Saturday, December 3, 2011

January 15, 1919 – Spartacist Uprising Overthrows Weimar Republic

After a humiliating outcry condemning the use of paramilitary soldiers, President Friedrich Ebert was forced to step down and the united workers of Germany created a new, socialist government. It was another phase in what would be a tumultuous decade for what had been the proud and powerful German Empire.

Following the defeat of Russia in 1917, the Kaiser and his generals had great hope for the winter campaigns. The people of Germany had suffered through the Turnip Winter of 1916-17, eating vegetables usually fit only for livestock. It seemed the chance to turn the war around as hundreds of thousands of troops came home from the eastern front and were re-trained with new “storm-trooper” tactics that were designed to break the trench-warfare stalemate before the American soldiers arrived. Unfortunately, the strategy failed in 1918, and Americans began pouring onto the battlefield at a rate of ten thousand a day. Amid the depressed morale of the people and soldiers, orders went out to launch the fleet for a final fight with the Royal Navy, and the sailors refused. The October mutiny spread into outright revolution, and the Kaiser abdicated along with the rest of Germany royalty, which handed control of the state over to the Social Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, the Independent Social Democratic Party (USDP) broke away from the SDP with stronger demands for worker’s rights and an overall socialist state. It was joined by the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) led by the “Spartacist” Karl Liebknecht, newly released from prison, and Rosa Luxemburg, whose ideals would form many of the economic policies of the party. The last chancellor of the Empire, Friedrich Ebert, held his power through popularity with the SDP and was elected president in the carefully timed elections in late 1918. For a time, the USDP worked in an uneasy alliance with the SDP, both wary of the Freikorps, a name dating back to voluntary guerilla soldiers against Napoleon and now meaning paramilitary groups made primarily of retiring soldiers who held very right-wing ideals.

When Ebert fired the Chief of Police for Berlin for not using force against strikers during the Christmas troubles, KPD and USDP began a new revolution, forming a “Revolution Committee” on January 5, 1919, that called for a general strike to show support. More than 500,000 workers in Berlin flooded the streets, and the city shut down. After the initial success, however, the Committee began to falter. No one was able to agree on whether to negotiate with Ebert or began an armed revolt to topple him. Liebknecht and other KPD members worked to gain the support of the Volksmarine who had initially begun revolution the October before as well as the army regiments. Most of the soldiers, however, had either given up their posts or sworn loyalties to the present government.

Seeing the failure to bring real soldiers onto their side and the meager arms taken up by the workers that would have been soundly defeated if Ebert’s government cracked down, a new plan was determined. Just as the KPD and USDP were about to break their Committee on January 8, a flyer was discovered telling that Ebert had made a call for the Freikorps to “take revenge” on the leftists that had lost the war for them. Outrage was shared among the leaders, and Luxemburg suggested the outrage could be spread to the rest of the country. Using expert propaganda as had been perfected over the course of the Great War, the workers were persuaded to put away their weapons and Ebert was portrayed as a backstabber who called up brutes while promising to meet for deliberations (an image of the French turning away the 1916 German offer of armistice just before the bloody Battle of Verdun). When the Freikorps attacked on January 12, the workers refused to fight back and were easily defeated. However, as propaganda of the atrocities by the paramilitary flooded the country, outrage turned public support to the socialists. Freikorps members were pelted with clods of earth in the streets, symbolizing their loss of ground during the fighting, and Ebert was blamed for the deaths of over 100 workers as the strike continued.

Under public pressure, Ebert and his government left Berlin and new elections were held. The united USDP and KPD won overwhelmingly, and their representatives attended the Treaty of Versailles that summer. The resulting treaty would be viewed with great suspicion by the Americans, whose Senate soundly rejected it, and the Germans took it as a solid display that the communists had sold out their country. The Allied blockade had stood for months after the armistice, and more Germans than ever had died of malnutrition, which was also blamed on the communists. While France rested on its laurels, Americans fearful of the expansion of communism called for occupation of Germany to settle the matter there as only a Red Scare could overcome the sense of non-interventionism.

When the Socialist government collapsed in March of 1920 in yet another wave of revolution under Kapp and Lüttwitz, a coalition army marched into Germany aiding the institutions established by and the return of a limited monarchy under Wilhelm III (who famously declared the War “the most stupid, senseless and unnecessary war of modern times” as Crown Prince). The international soldiers were begrudgingly hosted as they kept the peace and supported the flow of aid, particularly money under the Dawes Plan of 1921, which not only stymied potential hyperinflation with capital investment but also tied together the two nations’ economies and political theories. After the Great Crash, the monarchy and its vibrant Chancellor Adolph Hitler were blamed for mismanagement, and Germany fell into a civil war that would later return the Republic.


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In reality, there was no plan to oust Ebert peacefully. The workers attempted to fight the Freikorps only briefly before surrender. In 1920, Ebert would use the workers’ general strike to thwart the Kapp Putsch, and the Weimar Republic would continue through foreign aid until the Great Depression brought on hopes of genuine prosperity through fascism.

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