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More Failed Attempts at Revolution

By February 5, what had remained of the uprisings against the government – in Bremerhaven, Cuxhaven and Wilhelmshaven – had been crushed. The revolutionist regime in Munich was still in power, but it was without popular support. Its leader, a former journalist named Kurt Eisner, had mistakenly believed that he represented the will of the people in Bavaria, but in elections held in January he had received less than two percent of the vote. Unable to win enough support from those elected to Bavaria's parliament, he was on his way to a government building to resign when he was gunned down by a rightist aristocrat, Count Anton von Arco-Valley. Count Valley was a member of the racist Thule Society. His mother was Jewish, and he wanted to demonstrate that even a half-Jew could perform an act of heroism.

In Berlin, Spartacists were calling Ebert "the mass executioner of the German proletariat."  On March 3 they called for "a new struggle for the revolution" and "a new battle against the oppressors." They told Berlin's municipal employees and factory workers that the fate of the world was in their hands, and they called on the workers to cease all work and remain in their factories. Again the Free Corps came. The Ebert government heard rumors of Spartacist terrorism in Berlin and gave orders to shoot on the spot anyone bearing arms against government (Free Corps) troops. Tanks, flame-throwers, artillery and trench mortars were used against the revolutionaries, and members of the Free Corps gunned down some captured Spartacists. A week of bloodshed ended with more than one thousand Berliners dead. And the Spartacists, somewhat sobered, called off their strike and made overtures of peace to the Ebert government.

Bela Kun

Béla Kun, who learned Bolshevism while a prisoner of war in Russia.

On March 20, 1919, Béla Kun established a "dictatorship of the proletariat" in Budapest, Hungary. This excited German communists who believed in a domino theory of revolution and who still believed that revolution could be imminent in Germany. In Germany's Bavaria and its capital, Munich, the new shaky coalition government, led by a Social Democrat, Johannes Hoffman, did not yet have a police or military force, and a few ragtag revolutionaries led by a neurotic young poet, Ernst Toller, took up arms, chased Hoffmann out of town and declared Bavaria a Soviet Republic. Toller's government of coffeehouse intellectuals declared that universities were to be open to all, that everyone was to be educated according to his own ideas and that teaching the history of civilization was to be suppressed because history was bunk.

Coffeehouse intellectuals are normally at odds with orthodox Marxists, and it was a small army of Marxist-led Spartacists who overthrew Toller and his group, after Toller had been in power only one week.

The Spartacist regime in Munich enrolled numerous men into their little army by offering good pay and free living quarters. Weapons were forbidden to all but revolutionaries. The new government declared that the right to the streets belonged only to class-conscious workers. Picking up a leaflet dropped by airplanes was made a capital offense. Placards and handbills called on workers to expropriate the bourgeoisie. The land of "kulaks" (rich peasants) was to be confiscated. Automobiles were confiscated. The revolutionaries hunted supporters of Hoffmann. Homes were broken into and plundered. Food was confiscated. Merchants were warned not to sell food or other goods at market prices. And money was produced in great abundance on government printing presses.

In Moscow, news from Munich was encouraging. The Bolshevik head of the Communist Internationale, Gregory Zinoviev, believed that within a few months the communists would win in Germany. Lenin was encouraged, and on April 27 he sent a letter to Munich asking to be informed as to what concrete measures they were taking against the "bourgeois hangmen" who supported Ebert's government. He asked if they had armed the workers and had disarmed the bourgeoisie, whether they had taken over factories and large farms, or canceled mortgages and land rents for small farmers.

Thule Society Emblem

Thule Society Emblem. The swastika was to be borrowed by Hitler's political party.

By April 27, Free Corps units were spread around the outskirts of Munich, preparing an assault against the city's revolutionary regime. Some in the regime's army began to desert. The revolutionaries had taken some of Munich's leading citizens hostage, and the commander of the regime's army ordered them shot. Ernst Toller rushed to the scene and saved some of the hostages, but twenty of Munich's prominent citizens were killed and their bodies mutilated. Horrified by the massacre and encouraged by the Free Corps outside of town, small groups of armed citizens within the city began attacking the regime's army.

News of the massacre set the Free Corps into motion. And, as the Free Corps converged on the city, Spartacists took ten members of the rightist Thule Society hostage and executed them. Word was out among the revolutionaries that because millions of proletarians had been killed in the war for the benefit of capitalism it did not matter that thousands of bourgeoisie had their throats cut.

In a matter of days, the Free Corps defeated the revolutionaries and took power in Munich. Known leaders of the revolutionary regime were shot on sight. Some others were summarily tried and executed. The Free Corps burst into a meeting of Catholic Workers of the Saint Joseph Society – a meeting of people discussing educational and cultural matters – and, confusing the meeting with a communist conspiracy, selected twenty and had them shot.

Ernst Toller was captured, but he escaped and lived to write plays. He became a screenwriter in Hollywood, and in 1939 he hanged himself in Manhattan.


Rosa Luxemburg, by Richard Abraham, 1989

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