Magazine article History Today

The Spartacist Uprising in Berlin: Jan 5 1919

Magazine article History Today

The Spartacist Uprising in Berlin: Jan 5 1919

Article excerpt

Defeated in the First World War, humiliated, desperately short of food and assailed by the influenza epidemic that swept Europe, Germany was in a critical state. The Kaiser abdicated as emperor and on November 8th, 1918, a socialist republic was reluctantly proclaimed in Berlin by the moderate Social Democrat leader Friedrich Ebert, who confided to a friend that he 'hated it like sin', but proceeded to form a government. Meanwhile there had been a naval mutiny at Kiel and the Baltic and North Sea ports were falling under the control of councils of sailors, soldiers and workers on the Russian model.

The situation was to the liking of the Marxist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who believed that the revolution in Russia would inevitably spread to Germany and across Europe. Liebknecht, whose ambition was to be the German Lenin, was a left-wing lawyer, who in 1914 had been the only member of the Reichstag to vote against German involvement in the war. At the end of that year, with Rosa Luxemburg and others, he founded what became the Spartacist League, named after the gladiator Spartacus, leader of the slave rebellion that threatened the Roman government in the first century BC. The group's pamphlets were quickly declared illegal and Liebknecht was sent to the eastern front where he refused to fight and spent his time burying dead soldiers. He was soon allowed back to Berlin, where he was sentenced to prison for treason after a Spartacist demonstration in the city in 1916.

Rosa Luxemburg, the daughter of a Polish Jewish family was active in Polish leftwing politics from her teens but spent most of her adult life in Germany where she was imprisoned several times for opposing the war and campaigning for a general strike. In Spartacist publications she called herself Junius, after Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Roman Republic around 500BC. Like Liebknecht, she was sent to prison for treason in 1916. She did not share his approval of the Bolsheviks, but called for a dictatorship of the proletariat. She and Liebknecht were both released from prison in 1918 and started the Red Flag (Rote Fahne) newspaper. At the end of the year a conference of the Spartacist League, socialists and communists founded the Communist Party of Germany with Liebknecht and Luxemburg as the leaders.

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This was almost immediately followed by an uprising in Berlin against Ebert's regime, with encouragement from Soviet Russia. …

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