The German October

Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1989-040-27,_Gustav_Stresemann_(cropped)
Chancellor (and soon enough) Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann. Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv

By summer of 1923 a wave of general strikes brought down the Cuno administration. This was hardly unusual for the period. Even in the relatively stable years from 1924-29 the Weimar coalitions shuffled around in a perpetual game of musical chairs.[1] The Chancellor this time was Gustav Stresemann of the right leaning Deutsche Volkspartei (German People’s Party/DVP). Stresemann was something of a reformed nationalist, and while he had advocated expansionism before World War I unlike many of his ilk he had taken the consequences of hawkishness seriously. He became a firm ally of Friedrich Ebert, and over time brought a stabilizing influence to bear on German affairs. The new Chancellor was immediately put to the test.

Fall 1923 was the harvest season for revolutions and putsches. Longstanding issues at the heart of Weimar Germany seemed to boiling over, and both the far left and the rising far right were lining up to take advantage of it. The way in which each power grab failed in turn reflects the overall weaknesses that kept each faction from toppling Weimar for 15 years. Unfortunately both ideological wings would learn opposite lessons from their respective failures.

The first crisis point hinged on the rearmament of the German military. As one way of sneaking around Versailles, General Hans von Seeckt had founded the Black Reichswehr, an off the books unit of 20,000 men. Notionally 18,000 of these soldiers had day jobs as their civilian fig leaf, but by 1923 under threats from the League of Nations and well aware that these men were leading the guerrilla fight in the Ruhr Stresemann ordered them to disband. At least one of the units under Major Bruno Ernst Buchrucker rejected the command. Buchrucker’s unit was based in the twin towns of Kietz-Küstrin in Brandenburg (now the Polish German border), and filled with delusions of grandeur the Major envisioned a glorious March on Berlin in the style of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome the previous year. The problem lay in Buchrucker’s impressive failure to communicate this to absolutely anyone, a flaw that more successful fascist leaders did not suffer from. According to the Reichswehr’s subsequent tribunal the would be coup began with a series of impromptu speeches by Buchrucker to rally the troops,

“He began to speak, making sounds, stringing the words meaninglessly, emphasizing wrongly and gesticulating. No one knew what the defendant [Buchrucker] wanted to say.”[2]

Küstrin-Kietz_Oderinsel-barracks_(10)
The now derelict barracks in Küstrin, used by German troops until 1945 and then Soviet ones until 1991. No used by just about nobody. Photo Credit: Norbert Radtke

Even so enough soldiers fell in line behind the major to follow him into the 17th Century citadel in the middle of town, where Buchrucker ordered its confused commander to stand aside, as “the national moment had come”. Since no one but Buchrucker agreed with the sentiment, by the end of the day loyal Reichswehr troops snuffed out the insurrection. Buchrucker was charged with treason, and stayed in prison for just four years before being pardoned in 1927.

If Buchrucker’s fantasy of individual heroism typified the far right and its shortcomings, then the organizational dysfunction of the Hamburg Uprising on October 23rd showcased all the worst qualities of the communists on the left. With much of their leadership dead and their general anti-war purpose spent the USPD had effectively dissolved in 1921. Most (over 400,000) had voted to join the KPD, while the rump had gravitated back to the SPD. Now the firm voice of the left wing, the KPD was not simply inspired by communistic ideals. From its inception the party was intended to foster and coordinate global revolution as part of the Communist International (Comintern). By the mid-1920’s an autonomous German Soviet Republic had even been established on the Black Sea inside the USSR as a haven for German leftists and a doctrinal training ground.

Moscow especially thought the time was right for what they termed the “German October”. The strikes over the summer had been seen as a sign that the majority of proletarian workers, normally the SPD’s territory, were in a revolutionary mood and ready for the final war against capitalism. To this end, Red Army officers had arrived in Germany that year, training and organizing workers into the Proletarian Hundreds.

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Heinrich Brandler in later years. Photo Credit: Marxists.org

This was not a plan shared entirely by all of the actual communists in Germany, but Moscow took a dim view of the KPD’s independence. Early in 1923 Lenin and Trotsky first pushed out KPD chair Paul Levi after he publicly criticized the party’s obsession with coups. Levi’s argument was not substantially opposed to revolutionary tactics, he objected to going off half-cocked while the working classes still regarded the SPD as their party. He also had little love for taking orders from the “Turkestanis”, as he referred to USSR’s leadership. He eventually rejoined the SPD and was replaced by Heinrich Brandler, who reluctantly began to follow Trotsky and the Politburo’s insistence of a new revolutionary uprising set for the anniversary of the Russian Revolution on November 7th, 1923.

In Brandler’s view more work was needed to convince and co-opt the SPD’s leadership, and to his credit he had successfully reinserted the KPD into German politics. The states of Saxony and Thuringia had formed their own “workers governments”, featuring KPD members. Knowing that Ebert was already reaching for his Reichswehr shaped hammer to excise the KPD from both states, Brandler had created a perfect Cassus belli for the revolution. In theory all Ebert had to do was send in the troops, and ideally the sympathetic proletariat would rally to the revolutionary banner and destabilize the entire country.

Brandler’s critics, then and now, have pointed out that his interest in functioning within the Saxon government may have cost the KPD their one real revolutionary moment over the summer. But Brandler was well aware that the Proletarian Hundreds were far from the hundred thousand plus they were sometimes thought to be. The KPD’s own stockpile was not large enough to arm the 50-60,000 men Trotsky thought necessary for the vanguard. Compounding the weapons issues the SPD’s cease-and-desist arrived a few weeks early, and looked poised to intervene in Saxony.

At a hurriedly convened meeting of leftist factions in Chemnitz, Brandler made his pitch for the revolution. Calling for a general strike in response to any punitive expedition by the central government, the social democratic wing rejected the plan out of hand. Faced with the best chance prospect of yet another round of momentary success followed by quick trip to a firing squad, Brandler called off the revolution at the last moment. Most of the Hundreds got the message, with the exception of Hamburg’s chapter.

Against Hunger Fascism and War
A later KPD campaign poster, sporting a stylized “Hamburg Dock Worker” proletarian. Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv

Whether the KPD in Hamburg heard the order and decided to swing for it anyways or if something was lost in translation, about 300 KPD took to the barricades on October 23rd. Like some garbled translation of Les Miserables the result was abrupt and one sided when the local police responded. The turnout was poor, even within Hamburg the KPD had 14,000 members, and most simply had not showed up for the war. Of note the leader of the local chapter, Ernst Thälmann, survived both the revolt and a subsequent hand grenade pitched at his front door and went underground. The revolutionary left’s power ended with a minor bang rather than another climatic war for the heart of Germany.

In later years, Trotsky did not mince words about why he thought German October had failed. While Brandler and the rest of the KPD had clearly felt only a united leftist Germany stood a chance and had begun to move politically towards this aim, when the revolutionary tempo of Germany had quickened Brandler and his allies had continued to dance the same old dance.  Comparing the actions of his own domestic opponent Grigory Zivoniev to the failed uprising in 1924, he noted,

“The party’s political activity was carried on at a peacetime tempo at a time when the denouement was approaching. The timing for the uprising was fixed when, in essentials, the enemy had already made use of the time lost by the party and strengthened his position. The party’s military preparation, began at feverish speed was divorced from the party’s political activity, which was carried on at previous peacetime tempo. The masses did not understand the party and did not keep step with it. The party at once felt its severance from the masses, and proved to be paralysed. From this resulted the sudden withdrawal from first class positions without a fight—the bitterest of all possible defeats.

…” Insurrection is an art. An art presumes a clear aim, a precise plan, and consequently a schedule. The most important thing, however, was this: to ensure in good time the decisive tactical turn toward the seizure of power. And this was not done. This was the chief and fatal omission.”[3]

hamburger aufstand
The Hamburg Uprising immediately became a romantic point for German Communists, especially in postwar East Germany. A number of books and films were produced to spin the blame around or reinterpret a missed opportunity. Photo Credit: The Communist International

This may not be entirely fair to Brandler or the KPD. Just two years prior the revolution had seized the Ruhr with thousands of men in arms, and they had not lasted a year before they were put down. The memory of that revolution doubtless weighed on the minds of Germany’s communist leadership, and without the support of the more moderate social democrats they must have seen a repeat failure as inevitable. Some other shortcomings of the German KPD, like its lack of support among the military, may have also been structural, a byproduct of an armed force naturally sympathetic to fascism and old blooded Prussian nobility. Even if the SPD had leapt onboard, as all had in response to the Kapp Putsch, a full blooded revolution might have still failed in the face of that final obstacle.

Regardless of whether success was even possible, the failure of the KPD at this junction had dire consequences for the party and the workers themselves. Brandler personally found himself reassigned to somewhere in Kazakshtan, effective immediately. Others who supported his line of thinking, like German Communist Karl Radek,

Regardless of whether success was even possible, the failure of the KPD at this junction had dire consequences for the party and the workers themselves. Brandler personally found himself reassigned to somewhere in Kazakshtan, effective immediately.[4] The Saxon and Thuringian chapters were mostly evicted from power, and the KPD itself slowly lost what autonomy it had, slowly transforming into an apparatus of Soviet foreign policy. Now seen correctly as a mostly spent force, many of the hard won compromises like sick leave or the eight hour work day won from industry at the gun point of the unions were once again undone. Historian Chris Harmann has even theorized that the failure of the German October fuelled the rise of Josef Stalin in Moscow, as the USSR turned inwards and away from the global revolution championed by men like Trotsky. If the road of the revolution left ended in 1923, the final failed Putsch in Bavaria would marked the first step towards fascism in Germany.

[1] What lent the system its short lived stability was that the same 74 people tended to cycle through the various ministerial roles and portfolios. This also likely contributed to some of the feeling of complacency when government came and went.

[2] Reichswehr (1926). Cottbus Proceedings. Retrieved from Wikipedia.de and translated by the author

[3] Sewell, R. 2006. Germany: From Revolution to Counter-Revolution.

[4] Other international communists who defended Brandler, like Karl Radek, also found themselves forced out of power in the fallout. Radek was a prominent figure in the international Communist movement, which naturally meant he was murdered by an NKVD officer in a Russian labor camp in 1939. A Russian joke on the topic goes like this: “Three men are sitting in a gulag. The first is there for criticizing Karl Radek. The second is there for defending Karl Radek. The third is Karl Radek”.

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