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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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