home | 1901-WW2 Index


previous | next

Failed Uprisings in Germany, 1918-19

Spartacists Attempt a Coup in Berlin | More Failed Attempts at Revolution

Spartacists Attempt a Coup in Berlin

In power in Berlin at the close of World War I was Germany's Social Democrats – moderate socialists led by Chancellor Friedrich Ebert. The Social Democrats saw themselves as patriotic Germans and favored reforms, Ebert having favored a British-style monarchy and parliamentary government. Allied with Ebert's government was Germany's military – despite detestation for socialists of any kind by Chief of the German General Staff, Paul von Hindenburg.

Ebert and the moderate socialists and trade unionists had established domination over the Workers and Soldiers' councils. And against Ebert and his government was Germany's revolutionary socialists, the Spartacist League, led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. The League was named after the leader of a slave revolt in ancient Rome – suggesting that as workers they were slaves of the capitalists. Liebknecht and Luxemburg had recently been released from prison. Ebert had long been opposed to Luxemburg, believing that her faith in the natural impulses of "the working class" was romantic nonsense.

Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg

Luxemburg, in a recent article had criticized the Bolshevik revolution for its lack of guarantees of freedom of the press and rights of association and assembly. She aimed at creating a revolution in Germany that maintained these freedoms. She doubted that Germany was ready for a successful uprising, but she was swept up by the enthusiasm of the bulk of her party for taking power, believing they could repeat what had happened in Russia in 1917.

A political revolution had already taken place, the monarchy having been replaced. Ebert was eager to avoid making the mistakes that Kerensky had made in Russia, and he feared those Germans who wanted a Bolshevik-style revolution.

On December 6th, 1918, soldiers allied with Chancellor Ebert's government occupied the editorial offices of Spartacus' newspaper. A detachment of soldiers hostile to the revolutionaries fired on a Red Soldiers' League demonstration, killing 18 and wounding 30.

On December 10th, Ebert's ally, General Groener, sent around 75,000 soldiers to Berlin. Ebert spoke to them in front of the Brandenburg Gate, telling them that no enemy had defeated them and that Germany's unity now lay in their hands.

But desertions had begun among the soldiers that encouraged the revolutionaries. On December 16, German socialists met in Berlin. The meeting had a name that sounded like something out of 1917 Russia: the "Congress of Workers and Soldiers' Councils." But Ebert's moderate socialists held a majority of the 489 delegates to the "workers" Congress. The moderates were in control the Congress, and they rejected by 344 to 98 the demand for a government based on councils, similar to Lenin's call that all power be given to the Soviets. The Congress agreed on the creation of a National Assembly – comparable to Russia's Constituent Assembly. And the Congress passed a resolution for the socialization of all "ripe" industries, especially coal mining, and they passed a resolution for the establishment of a people's militia. These were resolutions that embarrassed Ebert, who did not intend to support them.

Conditions in Germany were substantially different from conditions in Russia. Germany had a much larger middle-class than had Russia. And unlike Russians in November 1917, most Germans still supported law and order. Unlike the powerless provisional government that Lenin faced, and a dispirited and indifferent multitude, German revolutionaries faced a significant force they would need to overthrow. Nevertheless, the Spartacists continued to push for armed revolt. On December 23, revolutionary sailors occupied the chancellery and took Ebert prisoner. The following day, Ebert was rescued by troops that had been garrisoned nearby. On Christmas Day, government troops exchanged fire with the revolutionary sailors, and 56 of the government troops and 11 of the revolutionary sailors were killed.

In late December, Ebert and General Groener worked at organizing military units that could be relied upon, many of them former soldiers and other young men opposed to communist revolution, who formed what were called Free Corps (Freikorps) battalions. Also at the end December the Spartacist League declared itself the German Communist Party. Liebknecht and other representatives of the new Communist Party agreed with representatives of Berlin's Independent Social Democrats, the People's Marines and some shop stewards, to launch another armed uprising. Weapons were distributed. The Spartacus newspaper had a headline that read "Rise Proletarians! To Battle!" Thousands of workers took to the streets. Strikes broke out in Berlin. Armed Spartacists occupied the building that housed the Social Democrat newspaper, and they invaded other buildings. Communists in other cities followed suit and attempted to take control of their cities.

Liebknecht pointing the way

Liebknecht pointing the way. Enlarged photo of Karl Liebknecht pointing the way

Spartacists in the streets of Berlin, 1918-19

Spartacists making revolution in Berlin Photo of Spartacists making revolution in Berlin

When Free Corps troops entered Berlin they were applauded along the way by people opposed to the uprising – far from the mood in Petrograd in November, 1917. Street fighting in Berlin was heavy, and the armed revolutionaries were poorly led and lacked coordination.

The fighting in Berlin ended on January 12, 1919, with a government victory. Three days later, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were rounded up and taken to the hotel that the Free Corps was using as headquarters. Both were taken out the back door. Luxemburg was called a whore. She and Liebknecht were clubbed with rifle butts, taken away and shot. Luxemburg's body was dumped in a canal, to be found days later.

Meanwhile, the risings in other cities were being crushed. Government forces nabbed, Karl Radek, the advisor that Moscow had sent to the German communists, and put him in prison. Elections for the National Assembly promised at the Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Councils took place on schedule. The Social Democrat Party won 163 seats, the Center (Catholic) Party won 91 seats, the German Democratic Party won 75 seats, a monarchists party won 44 seats, and Independent Socialists (USPD) won 22 seats. On February 6, Ebert opened the National Assembly with a speech urging the victorious Allied powers not to cripple the young republic by its demands. And, on February 11, the National Assembly elected Ebert as President of the new German state.

Those responsible for the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht were put on trial. The one who had done the actual shooting was a former army officer who was ruled a psychopath and not responsible for his actions. He was commended for his fine war record and given a sentence of two years in prison. Others involved also received light sentences. The judges could not condone murder, but they were in sympathy with the motives of the killers regarding the need to suppress communist revolution.


Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.