lady painting


Mar 2009 Journal

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Failure of a revolution: Germany 1918/19

The passing of Susanne Miller, who died last year at the age of 93, breaks a rare remaining link with the pre-1945 history of German and Austrian Social Democracy. Born Susanne Strasser, the daughter of a Viennese banker of Jewish origin, she had already joined the Socialist camp by the time of the suppression of the Austrian working class by Chancellor Dollfuß in February 1934. After the Anschluss, she went to London, where she secured residence through a marriage of convenience to a Mr Miller, from which she retained only the name.

In London she met Willy Eichler, her lifelong partner, who was to become a leading figure in the post-war German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Both were then members of the ISK (Internationaler Sozialistischer Kampfbund, International Socialist League), one of the small splinter parties that occupied the ground between the bitterly warring SPD and KPD (German Communist Party). Willy Brandt, who in 1969 became the first Social Democrat to be elected chancellor of West Germany, originally came from the Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands (German Socialist Workers’ Party), another party of the radical non-Communist left.

After leaving Britain for Germany with Eichler in 1946, Miller devoted herself to her work in the SPD, emerging as an expert on the party’s history, and in particular on its highly contentious role during the revolutions of 1918/19 in Germany, where it stood accused of combining with the forces of the reactionary right to suppress the infant movements of the radical left. From the experience of her ISK years, standing politically between the moderate Socialism of the SPD and the revolutionary Marxism of the KPD, Miller was ideally placed to contribute to a more balanced re-evaluation of the events of 1918/19.

In the 1950s, with the Cold War at its height, West German historians tended to see the role of the SPD, which became the dominant party in the German government when the German empire collapsed in November 1918, as having warded off the threat of a Bolshevik revolution in Germany by establishing the Weimar Republic, which was a parliamentary democracy on the Western European model, not a Communist dictatorship. This analysis plainly reflected the post-1945 confrontation between Western parliamentary democracy and Soviet Communism, embodied in the division of Germany itself between the two contending power blocks; faced with a choice between a Marxist dictatorship and democracy, the SPD had, on this interpretation, thrown its weight behind the successful containment of the Communist threat in 1918/19, as it had after 1945.

But by the 1960s a more nuanced analysis was emerging. Inspired in part by Arthur Rosenberg’s pioneering pre-war studies, historians showed that in the brief revolutionary interlude of 1918/19 the choice had not been between parliamentary democracy and a Soviet-style dictatorship of the proletariat. For a start, the party of the extreme left, the Spartacists (later Communists), were far too weak and few in number to have imposed such a regime, even had they wished to. The real choice lay between the Social Democrats, who wished to contain and control the revolutionary upsurge, and the left-wing Independent Social Democrats (USPD), who had split from the SPD in 1917, refusing any longer to support the war.

The USPD was closely associated with the most characteristic political phenomenon thrown up by the revolution, the workers’ and soldiers’ councils that arose across Germany as the imperial regime disintegrated in November 1918. The Independents saw these councils as genuinely proletarian institutions that represented popular opinion at grassroots level, and they hoped somehow to build upon them a system of proletarian democracy. The SPD, on the other hand, was quite content with Germany’s transformation from a monarchical autocracy into a parliamentary democracy, which had already been achieved in October 1918 by the reforms instituted by the short-lived government of Prince Max of Baden.

When the Kaiser abdicated and Prince Max resigned on 9 November 1918, the SPD was swept into power, supported by a wave of revolutionary fervour that it wanted, in reality, to rein back and channel into conventional parliamentary paths. The ‘revolutionary’ government that the SPD formed in coalition with the USPD on 9 November was thus divided at the most fundamental level, and it lasted only some seven weeks. When the USPD members withdrew from the government in late December, in protest against their SPD colleagues’ moderate, un-revolutionary policies, the extreme left saw its chance and tried to launch a ‘second revolution’ to match Lenin’s in Russia. But this merely forced the SPD, now governing alone, to call in the military in its defence, in the form of the Freikorps, right-wing militias more than willing to kill Communists. The result, tragically, was the murder of the Spartacist leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, in January 1919 and the brutal suppression of the uprising, by right-wing forces nominally under the control of Social Democratic ministers.

The Spartacist Uprising led to a fatal split in the German left. After the elections of January 1919, which gave power to the SPD in coalition with moderate non-Socialist parties, the USPD moved decisively to the left. It opposed the SPD over the latter’s relations with the military, its refusal to embark on a radical programme of nationalisation of industry and its entire strategy of establishing a ‘bourgeois’ parliamentary democracy in Germany instead of some form of workers’ government. In 1920, the majority of the USPD voted to join the Communist Party; when the remainder rejoined the SPD in 1922, the division within the German working-class movement became permanent.

Even when faced with the rise of Nazism a decade later, the hostility between SPD and KPD made a united working-class front against Hitler impossible. The events of 1918/19, including the demise of the USPD and the forms of proletarian democracy it espoused, had led to the creation of Germany’s first democratic republic – but at the cost of the alienation of much of the working-class left and of an unhealthy dependence on the forces of the unregenerate right. These later proved only too ready to jettison the republic they despised and throw in their lot with Hitler.

Anthony Grenville

next article:Harold Pinter: Words and silences