The Bavarian Soviet Republics of 1919

Submitted by martin on 16 July, 2019 - 2:52 Author: Barrie Hardy

The Jewish community in Germany has been advised by their government not to wear the kippah in public in case they become targets of antisemitic attacks.

Antisemitic hate crimes have risen 20% in the last year and nine out of ten cases have been blamed on the extreme right. Concerns have also been raised about the growth in support for the far right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) within the ranks of the German army and police force - traditional breeding grounds for right wing authoritarianism.

Numerous Germans with Jewish backgrounds have made vital contributions to the cultural heritage both in Germany and worldwide. The town of Trier boasts a museum to its most famous son, Karl Marx. The tourist guide also highlights the medieval Jewish Quarter where it's houses were built with a common escape tunnel. History does not need to ask us why such a precautionary measure was required unless we are unaware of that history!

Chemnitz, formerly Karl Marx Stadt, has become the German city most associated with resurgent neo- nazism. During anti refugee riots there last year a Jewish restaurant was stormed by masked individuals shouting "Get out of Germany you Jewish pig." That such antisemitism flourishes particularly in East Germany is a huge indictment of the former Stalinist GDR in it’s failure to educate the populace on its dangers.

Fascism now casts a darker shadow over Europe than at any other time since 1945. In Germany we are witnessing the revival of political assassinations reminiscent of the Weimar Republic. Last month Walter Lubcke, a CDU politician who strongly supported Angela Merkel's refugee policy, was shot dead. The accused assassin has links with neo nazi terrorist organisation Combat 18. The mayors of Cologne and Altena have also been subject to serious knife attacks.

Given the current situation a study of German political and cultural issues between the two world wars is timely. Two books by the award winning German writer Volker Weidermann help shed light on this period, starting with his most recently translated work Dreamers - When The Writers Took Power, dealing with socialist revolution in Munich in 1919.

Sickened by the slaughter of world war and the privations endured by ordinary German citizens, a mass revolt broke out in the German army and navy in October 1918. The revolution began in Kiel and Wilhelmshaven and quickly spread through the rest of the country reaching south to Munich in early November. There Bavarian King Ludwig III was overthrown and workers and soldiers nominated Kurt Eisner - a literary critic, pacifist and anti-militarist - as President of the People's State of Bavaria.

Eisner was a leading figure in the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) which had formally split from the reformist mass Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 1917 over the latter's support for the German war effort. Though Eisner advocated a socialist republic, he distanced himself from Bolshevism and pledged that his government would protect private property rights.

Eisner's belief that the Workers' Council could coexist with a parliamentary regime was strongly condemned by Karl Liebknecht when the two met at the Bavarian embassy in Berlin. The nascent German Communist Party consistently refused to join Eisner's compromise regime owing its refusal to significantly challenge capitalism.

Another major problem Eisner’s government faced concerned relations between the city of Munich and its rural Bavarian hinterland. Given the considerable shortages already, consequent of the wartime chaos, the state capital was now more than ever dependent on the peasants and farmers for food supplies. Eisner was initially fortunate to have an important ally in Ludwig Gandolfer, leader of the Peasants' Council, who was widely respected in peasant circles. Unfortunately, Gandolfer was killed in a car crash on November 8th on his way to address a peasants meeting. Could the presence of Gandolfer have made much difference to events had he survived is one of those historical questions it's impossible to answer. However, the urban revolutionaries were unable to find a decent substitute for him.

The lack of mass support for Eisner was starkly revealed in the Bavarian Landtag election of January 1919 when his party came bottom of the poll with a measly 2.5%. The big winners were the Bavarian People's Party (BVP) - centre right Catholic - on 35% and the SPD (33%) who's federal government in Berlin had just suppressed the Spartacist revolution and murdered Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.

On 21 February Eisner was on his way to parliament to announce his resignation. By now he had gone to the top of the hate list of the emerging fascist movement primarily because of his call for Germany to admit its share of responsibility for the carnage of world war. On the street outside he was assassinated by Anton Graf von Arco.

"Eisner is a Bolshevist, a Jew; he isn't German... He is a traitor to this Land," von Arco was to declaim. Himself of partly Jewish descent, a significant motivation in von Arco's murderous attack was his perverted desire to prove himself 'worthy' after he'd been refused membership of the ultra nationalist Thule Society on account of his Jewish ancestry.

The fallout from Eisner's assassination was considerable. Pandemonium broke out in the parliament after rumours circulated that Erhard Auer - Bavarian SPD leader and interior minister in Eisner's government - was behind the assassination. An Eisner supporter attempted to kill Auer in the Chamber. This in turn prompted soldiers from the Council to open fire killing or wounding several MPs. In the ensuing chaos MPs escaped through the windows and down the drainpipes.

The episode ended any cooperation between the SPD and the Munich Council. The parliamentarians fled Munich for the city of Bamburg and the communists and anarchists declared a Soviet Republic, placing the playwright Ernst Toller at the head of government.
What had just transpired was in sharp juxtaposition to Toller's description of previous Munich events as the "Bavarian revolution of love."

Toller was to be in office a mere week. Most of the ministers he chose were unsuitable to say the least. Franz Lipp, his chosen Foreign Secretary, had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals on several times in the past and claimed to be well acquainted with the Pope to whom he initiated one-way communication with by telegram. Lipp also managed to declare war on Switzerland over a dispute about train carriages. Silvio Gisell proved similarly inept as Finance Minister with his Freigeld law aiming to establish 'free money'.

Given the ineffectiveness of his leadership Toller soon quit and enabled the Communists under Eugen Leviné and Max Livien to take over the government. Eisner's assassination had energised the left in Munich and increased popular support. In a military clash against 8,000 troops from the Bamberg SDP regime, the Soviet was able to raise 30,000 and see off the threat in a battle around Dachau. However, the Munich Soviet would prove no match against the forces of the Federal government, employing as it did the counter revolutionary paramilitary of the Freikorps.

May Day 1919 was no cause for workers to celebrate as the Freikorps broke through Munich's defences and took over the city after heavy street fighting.

Weidermann's book does not offer a rigorous political analysis or draw out much in the way of lessons. It would have been useful to have more detail on the position of the communists and their criticisms of the regime before they took it over. Nevertheless, Dreamers does provide a vivid and highly readable account of the Munich events, which are generally overshadowed by the Spartacist rising in Berlin.

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