The titanic events in Germany between 1917 and
1923 constitute a tragic and bitter chapter in the international
workers' movement. Golden opportunities, in which the German working
class could have repeatedly taken power, were lost, eventually ending
up in the ghastly victory of the Nazis in 1933 and the obliteration of
the workers' movement.
Pierre Broué's monumental and brilliant work of
nearly 1,000 pages – for the first time available in English – traces
these historic events, the issues at stake and the individuals
involved. It is beyond doubt the best history written to date about
this period and deserves to be read and studied by all those keen to
learn about the past in order to prepare for the future.
The German Social Democracy was the most
powerful in the world, with a huge influence, nationally and
internationally. "The German Social Democratic Party became a way of
life", stated Ruth Fisher. "It was much more than a political machine;
it gave the German worker dignity and status in a world of his own."
However, events brought this "way of life" crashing down. Despite the
declarations against the imperialist war, in August 1914, the German
SPD leaders, as well as the other main leaders of the Second
International, capitulated and voted for the war. For the rank and
file, it was a terrible shock, a mortal blow against everything they
stood for. Even Lenin thought that the news of the betrayal was a
The war soon drowned out all opposition. Only a
few internationalists – including the Russian Bolsheviks – stood
against the tide. Their task was to explain what had happened and
regroup the genuine internationalists. The years of boom in which the
Second International had been founded had lead to opportunist trends
developing with its ranks. The reformist tops of the movement, while
paying lip-service to socialism, began to adapt to capitalism. They
stressed the "minimum" programme of the day-to-day demands of the
struggle at the expense of the "maximum" programme of socialism, mainly
relegated to May Day speeches. Repelled by the betrayal, Lenin demanded
a complete break with the opportunist leaders.
The first gathering of "Internationalists" was
in September 1915 at Zimmerwald in Switzerland. Even here divisions
opened up and a Zimmerwald Left was created which called for the war to
be transformed into a civil war and that "the main enemy is at home".
While these ideas only touched a small handful, opposition to the war
began to grow. Hunger riots broke out in Hamburg and strikes in the
Ruhr. In May 1916, Karl Liebknecht attracted several thousand when he
spoke in the Potsdamer Platz. At that time the revolutionaries grouped
themselves into the Internationale Group, which remained part of the
SDP. By the following year, the massive opposition that had grown
within the party split to form the Independent Social Democratic Party
(USDP). The Internationale Group, now called the Spartacists, joined
the USDP. This was no small split: 33 deputies had been expelled from
the SPD. While some 170,000 stayed with the old party, 120,000 formed
"It is always possible to walk out of small
sects or small coteries, and, if one does not want to stay there, to
apply oneself to building new sects and new coteries", stated Rosa
Luxemburg. "But it is only an irresponsible daydream to want to
liberate the whole mass of the working class from the very weighty and
dangerous yoke of the bourgeoisie by a simple ‘walk-out'."
The sharpest turn of events, however, occurred
early in 1917 with the February Revolution in Russia. In Germany, the
Minister of the Interior spoke of "the intoxicating effect of the
Russian Revolution". The Spartacist Fritz Heckert declared that the
"German proletariat must draw the lessons of the Russian Revolution and
take their own destiny in hand." Then came news of a new Bolshevik
revolution in October. This event shook the entire world, including the
German workers, soldiers and sailors sickened by endless war.
The Bolsheviks issued the call for peace with
no annexations, but was confronted with a German advance as the
military fronts crumbled. It was left to Trotsky at Brest Litovsk to
conduct a propaganda appeal to German troops. Luxemburg wrote from
prison about "these magnificent events" which acted upon her "like an
elixir of life".
By the summer of 1918, the German armies were
facing defeat. By October red flags began appearing on trains carrying
soldiers on leave. By November, revolution had broken out. Mutinies
spread from ship to ship. Workers' and sailors' councils were being
established everywhere and the old regime crumbled. The old SPD leaders
rushed to shore up the old order by placing themselves at the head of
the movement. However the revolution spread like wildfire.
Unfortunately what was lacking was a party on the lines of the
Bolsheviks in Russia.
With the Social Democrats at its head, the
revolution was easily derailed. While the monarchy had to be
sacrificed, the threat to private property was averted. The old order
The Spartacists were too weak to take advantage
of the situation, despite the heroic efforts of Luxemburg and
Liebknecht who went on to found the German Communist Party by the end
of the year. Pierre Broué deals in depth with the debates, issues and
tragic mistakes made by the revolutionary forces, especially its
ultra-left leanings, during this period. This ultra-leftism manifested
itself in the lunacy of boycotting the trade unions,
anti-parliamentarism, and premature attempts to seize power. One such
attempt led to the Spartacist Uprising in early January 1919.
The defeat of the uprising, which brought to an
end the first phase of the revolution, led to a bloody repression of
the revolutionary wing. The brutal murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht,
who represented the key figures of German Marxism, at the hands of the
officer caste, and standing behind them the rightwing social democratic
leaders, served to behead the German communist movement at a crucial
This shift towards repression was led by the
dregs of the Free Corp, a reactionary paramilitary outfit. This
culminated in the attempted military coup in 1920 – the Kapp Putsch –
which failed after a general strike paralysed Berlin and the country.
This whip of the counter-revolution served to push the revolution
forward, leading to a crisis within the traditional organisations of
the working class.
The USPD, which had 100,000 members when the
Revolution began, had over 300,000 by March 1919. By April 1920 it had
800,000 members and 54 daily newspapers. This party was a centrist
party, which wavered between reformism and revolution, but had the
allegiance of the key sections of the German working class. In 1920, at
its Halle Congress, it accepted the 21 conditions and voted in favour
of affiliation to the Third International, which had been founded a
year previously. The right-wing split away and the party then fused
with the German CP to form the united Communist Party of Germany, which
was to challenge for the leadership of the working class.
At this time, Lenin was highly critical of the
ultra-leftism of a section of the German CP, which he wrote about in
his book, "Left-Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder". The ultra-lefts
would split away in April to form the KAPD, taking a sizeable chunk of
the party with them.
Broué deals extensively with the relations of
the Communist International and its German section. Advisers were sent
by Moscow, such as the Hungarian Béla Kun, a mediocre man who did not
possess sufficient ability to give sound advice to the KPD. They gave
credence to the ultra-leftism of sections of the party and advanced the
so-called theory of the offensive. This theory led to the debacle of
the "March Action" of 1921, where the young party was pushed into a
premature attempt to seize power, with devastating consequences. Some
200,000 members left the party and tens of thousands lost their jobs.
Lenin was forced to intervene, taking Kun, Thalheimer, Radek and the
ultra-lefts sharply to task.
"The provocation was clear as day. And, instead
of mobilising the masses of workers for defensive aims, in order to
repel the attacks of the bourgeoisie and in that way to prove that you
have right on your side, you invented your ‘theory of the offensive',
an absurd theory which offers the police and every reactionary the
chance to depict you as the ones who took the initiative in aggression,
against which they could pose as the ones defending the people." In
other words: "Win the masses as a preliminary to winning power."
The defeat opened up a great debate in the
Communist International, from which emerged the policy of the United
Front, summed up in the phrase "March separately, strike together!" The
key task was to "patiently explain" and to engage in activities that
would draw the working class together in united action. This was an
approach advocated by Paul Levi, the key leader of the party, but who
had been expelled for publicly criticising the March Action. He was
replaced as chairman of the party by Heinrich Brandler.
From then on, the party engaged in fruitful
United Front work, building up its support in the trade unions and
factories. It won back some 100,000 members during 1921 and 1922 and
had 38 daily newspapers at its disposal. It adopted a transitional
programme to build bridges with reformist workers, to great effect.
The test for the party came in 1923. Arising
from the failure to fulfil its obligations to the Versailles Treaty,
the French government sent in troops to occupy the Ruhr. This opened up
a period of economic and political instability, with the Cuno
government offering "passive resistance". Strikes and battles with
troops became increasingly violent. Inflation turned into
hyper-inflation and the working class suffered absolute pauperisation
and the middle class were ruined. Suicides reached record levels. On 3
February 1923 an egg cost 300 marks; on the 10th, 3,400; on 5 August,
12,000; and on 8th, 30,000. Shops changed their prices by the hour. The
trade unions collapsed. A revolutionary tide swept the country. The
time was set for revolution. Brandler telegrammed Moscow, but the
majority of the Bolsheviks were away. Stalin, however, urged the
Germans to wait.
It was not until August that the Russian
Political Bureau met to discuss the German situation. There the Germans
were urged to make preparations for an insurrection. Trotsky urged the
fixing of a date, but Brandler objected. While preparations proceeded,
the Cuno government fell. Nevertheless, KPD representatives joined the
governments in Saxony and Thuringia as a launching pad for the
revolution. A trade union conference at Chemnitz was to be used to call
a general strike and provoke an uprising. However, things went badly
wrong and the conference failed to support the strike. The insurrection
was called off and the opportunity was missed. The KPD was declared
illegal and arrests followed. The "German Fiasco" was over.
Trotsky believed that the revolution could have
succeeded but for the failure of a hesitating leadership. Whereas the
Bolshevik Party was to overcome this vacillation under the leadership
of Lenin and Trotsky, this was not the case in Germany. "In Germany,
the leadership as a whole vacillated and this irresolution was
transmitted to the party and through it to the class." Hesitation led
Within 10 years the mighty KPD had been smashed
to pieces. The rise of Stalin in the USSR sealed the fate of the
Communist International. The ultra-left policy of the Third Period
split the German working class and allowed Hitler to come to power
without resistance. This book by Pierre Broué deserves the widest
readership. Its lessons are profound.