The German Revolution (1918-1923)

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Commentary on the book by Isabel Loureiro

Isabel Loureiro's book The German Revolution (1918-1923)), first published in 2005, has recently been reissued in a revised version. This is an extremely valuable book. It contains a mosaic of crucial years in Germany, covering a huge amount of information about a rich period of events in that country, encompassing characters, groups, political parties and historical facts.

The narrative is concise, with a high degree of detail and, at the same time, sensitivity. There were five years in which Germany went through revolutions, insurrection attempts, counterrevolutionary massacres and innovative experiences. Alongside the captivating narrative of the facts and the design of the characters, the author interweaves the position of historians and theorists on those episodes, as well as sometimes anecdotal statements that descend to the ground of reality.

In the opening chapter, Isabel outlines a panel of the Empire, the German Empire, unified under the leadership of Chancellor Bismarck and the great preponderance of Prussia. It goes through the decades of the 1930th century and the beginning of the 1940th, situating German peculiarities, generally little known. It gradually shows how the dominant political forces end up leading to the formation of an authoritarian and militarized society, where the Army constitutes a model of life, with its bellicose and expansionist ideas. Such preponderance operated in the sense of transforming discipline into moral value, encouraging aptitude for servility and submission. The chapter also shows the development of a nationalism that turns against the Jews and an idea of ​​expansionism whose corollary would be the need for new spaces. Here and there the author intersperses Marx's expectations and Rosa Luxemburg's vision of that Germany. At the same time, it describes the formation of German social democracy, the original characters and political groups, Lassalle and, on the other hand, Marx and Engels, the impact of Bernstein's pacifist illusion, the orthodox response of Kautsky and Luxemburg, as well as the rise of bureaucracy. worker, Friedrich Ebert and his fellow trendsetters Scheidemann and Noske. This chapter marks the limits within which the revolutionary actions of the following period will take place, hampered by the administrative and governmental structure inherited from the Empire. The chapter inspires reflection on the reasons why, later, in the XNUMXs and XNUMXs, a part of the German people would passively accept Nazism and even collaborate with it.

Isabel Loureiro, following a more recent German historiography, divides the revolutionary period into two phases, the moderate (1918-1919) and the radical (1919-March 1921), dedicating a chapter to each of them. In the one dedicated to the moderate phase, in which so many crucial facts signaled a strong rupture of the imperial regime, the author gives all the importance that has an event that would break, forever, the socialist movement, the approval in the Reichstag, by the social-democratic bench, of the credits for Germany to join the war of 1914-1918, which was beginning. Throw away proletarian internationalism and class struggle! From this resolution, contrary to everything social democracy had preached until then, the German Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) emerged, within which the Spartacus Group, led by Rosa Luxemburgo and Karl Liebknecht,previously created, and the Revolutionary Delegates, led by Richard Müller and Ernst Däumig, which would constitute the germ of future workers' councils. Isabel makes a great contribution by deepening her knowledge of this group and councilist thought, using a more recent bibliography. The narrative approaches the crucial moment of the fall of the imperial regime, approaching several facts, among them the confession of the military high command to the government, in mid-1918, of no longer being able to secure the German borders. It shows how the generals manipulate social democracy so that it takes over the government and negotiates peace with the Allies, taking responsibility, along with bourgeois parties, for signing the infamous Treaty of Versailles, later passed down to history as “ a stab in the back”, given by civilians to the military. And how the Social Democrats of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), with Ebert at the head, allowed themselves to be manipulated very naturally.

While these arrangements were being made, at the beginning of October the population became aware of the imminent defeat. The revolution begins at the end of that month with the rebellion of sailors from the high seas fleet in the North. And, from city to city, in the fight for the liberation of the imprisoned sailors, the revolution advances until reaching Berlin, on November 9th. For their part, revolutionary groups and parties were able to quickly mobilize elected councils in factories and barracks to meet in assembly and elect a provisional government. On the principle of proletarian unity, a fundamental value in the formation of the German workers' movement, the independent Social Democrats, then in the majority in the councils, offered the SPD the place of three People's Commissars, taking the other three places. Later, when the First Congress of Workers and Soldiers Councils was held, in the third week of December, by an SPD maneuver, the independent social democrats ended up being marginalized.

Isabel Loureiro repeatedly highlights the moderation of the workers: they only wanted, at that moment, universal suffrage and the Republic. In this sense, they mortgaged structural decisions to the future Constituent Assembly to be elected on a date already set, January 19, 1919. . Volunteer militias made up of officers loyal to the monarchy, soldiers without jobs, students without a university, all brought together by the ideology of defending the values ​​of the old regime. These troops would come to have enormous importance in the repression of the revolution in the later period. And in the midst of all this, the foundation of the German Communist Party (KPD), on New Year's Eve from 1918 to 1919, since its inception linked to the Communist International that was formed at the same time.

Moving on, in the following chapter, to the radical phase of the revolution (1919-March 1921), Isabel illustrates in detail the explosive character of the situation experienced in the first days of 1919 and the awareness that the most determined workers and militants had that the revolution was slipping away. The old social-democracy – the SPD -, fully imbued with the role of stopping the revolution, of not allowing it to reach the point it had reached in Russia, dismissed an independent social-democrat who still occupied the important post of chief of police. from Berlin. Considered a provocation, this action arouses the anger of the workers. The Revolutionary Delegates group and the Communist Party (KPD) call for a protest demonstration which turns out to be gigantic after all. From there to the occupation of newspapers and buildings, a definitively insurrectionary situation ensues. That night, the leaders decided to carry out the overthrow of the government in the following day's demonstration, above all because they expected promised support from the Popular Division of the Navy. However, in front of the approximately 200 workers present at the demonstration, the sailors and their promised weapons did not arrive. The leaders ask themselves the question of retreating and avoiding a bloodbath, which causes controversy. At the same time, sectors of the labor movement ask for the unity of the socialist parties. It is the moment when the government intervenes, Noske takes action with the Frankish corps, evicting newspapers and occupied buildings, arresting and summarily executing. The massacre lasts a week. It is at the end of these dramatic days that Rosa Luxemburgo and Karl Liebknecht are arrested and slaughtered in carefully prepared murders. And despite that, the elections for the Constituent Assembly were held normally, giving victory to the SPD.

The revolution continues in other cities. Of great value in the book is the detailed account of the formation of the Bavarian Council Republic in the south of the country. The author successively describes the moderate phase of the movement, of coexistence between the councils and the local parliament, led by Kurt Eisner, ending with his assassination, and the dispersion of the parliamentarians; and the radical phase, in which the councils become the only government, in which the figure of the communist Eugen Leviné gains prominence. She also reports the support of great German intellectuals – for example, Martin Buber, Rilke and more distantly Max Weber – to the experience of the Republic of Councils of Workers, Peasants and Soldiers of Bavaria. In the first period this experience was able to develop, however, the repression of the central government and the Frankish bodies also arrived to, in some battles, reconquer Munich on May 2nd and make the city a scorched earth, with a terrible massacre that only ended six days later.

A final chapter is dedicated to the two insurrectionary attempts by the German Communist Party (KPD) already, by this point, completely dependent on the Communist International. Two failed attempts. The first – the “March action”, on March 24, 1921 – for calling a general strike without any basis, which only led to the removal of a large number of militants. The second, – the “German October”, in the terrible year of 1923 – when, in Moscow, Russian and German leaders discussed in detail an insurrection plan that had the support of the German factory councils that were going to meet in conference. Completely frustrated support: when the communist leader Brandler proposes a general strike, the response is a long silence, followed soon after by the social-democratic leader's warning that, if the communist insisted, they would leave the room.

Germany's dramatic history concludes this period, once again, with workers refusing more radical action and faithfully following the SPD. Isabel Loureiro prepares us, throughout the entire book, for understanding this essential moderation of the German labor movement. This panel, briefly described here, transposes the reader to the scene of those events that marked the beginning of the Weimar Republic.

*Angela Mendes de Almeida is a history professor at PUC-SP. Author, among other books, of Revolution and Civil War in Spain (Brasiliense).


Isabel Loureiro. The German Revolution (1918-1923)). 2nd. revised edition. São Paulo, Unesp, 2020, 218 pages.


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