Book Reviews

Review: “The German Revolution – 1917-1923” by Pierre Broué

Rob Sewell reviews Pierre Broué's masterpiece on the German Revolution, which ended in tragedy and whose failure led to the rise of fascism in Germany.

The titanic events in Germany between 1917 and 1923 constitute a tragic and bitter chapter in the international workers' movement. Golden opportunities, in which the German working class could have repeatedly taken power, were lost, eventually ending up in the ghastly victory of the Nazis in 1933 and the obliteration of the workers' movement.

Pierre Broué's monumental and brilliant work of nearly 1,000 pages - for the first time available in English ‑ traces these historic events, the issues at stake and the individuals involved. It is beyond doubt the best history written to date about this period and deserves to be read and studied by all those keen to learn about the past in order to prepare for the future.

The German Social Democracy was the most powerful in the world, with a huge influence, nationally and internationally. Its authority in the German working class was unprecedented. "The German Social Democratic Party became a way of life", stated Ruth Fisher. "It was much more than a political machine; it gave the German worker dignity and status in a world of his own." However, events brought this "way of life" crashing down. Despite the declarations against the imperialist war, in August 1914, the German Social Democratic leaders, as well as the other main leaders of the Second International, capitulated and voted for the war. For the rank and file, it was a terrible shock, a mortal blow against everything they stood for. Even Lenin thought that the news of the betrayal was a forgery.

The war soon drowned out all opposition. Only a few internationalists - the Bolsheviks in Russia, Connolly in Ireland, McLean in Scotland, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in Germany, some of the Italian socialists and a few other noble exceptions - stood against the tide. Their task was to explain what had happened and regroup the genuine internationalists.

The years of boom in which the Second International had been founded had lead to opportunist trends developing within its ranks. The reformist tops of the movement, while paying lip service to socialism, began to adapt to capitalism. They stressed the "minimum" programme of the day-to-day demands of the struggle at the expense of the "maximum" programme of socialism, mainly relegated to May Day speeches. Repelled by the betrayal, Lenin demanded a complete break with the opportunist leaders.

The first gathering of "Internationalists" was in September 1915 at Zimmerwald in Switzerland. Even here divisions opened up and a Zimmerwald Left was created which called for the war to be transformed into a civil war and that "the main enemy is at home". While these ideas only touched a small handful, opposition to the war began to grow. Hunger riots broke out in Hamburg and strikes in the Ruhr. In May 1916, Karl Liebknecht attracted several thousand when he spoke in the Potsdamer Platz. At that time the revolutionaries grouped themselves into the Internationale Group, which remained part of the SDP. By the following year, the massive opposition that had grown within the party split to form the Independent Social Democratic Party (USDP). The Internationale Group, now called the Spartacists, joined the USDP. This was no small split: 33 deputies had been expelled from the SPD. While some 170,000 stayed with the old party, 120,000 formed the USDP.

"It is always possible to walk out of small sects or small coteries, and, if one does not want to stay there, to apply oneself to building new sects and new coteries", stated Rosa Luxemburg. "But it is only an irresponsible daydream to want to liberate the whole mass of the working class from the very weighty and dangerous yoke of the bourgeoisie by a simple ‘walk-out'."

The sharpest turn of events, however, occurred early in 1917 with the February Revolution in Russia. In Germany, the Minister of the Interior spoke of "the intoxicating effect of the Russian Revolution". The Spartacist Fritz Heckert declared that the "German proletariat must draw the lessons of the Russian Revolution and take their own destiny in hand." Then came news of a new Bolshevik revolution in October. This event shook the entire world, including the German workers, soldiers and sailors sickened by endless war.

The Bolsheviks issued the call for peace with no annexations, but was confronted with a German advance as the military fronts crumbled. It was left to Trotsky at Brest Litovsk to conduct a propaganda appeal to German troops. Luxemburg wrote from prison about "these magnificent events" which acted upon her "like an elixir of life".

By the summer of 1918, the German armies were facing defeat. By October red flags began appearing on trains carrying soldiers on leave. By November, revolution had broken out. Mutinies spread from ship to ship. Workers' and sailors' councils were being established everywhere and the old regime crumbled. The old SPD leaders rushed to shore up the old order by placing themselves at the head of the movement. However the revolution spread like wildfire. Unfortunately what was lacking was a party on the lines of the Bolsheviks in Russia.

With the Social Democrats at its head, the revolution was easily derailed. While the monarchy had to be sacrificed, the threat to private property was averted. The old order was saved.

The Spartacists were too weak to take advantage of the situation, despite the heroic efforts of Luxemburg and Liebknecht who went on to found the German Communist Party by the end of the year. Pierre Broué deals in depth with the debates, issues and tragic mistakes made by the revolutionary forces, especially its ultra-left leanings, during this period. This ultra-leftism manifested itself in the lunacy of boycotting the trade unions, anti-parliamentarism, and premature attempts to seize power. One such attempt led to the Spartacist Uprising in early January 1919.

The defeat of the uprising, which brought to an end the first phase of the revolution, led to a bloody repression of the revolutionary wing. The brutal murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, who represented the key figures of German Marxism, at the hands of the officer caste, and standing behind them the rightwing social democratic leaders, served to behead the German communist movement at a crucial time.

This shift towards counter-revolution and repression was led by the dregs of the Free Corp, a reactionary paramilitary outfit. This culminated in the attempted military coup in 1920 - the Kapp Putsch - which failed after a general strike paralysed Berlin and the country. This whip of the counter-revolution served to push the revolution forward, leading to a crisis within the traditional organisations of the working class.

The USPD, which had 100,000 members when the Revolution began, had over 300,000 by March 1919. By April 1920 it had 800,000 members and 54 daily newspapers. This party was a centrist party, which wavered between reformism and revolution, but had the allegiance of the key sections of the German working class. In 1920, at its Halle Congress, it accepted the 21 conditions and voted in favour of affiliation to the Third International, which had been founded a year previously. The right wing split away and the party then fused with the German CP to form the united Communist Party of Germany, which was to challenge for the leadership of the working class.

At this time, Lenin was highly critical of the ultra-leftism of a section of the German CP, which he wrote about in his book, "Left-Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder". The ultra-lefts would split away in April to form the KAPD, taking a sizable chunk of the party with them.

Broué deals extensively with the relations of the Communist International and its German section. Advisers were sent by Moscow, such as the Hungarian Béla Kun, a mediocre man who did not possess sufficient ability to give sound advice to the KPD. They gave credence to the ultra-leftism of sections of the party and advanced the so-called theory of the "offensive". This theory led to the debacle of the "March Action" of 1921, where the young party was pushed into a premature attempt to seize power, with devastating consequences. Some 200,000 members left the party and tens of thousands lost their jobs. Lenin was forced to intervene, taking Kun, Thalheimer, Radek and the ultra-lefts sharply to task.

"The provocation was clear as day. And, instead of mobilising the masses of workers for defensive aims, in order to repel the attacks of the bourgeoisie and in that way to prove that you have right on your side, you invented your ‘theory of the offensive', an absurd theory which offers the police and every reactionary the chance to depict you as the ones who took the initiative in aggression, against which they could pose as the ones defending the people." He summed up his position, "Win the masses as a preliminary to winning power."

The defeat opened up a great debate in the Communist International, out of which emerged the policy of the United Front, summed up in the phrase "March separately, strike together!" The key task was to "patiently explain" and to engage in activities that would draw the working class together in united action. This was a policy and approach advocated by Paul Levi, the key leader of the party, but who had been expelled for publicly criticising the March Action. He was replaced as chairman of the party by Heinrich Brandler, who then became general secretary.

From then on, the party engaged in fruitful United Front work, building up its support in the trade unions and factories. It won back some 100,000 members during 1921 and 1922 and had 38 daily newspapers at its disposal. It adopted a transitional programme to build bridges with reformist workers, to great effect.

The test for the party came in 1923. Arising from the failure to fulfil its obligations to the Versailles Treaty, the French government sent in troops to occupy the Ruhr. This opened up a period of economic and political instability, with the Cuno government offering "passive resistance". Strikes and battles with troops became increasingly violent. Inflation turned into hyperinflation and the working class suffered absolute pauperisation and the middle class were ruined. Suicides reached record levels. On 3 February 1923 an egg cost 300 marks; on the 10th, 3,400; on 5 August, 12,000; and on 8th, 30,000. Shops changed their prices by the hour. The trade unions collapsed. A revolutionary tide swept the country. The time was set for revolution. Brandler telegrammed Moscow, but the majority of the Bolsheviks were away. Stalin, however, urged the Germans to wait.

It was not until August that the Russian Political Bureau met to discuss the German situation. There the Germans were urged to make preparations for an insurrection. Trotsky urged the fixing of a date, but Brandler objected. While preparations proceeded, the Cuno government fell. Nevertheless, KPD representatives joined the governments in Saxony and Thuringia as a launching pad for the revolution. A trade union conference at Chemnitz was to be used to call a general strike and provoke an uprising. However, things went badly wrong and the conference failed to support the strike. The insurrection was called off and the opportunity was missed. The KPD was declared illegal and arrests followed. The "German Fiasco" was over.

Trotsky believed that the revolution could have succeeded but for the failure of a hesitating leadership. Whereas the Bolshevik Party was to overcome this vacillation under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, this was not the case in Germany. "In Germany, the leadership as a whole vacillated and this irresolution was transmitted to the party and through it to the class." Hesitation led to defeat.

Within 10 years the mighty KPD had been smashed to pieces. The rise of Stalin in the USSR sealed the fate of the Communist International. The ultra-left policy of the Third Period split the German working class and allowed Hitler to come to power without resistance. This book by Pierre Broué deserves the widest readership. Its lessons are profound.

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