Germany in turmoil

German Revolution, street fights in Berlin
German Revolution, street fights in Berlin

January uprising in Berlin, Spartacist leaders Luxemburg and Liebknecht are murdered.

[Germany, 1918/19] In the following weeks Kathi and Max often met. They were fond of each other, and at Christmas, he was invited by the Bergmanns. Much was happening in these days, and they anxiously followed the events in the capital Berlin.

Parliamentarian Democracy or Council Republic?

The democratic parties in the political center and the majority of the Social Democrats wanted a parliamentarian democracy, whereas the left-wing parties claimed a Council Republic.

Ebert must have hated being at the top of a revolutionary government, he distrusted the Councils of Workers’ and Soldiers and struggled to prevent a social revolution that might lead to a Bolshevik overthrow as in Russia. Yet, a congress of the German workers’ and soldiers’ councils hold in December in Berlin voted against the council system and favoring elections to a national assembly that should decide about the future state system. They all would participate in the planned elections for a national assembly.

The left-wing Spartacists around Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg concluded that their goals could be met only in a party of their own and founded the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) at the end of 1918. Rosa Luxemburg demanded that the KPD participate in the planned elections, but she was outvoted. The majority hoped to gain power by continued agitation in the factories and by “pressure from the streets”.

Blood is shed

At the end of 1918 and in January 1919, blood was shed. On Christmas Eve, a bloody fight raged between revolutionary sailors and Reichswehr troops. Ebert, in his struggle to avoid a left-wing overthrow at any rate, decided to cooperate with the old elites, and even had military forces march against striking workers and sailors. Haase and the two other Independents left the government on 29 December in protest. The long hoped for unity of Majority and Independent Social Democrats broke apart.

That was a political victory for Ebert who could replace the annoying Independents by his men, among them Gustav Noske as Defense Minister. But he paid a high price: Many SPD supporters felt betrayed by his policy, considered him a traitor, and changed over to the Independents or even the Communists. In the eyes of most military leaders, Ebert and Noske came in handy for the time being: Noske supported the raising of Free Corps, right-wing paramilitary militias who fought for the Republic in the Baltic region and were ready to fight against Bolshevists. Yet, they could not wait for the day when they would get back to power, put the republicans on trial and find them guilty.

January Uprising in Berlin

The situation in the capital Berlin was tense. Early in January 1919, Ebert’s government dismissed the Police Chief of Berlin, an Independent Social Democrat, for refusing to act against the demonstrating workers during the Christmas Crisis. Politicians of the left called for a demonstration in his favor. It escalated into a general strike on 7 January and an armed insurrection. Hundreds of thousands of people poured into the center of Berlin, many of them armed. The train stations and the newspaper districts were occupied, including the SPD’s “Vorwärts” which had been printing articles hostile to the Spartacists. Other papers had even called for murdering the Spartacists.

Karl Liebknecht demanded to overthrow Ebert’s government and launch a communist revolution, Rosa Luxemburg explicitly spoke out against it. Independent SPD leaders struggled to mediate between the extreme lefts and Ebert. While they were talking, workers discovered a flyer published by “Vorwärts” entitled “The hour of reckoning is coming soon!” and about more Free Corps being hired to suppress the workers. Indeed, Ebert had ordered his defense minister, Gustav Noske, to do so on January 6. The talks broke off, the Spartacists called on their members to engage in armed combat.

On the same day, Ebert ordered the Freikorps to attack the workers. These former soldiers still had weapons and military equipment from World War I, which gave them a formidable advantage. They quickly re-conquered the blocked streets and buildings and many of the insurgents surrendered. 156 civilians and 17 Free Corps soldiers died during the fighting.

Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht had to fear for their lives, but both did not want to leave Berlin. On the evening of January 15, they were discovered in a Berlin-Wilmersdorf apartment, arrested and handed over to the largest Freikorps unit, the heavily armed Garde-Kavallerie-Schützen-Division. That same night, both prisoners were murdered. Rosa Luxemburg’s body was thrown into the Landwehr Canal, where it was found on 1 July. Karl Liebknecht’s body was delivered anonymously to a morgue.

[Germany, 1919] On January 19, 1919, the elections for the National Assembly were held. For the first time ever, women could vote, and the Bergmann ladies were eager to do so as well.

The center-left “Weimar Coalition”

The SPD emerged as the strongest faction, but missed the majority they had hoped for. So they had form a coalition with the Center Party / Bavarian People’s Party and the German Democratic Party, the so-called “Weimar Coalition” of 1919. In the opposition where the Independent Social Democrats and the Communists, the moderate-conservative DVP and the right-wing DNVP.

In the evening Kathi met Max. He was disappointed at the Independents’ poor results, but not surprised. “We are a young party,” he said, “still unorganized, and for many, perhaps, it is not clear what the Independents stand for. Different people say different things. Maybe it’s easier to be an extremist and say extremist things, but not take over any responsibility, but that’s not what our people want us to do. They want the republicans to work together to make our young republic strong, rather than leave it to the communists on one side and the Kaiser’s militarists and state scoundrels on the other. Haase is an idealist, during the uprising he has struggled to mediate between Ebert and the extreme left, but in vain.

Germany is not in peace

“Do you think our country is in peace now?” Kathi asked, “after all, many people went to vote, 83%, that’s a lot for our young republic.” Max was silent for a while, then he said thoughtfully, “I hope so for all of us, Haase still hopes to reconcile and cooperate with the Majority Social Democrats in a parliamentarian democracy. Yet, I don’t believe so. It’s only a few days since Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered by Free Corps men, and as it seems, Minister Noske was informed about it and did not stop them.”

“These Free Corps,” Kathi asked, “what kind of people are they?” Max hesitated a little. “The war has changed all of us a lot,” he said slowly, “we have to be careful with what we say about others. The Free Corps are paramilitary groups of disillusioned wartime soldiers, disconnected from civilian life, uprooted men who know only war and may seek stability within a military structure. But they are more than 400,000 men strong, heavily armed and extremely violent, they believe that the front has been betrayed by their countrymen, those who instigated strikes in the armament industry. So they loath them all, they want some form of revenge on those they considered responsible for the armistice. They were raised as right-wing paramilitary militias to fight against the republic, financed by big business. Many murders and illegal executions are on them, with Noske’s approval, I assume. I am convinced that most of the generals cannot wait for the day when the republic will be history. And they fight with the brutality they bring from the front, even against civilians. No mercy, no quarter.”

More fighting

Max was to be proven right. When again armed fighting brought out in Berlin in March, Noske ordered the Free Corps to shoot every man with a gun in his hand on sight. Some 1,200 people were killed in these days, among them many unarmed and innocent bystanders. The KPD leader Leo Jogiches, Rosa Luxemburg’s love, was shot in the back after his arrest. In Munich, Prime Minister Kurt Eisner of the Independents was assassinated.

After the bloody January uprising in Berlin and the murders of Rosa Luxemburg Liebknecht, political enmity had become hatred. In Berlin, Saxony, the Rhineland, and the Ruhr area general strikes and heavy fighting made the first years of the Weimar Republic almost civil-war-like.

The leaders of the Majority Social Democratic leaders had given orders to fire at their own people. Political enmity became hatred. The Left would never join forces again, not even later to stop Hitler.

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