I picked up Pierre Broué's The German Revolution 1917-1923 (full text here) in order to gain a better understanding of the failure of the German radicals to precipitate a revolution, and to trace the splits and factions of German left parties throughout the period. Despite its heft at over 900 pages, I found it a page-turner (perhaps excepting a lull in part 3) and finished it rather quickly, all things considered. Helpfully, the book includes biographical notes and a chronology at the end of the text but criminally omits an index (which is somewhat mitigated by archive.org's copy).
Eric D. Weitz mentions in the forward that Broué's history, first published in 1971, could not take advantage of the opening of the Communist archives in Berlin and Moscow. The archives would have been helpful in a variety of places in the book for clearing up historical controversies -- for instance, determining under what circumstances Béla Kun was sent to Berlin to spark the March Action. (Perhaps a lot of these questions have been settled since; I'm unsure.) Weitz also pans Broué's neglect of women's activism.
The following summary is rather disjointed -- it's difficult to summarize such a vast amount of information in so little space -- but approximately devotes one paragraph to each chapter. I didn't summarize part 4, which is mostly Broué's opinions and is less suited to excerpting than the first three sections. Part 4 is, however, very worth reading for a Trotskyist appraisal of Paul Levi, Karl Radek, and the results of the German Revolution.
From War to Revolution: The Victory and Defeat of Ultra-Leftism
The German SPD, the most important Social Democratic party of the early twentieth century, had been tilting toward reformism since its Jena Congress compromise with the trade unions. (19) To compound the its compromise, the industrial proletariat was underrepresented in its leadership. (24) Thus the stage was set for the SPD leadership's betrayal of its members' revolutionary aspirations.
There did exist a left tendency in the SPD, represented by such people as Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring, Clara Zetkin, Anton Pannekoek and Julian Karski. Notably, Luxemburg opposed Lenin's advocacy of centralism (33) and splitting. (35) This left was divided over the "Radek Affair," in which Karl Radek (who would later play an important role in German politics) was retroactively denied membership in Second International member parties after being expelled from the Polish member party. Left social democrats were split on the issue, and the dispute presaged later factional divides among the left.
4 August 1914 saw the SPD fraction in the Reichstag -- including leftists such as Liebknecht and Otto Rühle, as a result of party discipline -- unanimously vote in favor of German war credits for World War I. (44) The SPD leadership gagged any substantive discussion of the issue, (52) and Liebknecht saw no option but to cast the sole vote against the war credits, taking the first step towards a split within the SPD. (53) In September, the Bolsheviks called for a new, Third International. (55) Those social democrats opposed to the war gathered in Zimmerwald, producing documents which revealed divisions between a pacifist center and a Bolshevik-leaning left. (63) The membership of what would later become the Spartacists started to assemble in early 1916, declaring that true peace could only result from the revolutionary activity of the working class. (64) Despite evident tensions within the SPD, Luxemburg inveighed against a split and for attempts to restore the party. (71)
Nevertheless, those that were disgusted with the SPD's actions formed a new party, the USPD, in mid 1917. The split took roughly half of the SPD's membership into the new party. (79) The USPD was also an amalgam of different tendencies, including both lefts such as the Spartacists and other such as Bernstein and Kautsky (who only joined to counter the Sparticist influence). (83) The USPD's platform was essentially identical to the SPD's, with the exception of differences in structure to prevent an SPD-esque distancing of the leadership from the membership. (84)
The February Revolution in Russia deeply affected the German lefts; as Zetkin wrote, "The action of the people of Russia is written before our congress in letters of fire." (91) The maneuvers of the USPD to try and form a parliamentary coalition to end the war convinced many strikers and other agitators to turn to the new party for guidance. But the SPD persisted in its obstructionism: the SPD managed to avert a significant strike action in January 1918, further convincing the USPD left of the need for revolution. (109) German revolutionaries had mixed reactions to the Russian October Revolution. Luxemberg had plenty of reservations about the Bolsheviks, including their methods of terror, their agrarian policy and their foreign policy. (123) While the lefts debated politics, the German military knew as of 18 July that it was fighting a hopeless battle. (124)
Both revolutionaries and conservatives sensed an approaching reckoning in Germany, with German military leaders intoning that "We must forestall an upheaval from below by a revolution from above" (130) and Lenin writing to the Spartacists that "Now the decisive hour is at hand." (131) Some workers' councils sprung up before the Kiel mutiny, but the sailors' defiance provided the impetus for massive action across the country. Facing a widespread revolt, the SPD took the initiative to "sacrifice the Kaiser to save the country" by presenting the Kaiser with an ultimatum to step down by 8 November. (144) Wilhelm II abdicated shortly thereafter, prompting Liebknecht to issue a triumphant speech from the Imperial Palace: "The rule of capitalism, which turned Europe into a cemetery, is henceforward broken." (149) Through the SPD's machinations, Ebert managed to head both the official government and the revolutionary government appointed by the councils. Broué comments: "Thus the second day of the German Revolution found the Majority Social Democrats, who had done their utmost to prevent it, winning an indisputable victory." (154)
Although the German councils never rose to the importance of the Russian councils, Broué insists that the comparison should be made with the Russian councils of February, not October. (158) But there are many differences between the two situations: the strength of the established political parties and trade unions in the German councils; the strength of the German bourgeoise; the looming threat of an Entente invasion and the relative disorganization of the German left. But, "Despite its good intentions and despite enjoying the confidence of the Berlin workers, the Executive Council was unable to organise its own work or even to create its own apparatus." (174) The organization of an armed civil defense force by the government, and not the Executive, further chipped away at the councils' power. (177) Luxemberg slammed the Richard Müller-led Executive as the "sarcophagus of the revolution" and the "fifth wheel of the cart of the crypto-capitalist governmental clique." (183) The results of the Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Councils were a foregone conclusion with the SPD accounting for the majority of the delegates. (184)
The Spartacus League remained a propaganda group within the USPD since by themselves the Spartacists did not have the affiliation of a mass of workers. Nevertheless, they formed the Zentrale, the executive committee of the Spartacists, to coordinate and organize themselves. (191) Spartacist elements within the USPD attempted to get the party to convene a special congress about whether to participate in the constituent assembly elections. Their efforts were resoundingly defeated within the USPD, setting the stage for a split. (200)
On 29 December 1918, the Spartacists decided to merge with the IKD, a leftist organization, to form the KPD(S), or German Communist Party (Spartacist). Karl Radek convinced the Spartacists to split from the USPD at this early date, rather than waiting until after the USPD party congress. (212) The KPD(S) adopted a program that declared "If the Spartacus League takes power, it will be in the form of the clear, indubitable will of the great majority of the proletarian masses." (220) But the KPD(S) still faced the problem of not having a large worker base, and alienating many activists who believed that the split was unnecessary or untimely. Thus, "The new-born Communist Party was from the start isolated from the masses, and it was doomed to impotence before it had swung into action." (225)
Ebert's attempts to use the military to crush dissent led to the USPD's resignation from their joint rule on 29 December 1918. (234) SPD functionary Gustav Noske was one of the people that filled the positions left by the USPD. He ominously declared, "One of us has to do the job of executioner." (237) The government's removal of a Berlin police chief sympathetic to the revolutionaries, Emil Eichhorn, led to a protest demonstration that one observer called "perhaps the largest proletarian mass action in history" on 5 January 1919. (241) With incredible numbers in the streets, radical leaders sensed an opportunity for insurrection. Liebknecht, in noted opposition to the KPD(S)'s stated position against putchism, decided that the time was ripe for a struggle for power. (243) A revolutionary committee was created, but its main feature was its temporizing. The seizure of the SPD's party organ Vorwärts by revolutionaries hardened Liebknecht, et al's position. (245) Representatives of the KPD(S) and other revolutionaries eventually issued a proclamation to the workers: "Arise in a General Strike! To Arms! ... Come out into the streets for the final fight, for victory!" (248)
The subsequent Spartacist uprising was a disaster since "The mass of the Berlin workers were ready to strike and demonstrate, but no to engage in armed struggle," (246) especially because of (in their eyes) the confusing situation of both sides claiming to be socialist. Many workers denounced the "fratricidal struggles." (248) Noske's paramilitary units of Freikorps easily put down the revolt. Many revolutionaries warned against the uprising at the time, including Radek and Paul Levi. Luxemburg, however, supported the uprising (if not wholly endorsing the attempted seizure of power) as an honorable workers' struggle against the provocations of the government. (252) Interestingly, her last writings seem to indicate that in witnessing the disorganization of the uprising she consequently "approached [Lenin's] conception of the revolutionary party which she had until then opposed." (254) The Freikorps decapitated the revolutionary movement by hunting down and murdering Luxemburg and Liebknecht, among other leaders. By killing the KPD(S)'s most influential figures, the SPD "rendered unbridgeable the gulf between the Majority Social Democrats and the revolutionaries. It also convinced the revolutionaries that their only mistake had been to procrastinate." (258)
The Attempt to Define the Role of a Communist Party
The months after the Spartacist uprising saw various actions all over Germany that were brutally put down by Noske. (Chapter 13) Amidst this atmosphere of repression, capital concentrated into a few hands, (292) an ultra-left attempt to boycott elections failed (295) and the KPD(S) proved completely ineffective as it was "underground and in deep crisis." (297) The new Weimar Constitution contained the infamous Article 48, enabling the executive to use emergency measures without prior consent of the legislature, which Hitler would later use to consolidate his power. (290)
The most important members of the German left were now Levi and Radek, who both agreed that the ultra-left adventure of the Spartacus uprising was a terrible mistake. Contrariwise, there were many ultra-leftists within the KPD(S) who supported spontaneous action and emphasized the opportunistic nature of established political parties and trade unions. Levi regarded these anarchist and syndicalist currents as a regression towards a tendency that had been defeated within the revolutionary movement. (316)
The German left contained other tendencies: Fritz Wolffheim and Heinrich Laufenberg whose "national Bolshevism" advocated an alliance with the bourgeoisie and Soviet Russia to wage revolutionary war against the Entente. (325) Others such as Herman Gorter advocated factory unions, enshrined in the AAU. (327) Pannekoek warned against opportunism, both from the established unions and parties but also from the Third International. Rühle advocated an anti-authoritarian communism. (331)
Levi believed that a successful communist movement in Germany required the left-leaning USPD members for a mass base. (336) The USPD itself was split between a left and a right faction, each finding the pull of the Second or Third International, respectively, more appealing. Over time the USPD left gained ground, as the USPD voted to break with the Second International, but not join the Third. (341) Some also took the road of founding a Two-and-a-half International which came to little. (340)
The Versailles Treaty imposed a variety of conditions on defeated Germany. The German Communists, for their part, regarded the Versailles peace as a continuation of the war. (350) Right wing German elements bristled at the potential of the extradition of war criminals and the reduction in the size of armed forces. (351) General von Lüttwitz and Prussian director of agriculture Wolfgang Kapp therefore organized the Kapp Putsch which saw them take power and the Ebert government withdraw from Berlin. The usually reformist trade union leader Carl Legien took to organizing a general strike to defeat the putsch. The strike did take place, and the Kapp government was completely paralyzed by 15 March 1920. (356) German capitalists intervened to convince the regime to step aside, given the unanimity of the workers in opposition to it. (359) The SPD saw the putsch coming from a mile away, and did little to stop it, and was thus discredited in the eyes of many Germans; Noske's role was particularly shameful, and his political career ended shortly thereafter. (361) The general elections of 6 June showed that people were deserting the SPD for the USPD. (380) Meanwhile, the bumbling of the KPD(S) during the Kapp Putsch, which featured them issuing a statement expressing that there was no point in opposing the putsch, (355/378) resulted in the formation of the KAPD, an ultra-left party that split from the KPD(S) which counted Pannekoek, Wolffheim, Laufenberg and Rühle among its ranks. (379)
The KPD(S) inched closer to reconciliation with the USPD, declaring a policy of 'loyal opposition' to a potential future workers' government. (385) In this way, the KPD(S) posed the question of a transitional government (between parliamentary and dictatorship of the proletariat), a first for the Communist movement. (385) Radek believed that the KPD(S)'s policy betrayed their mission as a revolutionary party, (386) attacking what he believed to be Levi's "quietism." (389) Lenin intervened on the side of Levi to support the 'loyal opposition' policy. (390)
The KPD(S)'s mistakes prompted the ECCI to take a more active role in directing the party. "Comrade Thomas" was sent to Germany to establish links between Berlin and Moscow. (397) Lenin's "Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder sought to win influence away from internationally emerging ultra-left tendencies. The Russians maneuvered to unify the KPD(S) and the KAPD, as well as the USPD lefts, under the auspices of a single communist party in Germany at the Second Comintern Congress.
1921 was a difficult year for the Russian leadership, as it saw both the introduction of the NEP under conditions of severe economic distress and the Kronstadt uprising. The ECCI continued to feel uneasy about what they viewed as Levi's conservative leadership of the VKPD, and decided to admit the KAPD to the Third International as a sympathizing party in order to invigorate the German communists with "a little of the revolutionary fire." (463) On 8 January 1921, the VKPD issued the Open Letter, backed by both Radek and Levi, which appealed to non-revolutionary workers to join the VKPD in a struggle for common goals. (468) Some of the ECCI, notably Zinoviev, and the KAPD attacked the Open Letter as opportunist. (472)
A split in the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) caused a stir within the VKPD. An Italian Communist Party (PCI) led by Gramsci and Bordiga split from the PSI without attempting to court the centrist elements represented by the PSI leader Serrati. Levi believed that a split with the reformist elements around Turati was necessary, but believed not attracting elements of the Serrati bloc was a mistake. (478) Radek attacked Levi's position, saying that the PCI already had all the true communists in Italy, (479) as well as railing against him personally. This dispute snowballed into a larger one, pitting Levi against the ECCI, which already had reservations about Levi. A refusal by the ECCI to express confidence in Levi led to his resignation from the Zentrale along with Däumig, Zetkin and others. (487)
With Levi gone, the VKPD was more open to radical action. The Comintern's Béla Kun, acting under mysterious circumstances, arrived in Germany and implored the communists to wage a "revolutionary offensive." (494) The result was the poorly-conceived March Action, a strike (formulated in part in reaction to Hörsing's attempt to disarm workers) which failed to draw significant worker support and even featured the communists clashing with the workers in several instances. (501)
The March Action fiasco prompted 200,000 members to leave the VKPD. (505) Levi was appalled at the adventurism of the March Action, and issued a public pamphlet Our Road: Against Putschism detailing his position. (511) The Zentrale expelled Levi from the VKPD for his public insubordination, but many party notables rushed to his defense. (516) The ECCI concluded that Paul Levi was a "traitor" (530) even though Lenin noted that Levi's pamphlet was "in very many respects... right politically." (535) These disputes would be settled at the Third Comintern Congress.
Lenin and Trotsky were put in a difficult position: "It was important to preserve the unity of both the German Party and the International, whilst at the same time ensuring that they undertook a radical political turn. Concretely, they were ready, on the one hand, to confirm the expulsion of Paul Levi, but only for 'indiscipline' and in order to avoid openly revealing the responsibility of the ECCI in the March Action, and, on the other hand, to pay homage to this action as 'a step forward,' whilst they condemned the theory of the offensive, and attempted to prevent any repetition of it." (538) Nevertheless, they managed to thread this needle, preventing the sharp animosity between various factions at the Third Congress from boiling over.
From the Conquest of the Masses to a Defeat Without a Fight
Another development at the Third Congress was the ECCI's demand that the KAPD fuse with the KPD within three months, or be expelled from the International. The KAPD was in its "death throes" anyways. (557) The new Zentrale, which was now headed by Meyer and Friesland, unanimously supported the compromise reached at the Third Congress. Levi, Däumig and others formed the Communist Working Collective (KAG) in the Reichstag, rejecting a reconciliation with the International and effectively splitting with the VKPD. (567) Additionally, fallout resulting from documents seized by police and published by the SPD implicating Levi's enemies in March Action failures raised again the relationship between the ECCI and the Germans. These controversies led to Friesland's expulsion from the VKPD. (574) Further splits were prevented only by Lenin's authority. (583)
The Rapallo Treaty indicated that Germany and Russia had common interests in opposing terms of the Versailles treaty. (601) Furthermore, a May 1921 Soviet-German trade treaty allowed certain German firms to operate in Russia within the context of the NEP. (603) This realignment of Russian-German relations on non-revolutionary terms was received by radicals with mixed reactions.
Economic strikes in Germany, which even saw the emergence of factory councils, revived in 1922 with help from the VKPD. (607) In doing so, the communists needed to combat both trade-union reformist bureaucrats and anarcho-syndicalist elements within the unions. (609) The assassination of foreign minister Rathenau provided the VKPD an opportunity to implement their united front tactic. (614) However, once again the SPD sabotaged the VKPD's plans by siding with more right wing elements, and a new government headed by Cuno formed. (623) The call for a workers' government was at the core of the united front strategy. (647)
The Fourth Comintern Congress featured Radek and others agreeing that world revolution was on the agenda in Germany. (667) Brandler assumed leadership of the VKPD. (683)
In 1923 French forces occupied the Ruhr in response to Germany's failure to pay WWI reparations. The Reichstag voted to endorse a campaign of "passive resistance" against the French. The SPD enthusiastically supported the campaign, but the KPD did not, refusing to get dragged into what it saw as a campaign organized by the German bourgeoisie. (689)
The inflation that Germany experienced in 1923 was enormous; in one year, the value of the mark fell by a factor of 162,500. (710) The interest rate on a 24-hour loan was 100 percent. (711) Capitalists, by dealing in dollars or gold, managed to avoid inflation, but the petty bourgeoisie was wrecked. (712) In this way, the German population "was not so much proletariansed as reduced to a sub-proletariat." (713) The economic turmoil not only emboldened the extreme left but also the extreme right as Hitler and the National Socialists gained popularity. (720) The KPD often tried to engage the Nazis in public debate, but the Nazis put a stop to these events after realizing how bad it made them look. (729)
The KPD and others sought to organize an anti-fascist demonstration on 29 July 1923 across Germany. Various government leaders preemptively banned demonstrations on that day, and the Zentrale deliberated as to whether to play into a trap set by the authorities. After consulting with the ECCI, the KPD decided to call off the demonstrations. (741) A speech by Cuno in the Reichstag asking for a vote of confidence prompted a strike wave by disgruntled workers which caught all political factions off guard. The SPD, after initially opposing the strike wave, in the end demanded Cuno's resignation, with which he complied. (749)
This turmoil convinced Moscow that the time was ripe for an insurrection. Trotsky and Brandler disagreed on whether a date should be set for the insurrection, with Trotsky favoring it. (764) However, it was at last decided to send the entire German Commission from Moscow to Germany to take responsibility for the insurrection. (765) While the military preparations were being carried out, von Kahr seized power in a coup in Bavaria and Ebert responded by invoking Article 48 to declare martial law throughout Germany. (776)
Moscow decided that the KPD should join the Saxony and Thuringia governments since they would need to occupy positions of influence for the fast-approaching conflict. (794) General Müller persisted in threats against the Saxony government, which now contained communists, but did not yet attack. KPD and SPD representatives met at Chemnitz, where the KPD implored the SPD to stop collaborating with the government and to issue a call for a general strike. However, the SPD blocked the KPD's plans. The Zentrale decided to cancel the insurrection. (809) In Hamburg, however, the plan was executed, although on whose initiative remains unclear. But once Hamburg got word of the cancellation, they quickly disengaged. On 25 October, the Zentrale declared: "The vanguard of the working class -- the Communists and part of the Social-Democratic workers -- wishes to engage in the struggle, but the working class as a whole is not ready to fight, despite its immense bitterness and appalling poverty." (812) Hitler, despite inspiring great fear amongst the German left in 1923, was easily dealt with as his Beer Hall Putsch ended with the arrest of the conspirators. Because of the struggle for power after Lenin's exit from Russian politics and the KPD's repeated bumbling, the KPD's policies were from this point on to be written almost entirely in Moscow. (816)
The failure of the German insurrection continued to be debated in both Russia and Germany. Trotsky blamed the failure on the International, (822) Zinoviev blamed it on Radek and Brandler, (828) Radek also indicted the International, (827) etc. Zinoviev at the time was engaged in a struggle for power against Trotsky and the Left Opposition and wanted to deflect blame for the German failure away from the International, which he headed. (831)