When the communists ruled in Bavaria

In November 1918, Germany exploded into revolution. In the spring of 1919, the working class succeeded in seizing power and declaring a Bavarian Soviet Republic. In its short, heroic lifetime, the republic had to fight not only against open counter-revolution, but also against the results of its own inexperience. This article was first published in the theoretical magazine ‘In Defence of Marxism’. Get your copy of the latest issue here.


In November of 1918, after years of bloodshed and misery during the so-called ‘Great War’, the German workers and soldiers had reached the limits of what they could take. An uprising by sailors in the northern port town of Kiel led to a generalised uprising that swept Germany. By 9 November, the masses had brought down the hated Kaiser, and German capitalism was shaken to its very core. The “November Revolution” was a fact. These events set the stage for the seizure of power by the workers of the southern state of Bavaria five months later.

The revolution in Bavaria

Days before the revolution seized Berlin, it rolled across Bavaria. The ruling class was already nervous. It was counting on the leaders of the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) to restrain the working class. On 6 November, at a meeting of the last ministry appointed by the king of Bavaria, speaking on a planned demonstration that would spark the revolution, the Social Democratic deputy, Erhard Auer, had a confident message for the bourgeois ministers: “Don’t pay so much heed to [Kurt] Eisner: Eisner is done. You can count on it. We have a hold over our people. I’m going to join the demonstration myself. Nothing at all will happen.”[1]

Events, however, would give Auer, the SPD and the ruling class a shock. The next day, the Bavarian monarchy was toppled, and Kurt Eisner – the leader of the centrist USPD (Independent Social Democratic Party) – became the first republican head of government in Bavaria.

On 7 November, hundreds of thousands of people – most of them workers – responded to the calls of the SPD and the USPD to march on Munich’s Theresienwiese for “peace and freedom”. A section of the assembled workers were led into the city behind a brass band, led by Auer himself. This march was largely symbolic, designed by the SPD leaders to diffuse the rising revolutionary mood, and accordingly, was dissolved shortly thereafter.

Another section of workers, however, were addressed by Eisner. Speaking to tens of thousands of workers, he demanded an immediate peace, an eight-hour workday, relief for unemployed workers, and the abdication of the Bavarian king, Ludwig III, and the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II. He also called for the formation of workers’ and soldiers’ councils, before marching with a section of the crowd to the army barracks.

The war-weary soldiers eagerly joined the movement en masse, and the workers armed themselves. Political prisoners were freed by the revolutionaries, and strategic points across the city were occupied. A workers’ and soldiers’ council was founded, and Eisner was elected chairman. Around this time, King Ludwig fled by night to his estate near Chiemsee. He abdicated a few days later. Within just a few hours, the revolution had put an end to the 738-year rule of the Wittelsbach dynasty over Bavaria.

Across the whole of Germany, the old monarchy had been brought crashing down by the revolutionary movement of the masses. The question was: what would replace it? The answer was not entirely clear. The Russian Revolution – in which the workers had taken power through the soviets (‘soviet’ being Russian word for ‘council’ or ‘committee’) – was an impressive example for the masses of Bavaria and all of Germany. The German workers also organised workers’ and soldiers’ councils (Arbeiter- und Soldatenräte), which were equivalent to their Russian counterparts. Indeed, whilst the regime of workers’ power later established in Bavaria is referred to in German as the ‘Bayerische Räterepublik’, in English it is translated as the ‘Bavarian Soviet Republic’. And that is indeed what the Arbeiterräte were: soviets.

In Bavaria, to a greater extent than anywhere else in Germany, peasants’ councils were also formed. This was testament to the depth with which the revolution reached into Bavarian society, although it also owed much to the leadership of the two Gandorfer brothers, leaders of the left wing of the Bavarian Peasants’ Union (Bayerischer Bauernbund, BBB). By December 1918, there were already around 7,000 councils active in Bavaria, many of which were responsible for organising public life.

At that time, momentum was clearly on the side of the masses. In Nuremberg, Augsburg, Rosenheim, Passau and Bayreuth, as in Munich, official buildings were occupied by revolutionary workers and soldiers. Political prisoners were freed. Only in Regensburg – out of fear of the revolutionary masses – did the mayor himself take the initiative of summoning to the town hall the representatives of the bourgeois parties, the social democracy and the trade unions in order to form a joint ‘committee of order’.

Nevertheless, alongside these councils, the old state structures, which represented the interests of the bourgeoisie, remained intact. This was essentially a dual power situation, similar to the period following the February revolution in Russia 1917, where the organised power of the working class temporarily coexisted alongside that of the bourgeoisie. Such a situation could not last indefinitely. Sooner or later, one class would have to emerge victorious.

The role of the SPD and USPD

After the initial shock, the old elites – the capitalists, aristocrats and generals – in Bavaria, as in the rest of Germany, looked around and realised they had lost control of the situation. They could not clash head-on with the working masses at this point in time. They therefore had to rely first and foremost on the leaders of the SPD to ensure “peace and order”.

The SPD was one of the two main working-class parties in Germany at this point with the other being the USPD (Independent Social Democratic Party), which had split from the former during the war. Before the war, the SPD had repeatedly promised to oppose any imperialist conflict. At the outbreak of war, however, it did an about turn and gave full support to the war aims of German imperialism.

Ausrufung Republik Scheidemann Image public domainWith the outbreak of the November Revolution, the SPD sought to consciously dampen down the revolution / Image: public domain

As the war developed, the left-wing opposition to the official line grew. A section of the SPD’s parliamentarians were forced by pressure from below into opposing the war from a pacifist stance. Expelled from the party, they formed the USPD in 1917.

Although the workers that formed the ranks of the USPD were moving in a revolutionary direction, the leadership of the party vacillated constantly between reformism and revolution.

With the outbreak of the November Revolution, the SPD sought to consciously dampen down the revolution. When the revolution arrived in Berlin, the SPD leader, Philipp Scheidemann, felt compelled to declare a republic, but he only did so in order to seize control over the leadership of the movement.

In Bavaria, led by Erhard Auer and others, the SPD played the same role. The masses had entered the scene and neither the state apparatus nor the leaders of the social democracy could withstand them. The SPD leaders had lost much of their authority amongst the workers. On 8 November, the day after the revolution, Auer himself described in the Münchner Post how the leadership of the Social Democrats had not wanted a revolution, not even one directed against the monarchy:

“Under the pressure of the terrible distress of the German Fatherland, without our involvement, yesterday’s rally turned into an act of political will that all parts of the population must now reckon with.”[2]

But the revolution was now an established fact. Workers’ and soldiers’ councils were being set up across the region and the bourgeoisie was on the back foot. The leadership of the SPD quickly changed its course and took on a pro-revolutionary guise. To do otherwise would have meant completely losing its influence over the working class. Instead, the SPD leaders attempted to wrest control of the newly formed councils into their own hands. On the whole, they initially met with success, particularly outside of Munich.

In Munich itself, however, the workers’ and soldiers’ council – known as the Revolutionary Workers’ Council (Revolutionärer Arbeiterrat, RAR), which formed the nucleus of the Munich workers’ council – proved a hotbed of the left. Representing the Munich working class, the RAR became the most important council in Bavaria, and on this basis it issued a call for the formation of a central council of delegates from across the region.

Eisner was formally elected as the leader of the RAR, and was pronounced the minister-president of the new republic. But he had no clear perspectives for revolution and constantly wavered under the contradictory pressures of the masses on the one side, and of the bourgeoisie on the other. The bourgeoisie was on its knees, but instead of striking it down, Eisner used his authority and that of the councils to protect it.

As early as at the first session of the provisional National Council (consisting of a mixture of representatives of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, members of the state parliament – predominantly Social Democrats – and trade union representatives), Eisner pushed through the election of certain Social Democrats as ministers in the transitional government. Auer, for instance, was made interior minister. Two bourgeois ministers were also brought into the government. These men were hated by the most-active layer of the working class owing to their role in the war. But ultimately, rather than leading the working class to power, Eisner was pinning his hopes on winning the old monarchist state bureaucracy over to supporting a bourgeois ‘democratic republic’.

While giving certain concessions to alleviate the enormous pressures from below, the new government did everything it could to channel the revolution down a harmless path of bourgeois democracy. Five days after the uprising, the government tried to bring the formation of soldiers’ councils, which were springing up everywhere, under its control. New legislation granted the soldiers’ councils rights that went further than in other parts of Germany. The power of the officers was severely curtailed. Soldiers’ councils were given the right to remove certain non-commissioned officers, to request the removal of others, and to make their own recommendations for replacements. On the surface it seemed as though the revolution had thoroughly broken the officers’ power over ‘their’ soldiers in Bavaria. But in the final analysis, by these measures, Eisner’s government reduced the soldiers councils, which held de facto power in their units, to advisory bodies. In the meantime, the power of the army top brass ultimately remained intact.

In the end, Eisner’s programme was a dead-end for the revolution in Bavaria. He planned to create a “living democracy” of the masses, before establishing a “formal democracy” (i.e. convening a state parliament). This was a utopian attempt to reconcile the workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ councils with bourgeois parliamentarism.

His position reflected the pressures he was under by the bourgeoisie on the one hand and the Munich workers organised in the councils on the other. In a meeting of the Council of Ministers, Eisner explained how, “[...] even if the National Assembly does not turn out as we expect, parliament can no longer play the role it used to, as it is no longer possible to govern against the workers’ council in Munich, or else there will be a second revolution.”[3]

Rosa and KarlThe Spartacist Uprising in Berlin in January 1919, which represented a desperate attempt from below to stop this betrayal, was brutally repressed and its leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered. This marked the end of the first wave of the German Revolution / Image: public domain

Eisner stopped short of supporting real workers’ democracy – that is to say, the establishment of a soviet state along the lines of the one in Russia. Ultimately, he was attempting to reconcile the interests of the working class and the bourgeoisie in a sort of power-sharing agreement – a formalisation of the dual power situation that existed in Bavaria. But these two classes have irreconcilable interests, the rule of one precludes the rule of the other. Eisner’s idea of mediating between these two classes could only lead to demoralisation and disorientation amongst the workers, allowing the counter-revolution to regroup and strike back.

Eisner was by no means a Marxist. The idea of an actual socialist revolution – of the expropriation of large estates and large-scale industry – was alien to him. Thus, during this period, economic and political power remained with the bourgeoisie, while the establishment of a “living democracy” remained a utopia. Nonetheless, Eisner stood to the left of the social democracy, which – with the support of the bourgeoisie – set out to promote parliamentary elections across Germany as a means of undermining and ultimately destroying the workers’ councils.

However, social tensions were rising. After the armistice, tens of thousands of veterans were made homeless and mass unemployment was rife. Only a socialist revolution based on the councils could have solved the problems of the workers. But Eisner failed to break with the bourgeoisie, leading to widespread disappointment with his government among the workers.

Across Germany, the first wave of the revolution ended in betrayal. The workers, having successfully defeated the ruling class, gave the power that they had won to their traditional party: the Social Democrats. The leaders of the latter, however, immediately returned that power to the bourgeoisie and, in collaboration with them, organised a bloody counter-revolution. The Spartacist Uprising in Berlin in January 1919, which represented a desperate attempt from below to stop this betrayal, was brutally repressed and its leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered. This marked the end of the first wave of the German Revolution.

In Bavaria too, the mood was rapidly changing. Eisner finally buckled under the pressure of the bourgeoisie and the Social Democrats. He called an election to the state parliament for 12 January, under the direct impact of the suppression of the Spartacist Uprising that was finally put down on that same day. With Eisner and the USPD failing to take the lead, and no alternative party around, demoralisation set in. The elections resulted in a victory for the conservative BVP (Bayerische Volkspartei, Bavarian People’s Party). As in 1912, it had emerged as the strongest party, but on a much-reduced vote. The SPD meanwhile won 33 percent, almost twice as many votes as it received in the 1912 state election. The USPD, on the other hand, received only 2.5 percent of the vote.

This result also showed that the rural areas had hardly begun to feel the effects of the revolution up until that point, and that the consciousness of the masses lagged behind events, despite their tremendous victory over the old regime. In the countryside there was a particularly sharp class contradiction between farm labourers, poor farmers and large landowners. 230,000 of the poorest farmers cultivated a mere 170,000 hectares between them. The 584 largest estates, on the other hand, covered 100,000 hectares! The Eisner government didn’t so much as pose the question of land reform, and it therefore failed to win the support of the rural poor.

But the result also reflected the fact that a large layer of workers – who had been awakened to political life for the first time by the revolution – saw supporting the traditional workers’ party, the SPD, with its newfound left-wing rhetoric, as the easiest way to pursue their aims. The leaders of the much-smaller USPD, meanwhile, did not manage to pose as an alternative to the SPD, and the party therefore received a small fraction of the vote. Ultimately, the programme of the USPD was not decisively different from that of the SPD, and Eisner was unable to solve Bavaria’s social problems. As such, the class struggle continued to express itself within the SPD. Its members were inclined to draw revolutionary conclusions under the influence of the events. Its leaders, however, played a consciously counter-revolutionary role.

The revolution flares up again

Despite the fact that parliamentary elections had taken place, the pressure of the masses was still such that the state parliament couldn’t actually convene for over a month. Events in Bavaria developed at a breakneck pace in those days and weeks. On 12 February, SPD Interior Minister Auer – without warning the government – issued a statement on the convening of the state parliament. This provoked a mass demonstration on 16 February, which assembled at the Theresienwiese in Munich. At the march the demand for a Soviet Republic was raised.

The Anarchist, Erich Mühsam, described the protest:

“In front of the public buildings in Munich the red flags were raised, the same was the case for many private houses, where the march passed by. There may have been 15,000 participants. The KPD bloc alone formed a whole march. Several regiments of the Munich garrison formed closed formations. The heavily wounded were carried with it in carts. Many members of the council congress attended and various factories were represented by delegations. The Revolutionary Workers’ Council, as the main organiser, carried a huge revolutionary emblem in front and was greeted rapturously. But although Eisner drove at the head of this march, he did so against his own political convictions. He felt so out of place that he turned his car around halfway through, and waited with the ministers Unterleitner and Jaffé in the German Theatre for the delegation of the masses, the spokesperson of which, Landauer, submitted demands on behalf of the proletariat.”[4]

In the face of these events, Auer backed down and postponed the convening of parliament, while still working behind the scenes to undermine the councils. On 19 February, during the congress of the Bavarian councils, the SPD finally managed to push the congress of the councils to move its meeting place away from the parliament building, clearing the way for the inaugural meeting of the state parliament. Meanwhile, reactionary forces were getting impatient with Eisner and decided to take matters into their own hands.

On 21 February 1919, Eisner was making his way to the inaugural session of the state parliament where he planned to announce his resignation. He never made it that far. Before reaching the state parliament building, a certain Lieutenant Count Arco-Valley shot him twice in the head from behind, killing him. Before the murder, his assassin wrote a note: “Eisner is a Bolshevik, he is a Jew, he is not a German, he does not feel German, [he] undermines all patriotic thinking and feelings, [he] is a traitor.”[5]

Kurt Eisner Jan 1919 Image public domainUnder the impact of Eisner’s murder, a new revolutionary mood swept through the Bavarian working class / Image: public domain

The murder had been prepared in the bourgeois press by a disgusting campaign of smears that openly paraded the reactionary sentiments of the old nobility, officers and capitalists. For them, Eisner – although he was by no means a Bolshevik – represented a thorn in their side with his “unclear stance on law and order”, and his responsiveness to the pressure of the workers.

As the bourgeoisie secretly rejoiced in his death, dismay and anger rippled through the Munich working class. A member of the left-wing RAR, a cook named Alois Lindner, stormed into the state parliament and shot at Auer, after the latter chose to convene a session of the state parliament session irrespective of the murder. In the turmoil that followed, an unidentified person shot and killed the Conservative MP, Osel. Members of the state parliament dispersed without having elected a government.

Under the impact of Eisner’s murder, a new revolutionary mood swept through the Bavarian working class. A general strike immediately broke out, and the reactionaries, who had been much emboldened by the vacillations of the workers’ leaders found themselves completely paralysed. A regional congress of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils met on 25 February, and responded to these events by transferring legislative power to the central executive of the Bavarian councils (the “Central Council of the Bavarian Republic”), and decided to arm the working class. On 26 February, hundreds of thousands of workers accompanied Kurt Eisner’s funeral procession. On 1 March, the congress of councils proclaimed its own government.

Events had reached boiling point, but the working class still fundamentally lacked a clear revolutionary leadership. The reformist and centrist leadership of the SPD and the USPD remained at the head of the workers. The Communist Party of Germany (KPD) had only just been founded. Its members were few and it had a weak base in the working class.

Eugene LevinéDespite its inexperience and its shallow roots in the working class, the programme of the KPD – of a Socialist Soviet Republic – enjoyed tremendous, widespread support in Bavaria / Image: public domain

Unlike the Russian Bolshevik Party, which had been formed as a Marxist cadre organisation over the course of a decade and a half prior to the Russian Revolution, the KPD was formed in the heat of the German Revolution. Although Rosa Luxemburg had developed an incisive critique of the SPD leadership before the First World War, the Spartacist League was only founded, by herself and others, after war had broken out.

It remained a loose network of revolutionaries until the foundation of the Communist Party at the congress of 30 December 1918 to 1 January 1919. No sooner had the party emerged blinking into the daylight than its most outstanding leaders, Luxemburg and Liebknecht, were murdered in Berlin.

Despite its inexperience and its shallow roots in the working class, the programme of the KPD – of a Socialist Soviet Republic – enjoyed tremendous, widespread support in Bavaria, as the mass demonstration against the opening of the state parliament on 16 February had shown. The Bavarian party chairman, Max Levien, was a popular, well recognised figure in the workers’ movement who chaired the Munich Soldiers’ Council. But this did not translate into a large membership or a strong organisation for the KPD.

Karl Retzlaw, a 23-year old worker and KPD organiser from Berlin, describes a meeting with Levien, which vividly contrasts the mass audience that the party’s ideas enjoyed against the diminutive size of the party itself:

“The meeting took place in one of the big beer halls in Munich. The room was tightly packed, with many sitting on chairs and tables, and standing in the hallways. I guess around 3,000 people must have been in the hall. Although there was one hour until the scheduled start time of the meeting, the room was frightfully crowded. The speaker’s table was raised on the podium, from which brass music blared into the hall. The podium was kept free by stewards. Max Levien appeared with a sizable entourage. As I would come to learn later, this entourage represented almost the entire Communist Party of Munich.”[6]

Even measured against the rest of the German party, the members and cadres of the Communist Party in Bavaria were very inexperienced. As such, the party made many mistakes. It boycotted the elections for the state parliament and the National Assembly. It also refused to conduct patient work in the trade unions, making it very difficult to establish a stable base in the working class, and to extend the party’s reach. Neither was there any attempt to conduct a systematic struggle to gain a majority in the labour movement and the councils. Thus, while the party enjoyed widespread influence, it did not have the organisational strength to lead the working class when the crucial time came. This would later prove to have disastrous consequences.

Instead of adopting patient methods, many members harboured illusions in the USPD and the anarchists. The systematic building of an independent party was simply neglected for a long time. The situation became so bad that the national KPD leadership decided to send a number of experienced cadres to Munich to help build the party. First and foremost among these was Eugen Leviné, Retzlaw, who we have previously mentioned, and later Paul Frölich. A systematic build-up of party cells in the factories and barracks only began after they had arrived, in the middle of March 1919.

Soviet Republic on order of the day

The sharp shift to the left led to a crisis within the SPD. Following the assassination of Eisner, many party members resigned in disgust and were instead joining the USPD or the KPD. However, neither of these parties managed to decisively take on the leading role in the movement. Pressure from below was building on the SPD leadership, which responded by promoting leaders who – at least in words – had argued for “soviet power”.

This was not a genuine swing to the left, but a manoeuvre to maintain the authority of the party so as to use it to hold back the revolution. The SPD leaders were bracing themselves with all their might to resist a “second revolution”. This was clearly illustrated by the fact that, although the congress of the councils had declared a new government, the SPD leaders made sure that that “government” never met. The SPD did not support it, even though an SPD member (Martin Segitz) had been proposed as its prime minister! It thus remained a government on paper only.

Muenchen Jan 1919 Image public domainPressure from below was building on the SPD leadership, which responded by promoting leaders who – at least in words – had argued for “soviet power” / Image: public domain

The bourgeoisie could not stabilise the situation either, despite all their attempts and the explicit support of the SPD. It wasn’t until 17 March that the state parliament dared to convene once more, and Johannes Hoffmann (of the SPD) was elected prime minister. But his government had no real base of support in society, especially in Munich: the hotbed of the revolution. It did not even have at its disposal an armed force that it could rely on.

But the bourgeoisie couldn’t wait any longer. To get profits flowing again they needed “peace” and “order”. Under Phillip Scheidemann (of the SPD), the Federal Government had temporarily silenced the working class across Germany through the use of the right-wing Freikorps to massacre the workers. The bourgeoisie was therefore piling pressure on the Bavarian government to follow the rest of the country and bring about “order” in this unruly state. Under this pressure, the council of elders of the state parliament called a session on 8 April to finally enable the government to function.

But for the organised working class, this was like a red rag to a bull. This move clearly communicated the direction that events were heading: towards the total liquidation of the revolution and its gains. As these events were unfolding in Bavaria, a Socialist Soviet Republic had been declared in Hungary on 2 March 1919. The idea of ​​a new revolution to establish a Soviet Republic, based on the councils of the soldiers and workers, enjoyed growing support in Bavaria.

The Social Democratic leaders could see quite clearly that another direct collision with the workers’ aspirations would likely sweep them away entirely, and control over the movement would slip out of their hands. A section of the party leadership decided therefore to ‘ride the tiger’ in order to tame it. Resolutions in favour of the proclamation of a Soviet Republic were passed at a number of SPD events. In a meeting on the night of 4-5 April, in which the “Central Council of the Bavarian Republic”, the leaders of the USPD, the SPD, the BBB and some anarchists participated, it was decided to proclaim a Soviet Republic. Yet, to everyone’s surprise, the KPD representative, Eugen Leviné, cast the only vote against its proclamation. His explanation is worth quoting at length:

“We Communists harbour the greatest mistrust against a Soviet Republic whose sponsors are the Social Democratic Ministers Schneppenhorst and Dürr, who at all times fought the idea of councils with every possible means. We can only explain this as an attempt by the bankrupt leaders to join the masses through apparently revolutionary action, or as a deliberate provocation.

“We know from examples in northern Germany that the majority socialists [then common name for the SPD] often endeavoured to bring about premature action in order to stifle them all the more successfully. The whole of your approach calls for the greatest vigilance. A Soviet Republic is not being proclaimed by an armchair decision, it is the result of serious struggles by the proletariat and its victory.

“The Munich proletariat is still facing such struggles. We are preparing for [the Soviet Republic] and we have time. At the present time, the proclamation of a Soviet Republic is extremely unfavourable. The masses in northern and central Germany are defeated and are only now regathering their strength for new battles, and Bavaria is not an economically independent area that could hold on independently for a long time. After the first rush, the following would happen: the majority socialists would withdraw under the first good pretext and consciously betray the proletariat. The USPD would join in, then give way, begin to vacillate, negotiate, and thereby become unconscious traitors. And we Communists would pay for your deeds with the blood of our best.”[7]

This prediction was tragically confirmed in every detail, as we will see. The real motive of the SPD leaders in calling for the establishment of a Soviet Republic was to push the Munich workers to a premature uprising, in order to separate the most-advanced layers of the working class from the broader mass of workers and peasants. In this way, they were preparing the ground politically for the mobilisation of the counter-revolution. This is exactly what had happened in Berlin: the advanced layers of the working class were pushed into an uprising, without the masses nationally being convinced of its necessity, and they were dealt a bloody defeat. The SPD leaders were now looking to Berlin as their model in order to defeat the Bavarian working class.

According to various witnesses, for example, the Bavarian Minister of War, Schneppenhorst from the SPD, argued extremely vigorously for the proclamation of the Soviet Republic. Before it was proclaimed, and the old government declared deposed, he even argued for a delay of a couple of days in order to win over other cities to the idea! He then left Munich for northern Bavaria in order, according to his own statement, to “promote the idea of a council republic”. In reality, he immediately joined the Hoffmann government, which had fled Munich to Bamberg and had begun to rally counter-revolutionary troops (the ‘whites’), and quasi-fascist Freikorps.

The “pseudo-Soviet Republic”

The so-called soviet government was finally proclaimed on 6 April and was greeted enthusiastically by workers all over Bavaria. By 8 April, in a wave of initial enthusiasm, almost all of the larger councils of southern Bavaria and the large cities – with the exception of Nuremberg – had joined it. But as early as 9 April, this process began to unravel. In some cities, such as Ingolstadt and Würzburg, counter-revolutionary soldiers and students overthrew the rule of the councils with the support of the bourgeoisie.

Meanwhile, the SPD leaders who had so forcefully been pushing the left organisations in Munich to declare a Soviet Republic, now made an about-turn and called for a defence of parliament and the official government. In many councils this new, openly counter-revolutionary position of the SPD leadership meant that the majority in favour of a Soviet Republic was overturned. This sharpened the contradiction between the SPD leadership and the party’s rank and file. In the confusion, the SPD government and the reactionaries managed to hold on to power in important cities, especially in the north of Bavaria.

Ernst TollerUSPD leader, Ernst Toller, played a lamentable role in the last days of the Bavarian Soviet Republic / Image: public domain

After the SPD leaders in Munich fled or simply folded their arms, an array of accidental characters remained in the ‘leadership’ of the soviet government. These included anarchists like Erich Mühsam and Gustav Landauer. These were coffeehouse literary figures and adventurers, and nothing more. They had no base of support in the working class. They did however harbour a never-ending reservoir of completely utopian and romantic notions.

Paul Frölich (KPD), who would later write a book on the events of the Soviet Republic, described these characters thus: “The gentlemen who participated in the conspiracy voted for each other. Political experience was not considered. So, a selection of fragile characters and unclear minds came about.”[8] The ‘People’s Deputy for External Affairs’, Lipp, who was even elected as chairman of the Executive Council (and therefore the government) at Mühsam’s suggestion, but whom nobody knew, turned out to be mentally ill. After trying, among other things, to declare war on Württemberg and Switzerland for their refusal to lend trains to Bavaria, he was deposed and admitted to a mental hospital.

The USPD, as Leviné had foreseen, was gripped by paralysis. After Eisner’s assassination, the pacifist Ernst Toller had become its chairman. He had only a few months of political experience and yet he took up the leadership of the central council and of the government.

Under his leadership, precisely nothing happened. Instead of constructing the new social order, 7 April was declared a national holiday. Instead of mobilising and arming the working class to occupy the central points of traffic and communication, to organise the defence of the republic, to ensure the supply of all the necessities of life and socialise the large scale industries – on 7 April, these gentlemen “socialised” the university! Frölich writes:

“A purple-red poster was emblazoned on the street corners: Dictatorship of the proletariat! The bourgeoisie was brought down – through a poster. The working class had been lifted into the saddle without having done the slightest thing, through a romance of political adventurers. The dictatorship of the proletariat consisted of only one thing: it was given a holiday.”[9]

The working class looked warmly towards this new “Soviet Republic”. But in practice it had not taken the reins of society into its own hands following the armchair proclamation of the new regime. Meanwhile, bourgeois propaganda disseminated horror stories about the situation in Munich, especially among the peasants, who at that time made up almost 40 percent of Bavaria’s population. A whole series of peasants’ councils, which were increasingly dominated by rich farmers, and thus came under the influence of the right wing of the BBB, announced a food ban on Munich, exacerbating the dire food situation. The Soviet Republic was in serious danger.

Not until 10 April did the soviet government begin arming the workers, and even then, it was only able to find 600 rifles in total. It issued a decree that asked the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie to hand over its weapons. But without the instruments of power to enforce such a decree, the results were pathetic.

The Palm Sunday coup

The counter-revolution was now gaining in confidence. The paralysis, lasting days on end, led the counter-revolution to conclude that a single, firm blow would be all that was needed to bring down the new Soviet Republic. After consulting the SPD leaders in Munich, Alfred Seyffertitz, commander of the counter-revolutionary ‘Republican Protection Force’, which still operated unchecked in the city, travelled to Bamberg. There, he received the permission of prime minister-in-exile, Hoffmann to overthrow the soviet government.

The coup was launched on the morning of Palm Sunday, 13 April 1919. Posters appeared in the name of “the whole garrison of Munich”, declaring that the central council was deposed. The Republican Protection Force occupied the premises of the central council and arrested a number of the leaders of the Soviet Republic, among them Erich Mühsam, who were transported out of Munich.

spartacist militia Image public domainWith the spectre of counter-revolutionary terror looming large, the masses began to mobilise, and they were prepared to fight / Image: public domain

The KPD had initially rejected the “drawing board” proclamation of a Soviet Republic. In this, it was correct. Taking power was an adventure that had strengthened the counter-revolution. The real, necessary course of action was to firstly win over the broader masses, in particular the peasants. Now, however, the Soviet Republic was a fact, and it was supported by vast layers of the working class. A defeat of the Soviet Republic would mean a defeat of the revolution, and the working class realised this.

Nevertheless, the KPD was vacillating in the face of counter-revolution. With the bloody experience of the failed Spartacus Uprising and the murders of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg still fresh in the minds of party members, the leadership was contemplating conceding defeat. Paul Frölich reports that the party leadership at first discussed whether or not to “[recognise] the shift [ie. the coup - ed] as a consummated fact, which the actions of the party had to adapt to”.[10]

But on the ground, the mood was completely different. Even before the coup attempt, enormous pressure had mounted in the factories and the barracks for the young KPD to join the soviet government – and even to take it over completely. Now, with the spectre of counter-revolutionary terror looming large, the masses began to mobilise, and they were prepared to fight. The KPD leaders were completely taken by surprise by this resurgence of the revolution. Retzlaw reported that “a revolutionary elan that surprised us has now shown itself. Not only our party members, but thousands of workers have made themselves available for the struggle. Meanwhile, in the city there were armed confrontations with white troops everywhere”.[11]

The KPD knew that the original proclamation of the Soviet Republic had been half adventure, half provocation. But now that it was an established fact and the workers – faced with open counter-revolution – were mobilising to defend it, the party could not stand aside.

The party therefore called for the establishment of armed workers’ units. Many soldiers also joined them, increasing the pressure on the counter-revolutionary troops, who withdrew to the main station of Munich. Eventually, the station was stormed and Seyffertitz, along with other counter-revolutionaries, escaped being killed or captured after fleeing by train. Despite the many mistakes and miscalculations of its leadership, and the resources at the hands of the counter-revolution, the Munich workers easily defeated the bourgeois counter-revolution and placed power in the hands of the Communist Party.

The KPD in power

On 13 April, a congress of workers’ and soldiers’ councils declared the old central council dissolved. A new, 15-person action committee was formed as a new government. The new government was composed of members of the SPD, USPD and the KPD, but it was firmly under the control of the Communists, with Leviné at its head. The programme of the new soviet government was indeed a programme of complete social revolution.

The Red Army of Bavaria was established around the core of revolutionary troops that defeated the coup. It was led by the 24-year-old sailor, Rudolf Egelhofer. The banks were to be placed under state control. Cash withdrawals were only allowed with a permit from the workers’ councils. In the case of sums over 1200 Mk, the permission of the People’s Commissar of Finance was even required. Public administration was placed under the control of the workers’ councils, which could dismiss officials who worked against soviet power. To secure supplies, large quantities of foodstuffs were confiscated from speculators. Plans were put in place for the factory councils to control production. For the first time in history, the workers of Munich and its environs were masters of their own destiny.

bavarian red army Image Bundesarchiv Wikimedia Commons The Red Army of Bavaria was established around the core of revolutionary troops that defeated the coup / Image: Bundesarchiv, Wikimedia Commons

The victory against the counter-revolution had given the most-active layers of the working class an enormous boost of confidence, and had clarified the situation. The illusions many workers had harboured in the role of the SPD leaders evaporated and the Munich workers were moving sharply to the left. However, elsewhere, the objective conditions were not so good. The Soviet Republic was isolated in the south of Bavaria around Munich, and counter-revolutionary troops were marching against it.

The soviet government immediately began building up a determined defence, despite the unfavourable conditions. 20,000 rifles were delivered to the factories, where red guards were formed. A Red Army was established, consisting of revolutionary soldiers and volunteers. It was imbued with an internationalist spirit. Russian and Italian prisoners of war joined, as did many Austrians. The bourgeoisie and counter-revolutionaries were disarmed. But new threats kept arising. Retzlaw reports:

“The barracks were still full of soldiers, who were demobilised, but who did not want to return home. We learned that they were talked into staying by their officers. They were paid from Berlin and uncontrollable sources. [...] Daily we had to count on a coup by some parts of the troops. For this reason, we appealed to the workers to meet daily in the big halls of Munich and also in the open. As such, the workers were always ready to intervene and the counterrevolutionary officers didn’t dare attempt a coup.”[12]

To mobilise the workers and to organise defences, a 10-day general strike was declared. But this decision completely stalled the economy of the Soviet Republic, exposing the shaky basis upon which it rested.

Greetings from Lenin

News of the workers’ conquest of power generated enthusiasm around the world. Far beyond the borders of Bavaria, the declaration of another Soviet Republic – alongside the Russian and Hungarian republics – was greeted as a further step along the path of international socialist revolution, which at this time seemed unstoppable.

Lenin 1919 03 18 Image public domainThe declaration of the Bavarian Soviet Republic was greeted as a further step along the path of international socialist revolution, which at this time seemed unstoppable / Image: public domain

The KPD hoped that word of the establishment of a Soviet Republic in Bavaria would revive the workers’ will to fight in the rest of Germany.

The news also reached Soviet Russia, to whom Leviné had sent revolutionary greetings. At that time, the Russian civil war was in a critical phase and the young soviet power was threatened with destruction. Nonetheless, Lenin, who had himself lived in Munich for two years at the beginning of the 20th Century, found time to reply. His message to Leviné is worth quoting in full:

“Message Of Greetings To The Bavarian Soviet Republic,

“We thank you for your message of greetings, and on our part wholeheartedly greet the Soviet Republic of Bavaria. We ask you insistently to give us more frequent, definite information on the following. What measures have you taken to fight the bourgeois executioners, the Scheidemanns and Co.; have councils of workers and servants been formed in the different sections of the city; have the workers been armed; have the bourgeoisie been disarmed; has use been made of the stocks of clothing and other items for immediate and extensive aid to the workers, and especially to the farm labourers and small peasants; have the capitalist factories and wealth in Munich and the capitalist farms in its environs been confiscated; have mortgage and rent payments by small peasants been cancelled; have the wages of farm labourers and unskilled workers been doubled or trebled; have all paper stocks and all printing-presses been confiscated so as to enable popular leaflets and newspapers to be printed for the masses; has the six-hour working day with two or three-hour instruction in state administration been introduced; have the bourgeoisie in Munich been made to give up surplus housing so that workers may be immediately moved into comfortable flats; have you taken over all the banks; have you taken hostages from the ranks of the bourgeoisie; have you introduced higher rations for the workers than for the bourgeoisie; have all the workers been mobilised for defence and for ideological propaganda in the neighbouring villages? The most urgent and most extensive implementation of these and similar measures, coupled with the initiative of workers’, farm labourers’ and acting apart from them small peasants’ councils, should strengthen your position. An emergency tax must be levied on the bourgeoisie, and an actual improvement affected in the condition of the workers, farm labourers and small peasants at once and at all costs.

“With sincere greetings and wishes of success.

“Lenin”[13]

Despite the lightning speed of events and the partial information that Lenin had access to, these lines are a testament to his sharp understanding of the tasks of the Soviet Republic and the weaknesses of its measures. Indeed, the question of land was never resolved by the Soviet Republic. Lenin was fully aware that, in the wake of defeats in the rest of Germany, the situation of the Bavarian Soviet Republic was extremely dangerous. In his message, he therefore sought to outline, as best he could, how the revolution might nevertheless succeed. His message didn’t reach Munich until 27 April, by which time defeat was sealed.

What this short document represents is a blueprint for how a revolution might succeed despite the most difficult of circumstances. Lenin’s proposals are in sharp contrast to the behaviour of the Stalinists, who would later argue, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, for the scrapping of the social demands of the peasants and workers so as to forge an alliance with the “progressive bourgeoisie”.

On the contrary, the Soviet Republic could only succeed if it implemented radical measures to improve living standards, which could awaken the poorest and unorganised layers of the working class and peasantry in the whole region. Such measures were vital in order to give them something worth fighting for, spurring them into action. Without any illusions in the intentions of the capitalists, who planned to drown the Soviet Republic in blood, the revolution had to advance determinedly and ruthlessly against reaction.

Counter-revolution

After the triumph over the Palm Sunday coup, the Soviet Republic had secured a few important victories against the government of Hoffmann, which tried to break the power of the working class through military force. It quickly became apparent that it was impossible to effectively use the regular Bavarian army against the revolution. On 15 April, in the town of Freising for instance, 1,200 soldiers of the First Rifleman Battalion decided to hand over their weapons and move to Regensburg after discussions with the revolutionaries. The officers had no choice but to obey the will of the soldiers. Even in the first physical clashes, the Red Army was victorious. On 15 April, it drove the whites out of the Allach and Karlsfeld districts in the north of Munich. On 16 April, the Red Army forced the White Guard to completely retreat from Dachau, where one day earlier, workers from the gunpowder factory had taken hundreds of white soldiers by surprise and disarmed them.

white guards in munich Image Bundesarchiv Wikimedia CommonsAfter their initial setbacks, and with the revolution failing to gain decisive support beyond Munich, the roles had changed and the counter-offensive began / Image: Bundesarchiv, Wikimedia Commons

These initial victories however, quickly passed, and the revolutionaries failed to take advantage of them. The USPD chairman, Ernst Toller, who had recently been deposed from the government, played a lamentable role. Now in command of the Red Army troops at Dachau, he pushed for negotiations instead of pursuing the whites, who were on the back foot. This wasn’t the last time that he would play such a miserable role. His actions allowed Hoffmann’s government to catch its breath and prepare a counter-strike. After their initial setbacks, and with the revolution failing to gain decisive support beyond Munich, the roles had changed and the counter-offensive began.

Unlike the Red Army, Hoffmann’s forces were battle-hardened counter-revolutionary troops without any illusions in negotiations. First among them were the Freikorps drawn from all over Germany. The latter were veterans of counter-revolution, having already drowned various workers’ revolts in blood across northern and central Germany. The most infamous of these murderous bands was the ‘Marine-Brigade Erhardt’, which later gained notoriety as the principal pillar of Wolfgang Kapp’s coup attempt in 1920, the so-called ‘Kapp Putsch’.

The Bavarian capitalists invested heavily in this blood-drenched defence of their wealth. The High Command of the Armed Forces in Bavaria, Arnold Ritter von Möhl, wrote to Hoffmann: “Circles of bankers transferred 690,000 Mk to the army high command provisioned for the troops”.[14] With these resources, the Hoffman government was able to mobilise approximately 60,000 armed men, who were now advancing fast.

On 20 April, Augsburg was conquered by the whites. However, in the suburbs, bitter resistance continued for three more days. Augsburg had not initially joined the Soviet Republic, nevertheless the workers there were not prepared to accept the unconditional surrender and disarmament negotiated by the USPD City Commander with the Freikorps.

The end of the Soviet Republic

The situation worsened by the hour. Defeat was now just a matter of time. The KPD consisted of the most determined revolutionaries, but it was still only a few months old. In reality, it had not led the working class to power, rather it was pushed to take power by the advanced layers of the working class. It did not have the necessary cadres to lead the struggle on the ground and had to lean on inexperienced communists or completely opportunist elements such as Ernst Toller. Furthermore, it was not a tried-and-tested party with deep roots amongst the workers. This gave the final days of the soviet government a very chaotic character.

arrested worker in Bayern Image Bundesarchiv Wikimedia CommonsThe reactionaries calculated that the time had come for the counter-revolution to exact its brutal revenge against the workers / Image: Bundesarchiv, Wikimedia Commons

Although many workers wanted to fight until the bitter end, more vacillating elements hoped that they might be able to reach a compromise with the whites. It was under these circumstances that Toller once more got the upper hand. He had already been working away behind the scenes to sabotage the KPD government, in an attempt to reverse his deposition from the head of the soviet. On the basis of raising hopes for a negotiated solution, he successfully rallied most of the workers’ councils behind him on 27 April and expelled the communists from power. The hopes of the workers quickly evaporated. The cry for negotiations had completely disarmed the working class in the face of the advancing whites. Hoffmann had no interest, therefore, in actually engaging in negotiations. The reactionaries calculated that the time had come for the counter-revolution to exact its brutal revenge against the workers. They wanted, once and for all, to banish the last thought of revolution from the minds of the workers.

With the Communists driven out of the government, the Soviet Republic’s most-determined defenders were gone, and the new government planned to cease all resistance. On 1 May, Munich was completely surrounded, and on 2 May, completely conquered. The last town to fall was Kolbermoor in the district of Rosenheim (Upper Bavaria) on 3 May. The horrors of the counter-revolution now raged with full force.

Revolutionaries were hunted down and mercilessly killed. According to official statements, 38 government soldiers and 93 members of the Red Army died in the clashes. But various other sources reported that the reactionary troops murdered up to 2,000 workers and Red Army soldiers. In the statistics, these deaths appear either as summary executions, fatal accidents, or not at all. For instance, 21 members of a Catholic Journeyman’s Association were captured while planning a theatre performance. They were tortured and some were beaten to death. The ‘lucky ones’ were shot. Amongst many other victims, the sailor Rudolf Egelhofer, commander of the Red Army, and Kurt Landauer, were also murdered. Eugene Leviné was also captured and put on trial. Leviné knew his time was up and defiant speech from the stand:

“We Communists are all but dead men on leave. Of this I am fully aware. I do not know whether you will extend my leave or whether I shall have to join Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. In any case I await your verdict with composure and inner serenity. For I know that, whatever your verdict, events cannot be stopped…

“And yet I know, sooner or later, other judges will sit in this hall and then those will be punished for high treason, [those] who have transgressed against the dictatorship of the proletariat.

“Pronounce your verdict if you deem it proper. I have only striven to foil your attempt to stain my political activity, the name of the Soviet Republic with which I feel myself so closely bound up, and the good name of the workers of Munich. They – and I together with them – we have all of us tried to the best of our knowledge and conscience to do our duty towards the International, the Communist World Revolution.”[15]

A few days later, he was sentenced to death and executed, a decision sanctioned by the SPD government of Bavaria.

Max Levien was able to flee to Austria, where the government, headed by the social democrat Renner, decided to lock him up for over a year, contemplating the question of sending him back to Bavaria, where he would most likely have shared the fate of Leviné. In the end he was released and emigrated to the Soviet Union. There, in 1937, he fell victim to Stalin’s bloody purges. One of the leaders of the Bavarian Soviet Republic was shot for “Membership of an anti-Soviet terrorist organisation”. The tragic irony of this would certainly have been lost on Stalin’s butchers.

After the defeat, it didn’t take long for open reaction to take power in Bavaria. In 1920, Gustav Ritter von Kahr became prime minister, ruling Bavaria as a quasi-military dictatorship. Fascist gangs were allowed to develop and roam freely – as demonstrated by Hitler’s failed coup attempt in 1923. But although the working class was defeated, the revolutionary traditions and memories of these mighty events lived on. The Bavarian workers had fought and lost, but during these battles, they had learned valuable lessons and continued to participate in the revolutionary events developing in Germany in the years to come.

In 1871, Karl Marx described how the workers of Paris had “stormed heaven” when they established the Commune and held power for several weeks. It might at first seem fitting to compare the experience of the Bavarian Soviet Republic to the events of the Paris Commune. Both were heroic, but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to carry out a proletarian revolution.

executed revolutionaries Image Bundesarchiv Wikimedia CommonsUp to 2.000 revolutionaries were hunted down and mercilessly killed / Image: Bundesarchiv, Wikimedia Commons

But between 1871 and 1919, much had changed. The working class of Europe was not the same as it once was. Paris in 1871 was regarded as the most revolutionary city on earth. Bavaria in 1919 was regarded as one of the most conservative regions of Germany, as it continues to be regarded to this day. Far from being isolated to one town, the Bavarian Soviet Republic was one inspiring episode in the epic struggle of the enormously strengthened German, European and world proletariat.

In short, the working class was far stronger than it had been 50 years prior. Under these circumstances, even a small and very young Marxist organisation like the KPD was able to play a mighty role. That being said, in the end, the tasks posed by history were beyond its small forces. The most important lesson of the Bavarian Soviet Republic – and of the whole German Revolution – is that a vanguard party capable of leading the working class to the seizure of power cannot be formed in the heat of battle. It must be patiently built before the revolution begins.

When the German Communist Party was formed in December 1918, it had before it the fresh experience of the most momentous event in human history: the Russian Revolution. Tragically, its young and inexperienced cadres lacked the time to absorb the profound lessons of those mighty events before they themselves were thrust into the whirlwind of the German Revolution.

cropped Late spartacide leader addresses released British interns Image public domainIt is our duty to that generation of revolutionaries that we study and learn, from their victories as well as from their mistakes, and that we build in time the revolutionary party capable of leading the working class to the seizure of power and the socialist reconstruction of society / Image: public domain

A century on, a new epoch of world revolution is being prepared. A new generation, unburdened by the defeats of the past, is coming to the fore and is taking the road of struggle. The unparalleled strength of the working class means that, unlike in the 1920s, the ruling class will not be able to quickly deal a swift and deadly blow against the workers’ movement. We therefore have a certain amount of time to prepare. We must use it wisely.

In the time that we have before us, it is imperative that we build a steeled, Marxist organisation, with roots in the working class. In building such an organisation we have before us a wealth of lessons, bestowed upon us by the sacrifices of class fighters of past generations: of the Russian Revolution, of the German Revolution, and of the Bavarian Soviet Republic. Today, the heroic memory of the Bavarian Soviet Republic is conserved as part of the precious heritage of the working class by the Marxist tendency.

It is our duty to that generation of revolutionaries that we study and learn, from their victories as well as from their mistakes, and that we build in time the revolutionary party capable of leading the working class to the seizure of power and the socialist reconstruction of society.


Notes

[1] Hans Beyer, Die Revolution in Bayern 1918/1919, (Berlin: Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, 1988), pg 14.

[2] Ibid., pg 17.

[3] Ibid., pg 34.

[4] Erich Mühsam, Von Eisner bis Leviné. Die Enstehung der bayerischen Räterepublik, (Berlin: Hofenburg, 2013).

[5] Ralf Höller, “Der Jude Eisner,” Zeit, February 6, 2019.

[6] Karl Retzlaw, Spartakus: Aufstieg und Niedergang, Erinnerung eines Parteiarbeiters, (Frankfurt: Verlag Neue Kritik, 1976), pg 130.

[7] Beyer, Die Revolution in Bayern, pg 75.

[8] Paul Frölich, Die Bayerische Räterepublik: Tatsachen und Kritik, (Leipzig: Franke, 1919), pg 19.

[9] Ibid., pg 22.

[10] Ibid., pg 31.

[11] Retzlaw, Spartakus, pg 141.

[12] Ibid., pg 147.

[13] Vladimir Lenin, “Message Of Greetings To The Bavarian Soviet Republic,” April 27, 1919, Marxist Internet Archive, Accessed June 3, 2021.

[14] Beyer, Die Revolution in Bayern, pg 131.

[15] Rosa Leviné-Meyer, The Life of a Revolutionary, (London: Saxon House, 1973), pg 217-8.

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