Rereading German History: From Unification to Reunification, 1800-1996

By Richard J. Evans | Go to book overview

9

THE FAILURE OF GERMAN LABOUR IN THE WEIMAR REPUBLIC

I

In 1918 the abdication of the Kaiser and the fall of the German Empire created by Bismarck brought to power the one political and social organization that had remained outside the mainstream of Imperial German politics from the very beginning: the labour movement. Marxist in orientation, democratic in politics, the labour movement was still in 1918 formally committed to the overthrow of the capitalist social order and its replacement by a proletarian state. But in practice it had long since reconciled itself to using the methods of parliamentary democracy to achieve these ends. Fearful of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia moving further westwards and engulfing them as it had done their moderate Menshevik counterparts in 1917, the German Social Democrats who took control in November 1918 put the restoration and maintenance of order above everything else. Determined to press forward to the election of a Constituent Assembly (which eventually met in Weimar in 1919), they did a deal with the army to ensure the peaceful demobilization of the troops from their battle stations in the East and West, and employed heavily armed gangs of ex-soldiers known as the Freikorps in order to put down revolutionary uprisings by Communists in Berlin, Munich and elsewhere early in 1919. A year later, in 1920, these same Freikorps were staging a coup in Berlin, with the partial backing of the army, aimed at restoring the monarchy and its authoritarian institutions to power. Right-wing thugs associated with them were responsible for a wave of assassinations, including those of the liberal Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau, the Catholic politician Matthias Erzberger and the left-wing socialist leader Hugo Haase, as well as the brutal murder of leading Communists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in 1919. It was the overheated atmosphere of far-right plots and conspiracies which they fostered in the early 1920s, above all in Bavaria, that encouraged the emergence of Adolf Hitler as a serious political figure.

At the same time as compromising with the military forces of the right in this way, the Social Democrats exhibited a persistent reluctance to join with

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