Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 12, 2018

Werner Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923” (part one)

Filed under: Werner Angress — louisproyect @ 8:09 pm

A couple of years before an English-language version of Pierre Broue’s “History of the German Revolution 1917-1923” was published, I was motivated to find out about this period since I was fairly sure that the catastrophe in Germany not only led to the rise of Nazism but to the “Leninist” model adopted by the entire left.

In searching for a scholarly account of the defeat of the German revolution, I turned to a book by Werner Angress titled “Stillborn Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923” that gave me the details I needed to flesh out an article written in the early 2000s titled “The Comintern and the German Communist Party”, which covered Paul Levi’s opposition to the insane ultraleft March Action of 1921 as well as another fiasco two years later that was orchestrated by Gregory Zinoviev. When Zinoviev’s meddling in the German class struggle damaged his reputation almost beyond repair, he sought to keep a lid on discontent in the world Communist movement by carrying out a “Bolshevization” turn in 1924 that codified a rigid “democratic centralist” method of functioning that has led to sect and cult formations everywhere it has been followed. To show you how universal it became, James P. Cannon voted enthusiastically for the turn and even after he became a Trotskyist, he never abandoned this dogmatic version of Bolshevik practice. Neither did Trotsky, for that matter.

Following the release of Broue’s book, the name of Paul Levi became well-known on the left and was invoked by Marxist scholars grappling with the problem of sectarianism. This matter came up recently when John Riddell, a major scholar of the early Comintern, posted an article by Paul Le Blanc on his blog that originally appeared in Historical Materialism as a critique of Antonio Negri who had written a broadside against Leninist parties on the basis that Zinoviev’s “Bolshevization” made them “cut some vanguards off at the legs and made it impossible for them to make themselves adequate to the particular situations they were meant to intervene in.” I tend to agree with this even though I generally regard Negri as even more foolish than those responsible for the March Action. In fact, it was his support for Italian “autonomists”, who were in the habit of breaking the bones of professors who they disagreed with politically, that helped to destroy the Italian left.

Like Broue, Le Blanc believes that the March Action and the 1923 abortive revolution that Zinoviev tried to direct from afar were mistakes but credits the sublime wisdom of Lenin for trying to triangulate between Levi, who had been expelled from the German CP for his public critique of the March Action, and the ultraleft CP leadership and the Comintern emissaries (Bela Kun and Karl Radek) who were their partners in political mayhem. Le Blanc puts it this way:

This deference to a majority in the German Communist leadership actually reflects democratic rather than bureaucratic tendencies in the early Comintern (even though Lenin agreed with Levi’s critique of what the hotheads had done).

I have a different take on this entirely. There was never anything “democratic” about the early Comintern. As I point out in my article, Leon Trotsky gave instructions to the French CP about what should go on the front page of their newspaper and even cajoled the feckless German CP leader Heinrich Brandler into scheduling the misbegotten 1923 uprising to coincide with the anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

I have no problem recommending Pierre Broue even though he comes at things from the same angle as Paul Le Blanc. Broue, who died in 2005, was a member of Pierre Lambert’s movement and could obviously not go so far as to repudiate the Comintern. For the ISO, there is much less of that kind of baggage since they broke from Tony Cliff’s mother ship.

Since Le Blanc’s article generated a lot of very good discussion on FB and since the role of Paul Levi continues to be a hot topic on the left, I am starting a series of posts that are drawn from the chapters in Werner Angress’s books that deal directly with the March Action and Zinoviev’s 1923 adventure.

A word or two about Angress is in order. He died in 2010 at the age of 80. He and his family left Germany in 1937, barely escaping the holocaust. He was drafted in 1941 and ended up serving with the “Ritchie Boys”, a group of German-speaking paratroopers who fought behind German lines just like in “Inglourious Basterds”. After the war, Angress became a history professor and taught at SUNY, Stony Brook for 25 years.

Below you will see the chapter titled “The Genesis of the March Uprising” sans footnotes. They would be too laborious to reproduce and are not necessary for understanding the analysis. The word Zentrale appears repeatedly. It is a reference to the KPD’s (German CP) Central Committee that Levi had resigned from after he and his supporters lost a vote involving who to support in the Italian CP. Except for the fact that those who had a majority on the Zentrale were bonkers ultra-left, it is not worth getting into.

Any inquiry into the origins of the series of events, which in Communist parlance has become known as the into the origins of that complex series of events known as the März Aktion of 1921 must take into account the KPD’s rise to the status of mass party. Although its estimated importance may have been unrealistic when compared to the overwhelming labor support that was given to the two Socialist parties, the mere concept of being an organization which claimed half a million members created in party ranks a confident and optimistic mood. Veteran Spartacists and newcomers from the Independents alike expected the party to follow henceforth a more dynamic, more activist course, and watched eagerly for any indication of growing Communist influence on the German domestic scene. Electoral gains In Prussia, Lippe-Detmold, Hamburg, and even an increased Communist vote in union elections of the Berlin woodworkers and railway workers were interpreted as signs of mounting party strength. The buoyant spirit of the rank and file was in sharp contrast to the continued cautious policies of Levi. The result was a progressive dissatisfaction with the Zentrale among the party membership, a development which in the weeks following the unification congress of December 20 led to an increase of independent activities on the part of local Communist organizations. By far the most serious effect of this trend was an increase in sporadic underground work.

It had been resolved at the Second World Congress of the Communist International that all Communist parties were immediately to form “illegal organizations . . . for the purpose of carrying out systematic underground work. . . .” This was presented as a defensive measure made necessary by reactionary persecutions of Communists everywhere. Underground organizations for illegal political work had existed in Germany ever since the war years, but they had originated with the Revolutionary Shop Steward movement, not with the Spartacists. In the summer of 1918 the Shop Stewards had come under the leadership of Ernst Daumig, who was then still a member of the Independent Social Democratic Party. The two organizations had an informal and non-committal relationship. The Revolutionary Shop Stewards were the earliest advocates of a system of workers’ councils, and in November 1918 were far more influential in creating them than were the Spartacists. Even before the revolution broke out they had begun to buy weapons and to form secret military detachments, referred to as Der Apparat ( the apparatus) and directed by Daumig in close cooperation with two other Shop Steward leaders, Emil Barth and Richard Muller. Der Apparat formed the model for future Communist underground organizations. After the November revolution and the founding of the KPD, such Communist underground organizations sprang up haphazardly throughout Germany but remained without effective coordination and control from the Zentrale in Berlin. During the proletarian uprising in the Ruhr region in March and April 1920, the police discovered in several local party offices blueprints for a red army and other documents pertaining to Communist military plans. Whether the organizations responsible for these materials were offshoots of the old Daumig apparatus, or whether they were the more recent creations of local KPD cells is impossible to say. But on no occasion between 1918 and 1920 was the role of Communist underground organizations of vital importance, because, lacking central direction, they were weak and ineffective

Communist underground work intensified after unification with the left-wing Independents. Two principal illegal “Apparate” were created prior to 1921, an N-group (Nachrichtenapparat) for intelligence work, and an M-group (Militarapparat) intended to train cadres of Communist fighters. Both groups had the additional mission of maintaining liaison with Russian agents passing illegally through Germany. The formation of these groups was in accord-ance with the directives of the Second World Congress, which the party was obligated to obey. There is no indication, however, that they functioned efficiently, or that they were effectively supervised and coordinated by the Zentrale while Levi was still its chairman. Moreover, basic disagreement existed between the Zentrale and the party’s underground on what the functions of the illegal groups were to be. The latter stressed the need for storing weapons and ammunition for future use, while the Zentrale tried to divert the conspiratorial ambitions of the would-be underground fighters into relatively harmless channels. This was done by forming them into study groups on military theory and by using them as guards at party meetings. But it was in the nature of the situation that the restraining efforts made by the leadership met with only limited success. Local Communist underground organizations frequently acted on their own initiative and, as was inevitable, incidents occurred which aroused the suspicion of the German authorities that the KPD was secretly but actively preparing for revolution. On January 19, 1921, Prussian police raided Communist offices in Essen, Dusseldorf, Elberfeld, and Luenen, near Dortmund, arested a number of Communist leaders, and confiscated party files.

On the basis of what Dr. Robert Weismann, Prussian State Commissioner for Safeguarding Public Security, termed “partial confessions,” and after an examination of the captured material, Weismann reported to his superiors that he had discovered evidence for the existence of a red army. Its headquarters, the report said, was in Berlin, and several subordinate command posts (Kommandobe-horden) were in western and central Germany. Weismann claimed to have found proof beyond doubt that the organization was designed to overthrow, by force, government and constitution: its ultimate objective was to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat. On February 3, 1921, State Commissioner Dr. Weismann made another discovery. This one involved the Soviet Mission in Berlin, headed by Victor Kopp. It appears that staff members of this mission were engaged in a series of occupations totally unconnected with their official duty of negotiating with the Germans for the exchange and repatriation of prisoners of war. A number of copied documents, which had found their way into Weismann’s office, contained strong indications that the Soviet Mission was involved in smuggling arms and explosives, furthering Communist propaganda, and financing Communist underground activities in Germany and other parts of Europe. Later in the month, raids on Communist party offices in Magdeburg, Stendal, and Frankfurt am Main led to the arrest of several local KPD functionaries. Dynamite, arms, and other military equipment had been found.

Alarmed by these ominous discoveries, a number of German, and particularly Prussian officials became firmly convinced that the KPD was preparing for an uprising sometime in the spring. Throughout the first two months of 1921, rumors of a red underground army caused particular concern in official quarters. State Commissioner Weismann maintained in his report of January 20 that the KPD was directly supporting the formation of such an army. His assertion was based on documents found during raids on the party offices in the Rhineland. But either because the evidence proved too inconclusive, or because the Zentrale habitually (and perhaps not always untruthfully) denied all knowledge of these uncovered plots, Weismann refrained from taking statewide action against the party as a whole. He continued instead to rely on preventive measures, keeping the party’s activities under constant surveillance in the expectation that sooner or later local organizations would become careless enough to lay themselves open to police raids. Thus, despite their suspicions of Communist intentions, the authorities took no steps to arrest the Zentrale. Levi was allowed to travel abroad to attend the Leghorn conference and, understandably enough, nothing was done about the delicate problem posed by Victor Kopp’s Soviet Mission. How correct were the appraisals concerning the threat of an armed Communist insurrection that were voiced by various German officials early in 1921? Ironically enough, no specific plans for such an uprising existed prior to March of that year; and when the uprising did occur, unprepared, improvised, and absolutely unorganized, no red army materialized even in central Germany, the heart of the insurgent region. This is not to say that the KPD was a peaceful club. Nor does it mean that among the German Communists there were not some who seriously advocated a revolutionary offensive at the earliest possible opportunity. But dedication to the principle of revolution and actual preparation for such an event are not the same, and while the KPD never denied that revolution was its ultimate aim, no practical measures to implement it seem to have been taken by the Zentrale, certainly not while Levi was still its chairman. The plots which the German authorities discovered during January and February were examples of the same naïve and irresponsible “putschist” attitude which since the days of Luxemburg and Liebknecht had made it so hard for the party leadership to control the radical elements, especially on the local level. Moreover, the tendency to indulge in cloak and dagger games was hard to block after the ECCI had made underground work by all Communist parties mandatory. But the government officials who sounded the alarm and predicted bloodshed in the near future can hardly be blamed for being misled by overenthusiastic Communist busybodies. Only when the insurrection finally came, at Easter, and apparently justified the most dire predictions of the German security agencies, did it become evident that the KPD had acted on impulse and faith, without benefit of either organization or preparation.

The various steps which led to the March uprising are even today a matter of controversy. Whoever wants to reconstruct the complex and involved circumstances must take into consideration that both the Communists and the various government representatives have tried to obscure many of the issues in their respective accounts. To this must be added that official Communist interpretation moved through several phases before the final version was adopted at the Third Congress of the Communist International in the summer of 1921. According to this version, which is still upheld today, the March uprising was the result of calculated provocation of the workers by the Prussian government. Because it contained a few grains of truth, this formula proved to be the most feasible way in which a number of very inconvenient facts could be left unexplained in official Communist annals, past and present.

The key factor that made a Communist insurrection possible in the first place was the change in leadership of the Zentrale. Heinrich Brandler, the new chairman, was a simple and pedestrian man whose intellectual qualities were overshadowed by most of his more sophisticated colleagues, especially Ernst Meyer, Paul Frolich, and August Thalheimer. Levi had led the party without paying too much attention to views which did not coincide with his, thereby alienating large segments of the party, but Brandler went to the other extreme and too often accepted the opinions of others as his own. He had proved his mettle in the past in trade-union work, and during the proletarian uprisings that followed in the wake of the Kapp Putsch he acted as a capable though cautious commander of the armed Saxon workers. But now he had assumed a much greater responsibility, ant he was to show before long how difficult it was to live up to it.

It soon became apparent that the switch in the Communist high command caused a great deal of consternation within the party. Although Levi had been a controversial figure from the first to the last day that he served as chairman of the Zentrale, he still commanded the allegiance of many party members who saw in him the heir and disciple of Rosa Luxemburg, and who respected his ability even when they did not care for his personality. The fact that Zetkin, Brass, Daumig, and Hoffmann, some of them old war-horses who had won renown in the prewar SPD, had declared their solidarity with Levi created additional unrest and uncertainty in party circles. Thus the new Brandler Zentrale faced a difficult situation from the start. On the one hand Moscow, where Levi’s cavalier attitude toward revolution had incurred strong disapproval, wanted the German party to adopt a more vigorous policy, although what exactly was expected of the KPD remained for the time being uncertain. On the other hand, the resignation of the Levi faction had aggravated rather than eliminated the internal crisis of the party. How could Moscow’s expectations be met when the Communist leadership was divided on the principal issue of the day, the prospects for a proletarian revolution in Germany? On this point all factions disagreed. While it was generally recognized, in a vague and hazy way, that the Communists as the vanguard of the proletariat had to win influence over the masses in order to lead them to victory, the propitiousness of the moment as well as the tactics to be applied toward this end remained constant subjects of controversy among the party hierarchy.

Up to the moment when the Levi Zentrale resigned, the views of the party’s right wing had determined policy and set the course. While its spokesmen had admitted to the presence of “objective” factors which favored revolution, particularly rising unemployment, the threatened financial collapse of the state, and the growing misery of the masses, they had maintained that such “subjective” factors as the relative strength of the Communists vis-à-vis the state, and the absence of a genuine revolutionary spirit among German labor, offset the aspects favorable for a successful revolutionary movement. The right wing, under Levi’s guidance, had advocated that for the moment the only feasible slogan which the party could employ with any hope of success was that of “Alliance with Soviet Russia.” Levi thought this slogan particularly opportune in view of the growing tension between Germany and the Western Allies, a theory which he elaborately defended before and after the March uprising. In April 1921 Levi wrote: “With the Paris demands [Diktat] the German Reich entered upon a new, acute crisis, and this acute crisis, as was self-evident, had to be utilized for an Aktion. . . . The former Zentrale accepted the slogan [Alliance with Soviet Russia] . . . unanimously. . . . At the first sign of crisis it [the KPD] marched forward with the corresponding slogan . .. [and] this slogan—`Alliance with Soviet Russia’—had to become, of course, the leitmotif of all Communist propaganda during the weeks preceding the actual crisis. . . . We were convinced that this common struggle . . . would for the first time really close the ranks of the party.”

Whatever Levi may have meant with his vague reference to an Aktion in the event of possible conflict between Germany and the West, he had certainly not visualized a putsch. This is evident from his own interpretation: “During times of crisis when the masses are in a state of political turmoil . . . the Communist party has the duty to show a positive way out of the present dangers. The slogans of the V.K.P.D. must not be humdrum, everyday slogans, but must issue directly from any given crisis. . . . Such a slogan can only be `Alliance with Soviet Russia’. . . . It had been issued as a concrete slogan, i.e. one which could also be immediately realized by the bourgeois government, and at the same time could guide the proletariat in its struggle for the fulfilment of these demands.”

In short, the party’s right wing set its hopes upon a possible conflict between Germany and the Western Allies, a conflict which might lead to a Russo-German alliance. How exactly the German Communists were to profit from such an alliance Levi never made clear. What he did make clear was his determination not to permit rash actions to anticipate events, but to wait for an international crisis, and meanwhile to prepare the proletariat for a war in which the Western powers would be faced by the Soviet Union and its ally—the German bourgeois republic!

It will be recalled that Levi’s views had evoked vehement criticism from the Left Opposition. In contrast to Levi and the majority of his colleagues in the Zentrale, the Berlin Left believed that a new revolutionary wave was in the offing, and that the party had to prepare its own members and as many non-Communist workers as possible for the event. On February 12 the Rote Fahne had published an article by Reuter-Friesland in which he had clearly enunciated the position of the Left.

“We were all of the opinion, up to now, that the German bourgeoisie is not oppressed, that the German bourgeoisie enjoys life, and that it counts on the fraternal support of the Entente imperialists while oppressing the German proletariat . . . ; it is exactly for this reason that we have made it our task to fight against every nationalist slogan. Let me remind you that the Communist party neither approved of the Versailles treaty, nor opposed it, but demanded the revolutionary solution of the world crisis. . . .

“For the time being, the German proletariat must first solve its mission in Germany. Hic Rhodus, hic salta!. . . . Let the German proletariat first break the resistance of this [bourgeois] society; let the German proletariat first secure possession of all factories and [other] enterprises; then we shall see how this struggle for liberation waged by the German workers will affect the proletariat of England, France . . . of the western countries. . . . We do not want contrived [an den Haaren herbeigezogen] measures designed to convince either the German workers or the Executive [of the Comintern] how active we are. We want to show the German working masses the clear, unequivocal, though difficult road to the German revolution.”

The conflicting opinions on party strategy were still a burning issue when Levi and his friends resigned, saddling the Brandler Zentrale with the thankless task of choosing a proper solution. It soon became apparent that the views of the Left were gaining ground. They did so despite the fact that this faction was not represented in the new Zentrale, and that its criticism of the right wing had been voted down in the same meeting which had culminated in the resignation of the Levi group. But the spokesmen of the left wing were also in control of the party’s strong and radical Berlin organization, which Reuter and two of his colleagues represented in the Central Committee. And since the Zentrale likewise had its headquarters in Berlin, it was constantly exposed to the influence of the Reuter-Fischer-Maslow triumvirate. After Levi and his friends were no longer in positions of authority, the Berliners had the field largely to themselves, and they made good use of their opportunity.

The Left tried hard to convince the new leadership that now was the time to show the German working class the road to the German revolution. This approach had in its favor the awareness of the new Zentrale that Moscow and large segments of the KPD expected German Communism to adopt a more vigorous approach toward its ultimate objective. Nevertheless, the underlying preconceptions held respectively by the Berliners and the Brandler Zentrale were fundamentally different. While Reuter, the most prominent figure of the Left, wanted the party prepared to make use of he new revolutionary wave which he sincerely anticipated, the Wandler Zentrale wanted to conjure up a revolutionary situation, even though few of its members shared Reuter’s optimistic view of the revolutionary wave on the horizon. They were primarily concerned to demonstrate that the KPD, under new management, would no longer be a do-nothing party, but a party of action, and that it would daringly lead the lethargic German workers out of the bondage of bourgeois capitalist exploitation. With the Communist mission thus formulated in theory, the sole remaining question was how to go about it in practice. To find the answer, the new party leaders began to scan the national and international scenes the hope that they would somehow, somewhere, find both an occasion and a justification for an Aktion.

During the first three months of 1921 the international situation was tense. The Allied conference which was held at Paris between January 24 and 29 had yielded some definite proposals for German reparation payments, and a German delegation was invited to come to London on March 1 to negotiate on the foundation laid by the Paris conference. Public opinion in Germany was unanimously hostile to the Paris decisions, and the German plenipotentiaries were not expected to display a very conciliatory attitude in London. This expectation proved to be correct, and the negotiations which began on March 1 ended in an impasse. An ultimatum to comply with Allied demands on reparations was rejected by Germany on March 7, and at 7 A.M. of the following day French troops occupied the cities of Duisburg, Thisseldorf, and Ruhrort in the Ruhr region. The situation was critical, and no rapid solution was in sight. The Allies remained firm, threatened that further sanctions might be applied, and demanded payment of twenty million gold marks by May 1. In addition, a new customs line was drawn along the Rhine, which cut off normal commercial intercourse between the Reich and its territory on the left bank of the river.

Difficulties between Germany and the Western Allies were intensified in the East by the approaching plebiscite in Upper Silesia, which was to determine where the German-Polish frontier would be drawn. Throughout 1920, and especially in August of that year, armed clashes between Poles and Germans had occurred sporadically along the disputed border region. The threat of new outbursts of violence remained constant. As the day of the plebiscite approached (March 20, 1921), tension mounted in Upper Silesia, partly because of renewed anti-German agitation in the Polish press. The situation was decidedly dangerous.

One domestic problem, Bavaria, flared up with fresh bitterness early in 1921. All attempts by the German government to make Bavaria disband her civil guards (Einwohnerwehren), particularly the controversial Orgesch, had failed. The Bavarians justified their obstinacy with the argument that the civil guards alone stood between the security of the population and Communist anarchy. On February 5, 1921, a conference of prime ministers from the individual German states (Lander) met in Berlin to discuss the whole sordid question once again. The Allied conference at Paris had issued a final injunction on January 29 under which the German government was instructed to enforce the disbanding of all paramilitary organizations inside the Reich by June 30, 1921. But despite the urgency of the matter, the conference of prime ministers reached no agreement. The central government insisted that the Allied demands would have to be met, and Bavaria’s Minister President von Kahr refused to comply. Kahr added that Bavaria would await the outcome of the London conference before making a decision. This stand was reaffirmed on February 8 by a council of the Bavarian ministry, and reiterated by Kahr before the Bavarian diet on February 17 and March 7. At this point the German government finally lost patience. Faced with Allied sanctions in the West on account of the reparations deadlock, and threatened by possible international complications arising from the Upper Silesian plebiscite, the government was determined to stave off additional trouble with the Allies by taking a firm stand on the civil guard issue. On March 12, a draft bill was introduced in the Reichsrat, the German upper house representing the individual states, which provided for general German disarmament in accordance with articles 177 and 178 of the peace treaty. The bill went to the Reichstag on March 14, was slightly revised in committee, and finally passed into law inn March 19, 1921. It was another two and a half months, however, before Bavaria finally admitted defeat and agreed to comply with time law. In the meantime, the issue continued to hang in the balance.”

The combination of domestic and foreign political problems which the republic faced by the end of February was indeed formidable—a fact which was not lost on the German Communists. But although they recognized the political potentials of the situation, they were so overwhelmed by what appeared to be a wealth of opportunities that they did not know how to deal with them. The Brandler Zentrale resembled a group of explorers at the edge of a vast wilderness, impatient to go, but undecided where to start and how to proceed. Thus in the absence of a clear and suitable plan the Communist leaders resorted to half-measures and improvisations. The program—if the muddle which resulted can be honored with this term—consisted merely of a formula which had served the KPD repeatedly, albeit ineffectually, in the past: strengthen the party, prepare it for action, and infuse revolutionary spirit into the German working class! But there was as yet no clear conception of what kind of action the party was to prepare, nor any clear idea as to what exactly it was to accomplish. In the absence of more substantial plans, the Zentrale restricted its activities for the moment to the dissemination of revolutionary propaganda to the masses, leaving the rest of its program to the future. In spite of the recent fiasco of the first Open Letter (January 8, 1921), the Zentrale, mindful of the fact that persistence was a virtue, published another manifesto in the Rote Fahne on March 4. The appeal was addressed “To the German Proletariat,” and began with the jeering observation that the diplomatic negotiations at London had led the German capitalists nowhere. Their surrender to the demands of the Entente powers was imminent, and the present negotiations had but one objective, to sell out German workers in order to reap benefits for German capitalists. The working class had only one alternative—the overthrow of the bourgeois government. No God was going to help the workers; they must help. themselves. Then the tone became shrill.

“The German working class faces once again an hour of destiny. Your fate will not be decided in London, but in Germany and by you.. . . The choice is yours. . . . You cannot evade this struggle. . . . Hesitate no longer. You have nothing to lose. Be resolved to take action. Demonstrate on Sunday [March 6], stir up all who are dilatory. March against your oppressors! Against the dual yoke of foreign and German exploiters! For the Communist reconstruction! Away with all bourgeois governments! For the rule of the working class! Alliance [Schutz-und Trutzbandnis] with Soviet Russia! Economic Union with Soviet Russia!”

This appeal elicited a letter from Paul Levi the following day. Directing himself to the Zentrale, the former party chairman called the appeal mere irresponsible propaganda, and its slogans unconvincing except to members of the KPD. He charged that the Zentrale had surrendered to the Berlin Left when the new line of propaganda was adopted. Instead of expounding highly unrealistic aims in the appeal, the Zentrale should have retained “Alliance with Soviet Russia” as its only slogan, without the other nonsense which at the moment could have no effect on most Germans. His letter closed with the words: “I see in the general attitude a weakness of the German Zentrale, the consequences of which I am as yet unable to foresee!”

This letter resulted in a meeting on March 8 in Berlin between the members of the Zentrale and the Communist Reichstag delegation, which included Levi and Zetkin. Levi’s account of this meeting is the only available source. According to him, all but one member of the Zentrale, Paul Frolich, proved amenable to his criticism of the most recent party line. Frolich defended the appeal, and demanded that once matters came to a head the party should issue the slogan: “Overthrow the Government and Elect Workers’ Councils.” Although no formal decision was taken on the matter, Levi left the conference apparently in the belief that he had convinced all members of the Zentrale, except Frolich, of the clumsiness and untimeliness of the party’s latest approach to revolution. He was soon to learn that he had been mistaken.

For in the first days of March, 1921, the German Communists received an unexpected visit. From the East appeared three emissaries of the ECCI, the Hungarians Bela Kun and Joseph Pepper, alias Pogany, and the Pole August Guralsky, alias Kleine. The latter two, it appears, kept discreetly in the background and left the transaction of business to Kun. After a short and unhappy career as leader of the Hungarian Communist revolt in 1919, Bela Kun had found a job and a home with the Executive Committee of the Third (Communist) International, where he soon made a name for himself by his unscrupulous tactics and extreme left-wing orientation. Sir Harold Nicolson, who met Kun in April 1919, has given a thumbnail sketch of the then triumphant revolutionary chief: “A little man of about 30: puffy white face and loose wet lips: shaven head: impression of red hair: shifty suspicious eyes: he has the face of a sulky and uncertain criminal.”‘ And now Kun had come with his fellow travelers to Germany in order to launch the KPD on the road to revolution.

The situation which they encountered upon their arrival proved very favorable for their plans. The leaders of the KPD, eager to prove their mettle but at a loss how to proceed, were easy prey for Kun who, in their eyes at least, represented the will of the Kremlin. Whether the party’s appeal of March 4 was the handiwork of the “Turkestaner,” as Levi called them, is doubtful; it is certain only that no final decision was taken during the first two weeks of March. Kun used this time to convince the Zentrale that the KPD must exploit the unique combination of national and international crises for an action of its own. The party, Kun urged, must take the offensive even if it should have to resort to provocative measures. Once an offensive was launched, two to three million German workers would follow the lead of the Communists. Kun was generous with optimistic estimates, and his enthusiasm captured the imagination of most members of the Zentrale. By March 10 Kun felt sufficiently sure of his success to reveal his ideas to Clara Zetkin, who was so shocked by what she had heard that she immediately informed Paul Levi and told him that she refused to have any further conversations with Kun unless witnesses were present. On March 14 Levi himself talked to Kun and was treated to the same grandiloquent schemes which had outraged Clara Zetkin a few days earlier. One might have expected that the former party chairman would have tried his utmost to block Kun’s ventures then and there, that he would have used whatever authority his opinion still carried to beat the alarm, to warn his comrades not to listen to a tempter whose ineptness had been so clearly revealed during the Hungarian revolution of 1919. But if Levi did so he has left no record of his attempts. Perhaps he refused to take Kun’s revolutionary overtures seriously; perhaps he put his faith in the sanity of his former colleagues or, conscious of his political eclipse, fatalistically shrugged off any further responsibility. -Whatever his reasons may have been, Levi resolved to take a vacation and, shortly after his talk with Kun, departed for Vienna, with Italy as his ultimate destination.

On March 16 and 17, 1921, the Zentrale met with the Central Committee in Berlin for a high-level conference, to determine what strategy the KPD was to adopt in the immediate future. Brandler presided and delivered the keynote address, which began with an analysis of the political situation as he saw it. The analysis presented the assembled functionaries and the Communist newspaper editors from every German district with a number of amazing statements. In addition to a sweeping and rapid recapitulation of all existing crises at home and abroad, which ranged from the effects of the London conference and the Upper Silesian plebiscite to the counter-revolutionary plans of the Orgesch, Brandler outdid himself by conjuring up the acute possibility of war between the United States and Great Britain. The new party chairman, perhaps affected by Kun’s optimism, stated that the chances of conflicts along Germany’s borders were nine to one, and that in the event of their outbreak the influence of the KPD would extend beyond the four to five million [sic!] Communists.

“I maintain that we have in the Reich today two to three million non-Communist workers who can be influenced by our Communist organization, who will fight under our flag . . . even in an offensive action [started by the KPD]. If my view is correct, then the situation obligates us to deal with the existing tensions at home and abroad no longer passively; we must no longer exploit . . . [them] merely for agitation, but we are obligated … to interfere through Aktionen in order to change matters in our sense”.

The speech was followed by a general discussion in which the members of the Zentrale voiced their support of Brandler’s theses. The most enthusiastic endorsement came from Paul Frolich, who called the projected plan of action a “complete break with the past” because the Communists, up to then always on the defensive, had finally reached the point when they would have to challenge fate by way of revolution. Frolieh elaborated that “we must now . . . go over to the offensive. . . . We can aggravate the existing [international] complications tremendously by calling on the masses in the Rhineland to go on strike, thereby sharpening . . . the prevailing differences between the Entente and the German government.” In Bavaria the party’s task would be provocation of the civil guards, in order to stir up trouble in that region.

Similar sentiments were voiced by Ernst Reuter-Friesland, who represented the Berlin organization in the Central Committee. He told the conference that the party must take action now, even if the Communists should find themselves fighting alone in the coming struggle. But the activists were not unopposed. Dissenting voices were raised, one of them by Heinrich Malzahn, a union official, member of the Reichstag, and an adherent of the Levi faction. Malzahn, unimpressed by Brandler’s rhetoric which struck him as exceedingly hazy, suggested that it was inadvisable to sanction blindly any future commitment by the party for a revolutionary offensive.” But his objections and those raised by like-minded sceptics carried no weight. The opponents of the suggested policy of action were hesitant and irresolute in their attempts to combat the bravado of the assembled party leaders. “The best lack all convictions, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” wrote William Butler Yeats in 1919, and his words well sum up the atmosphere in which the KPD leadership in March 1921 decided to embark upon revolution. Kun and his friends, though not personally in evidence during the conference, ultimately carried the day. In a series of resolutions it was decided to alert the party and to work toward a further increase of tensions wherever feasible. The party was to engage in armed struggles as soon as the combination of crisis atmosphere and Communist agitation produced an outbreak of violence anywhere. The overthrow of the existing German federal government was to be the first objective of the projected operation. “Overthrow the Government” was to serve as a fighting slogan in conjunction with the familiar demand, “Alliance with Soviet Russia.” Finally, in order not to jeopardize needlessly the success of the whole scheme, the conference resolved to make every effort to postpone the Aktion until after Easter week, a period unsuitable for strikes since factories were closed.

The decision was reached, the plans were laid, but the party’s freedom of action was lost even before the conference voted to adjourn. In her last editorial, published in the Rote Fahne on January 13, 1919, Rosa Luxemburg had warned that “the revolution just does not operate of its own accord, on an open battlefield, and according to a plan cleverly laid by ‘strategists.’ Its opponents can also take the initiative; moreover, they usually avail themselves of it more often than does the revolution.” Brandler, his colleagues, and Kun and company were soon to learn how true her observation was. While the conference was still in session, on March 17, the Communist leaders received word that the Social Democratic Oberpräsident (approx.: governor) of the Prussian province of Saxony, Otto Horsing, had the day before issued a proclamation announcing his intention to dispatch police forces into the Eisleben-Mansfeld districts of the province. The proclamation stated that the purpose of this measure was the restoration of order and security in that strike-ridden industrial region. The occasion for which the Zentrale had been waiting so eagerly had arrived, but prematurely, and from an unexpected quarter. All of a sudden the Communists were forced to face an unforeseen situation in which their opponents had taken the initiative.

* * *

Situated in the heart of Germany, the Prussian province of Saxony and the neighboring states of Thuringia and Saxony formed an economic unit which in industrial importance ranked with the Ruhr region and Upper Silesia. Prussian Saxony was the home of the Leuna Works which produced gasoline and chemicals; it was also a mining center where lignite, potash, and copper slate were dug. It rated high in steel production and had a number of processing industries.

The region was densely populated by industrial workers and had already seen labor trouble before the war. In January 1910, during a strike wave in the Mansfeld coal district, the regular army was sent in to maintain order. The district of Halle, one of six regional organizations which as early as 1913 belonged to the left wing of the SPD, was expelled by that party in the fall of 1916, and in the spring of 1917 participated in the founding of the Independent Social Democratic Party. After the November revolution, radicalism in the region became endemic. The rapidly expanding lignite mining and chemical industries attracted many newcomers, especially from the western provinces, after Germany, under the terms of the peace treaty, lost the large hard coal deposits of Alsace-Lorraine and Eupen-Malmedy. The new arrivals included a good number of rootless and shiftless people, many of whom had been toughened, if not brutalized, by years of trench warfare. Apart from these local conditions, the region shared with the rest of the country the political confusion, economic dislocation, and the disillusionment and de-moralization which followed in the wake of the lost war. Itinerant agitators, roving from mining town to mill town, addressed audiences of disgruntled and hungry workers who listened eagerly to anyone who offered to improve their miserable lot. Immediately after the war the region became a stronghold of the USPD, but, as economic conditions deteriorated further, the Communists gained around. In the elections to the Prussian diet on February 20, 1921, in the electoral district of Halle-Merseburg, the KPD obtained 197,113 votes as compared to 70,340 for the SPD, and 74,754 for I he USPD.

The Prussian government realized as early as 1919 that the province of Saxony, notably the Halle district, was a center of economic and political unrest. Wildcat strikes, clashes between workers and police, and thefts in factories and on the farm lands occurred with Increasing frequency. After the Kapp Putsch, a state of siege was proclaimed in the province and was not lifted until September 1920. In the following month the Prussian Minister of the Interior Carl Severing suggested to the Obärprasident of Prussian Saxony, Otto Horsing, that a drastic reorganization of the police in the troubled region was essential if order and security were to be restored. It was also known that the population had surrendered only a small number of arms after the upheavals which had followed the Kapp Putsch, and the existence of undiscovered arms caches was a constant source of concern to the Prussian authorities.

The situation continued to deteriorate during the winter months of 1920-1921. The Prussian government received complaints from factory owners and farmers who charged that thefts were increasing. All attempts to prevent theft by means of private plant detectives, bodily searches, and stricter supervision were answered by spontaneous strikes, beating of guards, sabotage, and other terroristic acts. Conditions were particularly tense in the Leuna Works near Merseburg, and in the Eisleben copper slate works. Both industrial plants were harassed by strikes at the end of January and the beginning of February, 1921. At Leuna the issue was a demand for shorter hours, at Eisleben resistance to the presence of plant detectives. Both strikes were settled, apparently by promises on the part of management which satisfied the workers.

In view of the constant stream of complaints which reached the office of the Obärprdsident, Horsing called a conference at Merscburg for February 12 to which he invited the Landrdte, mayors, and chief representatives of industry from the region. The discussions at the conference revealed a gloomy picture, and Horsing was particularly shocked by reports that farmers had their manure carted away under cover of darkness. It is uncertain whether the decision to send a police expedition into the Eisleben-Mansfeld districts was reached on that occasion or only on February 28, when Horsing called another conference with the same participants. In any event, plans for such a measure were definitely made in February. The original plan called for the occupation of Eisleben by 300 policemen, and of Hettstedt by 200. The occupation was not to commence be-fore March 19 in order not to jeopardize the plebiscite in Upper Silesia, scheduled for March 20. Horsing was afraid that an operation at an earlier date might harm the German cause in the plebiscite by reducing rail transportation needed to take voters to the region, and by prompting possible sympathy strikes on the part of railway personnel.

It seems that up to this point Horsing considered the pacification of his bailiwick as strictly his own responsibility, to be handled by local officials and local police forces. Though he kept the Prussian government abreast of developments, Horsing was apparently not eager to have his superiors interfere in what he believed were his own affairs. There was in addition a distinct difference of opinion as to what exactly the projected police occupation was to accomplish, and against whom it was to be primarily directed. Horsing went out of his way to emphasize the non-political nature of the disturbances, and before and after the uprisings in central Germany insisted that all his efforts were directed toward restoring the authority of the state (in this case, Horsing’s authority), which was being undermined by criminal elements and trouble makers.

In contrast to Horsing’s parochial views, the Prussian State Commissioner for Safeguarding Public Security, Dr. Weismann, saw central Germany primarily as a political powder-keg which at any moment could be blown sky high by Communist conspirators. But Weismann was in a difficult position. His suspicions were largely hosed on intuition, a fact which he admitted after the uprising, and ns he was unable to prove that left-wing radicals in Prussian Saxony were planning a revolt, he could not convince either Severing or Horsing of the validity of his point of view.

Severing’s ideas on how to handle the unruly province differed from both Horsing’s and Weismann’s. Severing was willing to allow the Oberpräsident a free hand as long as unrest remained restricted to Prussian Saxony and did not acquire political overtones. Thus he kept in touch with developments and, although he was unimpressed by Weismann’s somber predictions of a putsch, he did not rule out the possibility that the Communists would sooner or later exploit  the tensions in the Mansfeld region. In such a case, Severing was determined to “clear the air” by every means at the disposal of the Prussian government. The moment when Severing decided to interfere arrived on March 13, 1921. On that day, an unsuccessful attempt was made to dynamite the Siegessaule (victory column), a famous and venerable land-mark in the heart of Berlin. Twelve pounds of high explosives, packed in a cardboard box, were discovered by visitors to the monument on the morning of March 13. Only a defective fuse had prevented damage, and possibly casualties.

A number of East German historians, who in February 1956 conducted a colloquium on the March uprising, have once again proffered a charge, which dates back to 1921, that the attempt against the Siegessaule was part of a deliberate plot by the Prussian government to implicate the Communists, and that the dynamite was in fact placed by police spies. Since this charge constitutes the key argument on which the Communists, then and now, have based their interpretation of the origins of the March uprising, it will be necessary to dwell briefly on the bomb plot.

When the dynamite was discovered, 50,000 marks were offered as a reward to anyone who could lead the police to the persons who had placed it. In addition, a thorough description of the bomb and its wrappings appeared in the newspapers. The description stated that six kilograms of dynamite had been placed in a cardboard box marked “Dr. Oetkers Saucenpulver,” that the color of the box was brown, and that the detonation caps were marked “Anhaltische Sprengwerke.” On March 21, thus after the police occupation in central Germany had begun, the Berlin police arrested eleven persons, some of whom carried membership cards of the KAPD. These men confessed that they placed the bomb. The explosion, according to the testimony of some, was intended to intimidate the population, initiate a new revolutionary wave and, incidentally, mark the first anniversary of the Kapp Putsch. None of the prisoners revealed the identity of the man who had given them their orders. None of them was a member of the KPD.

There is little doubt that this project was neither conceived nor executed by any political party, but was a typical example of “individual terror” on the part of revolutionary cranks, who abounded in Germany during the postwar period. According to the account of Max Hoelz, one of the most colorful revolutionaries of this period, the idea of blowing up the monument came from a freewheeling radical named Ferry, alias Hering. Ferry met Hoelz in Berlin (no date is indicated, except that Hoelz went to Berlin in December 1920), and asked for money with which to buy explosives necessary for his plot. He promised in return to manufacture bombs and hand grenades for Hoelz. The deal went through, to the satisfaction of both individuals concerned. The Siegessaule incident convinced Severing of the need for a large-scale, state-supported operation in central Germany. Since all indications pointed toward the plot’s having originated in the province of Saxony, Severing dispatched police agents of the criminal detachment to the region, with instructions to investigate whether dynamite had been stolen there. He also ordered police reinforcements from Berlin and other places to be alerted for the projected operation, and arranged with Horsing that another conference be called at Merseburg on March 17. One day before the conference was held, Horsing published his proclamation to the workers in the central German industrial districts. It was a lengthy appeal which began with a description of diverse lawless acts that of late had increased in number and severity. Wildcat strikes, robbery, looting, and terrorist activities by roving armed bands headed the list of offenses. The damages done to agricultural and industrial property were mentioned, and also bodily injuries inflicted on guards who had tried to prevent theft and looting. The appeal called attention to the fact that workers who had refused to go on strike had been threatened, and at times brutally beaten. Furthermore, lawfully elected factory councils had been replaced on many occasions by so-called action committees. Horsing pointed out that his impression during a recent tour of inspection had been that these outrages were not instigated by Communists, but by “international criminals” who were posing as Communists and were using the most absurd slogans in their attempts to stir up trouble.

The appeal closed as follows:

“In the interest of labor, agriculture, industry, commerce, and trade I have given orders that strong contingents of police forces will be sent into many towns of the industrial region within the next few days. . . . The police forces will treat with equal firmness both the criminals themselves and all those who should attempt to prevent the forces from carrying out their duty, offer open opposition, or try to incite the population . . . in an effort to hinder the police forces in the execution of their mission.”

The conference on March 17 was attended by Horsing, Severing, Weismann, the highest administrative official of the district of Merseburg, Regierungsprasident von Gersdorff, and representatives of all political parties except the Communists. The discussion was primarily concerned with strategy, and two days later, March 19, the police occupation began.

Who, then, bore the largest share of responsibility for the ensuing disorders? The Communists put the entire blame on the Prussian government in general, and on Severing in particular, charging that lie workers of central Germany were to be provoked into active opposition, so that Severing could crack down and settle accounts with Ilse Communists. But the proponents of this theory conveniently disregard a number of relevant facts. They discount, or even deny, the role played by Bela Kun and his fellow “Turkestaner,” who spent the first half of March trying to sell their plan for a revolution to the Zentrale of the KPD. They also misrepresent the tenor of the debate at the Central Committee meeting on March 16 and 17, falsify the reasons why the conference was called in the first place, and do not mention either the Zentrale’s intention to prepare for an uprising before Horsing’s appeal became known to the delegates, or the objections that were raised against these plans by some of the functionaries present. Although the fact is mentioned that one faction at the conference favored a theory of revolutionary offensive, no attempt has been made to point out the effect of this theory on the decisions taken by the party caucus on March 17. True, the uprising which the KPD originally conceived was to have taken place after the Easter holidays, and, according to the party theoreticians, was to have grown out of international complications. What happened instead was that the Prussian government unwittingly anticipated the insurrectionist intentions of the Zentrale by its decision to execute a police occupation of Prussian Saxony. Taken unawares, the Communists, for reasons which will be discussed shortly, allowed themselves to become involved in a struggle at a time and place not of their own choosing, and under circumstances that favored the Prussian government, which had seized the initiative.

It is conceivable that the March uprising would not have occurred at all if the bomb plot against the Siegessdule had not prompted the Prussian government to make a show of force. Persuaded by Severing, Horsing revised his earlier plan to deal with the disturbances in the province exclusively with his own police forces. The area of occupation, which originally was to be confined to the Eisleben-Mansfeld districts, was extended to include the Merseburg area as well, and the number of police contingents was doubled by calling on out-side reinforcements. These measures gave the operation from the beginning an appearance quite out of proportion to its alleged objective, the suppression of a local crime wave. The man behind these changes was Severing. There is good reason to believe that after the Siegessdule plot Severing, and through him Horsing, were converted to Weismann’s point of view that the series of incidents discovered during the early part of 1921 were indicative of a contemplated Communist putsch. They happened to be right, but the indications on which the Prussian officials based their assumptions were largely incidental and not part of the actual plan which the KPD finally adopted on March 17.

Despite their suspicions, Severing, Horsing, and Weismann upheld the official version that the police occupation of Prussian Saxony had no political motives, but was entirely a measure designed to stamp out crime. In view of the fact that the Communists were the only political party not represented at the Merseburg conference of March 17, coupled with the large-scale preparations for the his pending move, the argument is unconvincing. It was nevertheless maintained after the uprising had been crushed, except for a revealing remark made by Severing. He was questioned by a member of the investigation committee appointed by the Prussian diet as to whether it was true that the police forces employed in Saxony were intentionally kept below the numbers required for a quick operation lest “the thunderstorm would not have broken, leaving the atmosphere sultry.” Severing denied the intention but agreed that the relative weakness of the police proved a blessing in disguise, because it brought the simmering insurrection out into the open where it could be fought. In his memoirs, Severing went even further by adding that “it was not, after all, the objective of the police action merely to punish the misdeeds of a few evildoers, but to pacify the region by means of a thorough disarmament action (Entwaffnungsaktion).” To this extent, and only to this extent, can the Communist charge of government “provocation” be eonsidered justified. But it must also be kept in mind that the Prussian officials were leaning over backward not to challenge the KPD openly, going so far as to maintain the legal fiction of an operation against crime. Under these circumstances, the Communist leaders could easily have ignored Horsing’s appea1. That they chose not to do so was to cost the life of many a comrade from the rank and file.



  1. Fascinating, looking forward to reading the rest.

    Comment by Nathan — June 13, 2018 @ 7:03 pm

  2. Thalheimer and Brandler learnt their lesson from the March Action and thereafter promoted policies that insisted that the KPD needed to obtain support from the majority of the working class if it were to succeed as a revolutionary party. Thalheimer’s pamphlet 1923: A Missed Opportunity? The Legend of the German October and the Real History of 1923, written in 1932, is well worth reading for a sober reflection on 1923.

    Comment by Dr Paul — June 13, 2018 @ 9:52 pm

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