This is part two of a two-part piece by Sean Larson on the centenary of the German Revolution. Part one is available here.
Summer 1923: The Struggle Against Fascism
Well into the revolutionary crisis year, the Communists were a formidable social force. KPD membership was just shy of 300,000, organized into 3,321 local groups, partially on the basis of factory cells.1Otto Wenzel, Die gescheiterte Deutsche Oktoberrevolution (Münster: Lit Verlag, 2003), 158 [citing 8th and 9th Party Congress Reports]. These numbers are from September 1923. KPD membership in September 1922 was 224,389 in 2,481 local groups, while a year later it was 294,230 in 3,321 local groups. According to reports at its January party congress, the KPD had about a thousand union cells at its disposal, with concentrations especially in Berlin, Saxony, and Rhineland-Westphalia. Communist presence was greatest in the metalworking, mining, and construction industries, although they also had a substantial presence among other industries as well.2Ulrich Eumann, Eigenwillige Kohorten der Revolution (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2007), 305. Later in the summer, Brandler assessed the dire state of party cadre: “What we possess in functionaries, editors, regional secretaries—that is the political capital of the party. Whether they are good or bad, they are the best that we have. They are the ones who have the experiences of these four years of revolution in Germany, who have participated in these struggles in leading roles and in the most concentrated form. We have to preserve this capital with more care than we hitherto have done. We must repair this tattered corps of cadre, we have to try to free up any funds we can in order to supplement the poverty wages of the functionaries who are broken, to send them on vacation so they can recover. That is an important political question, not a sentimental one. And something else needs to happen, which is more important: the renewal of our cadre.… These are the most important lessons we must draw from this movement, the most important tasks that we as a party must achieve.” Heinrich Brandler, conference with regional leaders and editors on August 24, 1923, SAPMO BArch RY 1/248, Bl. 237–39. But as the logic of the united front policy indicated, the real strength of the party was not solely in its numbers, votes, or even the genius of its top leaders. Communist political activity relied instead on the party’s cadre—their bench of experience and political perspicacity—in workplaces, councils, and communities.
By the summer of 1923, the KPD’s cadre was exhausting itself. The dearth of trained functionaries was a constant complaint of local organizations to the Zentrale, and forced vacations were already being implemented as an emergency restorative measure.3Eumann, Eigenwillige Kohorten der Revolution, 242. Even in the midst of a pre-revolutionary situation, systematic political education was prioritized as a means of replenishing and expanding the party’s rank-and-file cadre. The Marxist philosopher Karl Korsch’s seminal Marxism and Philosophy, a book that would become a founding text of critical theory, was published in 1923.4For the lasting significance of Korsch’s work, see Darren Roso, “Weimar’s Marxist Heretic: Reading Karl Korsch Today,” Spectre, January 14, 2022. That summer, the Zentrale put Korsch and others to work, holding extensive courses on the factory councils and communist activity within them.5See, by way of comparison, letter to Karl Korsch 11. Juli 1923 in “Schriftwechsel des Reichsausschusses der deutschen Betriebsräte März 1923–Dez. 1924,” in SAPMO BArch RY 1/1555 Bl. 30.
Facing an economy in collapse and the violent threat of rising fascism, the KPD’s bid for hegemony involved more than winning basic needs and putting forward correct slogans. The communist vision of a way forward out of the crisis was made material by trained and experienced local organizers earning credibility and trust among ordinary German people fighting to survive and build a future. On the one hand, deep clefts existed in many cities between Communists and Social Democrats, preventing even basic cooperation against fascists.6Cf. Zehetmair, Im Hinterland, 362–74. On the other hand, waves of the newly politicized found it difficult to trust the Social Democrats who had presided over so much crisis and repression. In late July, when Berlin police trampled a woman demanding potatoes in a food market queue, sympathetic bystanders gathered her up for much-needed first aid. They carried her not to the hospital, but to the local offices of Die Rote Fahne, the KPD newspaper.7Victor Serge, Witness to the German Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011), 56.
Fascism, too, was seeping deeper into the social fabric. May Day in Munich had come with a narrowly avoided Nazi coup. In the Bavarian provinces, Nazi forces deputized themselves as “emergency police” over the summer and raided union headquarters, Communist and Social Democratic homes, and Jewish shops, often with the backing of the Bavarian state.8Zehetmair, Im Hinterland, 376–87. The Reichswehr in Bavaria at this point was engaged in actively arming the Nazis and suppressing any coverage of the collusion in the press, ultimately forcing the KPD newspaper in Bavaria to shut down until 1925.
The months of June and July saw an increase in both economic and political actions all over Germany, as well as an increasing threat from the fascists, now organizing in conjunction with the Black Reichswehr.9See, by way of comparison, Heer-Kleinert, Die Gewerkschaftspolitik der KPD in der Weimarer Republik, 227; see Harald Jentsch, Die KPD und der “Deutsche Oktober” 1923 (Rostock: Ingo Koch Verlag, 2005), 120, 185. The Black Reichswehr was being organized and armed clandestinely supposedly as reserves for a potential conflict with France sparked by the Ruhr occupation. It was organized against the dictates of the Versailles Treaty by the Reichswehr in cooperation with nationalist forces, as a rule financed privately. The hyperinflation had a particularly incisive psychological impact on the German middle classes and peasants, stripping them of economic and social security and spurring rapid political radicalization. Whether their radicalizing trajectory led toward communism or fascism was a matter of political contestation.
While the future of German society and the world revolution hung in the balance, an expanded meeting of the Communist International’s leadership met in Moscow from June 12 to 23 to chart a course forward.10Minutes of these discussions are translated in Mike Taber, ed., The Communist Movement at a Crossroads: Plenums of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, 1922–1923 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2019), 381–694. Clara Zetkin, the venerable powerhouse of the international communist movement, began the key discussion with a pathbreaking and in-depth analysis of international fascism.11Zetkin’s analysis and related materials are collected in Clara Zetkin, Fighting Fascism: How to Struggle and How to Win, ed. John Riddell and Mike Taber (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017). Zetkin argued for the need to confront fascists with organized force in the streets, but building on her pioneering ideas on the role of communist culture and ideology since at least 1906, she also placed a special emphasis on the political and ideological dimensions of the struggle against fascism. She called for an expansive vision of communist politics and social life. The growing masses of the hungry and the desperate, she contended, were seeking a way out of the all-pervasive suffering of the time.
This involves much more than filling one’s stomach. No, the best of them are seeking an escape from deep anguish of the soul. They are longing for new and unshakeable ideals and a world outlook that enables them to understand nature, society, and their own life; a world outlook that is not a sterile formula but operates creatively and constructively.12Taber, The Communist Movement at a Crossroads, 603.
Zetkin’s bid for proletarian ideological and political hegemony of all social layers, including the bourgeois intelligentsia, represented the expansive core of the united front approach beyond the individual mechanism of workplace action. Even so, for Zetkin the united front did not mean class collaboration with capital or dilution of communist aims.
We must maintain our Communist ideology in all its strength and clarity. The more we go to the masses, the more necessary it is for the Communist Party to be organizationally and ideologically unified.… If we make concessions to the masses’ “lack of understanding.”… We lose what is most important for the seekers—that which binds them together: the flame of a new social life that warms and illuminates, bringing hope and strength in the struggle.13Taber, The Communist Movement at a Crossroads, 604.
In the discussion period that followed, the Comintern’s master propagandist and lead advisor of the German party, Karl Radek, echoed Zetkin’s remarks. In particular, he emphasized the psychological world of many Germans seeking a way forward from the crisis. His speech rested on the example of a German fascist named Schlageter, “our class enemy,” who had thrown away his life for a false cause. The Communists would resist the fascist tools of the profiteers and industrial magnates, Radek declared, and “oppose violence with violence”:
But we believe that the great majority of the nationalist-minded masses belong not to the camp of the capitalists but to the camp of the workers. We want to find, and we shall find, the path to these masses. We shall do all in our power to make men like Schlageter, who are prepared to go to their deaths for a common cause, not wanderers into the void, but wanderers into a better future for the whole of mankind.14Taber, The Communist Movement at a Crossroads, 618.
Building on Zetkin’s analysis and similar themes put forward by Brandler earlier that summer, the approach sought to win over or neutralize broader social layers pulled by far-right nationalism in Germany, and thereby remove a major threat to workers’ power.15See, by way of comparison, Jentsch, Die KPD und der “Deutsche Oktober” 1923, 118; Becker, Heinrich Brandler, 205; and especially Ralf Hoffrogge, “Der Sommer des Nationalbolshewismus?” in Sozial.Geschichte 20 (2017): 126–30. Some controversy around Radek’s “Schlageter speech” arose in the historiographical wave on the German Revolution of the 1970s, implying that Radek, otherwise famously a consummate internationalist and previously the architect of the destruction of a national Bolshevist tendency in Germany, was introducing a new departure in Communist ideology and strategy and gesturing toward allying with fascists, if only tactically. All serious historians of the period have dismissed such speculations. (See, for example, Pierre Broué, The German Revolution, 730; Wenzel, Die gescheiterte Deutsche Oktoberrevolution, 109–16; Jentsch, 115–16; Edward Hallett Carr, The Interregnum 1923–24 [Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969], 192–3.) On the other hand, despite moderate successes, the nuances of the approach were not always captured on the ground. The history was characterized by Otto Wenzel thusly: “Theoretically [the Schlageter line] was spotlessly constructed, but in practice it exhibited a significant defect. It overestimated the intellectual level of the communist supporters and it overestimated that of their enemies. Regular members did not think through the meaning of this whole speech, as is quite possible to do at the writing desk. The consequence was some confusion” (Wenzel, 116). This confusion was exacerbated by relentless Social Democratic attacks accusing the Communists of national Bolshevism. Given this context and the effects that the Schlageter line produced, it was not a particularly successful initiative of the Communists. Any alternative, however, would still have to confront the problem of the disoriented and politically radicalizing middle strata and the impending political crisis.
Mounting evidence that the secret but growing Black Reichswehr were preparing for a march with the fascists on Saxony, Thuringia, and Berlin, eventually convinced Brandler that a civil war was now inevitable. The KPD Zentrale rebuffed Grigory Zinoviev’s pressure to prematurely accelerate an offensive struggle, but did take new public steps against the threat of fascism. Brandler issued an appeal on July 11. The situation was so dire that the KPD had to mobilize the entire working class, but at the same time be determined to “sound the battle cry alone and take over the leadership of the struggle on its own” if the SPD and the bourgeois parties abandoned them.16Quotations in Wenzel, Die gescheiterte Deutsche Oktoberrevolution, 151–2 and Jentsch, Die KPD und der “Deutsche Oktober” 1923, 120–121. July 29 was declared Anti-fascist Day and mass demonstrations were announced throughout Germany. Soon thereafter, almost all German states declared the demonstrations banned, which escalated the stakes of the actions from a show of power and bid for anti-fascist hegemony to a potential confrontation with the armed state.
Attuned to the ill-preparedness of the party for such a confrontation, the majority of the Zentrale wanted to avoid a provocation or fighting at the day and place chosen by the enemy, but the left faction in Berlin would not tolerate a capitulation to the ban. After consultation with Radek and others in Moscow, the majority of the KPD’s leadership decided to replace the street demonstrations with massive indoor meetings wherever the demonstrations had been banned.17Broué, The German Revolution, 741.
The Fall of Cuno
As the Anti-fascist Day went forward, the last week of July saw spontaneous militant actions throughout Rhineland-Westphalia spanning political divisions and industrial sectors.18See the detailed chronicle and assessment in Larry Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 190–204. In the hyperinflationary conditions where payment was required every two to three days, strikes proved ineffective to secure payment and wage increases fast enough. Workers resorted to mass protests and occupations of factories and mines, which allowed them to maintain physical control over the means of production in heavy industry. Demands were now directed against both French occupiers and German employers in accordance with the KPD perspective on a “two-front war,” while calls for the overthrow of the Cuno government frequently arose.
As the free trade unions lost basic organizational capacity and the confidence of their members, workers turned to factory councils and the KPD for coordinated leadership of these spontaneous and explosive movements. But without reinforcements from activated councils in the rest of the country, the KPD feared a “premature revolution” and marshaled its entire regional apparatus to tightly control the broader council formations. Their goal was to keep the movement simmering while carefully avoiding an acceleration into a pre-revolutionary confrontation.
By August 9, after two weeks of continuous unrest, the movement in the Ruhr began pushing past KPD attempts to hold it back in many locales. Up to 400,000 workers across industries joined a constantly replenishing series of spontaneous mass protests, occupations and other escalating actions in the Rhineland. Proletarian guards completely controlled several towns. Unevenly, but with an elemental power, the revolutionary energy crackled out from the Ruhr, reaching Berlin overnight.
The Berlin trains were the first to be shut down by strikes in the early morning, followed by the printers, which threatened to cut off the endless torrent of devalued currency.19See Wilhelm Ersil, Aktionseinheit stürzt Cuno. Zur Geschichte des Massenkampfes gegen die Cuno-Regierung 1923 in Mitteldeutschland (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1963), 242–47, some of which is also covered in Broué, The German Revolution, 746–52. Within hours, the government would run out of means of payment. Capital had lost confidence in Cuno to resolve the sprawling crisis in their favor. Dissatisfaction with the government spilled over into large layers of the middle classes and even leading sections of Cuno’s own governing coalition.
The previous day, SPD leaders had convinced the trade union leaders to withhold support for coordinated strike action, citing promises of government anti-inflationary intervention. Their efforts to calm the situation could not have been more out of step with the mood among the Social Democratic rank and file. Rolling strikes and factory occupations continued to shake the Ruhr. Gallows were erected in front of worker-occupied mines, an unambiguous message to employers.20Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 194.
Amid major manufacturing plant shutdowns and strikes of gas and electricity workers in Berlin, the national congress of works councils convened in overflowing halls on the morning of August 11. Presiding was Hermann Grothe, a Communist and former revolutionary shop steward during the November Revolution. Grothe headed the works councils’ All-Reich Action Committee, which had been coordinating the council movement throughout the previous months and now had the support of 20,000 factory councils. It took little deliberation for the congress to adopt Grothe’s proposal for a three-day general strike and the formation of a workers’ and peasants’ government.
When the time came, three million workers and white-collar employees primarily in Berlin struck, bringing down the Cuno government in twenty-four hours. Afterward, the general strike persisted under the organization of the works councils. Meanwhile, an atmosphere of civil war was developing rapidly throughout Germany, with clashes between police and demonstrators resulting in numerous deaths in a dozen cities. Violent tremors rocked the port city of Hamburg: as police were disarmed and beaten and food warehouses raided, human chains of working women encircled the shipyards to secure strikes demanding worker control of production.21Larissa Reissner, Hamburg at the Barricades and other writings on Weimar Germany (London: Pluto Press, 1977), 45.
After the fall of Cuno, a new grand coalition under Gustav Stresemann stepped up in an attempt to govern the growing firestorm in Germany, now with the participation of the SPD. Stresemann’s administration sought to reverse Cuno’s course and stabilize the economic situation with the help of the iron and steel syndicates.
On the morning of August 13, the factory councils leadership under Grothe called for the expansion of the general strike to replace the new grand coalition government with a workers’ and peasants’ government. The KPD leadership, which had been caught off guard by the militancy of the general strike, at first supported the factory council perspective, but vacillated in the face of the predicted impact of Stresemann’s promises. That afternoon, the KPD leadership decided to demobilize by bringing the political strike into economic channels and publicly called for a coordinated end to the general strike.22“Sitzung der Zentrale Jan.–Dez. 1923” in SAPMO BArch RY 1/260 Bl., 208–211.
In Central Germany however, the general strike had unleashed a renewed mass movement now seamlessly redirected against the new coalition government. On August 14, hundreds of thousands of workers at factory after factory in the regions of Saxony and Thuringia joined the general strike against Stresemann.23Ersil, Aktionseinheit stürtzt Cuno, 372–78. The massive Leuna works of Halle ground to a halt and, with few exceptions, the general strike pervaded almost the entirety of the Halle-Merseburg industrial region, including agricultural workers and the middle class.24See, by way of comparison, Ersil, Aktionseinheit and Hoernle’s report to Zetkin in SAPMO BArch RY 5/129, Bl. 115. In a town outside Leipzig, twenty-seven plants were shut down and striking women and men marched to the thunderous tones of the Internationale from the city center to the market.25Ersil, Aktionseinheit, 373. Throughout the strikes, workers were forced to engage in an “unceasing guerilla warfare with the police,” who were often heavily armed.26Ersil, Aktionseinheit, 377.
Later that day, the factory councils followed the KPD lead, calling off the general strike on the grounds that they feared a continuation would lead to confrontations between workers.27Polbüro meeting of August 14, 1923 in SAPMO BArch RY 1/303 Bl. 231. According to Hoernle in correspondence with Zetkin, Brandler was skeptical of this possibility. See SAPMO BArch RY 5/129 Bl. 118. Even without a coordinated leadership, both political and economic strikes continued in Central Germany for four days longer.28Ersil, Aktionseinheit, 381–82. Swift repression followed in the weeks after, with 200 strikers arrested, a hundred thousand fired, and the SPD Minister of the Interior in Prussia prosecuting the leaders of the revolutionary works council movement.29Broué, The German Revolution, 753.
Did the mass political strikes and actions around Germany in August represent a revolutionary moment? Initially, Communist leaders had widely varying assessments of the possibilities during the general strike. While some depicted the strike as a victorious struggle by the revolutionary working class that had reached a qualitatively new level in the class struggle, others emphasized the “political exhaustion” of the Berlin movement after its initial upsurge.30See Hoernle to Zetkin, August 25, 1923 in SAPMO BArch RY 5/129, Bl. 115. See also Broué, The German Revolution, 751 and Serge, Witness to the German Revolution, 76–79. The report on the general strike movement to the Executive of the Comintern characterized it as a successful KPD-led struggle that had, however, been somewhat placated by the concessions it won in Berlin.31Möller’s initial report to the Executive Committee of the Comintern in SAPMO BArch RY 5/122 Bl. 77–80. Against these assessments stands the fact that the strike movement in the rest of the country was just beginning as the Berlin strike was called off.
Even as he praised the strike as a victory, Brandler saw in it the proletariat’s weakness, describing it as a rather powerless, spontaneous rebellion unleashed by the deterioration of the general situation.32See Jentsch, Die KPD und der “Deutsche Oktober” 1923, 131.Brandler defended the course taken by the KPD later in August: “We consciously said that we do not want to be responsible for accelerating the movement at its beginning and driving it forward…we do not want to be the driving element from the outset.” Consistent with the new KPD approach during the Ruhr uprisings of May, Brandler insisted here again that “we wanted to wait and see the extent of the movement’s elemental strength.”33From a conference with regional leaders and editors on August 24, 1923 in SAPMO BArch RY 1/248 Bl. 237-239. See also Wilde, Revolution als Realpolitik, 215.
Alone among KPD leaders, Ernst Meyer raised the question of whether more could have been won through the strike.34Polbüro meeting on August 14, 1923 in SAPMO BArch RY 1/303 Bl. 232; see also, Wilde, Revolution als Realpolitik, 215. After leaving the Zentrale at the beginning of the year, Meyer became regional leader of many of the KPD’s southwest districts in the summer, putting him in much closer contact to the party’s on-the-ground organizers, editors, and agitators than many other Zentrale leaders, even while he remained a de facto member of the KPD leadership.35See Wilde, Revolution als Realpolitik, 211–13. Meyer articulated a perspective rooted in the united front approach of the party under his leadership the prior year, centered on initiating smaller (or “partial”) actions that united workers through activity as preparation for escalated and—sometimes unpredictable—political confrontations. “The party should never be a step behind, but rather must always be a step ahead of the masses. That should never mean a hundred steps ahead however, which would leave us out of touch with the masses.”36Meyer’s perspectives written to the Southwest region on September 24. See, by way of comparison, Wilde, Revolution als Realpolitik, 216–17. After the events of the following months, these differences in approach were subject to exacting analysis, the results of which would have major ramifications for the future of German and world communism.
In Red Moscow, summertime was coming to an end. By late August 1923, economic despair and dissatisfaction with the New Economic Policy in Russia was rife among young Bolshevik ranks. The prospects for international revolution were seized on like salvation. Ruth Fischer recalled the Soviet capital “plastered with slogans welcoming the German Revolution. Banners and streamers were posted in the center of the city with such slogans as ‘Russian Youth, Learn German—The German October is Approaching.’” One worker from the Donbas region frustrated with local Soviet leaders’ “mockery of the working miner” succinctly clarified the stakes of the German Revolution for rank-and-file Soviet workers: “We would have settled the scores long ago—you can be sure about that—but look, one cannot be a traitor of the German Revolution.”37Cited in Gleb J. Albert, “‘German October is Approaching’: Internationalism, Activists, and the Soviet State in 1923” in Revolutionary Russia 24, no. 2 (December 2011): 111–42, 124.
On August 21 and 22, the Russian Communist Politburo settled on a bold new offensive course for the KPD, which Zinoviev had sketched out over the prior week.38Wenzel, Die gescheiterte Deutsche Oktoberrevolution, 181 and Jentsch, Die KPD und der “Deutsche Oktober” 1923, 141. Several historians mistakenly date this meeting to August 23. The only surviving record of this meeting is an account in the memoirs of Boris Bajanov, Stalin’s assistant. According to Wolfgang Eichwede, Bajanov was an anti-Bolshevik infiltrator with dubious motivations, and parts of his record of this meeting (especially Trotsky’s speech) are demonstrably false. See Wolfgang Eichwede, Revolution und international Politik: Zur kommunistischen Interpretation der kapitalistischen Welt 1921–1925 (Köln, Böhlau Verlag, 1971), 62, n. 19. The final hour was nigh in Germany, Zinoviev claimed; technical and military preparations must be accelerated, for insurrection was no longer a matter of years but of months, soon to be weeks.39There is some dispute about whether Walcher and Hoernle, who were all in Moscow at the time, were even present at this decisive meeting that set a perspective on planning an insurrection. See Wenzel, Die gescheiterte Deutsche Oktoberrevolution, 183; Hermann Weber, Die Wandlung des deutschen Kommunismus. Die Stalinisierung der KPD in der Weimarer Republik (Frankfurt am Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1969), 49. Brandler had also outlined a new perspective at a KPD Polbüro meeting on August 21 premised on the perceived total inability of the Stresemann government to resolve the crisis. Although Brandler’s perspective foresaw a “series of transitional phases” toward a workers’ and peasant’s government, it also involved “preparation of the party for civil war.” See Brandler on the political situation, “Polbüro Sitzung vom 21. August 1923” in SAPMO BArch PB Sitzungen Juli-Dez 1923 (RY 1/303) Bl. 235. Zinoviev’s perspective was accepted as inevitable by the Russian Politburo and preparations for a “German October” began. From then onward, the KPD focused all its energies and resources on the technical preparation of the insurrection and taking the party underground.
The new grand coalition government under Stresemann exhibited none of the ailing, incompetent, and indecisive features of the Cuno regime.40Wenzel, Die gescheiterte Deutsche Oktoberrevolution, 332–33. The conversion to pricing in stable values revealed the drastic excesses of German prices over world market levels by the end of September, severely impacting what remained of Germany’s competitive export advantage and causing employers to renew their push for lower prices by means of reducing labor costs and longer hours of work.41Holtfrerich, The German Inflation 1914–1923, 24; Feldman, Iron and Steel, 400. After its deferral at the beginning of the year, the coming end of hyperinflation allowed the class conflict at its bottom to come to light once more. For the heavy industrialists, the passive resistance interlude was a matter of profit, as Gerald Feldman has detailed: “The common denominator of all the plans and efforts by the industrialists to settle the Ruhr issue was precisely the effort to make the workers pay for the settlement with the gains of the Revolution.”42Feldman, Iron and Steel, 386–7.
To do so, the industrialists looked toward the growing far right in Bavaria to finally break the back of the radical labor movement. On September 26, the Bavarian parliament instituted an intensified martial law, appointed the radical nationalist Gustav von Kahr as state commissioner general invested with dictatorial powers, and proclaimed “struggle against Marxism” as the official doctrine of the Bavarian state.43Broué, The German Revolution, 776; Zehetmair, Im Hinterland, 401–5. Friedrich Ebert, the Social Democratic President of the Republic, extended martial law to the entirety of the country, and the following day the Reichswehr in Bavaria subordinated itself to von Kahr’s far-right regime. The left-wing Central German states of Saxony and Thuringia were now squarely in their sites.
Passive resistance in the Ruhr ended on the same day as the Bavarian quasi-coup, thereby bringing about the long-delayed stabilization crisis. As government credits and wage supports were withdrawn, large-scale layoffs created a sudden spike in unemployment, just as the leaders of the coal industry declared the unilateral abrogation of the provisions of the eight-hour day in the beginning of October. The move was calculated to bring about the regime’s collapse and force the SPD out of the national government.44Feldman, Iron and Steel, 405, 409.
Throughout this same period, the KPD Zentrale led efforts to shift the party toward a military footing. Lower-level party cadres were withdrawn from the broader council bodies that the Communists had helped to build up over the previous year. Their connection with the state of class confidence began to suffer. As the leadership bodies of the KPD obsessively fretted over the state of the party organization, they increasingly neglected basic political information gathering.45Jentsch, Die KPD und der “Deutsche Oktober” 1923, 214; Rosa Leviné-Meyer, Inside German Communism: Memoirs of Party Life in the Weimar Republic (London: Pluto Press, 1977), 57–8. Already by early September, the Communist leadership had difficulty determining the situation in the ranks of workers.46Bayerlein “The Abortive ‘German October’ 1923: New Light on the Revolutionary Plans of the Russian Communist Party, the Comintern and the German Communist Party,” in Politics and Society under the Bolsheviks, ed. Kevin McDermott and John Morison (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), 258. The September 4 meeting of the Zentrale witnessed wild overestimations of the strength of the SPD left, which was judged to have a strong hold over the SPD and over the Social Democratic workers. In reality, the left opposition in the SPD came together for the first time outside of official institutions only on July 29 and held sway in only about 9 percent of the Reichstag delegation.4747Dietmar Klenke, Die SPD-Linke in der Weimarer Republik. Eine Untersuchung zu den regionalen organisatorischen Grundlage nun zur politischen Praxis und Theoriebildung des linken Flügels der SPD in den Jahren 1922–1932 (Münster: Lit-Verlag, 1983), 139. Previous to that, it was only through Levi’s journal, founded in February 1923, that they had any expression. After the resignation of Cuno, 43 members of the SPD left publicly voiced their dissent (through Levi’s journal) of the decision to enter Stresemann’s grand coalition. There were a total of about 171 SPD Reichstag delegates at the end of 1922. Despite this, the assessments of the SPD left formed the basis for the KPD’s most ambitious move yet.
At the end of September, the Reichswehr officially had taken over public order in all of Saxony, and proceeded to try to intimidate Zeigner’s government by banning public meetings, the KPD newspaper, and the Proletarian Hundreds. Factory councils and other council formations openly defied the Reichswehr orders to assemble. On October 10, on the recommendation of Zinoviev and the Executive Committee of the Communist International, Brandler and other members of the party leadership entered into the governments alongside the SPD left in Saxony and Thuringia. Their goal was to use their positions as bases to procure much-needed arms—their stockpile of arms was described as “catastrophic”—and organize the insurrection. The new joint KPD-SPD Left “government of proletarian defense” called for the arming of the workers, workers’ control of production, emergency food measures, and the formation of a “workers’ government” on the national level.48For a very dramatic and detailed rendering of these events, see Broué, The German Revolution, 796–805.
The Reichswehr escalated its aggression, seizing sole control over the Saxon police from the Saxon government on October 16. Bavarian troops on Thuringia’s southern border repeatedly clashed with Proletarian Hundreds.49Zehetmair, Im Hinterland, 408. On October 20, the Bavarian Reichswehr seceded from the national army in preparation for a march on Berlin and a right-wing coup under von Kahr and Hitler. The following day, the southern border of Red Thuringia teemed with Black Reichswehr, Bavarian Reichswehr, and Nazis ready to swarm the workers’ bulwarks and overrun the Proletarian Hundreds.50Zehetmair, Im Hinterland, 437–39.
As the threat of martial law and an impending invasion by the Reichswehr grew, the factory councils met in Saxony on October 21. After hours of speaking, Brandler submitted a proposal for the factory councils to call a general strike, which was expected would lead to armed insurrection. In the event, the left SPD coalition partners led by Zeigner shrank from the initiative, and the KPD withdrew its proposal, giving up on any action and aborting the German October.
Shortly thereafter, on Ebert’s authority, the Reichswehr declared the Saxon government dissolved and invaded the Central German regions, gaining control after short battles with Proletarian Hundreds in the workers’ districts. By the power of the Enabling Act, the Stresemann government forced through an industrial relations arbitration against the resistance of the unions at the end of October, signaling the dissolution of the institutional arrangement (the Central Works Community) between employers and unions after five years. After the SPD was forced from the government, the eight-hour day was finally terminated.
As Charles Maier pointed out, the sudden shift in economic policy that marked the end of the inflation was predicated on decisive changes in the political sphere.51Charles S. Maier, “Inflation and Stabilization in the Wake of the Two World Wars,” in The Experience of Inflation. Beiträge zu Inflation und Wiederaufbau in Deutschland und Europa 1914–1924, ed. Gerald D. Feldman, Carl-Ludwig Holtfrerich, Gerhard A. Ritter, and Peter-Christian Witt (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1984), 106–32. Trade unions and Social Democratic parties were once again excluded from political decision-making. But their fear of wild and insurgent working-class resistance was assuaged by decisive military intervention that, unlike in 1919 and 1920, succeeded in breaking the back of the rank-and-file labor movement. Spawned by the November 1918 revolution, the initial historical period of the Weimar Republic had come to a decisive end.
The Lessons of the German Events
Soon after the failed German October, the myth-making and factional quarrels began.52As Bayerlein notes, “the way in which the balance-sheet of the events was shaped was at least as important for the communist movement as the cancellation of the revolution itself.” Bayerlein, “The Abortive ‘German October,’” 156. The heresy hunt that replaced analysis culminated in a tribunal-like convening in Moscow, the proceedings of which were published under the title The Lessons of the German Events. 53Die Lehren der deutschen Ereignisse: Das Präsidium des Exekutivkomitees der Kommunistischen Internationale zur deutschen Frage. Januar 1924 (Hamburg: Carl Hoym, Verlag der Kommunistischen Internationale, 1924). There and subsequently, historical explanations for the failure of the German Revolution have alternated between two poles emphasizing either “subjective” factors or “objective” conditions. Trotsky’s extremely schematic Lessons of October most prominently exemplified the former approach, while the assessment of Brandler’s close ally August Thalheimer exemplified the latter.54Leon Trotsky, Lessons of October (1924; repr. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017); and August Thalheimer, A Missed Opportunity? The German October Legend and the Real History of 1923, 1931. For an analysis of how these assessments were inseparably bound up with assessments of the Russian October Revolution and factional fights within the Russian Communist Party in 1924, see Fredereick C. Corney, Trotsky’s Challenge: The “Literary Discussion” of 1924 and the Fight for the Bolshevik Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017). The debate has largely remained between these two poles, even if blame for the outcome has occasionally been thrown on different figures in the Russian, Comintern, or German leaderships.55See for example, Broué, The German Revolution; Jentsch, Die KPD und der “Deutsche Oktober” 1923; Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution. Germany 1918 to 1923 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017); and a debate in the British journal International Socialism from 2014 to 2016 (See Tony Phillips, Mike Rose, and Ian Birchall’s contributions). Many informative articles in English on the subject can be found in earlier issues of Revolutionary History, notably Germany 1918–23: From the November Revolution to the Failed October 5 2 (Spring 1994).
By early August 1923, the potential for a broad-based social revolution was evident in the key industrial region of Rhineland-Westphalia. The factory occupation and “passive resistance” against both French occupiers and German employers there was “the broadest, longest, most general industrial conflict during the entire Weimar Republic.”56It was second only to the miners’ strike/lockout of May 1924 in number of participants as well. See Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 197. Years of united front initiatives had positioned the KPD in earned leadership roles throughout the Ruhr council movements. Meanwhile, workers turned away from SPD and trade union leaders in droves due to their inability to confront employers and their integration into the passive resistance strategy of Cuno’s administration.
Cashing out on precious rank-and-file trust, the KPD intervened with the full force of the broad movement infrastructure to bring the movement into “safe” wage channels. Even while they were reining in the revolution in the Ruhr, mass movements flared up in the other key industrial centers of Berlin and then Central Germany. It is uncertain what the outcome of a full-scale revolution could have been in August 1923. However, an alternate KPD policy could have contributed directly to preventing the temporary stabilization of the new Stresemann government, especially in the occupied Ruhr, thus opening up a new political crisis and possibilities for the council movements to consolidate power.57See Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 204.
Instead, the KPD initiated a turn in their general strategic course already in April/May, when they first began exerting a centralized control over the council movements in order to contain mass unrest and political strike activity. Perhaps justifiably, KPD leaders feared a “premature” revolutionary uprising in part of the country that would invite isolation and repression. Here, it is worth noting the differences with the views of Rosa Luxemburg, who argued that the “proletariat is not in the position to seize power in any other way than ‘prematurely.’” The very idea of “prematurity” in the conquest of political power, Luxemburg wrote, is “a polemic absurdity derived from a mechanical conception of the development of society, and positing for the victory of the class struggle a point fixed outside and independent of the class struggle.”58Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution ch. 8, “The Conquest of Political Power.”
In many accounts of the German October itself, including at the time, attention is paid to technical barriers to an insurrection in October, including the lack of arms and an “insufficiently Bolshevized” party. But KPD members exhibited an extremely high degree of discipline and secrecy when they abandoned the council institutions at the end of September and kept aloof from mass protests throughout October.59Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 213; Meyer-Leviné, Inside German Communism, 50–51. What was supposed to be a temporary measure ended up undermining the KPD’s aims, influence, and capacity.
Centralization itself did not inherently lead to such an outcome. In fact, the implementation of the united front policy depended on the party’s centralization over the prior years in order to carry out workplace initiatives flexibly and dynamically.60Wilhelm Koenen, “Die Organisation der Partei. (Demokratischer Zentralismus in den kommunistischen Parteien),” in Kommunistische Rundschau 1 (October 14, 1920); Wilhelm Koenen, “Parteiaufbau. (Organisation der Vereinigten Kommunistischen Partei Deutschlands und demokratischer Zentralismus),” in Kommunistische Rundschau, December 6, 1920. Rather, the turn toward containment of social movements ran counter to the political logic of the KPD’s own general united front strategy. The shift had severe consequences at the same time the social crisis was escalating. The agents of the united front, the Communist cadre, shop stewards, and rank-and-file organizers outside the KPD were victims of this supposedly temporary turn. The movement could not be turned off and on by a spigot. Once the shift away from active leadership in class-wide institutions had been effected, the possibility to revive this movement was also eclipsed.61Although I follow his analysis closely, I disagree with Peterson’s thesis that, by the Communists’ own standards, the adoption of a perspective for revolution in the shorter term (and the viability of the united front fundamentally tied to the hyperinflation) had an all-or-nothing perspective as the “inescapable” result (Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 212–13, 215–16, and passim.). Although his study illuminates the wide variations through which the united front policy was manifested, Peterson follows Communist leaders of 1923 in neglecting the core element of initiation, or hegemonic leadership to be achieved through escalating partial actions in the united front strategy, first elaborated by Radek in 1921 and insisted on by Ernst Meyer in 1923 (see Leviné-Meyer, Inside German Communism, 50–51).
The failure of the German October was not the case of inadequate leadership, but the case of missing ranks. Peterson summarized the dynamic succinctly:
By September, Communist leaders were convinced that to carry through the revolution they had to control, not only the party, but also the united front organs [factory councils, proletarian hundreds, control committees, etc.], or else abandon them in favor of organs they could control. The measures adopted to achieve this end then indeed stifled the formerly fluid, dynamic relationship between discontented workers and the KPD. The KPD finally severed its links to the mass protests to ensure the secrecy of the insurrection and prevent preemptive repression. When it came time to call on the rank and file to support the general strike, the crucial works councilors were no longer under Communist influence, and the other united front organs no longer led the unrest. Workers, desperately protesting by themselves in the streets in search of jobs, relief, and food, ignored the revolution.62Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions, 215–16.
Over the course of 1923, the KPD general policy reflected a shift from viewing the revolution as a mass social movement from below toward an event carefully planned and executed at the signal of the revolutionary leadership. No such revolution as a purely party affair was likely to succeed in Germany in 1923.
The reassertion of financial stabilization in autumn rested on the termination of the eight-hour-day, a measure that encompassed working time and unemployment, and thus stood in as a much more comprehensive index of the balance of class forces and the resistance to economic rationalization in Germany. The defeat of the labor movement generally in 1923 and 1924 was the decisive shift establishing the preconditions for the post-1928 balance of forces in Germany. Moreover, whether implicitly or explicitly, the major actors during the final years of the collapse of the Weimar Republic built directly on the experience of 1923.63Gerald Feldman, “Hitler’s Assumption of Power and the Political Culture of the Weimar Republic,” German Politics & Society 14, no. 1 (spring 1996): 96–110. See also Schöck, Arbeitslosigkeit und Rationalisierung, 175.
Now, one hundred years later, what lessons, if any, emerge from these extraordinary events?
Most immediately notable is the demonstrable efficacy of the united front strategy developed in the first place by the KPD before it was generalized in the Comintern.64For more on that generalization, see the proceedings of the Third and Fourth World Congresses of the Communist International, John Riddell, ed., Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012); John Riddell, ed., To the Masses Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016). The turn toward the united front completely changed the activity and nature of the Communist Party itself starting in late 1920, yielding extensive ripple effects in the unionized labor movement regardless of who led the unions. By early 1923, the full flowering of the united front policy had manifested in the revival of a powerful council movement. By abandoning the strategic method in practice, the KPD cut off the source of their successes.
As it was implemented in Germany, the united front was not just a new tactic, but a general answer to the problem of class formation and the development of a collective will in the working class. It bridged the political/economic division that had been so ingrained in Second International theoretical models. The approach provided a means of cementing bonds between working-class people that could move beyond immediate securement of needs toward larger visions of a future society with a dignified role for workers within them. The key to that bridge was working-class self-activity, including acting as the “driving element,” which was central to the united front strategy from its outset.65See the forthcoming article from the author, “Activate the Party: Worker Self-Activity and the Origin of the United Front in Germany 1920–21”; Schöck, Arbeitslosigkeit und Rationalisierung, 36–46. Importantly, the KPD developed a robust (if still inadequate) political education program as a crucial element of this process designed to train a cadre in the fusion of workplace struggles with the larger political and ideological aspirations of the Communist movement.66See especially Edwin Hoernle, “Die Bildungsarbeit der KPD” in Die Internationale 5, no. 1/2 (July 23, 1922): 30–35; Riddell, To the Masses, 875–83.
However, these efforts at class formation failed to integrate crucial elements of the class outside of the formal employment relation, namely women in the sphere of social reproduction and unemployed workers organized as such. These weaknesses of the strategy were certainly decisive limitations to its ultimate effectiveness. The KPD revived the united front policy briefly in 1926, before abandoning it forever.67See Marcel Bois, “‘March Separately, But Strike Together!’ The Communist Party’s United-Front Policy in the Weimar Republic,” Historical Materialism 28, no. 3 (2020): 138–165. While its specific characteristics were undoubtedly tied to the socio-political landscape of Weimar Germany, the core elements of the approach, including collective self-activity, reliance on rank-and-file cadre, and initiation/escalation of broad, shopfloor struggles, clearly present stimulating starting points for other contexts.
Beyond this novel strategy, however, the German revolutionary experience in 1923 raises much larger questions of social history pertaining to the nature of a social revolution in an industrialized market economy. The dominant feature of Germany’s revolutionary conjuncture was of course the astronomical hyperinflation. Although it took on dynamics of its own by 1923, the hyperinflationary trajectory was locked in by the unprecedented strength of the German revolutionary movement itself already in 1920. In measurable ways, Germany’s 1923 revolutionary movement transcended the limited dichotomy that would pit “subjective” factors against “objective” conditions.
While countries like Britain and the United States experienced a depression and high unemployment in 1920, Germany was largely spared. As Gerald Feldman concludes, “this was not because the Germans had discovered the economics of full employment but, rather, because governmental leaders and industrialists felt compelled to continue ‘revolutionary economics’ in order to prevent political upheaval and discovered in inflation a formidable device for a chaotic but useful rebuilding of the German industrial plant as well as for a highly successful export offensive at the expense of their former enemies.”68Feldman, “Economic and Social Problems of the German Demobilization 1918–19,” Journal of Modern History 47, no. 1 (March 1975): 23. Justified fear of revolution fueled the prolongation and extension of inflationary measures, transforming what were once temporary stop-gaps into a doomed plan for economic reconstruction of the postwar economy.
Consistently until late 1923, German political authorities were compelled to concede to the unusually self-assertive and resilient radical labor movement constantly threatening domestic political and social stability. As Hermann J. Rupieper has pointed out, German government officials and bankers resorted to the printing press and avoided a deflationary policy largely due to fear of the socially and politically destabilizing consequences it would inevitably have. In practice, attributing the main cause of inflation to reparations became the only politically viable option for contemporaries.69Hermann J. Rupieper, The Cuno Government and Reparations 1922–1923: Politics and Economics. (London: Martinus Nijhoff, 1979), 195–98. See also Feldman, “Gegenwärtiger Forschungsstrand und künftige Forschungsprobleme zur deutschen Inflation,” Historische Prozesse, 10–1; and the conclusions reached by Holtfrerich’s comprehensive study, The German Inflation 1914–1923, 192ff. Opportunities to change this policy arose, but Reichsbank and Economic Ministry officials decided against changes at one critical juncture after another, including on February 18, 1921, then again on March 31, 1922, October 31, 1922, and March 31, 1923. Hyperinflation was thus ultimately an index of the weakness or under-confidence of the government to take repressive stabilization measures in the service of restoring the market when faced with the threat of social revolution.
The German revolutionary movement that had surged and ebbed since 1918 was by 1923 not only contending for political power, but also inducing far-reaching government interventions into the decisions of the private sphere, prohibiting the market pricing of labor power, and thus posing a direct and serious challenge to the very logic and existence of the capitalist market in Germany. Hyperinflation, at least in the Weimar Republic, has to be understood as the obverse of a political movement’s inroads into the very mechanisms of the market economy.
The specificity of the 1923 conjuncture is undeniable. At the same time, it is clear that similar effects of a highly advanced revolutionary movement will likely be generated in any revolutionary situation that moves beyond the mere rotation of leading political figures toward challenging the socioeconomic system of capitalism.
The events of 1923 represented the high-water mark of the global postwar revolutionary wave. Its specific dynamics were tied to the socioeconomic conjuncture facing postwar Germany after multiple comprehensive crises and revolutionary uprisings. Today, it would bear little fruit to blindly replicate tactics from this completely different context and time. However, by grasping the constellation of forces and their interactions as open-ended problems, this vital historical period can become a springboard for thinking through the actuality of our own moment.
Underlying the strength of the German movement were organizations schooled in the struggle for material necessities in workplace actions and street demonstrations. But just as important as the strikes and guns were the human bonds between the many people struggling for a new world: the trust, courage, and cunning that come with the knowledge that the risks one takes are collectively meaningful. All of these together formed the backbone of the mighty German Revolution.