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“The leaders of the Storm Detachments-a dozen or so metal workers from the Berlin heavy
industries, whose business it is to organize the fighting squads of the Revolutionaries and to lead
them on -the day of the revolution-have already reached the last item on their agenda. Some are
standing, others seated on garden chairs around a table in the cheerless skittle-alley of a workers’
tavern. When Primelsack enters, the discussion is interrupted.

Primelsack immediately makes his report.

“All O.K. – Ernst has gone over to headquarters in Schicklerstrasse. Uprooted a tree fifteen
inches across! And twigs and branches fell from the other trees over a radius of thirty yards.”

“Boy, but she did make a hole!”
“A thing like that landing plumb on a column…”
”It’s not possible, of course, to pitch it from the street level. We’ll have to get into the houses and throw from the upper windows,” says the leader of the group, a brawny, black-haired fitter.
“What if the people won’t let us into the houses?”
“We must get in. If they refuse, then we must smash in the doors, that’s all.”
“How long does it take to go off?”

“Count to six and then heave it.”
”A hand-grenade takes five, though, doesn’t it?”
“This won’t go off before eight. With our first fuse it took sixteen, but now it’s eight.”
“And how many of them have we?”
“Sixty at present, with explosive for more.”

 The chairman returns to the last point on the agenda and talks with a few of the comrades about the issuing of the stock of revolvers, hand-grenades and ammunition. The rest occupy themselves discussing the progress of the movement in their several factories; new recruits for the fighting squads; their president, Emil Barth; and the likelihood of an early outbreak. A turner from the Kombusch Factory, the Revolutionary Oestreich, is telling Primelsack
how he took a case of rifle ammunition to one of their colleagues at Weissensee.

“You know what a
case looks like of course-like a box of herrings, except that it has handles at both ends. Well, I got
my brother Richard-! knew I could trust him-and then we took the box just as it was, without
wrapping it up or anything, went straight to the station, got into a train and just took it as if it were
any harmless parcel. I don’t understand now how it came off without a hitch, or how we could even
have thought of doing such a thing….”

Oestreich is instancing this casualness and assurance in
taking the thing openly by train under the very eyes of the other passengers as an example of how
blind faith is more important to success than the most deliberate and long-thought-out preparations:

“Go straight at it, that’s always the best way. I simply said to Richard: ‘Have you got your
Browning?’ ‘Sure,’ says he, ‘here in my trouser-pocket. I’ve only to slip the safety-catch and she’s
ready to pump.’”

“It is time we were going over to Schicklerstrasse, comrades.”

Some are already on the stairs, making their way up into the bar.

There they split up, leaving the house casually one and two at a time.

 At No. 5 Schicklerstrasse, on the second floor giving on the courtyard, tucked away among tailoring establishments, hat-makers and paper-bag manufacturers, are the rooms of the training
school of the Independent Socialist Party, the USP In one of the rooms some forty workmen are
wedged in between the narrow school benches. Twenty more are standing round the walls. The
members of the Storm Detachments, arriving one by one, also have to stand.

This is the full session of the Revolutionaries.

The Revolutionaries it was who led the Berlin workers in the strike of January, 1918, protesting
against the iniquitous peace of Brest-Litowsk, and calling for an end to be put to the war on terms of
no annexations and no reparations. This movement developed into the first concerted effort against
the imperialism of the government – then the bureaucrats of the Unions got the upper hand, and
Ebert, Scheidemann and Bauer – all of them members of the Reichstag – took over leadership of the
strike, and under their direction the fight was turned into negotiation. The Minister for the Interior,
who was willing to treat only with the parliamentarians, would have no dealings with the workers
themselves and placed a ban on all mass meetings. The General Officer Commanding the Marches
put Berlin under strict martial law and set up an emergency military tribunal.

Four hundred thousand workers had obeyed the order to strike. After the collapse of the strike
two hundred were imprisoned and forty thousand sent up to the trenches.

After that first failure eighteen of the leaders had come together to rebuild the organization.
Richard Müller, the president, had been called up by the military. But to the first meeting he
brought with him Emil Barth who, on Müller’s departure, assumed the leadership of the
Revolutionary Organization.

Emil Barth is now seated at the teacher’s desk.

He is listening to the chief of the Storm Detachment leaders who is reporting to him on the
findings of the meeting which has just been concluded.

Barth has a different appearance from that of the metal workers seated on the benches. They are
thickset, slow of speech and movement. Barth on the other hand loves fine phrases and will miss no
opportunity for a speech. Richard Müller introduced him to the circle at a time when it was
impossible to have as secretary any man already known to the police on account of his political
activities. Müller later nicknamed him “the windbag”; Haase diagnosed him as a braggart;
Liebknecht, as a “mad revolutionary dilettante”; Duncker of the Spartacist League, as a
“pathological case of a man striving for power out of a sense of inferiority”. But Barth countered all
abuse by denouncing the rest as “the highbrow generals of the workers’ movement”, who sat all day
at their writing-desks apart from the world and had not the faintest idea how revolutions are made.
When he first joined the Revolutionaries he walked with the aid of two sticks and gave himself out
as a shell-shock case. But he is shell-shocked no longer – nor does he instruct others in that art. He
has climbed up from the lowest social stratum, possesses considerable organizing ability and is
consumed with ambition. Every opportunity for political action he has seized upon with fanatical zeal, and his activities as head of the secret organization absorb him completely.

The Revolutionaries are well content with their chief. He gives his whole strength to the cause, and his excessive talkativeness they tolerate as a necessary evil.

Barth opens the meeting:

 “Comrades! I have first a communication to make. We of the Council have invited Karl Liebknecht to the meeting to-night. I am sure you will approve of that. But I should like to remind
you beforehand, that within our circle Liebknecht is to be treated as the representative of any other
political party would be treated – that is, as a guest, and one to whose opinions we are ready to
listen. At the same time I would ask you not to be dissuaded from the straight path of our policy by
the sudden appearance of Liebknecht in our midst. The hour is not far distant when we must fulfil
our task. The confidence of the upper classes in victory is giving place to a wail of disillusionment.
The divinity of the Hohenzollerns, the infallibility of Ludendorff – all that has gone. Hunger,
wretchedness, anxiety, bereavement, poverty have raised in every heart the cry for peace – the cry
for vengeance upon the guilty.”

“Our preparations are complete. The plan of attack has been elaborated and confirmed in every
smallest detail. Arms and ammunition have been distributed by the leaders of the Storm
Detachments to the various factories. At the signal for battle all work will stop; the workers will
march in close column on the centre of the city; workers within the city limits will barricade the
main thoroughfares. Within a few hours Berlin will be swarming with vast crowds of men.”

“And what about the police?”
“Who will the soldiers side with?”
“I shall call upon Comrade Daumig to answer those questions.”

Ernst Daumig – Prussian deserter; French foreign legionary; conductor on a railway sleeping-car; journalist; until the split in the party, editor of the Vorwärts – he speaks briefly and to the point:
“The police are absolutely loyal to the Government, but they will be overpowered by the armed Storm Detachments allocated to the various columns. The second question is more difficult. With
the few weapons at our disposal we could not do much against the military. I have tried to win the
soldiers over to our side in the coming struggle. I have succeeded in establishing contacts in a good
many of the barracks and have gained considerable agreement and support. Many are on our side.
But it is very difficult to form any reliable estimate of their attitude as a whole. Especially so, in
view of the fact that the military authorities are constantly shifting the troops about – during the last
few days, for instance, they have filled up the garrison with men from the provinces who are wholly
ignorant of the political situation. The military must be isolated by the masses coming in from all
sides, and the crowd must then fraternize with the soldiers and win them over to us.”

“When do we get going? That is the main point.”
“We ought not to delay much longer.”
“Delay can cost us all our heads.”

A motor mechanic states that the workers at the Daimler factory have arranged matters with the soldiers in the Dragoon Barracks. “We are to march through Tempelhof and the soldiers will join us
outside the Halle Gate.”

At that moment the door opens. Liebknecht!

The workers turn round. Most of them know him by sight, but it is a long time since they have
seen him – before the war perhaps, at some meeting or other – a few were on the Potsdamer Platz in
1916 when Liebknecht made his appeal to the workers to fight against the war and called for the
revolution. This is not the place for noisy demonstrations; those nearest the door are already shaking
him by the hand, others wave:

“Karl!”
“You have come just in the nick of time.”
“Things are beginning to move. The fun starts soon.”

Barth observes with displeasure that Liebknecht, though he particularly asked him to come alone, has brought along four colleagues
from the Spartacist League – Pieck, who arrived only yesterday from Holland, and the former
travelling secretary of the party, the long-legged professor and private coach, Duncker – the other two he does not know.

Barth cuts short the subdued ovation.

 “I shall now ask Comrade Ledebour to speak.”

Ledebour had been first among the parliamentarians to recognize in the Revolutionaries the vanguard of the coming revolution, and in the interests of the Independent Party he had kept in
close touch with the group. He now endorses Daumig’s view of the situation as regards the military,
and emphasizes the danger, already hinted at, of any delay in coming into action.

After Ledebour a second Independent addresses the meeting:

“It is obvious, of course, that we should not enter upon the conflict before the final preparations
have been made. In Berlin we have to deal with the Government in its strongest position. And we
must make absolutely sure before we begin that we have sufficient strength behind us. Particularly
must we be sure of the military. Everything is at stake. Comrades, beware of too precipitate
action…”

The Independents, so far as the law would permit, have given expression both in Parliament and
the press to the feelings of the mass of the workers and soldiers. In proportion as the masses grew
weary of the war, the Independents dissociated themselves from the policy of the old order. Their
speeches became more and more radical, and they looked about for every legal means of
overthrowing the Government and the leaders of the old Social Democratic Party, and of filling the
ministerial and high official posts with their own people. For the achievement of this purpose the
Revolutionaries might well prove the most convenient lever; but they desired to accomplish that
purpose with the minimum of risk. And so on the very threshold of revolution they drew back.

The Revolutionaries begin to interrupt the speaker:

 “Aha! Got the wind up, have you?”
“Like to put on the brakes, eh? – now that we have come so far.”
“Sail right in, that’s the only way – same as me and Richard with the ammunition box.”
“If we were to listen to the Party leaders, we should still be making preparations in our graves.”

Liebknecht signals the Chair.

Karl Liebknecht – son of Wilhelm Liebknecht. But he is more than that – he has his own history. On August 4th, 1914, when in obedience to the resolution of the Party majority, he voted with the
rest of the Social Democrats in favour of the War Budget, he had come back to the Party committee
room with tears in his eyes. It was then that Rosa Luxembourg told him he must break with Party
discipline and, single-handed and alone, follow the dictates of his own conscience. Ever since then
he has been following the same hard road. He refused to vote for the Second War Loan. Already in
1915 he had gathered about him a small group of revolutionaries. He was ejected from the Party,
called up for the army, and sent to the Front as an infantryman. At the beginning of 1916 he
published an “open letter”, which he signed with the pseudonym: Spartacus. On May 1st, 1916, he
stood on the Potsdamer Platz, the first open accuser of the Government policy, and, surrounded by a
small band of demonstrators, he made a speech against the war. He was arrested and vanished into
Luckau prison.

Karl Liebknecht. Infantryman. Convict. Tribune of the Revolution.

Here he now stands and speaks:

 “…From various sources I have heard of your existence, of the existence of an illegal revolutionary organization. But I must say I am disappointed in your activities. Frankly I imagined
both your action and the pace of it to be other than I find it. I came here on Wednesday last; I then
witnessed a demonstration the like of which, for enthusiasm, has not been seen in Berlin before.
There had been another of almost equal enthusiasm the day before in front of the Reichstag and
Unter den Linden. I have been here three days now and there has been no fresh demonstration!”

The Revolutionaries sit silent in their places, all eyes turned upon the emaciated face of
Liebknecht which under the greenish light of the one solitary gas-flame looks even paler than in fact
it is. Emil Barth has removed his pince-nez; he polishes the lenses and puts them on again. He
watches his comrades anxiously –

Today will decide whether the Revolutionary Organization is to stick to its programme or not. Barth has always been opposed to sporadic action, as a mere frittering
away of strength. He has divided his organization into various sections according to the several
requirements of propaganda, espionage and direct fighting. He has collected money for the purchase
of arms, made journeys throughout the length and breadth of the country in order to spin the web
wider, dashing from one meeting to the next, and putting all in readiness for the one great blow. It is
nine months since he has had a good night’s sleep. Stupefied with schemes and unsuccessful
combinations, reeking of tobacco smoke, he would crawl wearily after nights of sleeplessness from
the kitchen of his apartment at Neukölln to the room in which slept his wife and his two growing
sons. Still half-dressed he would drop down on the bed and sleep a few hours, only to leave the
house again as soon as he awoke and renew his conspiratorial activities. And now, just as the power
of his adversary, Ludendorff is on the point of collapsing; now, when the moment has come for the
realization of all his great schemes – at this critical moment who should appear but Karl
Liebknecht!”

– Theodor Plivier, The Kaiser Goes, The Generals Remain. Translated by A. W. Wheen. London: Faber & Faber, 1933. pp. 38-42

Painting is Heinrich Vogeler, Deutscher Stachanowarbeiter im Erholungsheim Sotschi (Mitglied der Stachanowbewegung).1936. Oil on canvas.  Housed in Berlin at Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Nationalgalerie, Inv.-Nr. A III 279.  Actually shows a German-Soviet ‘shock worker’ but it works and I like Vogeler…

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The problem of the workers’ government. 

The political consequences of the putsch ran very deep, even in the regions
where neither workers’ councils nor workers’ militias were formed, even
where the working people were content to follow the order to strike without
taking up arms. For millions of Germans, the main lesson of the putsch was
its demonstration of the bankruptcy of the Social-Democratic leadership.
Noske, ‘the generals’ socialist’, whom they discarded as soon as his job was
done, was completely discredited, and his political career was at an end. 

Moreover, it was the workers who had defeated the putschists, by a general
strike which was started without the knowledge of the Majority Social-
Democratic government, and in a certain sense in spite of it. During the
struggle, activists of the different parties, who until that time had been opposing
each other, drew closer together. For the first time since before the War they
had fought side by side against the class enemy. The prestige of the trade-
union leadership rose; Legien had issued the order for the general strike when
Noske and Ebert ran away. From that point, the trade-union leaders were
expected to take on political responsibilities.
There was deep confusion in the ranks of the SPD. The President, Otto
Wels, posed the problem on 30 March in these terms: ‘How are we going to
get the Party out of the chaos into which it has been plunged by the common
fight against reaction?’ In very many localities, the Social-Democratic activists
and even their organisations had marched with the Communists and the
Independents with slogans contrary to those of their national leadership. For
example, in Elberfeld, a leader of the SPD had gone so far as to sign with
the representatives of the Independents and the KPD(S) a call for struggle
‘for the dictatorship of the proletariat’  Vorwärts expressed the sentiment of
nearly every German worker when it wrote on 18 March: ‘The government
must be rebuilt. Not to its right but to its left. We need a government which
makes up its mind unreservedly to fight against the militarist, nationalist
reaction, and which knows how to win the confidence of the workers as far
as possible to its left.’ 

It was clear before Kapp’s flight that the bourgeoisie was trying to assemble
a front of the Reichswehr and the governmental parties against the reawakening of the working class. Vice-Chancellor Schiffer and General von Seeckt together
issued in the name of the government an appeal for a return to calm, for
national unity ‘against Bolshevism’. The SPD was torn between opposing
tendencies. But this also happened in the USPD to some extent, particularly
in places where its right-wing leaders had lined up with the Majority’s
capitulatory approach. The USPD’s activists expressed the united pressure
of the working class, shoulder to shoulder in the strike, and the demand for
guarantees at the level of government; the Party’s press broadly reflected this
response. 

The Party apparatus and the parliamentary group, however, were
inclined to favour restoring the parliamentary coalition. The latter issued an
appeal in which it declared that the continuation of ‘the people’s strike’ after
the leaders of the putsch had fled was a threat to the unity of the ‘republican
front’. At the same time, a proclamation signed jointly by Schiffer and the
Prussian Minister of the Interior, the Social Democrat Hirsch, assured everyone
that the police and the Reichswehr had done their duty throughout, and had
at no time been accomplices in the putsch. This ‘amnesty’ was evidently
necessary for order to be restored, and the government proclaimed a state of
extreme emergency on 19 March. 

The government had been saved by the general strike. But would it use
against the workers the generals who had refused to resist the putschists?
Were Ebert and Noske to retain power? Had the workers fought for nothing
else but to keep them there? The reply to these political questions depended
largely on the leaders of the workers’ parties and trade unions. 

The workers had a very powerful weapon at their disposal: the general
strike. Legien was aware of this. On 17 March, he called on the USPD Executive
to send representatives to a meeting of the General Commission of the trade
unions. The Executive delegated Hilferding and Koenen, and Legien proposed
to them that a ‘workers’ government’ be formed, made up of representatives
of the workers’ parties and the trade unions. He justified his proposal by
explaining that from now on, no government could rule in Germany against
the trade unions, and that in an exceptional situation the latter were ready
to take on their responsibilities.
Clearly, neither the representatives of the Independents nor the railway
worker Geschke, who had also been invited to the meeting, where he
represented the KPD(S), could give a reply before they had consulted the
responsible bodies in their parties, which they then did. 

During the meeting
of the Executive of the Independents, Koenen and Hilferding spoke in favour
of accepting Legien’s proposal, and of opening negotiations with a view to
forming a workers’ government. Crispien, who was Chairman of the Party
and the leader of its right wing, protested that he could not possibly sit at
the same table with people who ‘had murdered workers’, and that no discussion
was possible with ‘betrayers of the working class’ such as the members of
the General Commission. Däumig, the leader of the left wing, supported him,
and said that he was ready to resign his function and even to leave the Party
if the Executive engaged in such negotiations. Koenen and Hilferding did
not find much support amongst their comrades. Stoecker and Rosenfeld, other
leaders of the Left, expressed surprise at Koenen’s views, and demanded
simply that the Executive should not brusquely reject them, for fear of not
being understood by the millions of striking workers. When the vote was
taken, the categorical refusal which Crispien and Däumig proposed was
carried by a large majority.

But Legien did not withdraw from the game. On the next day, 18 March,
despite the pressure on him from Social-Democratic elements close to the
apparatus who urged him to call off the strike now that the putsch had been
defeated, he prevailed upon the General Council to prolong it until the working
class had received sufficient guarantees about the composition and the policies
of the government. Laborious discussions began between the leaders of the
trade unions and the representatives of the government. Legien warned his
questioners that he would not hesitate, if he thought it necessary, to form a
‘workers’ government’ himself, which would use force to prevent the return of the Bauer government in Berlin, even if this initiative were to lead to civil
war, as he knew it might.

Legien put forward a number of non-negotiable conditions. Noske must
resign from the government of the Reich, as must two ministers, Heine and
Oeser, from that of Prussia; trade-union delegates must have key posts in the
government; the putschists and their accomplices must be severely punished,
and the army and the police must be thoroughly purged. He repeated that
there existed an immediate possibility of forming a workers’ government
with representatives of the trade unions and the two Social-Democratic Parties.
The trade-union leadership opened an unprecedented crisis in the SPD by
its call for a general strike, and by its open opposition to the Party’s leaders.
This shook the Party to the very top of its apparatus, the Executive and the
parliamentary group. But the attitude of the Independents was decisive. The
problem was not simple for them. The Left was divided, with Däumig opposing
Koenen. One section of the Right, including Crispien himself, went back on
its first response on the evening of 17 March, when a new delegation from
the Executive sought out Legien to tell him that they wanted to continue the
discussions. Däumig, however, stood completely firm; he declared that he
could not agree to the Party approving any ‘workers’’, government unless it
called for the dictatorship of the proletariat and the régime of workers’
councils.

Despite the opposition of his comrades of the same tendency who
controlled the trade unions in Berlin, he carried the day. The majority of the
Left agreed with him that the workers’ government which Legien proposed
would amount to nothing but a fresh version of ‘the Noske régime’, a new
edition of the Ebert-Haase government of 1918. As for the right wing, it
finally reached its decision in the light of the risks involved in forming such
a government under the fire of criticism from the Left and the threat of a
split, in a situation in which it would become nothing more than a fragile
left cover for the government. Legien had to drop his proposal. 

However, Legien still had to present to the government his conditions for
resumption of work. On the morning of the 19th, after long negotiations, the representatives of the government solemnly undertook to fulfil the conditions
which Legien dictated, and which were called ‘the nine points of the trade
unions’. These were: 

Recognition by the future government of the role of the trade-union
organisations in the economic and social reconstruction of the country. 

Disarming and immediate punishment of the rebels and their accomplices. 

Immediate purge of all counter-revolutionaries from the state
administration and state undertakings, and immediate reinstatement of
all workers dismissed for trade-union or political activity. 

Reform of the state on a democratic basis, in agreement and cooperation
with the trade unions. 

Full application of existing social legislation and adoption of new, more
progressive laws. 

Immediate resumption of measures to prepare for the socialisation of
the economy, convocation of the socialisation commission, and immediate
socialisation of the coal and potash mines. 

Requisition of foodstuffs to control the food supply. 

Dissolution of all counter-revolutionary armed formations. 

Formation
of defence leagues on the basis of the trade-union organisations, with
the units of the Reichswehr and the police which remained loyal at the
time of the putsch to be unaffected. 

Sacking of Noske and Heine.

On this basis, the ADGB and the AFA decided to call for a return to work, and most of the ministers and the parliamentarians made their way back to
Berlin. But neither the Independents nor the Greater Berlin strike committee
had given their agreement, and the decision remained on paper awaiting the
meetings of the strikers, which were generally called for Sunday, 21 March.

Indeed, the agreement of the strikers was far from having been won. Many
of the meetings decided to reject the decision of the trade-union confederations,
believing that the government had given nothing but promises for which the
workers had no guarantee, and that to endorse the decision would effectively
be giving the government a blank cheque. Furthermore, when ‘government’ troops had entered the suburbs of Berlin, there had been several violent
confrontations with armed workers, exchanges of shots, and arrests.

 A messenger presented himself at the Greater Berlin strike committee
bearing an appeal for help from the workers in the Ruhr who were under
pressure from the Reichswehr. The representatives of the KPD(S), followed
by many Independent workers, opposed ending the strike. Pieck and Walcher
argued that they should protect the Ruhr workers and continue the movement
until their security was ensured, that is, until the proletariat was armed. 

Then
the question of the workers’ government was raised publicly for the first
time. Däumig denounced what he considered to be the manoeuvres of Legien
and his ‘government operation’, the sole purpose of which was to pull the
Independents into the parliamentary game and to provide a left-wing cover
for the enfeebled coalition. The Communists had no mandate on this question.
They said that they were only learning about Legien’s proposals in the meeting
itself, and that they could speak only as individuals.

Walcher emphasised that the sort of workers’ government that the trade
unions proposed would be a ‘socialist government against Ebert and Haase’,
and that it did not need, contrary to what Däumig demanded, to announce
formally that it recognised the dictatorship of the proletariat, in order to be,
by its very existence, a step forward and a victory for the workers’ movement.
He turned to the trade-union delegates and said:

If you take your undertakings seriously, if you really want to arm the workers
and to disarm the counter-revolution, if you really want to purge the
administration of all the counter-revolutionary elements, then that means
civil war. In which case, it is not only obvious that we support the government,
but still more that we shall be at the forefront of the struggle. If, on the
contrary, you betray your programme and stab the workers in the back,
then we – and we very much hope that we shall be supported by people
coming from your ranks – we shall undertake the most resolute struggle,
without reserve and with all the means at our disposal.

At the end of a stormy session, it was finally decided, with the support of
the KPD(S) delegates, to demand that the strike be continued until guarantees
had been obtained, especially about the eighth point, the integration of workers
in the forces of ‘republican defence’. At the end of the meeting, negotiations
opened between the delegates of the two Social-Democratic Parties and the
trade unions. The Majority Social-Democratic delegates had a vital interest
in driving a wedge between the Communists and the Independents, and in
ending the general strike. In the name of the Social-Democratic fraction, Bauer
undertook to respect these four conditions: withdrawal of the Berlin troops
to the line of the Spree; lifting of the state of siege; undertaking to take no
offensive action against the armed workers, especially in the Ruhr; and
enrolment in Prussia of working people in ‘defence groups’ under
trade-union control.”

– Pierre Broue, The German Revolution, 1917-1923. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006, pp. 361-367.

Photographs are: Top: Berlin, U-Bahn Bülowstraße, März 1920 Generalstreik Kapp-Putsch.  Above, left: Postcard showing women fetching water during the General Strik in Berlin. Source. Above, right: Funeral procession in Solingen, Rhineland, of fallen militants, who died at Hahnerberg ( Wuppertal ), 1920. Source. Bottom: Portrait of Carl Legien.

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