including many armed workers, marched through the streets of the city, some even launching into spontaneous occupations of buildings.
  • But the workers, parrying all day refusing to disperse, did not want to stop there.
  • Meanwhile, the assembly of leftist organisations had elected a “Revolutionary Committee” of 52 members.
  • On January 4, the provocation of the government consisted of dismissing the very popular leader of the revolutionary police, the left-wing Independent Emil Eichhorn.
  • His refusal to resign was supported by all the organisations of the Berlin Left, which met in the evening to decide to call the workers to protest peacefully the next day.
  • Faced with the success of the demonstration, Eichhorn decided to call a general strike the next day.
  • The strike was a success, at least in the beginning, giving rise to a huge demonstration and new occupations (government printing works, railway stations, and other public buildings).
  • But the momentum of enthusiasm quickly led to total confusion.
  • While the masses waited, the Revolutionary Committee remained entangled in countless discussions, unable to give any perspective.
  • In fact, Eichhorn had quickly shown willingness to take power but was far too big and unclear about his goals to coordinate military actions.
  • The only initiatives of this type were the work of numerous groups of workers, spontaneously taking control of places of power and strategic points.
  • Although at first it was a benefit, spontaneity soon became a weakness, leading to demoralisation and an absence of a coherent and coordinated strategy.
  • In reality, the so-called Revolutionary Committee was paralysed because it was cut off from the masses and was not really representative of the organisations from which its members came.

The Attitude of the Left Parties

  • It was clear to the Spartacists, whose position was to avoid a “Berlin Commune” that it would not last a fortnight.
  • For Rosa Luxemburg, the slogan calling for the overthrow of the government should only be a propaganda slogan and not a tactic of revolutionary action.
  • If one had to fight against the measures of the government and advance the armament of the proletariat, he/she should not engage in a struggle for power, since the majority of German workers was not as radicalised as the Berlin’s most combative workers.
  • But if Luxemburg and the other members of the management were cold-headed and clear, Liebknecht, who claimed to represent the Spartacists in the Revolutionary Committee but acted alone, was not.
  • Carried away by events, he thought that a government of Left Independents and Revolutionary Delegates was possible.
  • Also, while the events were designated as a “Spartacist uprising”, the Spartacist leadership was opposed to the project of the seizure of power.
  • It’s wrong to have no party powerful enough and disciplined to put into practice its policy.
  • The same divisions crossed the Revolutionary Delegates. Leaders like Müller and Daümig – genuine revolutionaries who were to join the Communist Party in 1920 – were clearly opposed to the action while many of their supporters were pouring into a coup.

The  Death of Liebknecht and Luxemburg

  • Three thousand anti-communist Freikorps were organised and led by Noske as instructed by Ebert on January 6.
  • The Freikorps were trained for battles and equipped with rifles, machine guns, and artilleries.
  • By January 10th 1919, they were already preparing for battle in the suburbs of Western Berlin.
  • They progressed to the city in the morning of January 11.
  • A series of bloody battles with the rebels led to the fall of the uprising and the capture of Berlin.
  • It took the Freikorps only days to defeat the uprising and kill its leaders.
  • Liebknecht, after having been chased through the suburbs, was shot in the head on January 15th.
  • His body was then dumped at a local morgue.
  • Luxemburg, on the other hand, was beaten on the head to death also on January 15th.
  • Her body was hurled into a large canal.

Image sources:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosa_Luxemburg
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Social_Democratic_Party_of_Germany