Germany 1918-33 was one of the most tumultuous periods in history. Following the revolution in Russia, the German workers and soldiers attempted to seize power in November 1918. Unfortunately, the revolution was betrayed by the Social Democratic leaders.
Further revolutionary convulsions rocked Germany from 1919 to 1923. By this time, a mass Communist Party had been formed, but following advice from Zinoviev and Stalin, a classical revolutionary opportunity in 1923 was missed.
This was a blow, not only in Germany, but internationally. The German defeats served to strengthen the grip of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia. This resulted in zig-zags of policy between opportunism and ultra-leftism, which paved the way for the ‘Third Period’ with the Social Democrats regarded as the main enemy.
With the rise of fascism, Leon Trotsky described Germany in 1931 as “the key to the international situation”. “On the direction in which the solution of the German crisis develops will depend not only the fate of Germany herself (and that is already a great deal), but also the fate of Europe, the destiny of the entire world, for many years to come,” he explained.
Trotsky called for a United Front against fascism, but this was rejected by the Stalinists. This paved the way for the victory of the Nazis, leading to the Holocaust and the Second World War with its 55 million dead.
In this book, Rob Sewell argues that all this was not inevitable, and analyses those events, drawing out the lessons for today.
Table of Contents
- 1. The Rise of German Social Democracy
- 2. In the throes of Revolution
- 3. Counter-Revolution Raises its Head
- 4. The Kapp Putsch March 1920
- 5. The Spoils of War
- 6. The Interregnum
- 7. Fascism’s Rise to Power
- 8. The Nazi Terror
- Appendix One: Hitler’s British Connections
- Appendix Two: The Case of Béla Kun
There was once a nanny-goat who said,
In my cradle someone sang to me:
“A strong man is coming.
He will set you free!”
The ox looked at her askance.
Then turning to the pig
“That will be the butcher.”
Behind Bertolt Brecht’s humour is always a serious point. The words are a swipe at the fascist propaganda, which attempted to reassure the middle classes while their throats were being cut. Brecht is not interested in lulling people to sleep, but wishes to awaken them. The task of this book is also to awaken an interest – in the German Revolution and its aftermath – and provide an understanding of what went on.
Old Hegel, the great German philosopher, once commented that the only thing you learn from history is that people do not learn from history. This could be the reason why history tends to repeat itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce, to quote Marx. But our task is precisely to learn from history.
Bourgeois historians say there are no laws governing history. But that is not the case. There is causality in history, and it is our task to uncover its laws. Marx and Engels explained that societies, as with nature, evolve according to material laws, meaning that societies are not eternal, but arise, develop, and enter into crisis. Our fate is not determined. Men and women make history, but under conditions not of their own choosing. It is through experience that they learn and begin to take destiny into their own hands.
History deals with real relationships, rather than simply the high-sounding dramas of princes and states. And Marxism allows us to get our bearings, to navigate our way and make sense of the labyrinth of events.
As Marx explained, “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” (K. Marx, Theses on Feuerbach.) The author of this book belongs to the school of historical materialism. He approaches the German Revolution as a revolutionary, and sees no reason to conceal it. This allows him to lay bare the dynamics of the revolution, in which is reflected the movement of the masses, the rise and fall of parties, and the struggle between the classes.
Revolutions, like earthquakes, are rare occurrences. They arise from deep crises within society, where class contradictions have been strained to breaking point. We are living in a similar epoch today. The capitalist system worldwide is in an impasse and is preparing revolutionary explosions. For those who want to ‘make history’, there is no better preparation than to study revolutions and, above all, to learn the lessons. The 1918 German Revolution is a good place to start.
This book does not claim any spurious objectivity. It draws on the legacy of Marxism, especially its great teachers, who directly experienced and analysed these events. In that sense it cannot lay claim to ‘originality’. The early Congresses of the Communist International were a school, where all the main theoretical and tactical questions were thrashed out, with the direct participation of Lenin and Trotsky. In the face of persecution, Trotsky rescued all that was best from this astonishing period and went on to analyse the rise of fascism in the early 1930s, attempting to reach the ranks of the Communist workers.
He once wrote that, such was the heroism of the Spanish proletariat between 1931 and 1937, they could have carried out ten revolutions. The same could be said of the German proletariat between 1918 and 1923, but more so. Here we experience a roller coaster ride of workers’ and soldiers’ councils, mutinies, general strikes, uprisings, red armies, soviet republics, coups and class battles on an unprecedented scale.
The German revolution of 1918 placed power into the hands of the working class, but they lost it. The German proletariat had more chances to take power than any other in the world. Its failure to do so lead to the most ghastly and brutal of fascist reactions. This was nothing to do with the will or determination of the working class to fight, which was exemplary, but the criminal role of its leaders.
While some will be familiar with the facts of the 1918 November Revolution in Germany, few would be as familiar with the events of 1919 and later. 1919 was an apocalyptic year for capitalism. While the November Revolution was defeated, in 1919 the proletariat controlled swathes of Germany in heroic battles with the Freikorps and Reichswehr. Apart from fighting in Berlin, in the famous ‘Spartacist week’, there were street battles in most industrial districts; the Saxony Communists controlled part of the region in April 1919, fighting solidly for nine days; in Bavaria, the struggle lasted for two months, where Kurt Eisner, then Leviné, set up a Soviet Republic, but was overthrown by the Freikorps; there were revolts in Oldenburg and East Frisa; while Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils in Rhine-Hesse, Oberhessen, the Palatinate, Hesse-Nassau, and Württemberg decided to break away and form a Hessian Soviet Republic. In March and April 1920, a regional Red Army conquered the Ruhr and drove out the government forces. A solid general strike defeated the Kapp Putsch in 1920 and the German workers could easily have taken power. In March 1921, there was an uprising in Hamburg. 1923 was another pinnacle, the year of revolutionary struggles and missed opportunities. The history of Germany, especially between 1918 and 1933, contains the richest of lessons, probably of any country in the world.
Since the time of Marx, the German labour movement had so many advantages. Friedrich Engels wrote that:
The German workers have for the moment been placed in the vanguard of the proletarian struggle. How long events will allow them to occupy this post of honour cannot be foretold. But let us hope that as long as they occupy it, they will fill it fittingly.
Engels stressed the need to treat socialism as a science, which must be studied. If the German workers progressed in this way, he explained:
[T]hey will occupy an honourable place in the battle line; and they will stand armed for battle when either unexpectedly grave trials or momentous events demand of them increased courage, increased determination and energy. (K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, pp. 631-632.)
Tragically, the leaders of German Social Democracy, supposedly the heirs of Marx and Engels, faced with voting for war credits in August 1914, capitulated and the banner of international socialism was soiled.
Although the British working class is the oldest in the world, it never reached the heights of the German movement in terms of theory or organisation. The British revolutionary traditions pale in comparison. Germany stands out as displaying the greatest potential for success, but also displaying the greatest tragedy. After all, the German Social Democracy was the strongest in the world. It was prized by all. Similarly, the German Communist Party was once the most powerful in the world, outside of the Soviet Union. And yet, the working class was crushed under the iron heel of fascism.
If it demonstrates anything, it surely demonstrates the importance of ideas. You can have the strongest organisation in the world, but without correct ideas you will lose. Mass organisations, with a mighty apparatus, have been reduced to dust. Correct ideas alone are also not enough; they need organisation. Ideas without organisation are like a knife without a blade. One must go hand in hand with the other, although the correct ideas must be the foundation.
Deservedly so, the Russian Revolution, the greatest event in history, has been the centre of attention and study for Marxists. The Bolsheviks, under Lenin and Trotsky, showed in practice how the working class could succeed in taking power and hold onto it. Rightfully, this is why we have examined the rich heritage of Bolshevism. Nevertheless, it would be no exaggeration to say that the defeat of the German Revolution of 1923 was as significant an event in the negative sense as the victory of the Russian Revolution of October 1917 was in the positive.
In many ways, however, the German Revolution has tended to be neglected. Much less attention has been paid to it than ought to be the case. The reason is probably to do with the fact that there is very little literature by comparison in the English language about this subject. Pierre Broué’s magnificent book provided a valuable contribution when it was released in English in 2006.
Unfortunately, the book ends in 1923. Trotsky’s writings on Germany between 1931 and 1933 are also invaluable and are available online. For the most part, the history of the period is scattered across different sources, many of the best in the German language, and therefore here we have one of the reasons for the present book.
This book is not for pessimists. History is littered with failures and defeats. It did not have to be like that. The defeat of the German Revolution and the victory of fascism were by no means inevitable. Had the German Revolution succeeded, the entire course of subsequent world history would have been different. But that did not happen.
If we want to be successful, then we need to prepare ourselves, and consciously strive to build the forces nationally and internationally that can change the course of history. The work in building up such an International has been systematically undertaken today by the International Marxist Tendency (IMT), which has loyally kept the ideas of genuine Marxism alive throughout these years. The IMT, which bases itself on the genuine traditions of Trotsky’s Fourth International, now operates in almost forty countries and on every continent.
The task of changing society falls to the new generation, which, first and foremost, has to prepare itself for the stormy events that confront us. This book is a modest contribution to this endeavour, as well as preserving a part of our revolutionary heritage.
The author first heard about the German Revolution from Ted Grant, who maintained the flame of genuine Marxism alive in the most difficult years. The author was proud to have known and worked with him. His ‘The Menace of Fascism’, written in 1948, will remain a classic.
This book would not have been possible but for the help and encouragement of a number of people. In particular, thanks are due to Alan Woods, who first suggested the idea of a book; Fred Weston for carefully going over the text; Hans-Gerd Öfinger and Marie Frederiksen for their valuable suggestions and comments; to Sue Norris and Aaron Kyereh-Mireku for proofreading; to Steve Jones for the glossary; and Jack Halinski-Fitzpatrick for laying out and seeing the final draft through to publication.
 Henceforth referred to as MECW.
In this hour, socialism is humankind’s only saviour. Above the collapsing walls of capitalist society, we can see the words of the Communist Manifesto blazing like a fiery writing on the wall: ‘Socialism or demise into barbarism!’
Rosa Luxemburg, ‘What Does the Spartacus League Want?’
In the years following the blood-soaked carnage of the First World War, a spectre stalked Europe, the spectre of Bolshevism. But try as they may, the ruling classes could not exorcise it. To their dismay, like Banquo’s ghost at the banquet, it cast an eerie shadow over their proceedings.
Lloyd George remarked to the French Premier Clemenceau in March 1919:
The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution…
The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the mass of the population from one end of Europe to the other. (Quoted in E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, vol. 3, p. 136.)
This fear of Bolshevism was not isolated and even stretched across the Atlantic. The American President Woodrow Wilson, again in March 1919, echoed the threat: “We are running a race with Bolshevism, and the world is on fire.” (Quoted in A. Read, The World on Fire: 1919 and the Battle with Bolshevism, p. 160.) The flames were lapping at their heels, threatening to consume them. “Every day the situation grows worse, until many people are ready to declare that the United States will be the next victim of this dangerous malady,” wrote the New York Times. (ibid., p. 51.)
A few years later, the Bolshevik leader, Leon Trotsky, concurred with their ‘ungodly’ fears. “Those were the days of panic, the days of a truly insane fear of Bolshevism, which then loomed as an extremely misty and therefore terrifying apparition.” (L. Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, vol. 1, p. 176.)
For the bourgeois representatives, the apparition was real enough, and the world was truly ablaze. Monarchies were reduced to ashes, consumed in the revolutionary inferno following the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, and the German Revolution of November 1918. The flames of revolution were sweeping away everything in their path and transforming the course of European and world history. Not one stone upon another would remain of the old Empires.
We should begin by dispelling a myth, however. It was not the Generals and Admirals who put an end to the slaughter and bloodshed of the First World War – in which more than 17 million lost their lives and more than twice that number were wounded, gassed and maimed – but the revolutionary uprising of the heroic soldiers, sailors and workers of Germany. The General Staffs on both sides were quite prepared to continue the war to the last drop of someone else’s blood. The real unsung heroes – the revolutionary masses – are not mentioned in any official celebrations or even histories.
News From Germany
The earth-shattering events of the German revolution in November 1918 were a powerful inspiration to the Russian masses, who were desperate to break loose from their isolation and extend the proletarian revolution westwards. It was the first in a series of spontaneous revolutionary waves that crashed into the barriers of capitalism.
In Moscow, Lenin had almost finished his reply to the attacks of Karl Kautsky, the past head of the Second International – The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky – when he received the news from Germany. He immediately put down his pen, but then resumed writing after a brief pause:
The above lines were written on 9 November 1918. That same night news was received from Germany announcing the beginning of a victorious revolution, first in Kiel and other northern towns and ports, where the power has passed into the hands of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, then in Berlin, where, too, power has passed into the hands of a Soviet.
He then added:
The conclusion which still remained to be written to my pamphlet on Kautsky and on the proletarian revolution is now superfluous. (V. Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, in Lenin Collected Works, vol. 28, p. 319.)
For Lenin, there seemed no point in answering the distortions of Kautsky when the revolution was on the verge of victory.
As Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, Lenin issued an urgent appeal to the Russian workers:
News came from Germany in the night about the victory of the revolution there. First Kiel radio announced that power was in the hands of a council of workers and soldiers. Then Berlin made the following announcement: “Greetings of peace and freedom to all. Berlin and the surrounding districts are in the hands of the Council of Workers and Soldiers’ Deputies…”
Please take every step to notify German soldiers at all border points. Berlin also reports that German soldiers at the fronts have arrested the peace delegation from the former German government and have begun peace negotiations themselves with the French soldiers. (LCW, vol. 28, p. 179.)
As soon as this electrifying news spread, tens of thousands of Russian workers spontaneously took to the streets in jubilation. The mood reached fever pitch. In describing its dramatic impact, the Bolshevik Karl Radek recalled:
From every corner of the city demonstrations were marching towards the Moscow Soviet… Tens of thousands of workers burst into wild cheering. Never have I seen anything like it again. Until late in the evening workers and Red Army soldiers were filing past. The world revolution had come. The mass of the people heard its iron tramp. Our isolation was over. (J. Riddell [ed.], The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power, p. 15.)
Lenin wrote to Sverdlov, convinced that the world revolution was imminent:
The international revolution has come so close in one week that it has to be reckoned with as an event of the next few days… We are all ready to die to help the German workers advance the revolution which has begun in Germany. In conclusion: (1) Ten times more effort to secure grain (clean out all stocks for ourselves and for the German workers). (2) Ten times more enrolments for the army. We must have by the spring an army of three million to help the international workers’ revolution. (LCW, vol. 28, pp. 364-365.)
Lenin and the Bolsheviks knew full well that the centre of gravity of the European revolution was not in backward Russia, but in industrially advanced Germany. While the Russian Revolution provided the opening shot of the world revolution, the decisive battle would be fought out in the heart of Europe, namely with the victory of the German revolution. It was therefore here that the attention of the revolutionary masses worldwide was concentrated. In 1918-1923, Germany can rightly be considered the epicentre of the world revolution and the key to the international situation.
On 9 November 1918, the hopes for a victorious German ‘October’ were initially very high. As with the February Revolution in Russia, the German masses poured onto the stage of history. They took destiny into their own hands. A red flag flew over every barracks and over every ship in the German Imperial Navy. Alongside a feeble bourgeois government, a network of workers’ and soldiers’ councils had sprung up in all the main cities and towns of Germany. The authority of the old state apparatus had collapsed and power was now in the streets, patrolled by armed workers and soldiers. It was a classic example of ‘dual power’, with the old and new class forces vying for dominance. In Berlin, a new government of People’s Commissars had been appointed by the Executive Committee of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils. Events moved quickly as the Hohenzollern dynasty followed the Romanovs into oblivion. The Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, fled to the Netherlands, followed by the rulers of four German kingdoms, five Grand Duchies and twelve Principalities.
Following the example of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, another age-old absolutism, that of the Hohenzollerns, had been reduced to dust. Under the hot breath of revolution, King Ludwig III of Bavaria, whose House of Wittelsbach had ruled for more than a thousand years, simply packed his bags and departed. He had been deposed by a revolutionary Bavarian government, known as the ‘Council of Workers and Soldiers’. The King of Württemberg pleaded on his hands and knees that no red flag should fly over his vacated palace. The reason for this humble request was that the palace, despite his absence, should be respected as his private property. But the Revolution chose to ignore such formalities.
The Kaiser’s brother, Prince Heinrich was forced to flee for his life, disguised with false whiskers and a red flag flying on his automobile. In that way, under the cover of darkness, he was able to escape to Denmark undetected. The old order was at an end. Everywhere the imperial flags were being pulled down and replaced with red flags.
Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor of all Germany, was forced to abandoned his Royal palace at Potsdam and the question of his abdication was on everyone’s lips. Wilhelm had been reluctant to abandon his throne, but soon realised that this might be a lost cause. Initially he had some fleeting thought that he may have been allowed to remain as the King of Prussia, Germany’s largest state, but this illusion soon evaporated when the chancellor, Prince Max von Baden, appointed by Wilhelm, had the temerity to announce the Kaiser’s demise without the decency of telling him. After all, someone had to put the Hohenzollerns out of their misery, otherwise the workers and soldiers would take it upon themselves, as in Russia.
But the idea of playing the role of the sacrificial lamb did not sit well with the head of the most powerful monarch in Europe. “Treason, gentlemen, barefaced, outrageous treason!” cried Wilhelm as he tried to clutch onto power with the support of the generals, but they too soon disowned him.
Emperor With No Clothes
During the final death rattle of the old regime, a desperate and deluded Kaiser approached Generals Groener and Hindenburg with an insane plan to reconquer the rebellious cities by dispatching “picked troops to Verviers, Aix-la-Chapelle and Cologne, all with the most modern equipment, smoke bombs, gas, bombing squadrons and flame-throwers… They would be able to restore order.” Hindenburg said nothing. Looking rather solemn, General Groener answered: “Sire, you no longer have an army.” (R. Watt, The Kings Depart, p. 190.) Although the Kaiser could not stomach the bitter truth, he now counted for nothing. He was like the emperor without clothes, or in his case, without an army.
Wilhelm must have felt, as did his predecessor King Louis XVI and his mistress, Madame de Pompadour, après moi, le déluge [after me, the deluge]. But the disaster had already arrived. The next day, this sorry figure boarded a train to the Netherlands, where he remained, never to return. Up until 1914 he had rightfully been considered the most powerful monarch in the world. But the age of empire had abruptly come to an end.
Wilhelm’s irrational behaviour was the same as all those monarchs whose regimes were doomed. “The tsar procrastinates,” Leon Trotsky wrote in similar vein about the fate of the Russian monarchy. “He is still reckoning in days and weeks, while the revolution is keeping its count in minutes.” (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 1, p. 93.)
“Around me treason, cowardice, deceit,” wrote Nicholas II in his diary. (ibid., p. 99.) The same words had been uttered by Wilhelm as he departed the scene, and probably by Louis XVI for that matter. They all headed towards the abyss “with the crown pushed down over their eyes.” (ibid., p. 102.)
By comparison, these events constituted the comic opera of the German Revolution; more seriously, official government communications were breaking down, especially outside of the capital. Power was slipping away from the once all-powerful central authorities. On 8 November, while the Kaiser was still dithering, the Ministry of War dispatched a distressing report to the increasingly isolated and feeble government of Prince von Baden:
9:00 a.m.: Serious riots at Magdeburg.
1:00 p.m.: In [the] Seventh Army Corps Reserve District rioting threatened.
5:00 p.m.: Halle and Leipzig Red. Evening: Düsseldorf, Halstein, Osnabrück, Lauenburg Red; Magdeburg, Stuttgart, Oldenburg, Brunswick and Cologne all Red.
7:10 p.m.: General officer commanding Eighteenth Army Corps Reserve at Frankfurt deposed. (R. Watt, p. 186.)
The Revolution overturned everything in its wake. On 7 November, in the capital of Bavaria, the King was forced to flee and a republic under the leadership of left socialist Kurt Eisner was declared. At about 10 o’clock in the night, Eisner and his new council, escorted by some sixty armed workers, marched into the Landtag, the state parliament, and called for order. He announced:
The Bavarian revolution is victorious. It has put an end to the old plunder of the Wittelsbach kings. Now we must proceed to build a new regime… The one who speaks to you at this moment assumes that he is to function as the provisional prime minister. (A. Read, p. 36.)
Nobody lifted a finger. No one uttered a word. The next day, the city awoke to red flags flying over the public buildings and churches, with posters proclaiming the new socialist republic.
Meanwhile, on 8 November, the German delegation had arrived at Marshall Foch’s railway carriage in the Forest of Compiègne, approximately sixty kilometres north of Paris. Marshal Ferdinand Foch was the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Armies in France. This meeting was altogether a far more sombre affair. This is where frank discussions were taking place over the terms of the armistice presented by the Allies to the German High Command. In effect, the Allies were demanding nothing less than complete, humiliating and unconditional surrender. According to them, all occupied territory, including Alsace-Lorraine, was to be evacuated by the Germans within fifteen days. In addition, the Allied generals demanded that the German military immediately surrender the 30,000 machine guns in its possession.
This led to some frank exchanges. The Germans, for their part, argued that they should be allowed to retain an armed force strong enough to deal with the danger of Bolshevism. After all, should the Revolution seize power in Germany, it would spread to France and further afield. But this argument was dismissed by the Allies. The German generals again repeated the cold facts that if they were forced to surrender their machine guns, “there would not be enough left to fire on the German people should this become necessary.” In face of this truly compelling argument, agreement was reached that 5,000 machine guns should be retained for this express purpose.
Churchill, who feared Bolshevism more than the plague, had come to a similar conclusion in London. At a Cabinet meeting he stressed the possibility of building up the German Army, as it was “important to get Germany on her legs again for fear of the spread of Bolshevism.” (ibid., p. 38.) For him, his seething hatred of Bolshevism and what it stood for surpassed every other consideration.
Until the Armistice was signed, the warring parties were still formally at war. However, protocol clearly stated that only an officially constituted German government could sign it. But there was no government. Everything was in a state of chaos and revolution was spreading rapidly throughout the country. The Allies had to act quickly, with or without protocol.
On 11 November 1918, at 5:12 in the morning, the Armistice was signed in the railway sidings at Compiègne. It required the Germans to evacuate France and retire behind the Rhine. They had to relinquish the bulk of their aircraft, numbering 1,700 planes, together with the most modern of their fleet. This amounted to over six battlecruisers, ten battleships, eight light cruisers, and fifty destroyers. All her submarines were to be surrendered. It was a foretaste of what was to happen in Paris, when Germany was subjected to the humiliation of the Versailles Peace Treaty.
But events had overtaken the Armistice. The war had given birth to revolution. In Germany, the old regime had crumbled and had placed power into the hands of the revolutionary workers, soldiers and sailors. The German Revolution – unfolding hour by hour – represented the greatest blow to capitalism since the Russian Revolution of October 1917. If Germany succumbed to Bolshevism, then the revolution would prove unstoppable. Everything was in the balance. Lenin announced that he was even prepared to sacrifice the “besieged” revolution in Russia for a successful revolution in Germany. He knew full well that a victory in Germany, in the centre of Europe, would have sealed the fate of the European bourgeoisie and then the world. Such was the historic importance of these breath-taking events.
On Armistice Day, Beatrice Webb, the English Fabian reformer, wrote in her diary about the panic seizing hold of the British bourgeois establishment:
Thrones are everywhere crashing and the men of property everywhere secretly trembling. How soon will the tide of revolution catch up with the tide of victory? That is the question which is exercising Whitehall and Buckingham Palace and causing anxiety even among the more thoughtful democrats. (ibid., p. 2.)
Bruce Lockhart, the British diplomat, also noted in his diary after a meeting with the King, “The King was very nice… has a wholesome dread of Bolshevism.” (R.H.B. Lockhart, The Diaries of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, p. 47.)
There was certainly a deep sense of foreboding, not only in Buckingham Palace, but in the ruling classes of Europe. Their world had never seemed so fraught with danger. It reflected their fears that Bolshevism was at the gates and the rule of bankers and capitalists was about to come to an end. “The most serious question of the hour… is how far Europe is infected with Bolshevism,” stated a report from London in the New York Times. (A. Read, p. 38.)
In Scotland, workers on Red Clydeside were inspired by the events in Russia and Germany. When John Maclean, the Marxist and internationalist, was released from prison on 3 December 1918, he addressed the crowd in Glasgow and ended with the cry: “three hearty cheers for the German Socialist Revolution!”
In The Call newspaper, Maclean wrote an article entitled ‘Now’s the Day and Now’s the Hour!’ in which he stated:
We witness today what all Marxists naturally expected, the capitalist class of the world and their Governments joined together in a most vigorous active attempt to crush Bolshevism in Russia and Spartacism in Germany. Bolshevism, by the way, is Socialism triumphant, and Spartacism is Socialism in process of achieving triumph. This is the class war on an international basis, a class war that must and will be fought out to the logical conclusion – the extinction of capitalism everywhere. (N. Milton, John Maclean, pp. 185-186.)
In Germany, the victory of the revolution seemed assured as state power fell into the hands of the workers and soldiers. And yet, tragically, despite everything, the German proletariat failed to consolidate its hold on power. The revolution stopped halfway and the opportunity was tragically lost. “No one in the German Labour movement knew how to use the power which suddenly, on 9 November 1918, fell into their hands,” commented the historian Evelyn Anderson. (E. Anderson, Hammer or Anvil, p. 38.) The leaders of the Social Democracy had actively opposed the Revolution, but they ended up leading it. They did everything in their power to divert the movement into safe ‘democratic’ channels along the lines of a bourgeois republic, where they would play the role of a ‘loyal opposition’ or even be part of a governing coalition. In the absence of a real revolutionary party, the opportunity was lost to establish a socialist republic in the centre of the European continent.
Workers Held Power
In the course of the German revolution, the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, which initially held the reins of power, simply handed them over to the Social Democratic leaders, who they trusted, but who in turn used their authority to rescue capitalism. These spineless reformists, who had in practice long ago abandoned the idea of proletarian revolution and Marxism, managed to rip defeat from the jaws of victory and prepare the way, not for ‘democracy’, but for naked and bloody reaction.
This was the exact opposite of what had happened in Russia when the Bolsheviks took power on behalf of the soviets and put an end to the rule of the landlords and capitalists. The Russian February was followed by the Russian October. The German ‘February’ failed to make that transition. The betrayal of the German Social Democrats was to prepare the ground for defeat and terrible retribution. These tragedies and lost opportunities were to lay the basis later on for the victory of German fascism, and with it the horrors of concentration camps and gas chambers. If the German Revolution had been successful, it would have changed the entire course of the history of the twentieth century. The German failure can therefore be considered one of the greatest – if not the greatest – tragedies of our time.
Nowadays, it has become increasingly fashionable amongst certain bourgeois historians to say that the events of November 1918 did not constitute a revolution. Even the radical ‘left’ can be ambivalent. “The jury is still out on whether it really was a revolution,” states Gabriel Kuhn. (G. Kuhn [ed.], All Power to the Councils! A Documentary History of the German Revolution 1918-1919, p. xi.) And what jury is that? The concept of revolution seems to worry them. To the official ‘sociologists’, the term provokes a condescending smile, as would childish pranks. Not surprisingly, to the conservative mind, revolution is some kind of collective madness. This caricature is of course entirely false. It is not madness that is expressed but the instinctive desire of the oppressed class to change society.
If we consider that the basic premise of a revolution is the entry of the masses onto the stage of history, then the events of 1918 in Germany constituted a gigantic – and classic – revolutionary movement. The awakening of the masses and their active participation in politics is the most decisive feature of revolution, including the German Revolution. The revolution itself is a colossal school in which millions of ordinary men and women rapidly learn through their daily experience. Every single day a new revelation and a new lesson is learned. A new order begins to take shape and crystallise. Through the efforts and initiative of the masses alone, the revolution places power into their hands. As a consequence, it succeeds in breaking the political domination of the Junker class and sweeps away the monarchy. Leon Trotsky – who had direct experience of leading a revolution – answered the question in the following manner:
The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business – kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgment of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny. (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, emphasis added.)
If we take this scientific definition, the events in Germany in November 1918 certainly constituted a revolution. Unfortunately, it stopped short, halfway. It did not destroy the economic power of the bankers and capitalists. The fact that the German revolution was not carried through to a successful conclusion, as in Russia in 1917, is another matter. It simply proves that you cannot carry through half a revolution. A revolution must go all the way or it will fail. There is no halfway house.
It also demonstrates that victory does not fall like a ripe fruit from a tree. Even when every element of capitalist society has disintegrated, and the workers are prepared to take the power, it requires, above all, a determined and conscious revolutionary leadership, which is prepared to go to the very end.
Although the 1918 revolution was defeated, other revolutionary opportunities, equally as important, emerged in 1919, 1920 and in particular 1923. Trotsky believed revolutionary possibilities could have existed in German even up until the victory of Hitler. The German working class had shown itself more than ready to lead mankind out of an epoch of hunger and blood. The blame does not lie with them. In fact, nothing more could be asked of them. These opportunities were cynically squandered by their leaders. Once again, German capitalism was allowed to survive, but at such terrible human cost.
The German ‘October’ was not realised, not because of the lack of resolve of the masses, which showed no limits, but because of the betrayals and blunders at the top of both the reformist and Communist parties. It was these defeats, which eventually drove the frenzied ruined middle classes into the arms of the fascists and prepared the way for the victory of Hitler. But even then, Hitler could have been stopped in his tracks if it hadn’t been for the criminal role of the workers’ leaders. Despite having weapons and armaments, as well as their own military formations, they allowed the fascists to come to power without a fight. The German workers were led like lambs to the slaughter. The leaders of the Social Democrats refused to fight as, according to them, resistance would have led to civil war and bloodshed. Bloodshed! It was the very failure to act decisively that made bloodshed inevitable. Millions of workers would perish as a result of fascist barbarism.
The leaders of the Communist Party, who had embraced Stalinism during the 1920s, ignored the calls of Leon Trotsky for a united front of workers’ organisations against fascism, but instead continued to denounce the socialists as ‘social fascists’, and as the main enemy. Trotsky made a forceful appeal to the Communist workers:
Worker-Communists, you are hundreds of thousands, millions; you cannot leave for any place; there are not enough passports for you. Should fascism come to power, it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only a fighting unity with the Social Democratic workers can bring victory. Make haste, worker-Communists, you have very little time left! (L. Trotsky, ‘Germany: The Key to the International Situation’, 8 December 1931.)
But his appeal for a united front was dismissed by the Stalinist leaders as ‘counter-revolutionary’ propaganda.
The accession to power by Hitler in January 1933 – “without breaking a window pane,” to use his own words – constituted the most humiliating capitulation in history, even worse than the betrayal of 4 August 1914. Even then, after everything that had happened, the Stalinists dismissed the fascist victory with the astonishing words, “After Hitler, our turn!” This betrayal destroyed any possibility of a German revolution.
By 1935, fearing a possible war with Germany, Stalin looked for an alliance with the so-called ‘western democracies’. To demonstrate his friendship towards the imperialist countries, he was prepared to sacrifice the Spanish Revolution. This change entailed another zig-zag in policy, as ‘social fascism’ was dropped in favour of the Popular Front. Stalin moved very quickly from denouncing Trotsky for having called for unity of the German communists with the Social Democrats in a united front of the workers’ organisations against the Nazis, to the broadest possible alliance, the Popular Front of communist and socialist organisations with ‘progressive’ bourgeois politicians, Liberals, and Church leaders against fascism. Such a policy prepared the defeat in Spain – and elsewhere – and prepared the way for the Second World War and 80 million dead.
Learn From History
“Ours is not to laugh or cry, but to learn,” said the philosopher Baruch Spinoza. It is necessary for the new generation to understand what happened in Germany and learn its lessons for today. “Achieving a greater awareness of the past,” wrote Alexander Herzen, “we clarify the present; digging deeper into the meaning of what has gone before, we discover the meaning of the future; looking backward, we move forward.” (R. Medvedev, Let History Judge.)
Today we are at the crossroads of two epochs. The old post-war stability has finally come to an end. In the face of the biggest crisis of capitalism in its history, there is chronic instability and a sharp polarisation everywhere. The scene is being set once more for revolutionary convulsions worldwide.
Titanic events will transform the consciousness of millions, as society enters an intense period of class struggle. The working class will need to prepare itself for this, and the lessons of 1918-1923 can play an indispensable role. A period of profound upheaval is opening up in front of us. There are, of course, significant differences between today and the 1930s, most notably the greatly increased strength of the working class. This change in the class balance of forces is of decisive importance.
We reject the view of the petty-bourgeois moralists and liberals who frown upon revolutions, as if against the laws of nature. In fact, revolutions are the motive force of history, and history is about to give such people some sharp lessons in dialectics.
As with the 1917 October Russian Revolution, the 1918 German Revolution marked an opening of a convulsive chapter in European and world history. We are entering a similar stormy period today on a global scale, and it is one of the main reasons we are publishing this book. Moreover, this is not simply a historical work, but a political one. The ebb and flow of history, governed by its own laws, has great relevance for today. This has nothing to do with fate, as it is people who make history. Furthermore, the book’s publication marks a celebration: the centenary of the German revolution of November 1918, when the workers, sailors and soldiers, “stormed heaven,” to borrow the phrase of Marx. They came so close to changing the world, but they were robbed of this victory. This tragedy eventually led to fascist barbarism and all the horrors associated with it. It is therefore the responsibility of the new generation of socialists and communists, educated and enriched by the past, to complete this long overdue goal begun by those past heroes who dared storm heaven.
 Lloyd George went on to stress: “If Germany goes over to the Spartacists it is inevitable that she should throw in her lot with the Russian Bolsheviks. Once that happens all Eastern Europe will be swept into the orbit of Bolshevik revolution, and within a year we may witness the spectacle of 300 million people organised into a vast Red Army under German instructors and German generals, equipped with German cannon and German machine guns… The news which came from Hungary yesterday shows that this is no mere fantasy.” (Quoted in A. Read, The World on Fire, p. 160.)
 Henceforth referred to as LCW.
 The title ‘Kaiser’ is the German word for ‘emperor’.