Berlin Long Reads | Different Shades of Red: The Weimar Republic and the Divided Left

In the latest edition of our Berlin Guides Association Berlin Long Reads series, BBS member Campbell Bews explores the rift between the SPD and KPD – from ideological cracks to the conflicts, betrayal and violence of politics in the Weimar Republic.

A column of swastika-helmeted troops snakes into a dark Berlin. Their boots clap loudly on the cobblestones as they march in tight formation through the Brandenburg Gate and close in on the Reichstag. They lower the flag of the Republic and replace it with their own, deposing the elected government. Workers who awake to see the takeover heckle the paramilitaries and are fired on in reply. The sun rises on a Berlin under occupation. The date is the 11th of March 1920, the ‘Kapp Putsch’ had just begun.

Their forceful occupation of Berlin allowed the Free Corps (returning WWI proto-fascist militias) to seize the capital but not to hold it. The forces on the left, united in opposition, mobilise against it. Social Democrats, Communists, and trade unionists cannot prevent the military takeover, but they can deny their labour. A general strike brings the usually bustling city to a standstill, as trains refuse to move, the electricity is turned off and the economy grinds to a halt. Wolfgang Kapp, the eponymous putsch leader threatens, begs and attempts to bribe them back to work, but to no avail. With declining prospects, Kapp negotiates a surrender. The united left has defeated the coup in less than 100 hours.

The Kapp Putsch was defeated by a united Left
Free Corps militia hand our leaflets during the ‘Kapp Putsch’
| Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R16976 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

 

The Kapp Putsch stands as a mirror opposite to the Hitler seizure of power 13 years later. Instead of fighting a united front, Hitler was faced with a fractured left-wing opposition, which he was easily able to overcome. The strength of the left was similarly powerful in both Kapp’s and Hitler’s seizure of power. In the 1920 election (held three months after the coup) the SPD, Independent SPD and Communists (KPD) won a total of just under 42% – a near high point for the Weimar Republic. In the 1933 election (held just after the Reichstag fire, under suppression by the Nazi led government), the SPD and KPD won just under 31% – a drop but still a broad coalition of the population. Added to the left’s strength were their own armed groups, returned WWI soldiers councils in the 20’s and party paramilitary groups Iron Front (SPD) and Alliance of Red Front-Fighters (KPD) in the 30’s. Undoubtedly Kapp and General Lüttwitz were not as tightly organised as the Nazis, but they may have succeeded had the left not so vigorously opposed them.

So why was there no coordinated opposition against Hitler? A simple answer would be that there was very little coordination. Even on the day that Hitler was sworn in as chancellor, the majority of the SPD executive committee dismissed an alliance with communists, fearing they would co-opt the resistance and draw away their supporters. The KPD on the other hand, made little to no distinction between the Nazis and the ‘social fascists’ in the SPD. It is clear that between the two right-wing coups there emerged an unbreachable gap between the two left-wing parties. This piece will explore how this rift came about, beginning with ideological cracks within the SPD of the German Empire and pushed further apart by the conflicts, betrayal and violence of Weimar Politics.

1871 – 1914 Big tent of the SPD

Communists and social democrats were all contained within the broad church of the SPD during Bismarck’s German Empire (1871 – 1918). Due to the Party’s appeal to the urban proletariat, their support grew in lock step with the German Empire’s own rapid industrialisation. On the eve of the First World War in 1914, they had 1,085,905 members, 90 daily newspapers and were the largest political party in the Reichstag. However, the system created by Otto von Bismarck ensured that the reins of power remained in the hands of the conservative Prussian military aristocracy, so while the SPD were able to (often indirectly) influence policy, they could never truly govern.

Without the pressure of governing, they could focus on building a party bureaucracy and managing internal ideological disputes. Like many traditional labour movements, it was divided much between its ‘minimalist’ and ‘maximalist’ wings of the party. The ‘minimalists’ favored winning gradual improvements for working people within Germany by working within the system and winning voters at the ballot box. They occupied much of the bureaucracy of the party and therefore the leadership, such as union leader turned party chairman, Friedrich Ebert. On the other end of the spectrum were the ‘maximalists’ who favored global solidarity with the working class and Marxist revolution to overcome the system, which featured prominent leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. But while the gap between their political outlooks was extreme, their collective commitment to the party’s ethos of debate settled by compromise and common cause meant the party’s frictions stayed within the party. That was until the earthquake of the First World War.

Friedrich Ebert was the head of the SPD and first president of the Weimar Republic
Friedrich Ebert

1914 – 1918 SPD at war: Nationalism or Socialism?

Whether to support or oppose the war was the most momentous decision in the SPD’s history and created an impossible split between the two factions. According to maximalist socialist doctrine, maintaining international solidarity among workers was a paramount, so therefore an imperialist war was unthinkable. However, the minimalists understood that in 1914 Germany, the war was seen as a righteous defence of the German fatherland. If they committed themselves to principled socialist opposition, they would jeopardise their gradual gains and doom themselves to electoral suicide and state repression. The high tide of war washed away almost all opposition. Voting to approve war credits, SPD co-Chairman Hugo Haase declared: “We will not desert our fatherland in its hour of need.” The party leadership agreed to a suspension of regular politics out of national solidarity, effectively aligning with the militaristic state and neutering their opposition.

German soldiers on the way to the front in 1914.
German soldiers on the way to the front in 1914.

 

Many of the ‘maximalists’ were disgusted by their party’s capitulation. Their response was limited by state and SPD repression. When they called for strikes and an end to the war in 1914-15, the party imposed new editors for their papers and the police jailed their leaders. Karl Liebknecht, who voiced his opposition in the Reichstag to financing the war in December 1914, would have his parliamentary immunity revoked and he was later jailed. His incarceration did not stop his organising, as he and Rosa Luxemburg would found the group eventually known as ‘The Spartacists’. In the January 1916 charter, Luxemburg pushed against the SPD’s support of the war and called it a ‘betrayal’, but believed in taking over the party rather than beginning anew.

The War became the fulcrum point for relative popularity within the workers movement. While the war went well, the institutional minimalists held sway, but as it became a bloody quagmire, the maximalists began to predominate among workers. In this way, both factions were strapped to a horse of which they had little control. Each year the First World War dragged on, the circumstances tilted in the maximalists’ favor. Every winter brought new misery, as the turnips replaced potatoes and sawdust replaced flour. In 1916, Germany produced 23 million tonnes of potatoes (half of their pre-war crop), and by 1917 the general population was only receiving 1000 calories a day – 40% less than at the start of the war. Despite deteriorating conditions, the German Army was on the verge of victory on the Eastern front and Chairman Ebert clung to the hope that victory on the battlefield would solve the crisis.

The German defeat of the Tsarist regime, the Revolution and the subsequent treaty of Brest-Litovsk would instead have the opposite effect Ebert intended, helping the revolution spread into Germany. The victory of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution and the toppling of the Tsar shifted the centre of socialist politics from the institutional gradualism of Berlin to the revolutionary Marxist-Leninism of Moscow. This influence would be particularly important for the later KPD as their policy became almost entirely dictated by the Soviet Union. The focus on national politics within the SPD was viewed with disdain by Lenin, who saw an international revolution as inevitable.
Shortly after victory in the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks set about spreading propaganda into the POW camps of the Imperial Germany Army. They released these 165,000 soldiers back into Germany to spread revolution. A wave of propaganda flooded west from Russia – even Soviet ambassador Adolf Joffe arrived in Berlin with a briefcase stuffed with revolutionary pamphlets. This agitation of the workers would bear fruit. When Germany erupted into revolution in 1918, the revolutionary slogan of ‘peace and bread’ and demands to form workers and soldiers collectives would be on many lips.

1918 – 19 Revolution and consolidation: Two views of Weimar

The 1918 German Revolution unleashed by mutinous sailors in November spread like a contagion infecting workers, soldiers and then the population at large. It was a movement united against the German Empire and the war, but not on which system would replace it. On the 9th of November, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated, which left the leaders of the SPD and the Spartacists attempting to get in front of events and direct them. From the balcony of the City Palace Karl Liebknecht declared a socialist republic; from a window of the Reichstag Philip Scheidemann (SPD) declared just a republic. In the throes of their own revolution, the Russian Revolution loomed large. Ebert was at pains to consolidate the toppling of the Kaiser into a liberal democratic republic, and prevent a further ‘social revolution’ which he professed to ‘hate like sin.’ Rosa Luxemburg saw the inclusion of the liberal parties as proof that the SPD had become ‘lackeys of the bourgeoisie.’ The Spartacists aimed for social revolution, which included the expropriation of property from major businesses and land from the major estates. They pledged to not do so by force ‘except in response to the clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian mass of all of Germany.’ The fight over the Great War was over, but the SPD and Spartacists seamlessly shifted to another binary struggle, whether to support or overthrow the liberal republic.

While the two parties had competing aims, they had wildly different resources to achieve them. As the largest pre-war party, the SPD had an established press organisation, leadership among the unions, clear hierarchical power structures within the party and leaders within the union movement throughout Germany. They did not seek to find common cause with their former left wing allies and instead used this power to present the Spartacists as the worst excesses of the Russian revolution. One SPD leaflet claimed they would “incite the people deeper and deeper into a civil war, and strangle the right of free speech with their dirty hands.” The Spartacists on the other hand were a new and diverse coalition; a far left faction first within the SPD then the Independent Social Democrats (USPD – a wing of pacifist SPD members who had broken from the party in 1916) and by December 1918 a faction of the newly established Communist Party (KPD). They drew their strength from the demobilised soldiers and young people who flocked to their rallies hungry for action. A number of hardliners within the SPD advocated provoking these supporters and took the provocative step of attempting to remove their leftist choice of Berlin police chief. Pushed by the SPD and their radical supporters, Karl Liebknecht felt that waiting until the majority of the proletariat was on their side was untenable. When Spartacists called for rebellion on the 7th of January they could command 500,000 protestors but their lack of organisation meant they could only command a few thousand armed supporters scattered throughout Berlin.

Spartacist militia during the Berlin uprising, 1919
Spartacist militia during the Berlin uprising, 1919

 

The Spartacist uprising and its subsiquent defeat and murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in January 1919 (covered brilliantly by my colleague here) would make enemies of their rivals on the left. The SPD’s accommodation of big business, the army and liberal parties to establish the Weimar Republic left it with few friends to their left flank to support them politically against the Spartacists. Looking right, Ebert instead turned to the power of the army to crush the uprising. A combination of Free Corps (right wing militias) and regular army units were given the order and flooded into Berlin. Spartacist rebels occupying buildings were shelled into submission and then given no quarter as their leadership were sent scattering. Through likely torture of a confidant, the locations of Luxemburg and Liebknecht were revealed. Once the Free Corps had seized their enemies, they were never going to be allowed to leave alive. They were brutally murdered on the 16th of January, less than two weeks after the rebellion had begun. Ebert had managed to save his republic, but only by sacrificing his former comrades to anti-republican right wing militarists. Their blood would always stand between cooperation between Communists and Social Democrats.

The Weimar Republic was stained with the blood of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg
Soviet-zone stamp commemorating Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg

 

1919 – 1923 Early KPD: ‘Theory of the offensive’ and the ‘United Front’

The destruction of the Spartacists further motivated the KPD to overthrow the Weimar system, but their righteous fury was not entirely shared by their voters. Many workers did not support further revolution, as shown by the Berlin union workers from AEG, Schwartzkopff and other factories who met in Humboldthain to call for an end to the Spartacist uprising, in favor of inter-left solidarity. Even after the uprising’s bloody end, the SPD base within the unionised workforce remained steadily behind them. Workers remained loyal to the party they had always voted for and in the 1919 Federal Elections the SPD had their best ever showing of nearly 38%. Despite this, the KPD were encouraged by the Comintern (the communist international organisation dominated and funded by Moscow) to attempt to follow a ‘theory of the offensive’, and wait for an opportunity to overthrow the government. One such opportunity came after they had combined with the USPD and SPD to defeat the Kapp Putsch in 1920. A 50,000 strong ‘Ruhr Red Army’ of KPD workers, having participated in the general strike, refused to demobilise which led to Ebert again calling in the army. The Ruhr uprising was followed the next year by the ‘March Action’, which featured an attempted general strike and several uprisings throughout the country. These local movements lacked national support to bring about revolution and were again crushed by the army. Voters did not respond well to what many saw as attempted coups. The 1921 ‘March Action’ particularly damaged their reputation and cost the party nearly half of its supporters in a matter of months.

Walter Rathenau was the Foreign Minister of the Weimar Republic
Demonstrators in front of the Reichstag following Walter Rathenau’s murder. | Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00099 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

 

Fearing a further erosion of support, the KPD shifted away from the ‘theory of the offensive’ towards a ‘united front’ policy seeking inter-left solidarity. The two years between 1921-23 and a brief moment in 1926 saw the golden period of cooperation between the members of the communists and social democrats. This realignment was in part to increase their support but also a response to the increasing threat of right-wing terror, as paramilitary groups like the Organisation Consul assassinated over 350 opponents in the early Weimar period. Their 1922 murder of foreign minister Walter Rathenau prompted seething outrage and mobilisation of millions of republicans and leftists who rallied throughout Germany to condemn the violence. The KPD led a push to unite with the SPD and USPD to protect the republic against rightist terror, which was labeled the ‘Berlin Agreement’. Furthermore, the KPD was able to influence many SPD members to support the 1926 referendum to expropriate the nobilities’ land without compensation (reminiscent of the contemporary Deutsche Wohnung enteignen campaign). The SPD leadership were sceptical, but were pushed to support the movement by the popularity of the idea with their supporters. The referendum gathered 14.5 million votes but fell a few million votes short of succeeding. This initiative and the Berlin Agreement demonstrated that even after the murder of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, a policy of inter-left cooperation was effective at mobilising for common goals and against shared enemies. Unfortunately, this was a brief phase and changes within the Communist Party would undermine further coalitions.

1924 -25 The rise of ‘Social Facism’

The Communist Party of Germany was born in the shadow of the Russian Revolution and as such, was always heavily influenced and funded by the Soviet Union. With Lenin’s death in 1924, however, it increasingly came under the iron grip of Joseph Stalin. The Comintern had always encouraged world revolution, but was transformed into a tool for Soviet Union foreign policy goals. From 1925, Stalin was concerned with the Weimar Republic’s financial reliance and closer ties with the capitalist West. He purged intellectuals from the ‘right’ faction of the KPD who proposed solidarity with the SPD in favor of leaders who would shift course with Stalin’s whims. The former dock worker turned firebrand communist organiser, Ernst Thälmann was such a man.

Ernst Thälmann monument located in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin.
Ernst Thälmann monument located in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. | CC BY-SA 3.0

 

Thälmann became party secretary in 1925, and hardened the rhetoric against the SPD who he labeled ‘social fascists’ at every opportunity. He took his cues from the Comintern’s 1924 assertion that: ‘fascism and social democracy are two sides of the same instrument of big capitalist dictatorship’. This was more than a rhetorical shift. In the 1925 second Presidential Election (following the death of Friedrich Ebert), the pro-Weimar Parties decided to unite behind the Christian Centre candidate Wilhelm Marx against the rightist monarchist, general Paul von Hindenburg. The right faction within the KPD counseled that they should not run a candidate in order to not split the left wing vote. However Thälmann overruled them and decided to stand for election, winning 2 million votes. Wilhelm Marx was therefore denied the KPD support, and lost to Hindenburg by a margin of 750,000 votes. Thälmann’s equivalence between social democracy and fascism meant that he did not see the danger in handing the Weimar Presidency to a militarist who would eventually give the keys of power to Adolf Hitler.

1929 – 1933 NSDAP Rising: The approaching storm

As the storm of Great Depression would begin to sink the Weimar Republic, and the monster of National Socialists (NSDAP) would emerge, and the divisions within the left would deepen. The NSDAP made a sudden re-entry into politics in the 1930 elections when they took 18% of the vote and from then on they would (almost) always increase this share. Their popularity led to thousands joining their SA militia as they sought battle with their enemies on the left. Ernst Thälmann was energised by the street battles against the Nazis on one hand, whilst on the other sharing their aims of bringing down the Weimar Republic. They formed a voting block with the NSDAP to bring down the SPD Prussian state government and a motion of no confidence against Heinrich Brüning, two decisions that greatly favored the Nazis. Thälmann assumed that the Nazi toppling of the republic would usher his party to power. As he said in 1932: “Hitler must come to power first, then the requirements for a revolutionary crisis [will] arrive more quickly.” It was comments like this that led some in the SPD to treat communists and Nazis with equivalence. Leader Otto Wels declared in 1931 “Bolshevism and fascism are brothers. They are based upon violence, upon dictatorship, even if they may still appear socialist and radical.” The SPD attempted to thwart the Nazis by working with any democratic parties in the Reichstag, but as more anti-republicans were elected, their choice of potential allies declined. This led to the strange proposition of supporting the candidacy of Hindenburg (the lesser evil) against Adolf Hitler in the 1932 presidential election. Intransigence on both sides meant concentrating on the wrong foe, all while the right grew in strength.

Weimar Republic Presidential Elections of 1932
Presidential Elections of 1932 | Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-13355 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

 

With the depression worsening in 1932 and the system fraying under an endless round of elections, the left had one last chance to resist before their destruction. An ‘Urgent Call for Unity’ was demanded in a letter by public intellectuals including prominent artist Käthe Kollwitz, and writer Heinrich Mann calling for a ‘united front’ within the KPD and SPD. Communists from outside the Comintern supported this view, such as exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who called for ‘a comprehensive and systematic general offensive’, asserting that Thälmann’s ‘united front from below’ (grassroots action with SPD voters but not the party) was not enough to resist fascism. Within the SPD, there was growing panic with the situation. Friedrich Stampfer, a member of the executive committee and previous anti-communist, began to advocate for a common front. He attempted to go straight to the source of political power and carry out negotiations with Soviet Ambassador Chintschuk, aiming to normalize relations with the KPD. However they came to nought. There was one massive roadblock preventing a final, last ditch defense against Fascism; the intransigence of Joseph Stalin. According to historian Robert C. Tucker, Stalin viewed the SPD’s foreign policy preference for Britain and France as a larger threat to the Soviet Union than a potential fascist Germany. He was the architect of the KPD’s aloofness to an alliance. This decision would be a massive blunder in the short term, with the complete annihilation of the KPD, and in the medium term, when Hiter’s armies came close to doing the same to the Soviet Union. When Thälmann finally opened his eyes to the threat of fascism it was too late. KPD leadership penned an open letter to mobilise with the SPD on the 27th of February 1933. The next day the Reichstag would burn and within a week the majority of these men would be in concentration camps or exile.

The strength of the Fascist movement in the 1930s was such that their eventual victory even at the time seemed inevitable. Inter-left solidarity was a slim hope but it was all they had. The leadership of the SPD can be held mostly responsible for turning a factional rivalry into a heated feud, when they provoked and then violently ended the Spartacist uprising. It was the influence of the Comintern on the KPD, however, which made any practical healing of this rift impossible. Stalin made a calculated trade-off; destroy the Capitalist Weimar Republic in exchange for sacrificing the KPD to the nascent Nazi state. There are contemporary parallels that can be drawn from this sorry history. We live in an age of growing authoritarianism and unprecedented economic and ecological challenges and yet building political coalitions has rarely been more elusive. An intensive focus on personal and ideological differences often means we are unable to see common goals and combat mutual threats. The communist and social democrat rivalry is one of the many examples of just how ruinous this can be.

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Campbell Bews

This Berlin Long Read was written by BBS Member Campbell Bews.

Visit hie profile using the link about to learn more about him and the tours he offers.

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Bibliography:

https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/12/14.htm

https://web.archive.org/web/20110718232941/http://www.ebert-gedenkstaette.de/ebert_leben1918.html

Bois, Marcel ‘March separately, but strike together!’ the communist party’s united-front policy in the Weimar Republic

Boes, Tobias.Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy

Broue, Piere The German Revolution 1917 -23

Hett, Benjamin Carter The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic

Lemmons, Russel Hitler’s Rival: Ernst Thälmann in Myth and Memory Hardcover – Illustrated, March 1, 2013

Smaldone, William Confronting Hitler: German Social Democrats in Defense of the Weimar Republic

Tucker, Robert C, Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928-1941