Rosa at a Loss
The KPD Leadership and the Berlin Uprising of January 1919: Legend and Reality
In recent German historical writing, the protest movement of the Berlin workers against the Ebert–Scheidemann government1 in the second week of January 1919 is no longer described as the ‘Spartakus Uprising’, and as a result the German Communist Party (KPD) is not now held solely or even mainly responsible for it.2 Yet the assertion still haunts historical works and the media that the uprising was a putsch that was fully supported by Rosa Luxemburg and the other Spartakus leaders, in opposition to the democratic principles set out in the KPD programme that was adopted at the end of December 1918.3 The actual standpoints of the KPD leaders were, however, considerably more varied.
Rosa Luxemburg’s Initial Reserve
As the dismissal of Emil Eichhorn,4 the USPD Berlin police chief, by the provisional Prussian Government, still only consisting of Majority Social Democrats, on Saturday, 4 January 1919 became known, Karl Radek, the Bolshevik emissary who had made his way illegally from Russia to Germany and had participated in the founding congress of the KPD, went to the editorial offices of the Rote Fahne, the party’s central organ. The discussion with Rosa Luxemburg and such other members of the editorial board as Paul Levi, Ernst Meyer and August Thalheimer5 led to the decision to utilise the occasion for further sharp attacks upon the Majority Social Democratic provisional government, but not to count upon any sizeable protest action by the left. The regular edition of the Rote Fahne on 5 January 1919 therefore did not contain any call for a protest demonstration. This attitude of the Spartakus leaders was wholly in tune with that of Radek, who, since his arrival in Berlin on 19 December 1918, had concluded that the Spartakusbund — and the KPD after its foundation — was an extremely weak political grouping, in reality a sect, which was still greatly divided over such important points as the trade unions and participation in parliamentary elections. In this situation, it was urgent for the Spartakus leadership first of all to build up a party organisation in Berlin, and nationally to undertake a programme of political education and to gain support within the workers’ councils.
The mood of the meeting of the revolutionary obleute taking place on the afternoon of that same Saturday appeared wholly different. This was the circle of left-wing factory shop stewards who had made a decisive participation in the revolutionary overthrow in Berlin on 9 November 1918. Here a large majority declared in favour of mass action against the Majority Social Democratic government, in spite of the great doubts of such leading figures as Ernst Däumig and Richard Müller.6 The gathering was strengthened in its opinion by a similar decision of the Berlin USPD Executive meeting that was taking place at the same time. One of the spokesmen for an offensive course was the KPD Zentrale member Wilhelm Pieck,7 who, during the night of 4-5 January and acting on behalf of the gathering and as part of a small delegation of the shop stewards, negotiated with Heinrich Dorrenbach,8 the leader of the People’s Naval Division, whether its armed sailors could be of help in arresting the Majority Social Democratic government leaders. As Dorrenbach felt unable to oblige and several shop stewards expressed their uncertainty about the possible resonance of a call for protest action, the shop stewards adjourned the question of the immediate overthrow of the government late on Saturday, and called in the USPD’s and KPD’s papers merely for a protest demonstration for noon on Sunday, 5 January. Nevertheless, the shop stewards were sceptical, on the grounds that as the demonstration was to take place on a Sunday, the workers would not be directly instructed by their representatives in the factories and led by them out onto the streets, but could only be informed by means of papers and leaflets.
The Rote Fahne published the appeal in a second edition of the 5 January issue, which was not particularly identifiable as an extra edition, and which was probably delivered during the morning. Presented in an extremely effective manner, the appeal, signed by the revolutionary shop stewards, the Berlin USPD and the KPD Zentrale, stretched across the entire width of the front page. Otherwise this extra edition was identical to the original in content. That Rosa Luxemburg originally brought out the Rote Fahne of 5 January without this appeal is a clear indication that most of the Spartakus leaders had not counted on such a protest action taking place on a Sunday. Even on Monday, 6 January, following the surprisingly high participation in the Sunday demonstration, the Rote Fahne did not give the impression of its presenting a signal for the last decisive battle. Under the headline ‘Eichhorn Stays’, a series of catchwords in large letters told of the events of 5 January, in order to present an extensive report on them. The appeal for a demonstration on 6 January at 11am, again signed by the revolutionary shop stewards, the Berlin USPD and the KPD Zentrale, occupied merely half a column of the front page. The commentary did not deal with the situation in Berlin, but, under the heading ‘Unemployed’, concentrated upon a social-political theme. In the editions of the Rote Fahne for 5 and 6 January, there is no sign whatsoever of the KPD leadership considering that the revolutionary left-wing forces were spoiling for an armed struggle for state power. Rather, the Rote Fahne used this opportunity once again to present its customary sharp criticism of the — in the opinion of the Spartakus leadership — counter-revolutionary politics of the Majority Social Democrats.
A Failed Putsch
Contrary to the sceptical expectations of its promoters, the Berlin workers participated en masse in the protest demonstration on Sunday, 5 January 1919. In their speeches, the leading left-wing speakers emphatically called, in Pieck’s words, ‘for calling today’s demonstration to a close and to assemble again tomorrow at the Siegesalle’. Nevertheless, spontaneously and without instructions from the revolutionary shop stewards, some demonstrators occupied the Vorwärts and some bourgeois newspaper buildings. Whilst Rosa Luxemburg and the other KPD Zentrale members regarded Sunday’s action as just one of the many left-wing protest demonstrations against the government, and the Monday edition of the Rote Fahne presented both the appeal for a mass strike on that day and its report of Sunday’s events in a relatively reserved fashion, the revolutionary shop stewards were in a mood of euphoria on the evening of 5 January, when the decision was taken, by an overwhelming majority with only six opposed — among them Richard Müller, the leader of the revolutionary mass action during the World War — to call for a mass strike on 6 January with the aim of overthrowing the Ebert–Scheidemann government. The appeal in the Rote Fahne, however, was extremely short, and contained no direct call for the removal of the government.
Liebknecht first expressed himself in favour of overthrowing the government at the evening session of the united left wing on Sunday, 5 January 1919, as news emerged of the revolutionary attitude of the troops in Berlin (on Monday this was soon realised to be false). According to Richard Müller’s report, Liebknecht and Pieck had advanced the sharpest demands, and had attacked anyone showing doubt. According to his own words, Pieck was one of the spokesmen for a radical, even putschist way forward. He promoted various initiatives within the revolutionary organisations, such as his proposal to create a 33-member ‘Revolutionary Committee’ with a collective chairmanship of Ledebour,9 Liebknecht and, from the revolutionary shop stewards, Paul Scholze.
According to Pieck’s report, this ‘Revolutionary Committee’, sitting from midnight, decided ‘to arrest the members of the cabinet during the night, to occupy the militarily most important buildings on Monday’, to arm the workers and set up commissariats. However, the uprising’s leadership no longer had the energy to put this decision into practice, and, in spite of Pieck’s protests, the committee broke up just before 2am.
Following this, however, during the night, Liebknecht and three other members of the ‘Revolutionary Committee’ — among them apparently Pieck — negotiated with Dorrenbach, the leader of the People’s Naval Division, who, in contrast to the preceding night, was sufficiently impressed by the massive participation of the workers in Sunday’s demonstration to declare himself prepared to use his sailors to arrest the members of the government. Nevertheless, on the next day it turned out that no arrests had taken place, which puts into question whether an attempt had at all been made. The decision of the ‘Revolutionary Committee’ and the ensuing proposal to seize the government members bore, just like the abortive plan of the preceding night, the character of a putsch, since it was still completely unclear whether the majority of the Berlin workers would back the rebels, and, in spite of some positive evaluations, an uncertainty existed about the attitude of the troop formations stationed in Berlin. Nevertheless, Pieck and Liebknecht acted in these initiatives thoroughly in accordance with the views of the great majority of the revolutionary shop stewards, who intended ‘to take the key positions by an opportune surprise attack and thereby bring power into the hands of the proletariat’, as the leading revolutionary shop steward Heinrich Malzahn10 formulated it at an internal session of the Berlin USPD workers’ councils on 9 January 1919. These abortive plans for the arrests, credibly described in great detail by Pieck, remained hidden from view until now, although a written declaration of 6 January about the ‘Revolutionary Committee’ taking over the government was generally well known, because once the rebels’ occupation of the Vorwärts building came to an end and it was again under Majority Social Democratic control, it published on 14 January 1919 a facsimile of the document signed by Liebknecht and Paul Scholze. Liebknecht and Pieck, the two representatives of the Spartakusbund in the bodies heading the uprising, behaved on Sunday just as they did on Saturday — without any contact with the other members of the KPD Zentrale.
The Chaotic Uprising
On Monday, 6 January, central Berlin saw one of the most powerful mass demonstrations of the city’s workers of this period, with around 200 000 demonstrators on the streets. It looked as if the revolutionary left in Berlin had achieved a great triumph and that the Ebert–Scheidemann government would fall in the face of this sizeable opposition. However, the ‘Revolutionary Committee’ was incapable of utilising this favourable situation. The leading members were preoccupied with delivering speeches to the demonstrators, and, above all, with trying to win the Berlin troops into supporting the revolutionary left. Those members of the ‘Revolutionary Committee’ who had stayed in the Royal Stables did not get to deliberate among themselves about the next measures, as — according to Pieck — ‘a vast quantity of delegations demanding instructions’ prevented them from doing so. A participant in the demonstration, the USPD workers’ council member Stahlberg, gave an informative description during an internal party meeting on 9 January of the mass actions on 6 and 7 January: ‘The masses called for the leaders to give them directions for further action, but the leaders were not at hand, and anyone who could shout gave orders.’ Stahlberg summarised his impressions thus: ‘It was total confusion.’ Those demonstrators organised in the USPD and KPD were called upon to obtain weapons and prepare themselves for revolutionary action. But as no real organisation emerged, many armed workers wandered off and no longer stood at the disposal of the ‘Revolutionary Committee’. According to Pieck’s record, ‘in the committee there still existed no clear notion… how the armed workers ought to be organised militarily and led into definite planned actions…’.
Liebknecht’s "Putsch" Document
On Pieck’s initiative, some armed troops were dispatched to occupy government buildings, and, for their legitimisation, obtained a typed declaration from the ‘Revolutionary Committee’ declaring the dismissal of the Ebert–Scheidemann Government and the provisional seizing of power by the revolutionary body. The old garrison at the Ministry of War would only hand over the building to the armed revolutionaries if the signatures of the chairmen could be shown on the declaration that they produced, but it bore merely the typed names of the chairmen, Ledebour, Liebknecht and Scholze. Wilhelm Lemmgen, the sailor in charge of the revolutionary squad and responsible for the occupation, returned with the declaration for signing, and Liebknecht also signed for the absent Ledebour. Liebknecht, who was engaged for a large part of his time in giving speeches to the demonstrators, most likely had nothing to do with the composition of the declaration, as Lemmgen’s statement of 22 January 1919 indicated: ‘Liebknecht studied the declaration for a long time. I had the impression that it was new to him.’ Instead of returning to his armed squad outside the Ministry of War, Lemmgen, who was beginning to have misgivings, went home with the signed document and later handed it over to a representative of the SPD government.
The criticism of both this proclamation and Liebknecht’s standpoint, as reported immediately after the January uprising by Rosa Luxemburg and later also by historians, is, in my opinion, unjustified, on the grounds that during the first half of the day of 6 January, as the declaration was being formulated and duplicated, it did appear as if the overwhelming majority of the Berlin workers favoured the removal of the Ebert–Scheidemann government. The rebels’ intended overthrow of the government and their occupation of the government buildings therefore constituted neither a putsch, nor an act of a small revolutionary group, but — even if only on the Monday and the Tuesday — the expression of a powerful mass movement of the clear majority of the Berlin proletariat. In other words, these measures, including the declaration about the overthrow of the government, possessed just as much revolutionary legitimacy as the overthrow of the government in Berlin on 9-10 November 1918. The argument that a government based on Ledebour, Liebknecht and revolutionary shop stewards in Berlin would have been limited to the national capital and a few industrial centres, and thus remaining isolated, is indeed also correct, but only if seen retrospectively. As in November 1918, the information about the readiness of the working class for a revolutionary revolt in the kingdom sounded extremely unfavourable,11 but the revolutionary spark nevertheless ignited and flashed like wildfire from one place to another (although ultimately with any significance only in Berlin), in January 1919 a similar movement could also possibly have arisen — this time starting in Berlin — and been able to encompass the greater part of Germany. The action in January 1919 only became a putsch when it became clear that from Wednesday, 8 January, the mass of the Berlin proletariat no longer stood behind the demand for the violent overthrow of the government.
First Sign of the Failure of the Uprising
However great were the hopes of the leading Berlin left-wingers as a result of the Berlin workers’ gigantic participation in the protest demonstrations, the more realistic leaders of the uprising realised by Monday afternoon that the seizure of state power was unthinkable because of the disorganisation within their own ranks and the lack of support from the soldiers. Contrary to all the reports broadcast on the Sunday evening about a revolutionary mood among the Berlin troops, all the military formations stationed in Berlin declared themselves either neutral in the political dispute or in favour of the Ebert–Scheidemann Government. Even the People’s Naval Division, whose successful repulse of government troops on Christmas Eve 1918 was largely achieved through the help of the Berlin workers, and whose quarters, the Royal Stables, served as the meeting place for the ‘Revolutionary Committee’, on late Monday afternoon reneged on the promise of support given by their leader Dorrenbach — who was then deposed — and very forcefully ejected the rebels from the building. The revolutionary shop stewards were ‘expelled from the Marstall with the coarsest words of abuse’, as Pieck put it in his 1920 manuscript.
A further hindrance to the removal of the Majority Social Democratic government consisted in the fact that, like the rebels, the Majority Social Democrats had also called a general strike and gathered their supporters in the Wilhelmstrasse in front of the Reichskanzlerpalais. Although the great majority of the workers — Levi mentions 200 000 demonstrators — demonstrated against Ebert and Scheidemann, up to 10 000 Majority Social Democratic supporters on the streets around the Reichskanzlerpalais sufficed to protect the Majority government from the revolutionary forces, as the great majority of the government’s opponents wanted to avoid a fratricidal bloodbath.
Thrown out of the Royal Stables by the People’s Naval Division, the ‘Revolutionary Committee’ of necessity moved into the Police Headquarters on the Alexanderplatz, where the revolutionary shop stewards were already discussing a proposal of the USPD leaders Rudolf Breitscheid, Oscar Cohn, Wilhelm Dittmann, Karl Kautsky and Luise Zietz to enter into negotiations with the Majority Social Democratic government.12 Liebknecht and Pieck vehemently opposed entering into negotiations, but the proposal was approved by the revolutionary shop stewards late on Monday evening by 51 to 10 votes.
Luxemburg’s Change of Opinion: Overthrow the Ebert–Scheidemann Government!
As Radek became aware of the mass demonstrations against the Ebert–Scheidemann government, he made his way to the Rote Fahne offices in order to discuss the new situation. He recalled: ‘I asked Rosa Luxemburg which tasks we had set ourselves. Rosa replied that the strike was a protest strike. We wanted to see what Ebert would dare to do, how the workers in the provinces would react; then we would see.’ Luxemburg’s attitude was wholly appropriate to the situation, as it meant waiting to see whether the movement remained limited to Berlin, or if it would soon turn into a mass uprising extending to other regions of the country. This conversation with Rosa Luxemburg took place in all probability on Monday, 6 January in the editorial offices, where an informer for the government troops claims to have seen Radek.
However, under the impact of the Berlin workers’ huge participation in the protest demonstrations on Sunday and Monday, Rosa Luxemburg put aside her reservations. The KPD Zentrale had had no contact with its two representatives on the organisation of the revolutionary shop stewards, Wilhelm Pieck and Karl Liebknecht, who had joined the leadership of the uprising on Sunday evening, either on Saturday, nor on Sunday or Monday, and were thus unaware of their activities and their interpretations of events. Therefore, on the Monday evening, the Spartakus leadership took the initiative and sent two of its members, Leo Jogiches and Paul Levi, to the session of the uprising’s leadership, now meeting in the police headquarters. On the fringe of the gathering — apparently before the vote of the revolutionary shop stewards over entering negotiations with the Majority Social Democrats — they were appraised by Liebknecht and Pieck of the details of the discussions that had proceeded since Saturday amongst the Berlin revolutionary left, discussed the political situation with them, and agreed upon the participation of Liebknecht and Pieck in a session of the KPD Zentrale set for noon on Tuesday, 7 January 1919. At this session of the Zentrale, the first joint deliberations including Liebknecht and Pieck since the beginning of the mass actions took place, and ‘Comrades Luxemburg and Jogiches pressed for a more resolute leadership of the struggle and clear slogans’, according to Pieck’s complete manuscript.
However, in all later printed versions of Pieck’s manuscript, as in Levi’s relevant writings and in the official KPD portrayal from 1929, this session of the Zentrale and — considering the huge mass protests against the Ebert–Scheidemann government — the understandable urging of Luxemburg and Jogiches for a more decisive procedure by the uprising leadership is suppressed, apparently in order to contrive the legend that the majority of the KPD Zentrale and Rosa Luxemburg rejected the call for the overthrow of the government.
If Rosa Luxemburg had still argued in a relatively reserved way (for the situation) in ‘What Are The Leaders Doing?’, written on the Monday evening for the Rote Fahne of 7 January, then in her next comments on the mass movement it was clear that she actually saw that the time had come for the struggle for state power. In her leading article ‘Neglected Duties’ of 8 January, written the day before (hence after the Tuesday noon Zentrale session), Luxemburg repeatedly expressed the necessity of continuing the revolution and achieving socialism, the Ebert–Scheidemann government ‘had to be removed… they had to be driven out of power’ along with their supporters, although she clearly rejected the tactic of a mere putsch: ‘To remove the Ebert–Scheidemann government does not mean storming into the Reichskanzlerpalais and chasing away or arresting a couple of people, it means above all seizing the real positions of power and also to hold on to and make use of them.’ As examples she mentioned:
- Firstly, at the occupied Vorwärts building, the revolutionary shop stewards ought to provide for an ‘immediate editorial leadership in tune with the revolutionary workers of Berlin’, whereby Ledebour and Däumig would be called upon to participate as editors, because the left in the USPD did not have its own organ. The background to this proposal was a request by the occupiers of Vorwärts to the leading KPD members to take over the editing of the revolutionary Vorwärts, which was rejected, ‘because as a party we did not want to be linked too closely with the occupation of Vorwärts’, as Pieck put it.
- Secondly, the occupied Wolff Telegraph Bureau ought to be used by the Berlin revolutionaries to broadcast information about the situation in Berlin, ‘to produce an intellectual link between the Berlin workers and the revolutionary movement in the whole country, without which the revolution can win neither here nor there’.
- Thirdly, no negotiations may be undertaken with the government with which one is in the sharpest conflict: ‘These negotiations can only really lead to two things: either to a compromise or — much more likely — to a delay, which will be used by the Ebert people, in order to prepare the most brutal measures of violence.’
- Fourthly, the masses called out onto the streets had to ‘be told plainly and clearly what they have to do, or at least what is going on, what will be done and planned by friend and foe. In times of the revolutionary crisis, the masses, of course, belong on the streets.’ Moreover, these revolutionary workers, ‘more than anything that is done or left undone, had to be summoned to make the decision’. Luxemburg felt that an ideal question for the masses to decide was the proposal to enter into negotiations with the government, which would surely have been met with a rough rejection on the part of the demonstrators. At the same time, the presence of the revolutionary workers on the streets would serve as a warning to the enemies of the revolution.
In principle, the first three points appear thoroughly sensible, although in respect of the first point the preconditions regarding the proposed people were lacking, as Däumig had on the evening of 4 January expressed his opposition to the attempt at an uprising, and Ledebour had since Monday afternoon participated in the attempts to negotiate with the Majority Social Democrats. (This shows that Luxemburg was insufficiently informed about the meetings with the revolutionary shop stewards.) The second part of the fourth point was wholly impracticable with its implication of a permanent gigantic mass gathering of the Berlin proletariat. This proposal gives the impression of a rhetorical phrase that was out of touch with reality. Nonetheless, irrespective of the fact that Luxemburg’s proposals seem quantitatively and qualitatively inadequate, they make clear that she put the stress on the enlightening, activating and continuous involvement of the masses. The masses would be ready ‘to support any revolutionary action’. The leading organs of the revolutionary forces were allowed ‘no hesitation, no half-measures, but only to know the leitmotif: Down with Ebert–Scheidemann!’ Luxemburg’s leading article failed to mention what additional revolutionary actions were necessary, so the reader who wanted to fulfil the demand at the conclusion of Luxemburg’s comments — ‘Do not talk! Do not endlessly deliberate! Do not negotiate! Act!’ — was not told which ‘real positions of power’ were to be seized and used. This article gives the impression of a deep sense of helplessness, as do all the others during the week of the uprising. Karl Radek, the emissary of the Bolshevik government, during a visit (probably some time between Tuesday evening and Wednesday afternoon) to the KPD’s newspaper, experienced it exactly like that, and wrote to his comrades in Moscow on 24 January 1919, thus: ‘I was myself a witness, how in the editorial offices of the Rote Fahne, old comrades, wringing their hands, asked what was expected from them. They were fobbed off with empty phrases, because the comrades there did not know what they wanted either.’
The KPD Leadership’s Difficult Retreat From the Uprising
The situation could change within hours during those January days. From the Tuesday afternoon to the Wednesday afternoon, the tide turned against the rebels. To be sure, the participation in the demonstrations against the Ebert–Scheidemann government on the Tuesday was as impressive as on the day before. Nevertheless, this did not advance the revolutionary movement, because, like the day before, the revolutionary workers remained ‘without slogans or directives’, as Pieck reported. At 11am in the morning, the ‘Revolutionary Committee’ met, but ‘nothing of importance was decided’. The negotiations between a delegation of leading USPD members, briefed by the revolutionary shop stewards, on the one hand, and the Majority Social Democratic leaders on the other, came to nought, because the latter insisted on the evacuation of the newspaper buildings as a precondition for any agreement. The revolutionary shop stewards were not prepared to accept this, but they also wanted to be kept constantly aware of the negotiations.
In the course of Tuesday, revolutionary workers occupied additional buildings, but it remained unclear whether these were spontaneous actions or had been ordered by the ‘Revolutionary Committee’. Shootings were more numerous, with more wounded and killed than on the day before. During the evening of 7 January, the Rote Fahne printshop was occupied by armed government troops for a lengthy time, so that the Wednesday edition of the KPD’s newspaper, which had been typeset, could not be printed in its full size, and only a one-sided edition could be produced.
On Wednesday, 8 January, the revolutionary workers’ demonstrations in the Tiergarten and the city centre were smaller, and there were more shootings, which claimed even more victims than on the preceding days. The government’s supporters were increasingly better armed. Government troops were massed in the suburbs. The attempts of the USPD to enter into concrete negotiations with the representatives of the Majority Social Democrats lasted all day. The ‘Revolutionary Committee’ with its 33 members decided during the day to dissolve itself and to build a military committee with merely six members — including Liebknecht and Pieck — and a commander, with its headquarters in the Bötzow Brewery, situated at the northern end of Alexanderplatz, which was also to serve as a barracks, arsenal and motor pool for the rebellious workers. None of this improved the effectiveness of the revolutionaries’ activities.
A session of the KPD Zentrale had taken place by noon on Wednesday. Pieck, according to his manuscript recollection, declared: ‘A clear decision, which was required in view of the lost situation, was not taken.’ However, a further meeting was held in the evening, so that Liebknecht, unable to be present at noon, could attend. During this evening session, Jogiches ‘categorically demanded our withdrawal from the military committee and a public criticism of the whole action. Rosa Luxemburg concurred with this demand, while Liebknecht spoke against; he described this withdrawal in this situation as a cowardly retreat in the face of the difficulties. He stated that under no circumstances was he willing to submit to such a decision.’ As these three speakers had made very long contributions and those comrades belonging to the Rote Fahne editorial board had to leave the meeting, Pieck demanded an adjournment in order to give additional Zentrale members the opportunity to express their opinion. ‘In spite of that, however, Jogiches’ proposal was accordingly adopted, and the comrades dispersed in a very bad mood.’ These are Pieck’s actual words.
As the Rote Fahne editors and the members working in the Zentrale subsequently left the meeting and set off for their offices, they passionately discussed among themselves Liebknecht’s announcement that he would not follow the Zentrale’s decision, as Levi later reminded Ernst Meyer and Wilhelm Pieck, two other witnesses of the events of 8-10 January 1919, during a session of the Central Commission of the United Communist Party of Germany in 1921, without the latter raising objections:
You remember how Karl Liebknecht was obstinate, and you remember how it was Leo Jogiches who made the proposal, while the action was still underway, to send a sharp declaration to the Rote Fahne which clearly disavowed Karl Liebknecht, and to state that Karl Liebknecht no longer represents the Spartakusbund among the revolutionary shop stewards. You know exactly how negative Rosa Luxemburg was regarding the matter, you know how sharp her criticism was and would have been at the moment the action had ended… And I believe, comrade Pieck, you also know that comrade Rosa Luxemburg even had the idea that it would not be long before one could no longer be associated with Karl Liebknecht, so sharp was her expressed opinion against Liebknecht, and so sharp would her expressed opinion have been if she had lived.
Thus the minutes of the Central Commission session of on 4 May 1921.
On the evening of 8 January, Rosa Luxemburg and, more emphatically, Leo Jogiches had expressed themselves in favour of withdrawing from the bodies of the Berlin revolutionary left and therefore from the uprising. According to Pieck’s manuscript, this attitude was evidently shared by all leading members except Liebknecht and Pieck. In his letter to the KPD Zentrale of 9 January, Radek declared that the Spartakus leaders Levi and Käte and Hermann Duncker13 opposed further participation in the uprising. In addition to that, Käte Duncker, in a letter to her husband Hermann of 16 January 1919, wrote about her preceding days in custody and her remarks during an interrogation: ‘As much as we both disapproved of the things [the armed uprising] and warned against them, one cannot tell the gang [representatives of the prosecuting authorities] anything…’
The Final Futile Attempt of the Revolutionary Left
At the same time that these sharp differences, which almost led to a split, were displayed within the KPD leadership, the mood amongst the USPD and the revolutionary shop stewards, which was previously oriented towards negotiations, had completely changed. For one, the negotiations with the Majority Social Democrats had, by the afternoon of 8 January, ended without success. Secondly, the Ebert–Scheidemann government had, under the motto ‘The Hour of Reckoning Approaches!’, announced the violent suppression of the uprising. Simultaneously, in ‘agreement with the Supreme Commander Noske’, a ‘squad of Berlin students’ had called for a fight against the rebels by joining the volunteer units. This even enraged the moderate USPD chairman Hugo Haase,14 so much so that he denounced in a leaflet the formation of volunteer units, which had apparently been implemented with the consent of the Majority Social Democrats, and appealed for resistance: ‘Workers, unite in defence against the White Guards’ threatening acts of violence. Down with their protector Noske! Down with the anti-working-class government men.’ The revolutionary shop stewards mistook Haase’s text for a joint appeal of the Berlin left, including the KPD Zentrale, although Liebknecht and Pieck only joined this left-wing circle late on the Wednesday evening, after the adoption of Haase’s appeal, so that at first nobody from the Spartakusbund had knowledge of this text, which was printed in the morning edition of the USPD newspaper Die Freiheit on 9 January, but not in the Rote Fahne, because it had arrived too late at the editorial offices.
Following the stormy session of the KPD Zentrale and disobeying its decision, Liebknecht and Pieck joined in the meeting of the revolutionary shop stewards on late Wednesday evening, at which, after many hours of discussion, a large majority had already emerged in favour of once more calling for a general strike and an intensification of the armed struggle. Liebknecht therefore had no difficulties obtaining the almost unanimous endorsement of the large circle of the leading Berlin left-wingers of his particularly strong and aggressive leaflet.
The change of course on the part of the revolutionary shop stewards and the Berlin USPD during Wednesday night rapidly rendered superfluous for the Spartakus leadership — in any case for Rosa Luxemburg — the decision of the KPD Zentrale on the Wednesday evening to withdraw from the revolutionary bodies and to distance itself from Liebknecht, and the continuation of the collaboration of both KPD representatives within the revolutionary bodies was again fully accepted. That this cannot be put down to superficial causes hiding differences of opinion, but, on the contrary, was a matter of complete conviction, is made clear by the fact that not only was Liebknecht’s text printed in an extra edition of the Rote Fahne, on the afternoon of 9 January, but that, in the leading article of the KPD newspaper of 10 January, ‘The Death Struggle of Ebert–Scheidemann’, written the previous day, the same impression was given as in Liebknecht’s appeal, that the final phase of the revolution was at hand, and that victory was imminent. There can be no question that the further collaboration of Liebknecht and Pieck with the revolutionary bodies on Thursday and Friday morning had taken place against the will of Rosa Luxemburg and the other KPD leaders, as Levi and Pieck, as well as the KPD, later claimed. One can venture that direct talks between Liebknecht and/or Pieck and Rosa Luxemburg and other Zentrale members took place on the Thursday, as both Liebknecht and Pieck, to justify to their comrades their continued collaboration with the revolutionary shop stewards, would surely attach great importance to the way that the rest of the left had adopted the resolute position promoted by Spartakus, which was illustrated by their approval of Liebknecht’s draft appeal. In this situation, how could anyone from the KPD leadership insist on withdrawing from the leadership of the uprising?
However, the intended mass circulation of a million copies of both appeals by the revolutionary shop stewards had still not been implemented by Thursday evening, and only two left-wing newspapers, both published with a relatively smaller print-run than usual, Die Freiheit and the extra edition of the Rote Fahne, could circulate the text on 9 January. As a leaflet, Liebknecht’s text was only delivered by noon on Friday, 10 January from the still-occupied Vorwärts print-shop, much too late to be able to have any effect, had in the event this at all been possible, given the mood prevailing among the workers here on the Thursday and Friday, that of ending the fratricidal fighting and uniting at the rank-and-file level. At an internal session of the Berlin USPD workers’ council representatives on the evening of 9 January, a great disillusionment with the strike was reported in the factories, although the majority of the USPD council representatives nonetheless still decided to back the appeal for a strike.
The KPD Leadership’s Final Withdrawal on 10 January
Against the hopes of the leading left-wingers, the revolutionary movement did not revive on the Friday. Militarily, the Majority SPD government gained the upper hand in the country’s capital, and the revolutionary shop stewards and the USPD tried once more to enter into negotiations with the Majority Social Democrats.
On the evening [of 10 January], a session of the [KPD] Zentrale then took place… at which the decision was taken with Liebknecht’s approval to break off the joint actions with the shop stewards and that we would only participate in their meetings for the purpose of information. The shop stewards would be sent an appropriate communication, which — dated 10 January — was first published in the Rote Fahne on 13 January 1919.
In this part of Pieck’s manuscript, it was left open whether Pieck himself and/or Liebknecht had — as two days before — still argued against the decision of the Zentrale in Friday’s discussion. ‘As the revolutionary shop stewards also more and more let themselves be pulled along in the slipstream of the USPD leadership, it became easier for Liebknecht to accede to the demands of Rosa and Leo.’ Thus Pieck in a newspaper report of June 1921. In view of the USPD representatives’ renewed entrance into negotiations, the two KPD representatives probably saw no point in remaining within the organisations of the revolutionary left.
The KPD’s communication of 10 January could not even be delivered to the factory shop stewards owing to the confusion caused by the revolutionary upheavals, as was explained in a preamble to its publication in the Rote Fahne on 13 January. The appeal to end the strike that was signed by the revolutionary shop stewards as well as the Central Executive of the Berlin USPD, was presumably issued as a leaflet on 12 January. The publication of the KPD Zentrale’s communication of 10 January in the Rote Fahne on 13 January probably came about in order to explain the absence of the signature of the KPD on the appeal of 12 January, and to avoid the impression that the Spartakus leaders had quietly withdrawn from the fight. The retreat of the KPD leadership from the leadership of the uprising on 10 January, and thus their implicit abandonment of the continuation of the revolutionary action, therefore at first remained completely unknown to those to whom the appeals were addressed — the revolutionary shop stewards, as well as the working class — although this was irrelevant to the course of the political developments during these days. The belated publication of the statement from the KPD’s Zentrale had absolutely no resonance amongst the public. The workers — in particular the leading representatives of the revolutionary shop stewards and the Berlin USPD — now had entirely different concerns as a result of the occupation of Berlin by the government forces and the persecution of the left as a whole.
Rosa Luxemburg’s Disdain for the Unity Movement in the Factories
By their last attempt to revive the protest movement in the Berlin factories on Thursday, 9 January, both Rosa Luxemburg and the KPD leadership, together with the revolutionary shop stewards, disregarded the clearly noticeable tendency towards unity regardless of party boundaries that was proposed by way of the removal of the old, discredited leaders with the dual aim of avoiding fratricidal fighting and implementing socialist policies. Since 9 January, this mass movement had developed from within the Berlin factories, and was continually growing. The unity movement in Berlin encompassed more than 200 000 workers, and it spread to other industrial centres in Germany. In factory mass meetings, workers’ delegations were elected, mostly on a parity basis — with equal numbers of Majority Social Democrat, Independent and Communist delegates — which were sent to the Majority Social Democrat Central Council, to the USPD, to the revolutionary shop stewards, and to Liebknecht, to demand the resignation of the government and all the leaders of the socialist parties, in order to stop the fratricidal fighting in Berlin. They also demanded that management at all levels be taken over by workers’ committees structured on a parity basis, after which the three socialist parties would be united, and new elections to the workers’ councils would take place.
While the USPD wholeheartedly supported this spontaneous mass movement, both the Majority Social Democrats and the KPD rejected this rank-and-file initiative. The manner in which this movement took hold, even among the membership of the Majority Social Democracy, was shown by the almost unanimous — that is, with the support of most of the SPD delegates — adoption of two resolutions in the plenary session of the Greater Berlin municipal workers’ council delegates, on 10 January, which demanded the resignation of the Ebert–Scheidemann government and the cooperation of the workers of all tendencies.
For Rosa Luxemburg, this ‘Cry for Unity’, as the USPD newspaper Die Freiheit effectively portrayed this demand arising out of the working class in the headline of the evening edition on 9 January, was not a legitimate mass movement, but a misguided reaction of the Berlin workers resulting from the influence of the USPD and the defective leadership of the revolutionary struggle. The KPD agitator thus interpreted the emergence of these endeavours in the leading article ‘The Failure of the Leaders’, on 11 January, and, characterising the USPD as a ‘rotting corpse’, aimed a strong attack at the Independents and the revolutionary shop stewards. Once again, as on previous days, her own proposals remained at a general level and lacked any concrete nature: ‘Clarity, the most severe, the most determined struggle in the face of all attempts at hushing-up, mediation and sogginess, the concentration of the revolutionary energy of the masses and the creation of appropriate organs for their leadership in struggle — those are the most burning tasks of the next period…’ Both in this leading article and a further commentary on 11 January, under the title ‘Swamp Gases’, the Spartakus leadership placed the blame for the failure of the uprising entirely upon the USPD, and considered — again in the most shrill tones — that the elimination of this party was a precondition for the continuation of the revolutionary struggle: ‘The liberation of the masses from the leadership of the USPD, the burying of this corpse: that is from now on the indispensable condition for the proletariat to be able to act in a revolutionary manner, that is the next stage of the struggle.’
This concentration upon the hardest criticism of the USPD leadership is typical of Rosa Luxemburg’s arguments with the centre faction of the SPD since 1910, whether it concerned the mass strike prior to the World War, fighting against the policy of class-peace in the early years of the war, or the USPD’s collaboration with the Majority Social Democrats from 10 November to the end of December 1918. Trapped in these old forms of arguments in the Social Democratic labour movement, she did not want to, and could not, accept that the desire for unity represented an authentic rank-and-file movement, and therefore she did not see that, at that point, the opportunity for the relative preservation of the masses’ revolutionary energy was best served by the KPD offering support to this movement. Had the KPD promoted a popular slogan by the end of the armed encounters, it could have gained a higher moral authority and greater political influence, shed the role of scapegoat and image of an outsider, and above all been in a better position to influence the masses with clear socialist aims. But not even the Majority Social Democrats’ rejection of the unity movement led Luxemburg to reconsider her own position. Above all, according to her principles, she should have taken notice of the wishes of the masses, or at least seriously examined the political content of their desires and the possibilities inherent in them, rather than rejecting them wholesale in advance, because her conceptions envisaged a united advance of the rank and file towards the achievement of socialist aims without the old party leaders. However, her prejudices prevented her from seeing the possibilities offered by this spontaneous mass movement.
Luxemburg’s Illusory Expectations
On the organisational level, the Spartakus leadership had drawn the consequences of the democratic principles appropriate to its party programme, and on 10 January it had withdrawn from the leadership of the uprising once it had become obvious that the revolutionary movement no longer rested on the majority of the Berlin working class, and had taken on the character of a putsch. Nevertheless, the agitation in the Rote Fahne under Rosa Luxemburg’s direction presented a wholly different impression. In the Rote Fahne of 12 January there was a comment, written on the previous day, on the capture of the Vorwärts building by the government troops and the military victory of the Ebert–Scheidemann government, under the characteristic headline ‘And Yet the Revolution Wins!’. Although the KPD’s newspaper considered that the overthrow of the SPD government was no longer an immediate option, it nevertheless saw it as almost inevitable within a short space of time, because Ebert and Scheidemann were able ‘still to enjoy only a last short respite of their governmental splendour at the mercy of the bourgeoisie and by resting on corpses, in order then to collapse under the unanimous cry of the working masses of the whole country: Down with Ebert–Scheidemann!’
That this was not merely deliberate comforting, optimistic agitation, but accorded with the illusory expectations of the Spartakus leader, can be gathered from a letter from Luxemburg to Clara Zetkin,15 on 11 January. In spite of the struggle being plainly lost, she still hoped that ‘if matters proceed as hitherto, it appears very debatable whether it at all comes down to elections and to the National Assembly’. Rosa Luxemburg’s hopes demonstrated a woeful lack of appreciation of political reality and a very wrong evaluation of the mood of the masses, and they would be dashed just eight days later in the elections to the National Assembly. Although at the beginning of the January uprising it had seemed as if a great majority of the Berlin workers, at least for a time, had been on the side of the revolutionary left, on 19 January — encouraged by the massive press campaign against the whole of the revolutionary left — the SPD in Berlin obtained, with 36.4 per cent of the vote, a clear lead over the USPD, which only obtained 27.6 per cent (the KPD abstained from the election).
Rosa Luxemburg’s illusory and unrealistic evaluations of the mood of the masses had already been observed earlier, as for example, at the turn of 1915-16 and in December 1918, as each time she thought that the majority of the Berlin party organisation would approve of her radical course. Her existing tendency towards illusions in the proletariat’s readiness for action assumed extreme proportions during the January 1919 uprising. She had largely lost contact with the masses.
Radek’s Futile Intervention
Karl Radek, the emissary of the Russian government who had been living in hiding in Berlin since the beginning of the uprising, in a letter to the KPD Zentrale of 9 January reminded it of the real situation, and urged it to call for a withdrawal from the struggle for state power. In view of the balance of forces, action would have to be limited to a mere protest against Eichhorn’s dismissal. The continuation of the struggle would only be used by the Ebert–Scheidemann government to smash the revolutionary potential of the Berlin workers. However, Rosa Luxemburg’s reply was negative, and the KPD Zentrale expected that the revolutionary shop stewards and the left of the USPD would make a compromise with the Ebert–Scheidemann government, then break off the struggle and thus be held responsible for ending it. Principled considerations also made Rosa Luxemburg reject an appeal for breaking off the struggle, because, as she explained in the leading article ‘Houses of Cards’ in the Rote Fahne on 13 January, a revolutionary development could not be thrown backwards. At the time when Radek’s letter was received, this demand would have been rejected by Luxemburg and probably by other KPD leaders, as for the short time from Thursday morning until Friday morning — 9-10 January — on account of the joint appeal by all the left-wing forces for a general strike and for armed struggle, it appeared that the revolutionary mass movement could revive.
It is possible, even as early as 9 January 1919, there was dissension between Rosa Luxemburg, who tended towards illusion, and the realistic Leo Jogiches, who on Wednesday, 8 January gained a huge majority for the proposal to withdraw Liebknecht and Pieck from the revolutionary bodies, and for whom the January uprising had over the course of the week assumed the character of a putsch. Radek’s not very convincing alternative proposals, however, reveal that he himself was rather helpless in this hopeless situation, as he considered that the struggle over the newspapers should be replaced by the demand for an equitable paper distribution amongst the left-wing press, and that the struggle over the post of police chief be solved by demanding new elections to the workers’ councils, which could then determine who would fill that post.
The other revolutionary left-wingers in Berlin also had great difficulty in breaking off the struggle. On the evening of Thursday, 9 January, during a session of the Berlin USPD, the workers’ council representatives, including Ernst Däumig (who was one of the main initiators of the revolution of November 1918 in Berlin, and who had been opposed from the start to the attempt at an uprising) opposed breaking off the struggle, but called to wait and see if the leaflets, partly already put into circulation, partly still being printed, calling once more for a general strike and for armed struggle, would find approval among the Berlin workers. The general strike in Berlin was only called off in an announcement on 12 or 13 January in a leaflet signed by the revolutionary shop stewards and the Central Executive of the Berlin USPD, and published after the events in Die Freiheit.
Rosa Luxemburg’s Balance Sheet of the Uprising
While in flight from the government troops, after numerous changes of quarters, keeping herself hidden in the homes of comrades, Rosa Luxemburg presented her interpretation of the events of the January 1919 uprising in Berlin in an extensive commentary entitled ‘Order Reigns in Berlin’, the last leading article before her murder, written on 13 January for the Rote Fahne of the next day.
That ‘a definite victory of the revolutionary proletariat’ was not possible in this encounter was shown by ‘the political immaturity of the masses of soldiers who still permit their officers to misuse them for counter-revolutionary purposes hostile to the people’s interest’. Nevertheless, the immaturity of the soldiers was ‘only a symptom of the overall immaturity of the German revolution’. The isolation of the Berlin revolutionary movement from the provinces and the lack of an agreement with the workers of the industrial centres of the country illustrated the absence of other preconditions. The failure of the leaders was merely one of the aspects of the failure of this mass action. From her Marxist outlook, she stressed that the main reason for the absence of revolutionary ripeness was because ‘the economic struggles, the actual volcanic source which continuously supplies the revolutionary class struggle’, were only in their initial stage: ‘From all this it follows that we could not yet count on a final, lasting victory at this moment.’ Nevertheless, it had been a ‘matter of honour’ strongly to resist Eichhorn’s dismissal.
In accordance with one of the ‘great historical laws of the revolution’, the ‘fundamental problem’ was posed: on the one hand, this revolution means ‘the overthrow of the Ebert–Scheidemann government’, which was ‘the primary hindrance to the victory of socialism’, and this situation necessarily would ‘appear again and again’, whilst on the other hand, the preconditions for victory were not present. This contradiction meant that in the initial phase of the revolution, each individual episode would ‘formally’ end in defeat, ‘but these inevitable defeats virtually pile guarantee upon guarantee of the future success of the final goal’.
Peter Nettl, the biographer of Rosa Luxemburg, characterised this attitude with the words: ‘At the moment of defeat, the historical perspective is the typical refuge of intellectual élites. Leaders who were convinced of victory in the long run could naturally console themselves with the thought that the present defeat could contribute to achieving more the next time around.’16 While Nettl, just like Gilbert Badia, undertook on the basis of the source materials a detailed, slightly critical analysis of Rosa Luxemburg’s attitude at the time of the January 1919 uprising, this theme is given but little space in the other scholarly biographies of Luxemburg.17
In my opinion, Rosa Luxemburg’s balance sheet of the January uprising is one of self-deception, helplessness and a flight into an almost completely determinist historical picture, bereft of any hint of self-critical analysis. As if she had discounted any possibility of success on the part of the mass movement or a new upsurge and had formulated the agitation in the Rote Fahne accordingly, in this survey, written on 13 January, she suddenly promoted the idea that the struggle against the Ebert–Scheidemann government had been condemned to failure from the outset on account of historically-given conditions.
As a reason for taking up the struggle — in spite of the historically-determined hopelessness — she used the notion of a ‘matter of honour’, as if it had concerned an unavoidable, morally inevitable affair of honour between two bourgeois or aristocratic rivals, only in the January action it was not two duellists, but many proletarian rebels who had staked and lost their lives. And this for a struggle which — according to this last leading article — inevitably had no prospect of success. As an additional general reason for the action against the Ebert–Scheidemann government, Luxemburg cited — as she saw it — an historical legitimacy that made struggling to remove the Majority Social Democratic government repeatedly necessary in spite of the hopelessness and the foreseeable defeats. With this previously determined historical course of events, it remains unclear what influence the leaders and the masses could still exercise in the course of a revolutionary development. With this reasoning, every revolutionary leadership is freed of its responsibility vis-à-vis the proletarian masses which it influences. The repeated phrase in the leading article about the inevitable final victory following a series of defeats complies with the traditional rhetoric of the prewar Social Democracy and the Marxist conception of history. With Rosa Luxemburg, however, the apparent sole role of the revolutionary leaders was repeatedly leading the proletarian masses into the final struggle for state power, even if the historical situation was still not ripe for a revolution. It lacked any reference to graduated forms and aims of the struggle, and thereby lacked any indication of tactical flexibility.
This attitude meant, in my opinion, and as Radek stressed in his letter of 9 January to the KPD Zentrale, that the sacrifice of the revolutionary proletariat was inevitable. Luxemburg returned in principle to the determinist historical picture prevailing in the prewar Social Democracy, which she had herself abandoned on account of her experiences in the Russian revolution of 1905-06, in favour of an emphasis on the dynamic effect of mass actions.18 The leading article of 14 January utterly lacks any reference to any concrete critical points regarding the movement in the Berlin uprising of January 1919, and possible proposals for improvements.
If the ‘failure of the leaders’ had still been in the foreground in most of the earlier articles, like that in the Rote Fahne of 11 January, then in her last item this theme did not even occupy one per cent of its content. In that regard, it merely stated: ‘The leadership has failed. But the leadership can and must be created anew by the masses and of the masses.’ It seems that she meant new elections to the workers’ councils, although the demand was not concretely mentioned in the article. Once again, the democratic principle is clear in the article; not the leaders, but the masses have the competence to decide: ‘The masses are the decisive factor, they are the rock upon which the final victory of the revolution is erected.’ And after that Luxemburg tried to bridge the contradiction between the stress on the role of the masses and the determinist historical picture of the leading article: ‘The masses are abreast of events, they have turned this “defeat” into one of those historical defeats which are the pride and strength of international socialism. And therefore the future victory will blossom from out of this “defeat”.’ By that Rosa Luxemburg remained faithful even in her last written text to the democratic principle — not the leaders, but the masses are the ones to decide on the victory of socialism.
With her last article, Luxemburg laid a foundation stone for the myth fostered by the KPD about the January uprising, as it was formulated — with variations — and particularly distinctly by Paul Levi a year later. The growth of the mass actions in the January 1919 uprising had not reached the level at which, according to the view of the Spartakus leadership, the seizure of power would have been advisable. ‘Not for a moment was the situation such that one imagined overthrowing the government, which must mean seizing power oneself.’ The contrasting conceptions and deeds of the KPD comrades in the revolutionary bodies — Liebknecht and Pieck are meant here — had never been adopted by the majority of the Zentrale, who had privately clearly expressed opposition to them.19
Confronted with this portrayal of the attitude of the KPD Zentrale, and by making a more precise use of the sources — in particular Pieck’s newly-accessible manuscript, considered with Rosa Luxemburg’s agitation in the Rote Fahne — a substantially more varied picture emerges. After Eichhorn’s dismissal became known, the KPD leadership around Luxemburg at first did not expect any movement aiming at an uprising. On Saturday, 4 January, Luxemburg apparently did not even count on any protest taking place on the Sunday. Such reserved sentiments within the KPD leadership continued until noon on Tuesday. Only as the mass demonstrations against the Ebert–Scheidemann government on the Monday and Tuesday assumed gigantic proportions did it seem evident to Luxemburg and the other KPD leaders that the masses clearly wanted to overthrow the government. Therefore at noon on Tuesday, 7 January, Jogiches and Luxemburg urged Liebknecht and Pieck to push for a more energetic procedure on the part of the uprising’s leadership. Only now did the Rote Fahne openly demand the removal of the Ebert–Scheidemann government. However, on the next day, Wednesday, 8 January, with the decision taken during the evening to withdraw Liebknecht and Pieck from the bodies of the revolutionary left — and thus out of the struggle — the Spartakus leadership undertook a complete about-turn. That was because the mass movement had abated on Wednesday, and the revolutionary left, in spite of the resistance of the communists, seemed completely set on negotiations with the Majority Social Democrats in order to end the conflict. However, the KPD Zentrale’s decision to withdraw was not only ignored by Liebknecht and Pieck, but was from the following day until noon on the Friday regarded as superfluous by Luxemburg and probably most other Zentrale members, because the revolutionary shop stewards and the USPD broke off the attempt to negotiate with the Majority Social Democrats, and, on the basis of a militant leaflet drafted by Liebknecht, once more called for a general strike and armed struggle. As the rest of the revolutionary left now stood completely behind the line of the Spartakus leadership, the KPD Zentrale could not stand aside because, above all, on Wednesday, 8 January, in view of the revolutionary shop stewards’ and the Berlin USPD leadership’s renewed readiness to struggle, Rosa Luxemburg and most of the Spartakus leaders felt that a new revival of the mass movement was entirely possible. This was, of course, an illusory expectation, as the hopelessness of an uprising was perceptible as a result of the military balance of forces having in the meantime swung to the advantage of the government, and because of the exhaustion of the Berlin workers.
Yet Rosa Luxemburg even believed — as her agitation in the Rote Fahne during 9-12 January clearly shows — that the revolutionary fire would flare up once more. Her illusory tendencies misled her, even after the military crushing of the uprising, into hoping that the revolutionary movement would achieve a rapid success, as her letter to Clara Zetkin of 11 January and the leading article ‘And Yet the Revolution Wins!’, in the Rote Fahne on 12 January make clear.
If Rosa Luxemburg held to the democratic principle that the power of decision lies with the majority of the masses as the precondition for political action, then one must nevertheless enquire as to the nature and goals of the struggle which the Spartakus leader was proposing to the proletariat during the January uprising, and whether she was able to accept independent developments presented by the working class that went in the direction of socialism. Proposals for the leadership of the struggle were largely absent in her newspaper articles, or were wholly unreal, such as the point about a permanent mass gathering on the streets of Berlin’s revolutionary workers. The KPD leader gave the impression of a ‘Rosa at a loss’. She was all the more radical in propagating the aims of the uprising. From Wednesday, 8 January up to and including Sunday, 12 January, hence even several days after the military defeat of the rebels, she used the Rote Fahne to promote the illusion that the Majority Social Democratic government could be overthrown. Furthermore, she proclaimed in a severely polemical manner that the destruction of the USPD was both a desirable intermediate aim and a precondition for the overthrow of the government. With these shrill propaganda tones, she reached only the most radical elements of the masses, a small and diminishing minority which — by ignoring the democratic principles in Luxemburg’s arguments — felt itself supported and confirmed in its putschist tactic. The great majority of the Berlin proletariat stood apart from this type of Luxemburgian agitation, in any case from 8 January, as the slogan of the unification of the ‘ordinary’ members of all proletarian parties with the aim of ending the fratricidal strife and the achievement of a socialist policy met with great approval not only among the Berlin workers, but also those in other industrial centres of Germany. Her fixation on long-standing arguments with the centre faction of the Social Democracy, consequently now with the USPD, and her woeful misunderstanding of the level of consciousness of the masses, led to her adopting a mistaken political tactic and aiming at an illusory target during these January days.
Liebknecht as the Internal Scapegoat
As it follows from a previously unknown — having only been preserved as an attested copy — note of the public prosecutor of County Court 1 in Berlin, of 21 January 1919, a member of the KPD leadership tried to explain, immediately after the January uprising, to the criminal prosecuting authorities that ‘every member of the Spartakusbund Zentrale with the sole exception of Karl Liebknecht… had disagreed with the putschist tactics practised after 6 January 1919 … The leading circles of the Spartakus movement had been perfectly clear about it, they would only be able to seize state power if they had the masses behind them. But so far that had not been the case.’ At the same time, the Spartakus representative explained that the ‘nascent insurrectionary movement had emanated from amongst the revolutionary shop stewards of the big factories in Greater Berlin, with whom Karl Liebknecht had constantly negotiated for days on end, without his having drawn in any other leading figure from the Spartakusbund’. The KPD Zentrale had first become acquainted with the declaration signed by Liebknecht and Scholze about seizing the reins of government in the 14 January 1919 issue of the Vorwärts. The uprising could only have led to a fratricidal war in Berlin, ‘in which the Spartakus movement would not have had the slightest prospect of success’. The KPD leadership had been clear that the Ebert–Scheidemann government, on account of the loyal troops in the vicinity of Berlin, enjoyed military superiority from the outset. While Ledebour was still explicitly exonerated, there followed a sharp distancing from Liebknecht: ‘In leading Spartakus circles, the matter had already been discussed, after the predicted certain breakdown of the insurrectionary movement, that Liebknecht would have to be removed from his leading position in the Communist Party.’
The ‘personality in a prominent position in the Spartakus movement’ who informed the public prosecutor of these views was probably Paul Levi who from 13 until 24 or 25 January 1919 was under arrest and apparently interrogated by an examining magistrate. As an experienced lawyer, he understood how to act credibly before his opposite number, and he aimed his exonerating arguments on behalf of the KPD leadership — even if not to the credit of the murdered Karl Liebknecht, along with silence about the participation of Pieck — and he advanced them with skill.20 Of course, Levi’s attempt to ward off the public condemnation of the KPD leadership as the authoritative bearer of the insurrectionary movement, and to place the main responsibility upon the revolutionary shop stewards, was more than legitimate. However, Levi’s attempt at exoneration does not seem to have had any effects on the way the prosecuting authorities or even the government acted. What is noteworthy is that no sooner had the uprising failed, Levi tried to circulate the historically incorrect version of the KPD leadership’s general rejection of any idea of overthrowing the government.
That this antipathy towards Liebknecht at the end of the January uprising was actually very widespread in the circles of the Spartakus leadership emerges in a remark by Mathilde Jacob in her letter to Clara Zetkin of 25 January 1919: ‘My hatred of Karl [Liebknecht] is well-founded. For me it is an emotional thing… Our best people hate him.’21 As a lengthy conversation with Jogiches had taken place immediately prior to the writing of the letter, the quoted sentence must refer to statements from Jogiches, who following a short period in custody had been at liberty for some days and was in contact with the other members of the Zentrale. The Spartakus leadership’s rejection of Liebknecht which arose at this time was caused by a combination of different factors; namely, his signing of the declaration of 6 January about overthrowing the government, of which the Zentrale members were unaware until its publication in the Vorwärts on 14 January; the anger over his refusal to accept the decision of the KPD Zentrale on 8 January to withdraw from the struggle; and his insistence on sharing hideaways with Rosa Luxemburg, which resulted in people gathering conspicuously in them during the Spartakus Zentrale’s discussions, and which had contributed to their being arrested on 15 January. The surviving comrades held the murdered Liebknecht responsible for the political mistakes of the left during the January uprising — even though other Zentrale members also had a share in it — and for Rosa Luxemburg’s death, as during the final days he had acted in a markedly incautious manner, which, again, at the time all the other leading members seem to have tolerated without complaint.
This political and personal antipathy towards Liebknecht on the part of the other Zentrale members — which, objectively speaking, was largely unjustified — has never been mentioned in the relevant biographies and monographs, and the KPD leaders who knew the truth at the time, with the exception of Levi, never publicly hinted anything about it. The reputation of the murdered party founder, now a martyr, was not to be injured.
Other Ways of Acting
What other course could the KPD leadership have taken during the January uprising? After the KPD’s founding congress during 30 December 1918 to 1 January 1919, the local associations of the USPD in Berlin began to vote over whether they should join the Spartakusbund, or whether the party’s members should split away in its direction. The Communist Party organisation in Berlin existed merely in a rudimentary form. The League of Red Soldiers, set up just after the November Revolution by the Spartakus leadership, was not a tightly-organised military formation, but a propaganda group oriented towards soldiers that was apparently unsuccessful in its agitation, judging by the fact that the Berlin garrison was either neutral or loyal to the government at the beginning of the January uprising. To that extent, the young KPD, lacking a broad, well-organised membership, was not at all in a position to influence the movement behind the uprising.
The KPD’s chances of building influence were limited firstly to the effect of agitational material in the Rote Fahne and leaflets, and secondly through the participation of the Zentrale members Liebknecht and Pieck within the bodies of the uprising leadership. Prior to the January events, the Rote Fahne had but a small circulation, and from Wednesday, 8 January, as a result of the disruption, it could only appear in an even more reduced quantity. It is therefore questionable whether the agitation of the Rote Fahne — in any case from Wednesday — as well as the small number of Spartakus leaflets, actually reached any sizeable section of the Berlin workers. Moreover, the party’s particularly severe and aggressive tone did not meet with the approval of the majority of the workers, who supported the call for left-wing unity. Of the 33 members of the ‘Revolutionary Committee’, the leadership of the uprising, there were only two KPD Zentrale members, with Liebknecht as one of the three chairmen. Pieck took some initiatives but was unable to find enough active and competent associates in the leadership of the uprising. The left-wingers with suitable experience in organising mass actions during the war and in the November 1918 days, such as Richard Müller and Ernst Däumig and their close circle of friends, spoke out against a struggle to overthrow the government, and did not participate at all, or at most only half-heartedly, in the January uprising. Even if Liebknecht and Pieck had attempted to take control, the very self-confident and independent revolutionary shop stewards would not have allowed this; still less Georg Ledebour, one of the three chairmen of the ‘Revolutionary Committee’, who already during the war had regarded Liebknecht as his main rival for the leadership of the left wing of the labour movement.
Under these conditions, it was completely impossible to create from scratch the organisational structure for an effective leadership of the uprising. The KPD (Spartakusbund) Zentrale was not at all in a position to have exercised a greater, let alone a decisive, influence over the uprising leadership and the movement itself.22
Rosa Luxemburg’s Consistent Fundamentally Democratic Attitude
As we have already seen that the latest historical writings no longer uphold the claim that the Berlin uprising in 1919 was staged and led by the KPD (Spartakusbund), and as this essay has also demonstrated in an extremely clear way that the very opposite is the case, one should no longer consider the political struggle that took place in January 1919 as the ‘Spartakus Uprising’. This is an historical falsification. As the study presented here shows in detail, the KPD Zentrale at first not only had no intention of leading an uprising against the Ebert–Scheidemann government, it did not even expect that such an uprising would take place.
On the other hand, some factory shop stewards and the KPD representative Pieck had an entirely different perception prior to the first demonstration on 5 January, and this was endorsed after the unexpectedly huge participation in this mass action of the overwhelming majority of the factory shop stewards, and by Pieck and Liebknecht. They concluded that the Majority Social Democratic government should be removed and arrested in a sort of coup, before they ascertained whether the majority of the Berlin workers supported the demands of the revolutionary left. This clearly had the character of a putschist measure which was never in the spirit of Rosa Luxemburg. Levi later described her reaction to it when on 14 January she became aware of the declaration of the ‘Revolutionary Committee’ of 6 January, signed by Liebknecht, concerning the removal of the Ebert–Scheidemann government: ‘None of those present will forget the scene, as Rosa Luxemburg held the document up to Karl Liebknecht, which was signed: “The provisional government, Ledebour, Liebknecht, Scholze”. She just asked him: “Karl, is that our programme?” The rest was silence.’23 Over the days following the failure of the uprising, she came to consider that the proclamation of a left-wing revolutionary government without the clear consent of the majority of the proletariat assumed the character of a putsch. For Rosa Luxemburg, the replacing of the Majority Social Democratic government by a socialist government could not be the result of the action of a small band of revolutionaries — and that is how the episode, with the document signed by Liebknecht calling for the overthrow of the government, appeared to her on 14 January as she looked back on the failed uprising — but had to be the result of the conscious intention of a broad proletarian mass movement. She stressed this again and again in Rote Fahne during these January days.
In spite of her illusory overestimation of the readiness of the proletarian masses for revolutionary action and her wholly unsuitable sharp attacks on those other socialist leaders who were not carrying out agitation with the same degree of radicalism, the Spartakus leader was never ‘Bloody Rosa’, nor was she a putschist or a terrorist politician. Rosa Luxemburg had maintained her democratic principles during the January 1919 uprising; that is to say, democratic principles based upon workers’ councils, rather than upon a parliamentary democracy.
- A government headed by the right-wing Social Democrats Friedrich Noske (1868-1946) and Philipp Scheidemann (1865-1939) was set up in November 1918 upon the abdication of the Kaiser. At first it contained members of the Independent Social Democratic Party, but the conservative policies and actions of the SPD ministers soon led them to quit — editor’s note.
- Heinrich August Winkler, Von der Revolution zur Stabilisierung. Arbeiter und Arbeiterbewegung in der Weimarer Republik, 1918 bis 1924, second completely revised and corrected edition, Berlin (West), 1965, p120.
- Manfred Scharrer, Die Spaltung der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, second improved edition, Stuttgart, 1985, pp195-225, in particular p219; Ralf Fücks (member of the executive of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, associated with the Green Party), ‘Die Schattenseiten einer Lichtgestalt’, Der Tagesspiegel (a Berlin daily), 15 January 2000; Henryk M Broder and Karl Wiegrefe, ‘Die göttliche Rosa’, Der Spiegel, 17 January 2000, pp60-6. I have, however, through the use of newly-accessible source material (including a manuscript finished in the spring of 1920 by Wilhelm Pieck, which was printed in a shortened and altered version by the KPD and later by the SED; unpublished protocols of internal sessions of the USPD workers’ council representatives; parts of the records of the Ledebour Trial that were never published; a letter by Radek of 24 January 1919, first published in Russia in 1998) attempted, in the framework of a study that appeared in 1999 in the IWK (Internationale wissenschaftliche Korrespondenz zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung) to research the attitude of Rosa Luxemburg and the other KPD leaders during the Berlin uprising of January 1919 in detail and to draw a more differentiated picture of the attitudes of the KPD leaders during the January uprising, in the course of which other aspects of the political developments during those days were neglected. The results of this analysis as well as a further publication of mine about Karl Radek’s activity in Berlin during December 1918–February 1919 (in IWK, Volume 36, no 3/4, 2000), are presented here slightly shortened and omitting most of the source references. (See Ottokar Luban, ‘Demokratische Sozialistin oder “blutige Rosa”? Rosa Luxemburg und die KPD-Führung im Berliner Januaraufstand 1919’, IWK, Volume 35, no 2, 1999.)
- Emil Eichhorn (1863-1925) joined the SPD in 1881, and became a party full-timer in 1893. He joined the USPD in 1917, was a deputy in the National Assembly, joined the KPD in 1920, and represented the party as a deputy in the Reichstag until his death — editor’s note.
- Paul Levi (1883-1930) joined the SPD in 1906, and joined the Spartakusbund in 1918. A member of the leadership of the KPD, he worked closely with Luxemburg, led the party after her death, and opposed the ultra-lefts. He openly opposed the party’s March Action putsch of 1921, was expelled, and led a left-wing group within the SPD until his death. Ernst Meyer (1887-1930) joined the SPD in 1908, and was in the leadership of the Spartakusbund during the First World War. He held leading posts in the KPD, including Politbureau Secretary and Party President, in the early 1920s. He was prominent in the centre and subsequent ‘conciliator’ factions of the party, and opposed the ultra-left turn in the late 1920s. August Thalheimer (1884-1948) joined the SPD in 1904, and was in the leadership of the Spartakusbund during the First World War, and of the KPD until he and Heinrich Brandler were scapegoated after the party’s failed bid for power in 1923. Expelled in 1929, he was a founder and leader of the Communist Party (Opposition) (KPO), and remained an oppositional communist until his death in Cuba — editor’s note.
- Ernst Däumig (1868-1922) joined the SPD before the First World War, and was a founder of the USPD, and was a leader of its left wing. He opposed the formation of the KPD, but later joined it and became its co-leader with Levi. He left the KPD in 1921, and joined Levi’s group. Richard Müller(1890-?) was a metalworker and trade union activist. He opposed the entry of the revolutionary shop stewards into the KPD, although he later joined it. Leaving the KPD with Levi, he dropped out of political activity — editor’s note.
- Wilhelm Pieck (1876-1960) joined the SPD in 1895, and was a full-time party official after 1906. On the left of the party, he became a leading member of the Spartakusbund and the KPD. He supported Brandler’s faction, then the centre, and supported Stalin after 1929. He was the President of East Germany from 1949 until his death — editor’s note.
- Heinrich Dorrenbach (1888-1919) was an SPD member and a second lieutenant in the German army during the war. Reduced to the ranks and discharged in 1917, he took command of People’s Marine Division. Associated with Karl Liebknecht, he advocated an insurrection in January 1919, and was disavowed by the sailors. He was later arrested, and killed ‘whilst trying to escape’ — editor’s note.
- Georg Ledebour (1850-1947) was an SPD left-winger and Reichstag deputy. He joined the USPD and worked with the revolutionary shop stewards in Berlin during 1918-19. He opposed the USPD’s merger with the KPD, rejoined the SPD, but was expelled in 1924 and formed the Socialist League — editor’s note.
- Heinrich Malzahn (1884-1957) joined the SPD in 1906. He joined the USPD in 1917, and was active in strikes and became President of the Berlin committee of factory councils. He sided with Levi in the KPD over the March Action, and eventually returned to the SPD — editor’s note.
- Ottokar Luban, ‘Rosa Luxemburg, Spartakus and die Massen. Vier Beispiele zur Taktik der Spartakus-gruppe bzw des Spartakusbundes’, in Theodor Bergmann and Wolfgang Haible (eds), Reform – Demoktarie Revolution. Zur Aktualität von Rosa Luxemburg, supplement to the monthly journalSozialismus, no 5, 1997, pp11-27.
- Rudolf Breitscheid (1874-1944), Oscar Cohn (1869-1937), Wilhelm Dittmann (1874-1954), Karl Kautsky (1854-1938) and Luise Zietz (1865-1922) were all long-standing SPD members who joined the USPD, but rejected merging with the KPD. They all returned to the SPD in 1922 — editor’s note.
- Hermann Duncker (1874-1960) and Käte Duncker (1871-1953) joined the SPD in 1893 and 1900 respectively. Both were elected to the KPD Zentrale in 1919, but not in 1920, and thereafter did not hold senior party posts. They lived in East Germany from 1947 — editor’s note.
- Hugo Haase (1863-1919) became an SPD deputy in 1897, and party President in 1911. He was a leader of the USPD from its foundation, and led its right-wing faction. He was assassinated on the Reichstag steps by a nationalist — editor’s note.
- Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) stood on the left of the SPD, and edited the party’s paper for women. She opposed the First World War, joined the Spartakusbund, and then the KPD, to which she belonged until her death, although she was sympathetic to the KPO — editor’s note.
- Peter Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, Köln and Berlin, 1967, p729.
- Annelies Laschitza and Günter Radczun, Rosa Luxemburg. Ihr Wirken in der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, Frankfurt, 1971, pp500-1; Gilbert Badia, Rosa Luxemburg. Journaliste, Polémiste, Révolutionnaire, Paris, 1975, pp382-6; Elzbieta Ettinger, Rosa Luxemburg. Ein Leben, Bonn, 1990, pp294ff; Annelies Laschitza, Im Lebensrausch, trotz alledem. Rosa Luxemburg. Eine Biographie, Berlin, 1996, pp617-20. This also applies metaphorically to the biographies of Karl Liebknecht by Heinz Wohlgemuth (Karl Liebknecht. Eine Biographie, East Berlin, 1973, pp466-9) and — in part — Helmut Trotnow (Karl Liebknecht. Eine politische Biographie, Köln, 1980, pp284-91).
- During the prewar period, the so-called Marxist Centre, owing to its determinist view of history, adopted a passive, wait-and-see attitude, while in the January uprising Rosa Luxemburg represented, regardless of the expected defeat according to the ‘laws of history’, an attitude of permanent offensive and ‘final struggle’.
- Paul Levi, ‘Georg Ledebour, die Revolution and die Anderen’, Die Rote Fahne, Volume 3, no 14, 14 January 1920. In the same sense is the KPD-edited collection Illustrierte Geschichte der deutschen Revolution, Berlin, 1929 (reprinted, Frankfurt/Main, 1970), pp282ff.
- National Archive Berlin, A Rep 358, no 466, Volume 5, Sheet 8. Certified copy: note by an anonymous public prosecutor. Besides Levi, other members of the Zentrale were in custody: Hugo Eberlein, Leo Jogiches (for a short time), Käte Duncker and Ernst Meyer.
- A complete rendition of the letter is on pages 452-5 of Ottokar Luban, ‘Die “innere Notwendigkeit, mithelfen zu dürfen”. Zur Rolle Mathilde Jacobs als Assistentin der Spartakusführung bzw der KPD-Zentrale’, IWK, Volume 29, no 4, 1993, pp421-70. Mathilde Jacob (1873-1943) was a book-keeper and typist, and was in the SPD, the Spartakusbund, the USPD in 1917, the KPD in 1919, and left with Paul Levi and worked politically with him. She died in Theresienstadt concentration camp.
- The author will provide a thorough analysis of the real possibility of the KPD developing its influence in the framework of a monograph about the prehistory and foundation of the KPD (Spartakusbund), August 1914 until January 1919.
- ‘Paul Levi, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht zum Gedächtnis’, Leipziger Volkszeitung, Volume 36, no 12, 15 January 1929. This episode must have taken place on 14 January 1919, as the Vorwärts, now being published once more by the Majority Social Democrats, printed the declaration in facsimile. Levi cannot have been an eyewitness, as he had already been arrested on 13 January. In his account of recollections published in 1924, Radek gives a similar version, which had been conveyed to him by Levi. Apparently, the KPD leaders were all privately aware of what had transpired.