Germany 1918-19 (v): From Noske to Hitler

In the series Germany 1918-19

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

The defeat of the proletarian revolution in Germany was a decisive turning point in the 20th century because it also meant the defeat of the world revolution. In Germany, the establishment of the Nazi regime, built upon the crushing of the revolutionary proletariat, marked the acceleration of Germany's march towards the Second World War. The particular barbarism of the Nazi regime would very soon serve as a justification for the anti-fascist campaigns aimed at dragooning the proletariat of the "democratic" imperialist camp for the impending war. According to anti-fascist ideology, democratic capitalism was a "lesser evil" which could to some extent protect the population from all the worst in bourgeois society. This mystification, which still has a harmful effect on the consciousness of the working class, is given the lie by the revolutionary struggles in Germany: they were defeated by social democracy, which unleashed a reign of terror against them and so paved the way for fascism. This is one of the reasons why the ruling class likes to cover these events in a thick blanket of silence.  

Order reigns in Berlin

On the evening of January 15th 1919, five members of the armed bourgeois vigilante committee of the well-to-do district of Wilmeersdorf in Berlin, among them two businessmen and a distiller, gained access to the apartment of the Marcusson family, where they discovered three members of the central organ of the young Communist Party of Germany (KPD): Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and Wilhelm Pieck. "Conventional" history books still say that the KPD leaders were "arrested". In reality, Liebknecht, Luxemburg and Pieck were kidnapped. Although the activists of the "citizens army" were convinced that their prisoners were criminals, they did not hand them over to the police. Instead they brought them to the luxurious Hotel Eden, where, only the same morning, the Garde-Kavallerie-Schützen-Division (GKSD) had established its new headquarters.

The GKSD had been an elite unit of the Imperial Army, originally the body guards of the Emperor himself. Like its successor in World War II, the SS, it sent "shock" units to the battle front, but also had its own espionage and security systems. As soon as news of the outbreak of the revolution reached the western front, the GKSD marched homewards to assume the leadership of the counter-revolution, reaching the Berlin area on November 30th. There it led the "Christmas Eve" attack against the revolutionary sailors in the Imperial Palace on December 24th, employing artillery and gas grenades in the middle of the city.[1]

In his memoirs, the commander in chief of the GKSD, Waldemar Pabst, recalled how one of his officers, a Catholic aristocrat, after hearing a speech of Rosa Luxemburg, declared her to be a "saint", and asked him to allow her to address their unit. "At this moment", Pabst declared, "I recognised the extent of the danger represented by Mrs. Luxemburg. She was more dangerous that all the rest, including those with arms".[2]

The five intrepid defenders of law and order from Wilmersdorf, when they reached the paradise of Hotel Eden, were handsomely rewarded for their services. The GKSD was one of three organisations in the capital offering considerable financial rewards for the capture of Liebknecht and Luxemburg.[3]

Pabst has given us a brief account of his interrogation of Rosa Luxemburg that evening. "Are you Mrs. Rosa Luxemburg?" he asked. "Please decide for yourself" she replied. "To judge by the photos, you must be". "If you say so". She then took out a needle and began to sow her skirt, the rim of which tore when she was arrested. She then began reading one of her favourite books - Goethe's Faust - ignoring the presence of her interrogator.

As soon as news of the arrival of the captured "Spartakists" spread, a pogrom atmosphere broke out among the guests of the elegant hotel. Pabst, however, had plans of his own. He called in lieutenants and officers of the navy, highly respected men of honour. Men, whose "honour" had been wounded in a particular manner, since their own subordinates, the sailors of the imperial fleet, deserted and began the revolution. These gentlemen proceeded to swear a man's oath, a vow of silence for the rest of their lives concerning what was now to follow.

They were concerned to avoid a trial, a "martial rule execution" or anything else which would make the victims appear as hero's or martyrs. The "Spartakists" should die a disgraceful death. It was agreed to pretend to take Liebknecht to prison, fake a car breakdown in the city centre park, the "Tiergarten", and shoot him "on the run". Since such a "solution" would hardly seem credible regarding Rosa Luxemburg with her well known hip ailment that made her limp, it was decided that she should appear to fall victim of a civilian mob. The role of the mob was assigned to navy lieutenant Herman Souchon, whose father, Admiral Souchon, in November 1918, as governor of Kiel, had suffered the disgrace of being obliged to negotiate with the revolutionary workers and sailors. He was to wait outside the hotel, run over to the car taking Rosa Luxemburg away and shoot her in the head.

In the course of the execution of this plan, an unforeseen element appeared in the person of a soldier called Runge, who had arranged with his captain, a man called Petri, to stay on duty after his 11 p.m. knocking off time. They were determined to get the main reward for the liquidation of these revolutionaries for themselves. While Liebknecht was being taken to a car outside the hotel, Runge gave him a tremendous blow on the head with the butt of his rifle - an act which was to considerably discredit the story that Liebknecht had been "shot on the run". In the consternation caused by this act, nobody thought of removing Runge from the scene. When Rosa Luxemburg was brought out of the hotel, Runge, in full uniform, knocked her unconscious, using the same means. As she lay on the ground, he delivered her a second blow. After she had been flung, half dead, into the waiting car, another soldier on duty, von Rzewuski, inflicted another blow. It was only then that Souchon ran forward to execute her. What followed is well known. Liebknecht was shot in the Tiergarten. The corpse of Rosa Luxemburg was dumped into the nearby Landwehr canal.[4] The following day, the murderers had their photograph taken at their celebration party.

After expressing shock and condemnation in the face of these "atrocities", the Social Democratic government promised a "most rigorous investigation" - which it placed in the hands of the Garde-Kavallerie-Schützen-Division (GKSD). The leader of the investigation, Jorns, who had gained a reputation through the cover up of a colonial genocide by the German army in "German South West Africa" before the war, set up his office in Hotel Eden, where he was aided in his "inquiries" by Pabst and one of the accused murderers, von Pflugk-Harrtung. The plan to play for time and then bury the idea of a court case was foiled however by an article published in the Rote Fahne, the paper of the KPD, on 12th February. This article, which came remarkably close to what has been established as the concrete historical truth of these murders, triggered off a public outcry.[5]

The trial thus began on May 8th 1919. The court house was placed under the protection of armed forces of the GKSD. The appointed judge was another representative of the imperial fleet, Wilhelm Canaris, a personal friend of Pabst and of von Pflugk-Harrtung. He went on to become the commander in chief of the espionage of Nazi-Germany. Again, almost everything went according to plan - except that members of the Eden hotel staff, despite the fear of losing their jobs and of being put on the hit list of the military killers  squads, truthfully testified what they had seen. The cleaning girl Anna Belger recounted hearing the officers speaking of the "reception" they had in store for Liebknecht in the Tiergarten. The waiters Mistelski and Krupp, both 17 years of age, identified Runge and revealed his connection to Petri. Despite all of this, the court unquestioningly accepted the "shot on the run" version, acquitting the officers who had shot. As far as Rosa Luxemburg was concerned, the conclusion was that two soldiers had tried to kill her, but that there was no known murderer. Nor was the cause of her death known, since her body had not been found.

On May 31st 1919, workers at a canal lock found the body of Rosa Luxemburg. On hearing that "she" had reappeared, the SPD minister of the interior, Gustav Noske, immediately ordered a news blackout on the issue. It was not until three days later that an official announcement was published, claiming that the remains of Rosa Luxemburg had been found, not by workers, but by a military patrol.

In defiance of all regulations, Noske delivered the corpse to his military friends, into the hands of Rosa's murderers. The authorities responsible could not help pointing out that Noske had infact stolen a corpse. Obviously, the Social Democrats were terrified even of the dead body of Rosa Luxemburg.

The vow of silence taken in Hotel Eden held for decades. But it was finally broken by Pabst himself. He could no longer stand not getting public credit for his deed. In the years after World War II, he began dropping heavy hints in interviews with news magazines (Spiegel, Stern) and became more explicit in discussions with historians and in his memoirs. In the democratic West German Federal Republic, the "anti-Communism" of the Cold War period offered favourable circumstances. Pabst recounted that he telephoned the Secial Democratic minister of the interior Noske on the evening of January 15th 1919, for advice about how to deal with his illustrious prisoners. They agreed on the need to "bring the civil war to an end." On the means to this end, Noske declared: "Your General should take the decision, they are your prisoners".[6] In a letter to Dr. Franz in 1969 Pabst wrote: "Noske and I were in complete agreement. Naturally Noske could not give the order himself." And in another letter Pabst wrote: "...these German idiots should drop to their knees and thank Noske and me, streets and squares should be called after us![7] Noske at the time was exemplary, and the Party (except for its half Communist left wing) was without fail. The fact that I could never have taken this action without the consent of Noske (with Ebert in the background), and that I had to protect my officers, is clear."[8]

The system of political murder

The years 1918 to 1920 in Germany were not the first time in history when an attempted proletarian revolution or insurrection was met with a horrible massacre, costing up to 20,000 proletarian lives. Similar scenes were witnessed in Paris in the July Revolution of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871. And whereas the victorious October Revolution of 1917 was almost bloodless, the civil war, which international capital imposed in response, cost millions of lives. What was new in Germany was the employment of a system of political murder, not only at the end of the revolutionary process, but from the very onset.[9]

Concerning this question, after Klaus Gietinger, we call on another witness: Emil Julius Gumbel, who published a famous book entitled Four Years of Political Murder in 1924. Like Klaus Gietinger today, Gumbel was not a revolutionary Communist. Infact he was a defender of the bourgeois republic established at Weimar. But he was above all a man in search of the truth, ready to risk his life in the process.[10]

For Gumbel, what characterised developments in Germany was the transition from "artisan murder" to what he called a "more industrial" method.[11] This was based on death lists compiled by secret organisations and "worked through" by hit squads comprised of officers and soldiers. These death squads not only peacefully co-existed alongside the official organs of the democratic state - they actively cooperated. A key role in this strategy was played by the media, which prepared and justified the assassinations in advance, and in the aftermath robbed the dead of all that remained to them: their good reputation.

Comparing the pre-war left-wing, mainly individual terrorism[12] with the new right-wing terror, Gumbel wrote: "The unbelievable clemency of the courts towards the perpetrators is well known. It is thus that the present political murders in Germany distinguish themselves from earlier ones common in other countries through two moments: Their scale and the extent to which they are not punished. In earlier times political murder after all did require a certain strength of decision. A certain heroism was not to be denied. The perpetrator was risking life and limb. It was extraordinarily difficult to flee. Today the culprit risks nothing at all. Mighty organisations with  representatives throughout the country offer lodgings, protection and material support. ‘Well meaning' civil servants, heads of police provide the necessary papers to go abroad where necessary.... You are put up in the best hotels where you can live it up. In a word, political murder has gone from a heroic act to an everyday deed, virtually to an easy source of income."[13]

What went for individual murder applied no less to a right wing Putsch, used in order to kill on a massive scale - what Gumbel called "semi-organised murder". "If the putsch succeeds, all the better. If it fails, the courts ensure that nothing happens to the murderers. And they have made sure. Not a single murder from the right was ever really atoned for. Even those murderers who owned up to their crimes were let off on the basis of the Kapp-Amnesty".

A great number of such counter-revolutionary organisations were set up in Germany in response to the outbreak of the proletarian revolution.[14] And when they were banned in the country as a whole, when martial law and the extraordinary courts system were lifted, all of this was maintained in Bavaria, making Munich the "nest" of the German (and Russian exile) extreme right. What was presented as "Bavarian particularism" was in reality a division of labour. The main bearers of this "Bavarian Fronde" were Ludendorff and his supporters from the former military headquarters, who were not Bavarians at all.[15]

Social democracy, the military and the system of terror

As we noted in the second part of this series, the legend of the "knife in the back", the Dolchstosslegende, was invented in September 1918 by General Ludendorff. As soon as he realised that the war was lost, he called for the formation of a civilian government which would sue for peace. His original idea was to make the civilians take the blame and save the reputation of the armed forces. The revolution had not yet broken out. Once it did,  the Dolchstoß won a new importance. The propaganda that a glorious armed force, never defeated in the field of battle, was robbed of its victory at the last moment by the revolution, was aimed at crazing society, the soldiers in particular, with a burning hatred of the revolution.

When the Social Democrats were originally offered a place in such a civilian "government of disgrace", within the SPD leadership the clever Scheidemann, recognising that it was a trap, wanted to turn down the offer.[16] He was overruled by Ebert, who pleaded for putting the good of the Fatherland above "party politics".[17]

When, on the 10th of December 1918 the SPD government and the military high command marched a mass of troops returning from the front through the streets of Berlin, the intention was to use these forces to crush the revolution. To this end, Ebert addressed the troops at the Brandenburg Gate, greeting the army "never beaten in the field of battle". At this moment, Ebert made the Dolchstoßlegende an official doctrine of the SPD and of his government.[18]

Of course, the "stab in the back" propaganda did not literally blame the working class for Germany's defeat. Nor would this have been wise at a moment when civil war was beginning, i.e. when it is necessary for the bourgeoisie to blur class divisions. Minorities had to be found who had manipulated and misled the masses, and who could be identified as the real culprits.

One of these culprits was the Russians and their agent, German Bolshevism, representing a savage, Asiatic form of socialism, the socialism of famine and a bacillus menacing "European civilisation". Under different terms, these themes were a direct continuation of the anti-Russian propaganda of the war years. The SPD was the main and most debased spreader of this poison. The military was actually more hesitant here, since some of its more daring representatives temporarily toyed with what they called "National Bolshevism" (the idea that a military alliance of German militarism with proletarian Russia against the "Versailles powers" might also be a good means to morally destroy the revolution both in Germany and in Russia).

The other culprit was the Jews. Ludendorff had them in mind from the start. At first glance, it would appear as if the SPD did not follow this lead. In reality, its propaganda basically repeated the filth spread by the officers - except that the word "Jew" was replaced by "foreigner", "elements without national roots" or "intellectuals". Terms, which in the cultural context of the day meant the same thing. This anti-intellectual hatred of the "book worms" is a well known characteristic of anti-semitism.  Two days before Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered, Vorwärts, the daily paper of the SPD published a "poem" - in reality a pogrom call - The Mortuary, regretting that only proletarians were among those killed, whereas the "likes" of "Karl, Rosa, Radek" escaped.

Social Democracy sabotaged the workers struggles from within. It led the arming of the counter-revolution and its military campaigns against the proletariat. By defeating the revolution, it created the possibility for the later victory of National Socialism, unwittingly preparing its way. The SPD did even more than its duty in defending capitalism. By helping to create the unofficial mercenary armies of the Freikorps, by protecting the officers' death squads, by spreading the ideologies of reaction and hatred which were to dominate German political life for the next quarter of a century, it actively participated in the cultivation of the milieu which helped to produce the Hitler regime.

"I hate revolution like sin" declared Ebert piously. This was not the hatred of the industrialists and military, who feared losing their property, and for whom the existing order seemed so natural that they could not but combat everything else; the sins Social Democracy hated were the sins of their own past, their involvement in a movement alongside convinced revolutionaries and proletarian internationalists - even if many of them had never themselves shared such convictions. It was the hatred of the renegade towards the cause betrayed. The leaders of the SPD and the trade unions believed that the workers' movement was their own property. When they ganged up with the imperialist bourgeoisie at the outbreak of world war, they thought that this was the end of socialism, an illusory chapter they had now decided to close. When the revolution raised its head only four years later, it was like the re-appearance of a dreaded ghost from the past. Hatred of the revolution was also fear of it. Projecting their own emotions onto their enemies, they feared being lynched by the "Spartakists" (a fear shared by the officers of the deathsquads).[19] Ebert was on the brink of fleeing the capital between Christmas and New Year 1918. All of this crystallised itself in relation to the principle target of their hatred: Rosa Luxemburg. The SPD had become a concentration of everything which was reactionary in putrefied capitalism. Thus, the very existence of Rosa Luxemburg,  because of her loyalty to principles, her courage, her intellectual brilliance, the fact that she was a foreigner, of Jewish origin and a woman was a provocation to them. They called her "Red Rosa": a woman with a rifle, blood-thirsty and out for revenge.

We must bear this in mind when examining one of the striking phenomenon of the revolution in Germany: the degree of servility of Social Democracy towards the military, which even the Prussian officer caste found disgusting and ridiculous. Throughout the period of collaboration of the officers corps with the SPD, the former never ceased declaring in public their intention of chasing the latter "to hell" as soon as they no longer needed it. None of this could shatter the dog like loyalty of the SPD. This servility was of course not new. It had characterised the attitude of the trade unions and the reformist politicians long before 1914.[20] But now it was combined with the conviction that only the military could save capitalism and thus the SPD itself.

In March 1920 right wing officers revolted against the SPD government the Kapp Putsch. On the side of the Putschists we find all the collaborators of Ebert and Noske in the double murder of January 15th 1919: Pabst and his General von Lüttwitz, the GKSD and the above mentioned Lieutenants of the navy. Kapp and Lüttwitz had promised their troops a handsome financial reward for overthrowing Ebert. The coup was foiled, not by the government (which fled to Stuttgart), nor by the official military command (which declared itself "neutral") but by the proletariat. The three conflicting parties of the ruling class, the SPD, the "Kappists" and the military command (no longer neutral) got together again to defeat the workers. All's well that ends well! Except for one thing: What about the  poor mutineers and their hoped for reward for toppling Ebert? No problem! The Ebert government, back in office, itself paid out this reward.

So much for the argument (advanced for instance by Trotsky before 1933) that Social Democracy, although integrated into capitalism, might still rise against the authorities and prevent Fascism - to save its own skin.

Capitalist dictatorship and social democracy

In fact, the military was not so much opposed to Social Democracy and the trade unions as to the existing party political system as a whole.[21] Already, pre-war Germany had not been governed by political parties, but by the military caste, a system symbolised by the monarchy. Step by step, the ever more powerful industrial and financial bourgeoisie was integrated into this system, though unofficial structures and, in particular the Alldeutsche Verein (the "All-German-Club") which effectively ruled the country before and during the World War.[22]

Against this, the parliament in Imperial Germany (the Reichstag) had almost no power. The political parties had no real government experience and were more lobby groups for different economic or regional factions than anything else.

What originally was a product of the political backwardness of Germany turned out to be an enormous advantage once the world war broke out. Coping with the war and with the revolution which followed, made the dictatorial control of the state over the whole of society a necessity. In the old western "democracies", in particular in the Anglo-Saxon countries with their sophisticated two party systems, state capitalism evolved through a gradual merger of the political parties and the different economic factions of the bourgeoisie with the state. This form of state capitalism, at least in Britain and the United States, proved to be extremely effective. But it took a relatively long time to emerge.

In Germany, the structure for such dictatorial state intervention already existed. One of the main "secrets" of the capacity of Germany to hold out for over four years during the war against almost all the other major powers of the world - who had the resources of their colonial empires behind them - lies in the efficiency of this system. This is also why the western allies were not just "playing to the gallery" when they demanded the liquidation of "Prussian Militarism" at the end of the war.

As we have already seen in the course of this series, not only the military but also Ebert himself wanted to save the Monarchy at the end of the war, with a pre-1914 style Reichstag. In other words they wanted to maintain those state capitalist structures which had proven themselves during the war. This had to be abandoned in the face of the danger of revolution. The whole arsenal and pageantry of party political democracy was needed to ideologically derail the workers.

This was what produced the phenomenon of the Weimar Republic: a host of inexperienced and ineffective parties largely incapable of cooperating together or of integrating themselves in a disciplined way into the state capitalist regime. No wonder the military wanted to get rid of this! The only real bourgeois political party existing in Germany was the SPD.

But if the maintenance of the state capitalist[23] war regime was made impossible by the revolution, the plan of Britain and the USA in particular to liquidate its military-social base was also made impossible by the revolution. The western "democracies" had to leave the nucleus of the military caste and its power intact in order to crush the proletariat. This did not remain without consequences. When in 1933 the traditional leaders of Germany, the armed forces and big industry, ditched the system of Weimar, it regained its organisational advantage over its western imperialist rivals in the preparation of World War II. At the level of its composition, the main difference between the old and the new system was that the SPD had been replaced by the NSDAP, by the Nazi Party. The SPD had been so successful in defeating the proletariat that its own services were no longer required.

Russia and Germany: Dialectical poles of the world revolution

In October 1917 Lenin summoned the party and the soviets in Russia to insurrection. In a resolution to the Bolshevik central committee, written "with the gnawed end of a pencil on a sheet of paper from a child's notebook ruled in squares" (Trotsky)[24] he wrote: "The Central Committee recognises that the international position of the Russian revolution (the revolt in the German navy which is an extreme manifestation of the growth throughout Europe of the world socialist revolution; the threat of peace by the imperialists with the object of strangling the revolution in Russia) as well as the military situation (the indubitable decision of the Russian bourgeoisie and Kerensky and Co. to surrender Petrograd to the Germans), and the fact that the proletarian party has gained a majority in the Soviets - all this, taken in conjunction with the peasant revolt and the swing of popular confidence towards our party (the elections in Moscow) and, finally, the obvious preparations being made for a second Kornilov revolt... - all this places armed uprising on the order of the day."[25]

This formulation contains the whole Marxist vision of the world revolution of the day, and of the pivotal role of Germany in this process. On the one hand the insurrection in Russia must come in response to the beginning of the revolution in Germany, which is the signal for the whole of Europe. On the other hand, unable to squash the revolution on its own territory, the Russian bourgeoisie intends to entrust this task to the German government, the gendarme of the counter-revolution on the European continent (handing over Petersburg). Lenin thundered against the opponents of insurrection within his own party, those who declared their solidarity with the revolution in Germany, and in so doing called on the Russian workers to wait for the German proletariat to give the lead.

"Just think of it: under devilishy difficult conditions, having but one Liebknecht (and he in prison) with no newspapers, with no feeedom of assembly, with no Soviets, with all clases of the population, including every well-to-do peasant, incredibly hostile to the idea of internationalism, with the imperialist big, middle, and petty bourgeoisie spelndidly organised - the Germans, ie the German revolutionary internationalists, the German workers dresssed in sailors jackets, started a mutiny in the navy with one chance in a hundred of winning.

"But we, with dozens of papers at our disposal, freedom of assembly, a majority in the Soviets, we, the best situated proletarian internationalists in the world, should refuse to support the German revolutionaries by our uprising. We ought to reason like the Scheidemanns and Renaudeks, that it is most prudent not to revolt, for if we are shot, then the world will lose such excellent, reasonable, ideal internationalists! "[26]

As he wrote in his famous text The Crisis Has Matured, (September 29, 1917) those who would postpone insurrection in Russia would be "triators to the cause, for by their conduct they would be betraying the Germany revolutionary workers who have started a revolt in the navy".[27]

A similar debate took place within the Bolshevik party on the occasion of the first political crisis which followed the seizure of power: whether or not to sign the treaty of Brest-Litovsk with German imperialism. At a first glance, it seems as if the front within the debate has been reversed. It is now Lenin who pleads for caution: We must accept the humiliation of this treaty.  But in reality there is continuity. In both cases, when the fate of the Russian Revolution is at stake, the perspective of the revolution in Germany became the focus of debate. In both cases, Lenin insists that everything depends on what happens in Germany, but also that the victory of the revolution there will take longer and be infinitely more difficult than in Russia. This is why the Russian Revolution must take the lead in October 1917. This is why, at Brest-Litovsk, the Russian bastion must be prepared to make a compromise. It has the responsibility to "hold out" in order to be able to support the German and the world revolution.

From the outset, the revolution in Germany was permeated with a sense of responsibility towards the Russian Revolution. To the German proletariat fell the task of liberating the Russian workers from their international isolation. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote in prison in her notes on The Russian Revolution, published posthumously in 1922:

"Everything that happens in Russia is comprehensible and represents an

inevitable chain of causes and effects, the starting point and end term of which are: the failure of the German proletariat and the occupation of Russia by German imperialism."[28]

The glory of the Russian events is that of having begun the world revolution.

"This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realisation of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labour in the entire world. In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘bolshevism'."[29]

The practical solidarity of the German with the Russian proletariat is thus the revolutionary conquest of power, the demolition of the main bastion of militarist and social democratic counter-revolution in continental Europe. Only this step can broaden the breach achieved in Russia into a world wide revolutionary flood.

In another contribution from her prison cell, The Russian Tragedy, Rosa Luxemburg highlighted the two mortal dangers of the isolation of the Russian revolution. The first danger is that of a terrible massacre at the hands of world capitalism, represented at that moment by German militarism. The second danger is that of a political degeneration and moral bankruptcy of the Russian bastion itself, its incorporation into the imperialist world system. At the moment she was writing (after Brest-Litovsk), she saw this danger from the side of what was to become the so-called National Bolshevik line of thinking within the German military establishment. This centred around the idea of offering "Bolshevik Russia" a military alliance as a means, not only of helping German Imperialism to world hegemony against its European rivals, but at the same time of morally corrupting the Russian Revolution - above all though the destruction of its basic principle of proletarian internationalism.

In fact, Rosa Luxemburg greatly overestimated the readiness of the German bourgeoisie at that moment to embark on such an adventure. But she was fundamentally right in identifying this second danger, and in recognising that its realisation would be the direct result of the defeat of the German and the world revolution. As she concluded:

"Any political defeat of the Bolsheviks in honest struggle against the overwhelming force and the disfavour of the historical situation would be preferable to this moral debacle."

The Russian and the German revolutions can only be understood together. They are two moments of one and the same historic process. The world revolution began on the periphery of Europe. Russia was the weak link in the chain of imperialism, because the world bourgeoisie was divided by imperialist war. But it had to be followed by a second blow, delivered at the heart of the system, if it were to have a chance of toppling world capitalism. This second blow was delivered in Germany, beginning with the November Revolution of 1918. But the bourgeoisie was able to deflect this deadly blow against its heart. This is turn sealed the fate of the Revolution in Russia. But the outcome there corresponded not to the first, but to the second hypothesis of Rosa Luxemburg, the one she feared most. Against all the odds, Red Russia defeated the invading white counter-revolutionary forces. A combination of three main factors made this possible. Firstly the political and organisational leadership of the Russian proletariat, which went through the school of Marxism and the school of the revolution. Secondly the sheer size of the country, which had already helped to defeat Napoleon, which would contribute to defeating Hitler, and which here too was to the disadvantage of the counter-revolutionary invaders. Thirdly the confidence of the peasants, the vast majority of the Russian population, in the proletarian revolutionary leadership. It was the peasantry which supplied the lion's share of the troops of the Red Army under Trotsky.

What followed was the capitalist degeneration of the isolated revolution from within: a counter-revolution in the name of the revolution. Thus, the bourgeoisie has been able to bury the secret of the defeat of the Russian revolution. All of this is based on the ability of the bourgeoisie to keep secret the fact that there was a proletarian revolutionary upsurge in Germany. The secret is that the Russian Revolution was defeated, not in Moscow and Petersburg, but in Berlin and the Ruhr. The defeat of the German revolution is the key to understanding the defeat of the Russian revolution. The ruling class has hidden this key. A great historical taboo which all the responsible circles abide to. In the house of the hangman, the noose is never mentioned.

In a sense, the existence of revolutionary struggles in Germany is more of a problem than in Russia. This is precisely because the revolution in Germany was defeated in an open struggle by the bourgeoisie. Not only the lie that Stalinism equals socialism, but also the lie that bourgeois democracy, that social democracy is antagonistic to fascism, depends to a large degree on the German struggles being forgotten.

What remains is embarrassment. A discomfort which is concretised above all in relation to the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, which has become the symbol of the victory of the counter-revolution.[30] Indeed this crime, which stands for tens of thousands of others, is the epitome of the ruthlessness, of the unconditional will to victory of the bourgeoisie in defence of its system. But was this crime not committed under the leadership of bourgeois democracy? Was it not the joint product of social democracy and the extreme right? Were its victims, not its perpetrators, the incorporation of all that is best, most human, most representative of what could be a bright future for our species? And why, already at the time, and again today, do those who feel responsible for this future of society, feel so deeply troubled by these crimes, and so attracted to those who were its victims? These swaggering crimes, which helped to save the system 90 years ago, may yet prove to be a boomerang.

In his study of the system of political murder in Germany, undertaken in the 1920's, Emil Gumbel makes a connection between this practise and the individualist, "heroic" vision of the defenders of the present social order, who see history as the product of individuals. "The right is correspondingly inclined to believe that it can wipe out the left opposition, which is carried by the hope of  a radically different economic order, by liquidating its leaders."[31] But history is a collective process made and experienced by millions of people, not only by the ruling class which tries to monopolise its lessons.

In his study of the German Revolution written in the 1970s, the "liberal" German historian Sebastian Haffner concluded that these crimes remained an open wound, and that their long term results were still an open question.

"Today one realises with horror that this episode was the really historically binding event of the drama of the German revolution. Looking back on it from a distance of half a century, its historic impact has taken on something of the uncanny unpredictability of the events at Golgatha - which, at the moment they took place, also seemed not to have changed anything". And:

"The murder of January 15th, 1919 was the beginning - the beginning of the thousands of murders in the coming months under Noske, to the millions of murders in the following decades of the Hitler era. It was the signal for everything else."[32]

Can the present and the future generations of the working class re-appropriate this historic reality? Is it possible, in the long term, to liquidate revolutionary ideas by killing those who bear them? The last words of the last article of Rosa Luxemburg before she died were spoken in the name of the revolution: "I was, I am and I will be."

Steinklopfer, May 2009.



[1]. This attack was foiled by a spontaneous mobilisation of the workers. See the previous article in this series.

 

[2]. Quoted by Klaus Gietinger: Eine Leiche im Landwehrkanal. Die Ermordung Rosa Luxemburgs (A corpse in the Landwehr Canal. The murdering of Rosa Luxemburg) P.17. Hamburg 2008. Gietinger, Sociologist, Author and Film Director, has devoted an important part of his life to researching the circumstances of the murdering of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. His latest book - Waldemar Pabst: Der Konterrevolutionär (The Counter-Revolutionary) - benefits from insight into historical documents found in Moscow and East Berlin to more completely prove the implication of the SPD.

 

[3]. The others were the monarchist "Regiment Reichstag" and the spy organisation of the SPD under the command of Anton Fischer.

 

[4]. Wlhelm Pieck was the only one of the three arrested to get away with his life. To this day, it remains unclear whether he was able to bluff his way out, was let off because he was not well known, or whether he was allowed to escape after betraying his comrades. Pieck was later to become president of the German Democratic Republic.

 

[5]. The author of this article, Leo Jogiches, was "shot on the run" a month later.

 

[6]. General von Lüttwitz

 

[7]. On the occasion of the 90th anniversary of these atrocities, the Liberal Party (FPD) in Germany poposed erecting a monument for Noske in Berlin. Pofalla, the general secretary of the CDU, the patry of chancellor Angela Merkel, described the actions of Noske as a "plucky defence of the republic". (Quoted in the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel January 11th 2009)

 

[8]. Gietinger: The murder of Rosa Luxemburg: See the chapter "74 Jahre danach" (74 years on).

 

[9]. The importance of this step taken in Germany is emphasised by the writer Peter Weiss, a German artist of Jewish origin who fled to Sweden to escape Nazi persecution. In his monumental novel Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (The Aesthetics of Resistance) he tells the story of the Swedish minister of the interior, Palmstierna, who in the summer of 1917 sent an emissary to Petrograd, calling - in vain - on Kerensky, the prime minister of the pro-Entente Russian government, to murder Lenin. Kerensky refuses, denying that Lenin represents a real danger.

 

[10]. Gumbel: Vier Jahre politischer Mord (Malik-Verlag Berlin), republished 1980 by Wunderhorn, Heidelberg.

 

[11]. Who can read these words today without thinking of Auschwitz?

 

[12]. For instance that of western European anarchists or the Russian Narodniki and Social Revolutionaries.

 

[13]. Gumbel ibid P. 147.

 

[14]. Gumbel lists "some" of these organisations in his book. We will repeat this list here, without even bothering to translate their names, just to give an impression of the scale of the phenomenon: Verband nationalgesinnter Soldaten, Bund der Aufrechten, Deutschvölkische Schutz- und Trutzbund, Stahlhelm, Organisation "C", Freikorps and Reichsfahne Oberland, Bund der Getreuen, Kleinkaliberschützen, Deutschnationaler Jugendverband, Notwehrverband, Jungsturm, Nationalverband Deutscher Offiziere, Orgesch, Rossbach, Bund der Kaisertreuen, Reichsbund Schwarz-Weiß-Rot, Deutschsoziale Partei, Deutscher Orden, Eos, Verein ehemaliger Baltikumer, Turnverein Theodor Körner, Allgemeiner deutschvölkischer Turnvereine, Heimatssucher, Alte Kameraden, Unverzagt, Deutscher Eiche, Jungdeutscher Orden, Hermansorden, Nationalverband deutscher Soldaten, Militärorganisation der Deutschsozialen und Nationalsozialisten, Olympia (Bund für Leibesübungen), Deutscher Orden, Bund für Freiheit und Ordnung, Jungsturm, Jungdeutschlandbund, Jung-Bismarckbund, Frontbund, Deutscher Waffenring (Studentenkorps), Andreas-Hofer-Bund, Orka, Orzentz, Heimatbund der Königstreuen, Knappenschaft, Hochschulring deutscher Art, Deutschvölkische Jugend, Alldeutscher Verband, Christliche Pfadfinder, Deutschnationaler Beamtenbund, Bund der Niederdeutschen, Teja-Bund, Jungsturm, Deutschbund, Hermannsbund, Adlerund Falke, Deutschland-Bund, Junglehrer-Bund, Jugendwanderriegen-Verband, Wandervögel völkischer Art, Reichsbund ehemaliger Kadetten.

 

[15]. It was General Ludendorff, virtually the dictator of Germany during World War I, who organised the so-called beer hall putsch in Munich in 1923 along with Adolf Hitler.

 

[16]. Scheidemann himself was to become the target of an (unsuccessful) assassination attempt from the extreme right, who blamed him for accepting the Treaty of Versailles dictated by the western powers.

 

[17]. The admiration of the former chancellor of West Germany, Helmut Schmidt, for the "statesmanship" of Ebert is well known.

 

[18]. However, infected by the revolutionary mood in the capital, most of the troops fraternised with the population or dispersed.

 

[19]. After murdering Karl and Rosa, members of the GKSD expressed the fear that they would be lynched if sent to prison.

 

[20]. During the January 1918 mass strikes in Berlin, Scheidemann from the SPD was included in a delegation of workers sent to government offices to negotiate. There, they were ignored. The workers decided to leave. Scheidemann begged the officials to meet the delegation. His face "blazed red with joy" when one of them made some vague promises. The delegation was not received. Recounted by Richard Müller: From Empire to Republic. P. 106.

 

[21]. On the whole, the military greatly appreciated Ebert and Noske in particular. Stinnes, the richest man in post World War I Germany, named his yacht after Legien, the leader of the Social Democratic trade union federation.

 

[22]. According to Gumbel, it was also the main organiser of the Kapp Putsch

 

[23]. Or "state socialism", as Walter Rathenow, president of the gigantic AEG electrical concern, enthusiastically called it

 

[24]. Leon Trotsky: History of the Russian Revolution, Pluto Press P.999.

 

[25]. Meeting of the Central Committee of the RSDLP (B), October 10 (23), 1917. In: Lenin Collected Works, Vol.26

 

[26]. Lenin: Letter to Comrades, October 1917, Collected Works, Vol. 26, p.204.

 

[27].  Collected Works, Vol.26, p.81.

 

[28]. Rosa Luxemburg Speaks p. 394.

 

[29]. Ibid, p.395.

 

[30]. The dyed-in-the-wool Liberals of the FDP in Berlin suggested giving a public place in Berlin the name of Noske, as we noted above. The SPD, the party of Noske, turned down this proposition. No plausible explanation was given for this untypical modesty.

 

[31]. Gumbel, ibid, P. 146.

 

[32]. Haffner: 1918/19, A German Revolution, P. 147 and 158,