228: Weimar Germany Pt. 1


In the aftermath of the war was left a German state struggling against revolution from all sides.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 228. Thank you goes out to Kara this week for Patreon. After the first world war, Germany would experience Revolution. This revolution would see the Weimar Government come to power, but just like in Russia, after the first revolutionary change, there was always the threat of another, possibly more radical change. There were many important differences between Germany and Russia, with the most important being that the large German middle class and the bulk of the army never stopped supporting the Weimar government. The Weimar leaders were still very concerned about possible continued revolutionary activity, and so they turned to violence to assert their position. This violence, and the events around it, will be the topic for our next three episodes. In this episode we will discuss the relations between of the Weimar government, made up of a coalition of the Social Democrats, the Catholic center, and the Liberal party. They were also, at least tentatively supported by the parties that were further to the left on the political spectrum, including the Spartacists, which would lead to an uprising in January 1919 in an attempt to overthrow the German government. Next episode we will discuss the Weimar relations with the right wing parties, focusing on the Kapp Putsch. Finally, in episode 3 we will look at the Ruhr Crisis, a mostly non-violent conflict between the French and Germans as the French tried to compel the Germans to pay their reparations payments. Throughout these events the Weimar leaders would attempt to survive and maintain their power, although they almost never felt truly secure in their position. As we work our way through these events, I would ask you to keep in mind this quote from Pierre Broue in his book The German Revolution 1917-1923 “The process by which large masses of people change direction in a revolutionary period is a complex one, and in particular, does not develop in a straight line, when these masses are constantly being increased by hundreds of thousands of individuals who ware awakening to political life. Their experience, which sometimes is very short, demands that political organizations which hope to take advantage of them have quick reflexes and especially great clarity of analysis. In Germany in 1918 the positions of the workers’ parties and the competing currents within them contributed rather to increasing the confusion.” This confusion, bordering on chaos at times, would be the overriding theme throughout Germany in the years after the war.

Before the First World War the Social Democratic party, the core of the Weimar coalition, had over a million members and during the 1912 elections they would receive 4.25 million votes. They represented one of the largest socialist parties in all of Europe at this point in history, and for years they were able to resist the fragmentation that had plagued the socialist movements in many other countries. In those other areas there was often conflict between the mainstream Socialist parties, like the Social democrats and those groups that were further left. Just because the German Social Democrats were able to hold the socialists in Germany together did not mean they all agreed on everything, and in the years before the war the socialist coalition was beginning to fall apart. These differences were just heightened by the start of the war. In 1914 the official Social Democrat position was one of support for the war, and this support would, in 1917, cause the party to split in two. 120,000 Social Democrat members would officially exit the party to form the Independent Social-Democratic Party. Their stated goal was to bring the party back to what they saw as its roots from before the war, and this return to its roots would require a drastic shift back to the left. The new Independent Social-Democratic Party, or USPD, would join several other smaller parties on the far left in their opposition to the Social Democrats. These groups, like the Spartacists who will be important to our story today, saw the creation of the USPD as an opportunity. They hoped that the smaller USPD could be influenced by the radicals and pulled even further left. If this could be accomplished then the power of the far left parties would be increased.

During 1917 and 1918 the effects of the events in Russia were felt among these far left German socialist parties. The Bolsheviks had always seen Germany as a critical nexus of their worldwide revolution, and it was their primary target in Europe. Before the war Lenin had been impressed with German socialism, but after the Russian revolutions there were many German socialists that did not take a favorable view on what had happened in the East. The mainstream Social Democrat view was that revolutionaries like the Bolsheviks were dangerous, and it was imperative that such actions should not be allowed to happen in Germany. From the far left parties, whose views were most in line with Lenin’s, there were other criticisms. Most of these revolved around the belief that the Bolshevik actions in Russia were premature, and they would therefore fail. These differing views would continue to widen the rift between the Social Democrats and the far left in Germany. The USPD was in the process of being torn apart by the same forces that had caused them to break away from the Social Democrats in the first place. Its leader were more moderate than many of its members, and they were struggling to keep the party together while at the same time preventing the far left members from taking control. This would actually cause the USPD leaders to take some actions to placate those far left members, including leading and encouraging some strikes in November 1918, along with other protests. These actions were not taken due to the belief that they were needed, but to allow USPD to maintain their control and leadership position on the left, giving them the ability to fiend off more radical members, like the Spartacists. To those radical leftists, by this point the differences between the USPD and the Social Democrats were beginning to blur, and they were growing in their belief that their only proper action was to fully break from the moderate socialists.

The two largest parties of this ‘radical’ left were the Group International, or Spartacists, and the International Communists of Germany, or the IKD. The Spartacists were initially a group within the USPD, and even though many of their views differed from that of the official USPD policy, they were kept within the party for several months. This was done very purposefully by the USPD leadership, who spent a lot of effort trying to keep those groups like the Spartacists in the party out of concern that otherwise they would lose too much power. The Spartacists held many views that were at odds with the more mainstream leftist opinion in Germany. One of these was the view that the Trade Unions had to be dismantled, but not because the Spartacists disagreed with the concept of unions, but because at this time the Trade Unions were controlled by the far more conservative Social Democrats. These types of views meant that the Spartacists were much more radical than the USP, and they were in fact closer to the German Communist party. The Communist party had been formed on November 23, 1918 and they would work closely with the Spartacists over the coming months. They would not take the additional step of joining with the Spartacists officially, and in fact they strongly resisted officially joining the Spartacist party, this was due to their belief that eventually the Spartacists would lead a new German government, a government that the Communists would eventually topple to take control. This refusal to officially join the Spartacists, or other far left groups, limited the ability of the Communists to gain a real political foothold within Germany, but it did allow them to remain independent.

The Spartacists are very important to our story today, and so it is worth taking some time to discuss the party and two of its leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. During war Liebknecht had led leftist groups and had taken the step that many other groups in Germany would not, and that was to heavily criticize the war. This would result in a trip to prison for Liebknecht, where he would stay until October 23, 1918. Even during this time in prison he would still be seen as the leader of the far left movement in Germany. When he was released there were concerns in the German government about his actions, especially after he made a trip to the Russian embassy. In the closing days of the wartime government, and then after with the creation of the government led by the Social Democrats, there were constant concerns about a far left revolution, these fears would be focused on Liebknecht. The government would use fears of a revolution to paint Liebknecht as a violent revolutionary who cared only about gaining personal power. It should probably be noted that the government was not totally wrong about some of this, and if a far left revolution would have happened Liebknecht almost certainly would have been at its head. This would mobilize the anti-Bolshevik forces throughout Germany, which did not immediately result in violence, but it did amplify tensions in Germany during November 1918 between the groups around the political spectrum.

Throughout December 1918 these tensions would rise, especially as the number of Spartacist, worker, and other demonstrations around the country, and especially in Berlin, would begin to rise. Not all of these demonstrations were organized by the Spartacist leaders, but there was little effort by those leaders to try and control other demonstrations that were held under the Spartacist name. This made the Spartacist cause seem far larger, but also caused the government to consider them to be a far greater threat. These events were not always peaceful, for example on December 6th there was a protest that resulted in 16 dead and 80 injured after clashes between the protesters and groups of soldiers. Whenever these instances of violence occurred both sides would blame the other for what happened, which just served to enflame tensions even more. During this time the Spartacists would begin to lose the battle for public opinion, and more and more they would be blamed by the majority of Germans for the violence. This did not prevent Spartacist support from growing in Berlin. This support did not always come in the form of new official members, but also came in the form of just the overall feeling by workers in the cities that their protests, sometimes violent protests, could result in real changes. The fact that they were met with violence did not always cause them to be more cautious, but instead to just meet that violence with violence of their own. Due to all of these reasons the environment in Berlin during the last week of 1918 was very tense. The growing confidence of the workers was met by troops returning home from the front by the thousands, for example on December 10th 7,000 soldiers would parade through the center of Berlin. The majority of these soldiers would support the government, but not all of the military would do so. For example the People’s Naval Division, which had initially been brought into the capital by the government, started actively fighting against government troops in the last week of the year. Their complaints were around pay and what they were being asked to do, and they were able to occupy the palace and several surrounding buildings. Having a military that would not accept orders, and which had began an armed occupation of buildings in the capital was troubling enough for the government, but there was also a belief within the government that the Naval Division was acting on orders from Liebknecht and the Spartacists. This was not actually true, and in fact the Naval troops had rejected Liebknecht’s offers. They were just concerns about making sure that they got paid, not getting involved in a revolution. Nothing could shake the government’s belief that they were in fact acting as some kind of military vanguard for a revolution, and so they brought in more military units and tried to assault the buildings occupied by the Naval Division. This assault would fail, and they would go on occupying those buildings, where they would stay until after the Spartacist revolt in the first week of January.

The Spartacist Uprising, the January Disturbances, the Spartacist Disturbances, or whatever it might be called would begin on the night of January 5th. The catalyst for this new, and more violent phase of protests was the dismissal of the head of Berlin police. He had been put in place during the revolutionary days of November 1918 and was well liked and supported by the far left. When he was dismissed he would be quoted as saying “I got my job from the Revolution, and I shall give it up only to the Revolution.” Armed revolt was not the first step taken after this dismissal, and what would eventually lead to the violence would start as hundreds of thousands demonstrators marching through the streets of Berlin. This included most of the workers in the city, who were already reading and willing to go on strike at the slightest provocation. During this period the Spartacist leaders, who would eventually be blamed for starting the violence had very little actual control over events. Even as armed groups of rebels began to coalesce on January 5th there was little overall leadership or direction. Instead the armed groups just started taking over buildings. These events up to this point remind me of some of the things we have discussed in Ireland, where highly motivated groups of rebels acted, but without a clear and concise plan. In this case it would result in various groups taking over buildings all over the city almost at random. This included some newspaper buildings, which while symbolically powerful, were basically worthless from a strategic perspective. This haphazard choice of buildings might not have been a problem if the bulk of the protests would have joined in the fighting, but this did not prove to be the case. While there might be hundreds of thousands in the streets, only a a few thousand proved willing to join the fighting. After this support failed to materialize it soon became clear to the rebel leaders around the city that they lacked the numbers to pull off an overthrow of the government. They were even unable to gain the support of the People’s Naval Division, which was still in active conflict with the government. On January the 6th it became clear that it was time to try to negotiate, and several rebel leaders began the process. In the factories meetings were held to decide what they should do, with the outcome being a strong vote in favor of not supporting the fighting. The next day, January 7th saw a drastic reduction in civilian protesters around the city, which just made the small number of actual rebels more apparent.

While some of the leaders were willing and able to negotiate, the Spartacists, who were garrisoning the Rote Fahne newspaper building, the Vorwarts, refused to back down. The newspaper continued to be printed, and it became more and more focused on the struggle and its importance. By this point the continued resistance of the Spartacist leaders had become a point of pride. The government responded in the only way that it knew how, increased violence, with soldiers being brought in from Potsdam, soldiers that could be counted on to crush the uprising. On January 11th, at 8AM they would begin their final assault on the Vorwarts building. It was over after just a few hours, when the remaining rebels were killed or surrendered. Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, another prominent Spartacist leader would escape and go into hiding. Most of the other Spartacist leaders fled the city entirely, but they stayed, although they would be convinced to go into hiding. In just 4 days their luck would run out and they would be arrested by members of the right wing citizen’s militia. They were both beaten and then later shot. While there was never a direct link made between the Weimar leaders and the executions, it is telling that there was little punishment given to those who were known to have performed it. With their death, the Socialist and Communist movement lost two of its most recognizable spokespeople. They were almost certainly the most important socialist leaders outside of Russia. This would greatly curtail the possibility of the Communist revolution spreading to Germany, and the radical Socialist and Communist movement in Germany would be left mostly leaderless.

During all of the violence in Berlin, the country as a whole was preparing for an election on January 19th. These elections resulted in almost 38 percent of the vote going to the Social Democrats, solidifying their position as the largest political party. This should have made them feel more secure, but they were still in a precarious position. During this time they were leading a government that was still technically at war with most of Europe, an armistice had been signed, but the Versailles treaty was not even being drafted yet. The Social Democrats felt that part of obtaining a reasonable peace was to make sure that they stayed in control, and that they prevented any future revolutionary activity. To do this they felt that, much like the Spartacists, any revolutionary group had to be met with uncompromising violence. This would be their policy at the time of the January 1919 revolt in Berlin, and it would also be their policy during the spring of 1919, when there would be continued unrest throughout the country. These actions in spring 1919 would be fueled by the fact that the events in January caused the overall viewpoint of many socialists in Germany to change. It was a widespread belief among those socialists that the actions in January meant that a peaceful transition to a more socialist government in Germany was no impossible. The usage by the government of the police, the military, and the returning Freikorps meant that a peaceful transition further to the left was out of the question. This realization, that continued violence may be necessary caused some to sort of give up, but it pushed others into more radical beliefs. Instead of choosing to push for civilian activism, marches and demonstrations, they instead pushed for widespread workers actions, strikes. The problem for these efforts is that with the failed January Spartacist revolt, the socialist groups had lost their most unifying leaders, or the leaders with the credentials to fulfill that role. They were also dealing with a government that had solidified its links with the far right and had proven itself to be more than willing to use the far right military groups in its efforts to maintain control.

All of these trends and themes culminated in a strike on March 3, 1919. The goals of this strike, according to Mark Jones in Founding Weimar: Violence and the German Revolution of 1918-1919 were “to get formal recognition of the role of workers’ and soldiers’ council; the reversal of the gradual re-establishment of military hierarchy that had occurred since 9 November; the disbandment of all units of government soldiers and Friekorps; the immediate creation of an army of revolutionary workers; the release of all political prisoners; and an end to the system of military justice which meant that serving officers and men were tried by military instead of civilian courts.” The problem for this strike, even though it was able to base itself on a coalition of the Independent socialists, the communists, and some of the more radical social democrats, is that it really just happened too late. It would only last for 10 days, and over that period 1200 people would be killed. Over the preceding 3 months the Social Democrat led government had solidified its support among groups like the Freikorps and in March, when the strike began, the government was able to use them as their shock troops. The Freikorps, which were returning from Eastern Europe where they had fought the Russian Bolsheviks, were generally incredibly far right on the political spectrum, and they would be instrumental in breaking up the strike. IN some ways they were not so much ordered to fight, but were instead unleashed upon the strikers. There are reports of hundreds of workers being executed. Eventually this violence broke the strike, but it also caused a very different, but equally dangerous situation to development for the government. They had used the violent reactionaries to put down a strike from the left, but now those same right wing militias were able to use their roles in this fighting to their benefit. They had been the vanguard against the strikers, against chaos, against socialists and communists, they had saved Germany from revolution. The next step that they would take, was to begin questioning why it was the Social Democrats and the moderate left who were leading the country at all, why not the right wing military groups who had just saved Germany?