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Posts Tagged ‘märzkämpfe 1920’

“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be disarmed and withdrawn from the whole industrial region, and that a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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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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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 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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