Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 29, 2018

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

Filed under: Werner Angress — louisproyect @ 8:35 pm

This is the third chapter from Werner Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution: The Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923” that deals with the March 1921 Aktion that was an ultraleft adventure sanctioned by the Comintern. When it turned out to be a disaster, Paul Levi, who had already been ousted from party leadership, wrote a blistering and public critique titled “Our Path: Against Putschism” without bothering to get the whacked-out CP leadership’s approval. This got him expelled from the CP even though Lenin plagiarized his analysis and defended it at the Third Congress Of The Communist International that met in Moscow between June 22-July 12, 1921.

Unlike Pierre Broué, whose history of the German CP in the 1920s shares the same criticisms, Angress sees the Third Congress as the first step in the Comintern’s assumption of a centralizing dynamic that prefigures Stalin’s totalitarian control. Even if Lenin and Trotsky had the authority to read the German ultraleft the riot act and set the CP’s on a more rational course, that authority served to rob the CP’s of the independence they once enjoyed. Specifically, in the case of Germany, it meant undermining the Rosa Luxemburg’s conception of how a revolutionary party should function that was defended by Paul Levi, her successor.

In my next series of excerpts, I will be dealing with another fiasco imposed on the German CP by the Comintern that led to the Fourth Congress’s “Bolshevization” turn, which in turn led to the sect formations the left has been trying with mixed results to supersede in the past 30 years or so.

THE BATTLE was over, the party counted its losses, and victors proceeded to punish the vanquished. Public opinion was bitterly hostile to the Communists, particularly because, during the last stages of the uprising, the fighting in Prussian Saxony been ferocious, and charges of atrocities were raised by both sides. On March 29 the Prussian government established special courts for the prosecution of captured agitators, and for weeks after the end of hostilities the legal mills ground out sentences which altogether amounted to an estimated 3000 years of prison and penitentiary terms for 4000 insurgents. Five years earlier, when the British under somewhat similar circumstances crushed another Easter rebellion, that of the Sinn Feiners, they executed Sir Roger Casement and fifteen other leaders, but showed marked restraint in dealing with the rank and file of the Irish Volunteers and the Citizen Army. In Germany, on the other hand, only two prominent leaders, Max Hoelz and Heinrich Brandler, were tried and convicted, whereas on the rank and file, who had borne the brunt of the fighting, fell most of the retribution that followed. It was therefore hardly surprising that the membership of the Communist Party, which at the beginning of the uprising had numbered about 350,000, dropped to a mere 180,443 by the summer of 1921.

As soon as the insurrection had collapsed, the Communist Party underwent a grave internal crisis, set off by Paul Levi. News of the Aktion had reached him in Vienna, on his way to Italy, and he returned at once to Germany. As he was no longer a leading official, Levi had to gather his information from friends and acquaintances who had participated in the various decisive conferences held by the party prior to and during the initial stages of the uprising. On March 29 he sent a summary of his findings to Lenin in a confidential letter in which he made it quite clear that he felt in no way responsible for what had occurred, but that he would not interfere while the uprising was in progress.

The first Central Committee meeting after the debacle was held on April 7 and 8. The new leadership failed to invite Levi, presumably because they did not care to have him state his views on their conduct of the party’s affairs. But they could not very well exclude Clara Zetkin, then in her sixties. After Brandler had given his version of the recent developments, the old lady proceeded to castigate the Zentrale for having recklessly precipitated an Aktion. She criticized the use of extreme and unrealistic political slogans which, she said, had turned the masses against the KPD. She called for an end to “revolutionary calisthenics” and for a return of concern for the interests of the masses; she concluded her speech with a motion for a vote of censure of the Zentrale’s policy and asked for a special party congress (ausserordentlicher Parteitag) in the near future to air all problems in open debate. After a brief discussion, Clara Zetkin’s motion was put to the vote and defeated 43 to 6, with three abstentions. Encouraged by this initial victory, the Zentrale introduced a resolution of its own which turned into a lengthy and involved justification of the revolutionary offensive, presenting it as the only proper revolutionary approach in the face of counterrevolutionary provocation and assault: “The overall situation . . . required . . .the sharpest class struggles; it demanded that the working class seize the revolutionary initiative . . . resolve upon independent action, and meet the counterrevolution in a powerful counterattack. . . .” In answer to Zetkin’s criticism that faulty tactics had alienated the masses, the Zentrale produced the excuse that the German workers had remained passive as a result of unemployment and Socialist demagogy. Under the circumstances the KPD could not afford lo wait until the reluctant workers took courage, and the party chose to risk defeat rather than to do nothing. The resolution, meandering on through twelve paragraphs, praised the fighting spirit displayed by the party, re-emphasized that revolution was the ultimate duty of every Communist, and consigned responsibility for defeat to the counterrevolutionaries and their Socialist lackeys. It concluded with the same tone of self-righteousness with which it began: “Therefore the Central Committee approves of the political and tactical attitude taken by the Zentrale; condemns in the strongest terms the passive and active opposition of individual comrades during the Aktion; and calls upon the Zentrale to put the organization into top fighting condition by introducing all measures required to do so. The resolution was voted upon and passed 26 to 14. A number of additional motions, dealing primarily with organizational improvements, enforcement of discipline, and the right of the Zentrale to expel any individual who was found unworthy of remaining a party member, passed equally handsomely and enhanced the triumph of the Zentrale. One of its members, Max Sievers, was deprived of hit office because he had broken party discipline during the uprising, and the Central Committee adjourned.

The failure of Clara Zetkin’s criticism prompted Paul Levi to address himself directly to the public. As soon as he was informed of the outcome of the Central Committee meeting, he sent to press a polemical pamphlet on the Aktion which he had written a few days earlier, April 3 and 4. Unser Weg was a blistering attack on the methods and errors of the Zentrale, interspersed with several oblique references to Kun and his colleagues. Levi wrote the pamphlet with a lawyer’s touch and the pathos of a thwarted lover. He had been forced to watch the party, which he had helped to found, fall into the hands of incompetents, adventurers, and misguided idealists who, within the short span of a week, had almost succeeded in thoroughly discrediting the Communist cause. All the bitterness, the disappointment, the indignation of the author were reflected in the sharp and aggressive tone of the pamphlet. Levi revealed, sometimes openly, sometimes by insinuation, that the initial plan for an uprising did not originate within the KPD; that the theory of the revolutionary offensive dominated the thinking of party leaders, thus belying the insistent use of the word “defensive”; and that provocations were employed as a means of creating mass action. At the Central Committee meeting on March 16, Frolich had said that the proposed course of action was “a complete break with the past.” Levi commented sarcastically: “It is indeed an innovation in the history of the party which Rosa Luxemburg has founded; it is a complete break with the past that the Communists should labor like juvenile male prostitutes [Achtgroschenjungen] to provoke the murder of their brothers.” But Levi reserved the highest pitch of his angry eloquence for the manner in which the Zentrale had ordered the rank and file into battle, while the leaders themselves stayed in Berlin.

“The Zentrale accelerated the action [steigerte die Aktion]. Squad upon squad rose. . . . Heroic and disdainful of death, the comrades got ready. . . . Squad upon squad prepared for the assault—as the Zentrale ordered. Squad upon squad moved up into battle—as the Zentrale ordered. Squad upon squad met with death—as the Zentrale ordered. [Fahnlein urn Fahnlein ging in den Tod—wie es die Zen-trale gebot.] Ave morituri to salutant“. This passage contained the gist of Levi’s argument: the Zentrale, acting with criminal irresponsibility, had needlessly caused the death of many of its followers. Levi demanded that the guilty ones resign from the leadership of the party.” The pamphlet was published on April 12 and caused a sensation in party circles. The Zentrale was outraged, not only because former chairman washed the party’s dirty linen in public, but also because he revealed secrets which most Communist leaders were not eager to see in print. The only ray of light was the receipt of a congratulatory message from the Communist International, dated April 6, 1921, which was printed in the Rote Fahne immediately after the appearance of Levi’s accusations. Its closing words lead: “The Communist International says to you: You acted rightly! The working class can never win victory by a single blow. You have turned a new page in the history of the German working class, prepare for new struggles. Study the lessons of your past struggles Learn from your experience. Close your ranks, strengthen your organization, legal and illegal, strengthen proletarian discipline and Communist unity in struggle . . . .

Long live the Communist proletariat of Germany!

Long live the proletarian revolution in Germany!

Long live the Communist International!”

Encouraged by the emphatic slap on the back, the Zentrale prepared to deal with Levi, whose expose made him liable to disciplinary action. But Levi did not stand alone. Many of his friends. some still in leading positions, shared his views. One of them, a former leader of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, Richard Muller, had gone at the height of the uprising from one Berlin factory to the next in order to dissuade the metal workers from supporting the general strike. Others, too, had made no secret of their disapproval, In short, the Zentrale knew that the party faced a crisis. But most of its members, irritated by the defeat and stung to the quick by Levi’s public exposure of their actions, were eager to turn on the rebel and his supporters. On April 15, 1921, he was formally expelled from the party on the grounds that he had violated party discipline and solidarity. Upon being asked to surrender his Reichstag seat, Levi refused and appealed to the Central Committee for a hearing.

Levi’s expulsion had immediate repercussions. Eight prominent Communists sided with him by affirming their solidarity with his aims and endorsing his charges against the Zentrale. Four of the frondeurs, Clara Zetkin, Adolf Hoffmann, Ernst Daumig, and Otto Brass, were former members of the Zentrale; one, Curt Geyer, was a member of the Brandler Zentrale, and the remaining three, Heinrich Malzahn, Paul Neumann, and Eckert, were members of the party’s ReichsgewerkschaftsZentrale, a subdivision of the Zentrale in charge of union affairs. Yet the majority of the Communist leaders remained unimpressed. Neither Levi’s criticism nor the demonstrative attitude of his supporters could shake their conviction that they had done the right thing. By way of emphasis they put themselves on record when in mid-April they published a defense of the March uprising under the title Taktik and Organisation der Revolutionaren Offensive: Die Lehren der Marz Aktion.

The Central Committee held another meeting from May 3 to 5, and on May 4 invited Levi to appeal his expulsion. Since Brandler had been arrested by the police on April 18, Wilhelm Pieck presided as acting chairman. It had been Pieck’s intention to restrict the discussion of the “Case Levi” to the question of whether or not Levi had committed a breach of party discipline. To the chairman’s chagrin, Levi shifted the issue by asking whether the March uprising was justifiable or not. He answered this question in the negative and proceeded to repeat the charges which he had made earlier in his pamphlet Unser Weg. Taking issue with such terms as “offensive,” “defensive,” “transition from agitation to action,” all of which were being bandied about indiscriminately by the Zentrale, Levi pointed out that the use of these terms amounted to hairsplitting because throughout the uprising the party leadership had exhibited an offensive spirit. Only necessity had eventually transformed the Aktion into a defensive struggle. Furthermore, the party’s policy during those fatal March days had been full of irresponsible decisions, faulty judgments, inadequate preparation, and poor organization. Terrorist measures—the responsibility for which Levi ascribed, by implication, to Kun—and ill-conceived strategy had ruined the party’s hold on a district which had been one of the foremost Com. munist strongholds in Germany. In addition, the Zentrale had given no thought to public opinion and had grossly overestimated the in. fluence and strength of the KPD.

In this context Levi said: “And now, comrades, another matter . . . It is now being said that it is the duty of the vanguard to engage in an Aktion in order ‘to speed up the [coming of the] revolution,’ Let me read you the following passage: ‘The most important thing is the ideological conquest of the vanguard. Without it even the first step toward victory becomes impossible. Yet from there to the final victory is still quite a distance. One cannot win with only the vanguard. To engage the vanguard in a decisive struggle before the entire class . . . and the broad masses have taken a position by which they can either support the vanguard directly, or at least express their benevolent neutrality . . . would not be merely folly, but a crime as well.’

“The man who wrote this is fortunate that he has not yet been labeled a `Levite’; though he still has every chance to become one, He is Lenin.”

If Levi had any illusions that he could achieve a reversal of the original decision to expel him, he was disappointed. The Central Committee was unimpressed by his eloquence. Reuter-Friesland voiced his regret that Levi’s expulsion was to be based solely on his breach of discipline. Presumably he was more concerned with the heresy of Levi’s behavior, a sentiment quite in line with the fiery defense of the Aktion which Reuter-Friesland had offered at a meeting of Berlin’s KPD leaders a few days earlier. At that meeting, Levi had watched with dismay the enthusiastic reaction of the audience and had commented resignedly with a pun on a line from Schiller’s Wallenstein, “It must be night where Friesland’s [Friedland’s] stars are shining!” The night did not lift at the meeting of the Central Committee which, by a roll call vote, upheld Levi’s expulsion 36 to 7.

With the “Case Levi” apparently closed, the Central Committee got ready to deal with Levi’s supporters. On April 20 the Zentrale had notified the eight principal “Levites” that those of them holding Communist seats in the Reichstag must surrender them to the party at once. Following Levi’s example, they refused, and they persisted in their refusal when the Central Committee reiterated the order on May 4. Faced with what amounted to open rebellion, the committee resorted to a half-measure by passing a vote of censure (31 to 8) against the recalcitrant group, probably in the expectation that the matter would be taken up anyway at the Third Congress of the Communist International which was scheduled to meet in June. There remained one piece of business, a reshuffling of the Zentrale. Max Sievers had been already expelled from his post. Now Paul Wegmann and Curt Geyer joined his fate. The three openings were filled by Jakob Walcher, Emil Hollein and Hugo Eberlein, all old party hands who could be trusted to support the present Zentrale.

The first leader purge conducted by the German Communist Party war over. A renowned party member, a protege of Rosa Luxemburg, and a man who for a crucial year had occupied the highest office the KPD could bestow, had been driven from the party in disgrace. In addition, eight of Levi’s supporters faced the prospect of sharing his fate before long. It would be wrong to assume, however, that the “Right Opposition,” as the group came to be called at the Comintern Congress, had rejected Communism. Levi and his friends were still loyal adherents to the cause, and some of them, notably Clara Zetkin, remained so to their death. They were up in arms because they felt that the new Zentrale had abandoned the course which Rosa Luxemburg had laid down for the party. The Zentrale, with the full support of the left wing, indignantly denied this charge. Neither faction perceived that the fundamental issue was not whether the Levites or the Brandlerites had followed the right course, but to what extent both had failed, and what consequences this would have for the future. None of them, in fact, real-ized that the KPD had arrived at a major crossroad.

The split within the party remained unresolved during the preparations for the Third Comintern Congress. The official delegation of the KPD, all firm champions of the March action, was led by Thalheimer and Frolich. Together with the Communist youth group, it numbered thirty-three delegates. Clara Zetkin, virtually constituting a delegation of her own, went as representative of the Communist Women’s League and also acted as the unofficial spokesman of the Right Opposition. In addition, and by special request from Lenin, Heinrich Malzahn and Paul Neumann attended the congress to state the views of the opposition. As they had not received a mandate from the Zentrale to speak for the party, they had only an advisory vote, and attended to all intents and purposes as a disenfranchised grievance committee. Finally, the KAPD sent four delegates, which put the Germans, divided though they were, among themselves, in second place as far as numerical strength at the congress was concerned. But they, and everyone else, were dwarfed by the Russian delegation of seventy-four voting members.

The German delegation left for Moscow with the expectation that the Russian leaders would receive them as heroes, especially after the ECCI, on April 29, had endorsed Paul Levi’s expulsion from the party in a letter bristling with expressions of disgust and contempt for “the traitor.” They were to be disappointed. The Russians had in the meantime “reinterpreted” the March uprising. The process had been accompanied by severe factional struggles, because the debate on the uprising was only part of a more fundamental problem, the future of world revolution. Ever since the Russo-Polish War of 1920, the revolutionary wave in Europe had subsided, a development which Lenin, at least, was unwilling to ignore. During the winter of 1920-1921, when general unrest all over Russia culminated in the Kronstadt mutiny and made it abundantly clear that the Bolshevik government could strengthen its hold on the people only by giving the country a chance to recover from the civil war, Lenin decided to buy time by making concessions at home and abroad. The first of these was the introduction of the New Economic Policy, which included vigorous efforts to improve trade relations with Western capitalist countries. The German March uprising was thus completely out of tune with the trend that was developing in the fatherland of the revolution. On March 16, the day that Hörsing’s appeal was published, and the German Central Committee listened to Brandler’s variations on a theme by Kun, Russia signed a trade agreement with Great Britain. The Kronstadt mutiny was crushed on March 17, and Lenin had officially introduced N.E.P. on March 15. No wonder that Lenin was unenthusiastic about the German events, that he was hardly surprised when the uprising failed, and that he profoundly disapproved of the whole adventure.

Since the KPD was the strongest Communist party outside Russia, its fortunes and misfortunes served as a useful gauge to assess the chances for further revolutions in Europe. The recent fiasco, therefore, confirmed Lenin’s view that a temporary retreat on the revolutionary front was necessary, and he wanted to impress this view on the congress by making the German debacle a starting point for a change in over-all Comintern strategy. In order to be effective, Lenin had to secure prior unanimity among the Russian leaders, which was not easy. Trotsky and Kamenev sided with Lenin in condemning the German putsch, but Zinoviev, Bukharin, and Radek defended it. We do not know the details of these factional struggles which preceded the opening of the congress; nor do we know whether a personal report by Clara Zetkin to Lenin was made before or after the Russians had settled the matter. It is very likely, however, that Zetkin’s detailed description of what had occurred in Germany strengthened Lenin’s determination to disavow the Kun-Brandler-Thalheimer-Frolich theory of the revolutionary offensive, especially after Zetkin’s report was confirmed and elaborated by Neumann, who were likewise questioned by Lenin. Whatever the exact sequence of events may have been, by the time the congress was about to convene the Russians presented a united front on the German question. The Lenin-Trotsky faction overruled Zinoviev and Bukharin after Radek, always a flexible man, abandoned the latter, an action which netted him their angry abuse.

News of the latest official Russian position came as a shock to the German delegates. After the initial congratulatory message from the ECCI they had counted on full Comintern endorsement of their policy. Now, on the eve of the congress, they were informed that they had blundered, and that they must under no circumstances embark on a similar unprepared venture in the future. Although the Russians upheld the German party in the matter of Levi’s expulsion, Lenin let it be known that he basically agreed with Levi’s criticisms and only objected to the methods which the former party chairman had employed in making them.

“The Congress will condemn Paul Levi, will be hard on him… But his condemnation will be only on account of breach of discipline, not of his basic political principles. How could it be otherwise at the very moment when those principles will be recognized as correct? The way is open for Paul Levi to find his way back to us, if he himself does not block the road. His political future lies in his own hands!”

By the time the proceedings began, Lenin and Trotsky were assured of the unconditional, though not entirely enthusiastic, support of their Russian colleagues. They had whipped the ECCI into line and had duly warned the German delegation to prepare for some rough treatment. With these preliminaries out of the way, they could entrust the issue to the congress, confident that their views would prevail. And so they did. Despite occasional fierce verbal duels, indignant interjections, and angry charges and countercharges, an air of unreality pervaded the debates whenever the March uprising was on the agenda. The Russians had set the stage very well. Any direct references to such precarious subjects as the role of the ECCI, especially as far as the Kun mission and Zinoviev’s share in it were concerned, and the Zentrale’s attempts to create a revolutionary spirit artificially, were excluded from open debate. These topical taboos benefited the ECCI and the Bolshevik leadership, and restricted both German factions in their arguments. The critics of the uprising had to couch their charges in carefully worded insinuations, and the proponents of the revolutionary offensive could not invoke Kun, Zinoviev, or any other member of the Executive Committee in their defense. Nor does it seem a coincidence that on the Russian side the principal speakers were Radek and Trotsky rather than Zinoviev, who would have been the logical person to place the “German question” before the congress, since he was chairman of the ECCI. Zinoviev had evidently been too deeply implicated in the German imbroglio, and was moreover too reluctant a convert to the official Russian position to serve as its most suitable spokesman. His references to this explosive topic in his official report on the activities of the Executive Committee were accordingly brief and rather innocuous. He complimented the German party for having fought bravely in a struggle imposed from the outside, but when he touched upon the crucial problem of the revolutionary offensive, he skillfully spouted commonplaces with great oratorical emphasis while dodging the issue.

“Too much loose talk has been wasted on the revolutionary offensive. May God preserve us from a repetition of such foolishness…. The enemy attacked us. You need not lament about the mis-conceived offensive. Many mistakes were made, many organizational weaknesses were revealed. Our comrades in the German Zentrale have not shut their eyes to them; they want to correct their mistakes.”

After posing the rhetorical question whether the past struggle constituted a step forward or should be labeled a putsch, Zinoviev said emphatically: “The Executive is of the opinion that the March action was not a putsch. It would be ludicrous to talk of a putsch when half a million [sic] workers have fought. . . . We must clearly point out the mistakes [committed by the KPD] and learn from them. We conceal nothing, we don’t conduct . . . secret diplomacy. And we are of the opinion that, by and large, the German party need not be ashamed of this struggle, quite the contrary.”

Zinoviev delivered his report on June 25. The following five days were taken up by discussions of the report, with the Comintern bosses presiding from the bench rather than sitting in the dock. They had, moreover, used their privileged position to help formulate the “Resolution to the Report of the ECCI,” Article II of which dealt with the German question. In its relevant part it read as follows: “The Congress . . . sanctions completely the attitude of the Executive in regard to the further developments within the V.K.P.D. The Congress expresses its expectation that the Executive will apply in the future these principles of international revolutionary discipline with equal strictness.””

The resolution, including its Article II, was scheduled for a vote of adoption at the end of the discussion period. In spite of its deceptive vagueness its significance could hardly be missed. Its wording clearly expressed the right of the ECCI, retroactively as well as for the future, to interfere in the affairs of a member party. In this particular instance, the interference to be sanctioned by the congress referred to the approval by the ECCI of Paul Levi’s expulsion from the KPD. In this respect, therefore, it appeared to be intended primarily as a chastisement of the so-called Right Opposition, but at the same time the phrasing provided sufficient leeway to allow for its application to any other faction. That the resolution made no mention at all of any possible connection between the March uprising and Comintern was hardly surprising.

The discussion which preceded the vote on the first vital resolution also touched on the German insurrection, even though this topic was officially scheduled for later debate. Ostensibly the arguments centered around Paul Levi’s role, since the pending vote would determine once and for all his status as a Communist. But actually the charges and countercharges hinged on the larger question of principles and thereby constituted a continuation of the German intraparty feud, only now being fought coram populo. The high point of these preliminary skirmishes was a debate between Clara Zetkin and Ernst Reuter-Friesland, each expressing the point of view of his own faction with great frankness. Zetkin put up a spirited defense of Paul Levi. With her usual bluntness the old lady lashed out against all her opponents in the KPD and the ECCI, and even included the German police who had confiscated all her documentary ammunition. Her principal point was that both the ECCI and the apologists of the March action were trying to make Paul Levi the scapegoat for their own blunders and, while she was careful not to endorse Unser Weg, in essence she repeated many of the charges Levi had raised in his brochure. “It remains a fact . . . that representatives of the Executive bear indeed a large share of responsibility for the way in which the Marzaktion was conducted, [and] that representatives of the Executive bear a large share of responsibility for the wrong slogans, the wrong political attitude of the party, or, more correctly, of the Zentrale.” Equally outspoken was her opinion on the attitude of the Brandler Zentrale: “If Paul Levi is going to be severely punished for his criticism . . . and for mistakes which he has undeniably committed, what punishment, then, deserve those who are really guilty? The putschism against which we have raised our charges did not consist of the actions of the fighting masses . . . but was endemic in the heads of the Zentrale who led the masses in this manner into battle.”

Measured by the limited degree of free speech which prevails nowadays at Communist conferences, Zetkin’s performance was indeed daring. It must be remembered, however, that in the early twenties, before the days of Stalin, debates among Communists were still relatively unimpeded by fear of retribution. Moreover, Clara Zetkin knew that Lenin was in agreement with her on this question. For this reason she made hardly any effort to defend Levi against the charge of having broken party discipline but concentrated instead on the substance of his criticism, which coincided with her own views and Lenin’s. From the lengthy talk she had with Lenin before the congress opened, she knew that he was less concerned with crushing the right wing of the KPD than he was with labeling as harmful the principles underlying the Marzaktion. It was a foregone conclusion that once the “Case Levi” had been settled by the vote on the “Executive Report,” attention would be focused on the uprising proper, during the “Debate on Tactics.” Then the Bolshevik leaders would be free to bear down on the Brandlerite errors, since they had successfully barred any further debate on the role of the ECCI by means of the innocuously phrased “Resolution to the Report of the ECCI.”

Zetkin’s attack on the errors of the Zentrale were met by a no less fiery counterattack from Ernst Reuter-Friesland. The man who only six months later was to share Paul Levi’s fate now directed all his indignation against Levi and his supporters, notably against Clara Zetkin whom he accused of intellectual dishonesty. While admitting that the March uprising had suffered from mistakes committed by the party leadership, he made it clear that “we shall talk about these mistakes only with those comrades who fought alongside us, and not with those who systematically sabotaged the Aktion.” After a lengthy diatribe against Levi, whom he accused of having persistently undermined the reputation and influence of the ECCI ever since the Second Comintern Congress, Friesland invited Levi’s followers at the congress to take an unequivocal stand condemning him, or forfeit the right to call themselves Communists and members of the Communist International. Shortly before the vote on the “Resolution on the Report of the Executive,” Malzahn and Neumann, the two right-wing opposition delegates who had only an advisory vote, requested that a final vote on the resolution be postponed until after the full-fledged debate on the uprising. They argued that only at the conclusion of this debate could the members of the congress properly judge whether or not Levi ought to be definitely excluded from the Communist movement. Radek employed all the biting sarcasm for which he was famous to discredit the two hapless Levites, badgering them mercilessly.

When he had finished, Malzahn and Neumann asked the congress once again, this time formally, to postpone voting on the resolution until after the discussion on the March uprising. Their plea was read aloud and then ignored. Five minutes later the “Resolution on the Report of the Executive Committee of the Communist International” was adopted. The only delegation which abstained from voting on Article II was that of Yugoslavia. No one voted against, but Clara Zetkin stated publicly that the “Case Levi” had been settled “over our protest.” It was a clear-cut victory for the ECCI, though not for the Brandlerites, as they were soon to find out.

Now that the Executive had effectively removed itself from the sphere of controversy, the Bolshevik leaders felt free to encourage wide-open discussion of the March Aktion on the floor. Up to this point the debate had centered around Levi’s attitude, with special reference to his criticism of KPD and ECCI. From then on the uprising proper became the chief issue and was discussed within the framework of the “Tactics of the Communist International.” By the time this phase of the congress began, the behind-the-scenes efforts of the Russians had succeeded in noticeably narrowing the gap which divided the views of the Right Opposition from those of the Zentrale, although many important points of conflict were still unresolved.4

The vital debate on tactics was introduced by a lengthy speech by Radek, who was the first member of the ECCI to criticize the mistakes of the Zentrale publicly and in detail. But the part of his speech that dealt with the German party lacked force and conviction; his heart apparently was not in it. His introductory remarks amounted to a virtual apology to those whose mistakes he was about to discuss, and one wonders whether this unusual civility was not partly due to the realization that his own role in the March event had not been free of ambiguity.

Radek’s criticism of the March uprising included most of the major points later to be incorporated in the official theses of the congress, e.g., the need for capturing the masses prior to any revolution; the need for better party organization and discipline; and the dogma that the uprising had been a defensive action which us spirit of its failure constituted “one step forward.” He carefully concealed how many arguments he had borrowed from the opposition. Moreover, he did not mention that without the constant pressure for “greater activity” which the Executive had applied to the German party, and which culminated in the Kun mission, many of the “errors” would never have been committed in the first place. He was not challenged on these omissions, due to the “oratorical taboos” so prudently devised by the ECCI.

Although Radek’s arguments were couched in the deceptively optimistic phrases so peculiar to Marxist rhetoric, the underlying call for a strategic retreat on the revolutionary front was unmistakable. Even when read today, his sophistries sound hollow and they must have impressed his listeners in that way on the afternoon of June 30, 1921. With capitalism inevitably on the decline, he argued, Communism is moving forward to great struggles. However, the decline of capitalism does not proceed in a straight line; nor does revolution, which. has its ebb and flow. If Communists want to fight and win, they must prepare for the struggle—which does not mean that preparation and propaganda should become a substitute for action. But action lies still in the future, and in the meantime the Communists must be the bell which calls the living to battle. The watchword of universal Communism must be, “first and foremost, to the masses, with all means.” The Communists must actively prepare the masses for the eventual struggle by means of propaganda and agitation.

“Prepare yourselves and the proletariat for the [coming] struggles . . . , lead it into the struggles which history will produce. It will not be necessary to look for these struggles; they will come to us. And we shall fight the better if we prepare for them. The mistakes we make always mean a step backward, and there is no doubt that we have suffered such a setback . . . in Germany. . . . If the left comrades have made mistakes . . . during the March Aktion, then I say that these mistakes speak in favor of them [as] they demonstrate the will to fight. For this reason we were with them, their mistakes notwithstanding. But it is better to win than merely to prove that one wanted to win. And therefore, comrades, our tactical line is focused on world revolution. We see the road toward world revolution in the conquest of the great masses. These masses we want to lead into the great struggles which history has decreed for us. . . . We stand at the threshold of a historical turning point, and there is no power . . . which can save capitalism. We want to hasten its death, and this can only be done if we unify the great masses under the Communist banner. We are but the heralds, the organizers. The proletariat will bury capitalism. The proletariat will also be the hammer driving the nail into its coffin.”

Radek’s report heralded a decisive swing to the right, but, as was to be expected, this projected shift of policy was promptly challenged from the left. On the following day a speaker of the KAPD, Hempel, agreed with Radek on only one point, the impending decline of capitalism. The rest of the report he rejected, with all its implications, defending in particular the justification of the revolutionary offensive and partial actions (Teilaktionen), which must precede the all-out revolution. Since the KAPD was not affiliated with the Comintern and its delegates attended merely as guests, this first assault could be ignored by the ECCI. It was a more serious matter, however, when Ernst Reuter-Friesland requested in the name of the German delegation that the next speaker, Comrade Terracini from the Italian Communist Party, be granted a longer speaking time than was customary to justify a number of suggested amendments to the theses developed by Radek. He added that these amendments had been drafted by the German, Italian, and Austrian delegations, and that additional delegations would most probably endorse them at a later time. The request was granted.

Terracini, like the KAPD speaker before him, criticized Radck’s report from a radical point of view. He took issue with the condemnation of the theory of the offensive and charged that Radek’s critics were too pronouncedly directed against the radical left wing of the Comintern and its affiliates. As he was probably unaware of the hectic behind-the-scene struggles among the Bolsheviks which had preceded the congress, Terracini said naïvely, “Comrade Zinovicv has spoken at length in his Report on the Executive against rightist tendencies. If we now suggest amendments to the theses on tactics, we herewith merely endorse once again the arguments of Comrade Zinoviev. We do not think that Comrade Radek will raise object ion4 to our amendments.” It was not Radek who raised objections, but Lenin. In a brief speech, delivered in a mildly ironic vein which barely concealed the underlying intensity of his arguments, Lenin tore into the leftist s by ridiculing their charges and amendments. He stated bluntly that all future feuds against the so-called “centrists” within the various Communist parties would have to cease, as the real centrists (Inclining Levi) had been expelled. Violations of this injunction would be fought ruthlessly by the Comintern. He reiterated the necessity to win the masses prior to any future Communist revolution, and defended those passages in the draft which bore on this question and which had become subject to a leftist amendment.

Lenin said, “Whoever does not understand that we must conquer the majority of the working class in Europe, where nearly all proletarians are organized, is lost to the Communist movement. . . . Comrade Terracini has not understood the Russian Revolution very well. We in Russia were a small party, but we had a majority  in the workers’ and peasants’ councils throughout the country. Where do you have anything like it? We had at least half of the army, which then numbered at least ten million men. Have you the majority of the army? Show me such a country. If these intentions [to make amendments] of Comrade Terracini are supported by three delegations, then something is rotten [krank] in the International. Then we must say: Stop! Fight to the bone! [entschiedener Kampf] otherwise the Communist International is lost.”

After he had repeated in no uncertain terms that the theory of the offensive, as applied in the March uprising, was wrong, Lenin gave his definition of “the masses” as “not only the labor movement, but also the majority of the working and exploited rural population. Then he came back to intraparty feuds: “We have not only condemned the centrists, but also chased them away. Now we must turn against the other side, which we also deem dangerous. We must tell the comrades the truth in the politest possible way. Our theses are also held in a congenial and polite form, and nobody can feel hurt by our theses. We must tell them: we now have other tasks than to hunt centrists. Enough of this sport. It is already getting a little boring.”

Lenin’s unequivocal defense of the theses, and his equally unequivocal rejection of the attempts by the left to amend them, did not end the debate on tactics in general, nor on the tactics of the Marzaktion in particular. One German speaker after the other, Heckert, Reuter-Friesland, Thalheimer and Ernst (“Teddy”) Thalmann, the future idol of the German proletariat, tried to salvage as much of their point of view as was possible. Ignoring Lenin’s warning not to prolong the feud with the former Levites, the spokesmen for the Zentrale, and especially the extreme left-wingers of the German delegation, Reuter-Friesland and Thalmann, persisted in hurling charges at Zetkin, Malzahn, et al. Their bitterness increased the more they realized that they were fighting a losing battle. Their colleagues of the Right Opposition had won a significant advantage when they signed a statement that they were now willing to go along with the general interpretation which the Comintern had given to the March uprising. This left the German majority delegation in the uncomfortable position of obstructionists who held up a generally desired settlement of their intraparty feud, not to mention their reluctance to bow to the ECCI on the crucial issue of tactics

The last speaker on the question of “Tactics of the Cominlen was Trotsky. He had angered those who defended the Marzaktion on principle by an earlier report, “The World Economic Crisis and the New Tasks of the Communist International,” delivered at the beginning of the congress. In this report he had given an estimate of the worldwide economic situation and its probable effect on revolution. While predicting the inevitable collapse of capitalism in the long run, he had been outspokenly sceptical with regard to revolution in the near future: “. . . In a word, the situation now at the time of the Third Congress of the Communist International is not the same as at the time of the First and Second Congresses, for the first time we see and feel that we are not so immediately near to the goal, to the conquest of power, to the world revolution. At the time, in 1919, we said to ourselves: ‘It is a question of months. Now we say: ‘It is perhaps a question of years.'”

It was under the shadow of Trotsky’s essentially pessimist evaluation that the debates on the March action took place. The left-wingers at the congress, and not only the Germans, proved unwilling to accept his perspectives at face value. Most of them not see, or did not want to see, that the debate on the uprising essentially served as a rallying point for two opposing schools of thought concerned with the most fundamental issue confronting the Congress, namely what course the Communist movement was to take in the days ahead. Trotsky alluded to this point when he again addressed the congress, prior to Radek’s summary, to wind up the debate on the German question. After a few brief and condescending remarks directed at Thalmann, who had been the last of the enrages to defend the leftist position, Trotsky turned his attention to the essence of the March action. Many delegates, he said, had complained to him that the German delegation took up so much of the congress’ time in discussing its internal affairs. Such an impatient attitude on the part of these critics was unwarranted. The March action was the main issue under discussion. The congress had to choose between two tendencies. One was represented by Lenin, Zinoviev, Radek, and himself. The other tendency was expressed by the various amendments to the theses on tactics that were soon to be submitted for a vote.

Trotsky granted the German delegation that the March action, as compared to the past history of the party, constituted a step forward, “but it does not mean that the first action, this first attempt to play an independent leading role, has proved successful.” With considerable sarcasm Trotsky then leveled his guns at the Brandlerites: “They tell us that they have learned a great deal from it [the March action] and, moreover, precisely from their own mistakes. That is what their own amendments say. . . . They state that the major merit of the March action consists precisely in this, that it provided an opportunity for clarifying the mistakes committed therein, only in order to eliminate them subsequently. Isn’t it a little too audacious to seek for special merits in this connection?”

Trotsky proceeded to expose the errors of the March action, and to enumerate the contradictory reports on the uprising which members of the German delegation had given at the congress. All these reports, he thought, served primarily to confuse and becloud the issue. “From all this one gets the impression that the members of the German delegation still approach the issue as if it had to be defended at all costs, but not studied nor analyzed. . . . I think that for your situation in Germany it is best to introduce clarity into this question. I don’t believe what Levi has said, that is, that the party will perish from it. However, the congress must say to the German workers that a mistake was committed, and that the party’s attempt to assume the leading role in a great mass movement was not a fortunate one. We must admit that this attempt was completely unsuccessful in this sense—that were it repeated, it might actually ruin this splendid party. . . . It is our duty to say clearly and precisely to the German workers that we consider this philosophy of the offensive to be the greatest danger: and in its practical application to be the greatest political crime.”

As soon as Trotsky had finished, a motion was made by the American delegation to close the debate and to let Radek give his summary. But Trotsky’s speech, in which he had expressed the attitude of the Bolshevik leaders more plainly than any of the preceding speakers, including Lenin, had stirred up the emotions of many delegates. Bela Kun rose to protest against the motion to terminate the debate: “Comrade Trotsky has just spoken for one hour against the so-called Left; he has done so in such a tone that we must absolutely [unbedingt] reply to his speech. . . . In my estimation that motion . . . is a low political trick [Schiebung] and against this, a trick I firmly protest.” But the motion was passed, and Radek made a summarizing speech which was remarkable for its conciliatory tone. When he had finished, the congress prepared to vote on whether the theses on tactics, in their existing draft form, were acceptable to the delegates in principle. If the vote was in the affirmative, the draft was to go to a committee where the final version would be worked out for subsequent approval by the congress, However, a few minutes before the vote, the left die-hards made what can only be called a demonstration against Trotsky, in the form of a “declaration.”

“The undersigned delegations, Poland, Germany, Youth International, Hungary (majority), ‘Deutschbohmen,’ and Austria declare that they will accept, in principle, the tactical theses suggested by the Russian delegation, but that they make express reservations concerning the interpretation which Trotsky has given to the theses in his speech.” Thalheimer and Kun were among the signers. The congress then voted to send the draft of the theses to the committee. The great debate on the March uprising was over.

While the congress moved to less controversial issues, such as the trade-union question, the economic question, the women question, etc., the committee which worked on the definitive version of the theses on tactics made every effort to eliminate all remaining differences between the two German factions, in order to secure unanimity in the final vote. The Russian leaders were clearly worried by the possibility of a further split within the KPD. During the debate on tactics, Zinoviev had said, “There can be only one answer: under no circumstances must there be a further split in the ranks of the German Communist Party. . . . Therefore the congress must press for an agreement.” On the surface at least such an agreement was reached. On July 9, three days before the theses on tactics were adopted, the congress passed a special “Resolution on the March Action and the Internal Situation in the V.K.P.D.,” which bore all the earmarks of compromise inasmuch as its tone was conciliatory toward the defenders of the uprising, although the congress had rejected their policy. The resolution, proposed by Zinoviev in the name of the Russian delegation, reemphasized that “The congress considers any further disintegration of forces within the VKPD, any factionalism—not to mention a split—as the greatest danger for the entire movement.” The congress, the resolution continued, expected that the Zentrale and the party majority would treat the former opposition with tolerance, and expected from the members of the opposition that they would loyally carry out the decisions reached at the Third Congress. The resolution concluded with a warning.

“The congress demands of the former opposition … the immediate cessation of any political collaboration with persons expelled from the party and the Communist International. . . .

“The congress instructs the Executive to observe carefully the further development of the German movement, and in the event of the slightest breach of discipline to take immediately the most energetic steps.”

Before the congress voted on this resolution, Malzahn presented in the name of the former opposition an alternate version. Thalheimer immediately protested because Malzahn’s version, signed by Malzahn himself, Clara Zetkin, Paul Neumann, and Paul Franken, was too vague in form and content. Zinoviev supported Thalheimer and suggested that the former opposition offer their draft as a mere declaration rather than as a formal countermotion. The suggestion was accepted, and the Russian-sponsored resolution was unanimously adopted a few minutes later.

The adoption of the theses on tactics on July 12, the final day of the congress, presented no more difficulties. They expressed with meticulous conciseness the principal tenets which the leaders had previously developed in their speeches. Although they bristled with militant expressions, the call for a retreat from an aggressive revolutionary policy was too plain to be missed. “The world revolution, that is, the downfall of capitalism . . . will require a fairly long period of revolutionary struggle,” read the first sentence of the second section. The third section began with the statement that “The most important question before the Communist International today is how to win predominating influence over the majority of the working class, and to bring its decisive strata into the struggle.” The fourth one warned that “The attempts of impatient and politically inexperienced revolutionary elements to resort to the most extreme methods . . . frustrate for a long time the genuine revolutionary preparation of the proletariat for the seizure of power.” All parties were admonished to reject “these extremely dangerous methods.”

Section seven, “The Lessons of the March Action,” was a document the tone of which was on the whole rather unenthusiastic. Perhaps its most important statement was the first sentence, with roundly asserted that “The March action was a struggle forced on the VKPD by the Government’s attack on the proletariat of Central Germany.” This statement became a Communist dogma from which no party publication has deviated since. There followed an enumeration of the mistakes committed by the party, with special emphasis on the fact that the mistake of not having clearly defined the “defensive” nature of the struggle “was aggravated by a number of party comrades who represented the offensive as the primary method of struggle. . .” Despite the errors, however, the congress was willing to grant that it considered the uprising “as a step forward.” The Russian leaders had been initially content with letting the matter stand at that, but in the process of formulating the final draft in committee had decided to elaborate on the meaning of this phrase. The uprising constituted one step forward because “it was a heroic struggle by hundreds of thousands of proletarians against the bourgeoisie,” and because the KPD, “by assuming leadership . . . showed that it was the party of the revolutionary German proletariat.” With these sparse compliments the German party had to rest satisfied. The balance of the section on the March action contained once again the look-before-you-leap sort of warning with regard to future revolutionary situations, although the congress stated explicitly that once the party had decided on action, everyone must obey and co-operate to the best of his ability. Criticism of an action was to be allowed only after the action was over, and then only within the framework of the party organization. The congress pointedly reminded all potential future critics that Levi had been expelled for having violated this basic principle of party discipline.

On that same day, July 12, 1921, the “Theses on the Communist International and the Red International of Labor Unions” were also adopted.” The gist of what the Bolsheviks envisaged in the fore-seeable future as the principal task of all Communist parties was contained in section IV: “In the forthcoming period the chief task of Communists is to work steadily . . . to win a majority of the workers in all unions . . . to win the unions for Communism by the most active participation in their day-to-day struggles. The best measure of the strength of any Communist party is the influence it really exercises over the working masses in the trade-unions. The party must learn to exercise decisive influence in the unions without subjecting them to petty control. It is the union cell, not the union as such, which is under the authority of the party.”

Here was spelled out in very practical terms the new party line which all the member organizations of the Comintern were expected to follow. They were not to engage in putsches, but were to talk softly and persuasively to their fellow proletarians in the unions and Socialist parties. Direct action had dismally failed in the German March uprising. Capitalism was dying much more slowly than had been anticipated. Finally, since the Russians needed that breathing space which the Bolshevik leaders so tenaciously pursued, and so manifestly expressed by NEP and international trade agreements, the Communist International switched its emphasis at the Third Congress from crusading to missionary work. “For the power of capital can only be broken if the idea of Communism is embodied in the stormy pressure of the great majority of the proletariat, led by mass Communist parties which must form the iron clamp holding together the fighting proletarian class. To the Masses -that is the first battle-cry of the Third Congress to the Communists of all countries!”

The congress was over. Before the German delegation left for home to devote itself to its new tasks, the Russian leaders arranged for one more meeting with both German factions. The purpose of this get-together was to confirm the “treaty of peace” that had been concluded so laboriously and, as time was to show, so superficially between the majority delegation and its Right Opposition, Harmony seemed to have been established. Significantly, Reuter-Friesland who had held many private conversations with Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks, had been won over to the newest shift in policy as expressed in the slogan “To the Masses!” Thus the Russians had every reason to be pleased with the outcome of the Third Comintern Congress.

This peace treaty marked a turning point in the development a German Communism. A distinct phase had come to a close. For when the conflict which divided the KPD after the March uprising was settled by the Russian-dominated Third World Congress, the German party unwittingly surrendered to Moscow a large share a its former independence which it was never to regain. Luxemburg’s maxim of friendly aloofness was buried for good, and its place was taken by Leninist centralization and discipline. The spirit of independence which Rosa Luxemburg had infused into the KPD had still been very pronounced during the first two Comintern congresses. The Zentrale had then felt free to weigh any advice the Bolsheviks gave, had argued with the Russian leaders from a position of strength and confidence, and in the end had made its own decisions. True, as an affiliate of the Comintern, the party had been bound by the over-all policy adopted at the first two congresses, especially by the twenty-one conditions of the Second Congress. But as long as Levi was chairman of the Zentrale, these policies had been interpreted liberally and with discretion. The Third Congress, where the intraparty feud over the March uprising became the key issue of debate, put an end to all this. The change came about for a number of reasons. In the summer of 1921 the Soviet Union, for the first time since the revolution, was in a position to exert more than a nominal influence over the Communist parties of Europe. Foreign and civil war, and Allied intervention, were past, making physical contact with the West easier, and at the same time giving Russia time to recover. Lenin was eager to utilize the relatively favorable situation to stabilize Bolshevik gains at home, and to strengthen the Communist movement abroad. As far as Lenin was concerned, the latter task could only be accomplished if the Russian Communist Party strengthened its control over the various European parties, something which he had always thought necessary and which now, for the first time, had become possible of realization. It was done at the Third Congress by tightening the bonds of organization and discipline within the Comintern. Special emphasis was placed on the authority of the ECCI over the member parties, thereby ensuring a better control over the Communist movement than had been possible in the past.

The KPD, second in strength and importance only to the Russian party, facilitated the task of the Bolsheviks in no small measure. In their effort to change the general course of Communist strategy, Lenin and Trotsky in particular made the German question a key issue at the congress, incorporated the specific lessons learned from the March uprising into the theses and resolutions, and thus turned the German disaster into a Bolshevik asset. What was more, in the process of making the March action a convenient vehicle for implementing a major shift in policy, the Russians effectively destroyed most of the still remaining sparks of independence among the KPD leadership. Both factions of the German delegation had gone to Moscow in the hope of winning approbation for their respective stands on the uprising, and they were so deeply involved in their intraparty feud that they failed to see how much their disunity benefited the Russians. Without the coarse dictatorial manner which Stalin was to employ on similar occasions in later years, Trotsky, Radek, and Zinoviev displayed excellent teamwork in their handling of the German delegates. In private talks and on the floor of the congress, both factions were subjected to unsparing criticism but with the exception of Levi no one was punished for his or her past errors. After the Russians had censored the Right opposition for having abetted Levi, they turned around and used many of Levi’s and Zetkin’s arguments to chastise the Zentrale and its left-wing supporters. When it was all over, the German delegates could not help but agree that the Kremlin knew best. So strong was the prestige and personal magnetism of the Bolshevik leaders that the Germans submitted, however reluctantly in some cases, to the demands made of them. They let themselves be maneuvered into accepting theses and resolutions which, at least in part, were distasteful to them. Clara Zetkin was honored by the congress on her sixty-fifth birthday, and the Russians scored a minor triumph when Heckert delivered the principal ovation in the name of the German delegation, and showered the old lady with good wishes. Only four days earlier he had been one of her most outspoken critics. Finally, after Lenin had persuaded both Zetkin and Reuter-Friesland of the rightness of the Russian position, the way was clear to a general reconciliation, and in the interest of the common cause both Getman factions buried their differences, at least on the surface.

Thus, as far as the KPD was concerned, the most significant result of the Third Congress was the increase of Russian influence over the affairs of the party. This was a notable achievement by Lenin and Trotsky, whose dialectical skill and singleness of purpose were not matched by the divided German leadership. The old argument tween Lenin and Luxemburg over the tactical questions of discipline and centralization had been finally won, for all practical purposes, by Lenin. The victory had been made easier by the default of the KPD, which no longer had a Luxemburg to defend its independence, and which had now lost in Levi the last strong champion of the Luxemburg tradition. The position of the Comintern had been immeasurably strengthened. Not only had the congress expressly endorsed that body’s recent interference in the affairs of member parties, notably those of the KPD, but had also voted to give it enlarged and additional powers for the future. Thus the right of the ECCI to dispatch meddling Turkestaner to the member parties remained unimpaired; this was a distinct victory over the western organizations by what Levi had sarcastically called “the mullahs of Khiva and Bokhara.”

Essentially, then, strong Russian influence over the affairs of the KPD dates from the Third Congress rather than from a later date. To be sure, it was initially neither as noticeable nor as rigid and oppressive as it was to become in Stalin’s time; yet it was there. Its foundation had been firmly laid by Lenin and his colleagues, firm enough for Stalin to build on and to make more effective. This is not to say that there was henceforth no more opposition to Russian interference in the German party. But what opposition there was never had a chance to restore the original spirit of independence, after Lenin had so successfully disposed of the Luxemburg tradition.

In March 1922 Lenin wrote: “Paul Levi now wants to get into the good graces of the bourgeoisie . . . by publishing precisely those works of Rosa Luxemburg in which she was wrong. . . . Rosa Luxemburg was mistaken on the independence of Poland; she was mistaken in 1903 in her appraisal of Menshevism; she was mistaken in July 1914. . . She was mistaken in the works she wrote in prison in 1918, especially her book on the Russian Revolution. . . . But in spite of her mistakes she was and remains for us—an eagle.” Indeed, Lenin was by then quite safe in calling her that. He did not need to add that the wings of this eagle had been securely nailed to the wall, to serve as decoration for Communist meeting-halls and party offices—and that it was a very dead eagle.


July 5, 2018

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

Filed under: Werner Angress — louisproyect @ 12:22 am

This is the second in a series of reproductions of chapters in Werner Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923”. In the first installment, I posted the chapter on “The Genesis of the March Uprising” that discussed the factors that led to what Paul Levi called the “greatest Bakunist putsch in history”. This chapter titled “The March Uprising and its Failure” is a horrifying narrative of how the Communist Party of Germany under the direct influence of a Comintern emissary named Bela Kun staged an ultraleft adventure that in some ways makes the Weatherman “Days of Rage” in 1969 look sane by comparison.

As a preface to the chapter, there are some terms that need clarification.

  • The“Zentrale” was the central committee of the German CP that got its marching orders from Bela Kun.
  • The “Rote Fahne” was the newspaper of the CP that served as the main propagandist for the so-called March Action.
  • The “Orgesch” was an anti-Semitic militia that was a forerunner of Hitler’s Stormtroopers.
  • The “KPD” is the initials for the CP.
  • The “KAPD” is the initials for the Communist Workers Party of Germany that was a split from the KPD, on an even more ultraleft basis. Among the better-known members were Antonie Pannekoek, Karl Korsch, and Paul Mattick.

Politically, the disastrous outcome was a major factor in the rise of Nazism because it discredited the CP. Some of Angress’s chapter might be unfamiliar to those who have not studied the scandalous “March Action”. As background, I recommend this brief article by Pierre Broué, who like Angress, wrote an important book on the German Communist Party in the 1920s: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/broue/works/1964/summer/march-action.htm



Horsing’s move became known at the Central Committee meeting on the morning of March 17 and found the Communist leaders unprepared. As there were at the moment no details, apart from the text of the appeal, the assembled delegates refrained from dealing with the unexpected development except for agreeing on the advisability of postponing any direct involvement in central Germany until after Easter. The fourday holiday, from Good Friday to Easter Monday, was held to be unsuitable for strikes and related actions. The party organizations in the affected region were advised, presumably through those of their members who attended the conference in Berlin, that they should merely threaten to call a general strike once the police marched in, but were not to carry out the threat until the plants and mines were actually occupied. Before the day was over, however, this prudent attitude was abandoned by the Zentrale in favor of a barely disguised attempt to exploit the new situation. According to the Communist version, the initial desire to avoid a struggle in Prussian Saxony prior to Easter week was foiled by the Mansfeld miners, who reacted to Horsing’s “provocation!’ by precipitating a spontaneous uprising, and thereby compelled the KPD to rush to their assistance.

In the light of subsequent events this argument is not convincing. it is much more likely that, after the immediate impact of Horsing’s appeal had worn off, at least some members of the Zentrale experienced a change of heart by the time the conference adjourned on March 17. Once again, all signs point to the machinations of Kun with his flair for concocting illstarred revolutions. In view of the delicacy of his mission, neither he nor his associates attended the Central Committee meeting—the presence of the Comintern agents was to be known only to a restricted circle. It stands to reason, however, that Kun was informed of the outcome of the conference as soon as it stood adjourned, and that he then gave his views on the situation. If Kun had come to Germany with the express purpose of goading the KPD into action, the news of Horsing’s intention to move police into Prussian Saxony was in perfect accordance with his plans. All he had to do was to persuade those members of the Zentrale who had already fallen under his influence that the projected police occupation offered an excellent opportunity for the German Communists to launch the revolution which they had just decided was in the offing anyway. He may well have pointed out that any delay would diminish the chances for a successful operation. There were nine more days until Good Friday (March 25), time enough for Horsing’s forces to get a firm foothold in the occupied region unless they were met by organized resistance. And who but the KPD could furnish the leadership for such resistance?

Whatever the circumstances which prompted the Zentrale to reverse its earlier decision to postpone action, the fact remains that from March 17 on the KPD sounded and acted like a party resolved upon revolution. At the same time, in order to justify the party in the eyes of the working class in general, and of the Communist rank and file in particular, great pains were taken to give the impression that German Communism was merely responding to the wishes of the treacherous bourgeoisie.

On March 17, the Communist press, led by the Rote Fahne, opened a propaganda barrage so violent as to be inconsistent with the party’s alleged intention to hold the line until after Easter week. Under the heading “The Counterrevolution Strikes,” the early edition of the Rote Fahne carried a leading article urging the proletarians to abandon their previous passivity, which had merely encouraged the reactionaries. “It is not enough,” the paper warned, “to only announce the immediate fight of the proletarian masses against . . . the counterrevolution can frustrate its criminal intentions.” There was but one way out of the present crisis: alliance with Soviet Russia which, however, could only be realized “over the bodies of the bourgeoisie.” Excerpts from Horsing’s appeal appeared in the early edition, and the full text was printed in the evening edition of the Rote Fahne. The Communist targets on March 18 were the Orgesch and the SPD. Pointing to Bavaria’s refusal to disarm her civil guards, the paper commented at length on the helplessness of the unarmed workers. “The gang of majority Socialists” had agreed that, under the pretext of law, armed might in Prussian Saxony should be permitted to march against “the naked chest of the working class.”

“The bourgeoisie stands in arms and refuses to surrender them .. . and the German workers have no weapons! It was not the Entente that disarmed them—the Entente cannot even disarm the Orgesch. The German bourgeoisie and the rabble of Social Democratic leaders have wrested the weapons out of the hands of the proletarians. . . . Now the law means nothing any more; nor does Versailles. Weapons will decide, and the counterrevolutionaries refuse to surrender theirs. . . . Every worker will simply ignore the law [pfeift auf das Gesetz] and must seize a weapon wherever he may find one!

This blast, drafted by Kun himself, led to the confiscation of the issue by the Prussian authorities, whereupon the identical text was promptly reprinted in the Rote Fahne on the following day. The entire approach was so clumsy that it met with the disapproval even of Ernst ReuterFriesland, who registered a protest with the Zentrale. Yet the same argument was put forth on March 18 in the Reichstag where the KPD deputy Däumig demanded that the proletariat be armed because the Reichswehr was counterrevolutionary and anti-proletarian.

On March 19, the day the police occupation of Prussian Saxony went into effect, the Rote Fahne announced that the Central Committee had decided at its recent meeting to mobilize the party, organizationally and spiritually, for the coming struggle against a bourgeoisie which was collaborating with the Entente in a joint effort to exploit the workers. “The difficulties faced by the government in the Upper Silesian plebiscite and the sanctions make it essential that the proletariat develop the greatest possible activity!” All workers would have to be prepared to fight in answer to Horsing’s provocation.’

Although the logic of the article left much to be desired. Inasmuch as collaboration between Germany and the Entente was mentioned in one breath with Allied sanctions, the general tenor was clear enough. Every stop of the propaganda organ was pulled in order to bracket events in Prussian Saxony with all the other crisis factors, real or imaginary, that loomed so large in the imagination of the party strategists. It was quite in line with this policy to devote the evening issue of the Rote Fahne on March 19 to the problem in Upper Silesia, where the plebiscite was scheduled to be held the next day. The paper pointed out that Polish and German counter-revolutionaries were facing each other in Upper Silesia and were ready to engage in combat. The Orgesch in that part of the country was spoiling for a fight because the spirit of nationalism there was strong. The Silesian plebiscite, the Rote Fahne informed its readers, was no local affair but concerned every proletarian. The adventure planned by the German counterrevolutionaries in these regions was to be the first battle of the Orgesch, to be followed by a second, the battle against the German proletariat. “Once the Polish and German counter-revolutionaries in Upper Silesia begin to clash, the iron fist of the proletariat from both countries must smash in between the [combatants].

On March 20, the day after the police occupation had gone into effect, the Rote Fahne carried the banner line: “Horsing orders his gang of murderers to march in!” The days of the Bloodhound Noske had returned. The workers in central Germany had decided to offer resistance and thus had set an example which should be followed by workers throughout the country. SPD and Independents came in for a sharp attack because they supported Horsing, and Severing and Weismann were labeled “henchmen of the Orgesch.” Once again the Rote Fahne demanded: “Weapons into the hands of the workers!” And the entire German working class was urged to come to the assistance of their embattled brothers in central Germany. This frantic appeal to the German working class at large was neutralized by an editorial in the same issue, entitled, “He Who Is Not For Me, Is Against Me! A Word to the Social Democratic and Independent Workers.” This editorial, instead of addressing the Socialists as potential allies, told them that they, and the rest of the German proletariat, were on the wrong road; only the Communist Party knew where it was going. After a lengthy enumeration of the virtues inherent in the Communist cause, the Rote Fahne listed a number of conditions under which the misled workers might join the Communist ranks, one of which was a barely concealed suggestion that the Socialists should string their own leaders from the lamp posts. It was, in Levi’s words, “a declaration of war against four-fifths of the German workers at the beginning of the Aktion.” The ineptness of the Communist propaganda effort was succinctly expressed by Vorwärts when it told its readers: “Moscow needs corpses . . . . We warn the working class. . . . Do not let yourselves be provoked!”

Although slogan after slogan rolled off the Communist presses, no serious unrest accompanied Horsing’s appeal in Prussian Saxony. The Zentrale, which gradually realized that it was illusory to rely on the spontaneity of the population, decided that some outside help was needed to arouse the masses, and acted accordingly. On March 18, the Communist district executive for Halle-Merseburg received orders from the Zentrale to start a revolutionary action at once. The directives stipulated that Horsing’s police measures were to serve as an excuse for the insurrection. Two local party leaders, Lemck and Bowitzki, were entrusted with the direction of the operations (Aufstandsleitung), with headquarters to be situated at Halle. The next day, March 19, the Halle district committee of the KPD met for a conference to determine the line of action which the party was to take in the region. Representatives from various subdistricts and individual towns attended the conference, which was chaired by a leading official of the Halle district, Fred Oelssner. Oelssner started out by giving a brief summary of the domestic and foreign political problems which Germany faced, a résumé that followed closely the familiar arguments of Kun. The situation in Upper Silesia, according to the speaker, was tense, and in Bavaria the Orgesch was on the move. Large-scale strikes by farm workers in Germany’s eastern provinces were assuming political overtones. In view of these circumstances the KPD had to decide on how best to exploit the situation to produce revolutionary action. The problem, thus stated, was then thrown open for discussion. The prevailing atmosphere at the conference was later described by a participant: “We were all convinced that Horsing’s decree would never suffice to produce an Aktion in Germany, but that we had to resort to provocation . . . the first shot, the notorious first shot, had to come from the side of the enemy.” It was suggested in the course of the discussion that favorable results might be achieved by harassing the police, who sooner or later were bound to open fire. Some of the members present were less than enthusiastic, but all indications of faintheartedness were speedily quashed from the chair. Oelssner terminated the conference by stating, contrary to the facts, that fighting had already begun and that it was now the duty of the party to increase the intensity of the struggle. The immediate objective was to arm the workers, then to capture political power.

During the session of the district executive at Halle came the first reports that the police occupation was already in progress. Another conference was called in Halle for March 20, this time by the regional executive, and all central German districts sent representatives who gave their individual situation reports. The conference was overcast by a cloud of deep depression. It was the general consensus that the spirit among the population was anything but revolutionary, and that artificial means would have to be used in order to bring matters to a head (um die Sache hochzubringen). Indeed, all was not well with the revolutionary spirit of the masses, which had figured so prominently in the calculations of the party leaders. The proletarians in Prussian Saxony, who according to subsequent Communist claims were so desperately in need of assistance, behaved initially with unforeseen timidity in the face of the Prussian police uniforms. Despite some ripples of discontent and attempts by agitators to stir up the workers and get them to stage walkouts, everything remained calm throughout March 19 and 20 (the latter being a Sunday) in the Eisleben area which had been the first to be occupied. Only on Monday, March 21, had agitation progressed sufficiently to encourage the Communist district executive of Mansfeld to call for a general strike, and on that day leaflets were distributed throughout the mining region which, in part, read as follows:

“Mansfeld workers! The reactionaries have carried out their threats and have turned your peaceful homes into a staging area for the White Guards. . . . They did not come with the ordinary weapons of the police forces but armed with machine guns and handgrenades . . . Mansfeld workers! Show that you are not slaves and use your power to repulse this onslaught. A general strike must be called. All wheels must stop turning . . . . Workers! you hold the power in your hands. Use it in proper time and be prepared for all eventualities (seid gewappnet fur alle Fälle].” The appeal was reproduced the same day in the Mansfelder Volkszeitung, the local Communist paper, and the strike began to spread, with moderate success, in the heart of this mining area. Yet outside of the immediate Mansfeld district most factories went on working, and there was still no sign of open violence.

Up to this point the Zentrale had been content to sit back and grind revolutionary tunes on the propaganda organ. But when the proclamation of the general strike failed to have the desired effect, Hugo Eberlein, who had recently been put in charge of the party’s military-political organization (MP-Apparat), was dispatched to central Germany on March 22. Eberlein was a Spartacist veteran who had participated in the founding of the KPD, and who in March 1919 represented the young party at the Founding Congress of the Communist International. He was a member of the Zentrale from the founding of the party up to the unification with the USPD, and it is conceivable that he was not elected into the Levi-Daumig Zentrale because of his delicate position as chief of the MP-Apparat. Eberlein enjoyed in party circles a reputation as an experienced saboteur, and was known among the rank and file as “Hugo mit der Zündschnur (Hugo with the fuse).”

As soon as Eberlein arrived in Halle he conferred with the local party functionaries. He told them that the Zentrale had ordered him to direct strategy in the region and to do his utmost to accelerate the pace of the projected operation. When some scepticism was ex pressed by two local leaders, Eberlein left no doubt that he intended to carry out the uprising under any circumstances. He rejected all talk of calling off the general strike, and then proceeded to develop his plans. It was essential, Eberlein argued, to win mass support, first in central Germany and ultimately in the rest of the Reich. Artificial means would have to be used to arouse the workers from their passive attitude. He suggested that trusted comrades were to commit acts of violence which could be blamed on the police—in this manner, even the most reluctant of workers would be provoked into action. But Eberlein’s fertile imagination provided a number of additional suggestions. He wanted to stage a mock-kidnapping of the two regional Communist leaders, Lemck and Bowitzki, who were nominally in charge of directing the Aktion. Other popular leaders should disappear for a day or two, only to re-emerge with fairy tales about how they had been liberated from the reactionaries. Another scheme was to blow up an ammunition train of the police and then to charge in the Klassenkampf, the Communist newspaper in Halle, that carelessness on the part of the reactionaries had ruined the homes of numerous workers, and had caused the death of hundreds of victims. Once it became known that the report was false, the paper could print a correction a few days later. Two more targets for Eberlein’s store of dynamite were an ammunition factory at Seesen, and a workers’ producers’ cooperative (Produktivgenos-senschaft) in Halle.

None of these projects was carried out successfully, although several abortive attempts were made to blow up both the ammunition factory and the producers’ cooperative. Eberlein’s reaction to the initial failure of the dynamiting exercises was a blast at the inefficiency of the local illegal apparatus which, he complained, did not even own a decent piece of fuse to do a reliable job. Yet before the day (March 23) was over, Eberlein’s tactics were largely overshadowed by the activities of a less sophisticated, albeit more renowned, revolutionary figure who had appeared in the Mansfeld district—Max Hoelz. Hoelz was no unknown to the revolutionary movement. He had first won prominence in 1918, when he organized the unemployed in his Saxon hometown of Falkenstein in the Voigtland during the revolution. His activism and initiative attracted the attention of the entire region at the time, and he won nationwide fame during the Kapp Putsch by his talented organization of workers’ brigades, which he led in guerilla warfare all over Saxony. In the course of the fighting he came into conflict with the leader of the Communist Chemnitz branch, Heinrich Brandler, who resented what he termed Hoelz’s undisciplined inroads on Brandler’s territory. The grudge continued, and after the Kapp Putsch Brandler had Hoelz expelled from the party, which he had joined in 1919. His expulsion from the KPD did not discourage Hoelz from continuing in his role of a German Robin Hood, a “condottiere with a social conscience nod the temperament of a rebel fighting for the poor and oppressed.”

When Hoelz learned on March 21 that a general strike had been called in the Mansfeld district, he left Berlin, where he had lived underground ever since the spring of 1920, and journeyed into the industrial region of Prussian Saxony. He arrived at Kloster Mansfeld late at night, but still in time to attend a meeting on the general strike. There was, as yet, no mention of armed insurrection. The situation changed on the following day, March 22, when walkouts increased in the Mansfeld-Eisleben mining district, and armed bands prevented non-striking mining crews from entering the pits. During the day Hoelz addressed strike meetings at Hettstedt, Mansfeld and Eisleben, and it was as a result of his Eisleben speech that the situation got out of hand. According to a Prussian police major, Hoelz spoke in support of the general strike, urged his audience to arm themselves, and allegedly incited them to beat up police patrols. His suggestion was followed immediately after the meeting was over, when a group of his listeners marched to Eisleben’s market square and attacked four policemen who were out shopping, armed only with dress bayonets. The policemen were rescued before long, but the incident encouraged many unruly elements in the neighborhood, and from the night of March 22-23 on the strike movement began to turn into an open, and spreading, insurrection. Incited by Hoelz and his “adjutant” Josef Schneider, the editor of the Mansfelder Volkszeitung, a growing number of persons among the local population provided themselves with rifles, machine guns, and large amounts of explosives, which were easily obtained in a mining area. Some of the weapons came from secret depots which dated from the days of the Kapp Putsch and its aftermath; others were either captured or stolen from the police. Hoelz then began to form shock troops. He recruited strikers and unemployed miners most of whom were in possession of arms, organized them into units, and then descended with his motley troops upon the region around Mansfeld, Eisleben, and Hettstedt. For the next ten days Hoelz’s “army” terrorized the countryside by arson, looting, bank robberies, and the dynamiting of buildings, trains, and other suitable targets. Aimless though most of these activities were, Hoelz nevertheless succeeded where the KPD, Eberlein’s exertions notwithstanding, had so far failed: only two days after he came to the region, Hoelz had transformed the strike movement into a bloody insurrection. 27 Drobnig, pp. 9-10. Hoelz has presented a different version of this incident. According to his account (pp. 139-140), he had only urged the workers to support the general strike. Trouble started when the police, following his Eisleben speech, arrested and maltreated several strikers who had attended the meeting. When their comrades tried to liberate them by force, fighting broke out. The incident convinced the workers and Hoelz that it was time to seize weapons and organize fighting units.

From March 23 on, the situation in central Germany was extremely confused. Although the strike was spreading, and resistance to Horsing’s police was gathering momentum, the SPD, Independents and unions continued their initial opposition to what they felt was an irresponsible Communist adventure, and made every effort to prevent the workers in Prussian Saxony and elsewhere in Germany from lending support to the movement. There was, moreover, little or no coordination among the various proletarian groups that participated in the insurrection. Communist headquarters at Halle lacked effective control over the operation as a whole, and in particular over developments in the vital mining district around Mansfeld, Hettstedt and Eisleben. Eberlein’s presence in Halle could not change this fact. He was given but lukewarm cooperation from the local party leaders, and most of the attempts to extend the scope of the uprising in accordance with Eberlein’s unorthodox directives were either bungled, or they actually backfired. For example, the repeated dynamiting and derailing of passenger trains alienated railroad personnel, whose support of the insurrection would have been of vital importance for its success.

Most of the actual fighting took place in the Mansfeld district, the heart of the insurgent region, where Hoelz and his guerilla bands wreaked havoc and stole the Communists’ thunder. Supported by scattered contingents from the KAPD, hordes of unemployed, and the inevitable sprinkling of undefinable drifters who participated in the uprising for reasons of their own, this latter-day Schinderhannes battled police and ransacked the countryside, all in the name of social justice. There was little system to his burning, dynamiting and plundering, but no one, least of all the local KPD, could control him or gain his cooperation. Stubborn and self-righteous, he did not accept advice, much less orders, from anyone. Whoever joined his forces became subject to his command: this happened to a few impatient hotheads from the KPD organization in Halle who, without authorization from headquarters, collected six thousand men during a street demonstration, marched them to the Mansfeld district, and there joined Hoelz.

Relations between KPD and KAPD were also poor during the entire course of the uprising. The radical KAPD men admired Hoelz and hardly disguised their contempt for the KPD. Hoelz rewarded this admiration by handing over to the war chest of the KAPD the money that his desperados robbed from the local banks, and this incurred the jealousy of the rival party. Lack of cooperation between the two Communist organizations was prominently displayed in the “defense” of the chemical works at Leuna, south of Merseburg. This large industrial complex, which employed roughly twenty thousand workers, would have been eminently suited as a strong. point for the entire insurrection, but the potential strength of the Leuna works was never effectively utilized. A mammoth protest meeting, attended by an alleged eighteen thousand employees, was held on March 21, and an action committee was elected. Two days later, the Leuna works joined the regional general strike. The majority of workers went home, either to stay there and await the resumption of work, or to join battle against the police. At Leuna proper, a garrison, consisting of an estimated two thousand armed strikers, barricaded themselves inside the works and prepared to defend the compound against a police assault. But the defenders were neither unified nor well organized. The action committee which had been elected on March 21 was dominated by KAPD men who quarrelled incessantly with their comrades from the KPD. No agreement was reached on the essential question of whether they should remain on the defensive, or take the initiative and partake in the regional fighting. A further reason for controversy was the problem of emergency maintenance of the plant’s most vital installations, a measure which the KAPD opposed. Mutual recriminations among the members of the action committee, coupled with the failure of KPD headquarters to maintain contact with the garrison, left Leuna an isolated, albeit armed, citadel.

Thus Hoelz’s excessive violence, the ineffective efforts of the KPD to gain control over the movement, and the factional rivalries, all combined to jeopardize the chances of the uprising from the outset. Yet, for a few days after the outbreak of fighting, the fate of the insurrection hung in the balance; success or failure depended on whether the government could suppress it before the Zentrale extended it beyond central Germany.

On March 23, news of the radical turn of events in Prussian Saxony reached Berlin and was discussed by the cabinets of the Reich and Prussia. Additional bad news came from Hamburg, where labor trouble had erupted the same day, and the authorities had to find means of protecting the country from possible civil war. After some deliberations, which concentrated on central Germany, it was decided not to declare martial law in the insurgent region unless such a step should become unavoidable. Probably at this point, or very shortly thereafter, a decision was reached to rely primarily on police forces, but to keep several army units in readiness. They were to be employed only in case of emergency. The question of whether these Reichswehr contingents would then come under the command of the police or would act independently was temporarily left open.

Meanwhile, disturbing reports continued to reach the capital. Toward evening it became known that fighting around Eisleben had grown more intense, that the Leuna works had been hit by a general strike, and that the insurrection threatened to spread to the state of Saxony, where bomb plots against law courts had been discovered in Dresden, Leipzig and Freiberg. In Halle, where Communist headquarters in charge of regional operations was located, no strikes had developed so far, but the insurgents had distributed pamphlets with the following text: “On to the barricades, long live Soviet Russia! The revolutionary Ruhr district has been cut off by imperialist designs of the Entente powers, and central Germany has therefore become the heart of the German revolution. On to the barricades! Conquer the world!”

Equally somber was the news from Hamburg, where the senate had imposed a state of emergency that day at 4 P.M. Under the impact of these reports, President Ebert became convinced that drastic measures were needed. During the night he consulted with federal and Prussian officials and, still shying away from a declaration of martial law, proclaimed on the morning of March 24 a non-military state of emergency for Hamburg and the province of Saxony. Horsing was appointed (federal) civilian commissioner and entrusted with the execution of all measures which he deemed necessary for the restoration of order.

As the government was trying to find ways and means to quell the insurrection, the Communist Zentrale in Berlin made every effort to spread it beyond central Germany. Placards all over Berlin announced that in Prussian Saxony the (legal) factory councils had been replaced by revolutionary workers’ councils, an example which proletarians everywhere should follow. On March 22, the morning edition of the Rote Fahne called for mass demonstrations, to be held in the evening of March 24 at four points in the capital. The demonstrators were urged to protest Horsing’s police action and to express their solidarity with their comrades in central Germany. To add some local color, the Berlin workers were also asked to register a protest against the arrest of Ernst Reuter-Friesland by the police. In the course of the day the Zentrale changed its mind and scheduled the demonstrations for the same evening, March 22, presumably because somebody had realized that to hold a mass meeting on Maundy Thursday, shortly before the Easter holidays, was inpropitious. Despite the short notice the meetings were well attended, but revolutionary fervor was strikingly absent. Some wind had been taken out of the Communist sails when Reuter-Friesland was released shortly before the demonstrations were held—after he had spent two days in jail the police revealed that his arrest was a case of mistaken identity. His return deprived the Zentrale of an effective local slogan and made it necessary to concentrate solely on central Germany. Party spokesmen addressing the crowds urged all workers to stand by and be prepared to come to the aid of their imperiled comrades. The audience listened attentively but without any display of emotion. When some hecklers from the KAPD registered their dissatisfaction with mere preparedness, and demanded that a general strikc be called at once, they elicited hardly any response.

The evening edition of the Rote Fahne that day was likewise devoted to the situation in central Germany. The editorial emphasized, with unconcealed gratification, that this was the third time since the end of the war that the workers in the Mansfeld district were attracting everyone’s attention. This time, however, neither Horsing nor the Orgesch would succeed in provoking the workers to dissipate their collective strength in isolated skirmishes. Nor would the German labor movement as a whole be misled again by so-called anti-putschist phrases which had bred so much cowardice and passiveness in the past. The general strike called by the workers in central Germany was no putsch. It was the beginning of a collective action (Gesamtaktion), essential for the German proletariat if it was to prevent in time the disastrous consequences of the inevitable collapse of capitalism. The editorial ended with the usual revolutionary ruffles and flourishes: “The proletarian battalions in central Germany stand ready to fight. German workers, show your revolutionary solidarity, join your brothers, cast off your indifference, get rid of your cowardly and treacherous leaders, and fight—or you will perish!”

Despite all inflammatory slogans the Berliners did not stir. Not even the Communist-sponsored mass demonstrations elicited as yet more than polite curiosity, mixed with the traditional scepticism for which the population of the capital was famous. But on March 23 the Zentrale was compensated by encouraging news from Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city, where the propaganda efforts of the Red press had fallen on fruitful ground. Widespread unemployment had created a dangerous atmosphere which the KPD skillfully exploited. Communist agitation became noticeable in Hamburg on March 22. On that day the city’s Communist leaders, Ernst Thalmann among them, held a conference in the business office of the KPD in order to determine how the Hamburg workers could render immediate assistance to the proletariat in central Germany. It was resolved, among other things, to make use of the unemployed in any mass actions taken.

The local party organ, Hamburger Volksblatt, set the tone in an impassioned report on events in central Germany, and called on the workers of Hamburg to prove their solidarity with their comrades in Prussian Saxony. The paper demanded that the government disarm the Orgesch, arm the proletarians, create jobs for the unemployed, and call off Horsing’s police action in central Germany. The paper threatened a general strike by Hamburg’s proletariat if the government should reject these demands. In order to lend some substance to their threats, the Communists scheduled a protest meeting for March 23 at the Heiligengeistfeld, a fairground not far from the waterfront.

Radical Communist agitation proved more effective in “red” Hamburg than in Berlin. On the morning of March 23rd a huge crowd of unemployed, led by the KPD, marched to the waterfront and invaded three of Hamburg’s largest shipyards, Blohm & Voss, Vulkan, and Deutsche Werft. The plant managers tried to order the crowd off the premises by threatening to close down the yards unless they were obeyed. The unemployed shouted back that they wanted jobs and urged the workers in the shipyards to support them. Support was not forthcoming, nor could it have been expected, since most shipyard workers were loyal supporters of the Social Democratic Party. The issue did not long remain in doubt, Arguments led to threats of force, and strong-arm tactics eventually succeeded in dislodging from the yards all opponents of the Communist-led mob. The managers retreated along with thy Socialist personnel, and the invaders occupied the premises. Once in possession, they elected ad hoc action committees and hoisted red flags The KPD had attained its objective of infusing revolutionary spirit into a section of Hamburg’s labor movement, although this done at the expense of unemployed desperate enough to act as shock troops for the “revolutionary vanguard.” Nothing constructivc could have been accomplished in the long run by the forceful occupation of the yards, as the Communist leaders undoubtedly knew.

And the occupation proved of short duration. The KPD had issued instructions to keep the yards occupied, but the crowd within the gates, the group which occupied the Vulkan wharf, left the yards in the early afternoon perhaps through some misunderstanding, and marched into the city, presumably to attend the protest demonstration at the Heiligengeistfeld which was scheduled for 5 P.M. They were met by police forces, who tried to break up the formation, and after heavy street fighting succeeded in dispersing the would-be demonstrators, including those who had already reached the Heiligengeistfeld. The police then surrounded the wharves of Blohm & Voss, firing into courtyards and buildings. By early afternoon the shipyards were cleared, but Hamburg remained dangerously restless. Street battles between unemployed and police continued throughout the rest of the day in various parts of the city, and at 4 P.M. the senate proclaimed a state of emergency, which was given full backing the following day by the federal emergency decree of President Ebert.”

The president’s proclamation of a state of emergency for Hamburg and Prussian Saxony on March 24 posed a challenge to the Communist leaders which they decided to meet head on. With the Easter holidays just ahead, the Zentrale had to do something to sustain the movement and, if possible, to accelerate its intensity. For this purpose the KPD called a nationwide general strike on March 24, urged the proletarians to seize arms, to get organized, and to join the struggle against the counterrevolution. It was a desperate step, for all plants closed down anyway from Good Friday (March 25) through Easter Monday. But the response to the Communist appeal was negligible. Both Socialist parties countered the call for a general strike by instructing their members to ignore it. In Berlin, the seat of the Zentrale, the strike movement was a total fiasco. Most workers reported to their jobs on the 24th, and only a few factories were idle, despite the aforementioned attempts by the KPD to enforce the shutdown of working plants through attempted invasions by unemployed. These methods aroused sharp criticism even from within the party. Ernst Daumig, for instance, sent a furious letter to the Zentrale in which he protested the practice of pitting proletarians against proletarians. Equally indignant were the party officials in charge of trade-union activities, who complained that the tactics employed by the Zentrale were wrecking their influence within the unions.

The Zentrale scored slightly better in the Ruhr region and the Rhineland. In the Communist Ruhrecho, and through handbills, the regional KPD organizations followed the lead of the Zentrale by exhorting the population to join the general strike. Throughout March 24 and 25, the Communists kept up an untiring propaganda barrage by calling for demonstrations, for support of the embattled comrades in Prussian Saxony, and for support of the general strike. Party leaders recommended “Easter promenades” through the streets, especially in the working-class districts. They hoped in this way to keep the issue alive over the holidays, and to win support from non-Communist labor for the intensified struggle which they expected in the days ahead. On Easter Monday, armed clashes betwcen workers and police occurred in Essen. During the next few days similar incidents took place in a number of mines, and in nearly every sizable city of the Rhenish region. Only a fraction of the population, however, supported the general strike, most walkouts that were staged were of short duration and, by March 30, order was restored to the region except for some isolated pockets. Germany’s largest industrial area, traditionally a radical stronghold, had proven of little help to the KPD.

Equally unspectacular was the impact of the insurrection on southern Germany, the northern plains, and the East Elbian region. Only token strikes and isolated minor riots briefly disturbed these otherwise quiet areas. Thus, in the last analysis, success or failure of the uprising hinged on developments in central Germany, where the fighting had taken a more violent turn after President Ebert’s decree had become known. Because Horsing’s police forces were restricted in numbers, and the Reichswehr units continued to stand by without participating in the fighting, the operations of the government proceeded at first at a rather slow pace. On March 24, insurgent forces held Eisleben and Hettstedt against the police, and Halle and Merseburg were affected by the strike movement. There were reports that in the area around Leuna, now occupied by armed strikers, every male between the ages of fifteen and fifty had become eligible for “conscription” into the ranks of the insurgent proletariat, and that compulsion was used on some occasions to enlist unwilling recruits.”

Heavy fighting continued for several days. On March 25, government forces gradually won the upper hand in Eisleben and Hettstedt, and on the following day took Mansfeld, Helbra, and Sangershausen. At the same time, however, they suffered some setbacks when new riots broke out in such peripherally situated towns as Wittenberg, Delitzsch, and Bitterfeld, which until then had not been affected by the insurrection.

On Good Friday, some confusion was thrown into the ranks of the insurgents when rumors circulated throughout the region that Horsing had offered immunity from punishment to anyone willing to surrender and to hand his weapons over to the police. Whatever substance there may have been to this rumor, it was quickly quashed. On March 26, Severing sent a telegraphic order to the government forces, forbidding all negotiations with the fighting workers, and instructing the police to proceed without leniency.”

The attitude of Communist headquarters in Halle was equally uncompromising, as was evident from the instructions issued by this body on Good Friday: “Provocation at any price! Overturn street cars, throw handgrenades . . . !” But in spite of these desperate exhortations, from March 27 on the Aktion turned gradually into a rout, as bands of insurgents, varying in size, engaged in desperate and usually fruitless rearguard skirmishes with the police. Hoelz’s account of his own movements during these last hectic days constitutes very representative description of the collapse. He and some of his men spent Easter Sunday (March 27) at Schraplau, a small town roughly ten kilometers southeast of Eisleben, where he paid his “troops” for the first time. Hoelz has recounted this momentous occasion with customary modesty: “The finance and commissariat department of the troops was entrusted with the payment. Each received fifty marks.” He does not indicate the source of the money.

At Schraplau he met Lemck (Hoelz calls him “Lembke”) and Bowitzki, nominally the Aufstandsleiter appointed by the KPD, who had, however, lost contact with their own headquarters. Hoelz planned originally to march to the Leuna works and reinforce the garrison there, but changed his mind and set out for Halle, by way of Ammendorf. He intended to launch a surprise attack upon Halle in the hope of capturing some artillery pieces. In the night from March 27 to 28, Hoelz led his men in a belated Easter parade from Schraplau to Ammendorf, a distance of roughly twenty-five kilometers. On the following day he advanced on Halle with two thousand men, but ran into police who surrounded his force before he reached the city. Hoelz sent Lemck to the garrison of the Leuna works with the urgent request for immediate reinforcements, and ordered his men to hold the line until the expected relief arrived. It never came, although Lemck returned, after two hours, in a car with one thousand rounds of ammunition and the promise of speedy aid from Leuna. After waiting in vain for some time, while the police were tightening their ring, Hoelz’s troops began to disperse in an effort to escape from the trap before it was too late. In the ensuing confusion Hoelz became separated from his men and hid in a mine-shaft. When he emerged from his concealment, his troops had disappeared. During the next few days he wandered north, sometimes alone, sometimes accompanying small groups of stragglers and participating in running fights with police, in the hope of eventually reaching Mansfeld where he expected to find the remnants of his troops. But he never reached his destination. On March 31 he found himself in Beesenstedt, a village halfway between Halle and Mansfeld, and here on April 1 he joined in the last sizable battle of the insurrection. The outcome of the workers’ last stand at Beesenstedt was never in doubt. Hoelz was captured after the police closed in, but got away two days later when he successfully fooled his captors with false identity papers and the brazen tale that he was unjustly arrested while peacefully buying eggs from a local farmer. With a price of 185,000 marks on his head, Hoelz made his way to Berlin where he was soon arrested, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment. His revolutionary career was over for good when the March uprising, in which he had played such a prominent part, collapsed before his eyes.

The backbone of the insurrection as a whole was, in effect, broken several days before Hoelz saw its last dying spasms at Beesenstedt. Hamburg was the first area where order was restored. The riots which had broken out on March 23 were quelled three days later, and by March 29 most shipyards began to resume full operations. On that day the insurrection suffered another blow, as police forces, reinforced by one battalion of Reichswehr artillery, captured the Leuna works and took most of the defenders prisoner. Although Leuna had played a rather undistinguished role in the regional struggle, the mere fact that the famous chemical works were in the hands of proletarian fighters had been played up for days by the Communist press as a symbol of revolutionary triumph.

With Hamburg pacified, the rumblings in the Rhineland subsiding, and the Leuna works captured, the Zentrale could see the handwriting on the wall. Everywhere the movement was collapsing; everywhere the Communists found themselves isolated. The majority of German labor followed the lead of the two Socialist parties and the trade-unions, whose spokesmen were denouncing the putschism of the KPD in no uncertain terms. In view of these circumstances the Zentrale called a high-level conference on March 30 to deliberate on whether or not to continue the uprising. An emissary, just arrived from the Rhineland, reported on the situation in western Germany and demanded that the Aktion be called off at once. His bleak account prompted four leading members of the Zentrale, Brandler, Heckert, Thalheimer and Stoecker, to speak in favor of ending the fighting, and one unidentified member sighed that he wished the police in Berlin would lose their nerve and start antagonizing the workers. The pessimistic mood which permeated the conference was dispelled, however, when another participant in the conference rose, banged the table, and asserted that contrary to prevailing opinion the uprising was still gathering force and should be allowed to continue, at least for a few more days. Clinging tenaciously to the belief that the tide might yet turn in favor of the Communists, the speaker cited a number of encouraging examples from various parts of the country in support of his position. Although we know no further details of the ensuing debate, its outcome was a resolution to hold out for another two or three days. During this period of grace the Zentrale was to prepare a suitable plan for ending the struggle as uniformly as possible.

Thus, a day after Leuna was taken and Horsing’s control of the insurgent region virtually assured, the Zentrale made a last desperate effort, against the better judgment of some of its members, to postpone the inevitable. On the same day the Rote Fahne appealed once more to the German workers to support the uprising. But in doing so, the paper hurled one vituperative insult after another against the leaders of the same Social Democratic and Independent rank and file whom the Communists were trying so hard to win as allies. All the setbacks which the Communists had just suffered the Rote Fahne blamed on the Socialist leadership, and the paper ended the appeal on a note of “revolutionary solidarity” with “all workers.” Finally, the attempt to win friends was topped by the last sentence of the editorial which appeared in the same issue of the paper: “Shame [Schmach und Schande] upon the worker who at this moment still stands aside; shame upon the worker who still does not know where his place is.”

The decision to prolong needlessly the agony of those who did the fighting, taken by a few party functionaries in Berlin, introduced to the KPD a pattern of thinking which in the years ahead was to become primary law for over one-third of the world’s population: the individual is nothing, the party everything. “For the movement was without scruples,” writes Arthur Koestler in Darkness at Noon, “she rolled toward her goal unconcernedly and deposed the corpses of the drowned in the windings of her course.” But the proletarians who in March 1921 manned picket lines, were wounded or killed, or lost their jobs, did not realize that in the eyes of their leaders they were expendable. The rank and file, whether party members or sympathizers, knew nothing of Comrade Bela Kun. They did not know that Brandler’s theory about an existing revolutionary situation had been imparted to him by a few ill-informed and reckless individuals. The rank and file joined in the insurrection because their press told them that Horsing had attacked the German workers; that they must show their solidarity with their brothers in Mansfeld and Eisleben; that the Orgesch was about to slaughter the “defenseless” workers; and that the capitalists everywhere were plotting a new war for which the proletariat would have to foot the bill. Deceived and poorly led, they fought and died for the most part in good faith, the victims of what Levi came to call the “greatest Bakunist putsch in history.”

For two more days, following the conference of March 30, the Zentrale waited in vain for a miracle. Rumors of growing unrest among the farm workers of three eastern provinces briefly rekindled sparks of hope, only to prove another disappointment when no uprisings materialized. On April 1, even the most stubborn diehards among the Communist leaders had to recognize the futility of further waiting, and the Zentrale resolved to end the insurrection by calling off the “nationwide” general strike. The proclamation by which this decision was communicated to the party at large blamed the defeat on the counterrevolutionaries, ranging from Ludendorff to Hilferding, and culminated in the promise that the Communists would fight another day: “The strike and the insurrectionist movement have been crushed. Hundreds of proletarians lie murdered on the battlefield. Thousands remain out on the streets, punished by their employers. . .” Despite the defeat, however, the party’s spirit had remained unshaken, and its members were looking forward to new challenges ahead. “Let us not waste time. Close ranks for the coming fight. Be prepared. Soon we shall hear again: tighten chin straps! Forward, against the enemies. . . . Long live the German Revolution! Long live the World Revolution!” On this note of defiance the Marz Aktion ended. In view of the facts, the self-righteous attitude which the Zentrale assumed in blaming others for the failure of the uprising was, to say  the least, inappropriate. From the moment of its conception until the final call for retreat on April 1, the entire operation, with its grandiose scheme of capturing the power of state, was conducted by a few Communist leaders who approached it in a spirit of recklessness and irresponsibility. Without a careful appraisal of the situation, these men proceeded from the premise that a revolutionary opportunity was shaping up and should be exploited by the party. This was a misconception, as no less a person than Trotsky was to tell them later on at the Third World Congress. Based, as it was, on a contrived analysis of the national and international situations, the project was then pushed down the throats of an unenthusiastic and sceptical assembly of party officials who were left with the impression that the enterprise in question would be undertaken only when the time was ripe, and in any case not prior to the Easter holidays. To all appearances, this original plan was to be adhered to even in the face of Horsing’s announcement that a police occupation of Prussian Saxony was impending. But appearances proved deceptive. The decision to postpone any overt action by the KPD until after Easter was quietly dropped in favor of interference in central Germany, and strenuous efforts were made to utilize Horsing’s so-called provocation for triggering all the other anticipated crises, mostly mythical in nature, on which the original plans had been based. There is good reason to assume that the party reversed itself on this issue primarily because of Kun, and because of the support he received from those members of the Zentrale who had advocated a more aggressive course even before the arrival of the Comintern agents. But neither Kun nor his German disciples took the trouble to assess the chances for a Communist-led revolution at this particular moment; nor did they give any serious consideration to the party’s state of preparedness, an omission which in view of the stakes involved bordered on criminal neglect. Impulsive, ignorant of the true political situation, and without a clear conception of the risks involved, the Communist leaders plunged the party into a disastrous adventure.

Everything went wrong from the beginning. Contrary to later legends, the Mansfeld workers and miners did not rise “spontaneously” after Horsing’s appeal had been published, not even when local Communist organization proclaimed a general strike. It took Max Hoelz with his revolutionary experience and his personal magnetism to get the workers to move. But neither Hoelz’s ends nor Hoelz’s means were those of the KPD. He came to the Mansfeld region on his own initiative, because he wanted to render whatever assistance he could to the local proletariat. Hoelz had his own ideas on how to be helpful, and he did not want anyone to tell him what to do. Once he was on the scene, the old revolutionary zeal carried him away, and he succeeded in transforming what began as a strike movement into a bloody orgy. The haphazardly recruited insurgent bands under his command terrorized the mining district without a clearly defined aim, without a strategic plan, and with a minimum of discipline.

It was bad enough for the KPD that Hoelz usurped control and leadership over the mounting insurrectionist movement. But in addition to this sizable handicap, the party’s own organizational efficiency proved none too adequate. Confusion and poor coordination bedeviled operations from the first to the last day. Communications between the Zentrale in Berlin and the party organizations in central Germany were never effectively established. Despite the presence of Hugo Eberlein, Communist headquarters in Halle dragged its feet. Chemnitz waited for Halle to take decisive measures, Leipzig felt altogether too weak to do anything, and other local KPD organizations wanted to be assured of a successful outcome before taking any initiative. And so it went everywhere.

The party’s failure to provide adequate direction and purpose to the insurrection in central Germany was also evident in other trouble spots in the nation. The sporadic strikes in the Rhineland and Ruhr, the protest demonstrations in south Germany and Berlin, the unrest among East Elbian farm laborers, and the abortive riots in Hamburg remained isolated and relatively ineffective incidents. Although they all possessed some nuisance value, they never developed into he strong, coordinated revolutionary movement on which the initial plans of the Zentrale were based. But the most decisive factor in the defeat of the March uprising was the lack of mass support. The KPD proved incapable of rallying the millions of non-Communist workers behind the revolutionary banner. “The March struggle broke on the passiveness of the German workers,” a Communist leader subsequently complained; he might have added that such passiveness was inevitable because no genuine revolutionary situation existed on a nationwide basis. Whatever the party did to create such a situation, whether by “artificial means” or by clumsy and tactless propaganda, only repelled the majority of German workers, and without their backing and participation any revolution in Germany was doomed from the outset. In short, the March uprising was an undeniable fiasco, the aftereffects of which were to haunt the KPD for the remainder of the year.


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.


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