Key Facts & Summary:
- Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg led the uprising to overthrow the post-war government.
- This uprising proved that the Weimar government in Germany was weak.
- The members of the Spartacist Uprising were hardened soldiers from world war 1 and they did not like the communist because they felt the ‘Back Stabbed Germany’.
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.
How Did Luxemburg and the Spartacists find themselves responsible for an insurrection that they would have liked to prevent and which consequences did they suffer? How are the events of January 1919 a counter-example of the July 1917 days in Russia? This article aims to return to this episode of a German revolution whose outcome tragically set the course of the twentieth century.
November 1918, the revolution and its contradictions
From war to revolution
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 incommensurate with the meagre forces at its disposal. A wave from Kiel set the powder on fire.
After violent clashes with Loyalist troops, rebel sailors elected a council of soldiers who, on November 5, was the only authority on 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 will collapse 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 SPD leaders proposed to the independent Social Democrats (USP) to form a “revolutionary government”. It was formed on November 10 and called the Russian fashion “Council of People’s Commissars”.
On the same day, an assembly of workers ‘and soldiers’ delegates was meeting. The SPD had set in motion its apparatus to guarantee its domination, assuring the predominance of the soldiers that 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, he was the only real power.
Heterogeneity of the workers’ power
The situation opened by the creation of workers ‘and soldiers’ councils opened the way for a rapid polarization 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 organized 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 stabilize the minds of the masses, it was possible to stabilize 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
Armed Forces and Radicalization in Berlin
The evolution of political power struggles crystallized rapidly in the question of the armed forces. As radicalization 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 that the prime minister of the SPD Ebert hesitated to take the power that the putschists proposed to him.
The bloody clashes were followed by huge rallies and demonstrations organized by the left. Not only did this have the effect of radicalizing 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 organized by the League of Red Soldiers (under the Spartacist influence) attracted more and more people and the security forces controlled by Eichhorn, which the November revolution had installed at the post office. The chief of the Revolutionary Police consisted of two-thirds of volunteers and one-third of policemen.
January 1919, a stinging defeat
The Spartacist uprising
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 analyzing the balance of power and an instrument for implementing its policy, a trained and disciplined troop. The Social Democrat 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
On January 4, the provocation of the government consisted of dismissing the very popular leader of the revolutionary police, the left-wing Independent Eichhorn. His refusal to resign was supported by all the organizations of the Berlin Left, which met in the evening to decide to call the workers to protest peacefully the next day.
The response of the workers exceeded all their expectations: 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 organizations had elected a “Revolutionary Committee” of 52 members.
Faced with the success of the demonstration, he 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 the most total confusion. While the masses waited, the Revolutionary Committee remained entangled in interminable discussions, unable to give any perspective. In fact, he had quickly shown his willingness to take power. But he 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. First a force, spontaneity then became a weakness leading to demoralization, in the absence of a coherent and coordinated strategy. But in reality, the so-called Revolutionary Committee was paralyzed because it was cut off from the masses and was not really representative of the organizations 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 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 we had to fight against the measures of the government and advance the armament of the proletariat, we should not engage in a struggle for power, since the majority of German workers was not as radicalized 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, did not.
Carried away by the 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. Its 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.