Germany 1918-19 (ii): From war to revolution

In the series Germany 1918-19

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

In the first part of this series, published to mark the 90th anniversary of the proletarian revolutionary attempt in Germany, we examined the world historic context within which the revolution unfolded. This context was the catastrophe of World War I, and the failure of the working class and its political leadership to prevent its outbreak. Although the early years of the 20th century were marked by the first manifestations of a general tendency towards the development of mass strikes, apart from Russia, these movements were not yet powerful enough to undermine the weight of reformist illusions. As for the organised, internationalist workers movement, it turned out to be theoretically, organisationally and morally unprepared for a world war which it had long predicted would take place. Prisoner of its own schemas of the past, according to which the proletarian revolution would be the more or less inevitable  product of capitalist economic development, it had adopted as a kind of implicit assumption the idea that the primordial task of socialists was to avoid premature confrontations, passively allowing the objective conditions to ripen. With the exception of its revolutionary left opposition, the Socialist International failed - or refused - to take into account the possibility that the first act of the period of decline of capitalism would be world war rather than world economic crisis. Above all, by ignoring the signals of history, the urgency of the approaching alternative of socialism or barbarism, the International completely underestimated the subjective factor in history, in particular its own role and responsibility. The result was the bankruptcy of the International in the fact of the outbreak of war, and the chauvinistic frenzy of part of its leadership, in particular the trade unions. The conditions for the first attempt at a world wide proletarian revolution were thus determined by the relatively sudden and cataclysmic descent of capitalism into its phase of decadence, into world imperialist war, but also by an unprecedented catastrophic crisis of the workers movement.

It soon became clear that there could be no revolutionary response to war without the restoration of the conviction that proletarian internationalism is not a tactical issue, but the most "sacred" principle of socialism, the one and only "fatherland" of the working class (as Rosa Luxemburg put it). We thus saw, in the previous article, how Karl Liebknecht's public declaration against the war on May Day 1916 in Berlin, no less than the internationalist socialist conferences held during the same period, such as those at Zimmerwald and Kienthal, and the widespread feelings of solidarity which they inspired, were indispensable turning points towards revolution. In the face of the horrors of the war in the trenches, and the pauperisation and intensified exploitation of the working masses on the "home front", wiping out all the acquisitions of decades of labour struggle at one go, we saw the development of the mass strike and the maturation of politicised layers and centres of the working class capable of leading a revolutionary assault. 

The responsibility of the proletariat to end the war

Understanding the causes of the failure of the socialist movement in face of war was thus the main concern of the previous article, just as it was a leading preoccupation of revolutionaries during the first phase of the war. This is clearly expressed in Rosa Luxemburg's Crisis of Social Democracy, also known as the "Junius Pamphlet". At the heart of the events dealt with in this second article, we find a second decisive question, a consequence of the first: Which social force will bring the war to an end, and in which manner?

Richard Müller, one of the leaders of the "revolutionary delegates", the Obleute in Berlin, and later one of the main historians of the revolution in Germany, formulated the responsibility of the revolution as being to prevent: "The foundering of culture, the liquidation of the proletariat and of the socialist movement as such".[1]

As was so often the case, it was Rosa Luxemburg who posed the world historic question of the day in the clearest manner. "What will be after the war, which conditions and which role await the working class, depends entirely on how peace comes about. Should it result merely from the mutual exhaustion of the military powers, or even - which would be worse - through the military victory of one of the warring sides, should it in other words come without the participation of the proletariat, with social calm within the different states, then such a peace would only seal the world historic defeat of socialism in war. (...) After the bankruptcy of the 4th August 1914, the second decisive test for the historic mission of the working class is as follows: Will it be able to end this war which it was unable to prevent, not to receive peace from the hands of the imperialist bourgeoisie as the work of cabinet diplomacy, but to conquer it, to impose it on the bourgeoisie?"[2]

Here, Rosa Luxemburg describes three possible scenarios of how the war might come to an end. The first is the ruin and exhaustion of the warring imperialist parties on both sides. Here, she recognises from the outset the potential for the deadlock of capitalist competition in the epoch of its historic decline to lead to a process of rotting and disintegration - if the proletariat is unable to impose its own solution. This tendency towards the decomposition of capitalist society was to become fully manifest only decades later, with the "implosion" of the Russian led imperialist block and the Stalinist regimes in 1989, and the ensuing decline of the leadership of the remaining US American super-power. She already realised that such a dynamic is, in itself, not favourable to the development of a revolutionary alternative.

The second is that the war would be fought out to the bitter end, resulting in the total defeat of one of the two opposing blocks. In this case, the main result would be the inevitable cleavage within the victorious camp, producing a new line up for a second, even more destructive world war, which the working class would be even less able to oppose.

In both cases, the result would be not a momentary, but a world historic defeat of socialism for at least one generation, which might, in the long term, undermine the very possibility of a proletarian alternative to capitalist barbarism. Revolutionaries at that time already understood that the "Great War" had opened a process with the potential to undermine the confidence of the working class in its own historic mission. As such, the "crisis of social democracy" constituted a crisis of the human species as such, since only the proletariat is the bearer, within capitalism, of an alternative society.

The Russian Revolution and the mass strike of January 1918

How to end the imperialist war by revolutionary means? The eyes of the true socialists of the whole world were turned towards Germany for answers to this question. Germany was the main economic power of continental Europe, the leader - in fact the only major power - of one of the two contesting imperialist blocks. And it was the country with the largest number of educated, socialist trained, class conscious workers, who in the course of the war increasingly rallied to the cause of internationalist solidarity.

But the proletarian movement is international by nature. The first answer to the above question was given, not in Germany, but in Russia. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a turning point in world history. It helped to transform the situation in Germany as well. Until February 1917, with the beginning of the upheaval in Russia, the goal of the class conscious German workers was to develop the struggle to an extent obliging governments to sue for peace. Even within the Spartakusbund,[3] at the moment of its foundation on New Years Day 1916, nobody had believed in the possibility of an imminent revolution. In the light of the Russian experience, by April 1917 the clandestine revolutionary circles in Germany had come to the conclusion that the goal was not only to end the war, but in so doing to topple the whole regime. Soon, the victory of the revolution in Petrograd and Moscow in October 1917 clarified, for these circles in Berlin or Hamburg, not so much the goal as the means to that end: armed insurrection organised and led by the workers' councils.

Paradoxically, the immediate effect of Red October on the broad masses in Germany was something like the opposite. A kind of innocent euphoria about approaching peace broke out, based on the assumption that the German government could not but accept the hand of "peace without annexations" being reached out from the east. This reaction shows to what extent the propaganda of what had become the "socialist" war mongering party, the SPD - that the war had been foisted on an unwilling Germany - still held sway. As far as the popular masses were concerned, the turning point in the attitude towards the war induced by the Russian Revolution only came three months later, with the peace negotiations between Germany and Russia at Brest-Litovsk.[4] These negotiations were followed intensely by workers throughout Germany and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Their result - the imperialist Diktat of Germany and its occupation of large parts of the western regions of what had become the Soviet Republic, savagely suppressing the revolutionary movements there in the process - convinced millions of the correctness of the slogan of Spartakus: the main enemy is "at home", it is the capitalist system itself. Brest gave rise to a gigantic mass strike, which began in Austria-Hungary, centred on Vienna. It immediately spread to Germany, paralysing economic life in over twenty major cities, with half a million workers on strike in Berlin. The demands were those of the soviet delegation at Brest: immediate ending of war, without annexations. The workers organised themselves through a system of elected delegations, by and large following the very concrete proposals of a leaflet of the Spartakusbund drawing the lessons from Russia. The eye-witness report of the SPD daily Vorwärts,  writing for the January 28th 1918 issue, described how the streets of Berlin had been deserted and shrouded in fog that morning, so that the outline of the buildings, indeed of the world seemed vague and distorted. When the masses took to the streets in silent determination, the sun came out and drove away the fog, the reporter wrote.

Divisions and divergences within the strike leadership

This strike gave rise to a debate within the revolutionary leadership about the immediate goals of the movement, but which increasingly touched the very heart of the question of how the proletariat could end the war. The main centre of gravity of this leadership lay at the time within the left wing of the social-democracy which, after being excluded from the SPD[5] because of its opposition to the war, formed a new party, the USPD (the "Independent" SPD). This party, which brought together most of the well known opponents to the betrayal of internationalism by the SPD - including many hesitant and wavering, more petty bourgeois than proletarian elements - also included a radical revolutionary opposition of its own, the Spartakusbund:  a fraction with its own structure and platform. Already in the summer and autumn of 1917 the Spartakusbund and other currents within the USPD began to call for protest demonstrations in response to mass discontent and growing enthusiasm for the revolution in Russia.  This orientation was opposed by the Obleute, the "revolutionary delegates" in the factories, whose influence was particularly strong in the armaments industry in Berlin. Pointing to the masses' illusions about the "will for peace" of the German government, these circles wanted to wait until discontent became more intense and generalised, and then give it expression in a single, unified mass action. When, during the first days of 1918, calls for a mass strike from factories all over Germany were reaching Berlin, the Obleute decided not to invite the Spartakusbund to the meetings where this central mass action was prepared and decided on. They feared that what they called the "activism" and "precipitation" of Spartakus - which in their eyes had become dominant in this group since its main theoretical mind, Rosa Luxemburg, had been sent to prison - could constitute a danger to the launching of a unified action throughout Germany. When the Spartakists found out about this, they launched a summons to struggle of their own, without waiting for the decision of the Obleute.

This mutual distrust then intensified in relation to the attitude to be adopted towards the SPD. When the trade unions discovered that a secret strike leadership committee had been constituted, which did not contain a single member of the SPD, the latter immediately began to clamour for representation. On the eve of the January 28 strike action, the majority at a clandestine meeting of factory delegates in Berlin voted against this. Nevertheless, the Obleute, who dominated the strike committee, decided to admit delegates of the SPD, arguing that the social-democrats were no longer in a position to prevent the strike, but that their exclusion would create a note of discord and thus undermine the unity of the coming action. Spartakus strongly condemned this decision.

The debate then came to a head in the course of the strike itself. In face of the elementary might of this action, the Spartakusbund began to plead for the intensification of the movement in the direction of civil war. The group believed that the moment might already have come to end the war by revolutionary means. The Obleute strongly opposed this, preferring to take responsibility themselves for an organised ending of the movement, once it had reached what they considered to be its culmination point. Their main arguments were that an insurrectional movement, even were it to succeed, would remain restricted to Berlin, and that the soldiers had not yet been won over to the side of the revolution.

The place of Russia and Germany in the world revolution

Behind this dispute about tactics lay two much more general and profound questions. One of them concerned the criteria for judging the ripeness of conditions for revolutionary insurrection. We will return to this question in the course of this series.

The other related to the role of the Russian proletariat in the world revolution. Could the toppling of bourgeois rule in Russia immediately inspire a revolutionary uprising in central and western Europe, or at least oblige the main imperialist protagonists to end the war?

The very same discussion took place in the Bolshevik Party in Russia, both on the eve of the October insurrection and on the occasion of the peace negotiations with the German imperial government at Brest-Litovsk. Within the Bolshevik Party, the opponents of signing any treaty with Germany, led by Bukharin, argued that the main motivation for the proletariat to take power in October 1917 in Russia was to trigger off the revolution in Germany and the west, and that to sign a treaty with Germany now would be tantamount to abandoning this orientation. Trotsky adopted an intermediary position of stalling for time which did not really resolve the problem. The proponents of the need to sign a treaty, such as Lenin, in no way contested the internationalist motivation of the October insurrection. What they contested was that the decision to seize power was based on the assumption that the revolution would immediately spread to Germany. On the contrary: the advocates of insurrection had pointed out at the time that the immediate extension of the revolution was not certain, and that the Russian proletariat was thus risking isolation and unheard of suffering by taking the initiative to begin the world revolution. Such a risk, Lenin in particular had argued, was justified, because what was at stake was the future, not only of the Russian but of the world proletariat; the future, not only of the proletariat, but of the whole of humanity. This decision should therefore be taken in full consciousness and in the most responsible manner. Lenin repeated these arguments in relation to Brest: the Russian proletariat was morally justified to sign even the most unfavourable treaty with the German bourgeoisie in order to gain time, since it was not certain that the German revolution would begin immediately.

Isolated from the world in her prison cell, Rosa Luxemburg intervened in this debate with three articles - "The Historical Responsibility", "Towards Catastrophe", and "The Russian Tragedy". Written in January, June and September 1918 respectively - which constitute three of the most important of the famous underground "Spartakus Letters". Here, she makes clear that neither the Bolsheviks nor the Russian proletariat could be blamed for the fact that they had been forced to sign a treaty with German imperialism. This situation was the result of the absence of the revolution elsewhere, above all in Germany. On this basis, she was able to identify the following tragic paradox: although the Russian Revolution was the highest peak conquered by humanity to date, and as such a turning point in history, its first immediate effect was not to shorten, but to prolong the horrors of world war. And this for the simple reason that it freed German imperialism from the obligation to wage war on two fronts.

If Trotsky believes in the possibility of an immediate peace under the pressure of the masses in the west, she writes in January 1918, "then we have to pour a lot of water into Trotsky's foaming wine". And she continues: "The first result of the cease-fire will only be that German troops will be transferred from the east to the west. In reality this is already taking place".[6] In June she drew a second conclusion from this dynamic: Germany had become the gendarme of the counter-revolution in eastern Europe, massacring the revolutionary forces from Finland to the Ukraine. Paralysed by this development, the proletariat was "acting dead". In September 1918 she then explains that the world war is threatening to engulf revolutionary Russia itself. "The iron circle of the world war, which seemed to have been broken in the east, is once again relentlessly encompassing the whole world: the Entente is advancing with Czech and Japanese troops from the north and east as a natural, inevitable consequence of Germany's offensive from the west and south. The flames of the world war are leaping across Russian soil and at any moment may engulf the Russian Revolution. To withdraw from the world war - even at the price of the greatest sacrifices - is something which, in the final analysis, it is simply impossible for Russia to do"[7]

Rosa Luxemburg clearly recognised that the immediate military advantage which Germany gained through the Russian Revolution would also, for some months, contribute to tipping the balance of class forces in Germany in favour of the bourgeoisie. Although the revolution in Russia inspired the German workers, although the "robbers peace" imposed by German imperialism after Brest robbed these workers of many of their illusions, it would take almost a year for this to mature into an open rebellion against imperialism.

The reason for this is connected to the specific nature of a revolution in the context of world war. The "Great War" of 1914 was not only slaughter on a scale never before witnessed; it was also the most gigantic organised economic, material and human operation in history hitherto seen. Literally millions of human beings, as well as all the resources of society, became cogs in an infernal machine, the very size of which defied human imagination. All of this gave rise to two intense feelings within the proletariat; hatred of war on the one hand, and a feeling of powerlessness on the other. Under such circumstances, it takes immeasurable sufferings and sacrifices before the working class can recognise that it alone is the force able to end war. Moreover, this process takes times and unfolds in an uneven, heterogeneous manner. Two of the most important aspects of this process are the recognition of the real, robber like motivations of the imperialist war effort, and of the fact that the bourgeoisie itself does not control the war machine, which as a product of capitalism has become independent of human will. In Russia 1917, as in Germany and Austria-Hungary 1918, the recognition that the bourgeoisie was not able to end the war even when it was heading for defeat, turned out to be decisive.

What Brest-Litovsk and the limits of the mass strikes in Germany and Austria-Hungary in January 1918 revealed was above all this: that the world revolution could be initiated in Russia, but that only a decisive proletarian action in one of the main belligerent countries - Germany, Britain or France - could put a stop to the war.

The race to end the war

Although the German proletariat was "playing dead" as Rosa Luxemburg put it, it's class consciousness continued to mature during the first half of 1918. Moreover, from the summer of that year on, the soldiers began for the first time to become seriously infected by the bacillus of revolution. Two factors in particular contributed to this. In Russia, the German rank and file prisoners of war were freed and given the choice of remaining in Russia to participate in the revolution, or returning to Germany. Those who chose the latter were of course immediately sent back to the front as cannon fodder by the German army. But they carried the news of the Russian Revolution with them. In Germany itself, thousands of leaders of the January mass strike were punished by being sent to the front, where they carried the news of the growing working class revolt against the war. But it was the growing recognition of the futility of the war and the inevitability of the defeat of Germany that was decisive in changing the mood in the army.

With the autumn of that year there thus began something which only a few months beforehand would have seen unthinkable: A race against time between the class conscious workers on the one hand, and the leaders of the German bourgeoisie on the other, to determine which of the two great classes of modern society would put an end to this war.

On the side of the German ruling class, two major problems within its own ranks had initially to be resolved. One of them was the complete inability of many of its main representatives to even conceive of the possibility of the defeat that was staring them in the face. The other was how to sue for peace without irreparably discrediting the very heart of its own state apparatus. Concerning this latter question, we have to keep in mind that in Germany the bourgeoisie was brought to power, and the country unified, not by a revolution from below, but through the military, first and foremost the royal Prussian army. How to admit defeat without putting in question this pillar and symbol of national strength and unity?

September 15: the western allies broke through the Austrian-Hungarian front in the Balkans.

September 27: Bulgaria, an important ally of Berlin, capitulated.

September 29: The commander in chief of the German army, Erich Ludendorff, informed the high command that the war was lost, that it was only a matter of days or even hours before the whole military front collapsed.

In fact, the description Ludendorff gave of the immediate situation on the front was somewhat exaggerated. We do not know if he himself fell into panic, or if he deliberately painted a picture blacker than reality in order to have the German leadership accept his proposals. At all events, his proposals were accepted: capitulation and the instalment of a parliamentary government.

With this course of action, Ludendorff wanted to forestall a total German defeat, and to take the wind out of the sails of revolution. But he had an additional aim. He wanted the capitulation to be declared by a civilian government, so that the military could continue to deny its defeat in public. He was preparing the terrain for the Dolchstosslegende, the myth of the "stab in the back", according to which a victorious German army was vanquished by a treacherous enemy behind the lines. But this enemy, the proletariat, could not of course be mentioned by name. This would only cement the growing abyss separating bourgeois and proletariat. For this reason, a scapegoat had to be found, to be blamed for "misleading" the workers. Given the specific history of western civilisation in the past two thousand years, the most suitable victim of such a scape-goating was close at hand: the Jews. It was thus that anti-Semitism, already on the rise, above all in the Russian Empire, in the years before the great war, returned to the centre stage of European politics. The road to Auschwitz begins here.

October 1st 1918: Ludendorff and Hindenburg demanded an immediate peace offer to the Entente.[8] At the same moment, a national conference of the most intransigent revolutionary groups, the Spartakusbund and the Bremen Left, called for reinforced agitation among the soldiers, and for the formation of workers' councils. By this time, hundreds of thousands of army deserters were on the run behind the front. And, as the revolutionary Paul Frölich was later to write (in his biography of Rosa Luxemburg), there was a new attitude of the masses which could be seen in their eyes.

Within the camp of the bourgeoisie, the efforts to end the war were held up by two new factors. For one thing, none of the ruthless leaders of the German state, who never hesitated to send millions of their own "subjects" to certain and senseless death, had the courage to inform the Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, that he would have to renounce his throne. For another, the opposing side in the imperialist war, kept thinking of new excuses to postpone a ceasefire, since they were not yet convinced of the immediate likelihood of revolution and of the danger this posed to their own rule. The bourgeoisie was losing time.

But none of this prevented it from preparing the bloody repression of the revolutionary forces. In particular, it had already chosen those parts of the army which, returning from the front, could be used to occupy the main cities.

Within the camp of the proletariat, revolutionaries more and more intensely prepared an armed rising to end the war. The Obleute in Berlin initially fixed November 4, and then November 11 as the day of insurrection.

But in the meantime, events took a turn, which neither the bourgeoisie nor the proletariat had expected, and which had a profound influence on the course of the revolution.

Mutiny in the navy, dissolution of the army.

In order to fulfil the conditions for a ceasefire stipulated by its war opponents, the government in Berlin stopped all navy military operations, in particular submarine warfare, on the 20th of October. A week later it declared its willingness to agree a cease-fire without conditions.

In the face of this beginning of the end, officers of the war fleet on the north German coast went mad. Or rather, the madness of their age old caste - defence of honour, the tradition of the duel, of demanding or granting "satisfaction," was brought to the surface by the madness of modern imperialist war. Behind the backs of their own government, they decided to embark with the war fleet for the great sea battle against the British Navy which they had been awaiting in vain throughout the war. They preferred to die in honour rather than surrender without a battle. They assumed that the sailors and crew - 80,000 lives in all - under their command would be ready to follow them.[9]

This however was not the case. The crew mutinied against the mutiny of their commanders. At least some of them did. During one dramatic moment, ships which had been taken over by their crews, and ships where this was not (yet) the case, had their guns targeted against each other. Then the mutinous crews surrendered, probably to avoid shooting at their own colleagues.

But this was not yet what triggered off the revolution in Germany. What was decisive was that part of the arrested crew were brought as prisoners to Kiel, where they were likely to be condemned to death as traitors. The other sailors, who had not had the courage to join in the original rebellion at high sea, now fearlessly expressed their solidarity with their colleagues. But above all, the whole working class of Kiel came out in solidarity, fraternising with the sailors. The Social Democrat Gustav Noske, sent to mercilessly crush the uprising, arrived in Kiel on November 4 to find the city in the hands of armed workers, sailors and soldiers. Moreover, mass delegations had already left Kiel in all directions to summons the population to revolution, knowing full well that they had crossed a threshold after which there was no way back: Victory or certain death. Noske was completely taken aback, both by the speed of events, and by the fact that the rebels of Kiel greeted him as a hero.[10]

Under the hammer blows of these events, the mighty German military machine finally disintegrated. The divisions flooding back from Belgium, which the government planned to use to "restore order" in Cologne, deserted.

On the evening of the 8th of November, all eyes were turned towards Berlin, the seat of government, and the point where the main armed forces of the counter-revolution were concentrated. It was rumoured that the decisive battle would be fought in the capital the following day.

Richard Müller, leader of the Obleute in Berlin, later recalled. "On November 8th I stood at Hallisches Tor.[11] Heavily armed infantry and machine gun columns and light field artillery were being moved in endless rows towards the city centre. The human material seemed to consist of cut-throats. It had been used with "success" already to crush the Russian workers and peasants, and in Finland. There was no doubting that it was intended to use them in Berlin to drown the revolution in blood." Müller goes on to describe how the SPD was sending out messages to all of its functionaries, instructing them to oppose the outbreak of the revolution by all means. He continues. "Since the outbreak of the war I had been at the head of the revolutionary movement.

Never, even in face of the worst setbacks, had I ever doubted the victory of the proletariat. But now, as the decisive hour approached, I was gripped by a feeling of apprehension, a great worry about my class comrades, the proletariat. I myself, in face of the greatness of the hour, felt myself to me shamefully small and weak."[12]

The November Revolution: the proletariat ends the war

It has often been claimed that the German proletariat, on account of the culture of obedience and submission which, for historic reasons, dominated the culture in particular of the ruling classes of that country for several centuries, is incapable of revolution. The 9th of November 1918 disproves this. On the morning of that day, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators from the great working class districts which encircle the government and business quarters on three sides, moved towards the city centre. They planned their routes to pass the main military barracks on their way to try and win over the soldiers, and the main prisons, where they intended to liberate their comrades. They were armed with guns, rifles and hand grenades. And they were prepared to die for the cause of the revolution. Everything was planned on the spot and spontaneously.

That day, only 15 people were killed. The November Revolution in Germany was as bloodless as the October Revolution in Russia. But nobody knew or even expected this in advance. The proletariat of Berlin showed great courage and unswerving determination that day.

Midday. The SPD leaders Ebert and Scheidemann were sitting in the Reichstag, the seat of the German parliament, eating their soup. Friedrich Ebert was proud of himself, having just been summoned by the rich and the nobles to form a government to save capitalism. When they heard noises outside, Ebert, refusing to allow a mob to interrupt him, silently continued his meal. Scheidemann, accompanied by functionaries who were afraid the building was going to be stormed, stepped out on the balcony to see what was going on. What he saw was something like a million demonstrators on the lawns between the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate. A crowd which fell silent when it saw Scheidemann on the balcony, thinking he had come to make a speech. Obliged to improvise, he declared the "free German republic". When he got back to tell Ebert what he had done, the latter was furious, since he had been intending to save not only capitalism, but even the monarchy.[13]

Around the same moment the real socialist Karl Liebknecht was standing on the balcony of the palace of that very monarchy, declaring the socialist republic, and summoning the proletariat of all countries to world revolution. And a few hours later, the revolutionary Obleute occupied one of the main meeting rooms in the Reichstag. There, they formulated the appeals for delegates to be elected in mass assemblies the next day, to constitute revolutionary workers and soldiers councils.

The war had been brought to an end, the monarchy toppled. But the rule of the bourgeoisie was still far from being over.

After the victory: civil war

At the beginning of this article, we recalled the stakes of history as formulated by Rosa Luxemburg, concentrated in the question: which class would end the war? We recalled the three possible scenarios for the war to be ended: by the proletariat, by the bourgeoisie, or by mutual exhaustion of the warring parties. The events show clearly that in the end, it was the proletariat which played the leading role in ending the "Great War". This fact alone illustrates the potential might of the revolutionary proletariat. It explains why the bourgeoisie to this very day shrouds in silence the November Revolution of 1918.

But this is not the whole story. To a certain extent, the events of November combined the three scenarios depicted by Rosa Luxemburg. To a certain extent, these events were also the product of the military defeat of Germany. By the beginning of November 1918 it really was on the verge of total military defeat. Ironically, only the proletarian uprising spared the German bourgeoisie the fate of military occupation, obliging the Allies to call a halt to the war to prevent the spreading of the revolution.

November 1918 also revealed elements of "mutual ruin" and exhaustion, above all in Germany, but also in Britain and France. In fact it was only the intervention of the United States on the side of the Western allies from 1917 onwards which tipped the scales in their favour, and opened a way out of the lethal deadlock in which the great European powers were trapped.

If we mention the role of these other factors, it is not in order to minimise the role of the proletariat. They are important to take into consideration because they help to explain the character of events. The November Revolution gained victory as an irresistible force. But this was also because German imperialism had already lost the war, because its army was in full decomposition, and because not only the working class, but broad sectors of the petty bourgeoisie and even the bourgeoisie now wanted peace.

On the day after its great triumph, the population of Berlin elected workers' and soldiers' councils. These in turn appointed, alongside their own organisation, what was considered to be a kind of provisional socialist government formed by the SPD and the USPD under the leadership of Friedrich Ebert. That same day, Ebert sealed a secret agreement with the new military leadership to crush the revolution.

In the next article, we will examine the forces of the revolutionary vanguard in the context of the beginning of the civil war and on the eve of the decisive events of the world revolution.

Steinklopfer, July 2008.



[1]. Richard Müller: Vom Kaiserreich Zur Republik ("From Empire To Republic"),  Part I of his trilogy on the German Revolution.

 

[2]. Rosa Luxemburg: "Liebknecht". Spartakusbriefe N°1. September 1916.  In German: Luxemburg Werke Vol. 4, p. 216, 217.

 

[3]. The Spartakusbund began as a tiny illegal grouping founded amongst others by Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin and Franz Mehring. It published the illegal Spartakusbriefe (Spartacus letters) and was to provide the nucleus of the KPD founded at the end of the war.

 

[4]. The Brest-Litovsk treaty was signed on 3rd March 1918 between Germany and its allies, and the new Soviet Republic. The negotiations lasted three months. See also our article "The communist left in Russia, 1918-1930" in International Review n°8.

 

[5]. The German Socialist Party which had supported participation in the war.

 

[6]. "Die geschichtliche Verantwortung" ("The historic responsibility") in Luxemburg Werke Vol. 4, p. 375.

 

[7]. "The Russian Tragedy" in Rosa Luxemburg, Selected political writings (Jonathan Cape, 1972).

 

[8]. The Franco-British alliance, so-called from the "Entente cordiale" which was a series of agreements signed on 8th April 1904 between the United Kingdom and France.

 

[9]. The Kamikaze actions of the Japanese air force in World War I, and the suicide bombing of Islamic fundamentalists thus have their European predecessors.

 

[10]. See the analysis of these events by the German historian Sebastian Haffner in: 1918/19, Eine deutsche Revolution  (1918/19, a German Revolution).

 

[11]. Overhead and underground station of the Berlin public transport system, to the south of the city centre.

 

[12]. Richard Müller "Vom Kaiserreich Zur Republik" p. 143.

 

[13]. Anecdotes of this kind, from inside the camp of the counter-revolution, can be found in the memoirs of leading Social Democrats of the hour.  Philipp Scheidemann: Memoiren eines Sozialdemokraten. ("Memoirs of a Social Democrat"). 1928. Gustav Noske: Von Kiel bis Kapp - Zur Geschichte der deutschen Revolution. ("From Kiel to Kapp - On the History of the German Revolution"). 1920.