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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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“At the opening session of the Second Comintern Congress on 19 July 1920,
Zinoviev struck a solemn note: 

‘The Second Congress of the International
entered history at the same moment as it opened. Remember this day. Know
that it is the recompense for all our privations, for our hard, determined
struggle. Tell your children, and explain what it meant. Hold the imprint of
this hour in your hearts!’

Later he was to recall:

In the congress hall hung a great map on which was marked every day the
movement of our armies. And the delegates every morning stood with
breathless interest before this map. It was a sort of symbol: the best
representatives of the international proletariat with breathless interest, with
palpitating heart, followed every advance of our armies, and all perfectly
realised that, if the military aim set by our army was achieved, it would
mean an immense acceleration of the international proletarian revolution.

On this point, the foreign and the Russian delegates were in agreement.
During the discussion of an appeal drafted by Paul Levi and addressed to
the world proletariat on the subject of the Polish War, Ernst Däumig, one of
the four delegates of the USPD, declared: ‘Every kilometre which the Red
Army wins … is a step towards the Revolution in Germany.’ The Russians
modified the draft texts at the last minute to take into account what they
regarded as a new conjuncture of events. For this reason, the resolution which
Lenin drafted on tasks on 4 July which included the phrase: ‘However, it
does follow that the Communist Parties’ current task consists not in accelerating
the revolution, but in intensifying the preparation of the proletariat’ was
charged in the draft finally submitted to the Congress to: ‘The present task of the Communist Parties is now to accelerate the revolution, without provoking
it by artificial means before adequate preparation can have been made.’

All this seemed to prove to the Communists that the postwar revolutionary
wave, hitherto confined to the defeated countries, was in the process of
extending to the victorious ones, France, Britain and Italy. From this viewpoint,
the construction of real Communist Parties was becoming ever more urgent.
For an approaching revolution, an organisation, an instrument, a leadership
were needed very quickly. Lenin wrote:

The Second International has definitely been smashed. Aware that the Second
International is beyond hope, the intermediate parties and groups of the
‘centre’ are trying to lean on the Communist International, which is steadily
gaining in strength. At the same time, however, they hope to retain a degree
of ‘autonomy’ that will enable them to pursue their previous opportunist
or ‘centrist’ policies. The Communist International is, to a certain extent,
becoming the vogue. The desire of certain leading ‘centre’ groups to join
the Third International provides oblique confirmation that it has won the
sympathy of the vast majority of class-conscious workers throughout the
world, and is becoming a more powerful force with each day.

The requests of the centrist parties to join the International had to be examined
with the greatest caution. If they were accepted unconditionally, it would be
with the opportunist leaders at their head. The Bolsheviks thought that they
had nothing to expect from such leaders but ‘active sabotage of the revolution’,
as the experiences in Hungary and Germany had shown. There was not
enough time to eliminate them by a political struggle from within. It was
therefore necessary to take precautions in advance to prevent them bringing
problems into the International, ‘to put a lock … a solid guard on the door’,
as Zinoviev said.

This concern, plus the need to concentrate the Bolshevik experience within
a few points as an instrument of political clarification for parties joining the International, led the Russian Communists to propose to the Congress nineteen
conditions with which applicants were to comply. This applied both to existing
members and to parties applying for admission, whether they were centrist,
such as the USPD, which still included strong social-democratic currents, or
ultra-leftist, such as the KAPD. These nineteen conditions were modified by
the congress to become the celebrated ‘Twenty-One Conditions’, which
expressed the Bolsheviks’ conception of what a Communist Party should be. 

The first duty of Communists was to give a ‘genuinely Communist’ character
to their day-to-day agitation and propaganda. The objective of the dictatorship
of the proletariat must be presented to the working masses in such a way
that its indispensability would be clear from their day-to-day experience. Reformist and centrist elements were to be systematically dismissed – the word
is emphasised in the draft – from positions of responsibility in workers’
organisations, and replaced by tested Communists, workers promoted from
the rank and file if necessary. The activity of Communists could not be confined
within the limits approved by bourgeois legality:

In almost all the countries of Europe and America, the class struggle is
entering the phase of civil war. In these conditions, Communists can place
no trust in bourgeois legality. They must everywhere build up a parallel illegal
organisation, which, at the decisive moment, will be in a position to help
the party fulfil its duty to the revolution.

In connection with this, Communists must carry out systematic agitational
and propaganda work within the army, and create Communist cells in it.
Refusal to carry on such activity, which would be partly illegal, was considered
as incompatible with membership of the International. The Communist Parties
must develop systematic agitational work directed at the working people of
the countryside, relying upon workers who had preserved their rural
connections.

One of the most important tasks facing Communists consisted of a
determined break from both the social-patriotism of the reformists and the
social-pacifism of the centrists. Communists must systematically demonstrate
to the workers that, ‘without the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, no international arbitration courts, no talk about a reduction of armaments, no
“democratic” reorganisation of the League of Nations will save mankind from
new imperialist wars’. The break from the reformists and the centrists must
be carried through ‘imperatively and uncompromisingly’ in every party,
particularly in respect of notorious reformist personalities like the Italian
Turati. At the same time, the Communist Parties must resist the imperialist
undertakings of their own bourgeoisie, and ‘must support – in deed, not
merely in word – every colonial liberation movement’. 

The ninth condition returned to the themes which were developed in the
polemic against the ultra-leftists. It instructed the Communist Parties to work
within the trade unions, by establishing cells within them that were ‘completely
subordinate to the party as a whole’. It was these cells – later to be called
‘fractions’ – which ‘by their sustained and unflagging work, win the unions
over to the communist cause’ and ‘unmask the treachery of the social-patriots
and the vacillations of the centrists’. Within the unions, it was necessary to
fight against ‘the yellow Amsterdam International’, and the International
must do all that is possible to break the unions from Amsterdam, and strengthen
‘the emerging international federation of red trade unions which are associated
with the Communist International’. 

Communists must use bourgeois parliaments as platforms for revolutionary
agitation, but must ensure the reliability of the parliamentary groups by
purging them of unreliable elements, and subordinating them to the Party’s
Central Committee. The publishing and press departments of the Party must
be under the control of the Central Committee. 

In matters of organisation, Communist Parties must be organised in
conformity with the principle of democratic centralism. The thirteenth condition
laid down:

In this period of acute civil war, the communist parties can perform their
duty only if they are organised in a most centralised manner, are marked
by an iron discipline bordering on military discipline, and have strong and
authoritative party centres invested with wide powers and enjoying the
unanimous confidence of the membership. 

Moreover, the leaders of Communist Parties needed to ensure the integrity
of the rank and file by carrying out a periodic purge, which in the case of
parties which carried on legal activities, meant systematically removing
dubious members.

The fifteenth condition laid down that Communist Parties were obliged
‘selflessly to help any Soviet republic in its struggle against counter-
revolutionary forces’.

The last four conditions spelt out the immediate requirements for parties
that were either actual or prospective members of the International. They
were to revise their former programmes to meet both national conditions and
the decisions of the International, with the revisions being ratified by the
ECCI. The decisions of the International’s congresses and the ECCI were to
be strictly followed. Every party which wished to join must call itself ‘the
Communist Party of the country in question (Section of the Third International)’,
in order to bring out clearly the difference between the Communist Parties
and the old Socialist or Social-Democratic parties which had betrayed the
working class. Lastly, they were all to convene their own congresses at the
end of the World Congress in order to put on record that they accepted these
conditions.

These were draconian conditions, and they were further strengthened at
the congress. They implied for every party of social-democratic or centrist
origin, whether in the International or not, as well as for the ultra-left groups
which wanted to join or to remain in the International, an early split on their
part, as the Bolshevik leaders were well aware. Trotsky declared:

There is no doubt that the proletariat would be in power in all countries, if
there were not still between them [communist parties] and the masses,
between the revolutionary mass and the advanced groups of the revolutionary
mass, a large, powerful and complex machine, the parties of the Second
International and the trade unions, which in the epoch of the disintegration,
the dying of the bourgeoisie, placed their machine at the service of that
bourgeoisie… . From now on, from this congress, the split in the world
working class will proceed with tenfold greater rapidity. Programme against
programme; tactic against tactic; method against method.

To be sure, no Communist underestimated the negative consequences of any
split in the workers’ movement. However, convinced as the Communists
were that the world was in a period of ‘sharp civil war’, and that the time
of the seizure of power was near, at least in the most advanced countries,
they decided, without a real preliminary discussion, to apply these conditions.”

– Pierre Broue, The German Revolution, 1917-1923. Translated by John Archer and edited by Ian Birchall and Brian Pearce. Brill: London & New York, 2005. pp. 422-427

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“On the morrow of the putsch, the Ruhr stood in the van of the armed struggle
and the organisation of workers’ power. In a number of places, a network of
workers’ councils and action committees had taken power. The action
committee in Hagen was a genuine revolutionary military leadership which
could call on 100,000 armed workers. The workers’ units went on the attack
on 18 March, and the Reichswehr pulled back its scattered forces, one of
which left behind for the workers of Düsseldorf 4,000 rifles, 1,000 machine-
guns, cannon, mortars and ammunition. Although the workers in the Ruhr
appeared to be the masters during the following week, they were so far ahead
of their comrades in the rest of the country that they were dangerously isolated.
Social Democrats, Independents and even Communists everywhere else had
willingly or unwillingly accepted the situation created by the return to work
and the breakdown of the discussions about forming a workers’ government.
The delegates from the Ruhr, Wilhelm Düwell on 21 March, and Graul on
the 23rd, described to the Berlin strike committee the situation in their region
and the danger created by the shortage of food. On 23 March, the Zentrale
sent Wilhelm Pieck to the scene. 

Political divisions ran deep. The committee
in Hagen was formed of Majority Social Democrats, Independents and two
Communists, Triebel and Charpentier. However, their party had just disavowed
them, because they agreed to open negotiations without being mandated to
do so. In Essen the executive committee, which was under Communist
influence, reacted to Hagen’s support for negotiations by considering how
to outflank its committee.
On 18 March, the action committee in Hagen called on workers who were
not armed to return to work. On 20 March, it made known its demands in
respect of the Reichswehr to General von Watter, who had waited until 16
March to dissociate himself from von Lüttwitz: these were that the Reichswehr
be disarmed and withdrawn from the whole industrial region, and that a
militia be formed under the control of the workers’ organisations. In the
meantime, ‘public order would be ensured by armed formations of workers’. Bauer replied by telegraph that these conditions were not acceptable, because
von Watter and his forces had not taken the side of the putsch. The Ministers
Giesberts and Braun came to the support of Severing, the Reich’s Commissioner,
in negotiations aimed at an agreement based on the ‘nine points of the trade
unions’. 

The talks opened in Bielefeld on 23 March in the presence of a vast
gathering of representatives of the councils in the principal cities, several
mayors and the representatives of the workers’ parties and trade unions,
including Charpentier and Triebel, the two Communist members on the Hagen
action committee. A small commission drew up a statement which all the
participants finally approved on 24 March. The representatives of the
government confirmed in it that they agreed with the programme of the trade
unions, and that they accepted a temporary collaboration between the military
authorities and the workers’ representatives whilst the terms of the agreement
were fulfilled. Josef Ernst was attached to Severing and General von Watter. It was expected that, in a first stage, the workers would retain under arms a
limited number of men whom the authorities would control, and who would
be recognised as auxiliary police. Most of the workers’ arms would be handed
in, and fighting was to stop immediately. 

These agreements were not respected in practice. Nonetheless, Wilhelm
Pieck, who learned that they had been signed when he arrived in Essen,
insisted that an armistice must be enforced which would enable the workers
to retain their arms, and to organise solidly the militia which had provisionally
been conceded to them. But he failed to convince the members of the
executive council in Essen, who did not regard themselves as bound by an
agreement in which they had had no say. Moreover, the men from Duisburg
and Mülheim, on the Left of this committee which the KPD(S) controlled and
under the influence of the opposition Communists, together with the members
of the powerful local new ‘unions’, amongst whom anarchists had real influence,
denounced the ‘traitors’ who had signed, and called for the struggle to be
continued. There was a crowd of rival revolutionary authorities, six or seven
‘military leaderships’, and each was trying to outflank the others.

On 24 March, the Essen executive council met in the presence of Josef Ernst
and of a ‘front-line’ delegate from Wesel, where the workers were attacking
the barracks. The representatives from Mülheim condemned any armistice
in advance, but admitted that they were short of ammunition. The council
refused to recognise the agreements, at which point the Hagen committee
declared that it was dissolved, and repeated its order that fighting must end.
This decision was ineffectual. On the next day, 25 March, a meeting was
held, again in Essen, of delegates of seventy workers’ councils in the Ruhr,
with the principal leaders of the ‘Red Army’. Pieck spoke to emphasise that
the agreements offered no guarantees, and he suggested that the workers
should retain their arms in the meantime, although he warned against
provoking fights. The assembly elected a central committee formed of ten
Independents, one Majority Social Democrat and four Communists. Pieck
said: ‘We have not succeeded in convincing the front-line comrades that it
would be better to stop fighting.’ 

Two days later, however, the central council in Essen decided, against the
opinion of its military leaders but in the light of the general situation, to
demand that the government open armistice negotiations.  The next day,
there was a conference in Hagen of delegates of the three workers’ parties.
Pieck spoke there to the effect that the situation was not ripe for a conciliar
republic, but that they should fight to arm the proletariat, to disarm the
bourgeoisie, and to reorganise and re-elect the workers’ councils.  The decision
was taken to negotiate, but also to prepare to resume the general strike in
the event of an attack from the Reichswehr. A second meeting of the councils,
which was called for the 28th by the Essen central council and at which Levi
was present, confirmed this position.  But on the same day, Hermann Müller
told the central council that he demanded as a precondition for any negotiations
that the illegal authorities be wound up and the arms be handed in. 

Fighting continued during these days, and the central council did not
succeed in imposing throughout the industrial region sufficient authority to
make its policies effective. In Wesel, the barracks had been under siege for
several days, and the ‘Red Army’ chiefs in Wesel issued fiery summonses
to battle which the central council criticised as ‘adventurist’. In Duisburg
and Mülheim, ‘unionist’ elements threatened to sabotage the industrial
installations and to ‘destroy the plant’ in the event of an advance by troops. 

A revolutionary executive committee, installed in Duisburg under the
authority of the ultra-leftist Wild, decided to seize bank accounts and all
foodstuffs, and called for the workers’ councils to be elected exclusively by
workers ‘who stand for the dictatorship of the proletariat’. Incidents began
to break out between workers of opposed tendencies, supporters or adversaries
of the armistice, and partisans or opponents of sabotage. A member of the
opposition, Gottfried Karrusseit, issued inflammatory proclamations, and
signed them as ‘Commander-in-Chief of the Red Army’. Pieck treated him
as a ‘crazed petty bourgeois’. 

The central council in Essen was in no better position to guarantee a cease-fire than the Hagen action committee had been a few days earlier. General
von Watter took advantage of this disunity and the internal differences in the
workers’ camp. He demanded from the Essen leaders that within 24 hours
they hand in to him four heavy guns, 10 light guns, 200 machine-guns, 16
mortars, 20,000 rifles, 400 boxes of artillery shells, 600 mortar bombs and
100,000 cartridges. If the arms and ammunition were not handed over to him
within the time limit, he would regard the workers’ leaders as having refused o disarm their forces, and having broken the agreement. The Essen council
replied to this provocative ultimatum by calling for a general strike. 

On 30 March, delegates from the Essen council were in Berlin, where they
took part in a meeting which included the leaders of all the trade unions and
workers’ parties, including Pieck and Levi. They unanimously decided to
demand from the Müller government that it take measures to ensure that the
Bielefeld agreement was respected, and that the military authorities were
rendered harmless. Five representatives, including Levi, were received by
Chancellor Müller, and demanded from him that General von Watter be
recalled.129 Their effort was in vain. The Chancellor replied that the agreement
had been one-sidedly broken, and he used the robberies, seizures of bank
accounts and threats of sabotage to justify ‘the maintenance of order’.

When Pieck returned to Essen, he found a state of extreme confusion. A
majority of the members of the central council had gone to Münster to negotiate
with Severing, and nearly all of them had been arrested by the army on the
way. Nonetheless, another general assembly of the councils for the industrial
region was held in Essen on 1 April, with 259 representatives from 94 councils. Pieck, an Independent, Oettinghaus, and the representative from Mülheim,
Nickel, reported on the events in Berlin, and the assembly adopted a position
on the armistice conditions. It issued an appeal to defend and develop the
network of workers’ councils. 

On 3 April, von Watter’s troops began their advance. They met only sporadic
resistance because the confusion and disagreement between different leaders
paralysed every slight attempt at coordinating the defence. The behaviour
of the soldiery when they were reoccupying the coalfield was such as to provoke the anger even of Severing himself. Soon, military courts were
passing heavy prison sentences on militant workers accused of crimes or
misdemeanours which were really requisitions or measures of struggle. A
month after the putsch had been crushed by the general strike, the accomplices
of the putschists took ample revenge in the Ruhr. 

The events of March 1920 were to have far-reaching effects. The Reichswehr
had restored order, and the crisis in the workers’ movement seemed to be
reaching its peak. The Zentrale’s vacillations, its evasions and its turns had
prevented the KPD(S) from reaping the rewards it might have expected from
the event. However, it was to try to deepen the crisis which surged up again
in the Social-Democratic Parties.”

– Pierre Broue, The German Revolution, 1917-1923. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006, pp. 372-377.

Photographs all show the ‘Red Army’ of the Rhineland during the March 1920 fighting. Sources are, from top to bottom: 1) The Rhineland during the World War. 2) RF News. 3) South German Photo Archive. 4) Getty. 5) Otto Dix, “Streetfighting.” Photo of destroyed 1920 art. Art for a Change.

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Scenes from the Straßenkämpfe in Leipzig, März 1920. [Scenes of the General Strike in Kiel, March 18, 1920].

“Nothing moved in Berlin, where the Regime could not get a single poster
printed. In the Ruhr, on the contrary, when the Lichtschlag Free Corps began
to move, it immediately came under attack from bands of armed workers.31
In the same way, there was fighting in Leipzig, Frankfurt, Halle and Kiel.
The sailors in Wilhelmshaven mutinied, and arrested Admiral von Leventzow
and 400 officers. In Chemnitz, still under the leadership of the Communists,
a committee of action formed of representatives of the workers’ parties called
on the workers to elect their delegates to workers’ factory councils. A few
hours later, these delegates, elected by 75,000 workers on a basis of lists and
proportional representation, in turn elected the workers’ council of the city,
ten Communists, nine Social Democrats, one Independent and one Democrat. Brandler was one of the three chairmen of this revolutionary body, the authority
and prestige of which extended through a whole industrial region where the forces of repression were disarmed or neutralised, and the workers were
armed. He was to write, not without pride:

In Chemnitz, we were the first party to issue the slogans of the general
strike, disarming the bourgeoisie, arming the workers and immediately re-
electing the political workers’ councils. We also were the first, thanks to the
strength of the Communist Party, to make these slogans a reality.

However, a new danger appeared, precisely in the very region where the
Communist initiatives seemed to be enabling a solid front of working-class
resistance to the putschists to be created. An activist of the KPD(S) named
Max Hoelz had during 1919 been the organiser of violent demonstrations of
the unemployed in the Falkenstein region. Under threat of arrest, he went
underground, where he met active elements in the Party opposition.

In this miserable Erzgebirge-Vogtland region, crushed beneath generalised
unemployment, he had organised armed detachments, a kind of ‘urban
guerrilla’, groups of unemployed or quite young people with weapons, who
attacked the police or agents of the employers, and often seized the money
in factories or banks to finance his troops. In this crisis-ravaged region, after
three arrests and escapes, Hoelz cut the figure of a modern-day Robin Hood. On the news of the Kapp uprising, he attacked, forced open the prison gates
at Plauen, recruited and summarily organised guerrilla units which he named
‘red guards’, and began to harass the Reichswehr. He organised raids against
its isolated detachments, looted shops and banks, and spectacularly improved
the food supply to the people of the workers’ suburbs. His ‘activist’ conception
of action, the way in which he substituted commando raids for mass action,
as well as the alarm which he provoked even in some of the working-class
population, aroused the anxiety of Brandler and the Chemnitz Communists,
who condemned him as an adventurist, and denounced some of his initiatives
as provocative.

A similar phenomenon in the Ruhr attracted more numerous masses of
workers, and gave rise to what was called a ‘Red Army’. In Hagen, a committee
of action was formed on the initiative of Independent activists, Stemmer, a
miner, and Josef Ernst, a metalworker, and set up a ‘military committee’. In
a few hours, 2,000 armed workers marched on Wetter, where the workers
were fighting the Free Corps.

It seemed on 16 March that there was either fighting or preparation for it
throughout Germany, except in the capital, where the military superiority of
the army seemed overwhelming. The Red Army of the Ruhr workers was
marching on Dortmund. The Free Corps and the Reichswehr held the centre
of Leipzig against improvised detachments of workers. In Kottbus, Major
Buchrucker ordered any civilian bearing arms to be shot on the spot. In Stettin,
a committee of action on the Chemnitz model had been formed, and the
struggle between the supporters and the opponents of the putsch took place
in the garrison itself.

Levi wrote to the Zentrale a very angry letter from the prison in Berlin
where he had been held for several weeks. He criticised its passivity and lack
of initiative, and its blindness to the possibilities which the struggle against
the putsch offered to revolutionaries. Moreover, over most of the country,
apart from Berlin, the leading Communists reacted in a similar way to him.
The activists in the Ruhr called for the arming of the proletariat, and for the
immediate election of workers’ councils from which the supporters of bourgeois democracy would be excluded. The instructions drawn up by the
Zentrale on the 13th received a cool reception everywhere, and its orders
were destroyed. Almost everywhere, without taking any notice of the
instructions from the Zentrale, Communists called for a general strike, and
played a part in organising it. Several opposition groups, however – notably
that in Hamburg – took up a wait-and-see position which they justified by a
refusal to join in common action with the ‘social traitors’. Neither in Berlin
nor in Rühle’s group in Dresden did the ultra-leftists play any role. However, from various regions of Germany, opposition activists such as Appel from
Hamburg and Karl Plattner from Dresden came to join the workers fighting
in the Ruhr.

In Berlin, Kapp, in desperation, negotiated with Vice-Chancellor Schiffer,
who was representing the Bauer government. In the common interest, Kapp
agreed that General Groener should attempt to mediate with President Ebert.
But Ebert was in no hurry. Kapp, confronted with the general strike, was
in fact struggling ‘against problems too great for human strength’, as Benoist-
Méchin put it. In a sense, his government was in a vacuum. Bread and meat
were in short supply in the capital. The head of the Reichsbank was refusing
to pay out the ten million marks which Kapp was demanding of him. On
16 March at one o’clock in the afternoon, Kapp gave the order that ‘agitators
and workers on picket lines were to be shot down from four o’clock onwards’. This time, it was actually the big employers who reacted against a measure
which could have unleashed civil war; Ernst von Borsig in person led a
delegation to insist that Kapp should abandon any use of force. ‘Unanimity
is so great amongst the working class that it is impossible to distinguish the
agitators from the millions of workers who have stopped work.’ The workers in the Ruhr had recaptured Dortmund by six o’clock in the
morning. During the night of 16–17 March, a regiment of pioneers mutinied
in Berlin itself, and imprisoned its officers. Intervention by the spearhead of
the putsch, the Ehrhardt naval brigade, was needed to free them. Civil war
was inevitable if the putschists persisted, and the victory of the working class
was probable, both over them and over the government, not least because
the latter’s base and possibilities of action were narrowing hour by hour, as
the army, whether putschist or ‘neutral’, had ceased to be reliable. 

On 17 March, realising that he was defeated, Kapp fled. General von Lüttwitz
came under pressure from officers more politically aware than himself to put
an end to the adventure, and he too fled a few hours later, even leaving to
Vice-Chancellor Schiffer the task of drafting his letter of explanation. His
collaborators could no longer answer for their troops, and demanded that command be handed over to a general who had not been compromised in
the putsch. The man of the hour would be von Seeckt. The putsch had lasted
for no more than a hundred hours in all, and it was well and truly crushed
by the response of the workers, and in the first place by their general strike. 

But the consequences of the putsch were not exhausted. The first armed
fights broke out in Berlin that day. Shots were exchanged in Neukölln, and
barricades were raised by the workers at the entry to Kottbus. In Nuremberg,
the Reichswehr fired on a demonstration of workers and killed twenty-two
people; this sparked off a real insurrection. In Suhl, the workers’ militia seized
a Reichswehr training centre and took control of a substantial stock of arms
and ammunition. In Dortmund, the police, controlled by the Social Democrats,
took the side of the ‘Red Army’ against the Free Corps. The general strike
continued across the country, and at that point the question was whether
Kapp’s headlong flight would lead to the strike being called off, and at what
cost, or whether the revolutionary wave which Kapp’s putsch had so
imprudently set in motion was leading to fresh civil war.

Amid the fears
voiced on the Right, it is difficult to distinguish the genuine fears from the
attempts to spread hysteria.
Indeed, whilst this time Germany was not covered by a network of elected
workers’ councils – Chemnitz and the Ruhr remained exceptional – it was
nonetheless covered by a tight network of executive committees [Vollzugsräte],
or action committees, formed by the workers’ parties and trade unions.
The struggle against the putschists and the organisation of defence led these
committees to play the role of revolutionary centres, and this posed in a
practical way, in the course of the general strike itself, the problem of power
in general, and the more immediate question of the nature of the government.”

– Pierre Broue, The German Revolution, 1917-1923. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006, pp. 356-360.

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Scenes from the Straßenkämpfe in Kiel, 18 März 1920. [Scenes of the General Strike in Kiel, March 18, 1920]

“Whilst the government was taking flight, resistance was nonetheless being organised. In the morning, Legien convened a meeting of the General Commission of the trade unions, and at 11 o’clock this body called for a general strike. Wels, who was one of the few Social-Democratic leaders to stay behind, had drafted and printed a poster, to which he attached the signatures of the Social-Democratic ministers, who obviously had never been consulted. This called for a general strike on the theme of unity against counter-revolution and for the defence of the Republic. The Independents also called on the workers to support the general strike, ‘for liberty, for revolutionary socialism, and against military dictatorship and the restoration of the monarchy’. Legien held discussions with the object of forming a general strike committee, which would be made up from all the workers’ organisations, and the authority of which could be much wider than that of the General Commission of the trade unions alone. But agreement could not be reached. The Majority socialists, Wels and his comrades, wanted to defend what they regarded as ‘the government of the Republic’, whilst the Independents made it quite clear that there could be no possibility of their defending the government of Ebert and Noske.

So there would be two ‘central strike committees’ in Berlin, one around Legien, with the All-German General Trade Unions (ADGB), the Free Trade Unions (AFA) and the civil servants’ association, and the SPD, and the other which brought together the leaders of the trade unions in Berlin, Rusch and his comrades, and the leaders of the Independents. The KPD(S) was to join it later.

The initiative in the struggle was taken by Legien. At dawn on 13 March, he refused to flee, criticised the attitude of the Social-Democratic leaders, and threw his whole authority and influence as head of the union apparatus behind the general strike. He had always opposed the idea of a general strike; he was the prudent reformist, the patriarch of the revisionists, the incarnation of decades of class collaboration – and yet he decided to go ‘underground’ and to make contact with everyone, including the Communists, who could ensure the defeat of the putsch. Moreover, he showed that he was more in touch with the masses at this juncture than the Communists were. In the absence of Paul Levi, who was serving a jail sentence of one year, under the pressure of the Berlin leaders, Friesland and Budich, who tended towards ultra-leftism, and against the opposition of Jakob Walcher alone, the KPD(S) leadership published an appeal, probably drafted by Bronski, which Die Rote Fahne published on 14 March. This expressed the belief that for the moment there was no point in opposing the military putsch; the real struggle was for power, and that lay in the future:

Should the working people in these circumstances go in for the general strike? Yesterday, the working class was still shackled with Ebert and Noske’s chains, and disarmed. In the worst of conditions, it cannot act. We believe our duty to be to speak out clearly. The working class will undertake to struggle against the military dictatorship in the circumstances and by the means which it will judge to be appropriate. These circumstances do not yet exist.

But the German workers did not hear this appeal for passivity. On 14 March, a Sunday, it was possible to judge the ardour and the scope of the their resistance. One after another the trains ceased to move. By five o’clock in the evening, there were in Berlin no trams, no water, no gas and no electricity. Skirmishes between soldiers and workers were breaking out nearly everywhere. Workers had already responded on the previous day. In Chemnitz, a committee of action was formed, including the trade unions and all the workers’ parties, on the initiative of the Communists under Brandler’s leadership. It seized the initiative, in the absence of troops, and formed a workers’ militia, the Arbeiterwehr, which occupied the station, post office and city hall.In Leipzig, negotiations between the political parties began, but the Communists refused to sign the document calling for the general strike which the other organisations drafted. The first violent incidents took place on the night of 13–14 March between police and demonstrating workers in Dortmund. The first battles took place in the Ruhr on the 14th. General von Watter ordered his troops to march on Hagen, where the workers were arming themselves; Social Democrats and Independents issued a joint call for a general strike. In Leipzig, the Free Corps opened fire on a workers’ demonstration, 22 people were killed, and the fight went on. In Chemnitz, the workers’ organisations decided immediately to recruit 3,000 men to the workers’ militia.  In Berlin, the KPD(S) Zentrale recognised its mistake, and drafted a new appeal, which was distributed as a leaflet on the 15th, but it still remained behind the development of the struggle in that it did not call for the arming of the proletariat:

For the general strike! Down with the military dictatorship! All power to the workers’ councils!… . In the councils, the Communists will fight for the dictatorship of the proletariat, for the republic of councils! Working people! Do not take to the streets! Meet in your workplaces every day! Do not let the White Guards provoke you!

The reality was that by the 15th, the Kapp-Lüttwitz government was completely paralysed. The Belgian socialist Louis De Brouckère wrote: ‘The general strike now grips them with its terrible, silent power.’”

– Pierre Broue, The German Revolution, 1917-1923. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006, pp. 353-355.

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Scenes of the Kapp-Putsch and Märzkämpfe 1920 in Berlin [Scenes of the Kapp Putsch and March fighting in Berlin]

“The officers were particularly sensitive to the danger posed by Allied demands that ‘war criminals’ were to be extradited. They informed Noske of this on 26 July 1919,3 and he supported them unreservedly. But the blast of discontent and ill-feeling which these demands provoked was soon supplemented by the return of the Free Corps who had since 1919 been fighting the Red Army in the Baltic states, and who the Allies had insisted must be withdrawn, having made sure that they would be replaced. In the front rank of the military men, who were thinking more and more in terms of staging a putsch, stood General von Lüttwitz, the officer commanding the armed forces in Berlin, who saw himself as the successor to Hindenburg and the guardian of the traditions and the honour of the army.

The fate of the Free Corps was not the only source of anxiety. The reduction in the size of the forces, which the peace treaty imposed, concerned all ranks of the military. If the élite troops were dissolved, the fate of a substantial part of the military establishment would be settled by the same stroke. The naval brigade led by Captain Ehrhardt, who was based in Doberitz, at the gates of Berlin, was to serve as a test case. General von Lüttwitz assured its leader that he would not permit that ‘in such a stormy period such a force should be broken up’. He criticised the ‘weakness’ of the government in the face of the ‘Bolshevik menace’, and talked openly about a coup d’état. The Berlin police chief, Colonel Arens, tried to dissuade him by arranging an interview with him and the leaders of the right wing in parliament.

The Right was campaigning for the National Assembly to be dissolved and for a new election to the presidency of the Republic, but did not manage to convince him that his projects were imprudent. The General believed only in the strength of his battalions, and thought that the elections would go all the better if he had swept the politicians away beforehand. So he embarked on a conspiracy, the principal figures in which, alongside him, were Ehrhardt, Ludendorff and a civilian named Wolfgang Kapp, the director of agriculture in Prussia, who represented the junkers and highly-placed imperial civil servants. It was a risky enterprise, either premature or too late; the authorities knew nearly everything about it, but it had the advantage of having accomplices in all the key state positions.

The Cabinet met on 12 March. It examined the situation, and postponed the necessary decisions to its meeting on the 15th.That same day, however Noske issued warrants for the arrest of the most conspicuous conspirators, such as Captain Pabst. General von Lüttwitz was forced back onto the defensive, and withdrew to the camp in Doberitz. The senior officer whom Noske had entrusted with security at the camp telephoned to say that von Lüttwitz had arrived, and returned with the assurance that all was calm. That same night, the Ehrhardt brigade set off to march towards the centre of Berlin.

The insurgents issued an ultimatum which called for Ebert to be dismissed, for the Reichstag to be dissolved and new elections to be held, and, in the meantime, a cabinet of technicians to be established with a general at the War Ministry. Noske called a meeting of the military chiefs who were not involved in the plot, in his office at 1.30am, and received the reply that there was no question of armed resistance being organised. The Council of Ministers met at three o’clock, and finally decided to evacuate the capital, leaving only two of its members behind, one of whom was Vice-Chancellor Schiffer. Before dawn, nearly all the government and over 200 deputies were on the road to Dresden, where they hoped to find protection with General Maercker.

In the early hours of the morning, Ehrhardt’s men occupied Berlin, and flew the Imperial flag on the public buildings. Kapp was installed in the Chancellery, and he issued his first decrees, proclaiming a state of siege, suspending all newspapers, and appointing General von Lüttwitz as commander-in-chief. By midday he could believe that all the military headquarters and all the police forces in the Berlin military region had joined his enterprise. The members of the government were not happy about the attitude of General Maercker, and took to the road again, this time towards Stuttgart, where they thought that they could count on General Bergmann. By the evening of the 13th, it seemed that the putsch had succeeded without bloodshed, because nowhere had either the army or the police showed signs of opposing it, and the authorities in the north and east had recognised the new government.”

– Pierre Broue, The German Revolution, 1917-1923. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006, pp. 351-353.

Topmost photograph: “Soldaten der Marinebrigade Ehrhardt hissen die Kriegsflagge des Kaiserreichs mit den Farben Schwarz-Weiß-Rot.” Bundesarchiv, Bild 119-1983-0021.

Top two photographs are left:  Hermann Ehrhardt during the Kapp Putsch, Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1971-037-42 and right: Gustav Noske & Walter Lüttwitz, “Der sozialdemokratische Reichswehrminister Gustav Noske – er hatte diese Funktion von 1919 bis März 1920 inne – im Gespräch mit General von Lüttwitz.” (Aufn.: um 1920), Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-0718-501.   

Next four photographs are postcards showing 1) troops and armoured train entering Berlin during the Putsch; 2 & 3) troops of the Kapp regime occupying Potsdamer Platz; 4) machine gunners taking position during the March 1920 fighting in Berlin caused by the Putsch.

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