The German workers' revolution of 1918/19 and why it was defeated

Submitted by dalcassian on 9 September, 2013 - 3:06

In January 1919 Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the two most prominent leaders of the German revolutionary movement, were savagely murdered in Berlin. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were victims of a wave of terror unleashed by the leaders of German Social Democracy in order to crush working-class revolution.

The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) had been founded in 1875. After a period of illegality it began to expand dramatically in the opening years of the twentieth century. By 1907 it had over half a million members. By 1914 it numbered a million members and was the largest political party in the world.

Its share of the vote in elections and its number of seats in the Reichstag (German parliament) likewise steadily increased. In 1898 it won 27% of the votes (56 seats), in 1903 31% of the votes (81 seats) and, in 1912, 34% of the votes (110 seats). On the eve of the First World War the SPD was the largest faction in the Reichstag.

Scarcely any less dramatic was the growth of the German trade union movement. In 1892 237,000 German workers were unionised. By 1907 the number of union members had risen to 1,800,000. By 1912 the figure had increased to 2,600,000 - a more than tenfold growth in the space of two decades.

This tremendous influx of workers into the ranks of the SPD and the trade unions was all the more remarkable given the profoundly hostile environment which confronted the German labour movement.

Germany had never experienced a liberal bourgeois revolution comparable to the English Civil War or the French Revolution of 1789. German unification was achieved not by popular revolution but by the military might of Prussia. As a result, the Germany which emerged in 1871 was dominated by an alliance of feudal Junker landowners and industrial "barons" which exalted in militarism, authoritarianism and unqualified hostility to socialism and the labour movement. In the words of Rosa Luxemburg's biographer Paul Frölich, German Social Democracy "had to contend with a semi-absolutist state which was merely masked by democratic forms and which persecuted the working-class movement with brutal police methods."

But the growth of the SPD in this semi-absolutist state brought with it the seeds of political degeneration. The Marxism of the party's founders was steadily eroded in favour of a mechanical and evolutionary view of history. Capitalism would perish not as a result of class struggle but under the weight of its own contradictions and the remorseless growth of the labour movement.

Confrontation with capitalism was subordinated to, and ultimately displaced by, a commitment to preserving the structures of the labour movement, as an end in itself.

Such a view was openly espoused by trade union leaders such as Robert Schmidt ("In order to be able to build up our organisations we need peace in the workers' movement") and by SPD theoreticians such as Eduard Bernstein ("The final goal - whatever it may be - means nothing to me, the movement everything").

The outbreak of war in August 1914 confronted German Social Democracy with the crucial test. Would it stand by the principles of international solidarity and anti-militarism to which it still paid lip-service, even if it meant open confrontation with the state, or would it throw in its lot with the ruling classes and rally to "defence of the fatherland."? On 3 August the SPD's Reichstag fraction met to decide whether or not to vote for war credits. The opposing views were summed up in an exchange between Hugo Haase and SPD leader Freidrich Ebert:

Haase: 'You want to approve war credits for the Germany of the Hohenzollern [the imperial family] and the Prussian Junkers?'

Ebert: 'No, not for that Germany, but for the Germany of productive labour, the Germany of the social and cultural ascent of the masses. It is a matter of saving that Germany!'

Haase: 'Us, "the mobs of people not fit to call themselves Germans", the "rabble who have no fatherland" [descriptions of SPD members by the Kaiser], we who are not even worthy of an equal right to vote - we should, we must say No!'

Ebert: 'By our deeds we will show that we are not such people. It is a question of the well-being of the entire nation. We cannot abandon the fatherland in its moment of need. It is a matter of protecting women and children.'

With only 14 votes against, the SPD fraction voted to approve war credits. In the Reichstag the following day the parliamentary representatives of a party who had been founded under the slogan of "not a man, not a penny for this system" voted unanimously in favour of war credits.

Whilst the SPD leaders talked of "a defensive war" and the need to "protect women and children," the real war aims of German imperialism were listed by the Reichschancellor von Bethmann Hollweg in a memorandum of September 1914:

"France must be so weakened that she will never rise again to the status of a great power. Russia must be pushed back as far as possible from Germany's borders. A trade agreement will bring France into economic dependence upon Germany. Belgium must, even if it remains a state, sink into vassal status. Luxemburg will become a German state.

"We will create a central European Economic Union which, although apparently guaranteeing members equal rights, will in fact be under German leadership and must guarantee German economic rule over central Europe. The question of colonial acquisitions, which first and foremost concerns the creation of a centralised Middle African colonial empire, will be examined later."

In the name of "defence of the fatherland" the SPD and trade union leaders abandoned all struggle against capitalist exploitation. The unions signed an agreement with the employers' federation to "freeze" all social conflicts for the duration of the war. The SPD pledged itself not to oppose the government's policies.

The war brought huge profits for the industrial barons. Protective labour legislation was suspended and the working day increased from 12 to 13 hours. The women brought into the factories to replace men who had been drafted into the army were paid only half the previous male wage. Forced labourers from Belgium and Northern France were paid no wages at all. For the Junkers the war was equally profitable. The replacement of male labour by women and Russian prisoners of war allowed them to slash their wages costs, while the ever rising prices paid for foodstuffs saw a doubling or trebling of the Junkers' income.

The war also strengthened the position of the military and reinforced the authoritarian character of the German state. Real power shifted more and more into the hands of the military, exposing still further the impotence of the Reichstag. By 1916 it was military commanders such as Hindenburg and Ludendorff who governed the country not the civilian government in Berlin.

For the mass of the population the war brought only increasing misery and suffering. Between 1914 and 1918 prices increased by 100%. Real earnings fell by 30%. By July of 1918 meat consumption was 12% of its pre-war level and fish consumption just 5%. Rationing failed to meet even basic needs. By the end of the war daily rations per person had been reduced to 25 grammes of meat or sausage (mixed with wood shavings), 160 grammes of bread (mostly made from turnips), 7 grammes of margarine and 10 grammes of jam, together with a weekly ration of 45 grammes of dried vegetables and 250 grammes of potatoes.

Nine million workers were conscripted into the German army. By the end of the war nearly two million of them had been killed and almost four million of them wounded. At home food and fuel shortages cut swathes through the civilian population. By 1915 the mortality rate amongst civilians had increased by 10%, by 1916 by 14% and, by 1917, by 32%.

As the initial wave of pro-war hysteria subsided and the horrors of war exacted an ever greater toll in suffering from soldiers at the front and civilians at home, the first flickerings of unrest began to challenge the class collaboration of the SPD and trade union leaders.

Between August and December 1914 there were virtually no strikes. In 1915 there were 140 strikes involving 13,000 workers. In 1916 125,000 workers took part in 240 strikes. In the first four months of 1917 over 400,000 workers took part in more strikes than occurred in the whole of the preceding year.

On May Day of 1916 Luxemburg and Liebknecht took the lead in organising the first public display of protest against the war. Ten thousand workers rallied on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin to demonstrate their opposition to the war, engaging in running battles with the police for over two hours. A month later 55,000 munitions workers went on strike in Berlin, with solidarity strikes being staged in Braunschweg and Bremen as well. Drastic cutbacks in rations provoked another strike wave in April 1917. In Berlin alone over 300,000 workers went on strike, demanding an immediate peace without annexations, an end to censorship and the state of emergency, release of all political prisoners, improved food supplies, and a democratic franchise throughout Germany.

In the summer of the same year sailors in the North Sea Fleet mutinied against the feudal discipline to which they were subject and against the privileges enjoyed by officers. Two of the mutiny's leaders were executed and another 53 sentenced to long spells in prison. But little more than a year later a new wave of mutiny would sweep throughout the fleet.

1918 opened with a new wave of strikes in support of peace, democratic reforms and an end to hunger. A million workers struck in 20 different cities. In Berlin alone 500,000 workers went on strike. Briefly, the military situation at the front eased and food supplies for the home population improved. But by August a new wave of strikes unfolded, led by miners demanding an eight hour working day.

Growing unrest in the workplace and in the military intermeshed with the emergence of an organised political opposition to the pro-war policies of the SPD and trade union leaders.

In December 1914 Liebknecht - who had voted for war credits on 4 August only out of a misplaced loyalty to party discipline - abstained in a new vote on war credits. In December of the following year 20 members of the SPD paramilitary fraction abstained. In March 1916, "the 20 voted against war credits and were expelled from the parliamentary fraction."

In the spring of 1915 the magazine Die Internationale, edited by Luxemburg and the SPD veteran Franz Mehring, was published for the first time. Its contributors attacked the SPD's pro-war policies. On New Years Day 1916 the Gruppe Internationale was officially founded, better known as Spartakus, the imprint used for its publications.

Three months later Spartakus convened a conference in Berlin to draw together the forces of the far left. Delegations were present from most of the industrial areas, and messages of solidarity were received from North Germany, Bavaria and Upper Silesia. The Socialist Youth organisation, which had held its own underground conference only a few days earlier, also rallied to Spartakus.

In the North of Germany opposition to the war and the SPD's class collaboration was led by the Left Radicals, also known as the International Socialists of Germany (ISD), which included Luxemburg's future biographer Frölich amongst its membership. Based in Bremen, Hamburg and Cuxhaven it published the weekly paper Workers' Politics. Although the Left Radicals worked closely with Spartakus, it pursued a more sectarian line on tactical questions.

In April 1917 tensions within the SPD reached breaking point. Party dissidents who had been expelled in January of the same year convened a conference in Gotha to found the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD). The conference was attended by 143 delegates, including 15 members of the Reichstag.

The new party was a centrist formation. It included a revolutionary wing, with which Spartakus sought to make common cause by joining the USPD as an organised faction. But many of its leading figures, such as Bernstein and Kautsky, had played a leading role in the political degeneration of the SPD from which they had now broken away.

The strike wave of April 1917 and January 1918 led to the formation of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, consisting of representatives from the workplaces which had played a leading role in the strikes. The Revolutionary Shop Stewards maintained close ties with the USPD, despite the fact that the latter's leaders had denounced the strikes of April 1917 as "socialist experiments" which Germany could ill afford.

By the summer of 1918 the German ruling classes faced not only the challenge of mounting industrial unrest and an increasingly vocal political opposition. They also faced the threat of military defeat in the war. The war aims of German imperialism were no longer those listed by von Bethmann Hollweg in 1914. Now the sole aim was an armistice as quickly as possible. On 2 October 1918 the leaders of all parties represented in the Reichstag were informed that the Supreme Army Command had felt obliged to, "propose to his majesty that the attempt be made to put an end to the conflict and to abandon the war as a hopeless cause. Everyday could bring a further deterioration in our situation and allow the enemy to recognise our actual weakness."

The task now facing Germany's rulers was to "Save what can be saved." Germany's defeat in the war would expose the sufferings, starvation and misery of the past four years as a meaningless sacrifice. A new wave of working-class unrest would inevitably be provoked. In order to contain such unrest the German ruling classes looked again to the leaders of the SPD. As General Ludendorff put it: "I have asked his majesty to bring into the government those elements to whom we are chiefly indebted for having come thus far. We will now see these gentlemen placed in charge of ministries. They should conclude the peace which must now be concluded. They should eat the soup which they have prepared for us."

The industrialist Robert Bosch posed the issue in the same terms: "When the house is burning you may have to put out the fire with water from a cesspool, even if it stinks a bit afterwards."

The invitation to join the government was discussed at a meeting of the SPD's parliamentary fraction on 4 October. Scheidemann, second only to Ebert in the SPD hierarchy, opposed it as a trap. It would mean involvement in a "bankrupt enterprise" and being made a scapegoat for the mistakes of those who had wielded power hitherto. But Ebert successfully insisted that the invitation be accepted. It was the SPD's "duty and obligation" to accept the offer in the name of "Volk und Vaterland". When the SPD joined the government the next day Ebert assured his parliamentary colleagues that a social revolution could now be avoided and the monarchy saved.

The new coalition government proved incapable of suppressing the mounting political ferment. As Paul Frölich put it: "The death agony of Wihelmine rule began. As usual in such instances, the up-and-down fever which had seized the old order produced a panic-stricken mood among the authorities, who hastily enacted the most contradictory measures in an attempt to save the regime by reforms. Each new measure, each act of violence, and each concession led to the future disintegration of the old power. The ice was broken. No more holding back!"

On 28 October the German Admiralty ordered the North Sea Fleet to put to sea, in order to save the "honour of the navy" by engaging in a final battle with the overwhelmingly superior British fleet. On 3 November the shops' crews mutinied, forcing the fleet to return to port.

The following day the unrest spread to the docks and factories of Kiel. The government despatched Gustav Noske, an SPD parliamentarian, to try to contain the unrest, but to no avail. The Governor of Kiel was force to resign, and control of the town passed to a Workers' and Sailors' Council. By 7 November the revolution has spread to other parts on the North Coast - Bremen, Hamburg, Bremerhaven, Cuxhaven, Flenburg, Rostock, and Wilmershaven. The local organs of power collapsed. Real power - at least temporarily - lay with the councils of sailors and workers. On the evening of the same day the Bavarian monarch was overthrown and a Socialist Republic of Bavaria proclaimed.

The previous day Ebert had discussed the unfolding revolution with General Groener, Ludendorff's successor as head of the armed forces. If the military chiefs could persuade the Kaiser to abdicate, suggested Ebert, the the SPD would support the continuation of the monarchy as an institution, and would work in alliance with the army to preserve the social order. "If the masses are not to go over to the camp of revolution and if revolution is to be avoided, the abdication of the Kaiser is an absolute necessity," explained Ebert. "We do not even know if we will be sitting on these chairs (i.e., in government)," added Scheidemann, "we will have done all we can to keep the masses on the halter."

The next day Ebert met with Prince Max von Baden, the recently appointed Reichskanzler. "If I succeed in persuading the Kaiser, do I have you on my side in the struggle against social revolution?" asked Prince Max, a cousin of the Kaiser. The leader of the SPD replied: "If the Kaiser does not abdicate, then social revolution is inevitable. But I do not want it, I hate it like sin."

On 9 November the revolution which Ebert hated like sin swept throughout Berlin. Hundreds of thousands of workers, including armed detachments, converged on the city centre in a series of huge demonstrations. Troops stationed in the city abandoned their barracks and rallied en masse to the demonstrators. As one of the participants later recalled:

"On the way to the city centre the police were disarmed by the demonstrators and some police stations occupied. There was no resistance from the police anywhere. Their weapons fell into the hands of the workers. Our job was to link up with the demonstrations from Moabit and Charlottenburg and to win over the barracks at Lehrter railway station for the revolution.

"The gates of the barracks were closed. The masses called out: Brothers, do not shoot at us! Put an end to the war! Peace! Down with the Kaiser! Those of us who were armed reckoned that there would be shooting and took up positions. But our negotiators convinced even these soldiers and, to the jubilation of the workers, persuaded them to join the demonstration."

By midday the revolution had conquered Berlin. From a balcony of the imperial palace, now occupied by revolutionary sailors, Liebknecht proclaimed: "The rule of the Hohenzollern is over. Through these gates will enter the new socialist freedom of workers and soldiers. Where the imperial banner once flew we will raise the red flag of the free republic of Germany."

Such a perspective was certainly not shared by Ebert, von Baden and Groener. Von Baden announced that the Kaiser had abdicated (although, in fact, he had not yet made any decision) and that Ebert was the new Reichskanzler (although von Baden was not empowered to appoint his successor). Ebert's first act was to appeal to the masses to leave the streets. His priority, he explained, was "the maintenance of law and order."

As Frölich put it: "The General Staff of old Social Democracy - Ebert, Noske, Legien, Scheidemann, Landsberg, etc - were conscious opponents of the revolution from the very beginning. Determined to take up the power that the November storm had blown into their lap, they opposed every socialist policy, every initiative of the masses to transform society." The SPD promised a "revolutionary government" which would "carry out a socialist programme". But this was empty rhetoric. In the words of Luxemburg: "The SPD is a creation of the workers' movement and the class struggle. It has transformed itself into the most powerful instrument of bourgeois counter-revolution. Its essence, tendencies, policies, psychology, methods - all are thoroughly capitalist. Its banners, apparatus and phraseology are the only remnants of its socialism."

In the evening of 9 November the Revolutionary Shop Stewards (RSS) occupied the Reichstag and issued a call for the election of workers' and soldiers' councils the next day. The following morning - a Sunday - workers turned up in their factories to elect their representatives, whilst soldiers voted in their barracks.

The SPD caught the mood of the masses with its appeal for working-class unity: "No struggle between brothers!" Instead of fighting between themselves, argued the SPD leaders, the organisations of the workers' movement should work together to defend the gains of the revolution. Appealing for "parity of representation" SPD members who had been physically driven out of the factories the previous day for opposing the uprising were able to secure election to the workers' councils.

In the elections for the soldiers' councils, where the SPD was confident of a large majority, there were no calls for "parity of representation." In the night of 9 November and early hours of 10 November Otto Wels, a member of the SPD Executive toured the barracks to ensure that only soldiers loyal to Ebert would be elected.

At midday on 10 November almost 3,000 delegates from the soldiers and workers' councils which had been elected in the morning met in the Zirkus Busch. Ebert addressed the congress. Playing again on the mood of the masses for unity to defend the revolution, Ebert announced that the SPD and USPD had reached agreement to form a provisional coalition government. The congress elected a Council of People's Deputies, consisting of three SPD members (Ebert, Scheidemann and Landsberg), two USPD members and one representative of the RSS.

At the insistence of the RSS an Executive Committee was also elected. The RSS hoped that the Executive Committee would keep the Council of People's Deputies under control. But the SPD easily outmanoeuvred the RSS. Half the seats on the Executive Committee went to delegates from the soldiers' councils (almost all SPD) and 50% of the other half of Executive Committee places went to the SPD on the basis of "parity of representation". In the evening of the same day Ebert was phoned by Groener (a direct and secret phone link had already been established between the two men). Groener offered Ebert his "loyal co-operation" if he agreed to resolute struggle against "Bolshevism" and the chaos of the councils, a speedy return to law and order and the convening of a National Assembly. Ebert agreed without hesitation, stressing that Groener's demands corresponded exactly with his own wishes.

On 12 November the workers returned to the factories with the SPD press proclaiming the victory of the revolution: "The revolution has been brilliantly carried through. The solidarity of proletarian action has smashed all opposition. Total victory all along the line. A victory made possible because of the unity and determination of all who wear the workers' shirt."

According to Landsberg, one of the SPD members of the Council of People's Deputies: "This revolution differs significantly from all previous revolutions in that the organisations of domination of the overthrown class have been so completely destroyed that the danger of counter-revolution can become acute only if the extreme left succeeds in driving the masses to despair."

This was anything but true. As Luxemburg put it: "The 9 November revolution was a revolution full of inadequacies and weaknesses. What we experienced on 9 November was three quarters more a collapse of the existing imperialism than the victory of a new principle. The moment had simply arrived when imperialism... had to collapse. What followed was a more or less chaotic and unplanned movement lacking in consciousness."

An armistice had been proclaimed on 11 November. The monarchy, despite Ebert's efforts, had collapsed. And universal suffrage had been introduced. But the old state apparatus had been left untouched. As Groener's phone call to Ebert demonstrated, the military could still lay down conditions for supporting the government. The estates of the Junkers had not been expropriated. The banks had not been nationalised. The capitalists remained the masters of the factories.

The SPD leaders had no intention of challenging the old ruling classes. On the contrary, they saw them as allies against proletarian revolution. They allied with the army against the workers' militias, with the capitalists against workers' control and with bourgeois democracy against socialist democracy. The pact between Ebert and Groener had been sealed on the evening of 10 November. Thereafter, with the full support of the SPD leadership, the General Army Command recruited, organised and trained new military detachments (the Iron Division, the Freikorps and the Republican Soldiers' Defence Corps) for the purpose of crushing the revolution.

The working-class military forces - for which the "revolutionary government" of the SPD provided no support whatsoever - were much weaker: a trade union-based security force which had been set up by Emil Eichhorn (a USPD member), the 3,000 strong Peoples' Naval Division, a small Red Soldiers' League (set up by Spartakus) and several thousand armed workers who had kept their weapons on returning from the front.

On the economic and political front, as on the military, the SPD leadership lined up with the old ruling classes against the workers. On 24 November it appointed a Commission for Socialization, chaired by the USPD leader Karl Kautsky. Its purpose was to thwart any direct initiative by the workers in their own workplaces.

An article in Vorwärts, the paper of the SPD, explained that the task of the Commission was to "act from the outset with such prudence that no fear of irrational experiments need arise and no one (among the industrialists) could suffer for resuming activity that had been interrupted by the war." In early 1919 the Commission dissolved itself, demoralised by the government's lack of interest in implementing any of its recommendations.

As Salvadori (Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution) wrote: "The majority Social Democrats... had no intention of promoting any action that could jeopardise the conservative coalition between the SPD, the trade unions, the high state bureaucracy, and the General Staff. The principal concern of the SPD was to restore internal order and to revive production." From the earliest days of the German Revolution the SPD leadership had called for the creation of a National Assembly. This became the rallying call of all the enemies of the revolution. "All the elements in Germany who were opposed to the introduction of socialism and opposed to working-class power - from the extreme right to the very leadership of the USPD - were in favour of an assembly," wrote Frölich.

Just as the enemies of the Russian Revolution had backed the convening of a Constituent Assembly in order to undermine and replace the proletarian democracy of soviet power, so too the counter-revolutionary forces in Germany looked to a National Assembly to play the same role in relation to the workers' and soldiers' councils.

Luxemburg warned of the looming danger: "The National Assembly is an obsolete heirloom of bourgeois revolutions, a husk without content, a stage-prop from the period of petit-bourgeois illusions about a 'united people' about the 'freedom, equality and brotherhood' of the bourgeois state.

"Whoever reaches for the idea of a National Assembly is consciously or unconsciously pushing the revolution back to the historical level of a bourgeois revolution. He is either a disguised agent of the bourgeoisie or an unconscious spokesman of the petit-bourgeoisie."

Whilst the SPD leadership prepared for elections to the National Assembly to undermine the revolution, Luxemburg looked to the councils to take forward the revolution: "All power in the hands of the working masses, in the hands of the workers' and soldiers' councils, and the safeguarding of the revolutionary work from lurking enemies - that is the guiding principle for all the measures of a revolutionary government."

In the closing weeks of November there were bloody clashes between armed workers and soldiers returning from the front. They were unplanned and sporadic skirmishes. By the early weeks of December, however, as the demobilising policies of the SPD-USPD coalition government began to douse the flames of revolution, the forces of the counter-revolution prepared for organised confrontation.

Groener ordered 10 army divisions which had been stationed on the Western Front to march on Berlin. Their task, as he explained to an enquiry conducted in 1925, was to "tear power away from the workers' and soldiers' councils." The plan of action drawn up by Groener made clear how this was to be done: "Whoever is still in possession of weapons but has no arms permit is to be shot; whoever has kept possession of military materials, including lorries, is to be summarily executed... Whoever declares themselves to occupy an official position without any right to do so (i.e., the membership of the workers' and soldiers' councils) is to be shot."

While Groener mobilised the troops to march on Berlin a witch-hunting atmosphere was whipped up against Spartakus, and against Luxemburg and Liebknecht in particular. From the "Anti-Bolshevik League" and the old pro-imperial Heimatdienst a flood of slanderous anti-Spartakus propaganda poured forth. The killing of the Spartakus leaders was advocated in public and in the press.

According to Groener's plans the 10 divisions would arrive in Berlin on 10 December and would complete their task of destroying the workers' and soldiers' councils by 15 December, one day before the first all-German Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Councils was due to convene in Berlin. But some sections of the Berlin garrison who had remained loyal to the old order preferred to act sooner.

On 6 December troops occupied the Prussian parliamentary buildings in Berlin and arrested the Berlin Executive Committee of the Workers' and Soldiers' Councils. A second detachment occupied the editorial offices of Spartakus' newspaper. A third opened fire on a Red Soldiers' League demonstration, killing 18 and wounding 30. A fourth detachment marched on Ebert's offices and proclaimed him President of Germany.

By evening the mini-putsch had fizzled out. Ebert rejected the proclamation. The editorial offices and the Prussian parliamentary buildings were vacated. The Executive Committee of the Councils was released and informed that their arrest had been a mistake. No action was taken against the counter-revolutionary troops by the SPD-USPD government.

On 10 December Groener's troops reached Berlin. Ebert greeted the troops in front of the Brandenburg Gate: "No enemy has defeated you! Now Germany's unity lies in your hands!" But Groener's plans to use the troops to "tear power away from the workers' and soldiers' councils" quickly came to grief. Waves of mass desertions swept through their ranks from the day of their arrival. By the end of December only 800 of the 75,000 soldiers had not deserted.

On 16 December the National Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Councils opened in Berlin. In the days leading up to the congress a new wave of strikes had begun to spread across Germany. From Upper Silesia and Rhineland-Westphalia a vast wave of strikes rolled across the country, throwing up new leaderships in the industrialised centres. But this new militancy found no expression at the congress.

Delegates attending the congress were elected by the workers' and soldiers' committees in the first days of the revolution, when illusions about the SPD's promise of a "revolutionary government" were still rife. Of the 489 delegates, 288 belonged to the SPD, 80 to the USPD, and just 10 to Spartakus. Many of the remainder were bourgeois liberals in political outlook.

By 344 votes to 98 the congress rejected a proposal calling for the creation of a republic based on workers' and soldiers' councils. By 400 votes to 50 the congress then voted in favour of elections for a National Assembly on 19 January. The congress further agreed to "transfer legislative and executive power to the Council of Peoples' Deputies until such time as the National Assembly may make other arrangements."

The only radical resolution adopted by the congress was submitted by delegates from Hamburg. By an overwhelming majority the congress voted for: "Election of army officers; abolition of insignia of rank; subordination of the military to civilian government; and the transfer of disciplinary powers from officers to the soldiers' councils.

Ebert ignored the resolution. He knew that he needed to maintain his alliance with the army generals in order to defeat the revolution. Nor did the adoption of the Hamburg resolution impinge upon the fundamental feature of the Congress. By supporting the creation of a National Assembly and the interim transfer of power to the Council of People's Deputies the congress had effectively committed political suicide.

In the Spartakus paper, Red Flag, Luxemburg pointed to the central role played yet again by Social Democracy in stemming the revolutionary tide: "This is an expression not merely of the general inadequacy of the first unripe stage of the revolution but also of the particular difficulties attending this proletarian revolution and the peculiarities of its historical situation.

"In all former revolutions the combatants entered the lists with their visors up: class against class, programme against programme, shield against shield. In the present revolution the defenders of the old order enter the lists not with the shields and coats-of-arms of the ruling classes, but under the banner of a 'Social Democratic Party'."

Even as the Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Councils assembled in Berlin the SPD was making fresh efforts to disarm the revolution. Otto Wels, who had played a central role in securing the election of "reliable" (pro-SPD) soldiers' council on 10 November, announced that the People's Naval Division was to be reduced to 600 men and transferred away from the centre of Berlin.

The People's Marine Division had been loyal to the revolution from the outset. Its core consisted of sailors from Kiel who had mutinied in early November and then participated in the Berlin uprising of 9 November. Stationed in the Imperial Palace in the city centre, they were subsequently joined by another 2,000 sailors from Kiel.

To add pressure to his demands Wels reduced the level of pay to the Division to that appropriate to a force of 600. Opposition to Wels' proposals by the sailors was misrepresented in SPD propaganda as a selfish pay demand which threatened the unity of purpose of the labour movement. After a week of fruitless negotiations the Division went on the offensive.

On 23 December the sailors occupied the nearby government buildings, placing members of the Council of People's Deputies under arrest, and taking Wels prisoner. Ebert persuaded the sailors to return to the Imperial Palace, promising that a cabinet meeting the following day would achieve a settlement of the dispute.

At eight o'clock the following morning troops loyal to Groener and Ebert who had been drafted in front Babelsberg and Potsdam opened artillery fire on the Imperial Palace. At first the attackers had the upper hand. But as news of the fighting spread, tens of thousands of workers and their families marched on the Palace to demonstrate their support for the sailors. By midday the attack had been defeated. The troops who had arrived only the previous day to drive the sailors out of the Palace were themselves forced to leave Berlin.

In protest at the use of force against the People's Naval Division the three non-SPD members of the Council of People's Deputies resigned their posts on 29 December. Ebert replaced them with three SPD members, including Gustav Noske, subsequently known as "the bloodhound" for his role in the events of the following month.

The year 1918 closed with the founding of the German Communist Party (KPD) under the leadership of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Spartakus which had hitherto existed as a fraction within the USPD, formed the core of the new organisation. Events surrounding the founding of the new party underlined the political weakness of the revolutionary left.

Spartakus itself was a loose federation of local groups. Despite the intellectual profundity of its leading figures, especially Luxemburg, it lacked a Marxist-educated middle cadre. While its members were not lacking in courage, many of them suffered from overly romantic ideas about revolution. Above all, Spartakus lacked a serious implantation in the workplace.

The Revolutionary Shop Stewards, with whom Liebknecht negotiated to try to persuade them to join the KPD, boycotted the founding conference of the new party. The more political elements among them backed the USPD. The rest - the majority - were syndicalists and saw no need for a political party. They conceived of revolution as a conspiratorial insurrection.

The North German Left Radicals, who had renamed themselves the International Communists of Germany (IKD) in late November, initially wavered about joining the KPD. But on 31 December, the day after the founding of the KPD, the IKD voted in favour of membership and promptly joined the KPD conference, which was still in session.

The influx of IKD sectarianism and the romanticism of a section of the Spartakus membership proved a fateful combination. The conference voted by 62 to 23 to boycott the elections to a National Assembly, thus confusing opposition to the National Assembly itself with the tactical question of how to use the elections to mobilise opposition against the Assembly. There were also clear majorities at the conference for withdrawing from the trade unions (on the grounds of their reformism) and for establishing the KPD as a loose, decentralised organisation. Only the reference of such issues to party commissions prevented such positions from being adopted as party policy.

In late December and early January Ebert and Groener pressed ahead with the organisation of military units which could be relied upon to succeed where Groener had failed on 10 December: the Potsdam Guards Battalion, the Reinhardt Regiment, the State Riflemen's Corps, the Volunteer Rural Police Corps, the 17th and 31st Infantry Divisions, the Horseguards and Riflemen Division and the Hülsen Freikorps.

On 4 January Ebert and Noske inspected the Freikorps battalions which were assembling in Zossen, on the outskirts of Berlin, under the command of General Maercker. Ebert appointed Noske commander-in-chief of the Freikorps troops, to which Noske replied: "For all I care - someone must be the bloodhound!"

Whilst the counter-revolutionary troops were being assembled the witch hunting atmosphere against the Spartacists - as the members of the KPD continued to be known - intensified from day to day, whipped up both by the extreme right and also by sections of the SPD.

According to one leaflet distributed by the nationalist Bürgerrat organisation: "The Christmas pranks of the Spartakus group will lead directly into the abyss. The raw violence of this band of criminals can be met only by counter-violence. Do you want peace? Then see to it, every man of you, that the violent rule of the Spartakus people is ended."

Such venom could be matched by that of the SPD: "The shameless doings of all its achievements. The masses cannot afford to wait a minute longer and quietly look on while these brutes and their hangers-on cripple the activity of the republican authorities, incite the people deeper and deeper into a civil war, and strangle the right of free speech with their dirty hands."

The troops had been assembled. The atmosphere had been raised to fever pitch. Now all that was needed was the pretext to "justify" armed intervention by the counter-revolution. It was provided by the events triggered by the sacking of Emil Eichhorn.

On 1 January an SPD publication accused Eichhorn - a USPD member and Police President of Berlin - of embezzling public funds. There was not an ounce of truth in the allegations. At the same time military commanders accused Eichhorn of preparing to launch a civil war. Again the accusations were unfounded.

On 3 January Eichhorn was summoned to the Ministry of the Interior and asked to resign. He refused, and asked for 24 hours to prepare a written reply to the accusations. Although he was granted this reprieve, he was sacked the following morning. Eichhorn refused to accept this dismissal, declaring himself to be accountable to the Berlin Executive Committee of the Wor kers' and Soldiers' Councils, not to the Ministry of the Interior. The evening of the same day the Berlin Executive Committee of the USPD met with delegates from the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and two members of the KPD (Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck) in the Berlin Police Headquarters. The meeting agreed to call a protest demonstration for the afternoon of the following day, 5 January.

Tens of thousands poured into the city centre during the morning. By midday up to 300,000 people had crammed into the city centre. As the demonstration drew to a close armed groups broke away and staged a series of occupations: the headquarters of the SPD, the offices of the SPD's paper, the Reich Printing Office, news agencies, telegraph offices, and the main railway stations.

In the evening another meeting was held in the Berlin Police Headquarters, attended by ten representatives of the Berlin USPD Executive, 70 delegates from the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, the leaders of the People's Naval Division, some delegates from the soldiers' councils in Berlin and Liebknecht and Pieck from the KPD.

Carried away by the size of the demonstration and the series of uncoordinated occupations underway, the meeting declared the government to be overthrown and elected a Revolutionary Committee consisting of Ledebour (USPD), Scholze (RSS) and Liebknecht (KPD). But, despite declaring the government overthrown, the meeting proposed no other action than another mass demonstration the following day.

On 6 January the city centre was again taken over by mass demonstrations. This time far more workers arrived with weapons than the previous day. But there was no fighting and no leadership from the Revolutionary Committee. Instead, the Revolutionary Committee opened negotiations with Ebert, using USPD members as intermediaries. The demonstrations began to break up. By the evening the city centre was empty.

But the occupations were still underway. And now the SPD-military alliance had their pretext for armed intervention: the Spartakus uprising which the black propaganda of conservatism and the SPD had repeatedly warned was imminent. On 9 January reaction launched its counter-offensive.

But, as Frölich wrote: "The truth is: there was no Spartakus uprising... the truth is that the January fighting was cautiously and deliberately prepared and cunningly provoked by the leaders of the counter-revolution."

The KPD had been founded only a week earlier. For all its political weaknesses the KPD recognised the futility of such a young - and numerically weak - organisation attempting to initiate an armed uprising. When Liebknecht reported back to the KPD Executive on 8 January he was censured for his unauthorised involvement in the Revolutionary Committee. "Karl, is that our programme?" asked Luxemburg.

According to Richard Müller, one of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, the KPD was of the opinion that it was "senseless to attempt to declare a (revolutionary) government. In their opinion, a government based on the proletariat would not have survived longer than a fortnight."

The KPD subsequently expelled some of its members who had been involved in the wave of occupations. Frölich even went so far as to claim that the occupations had been instigated by agents provocateurs: "All these newspaper occupations had been carried out under the leadership of agents in the pay of the Berlin Commandants' office or, at any rate, by highly dubious elements."

Shortly before his death Liebknecht recognised that the uprising had been a mistake: "It was a demand of History that they [the workers] were defeated. For the time was not yet ripe. And yet, the struggle was unavoidable... to have surrendered the police headquarters without a struggle [i.e., to have allowed Eichhorn's dismissal to go unchallenged] would have been a shameless defeat. The struggle was forced upon the proletariat by the Ebert band, and with an elementary force it surged up from the Berlin masses."

On 9 January Ebert ordered troops to recapture the occupied buildings. (Whilst Noske was in command of the Freikorps, Ebert retrained command of the regular troops.) But it was not only the buildings under occupation which were attacked. An attempt to storm the editorial offices of the Red Flag was made the same day. Two days later the offices of the KPD were seized and destroyed.

On 11 January the first battalions of Freikorps marched into Berlin, headed by General Maercker and Noske. On 15 January more Freikorps flooded into Berlin, occupying the south and west of Berlin and the entire city centre. A wave of terror was now unleashed by the counter-revolution.

Suspects were arrested in the streets and arbitrarily executed. Militants were murdered and then declared to have been shot while resisting arrest. Others simply disappeared after having been taken into custody. Workers' delegations sent to negotiate with the Freikorps were murdered.

On 15 January the wave of terror engulfed Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Captured by troops loyal to the counter-revolution, they were beaten unconscious with rifle-butt blows and finished off by revolver shots. Liebknecht's body was delivered to a first-aid station as that of an "unknown man" whilst Luxemburg's corpse was dumped in the Landwehr Canal. The officer in charge of the murderers, Captain Pabst, issued a press statement claiming that Liebknecht had been shot while trying to escape, and that Luxemburg had been murdered by an angry mob. Pabst's version of events was adopted by the SPD's paper Vorwärts the following day.

Under the headlines "Liebknecht shot dead while trying to escape!" and "Luxemburg beaten to death by the multitude!" Vorwärts attributed the guilt for the murders to the victims themselves: "They fell victim to the death which they themselves have summoned forth in the country."

Three days later the elections to the National Assembly were held. Despite the betrayals and the counter-revolutionary plotting of its leaders, the SPD still commanded broad electoral support amongst the working class. The SPD won 164 seats compared with the USPD's 22 and formed a coalition government with the bourgeois Centre and German Democratic Party.

Two days later, at the first Cabinet meeting of the new government, Noske announced his plans for restoring the rule of "law and order" throughout Germany: "The government must be able to back up its authority with might. We have raised 22,000 men in a military unit during the course of the week. In two or three weeks we will be able to restore a certain amount of order. Dealings with the Soldiers' Councils have therefore taken on a different character. Hitherto the Soldiers' Councils have had force on their side; now this is in our favour.

"For Berlin we require 10,000 men. Maercker's corps will protect Weimar, and it will re-establish order in Halle and Braunschweig in passing. We will restore order in Bremen in the course of this week, and then only Cuxhaven will be left, because we are prevented from attacking via Altonia. We might restore order there via Schleswig, and, if necessary, the resistance in Hamburg will be put down by force."

As Noske spoke, street fighting was already raging in Bremen. On 10 January the Bremen Workers' and Soldiers' Council had declared the city to be a Workers' Republic. Noske falsely claimed that food supplies from the port were being blockaded and despatched the Gerstenberg Freikorps to crush the uprising. By the time of the new government's first Cabinet meeting the Freikorps were already in control of the city.

In early May the Munich Workers' Republic which had been declared two months earlier was suppressed by pro-government troops and Prussian Freikorps. A wave of white terror even more bloody than that unleashed on Berlin in mid-January, swept through the city. Over 700 people were massacred in the first week of May alone.

Between the suppression of the Bremen and Munich Workers' Republic violence had also been used to put down working-class unrest in Thuringia, Saxony, Halle, the Ruhr District and Berlin.

Both before and after the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht the SPD leaders claimed that their resort to force was justified by the need to maintain law and order rather than motivated by the desire to eliminate political opponents and defeat working-class insurrection.

In one sense they were right. They were defending law and order - the law of capitalist exploitation and the order of social inequality. And it was precisely this law and order which was under threat from the socialist ideas of Luxemburg and Liebknecht which found expression in the workers' councils.

Despite Liebknecht's involvement in the Revolutionary Committee elected on 5 January, neither he nor Luxemburg were killed for leading an armed uprising. There was no Spartakus uprising in Berlin in January 1919. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were murdered because they were the leaders of a revolutionary movement which Social Democracy in alliance with German militarism wanted to destroy at birth.

Whilst SPD leaders such as Ebert and Noske sought to cloak their actions behind the stale clichés of maintaining law and order, their allies in the military were more forthright. As General Maercker later put it: "In the struggle of the Reich government against the left radicals it was exclusively a matter of maintaining political power. Troops were used for this purely political purpose: as a means of using force to consolidate domestic policies.

"But the weakness of the government did not allow it to say this openly. It was afraid of showing its colours and of explaining that the role of the Freikorps troops was to put an end to the rule of workers' councils wherever it still existed. At the end of the day, this was what was at stake.

"The government avoided saying this, by using military issues as a justification for armed intervention. This lack of sincerity did not suit me at all. I would have felt more secure in confronting in the workers' leaders if I had been able to say to them openly: 'My presence means struggle against the rule of workers' councils which you are seeking to achieve, and against the rule of the armed proletariat'."

Workers' Liberty 1/53, Jan 1999