Germany Between War and Revolution

K. Javier Arauz

By the turn of the century, the German working class was assured of its role as the gravedigger of capitalism. Instead, it made revolution halfway, and dug its own grave.

[The war] has so thoroughly altered relations between countries and between classes within society, destroyed so many old illusions and powers, and created so many new impulses and new tasks, that to return to the old Europe that existed before August 4, 1914 is as impossible as returning to prerevolutionary conditions—even after a defeated revolution. Proletarian politics knows no turning back. It can only forge ahead, beyond what exists, beyond even what has just been created. —Rosa Luxemburg, “The Crisis of Social Democracy,” April 1915


Rosa Luxemburg, the imprisoned stalwart of German revolutionary socialism, wrote these lines from her cell as war ravaged Europe. A socialist international that had agreed to fight the outbreak of European war instead cast its legacy into the fire. Two years after Luxemburg penned her polemic, the German working class attempted to reverse the betrayals of classical social democracy. The limits and the horizon of this German Revolution, however, were shaped by the decades of working-class politics that preceded it.

The origins of social democracy can be found in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions. Until that point, the radical, liberal middle classes had exerted hegemony over revolutionary politics, a legacy of the 1789 French Revolution. The German working class attempted in contrast to wrest itself from these alliances and exert an independent politics. This was ultimately achieved only to the extent that the democratic struggle was pushed onward by revolutionary socialists. Rather than a governing system, this social democracy was the organized struggle by proletarians for economic and political power.

Born of the crises of the late nineteenth century, German social democracy was riven by contradictions. On the one hand, the Anti-Socialist Laws of 1878–90 outlawed socialist groups and drove them underground, leading them to adopt a more revolutionary stance. On the other, the limited expansion of democratic rights that followed 1890 oriented socialists towards the preservation and extension of the liberal order. The German Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) 1891 Erfurt Program summed up this contradictory orientation: melding distant revolutionary stances with immediate democratic demands.

Tightly organized, highly skilled, and resolutely aware of its role in determining the course of humanity, the German working class stood as a shining example of socialism’s future. The broad, sophisticated sensibilities of German labor resulted from the unique conditions that existed in Germany at the end of the 1800s. While the working classes in other countries were dominated by the influence of skill- and occupation-based craft unionism, repression in the 1880s, followed by the explosion of capital-dependent industries in the 1890s, led to the predominance of industrial over craft sensibilities in Germany. By 1914, the German working class could boast forty-six national unions organizing a combined 2.5 million workers, up from the 215,000 organized by fifty-seven unions in 1892. Yet organized labor was not without its limits. Fearing the return of repression by the state and private business, large national unions hesitated to engage in widespread, unlimited strike actions.

Party of the Working Class, Party of the Revolution?

The SPD entered the twentieth century as a mass organization calling for immediate political and economic gains on the road to socialism. The party had over one million members by 1914. An apparent unity of will and vision, however, belied more disparate political tendencies. Three major currents emerged in social democracy after its foundation in 1890.

Right social democrats (or “revisionists”), formed around Eduard Bernstein, provoked factional struggles against the revolutionary left of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The center of the party, headed by the father of social democracy, Karl Kautsky, successfully maneuvered to preserve the unity of the party. While the revisionists appeared to be defeated in the pages of the party’s theoretical journals, their positions best corresponded to the actual practical activity of the party. And while the heart of social democracy was the hundreds of economic, cultural, and rank-and-file associations, control of the party was wielded by the parliamentary bloc.

On August 4, 1914, this bloc voted unanimously with the bourgeois representatives in the Reichstag to approve war credits. Social peace was embraced over revolutionary opposition. The SPD’s leadership had hoped that entering the war would lead to a beneficial relationship between capital and labor, but the coordination between labor leadership and business leadership necessary for the centralized war economy in the end proved advantageous mainly to the SPD’s right-wing reformists.

The war immediately brought powerful disruptions to working-class life. There was a massive increase in military personnel, which swelled to eleven million men. By 1917, 64 percent of German trade unionists fought at the front. Proletarians who remained at work in Germany’s war economy experienced a deterioration of shop-floor power. Historian Geoff Eley would write: “If regulating the war economy was perceived as a form of ‘socialism’ by right-wing socialists and union bureaucrats, for the ordinary worker it meant speedups, suspension of factory regulations, lower safety standards, the freezing of basic union rights and general loss of control.”

The Sailors and Workers Rise Up

Staffed by politically experienced, skilled workers and in close contact with radical networks across port cities, the German navy became a hotbed of radicalism, and growing discontent began to take hold in the winter of 1916–17. What began as discussions within discrete circles of sailors stationed in Kiel, Germany’s major port city, steadily expanded into a clandestine network which, by July 1917, numbered more than five thousand. That summer was punctuated by walkouts, hunger strikes, and, ultimately, the deadly repression of some of that network’s leadership.

This chain of resistance in the fleet was matched by a reemergence of antagonisms in the factories and streets. Antiwar worker-activists organized the Revolutionary Stewards movement, a massive network of shop stewards throughout the military industrial apparatus. Rationing orders—which reduced available food to only a third of daily caloric needs—had already set off women-led food riots and massive strikes in April 1917. By the dawn of 1918, the German working class, inspired by the audacity of the fleet and by the Russian Revolution, was poised to revolt.

The largest manifestation of worker militancy before that point had occurred in January 1918. A general strike for January 28 was called by a leading Revolutionary Steward, Richard Müller. That week would see four hundred thousand strike in Berlin. Their demands were wide-ranging: peace without annexations; worker involvement in controlling the food supply; restoration of basic political rights; an end to military control of factories; and democratization of the state.

The strike was only quelled in February after fierce clashes with the military and police. In the months that followed, the state plunged Germany into a last-ditch effort to win the war. There were over a million military casualties between March and November 1918, while civilian deaths increased by three hundred thousand from the previous year.

The November Revolution

By the latter half of 1918, it had become clear that a German victory in the war was impossible. The German elite maneuvered to prevent a revolutionary exit from the war, as had happened in Russia the year before. In an attempt to stabilize the situation, the German military command shifted responsibility for securing peace onto the new, SPD-led government. The SPD had expelled its revolutionary left-wing elements the previous year, leading to the formation of the “Independent” SPD (USPD). The SPD in power thus represented the most conservative elements of the working class, acting as a force of equilibration for those German elites wanting to lose as little political and economic power as possible in the tumult.

This equilibrium would soon be tested. Unrest in the navy and in the factories, which had been building since the winter of 1916–17, quickly accelerated and evolved. In Stuttgart, factory networks and USPD militants organized a general strike on November 4, 1918. In its aftermath, a city-wide workers’ council was established, followed by workers’ councils throughout the factories. In Kiel, naval mutinies and a general strike culminated in the seizure of power by workers’, soldiers’, and sailors’ councils. This local seizure of power inspired similar uprisings, first along the coast, and then spreading to Halle, Erfurt, Bavaria, Hanau, Brunswick, Leipzig, and Chemnitz. Each insurgent city saw the election of its own workers’ and soldiers’ councils.

The revolution had become a reality to be reckoned with. Historian and militant Pierre Broué described this turning point: “The news from every part of Germany on the night of 8–9 November confirmed it: here the sailors and there the soldiers organised demonstrations, whilst workers came out on strike. Workers’ and soldiers’ councils were elected. The prisons were attacked and opened. The red flag, emblem of the world revolution, floated over the public buildings.”

A Socialist Republic?

This wave finally rushed into Berlin on November 9, 1918. On that day, within hours of each other, two republics were proclaimed: one by SPD minister Philipp Scheidemann, the other by the Spartacist leader Karl Liebknecht, with the latter declaring a German Socialist Republic. These two proclamations shook Berlin and exposed the contradictions that characterized the insurgency rocking the country. Decades of military and imperial power were coming to an end without any clarity as to the precise nature of what was to follow.

The soldiers’ and workers’ councils, inspired by the Russian soviets, were now the face of an emergent democracy in Germany. The day after the Republic was declared, the Executive Council of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils of Great Berlin and the six-member Council of People’s Delegates were declared as the provisional government of Germany by a convocation of the Revolutionary Stewards.

Yet this ambiguity as to what kind of republic was to be constructed extended to the councils as well: What kind of democracy was at stake in the councils? A democracy of “citizens”? Or a proletarian democracy, transcending the separations on which political and economic power rested?

This ambiguity resulted in a “dual power” system for several months. This did not take the simple form of a bourgeoisie rallied around a liberal republic and a proletariat grouped resolutely around the councils. Rather, the development of the councils was riven by the contradictions of a complex class structure that was torn between transcending bourgeois frameworks or remaining within them.

“The German working class was not ‘mistaken’ in its decades of struggle for political freedom. After all, it was in the very process of this struggle for democracy that the working class coalesced into a distinct political force.”

A counterrevolution developed from within both the “revolutionary” councils and provisional government. Although the old ruling order in Germany appeared to be broken, its most significant elements remained untouched. The entire bureaucracy and civil service functioned as it had before. The old officer elite maintained control over the army and soon began forming counterrevolutionary detachments, or “Freikorps,” with the permission of the SPD-led government. The Central Working Agreement of November 15 demonstrated the willingness of the national unions and business organizations to restabilize labor relations in order to stave off socialism.

By December 1918, the SPD leadership had formed an alliance with the reactionary wing of the army in order to crush the radical left’s power. By the end of that month, the SPD was firmly in control of the council apparatus in Berlin.

The January Break

The first phase of the revolution came to an end in mid-January 1919. The Spartacist Uprising was triggered by the dismissal of the Berlin chief of police, a USPD member, on January 4, a move emblematic of the reversal of the gains of the revolution. Mass demonstrations and strikes were called by the newly-formed Communist Party, along with the USPD and the Revolutionary Stewards. Five hundred thousand people filled the streets of Berlin in the days that followed.

Although thousands among them were ready for armed confrontation, they were isolated from both the mass of demonstrators and the military. Weak and without widespread support, the insurgents were put down by the Freikorps, who had been ordered into the city by the SPD-led government. A little over a week after the start of the uprising, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were found dead. They had been captured and killed by the Freikorps.

An era of social democracy had come to an end. Germany would experience waves of political instability and revolutionary resurgences until 1923, but the intensities of the revolutionary break of 1918 would not be reached again.

The failures of the German Revolution are often understood as failures of leadership—namely, the lack of a party on the order of the Russian Bolsheviks. But we should emphasize instead how the working class as a whole determined its outcome. If the success of revolution is the product of the masses, so too is its failure.

The German working class was not “mistaken” in its decades of struggle for political freedom. After all, it was in the very process of this struggle for democracy that the working class coalesced into a distinct political force. But overthrowing the liberal structures it had spent decades fighting to preserve and extend proved too challenging. The leaders of the working class failed to grasp the delicate dynamic between linear political “progress” and nonlinear political ruptures. And thus the SPD, in spite of its betrayals, retained a hold over hundreds of thousands of proletarians well into the 1920s. Then as now, the problem lay in figuring out how to coordinate class action without settling for the logic of the lowest common denominator.