Triumph, disarray, and defeat

German workers 1918–1933

Socialist historian Ben Fowkes has given us a unique and vivid text documentary of the German workers’ movement during the tumultuous years of its greatest influence, from November 1918 to its defeat by Nazism fifteen years later. Fowkes presents 182 brief statements reflecting every socialist viewpoint during these years. His running commentary—short passages interspersed among the documents—provide a well-researched and insightful capsule history of the German Left in this period.

Newly published by Haymarket Books, this study has the rarely found merit of placing side by side texts from the two great antagonists of the workers’ movement at that time, Germany’s Communist Party (KPD) and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). For socialists, this unique resource breaks through veils of historical interpretation and ideology and permits us to hear the protagonists of our movement’s past in their own words.

The challenge of Weimar
In November 1918, during the final days of World War I, a worker-led uprising overturned Germany’s authoritarian empire. Formal authority shifted to workers’ and soldiers’ councils. However, leaders of the largest workers’ party, the SPD, fearing a social revolution, called on the pillars of the old regime—the army, police, bureaucracy, and judicial system—to restore order and defeat the workers’ upsurge. The SPD thus assured that the empire was replaced not by workers’ rule but by a capitalist democracy, usually called the Weimar Republic, after its place of foundation.

The SPD’s actions in founding this state proved self-defeating. For Germany’s capitalist rulers, as Fowkes notes, “Once the mass movement had been liquidated, there was no further reason to tolerate socialist interference in the economy, or anywhere else. For this reason, the reforms of 1918–19 proved impossible to defend in the long run.”

Behind the democratic forms of Weimar rule was the harsh reality of army and police repression. Already in May 1919, the KPD said of the SPD’s course, “They have restored in a new form . . . the military state”; within it, resurgent traditional rightist forces fought to undo the 1918 revolution. For example, the eight-hour workday, a signal victory of the revolution, did not survive past 1923. The Weimar Republic fell in 1933 with the triumph of Nazism, consummating the victory of counterrevolution. 

Fowkes’s book focuses on the efforts of workers’ parties to resist the rise of reaction and secure a different outcome. His documentation shows that the SPD, the largest workers party through this period, remained largely proletarian in its composition and continued to speak the language of class struggle, even as the socialist goal disappeared from view. The leadership, meanwhile, was committed to alliance with the less reactionary capitalist parties as a strategy for defense of the republic from the monarchist parties to the right. 

This “lesser evil” logic, the book demonstrates, gradually forced the SPD into subservient acceptance of right-wing rule. In foreign policy, the SPD sought alliance with the victors of World War I while rejecting alliance with the Soviet Union. Protests against this pro-establishment course within the SPD were varied and vigorous, as Fowkes demonstrates, and this created a potential for unity in action with Communists. Nonetheless, the SPD remained essentially united until the end.

The German Communist movement, by contrast, was essentially unified in purpose but divided on strategy. Although much smaller than the SPD, the KPD was energetic and militant, with more than 100,000 members and the support of millions of voters. 

On its foundation, in January 1919, the KPD’s members “were enthusiastic about the October Revolution in Russia, and . . .  wanted something similar in Germany, but had different ideas of how to get there,” Fowkes comments.

“The Spartacist leaders, Rosa Luxemburg above all, thought the coming revolution should be the achievement of the whole working class and would take time to prepare; the Left Radicals on the other hand called for an immediate insurrection” led by the Communist forces, Fowkes notes. Both viewpoints were strongly rooted in the party ranks, and the contradiction between “mass” and “vanguard” orientations persisted through the party’s life.

The party’s course in this respect was worked out in practice mainly around the issue of forging a united front with SPD members and supporters. The documents in The German Left and Weimar trace the KPD’s shifts back and forth on this issue, from engagement with SPD forces to unrelenting hostility. These shifts continued even after the mid-twenties, when the party fell under the control of bureaucratic forces in Moscow led by Joseph Stalin.

The question of the united front—that is, of common action by the KPD and SPD or by their components—was posed above all by immediate issues such as protection of the eight-hour day or defense against attacks by rightist bands. In addition, the Communists called on the SPD to break its alliance with capitalist forces and join in a struggle for a “workers’ government.” Fowkes documents what he terms the high point of such joint action: a broad campaign for the expropriation of the former German princes that won 16.7 million votes in a 1926 referendum, more than half again as many as the combined vote of the workers’ parties in the previous national elections. 

Yet in 1928 the KPD reversed course and thereafter aimed its main fire against the SPD, cutting off its access to the SPD ranks. Fowkes traces the central role of Stalinist leaders in Moscow in imposing this policy, which opened the road to Hitler’s victory. Yet even though stifled and deformed by Stalinist domination, the debate between “vanguard” and “mass” approaches—now conducted mainly by dissident Communist currents around the united front issue—continued until Hitler’s triumph and after.

Many of us are familiar with the first years of this debate from Pierre Broué’s magisterial account, The German Revolution, 1917–1923 (Haymarket Books, 2006). Fowkes provides documentary backup for these years, along with an effective outline of the decade that follows. For example, he gives us a wide range of dissident viewpoints within the SPD, introducing us to many forgotten figures with relevant insights.

There are also significant omissions. Leon Trotsky’s German supporters are not heard from. The diverse solidarity, defense, and cultural efforts—a major arena for KPD-SPD contact—are mentioned but not documented. The book refers to the united campaign for the right to abortion law in 1931, “the last time the KPD and the SPD publicly agitated together on the same platform,” but no text is provided. We are left to wonder if socialist women were perhaps in the lead more generally in united front efforts.

Yet such omissions are inevitable. Fowkes’s focus, indicated by his title, is not on the life of the mass movement but on the Left movements’ relationship to the state. Limiting scope in this manner was necessary to the production of a book with a coherent focus and of manageable length—just shy of 400 pages.

In analyzing the party’s relationship to the state, Fowkes poses four probing questions, all of which still have resonance for us today:

1. Was Weimar “democracy” worth defending? 2. If so, should it be defended by “extra-constitutional methods” (mass actions, protest strikes, etc.) as well as by the constitutional process? 3. “Was it necessary, to defend democracy, to extend and deepen it?” 4. “Was it possible for Social Democrats and Communists to unite temporarily to defend and deepen democracy?” 

Some clarification would be helpful here on what is meant by “democracy.” The SPD regarded the Weimar constitution as the vehicle for a transition to socialism; the KPD considered it, like the authoritarian monarchy it replaced, a buttress of capitalism and aimed to replace it by workers’ democracy. Where they agreed—some of the time—was on the need to defend it against the threat of rightist overthrow. But even if we define “democracy” in that manner, neither party was consistent. The KPD answered “yes” to all four of Fowkes’s questions, but only some of the time; the SPD’s response was “yes” on question #1 and usually “no” on the other three. 

This discussion has a contemporary ring in societies marked by a Weimar-like combination of limited democratic constitutionalism and a repressive security state, with the first element under increasing pressure from the second.

Despite restrictions of space, The German Left and the Weimar Republic provides chapter-length surveys of several topics rarely considered in studies of this period, including the German Left’s positions on foreign policy, on the armed forces, and on questions of gender and sexual politics. The sociology of their movements receives extensive attention and is backed up by useful statistics on their breadth of support. A short chapter surveys eight of the more significant socialist currents outside the SPD and KPD.

For a more rounded account of the German Communist movement, especially after 1923, readers can consult Ben Fowkes’s Communism in Germany under the Weimar Republic. Among many other relevant studies, Eberhard Kolb’s The Weimar Republic Sourcebook and Eve Rosenhaft’s Beating the Fascists? German Communists and Political Violence 1929–1933 are also worth a look.

However, Fowkes’s document collection, The German Left and the Weimar Republic, stands as an excellent introduction for today’s socialists to workers’ political experiences under the Weimar regime.


With thanks for editorial suggestions to Charles Peterson and Grant Mandarino.

Issue #63

January 2009

Politics and struggle in a new era

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