Revolution and Counterrevolution in Germany 1919

Talk by Christoph Fringeli
held at Vétomat in Berlin, 14/01/2019

Tomorrow marks one hundred years since two important figures of the early German communist movement were murdered in Berlin: Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. This was in the middle of an attempt to turn the revolution that had forced the Kaiser to abdicate in November, 1918 into a fully socialist one. This attempt, often called the Spartacist Uprising1, was defeated, as were other attempts in other parts of Germany to set up council republics and workers’ democracy.

Liebknecht and Luxemburg were both born in 1871. From around the turn of the century, they were active in the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) as well as the international socialist movement. The SPD was the biggest party in that movement and one of the main players in the Second International. The party originated in 1875 when two previously existing socialist organisations were united. It was heavily influenced by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, even though Marx had formulated a scathing critique of their original program2 .

As the party developed, it became a major force in German politics. Its share of the vote multiplied until it reached 34,8% in 1912, the last election before the First World War. This development was accompanied by an increasing bureaucratisation of the party and a conflict between its revisionist right wing, the orthodox centre, and the revolutionary left wingKarl Liebknecht was the son of Wilhelm Liebknecht, one of the main figures of early social democracy in Germany. Liebknecht joined the SPD in 1900 and practised as a political lawyer. In 1907, he was accused of high treason on the basis of his anti-militaristic writings and spent time in prison.

In those years it was becoming clear that the competition between the imperialist powers of France, Britain, Germany and Russia was intensifying and that the outbreak of a war was looming. The Socialist International, however, still believed that the international solidarity of the workers could prevent it.When the war did break out in 1914, most socialist parties did a u-turn and sided with their national governments, including the SPD. In parliament, the party voted for the war credits needed to finance the military and Kaiser Wilhelm II noted that finally the red veneer had come off the social democrats and they proved to be good Germans after all.
At first, even the radical minority who rejected the war voted for the credits, bowing down to party discipline, but they experienced this as a massive humiliation and perversion of their political beliefs 3 . The day after the vote saw the formation of the Gruppe Internationale with Rosa Luxemburg and Franz Mehring who were joined by Liebknecht and other anti-war socialists. Liebknecht traveled to Belgium to make contact with socialists in other countries in the hope of forging international alliances against the imperialist war.

But the radical left was fairly isolated as the great slaughter began. The biggest socialist party in Europe had given in to nationalism and imperialism, a monstrous event for the left.

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