History of the workers’ movement: Revolution in Germany 1918-19 Mass strikes and tragic defeat

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This part of our series on the German Revolution of 1918-19 takes up the events of the mass strike which began to engulf the whole of Germany before, during and above all after the bloody and tragic events of the so-called ‘Spartakus Week' at the beginning of January 1919 in Berlin. The latter defeat in the capital squandered the potential for the unification of the revolutionary forces which these mass strikes revealed. Thus, the decapitation of the movement in Berlin, including the murdering of revolutionary leaders such as Luxemburg and Liebknecht, proved to be the fatal turning point towards defeat.

Revolutionary mass strike, January-March 1919.

In a famous article published in the Rote Fahne November 27 1918 entitled "The Acheron in Motion" Rosa Luxemburg announced the beginning of a new phase in the revolution: that of the mass strike. This was soon confirmed in a resounding manner. The material situation of the population did not improve with the end of the war. The contrary was the case. Inflation, redundancies and mass unemployment, short term work and falling real wages created new misery for millions of workers and state functionaries, but also for large layers of the middle classes. Increasingly, material misery, but also bitter disappointment with the results of the November Revolution, obliged the masses to defend themselves. Their empty stomachs were a powerful argument against the alleged benefits of the new bourgeois democracy. Successive strike waves rolled across the country above all in the first quarter of 1919. Far beyond the traditional centres of the organised socialist movement like Berlin, the coastal ports or the concentrations of the engineering and high technology sectors, politically less experienced parts of the proletariat were swept into the revolutionary process. These included what Rosa Luxemburg in her Mass Strike pamphlet of 1906 had called the "helot layers" These were particularly downtrodden sectors of the class, who had hardly benefited from socialist education, and who as such were often looked down on by pre-war Social Democratic and trade unions functionaries. Rosa Luxemburg had predicted that they would play a leading role in a future struggle for socialism.

And now, there they were. For instance the millions of miners, metal and textile workers in the industrial districts of the lower Rhine and Westphalia. There, the defensive workers' struggles were immediately confronted with a brutal alliance of the employers and their armed factory guards, the trade unions and the Freikorps. Out of these first confrontations crystallised two main demands of the strike movement, formulated at a conference of delegates from the whole region at the beginning of February in Essen: all power to the workers' and soldiers' councils! Socialisation of the factories and mines!

The situation escalated when the military tried to disarm and dismantle the solders' councils, sending 30.000 Freikorps to occupy the Ruhr. On February 14 the workers' and soldiers' councils called for a general strike and armed resistance. The determination of the mobilisation of the workers was in some areas so great that the white mercenary army did not even dare to attack. The indignation against the SPD, which openly supported the military and denounced the strike, was indescribable. To such an extent that on February 25 the councils - supported by the Communist delegates - decided to end the strike.  Unfortunately at just that very moment it was beginning in central Germany! The leadership was afraid that the workers would flood the mines or attack Social Democratic workers.[1] In fact, the workers demonstrated a high degree of discipline, with a large minority respecting the call to return to work -although not agreeing with it.

A second, gigantic mass strike broke out towards the end of March, lasting several weeks despite the repression of the Freikorps.

"It soon became clear that the Social Democratic Party and the Trade Union leaders had lost their influence over the masses. The power of the revolutionary movement of the months of February and March did not lie in the possession and use of military arms, but in the possibility of taking away the economic foundation of the bourgeois-socialist government through paralysing the most important areas of production (...) The enormous military mobilisation, the arming of the bourgeoisie, the brutality of the military, could not break this power, could not force the striking workers back to work."[2]

The second great centre of the mass strike was the region known as central Germany (Mitteldeutschland). There, the strike movement exploded in mid-February, not only in response to pauperisation and repression, but also in solidarity with the victims of repression in Berlin and with the strikes on the Rhine and Ruhr. As in the latter region, the movement drew its strength from being led by the workers' and soldiers' councils, where the Social Democrats were fast losing influence.

But whereas in the Ruhr area the employees in heavy industry dominated, here the movement engulfed not only miners, but almost every profession and branch of industry. For the first time since the beginning of the revolution, the railway workers joined in. This was of particular significance. One of the first measures of the Ebert government at the end of the war was to substantially increase wages on the railways. The bourgeoisie needed to ‘neutralise' this sector in order to be able to move its counter-revolutionary brigades from one end of Germany to the other. Now, for the first time, this possibility was put in question.

"Enraged to the point of madness"

No less significant was that the soldiers in the garrisons came out in support of the strikers. The National Assembly, which had fled from the Berlin workers, went to Weimar to hold its constitutive parliamentary session. It arrived in a midst of acute class struggle and a hostile soldiery, having to meet behind an artillery and machine gun barrier.

The selective occupation of cities by Freikorps provoked street fighting in Halle, Merseburg and Zeitz, explosions of the masses "enraged to the point of madness" as Richard Müller put it. As on the Ruhr, these military actions were unable to break the strike movement.

The call of the factory delegates for a general strike on February 24 was to reveal another enormously significant development. It was supported unanimously by all the delegates, including those from the SPD. In other words: Social Democracy was losing its control even over its own membership.

"From the very onset the strike spread to a maximum degree. A further intensification was not possible, unless through an armed insurrection, which the strikers rejected, and which appeared pointless. The only way to make the strike more effective would be through the workers in Berlin." (Müller, ibid. p146).

It was thus that the workers summoned the proletariat of Berlin to join, indeed to lead the movement which was flaming in central Germany and on Rhine and Ruhr.

And the workers of Berlin responded, as best they could, despite the defeat they had just suffered. There, the centre of gravity had been transformed from the streets to the mass assemblies. The debates which took place in the plants, offices and barracks produced a continuous shrinking of the influence of the SPD and the number of its delegates  in the workers councils. The attempts of Noske's Party to disarm the soldiers and liquidate their organisations only accelerated this process. A general assembly of the workers' councils in Berlin on February 28 called on the whole proletariat to defend its organisations and to prepare for struggle. The attempt of the SPD to prevent this resolution was foiled by its own delegates.

This assembly re-elected its action committee. The SPD lost its majority. At the next elections to this organ, April 19th, the KPD had almost as many delegates elected as the SPD. In the Berlin councils, the tide was turning in favour of the revolution.[3]

Realising that the proletariat could only triumph if led by a united, centralised organisation, mass agitation began in Berlin for the re-election of the workers' and soldiers' councils in the whole country, and for the calling of a new national congress of this organisation. Despite the hysterical opposition of the government and the SPD to this proposal, the soldiers' councils began to declare themselves in favour of this proposal. The Social Democrats played for time, fully aware of the practical difficulties of the hour in realising such plans.

But the movement in Berlin was confronted with another, very pressing question: The call for support from the workers in central Germany. The general assembly of the workers' councils of Berlin met on March 3 to decide on this question. The SPD, knowing that the nightmare of the January Week still haunted the proletariat of the capital, was determined to prevent a general strike. And indeed the workers hesitated at first. The revolutionaries, agitating for solidarity with central Germany, gradually turned the tide. Delegations from all the main plants of the city were sent to the assembly of the councils to inform it that the mass assemblies at the work places had already decided to down tools. It became clear that there, the Communists and Left Independents now had the majority of workers behind them.

The trauma of January

In Berlin too, the general strike was almost total. Work continued only in those plants which had been designated to do so by the workers' councils (fire brigade, water, electricity and gas supplies, health, food production). The SPD and its mouthpiece Vorwärts immediately denounced the strike, calling on those delegates who were party members to do likewise. The result: these delegates now declared themselves against the position of their own party. Moreover, the printers, who, under strong Social Democratic influence, had been among the few professions which had not joined the strike front, now did so - in protest against the attitude of the SPD. In this way, an important part of the hate campaigning of the counter-revolution was silenced.

Despite all these signs of ripening, the trauma of January proved fatal. The general strike in Berlin came too late, just when it was ending in central Germany. Even worse: The Communists, traumatised indeed by the January defeat, refused to participate in the strike leadership alongside Social Democrats. The unity of the strike front began to decompose. Division and demoralisation spread.

This was the moment for the Freikorps to invade Berlin. Drawing lessons from the January events, the workers' assembled in the factories instead of the streets. But instead of immediately attacking the workers, the Freikorps marched first against the garrisons and the soldiers' councils, to begin with against those regiments which had participated in suppressing the workers in January; those who enjoyed the least sympathy of the working population. Only afterwards did it turn on the proletariat. As in January, there were summary executions on the streets, revolutionaries were murdered (among them Leo Jogiches), corpses flung into the river Spree.  This time, the white terror was even more horrific than in January, claiming well over a thousand lives. The workers district of Lichtenberg, to the east of the city centre, was bombed by the air force.

Concerning the January-March struggles, Richard Müller wrote: "This was the most gigantic uprising of the German proletariat, of the workers, employees, civil servants and even parts of the petty bourgeois middle classes, on a scale never previously reached, and thereafter only once more attained, during the Kapp Putsch. The popular masses stood in general strike not only in the regions of Germany focused on here: in Saxony, in Baden and Bavaria, everywhere the waves of social revolution pounded against the walls of the capitalist production and property order. The working masses were striding along the path of the continuation of the political transformation of November 1918." (Müller ibid p161)


"The curse of the January action still weighed on the revolutionary movement. Its pointless beginning and its tragic consequences were tearing the workers of Berlin asunder, so it took weeks of dogged work to render them capable of re-entering the struggle. If the January putsch had not taken place, the Berlin proletariat would have been able to come to the assistance of the combatants in Rhineland-Westphalia and in central Germany in good time. The revolution would have successfully been continued, and the new Germany would have been given a quite different political and economic face" (ibid p154).

This poses the question of whether the revolution could have triumphed, that we will return to in our next article.

Steinklopfer 7/2/09

A more complete version of this article appears in International Review 136 and is now online under the title ‘90 years ago: Revolution in Germany, Civil War, 1918-19'

[1]1 On February 22 communist workers in Mülheim on the Ruhr attacked a public meeting of the SPD with machine guns.

[2] R.Müller History of the German Revolution: Civil War in Germany Vol. 3. P. 141, 142.

[3]3 In the first weeks of the revolution, the USP and the Spartakusbund, between them, only had a quarter of all delegates behind them. The SPD dominated massively. The party membership of the delegates voted in Berlin at the beginning of 1919 was as follows: February 28: USPD 305; SPD 271; KPD 99; Democrats:95.

April 19: USPD 312; SPD 164; KPD 103; Democrats 73. It should be noted that the KPD during this period could only operate in clandestinity, and that a considerable number of the USPD delegates in reality sympathised with the Communists and were soon to join their ranks.

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