IN 1869, at Eisenach, Wilhelm Liebknecht (1826-1900) founded a Marxist organisation which was to become known as the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands), or SPD. Despite the frenetic attempts of von Bismarck to hamper the progress of the party and its fierce opposition to Prussianism, it grew rapidly. In 1877 the SPD polled 493,000 votes and then, in 1890, polled another 1,427,000. By 1912, it had managed to win a third of all votes cast and secure an impressive total of 4,239,000. By this time the growing reputation of the SPD had extended across the length and breadth of Europe and the Party had become a powerful role model for similar Social-Democratic organisations elsewhere. These spheres of political influence included Belgium (1885), Austria (1889), Hungary (1890), Bulgaria (1891), Poland (1892), Romania (1893 and 1910), Holland (1894), Russia (1898), Finland (1903) and Serbia (1903). Indeed, David Kirby has described the SPD as ‘the jewel in the crown of the Second International.'[1] However, despite its electoral successes, commanding influence and the fact that it now had around one million members, the Party was still unable to achieve power. The social and economic climate of pre-war Germany had seen a rise in general working class militancy, and the eventual ability of such elements to organise themselves into a series of union-led strike movements which sought confrontation with those attempting to maintain the prevailing status quo, saw the theorical notion of class tension evolve into practical forms of class struggle[2].

In 1907, a conference at Stuttgart had seen the Communists advocate a wave of strikes designed to paralyse the economy and arouse worker-solidarity. Meanwhile, reactionary groups like the Pan-German League (1893), German Navy League (1898) and Reich Association Against Social Democracy (1904) had been used “partly consciously and manipulatively”[3] by the German State in order to divide workers in a frantic attempt to curb the influence of the SPD and talented theoreticians like Karl Kautsky (1854-1938); a man who had helped to formulate the Party’s 1891 Erfurt Programme by advocating an impressive synthesis between both reformist and revolutionary ideas within a Marxist framework.

Nevertheless, those on the Right need not have feared the temporary advance of Socialism at all, for its Leftist adversaries were about to undergo a purely self-destructive process of ideological fragmentation. Despite the fact that the SPD harboured within its ranks a number of revolutionary elements, the Party was able to restrict these inherent strands of Marxist thought and had always campaigned for little more than an extension of the franchise within a reformed political system. Even the Jewish firebrand, Rosa Luxemburg (1870-1919), had continued to remain in the SPD, despite her opposition to party and trade union leaders and charismatic domination of the Party’s 1913 Congress. But Germany’s largest and most unified cacophony of Left-wing representation was about to come face to face with the ghoulish threat of all-out warfare.

In the past, German Socialism had adopted a strong non-interventionist approach to those forms of conflict which it perceived to be either Capitalist or imperialistic, and the SPD had vigorously opposed the two Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913. As Austria issued its ultimatum to Serbia in July 1914, the Party had sought to quell the flames of international mobilisation by urging debate and diplomacy. Indeed, on July 25th that year the SPD Directorate openly announced its opposition to “imperialist commercial interests”[4] and declared: ‘We want no war! Down with war! Long live international brotherhood!'[5] William A. Pelz, on the other hand, is of the opinion that ‘such rhetoric was more than the reflection of the feelings of a few Party leaders.'[6] It is certainly true that, by July 28th, twenty-seven large meetings had taken place in Berlin alone. However, when the city was finally forced to adopt a state of national emergency just three days later, all protest meetings were outlawed and the SPD suddenly reconsidered its former position and, less than one week later, had supported the Kaiser’s request for 5,000,000,000 deutschmarks in war credits. Even the Left of the Party came out in support of this rather uncharacteristic objective, something which is indicative of the Party’s strong internal discipline.

The artificially-induced spirit of pseudo-nationalistic fervour which had been unleashed by the State, meanwhile, was beginning to unite large numbers of workers behind its militaristic banner. Indeed, their

“self-identification with the State swept away their feelings of isolation, insecure confidence, resignation, passivity, and the burden of their divided loyalties – to the national State on the one hand, and to international Socialism on the other.” [7]

The declaration of war saw German cities literally brimming with hundreds of thousands of cheering citizens who, partly due to the grossly exaggerated potential of the Schleiffen Plan, were completely unaware that there was to be no swift victory and no comfortable return to normality. Men like Paul Von Hindenburg (1847-1934) and Erich Ludendorff (1865-1937) became national heroes and Germany was soon divided into a series of different zones, each controlled by military leaders, with opposition to the war regarded as ‘unpatriotic’ or ‘anti-German’. In political terms, for the SPD this new scenario meant that to continue as it had done in the past would lead to total obscurity. On the other hand, the sudden demand for production and the mobilisation of the German proletariat now meant that Socialists could organise within the framework of the domestic war effort. However, in order to exert its influence upon German workers themselves, the Party had to betray its original pacifist principles and become committed to what can only be described as a rather vulgar form of ideological opportunism. The SPD now attempted to justify its support for the First World War by alleging that it was ‘now doing what we have always emphatically maintained: we are not forsaking the fatherland in its hour of peril.'[8]

In addition, the Party’s increasing hypocrisy even led to its refusal to criticise Germany’s other political entities for the duration of the hostilities. At the very core of the SPD’s incredible volte-face was the ‘Burgfrieden’, or ‘internal truce’. When the Kaiser had entered the German Reichstag building in August 1914 and uttered the phrase ‘I recognise no more parties; I know only Germans'[9], he was attempting to bring to an end the disunity within Germany and thus redirect the energy contained within the conflicting pockets of popular expression towards the common war-effort.

Needless to say, judging by the actions of the SPD the Kaiser’s appeal for national unity was successful. But although the ‘Burgfrieden’ had served its initial purpose by managing to extract a significant degree of national consciousness from the various segments of German society, the war’s external development soon began to determine the direction of events within Germany itself. By the middle of 1915, German troops were heavily bogged down in trench warfare and the gradual decimation of the fundamental human spirit was beginning to be felt much closer to home. Similarly, domestic morale also suffered and the general consensus started to collapse as those behind the ‘Burgfrieden’ policy tried to prevent its inevitable disintegration by

“upholding the spirit of steadfastness and devotion to the great national objectives, obviating all threats to the unity of the German people, and preventing any impression that the firm will to victory was wavering.” [10]

As a result, the ‘Burgfrieden’ came to represent nothing more than a useful method of suppressing unpopular opinions expressed by an increasing number of people who were hostile to the continuation of the war. Meanwhile, however, the German Left was poised to declare war upon itself. The parliamentary leadership of the SPD began to come under attack from the Left flank of the Party, with individuals like Luxemburg and Liebknecht starting to have an impact upon its more disillusioned elements in the ordinary rank and file. The pair were firmly opposed to the war and regarded it as a dynastic plot to undermine Socialism by seeking to unite both the ruling class and German workers beneath a nationalistic facade. The SPD’s main newspaper, Vorwarts, became a literary arena for the subsequent debate which took place between those in the Party who supported the Kaiser’s war effort and those who were completely opposed to it. However, the war of words soon began to escalate in accordance with the shifting course of the conflict itself, which, by severely affecting the distribution of food supplies, had led to a war of attrition and caused widespread deprivation. The Left took advantage of this growing wave of social unrest and, after December 1915, maintained its commitment to a negotiated peace settlement.

By 1916, the military situation had deteriorated and German citizens at home were faced with mass starvation. Meanwhile, whilst the SPD had originally endorsed the fundamental ethos of the 1875 Gotha Programme and its commitment to revolutionary Marxist principles, the Party’s one-time Deputy – Karl Grillenberger (1848-1897) – had boasted some years previously that he and his comrades had rejected the Programme because ‘for us, any revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is now out of the question.'[11]

This admission of failure is just one example of how far the SPD had come since its alleged commitment to Marxism, and people like Luxemburg and Liebknecht were able to expose the shortcomings of their adversarial fellow-travellers by reviving the Gotha Programme and restating their belief in the deployment of revolutionary action. But the Right-wing of the SPD, grouped around the journal Die Glocke, accused the dissidents of being ‘unpatriotic’ and still wished to defend the crumbling ‘Burgfrieden’ agreement. By contrast, however, these revolutionary Socialists – or Spartacists, as they were known – formed themselves into the Gruppe Internationale and set out to bring the whole framework crashing to the ground.

This uncompromising tactic resulted in the fragmentation of the Party, although the Left-wing of the SPD was itself divided. The majority group included representatives from the centre-ground of the Party like Kautsky, moderate Leftists like Hugo Haase (1863-1919) and Rudolf Hilferding (1877-1941), and Revisionists like Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932) and Kurt Eisner (1867-1919). These elements may collectively be described as the Independents, and were united in that whilst they supported the need for defensive military action, they ‘felt that the war aims and the expansionist policy of the ruling groups in the German State and society militated against the credibility of a defensive war.'[12]

After being expelled from the SPD’s main parliamentary grouping in March 1916, eighteen of their like-minded delegates established their own parliamentary group shortly before the appearance of a rival organisation, the Unabhangige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (USPD). The Spartacists also joined the new Party. The USPD, however, soon found itself wedged uncomfortably between the orthodox reformists in the SPD and the more radical Spartacus group, whose hardline revolutionary protagonists soon became a thorn in the side of their more moderate bedfellows. At the same time, when the military orchestrated the use of submarine warfare in January 1917 – an essentially political decision – those on the Far Left of the political spectrum were able to expose the obvious shortcomings and inconsistencies of parliamentarianism. After all, if audacious Army representatives were actually going above and beyond the political arena in order to pursue their own private agendae, the Reichstag had become an irrelevancy and, therefore, Socialists were correct to adopt a revolutionary position. The German State, meanwhile, had obviously realised this fact and many Spartacists were jailed for their subversive activities. Indeed, chief ringleaders Luxemburg and Liebknecht were forced to remain in prison from June 1916 until October 1918.

In Russia, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had inspired a great many socialists abroad and, by 1918, the impending defeat of the German military machine merely continued to fuel the Spartacist cause. Although the Kaiser had attempted to initiate a series of futile reforms, the increasing extremities of German society appeared to warrant a more radical political solution and a vast litany of political, social and economic disasters soon followed. Whilst the Allied Blockade had led to severe hardship amongst the ordinary civilian population during the Winter months of 1917-18 and been directly responsible for subsequent bread strikes among German metalworkers, the example of Lenin’s soviets led to the formation of similar councils in Germany.

On November 4th, 1918, the German Navy was faced with mutiny and the more opportunistic elements of the Left seized their chance. An effective Allied offensive had rendered Grand-Admiral Alfred Von Tirpitz (1849-1930) powerless and his fleet was forcibly confined to the Kiel shipyard. And then, as war-weariness and low morale took its toll, German sailors were ordered to put to sea and prepare for a cataclysmic battle with the British fleet. When the sailors refused a series of riots and demonstrations broke out, eventually spreading to other towns and ports. By November 6th, industrial workers in Hamburg, Bremen and Cuxhaven were demanding the full implementation of Socialism and, despite the non-political grievances of those at the Kiel shipyard, they expressed solidarity with their sea-faring comrades in order to establish an array of workers’ and sailors’ councils. Finally, on November 9th, Emperor Wilhelm II abdicated and Friedrich Ebert became the new German Chancellor, taking control of law and order a day later and immediately seeking to ‘direct the revolutionary movement into constitutional and lawful channels.'[13]  Indeed, under the direction of Gustav Noske (1868-1946), the Government even ‘used regular troops in a bloody suppression of the Left.'[14]

The abdication of the Kaiser was never viewed by the Spartacists as a Socialist victory in itself, of course, and the eventual formation of a governmental coalition comprised of representatives from both the SPD and the USPD was seen as a premature interruption of the whole revolutionary process. Indeed, writing in Pravda, Franz Mehring viewed the gradual betrayal of Social Democracy in Germany as something that was ‘ground into the dust under the wheel of imperialism’s triumphal chariot.'[15]

As the proposed ‘Republic of Councils’ became overshadowed by the election of a National Assembly and Council of People’s Commissars, Luxemburg and Liebknecht broke away in defiance to form the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands), or KPD. However, despite the fact that throughout the First World War Luxemburg had supported the concept of the Leninist vanguard and, in its more developed state, the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat, she was now highly critical of Russian Bolshevism because once it had taken control of the State it “abolished democracy altogether”[16], although she did support the Spartacist rising in Berlin. The KPD now insisted that it would ‘never assume governmental power except in response to the plain and unmistakable wish of the great majority of the proletarian masses.'[17]

But whatever plans the leaders of the KPD had for governmental power were dashed when, on January 10th and 11th, 1919, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were murdered on their way to the Moabit Prison by armed soldiers of the Freikorps. Whilst we shall examine the Freikorps in due course, it seems fair to say that the revolution was over before it had even begun and, in the wake of Germany’s military defeat the old-guard Social Democrats set about administering Capitalism in a slightly more palatable form than that which had formerly been tendered by their vanquished monarchist forebears.

Indeed, on April 16th, 1919, just three days after the Bavarian Soviet Republic had been taken over by self-seeking functionaries of the KPD like Eugen Leviné (1883-1919) and Max Levien (1885-1937), the famous mystic and Anarchist revolutionary, Gustav Landauer (1870-1919), resigned from his role as Commisar of Public Instruction. The depressing spirit of the times is probably best illustrated by the fact that when this principled and charismatic figure was arrested the following month and consequently trampled to death by a group of soldiers in Munich’s Stadelheim Prison, his last words were: ‘To think that you are human.'[18]

To conclude this analysis of the German Left during this formative and troubled period, one could be forgiven for suggesting that the gradual disintegration of law and order in Germany appeared to lead to a general acceptance of more radical and hard-line political solutions. On reflection, however, despite the slightly divergent programmes of the SPD and USPD, the German proletariat got the bourgeois Socialist government it had always desired. Radicals like Luxemburg and Liebknecht may have interpreted the various stages of the war and its impact upon civilian life as a practical validation of their ideological principles, but as Helga Grebing has pointed out, the Spartacists exerted no real influence upon the lives of ordinary German workers and nor ‘could they really distinguish between the Majority Socialists and the Independents.'[19]

One thing is certain, the First World War had caused the German Left to become bitterly divided. More importantly, when the weak Socialist government capitulated and reluctantly accepted German culpability in accordance with the distinctly one-sided terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the scene was set for the unification of the German Right and, thus, paved the way for the steady rise of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and National-Socialism.


1. Kirby, David; ‘The Second International’ in Modern History Review, Issue #4, Vol. 4, 1993, p. 15.

2. Kocka, Jurgen; Facing Total War (Berg Publishers, 1984), p. 15.

3. Ibid.

4. Bevan, Edwyn; German Social Democracy During the War (George Allen & Unwin, 1918), p. 6.

5. Ibid.

6. Pelz, William A.; The Spartacusbund and the German Working Class Movement: 1914-19 (Edward Mellen, undated), p. 69.

7. Grebing, Helga; The History of the German Labour Movement (Oswald Wolff, 1969), p. 93.

8. Ibid., p. 92.

9. Op. cit., Kocka, p. 43.

10. Koszyk, K.; Deutsche Pressepolitik im Ersten Weltkrieg (Dusseldorf, 1968), p. 146.

11. Grillenberger, Karl; Stenographische Berichte uber die Verhandlungen im Deutschen Reichstag, 26th February, 1891, p. 1805.

12. Op. cit., Grebing p. 95.

13. Ibid., p. 101.

14. Quigley, Carroll; Tragedy and Hope (Macmillan, 1974), p. 424.

15. Mehring, Franz; Pravda, 15th June, 1918.

16. Op. cit., Grebing, p. 103.

17. Ibid.

18. Op. cit., Quigley, p. 423.

19. Op. cit., Grebing, p. 99.

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