The Communist Party (KPD)

Like most socialists in Germany, Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), was initially opposed to the idea of the country going to war. However, once the First World War had started, he ordered the SDP members to support the war effort. Karl Liebknecht was the only member of the Reichstag who voted against Germany's participation in the war. He argued: "This war, which none of the peoples involved desired, was not started for the benefit of the German or of any other people. It is an Imperialist war, a war for capitalist domination of the world markets and for the political domination of the important countries in the interest of industrial and financial capitalism. Arising out of the armament race, it is a preventative war provoked by the German and Austrian war parties in the obscurity of semi-absolutism and of secret diplomacy."

Paul Frölich, a supporter of Liebknecht in the SDP, argued: "On the day of the vote only one man was left: Karl Liebknecht. Perhaps that was a good thing. That only one man, one single person, let it be known on a rostrum being watched by the whole world that he was opposed to the general war madness and the omnipotence of the state - this was a luminous demonstration of what really mattered at the moment: the engagement of one's whole personality in the struggle. Liebknecht's name became a symbol, a battle-cry heard above the trenches, its echoes growing louder and louder above the world-wide clash of arms and arousing many thousands of fighters against the world slaughter."

Immediately after the vote on war credits in the Reichstag, a group of SDP anti-militarist activists, including Ernest Meyer, Franz Mehring, Wilhelm Pieck, Julian Marchlewski, Hermann Duncker and Hugo Eberlein met at the home of Rosa Luxemburg to discuss future action. They agreed to campaign against the war but decided against forming a new party and agreed to continue working within the SPD.

Over the next few months members of this group were arrested and spent several short spells in prison. On the release of Rosa Luxemburg in February 1916, it was decided to establish an underground political organization called Spartakusbund (Spartacus League). The organisation publicized its views in its illegal newspaper, Spartacus Letters. Like the Bolsheviks in Russia, they began to argue that socialists should turn this nationalist conflict into a revolutionary war.

Rosa Luxemburg

Dick Howard has argued: "Agitation continued throughout the war; yet the Spartacus League was never very strong. All agitation had to be carried out in strict secrecy, and the leaders were more often than not in jail." Members included Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Leo Jogiches, Paul Levi, Ernest Meyer, Franz Mehring, Clara Zetkin, Wilhelm Pieck, Julian Marchlewski, Hermann Duncker and Hugo Eberlein.

On 1st May, 1916, the Spartacus League decided to come out into the open and organized a demonstration against the First World War in the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. One of those who attended reported: "It was a great success. At eight o'clock in the morning a dense throng of workers - almost ten thousand - assembled in the square, which the police had already occupied well ahead of time. Karl Liebknecht, in uniform, and Rosa Luxemburg were in the midst of the demonstrators and greeted with cheers from all sides." Several of its leaders, including Liebknecht and Luxemburg were arrested and imprisoned.

In April 1917 left-wing members of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) formed the Independent Socialist Party. Members included Kurt Eisner, Karl Kautsky, Julius Leber, Ernst Thälmann, Rudolf Breitscheild, Ernst Toller and Rudolf Hilferding.

Karl Radek, a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee, argued that the the Soviet government should help the spread of world revolution. At the end of the First World War Radek was sent to Germany and with a group of radicals who had been members of the Spartacus League, including Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Max Levien, Eugen Levine, Leo Jogiches, Paul Levi, Wilhelm Pieck, Julian Marchlewski, Hermann Duncker, Hugo Eberlein, Paul Frölich, Wilhelm Pieck, Ernest Meyer, Franz Mehring, Rosa Levine and Clara Zetkin, helped to establish the German Communist Party (KPD) on 27th December, 1918.

In Germany elections were held for a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution for the new Germany. As a believer in democracy, Rosa Luxemburg assumed that her party would contest these universal, democratic elections. However, other members were being influenced by the fact that Lenin had dispersed by force of arms a democratically elected Constituent Assembly in Russia. Luxemburg rejected this approach and wrote in the party newspaper: "The Spartacus League will never take over governmental power in any other way than through the clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian masses in all Germany, never except by virtue of their conscious assent to the views, aims, and fighting methods of the Spartacus League."

Paul Frölich has argued: "The enemies of the revolution had worked circumspectly and cunningly. On 10th November Ebert and the General Army Headquarters concluded a pact whose preliminary aim was to defeat the During that month there were bloody clashes between workers. During this month there were bloody clashes between workers and returning front-line soldiers who had been stirred up by the authorities. On military drill-grounds special troops, in strict isolation from the civilian population, were being ideologically and militarily trained for civil war."

On 29th December, 1918, Friedrich Ebert gave permission for the publishing of a Social Democratic Party leaflet. "The shameless doings of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg besmirch the revolution and endanger all its achievements. The masses cannot afford to wait a minute longer and quietly look on while these brutes and their hangers-on cripple the activity of the republican authorities, incite the people deeper and deeper into a civil war, and strangle the right of free speech with their dirty hands. With lies, slander, and violence they want to tear down everything that dares to stand in their way. With an insolence exceeding all bounds they act as though they were masters of Berlin."

The Spartakist Rising began in Berlin. Friedrich Ebert, Germany's new chancellor, called in the German Army and the Freikorps to bring an end to the rebellion. By 13th January, 1919 the rebellion had been crushed and most of its leaders were arrested. This included Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck on 16th January. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were murdered while in police custody.

Following the assassination of Leo Jogiches, another former member of the Spartacus League, Paul Levi became the leader of the KPD. Other prominent members included Willie Munzenberg, Ernst Toller, Walther Ulbricht, Hermann Duncker, Hugo Eberlein, Paul Frölich, Wilhelm Pieck, Ernest Meyer, Franz Mehring and Clara Zetkin. Levi's moderate approach to communism increased the size of the party. It was further strengthed when Ernst Thälmann, arranged for the Independent Socialist Party to merge with KPD in November 1920.

Paul Levi remained a supporter of the theories of Rosa Luxemburg and this brought him into conflict with Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. They were especially upset with the publication of Our Path: Against Putschism. In 1921 Levi resigned as chairman of the KPD over policy differences. Later that year, Lenin and Trotsky, demanded that he should be expelled from the party.

Ernest Meyer now became the leader of the German Communist Party. Meyer returned to Moscow in 1922 as a member of the German delegation to the 4th World Congress of the Comintern. However, his influence went into decline with the emergence of Ernst Thälmann, who replaced Meyer as the Chairman of the KPD in 1925. Thälmann, a loyal supporter of Joseph Stalin, willingly put the KPD under the control of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Political Parties in the Reichstag

















Communist Party (KPD)









Social Democratic Party (SDP)









Catholic Centre Party (BVP)









Nationalist Party (DNVP)









Nazi Party (NSDAP)









Other Parties









Germany's KPD became the largest Communist Party outside the Soviet Union and was fairly successful in elections to the Reichstag: 62 (May, 1924), 45 (December, 1924), 54 (May, 1928), 77 (September, 1930), 89 (July, 1932) and 100 (November, 1932).

Ernst Thälmann was the party's presidential candidate in 1932. He won 13.2 of the vote compared to the 30.1 received by Adolf Hitler. In January 1933, Thälmann proposed that the KPD and the Social Democratic Party should organise a general strike in order to remove Hitler. When these negotiations broke down, Thälmann called for the violent overthrow of Hitler's government.

After the Reichstag Fire on 27th February, 1933, the Nazi Party launched a wave of violence against members of the German Communist Party and other left-wing opponents of the regime. This included Thälmann who was arrested and imprisoned on 3rd March 1933. He managed to smuggle out details of his treatment: "They ordered me to take off my pants and then two men grabbed me by the back of the neck and placed me across a footstool. A uniformed Gestapo officer with a whip of hippopotamus hide in his hand then beat my buttocks with measured strokes, Driven wild with pain I repeatedly screamed at the top of my voice. Then they held my mouth shut for a while and hit me in the face, and with a whip across chest and back. I then collapsed, rolled on the floor, always keeping face down and no longer replied to any of their questions."

According to Adam Grolsch, who lived in Krefeld, all the communists in his town were sent to concentration camps. He argued that this gave non-communists, like him, more freedom. "What I often heard was, Finally, you can go out once again in the evening on the Gladbacher Strasse. Previously that had been the red section of town. At one time, there had been five or six sections of Krefeld where no upstanding citizen, above all no woman, would have dared to go in the evening. That was because of the criminals and also because of the way it was in general in these places. You'd be abused there. And everything was red there, blazing red. Red, of course, means the German Communist Party. And if anyone they recognized as a non-communist went through there, he would be beaten up. It was that bad in those days. But when Hitler came to power, it suddenly got quiet. As we now know, of course, he did this by sending them all off to concentration camps."

Wilhelm Pieck had managed to escape to the Soviet Union. In July 1936 he issued a statement calling for the release of Thälmann: "If we succeeded in raising a tremendous storm of protest throughout the world, it will be possible to break down the prison walls and as in the case of Dimitrov, deliver Thaelmann from the clutches of the Fascist hangmen. The fact that Ernst Thaelmann has got to spend his fiftieth birthday in the gaols of Hitler-Fascism is an urgent reminder to all the anti-Fascists of the whole world that they must intensify to the utmost their campaign for the release of Thaelmann and the many thousands of imprisoned victims of the White Terror."

Ernst Thälmann spent over eleven years in solitary confinement. He was executed in Buchenwald Concentration Camp on 18th August 1944. A few days later the Nazi government announced that Thälmann and Rudolf Breitscheid had been killed in an Allied bombing attack.

Primary Sources

(1) Morgan Philips Price, My Three Revolutions (1969)

From this time (1921) on the German Communist Party became little more than a puppet of Moscow. This was made easier by the split in the Independent Social-Democrats. But there were still leaders at the head of the German Communist Party who were inspired by the ideas that Rosa Luxemburg had left behind, especially Paul Levi, who refused to take orders from Moscow, totally disagreed that Germany was on the eve of revolution, and thought that the best thing for the moment for Germany to do was to make a treaty with Soviet Russia and form a front of oppressed people against the Western Imperialists. The pressure of the latter on Germany through the Versailles Treaty had caused a large section of the German middle classes to suppress their fear and hatred of Communism and support a pact with Russia. Clara Zetkin supported Levi and so did other Left leaders like Daumig, Brass and Hoffmann. Radek, who had favoured the idea when I saw him in 1919, now followed the official Moscow line. Heinrich Brandler was sent from Moscow to undermine the influence of Levi and his friends, while Ruth Fischer and Reuter-Friesland carried on a campaign against an alliance of the German bourgeois Republic with proletarian Soviet Russia.

(2) Agnes Smedley, letter to Florence Lennon (11th August 1923)

Here in Bavaria, I am in the stronghold of reaction. At night I am often awakened by the military commands and the march of men (Monarchists) who are training at night in the forests and in the mountains. It is a gruesome feeling - this secret training of men to kill other men. And these men being trained are peasants and working-men - not the class we usually think of. In Saxony the same thing occurs; there at night the men who are under training are also workingmen, but the leaders are Communists. And they are preparing to kill their kind also. Sometimes I see no difference between the two. What is this business everywhere - men preparing to murder their own kind for the sake of an idea? Not their own idea either, but that of men who use them as tools to set themselves in power. We only wait for the day when the two groups will start massacring each other. Both groups are bitterly opposed to passive resistance as a method; it isn't bloody or sadistic enough.

(3) Agnes Smedley, The Nation (28th November 1923)

The week has witnessed looting of many shops in various parts of the city, unrest in most cities throughout the country, and actual street fighting in many. Looting and rioting are regarded as so much grist to the mills of the Communists and the reactionaries alike. The Communists take advantage of it and preach their dogma; the monarchists do the same. They smile cynically when they read of the frightful increase in the cost of living and say, "It has not yet gone far enough. It must be worse still before the masses realize the mistake they have made in establishing a republic! We shall wait a bit longer." But most of the townspeople are so weary, so destroyed by uncertainty and long years of nervous strain, that they do not care what happens. They are tired of it all.

(4) Rose Levine-Meyer, Inside German Communism (1977)

Ernest Thalmann was a devoted revolutionary, a good orator with a fine instinct for the worker's temper, he was an excellent medium for expounding theories and ideas laid down by others. He was a poor thinker, and not given to abstract study, even lacking enough self-discipline to reach the cultural and theoretical level of an average Party member.

He had cut a very handsome figure as the proletarian showpiece in Ruth Fischer's Central Committee. But to make him the indisputable leader of the German Communism was to behead the movement and at the same time transform a highly attractive, able personality into a mere puppet.

(5) Josephine Herbst, The German Underground War, The Nation (8th January, 1936)

How long will the psychological reasons for submission to Hitler hold in the face of continuing economic instability for the great mass of people? Hitler has been successful in selling to the Germans the idea that he saved the country and all Europe from bolshevism, and that bolshevism is a destructive force, a strictly Jewish movement. Lately the term bolshevism with too much use has begun to lose its sharp edge. The Catholics also have been accused of bolshevism. The result has been to throw them into the opposition movement. In the Saar one of the illegal papers of the underground movement appears with the hammer and sickle combined with the Catholic cross. A priest about to be arrested was warned by the underground route; his house was surrounded by workers and peasants from the neighborhood, few of whom were Catholic, and the troopers coming to arrest him turned back at the sight of the dense crowd.

The existence of the underground movement is denied in the legal press, but twenty illegal papers come out regularly in Berlin alone. Hundreds of others appear irregularly. The papers are distributed by children and by workers during their working hours. The penalty for distributing such contraband may be the concentration camp; it may be death. Strikes are treason, and leaders are punished by death at the hands of a firing squad or by sentences to concentration camps. Yet strikes go on. Dozens occurred last summer, especially in the metal trades. Sometimes the strike consisted in a passive laying down of tools for an hour. Sometimes work was merely slowed up, "sticking," as they term it, "to the hands." Demonstrations used to be made for the release of Thälmann, the Communist leader, but lately there have been none, and it is not known for certain whether he is alive or dead. Only Germans who get their information from the legal press have any illusions about the so-called "bloodless revolution" of the Nazis; blood has flowed and is flowing. But if this last year was marked by the further concentration of wealth in the hands of the big industrialists, it is also notable that in the same period the underground movement made its greatest progress.

The outside world is always impatient of the predicament of a particular nation. Other people are always stupid and gulled by their leaders. Even within Germany itself some underground workers still puzzle at the suddenness of Hitler's blow. How could the powerful trade-union movement have been so easily crushed? The German worker, they say, was ideologically the best-informed worker in the world; he read economics, was versed in Marxist theory. The German worker was also patient and endowed with power to wait and endure. His very virtues became a trap for him. His long training under an earlier militaristic Germany in which order was a god made him an easier dupe.

It has taken time to recover from the blow of Hitler's seizure of power. At first Socialists and Communists did not work together and had no association with outside groups. But conversion is not the aim of the underground. Communists are willing to work with Catholics for religious liberty, and if, as an underground worker told me, half of a group of Socialists working with Communists in getting out a paper turn Communist, such an event is the outcome of an experience and not the focus of the movement. That neutrals have become weary of the parades, the constant orders to beflag houses, to appear on streets for "spontaneous" demonstrations has made it a little easier for the underground to work. The spying eye may not be so willing to see all that goes on around it. Moreover, the circle of Hitler's enemies widens every month. New recruits for the underground are made by Hitler himself. When he dissolves the Stahlhelm he suddenly touches many a family not formerly antagonistic. As yet they may merely not be so ready to hang out flags; they may smother their resentment and grow only a trifle more angry at the rise of prices; but by these tokens they serve the opposition whether they know it or not.

(6) Klaus Fuchs, confession to William Skardon (27th January, 1950)

I was a student in Germany when Hitler came to power. I joined the Communist Party because I felt I had to be in some organization. I was in the underground until I left Germany. The Communist Party said that I must finish my studies because after the revolution in Germany people would be required with technical knowledge to take part in the building of the Communist Germany. I went first to France and then to England, where I studied and at the same time I tried to make a serious study of the bases of Marxist philosophy.

I had my doubts for the first time (August, 1939) on acts of foreign policies of Russia; the Russo-German pact was difficult to understand, but in the end I did accept that Russia had done it to gain time, that during the time she was expanding her own influence in the Balkans against the influence of Germany.

(7) Ernst Thälmann was arrested by the Gestapo on 3rd March 1933. He was later able to smuggle out details of his interrogation.

It is nearly impossible to relate what happened for four and a half hours, from 5.00pm to 9.30pm in that interrogation room. Every conceivable cruel method of blackmail was used against me to obtain by force and at all costs confessions and statements both about comrades who had been arrested, and about political activities.

It began initially with that friendly "good guy" approach as I had known some of these fellows when they were still members of Severing's Political Police (during the Weimar Republic). Thus, they reasoned with me, etc., in order to learn, during that playfully conducted talk, something about this or that comrade and other matters that interested them. But the approach proved unsuccessful. Was then brutally assaulted and in the process had four teeth knocked out of my jaw. This proved unsuccessful too. By way of a third act they tried hypnosis which was likewise totally ineffective.

But the actual high point of this drama was the final act. They ordered me to take off my pants and then two men grabbed me by the back of the neck and placed me across a footstool. A uniformed Gestapo officer with a whip of hippopotamus hide in his hand then beat my buttocks with measured strokes, Driven wild with pain I repeatedly screamed at the top of my voice.

Then they held my mouth shut for a while and hit me in the face, and with a whip across chest and back. I then collapsed, rolled on the floor, always keeping face down and no longer replied to any of their questions. I received a few kicks yet here and there, covered my face, but was already so exhausted and my heart so strained, it nearly took my breath away.

(8) John Gates, The Story of an American Communist (1959)

Between them, the Communists and Socialists had more votes than Hitler who was financed by the steel magnates. But because they could not unite, Hitler won and proceeded to wipe out both working class organizations. The Socialists had been opposed to unity with the Communists on principle and this had led to their undoing. The Communists appealed to the Socialists for unity but insisted it be on Communist terms. They opposed unity to defend German bourgeois-democracy against Hitler and argued that Socialist-Communist unity must be conditioned on acceptance of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The Communists operated under the theory that the Social-Democrats were "social-fascists," a harmful concept and an insurmountable barrier to unity. This theory held that the Socialists were paving the way for fascism and consequently could be considered its allies. Serious errors of both movements contributed to Hitler's victory, but neither could be called his allies. They were his enemies and the members and leaders of both groups ended up in Nazi concentration camps, in Nazi torture and execution chambers.

This terrible object lesson was not lost on the world, and certainly not on Communists, Socialists and trade unionists. Hitler's regime of murder and of war preparations now confronted mankind with the greatest danger in all history. In the wake of Hitlerism and the almost world-wide depression, fascist movements arose in many countries. Here at home, fascist demagogues like Father Coughlin, Gerald L. K. Smith and Huey Long flourished. Something else began to flourish here and abroad: popular anti-fascist movements, determined to combat fascism everywhere.

(9) Eugene Lyons, Assignment in Utopia (1937)

They moderated their skepticism long before midnight. That evening they watched Hitler and Hindenburg reviewing the Nazi victory parade. The aged President seemed a pathetic supernumerary in that show, as uniformed Nazi battalions by the hundred thousand marched past the balcony on the Wilhelmstrasse yelling "Hell Hitler!" The genie released from the bottle could never be stuffed back again. Thereafter events moved with the swiftness of catastrophe - the providential fire, the suppression of all civil liberties, and the abdication of the Reichstag in favor of the brown-shirt dictatorship; lawlessness enthroned and sadistic orgy haloed by nationalist and racial phobias.

Less than five months earlier, the Comintern, in a resolution on the international situation, had hailed its phantom "successes" everywhere, including Germany. Solemnly it had attested the imminence of proletarian revolution in Spain and Poland - and Germany! The machiavellism inspired by the Kremlin had begun by duping others and ended by duping itself. In Germany, as elsewhere in the world, it had erected a Papier-inaclze "movement" of sonorous names for make-believe organizations: the "united front from below." Moscow wanted its foreign creatures uselessly occupied with noisy toys, with Red-This and Proletarian-That, so that it might build socialism in one country without the additional bother and responsibility of revolutionary movements abroad. A hollow intransigence made the most noise and involved the least likelihood of practical action. All communists of any but the exact brand sanctioned by Moscow were therefore "renegades" and "the chief danger of the present period." All labor leaders and socialists were "social fascists" and therefore worse than the unsocial fascists of the Hitler stripe.

While the Nazi movement was rolling up strength, Moscow's policies continued to splinter the labor and liberal opposition. German communists who recognized the danger and begged for a strategy dictated by German realities rather than Russian sectarianism were expelled and pilloried as enemies of the proletariat. Instead of rallying to the defense of the Republic, the official communists, their emissaries shuttling between Moscow and Berlin, joined the Nazi attack on democracy, had actually voted with the Hitlerites in Prussia, and used their chief strength against the Social-Democrats and more conservative labor groups.

The exact measure of Moscow's responsibility for the German tragedy will be argued for generations and will never be settled. Only two things seem to me too clear to be doubted-and infinitely important in judging communist effort in other countries:

First: At every point in Germany's history in the years preceding Hitler's victory, communist policy and tactics were decided in Moscow, with the specific interests of Soviet Russia, rather than the interests of Germany or the larger interests of the international labor movement, in mind. The rationalization of this state of affairs is clear enough: Russia is the world revolution and its practical needs must take precedence. But the rationalization is mendacious sleight-of-mind. As long as the Communist International is little more than another name for Russia's political power, as long as the Russian tail wags the international dog, the sacrifice of the proletariat in one country or two dozen countries will seem small enough price for some immediate political advantage to the Soviet regime. The International is simply a helpless instrument of Soviet statecraft, a "stooge" for the Kremlin.

Second: The Communist propaganda against democracy per se as a bourgeois deception, its cavalier attitude toward civil rights, its ridicule of humanistic squeamishness over mass slaughter and organized brutality, all played directly into the hands of the Hitler legions.