A revolutionary upsurge after 1918 could have democratized German politics. Instead, the brutal repression used to contain that upsurge strengthened the authoritarian right, divided the German workers’ movement, and facilitated the rise of Hitler.
Soldiers of the German Freikorps, a right-wing paramilitary organization, during the Kapp Putsch to overthrow the nascent Weimar Republic and reinstall the monarchy, Berlin, Germany, March 13, 1920. (Bain News Service/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
In recent years, German history during the Weimar Republic has become an increasingly familiar reference point in US politics. Anyone who stands to the left of Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden will find themselves compared to the Communist Party of Germany. Commentators asked if the Capitol Hill riot in January 2021 was a latter-day version of the Kapp Putsch, or even the Reichstag fire.
But the more people talk about Weimar Germany as the master key to our own time, the less we seem to know about its real history. Before we can discuss its lessons for today, we need to understand that history on its own terms.
Sean Larson is a historian who specializes in the German Revolution and the Weimar Republic and an editor at Rampant magazine.
- Daniel Finn
How did the German monarchy fall at the end of 1918? And who were the key political actors at that time?
- Sean Larson
The German Kaiser was toppled by the November Revolution — the same November Revolution that ended the First World War. This revolution was not just a change of figureheads. It was a deep-rooted social revolution that swept through all the different aspects of German life. This came at a time of highly regimented, disciplined wartime routines. In city after city, as soon as people started taking over their neighborhoods and their workplaces, it created a new public sphere, the likes of which German people had never seen before.
The movement was pretty spectacular at times. For example, people in Munich stormed the military prisons and freed all the prisoners before setting up their own structures. In Hamburg, naval officers from the Kaiser’s army took up arms against the revolutionary workers, until a fleet of red sailors came in with a cruiser, turned their guns on the officers, and saved the day.
The revolution brought in all layers of the German population. Its main vehicle was the workers’ council. These were structures that had been developed by necessity during a series of wartime mass political strikes. The typical workers’ organizations, the trade unions and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), refused to participate in those strikes, so workers were left to develop their own structures. They came up with these workers’ councils: they were democratically elected, flexible, improvised bodies, designed to make decisions and then take action on the basis of those decisions.
Around the country, these bodies obviously looked very different in different cities, but they did share a few demands in common. Those demands included the democratization of the state and the army, nationalization of major industries, and workers’ power to organize a future out of this bleak wartime reality that a lot of people had just gone through for the last four years. The councils also started to exercise a real claim to social power. They weren’t just playing around. They were coordinating strikes, seizing counterrevolutionary newspapers, preventing troop movements, and they started to pose a real challenge to the existing structures.
However, they were also shaped by the various preexisting organizations and networks. The German workers’ movement was probably the best organized movement in the world before the war. The SPD and the Free Trade Unions, which were very closely affiliated to the party, were the chief expressions of that organization. Before the war, for working people, loyalty to those organizations was deeply rooted in a whole culture of political, social, and organizational services. It was an entire lifeworld.
The German workers’ movement was probably the best organized movement in the world before the war.
In 1914, the party and the unions suffered a huge blow to their credibility when they supported the war effort. This was more than simply an abstract betrayal of principle. It was also the beginning of a process whereby the party and the unions transformed themselves over the course of the war into the disciplinarians of an increasingly unsettled workers’ movement.
The Social Democratic leaders especially didn’t come out of the German Revolution looking very good. They went through lots of different twists and turns. They made alliances with the army, the industrialists, and parties to their right. They broke those alliances at some points and then reforged others at other points.
During the November outbreak, the unions also played a stabilizing role, because they created an institution with the employers called the Central Working Group. It was designed essentially to short-circuit the rank-and-file movement organized through the councils. They also got something out of it: under the pressure of the revolution, the employers agreed to the eight-hour day, a long-standing demand of the workers’ movement. That was a huge victory, even though it proved to be temporary. The joint body they created with the employers was one of the main organizers of the demobilization and played a big role throughout the rest of the revolution.
The other key organizers of the revolution were the revolutionary shop stewards. This was a network of trusted, well-placed metalworkers around the country. They had bases in Central Germany, and Berlin especially. They were responsible for organizing the wartime strikes that brought out over a million people, most of whom were women, in 1918 — 75 percent of those going on strike were women.
During the war, the revolutionary shop stewards were members of another party, the Independent Social Democrats (USPD). This was a large party that split from the Social Democrats in 1917, based upon opposition to the war, but also under the spell of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. The USPD was something of a hodgepodge politically, united mainly by its pacifism. It functioned as a useful container for various forces, such as the revolutionary shop stewards.
The last group that I’ll touch on here is the more politically visionary element within the USPD at the time of the revolution, the Spartacus group. A huge number of Spartacists were in prison at the time of the November revolution, including their key leader, Rosa Luxemburg. Most of the Spartacus group’s cadre were graduates of the SPD party school that Luxemburg had run prior to the war.
Rosa Luxemburg addressing a crowd in Stuttgart, 1907. (ullstein bildullstein bild via Getty Images)
During the war, they cohered themselves by distributing a number of leaflets called the Spartacus letters that put forward Luxemburg’s political vision, which emphasized the self-activity of the working class. It called for the rejection of what they considered to be the very fixed and passive political recipes of the Social Democrats in favor of trusting the creativity of the popular movement.
They saw their perspective as being confirmed by the council movement, which was spontaneously improvised. But they also believed that socialists should aim to provide that movement with an ideological backbone. They had a vision that was forward-striving and decisive. They opposed themselves in that regard to the default wait-and-see approach of the unions and the Social Democratic Party.
- Daniel Finn
Why did the Spartacist uprising take place in Berlin toward the beginning of 1919, and what were its outcomes?
- Sean Larson
The Spartacist uprising, or the January uprising, was the culmination of a monthslong dual-power struggle between the provisional government set up after the revolution and the council movement that had broken out all over the country. Throughout November and December 1918, these two forces were jockeying with each other for state power. They deployed various bureaucratic maneuvers, and there were also armed confrontations in the streets at some points, although the process did remain largely nonviolent.
With the help of a secret agreement with the German Army, the SPD leaders around Friedrich Ebert ultimately came to occupy the dominant positions within the provisional government, while workers in Berlin and elsewhere continued to assert control over their shop floors and their neighborhoods. They were acting in the councils and creating their own structures rather than relying on the institutions of the party and the trade unions.
There was a significant showdown shortly after the first nationwide congress of these councils in December 1918. The SPD was hoping to consolidate its control by ousting a bastion of revolutionary sailors who were holed up near the city center. In the course of the conflict, Ebert called in the old German Army command to fire on the sailors at Christmas. They ended up killing more than thirty people.
While this was happening, unarmed people from around the city, including many women and children, came to defend the sailors, and they ultimately repelled the attack. The incident became a turning point that polarized large sections of the movement against the SPD. It triggered the departure of the USPD from the provisional government, in which it had been participating in a junior role. It also marked a high point in an ongoing media campaign, across the full range of the Berlin press, that demonized the Spartacist leader Karl Liebknecht, portraying him as a master of chaos and harbinger of Bolshevism.
There was a seriously tense situation in early January 1919. Ebert’s administration felt compelled to consolidate its power by challenging the last real bastion of opposition to the provisional government, which was a revolutionary police militia controlled by the radical Emil Eichhorn. The attempt to dismiss Eichhorn from his post, in early January, prompted the revolutionary shop stewards to plan an anti-government demonstration for January 5. It should really be called the January uprising, because only afterward did the shop stewards invite the Spartacus group to join.
By this point, the Spartacists had helped organize the new Communist Party of Germany (KPD). They endorsed the demonstration. When the day came, it was unexpectedly massive, with hundreds of thousands of people. After a few speeches, they marched to occupy the offices of the Social Democratic newspaper, Vorwärts (Forward). The revolutionary leaders hadn’t really planned this, but once the facts were established on the ground, they defended it and called for a general strike. In response, the government organized a crackdown.
The SPD war minister, Gustav Noske, brought in battalions of the Freikorps, an extreme-right-wing paramilitary organization, to clear out the occupation. This was the beginning of a nationwide bloodbath by these protofascist forces, with indiscriminate and extrajudicial killings of suspected Spartacists all over the country, and ultimately the capture and murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.
It’s hard to overstate the sheer violence that was involved in this crackdown. It was a witch hunt. People were having their homes barged into; they were being shot left, right, and center, without any semblance of a democratic trial.
- Daniel Finn
After the repression of the uprising and the deaths of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, what was the balance of forces between the Social Democrats and the Communist Party in the German workers’ movement?
- Sean Larson
After this bloody spring of 1919, the first phase of the German Revolution can be considered over. The workers’ and soldiers’ council movement had been decisively defeated. What had become full-blown council republics in Bavaria and Bremen were brutally suppressed, as well as other epicenters of council power in Düsseldorf, Mannheim, Halle, and other cities.
One of the most important reasons that the Kapp Putsch could not continue was that German capital did not want it to.
The subsequent period, which lasted roughly from March 1919 to March 1920, was characterized by the turn of the revolutionary movement to more economically oriented factory councils as its arena. These were specifically based upon workplaces, unlike the political councils.
There were still ongoing strike waves, especially in the Ruhr industrial region, which was a key region for the German Revolution. There were also strike waves in Berlin and Central Germany. All of these strikes were calling for the socialization of the mines and the heavy industries. That demand was ultimately killed in committee by the new government, but it was an important part of the movement over the course of that year.
The workers’ movement shifted quite noticeably onto the defensive. They were responding to external events rather than calling the shots. In January 1919, the Weimar Republic had its first National Assembly elections. It was the first election where women had the vote.
It resulted in a new coalition government, predominantly comprised of what was called the Weimar coalition: the SPD, the Catholic Center Party, and the liberal party, the German Democratic Party. Over the course of 1919, the SPD leadership consolidated its alliance with the old military in the process of this repression, and their cooperation with these other parties in parliament further identified them with the state and the republic itself.
Meanwhile, the Free Trade Unions were undergoing a sweeping reorganization and centralization in the summer of 1919. This was partly in response to the German employers’ organizations, which had also gone through a sweeping reorganization and centralization earlier that year. The new organization of the trade unions was accompanied by a renewal of their ideological program. They put out a platform for a kind of union-led version of the welfare state.
This was designed to relegitimize the unions after they had lost a lot of trust during the revolution, and to take the wind out of the sails of a growing radical intra-union opposition, comprised of the USPD members around the factory councils and the revolutionary shop stewards. This opposition was challenging the unions from within.
The Communist Party of Germany was founded at the turn of the year by a bunch of politically heterogeneous groups that came together from around the country. They were really united more or less by the charisma of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. They were very young: at the founding congress, more than three-quarters were under the age of thirty-five. Half of them were workers.
The party that they founded was a rather loose grouping, with no real shared perspective on organization, and very weak ties to the working class. By that summer, the KPD had undergone all of this repression — a huge layer of its leaders had been killed — and it was in disarray, organizationally and politically.
There were elements within the new party that were exclusively devoted to refounding the political councils and refused to do anything else. They called for leaving the trade unions entirely. A lot of the other people in the KPD refused to put up candidates for parliamentary elections.
However, by the next party congress in October 1919, all of those elements had been expelled from the KPD, largely because of the efforts of its new leader, Paul Levi. The party that resulted was quite insignificant politically and consisted mainly of small, local, underground groups by February 1920.
- Daniel Finn
How did the German left respond to the Kapp Putsch of 1920? What did the putsch reveal about the disposition of the German Army, the industrialists, and the civil service?
- Sean Larson
The Kapp Putsch was organized by German nationalists and a section of the Reichswehr, the German Army. Freikorps troops marched into Berlin on March 13, 1920, prompting the SPD government leaders to flee the city.
The quickest to react were the newly centralized trade unions under their leader, Carl Legien. The unions, along with the SPD and almost all parties of the Left, called a general strike on the day of the putsch. Notably, the KPD leadership initially refused to, as they put it, “lift a finger in defense of the Republic.” But they corrected their mistake two days later, after rank-and-file Communists around the country had already organized strikes and renewed the council movement.
The result of this call was the largest general strike in German history. Over 12 million workers halted their work. In Berlin, where the showdown really happened, two strike leaderships arose. One was based around the official union leadership. A more radical one was comprised of a coalition of the USPD, the KPD, and factory council movements, as well as the Berlin intra-union opposition, which was the focal point for union opposition around the country.
As the strike wore on, the presses were shut down and reliable communication was almost impossible in the city. In that context, as the strike was going on for days and days, it had this continuity and escalation largely due to the initiative of local groups of workers acting on their own. After five days, during which time the public officials’ union also joined the strike leadership, the putsch ended, but the strike did not.
Carl Legien entered negotiations with the SPD-led government while workers’ councils in the Ruhr formed a Red Army with a hundred thousand members and took control of wide swathes of Ruhr territory. Finally, the strike ended on the 20th, with promises by the government to institute the trade union agenda. The government then sent in repressive forces to put down the revolutionary movement in the Ruhr.
There were a few takeaways from the Kapp Putsch. First of all, the general strike revitalized the German left. Trade union membership hit 8.1 million members — the highest it had ever been. Union density in the crucial metalworking industry topped 91 percent. The strike and the Ruhr movement also put wind in the sails of the factory council movement again.
There was something else going on here, too. One of the most important reasons that the putsch could not continue was that German capital did not want it to. The employers’ organizations considered the whole affair to be premature at best, but a lot of them saw it as an outright crime, because it threatened the progress that they were making, with productivity levels finally recovering and signs that the exchange rate of the mark was improving.
- Daniel Finn
How did the KPD come to launch the failed uprising that was known as the March Action in 1921?
- Sean Larson
I want to give a little context here, and not just for the March Action. Around this time, a lot of different things were happening that set up developments for the rest of the Weimar Republic. The year 1920 was a major turning point in the German revolutionary movement, and there were a number of developments that played into that — in the workers’ movement, in the economy, and also within the KPD.
Throughout 1919 and most of 1920, the revolutionary shop stewards and other factory council activists within the USPD had become increasingly dissatisfied with the leadership of their own party. In addition to the state violence that was unleashed over this period, their social conditions continue to stagnate or even deteriorate. The USPD’s left wing was attempting to organize direct, collective actions to improve the livelihoods of workers. But they were continually thwarted from doing so, because the USPD leaders were staunchly committed to a strategy that prioritized the labor-capital partnership that had been institutionalized in 1918.
A revolution of some kind in Germany would be the Soviet Union’s salvation.
Meanwhile, the Communist International (Comintern), based in Moscow, was making overtures that were becoming more and more attractive to the USPD left, because organizing along Communist lines would offer them more freedom of action, even if some of the leaders weren’t quite fully convinced on some of the points that affiliating with the Comintern would entail. On the other hand, the trade unions had been trying to liquidate the factory council movement. In January 1920, legislation was passed to do just that, and they finally succeeded in subordinating the factory councils under union authority in October that year.
After that setback, the left wing of the USPD decided to unite with the much smaller KPD, splitting the USPD down the middle at a famous congress in Halle, and forming what was called the United Communist Party in December 1920. The new party had about 450,000 members. It was the first mass Communist party outside of Russia.
Most of the rank and file of this new party had just gone through two years of enforced passivity and restraint under the more conservative USPD leadership. Their general mood was a very strong demand for action. The word “action” here was quite ambiguous — the meaning ascribed to it ranged from coordinated initiatives of a new type at workplaces throughout December 1920 and January 1921 to demands for what was constantly referred to as a great, all-encompassing deed in response to the intensification of the employers’ offensive.
It’s important to understand the economic conjuncture. In 1920, the global economy entered a recession. It had a severe impact on the Western Entente countries — the United States, France, and Great Britain — all of which implemented deflationary policies in response. That meant slowing economic growth and downsizing firms in the hope of a quicker recovery. When unproductive firms closed, there was a sharp uptick in unemployment, exacerbated by layoffs in the public sector.
In Germany, the government also wanted to institute deflationary policies, but was prevented from doing so because it was facing widespread riots and strikes in the fall of 1920. The government’s main concern was that deflation would cause a drastic rise in unemployment that could tip the scales of this social unrest toward full-blown revolution.
The March Action in 1921. (Wikimedia Commons)
When it came down to it, the state was forced to do the opposite of downsizing. An unprecedented decree on November 8 severely restricted the closure of factories and firms. At the same time, the government was subsidizing private firms to keep employment levels artificially high in the private sector at the cost of redundancy and inefficiency. In the fall and winter, when the government attempted to cut costs through layoffs in the notoriously bloated public railway and civil service systems, they encountered massive worker opposition and the mounting danger of a railroad and postal workers’ strike.
The only reason that the German economy kept running at this point was because the finance and economics ministries set up an elaborate system of export controls to maintain a rather slim export advantage throughout the 1920–21 recession. Private capital from the West was also flowing into Germany as a refuge, betting that the German market was going to make a big recovery.
This was a dilemma that continued to arise throughout the revolutionary period: the German state faced a task of restoring profitability, which under capitalism essentially required them to break the organized labor movement. However, German workers at this point were still too organized and militant. For now, capital and the state opted to “go along to get along,” even while they were constantly pushed by these economic conditions to reestablish control over the labor movement.
The March Action came in March 1921. After the Ruhr uprising of the previous year, the putting down of the Kapp Putsch had a rather contradictory outcome. In conjunction with the employers’ organizations and the demands of industrialists, the SPD in power started to expand state security apparatuses to intervene in civil disturbances and restore public order. As the depression deepened and conditions got worse and worse in early 1921, there was widespread looting and job-shirking, added to the regular spontaneous strikes about control of the shop floor.
All of this was creating a wildly unstable business climate. When factory directors in Saxony demanded that the government intervene, state officials prepared a police action to reestablish order. They moved in heavily armed police forces to occupy firms in the region. This was happening around mid-March.
Within the Communist Party, there was a very promising new strategy for workplace actions that was developing over the course of the winter, especially in the Ruhr and cities like Stuttgart. But at the same time, these blustery demands for that great, all-encompassing deed got support from a mid-level Comintern functionary who had recently barreled into Germany, Béla Kun, a hotheaded and not very experienced Hungarian. These discussions were all happening in a context where the two parties that had joined to form this new United Communist Party were still in the very early stages of integrating themselves organizationally, politically, and strategically.
The KPD leadership reacted to the police operation in Saxony by completely losing their heads. They decided that the situation was the turning point in the world revolution and issued a call for a general strike and armed resistance. In the event, only a minority of German workers heeded the strike call. The Communists then attempted to forcibly prevent huge numbers of noncommunist workers from entering their workplaces.
After about a week of police bombardments, with dynamite explosions and battles between workers, the March Action completely collapsed in utter defeat. The entire operation was a fiasco. It sowed distrust between rank-and-file Communists and their coworkers. In the aftermath, the KPD hemorrhaged members, losing about 300,000 of their original 450,000.
The other outcome of the March Action was a reforging of the bonds between the Social Democrats and the forces of order in the state and industry. The previous year, the Kapp Putsch had driven a wedge between the SPD and the unions, on the one hand, and the army and the employers, on the other. But the lessons of the March Action led to closer coordination between them in a shared hostility to communism and worker radicalism.
- Daniel Finn
How would you characterize the relationship between the KPD and the Soviet government in the early 1920s?
- Sean Larson
The KPD’s relationship to the Soviets was mediated primarily through the Comintern, a body that encompassed Communist parties from all around the world. The first four congresses of the Comintern took place over this period. They were important strategic crucibles for the global communist movement, and especially for Germany; indeed, a lot of their central debates were all about Germany.
There can be a tendency to read the international influence of the Bolsheviks through the lens of subsequent developments under Stalin, when the carefully built international revolutionary movement was subordinated to the interest of an emerging bureaucratic class in Russia. But the reality on the ground in Germany from 1918 to 1923 was different.
The hyperinflation of 1923 has to be understood as a product of the class struggle.
Internationalism was the foundation of the Spartacus group. Every single one of the underground Spartacus letters during the war began with a prominent quotation from Luxemburg’s Junius theses, which were the founding document of the Spartacists. It read as follows: “The center of gravity of the organization of the proletariat as a class is the International, and the obligation to carry out the decisions of the International takes precedence over all else.”
That was Rosa Luxemburg. The Comintern’s main representative in Germany, Karl Radek, had also played an instrumental role in the development of the German socialist movement since before the war, especially in the city of Bremen. His continued analysis and advice proved indispensable for the German party throughout the revolutionary period.
Having said all of that, around the time of the March Action, there were also some severe frictions. Some of the elements of the Comintern created a lot of confusion among the leading German communist groupings, notably Béla Kun’s personal insistence on the insurrectionary offensive, but also others. I don’t think that influence was the decisive factor in the March Action, but it certainly didn’t help.
In Russia, the context was the failure of the Red Army’s Polish campaign and the looming introduction of the New Economic Policy: this was going to introduce capitalist measures, and they didn’t want to do that. There were a lot of hopes in the Soviet Union that Germany would provide some relief to the Soviet people: a revolution of some kind in Germany would be their salvation. When you combine that with the loss of several key KPD leaders and the organizational disarray of the party, that left the remaining leaders susceptible to Béla Kun’s influence, as well as their own party’s confused and impatient rank and file.
That said, I think that, starting in the summer of 1921, the KPD’s constant interaction with the International was a crucial reason why they were able to rebuild the Communist Party under the leadership of Ernst Meyer. They developed the strategy of the united front. That strategy was originally developed by rank-and-file German workers in Stuttgart, and then elaborated on theoretically and on an international scale by Karl Radek in January 1921.
This involved making a concerted effort to initiate joint struggles around basic needs at workplaces and elsewhere, and then politicizing them to bring in more and more workers from all parties in collective action. Sometimes that would involve official collaboration between the leaderships of the parties. The kernel of that idea was built out in practice in Germany over the course of 1922–23, and ultimately resulted in a more unified, capable, and battle-tested Communist Party going into the most revolutionary situation in 1923.
On balance, I think the International did more to strengthen the KPD in those early years than it did to undermine it. This was before 1924, when it took a sharp turn for the worse. In that early period, the International was much less like some kind of wire-pulling foreign body that was imposing itself on the KPD, and much more like a political foundation and home for Communist workers in Germany.
- Daniel Finn
Why did 1923 become a year of intense political turbulence in Germany? And why did the planned Communist uprising not go ahead that year?
- Sean Larson
The year 1923 was probably the most revolutionary situation in the entire period. The hyperinflation is what most people know about, but the hyperinflation has to be understood as a product of the class struggle.
Starting in the summer of 1922, J.P. Morgan recalled foreign loans to Germany. As the recession was ending, Western competitors were recovering, and that eliminated Germany’s export advantage. That triggered a critical situation of industrial overcapacity in Germany, and immediately raised the stabilization question that had been put off since 1921 through the continued rise in inflation.
Here are the stakes of the inflation question: Everybody knew that somebody was going to have to pay for the social and economic burdens of the settlement and the end of inflation. Either German capital would have to be socialized and expropriated, or the workers would have to pay by increasing productivity and lengthening their working day. It was a question of control over the workplace, the economy, and the state.
In November 1922, the prominent industrialist Hugo Stinnes, who was the nearest thing to a leader of the industrialists, publicly denounced the failure of the Center-led government to adequately serve capital. In response, a few days later, the government resigned, to be replaced by a new administration under the technocrat-businessman Wilhelm Cuno, who the industrialists hoped would be more likely to finish the job of breaking workers’ resistance. That change in government happened toward the end of the year 1922.
Suddenly, in January 1923, the French entered the Ruhr in search of reparations payments. Their occupation temporarily suspended this conflict between the government and heavy industry. The two sides united in favor of passive resistance that prioritized civil peace or labor peace while they resisted the French demands.
Throughout that spring of 1923, government credits bankrolled firms in the occupied Ruhr territory, until the mark collapsed again in mid-April. By early summer, a number of things had happened as a result: price controls were abandoned, union-sponsored wage stabilization efforts broke down, and the blast furnaces and steel mills in the Ruhr ground to a halt. Labor peace disintegrated, giving way to a massive wildcat strike wave that enveloped the Ruhr and started to bubble over into an open challenge to state authority, both French and German.
This was the beginning of galloping hyperinflation. The authorities saw printing money and wildly rising prices as preferable to state intervention against the revolutionary movement. That revived movement was also made possible by the emergence of new, improvised institutions of the class struggle, which we can describe as more or less united front organs.
They consisted primarily of the factory councils, refounded on a new basis since the fall of 1922. But they also included consumer control committees, councils of the unemployed, and, importantly, a paramilitary organization that was created through the factory councils in November called the Proletarian Hundreds. Communists were often in leadership positions throughout all these bodies, but those bodies also encompassed members of all the workers’ parties and unions. They continued to grow throughout this unrest.
At this time, the new Cuno government was paralyzed during the summer between three forces: Allied demands for reparations, the intransigence of the industrialists, and this new revolutionary wave, not only in the Ruhr, but now rapidly spreading into Central Germany in Saxony and Thuringia. Meanwhile, fascist battalions were mobilizing around the country, in conjunction with an illegal, privately funded army known as the Black Reichswehr. This was a question of the state organizing the German Army illegally, contrary to the Versailles Treaty, but funded privately.
In the early summer, KPD rank-and-file leaders were instrumental in coordinating the movement through their positions in the factory and unemployed councils. But as the events reached new heights of radicalization in the Ruhr, the KPD leaders were worried that there was going to be an isolated upsurge that wouldn’t get the support of the rest of the country and could easily be put down. They used their positions in the united front organs to rein in large sections of the spontaneous movement.
That began a turn in party policy, away from a reliance on their regional cadres and toward what they described as a “refusal to be the driving element” in a bid for power, even while the revolutionary movements continued to explode. By the last week of July, there were rolling wildcat strikes and occupations of factories and mines proliferating in the industrial West, directed by the councils and demanding the overthrow of the Cuno government.
All of the reactionaries who were responsible for the Kapp Putsch got off scot-free and continued to receive their state-funded pensions afterward.
Dissatisfaction with the government had now spilled over into large sections of the middle classes, as well as a lot of the ruling-class people around leading members of Cuno’s party. This was also the period in which workers occupying mines in the Ruhr were erecting gallows to haunt their German managers.
In mid-August, the factory council headquarters called a general strike. That brought 3 million workers out in Berlin, toppling the Cuno government within twenty-four hours. Cuno was replaced by a grand coalition, one that included the SPD, under the National Liberal Party leader, Gustav Stresemann, who promised to finally stabilize the economy at the expense of workers. But the strikes didn’t end. The next day, sweeping political strikes expanded to all of Saxony and Thuringia, demanding the overthrow of the government and the creation of a workers’ government.
Where were the Communists in all of this? At this point, they belatedly recognized what was going on. This was a revolutionary situation, and they decided to prepare for an insurrection by withdrawing from all united front organs and going underground at the beginning of fall 1923. The KPD was now a mass party again, with just shy of three hundred thousand organized members and over 3,300 local groups. These KPD supporters were not just voters. They were active Communists — people ready to go to the barricades.
Over September, they made underground preparations for an armed uprising in October — what everybody was calling the German October. But in the process, they lost contact with the ongoing rebellions around the country orchestrated through the united front organs. The result was the demobilization of those movements, which ended up dissipating into scattered economic protests and hunger riots as the Communists disappeared from the joint institutions.
On October 10, the KPD leader, Heinrich Brandler, and other members of the party leadership joined the government in Saxony and Thuringia, hoping to use those positions to gather arms and organize the insurrection. The final hour came on October 21, at a meeting of the factory councils in Saxony. Brandler put forward a proposal to their coalition partners, who were probably the SPD members furthest to the left in any government, to call a general strike, which would likely lead to an armed insurrection.
The SPD leaders were pretty solidly on the Left, but the evaporation of the mass movement left no real extra-parliamentary basis for a workers’ government, which was particularly alarming in the face of an impending invasion by the Reichswehr. In that context, it was quite rational of the SPD left in Saxony to shrink from that initiative, which they did. The KPD slunk out of the meeting, and the German October was aborted.
At the end of September, Stresemann’s government cooperated with iron and steel industrialists to stabilize prices. They ended the hyperinflation, bringing the class conflicts that were underlying all of this out into the open. Government credits and wage supports for industry were withdrawn.
Large-scale layoffs ensued, creating a sudden spike in unemployment, just as the leaders of the coal industry unilaterally declared the end of the eight-hour day at the beginning of October, in contravention of the institutional partnership between the unions and the employers. Shortly afterward, the SPD was forced out of the national government, and troops were sent into Saxony to put down the insurrectionary movement and stabilize the business climate by dissolving the key gains of the German Revolution.
- Daniel Finn
What was the role of political violence, both from the Left and the Right, during the 1920s, and how did the German courts and the various political actors and parties respond to it?
- Sean Larson
There was a clear gap between the republican, democratic ideals of the SPD, which was often in power over the course of the Weimar Republic, and the deep state responsible for administering that republic. Throughout the 1920s, and especially after 1929, the vast majority of the judiciary was unsympathetic, at the least, to the new state. Judges were dispensing extremely political verdicts, giving just a slap on the wrist to the perpetrators of political violence in support of so-called patriotic causes, while handing out draconian sentences for left-wing challenges to state authority.
For example, between 1918 and 1922, the far right committed 354 murders, while the left wing committed a total of 22 murders. Of those 22 cases, 10 received the death sentence, while for 326 of the 354 far-right murders — 92 percent of them — the people charged were just released. If they were convicted, they usually received just a four-month prison term. What’s more, all of the reactionaries who were responsible for the Kapp Putsch got off scot-free and continued to receive their state-funded pensions afterward.
Despite the fact that many of the revolutionaries in the beginning were coming out of an extremely violent war, the first couple of months of the revolution were largely a nonviolent period. The real break came after January 1919. The battles at that time, and especially throughout March and April that spring, were the bloodiest period of the revolution. All of it was carried out as a means to reestablish capitalist order. Violence in the Weimar Republic predominantly stems from the need for the new state to establish some authority, and it really begins with Noske’s months of brutal repression.
That period also marked the consolidation of the protofascist Freikorps, whose ranks only grew throughout the following years of revolution, while the official military forces were kept down to a hundred thousand people by the terms of the Versailles Treaty. You can consider all state power as rooted in the monopoly on violence, but, ideally, from the perspective of state managers, you never have to exercise that monopoly: the threat alone is supposed to be what gives the state authority and legitimacy in a capitalist society. Weimar could not rely on that assumption.
Weimar’s state managers, including Social Democrats, often had to make a calculation. How did they shore up the authority of the state in conditions of total crisis, with food shortages and huge challenges to stay in power? Some tried to avoid resorting to violence and the Freikorps, but once they committed to restoring capital accumulation as the basis of stabilization, they really didn’t have any other choice, given the circumstances.
The challenge to state power was not just a onetime thing. It was an ongoing challenge that lasted over five years of the revolution. Even beyond that, it persisted in various ways throughout the 1920s. After the global crash of 1929, you had the intensified street battles of the early 1930s.
Of course, the state is not the only source of violence in the Weimar Republic. After 1923, you had a process of industrial rationalization in the workplaces, spearheaded by the unions of all people, that ended up increasing worker productivity and therefore throwing a lot of unemployed workers out on the street. That was the context in which the streets started to become the new public sphere, where political power was contested.
The different parties set up armed paramilitary wings to test their power against each other through violence. The background condition of this was the declining legitimacy of the state among the population. The state’s authority was continually chipped away by its inability, on the one hand, to resolve the crises of capitalism, but also by these challenges from the revolutionary left and the reactionary far right.
The different parties set up armed paramilitary wings to test their power against each other through violence.
There was a huge difference between those two forces, of course. People were attracted to the Left initially by idealism and the hope of a better world. The promises of the new democracy were collapsing around them. More and more, revolutionary workers, especially in the period of the united front, were just people fighting for their basic needs. They were fighting for price controls on their groceries, or pensions for widows and orphans, or firewood in the winter, as well as things like the right to defend themselves against the Freikorps entering their homes in the night.
Communist cadres that arose from these initial joiners were then developed through collective actions and especially through a systematic plan of political education, which played a much bigger role in the KPD than it did in any other party. Fascism, on the other hand, developed its cadres through a military context, where violence served as a kind of baptism into a new, lifelong nationalist mission. That was the political content of violence in the Weimar Republic, which was generally much more conducive to the far right.
- Daniel Finn
Overall, how would you say the formative years of the Weimar Republic contributed to its eventual collapse in 1933?
- Sean Larson
When we’re talking about the collapse of the Weimar Republic, we’re talking about the Nazi seizure of power. There are three major factors behind the rise of the Nazis and their seizure of power. First, you have the background condition of the loss of state legitimacy. Basically, all sectors of the population had lost confidence in Weimar governments to resolve all of these social fractures and economic crises. That included workers and the middle class, but more importantly, it included the industrialists, who no longer thought that the republican state was capable of resolving the situation in their favor.
The second major factor was the existence of a mass fascist movement with its particular character and ideology. By the early 1930s, you had an extreme right wing that, as opposed to previous forms of conservative anti-socialism in prewar Germany, was now committed to outright violence. This was a rather new thing. The fascists also represented a qualitative ideological departure from that older German right. They replaced the Wilhelmine values of hierarchy and privilege with a future-oriented ideology of national and racial community that could appeal to wider swathes of the population.
The third major factor behind the rise of the Nazis was, of course, the crisis conjuncture at the end of the 1920s. The economic crisis of 1929 quickly became a political and social crisis in Germany. That eliminated any chance for reformist welfare legislation, and therefore it eliminated the possibility of a social democratic future for the working class in general. The economic crisis also marked the onset of a turn by big businesses to these extra-systemic solutions, namely the Nazis.
All three of those factors were rooted in the patterns and processes established during the 1918–1923 period of crisis, revolution, and counterrevolution. The state lost legitimacy because of its inability — and the inability of all the ruling parties — to resolve the repeated crises and build on the compromises at the founding of the republic, which was a source of constant damage to their credibility. You had hyperinflation, persistent unemployment, deteriorating welfare provisions, and a never-ending cycle of cabinets being dissolved, all of which contributed to the lack of confidence in the republican state form among the different strata of the population.
You had an extreme right wing that was now committed to outright violence. This was a rather new thing.
Secondly, fascism was born in the counterrevolution of 1918–19, which was a turning point in public, political violence against civilians. There were a lot of different fascist groups in the Weimar Republic, but the violent radicalization of the Right as a whole was rooted in that revolutionary period and the ends to which they were deployed, to crush the workers’ movement. Their ideology was also shaped in those early years.
The Nazis didn’t grow because they were a narrow pet project of the capitalist class from the outset. They grew because they set up a violent racist nucleus, and then started to appeal to widening layers of what Clara Zetkin identified in 1923 as the politically homeless or socially uprooted, destitute and disillusioned people in the Weimar Republic, all of whom were constantly being churned out by the repeated crises.
Lastly, for the third factor, the crisis conjuncture, the social and political ramifications of that crisis, were also historically determined. After years of failed attempts to defang and co-opt the labor movement, the ruling classes were no longer able to organize themselves through the Weimar parliamentary system, let alone their economic interests. By 1932–33, the framework of the republic looked inadequate to take the measures that were required to restore the capitalist economy, as it had been able to do in 1923. Meanwhile, the Nazis were making themselves available as a credible mass movement and extra-systemic force.
There’s also something important that we could say about the dynamics between the SPD — in and out of state power — the KPD, and the movements. A lot of the core apparatuses of the republic were constructed more or less as stopgap measures, predominantly in reaction to communism. It became a teetering house, built largely on repression. Ironically, that only fueled adherence to Communist politics among wider layers of workers — first industrial militants, then the unemployed — despite the increasing irrationality and authoritarianism of the KPD, especially after 1924.
You had a mutually reinforcing cycle where the failures of both the SPD and the KPD generated an ever-widening space in which the fascist clowns, which is what they appeared to be in the beginning, were able to transform themselves into a reliable salvation force in the eyes of both industrialists and growing numbers of working people. When the Nazis came to power, they immediately started rounding up Communists and Social Democrats and killing them by the dozens and hundreds, as a prelude to the Holocaust and the genocidal murder of Jews.
There’s ultimately no way to explain the ascendancy of the Nazis without placing the process of revolution and counterrevolution in those early years at the center. Weimar society, on its social, political, and economic levels, was fundamentally unable to integrate its founding revolutionary breach and the institutional shifts that came along with it — both the reforms and the revolutionary movement. That was most evident, of course, during the episodes of social collapse and dual power: the November Revolution, the Kapp Putsch, and the 1923 hyperinflation, which were driven by the same revolutionary dynamics.
Even from the Social Democratic point of view, every strategy to establish a workable social democracy within the capitalist market framework crashed on the rocks of economic crisis and political backlash from the employers. The fundamental rift at the core of the republic played out through successive attempts by industrialists to achieve so-called stabilization, all of which failed until the very end. The deep crisis to which the Nazis then appeared to provide the solution was not just the global crash of 1929. It was the persistence of a mass revolutionary movement that refused to concede on people’s very basic needs and aspirations when confronted with the brutal imperatives of capital accumulation.