First part of a two-part article.
Part 2 here
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 and 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.
Yet the SPD and the trade unions were operating in a profoundly hostile environment.
In 1871 Germany was dominated by an alliance of feudal Junker landowners and industrial “barons” which exulted in militarism, authoritarianism and unqualified hostility to socialism and the labour movement. 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. For the party confrontation with capitalism was subordinated to, and ultimately displaced by, a commitment to preserving the structure of the labour movement, as an end in itself.
Such a view was openly espoused by SPD theoreticians such as Eduard Bernstein (“The final goal — whatever it may be — means nothing to me, the movement, everything”).
The outbreak of the First World 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 Friedrich 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!… 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.
While the SPD leaders talked of 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:
“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.”
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. 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. By 1916 it was military commanders such as Hindenburg and Ludendorff who governed the country not the civilian government in Berlin.
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%.
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 Rosa Luxemburg and Karl 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 1917 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.
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. At the same time an organised political opposition to the pro-war policies of the SPD and trade union leaders emerged.
In December 1914 Karl 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 1915 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 Year’s Day 1916 the Gruppe Internationale (better known as Spartakus), was officially founded.
Three months later Spartakus convened an underground conference in Berlin to draw together the forces of the far left. Delegations were present from most of the industrial areas. 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). Based in Bremen, Hamburg and Cuxhaven it published the weekly paper Workers’ Politics. Although the Left Radicals worked closely with Spartakus, it tended to be more standoffish towards the workers’ movement when pursuing tactical issues.
In April 1917 SPD dissidents who had been expelled in January of that 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 “centrist” and heterogeneous grouping. It included a revolutionary wing, with which Spartakus sought to make common cause — Spartakus joined the USPD, organizing themselves openly as a faction. Many of the USPD’s 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 waves 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 the threat of military defeat in the war. They now wanted an armistice as quickly as possible. On 2 October 1918 the leaders of all parties in the Reichstag were informed that the Supreme Army Command had felt obliged to admit defeat.
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 the industrialist Robert Bosch put it: “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.”
An invitation to join the government was discussed at a meeting of the SPD's parliamentary fraction on 4 October. Philipp Scheidemann, second only to Ebert in the SPD hierarchy, opposed it as a trap. It would mean involvement in a “bankrupt enterprise” and the SPD being made a scapegoat for the mistakes of those who had been in power. But Ebert successfully insisted that the invitation be accepted, in the name of “Volk und Vaterland”. Ebert assured his parliamentary colleagues that a social revolution could now be avoided and the monarchy saved.
However, as Paul Frolich 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 forced 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. The local organs of power collapsed. Real power — at least temporarily — lay with the councils of sailors and workers. On the evening of 7 November the Bavarian monarch was overthrown and a Socialist Republic of Bavaria proclaimed.
Meanwhile Ebert 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 SPD would support the continuation of the monarchy as an institution, and would work in alliance with the army to preserve the social order.
The next day Ebert met with Prince Max von Baden, the recently appointed Reichskanzler and cousin of the Kaiser. “If I succeed in persuading the Kaiser, do I have you on my side in the struggle against social revolution?” Erbert 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 revolution 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! 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 Hohenzollerns 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.
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.”
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 following morning — a Sunday — workers turned up in their factories to elect their representatives, while soldiers voted in their barracks.
But the SPD caught the mood of the masses with its appeal for working-class unity. 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. 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 who 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.
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… A victory made possible because of the unity and determination of all who wear the workers' shirt.”
Luxemburg summed it up differently: “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.