Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 5, 2018

Werner Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923” (part two)

Filed under: Werner Angress — louisproyect @ 12:22 am

This is the second in a series of reproductions of chapters in Werner Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923”. In the first installment, I posted the chapter on “The Genesis of the March Uprising” that discussed the factors that led to what Paul Levi called the “greatest Bakunist putsch in history”. This chapter titled “The March Uprising and its Failure” is a horrifying narrative of how the Communist Party of Germany under the direct influence of a Comintern emissary named Bela Kun staged an ultraleft adventure that in some ways makes the Weatherman “Days of Rage” in 1969 look sane by comparison.

As a preface to the chapter, there are some terms that need clarification.

  • The“Zentrale” was the central committee of the German CP that got its marching orders from Bela Kun.
  • The “Rote Fahne” was the newspaper of the CP that served as the main propagandist for the so-called March Action.
  • The “Orgesch” was an anti-Semitic militia that was a forerunner of Hitler’s Stormtroopers.
  • The “KPD” is the initials for the CP.
  • The “KAPD” is the initials for the Communist Workers Party of Germany that was a split from the KPD, on an even more ultraleft basis. Among the better-known members were Antonie Pannekoek, Karl Korsch, and Paul Mattick.

Politically, the disastrous outcome was a major factor in the rise of Nazism because it discredited the CP. Some of Angress’s chapter might be unfamiliar to those who have not studied the scandalous “March Action”. As background, I recommend this brief article by Pierre Broué, who like Angress, wrote an important book on the German Communist Party in the 1920s: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/broue/works/1964/summer/march-action.htm



Horsing’s move became known at the Central Committee meeting on the morning of March 17 and found the Communist leaders unprepared. As there were at the moment no details, apart from the text of the appeal, the assembled delegates refrained from dealing with the unexpected development except for agreeing on the advisability of postponing any direct involvement in central Germany until after Easter. The fourday holiday, from Good Friday to Easter Monday, was held to be unsuitable for strikes and related actions. The party organizations in the affected region were advised, presumably through those of their members who attended the conference in Berlin, that they should merely threaten to call a general strike once the police marched in, but were not to carry out the threat until the plants and mines were actually occupied. Before the day was over, however, this prudent attitude was abandoned by the Zentrale in favor of a barely disguised attempt to exploit the new situation. According to the Communist version, the initial desire to avoid a struggle in Prussian Saxony prior to Easter week was foiled by the Mansfeld miners, who reacted to Horsing’s “provocation!’ by precipitating a spontaneous uprising, and thereby compelled the KPD to rush to their assistance.

In the light of subsequent events this argument is not convincing. it is much more likely that, after the immediate impact of Horsing’s appeal had worn off, at least some members of the Zentrale experienced a change of heart by the time the conference adjourned on March 17. Once again, all signs point to the machinations of Kun with his flair for concocting illstarred revolutions. In view of the delicacy of his mission, neither he nor his associates attended the Central Committee meeting—the presence of the Comintern agents was to be known only to a restricted circle. It stands to reason, however, that Kun was informed of the outcome of the conference as soon as it stood adjourned, and that he then gave his views on the situation. If Kun had come to Germany with the express purpose of goading the KPD into action, the news of Horsing’s intention to move police into Prussian Saxony was in perfect accordance with his plans. All he had to do was to persuade those members of the Zentrale who had already fallen under his influence that the projected police occupation offered an excellent opportunity for the German Communists to launch the revolution which they had just decided was in the offing anyway. He may well have pointed out that any delay would diminish the chances for a successful operation. There were nine more days until Good Friday (March 25), time enough for Horsing’s forces to get a firm foothold in the occupied region unless they were met by organized resistance. And who but the KPD could furnish the leadership for such resistance?

Whatever the circumstances which prompted the Zentrale to reverse its earlier decision to postpone action, the fact remains that from March 17 on the KPD sounded and acted like a party resolved upon revolution. At the same time, in order to justify the party in the eyes of the working class in general, and of the Communist rank and file in particular, great pains were taken to give the impression that German Communism was merely responding to the wishes of the treacherous bourgeoisie.

On March 17, the Communist press, led by the Rote Fahne, opened a propaganda barrage so violent as to be inconsistent with the party’s alleged intention to hold the line until after Easter week. Under the heading “The Counterrevolution Strikes,” the early edition of the Rote Fahne carried a leading article urging the proletarians to abandon their previous passivity, which had merely encouraged the reactionaries. “It is not enough,” the paper warned, “to only announce the immediate fight of the proletarian masses against . . . the counterrevolution can frustrate its criminal intentions.” There was but one way out of the present crisis: alliance with Soviet Russia which, however, could only be realized “over the bodies of the bourgeoisie.” Excerpts from Horsing’s appeal appeared in the early edition, and the full text was printed in the evening edition of the Rote Fahne. The Communist targets on March 18 were the Orgesch and the SPD. Pointing to Bavaria’s refusal to disarm her civil guards, the paper commented at length on the helplessness of the unarmed workers. “The gang of majority Socialists” had agreed that, under the pretext of law, armed might in Prussian Saxony should be permitted to march against “the naked chest of the working class.”

“The bourgeoisie stands in arms and refuses to surrender them .. . and the German workers have no weapons! It was not the Entente that disarmed them—the Entente cannot even disarm the Orgesch. The German bourgeoisie and the rabble of Social Democratic leaders have wrested the weapons out of the hands of the proletarians. . . . Now the law means nothing any more; nor does Versailles. Weapons will decide, and the counterrevolutionaries refuse to surrender theirs. . . . Every worker will simply ignore the law [pfeift auf das Gesetz] and must seize a weapon wherever he may find one!

This blast, drafted by Kun himself, led to the confiscation of the issue by the Prussian authorities, whereupon the identical text was promptly reprinted in the Rote Fahne on the following day. The entire approach was so clumsy that it met with the disapproval even of Ernst ReuterFriesland, who registered a protest with the Zentrale. Yet the same argument was put forth on March 18 in the Reichstag where the KPD deputy Däumig demanded that the proletariat be armed because the Reichswehr was counterrevolutionary and anti-proletarian.

On March 19, the day the police occupation of Prussian Saxony went into effect, the Rote Fahne announced that the Central Committee had decided at its recent meeting to mobilize the party, organizationally and spiritually, for the coming struggle against a bourgeoisie which was collaborating with the Entente in a joint effort to exploit the workers. “The difficulties faced by the government in the Upper Silesian plebiscite and the sanctions make it essential that the proletariat develop the greatest possible activity!” All workers would have to be prepared to fight in answer to Horsing’s provocation.’

Although the logic of the article left much to be desired. Inasmuch as collaboration between Germany and the Entente was mentioned in one breath with Allied sanctions, the general tenor was clear enough. Every stop of the propaganda organ was pulled in order to bracket events in Prussian Saxony with all the other crisis factors, real or imaginary, that loomed so large in the imagination of the party strategists. It was quite in line with this policy to devote the evening issue of the Rote Fahne on March 19 to the problem in Upper Silesia, where the plebiscite was scheduled to be held the next day. The paper pointed out that Polish and German counter-revolutionaries were facing each other in Upper Silesia and were ready to engage in combat. The Orgesch in that part of the country was spoiling for a fight because the spirit of nationalism there was strong. The Silesian plebiscite, the Rote Fahne informed its readers, was no local affair but concerned every proletarian. The adventure planned by the German counterrevolutionaries in these regions was to be the first battle of the Orgesch, to be followed by a second, the battle against the German proletariat. “Once the Polish and German counter-revolutionaries in Upper Silesia begin to clash, the iron fist of the proletariat from both countries must smash in between the [combatants].

On March 20, the day after the police occupation had gone into effect, the Rote Fahne carried the banner line: “Horsing orders his gang of murderers to march in!” The days of the Bloodhound Noske had returned. The workers in central Germany had decided to offer resistance and thus had set an example which should be followed by workers throughout the country. SPD and Independents came in for a sharp attack because they supported Horsing, and Severing and Weismann were labeled “henchmen of the Orgesch.” Once again the Rote Fahne demanded: “Weapons into the hands of the workers!” And the entire German working class was urged to come to the assistance of their embattled brothers in central Germany. This frantic appeal to the German working class at large was neutralized by an editorial in the same issue, entitled, “He Who Is Not For Me, Is Against Me! A Word to the Social Democratic and Independent Workers.” This editorial, instead of addressing the Socialists as potential allies, told them that they, and the rest of the German proletariat, were on the wrong road; only the Communist Party knew where it was going. After a lengthy enumeration of the virtues inherent in the Communist cause, the Rote Fahne listed a number of conditions under which the misled workers might join the Communist ranks, one of which was a barely concealed suggestion that the Socialists should string their own leaders from the lamp posts. It was, in Levi’s words, “a declaration of war against four-fifths of the German workers at the beginning of the Aktion.” The ineptness of the Communist propaganda effort was succinctly expressed by Vorwärts when it told its readers: “Moscow needs corpses . . . . We warn the working class. . . . Do not let yourselves be provoked!”

Although slogan after slogan rolled off the Communist presses, no serious unrest accompanied Horsing’s appeal in Prussian Saxony. The Zentrale, which gradually realized that it was illusory to rely on the spontaneity of the population, decided that some outside help was needed to arouse the masses, and acted accordingly. On March 18, the Communist district executive for Halle-Merseburg received orders from the Zentrale to start a revolutionary action at once. The directives stipulated that Horsing’s police measures were to serve as an excuse for the insurrection. Two local party leaders, Lemck and Bowitzki, were entrusted with the direction of the operations (Aufstandsleitung), with headquarters to be situated at Halle. The next day, March 19, the Halle district committee of the KPD met for a conference to determine the line of action which the party was to take in the region. Representatives from various subdistricts and individual towns attended the conference, which was chaired by a leading official of the Halle district, Fred Oelssner. Oelssner started out by giving a brief summary of the domestic and foreign political problems which Germany faced, a résumé that followed closely the familiar arguments of Kun. The situation in Upper Silesia, according to the speaker, was tense, and in Bavaria the Orgesch was on the move. Large-scale strikes by farm workers in Germany’s eastern provinces were assuming political overtones. In view of these circumstances the KPD had to decide on how best to exploit the situation to produce revolutionary action. The problem, thus stated, was then thrown open for discussion. The prevailing atmosphere at the conference was later described by a participant: “We were all convinced that Horsing’s decree would never suffice to produce an Aktion in Germany, but that we had to resort to provocation . . . the first shot, the notorious first shot, had to come from the side of the enemy.” It was suggested in the course of the discussion that favorable results might be achieved by harassing the police, who sooner or later were bound to open fire. Some of the members present were less than enthusiastic, but all indications of faintheartedness were speedily quashed from the chair. Oelssner terminated the conference by stating, contrary to the facts, that fighting had already begun and that it was now the duty of the party to increase the intensity of the struggle. The immediate objective was to arm the workers, then to capture political power.

During the session of the district executive at Halle came the first reports that the police occupation was already in progress. Another conference was called in Halle for March 20, this time by the regional executive, and all central German districts sent representatives who gave their individual situation reports. The conference was overcast by a cloud of deep depression. It was the general consensus that the spirit among the population was anything but revolutionary, and that artificial means would have to be used in order to bring matters to a head (um die Sache hochzubringen). Indeed, all was not well with the revolutionary spirit of the masses, which had figured so prominently in the calculations of the party leaders. The proletarians in Prussian Saxony, who according to subsequent Communist claims were so desperately in need of assistance, behaved initially with unforeseen timidity in the face of the Prussian police uniforms. Despite some ripples of discontent and attempts by agitators to stir up the workers and get them to stage walkouts, everything remained calm throughout March 19 and 20 (the latter being a Sunday) in the Eisleben area which had been the first to be occupied. Only on Monday, March 21, had agitation progressed sufficiently to encourage the Communist district executive of Mansfeld to call for a general strike, and on that day leaflets were distributed throughout the mining region which, in part, read as follows:

“Mansfeld workers! The reactionaries have carried out their threats and have turned your peaceful homes into a staging area for the White Guards. . . . They did not come with the ordinary weapons of the police forces but armed with machine guns and handgrenades . . . Mansfeld workers! Show that you are not slaves and use your power to repulse this onslaught. A general strike must be called. All wheels must stop turning . . . . Workers! you hold the power in your hands. Use it in proper time and be prepared for all eventualities (seid gewappnet fur alle Fälle].” The appeal was reproduced the same day in the Mansfelder Volkszeitung, the local Communist paper, and the strike began to spread, with moderate success, in the heart of this mining area. Yet outside of the immediate Mansfeld district most factories went on working, and there was still no sign of open violence.

Up to this point the Zentrale had been content to sit back and grind revolutionary tunes on the propaganda organ. But when the proclamation of the general strike failed to have the desired effect, Hugo Eberlein, who had recently been put in charge of the party’s military-political organization (MP-Apparat), was dispatched to central Germany on March 22. Eberlein was a Spartacist veteran who had participated in the founding of the KPD, and who in March 1919 represented the young party at the Founding Congress of the Communist International. He was a member of the Zentrale from the founding of the party up to the unification with the USPD, and it is conceivable that he was not elected into the Levi-Daumig Zentrale because of his delicate position as chief of the MP-Apparat. Eberlein enjoyed in party circles a reputation as an experienced saboteur, and was known among the rank and file as “Hugo mit der Zündschnur (Hugo with the fuse).”

As soon as Eberlein arrived in Halle he conferred with the local party functionaries. He told them that the Zentrale had ordered him to direct strategy in the region and to do his utmost to accelerate the pace of the projected operation. When some scepticism was ex pressed by two local leaders, Eberlein left no doubt that he intended to carry out the uprising under any circumstances. He rejected all talk of calling off the general strike, and then proceeded to develop his plans. It was essential, Eberlein argued, to win mass support, first in central Germany and ultimately in the rest of the Reich. Artificial means would have to be used to arouse the workers from their passive attitude. He suggested that trusted comrades were to commit acts of violence which could be blamed on the police—in this manner, even the most reluctant of workers would be provoked into action. But Eberlein’s fertile imagination provided a number of additional suggestions. He wanted to stage a mock-kidnapping of the two regional Communist leaders, Lemck and Bowitzki, who were nominally in charge of directing the Aktion. Other popular leaders should disappear for a day or two, only to re-emerge with fairy tales about how they had been liberated from the reactionaries. Another scheme was to blow up an ammunition train of the police and then to charge in the Klassenkampf, the Communist newspaper in Halle, that carelessness on the part of the reactionaries had ruined the homes of numerous workers, and had caused the death of hundreds of victims. Once it became known that the report was false, the paper could print a correction a few days later. Two more targets for Eberlein’s store of dynamite were an ammunition factory at Seesen, and a workers’ producers’ cooperative (Produktivgenos-senschaft) in Halle.

None of these projects was carried out successfully, although several abortive attempts were made to blow up both the ammunition factory and the producers’ cooperative. Eberlein’s reaction to the initial failure of the dynamiting exercises was a blast at the inefficiency of the local illegal apparatus which, he complained, did not even own a decent piece of fuse to do a reliable job. Yet before the day (March 23) was over, Eberlein’s tactics were largely overshadowed by the activities of a less sophisticated, albeit more renowned, revolutionary figure who had appeared in the Mansfeld district—Max Hoelz. Hoelz was no unknown to the revolutionary movement. He had first won prominence in 1918, when he organized the unemployed in his Saxon hometown of Falkenstein in the Voigtland during the revolution. His activism and initiative attracted the attention of the entire region at the time, and he won nationwide fame during the Kapp Putsch by his talented organization of workers’ brigades, which he led in guerilla warfare all over Saxony. In the course of the fighting he came into conflict with the leader of the Communist Chemnitz branch, Heinrich Brandler, who resented what he termed Hoelz’s undisciplined inroads on Brandler’s territory. The grudge continued, and after the Kapp Putsch Brandler had Hoelz expelled from the party, which he had joined in 1919. His expulsion from the KPD did not discourage Hoelz from continuing in his role of a German Robin Hood, a “condottiere with a social conscience nod the temperament of a rebel fighting for the poor and oppressed.”

When Hoelz learned on March 21 that a general strike had been called in the Mansfeld district, he left Berlin, where he had lived underground ever since the spring of 1920, and journeyed into the industrial region of Prussian Saxony. He arrived at Kloster Mansfeld late at night, but still in time to attend a meeting on the general strike. There was, as yet, no mention of armed insurrection. The situation changed on the following day, March 22, when walkouts increased in the Mansfeld-Eisleben mining district, and armed bands prevented non-striking mining crews from entering the pits. During the day Hoelz addressed strike meetings at Hettstedt, Mansfeld and Eisleben, and it was as a result of his Eisleben speech that the situation got out of hand. According to a Prussian police major, Hoelz spoke in support of the general strike, urged his audience to arm themselves, and allegedly incited them to beat up police patrols. His suggestion was followed immediately after the meeting was over, when a group of his listeners marched to Eisleben’s market square and attacked four policemen who were out shopping, armed only with dress bayonets. The policemen were rescued before long, but the incident encouraged many unruly elements in the neighborhood, and from the night of March 22-23 on the strike movement began to turn into an open, and spreading, insurrection. Incited by Hoelz and his “adjutant” Josef Schneider, the editor of the Mansfelder Volkszeitung, a growing number of persons among the local population provided themselves with rifles, machine guns, and large amounts of explosives, which were easily obtained in a mining area. Some of the weapons came from secret depots which dated from the days of the Kapp Putsch and its aftermath; others were either captured or stolen from the police. Hoelz then began to form shock troops. He recruited strikers and unemployed miners most of whom were in possession of arms, organized them into units, and then descended with his motley troops upon the region around Mansfeld, Eisleben, and Hettstedt. For the next ten days Hoelz’s “army” terrorized the countryside by arson, looting, bank robberies, and the dynamiting of buildings, trains, and other suitable targets. Aimless though most of these activities were, Hoelz nevertheless succeeded where the KPD, Eberlein’s exertions notwithstanding, had so far failed: only two days after he came to the region, Hoelz had transformed the strike movement into a bloody insurrection. 27 Drobnig, pp. 9-10. Hoelz has presented a different version of this incident. According to his account (pp. 139-140), he had only urged the workers to support the general strike. Trouble started when the police, following his Eisleben speech, arrested and maltreated several strikers who had attended the meeting. When their comrades tried to liberate them by force, fighting broke out. The incident convinced the workers and Hoelz that it was time to seize weapons and organize fighting units.

From March 23 on, the situation in central Germany was extremely confused. Although the strike was spreading, and resistance to Horsing’s police was gathering momentum, the SPD, Independents and unions continued their initial opposition to what they felt was an irresponsible Communist adventure, and made every effort to prevent the workers in Prussian Saxony and elsewhere in Germany from lending support to the movement. There was, moreover, little or no coordination among the various proletarian groups that participated in the insurrection. Communist headquarters at Halle lacked effective control over the operation as a whole, and in particular over developments in the vital mining district around Mansfeld, Hettstedt and Eisleben. Eberlein’s presence in Halle could not change this fact. He was given but lukewarm cooperation from the local party leaders, and most of the attempts to extend the scope of the uprising in accordance with Eberlein’s unorthodox directives were either bungled, or they actually backfired. For example, the repeated dynamiting and derailing of passenger trains alienated railroad personnel, whose support of the insurrection would have been of vital importance for its success.

Most of the actual fighting took place in the Mansfeld district, the heart of the insurgent region, where Hoelz and his guerilla bands wreaked havoc and stole the Communists’ thunder. Supported by scattered contingents from the KAPD, hordes of unemployed, and the inevitable sprinkling of undefinable drifters who participated in the uprising for reasons of their own, this latter-day Schinderhannes battled police and ransacked the countryside, all in the name of social justice. There was little system to his burning, dynamiting and plundering, but no one, least of all the local KPD, could control him or gain his cooperation. Stubborn and self-righteous, he did not accept advice, much less orders, from anyone. Whoever joined his forces became subject to his command: this happened to a few impatient hotheads from the KPD organization in Halle who, without authorization from headquarters, collected six thousand men during a street demonstration, marched them to the Mansfeld district, and there joined Hoelz.

Relations between KPD and KAPD were also poor during the entire course of the uprising. The radical KAPD men admired Hoelz and hardly disguised their contempt for the KPD. Hoelz rewarded this admiration by handing over to the war chest of the KAPD the money that his desperados robbed from the local banks, and this incurred the jealousy of the rival party. Lack of cooperation between the two Communist organizations was prominently displayed in the “defense” of the chemical works at Leuna, south of Merseburg. This large industrial complex, which employed roughly twenty thousand workers, would have been eminently suited as a strong. point for the entire insurrection, but the potential strength of the Leuna works was never effectively utilized. A mammoth protest meeting, attended by an alleged eighteen thousand employees, was held on March 21, and an action committee was elected. Two days later, the Leuna works joined the regional general strike. The majority of workers went home, either to stay there and await the resumption of work, or to join battle against the police. At Leuna proper, a garrison, consisting of an estimated two thousand armed strikers, barricaded themselves inside the works and prepared to defend the compound against a police assault. But the defenders were neither unified nor well organized. The action committee which had been elected on March 21 was dominated by KAPD men who quarrelled incessantly with their comrades from the KPD. No agreement was reached on the essential question of whether they should remain on the defensive, or take the initiative and partake in the regional fighting. A further reason for controversy was the problem of emergency maintenance of the plant’s most vital installations, a measure which the KAPD opposed. Mutual recriminations among the members of the action committee, coupled with the failure of KPD headquarters to maintain contact with the garrison, left Leuna an isolated, albeit armed, citadel.

Thus Hoelz’s excessive violence, the ineffective efforts of the KPD to gain control over the movement, and the factional rivalries, all combined to jeopardize the chances of the uprising from the outset. Yet, for a few days after the outbreak of fighting, the fate of the insurrection hung in the balance; success or failure depended on whether the government could suppress it before the Zentrale extended it beyond central Germany.

On March 23, news of the radical turn of events in Prussian Saxony reached Berlin and was discussed by the cabinets of the Reich and Prussia. Additional bad news came from Hamburg, where labor trouble had erupted the same day, and the authorities had to find means of protecting the country from possible civil war. After some deliberations, which concentrated on central Germany, it was decided not to declare martial law in the insurgent region unless such a step should become unavoidable. Probably at this point, or very shortly thereafter, a decision was reached to rely primarily on police forces, but to keep several army units in readiness. They were to be employed only in case of emergency. The question of whether these Reichswehr contingents would then come under the command of the police or would act independently was temporarily left open.

Meanwhile, disturbing reports continued to reach the capital. Toward evening it became known that fighting around Eisleben had grown more intense, that the Leuna works had been hit by a general strike, and that the insurrection threatened to spread to the state of Saxony, where bomb plots against law courts had been discovered in Dresden, Leipzig and Freiberg. In Halle, where Communist headquarters in charge of regional operations was located, no strikes had developed so far, but the insurgents had distributed pamphlets with the following text: “On to the barricades, long live Soviet Russia! The revolutionary Ruhr district has been cut off by imperialist designs of the Entente powers, and central Germany has therefore become the heart of the German revolution. On to the barricades! Conquer the world!”

Equally somber was the news from Hamburg, where the senate had imposed a state of emergency that day at 4 P.M. Under the impact of these reports, President Ebert became convinced that drastic measures were needed. During the night he consulted with federal and Prussian officials and, still shying away from a declaration of martial law, proclaimed on the morning of March 24 a non-military state of emergency for Hamburg and the province of Saxony. Horsing was appointed (federal) civilian commissioner and entrusted with the execution of all measures which he deemed necessary for the restoration of order.

As the government was trying to find ways and means to quell the insurrection, the Communist Zentrale in Berlin made every effort to spread it beyond central Germany. Placards all over Berlin announced that in Prussian Saxony the (legal) factory councils had been replaced by revolutionary workers’ councils, an example which proletarians everywhere should follow. On March 22, the morning edition of the Rote Fahne called for mass demonstrations, to be held in the evening of March 24 at four points in the capital. The demonstrators were urged to protest Horsing’s police action and to express their solidarity with their comrades in central Germany. To add some local color, the Berlin workers were also asked to register a protest against the arrest of Ernst Reuter-Friesland by the police. In the course of the day the Zentrale changed its mind and scheduled the demonstrations for the same evening, March 22, presumably because somebody had realized that to hold a mass meeting on Maundy Thursday, shortly before the Easter holidays, was inpropitious. Despite the short notice the meetings were well attended, but revolutionary fervor was strikingly absent. Some wind had been taken out of the Communist sails when Reuter-Friesland was released shortly before the demonstrations were held—after he had spent two days in jail the police revealed that his arrest was a case of mistaken identity. His return deprived the Zentrale of an effective local slogan and made it necessary to concentrate solely on central Germany. Party spokesmen addressing the crowds urged all workers to stand by and be prepared to come to the aid of their imperiled comrades. The audience listened attentively but without any display of emotion. When some hecklers from the KAPD registered their dissatisfaction with mere preparedness, and demanded that a general strikc be called at once, they elicited hardly any response.

The evening edition of the Rote Fahne that day was likewise devoted to the situation in central Germany. The editorial emphasized, with unconcealed gratification, that this was the third time since the end of the war that the workers in the Mansfeld district were attracting everyone’s attention. This time, however, neither Horsing nor the Orgesch would succeed in provoking the workers to dissipate their collective strength in isolated skirmishes. Nor would the German labor movement as a whole be misled again by so-called anti-putschist phrases which had bred so much cowardice and passiveness in the past. The general strike called by the workers in central Germany was no putsch. It was the beginning of a collective action (Gesamtaktion), essential for the German proletariat if it was to prevent in time the disastrous consequences of the inevitable collapse of capitalism. The editorial ended with the usual revolutionary ruffles and flourishes: “The proletarian battalions in central Germany stand ready to fight. German workers, show your revolutionary solidarity, join your brothers, cast off your indifference, get rid of your cowardly and treacherous leaders, and fight—or you will perish!”

Despite all inflammatory slogans the Berliners did not stir. Not even the Communist-sponsored mass demonstrations elicited as yet more than polite curiosity, mixed with the traditional scepticism for which the population of the capital was famous. But on March 23 the Zentrale was compensated by encouraging news from Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city, where the propaganda efforts of the Red press had fallen on fruitful ground. Widespread unemployment had created a dangerous atmosphere which the KPD skillfully exploited. Communist agitation became noticeable in Hamburg on March 22. On that day the city’s Communist leaders, Ernst Thalmann among them, held a conference in the business office of the KPD in order to determine how the Hamburg workers could render immediate assistance to the proletariat in central Germany. It was resolved, among other things, to make use of the unemployed in any mass actions taken.

The local party organ, Hamburger Volksblatt, set the tone in an impassioned report on events in central Germany, and called on the workers of Hamburg to prove their solidarity with their comrades in Prussian Saxony. The paper demanded that the government disarm the Orgesch, arm the proletarians, create jobs for the unemployed, and call off Horsing’s police action in central Germany. The paper threatened a general strike by Hamburg’s proletariat if the government should reject these demands. In order to lend some substance to their threats, the Communists scheduled a protest meeting for March 23 at the Heiligengeistfeld, a fairground not far from the waterfront.

Radical Communist agitation proved more effective in “red” Hamburg than in Berlin. On the morning of March 23rd a huge crowd of unemployed, led by the KPD, marched to the waterfront and invaded three of Hamburg’s largest shipyards, Blohm & Voss, Vulkan, and Deutsche Werft. The plant managers tried to order the crowd off the premises by threatening to close down the yards unless they were obeyed. The unemployed shouted back that they wanted jobs and urged the workers in the shipyards to support them. Support was not forthcoming, nor could it have been expected, since most shipyard workers were loyal supporters of the Social Democratic Party. The issue did not long remain in doubt, Arguments led to threats of force, and strong-arm tactics eventually succeeded in dislodging from the yards all opponents of the Communist-led mob. The managers retreated along with thy Socialist personnel, and the invaders occupied the premises. Once in possession, they elected ad hoc action committees and hoisted red flags The KPD had attained its objective of infusing revolutionary spirit into a section of Hamburg’s labor movement, although this done at the expense of unemployed desperate enough to act as shock troops for the “revolutionary vanguard.” Nothing constructivc could have been accomplished in the long run by the forceful occupation of the yards, as the Communist leaders undoubtedly knew.

And the occupation proved of short duration. The KPD had issued instructions to keep the yards occupied, but the crowd within the gates, the group which occupied the Vulkan wharf, left the yards in the early afternoon perhaps through some misunderstanding, and marched into the city, presumably to attend the protest demonstration at the Heiligengeistfeld which was scheduled for 5 P.M. They were met by police forces, who tried to break up the formation, and after heavy street fighting succeeded in dispersing the would-be demonstrators, including those who had already reached the Heiligengeistfeld. The police then surrounded the wharves of Blohm & Voss, firing into courtyards and buildings. By early afternoon the shipyards were cleared, but Hamburg remained dangerously restless. Street battles between unemployed and police continued throughout the rest of the day in various parts of the city, and at 4 P.M. the senate proclaimed a state of emergency, which was given full backing the following day by the federal emergency decree of President Ebert.”

The president’s proclamation of a state of emergency for Hamburg and Prussian Saxony on March 24 posed a challenge to the Communist leaders which they decided to meet head on. With the Easter holidays just ahead, the Zentrale had to do something to sustain the movement and, if possible, to accelerate its intensity. For this purpose the KPD called a nationwide general strike on March 24, urged the proletarians to seize arms, to get organized, and to join the struggle against the counterrevolution. It was a desperate step, for all plants closed down anyway from Good Friday (March 25) through Easter Monday. But the response to the Communist appeal was negligible. Both Socialist parties countered the call for a general strike by instructing their members to ignore it. In Berlin, the seat of the Zentrale, the strike movement was a total fiasco. Most workers reported to their jobs on the 24th, and only a few factories were idle, despite the aforementioned attempts by the KPD to enforce the shutdown of working plants through attempted invasions by unemployed. These methods aroused sharp criticism even from within the party. Ernst Daumig, for instance, sent a furious letter to the Zentrale in which he protested the practice of pitting proletarians against proletarians. Equally indignant were the party officials in charge of trade-union activities, who complained that the tactics employed by the Zentrale were wrecking their influence within the unions.

The Zentrale scored slightly better in the Ruhr region and the Rhineland. In the Communist Ruhrecho, and through handbills, the regional KPD organizations followed the lead of the Zentrale by exhorting the population to join the general strike. Throughout March 24 and 25, the Communists kept up an untiring propaganda barrage by calling for demonstrations, for support of the embattled comrades in Prussian Saxony, and for support of the general strike. Party leaders recommended “Easter promenades” through the streets, especially in the working-class districts. They hoped in this way to keep the issue alive over the holidays, and to win support from non-Communist labor for the intensified struggle which they expected in the days ahead. On Easter Monday, armed clashes betwcen workers and police occurred in Essen. During the next few days similar incidents took place in a number of mines, and in nearly every sizable city of the Rhenish region. Only a fraction of the population, however, supported the general strike, most walkouts that were staged were of short duration and, by March 30, order was restored to the region except for some isolated pockets. Germany’s largest industrial area, traditionally a radical stronghold, had proven of little help to the KPD.

Equally unspectacular was the impact of the insurrection on southern Germany, the northern plains, and the East Elbian region. Only token strikes and isolated minor riots briefly disturbed these otherwise quiet areas. Thus, in the last analysis, success or failure of the uprising hinged on developments in central Germany, where the fighting had taken a more violent turn after President Ebert’s decree had become known. Because Horsing’s police forces were restricted in numbers, and the Reichswehr units continued to stand by without participating in the fighting, the operations of the government proceeded at first at a rather slow pace. On March 24, insurgent forces held Eisleben and Hettstedt against the police, and Halle and Merseburg were affected by the strike movement. There were reports that in the area around Leuna, now occupied by armed strikers, every male between the ages of fifteen and fifty had become eligible for “conscription” into the ranks of the insurgent proletariat, and that compulsion was used on some occasions to enlist unwilling recruits.”

Heavy fighting continued for several days. On March 25, government forces gradually won the upper hand in Eisleben and Hettstedt, and on the following day took Mansfeld, Helbra, and Sangershausen. At the same time, however, they suffered some setbacks when new riots broke out in such peripherally situated towns as Wittenberg, Delitzsch, and Bitterfeld, which until then had not been affected by the insurrection.

On Good Friday, some confusion was thrown into the ranks of the insurgents when rumors circulated throughout the region that Horsing had offered immunity from punishment to anyone willing to surrender and to hand his weapons over to the police. Whatever substance there may have been to this rumor, it was quickly quashed. On March 26, Severing sent a telegraphic order to the government forces, forbidding all negotiations with the fighting workers, and instructing the police to proceed without leniency.”

The attitude of Communist headquarters in Halle was equally uncompromising, as was evident from the instructions issued by this body on Good Friday: “Provocation at any price! Overturn street cars, throw handgrenades . . . !” But in spite of these desperate exhortations, from March 27 on the Aktion turned gradually into a rout, as bands of insurgents, varying in size, engaged in desperate and usually fruitless rearguard skirmishes with the police. Hoelz’s account of his own movements during these last hectic days constitutes very representative description of the collapse. He and some of his men spent Easter Sunday (March 27) at Schraplau, a small town roughly ten kilometers southeast of Eisleben, where he paid his “troops” for the first time. Hoelz has recounted this momentous occasion with customary modesty: “The finance and commissariat department of the troops was entrusted with the payment. Each received fifty marks.” He does not indicate the source of the money.

At Schraplau he met Lemck (Hoelz calls him “Lembke”) and Bowitzki, nominally the Aufstandsleiter appointed by the KPD, who had, however, lost contact with their own headquarters. Hoelz planned originally to march to the Leuna works and reinforce the garrison there, but changed his mind and set out for Halle, by way of Ammendorf. He intended to launch a surprise attack upon Halle in the hope of capturing some artillery pieces. In the night from March 27 to 28, Hoelz led his men in a belated Easter parade from Schraplau to Ammendorf, a distance of roughly twenty-five kilometers. On the following day he advanced on Halle with two thousand men, but ran into police who surrounded his force before he reached the city. Hoelz sent Lemck to the garrison of the Leuna works with the urgent request for immediate reinforcements, and ordered his men to hold the line until the expected relief arrived. It never came, although Lemck returned, after two hours, in a car with one thousand rounds of ammunition and the promise of speedy aid from Leuna. After waiting in vain for some time, while the police were tightening their ring, Hoelz’s troops began to disperse in an effort to escape from the trap before it was too late. In the ensuing confusion Hoelz became separated from his men and hid in a mine-shaft. When he emerged from his concealment, his troops had disappeared. During the next few days he wandered north, sometimes alone, sometimes accompanying small groups of stragglers and participating in running fights with police, in the hope of eventually reaching Mansfeld where he expected to find the remnants of his troops. But he never reached his destination. On March 31 he found himself in Beesenstedt, a village halfway between Halle and Mansfeld, and here on April 1 he joined in the last sizable battle of the insurrection. The outcome of the workers’ last stand at Beesenstedt was never in doubt. Hoelz was captured after the police closed in, but got away two days later when he successfully fooled his captors with false identity papers and the brazen tale that he was unjustly arrested while peacefully buying eggs from a local farmer. With a price of 185,000 marks on his head, Hoelz made his way to Berlin where he was soon arrested, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment. His revolutionary career was over for good when the March uprising, in which he had played such a prominent part, collapsed before his eyes.

The backbone of the insurrection as a whole was, in effect, broken several days before Hoelz saw its last dying spasms at Beesenstedt. Hamburg was the first area where order was restored. The riots which had broken out on March 23 were quelled three days later, and by March 29 most shipyards began to resume full operations. On that day the insurrection suffered another blow, as police forces, reinforced by one battalion of Reichswehr artillery, captured the Leuna works and took most of the defenders prisoner. Although Leuna had played a rather undistinguished role in the regional struggle, the mere fact that the famous chemical works were in the hands of proletarian fighters had been played up for days by the Communist press as a symbol of revolutionary triumph.

With Hamburg pacified, the rumblings in the Rhineland subsiding, and the Leuna works captured, the Zentrale could see the handwriting on the wall. Everywhere the movement was collapsing; everywhere the Communists found themselves isolated. The majority of German labor followed the lead of the two Socialist parties and the trade-unions, whose spokesmen were denouncing the putschism of the KPD in no uncertain terms. In view of these circumstances the Zentrale called a high-level conference on March 30 to deliberate on whether or not to continue the uprising. An emissary, just arrived from the Rhineland, reported on the situation in western Germany and demanded that the Aktion be called off at once. His bleak account prompted four leading members of the Zentrale, Brandler, Heckert, Thalheimer and Stoecker, to speak in favor of ending the fighting, and one unidentified member sighed that he wished the police in Berlin would lose their nerve and start antagonizing the workers. The pessimistic mood which permeated the conference was dispelled, however, when another participant in the conference rose, banged the table, and asserted that contrary to prevailing opinion the uprising was still gathering force and should be allowed to continue, at least for a few more days. Clinging tenaciously to the belief that the tide might yet turn in favor of the Communists, the speaker cited a number of encouraging examples from various parts of the country in support of his position. Although we know no further details of the ensuing debate, its outcome was a resolution to hold out for another two or three days. During this period of grace the Zentrale was to prepare a suitable plan for ending the struggle as uniformly as possible.

Thus, a day after Leuna was taken and Horsing’s control of the insurgent region virtually assured, the Zentrale made a last desperate effort, against the better judgment of some of its members, to postpone the inevitable. On the same day the Rote Fahne appealed once more to the German workers to support the uprising. But in doing so, the paper hurled one vituperative insult after another against the leaders of the same Social Democratic and Independent rank and file whom the Communists were trying so hard to win as allies. All the setbacks which the Communists had just suffered the Rote Fahne blamed on the Socialist leadership, and the paper ended the appeal on a note of “revolutionary solidarity” with “all workers.” Finally, the attempt to win friends was topped by the last sentence of the editorial which appeared in the same issue of the paper: “Shame [Schmach und Schande] upon the worker who at this moment still stands aside; shame upon the worker who still does not know where his place is.”

The decision to prolong needlessly the agony of those who did the fighting, taken by a few party functionaries in Berlin, introduced to the KPD a pattern of thinking which in the years ahead was to become primary law for over one-third of the world’s population: the individual is nothing, the party everything. “For the movement was without scruples,” writes Arthur Koestler in Darkness at Noon, “she rolled toward her goal unconcernedly and deposed the corpses of the drowned in the windings of her course.” But the proletarians who in March 1921 manned picket lines, were wounded or killed, or lost their jobs, did not realize that in the eyes of their leaders they were expendable. The rank and file, whether party members or sympathizers, knew nothing of Comrade Bela Kun. They did not know that Brandler’s theory about an existing revolutionary situation had been imparted to him by a few ill-informed and reckless individuals. The rank and file joined in the insurrection because their press told them that Horsing had attacked the German workers; that they must show their solidarity with their brothers in Mansfeld and Eisleben; that the Orgesch was about to slaughter the “defenseless” workers; and that the capitalists everywhere were plotting a new war for which the proletariat would have to foot the bill. Deceived and poorly led, they fought and died for the most part in good faith, the victims of what Levi came to call the “greatest Bakunist putsch in history.”

For two more days, following the conference of March 30, the Zentrale waited in vain for a miracle. Rumors of growing unrest among the farm workers of three eastern provinces briefly rekindled sparks of hope, only to prove another disappointment when no uprisings materialized. On April 1, even the most stubborn diehards among the Communist leaders had to recognize the futility of further waiting, and the Zentrale resolved to end the insurrection by calling off the “nationwide” general strike. The proclamation by which this decision was communicated to the party at large blamed the defeat on the counterrevolutionaries, ranging from Ludendorff to Hilferding, and culminated in the promise that the Communists would fight another day: “The strike and the insurrectionist movement have been crushed. Hundreds of proletarians lie murdered on the battlefield. Thousands remain out on the streets, punished by their employers. . .” Despite the defeat, however, the party’s spirit had remained unshaken, and its members were looking forward to new challenges ahead. “Let us not waste time. Close ranks for the coming fight. Be prepared. Soon we shall hear again: tighten chin straps! Forward, against the enemies. . . . Long live the German Revolution! Long live the World Revolution!” On this note of defiance the Marz Aktion ended. In view of the facts, the self-righteous attitude which the Zentrale assumed in blaming others for the failure of the uprising was, to say  the least, inappropriate. From the moment of its conception until the final call for retreat on April 1, the entire operation, with its grandiose scheme of capturing the power of state, was conducted by a few Communist leaders who approached it in a spirit of recklessness and irresponsibility. Without a careful appraisal of the situation, these men proceeded from the premise that a revolutionary opportunity was shaping up and should be exploited by the party. This was a misconception, as no less a person than Trotsky was to tell them later on at the Third World Congress. Based, as it was, on a contrived analysis of the national and international situations, the project was then pushed down the throats of an unenthusiastic and sceptical assembly of party officials who were left with the impression that the enterprise in question would be undertaken only when the time was ripe, and in any case not prior to the Easter holidays. To all appearances, this original plan was to be adhered to even in the face of Horsing’s announcement that a police occupation of Prussian Saxony was impending. But appearances proved deceptive. The decision to postpone any overt action by the KPD until after Easter was quietly dropped in favor of interference in central Germany, and strenuous efforts were made to utilize Horsing’s so-called provocation for triggering all the other anticipated crises, mostly mythical in nature, on which the original plans had been based. There is good reason to assume that the party reversed itself on this issue primarily because of Kun, and because of the support he received from those members of the Zentrale who had advocated a more aggressive course even before the arrival of the Comintern agents. But neither Kun nor his German disciples took the trouble to assess the chances for a Communist-led revolution at this particular moment; nor did they give any serious consideration to the party’s state of preparedness, an omission which in view of the stakes involved bordered on criminal neglect. Impulsive, ignorant of the true political situation, and without a clear conception of the risks involved, the Communist leaders plunged the party into a disastrous adventure.

Everything went wrong from the beginning. Contrary to later legends, the Mansfeld workers and miners did not rise “spontaneously” after Horsing’s appeal had been published, not even when local Communist organization proclaimed a general strike. It took Max Hoelz with his revolutionary experience and his personal magnetism to get the workers to move. But neither Hoelz’s ends nor Hoelz’s means were those of the KPD. He came to the Mansfeld region on his own initiative, because he wanted to render whatever assistance he could to the local proletariat. Hoelz had his own ideas on how to be helpful, and he did not want anyone to tell him what to do. Once he was on the scene, the old revolutionary zeal carried him away, and he succeeded in transforming what began as a strike movement into a bloody orgy. The haphazardly recruited insurgent bands under his command terrorized the mining district without a clearly defined aim, without a strategic plan, and with a minimum of discipline.

It was bad enough for the KPD that Hoelz usurped control and leadership over the mounting insurrectionist movement. But in addition to this sizable handicap, the party’s own organizational efficiency proved none too adequate. Confusion and poor coordination bedeviled operations from the first to the last day. Communications between the Zentrale in Berlin and the party organizations in central Germany were never effectively established. Despite the presence of Hugo Eberlein, Communist headquarters in Halle dragged its feet. Chemnitz waited for Halle to take decisive measures, Leipzig felt altogether too weak to do anything, and other local KPD organizations wanted to be assured of a successful outcome before taking any initiative. And so it went everywhere.

The party’s failure to provide adequate direction and purpose to the insurrection in central Germany was also evident in other trouble spots in the nation. The sporadic strikes in the Rhineland and Ruhr, the protest demonstrations in south Germany and Berlin, the unrest among East Elbian farm laborers, and the abortive riots in Hamburg remained isolated and relatively ineffective incidents. Although they all possessed some nuisance value, they never developed into he strong, coordinated revolutionary movement on which the initial plans of the Zentrale were based. But the most decisive factor in the defeat of the March uprising was the lack of mass support. The KPD proved incapable of rallying the millions of non-Communist workers behind the revolutionary banner. “The March struggle broke on the passiveness of the German workers,” a Communist leader subsequently complained; he might have added that such passiveness was inevitable because no genuine revolutionary situation existed on a nationwide basis. Whatever the party did to create such a situation, whether by “artificial means” or by clumsy and tactless propaganda, only repelled the majority of German workers, and without their backing and participation any revolution in Germany was doomed from the outset. In short, the March uprising was an undeniable fiasco, the aftereffects of which were to haunt the KPD for the remainder of the year.



  1. This book is one that definitely needs republishing, with a suitable introduction looking at it through the lens of subsequent research.

    I recently took Angress’ book and Broué’s one on Germany with me as a bit of ‘light reading’ when I was in hospital, and was struck by the greater detail in Angress’ book, despite its earlier appearance. There is so much detail, not least in the footnotes. He also seemed capable of making more subtle analyses than Broué despite — or maybe because of? — his lack of political partisanship.

    One point that EH Carr made in The Interregnum is that he felt that the move in Moscow towards calling for a revolution in Germany was influenced by the replacement of Cuno with Stresemann, whom Moscow felt had a more pro-Western orientation. (Angress felt that Moscow was reasonably happy with Cuno, as he bumbled along and didn’t threaten the Rapallo arrangement.) Only when Stresemann came in did Moscow orient towards a seizure of power. Was this a case of diplomatic factors influencing Comintern practice? Carr thinks that it was.

    I’ve discussed the question of 1923 with various people, and it does seem that the Trotskyist myth is being challenged on the left: there was a revolutionary situation in Germany in 1923, but it was extremely unlikely that the KPD could have led a successful bid for power, particularly after the fall of Cuno. Firstly, after the fiasco of the March Action in 1921, many German workers were rather sceptical about the KPD’s ability to act wisely. Secondly, although the KPD was gaining support, social-democracy still had a strong level of support in the working class. Thirdly, unlike Russia in 1917, the KPD would have been up against some serious opposition from the state’s forces.

    Comment by Dr Paul — July 5, 2018 @ 4:56 pm

  2. Sorry — the text after The Interregnum should be in plain type, not italic.

    Comment by Dr Paul — July 5, 2018 @ 4:57 pm

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