Germany 1923: On the brink of revolution

According to capitalist mainstream history 1923 was the year of hyperinflation and the failed Hitler putsch. This narrative equates German history, first and foremost, with fascism. Yet 1923 was also the year that Germany was on the brink of revolution. Below we carry extracts of an article written by WOLFRAM KLEIN, a member of Sol (CWI in Germany), translated by Sue Cummins. This is followed by extracts from Leon Trotsky’s 1924 book, Lessons of October, which look at the missed opportunity of Germany 1923 compared to Russia 1917, where the working class was able to successfully take power.

Germany entered the twentieth century as a major industrial power with limited access to a world market dominated by other imperialist powers. The first world war was largely about markets but the ruling class also hoped that war would stir up patriotism among the masses and derail pre-war strikes and class militancy. Instead, the carnage of war and the Russian revolution sparked factory protests and mutinies in Germany in 1917. The German Kaiser fled a country in the grip of revolution. By 1918 councils of workers, sailors and soldiers had formed in several cities, notably Berlin. A soviet republic was declared in Bavaria.

This was no accidental outcome of war but a result of the intensified political and economic contradictions described years before by Marxists like Rosa Luxemburg. Unfortunately, the young German Communist Party, formed by Luxemburg and others in the throes of revolution in December 1918, was not able to play the role that the Bolsheviks had played in leading a revolution the previous year in Russia, which succeeded in overthrowing feudalism and capitalism. The Social Democratic Party – a mass workers’ party whose leaders had capitulated to nationalism and supported the German capitalist war effort – were thus able to initially derail the revolution, diverting it along bourgeois parliamentary lines.

The election of a National Assembly in 1919, backed by the Social Democratic Party (SPD), paused, but did not end, the revolution. Hence, in March 1920, when military units joined the right-wing nationalist politician Wolfgang Kapp in an attempted putsch to install autocratic rule, the swift response was a general strike and the formation of the Red Ruhr Army, a 50,000-strong workers’ militia. Not for the first nor last time, the SPD intervention diffused the situation and the Red Ruhr Army was brutally suppressed.

 Occupation of the Ruhr

When French and Belgian troops occupied Germany’s industrial heartland, the Ruhr, in January 1923, it sparked a further revolutionary wave. The pretext was Germany defaulting on its payment of war reparations. In reality, the French president Raymond Poincaré saw it as a chance to consolidate the supremacy over Europe that the Versailles treaty had vested in France. Reparations, and the main beneficiaries of them, France, were already unpopular among the German people, who had suffered great deprivation during and after the war. There was national outrage over the invasion of a 60,000-strong foreign army.

The German government, led by the non-party wealthy business leader Wilhelm Cuno, called on the people of the Ruhr to engage in passive resistance and civil disobedience. The reparation payments were frozen, and initially most production and transport activities halted. Protests took place, and some terror acts were committed by far-right extremists, with tacit support from government quarters. The French reacted harshly with deportations, arrests, beatings and executions.

Apart from the Communist Party (KPD) all other parties in the Reichstag (the German parliament) supported the Cuno government. The KPD, now a mass force, alone linked opposition to the Ruhr occupation with France’s imperialist ambitions in Europe, but remained adamant that the biggest foe was German capitalism. Accordingly, French Communists were key allies in this conflict under the shared slogan ‘Defeat Poincaré on the Ruhr and Cuno on the Seine’.

The passive resistance launched by the government soon proved farcical. Capitalists readily support patriotism if the workers make the sacrifices, but are unwilling to sacrifice their profits. It was not long before the coal mined and stockpiled in the Ruhr was confiscated and transported to France. While the mine owners were compensated by the German government, the KPD demand that coal be sold to local people at low prices was rejected. The continued profiteering of the bosses while the working class suffered meant that anger was soon directed from the occupiers to the capitalists and the Cuno government, which was calling for the reintroduction of the ten-hour day.

Strike wave in the Ruhr

Inflation had began to creep up during the war but went sky high in January 1923. The value of the German currency plummeted: one pound sterling, previously valued at 50,000 marks, now stood at 250,000. Selling gold and foreign currency buoyed up the mark and maintained the exchange rate but gave only temporary respite. To sustain the passive resistance against the occupation, the German government subsidised businesses and wages, as well as strikers, the jobless and civil servants, thus massively increasing government debt and fuelling inflation, which soared in April 1923. By June the mark had fallen to 500,000 to the pound, by August to five million.

Hyperinflation was the gravest social catastrophe ever experienced in an advanced capitalist economy. Marxist historian Pierre Broué wrote that “the privileged worker, ie those in employment, needed two days (of an average wage) to buy a pound of butter and a total of five months’ wages for a suit. Yet inflation did not bring misery to everyone.Those who owned gold or currency enjoyed fantastic profits. Industry and businesses whose expenditure on wages and benefits was reduced to practically nothing were able to reduce their prices and exchange their products for foreign currency abroad”.

Rising food prices hit the Ruhr particularly hard. In May, within days of miners in Dortmund striking over pay, they were joined in spontaneous strike action by over 300,000 miners and metal workers. After the French authorities expelled the German police from the Ruhr, the ‘proletarian hundreds’ – militia of communist, social democratic and non-party workers – were formed to ensure order. French soliders often sympathised with the strikers and greeted them with ‘Down with Poincaré! Down with Stinnes!’ (the German industrialist, Hugo Stinnes). In Bochum, they gave their machine guns to the militia, later telling superior officers they had been forced to do so. Inflation turned to hyperinflation causing living standards to plummet. A wave of militancy engulfed central Germany. Meanwhile big industrialists like Thyssen, Krupp and Stinnes amassed huge profits.

In a manner reminiscent of the Prussian and French collaboration to crush the 1871 Paris Commune, the ‘patriotic’ German government appealed to the ‘mortal enemy’ France, for permission to militarily suppress the strike movement in the Ruhr. The workers, increasingly disillusioned with the SPD, looked to the KPD for a lead. But despite the conditions for revolution rapidly crystallising, the KPD advocated the end of strike action once wage demands had been conceded, fearful that France and Germany would act in unison to suppress the strike.

Anti-Cuno strikes

From June 1923 onwards riots and strikes erupted across Germany, far beyond the Ruhr. More than 1.8 million workers, countless thousands of whom had not been active before, went on strike demanding wage increases linked to inflation. Over 100,000 agricultural workers struck in Silesia (now Poland/Czech Republic). In total over 14 million working days were lost. In August, when the Reichstag reconvened after the summer break, the building filled with angry delegations from factories across Berlin demanding the government’s resignation.

A meeting of Berlin works assembly members held on the morning of Saturday 11 August drew more than 15,000 delegates: so many they had to use four different halls. The key demands were the immediate resignation of the Cuno government, the introduction of a minimum wage, and a general strike to begin at noon that day and continue till Tuesday evening. A strike committee was elected to lead the action. The next morning the national assembly of works councils agreed to a nationwide general strike. That evening Cuno resigned, and the following day a new government was formed under the German People’s Party leader Gustav Stresemann, with the participation of the SPD.

At the start, only workers in Berlin knew of the strike: workers elsewhere learned of the stoppage on Monday. Hence much of the strike action did not begin until Monday evening or Tuesday morning, by which time the main demands had already been met – including a sliding scale of wages adjusted to inflation. In Berlin, tram drivers and print workers were given high wage increases to ensure they were not involved in the strike, so the trams were running, newspapers appeared on the streets and, crucially, bank notes were being printed. In order to prevent the slow disintegration of the movement the Berlin workers’ assemblies decided not to extend the strike beyond Tuesday. The KPD was heading the movement but did not know how to escalate the action or develop the spontaneous rank-and-file movement, which had forced out the government, into a movement capable of overthrowing capitalism.

The united front tactic

It had been the unification with the majority of the left-wing Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) in December 1920 that had transformed the KPD into a mass party with several hundred thousand militant members ready for action. In March 1921, the revolutionary upsurge in the aftermath of the war had waned, but failing to recognise the change in mood, the KPD engaged in an insurrectionist adventure – the March Action. This was severely criticised by Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and other leaders of the Communist International (Comintern), who explained that the KPD, along with the other parties in the Comintern, would have to win the support of the majority of the working class before they could take power.

The idea behind the proposed united front tactic was that differences between revolutionary and reformist workers over the need for revolution are not an obstacle to common struggle on wages, poor working conditions and fighting fascist terror. The Cuno strike revealed the extent of KPD influence on the workers’ movement. By the summer of 1923 it had overtaken the SPD, and had massive support among the working class. Even in rural Mecklenburg-Strelitz – the only state with elections that year – the KPD was almost neck-and-neck with the SPD. Crucially, the united front tactic enabled the KPD to recover from the defeat of the 1921 March Action and grow support among the German working class.

Applied correctly, the united front forges class unity and exposes the nature of reformism. Leaders of parties and unions who reject the offer of solidarity and joint struggle for demands and goals in the interests of their own members risk being discredited. However, where reformist leaders accept the need for unity in struggle, this affords the best conditions for workers to fight back and achieve gains. Such victories boost the confidence and combativity of the class. Workers gain valuable experience and test leaders, methods, and parties at every stage of struggle. Through daily struggle workers in Germany would have seen that revolutionaries were the most effective fighters and would be drawn to the KPD.

In 1922, the Comintern raised the idea of a ‘workers’ government’ as an adjunct to the united front tactic. Workers from across the political spectrum could see how the united front worked in factories and on the streets, this would show them how that tactic applied in government. A prerequisite was that the SPD, or sections of the SPD, was prepared to break with capitalism – support the expropriation of the capitalists, the disarming of the capitalist state, the arming of the workers, etc.

The united front represented more than an agreement between different party organisations on joint action, such as marches. The united front brought the communists together with social-democratic-dominated trade unions, workers’ assemblies and cooperative societies, with the aim of winning a majority within these organisations. This was where the united front tactic proved most successful. The KPD gained the most delegates to the German Metal Workers’ Federation in July 1923, winning a majority in most elections in bigger towns and cities. The influence of the KPD among the Berlin factory councils became evident in the August strike against Cuno.

However, hyperinflation weakened the trade unions because it rendered negotiated wage settlements meaningless. Strike funds became worthless, likewise the wages of full-time officials. Between the summers of 1922 and 1923 the unions lost two million members. The trade unions’ national apparatus lost much of their control over local and workplace organisations.This trend intensified the crisis within the SPD, but enabled the KPD to build its influence among union and factory council members, and create combines of workers’ committees across different workplaces. Upon this basis new mass organisations, in which communists, social democrats and non-aligned workers and organisations acted together, could be formed, not least in the control commissions and the militia (the ‘proletarian hundreds’). Price control committees were set up to place pressure on traders to avoid unreasonable price increases or hoard stock in order to push up prices.

Preparing for battle

Not until the general strike toppled Cuno did the Comintern leadership seriously consider the prospect of revolution in Germany. Leading members of the KPD and the Comintern met in Moscow to discuss how to proceed. The hesistant KPD leader Heinrich Brandler was won to the idea that the objective conditions for revolution already pertained. Trotsky called for scrupulous planning and warned of “a miscarriage in the eighth month”. Others, almost euphoric, felt victory was within reach.

But the KPD leadership based its conclusions on the false premise that over the coming months the crisis would intensify, making the objective conditions for revolution more favourable. In reality, the best time for action would have been August. In late September the Stresemann government called off passive resistance in the Ruhr and had begun to master the currency crisis.

Conditions did not improve for the working class, but altered the form of their misery. Throughout the period of hyperinflation the German economy flourished because it was able to sell products cheaply on the world market. The stabilisation of the currency now led to a severe economic crisis and mass lay-offs. Between July and December unemployment rose from 3.5% to 28.2%. In the factories, the fear of dismissal, particularly among activists, was mixed with the hope that this new period meant capitalism had a solution.

After the crushing of the Bavarian soviet republic that state had become a hotbed of all forms of reaction from the National Socialists (Nazis) and militarists to far-right monarchists and paramilitaries (the Freikorps), all of whom shared the desire to replace the Weimar Republic with a reactionary dictatorship. In 1922 Mussolini’s ‘March on Rome’ – effectively a coup d’etat – had established a right-wing dictatorship in Italy. The KPD expected the German fascists to stage a similar action, marching to Berlin to seize power and create a dictatorship.

Saxony and Thuringia

In Saxony, the left-wing SPD was in a minority government, tolerated by the KPD. This tactic was viewed critically, not least after the police had fired at demonstrating workers. But KPD and Comintern leaders now agreed the SPD should be offered the option of co-operation to form a workers’ government. Sensing this was the time to act, the KPD offered to enter coalitions with the left-wing SPD governments in Saxony and Thuringia. These two states would serve as red bulwarks against the fascist advance. From there the defensive action against fascism could be extended to anti-capitalist insurrection. The date of the insurrection was set for 9 November, to coincide with a delegate congress of workers’ councils, at which the appropriate declaration could be made.

The plan went spectacularly wrong: the coalition agreement was signed in Saxony with provisions to arm 50-60,000 workers, but the state government took no steps to mobilise or arm such a militia. Some more radical workers would have been astounded by the news of the KPD in goverment with the SPD, or imagined that this was intended as a precursor to insurrection. In any event, it was the counter-revolution that took the initiative.

When the national government called off the campaign of passive resistance on 26 September it also declared a state of emergency granting executive power to the Reichswehr (army) under Defence Minister Otto Geßler and the military district commanders. General Müller assumed supreme command over the military district of Saxony, declaring it to be under a state of “intense siege” on 29 September. On 5 October, he banned all Communist publications in Saxony. By the time the KPD formally joined the Saxony government on 10 October it had virtually no authority.

On 13 October Müller banned the proletarian hundreds and placed the Saxony police force under his orders. Within days of the workers’ government in Thüringia being declared, on 16 October, the German government authorised military intervention – a so-called Reich’s execution – against the state of Saxony. The SPD gave its members the feeble excuse that the intervention of the German military was to defend Saxony against the Bavarian counter-revolution. The truth was that the SPD president Friedrich Ebert and the German government, in which the SPD participated, had overthrown a democratically elected SPD-led government in Saxony

Chemnitz and Hamburg

In view of this escalation, the KPD decided to bring forward the date of the uprising. It was agreed they should intervene in a policy congress coincidentally called by workers’ organisations in Chemnitz on 21 October. This would be the place to call a general strike, which would then signal the start of the uprising. But when SPD delegates threatened to leave the congress, the KPD, still holding on to the belief that the objective conditions for revolution would improve over the coming weeks or months, backed down, claiming an insurrection at a later date would entail fewer victims.

However, the Hamburg KPD went ahead with the insurrection. Starting on 22 October and lasting just two days, at the cost of 100 lives, the uprising involved a few hundred armed communists out of the city’s estimated 14,000 KPD members. About 1,000 women and children helped erect barricades and provided material support and information about police activity, at considerable risk to their own safety. Why the action was not called off in Hamburg remains a matter of speculation – the main theory being they were not informed in time. There is evidence of much sympathy for the insurrectionists, even among the middle class, but due to the lack of weapons, lack of preparation, and poor organisation, the uprising remained isolated.

The main problem was not the lack of revolutionary will nor the lack of arms, but the political weakness of the KPD. There had been a small window of opportunity for a revolution in Germany but the KPD held back, wanting to save its strength for the decisive struggle, and thereby allowing the forces of reaction to go onto the offensive. There was very little opposition to the extension of the working day from eight to ten hours, and no protests against the restrictions on democratic rights. Rising unemployment further dampened the combativity of the workers as revolutionary fervour gave way to resignation. The absence of resistance, except for the doomed uprising in Hamburg, had a demoralising effect in Germany and beyond. The failure of the 1923 German revolution left the Soviet Union isolated and was a critical factor in paving the way for war and fascism.

From Lessons of October, by Leon Trotsky

“We witnessed in Germany a classic demonstration of how it is possible to miss a perfectly exceptional revolutionary situation of world historic importance”.

“Circumstances may arise where all the prerequisites for revolution exist, with the exception of a far-seeing and resolute party leadership grounded in the understanding of the laws and methods of the revolution. That was exactly the situation last year in Germany”.

“So long as the slogan of the insurrection was approached by the leaders of the German Communist Party mainly, if not solely, from an agitational standpoint, they simply ignored the questions of the armed forces at the disposal of the enemy (Reichswehr, fascist detachments, police, etc). It seemed to them that the constant rising revolutionary flood tide would automatically solve the military question. But when the task stared them in the face, the very same comrades who had previously treated the armed forces of the enemy as if they were nonexistent, went immediately to the other extreme. They placed implicit faith in all the statistics of the armed strength of the bourgeoisie, meticulously added to the latter the forces of the Reichswer and the police; then they reduced the whole to a round number (half a million or more) and so obtained a compact mass force armed to the teeth and absolutely sufficient to paralyse their own efforts”.

“No doubt the forces of the German counter-revolution were much stronger numerically and, at any rate, better organised and prepared than our own Kornilovites and semi-Kornilovites [in Russia 1917]. But so were the effective forces of the German revolution. The proletariat composes the overwhelming majority of the population in Germany. In our country, the question – at least during the initial stage – was decided by Petrograd and Moscow. In Germany, the insurrection would have immediately blazed in scores of mighty proletarian centres. On this arena, the armed forces of the enemy would not have seemed nearly as terrible as they did in statistical computations in round figures”.

“This passive fatalism is really only cover for irresolution and even incapacity for action, but it camouflages itself with the consoling prognosis that we are, you know, growing more and more influential; as time goes on our forces will continually increase. What a gross delusion! The strength of a revolutionary party increases only up to a certain moment, after which the process can turn into the very opposite. The hopes of the masses change into disillusionment as the result of the party’s passivity, while the enemy recovers from his panic and takes advantage of this disillusionment. We witnessed such a decisive turning point in Germany in October 1923”.

“The question [organisations for the struggle for power] is of enormous international importance as was shown by the recent German experience. It was in Germany that the soviets were several times created as organs of insurrection without an insurrection taking place – and as organs of state power – without any power. This led to the following: in 1923 the movement of broad proletarian and semi-proletarian masses began to crystallise around the factory committees, which in the main fulfilled all the functions assumed by our own soviets in the period preceding the direct struggle for power”.

“Yet, during August and September 1923, several comrades advanced the proposal that we should proceed to the immediate creation of soviets in Germany. After a long and heated discussion this proposal was rejected, and rightly so. In view of the fact that the factory committees had already become in action the rallying centres of the revolutionary masses, soviets would only have been a parallel form of organisation, without any real content during the preparatory stage. They could have only distracted attention from the material targets of the insurrection (army, police, armed bands, railways, etc) by fixing it on a self-contained organisational form”.

“Soviets, of course, would have had to arise at a certain stage… It is possible that soviets would have formed after the victory at all the decisive places in the country. In any case, a triumphant insurrection would inevitably have led to the creation of soviets as organs of state power”.

Further reading:

Lessons of October, Leon Trotsky

The 1918-19 German Revolution, Socialism Today, November 2008, issue No.123