In early January 1918, a few industrial workers in Berlin began to strike for an end of the war, and their protest forced the SPD (the Social Democrats) to reconsider her position somewhat. In the initial enthusiasm of August 1914, the party had accepted Kaiser Wilhelm’s appeal for national unity in times of peril and voted for war credits, but the rigours of rationing, the vicissitudes of war production and the growing inflation gnawed at their supporters’ loyalty. In many factories, work days of twelve to fourteen hours were the norm, seven days a week. Had the wages been adequate, or, rather, had there been goods to be purchased in the first place, the hardships might have been obliged with more tolerance, but under the trauma of a fourth winter at war, even moderate socialists felt a need for action. Their displeasure at the economic conditions, which were largely the consequence of Hindenburg’s and Ludendorff’s neglect of the agricultural sector, was shared by the liberal bourgeois parties, which also objected to the arrogance with which the generals ran the country. A mood of protest slowly emanated from the trenches of France and Belgium but soon…
… spread to Germany itself, which had been under a virtual military dictatorship for several months, and on Monday, January 28, 1918, workers throughout Germany went on strike. Peace was their main demand but
they also insisted on workers’ representation in negotiations with the Allies, increased food rations, the abolition of martial law, and a democratic government throughout Germany. In Munich and Nuremberg only a few thousand workers marched through the streets petitioning for immediate peace without annexation, but in Berlin 400,000 workers walked out of their shops to organize a strike committee.
Within a week they were forced back to work but a spirit of rebellion had come alive in the capital and it seemed only a question of time before full-scale revolution would break out. News of the general strike was received with mixed feelings at the front. Many of the soldiers were as war-weary and disgusted as those back at home but almost as many felt they had been betrayed by their own civilians.
Hitler called it “the biggest piece of chicanery in the whole war.” He was incensed at the “slackers and Reds.” What was the army fighting for if the homeland itself no longer wanted victory? For whom the immense
sacrifices and privations? “The soldier is expected to fight for victory and the homeland goes on strike against it.” [John Toland, Adolf Hitler, Anchor Books 1992, ISBN 0-385-42053-6, p. 69]
Hitler’s first visit to Berlin had occurred a few weeks before the strike, and when he paced through the capital for the second time, on November 19, 1918, the commotion of the previous week had already subsided, but the massacre of December 6 was more than two weeks in the future. In this incident, a demonstration by Spartacists turning around a street corner suddenly faced a line of machine guns manned by soldiers from the Maybug barracks , who fired at everything that moved for five minutes before retreating to the safety and anonymity of the garrison and leaving the dead, wounded and dying to their fate. It was never found out who the killers were. Between these revolutionary hiccups, Hitler returned safely to Munich in but found, to his astonishment, that much had changed since December 7.
 “Maybugs” was the name for the Garde-Füsilier-Regiment, the marksmen regiment of the Prussian Guards, for their insignia.
During the war, the Bavarian socialist movement had split, as in most other German states, into a large moderate wing which retained the name of SPD and a smaller radical group, the USPD (“U” for unabhängig, i.e. independent). In Bavaria, this split had occurred under the orchestration of a Bavarian delegate to the SPD convention at Gotha in April 1917, Kurt Eisner. At this convention, arguments over the support of the war resulted in schism and when Eisner returned to München, he was elected chairman of the Bavarian USPD. Both parties were represented in the Bavarian Diet, which existed since 1819 but lacked effective legislative authority, which remained with the king. Bavaria was a mostly rural country in the first half of the 19th Century, but with the flourishing of the German industry in the next sixty years, and especially when munitions, vehicle and ironware factories multiplied during the war, so did the influence of the socialist parties. More daringly than their comrades in Berlin, the Bavarian Socialists introduced a reform bill proposing wide-reaching demands in September 1917: the abolition of the Senate, the parliamentary playground of the nobility, and of nobility itself, the introduction of general suffrage, legislative emancipation of the Diet and the separation of Church and State.
The bill died quick by royal veto, but in the country-wide strikes of January 1918, the Bavarian USPD was able to mobilize the streets to a degree the government judged far too dangerous. The USPD’s public faces were subsequently arrested, among them the free spirit of Kurt Eisner.
For most of his working life Eisner had been a drama critic. During the war he founded the Independent Socialist Party in Bavaria, and in January 1918, he took a leading role in the strikes that plagued München. Arrested and thrown into prison, he was released during the last days of the war. His friend Ernst Toller [the playwright,¶] described him as a man who had been poor, self-sufficient, and detached throughout his life. He was small and slight; grey hair that had once been fair fell in a confused tangle to his coat collar, and an untidy beard straggled over his chest; short-sighted eyes looked out calmly from his deeply lined face. He had a sense of drama, a caustic wit, and was totally without arrogance. [Robert Payne, The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, Praeger Publishers 1973, Lib. Con. 72-92891, p. 122]
He was accused of being a Bolshevik, which he certainly was not. He was what his party card stated, an independent socialist: less of a follower of stringent doctrine than a man perceiving the incompetent rule of the nobility and a system breaking apart under social injustice and the privations of four years of war. When the right-wing press denounced him of being a Bolshevik activist who had received ten million gold roubles, from Lenin himself, in furtherance of the German revolution, he took the reporters to his bank and presented a copy of his expense account: his out-of-pocket disbursals for the “Bavarian Revolution” amounted to seventeen marks. The annals of man know not a cheaper revolution.
King Ludwig III had been aware of the portents of turmoil in the dying days of the war. In a belated attempt to save the monarchy, the king consented to a reform bill which brought a few liberal but largely cosmetic changes. Five days
later, on December 7, representatives of the SPD, the Catholic Farmers and the Democratic Party joined the Royal Bavarian government for the first time.
Although the Bavarian police had warned of revolutionary conspiracies, the Munich magistrate permitted, on the same afternoon, a joint demonstration of SPD and USPD (the Independent Social Democrats) on the Theresienwiese, the great expanse which accommodates the annual Oktoberfest. The numerous troops of the Munich garrison were believed to be reliably monarchist and patriotic enough so that public safety seemed assured. The event began at 3 pm and soon more than 80,000 listeners filled the great oval. At the conclusion of the occasion, two hours later, the moderates left the grounds to march to the city centre, while the more extreme elements, in particular Kurt Eisner’s USPD, remained, joined by many radical soldiers and sailors who had already dumped their imperial cockades.
Eisner recognized an opportunity. His followers were at the northern end of the venue, in proximity to the garrison barracks in the north-west of the town, whither he headed, followed by perhaps 2,000 men. It soon became a
revolutionary lindworm, more and more soldiers joining along the way to the major army depots. There was a minute of confusion and shooting at the big casern at the Türkenstraße, but when the majority of the troops stationed there declared for the revolution, Eisner had won. The throng he led back to the town centre was by now perhaps 5,000 men strong.
Around 7 pm, revolutionary soldiers appeared at the plaza of the Residence, the Wittelsbach town palace, and an anxious royal family was informed by the War Minister, Philipp von Hellingrath, that, since a large majority, perhaps all, of the Munich garrison troops had declared for the rebellion, no loyal units were available to protect the throne. The Palace Guard had mysteriously disappeared in the early evening, and the King’s Own Guard Regiment lingered passively in their barracks despite having been urgently alarmed. At around 10 pm, the king, his family and trusted retainers left the capital, on the advice of Court Minister Ritter von Dandl, to seek refuge at the family castle of Wildenwart at the Chiemsee Lake. A few miles south of the city, the king’s car slid off the road and mired itself in a potato field. It was a fitting end for the
House of Wittelsbach.
Meanwhile, delegations of revolutionary soldiers proceeded to seize the city’s strategic assets without encountering resistance: by late evening the central railway station, the telegraph office, the Bavarian army command and other important military and municipal buildings as well as the parliament and the newspaper bureaus were in Red hands. Those units of army and police that had not gone over to the rebels remained passive and allowed the revolution to organize itself by means of mass meetings in the late hours of the day. A preliminary gathering of rebels was held in the
Franziskaner beer cellar, but the second, more decisive meeting took place, in the heart of the city, at the gigantic Mathäserbräu tavern that could seat five thousand guests easily but in this night perhaps saw more than twice that number.
Soldiers and sailors convened on the first floor and elected a council, while the workers met on the ground floor and elected their own representatives. The delegates of both councils then merged and formed a general “Workers’,
Soldiers’ and Farmers’ Council,” initially chaired by Franz Schmitt of the SPD. At around 10 pm, Eisner, Schmitt and the councillors plus a small armed guard moved over the Isar River to the parliament building. Chairing the improvised meeting, and without formal ado, Eisner took the office of Minister President of Bavaria, and, in the wee hours of the morning of November 8, 1918, proclaimed the Free Bavarian Socialist Soviet Republic. A few hours later, the burghers of Munich, who had gone to bed in a kingdom, awoke in a republic, and a socialist one to boot.
In the afternoon of the same day, December 8th, the parliament building hosted the first session of the temporary National Council, which was to establish a provisional government. The assembly included the councillors, the former members of parliament of the SPD and the Bavarian Farmer Party and three former liberal deputies. The plenum faced initial objections from the delegates of the SPD. The Social Democrats had been loyal, to a degree, to the Ancien Régime and favoured reforms, not revolution; a protracted debate was necessary to convince their members to join and support the provisional government. On the next day, Minister President Eisner and his newly minted ministers took over the executive power in Bavaria. Not a single act of insubordination occurred: all state servants, government employees, police and military acquiesced to the orders of the new government without reserve.
Munich set the standard for the country.
The flames of orderly revolution were igniting spontaneously throughout Germany. In Friedrichshafen workers at the Zeppelin plant formed a council. The factory workers in the Stuttgart area, including the vast Daimler motor works, struck and, led by socialists with views similar to Eisner’s, made similar demands. Sailors engineered revolt in Frankfurt am Main. At Kassel, the entire garrison, including a commanding officer, revolted without the benefit of bullets.
There were a few shots fired in Cologne when the garrison of 45,000 went Red, but order quickly settled over the city. A civilian revolt in Hanover succeeded even though authorities ordered troops to use force; instead the soldiers joined the rebels. It was the same in Düsseldorf, Leipzig and Magdeburg. Government after government throughout Germany collapsed as workers’ and soldiers’ councils took control. [Toland, p. 72]
Eventually, the eyes of the nation turned to Berlin, in the anticipation that the success or failure of a German socialist republic would be decided there. Unlike in Russia, where Mensheviks and Bolsheviks had split over the question of reform vs. revolution well ahead of the war, the German socialists had not separated until 1917, when the revolutionary wing split off and formed the USPD. Still, even if counting in their cousins of the Spartacus League, they represented probably less than ten per cent of the socialist spectrum, but their clamour portended a schism of the socialist government in Berlin. Potentially worse, countrywide elections giving the women of the nation full suffrage for the first time were scheduled for January 19, 1919, and the radical wing had no illusions of the possible outcome. No, if they wanted power, they had to try the coup d’état.
But things were not quite there yet. In these November and December days, most of the workers, soldiers and sailors were less interested in dogmatic quarrels but in the end of war and hunger, reunion with families and loved ones, and the vagaries of getting a job. Since the Imperial government had collapsed, self-organization was the motto of the moment, and so it came that …
Berlin remained in a state of confusion … with various groups all claiming authority: Friedrich Ebert’s Council of People’s Commissars in the Chancellery [the government recognized by the Allies,¶], the Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils in the Reichstag, the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils of Berlin in the Prussian Landtag building, Eichhorn’s [the self-proclaimed (USPD) police commissioner of Berlin,¶] 3,000 strong “Security Service” in police headquarters on Alexanderplatz, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and, of course, Liebknecht’s and Luxemburg’s alternative Spartacist government in the Royal Palace, supported by a volunteer force of about 2,000 Red sailors based in the Royal Stables and calling themselves the Peoples’ Naval Division.
There were daily street demonstrations, mass meetings and spasmodic gunfights, and virtually every day until Christmas another returning division from the regular army marched back through the Brandenburg
Gate and up the Unter den Linden before dissolving into the crowds. [Anthony Read, The World on Fire, Norton Books 2008, ISBN 978-0-393-06124-6, p. 47]
Irrespectively of the political transience of the times, the majority of these bodies went on to implement socialist aspirations they had demanded in vain from the German princes. The workday was limited to eight hours, labour unions were granted unrestricted rights of organization and bargaining, workplace accident coverage was raised, retirement plans expanded, sickness and unemployment insurance premiums lowered or services augmented. Many of these programs were still in their toddler stages, but they became the stepping stones of proletarian emancipation. Political prisoners were released and the censorship of press and theatre abolished. Against the warnings of capitalist Cassandras, of which there were quite a few, it turned out that this could all be paid for, once normality was restored, by enforcing the existing tax
code with the proviso that the tax privileges of the Junkers and the nobility were to be revoked. German social legislation became the envy of the workers of the world.
Hitler confessed later that he respected the social reforms, which he considered inevitable in the long run, and some of his ensuing dicta leave us with the strong suspicion that he sympathized considerably with the Social Democrats in these days. “For what I am grateful to the Social Democrats,” he said, “is that they got rid of the interests of court and nobility.” [Anton Joachimsthaler, Korrektur einer Biographie, Langen Müller 1989, ISBN 3-7766-1575-3, p. 181]
But the confused but largely harmless designs of the various socialist governments-to-be and their committees and councils could flourish only as long as true revolutionary groups could be held at bay. Ebert understood that the executive power of his government remained questionable without armed support, and he knew his former comrades who had gone over to the Spartacists too well to believe they would relinquish the revolutionary option, given that they could not hope to win the election. But they had guns, and if they attempted the coup d’état against unarmed opponents, by whom could they be stopped? The only apparent alternative was support from the regular army.
The Social Democrats had always maintained a critical distance to the military, which, after all, had often enough been used in their suppression. Now, that the war had been lost instead of ending in the expected triumph, the mood of the army and their sympathy for socialists could not be hoped to have improved. On December 10, the first returning army units arrived in Berlin, welcomed by Ebert, who had the difficult obligation to explain to the soldiers the changes that had transpired in the meantime. Demobilization in Berlin was the same haphazard affair as everywhere else, perhaps sloppier: many soldiers forgot to turn their guns in, some units even forgot to turn in their machine – or even field guns, or claimed they had been lost in transit. There was no shortage of weapons anywhere in the new republic but the supply in the capital was by far the richest and the Spartacists had been collecting ever since: Ebert was outgunned.
On the second day of his chancellorship, November 10, he received a telephone call on the direct line from the General staff building. His summoner was Wilhelm Groener, the new Quartermaster General and successor of Ludendorff: in effect the military supremo of the day-old republic. The general knew exactly what was at stake, and offered Ebert that “the Army would put itself at the disposal of his regime, in return for the regime’s support for the Field Marshal [Hindenburg,¶] and the officer corps, through the maintenance of order and discipline in the Army.” (Read, p. 43) In civil parlance, it meant that the army would support Ebert and the Republic – quite unexpectedly – for the price of keeping the army, in the Prussian tradition, out of politics and to let it govern itself. There was one more condition: “The officer corps demands of the régime a battle against Bolshevism, and is ready for such an engagement.” [Read, p. 43]
Ebert was in a bind, caught between the Spartacist left and the reactionary, military right like Ulysses between Scylla and Charybdis. In the end, he went with Groener, perhaps somewhat duped by a very clever manoeuvre of the general, who had his own plan how to control the councils. Groener knew that loyal troops and officers returning from the front would begin to trickle in from the second week of December, and thus he had to survive the rule of the councils for only about a month. His plan was to give the councils licence enough to hang themselves: he ordered that every unit was to elect a council: every platoon, company, battalion, regiment and so forth, a procedure that created the instant chaos that gave Groener the time he needed. Soon the bulk of the army was to return, and while most of the units would demobilize on their own recognizance, some would not. Some men, Groener knew, could not go back to civil life, for the experience of war had forever deformed their souls. Such men formed the “Freikorps”, the ‘Free Corps’.
Before the war, the Imperial draft boards had preferably conscripted farm boys, for they were held less infused with socialism than the sons of the city workers. Thus, the draftees chiefly represented the pastoral element of the German society, in contrast to the city backgrounds of many NCOs and regimental officers. They were by and large men of petty or middlebrow bourgeois descent, better educated, and hopelessly romantic. They formed the pool from which the Freikorps were to draw their wolves.
The sudden end of the war prompted withdrawal symptoms – civilian life appeared drab, lacklustre, and trivial. Moreover, nothing had prepared this deeply romantic and passionately patriotic brotherhood to find the Fatherland imperilled by a Bolshevik revolution. They had become eternal warriors, in search of a duty to fulfil, and none could be more glorious or important than to recoup the strangely altered homeland from a communist abyss.
The Freikorps of 1918 and 1919 were … freebooting private armies of embittered ex-servicemen, mainly composed of former officers and NCOs who refused to disband, determined to maintain military discipline and organisation in the face of what they saw as the disorder of the soldiers’ councils. Steeped in the harsh traditions of the Prussian army, they were fiercely nationalist and violently anti-Bolshevik.
Their formation was encouraged if not actually initiated by Groener, both as a means of keeping alive the ethos of the officer corps during those uncertain times and of providing tough, trained units of loyal troops who could be relied on to fight the revolutionary forces of the extreme left. Their relationship with the army was kept deliberately vague, but they were equipped by it with machine guns, mortars and even field guns as well as rifles and pistols, and there is little doubt that their pay came from army funds. Many of their commanders were regular serving officers.
The Freikorps’ first function was to police Germany’s eastern frontiers with the new Baltic States and the newly independent and deeply hostile Poland, which after centuries of German, Russian and Austrian oppression could be expected to try to grab as much territory as it could get away with.
Protection against Bolshevism spreading from the east was a secondary consideration in this area, but nonetheless it was a real consideration, especially when Russia went to war with Poland in 1919. In Berlin and the rest of Germany, however, the battle with Bolshevism in all its forms was the Freikorps’ very raison d’être. [Read, p. 45 – 46]
When making his offer to Ebert, Groener had recommended that the political supervision of the armed forces should be entrusted to the former SPD MP Gustav Noske, the same man who had shown during the naval revolt in Kiel that he could deal with a mob. It was high time to organize troops loyal to Ebert’s Council of Peoples’ Commissars, because the Spartacists were already mobilizing their own forces in anticipation of the first session of the national Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils. This body, comprising representatives from all parts of the country, was to meet at the Reichstag building beginning Monday, December 16. In support for the confidently expected revolution, Liebknecht and Luxemburg organized a mass
demonstration the same day on the plaza in front of the building, and when that failed to impress the delegates, dispatched a crash commando three days later with instructions to hijack the building and take the deputies hostage; a plan that was thwarted in the nick of time by one of Noske’s local guard platoons.
The decisions of the congress, clearly wishing to establish a semblance of order as soon as possible, much disappointed the radical Left: for not only did the delegates fail to transfer “all power to the soviets” as per the Spartacists’ request, but also confirmed the legitimacy of Ebert’s government and resolved to phase out the councils in favour of transferring all further legislative and executive authority to the new National Assembly, the election of which was fixed for January 19, 1919, four weeks in the future. [Read, p. 47]
These setbacks at least gave the Spartacists a deadline, for they needed to seize power before Election Day – for win could they not. On December 23, under the pretext of seeking a Christmas bonus, their Naval Division stormed and occupied the Arsenal (the military HQ) and the chancellery, where they arrested the cabinet. In this situation “Ebert decided that the time had come to call in Groener’s promise.” [Read, p. 48]
Army HQ in Potsdam sent a battalion of troops as pledged, and on the morning of December 24, a strange hybrid of military and propaganda battles developed around the Royal Palace and the stables. Actual fighting was sporadic if
emphatic but was frequently interrupted by negotiations, or Liebknecht’s exhortations for revolution addressed to the thousands of spectators, who, after watching the action, proceeded on to the Christmas market or the nearby shopping district where business went on as usual. It was perhaps the lack of attention that lead to the battle ending, in early afternoon, by the disappearance of both sides’ troops in the Christmas crowds. An irate Groener, however, decided that he needed more dependable troops next time and sent the word to the leaders of the nascent Freikorps. [Read, p. 48]
Christmas Day brought the regular Spartacus League demonstration, whose activists seized the building where the SPD-owned newspaper VORWÄRTS was printed and created their own Christmas issue, naturally on red paper. After the police had arrived and the occupiers expelled, VORWÄRTS gave up all remnants of socialist solidarity it had kept until that day and became decisively anti-Spartacist.
Undeterred, Liebknecht ended the year by inviting about a hundred Spartacists to a conference starting on 29 December in the banqueting hall of the Prussian Landtag. After two days of typically fractious argument, they voted to make a complete break with Social Democracy and align themselves unequivocally with Soviet Russia, renaming themselves the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).
Among the guests was Karl Radek, who had been smuggled into Germany to help foment the civil war that was an essential part of a Bolshevik revolution. In a long speech, he denied that the regime in Russia was a reign of terror, and asserted that civil war was not as awful as was sometimes thought: a whole year of civil war in Russia, he claimed, had killed fewer people and destroyed less property than a single day of international war.
“What we are now carrying out in Russia,” he declared, “is nothing but the great unperverted teaching of German Communism. The Council of Peoples’ Commissars of Europe will yet meet in Berlin. Spartacus will conquer. It is destined to seize power in Germany.” Liebknecht responded enthusiastically with a call to arms: “We do not want a lemonade revolution. We have to hasten the internationalisation of civil war.” [Read, p.49]
Groener’s and Ebert’s spies reported the results immediately to their masters, and, during the eclipse of the year, both sides prepared for the clash they knew was to occur before Election Day, January 19.
The persistent enmity between social democratic, i.e. reformist, and communist parties all over the world in the seventy years between 1919 and 1989, resulted from this split in Berlin 1918 and the happenings shortly thereafter. From 1914 to 1918, the SPD had supported the Ancien Régime by approving Wilhelm’s war credits in the Reichstag, with the sole exception of Liebknecht, while an outer-parliamentary, grass roots opposition of pacifists shaped up, broadened and finally broke off the mother party in 1917. The offshoot, the USPD, appealed to the international solidarity of the working class, which could render war impossible simply by refusing to produce armaments, and was the only faction in Germany to speak out publicly against the war.
They accused the moderates of treason, of being corrupted by capitalist interests, and when Ebert called in the reactionary Freikorps, he was accused of fratricide and of betraying the legacy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. From this day on communist parties were to regard social democrats as the worst enemy: while the resistance of capitalists was expected and could be understood, the poison of moderation had destroyed the solidarity of the brotherhood of workmen. In remembrance of the Jacobins, there could be no quarter for the enemies of the revolution.
Meanwhile, the government of the Bavarian Socialist Republic was consolidating its power and began to organize the post-war economy. It was perhaps the greatest surprise for Minister President Eisner that the regular Bavarian Army cooperated without too much ado; while clearly disliking the confusion of council policies, the military realized that order was the demand of the day and the senior officer, General Max Freiherr von Speidel appealed to the troops “to serve the people’s state.” (Joachimsthaler, p. 183) On November 13, King Ludwig’s written declaration of abdication was received in the council, and the same day saw the investiture of Albert Rosshaupter (SPD) as the first-ever civilian Minister of Defence in the history of the country.
Thus, the Bavarian Soviet Republic developed in a much less revolutionary way than it had begun. To a degree, Eisner’s government regarded itself only as a provisional administration and delayed decisive reforms for the time after the January 12 elections, which they hoped would give them a parliamentary majority and hence an indisputable mandate for the creation of a true socialist state. Hence, Eisner’s public address on November 15 by and large avoided revolutionary rhetoric: the essential demand of socialization of industry was postponed. There were a few modifications in unemployment aid and the introduction of the eight-hour work day, but nothing was done to replace the employees and functionaries of the state, who continued to administrate the country in the old-fashioned, monarchical ways. Neither was
the economy reformed: industry, banks, and insurances operated as usual. The sole notable change was the secularization of the schools by the abolition of the Catholic Church’s supervisory authority.
The election turned out a catastrophe for the Radical Socialists. Winners were the Bavarian People’s Party, the successor of the Catholic Centre Party (BVP, 35%, 66 seats) and the SPD (33%, 61 seats). More or less in the expected range
came in results for the liberals, the DVP [DPP in the Palatinate], which carried 14% and 25 seats and the right-wing German National People’s Party [DNVP, as “Mittelpartei” in the Palatinate], which received 6% of the vote and 9 seats.
The losers were the parties of the revolution. The Bavarian Bauernbund, something akin to Russia’s Social Revolutionaries, received 9% of the vote and 16 seats, but the results for the USPD were pitiful: 2.5% and three seats.
Eisner, however, was not easily persuaded to give up his governmental responsibilities, since, as he pointed out, he was still the president of the Council of Soldiers, Workers and Peasants, which he regarded as the true government of socialist Bavaria. Alas, he had not exactly increased his popularity in recent weeks.
Everyone had a reason to hate him – they said he was a Galician Jew, a Berliner, a café intellectual, a left-wing Socialist, a betrayer of true Socialism, too radical, not radical enough, he was ineffectual and
incompetent, the list seemed endless. Above all, he was blamed for the collapse of the economy – Bavaria was virtually bankrupt, suffering like so
many other places from a huge loss of jobs as ammunition production ceased and soldiers were demobilized, and yet he had vastly increased spending on unemployment benefits.
Eisner finally managed to infuriate just about everybody in Bavaria when he attended the first post-war conference of the Second Socialist International in Berne. As the only head of government there, he was held
in great respect and listened to with some reverence, particularly when he publicly acknowledged German responsibility for the Great War and named Wilhelm Hohenzollern, the former Kaiser, as the one man most to blame for four and a half year of carnage. Speaking calmly and quietly, he lambasted all aspects of Prussianism, condemned Germany’s harsh treatment of French civilians and Allied prisoners of war, and
appealed to German prisoners to help rebuild the devastated regions of France and Belgium. All this was well-received by the comrades in Berne, but in Munich it was regarded as treason, and he was branded a traitor. [Read, p. 113 – 114]
Meanwhile, in Bavaria the rift between revolutionaries and reformers broadened, and SPD leader Erhard Auer used his authority as Eisner’s deputy and Eisner’s absence to summon the Landtag, the Bavarian parliament, for a constituent session on February 21, 1919, in which a new government backed by a parliamentary majority was to be elected. In
expectation of counteraction from the radical wing, Auer had Max Levien, leader of the KPD in Schwabing, arrested, and urged Defense Minister Rosshaupter to do everything possible to form a quasi-military Home Defense Army loyal to the future government, which was expected to be the one or other coalition of the SPD with the Catholics and liberals and would easily enjoy the backing of 70% or more of the Landtag deputies.
The Left struck back on February 15, with the ad-hoc creation of the “Revolutionary Workers’ Council”, an eccentric body composed of the most radical members of USPD, Spartacists and Bolsheviks under the leadership of the anarchists Gustav Landauer and Erich Mühsam. The august body’s first resolution directed a mass demonstration of workers and soldiers to occur on the Theresienwiese the very next day, and it is rather likely that Corporal Hitler marched on this day in the ranks of the socialists. His 2nd Infantry Regiment’s Order of the Day for February 15 read:
“Tomorrow, Sunday, February 16, 1919, a demonstration of the whole workforce and all garrison units will take place. The Regiment, including the Demobilization Battalion, will assemble at 12:15 noon in the casern square of 1st Battalion, on the Oberwiesenfeld. Council members will blanket the troops to insure discipline and order. The company commanders will verify that all off-duty personnel participate in the gathering.” [Joachimsthaler, p. 197 – 198]
Hence, around noon on February 16, about 10,000 protesters marched through the streets of Munich. Eisner, back from Berne, Mühsam and Levien, the latter released from jail, addressed the public with demands to establish a Soviet, i.e. Councils’ Republic. It turned out that very few Munichers shared this desire, but only three days later, Eisner delivered a defiant gesture. In what became the last session of the Congress of Bavarian Councils, he demanded a second revolution.
“The second revolution will not be plundering and street fighting. The new revolution is the assembling of the masses in city and countryside to carry out what the first revolution has started. … The bourgeois majority is now to implement bourgeois politics. We shall see whether they are capable of ruling. In the meantime the Councils should do their job: to build the new democracy. Then perhaps the new spirit will also arrive in Bavaria. Tomorrow the Landtag begins – tomorrow the activities of the Councils should also begin anew. Then we shall see where are to be found the force and vitality of a society consecrated by death.” [Read, p. 115]
Eisner then secured the assembly’s declaration that they would not disband or otherwise renounce their authority unless the future Bavarian Constitution expressly acknowledged their prerogatives. This was an obvious attempt to block the formation of the parliamentary government the Landtag was poised to enact the next day. For his cryptic insinuations regarding a Second Revolution, the cabinet later demanded Eisner’s resignation.
The basic difficulty for Eisner proved the management of essential services and the cooperation of the countryside, in particular the regular supply of food. He was criticized by members of his own cabinet for organizational shortcomings – one of his ministers told him: “You are an anarchist … You are no statesman, you are a fool … We are being ruined by bad management.” [Richard J. Evans, “The Coming of the Third Reich”, Penguin, NY, 2003, ISBN 0-14-303469-3, p. 158 ff.]
Having lost parliamentary support, Kurt Eisner had composed, on the morning of February 21, a notice of resignation and a short accompanying speech in his office and made his way, on foot, to deliver his message at the Landtag’s opening session. He dismissed his aides and the two armed guards and set out alone.
Typically, he refused to take a different route from his regular one, dismissing his aides’ concerns for his safety with a blithe: “They can only shoot me dead once.” As he turned the corner into the Promenadenstraße, a young man in a trench coat ran up behind him, pulled out a pistol and shot him at point-blank range in the head and back. The first shot smashed his skull, the second pierced a lung. He fell to the ground dead, amid a spreading pool of blood.
Eisner’s assassin was Count Anton von Arco auf Valley, an aristocrat who had served as a lieutenant in the Bavarian cavalry during the war, and who had, like most returning officers in Munich, suffered the indignity of having his badges of rank torn from his uniform by revolutionaries in the street. His exact reason for killing Eisner was never made clear: he was filled with bitterness at being rejected for membership of the ultra-right Thule Society because his mother was Jewish, his girlfriend had taunted him as a weakling, and he hated the revolution. But why he should have chosen to kill Eisner, at the precise moment when he was stepping down, remains a mystery. [Reid, p. 115 – 116] (In recent years references have surfaced that a conspiracy may have been at work, see the German Wiki entry.)
This was only the start of the party. Arco-Valley was gunned down by a bodyguard, but eventually saved by a heroic operation executed by Professor Ferdinand Sauerbruch, at the time the most eminent surgeon of the world. When the news reached the Landtag in its opening session, it was adjourned, and Erhard Auer, head of the Bavarian SPD, whose erstwhile
friendship with Eisner went back decades, began an improvised eulogy. He had not talked five minutes when a member of the aforementioned Revolutionary Workers’ Council, the butcher Alois Lindner, broke into the plenum, revealed a rifle that he had hidden under his coat and shot Auer, at close range, in the chest. Then he fired at the BVP delegates, and after
killing a guard who tried to disarm him, escaped unhampered. He was replaced by a second shooter in the gallery, who aimed at the same deputies, slaying one man and injuring a few others. The commotion was immense, and an air of South America hung over the venerable Landtag building. [Read, p. 116]
Eisner, intensely disliked by many only hours before his death, was instantly canonized a Socialist saint, and, with the Landtag out of order, the councils quickly filled the legislative and executive void, declared martial law and called in a three-day general strike which – as Anthony Read observed – “fell conveniently over the weekend”, (40) as well as a 7 pm curfew. On the following morning, a hastily convened meeting of the councils elected a supreme committee, the “Zentralrat” or “Central Council”. Its eleven members represented a miscellany of socialist beliefs from reformist to
revolutionary, included representatives of rural, not only urban councils, and were to govern not only Munich but Bavaria as a whole. The chairmanship of the commission, and thus the office of quasi-Minister President fell to the twenty-eight year-old schoolteacher Ernst Niekisch, who, as a left-wing member of the SPD, was a good compromise candidate for the position.
Niekisch aimed to draw support by calling for socialist unity and the convocation of a Congress of Bavarian Councils, which was to determine the future form of the government: either parliamentary or by councils, i.e. a Soviet Republic. This congress opened on February 25, but was compelled to adjourn on the next day without having accomplished anything for the occasion of Eisner’s funeral.
Whatever the citizens of Munich had thought of the living Eisner, his funeral drew 100,000 mourners who followed the coffin as it was solemnly driven through the streets of the town in a former royal carriage. The next day, the radical Left used the public outpouring of sympathy for Eisner to call on the Congress to declare the ‘Second Revolution’ and announce the establishment of the Soviet Republic. When the motion failed by a large margin, Spartakists, USPD and anarchists left the Zentralrat in order to prepare the beneficial transformation alone. Without leadership, the Congress
scattered, and for a few weeks, after so much ado, Bavaria quieted down.
Yet the memory of Kurt Eisner lives on in the Free State he founded – three memorials are to be found in Munich’s inner city and one at the Eastern Cemetery.
That is, until things got worse …
(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)