Close this search box.

Germany 1923

Crucible of World Revolution: Part One

November 6, 2023

This is part one of a two-part piece by Sean Larson on the centenary of the German Revolution. Part two is available here.

Confidence in the government of the Reich is completely shaken, the mood has bottomed out… Fury is general. The atmosphere is charged with electricity. One spark is enough to ignite the explosion. Here reigns the spirit of November 9.1“In höchster Not“ Germania, no. 205 (July 27, 1923), reprinted in Berliner Volkszeitung, July 28, 1923 (Morgenausgabe), 1.

A mass crisis rocks the population of Germany after the First World War. Shattered are everyday people’s routines, expectations, and assumptions about the world around them. Social reality is irrevocably changed. All ties of meaning rooted in previous social relations are no longer reliable, and in the midst of this disorientation, rapid adaptation is demanded. After the initial shock, the world seems a lot more malleable. Things don’t have to be the way that they are. Couple that with relentless attacks on people’s sense of self, their dignity, and their ability to survive, and after a few months it seems reasonable to burn down a police station.

This scenario took place in Germany not just once, but four times in the space of four years, with revolutionary uprisings each time. These experiences shaped the worldviews of the German population at the outset of 1923, in the midst of disastrous hyperinflation, as the French Army marched into the Ruhr industrial region. The Weimar Republic was flammable material.

In 1923, the hour of the global Communist movement had struck. From within the young Republic on the brink of total collapse, the most powerful workers’ movement in the world prepared for revolution.

Five years earlier, a sweeping movement of workers’ and soldiers’ councils had overthrown the German monarchy in the November Revolution of 1918. In its wake, a precarious class compromise was reached between the Social Democratic trade unions and the representatives of German industry, institutionalizing the eight-hour day for workers at the same time as it protected German capital from expropriation and ensured its role in the post-revolutionary social order. Temporarily suppressed, the antagonism between capitalist profitability and the very survival of German working people would go on to animate a series of explosive conflicts in the political, social, and economic terrain.

The German workers’ movement had held out against international capitalist reaction for years longer than in France, Britain, and the U.S., maintaining at all costs the 8-hour day and high employment levels by sheer organized power expressed in regular political strikes and uprisings. In the face of wretched social conditions in Germany, workers had no other choice. With each shift by their erstwhile Social Democratic leaders in power to maintain the status quo at the expense of ordinary people, workers moved left and right, polarizing the social conflict intensely. Underneath the crisis, two visions competed to overtake the future: on the one hand, the genocidal anti-Semitic fascism of the growing Nazi threat in Bavaria, and on the other, the expansive realm of freedom and dignity articulated by the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).

From the foundation of the republic, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) stepped in to lead the governing coalition and manage the roiling class conflict. Under their leadership, the Weimar government restored some political stability through a bloody campaign of repression in 1919. But the following year, a short-lived reactionary coup and a military campaign to put down the subsequent left-wing uprising in the industrial heartland of Germany severely damaged the government’s democratic credibility. In the elections of summer 1920, leadership of the stable core of Weimar’s governing coalition shifted from the SPD to the Center party. By then, an international recession was settling in, prompting Britain, France, and the U.S. to initiate deflationary measures and provoking mass unemployment to restore economic profitability. Powerless against the insurgent workers’ movement, Germany’s leaders shrank from such a risky maneuver.

In Germany, the government maintained artificially high employment levels in the private sector at the cost of redundancy and inefficiency through a number of measures. Most notably, a November 8, 1920 decree (Stillegungsverordnung) represented “a profound interference with the rights of the factory owner and ran against traditional principles of capitalist economics” by restricting factories from closing and providing various other subsidizations of private firms.2 The Stillegungsverordnung remained in effect until October 15, 1923. See Ludwig Preller, Sozialpolitik in der Weimarer Republik (Düsseldorf: Droste Verlag, 1978), 237; Feldman, The Great Disorder: Politics, Economics, and Society in the German Inflation, 1914-1924 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 241.

For a reading of the labor market policies of the postwar inflationary years as a prolonged delay of a stabilization crisis in order to avoid or reduce political risks, cf. Gunther Mai, “Arbeitsmarktregulierung oder Sozialpolitik? Die personelle Demobilmachung in Deutschland 1918 bis 1920/24” in Die Anpassung an die Inflation, ed. Gerald D. Feldman, Carl-Ludwig Holtfrerich, Gerhard A. Ritter, and Peter-Christian Witt (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1986), 202–36. Mai also makes the case that the inflationary process itself was a consequence of the employment and social security schemes, together with high wages impacting productivity and profitability.
The precarious situation persisted for the next year and a half, with German industrial profitability maintained through a combination of export controls, conscious manipulation of the currency,3Cf. Gerald D. Feldman, “The Historian and the German Inflation,” in Inflation through the Ages: Economic, Social, Psychological and Historical Aspects, ed. Nathan Schmukler and Edward Marcus (New York: Brooklyn College Press, 1983), 386–99, here 391 and 398, but more specifically on export policies, cf. Gerald D. Feldman, Iron and Steel in the German Inflation 1916–1923 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977), 81ff, 130ff, and 187ff. and foreign short-term credit.4Although the London Ultimatum of May 1921 did mark a turning point in the exchange rate of the mark, foreign capital continued to be invested at high rates in Germany for the rest of the year and only began falling off with Poincaré’s election in France in January 1922. Cf. Carl L. Holtfrerich, “Political Factors of the German Inflation 1914-23” in Inflation through the Ages, 413, and Carl-Ludwig Holtfrerich, “Internationale Verteilungsfolgen der deutschen Inflation 1918-1923” in Kyklos 30, 1977, 279–84.

1921-22: Year of the United Front

During this period, a seemingly unending stream of rank-and-file workplace actions repeatedly forced employers to concede wage increases, which they often passed off as price increases in order to maintain smooth production during the export ‘boom’ that accompanied the depreciation of the mark. A steady inflation resulted, jumpstarted by the “wage push” of worker actions in August of 1921.5Gerald D. Feldman, The Great Disorder, 407–09. Intensified workplace struggles at this time coincided with a new Communist policy in the trade unions and other spheres that came to be called the United Front.

The United Front policy shifted Communist strategy away from programmatic demands and propaganda and toward practical initiatives in workplaces and in the streets to secure the immediate needs of working people. Such “partial” struggles were conceived not as ends in and of themselves, but as means to unleash a dynamic of collective self-reliance and action among workers that could lead far beyond the circumstantial demands. Consequently, the United Front also entailed a shift in emphasis from representative politics and rhetorical sloganeering toward the self-activity of the rank and file, whose direct collective actions would build up confidence and trust among workers across party-political lines.6The very first public articulation of the strategy details this logic behind it. See Karl Radek, “Die Bildung der einheitlichen proletarischen Kampffront” in Die Internationale 3, no. 1 (Jan. 15, 1921), and part two in Die Internationale 3, no. 2. See also the discussions led by Radek at the Third World Congress of the Communist International in John Riddell, To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), 436–45 and a thorough historical assessment in Larry Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions: The Politics of the United Front in Rhineland-Westphalia 1920-1924 (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1993) ch. 11, 399–428, esp. 405–6.

With each shift by their erstwhile Social Democratic leaders in power to maintain the status quo at the expense of ordinary people, workers moved left and right, polarizing the social conflict intensely. Underneath the crisis, two visions competed to overtake the future: on the one hand, the genocidal anti-Semitic fascism of the growing Nazi threat in Bavaria, and on the other, the expansive realm of freedom and dignity articulated by the Communist Party of Germany (KPD)

From the summer of 1921 until mid-1922, the KPD creatively applied the new policy under the cool-headed leadership of Ernst Meyer, in the process building out the approach from a tactic to a method, and finally into the “overarching strategy” for the period.7Florian Wilde, Revolution als Realpolitik. Ernst Meyer (1887-1930) – Biographie eines KPD-Vorsitzenden (Konstanz: UVK Verlagsgesellschaft, Konstanz, 2018), 173–6. See also Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 89–93. Through a series of economic and political campaigns, the KPD re-established its positions within broader working-class formations like the unions and overcame its isolation from workers of other parties, especially in Rhineland-Westphalia and the Ruhr industrial region.8Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 129–32.

A new phase of the German revolutionary process began abruptly at the end of June 1922. On the Reparations Commission, the head of the bankers committee J.P. Morgan declared that no loans would be made available to Germany until the reparations debt was scaled down. Twelve days later when pro-Western German foreign minister Walther Rathenau was assassinated, confidence in the Germany currency and domestic stability were shattered, provoking a recall of foreign loans. In face of peaking industrial overcapacity and a sudden credit shortage, the newly autonomous German Reichsbank resorted to printing discounted private bills in order to prevent the collapse of the German economy.9ccf. Holtfrerich, “Political Factors” and Gerald D. Feldman, “The Political Economy of Germany’s Relative Stabilization during the 1920/21-Depression” in The German Inflation Reconsidered: A Preliminary Balance, ed. Gerald D. Feldman, Carl-Ludwig Holtfrerich, Gerhard A. Ritter, and Peter-Christian Witt (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1982), 201–2. The economic recovery of Germany’s western competitors by the second half of 1922 began eroding Germany’s export advantage, bringing on stagflation and the close of the inflation boom, thus preparing the way for the onset of hyperinflation and entrenched polarization in industrial relations.10Cf. Gerald D. Feldman and Irmgard Steinisch, „Die Weimarer Republik zwischen Sozial- und Wirtschaftsstaat. Die Entscheidung gegen den Achtstundentag“ in Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 18 (1978), 381ff; Feldman, Great Disorder, 600–627; and Feldman, Iron and Steel, 319.

The domestic situation in Germany shifted drastically at this time as well. The assassination of Walter Rathenau by extreme right-wing forces came after a series of political murders by the right. In response, the Communists successfully initiated immediate joint action by the workers’ parties to purge the state apparatus and Reichswehr of far-right extremists and dissolve anti-Republican armed groups. Every major city in Germany saw mass demonstrations within three days: “The crowds, massed under the floating banners, advanced like living walls of close-packed bodies. They filled the cities with the thunder of their tread, and made the air vibrate with the roar of their sullen anger.”11Cited in Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917–1923 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006), 618. However, the SPD subsequently distanced themselves from joint mass action with the Communists in favor of a parliamentary approach, namely cooperation with the People’s Party in the Reichstag to pass a “law in defense of the Republic,” which was ultimately to be implemented by the very police and the courts that had been permeated by the far right.12Cf. Broué, The German Revolution, 614–20.

In the wake of Rathenau’s assassination, a powerful demonstration of workers’ organizations had also occurred in Bavaria. But soon thereafter, far right forces including the NSDAP seized the moment to ensure any federal law would not impinge the autonomy of the Bavarian courts and police, which seethed with reactionary elements. While the Bavarian social democrats refused to mobilize against fascists and instead “put all their hope in the triumph of the federal government,” the nationalists made their moves. On the 16th of August, the NSDAP organized a joint demonstration with other elements of the Bavarian far right for “the defense of Bavaria against the Reich,” drawing 60,000 people. A veritable street massacre occurred when Nazi SA troops opened fire on left-wing protestors.13Sebastian Zehetmair, Im Hinterland der Gegenrevolution. Die kommunistische Bewegung in der Ordnungszelle Bayern‘ 1919 bis 1923 (Düsseldorf: Droste Verlag, 2022), 308–10. “Just six weeks after the mass demonstrations of workers’ organizations, the extreme right in Munich had regained the initiative.”14Zehetmair, Im Hinterland, 310.

Hyperinflation and the Re-Emergence of the Council Movement

As the money and wage system began to disintegrate, working-class women began to take on the central role in securing daily necessities for their households.15Cf. Silvia Kontos, Die Partei kämpft wie ein Mann. Frauenpolitik der KPD in der Weimarer Republik (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Roter Stern, 1979), 30. Women-led food riots at markets, a tell-tale sign of impending upheaval, flourished as inflation eroded purchasing power. In September, working women’s demonstrations and riots in Eberswalde, Braunschweig, Hamborn, Bochum, and Munich faced police repression.16Kontos, Die Partei kämpft wie ein Mann, 212. Already in August, “control committees” were formed to set and maintain prices and rents against the increasingly chaotic inflation. Initiated largely by women and youth, the control committees helped to coordinate the anti-inflation protests in various locales, laying a foundation for the re-emergence of the council movement that had been relentlessly suppressed two years prior.17Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 142.

The onset of hyperinflation and the failure of a united front effort after Rathenau’s assassination prompted an adjustment in KPD strategy that coincided with staunch communist trade unionist Heinrich Brandler’s return to the leadership of the party. From early August 1922, the KPD’s united front policy shifted to open up more room for independent Communist initiative in strikes and political confrontations with capital while still maintaining an emphasis on cross-party rank-and-file action.18Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 136–7. Building on the movement of price control committees and the mass demonstrations after Rathenau’s assassination, the KPD decided in late August to hold a nationwide gathering of works (or factory) councils for mid-September.

Works councils had persisted in severely limited form after their independent role was subordinated to the free trade unions in October 1920. As wildcat strikes replaced more routine union bargaining strategies in the fall of 1922, the works councils took on new national prominence as more flexible and politically sensitive organizations led by rank-and-file workers more akin to shop stewards than union functionaries.19Cf. Broué, The German Revolution, 718, and Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 143–45, 365–69.

Throughout the fall, the KPD leadership focused its efforts on the organic development of these movements. “It is not a question of agitation according to some general schema, but rather we must try in every locale to achieve practical results,” Brandler stated at an October 14 meeting with regional party leaders, going on to cite some control commissions’ success in procuring cheap potatoes and reduced prices.20Cf. “Protokoll der Zentrale-Sitzung mit den Bezirkssekretären aus den wichtigsten Industriebezirken vom 14.10.22” in Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisationen der DDR im Bundesarchiv Berlin (henceforeward SAPMO-BArch), RY 1/247, Bl. 89-91 here Bl. 89. Hugo Urbahns’ comments at the same meeting emphasize the continued united front mission of the KPD in the new councils and committees: “In some locales control committees have formed directly out of communities,“ he reported, “Control committees confront concrete tasks and it is through them that we gain connections with the masses. In general, more value should be accorded the work in the control committees and organizational work.”21“Protokoll der Zentrale-Sitzung mit den Bezirkssekretären 14.10.22” Bl. 90.

As wildcat strikes replaced more routine union bargaining strategies in the fall of 1922, the works councils took on new national prominence as more flexible and politically sensitive organizations led by rank-and-file workers more akin to shop stewards than union functionaries

But the workers’ movement wasn’t the only force reacting to the squeeze of hyperinflation. The employers’ offensive escalated dramatically in the autumn of 1922. In September, the umbrella industrial organization Reichsverband der deutschen Industrie decided to prioritize the creation of “domestic economic order” over foreign policy, and the increase of labor productivity over monetary stabilization, primarily to avoid stabilizing wages at too high a level.22Feldman, Iron and Steel, 322–3. On the 1922 RdI program, cf. Hermann J. Rupieper, The Cuno Government and Reparations 1922-23. Politics and Economics (1979), 36–42. Employers targeted the eight-hour day as a means to push workers to work more hours for the same pay.23Cf. Bücher’s comments in the Special Committee meeting, Feldman, Iron and Steel, 325. The abolition of the “schematic” eight-hour day “was a matter of particular significance to the iron and steel industrialists because the twelve-hour day with its two-hour pause had long been considered essential to the functioning of their continuously operating plants, where an actual increase in labor productivity per hour by other than technical improvements was impossible.” Feldman, Iron and Steel, 338. By making the eight-hour day the centerpiece of their campaign, heavy industrialists took aim not just at the chief symbolic victory of the November revolution, but at the core of the entire post-revolutionary balance of class forces in the Weimar Republic. Conflicts around working time and the working day were crucial aspects of the immediate relationship of workers to their bosses, and simultaneously a question of acceptable employment levels in the ailing German economy.24Cf. Eva Cornelia Schöck, Arbeitslosigkeit und Rationalisierung. Die Lage der Arbeiter und die kommunistische Gewerkschaftspolitik 1920-28 (Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag, 1977), 175.

The heavy industrialists’ campaign reached its pinnacle in Hugo Stinnes’ famous speech on the fourth anniversary of the November Revolution calling for a ban on all wage conflict and strikes.25Feldman, Iron and Steel, 323, 332. “The high point of the industrialist campaign, however, came on November 9, 1922, the fourth anniversary of the German Revolution, when Stinnes, with the official sanction of the RdI [Reichsverband der Industrie, the umbrella organization of the industrialists – SL], delivered a major address before the Reich Economics Council which was widely reported and then circulated in brochure form for the ‘enlightenment’ of the public. In it, he declared quite bluntly that he had ‘always fought the stabilization of the mark at any price,’ that the time had not come for stabilization, and that ‘the precondition for any successful stabilization in my view is that all wage conflict and strikes are banned.’ As was to be expected, the extra two hours per day of work Stinnes felt essential was presented as a matter of ‘life and death’.” The speech was followed five days later by the resignation of the Center government under chancellor Wirth, which was widely perceived as lacking in will and unable to force workers to increase productivity. For a year and a half, the galloping inflation had represented a means—albeit imperfect—of domestic economic reconstruction and relative social peace due to high employment. As the businessman Wilhelm Cuno took over the chancellorship and formed a government of technocrats, confidence in the currency plummeted and the Allies pressed for soaring reparations payments. Industrialists insisted on their demands to break the revolutionary labor movement, and for the economists at the helm of the Weimar Republic, the options that would maintain class peace had dried up. A consensus developed that stabilization was finally necessary. On whose terms the stabilization would occur, however, was fiercely contested. Financial columnist Georg Bernhard summarized the stakes at the end of 1922:

One must therefore accept the fact that the year 1923 will under all circumstances be a crisis year… Disturbances of the economic mechanism in a capitalist economic order cannot be eliminated without crises. And it is under all circumstances better that we have a stabilization crisis as a transitional crisis with hope for a rapid final recovery than an inflationary crisis, which has to end in complete stagnation and the dying out of the German economy or with a social revolution.26Gerald Feldman, The Great Disorder, 576–77.

As winter approached, the long-suppressed class conflict was emerging in earnest.

Spring 1923: The Occupation of the Ruhr

At Christmas 1922, Georg Lukács sat down at his desk to put the finishing touches on his seminal History and Class Consciousness just as the German hyperinflation reached its pre-occupation peak. The New Year witnessed the theory of ‘reified’ social relations rooted in the exchange of commodities emerge onto an economy which was itself in a state of almost total dissolution.

Market riots and looting of food proliferated in almost every German city at the end of 1922, a desperate defense against the catastrophic inflation. Far from “spontaneous,” these movements found their logistical backbone in the neighborhood networks of housewives, which through their resourcefulness and solidarity provided the political initiative for the broader movement even as wage movements in the factories lost their meaning.27Kontos, Die Partei kämpft wie ein Mann, 31–32. At the beginning of the new year, these proletarian housewives set up control committees independently across many major cities and industrial regions.28Kontos, Die Partei kämpft wie ein Mann, 224–26.

When French troops occupied the Ruhr industrial region starting on January 11, 1923, German heavy industry suspended their conflict with the government, and both shifted their priority toward a cross-class and cross-party economic resistance, otherwise known as “passive resistance.” Expected by all parties concerned to last for a relatively short duration, passive resistance involved sending aid to German firms and workers while coordinating noncooperation. The efforts aimed to secure a reduction of French reparations demands and an international loan, although the general consensus recognized that both would be paid for through increased German productivity.29Feldman, Iron and Steel, 351–63, cf. also 387 Sharp distributional conflicts that had surfaced in the latter half of 1922 were thus temporarily suspended. As Gerald Feldman notes, however, “the entire question of how the social and economic burdens of a settlement would be distributed within German society hung like a black cloud over the entire passive resistance effort.”30Feldman, Iron and Steel, 359.

Within the occupied Ruhr, German state institutions were suppressed by the French military, so the Cuno strategy of passive resistance relied on a collaboration of employer associations and trade unions. Reprising their wartime role of de facto executors of the conservative government’s national front, the trade unions attempted to retain some minimal influence on the government while also remaining independent enough to have influence over workers. Paralysis resulted. Over the course of the spring, as the hyperinflation severely ate into union finances and basic union functions went unfulfilled, union organization in Rhineland-Westphalia atrophied and credibility sharply declined.31Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 161–63.

In their place, the works council movement quickly took over direction of the growing social explosion. Communist works councils in the Ruhr gathered less than two weeks after the occupation began, endorsing the KPD campaign for a “two-front war” against French and German capitalists. A full-fledged congress of works councils in Essen on March 11 drew much larger numbers than the previous October, including many free trade union delegates who attended despite threats of expulsion from their unions. The congress was dominated by the Communists, drawing strength especially from large steel mills and textile factories in which women workers predominated.32Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 164–5. Tens of thousands of women workers had participated in the militant political strikes that shut down the entire Rhineland region between 1918 and 1920. Cf. Kathleen Canning, “Gender and the Politics of Class Formation: Rethinking German Labor History” in The American Historical Review 97, no. 3 (Jun. 1992): 736–68, here 765. Women in light industry and textiles in other regions, notably Berlin, Saxony, and Thuringia, also flocked to the KPD in union elections.33Brian Peterson, “The Politics of Working-Class Women in the Weimar Republic,” Central European History 10, no. 2 (Jun. 1977): 87–111, here 88. Many women workers, often spurned as “wage-cutters” and competitors for male jobs, remained aloof from formal union politics however, and in the economic chaos articulated their demands through wildcat strikes.34Canning, “Gender and the Politics of Class Formation,” 758–9.

Industrialists insisted on their demands to break the revolutionary labor movement, and for the economists at the helm of the Weimar Republic, the options that would maintain class peace had dried up.

Two months after Mussolini’s March on Rome, fascism festered in Bavaria. The French occupation of the Ruhr accelerated the growth of racist far-right organizations in Bavaria to a degree not seen since August 1914.35Zehetmair, Im Hinterland, 366. Under a new state of emergency law from the federal government, the Bavarian state had the opportunity to close down a planned NSDAP party convention in January. Instead, all left-wing assemblies were banned and when the Bavarian KPD approached the SPD to jointly occupy the convention center to prevent the Nazi gathering, the SPD declined and the convention went on undisturbed. By March 1923, a north-Bavarian KPD internal report spoke of a “kind of guerilla war between workers and the fascist organizations”: “In numerous locales of the district it came to multiple clashes, in the course of which the army, Bavarian state police, and Schutzpolizei, as well as the state bureaucracy, were always the protectors of the fascist organizations.”36Quoted in Zehetmair, Im Hinterland, 368.

Already in the fall of 1922, Nazi meetings and demonstrations in Munich drew more participants than the meetings of the workers’ parties and unions. Munich was also the organizational headquarters of the Nazi’s Sturmabteilung, which could “dominate the streets of Munich relatively unchallenged already in December 1922” and continued to professionalize over the course of the spring. In response, left-wing self-defense organizations were formed, although given their smaller numbers, their tactical approach always relied on cooperation among the workers’ parties and action within a broader frame of large-scale mobilizations from local workers. An omnipresent consciousness pervaded Bavaria—from the debates in the Bavarian parliament to the internal reports of the police, to the discussions in the party presses across the political spectrum—that these street battles were but precursors to a larger civil-war style conflict.37Zehetmair, Im Hinterland, 363–72.

The national front against the French proved beneficial to the growth of the far right in the Ruhr as well. When the French expelled the German militarized police force in mid-February, it left only right-wing groups and employer’ agents to police public order. The KPD responded to the growing fascist threat by actively organizing rank-and-file paramilitary groups, the “Proletarian Hundreds,” not only in the Ruhr and Bavaria, but also Saxony and Thuringia. At first, KPD-controlled unions organized the Hundreds as an example to other locals in Rhineland-Westphalia. The formation of self-defense organizations spread across the region under the leadership of the factory councils and organized around the workplace rather than as hierarchical paramilitary organizations. The Proletarian Hundreds drew their numbers from rank-and-file workers across party lines, including many Social Democrats defying their own party leaders in order to join them.38Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 167–8, 370–71.

Cuno’s conservative administration stayed the course of passive resistance over the course of the spring. From February to April, the Reichsbank backed a mark stabilization effort with its remaining gold and foreign exchange resources while the government bankrolled the upkeep of Ruhr firms by issuing them large-scale credits. Combined with industrialists’ price restraint, the government efforts successfully arrested the fall of the exchange rate in February and March. But on April 18, the mark support action collapsed, giving way to a new period of rapid mark depreciation, the abandonment of pricing restraint in May, and the breakdown of the union-sponsored wage stabilization efforts that had been in effect during the mark support action.39Feldman, Iron and Steel, 360–69; Feldman, Great Disorder, 673; cf also Carl-Ludwig Holtfrerich, The German Inflation 1914-1923. Causes and Effects in International Perspective, trans. Theo Balderston (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1986), 20–25. Social unrest revitalized on a mass scale.

The official institutions of reform, the free trade unions and the SPD, were by now inextricably bound up as the impotent junior partners in the national front of employers, state, and capitalist parties. The utter inability of the unions to secure the basic existence of workers in these conditions discredited them, and severely limited any direct role in strikes or protests in Rhineland-Westphalia after May 1923.40Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 181. By that time, French seizures and customs barriers had thrown numerous German workers out of work, and unemployment in the Ruhr and Germany had also reached its peak.41Cf. Lore Heer-Kleinert, Die Gewerkschaftspolitik der KPD in der Weimarer Republik (Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 1983), 209.

Alongside the thickening networks of the factory councils and the control committees, the growing numbers of unemployed began to organize themselves. In mid-February, the KPD called for new elections to unemployed councils, which were gathering momentum as organizational forces. Over the heads of the union leaders, Ruhr unemployed councils escalated demonstrations and occupations of city halls in March and April. By late April, the unemployed councils, backed by the KPD but pushing beyond the Communist tactics in the moment, were presenting a serious challenge to the unions by demanding work, equality, and decent treatment for the unemployed—demands that employers would not grant and unions dared not take on.42Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 171. The syndicalist-dominated unemployed council in Mülheim led a protest on April 18 that developed spontaneously into insurrection, with four days of armed confrontation at hastily assembled barricades.43Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 172–3.

An omnipresent consciousness pervaded Bavaria—from the debates in the Bavarian parliament to the internal reports of the police, to the discussions in the party presses across the political spectrum—that these street battles were but precursors to a larger civil-war style conflict.

The KPD leadership (the Zentrale), now with Brandler at the helm, maintained a steady course on the united front through the growing council formations, taking over unions and cooperatives, and calling for a “workers’ government” as a step toward cohering the forces for social revolution.44The “workers’ government” demand was heavily debated at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, and due to space those debates cannot be explored further here. Suffice to say, in all versions of this tactic at the time, Communist participation in a workers’ government was conditioned on certain red lines related to immediate wide-scale class mobilization and preparations for revolution and civil war. The workers’ government strategy as articulated by the Comintern had nothing to do with routine coalition governance in a capitalist state. See John Riddell ed., Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 20–26 and 119–292 passim. Even as the communists won a growing proportion of votes in the factory council elections in 1922 and 1923, they warned against confusing these elections with the entrance of the masses into the revolutionary class struggle. According to their perspective, the KPD alone could not solve the problems of the working class. For that, workers must take things into their own hands. An article in the Kommunistischer Gewerschafter articulated the perspective on worker self-activity:

We must be very clear with the workers that they must fight for their liberation themselves, and that the party can only realize their demands when they are based on the actions of the working class. But is it enough simply to say to the workers to follow us into the struggle? No! We must first prove it to them through the praxis of their everyday lives.45“Nach den Betriebsrätewahlen,” in Kommunistischer Gewerkschafter, no. 11 (1923), cited in Schöck, Arbeitslosigkeit und Rationalisierung, 43.

At the same time, the desperate movements in the Ruhr were posing a challenge to KPD leaders’ attempts to maintain the pacing of a coherent national strategy. A growing strategic cleft opened up within the KPD after the party’s 8th Party Congress at the end of January. A new left opposition around Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow, based largely in Berlin, challenged the leadership of the Zentrale, disparaging the united front strategy as opportunist collaboration. After the failure of the Left opposition to get elected to the leadership, relations with the Zentrale soured considerably, eventually necessitating mediation in Moscow by early May.46The session of the ECCI lasts from 27 April to 4 May, protocol is in SAPMO-BArch RY 5/70.

As the blast furnaces and steel mills of the Ruhr began grinding to a halt in early summer, productive volume and exports fell substantially, dipping below 1920 levels.47Rolf Wagenführ, “The Inflation Boom (1932)” in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, eds. Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, Edward Dimendberg (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 80. Steel industrialists sought and received government funding first for unproductive wage costs, then also for a whole array of unproductive operating costs, in an attempt to prevent plants from shutting down and thereby risking widespread unemployment.48Feldman, Iron and Steel, 362, 371–3; Feldman, Great Disorder, 671. Although increasingly inadequate, the measures were maintained throughout the passive resistance efforts.49Feldman, Iron and Steel, 371, 407; cf. also Charles S. Maier, Recasting Bourgeois Europe. Stabilization in France, Germany, and Italy in the Decade after World War I (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975), 357–8. Wages continued to fall and unemployment supports collapsed. In May, unemployment peaked in both the Ruhr and Germany. The national front between workers and employers (with union leaderships vacillating in between) began to disintegrate.50Feldman, Great Disorder, 673–5; Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 190.

Amidst failing arbitrations with employers, workers in Ruhr heavy industry and mining struck by themselves on May 16. The wildcat strike launched a torch into a field brimming with kindling. A mass rank-and-file strike wave enveloped Rhineland-Westphalia, bubbling over into open insurrection in some areas, and catching the KPD completely by surprise.51Cf. Feldman, Great Disorder, 676–7; Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 177–183; Broué, The German Revolution, 707–8. Larry Peterson’s detailed study pinpoints the crux of the conjuncture for the Communists: “the gap between conditions in Rhineland-Westphalia and the rest of Germany was becoming too great for the KPD’s tactics to bridge.”52Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 176.

The May strike wave in the Ruhr had differed significantly from previous mass strike waves in several ways. First, it brought in workers from deep into Social Democratic ranks, including even hitherto conservative workers. Secondly, the strikers were able to use the various council infrastructures to expand the strike independent of Communist coordination. At the same time, factionalism prevented the KPD from acting as a unified party until a compromise was reached in Moscow. Finally, the “offensive, rank-and-file dynamic” of the movement “led inexorably to spontaneous, self-defensive insurrections.”53Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 183. The specter of the March 1920 armed revolutionary uprisings had been summoned from deep within the mines.

The Communist Zentrale felt compelled to intervene. To avoid an isolated and exposed insurrectionary action, the KPD met in Essen on May 25 with district and subdistrict leaders to push for a controlled end to the strike. The next day they issued a national proclamation which placed “special weight on emphasizing only the wage struggle, the present impossibility of leading a political power struggle, and the necessity of forming a united front against fascists.”54Larry Peterson 182, cf. “Aufruf der Zentrale der KPD vom 26. Mai 1923 an die Arbeiterschaft des Ruhrgebiets zur Fortsetzung des Lohnkampfes und zur Abwehr faschistischer Provokationen” in Dokumente und Materialien zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung. Eds. H. Küster, R. Grau, S. Ittershagen, E. Massmann, H. Teubner, K. Wrobel. (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1966) Bd. VII, 2. Halbband 2, no. 341, 331–32. Over the following week, the KPD and allied left-wing unions of the region deployed all the resources at their disposal, including their moral authority as leaders of the revolutionary left, to stop the expansion of the strike and bring the movement under centralized control, persuading the wildcat strikers to accept an agreement reached by the free trade unions.

KPD leaders themselves were confident that had the KPD continued to politicize the strikes, full proletarian rule in the Ruhr would have been well within reach.55Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 183–4. Behind the works councils, unemployed councils, control committees and Proletarian Hundreds stood the Communist Party, though the real power of these bodies depended upon the support that rank-and-file workers gave them. These institutions—the living embodiments of the United Front—drew their strength from their direct rootedness in workplaces and neighborhoods, allowing them to transcend the traditional separation between “economic” and “political” organizations while initiating effective action in all spheres. Their rank-and-file structure and appeal were, in the words of Larry Peterson, “the keys to turning the amorphous discontent and spontaneous radicalism into a coordinated revolutionary movement.”56Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 171.

However, the KPD leadership found itself in the unusual position of restraining the rank-and-file revolutionary outpouring they had worked so hard to cultivate. Their braking actions were motivated by a desire to avoid provocations and a dangerous retaliation by the German state in the occupied region while the rest of the country did not yet exhibit revolutionary unrest.57Cf. Jens Becker, Heinrich Brandler: Eine Politische Biographie (Hamburg: VSA-Verlag, 2001), 206. As a report to the Comintern indicated, “The party could do nothing else, but in no case could it pose a proletarian ultimatum from the Ruhr region, i.e. to turn the massive economic strike into an isolated political action.”58Cf. Möller’s report to the ECCI in SAPMO BArch RY 5/428 Bl. 135–39. For the leadership of the KPD, the incendiary conditions of 1923 seemed to illuminate only two paths toward revolution: withhold the rank-and-file class forces when they arose in anticipation of a more opportune moment, or immediately, despite all the risks, launch an all-out insurrection against the German state.



While logged in, you may access all print issues.

If you’d like to log out, click here:


Support our Work

Gift Subscriptions, Renewals, and More