I am Spartacus

Ausrufung_Republik_Scheidemann_Erich Greifer
Scheidemann makes a republic, or declares his intentions to take Germany to the Moon. Photo Credit: Erich Greiner

More or less simultaneously with Liebknecht’s declaration, SPD minister Phillip Scheidemann raced to the Reichstag window and announced “the formation of a labor government to which all socialist parties will belong…long live the German Republic!”.[1] While Ebert furiously told Scheidemann that “You have no right to proclaim the Republic”, the ad-libbed declaration decided the course of events. In lieu of the constitutional monarchy[2] Ebert had envisioned, the German Republic was born on November 9th, 1918, by the turn of a phrase and to no party’s true intention.

Though far from thrilled with the twist in events, Ebert now found himself in the driver’s seat of the revolution. The SPD and USPD agreed to a joint “Council of the People’s Commissars”, a Revolutionary Government with six seats, with each taking half. While the latter saw themselves and the worker’s councils as the government, Ebert saw the affair as temporary. Still set on a revised but decidedly Reichstag shaped form of government, the SPD chair began to court the other political parties and institutions of the now former German Empire.

Ebert has taken an immense amount of criticism for his perceived betrayal of the revolution, but this gives the SPD leader too little credit for pursuing his own separate goal. The Council of the People’s Commissars had simply conjured itself into being in cities across Germany, and there were plenty in the Empire who were likely to disagree with its governance. Side with the Commissars, and there might be a reactionary counterrevolution. Move too quickly away and the revolutionaries would finish what they started. If Ebert wanted to know what that might look like, he needed only to ponder the fate of the hapless Russian Provisional Government under Alexander Kerensky that had fallen the year before in the October Revolution. Stuck in the middle Ebert made a fateful choice. As insurance, on the 10th Ebert and General Groener of the army struck a pact guaranteeing army support for the Republic in exchange for Ebert’s promise not to purge or reform the officer’s corps in any substantial way. Ebert would live long enough to bitterly rue the fine print of this agreement.

Groener at his most martial in 1917. Photo Credit: London Illustrated.

By November 11th[3], Ebert’s government had officially agreed to the terms of a ceasefire, and turned his gaze inwards. On the 15th the major trade unions and leading industry figures, the latter likely acknowledging the very real possibility of nationalization under communist control, made their own pact. The unions endorsed the republic, and in exchange industry’s leadership committed to weekends, the eight hour work day, and the legitimate right of unions to strike.

Ebert had done his best to keep speed with events and funnel the country in his own intended direction. By early December even the workers councils had met and voted to postpone any major decisions until elections in mid-January 1919, another sign that the SPD’s leadership would have the time it needed for revolutionary momentum to subside. Part of this was likely that for many of the revolutionaries the struggle had never been about something as focused as the creation of some new Communist utopia. Mostly it had been about an end to starvation, gas shells, artillery, trenchfoot and the other miseries of the Great War. Now that the shooting was over and the first shipments of goods were coming back to Germany the immediate pressure was beginning to subside. But the USPD was not going to see their revolution coopted without a fight.

By late December the tensions between the Ebert government and the Spartacist/USPD wing hit flash point. The inciting cause was the somewhat self-appointed revolutionary head of the Berlin police, Emil Eichhorn.[4] A former bureau chief for the Soviet press agency ROSTA, Eichorn had seized his own personal means of production after storming the Berlin precinct on November 9th. Just a month later it was clear to Ebert that Eichorn’s loyalties did not lie with the provisional government.

Revolution in Berlin, MG-Posten vor dem Schloss
One of many revolutionary machinegun emplacements. Note both the mix of army and navy uniforms by the leftists. Also note the turtle, as the revolutionaries are sheltering in the fountain of Neptune located in front of the Stadtschloss at the time. Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv

On Christmas Eve a revolutionary unit of 500 Kriegsmarine mutinied against the government and abducted Berlin military governor Otto Wels. The dispute had started over possible looting of the Imperial Palace and an attempt by Wels to dissolve a potentially disloyal unit by withholding their pay, and had quickly escalated badly. When Ebert turned to the new police chief, Eichhorn refused the SPD order to forcibly remove the soldiers. With the police and a revolutionary unit aligned against him, Ebert cashed his insurance and deployed one of the few reliable German army units to force down the Kriegsmariners. The Christmas Eve skirmish opened with an artillery barrage on the imperial palace by Groener’s men, under the command of one Major Kurt von Schleicher.[5] The troops bungled the attack badly, and the Kriegsmariners drove them off, the first real casualties of the revolution to date. Ebert’s “bloody Christmas” was a political mess, and on December 29th the USPD left the Commissar’s Council. Ebert kept the structure of revolution anyways, even as both sides grimly anticipated a civil war. To fill the now empty defense ministry, Ebert tapped the right leaning Gustav Noske, the only man who wanted the job. In his own words, “Someone must become the bloodhound. I will not shirk the responsibility.”[6]

The bad blood between the SPD on one side, and the Spartacists, USPD, and the newly formed Kommunistiche Partei Deutschlands (KPD) was headed for a violent end. On January 4, 1919, Noske tried to remove police chief Eichhorn. The man refused, claiming only the revolution could depose him. In response the KPD membership voted overwhelmingly in favor of a second coup, and the Spartacist revolutionaries stormed out and took key locations across Berlin. One leftist leaflet set the stakes, “The Ebert-Scheidemann government intends, not only to get rid of the last representative of the revolutionary Berlin workers, but to establish a regime of coercion against the revolutionary workers. The blow which is aimed at the Berlin police chief will affect the whole German proletariat and the revolution.”[7]

But the KPD’s most prominent leaders were not optimistic about their chances. Both Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht had voted against the insurrection, correctly believing that while support for the Spartacists was strong in Bavaria, Berlin and a few other cities, it was nowhere else to be had in Germany. But the party had voted, and they duly took control of the proletarian government. Their manifesto concludes with bold words:

Only beneath the triumphant flag of the Socialist world revolution should peace be made.

Workers of all countries! We call on you to carry out the work of Socialist liberation, to restore to violated humanity a human shape, and to realize the phrase with which we formerly often greeted and parted from one another—The International will save the human race!”[8]

[1] Storer, C. (2013). A short history of the Weimar Republic. I.B. Tauris Press.

[2] Ebert wasn’t exactly planning to bring back the Mustachioed Kaiser Wilhelm II, but rather one of his grandsons.

[3] Armistice Day. Or under the more generic American  label Veteran’s Day.

[4] “Eichhorn” means “squirrel” in German, which must have opened the doors to some choice name calling when Emil was accused of hoarding food and war profiteering.

[5] A good name to remember.

[6] Ratliffe, W.G. (1980). The Political Career of Gustave Noske, 1918-1920. Master of Arts Thesis in History. Available at: https://ttu-ir.tdl.org/ttu-ir/bitstream/handle/2346/14831/31295002439650.pdf?sequence=1

[7] Steyer 1997

[8] Crawford, T. (1920). Manifesto of the German Sparticists. Available at: https://www.marxists.org/history/international/social-democracy/call/1919/30.htm


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