Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Spartacists in Berlin 1919

In January 1918 the Kaiser was on the throne of a Germany that looked like winning the war. The Russians were collapsing with a victorious, strong, Germany seizing their territories, and a knockout blow was ready in the West. By January 1919, the dream was shattered. The war lost, the Kaiser had abdicated, Germany's colonies were gone and the allies were discussing how to cut Germany down, and keep her there. In the capital Berlin, short of food and supplies in deep winter, and with thousands of men returning from the front, bitter and disillusioned, power was there for the taking. The Left were inspired by Bolshevik Russia, the Right were horrified by Communism, and longed to make Germany strong again. On the Right the gangs called themselves Frei Korps, and were usually based on the previous unit of the men, so that the Frei Korps Potsdam, for example, was formed from ex- Guards. So groups of both sides, heavily armed and military trained, were roaming the streets of Berlin.

What government there was was led by Friedrich Ebert, and held in power by whatever army was left in Berlin, as well as, until recently, the Volksmarinedivision of mutinied sailors who were based in  the Neuer Marstell (Royal Stables) across from the Imperial City Residence. When they had occupied the Imperial Chancellery Ebert had made the mistake of sending troops against them, only to see these repelled and expelled from the city centre. With Ebert without regular troops and the Volksmarine uninterested in seizing power themselves there was a dangerous vacuum.

Spartacists marching through Berlin

Early in January, Left wing gangs had seized several buildings in the newspaper district around Kochstrasse, including the offices of Vorwarts, which had been highly critical of the Left, especially the Spartacists. These were Marxists, who had named themselves after the slave who rose against Imperial Rome. Although they had changed their name to the Communist Party of Germany, and in fact were only one of several groups, what came next became known as the Spartacist Rising.

Gathering in the former police headquarters on Alexanderplatz the various fraction leaders discussed what to do. Predictably, there was endless discussion, but no agreement. Even amongst the Spartacists, Karl Liebknecht wanted to take over the state whilst Rosa Luxemburg favoured negotiation. The military leader of the Spartakists, Robert Eichhorn naturally favoured the former. Also there was Karl Radek, a close associate of Lenin and Vice-Commisar for Foreign Affairs for the Russian Bolshevik government who was a long term advocate of Revolutionary War. When material was found at Vorwarts urging attacks by the Frei Korps, they all agreed on fighting.They tried to bring over the army regiments to their cause, especially the Volksmarine, but there was little enthusiasm there for a communist state, not least because many in the Army blamed strikes and disturbances back home for Germany´s defeat in the war.

Meanwhile, Ebert was bringing troops back into Berlin, and encouraging the Frei Korps. On Saturday 11 January they made their move.

The battles for Berlin

The bombardment of the Police Headquarters in Alexanderplatz began at 6 in the morning. Artillery (7cm guns) had been placed on the roofs of houses in streets to the south of Alexanderplatz, and together with more on a railway car on the stone railway arches to the east they opened fire. The Spartacists replied with machine gun fire, but they were out gunned and these were silenced in less than 15 mins. Soon after there was a terrific crash as part of the 2nd storey collapsed and soon after they surrendered. 400 prisoners were taken and over 60 dead and wounded recovered. According to some reports many of the machine gun crews were women. 
Alexanderplatz after the battle. A trench mortar can be seen in the foreground

Meanwhile the Potsdam Freikorps under Major von Stephani deployed around the Vorwarts building. Stephani had already been inside, disguised as a Spartakist, and was confident of success. At 8.15am he gave the order to fire and artillery, machine guns and trench mortars slammed into the building. Whenever a Spartakist machine gun opened fire it was swiftly silenced. The building was then stormed, and cleared room by room, according to one account using flame throwers. 300 prisoners were captured.

The Spartakists had fortified the Boetzow brewery, but withdrew, piling into trucks and transferring to the Silesian station by the Spree, where they planned a last stand. All the streets leading in were covered by machine guns, but it was not enough and they were overwhelmed.

Skirmishes continued throughout the night of the 11/12th, with attacks by Spartakists on government patrols, shooting from roof tops or lobbing hand grenades. Reports came from Charlottenstrasse, Mohrenstrasse, Friedrichstrasse, Leipzigerstrasse, Taubenstrasse, and Wilhelmstrasse. At 5am a battle raged in the streets crossing Freidrichstrasse from the station at Belleallianz platz.

The following excerpts, though not the pictures, are newspaper reports from the time. In this case from the Advertiser in Australia on January 16th 1919.

Government artillery firing on the Vorwarts building

Fortified brewery

On Saturday the Government troops atacked all the Spartacist strongholds in Berlin. In the afternoon they surrounded the newspaper district, after a short struggle, and captured the "Vorwaerts" building. There were 125 dead bodies found in the building. The troops on Saturday night were still attacking the "Berline Tageblatt" building. The Spartacist leaders have deserted the police headquaters, and have brought great quantities of weapons and food to the large Boetzow brewery, which is strongly fortified. Eichhorn, the late Police Commissioner, and Radek, the Russian Bolshevik agent, are directing the battle from that place. Radek is keeping up the spirit of the Spartacus Anarchists by continually declaring that the Russian army is on the way to Berlin. Two thousand of the Spartacist sympathisers in Hanover on Saturday commandeered a train which was travelling to Berlin. More from all parts of Germany are making their way to the capital. 

It Doesn't Look Real

    The correspondent of the "Daily Chronicle'' in Rotterdam states:-Thousands of criminals have flocked to Berlin and they are participating in the looting and the raiding of the shops. Many secured arms by joining the Red Guards. They all bave motor lorries, by means of which organised bands of criniinals carry out extensivec pillage. Despite the street fighting there are thousands of sightseers in the thoroughfares, who fly off hurridly when firing is heard. The street hawkers have become so accustomed to the fighting that they do not remove their stalls unless firing comes close to them, when they retire for a few yards up a side street. They return as soon as the firing ceases. The sightseers also return, and the shops resume business. The organ grinders, the players of mouth organs, and other street musicians, continue playing amidst the flames, and the street beggars remain at their posts.

Paper Barricades

Noske, the German War Minister, commanding four regiments, including many Volunteers, has recovered the greater part of Spandau. He also captured and shot the Spartacist leader.
The "Frankfurter Zeitung" states that the Spartakist forces barricaded the "Vorwaerts" office with large reels of paper, and posted machine guns behind them arid also in the windows. The Government artillery demolished part of the front building and buried some of the rioters under the debris. Others then fluttered handkerchiefs and white paper from the windows to proclaim their surrender, and three hundred men were captured.

1,300 Rebels Killed.

The Workers' and Soldiers' Council at Leipzig refused a passage to a troop train to Berlin on the ground that the motives of the force were anti-revolutionary. The revolutionary police attempted to disarm the soldiers, and there was fighting on both sides, which caused several deaths. Eventually the police were victorious. There were similar encounters subsequently on the arrival of other trains, and the troops were disarmed.
A message from Copenhagen states: After a brief armistice on Saturday the fighting was renewed in the newspaper quarter of Berlin, and continued all night long.' A force of 13,000 Government troops reached Berlin on Saturday, making a total of 40,000 soldiers in the city. The Spartacist followers killed since the outbreak of the Revolt are estimated at 1,300, including many deaths around the "Vorwaerts " office. The troops arrested Herr Liebnecht , one of the Spartacus leaders, at his residence.
 Street fighting in Berlin


Liebnecht and Luxembourg were captured, interrogated and shot. They weren't the only ones, as all over Germany revolts were put down. Effectively this destroyed the Communists as a military force in Germany, although they still had some industrial strength. Despite other revolts and threats from both Left and Right the Ebert government, and it's successor the Weimar government, lasted until the 1930s, and the rise of Nazism.

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