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Posts Tagged ‘straßenkämpfe’

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be disarmed and withdrawn from the whole industrial region, and that a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