Anarchy in the German Revolution

From Anarchy In Action

The 1918-9 German Revolution overthrew the Kaiser (Emperor) and established the Weimar Republic which would last until 1933 when the Nazi Party took power. The main radical factions were the Communists (in the Communist Party of Germany, KPD), Socialists (in the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany, USPD), radical labor organizers (especially in the Revolutionary Stewards), and the anarchists including Gustav Landauer and Erich Mühsam.[1]

By late 1918, Germany was clearly losing the First World War, and sailors correctly viewed commanders’ order to battle approaching British warships as a suicide mission. In protest of the order, sailors mutinied at the North Sea Coast on 29 October. They were arrested and imprisoned in Kiel where people demonstrated for their release and formed a soldiers’ council. Solidarity demonstrations and unrest spread to Hamburg, Bremen, Hanover, and other German cities.[2]

Early on, the reformist Social Democrat Party (SPD) infiltrated the uprising. The Kiel Soldiers’ Council elected Gustav Noske as chairman. Giles Dauvé comments, “This fact alone summarizes the whole period: the rebellion chose as its representative the man who had come to squelch it, and he would promptly organize its armed repression.”[3]

On November 9th, tens of thousands of Germans marched on the Reichstag legislative building, compelling cabinet member Philipp Scheidemann to proclaim from a balcony that Germany was now a republic. The proclamation went against the wishes of Social Democratic Party (SPD) chairman Friedrich Ebert who cautioned against radical changes. The German Empire, known as the Kaiserreich, had come to an end and the Kaiser himself would formally abdicate power later that month.[4]

The SPD and USPD formed a bourgeois republic with Ebert as prime minister. On November 10th, within twenty-four hours of taking power, Ebert phoned General Groener and agreed to collaborate with wartime dictator Paul von Hindenburg to establish order.[5] The government put Noske in charge of the army and navy.

Rebels were divided on the movement’s future direction. While the SPD supported establishing a bourgeois-parliamentary “national assembly,” radicals called for a directly democratic system of council governance. Revolutionary communists, reports Icarus, replied “No national assembly! Arm the workers in the factories! Establish revolutionary tribunals to try the war criminals and counterrevolutionaries!”[6]

Throughout Germany, approximately 10,000 councils emerged, populated mainly by SPD members.[7] By November’s end, according to the communist Icarus (Ernst Schneider), “power was practically in the hands of the workers’, soldiers’, and sailors’ councils; if not all over the Reich, at least in Wilhelmshaven, Bremen, and Brunswick.”[8]

Skilled engineering workers were well represented, and the council movement secured “the virtually total involvement of the technician stratum,” writes Sergio Bologna. Engineers’ and technicians’ workplaces had not yet entered the Fordist stage of mass production, influencing their adoption of the council form:

“The concept of workers' self-management could not have had such a wide appeal in the German workers' council movement without the presence of a labour force inextricably linked to the technology of the labour process, with a strong sense of professional values and naturally inclined to place a high value on their function as ‘producers’. The concept of workers' control as a system of management was a concept that saw the worker as an autonomous producer, and the factory's workforce as a self-sufficient entity.”


However, Simon Schaupp emphasizes that peasants and women had a comparable role in the council movement to the predominantly male proletariat. Despite their participation in the revolution, women were only sparsely represented in the councils.[10]

Spartacist Uprising

The Spartacus League, still affiliated with the USPD but opposed to the party’s compromises with the SPD, organized a congress in December of 1918. Participants established the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), with Rosa Luxemburg in the Central Committee.[11] In a speech to the congress, Luxemburg expressed encouragement at the break with the USPD but warned against taking a vanguard stance ahead of the masses: “the conquest of political power must come not from above but from below.[12]

On January 6, 1919, communists launched a general strike. Spartacists participated, but they neither initiated nor led the uprising. Nonetheless, the Social Democratic press seized on the opportunity to slander the Spartacus League. Harman argues that SPD leaders “provoked a rising in the city in order to crush it with troops from outside.”[13]

The general strike successfully shut down the metalworking factories, but workers in other industries stayed on their jobs, including in the utilities, telephones, theaters and restaurants.[14]

SPD-affiliated minister Noske oversaw the repression of the uprising using both conventional troops and a newly established paramilitary called the Freikorps (meaning Free Corps). Freikorps Waldemar Pabst officer phoned Noske and asked if he should execute Spartacist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Noske did not give the order but instead voiced tacit approval. According to Pabst's notes, summarized by researcher Klaus Geitinger:

Noske essentially said, 'I cannot give you the order to kill the two because that would destroy the SPD'. He told Pabst to call the corps commander of government troops, Walther Freiherr von Lüttwitz. 'He will never give me that order', Pabst replied. To this, Noske said, 'then you have to take responsibility for your actions yourself'.[15]

Bavarian Revolution

Councils were strongest in the region of Bavaria including in Munich. On 7 November 1918, rebels established a Free State of Bavaria. Kurt Eisner was elected Prime Minister.[16] The anarchist Gustav Landauer spoke highly of Eisner and even claimed that the politician’s variety of socialism approached anarchism:

“I am sure you have seen from his proclamations how ‘anarchist’ his understanding of democracy is: he favors the active participation of the people in all social bodies, not bleak parliamentarism.”[17]

However, Eisner took a reformist route by calling for electing parliamentary representatives in January and by briefly arresting a dozen “members of the KPD and the Revolutionary Workers’ Council.” With Communists and anarchists abstaining, the USPD only received 2.5 percent of the vote and the SPD took charge.[18] “Exhausted by years of war and revolution, many just wanted a return to peace, prosperity, and some sense of order.”[19]

Eisner was assassinated by a far-rightist in February 1919. Landauer eulogized at the funeral: “Kurt Eisner the Jew was a prophet because he sympathized with the poor and downtrodden and saw the opportunity, and the necessity, of putting an end to poverty and subjugation.” Martin Buber said of Eisner and the assassination:

“As for Eisner, to be with him was to peer into the tormented passions of his divided Jewish soul; nemesis shone from his glittering surface; he was a marked man. Landauer, by dint of the greatest spiritual effort, was keeping up his faith in him and protected him—a shield-bearer terribly moving in his selflessness. The whole thing, an unspeakable Jewish tragedy.”[20]

On April 7, Independent Socialists and anarchists declared the Council Republic of Bavaria. Communists considered the proclamation premature and did not participate. On the 13th, the SPD-led federal government sent troops to crush the Republic. Communists took the lead in defending and they declared a Second Council Republic. Freikorps and soldiers crushed the uprising on the 1st and 2nd of May. In those two days, Freikorps members arrested and murdered Landauer.[21]

Emma Goldman reflected on Landauer’s death:

“Among my letters was also one containing details of the harrowing death of the brilliant German anarchist Gustav Landauer. Another prominent victim had been added to the number that included Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, and Kurt Eisner. Landauer had been arrested in connexion with the revolution in Bavaria. Not satisfied with shooting him, the reactionary fury had resorted to the dagger to finish up its ghastly job. Gustav Landauer was one of the intellectual spirits of the ‘Jungen’ (the ‘Young’), the group that had seceded from the German Social Democratic Party in the early nineties. Together with the other rebels he had founded the anarchist weekly, Der Sozialist. Gifted as a poet and writer, the author of a number of books of sociological and literary value, he soon made his publication one of the most vital in Germany.

In 1900 Landauer had drifted from the Kropotkin communist-anarchist attitude to the individualism of Proudhon, which change also involved a new conception of tactics. Instead of direct revolutionary mass action he favoured passive resistance, advocating cultural and co-operative efforts as the only constructive means of fundamental social change. It was sheer irony of fate that Gustav Landauer, turned Tolstoyan, should lose his life in connexion with a revolutionary uprising.”[22]

  1. Kuhn, ‘’All Power’’, xii.
  2. Kuhn, ‘’ All Power’’, 3.
  3. Giles Dauvé and Authier, ‘’The Communist Left in Germany 1918-1921’’, ch. 5, retrieved from Marxists Internet Archive,
  4. Kuhn, ‘’All Power’’, 27.
  5. Chris Harman, ‘’A People’s History of the World’’ (London: Verso, 2008), 432.
  6. Icarus, “The Wilhelmshaven Revolt,” 12.
  7. Dauvé and Authier, ‘’The Communist Left’’.
  8. Icarus (Ernst Schneider), The Wilhelmshaven Revolt: A Chapter of the Revolutionary Movement in the German Navy, 1918–1919” in Kuhn, ‘’All Power’’, 11.
  9. Sergio Bologna, “Class composition and the theory of the party at the origins of the workers’ council movement,” ‘’Libcom’’,
  10. Simon Schaupp, “Decentering the Revolution: Class Composition in the Making and Defeat of the Bavarian Council Republic,” ‘’International Labor and Working-Class History’’ no. 100 (2021): 1-21.
  11. Murray Bookchin, The Third Revolution, Volume 4 (London: Continuum: 2005), ch. 56.
  12. Rosa Luxemburg, ”Our Program and the Political Situation (December 1918),” ‘’Marxists Internet Archive’’,
  13. Harman, ‘’A People’s History’’, 432.
  14. Murray Bookchin, The Third Revolution, Volume 4, ch. 56.
  15. Klaus Geitinger, “They were openly calling for murder,” Verso, 15 January 2019,
  16. Vidar Lindström, “Between Utopia and Terror,” ‘’Commune’’, 14 May 2019,
  17. Gustav Landauer, “Letters from Bavaria” in Kuhn, ‘’All Power to the Councils’’, 173.
  18. Dauvé and Authier, ‘’The Communist Left in Germany 1918-1921’’, ch. 7.
  19. Lindström, “Between Utopia and Terror.”
  20. Michael Brenner, “Kurt Eisner, Gustav Landauer, and Adolf Hitler,” ‘’Tablet’’ 15 September 2022,
  21. Brenner, “Kurt.”
  22. Emma Goldman, ‘’Living My Life’’, 1931 retrieved from ‘’The Anarchist Library’’,