Between Utopia and Terror

Vidar Lindström

Lasting only a few weeks, the Bavarian Council Republic was one one of the highest peaks of the revolutionary wave that ended World War I.

By the Autumn of 1918, it had become clear that Germany was losing the World War. In a last ditch effort, the German High Command prepared a final offensive. Unwilling to continue risking their lives for a losing cause, sailors in Kiel mutinied in early November. The uprising spread like wildfire, igniting the German Revolution. In the German state of Bavaria, after a long struggle, workers declared a Council Republic, under the leadership of communists and anarchists. The Bavarian Soviet Republic did not last long, but it was one of the highest peaks in the wave of revolutions that followed the World War. In the end, all of the forces of the old Europe, Social Democracy, pre-fascist freikorps, and the military, entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter. In the suppression of the Council Republic, the nucleus of German fascism was developed.

On November 7, 1918, the Bavarian workers, farmers, and soldiers expelled King Ludwig III, thereby ending the 738-year-old reign of the Wittelsbach Dynasty over Bavaria. That day, sixty thousand people gathered at Munich’s Theresienwiese for a demonstration against the war. At the rally, two factions of Social Democracy faced each other.

“The revolution happened without a single death.”

In opposition to the complacency of Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) towards the First World War, the left wing of the party had split from the majority, forming the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). The SPD’s Erhard Auer called for peace and reforms, including the eight-hour day. Kurt Eisner, a journalist and leading figure in the USPD, on the other hand, argued that only revolution could bring a lasting peace, that the king and emperor must be deposed in favor of a people’s democracy, and that extensive social reforms were only possible as part of the march towards socialism. Anarchists were also among the crowd, including the famous author Erich Mühsam, one of the main protagonists of the revolutionary left in Munich at the time. As the revolution unfolded, the tension between these three poles defined much of the drama.

The crowd marched through the streets, picking up soldiers along the way. Exhausted by the war, many soldiers had been anxiously waiting for the outbreak of revolution. All over the city strategic points were set. The people gathered that evening in the bar of the Mathäser brewery, where a workers’ and soldiers’ council and a farmers’ council were established. The Free State of Bavaria was declared, with Eisner elected as Prime Minister. The revolution happened without a single death.

King Ludwig was surprised and uncomprehending when a pedestrian called out to him on the street: “Your majesty, go home, revolution is happening!” The next day, he had fled from Munich with his family. The new government, under the lead of Eisner, met for the first time the next day. Anarchists Erich Mühsam and Gustav Landauer were appointed into the Revolutionary Workers’ Council in an advisory capacity. Workers, soldiers, and farmers councils sprouted up all over Bavaria. From the very beginning, the Revolutionary Workers Council decided “that Social Democratic Party and Union officials shall not form part of it (the Council), so its character as an organ of the working people themselves should not be blurred.” This decision ensured that the council, which consisted mainly of USPD members, served as the main organ of the social revolution and could develop into a proletarian counterpower to the Bavarian Parliament.

To hold against the fragmentation of the radical left, Erich Mühsam, Hilde Kramer, and others founded the Union of Revolutionary Internationalists of Bavaria (VRI) at the end of November. Alongside the USPD, the VRI became one of the most influential left-wing radical organisations apart from the councils. In their first flyer they made this clear:

“We are not satisfied with the limitation of revolutionary demands to political matters. We demand the realization of Socialism as the crowning glory of the present popular movement. The end of the world war together with the world revolution means the collapse of capitalism. On its ruins we do not want to try to save the old, but build something new. We don’t look at the path, we look at the goal. The means of the revolution is the revolution. It’s not murder and manslaughter, it’s construction and realization.”

Through direct action, the VRI tried to drive the revolutionary movement further. Through December and January, repeated confrontations took place between the radical left around the VRI and Eisner’s new government. In spite of anti-Semitic and nationalist agitation, Eisner stood for the absolute freedom of the press. Radical left forces worried that this left counterrevolutionaries free to sabotage the revolution. After the conservative Bavarian Courier published an anti-Semitic screed against the revolution and Eisner himself, Mühsam and his comrades occupied the newspaper’s offices. The next day, the newspaper’s front page declared it had been socialized by the revolution and demanded the surrender of Erhard Auer, the SPD’s Minister of the Interior. After personal negotiations with Eisner, the occupation was given up.

Over the next weeks, the forces of Social Democracy began to conspire with the völkisch and anti-Semitic Thule Society. A coup against the revolution was planned for the end of December, but the initiators were arrested beforehand. The Minister of the Interior, Erhard Auer, was a signee of the call for the coup. He had been hostile to the revolution from the very beginning, but was brought into the cabinet by Eisner for tactical reasons. Auer pressured the Prime Minister to announce a date for an official election to the Bavarian Parliament. The aim of Social Democracy was to finally constitute an official parliament. They were eager for the revolution to conclude and for the workers’ councils to disappear. Elections were set for January.

Events were overflowing. The Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was founded at the beginning of January. At its head were two friends of Eisner’s from the USPD, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The Spartacist Uprising broke out a few days later. In Berlin, the two poles of the worker’s movement, one wanting a deepening of the revolution and the other wanting a return to order, faced each other in armed street fights. As would become a pattern throughout Germany, the SPD worked together with the old military elites to defend the ruling class.

In order to prevent possible interference, Eisner had a dozen members of the KPD and the Revolutionary Workers’ Council arrested on the eve of the election. Among them was Mühsam. A mass demonstration secured their immediate release. On January 12, as the fighting in Berlin came to an end, the people of the Free State of Bavaria voted for the state parliament. As the revolution had implemented universal suffrage, this was the first time women were able to vote. The election results were shattering. The USPD lost distinctly. The SPD and the bourgeois parties swept the election. Anarchists and Communists had boycotted the election. News of the murders of Luxemburg and Liebknecht reached Bavaria on January 15.

As the election results made clear, a substantial portion of society did not stand behind pushing the revolution forward. Exhausted by years of war and revolution, many just wanted a return to peace, prosperity, and some sense of order. The street fighting in Berlin only increased this desire. The SPD and the conservative Bavarian Peoples’ Party (BVP) appeared to be the only forces able to make this happen. Despite this social climate, the revolutionary workers and soldiers were not ready to turn back. Following the election, a mass demonstration was staged on Munich’s Theresienwiese, the traditional site of Oktoberfest, leading to the founding of a Council Congress.

Eisner had intended to resign from his post as Prime Minister following his electoral defeat. On his way to the state parliament, he was shot dead by the anti-Semite Anton Arco-Valley. Turmoil broke out at the parliament. The SPD was suspected of being behind the assassination. Shots were fired, another two people died. Fearing a coup was being prepared against the revolution, workers called a general strike. Munich was put under a state of siege.

On March 17, the state parliament elected the SPD’s Johannes Hoffman for Minister President. For the first months of 1919, the prospects of the revolution seemed more gloomy than ever. The situation changed abruptly at the end of March when the Hungarian Council Republic was proclaimed. The movement was revived. Action was taken.

“The Bavarian Soviet Republic was proclaimed at the beginning of April. Its Central Council was dominated by anarchists and intellectuals.”

The Bavarian Soviet Republic was proclaimed at the beginning of April. Its Central Council was dominated by anarchists and intellectuals. The USPD resigned from the coalition government, throwing it into crisis. The rest of the government fled to Bamberg in Franconia, forming a government-in-exile there. A military coup, approved by the exile-government, was defeated by Red Guards led by the KPD’s Rudolf Egelhofer.

But the Central Council seemed incapable of acting. The first council republic failed after a few days, so it was the turn of the communists. Socialization of newspapers and businesses and a ban on counterrevolutionary propaganda was enforced. A Red Army with tens of thousands of members was formed under the leadership of Egelhofer.

In 1920 Erich Mühsam wrote to Lenin in an “accountability report” that the founding of the first council republic was too premature, that some important measures needed to haven been taken beforehand. That the communists had come to power caused panic among the bourgeoisie. Folkish students organised freikorps to join the military struggle against the council republic. In Dachau, Red Guards prevailed over these freikorps. On April 17, the SPD’s Defense Minister Gustav Noske decided to deploy army units against Munich.

By April 30, the tide had turned in favor of the reactionaries. During fierce battles in the suburbs of Munich, the freikorps massacred members of the Red Army and uninvolved civilians. Red Guards responded by killing ten hostages held captive—mainly members of the anti-Semitic Thule society.

On May 1, Gustav Landauer was arrested by freikorps, abused, and murdered in prison the following day. Through May and June, most leading members of the Council Republic were sentenced to long prison sentences or death. Mühsam served fifteen years. The KPD’s Eugen Levine was executed on June 5. Over two thousand supporters of the Council Republic were sent to prison or executed. A new coalition government under Johannes Hoffman was formed at the end of May, now with the involvement of conservative parties such as the BVP. The constitution of the Weimar Republic was adopted on August 11, the Bamberg Constitution for Bavaria on September 15.

The SPD-led government gave the Reichswehr, freikorps, and other right-wing units a free hand for months. The merciless persecution of supposed revolutionaries was left to them. This repression lasted until September 1, when the state of siege was finally lifted over Munich. They committed terrible massacres and crimes, at the end of which Munich—purged of the “enemies of the people”—became the stronghold of the nationalist and anti-Semitic movement. Right-wing radical forces spread unhindered. This was the beginning of a catastrophe which ended in the rise of fascism and the Second World War. Munich became, for fascists, the “capital of the movement.”