Drowned in blood

James Harvey concludes his thoughts on the 1918-19 German revolution, based on his talk at CU2019.

The central question in late December 1918 was how to build a party that could bring about socialism. Support for a revolutionary position was clearly growing amongst the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) left and the Revolutionary Shop Stewards in Berlin.

In particular this support crystallised around calls for a USPD congress to decide the party’s position on the future constitutional structure of Germany and thus mount a challenge to the leadership‘s participation in the counterrevolutionary government of Friedrich Ebert. The leadership’s flat refusal to call a congress further heightened the debate about the type of party and strategy that was required. The available evidence suggests that at this stage Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches wanted to continue working within the USPD and develop the Spartakusbund’s support amongst left-moving workers. This appears to have been a relatively short-term strategy, as Luxemburg believed that the refusal to call a congress highlighted that the USPD leadership was moving to the right and a rapprochement with the SPD. However, Karl Liebknecht argued that the disintegration of the USPD was now occurring and that a new Communist Party should be launched immediately.

Whilst in retrospect these differences about the timing of the launch of the new party might seem relatively minor, they did reflect different tactical approaches and different responses to the contradictory currents within the working class that would prove tragically significant in January 1919.1

Although the Spartakusbund was to make up the key element in the formation of the German Communist Party, it was not the only revolutionary group that had an impact in this period. The International Communists of Germany (IKD) was a loose federation of autonomous groups in the industrial areas and ports of northern Germany, who had supported the Zimmerwald left in opposition to the imperialist war. However, unlike the Spartakists, this current had not joined the USPD and exhibited hostility to what it saw as the restrictive centralisation of the Spartakusbund.2 The Bremen left, led by Johann Knief, was the strongest group in this ‘left radical’ current, which argued for a form of anarcho-syndicalist ‘united organisation’, combining party and trade union.3 Although the IKD eventually agreed to fuse with the Spartakists, these differences on the nature of the revolutionary party remained and would prove to be important in the early years of the KPD.4

There were also other important differences, both between and within the Spartakusbund and the IKD, on whether revolutionaries should participate in or boycott the elections for the national assembly. Luxemburg, for example, argued that, once the Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils had decided to support the elections, revolutionaries should definitely take part in the election campaign, as it was “a means to educate, unite and mobilise the revolutionary masses, and a stage in the struggle to establish a proletarian dictatorship”.5 However, there were strong moods of ultra-leftism within both currents, demanding “a clean break with the hoax of parliamentarianism … we cannot tolerate making any deals with bourgeois institutions … Do not be diverted …” These views prevailed, with the result that the founding conference of the KPD (December 30 1918 - January 1 1919) voted by 62 to 23 to abstain in the elections.6

Given the growing strength of the counterrevolution in late December, these moods are perhaps understandable. The Ebert government had started to fulfil its side of the bargain with the army high command to ‘restore order’ by reining in the revolutionary elements in Berlin. Pro-government troops attempted to disarm the People’s Naval Division, a unit that was sympathetic to the revolutionary left and had participated in anti-government demonstrations. Militant sections among Berlin workers rallied to the side of sailors and helped to defeat the government troops over ‘Bloody Christmas’.7 This violence and the overt counterrevolutionary role of the government meant that the battle lines were now clearly drawn.


In late December and early January the city was swept with rumours, and confusion reigned on all sides. However, if the SPD leadership around Ebert and the generals had a clear strategy, other actors in these events did not. Whilst the USPD members of the government resigned in protest over the events of ‘Bloody Christmas’, its leadership vacillated and was unsure of its next move. The USPD lefts, such as Georg Ledebour and Emil Eichhorn, issued calls to action and flirted with militant phrases, but offered no revolutionary programme or concrete strategy for the workers of Berlin.8

The emerging KPD was also faced with a severe test of leadership in navigating the contradictory currents within the Berlin working class. For example, during ‘Bloody Christmas’ a group of Spartakists had, independently of the group’s leadership, taken over the offices of the SPD’s paper and issued their own version. The situation was defused by the evacuation of the building, but militant actions like this showed both the revolutionary potential and the dangers of a premature confrontation with the government.9

If the Spartakist leadership managed to contain the fall-out of ‘Bloody Christmas’, events in early January 1919 ultimately brought matters to a head. From late December units of the paramilitary Freikorps began to enter Berlin in preparation for a counterrevolutionary offensive against the working class. The Freikorps were vehemently rightwing ex-soldiers, effectively under the high command and determined to crush the revolutionary movement - a goal they shared with the SPD. On January 4 the SPD sacked Berlin’s police chief and USPD member, Emil Eichhorn, with the aim of provoking demonstrations and insurrectionary movements that could be used to justify repression by the army.10 The KPD leadership realised the dangers in the situation: on the one hand, revolutionary militancy amongst the Berlin working class was reaching boiling point and demands for action were growing by the day; on the other, even if an attempt to overthrow the government succeeded, the revolution could be isolated in Berlin and easily defeated by the army and Freikorps.11

The KPD central committee decided to raise limited demands and resist the sacking of Eichhorn through a series of militant demonstrations, but declared these actions would not, in themselves, constitute a call for the government to be overthrown. The KPD’s newspaper, Rote Fahne, concluded its appeal for resistance to the “counterrevolution’s latest blow” by calling for the workers to take “forceful revolutionary measures”:

Disarm the counterrevolution! Arm the proletariat! Consolidate all troops that are true to the revolution …! From every corner must resound the cry, ‘Down with Ebert-Scheidemann!’12

In response 150,000 Berlin workers rallied to defend the police headquarters on January 5, with militant calls from the crowd for arms raising the revolutionary temperature. Buoyed by this movement, a meeting of the Berlin USPD, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, together with Liebknecht and Friedrich Pieck of the KPD, convened in the police headquarters to plan not only a further demonstration the next day, but also how the movement could go forward.

It was here that the strategy adopted by KPD leadership began to unravel. Whilst the precise details are contested, it appears that in these discussions Liebknecht, acting independently of the KPD, argued that not only must Eichhorn be defended, but that it was now “absolutely necessary to overthrow Ebert-Scheidemann”.13 He was joined in this position by Ledebour and a substantial majority of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards. Overnight on January 5-6 a Revolutionary Committee was established under the leadership of Ledebour (USPD), Liebknecht (KPD) and Paul Scholze (Revolutionary Shop Stewards), which issued a call for a demonstration on January 6 against “counterrevolutionary intrigues” and urged that Berlin’s workers “arise and fight for the power of the revolutionary proletariat”.14 Reports that military units were prepared to support a revolutionary government encouraged the Revolutionary Committee to call for the seizure of key buildings and the arming of the workers, although little concrete preparation appears to have been made.

An even greater response than on January 5 took place the next day - 500,000 workers took to the streets, many bearing arms and demanding that the government be overthrown. The militancy of the crowds was unmistakable and their determination evident, especially to their enemies in the SPD. As Ebert was later to comment, “If the crowds had determined, conscious leaders instead of windbags, by noon that day Berlin would have been in their hands.”15 A later account by a KPD activist encapsulates the almost inexplicable hiatus and indecision that gripped the leaders of the Revolutionary Committee. The masses were mobilised, he recounted. However,

… then an outrage took place. From 9am the masses stood in the cold and light drizzle. And somewhere the leaders sat and deliberated. The drizzle intensified and still the masses stood there. But the leaders were deliberating. Midday arrived … And the leaders deliberated. The masses were feverish with excitement: they wanted a deed, even merely a word to appease their anxiety. But no-one knew what to do. For the leaders were deliberating … it was twilight. Sadly, the masses went home. They had intended a great deed, but had accomplished nothing. For the leaders had been deliberating … Deliberating, deliberating and deliberating.16


Whilst this confusion amongst the revolutionary leadership continued, the SPD government and its high command allies acted decisively and resolved to use all the forces at its disposal to crush the opposition. As the Ebert government rallied its supporters, the Revolutionary Committee began to disintegrate; the USPD leadership, along with sections of the Shop Stewards, attempted to negotiate a retreat with the government, leaving Liebknecht and Pieck isolated and abandoned.

The KPD central committee was only able to meet on January 8: when it did so, it sharply criticised Liebknecht and Pieck for their role on the Revolutionary Committee and the plans for what had essentially been a premature insurrection. Luxemburg was especially critical of the conduct of the Revolutionary Committee and its failure to provide real leadership to the masses: to her “the experience of the last three days cries out to the leading bodies of the workers: ‘Do not prattle! Do not discuss forever! Do not negotiate! Act!’”17 The subsequent ‘success’ of the Ebert government in defeating the revolution, ‘restoring order’ and murdering Luxemburg and Liebknecht only proves the truth of that warning about revolutionary posturing and impatience.

The KPD was formed in a testing period, in which German capitalist society was rocked to its foundations. The revolutionary commitment of its leadership cannot be doubted. However, this was a nascent party made up of young, inexperienced comrades, who were grappling both with unprecedented opportunities and the terrifying threat from a ruling class determined to uphold their system against allcomers.

In her extensive theoretical work Luxemburg clearly understood and explained the nature of the struggle between socialism and barbarism. However, what she and Liebknecht, along with the other members of the new KPD, faced in 1918-1919 was a new form of barbarism - the socialist who goes over to capitalism and is prepared to murder former comrades, drowning the socialist revolution in blood.

  1. Subsequent memoirs by Wilhelm Pieck and Clara Zetkin provide accounts of these discussions. See J Riddell (ed) The German Revolution and the debate on soviet power New York 1986, pp157-59.↩︎

  2. P Broué The German Revolution 1917-1923 Chicago 2006, pp202-07.↩︎

  3. P Broué op cit p972 and J Riddell op cit p158.↩︎

  4. See Radek’s account of Knief’s views in J Riddell op cit p162.↩︎

  5. Ibid p164.↩︎

  6. The words of a Berlin delegate speaking at the conference, quoted in ibid p181.↩︎

  7. There were 56 government troops and 1 revolutionary sailor who died in the fighting. See W Pelz A people’s history of the German Revolution London 2018, pp81-85.↩︎

  8. Ibid pp88-91.↩︎

  9. P Broué op cit pp198-207.↩︎

  10. W Pelz op cit, pp86-94.↩︎

  11. J Riddell op cit pp244-46.↩︎

  12. The full text is available in J Riddell op cit pp.245-46.↩︎

  13. P Broué op cit pp242-46.↩︎

  14. J Riddell op cit p248.↩︎

  15. Ibid p248.↩︎

  16. Ibid pp248-49.↩︎

  17. R Luxemburg, ‘Neglect of duty’, quoted in J Riddell op ci, pp253-55.↩︎