90 years ago: Revolutionary struggles in Germany bring WW 1 to an end (part 1)

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On Nov 4th 1918, at Kiel, a port on the German Baltic Sea, thousands of marines mutinied against the order of the army to steam off for another sea battle.

A culminating point of discontent and rejection of the war had been reached. After four years of murder with more than 20 million dead, innumerable injured, the exhausting trench warfare involving heavy losses, with their gas attacks in Northern France and Belgium, the starvation of the working population; after this endless carnage, the working class had become totally fed up with the war and it was no longer ready to sacrifice itself for the imperialist war. However, the military command wanted to force the continuation of the war with brutal repression and it was ready to use draconian punishment against the mutinous marines.

In reaction, a broad wave of solidarity unfolded, starting in Kiel and immediately spreading to other towns in Germany. Workers downed tools, soldiers refused to follow orders, and as they had done already in January 1918 in Berlin they formed soldiers' and workers' councils which spread rapidly to other cities. On November 5/6th Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck started moving; Dresden, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Frankfurt, Cologne, Hanover, Stuttgart, Nuremberg, Munich were taken over by the workers' and soldiers' councils on Nov. 7/8th. Within one week there was no German big city where there was no workers' and soldiers' council.

During this initial phase Berlin quickly became the centre of the rising: "On Nov 9th, thousands of workers and soldiers took to the streets in massive demonstrations. Only shortly beforehand the government had ordered the ‘reliable' battalions to hurry to Berlin for the protection of the government. But on the morning of November 9th, the factories were deserted at an incredible speed. The streets filled with huge masses of people. At the periphery, where the biggest plants were located, large demonstrations were formed, merging towards the centre. Wherever soldiers gathered, it was usually not necessary to make a special appeal; they just joined the marches of the workers. Men, women, soldiers, a people under arms flooded through the streets towards the neighbouring barracks" (R. Müller, November Revolution, Vol. 2, p. 11). Under the influence of the huge masses  gathered in the streets, the last remnants of troops loyal to the government changed sides; they joined the mutineers and handed over their weapons to them. The police headquarters, the big newspaper printing offices, the telegraph offices, the parliamentary and government buildings were all occupied that day by armed soldiers and workers; prisoners were liberated. Many government employees ran away. A few hours were sufficient to occupy these posts of bourgeois power. In Berlin a central council of workers' and soldiers' councils was formed - the Vollzugsrat (executive council).

The workers in Germany thus followed in the footsteps of their class brothers and sisters in Russia, who in February 1917 had also formed workers' and soldiers' councils and who had successfully taken power in October 1917. The workers in Germany were about to embark upon the same road as the workers in Russia: overcoming the capitalist system by taking power through the workers' and soldiers' councils. The perspective was opening the gate towards world wide revolution, after the workers in Russia had made the first step in this direction.

Through this insurrectionary movement the workers in Germany had started the biggest ever mass struggles in Germany. All the ‘social peace' deals agreed upon by the trade unions during the war were smashed by the workers' struggles. By rising up in this way, the workers in Germany shook off the effects of the defeat of August 1914. The myth that the working class in Germany was totally paralysed by reformism was broken. The workers in Germany used the same methods of struggle which were going to mark the period of decadence and which previously had already been tested by the workers in Russia in 1905 and 1917: mass strikes, general assemblies, formation of workers' councils, in short the self-initiative of the working class. Next to the workers in Russia, the workers in Germany formed the spearhead of the first big international revolutionary wave of struggles which had emerged from the war. In Hungary and in Austria in 1918 the workers had risen as well and started to form workers' councils. 

Social Democracy: spearhead against the proletariat

While proletarian initiatives were spreading, the ruling class did not remain passive. The exploiters and the army needed a force able to sabotage and curb the movement. Having learned from the experience in Russia, the German bourgeoisie through the leaders of the military command pulled the strings. General Groener, supreme commander of the army later put it like this: ".. in Germany there was no party which had enough influence with the masses to re-establish government power with the supreme military command. The parties of the right had collapsed and of course it was unthinkable to form an alliance with the extreme Left. The supreme military command had no other choice but to form an alliance with Social Democracy. We united in our common struggle against revolution, in our struggle against Bolshevism. It was unthinkable to aim at the restoration of monarchy. The goals of our alliance which we formed on the evening of November 10th were: total struggle against revolution, reinstalling a government of order, supporting the government through the power of troops and the earliest possible formation of the national assembly" (W. Groener on the accord between the Supreme Military command and F. Ebert of November 10th 1918).

The cloak of ‘unity' to blur class antagonisms

In order to avoid the mistake by the ruling class in Russia following the February rising, when the Provisional Government continued the imperialist war and thus sharpened the resistance of the workers, peasants and soldiers against the regime, preparing the successful insurrection of October 1917, the capitalist class in Germany reacted swiftly and in a more cunning way. On November 9th, the Kaiser was forced to abdicate and sent abroad; on November 11th an armistice was signed, which helped to pull out the thorn of war from the flesh of the working class - the first factor which had compelled the workers and soldiers to fight. Thus the ruling class in Germany managed to take the wind out of the revolution's sails at an early stage. But apart from the forced abdication of the Kaiser and the signing of the armistice, the handing of government power to Social Democracy was a decisive step in sabotaging the struggle.

On November 9th, three leaders of the SPD (Ebert, Scheidemann, Landsberg), together with three leaders of the USPD (Independent Social Democratic Party[1]) formed the Council of People's Commissars, actually a bourgeois government loyal to capitalism. The same day, while Karl Liebknecht, the most famous Spartacist leader, proclaimed the Socialist Republic in front of thousands of workers, calling for the unification of the workers in Germany with the workers in Russia, the SPD leader Ebert proclaimed "a free German Republic" with the new Council of People's Commissars at its head. This self-proclaimed (bourgeois) government was set up to sabotage the movement. "By joining the government, Social Democracy comes to the rescue of capitalism, confronting the coming proletarian revolution. The proletarian revolution will have to march over its corpse", Rosa Luxemburg had already warned in October 1918 in Spartacus Letters. And on November 10th, Rote Fahne (Red Flag) the paper of the Spartacists, warned: "For four years the Scheidemans, the government socialists, pushed you into the horrors of war; they told you it was necessary to defend the ‘fatherland', although it was only a struggle for naked imperialist interests. Now that German imperialism is collapsing, they try to rescue for the bourgeoisie what still can be rescued and they try to squash the revolutionary energy of the masses. No unity with those who betrayed you for four years. Down with capitalism and its agents".

But the SPD now tried to mask the real class divide. The SPD brought up the slogan: "no fratricide" . It wrote: "if one group fights against another group, one sect fights against another sect, then we will have the Russian chaos, general decline, misery instead of happiness. Will the world, after the fantastic triumph of the abdication of the Kaiser, now witness the spectacle of self-mutilation of the working class in a pointless fratricide? Yesterday showed the necessity of inner unity within the working class. From almost all cities we hear the call for the re-establishment of unity between the old SPD and the newly founded USPD" (Vorwärts, 10.11.1918). Drawing on these illusions in unity between the SPD and the USPD, the SPD insisted at the Berlin Workers' and Soldiers' Council that since the Council of People's Commissars was composed of three members of SPD and USPD, the delegates to the Berlin workers' council should also be composed on such party proportions. It even managed to receive a mandate from the Berlin Workers' and Soldiers' Council to "head the provisional government", which in reality was the direct force opposing the workers' councils. Rosa Luxemburg later drew a balance sheet of the struggles in that phase: "We could hardly expect that in the Germany which had known the terrible spectacle of August 4, and which during more than four years had reaped the harvest sown on that day, there should suddenly occur on November 9, 1918, a glorious revolution, inspired with definite class consciousness, and directed towards a clearly conceived aim. What happened on November 9 was to a very small extent the victory of new principles; it was little more than a collapse of the extant system of imperialism. The moment had come for the collapse of imperialism, a colossus with feet of clay, crumbling from within. The sequel of this collapse was a more or less chaotic movement, one practically devoid of reasoned plan. The only source of union, the only persistent and saving principle was the watchword ‘Form workers' and soldiers' councils'" (Founding Congress of the KPD, 1918/19).

Political sabotage of the workers' councils by the SPD

In November and December, when the revolutionary élan of the soldiers was ebbing away, more strikes in the factories started to occur. But this dynamic was only at its beginning. And at that moment the council movement was still inevitably dispersed. Seizing its chance, the SPD took the initiative to call for a national congress of workers' and soldiers' councils to be held in Berlin on December 16. Thus at a moment when the movement in the factories had not yet come into full swing and the centralisation of the councils was still premature, the SPD wanted to use the opportunity of such a national congress of councils to disarm it politically. In addition, the SPD drew on the illusion, widespread at the time, that the councils would have to work according to the principles of bourgeois parliamentarianism. At the opening of the congress the delegation formed fractions (of the 490 delegates, 298 were members of the SPD, 101 of the USPD (amongst them 10 Spartacists), 100 belonged to other groups). Thus the working class had to confront a self-proclaimed congress of councils which claimed to speak on behalf of the working class but immediately laid all power into the hands of the newly self-proclaimed "provisional government". For example: a delegation of Russian workers who came to attend the congress was held back at the border under the instruction of the SPD. The presidium used tactical ruses to prevent leading Spartacists such as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg from participating in the work of the congress and they even prevented them from speaking under the pretext that they were not workers from Berlin factories. The congress pronounced its own death sentence when it decided to support the call for the formation of a national assembly. This abdication of power to a bourgeois parliament disarmed the councils. 

The Spartacists, who wanted to put pressure on the congress, organised a massive street demonstration of 250,000 workers in Berlin on December 16. The national congress allowed the ruling class to score an important point over the proletariat. The Spartacists concluded: "This first congress finally destroyed the workers' only acquisition - the formation of the workers' and soldiers' councils - thus snatching away power from the working class, throwing back the process of revolution. The congress, by condemning the workers' and soldiers' councils to impotence (through the decision to hand over power to national assembly) has violated and betrayed its mandate. The workers and soldiers councils must declare the results of this congress as null and void" (Rosa Luxemburg, 20.12.1918). In some cities workers' and soldiers' councils protested against the decisions of the national congress.

Encouraged and strengthened by the results of the congress, the provisional government started to initiate military provocations. In an attack by Freikorps in Berlin (counter-revolutionary troops set up by the SPD) several dozen workers were killed on December 24. This provoked the outrage of the workers in Berlin. On December 25 thousands of workers took to the streets in protest. Given these openly counter-revolutionary actions of the SPD, the USPD commissars withdrew from the Council of Commissars on December 29. On December 30th/ January 1st the Spartacists, together with the International Communists of Germany (IKD), formed the German Communist Party (KPD) in the heat of the fire. Drawing a first balance sheet and drawing up the perspective, Rosa Luxemburg on January 3 1919 insisted: "the change from the predominantly ‘soldiers' revolution' of November 9 to a clear workers' revolution, the change from a superficial, merely political change of regime to a long drawn out process of economic and general confrontation between capital and labour, requires from the working class quite a different degree of political maturity, training, and tenacity than what we saw in this first phase of struggles" (3.1.1919, Red Flag).

The movement was then to enter a crucial stage in January 1919, which
we will take up in the next article.         

Dino (2/11/08) 

[1]. The USPD was a centrist party, composed of at least of two wings fighting against each other: a right wing, whose aim was to reintegrate into the old party, which had gone over to the bourgeoisie, and another wing, which was striving towards the camp of revolution. The Spartacists joined the USPD in order to reach more workers and to push them forward. In December 1918 the Spartacists split from the USPD to found the KPD.

Historic events: 

History of the workers' movement: