Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 4, 2019

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

Filed under: Werner Angress — louisproyect @ 6:36 pm

This is the fifth and final part of a series of excerpts from Werner Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923”.

Part one reproduces the chapter “The Genesis of the March Uprising” that deals with the poorly conceived ultraleft March 1921 Action of the German Communist Party that was based on a strategy shared by the CP leadership and the Comintern representatives in Germany, including Bela Kuhn. Breaking with the German party, Paul Levi called it the “greatest Bakunist putsch in history”.

Part two reproduces the chapter “The March Uprising and Its Failure”. It gets into the incredibly counter-productive tactics of the CP that treated SP workers who failed to join their adventurism as class enemies.

Part three reproduces the chapter “Retribution, Recrimination and Critique”, which sums up the thinking of the German CP and the Comintern on what went wrong. The united front strategy was an attempt to avoid the ultraleft mistakes of the March Action but it failed to acknowledge its author Paul Levi, who was the only Communist capable of overseeing its application.

Part four reproduces the chapter “Revolution in Preparation” that covers another fiasco that took place only two years later during October 1923. It flows from the same difficult circumstances, namely the goal of overthrowing a government led by the SP. Since the SP head of the government in Saxony supported the CP’s goal, this was not out of the question. However, the failure of the CP to win over the SP rank and file precluded a positive outcome.

In this the final part, you will be reading the final chapter of Angress’s book, which is titled The Abortive “German October”. It describes the inability of the CP to rally SP workers around the goal of overthrowing a government that many identified with. As stated above, this was not out of the question given the misery of the German population in 1923. But it required a more intelligent leadership in both the German party and the Comintern, which at this point was led by Zinoviev. The final pages of the chapter discuss how Zinoviev blocked with the German CP’s ultraleft faction led by Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow against Trotsky. In 1924, the Comintern adopted the “Bolshevization” measures that both undermined a thorough accounting for what went wrong in Germany as well as fetishized the organizational methods of Lenin’s party, which became the norm for “Leninist” parties until now.

DESPITE THE FACT that the Communists were not at all sure of the mass support on which their projected enterprise entirely depended, the party did very little during the weeks immediately after Zinoviev’s telegram either to sound out the sentiment of the workers, or to prepare the masses psychologically for the struggle in which the KPD expected them to play an important part. The KPD concentrated all its efforts on mobilizing and arming its own members, without paying much attention to what went on outside the party. Where strikes or other signs of unrest erupted anywhere in the country, as for instance in Baden, the Zentrale saw to it that such movements did not receive Communist encouragement lest they interfere with the preparations for the uprising. The rationale behind this attitude is easy to understand, but one cannot help wondering why the party decided to stake everything on the rigid plan based on the entry of Communists into the Saxon government, a plan in whose wisdom the majority of the Zentrale did not even believe.

What little was done by way of political preparation was done haphazardly. This was, at least to some extent, because the chief organ of the party, the Rote Fahne, was banned throughout most of the crucial period of preparation! The only means of communication which remained at the disposal of the KPD was leaflets and the Communist press in some of the provinces. One such leaflet, headed “Mobilization,” was distributed by the Communist-controlled Federal Committee of Factory Councils (then in Thuringia) on October 7, the day before Brandler returned from Moscow. The leaflet announced that any counterrevolutionary attack on the workers would be met by a general strike, and urged all proletarians to arm action committees and defense organizations within the next week, and to meet daily in the factories and other places of work for discussions of the situation.

On October 8 Hermann Remmele, a member of the Zentrale and of the party’s Reichstag delegation, delivered a speech in the Reichstag which said in so many words that the KPD was contemplating civil war. After a furious attack on the Stresemann government, the presidential emergency decree of September 26, and the industrial leaders of the country, Remmele pointed to the threat which the “reactionary forces of the Whites” posed to German labor,

“We do know exactly: the White dictatorship which rules in Germany many today can only be destroyed by the Red dictatorship…working classes have no other choice but to recognize that the rule of force can only be abolished through the same means and methods employed by you. (Very true! from the Communists.)…And if you make the workers conscious [of the fact] that hand grenades and machine guns are better weapons than all the speeches made in parliament, that the weapons of the White dictatorship are more effective than votes, then you only create the conditions by Milt II you will liquidate [erledigen] yourselves. (Very true! front the Communists.)”

On the following day, the Rote Fahne made the first of two appearances before it was banned again for two weeks. The pdp4 carried a poem by “a worker,” entitled “Before the Battle”; an appeal from the KPD in Thuringia, which began with the words “We must act!”; and another poem, “That Reichstag…,” which ended with the words “Ours must be the country! Ours the Power” It also again advocated a general strike and, in a little “interest story,” reproduced a conversation, allegedly held in a machine shop, which contained lines reminiscent of the opening scene of Macbeth:

“And the Social Democrats?”…”Their hour of decision”…”Everything is at stake!—The demand is: Stand together!”. “Are you willing?” “Will you fight with us?” “Everything is at stake—yes, indeed! We must stick together.” “Bravo—Then we can fight—and win!”

Still more provocative than the revolutionary threats made by the German Communists was a letter which Joseph Stalin, General Secretary of the Russian Communist party, wrote to Thalheimer, the editor of the Rote Fahne. The letter, handwritten in Russian, appeared in facsimile form and with a German translation in the paper on October 10.

“Dear Comrade Thalheimer!

The approaching revolution in Germany is the most important world event in our time. The victory of the revolution in Germany will have a greater importance for the proletariat of Europe and America than the victory of the Russian Revolution six years ago. The victory of the German proletariat will undoubtedly shift the center of world revolution from Moscow to Berlin. The Rote Fahne can congratulate itself on a genuine success, because it has been the steadfast beacon which has shown the German proletariat the road to victory and which has helped it to regain the leadership of the European proletariat. From the bottom of my heart I wish the Rote Fahne new, decisive successes in the struggles ahead, for the conquest of power by the proletariat, for the unity and independence of a Germany about to be born. J. Stalin.”

Letters from Bukharin and Zinoviev, written in German and rather innocuous in tone and content, had appeared in the paper the previous day. But it was the letter from Stalin, the man who only a month earlier had been most outspokenly sceptical of a revolution in Germany, which aroused the apprehensions of the German authorities. Alerted by the tumult and the shouting of the KPD, the German central government prepared to meet the challenge. It decided to do so in Saxony, the very part of the country which the Communists had selected for their revolutionary staging area.

Negotiations between the KPD and the Zeigner government of Saxony had commenced immediately after the receipt of Zinoviev’s telegram. The party’s intention of joining the Saxon and Thuringian governments had been publicized by the Zentrale as early as October 5, and Hermann Remmele had shouted it to the assembled Reichstag delegates three days later! His ostentatious demonstration, however, was premature. The talks were still going on, and Brandler, who had just that day arrived in Germany, proceeded at once to Dresden where he joined the negotiations the next morning, October 9.

Both sides were in a peculiar position. They needed each other’s cooperation, but for very different reasons. Zeigner was still feuding with Berlin. He was also genuinely concerned about the ominous situation in Bavaria, about the recent Küstrin putsch, and other manifestations of a resurgent nationalism. Although he was neither a Communist nor a believer in revolutionary action, Zeigner was determined to turn Saxony into a bastion of the Left. During his first months in office he had done everything possible to mollify the KPD in order to retain its vitally needed support in the diet. Now, faced with what he considered a serious threat from right-wing Bavaria, he was prepared to form a coalition government with the Communists in order to assure himself of their further cooperation, so that at least in Saxony the working class would be in a position to repulse any attacks made upon it by the Right.

The Communists, on the other hand, were under orders to enter the Saxon government, though they could not admit this in public. Whereas Zeigner wanted to strengthen the defensive position of the working class in his state, the KPD wanted to use the projected coalition to turn Saxony into an armory for their revolutionary designs. Thus the Communists were committed to join Zeigner’s cabinet regardless of the outcome of negotiations. For this reason they proved to be much more yielding and conciliatory than they had been in the past, and accepted in advance most of Zeigner’s government program. They used the “Fascist danger” to explain their eagerness to come to terms, but they did drive a hard bargain on points of detail. One of these was that a Communist should be appointed to head the ministry of the interior, which controlled the police. This Zeigner would not grant, and the Communists had to be satisfied with seeing one of their number—it happened to be Brandler, the party chairman—appointed Ministerialdirektor (approx.: Assistant Secretary) in charge of the state chancellery, an office which allowed at least an indirect influence over the police. It was agreed in addition that the former Communist delegate to the Saxon diet, Paul Böttcher, should become Minister of Finance, while Fritz Heckert became Minister of the Economy. Both were members of the Zentrale. All these preliminary agreements were concluded on October 10, and two days later the new Saxon government was officially formed.

On this day, the diet convened to hear Zeigner announce his government’s program. The session began on a note of unrest when the chairman of the KPD delegation, Siewert, staged a one-man demonstration under the pretext of making a point of order: “Prepare everywhere for a general strike! Make provisions for tying up every transport designed to move Reichswehr and armed gangs [hired to] crush the workers. Now I have finished.”

After the house had quieted down, Zeigner was able to speak. He introduced the new ministers who, he stated, had sworn an oath to protect the constitutions of the Reich and of Saxony, and then called his reconstituted government one of “republican and proletarian defense.” The program which he outlined was phrased in rather general terms and contained three major points: Saxony, based on an alliance of all the workers and those sincerely dedicated to the republic, would form a bulwark against the combined forces of reaction, which ranged from the big industrialists to the rabble-rousers in Bavaria. Saxony would stand loyally by the Reich and would fight to the utmost to preserve its unity. Finally, the new government pledged itself to do everything possible to help the poor, the downtrodden, the dispossessed.”

The entry of two Communist ministers and one Ministerialdirektor into the Saxon government was a distinct tactical achievement by the KPD. Since three members of the Zentrale, including the chairman, were now permanently stationed in Dresden, it was found convenient to move the rest of the Zentrale also to the Saxon capital. In theory, at least, it was a perfect setup: the leaders of the KPD, some as cabinet ministers, were safely situated in a state which sympathized with many of the party’s views; proletarian “defense” forces were still operating freely in the open, “ignoring” General Muller, and the Communists seemed justified in anticipating that at least in Saxony their plans for an uprising early in November would meet with few obstacles. Thus, as soon as they were sworn in, Brandler, Böttcher, and Heckert settled down to their various offices, Brandler to peruse the files in search of information concerning secret arms caches, Böttcher and Heckert respectively to wrestle with the state’s financial difficulties and an acute food shortage.

Up to the moment when the new Saxon government took office, everything had gone well for the Communists. But the next day, October 13, the political horizon began to cloud over. General Müller, Commander of the Fourth German Military District, issued an order which banned all proletarian hundreds “or similar organizations.” The Saxon government launched an immediate and strong protest in which it stated that the proletarian hundreds were loyal to the constitution and would defend the republic against any attacks. It became apparent at once that neither side was prepared to give in. On the same day that General Müller published his order, Finance Minister Paul Böttcher made a speech in Leipzig and demanded that all proletarian hundreds be armed at once. A congress of Saxony’s proletarian hundreds, scheduled in September to convene on October 14, was now moved up a day and met illegally in a suburb of Chemnitz during October 13 and 14. The police proved unable to locate the meeting place where representatives of the SPD, KPD, and the unions deliberated for two days. The proceedings were published a few days later in the Communist press.

But October 3 was a black day for the Communists in other respects. On that day the Reichstag passed a hotly debated Enabling Act which empowered the government to take all measures necessary to meet any emergencies in the fields of finance, economics, or social welfare. Stresemann had asked for this Act in order to give the government a chance to work out the most urgent domestic problems without interference from political or other pressure groups. All parties, except for the Nationalists and the KPD, had voted for the Act. Only the extremes on the left and right were not interested in strengthening the hand of a government which both sides would have liked to see disappear. At the same time, however, the passage of the Enabling Act held some advantages for the Communists because it proved a very unpopular measure with German labor as a whole. Although the Reichstag delegation of the SPD had supported the Act, that party’s rank and file by and large opposed it. There had been too much talk about abolishing the eight-hour day, and the workers were also concerned by the repeated demands of the big industrialists for a “dictatorship,” i.e. a dictatorship of the Right. There were numerous demonstrations against the high cost of living, especially by the unemployed, and the mood of the working class in general, by the middle of October, was by no means uncritical of the government, so much so that many Social Democratic party members objected to General Müller’s decree outlawing the proletarian hundreds in Saxony. It was probably due to this dissatisfaction with economic and social conditions that the KPD’s Berlin organization felt encouraged to initiate talks with the Social Democrats in the capital. The Communists were trying to form a common front and draw up a common program of action, ostensibly to defend labor against any possible attacks from the “reactionaries,” in reality to mobilize the non-Communist workers for a revolution which the latter did not know was in the offing. But the Berlin organization, led by Ruth Fischer, overplayed its hand by demanding too much, and creating what the papers coiled a “general strike atmosphere.” The negotiations broke down, and non-Communist labor in Berlin worked out an agreement without the KPD.

Meanwhile in Saxony the reaction on the part of the KPD and the Saxon government to General Müller’s ban of the hundreds, and to the passage of the Enabling Act in the Reichstag, was defiance. The Communists were heartened by the fact that on October 13 they had come to terms with the Thuringian government. Here, too, a coalition of left-wing Socialists and Communists was agreed upon, and three days later the Communists Dr. Karl Korsch and Mimi Tenner joined the Thuringian government. They were appointed Ministers of Education (Volksbildung) and Economy, respectively. Thus encouraged, the Zentrale circulated a proclamation on October 14 which called on the workers to arm themselves and to prepare for “a battle to establish a government of all working people in the Reich and abroad.” The party organ in Chemnitz, Der Kämpfer, wrote on October 15 that the working class “…was not prepared to tolerate the policy of suppression [which was practiced] by the government of Stresemann-Sollmann. It will defend German unity and its own existence as a class against the great-capitalistic-military counterrevolution by means of economic pressure and, if need be, by arms.”

If the KPD was not prepared to tolerate the government’s policy of suppression, Stresemann was equally averse to tolerating the Communist threat of civil war. He had enough troubles already. There was the situation in Bavaria, where nationalist agitation was on the increase, and where the local Reichswehr commander was in open conflict with his superiors in Berlin. The economic crisis was still acute, and while the government was hopeful that it would be alleviated by the creation of the Rentenmark, which had just been announced, as yet there was more hope than actual success. As early as October 6, during a cabinet meeting, the Reich Defense Minister Gessler had suggested with his customary bluntness that if conditions in Saxony should deteriorate any further, the central government would be forced to depose the government of that state, and to appoint a civilian Reich commissioner. In short, Gessler proposed to apply a Reichsexekutive (federal executive action, as authorized by Article 48 of the constitution) against Saxony. During the following days, the chancellor’s initial reluctance to accept Gessler’s advice was effectively worn down by the conduct of the Communists and the Saxon government, as well as by pleas for help from regional organizations of Stresemann’s own People’s Party in various parts of central Germany.

But before the central government had reached a decision on this point, General Müller in Saxony, acting after consultation with the Reichswehrminister, resumed the initiative on the local level. On October 16 he informed the Zeigner government that from that date the Saxon police were to be placed under the immediate authority of the Reichswehr. As the KPD deputy Siewert said the same day in the diet, this was in effect the Reichsexekutive and, in practical terms, amounted to the deposition of the Saxon government. With the police removed from his control, Zeigner was powerless, and Brandler became a Ministerialdirektor in charge of meaningless police files.

Having once resumed the offensive, General Müller continued to press his advantage. The day after he put the Saxon police under his command he sent the Zeigner government an ultimatum, demanding submission to his orders. After a sharp condemnation of Paul Böttcher’s Leipzig speech on October 13, the general’s communication read as follows: “In all my previous measures I have proceeded on the assumption that I possessed the cooperation of the Saxon government. . . . I ask you, Herr Minister-President, to comment on Minister Böttcher’s statements, and to let me know me know unequivocally by 11 A.M. on October i8 whether the ministry as a whole agrees with the letter and spirit of Minister Böttcher’s statements, and whether it intends to conduct the affairs of government further along these lines, or whether it is willing . . . to act according to my instructions. Should the latter be the case I must demand, in order to clarity matters, that the Saxon government publish a declaration to effect in the press. I furthermore ask to be informed of what measures the government is contemplating to prevent in the future repetition of incidents [Entgleisungen, literally, derailments] such as the speech of Minister Böttcher undoubtedly constitutes.”

Zeigner’s response to General Müller’s ultimatum was a resounding and uncompromising “No.” The minister-president declared in the diet that he was not going to honor the general with a reply. The Saxon government, he exclaimed, stood on constitutional ground, whereas the general did not. He demanded that the Reich government take immediate steps to rectify the humiliating position in which the Saxon government had been placed. During the same session, Finance Minister Böttcher announced that preliminary talks were at present being held with Soviet Russia about a trade agreement between Saxony and the Soviet Union. Russia was prepared to send grain shipments to Saxony to help alleviate the food shortage, and in return Saxony was to send industrial goods to Russia. Böttcher expressed hopes that the negotiations would be concluded by October 19, in which case 20,000 tons of grain would reach Saxony by the end of the month.

Saxony’s decision to turn to Russia for food supplies was not a mere gesture of protest, but arose from real necessity. The military commanders of East Prussia and Silesia had prohibited the transport of potatoes from their respective military districts to any part of the republic, a measure which affected especially the densely populated central German industrial region, including Saxony. When Böttcher had turned to the banking concerns in Dresden and asked for a loan of 150 million gold marks to provide the state with food supplies, the banks had refused to loan any money to the Saxon government, but had offered to advance the needed sum to General Müller. A similar situation existed in Thuringia, where the Communist International Workers’ Aid made the new workers’ government a present of 788 tons of grain. Here, too, the state drifted into conflict with the regional military commander, General Reinhardt, who on October 17 issued a decree forbidding labor to call a general strike.

The growing tension in central Germany as a whole, and in Saxony in particular, was discussed on October 17 during a cabinet meeting of the Stresemann government. General Muller’s ultimatum of that day to Minister-President Zeigner had been delivered with the prior consent of Ebert and Stresemann. Its form and content aroused the concern of Social Democratic Reich Minister of the Interior Sollmann, who told Stresemann that General Muller’s measure constituted an open provocation of the SPD. When the chancellor defended the general and pointed to the very disturbing situation which existed in Saxony, Sollmann replied that he had received assurances that the Communist ministers in Zeigner’s cabinet intended to remain quiet and orderly. But Stresemann was not convinced, and expressed lack of confidence in Zeigner’s ability as a politician. He stated that if the Saxon government failed to take energetic measures to cope with mounting radicalism, those circles in Saxony that felt themselves threatened might turn to Bavaria for aid. Such a move, Stresemann said, would mean civil war and the collapse of the republic.

Sollmann and his two Social Democratic colleagues in the cabinet, Gustav Radbruch and Robert Schmidt (Rudolf Hilferding, the fourth Social Democrat, had resigned when the cabinet was reconstituted early in the month), found themselves in a difficult position. Zeigner was a fellow Social Democrat, and as such warranted their support. But the three Reich ministers were also fully aware of his shortcomings. They knew that he was basically a weak person whit tried to conceal this fact behind a show of ruthlessness and that he was easily influenced, and that he was one person when they met him in Berlin and another in the radical atmosphere of Dresden. But since they were unaware of the role which the KPD was playing in Saxony behind Zeigner’s back, and since they felt obligated to defend their party comrade, they tended to make light of Zeigner’s unorthodox ways as head of state, and pretended to consider his behavior simply as the “antics of a silly child.”

On October 18 the Saxon crisis grew sharper. Around noon, Zeigner received the following letter from General Muller: “As you him thought it proper not to reply to my communication of October 17, 1923, I am respectfully informing you that I have passed on the matter to the Reich Defense Minister for further action. With the assurance of my highest esteem, (signed) Muller, Lieutenant-General.”

During the morning session, before he received General Muller’s letter, Zeigner had taken a step which was bound to infuriate Reich Defense Minister Otto Gessler, and the entire Stresemann cabinet as well. For that morning Zeigner delivered in the diet what came to be known as his “Black Reichswehr Speech.” He began by saying that his speech would undoubtedly have repercussions in France, and that although he regretted the necessity to speak out, he was also convinced that he had nothing to say which was not already known to the French intelligence service. Then he delivered a sharp attack on the Reich government’s induction and training of illegal troops, men whose training was so brief that they could not possibly be a threat to another nation, but would be an acute threat at home, notably to the workers. Zeigner charged that the government defended the formation of irregular units with the argument that they were needed to protect the republic, while those organizations sincerely dedicated to just this purpose (i.e. the proletarian hundreds) were officially banned. The question was not, he said, “whether or not my procedure is formally correct, the question is, whether there is the will and the possibility to smash [zerschlagen] these organizations within a few weeks, because they are a tremendous danger to the continuance of the Reich and to the smooth functioning of administration and justice.”

However sincere, honorable, and even patriotic Zeigner’s intentions may have been, in making this speech he rendered a disservice to his own cause and to the security of the republic. Undoubtedly he wanted to embarrass the Stresemann government and the army, but he completely miscalculated the consequences. Rather than striking a blow against the irregulars, he antagonized the regular army, the Reichswehr, and played into the hands of Defense Minister Gessler, who now had an excellent pretext for carrying out his projected Reichsexekutive against Saxony. In fact, Berlin could justify such a step on more than one count. The government faced a difficult political situation both in central Germany and Bavaria. The nascent rebellion in the latter state was much more serious and dangerous than was the threat from either Saxony or Thuringia. Thus logic would have required the government to proceed at once against Bavaria, but in this case logic yielded to expediency. Armed intervention in Bavaria would have been by far the greater risk, and for several reasons. Under the circumstances it could easily have led to civil war, which Stresemann was determined to avoid. Furthermore, the Reichswehr could be trusted to intervene in Saxony and Thuringia, two states with Communist-Socialist coalition governments, whereas the reliability of the troops in case of open conflict with Bavaria was doubtful. Sentiments similar to those of the Reichswehr were held by many middle-class nationalists, sentiments which weighed heavier with Stresemann and the majority of his cabinet than the opinions of the Social Democrats. Nor could the government overlook the practical advantages of sending troops into central Germany. The presence of the Reichswehr in this region would effectively forestall any putsches which the Communists might want to stage in Saxony and Thuringia. It was hoped, moreover, that such a move would create a military barrier against Bavaria, and at the same time would deprive this state of an excuse for sending in moil bands of nationalists into central Germany, and from their possibly toward Berlin. Rumors concerning the existence of such plans were circulating widely at the time.

Consequently, during a cabinet meeting on October 19, the Chancellor mentioned briefly that he had been told about illegal bands suspected of planning to interfere in Saxony and Thuringia, and tat for this reason Reichswehr formations would be concentrated at several points in that region. Stresemann said that he expected this measure “to intimidate radical elements, and to restore public order and security.”

On October 20 Zeigner received a letter from Berlin which informed him that movements of Reichswehr troops into Saxony were not intended to constitute a “hostile act.” The purpose of troop movements was rather to protect Saxony against any possible attacks from “right-radical Bavarian forces.” This communication, the sender of which Zeigner failed to reveal, seems to have been the first indication he received concerning the central government’s decision to intervene in his state. But if he still had illusions about the intentions of Berlin, they were destroyed a few hours later by another communication from General Muller, as clipped, correct, and concise as the earlier ones. The most crucial passage in it read as follows: “…I have been instructed [by the Reich Defense Minister] to restore and maintain constitutional and orderly conditions in the Free State of Saxony with those means of enforcement … at my disposal. I shall communicate the reasons for the interference by the Reichswehr to the population. . . .” This General Muller proceeded to do forthwith, by publishing his letter to Zeigner with an official commentary on his action, and by posting it in the streets. Without knowing it, the general thereby gave official notice to the KPD that the Reichswehr, as Professor Carr puts it, “had fixed the date on which the Communists must either act, or confess their impotence.” Reports of the army’s impending march into Saxony apparently reached the party shortly before General Muller announced it publicly. During the night from October 19 to 20 the KPD had circulated a leaflet, 150,000 copies of it, which instructed party members to seize all available weapons. For unknown reasons, this order was almost completely ignored. On October 20, the Rote Fahne was published again after an interval of two weeks, and carried an article by Brandler which made reference to the newest threat facing the Saxon proletariat. The article was entitled “Everything is at Stake,” and expressed the conviction that the German workers “will not allow the Saxon proletariat to be struck down.”

The news of these developments took the Communists by surprise, although they were largely responsible for them. Böttcher’s reckless speech at Leipzig a week earlier had started the political avalanche which was now about to descend on them. Moreover Zeigner, whom they had consciously deceived about their motives for joining his government, had unwittingly contributed to ruining their plans when he loyally defended Böttcher and refused to obey General Muller’s orders to dissolve the proletarian hundreds, on the existence of which depended success or failure of the projected Communist uprising.

On October 20, as soon as the Zentrale received word of General Muller’s proclamation, the Communist leaders met for a hasty conference. The original plan of action had been to call a national conference of factory councils, but for this there was no longer sufficient time. The conference, improvising rapidly, decided to utilize a workers’ conference at Chemnitz, which had been scheduled several days earlier for October 21, to sound out the mood of the labor representatives and, if the mood was favorable, to call for a general strike which would give the signal for the uprising. This decision allowed the party less than twenty-four hours of preparation.

The Chemnitz Conference opened as scheduled the following day, October 21, 1923. Its composition was fairly representative of Saxon labor. Aside from 66 KPD delegates, the conference was attended by 140 delegates of factory councils, 122 representatives of labor unions, 79 delegates of control commissions, 15 delegates from action committees, 16 unemployed, 7 representatives of the SPD and one from the practically defunct USPD.48 The principal speakers were the Social Democratic Minister of Labor Graupe, Finance Minister Böttcher, and his fellow Communist, Minister of Affairs Heckert. All three stressed the critical food shortage in the state, the equally catastrophic financial situation, and the misery of the unemployed. These reports were followed by a public discussion of the political crisis in Saxony. Repeated demands were made to resist the threatening “military dictatorship,” and several speakers urged the proclamation of a general strike as a means of collective protest.

Then Brandler took the floor. From the preceding discussion he may have received the impression that the suggestion he was about to make would be met with approval, for he called bluntly for the immediate proclamation of a general strike. He added that such a proclamation would serve as labor’s fighting slogan against the Reichswehr, and urged that the conference put the matter to a vote at once. But Brandler’s suggestion was greeted with icy silence. Whether this was due to the manner in which he had broached the question, or whether the delegates considered his proposal a case of indecent haste cannot be determined. It was evident, however, that the delegates were not prepared to make any rash decisions on the spur of the moment. After a brief moment of embarrassed silence the Saxon Minister of Labor Graupe rose and announced that if the Communists insisted on pressing the suggestion just made, he and his six fellow delegates from the SPD would at once leave the conference. Graupe’s statement met with no protest. It was, in Thalheimer’s words, a “third-class funeral.”

Why did the conference discuss at length the feasibility of calling a general strike, but reject out of hand Brandler’s motion to proclaim one immediately? Were the non-Communist participants hypocrites? The subsequent course of the conference does not substantiate such an assumption. For as soon as Graupe had rejected the Communist motion he in turn moved that a special commission be formed, comprising an equal number of Social Democrats and Communists, to study the prospects for a general strike. Graupe’s motion was adopted, and the commission formed. Its members reported back shortly and moved the creation of an action committee, likewise composed of Communists and Social Democrats, which was to contact the leading echelons (Spitzenorganisationen) of the political labor parties, the trade-unions, and the government of Saxony, and was to negotiate with them about the proclamation of a general strike. Only if these negotiations should fail was the action committee entitled to proclaim a general strike. The motion was passed by an overwhelming majority. The outcome shows that the conference members, however much they may have been provoked by General Muller, were simply not inclined to make a weighty decision without first exploring its every aspect. Brandler’s motion, as he might well have known, flew in the face of German labor’s traditional insistence on proper procedure and proper channels. Moreover, the most determined resistance to Brandler’s motion came from the representatives of the trade-unions and the SPD, who had no desire to let themselves be led into a possible putsch by the Communists. In the end, Brandler’s dutiful execution of orders, which he had only reluctantly accepted in Moscow a few weeks earlier, proved to have done more harm than good. For the special action committee apparently never reported back, and a general strike was not called in Saxony at that time. Instead, Reichswehr formations began to march into the state on the day of the conference, with bands playing, flags unfurled, and rifles loaded with live ammunition.

The “third-class funeral” was over. The Communists had sounded out the collective mood of Saxony’s labor representatives and had found it wanting in spirit. It was clear to Brandler and his colleagues that the party could hardly count on substantial support for their venture from German labor as a whole, if not even the Saxony proletariat was willing to take any risks. That this was consensus of the Communists present in Chemnitz became evident as soon as the general conference had adjourned. The Zentrale immediately summoned a meeting to discuss the situation. In addition to the members of the Zentrale present, the meeting was attended by several MP commanders and their Russian advisors. Absent were Radek and his three fellow “supervisors” who had not been in Chemnitz at all and, in fact, had not yet arrived in Germany. Without waiting for Radek, the party functionaries attending the meeting agreed that no large-scale uprising could be risked under the present circumstances. There seemed little else to do after the original scheme, which had marked out Saxony as the starting point of the rising, had miscarried. This conclusion was in accordance with the resolution taken a day earlier to await the outcome of the Chemnitz Conference before committing the party to any definite course of action. The Chemnitz Conference, however, had a bloody sequel, an armed proletarian uprising in Hamburg. Unfortunately, many of its underlying causes are still shrouded in mystery and, pending the discovery of additional evidence, an account of its origins will have to remain tentative.

The man in charge of the party’s political organization in Hamburg was Hugo Urbahns, a teacher, who was secretary of the KPD District Command Wasserkante. After Zinoviev’s telegram of October 1, 1923, when all party districts were ordered to prepare for the anticipated uprising, Urbahns complied for Hamburg by forming a committee of three on October 8. He himself retained charge of the political organization. To Hans Kippenberger was entrusted the military organization. A third, unidentified party member was to be responsible for the city’s food supply in the event of armed struggle. Kippenberger’s “military” superior was Albert Schreiner, MP Oberleiter Nord-West, who was assisted by the Russian military “General” Moishe Stern (alias Emilio Kleber, under which name he became known during the Spanish Civil War). Kippenberger organized the party members in the various sections of the city into action groups, the leaders of which were given considerable leeway in training their men for the anticipated fighting. The objectives to be taken by each group were communicated to the individual leaders, who were instructed not to take action until they were ordered to do so.

On October 20, the Zentrale called on all German party districts to send representatives to the Chemnitz Conference. Urbahns decided to go himself and took along two workers, Inselberger and Ruhnau, who were to attend the conference officially as factory council representatives rather than as delegates of the KPD. The three men left Hamburg sometime around noon of October 21 and arrived in Chemnitz only after the conference was over. When Urbahns was informed that as a result of the conference the Communist plan for an uprising was canceled, he sent Inselberger to Hamburg party headquarters with a report to this effect. The next day Urbahns proceeded first to Dresden. From their he sent Ruhnau to Hamburg with another report, the contents of which are unknown. Urbahns himself returned home via Berlin, arriving in Hamburg around midnight of October 22, and went straight to bed.

During Urbahns’ absence the pace of events in Hamburg had quickened. The atmosphere in the city was tense. The dock workers went on strike on October 20, and some of the related labor installations were likewise affected by the walkouts. The movement spread to the warehousemen and construction workers, all of whom demanded wage increases. In addition, repeated demonstrations by the unemployed led in some places to clashes with the police. On October 21 the Hamburg dock workers held a meeting, and passed a resolution to call a general strike if the federal government moved troops into Saxony. The projected Reichsexekutive and the resolution of the dock workers were debated the following day by a conference sponsored by the Allgemeiner Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, and attended by delegates from the SPD, KPD, and trade unions. After some discussion a spokesman for the trade unions proposed a resolution which urged all organizations participating in the conference to wire their respective central offices in Berlin, asking them to disregard differences dividing the workers and to issue a joint proclamation for a nationwide general demonstration strike. In the meantime, while waiting for a reply to this proposal, all workers, employees and officials were to refrain from local strikes serving the same purpose as the projected demonstration strike, and were not to leave their places of employment without prior permission from their organizations.

The resolution was immediately opposed by the two KPD representatives present, Esser and Rühl, who announced that they would consult with party headquarters and then would make known in writing the Communist position. The consultation took place during the afternoon and evening of October 22, and a statement on the party’s views was drafted. It was communicated by Rühl to the city’s Gewerkschaftshaus (trade-union headquarters) the following morning, thus after the Hamburg uprising had begun. The Communists refused to sign the resolution proposed during the joint conference of October 21. Their reply stated bluntly that as a result of the Chemnitz Conference a general strike had been proclaimed in Saxony and was already in effect. Armed clashes between workers and Reichswehr supported by Fascists, were taking place in Saxony and Thuringia, where the fighting workers had appealed for outside help. The situation in Hamburg was also becoming tenser. In view of all these developments the proposed resolution was inadequate. It was designed to deceive the Hamburg workers in order to keep them from joining the battle. The KPD demanded that the Hamburg proletariat follow the example set by Chemnitz.

Who was responsible for the misrepresentation of events in central Germany? Was it the handiwork of Urbahns’ two travel companions, Inselberger and Ruhnau, or had the reports they transmitted been edited by someone at party headquarters, conceivably by Kippenberger, or perhaps Thalmann? Had Urbahns’ message concerning the outcome of the Chemnitz Conference been ambiguous? No conclusive answer to these questions can be given. But it can be said with reasonable certainty that both the contents and tone of the Communist response to the trade-union resolution indicate that it was drawn up after party headquarters had decided on staging an uprising in Hamburg the following morning. In all probability the decision was taken sometime during the course of October 22, thus in the absence of Urbahns. Throughout that day unruly crowds milled through the streets of the working-class quarters, and were addressed by Communist “minute men” who mingled with them and frequently resisted police efforts to disperse them. In many parts of the city the party conducted hastily improvised meetings, usually in rented halls, and Communist speakers promised their audiences that the KPD would soon “go into action” (losschlagen). This promise the men at party headquarters intended to keep. They were aware of the widespread anger which the military occupation of Saxony had evoked among the Hamburg workers. They noticed also that Reichswehr units, stationed in the vicinity of the city, were being transported south, presumably to Saxony. Opportunity beckoned and men like Kippenberger and Schreiner resolved to use it. The original plan of starting a revolution in Saxony had miscarried. Could not Hamburg take the place of Saxony, acting as a signal and an example for the proletariat elsewhere in the country, even in beleaguered central Germany? Aside from Urbahns’ negative report, no messages or orders had been received by the Hamburg organization. The decision thus lay with the men who were in charge of it, and they fixed the hour of the uprising for 5 A.M. the next day on October 23, 1923. And in order to justify this act in the eyes of the workers, especially of the non-Communists whose support would is so vitally needed, Communist headquarters misrepresented the facts about developments in Saxony in the party’s reply to the Hamburg trade-unions.

A plan of battle was ready. It had been developed by the Oberleitung, the party’s MP high command. The Communists were to isolate Hamburg during the night by disrupting all channels of communication, and by blocking all arterial roads and railway lines leading into the city, in order to prevent reinforcement of the police from outside. Then they were to attack police stations, army barracks, and arsenals in the working-class suburbs of the northwestern, northern, northeastern and eastern parts of the city. Once these initial objectives had been captured, the weapons thus obtained were to be distributed to the people; the Communists shock troops, which would then be reinforced by the mass of workers in the suburbs, would lead this expanding army of proletarians into the heart of Hamburg, pressing the bourgeois enemies before them toward the south and the river, and there disarm them. It was expected that once Hamburg was in the hands of the insurgents, the spirit of the revolution would spread beyond the city in the course of a few days. In accordance with this strategic blueprint, special detachments began to fell trees across some of the arterial roads at 2 A.M. October 23. But difficulties developed even at this early stage. Some of the demolition crews failed to cut the railway lines, telephone cables, and telegraph wires, because they could not agree on whether this would really be an effective and necessary measure. Around 5 A.M. the assaults on a number of police stations began, in the suburbs of Barmbeck, Wandsbeck, Hamm, St. Georg, Schiffbeck, Eimsbüttel, Hummelsbüttel, etc. Within a few hours, seventeen out of twenty-six police stations attacked were captured by the Communists.

Despite these initial successes, the Communists were fighting a losing battle in Hamburg. The decisive factor which broke the back of the uprising by the end of the first day was that the hoped-for mass support failed to materialize. The Communists, whose small and scattered squads fought bravely against growing opposition from police, navy troops, and SPD Reichsbanner formations, remained isolated. Once again the party met the now familiar reaction of distrust, if not open hostility, from the non-Communist part of the working-class population. Not even the striking dock workers moved a finger to assist the KPD against the forces of the government. Throughout the city labor was more concerned with the negotiations for higher wages, which the trade-unions were conducting with employers, than with the handful of determined radicals who were sniping at policemen from the roofs or at armored cars from behind barricades.

When it became obvious that they could not expect support from the population, the fighting spirit of the various Communist detachments scattered throughout the northern and eastern suburbs began to decline. Communications and coordination had not been very good from the start. In some cases, party squads either ignored orders from their high command, or wilfully disobeyed them. One district after another ceased fighting, especially when the word got around that messengers from the Zentrale had come with orders to abandon the struggle. Only in the suburb of Barmbeck did fighting continue throughout October 24, and in some isolated areas skirmishes lasted until the 25th. After this date, Hamburg settled back to an uneasy quiet. The one and only violent manifestation of the “German October” was over.

How little the Hamburg uprising actually affected the KPD revealed by the events which followed in the wake of the Chemnitz Conference. After the original plan for a revolution, launched from Saxony, was abandoned on the evening of October 21, the Zentrale settled down to await the arrival of the ECCI delegation. Radek and his companions seem to have made their appearance, presumably in Dresden, sometime on October 22. There followed a series of discussions between the ECCI delegation and members of the KPD Zentrale on what had taken place at Chemnitz. Radek fully approved of the party’s decision not to stage an armed uprising in Saxony, but he urged the Zentrale to proclaim a general strike. His suggestion was met with nearly unanimous opposition. The German Communist leaders argued that if Radek did not think it wise to start a revolution, then he could not have a general strike either; as matters stood in Saxony at the moment, general strike and armed uprising were virtually interdependent. The opinion of the Zentrale prevailed.

Sometime during the night of October 22 the Communist leaders left Saxony for Berlin, where they reassembled the following day and received the news of the Hamburg insurrection. The Zentrale reconvened at once, together with Radek, to discuss what action to take in view of this new development. Two motions were made. The first came from Ruth Fischer, who suggested the proclamation of a mass strike in Berlin on October 25, in the expectation that such a strike would lead within two or three days to an armed proletarian uprising. The second motion called for the party not to engage in any action. Thereupon Radek suggested a compromise, a strike without an armed uprising. None of the motions passed, and for the next few days the Communist leaders were engaged in a series of conferences on what the party should do. The Zentrale appointed a committee of seven to draft a set of guiding principles for the party’s policy in the immediate future. The committee reported back on October 25 with a resolution which, in tone and content, was a remarkable document, for it revealed that the party had learnt nothing from its recent experiences. The most pertinent sections of the resolution read as follows:

1) The social and political opposites [in Germany] are moving daily closer toward a crisis. Every day may bring decisive struggles of the revolution and counterrevolution.

2) The vanguard of the working class . . . presses for the resumption of the struggle; however, the working class as a whole, despite its great embitterment and misery, is not yet ready to fight.

3) For this reason, the reserves of the proletariat must be drawn closer to the vanguard by means of resolute agitation. . . . Technical preparations must be pursued with the utmost energy. In order to achieve unity among the proletariat for the struggle ahead, [the party] must conduct negotiations with Social Democracy, centrally and locally, in order either to force the Social Democrats into battle, or to split the Social Democratic workers and their traitorous leaders.

4) In view of these circumstances it will be necessary for the party to keep the comrades out of armed struggles, so as to gain time for the preparations. But if great spontaneous fights should break out among the working class, the party will support them with all  means at its disposal. The party must also parry the blows of the counterrevolution by way of mass struggles (demonstrations, political strikes). Armed combat during these struggles is to be avoided, if possible. . .”

The resolution was adopted unanimously, and was then circulated throughout the KPD. Thus the party was back where it had been before the Cuno strike three months earlier—back to those tactics of political attrition which went under the euphemism of “united front policy.” The Communists had tested the revolutionary fervor of the workers in “red” Saxony, and had found it wanting. They had, inadvertently, tested it again in Hamburg, and the resulting fiasco had been nearly as complete as that of March 1921. But whether from stubbornness or from blindness, they continued to behave for the time being as if the revolution was still a real possibility.

They were soon undeceived by the actions of the central government. In the last ten days of October the Stresemann cabinet was confronted by explosive situations in central Germany and Bavaria. Of the two trouble spots Bavaria proved the more dangerous, and Berlin had to move cautiously, but without delay, in order to forestall disaster. On October 20 the Reich Defense Minister relieved General von Lossow of his command over the Reichswehr troops stationed in Bavaria, and replaced him with General Kress you Kressenstein. The Bavarian government reacted with open defiance. General Commissioner von Kahr declared at once that the decree of the federal defense minister was null and void, and appointed von Lossow Landeskommandant (state commander) of the Reichswehr units stationed in Bavaria. On October 22 the troops took an oath of allegiance to the Bavarian government. Stresemann faced trouble from all directions: while fruitless negotiations between Berlin and Munich continued, the Communists rose in Hamburg, and simultaneously Rhenish Separatists attempted to turn the Palatinate into an independent state.”

In the face of these multiple difficulties, the central government decided to move against the point of least resistance–the Zeigner government of Saxony. That state was already occupied by the Reichswehr, which on October 25 had arrested several low-ranking government officials. The population was sullen and restless, but the troops were firmly in control of the situation. Aside from sporadic attempts by Communist agitators to incite the workers against the military occupation, Saxony was quiet. Nevertheless, it was in Dresden rather than in Munich that the government first asserted itself. Defense Minister Gessler was the driving force behind this move. Whether from personal pique in consequence of Zeigner’s verbal attacks on the Reichswehr, or from mere tactical considerations, Gessler, during a cabinet meeting on October 27, recommended immediate intervention in Saxony. He gave as his reason the unbearable situation which the troops faced in the state. Stresemann supported Gessler, arguing that a government which contained Communist ministers was irreconcilable with the spirit of the Weimar constitution. But his real reason, which he revealed a few minutes later, was one of expediency rather than of principle. The chancellor pointed out that the government might be crushed between right-wing radicalism in Bavaria and left-wing radicalism in Saxony. If the government were to enforce the German constitution in Saxony, the position of the Reich vis-à-vis Bavaria would be strengthened, and open conflict with the latter state would be avoided. Stresemann’s and Gessler’s views won out, over the objections of the Social Democratic cabinet members. On the same day the chancellor wrote a letter to Zeigner in which he demanded in no uncertain terms the expulsion of the Communist ministers from the Saxon cabinet:

“. . . The spirit of recalcitrance and violence displayed by the Communist Party was demonstrated by the statements which the chief of your state chancellery, Herr Ministerialdirektor Brandler, made at Chemnitz on October 21 when he called publicly for open opposition to the Reichswehr….

“In the name of the federal government I herewith demand .. . that you arrange for the resignation of the Saxon state government since in view of recent events the participation of Communist members within said government has become incompatible with constitutional conditions.

“I request that you inform me of the government’s resignation by tomorrow, October 28. Should the formation of a new government… not be carried out immediately, without the participation of its Communist members . . . , the holder of executive power will designate a federal commissioner who will assume the administrative functions of the state until constitutional conditions are restored.”

This was the second ultimatum within a fortnight which the Saxon minister-president received, and with which he refused to comply. His Bavarian counterpart, Ritter von Kahr, was guilty of the same offense and remained unscathed, but Zeigner’s disobedience led to his political demise. On October 29 President Ebert invoked Article 48 of the federal constitution, and empowered the chancellor “…to deprive the members of the Saxon state government and of the Saxon state and municipal administrations of their offices…” This presidential decree was immediately followed by the appointment of a Reichstag deputy of the People’s Party, Dr. Rudolph Heinze as Reichskommissar (federal commissioner) for Saxony, and the occupation of the ministerial offices in Dresden by federal troops. Zeigner “resigned” his office the following day, and on the 31st the diet elected a new minister-president, the rather moderate left-of-center Social Democrat, Dr. Karl Fellisch. The coalition government of left-wing Social Democrats and Communists in Saxony was over.

The Reichsexekutive against Saxony, and subsequently Thuringia, accentuated the fact that the KPD had reached a political impasse. As soon as the federal ultimatum to Zeigner became known in Berlin, Radek instructed the Communist ministers Böttcher and Heckert not to resign without some show of resistance.” This was attempted. Supported by left-wing Social Democrats and some trade-unions, the Saxon Communists proclaimed a general protest strike on October 30. Although it was scheduled to last for three days, the trade-unions decided to call it off after only twenty-four hours. Labor’s fighting spirit in Red Saxony was broken, and only smouldering resentment over the military occupation and the forceful removal of Zeigner’s working-class coalition remained. This resentment found its expression in a continued show of sympathy for the Communists by large segments of the Saxon Social Democrats, and during the months that followed the left-wing faction of the SPD made several futile attempts to form another government coalition with the KPD. Interestingly enough, the opposite was true in Thuringia, where the two parties quarrelled incessantly over which was most responsible for the failure of the coalition government in that state.

Meanwhile Radek tried hard, but in vain, to organize Communist protest demonstrations in Berlin. His return to Moscow was only a question of weeks, and he was not in an enviable position. As nominal supervisors of the projected uprising, he and his three colleagues from the ECCI would be held responsible for having failed to accomplish their mission. Radek tried desperately to salvage as much as possible from a situation which was actually beyond repair. He suggested that the party sponsor street demonstrations by the unemployed. They were attempted, but proved to be listless and ineffective ventures. He also demanded that the party stage protest marches which were to be protected by armed (and illegal) proletarian hundreds. Most members of the Zentrale declared themselves essentially in agreement with this plan, but insisted that they needed a prolonged period of preparation before they could hope to attempt such demonstrations. In contrast, Ruth Fischer flatly rejected the idea, with the argument that the masses were too disheartened by the recent events in Saxony and Hamburg to support Communist-organized protest actions. For the second time within three months she turned down an opportunity to act in a crisis. Although the arguments with which she justified her position in each case were sound, her behavior raises some doubts as to the sincerity of her often professed radicalism.

It is difficult to say how soon after Chemnitz and Hamburg the Communist leaders came to realize the full extent the party’s latest, relatively bloodless, but ultimately most decisive defeat. At the meeting of the Central Committee on November 3 the proceedings were still largely dominated by the Brandler faction, which tried to discuss the abortive uprising without lending it an air of finality. Up to that point there had been no official word from Moscow on this issue. In fact, as late as October 28, Zinoviev gave a speech in Petrograd in which he again mentioned his mythical figure of twenty million German proletarians who were still waiting to be led to the barricades. As long as the Comintern had not spoken, it would have been imprudent of Brandler and Radek to admit openly the true significance of the party’s October retreat, even if they had been fully aware of it, which is doubtful. Thus the proceedings of the Central Committee were pervaded by an atmosphere cautious optimism. Brandler himself delivered the principal report and accepted full responsibility for having called off the planned insurrection, but indicated that the revolution was merely postponed, not cancelled. Most of the theses which Brandler advanced were subsequently written into the resolution which was submitted to the committee for adoption. Its text was drafted by Brandler, with the aid of Radek and Pyatakov. The main theme of the resolution was that there had been a “Fascist” victory over the “November Republic”. This victory was evident from the recent events in Saxony, the repeated bans of the party press, the Bavarian situation, and related examples. The greatest share of responsibility for these developments was attributed to the Social Democrats, and to the Social Democratic leaders in particular, because they had refused to support the Communists in their struggle against the “military dictatorship.” It was held that the latest betrayal of the SPD leaders required a new approach to the united front policy. From then on the party will refrain from any dealings with the Social Democratic bureaucracy, but was to concentrate exclusively on winning the rank and file of the SPD for the ultimate struggle against the “Fascist” dictatorship. In short, the resolution called for a united front policy “from below.” As far as references to any future uprising were concerned, the resolution was ambiguous. It stated that “armed insurrection remains on the agenda,” and stressed the need for “the preparation of the struggle for the proletarian dictatorship.” But the radical tone of these passages was qualified by the statement that the projected struggle would have to begin by opposition to the attempted onslaughts against the eight-hour day, and by fighting unemployment, suppression of the labor press, the national state of emergency, and low wages. In other words, the qualifications embodied in the resolution indicated an implied admission that at least in the near future there would be no chance of a major revolution. The resolution was adopted at the committee meeting by a vote of 40 to 13. The majority of the party hierarchy thus endorsed the future plans of the Brandler Zentrale, and at the same time approved of its past policies.

Had the matter been allowed to rest there, the October retreat would have remained just another episode in the history of the German Communist party, just another attempt to capture power which, though it had failed once again, would be repeated at the earliest possible opportunity. For several weeks after the meeting of the Central Committee it actually looked as if the party was returning to its old course, which consisted of probing for soft spots and at the same time continuing conspiratorial activities. But the Brandler  Zentrale was permitted neither time nor opportunity to return the KPD to the status quo prior to October. Both in Berlin and Moscow forces were at work which brought about a reorientation of the party, a new leadership and, involuntarily but irrevocably, a termination of the phase of revolutionary experimentation.

The month of November had few favors to bestow upon the German Communists. The abortive Hitler putsch in Munich on November 9 had a cathartic effect on all Germany: the shots at the Feldherrnhalle which killed fourteen National Socialists cleared the air and laid the basis for speedy settlement of most of the outstanding differences between Bavaria and the Reich. Equally important for the nation as a whole was the issue of the new Rentenmark on November 16, which restored public confidence in the currency and prepared the way for the eventual economic recovery of Germany. It was only natural, however, that the transition from acute crisis to gradual stabilization, economically and politically, was accompanied by certain stresses and strains. Thus the stabilization of the mark led to a temporary dislocation of the economy because of a nation wide shortage of capital, a shift in demand from capital (or instrumental) goods to consumers’ goods, and a rapid rise of unemployment which lasted until the spring of 1924. On the political front, full emergency powers had been temporarily granted to General von Seeckt by the Stresemann cabinet on the evening of November 8. He used these powers to deal firmly with Bavaria and the Munich putsch, and on November 23, when Stresemann’s chancellorship came to an end, Seeckt banned the German Communist Party, the National Socialist Party, and the Deutsch-Volkische Freiheits-partei.

None of these events could bring comfort to the KPD. The collapse of the Hitler putsch, and the détente between Berlin and Munich which followed, weakened all arguments concerning the “Fascist” nature of the government. Moreover, the prevention of the attempted coup d’etat in Bavaria had a salutary effect on the German workers. So had the monetary stabilization which transformed nominal wages into real wages, and led to a sudden rise in the purchasing power of the working classes. Not even the temporary increase in unemployment benefited the KPD, since a surplus of idle workers rendered strikes, and notably large-scale political strikes, illusory. Finally, the enforced illegality of the party from November 23, 1923 until March 1, 1924 paralyzed all organizational activities, and for months rendered the Communists politically ineffective.

Meanwhile Radek and his ECCI delegation had made repeated attempts throughout November to prod the party’s Berlin organization into showing some revolutionary spirit. But these efforts proved as futile as they had been immediately after the Chemnitz Conference. In a letter of November 20, written to the Berlin district command of the KPD, Radek complained bitterly about Ruth Fischer’s failure to stage protest demonstrations in Berlin on the 9th and the 13th of that month. He called on her to make another attempt on the 22nd, urging her to mobilize as many workers as possible for a demonstration in the center of the city. The demonstration was to be accompanied by Communist disturbances in the Reichstag on the same day. Ruth Fischer answered that it was impossible to mobilize the apathetic masses within two days, but promised to try on the 27th. On that day, a demonstration of about three to four thousand actually took place in the Berlin Lustgarten, but it lacked spirit and the demonstrators merely milled around the square until the police dispersed them. It was obvious that even the most radical portion of the German party could no longer be relied upon to display revolutionary élan.

A few days later, early in December, Radek and his colleagues from the ECCI returned to the Soviet Union. They departed under a cloud, for the reports that they took back with them were bound to be unpopular in Moscow. Indications of trouble ahead may have reached them prior to their departure. During November, while Radek had desperately tried over and over again to offset the undeniable letdown after the October retreat by calling for a series of spirited and face-saving demonstrations, Zinoviev, in articles and speeches, had expressed his growing, though still veiled, disapproval of the German party’s recent policies and decisions. This disapproval, which was at first directed mainly against the Brandler Zentrale, was tied up with the inner party struggle among the Russian leadership.

This conflict had been shaping up ever since 1922, when Lenin’s health began to deteriorate at an alarming pace, and it gained momentum in 1923. On one side was the party’s Secretariat, composed of the somewhat ill-matched triumvirate of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev, and on the other side Trotsky and his supporters, among them Radek. The issues on which the struggle was ostensibly fought were political and economic in nature, and restricted to party affairs and Russian domestic problems. Throughout the summer and fall of 1923, Trotsky was steadily losing ground. When Lenin died on January 21, 1924, the triumvirs were in control of the party, and Trotsky in bitter, and daily more forlorn, opposition. The aftermath of the German October can only become comprehensible if seen against this general background.”

It was several weeks before Moscow fully realized that the German revolution was a failure. Zinoviev, who as chairman of the ECCI was most immediately concerned with the German events, refused to recognize for some time after the Chemnitz Conference that the October retreat was final, and not merely a temporary set-back. Thus his initial reaction was approval of the tactics which the German Zentrale had applied in Saxony, and he blamed the Social Democrats for the failure of the Saxon experiment and the abortive Hamburg uprising. But as the weeks passed, his attitude began to change. At first he had found nothing basically wrong either with the policies which the KPD had pursued in Saxony, or with the resolution approving these policies which the party had adopted at its Central Committee meeting on November 3, but by the end of that month he severely criticized the Zentrale on both counts, and in December turned openly against both Brandler and Radek.

Zinoviev’s volte-face was a matter not of conviction, but of expediency. As the magnitude of the German debacle was gradually revealed to the Bolshevik leaders, Zinoviev found himself in a vulnerable position. As chairman of the ECCI he formally shared the responsibility for the political actions and omissions of the KPD, a member party of the Comintern. The easiest way to escape, or at least to lessen, this responsibility was to shift it to someone else, in this case to Brandler, and subsequently to Radek as well. In reaching this decision he seems to have been prompted in part by Maslow and Fischer. The former had been in Moscow ever since September in order to submit to an investigation of his past party record. In November Zinoviev suddenly dropped his erstwhile aloofness and began to treat Maslow in a friendly fashion. During this period, Maslow wrote an article in which he strongly attacked the entry of the KPD into the Saxon government of Zeigner. Although it was not published until two months later, Zinoviev may well have known  it, and at least he knew Maslow’s position on the question. Furthermore, Ruth Fischer wrote a letter to Zinoviev on November 22 in which she complained bitterly about the incompetence of Brandler and implored Zinoviev to invite a delegation of the KPD for a discussion of the party’s outstanding differences. The letter was intercepted by the German police, and its contents wired to the German Embassy in Moscow, where Brockdorff-Rantzan handed it it accusingly to the Commissar for Foreign Affairs, on December 2nd or 3rd.” There is little doubt that Chicherin showed the letter to Zinoviev. It was probably at this point that the chairman of the ECCI sent a confidential letter to the German Zentrale in which he castigated the KPD’s Saxon policy.

The crucial passage in the letter, which is undated, read “…We here in Moscow . . . regarded the entry of Communists into the Saxon Government only as a military-strategic maneuver. You turned it into a political bloc with the ‘left’ Social Democrats, which tied your hands. We thought of your entry into the Saxon Government as a way of winning a jumping-off ground  to deploy the forces of our armies. You turned participation in the Saxon cabinet into a banal parliamentary coalition with the Social Democrats. The result was our political defeat. . . .”

By the middle of the month the German issue became intimately fused with the Russian intraparty struggle, as Zinoviev used his growing display of hostility against the Brandler Zentrale to undermine the position of his antagonist Trotsky. It was a devious approach, for Trotsky was as outspoken as Zinoviev in his condemnation of the German Communists for having bungled what he considered a perfect opportunity for a revolution. But he differed from Zinoviev on the conclusions to be drawn. While he unhesitatingly criticized Brandler and Radek for having blundered, he was not pre pared to make either of them a scapegoat, especially since he believed that Zinoviev himself was far from blameless. Nor did Trotsky see any advantage in changing the leadership of the KPD by replacing Brandler, whom he personally liked and respected, with Fischer and Maslow, whom he distrusted. Just such a switch, however, was contemplated by Zinoviev, and it was Radek who inadvertently convinced him and his friends in the Russian party that this was not only a desirable measure, but an urgent necessity. On December 13, shortly after his return from Germany, Radek told a party meeting in Moscow that if the majority of the Russian leaders should turn against Trotsky, the majority of the German and French Communists would side with Trotsky against his opponents. To the triumvirate this sounded like an open challenge. Radek was known as Trotsky’s staunchest supporter in the current struggle, a fact which their differing views on the recent handling of the German situation did not alter. Radek’s warning seemed to be substantiated a few days later when the Central Committee, not of the French but of the Polish Communist Party, sent a letter which left no doubt about the high reputation Trotsky enjoyed in those quarters. Zinoviev’s faction realized the need of preventing Trotsky from acquiring more allies outside the Soviet Union. For the moment nothing could be done about the Polish party, but the abortive German October served as a convenient excuse for Russian intervention in the affairs of the KPD.

In mid-December, invitations to send representatives to Moscow by the end of the month were extended to the KPD. By that time the apparent unity (except for the Left Opposition) of the party, which had been displayed on November 3 regarding the Central Committee’s resolution on the October events, had totally disappeared. The KPD Zentrale was split into three factions rather than the customary two, respectively representing a right wing, a center wing, and a left wing. Each faction claimed leadership over the party. The divisive issue was the interpretation of the October events. The right wing, represented by Brandler and Thalheimer, staunchly defended the recent “retreat,” and continued to uphold the united front policy as the party’s only hope of winning mass support in the future. The left wing, represented by Fischer and Thalmann (Maslow was still in Moscow), maintained that the Brandler faction had discredited the party, that the united front policy in its previous form was untenable, and that the revolution had failed because of timid and opportunist leadership. The center group, which included Remmele, Eberlein, Kleine, Stoecker, Koenen, and Pieck, was very critical of Brandler’s past policies, but was not yet prepared to join forces with the radicals on the Left. Its members believed that a retreat had been necessary, but argued that it should have been “a fighting retreat” rather than a timid and passive surrender.

As it turned out, the creation of a center group spelled doom to the Brandler Zentrale. When the party chairman departed for Moscow around the turn of the year, he could only rely on the support of Thalheimer, Pieck, and Zetkin. By the time the German delegation arrived, Brandler found that Zinoviev had already taken a step toward depriving him and his remaining supporters of the party leadership: on December 27, during a session of the Politburo, Zinoviev had opened an all-out offensive against Brandler’s principal mentor, Karl Radek.

The attack on Radek served a dual purpose. It was designed to strip the Brandler faction of its remaining influence in the KPD, thereby strengthening Brandler’s opponents. Furthermore, by discrediting Radek, Zinoviev and his colleagues in the triumvirate could weaken the position of their opponent Trotsky. Moreover, the resolution which the Politburo adopted left no doubt that the Zinoviev faction was openly bidding for the support of the Left Opposition within the German party.

“Comrade Radek directs his course entirely in support of the Right minority of the Central Committee [meaning the Zentrale] of the KPD and [tries] to disown the Left wing of the party . . . whereas the Politburo of the Central Committee of the RKP bases its policy on support of the great majority of the Central Committee of the KPD and on collaboration with the Left. . . .

“The general view of comrade Radek on the course of the further struggle in Germany arises from an incorrect assessment of the class forces in Germany: an opportunist overestimation of the differences within Fascism and an attempt to base the policy of the working class in Germany on these differences.”

It was as simple as that. Not only did the resolution identify Radek with the errant Brandler, it also tagged on, for good measure, an official, albeit belated, censure of Radek’s Schlageter policy, which had proved a failure. The stage was now set for the final reckoning.

Despite an unprecedented, foolhardy counterattack by Radek, who informed the Russian Politburo that he was only responsible to the world congress of the Comintern for his actions in Germany —a point which Zinoviev grudgingly conceded in principle—Radek’s days as the Comintern expert for Germany were numbered. On January 11, 1924, the Presidium of the ECCI convened in Moscow for a joint conference with the German delegation to air the problem of the October defeat. The details of these proceedings, which lasted several days, need not detain us here. Both Radek and Brandler offered a spirited defense of their views. They pointed out that the German proletariat was not yet ready for revolution, and maintained that the Communist retreat in October had been necessary and prudent. Radek also let it be known that he considered demands for a change in the leadership of the KPD unwise and un-called-for. The two spokesmen of the Right were followed by Remmele, who represented the new center group. His résumé of the October events, delivered with malice toward none, was measured in tone, rational, and searching. He did not hesitate to criticize the ECCI, by implication, for its part in the defeat, especially 11., realistic assessment of the German situation, and its equally unrealistic insistence on starting an all-out revolution from Saxony. According to Remmele, the recent experience showed that the party would have to tread the road to revolution by stages, by setting for itself limited objectives, and only after having aroused the German proletariat should the party attempt to make its bid for power. As for the mistakes of the KPD, Remmele did not hesitate to enumerate them too, emphasizing especially the ineffectiveness of the Communist ministers in Zeigner’s cabinet. He censured Brandler for having too often acted independently of the Zentrale as a whole and suggested that, if Brandler should continue to lead the KPD, he should do so in closer cooperation with his colleagues. As for the Left, Remmele praised Thalmann as a true representative of the proletariat whose help and advice were needed by the party, but left no doubt that he considered both Fischer and Maslow radical intellectuals with a lot of theories but little understanding of practical politics.

Ruth Fischer, speaking for the Left Opposition, delivered her customarily unrestrained attacks on Radek and the Brandler faction without throwing much light on the issue in question. The only remarkable part of her speech was the courtesy which she showed to Remmele. The fact that she ignored his less than flattering remarks about herself and Maslow was probably due to her eagerness to win the support of the center group in her quarrel with the Right.”‘

The next speaker was Zinoviev, the sole representative of the Russian party except for Radek, who belonged to Trotsky’s camp. Zinoviev was in a precarious position because there was still a great deal of difference between the views held by the center group and the left-wing Fischer-Maslow faction. In order to discredit Brandler, and thereby Trotsky’s friend, Radek, he had to aim at a working compromise by which the potential new majority of the German party could be lined up against the Right. Taking a leaf out of Ruth Fischer’s book, Zinoviev also made a barely disguised bid for the support of the vital center group when he suggested that the present majority in the Zentrale should join with the Left in constituting the new KPD leadership. His censure of Brandler’s policies, in particular his handling of the so-called “Saxon experiment,” was nearly as unreserved as Ruth Fischer’s had been, but he took the precaution of not yet identifying himself too closely with the Left Opposition, whose representative he chided good-naturedly for her tendency to exaggerate.

After the reports, the matter of the German October defeat was entrusted to a commission which was given the task of drafting an official resolution. Only the left and center factions, and one representative of the Comintern (Kuusinen) were on the commission—Brandler and Radek were barred from it by an adverse vote. During the commission’s deliberations, Zinoviev continued to work behind the scenes for a still more unqualified condemnation of Radek. This he obtained from the Central Committee of the Russian party, which met on January 14 and 15. On January 18, when the Russian party leaders met for a conference, Zinoviev himself delivered the most blistering series of accusations that had yet been directed against his adversary. True to form, Zinoviev’s charges were embedded in a party resolution, unanimously adopted but for one abstaining vote—Radek’s.

The commission reported the following day to the Presidium of the ECCI with its report on the draft resolution. This was a patch-work of inconclusive statements concerning the causes of the German October debacle, and bore all the marks of a Zinoviev-inspired compromise between the views of the center and the left wing. The text of these “Lessons of the German Events” incorporated criticisms raised by Remmele and Ruth Fischer as well as by Zinoviev, but ignored those of Brandler and Radek. After some political maneuvering and fencing, including the submission of a minority report by Brandler, Pieck, Zetkin, and four others, protesting against the letter and spirit of the resolution draft, it was finally adopted unanimously on January 21, 1924, a few hours before Lenin died. Zinoviev had put himself on record that he considered the retreat to have been inevitable after all.

In making this gesture, Zinoviev had nothing to lose. His admission did not appear in the official resolution which, on the other hand, was now adopted without dissent. This looked good on the record and could only strengthen Zinoviev’s position versus his opponents, notably Trotsky and his supporters in Russia and abroad. For although Zinoviev could not saddle Trotsky with the responsibility for the German fiasco, he could discredit him by implication through the latter’s alliance with Radek, who in turn was a staunch defender of the deviationist Brandler-Thalheimer faction. The fact that Brandler and Radek had voted for the resolution did not weaken Zinoviev’s case, as their vote could easily be construed as an admission of guilt.

While Zinoviev had so far refrained from openly articulating his devious linkage, his “observer” in the German Zentrale, August Guralsky-Kleine, could afford to be more outspoken. Writing in the spring of 1924, he stated that “The alliance between Thalheimer-Brandler and Radek-Trotsky in the German question is no accident. It touches on a fundamental question: de-Bolshevization of the Russian Communist Party and de-Bolshevization of the European parties, or maintenance of the Bolshevik tutelage of the Russian Communist Party and Bolshevization of the European parties.

Bolshevization of the European parties, including the KPD, was what the triumvirate hoped to achieve now that the recent defeat had shown the need for such a measure. It was the third defeat suffered by the KPD (1919, 1921, 1923), but the first in which the Bolshevik leaders, and Zinoviev as chairman of the ECCI in particular, bore a large share of responsibility. Hence their eagerness to shift the blame, a procedure which had the additional advantage of benefiting them in their vendetta against Trotsky, the only man, incidentally, who could conceivably endanger their leading position in the Comintern. But shifting the blame was not enough. With Lenin dead, and with the Russian intra-party struggle at its height, the triumvirs had to make sure of securing the unconditional support of non-Russian Communist parties, Such support could only be secured through tightening the Bolsheviks’ control over the leaders of the foreign parties, who had to be relied on, in turn, to extend the same iron discipline throughout their own organizations. Since this had to be done largely through the Comintern, and since Zinoviev was chairman of its executive committee, the introduction of Bolshevik discipline required replacement of all those Communist leaders abroad who were anti-Zinoviev or pro-Trotsky, or both, by persons who would do Zinoviev’s bidding. Since Zinoviev was known as a left-wing Communist, it was only logical that he would look for supporters abroad among men of his own persuasion.

The KPD was the first European party to tread the road toward Bolshevization, and the October defeat was both cause and effect of this development. For the abortive uprising, which coincided with the conflict among the Bolshevik leaders on the eve of Lenin’s death, first pointed up the desirability of Bolshevization, and at the same time provided the opportunity for putting it into effect. The first step in this direction had been taken when the committee, which drafted the resolutions on the October defeat, inserted a clause making it mandatory that all party officers elected in the various district organizations have their election confirmed by the next higher echelon of the party hierarchy. This eliminated for all practical purposes the remaining vestiges of democracy, and enabled the leadership to exercise a stricter control over their subordinates. Furthermore, it made it easier to suppress all oppositional trends from the outset.

The stage for this process had been set in Moscow by the Comintern Presidium. Now Zinoviev could settle back and leave all further developments along these lines to the elements within the KPD which had the blessing of the Russian leaders. The first Central Committee meeting of the KPD, which convened on February 19 for the purpose of electing a new Zentrale, demonstrated the success of Moscow’s intrigues. Pending elections at the next party congress, membership in the Zentrale was temporarily reduced to seven officers, five of whom belonged to the center group, two to the Left Opposition. The Brandler faction was no longer represented, and Brandler himself was permanently barred from holding office in the KPD. To be sure, the Left Opposition was not in control of the party, but it was well on the way. By what means Ruth Fischer and her friends made their way to the top of the greasy pole is still shrouded in mystery, and numerous unsavory rumors have defied all attempts at substantiation. What is known is that the Left Opposition received a considerable amount of backing from Zinoviev, not only because the Left was anti-Brandler, but because its members were also anti-Trotsky. There was no conceivable reason for them to adopt this position, save one: calculated expediency. They knew that Trotsky was as critical of the KPD’s bungling of the projected uprising as they were, but they allowed themselves to be enlisted in the camp of Trotsky’s enemies because they stood to profit by it. When they voted on February 19 in favor of the Central Committee resolution which condemned Trotsky, they presumably did so less reluctantly than did Brandler, for their votes helped pay the fare to the top.

Between April 7 and l0, the party held its Ninth Congress in Frankfurt au Main. Although the ban on the KPD had been officially rescinded on March 1, the congress did not meet in the open, but retained all the precautions of the period of illegality. Warrants of arrest against several party leaders were still pending, which made it necessary to move the place of meeting daily, and to omit mention of the speakers’ names from the verbatim report of the proceedings.

The composition of the congress left no doubt as to who had captured control of the KPD. There were ninety-two delegates from the Left Opposition and only thirty-four from the center group. The Brandler faction had sent no delegates at all. Once more the debates centered around the abortive October revolution, but the rhetoric—especially of the speakers of the Left, which was now in effect no longer the “Opposition”—amounted to beating a dead horse. When the new Zentrale was elected, only four out of fifteen party offices went to the center group. The radical wing of the party had finally arrived.

The victory of the Left was a personal triumph for Ruth Fischer. Although she nominally shared power with her colleagues, her own inclination and favorable circumstances enabled her to set the tone and dominate the stage.'” A few weeks after the Frankfurt Congress, Die Weltbühne, a periodical known for its sympathies with many Communist ideals, published a brief profile of Ruth Fischer. After a cursory review of her past political career, the article closed on the following note.

“Now she is the undisputed leader of the party. Radicalism has triumphed. Radicalism demands actions [Aktionen], demands the split of the free labor unions, demands, in order to stabilize the dictatorship of the party leadership, blind obedience from the Communist parliamentary delegates. Ruth Fischer wants to command absolutely, and wants to be adored . . . like the Dalai Lama. But is she the spirit capable of ruling over men and objects? Or is she, since all good spirits seem to have deserted the KPD, the last glimmer of light film shines for the Communist masses in the darkness?”

As it turned out, her short but turbulent reign proved disastrous for the party and her own political future. What is more, It was during this “Left interlude,” for such it was destined to he, that h a whimsical twist of history the revolutionary phase of German Communism came to an end. This was not apparent at the time, nor was it in any way a conscious decision taken by the new party leadership; it was primarily determined by forces beyond the control of the KPD. One important factor in this development was the economic and political stabilization of Germany which followed in the wake of the Dawes Plan. Domestic recovery, coupled with an improvement of the country’s international relations, eased the tensions which had beset Germany ever since the end of the war. Furthermore, Stalin’s consolidation of power in Russia marked a new era in the history of world Communism. Although the term “revolution” remained part and parcel of Communist vocabulary, in  practice it became rather meaningless, after Stalin, in 1924, proclaimed a new Russian course with the slogan of “Socialism in One Country.” The new course was accompanied by an emphatic return to the basis of Rapallo which, by the silent consent of both treaty partners, had weathered the October interlude. Stalin’s new course also affected the position of the Comintern, which was no longer permitted to occupy an independent place in Communist strategy. Stalin converted it into a subordinate body so as to prevent it from interfering with the policies of the Politburo and the best interests of the Soviet Union. As a by-product of this measure, carried out In the midst of further intraparty struggles from which Stalin ultimately emerged the victor, Moscow also tightened its grip on the non-Russian parties.

In Germany, then, the final process by which Rosa Luxemburg’s party was transformed into a pawn of Stalinist Russia occurred during the “Left interlude.” But after a year and a half of zealous Bolshevization, of unbridled verbal assaults on the trade-unions and the SPD, of intrigues and infighting, Fischer and Maslow were caught up in the struggle between Stalin and his two fellow-triumvirs. In the fall of 1925, Stalin removed Fischer and Maslow from the Zentrale, leaving the more pliable, more genuinely proletarian “Teddy” Thälmann in control of the KPD. The two ousted leaders left behind a party which they had deprived of any chance to regain the trust and sympathy of German labor. The rift in the working-class movement was beyond repair. In obediently carrying out the process of Bolshevization they had destroyed the few traces of party democracy and independence which had survived the stormy past.



  1. ” The KPD concentrated all its efforts on mobilizing and arming its own members, without paying much attention to what went on outside the party. ”

    Sounds like more or less like every petty bourgeois outfit in history. This is the petty bourgeois modus operandi from Blanqui through Lenin to Castro and Barnes.

    Comment by Tray Dee — December 5, 2019 @ 3:26 am

  2. Gee–who knew everything was so simple? Oh–and false flags, of course.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — December 5, 2019 @ 3:16 pm

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