The Communist Party (KPD)

In May 1915, Karl Liebknecht published a pamphlet, The Main Enemy Is At Home! He argued that: "The main enemy of the German people is in Germany: German imperialism, the German war party, German secret diplomacy. This enemy at home must be fought by the German people in a political struggle, cooperating with the proletariat of other countries whose struggle is against their own imperialists. We think as one with the German people – we have nothing in common with the German Tirpitzes and Falkenhayns, with the German government of political oppression and social enslavement. Nothing for them, everything for the German people. Everything for the international proletariat, for the sake of the German proletariat and downtrodden humanity." (1)

In December, 1915, 19 other deputies joined Karl Liebknecht in voting against war credits. The following year a series of demonstrations took place. Some of these were "spontaneous outbursts by unorganised groups of people, usually women: anger would flare when a shop ran out of food, or put its prices up, or when rations were suddenly cut." These demonstrations often led to bitter clashes between workers and the police. (2)

Karl Liebknecht
Karl Liebknecht

Rosa Luxemburg continued to protest against Germany's involvement in the war and on the 19th February, 1915, she was arrested. In a letter to her friend, Mathilde Jacob, she described her first day in prison: "Incidentally, so that you don't get any exaggerated ideas about my heroism, I'll confess, repentantly, that when I had to strip to my chemise and submit to a frisking for the second time that day, I could barely hold back the tears. Of course, deep inside, I was furious with myself at such weakness, and I still am. Also on the first evening, what really dismayed me was not the prison cell any my sudden exclusion from the land of the living, but the fact that I had to go to bed without a night-dress and without having combed my hair." (3)

As a political prisoner she was allowed books and writing materials. With the help of Mathilde Jacob she was able to smuggle out articles and pamphlets she had written to Franz Mehring. In April 1915, Mehring published some of this material in a new journal, Die Internationale. Other contributors included Clara Zetkin, August Thalheimer, Bertha Thalheimer, Käte Duncker and Heinrich Ströbel. The journal included articles by Mehring on the attitude of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to the problem of war and Zetkin dealt with the position of women in wartime. The main objective of the journal was to criticise the official policy of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) towards the First World War. (4)

In the first edition Luxemburg contributed an article on the way the SDP reacted to the outbreak of the war. "Faced with this alternative, which it had been the first to recognize and bring to the masses’ consciousness, Social Democracy backed down without a struggle and conceded victory to imperialism. Never before in the history of class struggles, since there have been political parties, has there been a party that, in this way, after fifty years of uninterrupted growth, after achieving a first-rate position of power, after assembling millions around it, has so completely and ignominiously abdicated as a political force within twenty-four hours, as Social Democracy has done. Precisely because it was the best-organized and best-disciplined vanguard of the International, the present-day collapse of socialism can be demonstrated by Social Democracy’s example." (5)

Luxemburg also wrote a pamphlet entitled The Crisis of German Social Democracy during this period. She exposed the lies that were told to those men who willingly volunteered to fight in a war that would only last a few weeks: "Mass slaughter has become the tiresome and monotonous business of the day and the end is no closer... Gone is the euphoria. Gone the patriotic noise in the streets... The trains full of reservists are no longer accompanied by virgins fainting from pure jubilation. They no longer greet the people from the windows of the train with joyous smiles.... The cannon fodder loaded onto trains in August and September is moldering in the killing fields of Belgium, the Vosges, and Masurian Lakes where the profits are springing up like weeds. It’s a question of getting the harvest into the barn quickly. Across the ocean stretch thousands of greedy hands to snatch it up. Business thrives in the ruins. Cities become piles of ruins; villages become cemeteries; countries, deserts; populations are beggared; churches, horse stalls. International law, treaties and alliances, the most sacred words and the highest authority have been torn in shreds." (6)

Spartacus League

Over the next few months members of this group were arrested for their anti-war activities and spent several short spells in prison. This included Ernest Meyer, Wilhelm Pieck and Hugo Eberlein. Other activists included Leo Jogiches, Paul Levi, Franz Mehring, Julian Marchlewski and Hermann Duncker. On the release of Luxemburg in February 1916, it was decided to establish an underground political organization called Spartakusbund (Spartacus League). The Spartacus League publicized its views in its illegal newspaper, Spartakusbriefe. Like the Bolsheviks in Russia, they argued that socialists should turn this nationalist conflict into a revolutionary war. (7)

Spartacus League poster (1919)
Spartacus League poster (1919)

The group published an attack on all European socialist parties (except the Independent Labour Party): "By their vote for war credits and by their proclamation of national unity, the official leaderships of the socialist parties in Germany, France and England (with the exception of the Independent Labour Party) have reinforced imperialism, induced the masses of the people to suffer patiently the misery and horrors of the war, contributed to the unleashing, without restraint, of imperialist frenzy, to the prolongation of the massacre and the increase in the number of its victims, and assumed their share in the responsibility for the war itself and for its consequences." (8)

Eugen Levine was one of the first people to join the Spartacus League. He had been disturbed by the "new wave of national prejudice and chauvinism". His wife, Rosa Levine-Meyer, was shocked when he stated that the war would last "at least eighteen months or two years". This upset his mother who had been convinced by government propaganda that "the war would end by Christmas". Levine told Rosa that the "war would be accompanied by a severe world crisis and revolutionary shocks". He added that during a war "it is easier to convert thousands of workers than one single well-meaning intellectual". (9)

On 1st May, 1916, Rosa Luxemburg, organised a anti-war demonstration on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. It was a great success and by eight o'clock in the morning around 10,000 people assembled in the square. The police charged at Karl Liebknecht who was about to speak to the large crowd. "For two hours after Liebknecht's arrest masses of people swirled around Potsdamer Platz and the neighbouring streets, and there were many scuffles with the police. For the first time since the beginning of the war open resistance to it had appeared on the streets of the capital." (10)

As a member of the Reichstag, Liebknecht had parliamentary immunity from prosecution. When the military judicial authorities demanded that this immunity was removed, the Reichstag agreed and he was placed on trial. On 28th June 1916, Liebknecht was sentenced to two years and six months hard labour. The day Liebknecht was sentenced, 55,000 munitions workers went on strike. The government responded by arresting trade union leaders and having them conscripted into the German Army.

Luxemburg responded by publishing a handbill defending Liebknecht and accusing members of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) who had removed his parliamentary immunity as being "political dogs". She claimed that: "A dog is someone who licks the boots of the master who has dealt him kicks for decades. A dog is someone who gaily wags his tail in the muzzle of martial law and looks straight into the eyes of the lords of the military dictatorship while softly whining for mercy... A dog is someone who, at his government's command, abjures, slobbers, and tramples down into the muck the whole history of his party and everything it has held sacred for a generation." (11)

Rosa Luxemburg was re-arrested on 10th July, 1916. So also was the seventy-year-old Franz Mehring, Ernest Meyer and Julian Marchlewski. Leo Jogiches now became the leader of the Spartacus League and the editor of its newspaper, Spartakusbriefe. Luxemburg, wrote regularly for each edition, sometimes writing three-quarters of a whole issue. She also worked on her book, Introduction to Economics. (12)

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. The organization attempted to chart a centrist course between electorally oriented revisionism on the one hand and the revolutionary socialism of the Spartacus League. "Its leaders were united by only one thing - their desire for an end of the majority Social Democratic Party's support for the war." (13)

The German Revolution

The German government of Max von Baden asked President Woodrow Wilson for a cease-fire on 4th October, 1918. "It was made clear by both the Germans and Austrians that this was not a surrender, not even an offer of armistice terms, but an attempt to end the war without any preconditions that might be harmful to Germany or Austria." This was rejected and the fighting continued. On 6th October, it was announced that Karl Liebknecht, who was still in prison, demanded an end to the monarchy and the setting up of Soviets in Germany. (14)

Although defeat looked certain, Admiral Franz von Hipper and Admiral Reinhard Scheer began plans to dispatch the Imperial Fleet for a last battle against the Royal Navy in the southern North Sea. The two admirals sought to lead this military action on their own initiative, without authorization. They hoped to inflict as much damage as possible on the British navy, to achieve a better bargaining position for Germany regardless of the cost to the navy. Hipper wrote "As to a battle for the honor of the fleet in this war, even if it were a death battle, it would be the foundation for a new German fleet...such a fleet would be out of the question in the event of a dishonorable peace." (15)

The naval order of 24th October 1918, and the preparations to sail triggered a mutiny among the affected sailors. By the evening of 4th November, Kiel was firmly in the hands of about 40,000 rebellious sailors, soldiers and workers. "News of the events in Kiel soon travelled to other nearby ports. In the next 48 hours there were demonstrations and general strikes in Cuxhaven and Wilhelmshaven. Workers' and sailors' councils were elected and held effective power." (16)

Chancellor, Max von Baden, decided to hand over power over to Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the German Social Democrat Party. At a public meeting, one of Ebert's most loyal supporters, Philipp Scheidemann, finished his speech with the words: "Long live the German Republic!" He was immediately attacked by Ebert, who was still a strong believer in the monarchy: "You have no right to proclaim the republic." (17)

Karl Liebknecht, who had been released from prison on 23rd October, climbed to a balcony in the Imperial Palace and made a speech: "The day of Liberty has dawned. I proclaim the free socialist republic of all Germans. We extend our hand to them and ask them to complete the world revolution. Those of you who want the world revolution, raise your hands." It is claimed that thousands of hands rose up in support of Liebknecht. (18)

The Social Democratic Party press, fearing the opposition of the left-wing and anti-war Spartacus League, proudly trumpeted their achievements: "The revolution has been brilliantly carried through... the solidarity of proletarian action has smashed all opposition. Total victory all along the line. A victory made possible because of the unity and determination of all who wear the workers' shirt." (19)

Rosa Luxemburg was released from prison in Breslau on 8th November. She went to Cathedral Square, in the centre of the city, where she was cheered by a mass demonstration. Two days later she arrived in Berlin. Her appearance shocked her friends in the Spartacus League: "They now saw what the years in prison had done to her. She had aged, and was a sick woman. Her hair, once deep black, had now gone quite grey. Yet her eyes shone with the old fire and energy." (20)

Eugen Levine went on speaking tours in support of the Spartacus League and was encouraged by the response he received. According to his wife: "His first propaganda tour through the Ruhr and Rhineland was crowned with almost legendary success... They did not come to get acquainted with Communist ideas. At best they were driven by curiosity, or a certain restlessness characteristic of the time of revolutionary upheavels... Levine was regularly received with catcalls and outbursts of abuse but he never failed to calm the storm. He told me jokingly that he often had to play the part of a lion-tamer." (21)

Ebert became concerned about the growing support for the Spartacus League and gave permission for the publishing of a Social Democratic Party leaflet that attacked their activities: "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." (22)

Heinrich Ströbel, a journalist based in Berlin believed that some leaders of the Spartacus League overestimated their support: "The Spartakist movement, which also influenced a section of the Independents, succeeded in attracting a fraction of the workers and soldiers and keeping them in a state of constant excitement, but it remained without a hold on the great mass of the German proletariat. The daily meetings, processions, and demonstrations which Berlin witnessed... deceived the public and the Spartakist leaders into believing in a following for this revolutionary section which did not exist." (23)

Friedrich Ebert established the Council of the People's Deputies, a provisional government consisting of three delegates from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and three from the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). Liebknecht was offered a place in the government but he refused, claiming that he would be a prisoner of the non-revolutionary majority. A few days later Ebert announced elections for a Constituent Assembly to take place on 19th January, 1918. Under the new constitution all men and women over the age of 20 had the vote. (24)

As a believer in democracy, Rosa Luxemburg assumed that her party, the Spartacus League, 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." (25)

Luxemburg was aware that the Spartacus League only had 3,000 members and not in a position to start a successful revolution. The Spartacus League consisted chiefly of innumerable small and autonomous groups scattered all over the country. John Peter Nettl has argued that "organisationally Spartakus was slow to develop... In the most important cities it evolved an organised centre only in the course of December... and attempts to arrange caucus meetings of Spartakist sympathisers within the Berlin Workers' and Soldiers' Council did not produce satisfactory results." (26)

Pierre Broué suggests that the large meetings helped to convince Karl Liebknecht that a successful revolution was possible. "Liebknecht, an untiring agitator, spoke everywhere where revolutionary ideas could find an echo... These demonstrations, which the Spartakists had neither the force nor the desire to control, were often the occasion for violent, useless or even harmful incidents caused by the doubtful elements who became involved in them... Liebknecht could have the impression that he was master of the streets because of the crowds which acclaimed him, while without an authentic organisation he was not even the master of his own troops." (27)

A convention of the Spartacus League began on 30th December, 1918. Karl Radek, a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee, argued that the the Soviet government should help the spread of world revolution. Radek was sent to Germany and at the convention he persuaded the delegates to change the name to the German Communist Party (KPD). The convention now discussed whether the KPD should take part in the forthcoming general election.

Rosa Luxemburg, Paul Levi and Leo Jogiches all recognised that a "successful revolution depended on more than temporary support for certain slogans by a disorganised mass of workers and soldiers". (28) As Rosa Levine-Mayer explained the election "had the advantage of bringing the Spartacists closer to the broader masses and acquainting them with Communist ideas. Nor could a set-back, followed by a period of illegality, even if only temporary, be altogether ruled out. A seat in the Parliament would then be the only means of conducting Communist propaganda openly.It could also be foreseen that the workers at large would not understand the idea of a boycott and would not be persuaded to stay aloof; they would only be forced to vote for other parties." (29)

Luxemburg, Levi and Jogiches and other members who wanted to take part in elections were outvoted on this issue. As Bertram D. Wolfe has pointed out: "In vain did she (Luxemburg) try to convince them that to oppose both the Councils and the Constituent Assembly with their tiny forces was madness and a breaking of their democratic faith. They voted to try to take power in the streets, that is by armed uprising." (30)

Emil Eichhorn had been appointed head of the Police Department in Berlin. One activist pointed out: "A member of the Independent Socialist Party and a close friend of the late August Bebel, he enjoyed great popularity among revolutionary workers of all shades for his personal integrity and genuine devotion to the working class. His position was regarded as a bulwark against counter-revolutionary conspiracy and was a thorn in the flesh of the reactionary forces." (31)

On 4th January, 1919, Friedrich Ebert, ordered the removal of Emil Eichhorn, as head of the Police Department. Chris Harman, the author of The Lost Revolution (1982), has argued: "The Berlin workers greeted the news that Eichhorn had been dismissed with a huge wave of anger. They felt he was being dismissed for siding with them against the attacks of right wing officers and employers. Eichhorn responded by refusing to vacate police headquarters. He insisted that he had been appointed by the Berlin working class and could only be removed by them. He would accept a decision of the Berlin Executive of the Workers' and Soldiers' Councils, but no other." (32)

Anti-Spartacus League poster (1919)
Anti-Spartacus League poster (1919)

The Spartacus League published a leaflet that claimed: "The Ebert-Scheidemann government intends, not only to get rid of the last representative of the revolutionary Berlin workers, but to establish a regime of coercion against the revolutionary workers." It is estimated that over 100,000 workers demonstrated against the sacking of Eichhorn the following Sunday in "order to show that the spirit of November is not yet beaten." (33)

Paul Levi later reported that even with this provocation, the Spartacus League leadership still believed they should resist an open rebellion: "The members of the leadership were unanimous; a government of the proletariat would not last more than a fortnight... It was necessary to avoid all slogans that might lead to the overthrow of the government at this point. Our slogan had to be precise in the following sense: lifting of the dismissal of Eichhorn, disarming of the counter-revolutionary troops, arming of the proletariat." (34)

Karl Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck published a leaflet calling for a revolution. "The Ebert-Scheidemann government has become intolerable. The undersigned revolutionary committee, representing the revolutionary workers and soldiers, proclaims its removal. The undersigned revolutionary committee assumes provisionally the functions of government." Karl Radek later commented that Rosa Luxemburg was furious with Liebknecht and Pieck for getting carried away with the idea of establishing a revolutionary government." (35)

Although massive demonstrations took place, no attempt was made to capture important buildings. On 7th January, Luxemburg wrote in the Die Rote Fahne: "Anyone who witnessed yesterday's mass demonstration in the Siegesalle, who felt the magnificent mood, the energy that the masses exude, must conclude that politically the proletariat has grown enormously through the experiences of recent weeks.... However, are their leaders, the executive organs of their will, well informed? Has their capacity for action kept pace with the growing energy of the masses?" (36)

General Kurt von Schleicher, was on the staff of Paul von Hindenburg. In December 1919 he helped organize the Freikorps, in an attempt to prevent a German Revolution. The group was composed of "former officers, demobilized soldiers, military adventurers, fanatical nationalists and unemployed youths". Holding extreme right-wing views, von Schleicher blamed left-wing political groups and Jews for Germany's problems and called for the elimination of "traitors to the Fatherland". (37)

Freikorps soldiers in Berlin
Freikorps soldiers in Berlin

The Freikorps appealed to thousands of officers who identified with the upper class and had nothing to gain from the revolution. There were also a number of privileged and highly trained troops, known as stormtroopers, who had not suffered from the same rigours of discipline, hardship and bad food as the mass of the army: "They were bound together by an array of privileges on the one hand, and a fighting camaraderie on the other. They stood to lose all this if demobilised - and leapt at the chance to gain a living by fighting the reds." (38)

Friedrich Ebert, Germany's new chancellor, was also in contact with General Wilhelm Groener, who as First Quartermaster General, had played an important role in the retreat and demobilization of the German armies. According to William L. Shirer, the SDP leader and the "second-in-command of the German Army made a pact which, though it would not be publicly known for many years, was to determine the nation's fate. Ebert agreed to put down anarchy and Bolshevism and maintain the Army in all its tradition. Groener thereupon pledged the support of the Army in helping the new government establish itself and carry out its aims." (39)

On the 5th January, Ebert called in the German Army and the Freikorps to bring an end to the rebellion. Groener later testified that his aim in reaching accommodation with Ebert was to "win a share of power in the new state for the army and the officer corps... to preserve the best and strongest elements of old Prussia". Ebert was motivated by his fear of the Spartacus League and was willing to use "the armed power of the far-right to impose the government's will upon recalcitrant workers, irrespective of the long-term effects of such a policy on the stability of parliamentary democracy". (40)

The soldiers who entered Berlin were armed with machine-guns and armoured cars and demonstrators were killed in their hundreds. Artillery was used to blow the front off the police headquarters before Eichhorn's men abandoned resistance. "Little quarter was given to its defenders, who were shot down where they were found. Only a few managed to escape across the roofs." (41)

Spartacus League members defending their positions using rolls of newsprint as barricades (January, 1919)
Spartacus League members defending their positions using
rolls of newsprint as barricades (January, 1919)

By 13th January, 1919 the rebellion had been crushed and most of its leaders were arrested. This included Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, who refused to flee the city, and were captured on 16th January and taken to the Freikorps headquarters. "After questioning, Liebknecht was taken from the building, knocked half conscious with a rifle butt and then driven to the Tiergarten where he was killed. Rosa was taken out shortly afterwards, her skull smashed in and then she too was driven off, shot through the head and thrown into the canal." (42)

General Elections 1919-

The German Communist Party (KPD) did not take part in the 1919 General Election. The German Social Democrat Party won 163 of a total of 421, and dominated the new national government. The most left-wing party involved Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) won only 22 seats. On 29th January 1919, Clara Zetkin, was the first woman to speak in a German parliament. In the speech she delivered an attack on Friedrich Ebert and his government for the way he had dealt with the KPD. (43)

Over time, the political differences between KPD and USPD dwindled, and following the assassination of foreign minister Walther Rathenau by right wing extremists in June 1922 and on 24th September, the parties officially merged. Left-wing members of the USPD now joined the KPD. Members now included Paul Levi, Willie Munzenberg, Clara Zetkin, Ernst Toller, Walther Ulbricht, Julian Marchlewski, Ernst Thälmann, Hermann Duncker, Hugo Eberlein, Paul Frölich, Wilhelm Pieck, Franz Mehring, and Ernest Meyer.

Paul Levi's moderate approach to communism increased the size of the party. Levi remained a supporter of the theories of Rosa Luxemburg and this brought him into conflict with 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. (44)

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. In 1923 a new KPD leadership more favorable to the USSR was elected. The KPD abandoned the goal of immediate revolution, and began to contest Reichstag elections, with some success. In the 1924 General Election the party won 62 seats compared to the 100 seats of the SPD. (45)

Ernst Thälmann, 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. The German electorate objected to this and in the 1928 General Election the KPD won only 54 seats compared to the 153 of the SDP.

In March, 1929, Clara Zetkin wrote to Nikolai Bukharin complaining about the way the KPD was being run. "I feel completely alone and alien in this body, which has changed from being a living political organism into a dead mechanism, which on one side swallows orders in the Russian language and on the other spits them out in various languages, a mechanism which turns the mighty world historical meaning and content of the Russian revolution into the rules of the game for Pickwick Clubs." (46)

The Nazi Party

The 1930 General Election saw the emergence of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party (NSDAP) who won 107 seats. Although the KPD increased its number of seats to 77, they had lost ground to the right-wing parties. In the 1932 General Election they won 89 seats compared to the Nazi Party's 230. Even if they joined forces with the SPD, the left was in a minority in the Reichstag.

German Communist Party poster (1919)
German Communist Party poster (1919)

Clara Zetkin, although seventy-five years old, was once again elected to the Reichstag. As the oldest member she was entitled to open the parliament's first session. Zetkin took the opportunity to make a long speech where she denounced the policies of the Nazi Party. "Motivated by imperialist cravings, they bring Germany into aimless, amateurish vacillations between clumsily currying favour with and sabre-rattling against the Great Powers of the Versailles Treaty, which will bring this country into greater dependence upon them. They also damage relations with the Soviet Union - the state that, through its honest policies of peace and its economic ascendance, stands behind the German working population."

Zetkin condemned the terror tactics employed during the election campaign. "The presidential cabinet bears a great burden of guilt. It is fully responsible for the murders of the last few weeks, murders for which it is fully responsible through its abolishing the ban on uniforms for the National Socialist Storm Troopers and by its open patronage of Fascist civil-war troops. In vain, it seeks to hide its political and moral guilt through quarrels with its allies about the division of power in the state; the blood that has been spilled will forever link it to the Fascist murders." (47)

Political Parties in the Reichstag

















Communist Party (KPD)









Social Democratic Party (SDP)









Catholic Centre Party (BVP)









Nationalist Party (DNVP)









Nazi Party (NSDAP)









Other Parties









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 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.

Student Activities

Who Set Fire to the Reichstag? (Answer Commentary)

Adolf Hitler's Early Life (Answer Commentary)

Adolf Hitler and the First World War (Answer Commentary)

Adolf Hitler and the German Workers' Party (Answer Commentary)

Sturmabteilung (SA) (Answer Commentary)

Adolf Hitler and the Beer Hall Putsch (Answer Commentary)

Adolf Hitler the Orator (Answer Commentary)

An Assessment of the Nazi-Soviet Pact (Answer Commentary)

British Newspapers and Adolf Hitler (Answer Commentary)

Lord Rothermere, Daily Mail and Adolf Hitler (Answer Commentary)

Adolf Hitler v John Heartfield (Answer Commentary)

The Hitler Youth (Answer Commentary)

German League of Girls (Answer Commentary)

Night of the Long Knives (Answer Commentary)

The Political Development of Sophie Scholl (Answer Commentary)

The White Rose Anti-Nazi Group (Answer Commentary)

Kristallnacht (Answer Commentary)

Heinrich Himmler and the SS (Answer Commentary)

Trade Unions in Nazi Germany (Answer Commentary)

Hitler's Volkswagen (The People's Car) (Answer Commentary)

Women in Nazi Germany (Answer Commentary)

The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich (Answer Commentary)

The Last Days of Adolf Hitler (Answer Commentary)


(1) Karl Liebknecht, The Main Enemy Is At Home! (May 1915)

(2) Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution (1982) page 28

(3) Rosa Luxemburg, letter to Mathilde Jacob (2nd March, 1915)

(4) Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work (1940) page 210

(5) Rosa Luxemburg, Die Internationale (April, 1915)

(6) Rosa Luxemburg, The Crisis of German Social Democracy (April, 1915)

(7) Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution (1982) page 24

(8) Rosa Luxemburg, Theses on the Tasks of International Social-Democracy (December, 1915)

(9) Rosa Levine-Meyer, Levine: The Life of a Revolutionary (1973) page 18

(10) Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work (1940) page 225

(11) Rosa Luxemburg, Dog Politics (June, 1916)

(12) Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work (1940) page 227

(13) Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution (1982) page 34

(14) Martin Gilbert, First World War (1994) page 474

(15) Tobias R. Philbin, Admiral von Hipper: The Inconvenient Hero (1982) page 155

(16) Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-1923 (1982) page 41

(17) Richard M. Watt, The Kings Depart: The Tragedy of Germany: Versailles and the German Revolution (1973) page 221

(18) Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work (1940) page 209

(19) Norddeutsches Volksblatt (15th November 1918)

(20) Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work (1940) page 259

(21) Rosa Levine-Meyer, Levine: The Life of a Revolutionary (1973) page 56

(22) Social Democratic Party leaflet (29th December, 1918)

(23) Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution (1982) page 46

(24) Heinrich Ströbel, The German Revolution and After (1923) page 88

(25) Rosa Luxemburg, Die Rote Fahne (18th November, 1918)

(26) John Peter Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (1966) page 725

(27) Pierre Broué, German Revolution (1971) pages 207-208

(28) Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution (1982) page 64

(29) Rosa Levine-Meyer, Levine: The Life of a Revolutionary (1973) page 65

(30) Bertram D. Wolfe, Strange Communists I Have Known (1966) page 18

(31) Rosa Levine-Meyer, Levine: The Life of a Revolutionary (1973) page 80

(32) Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution (1982) page 73

(33) Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work (1940) page 274

(34) Paul Levi, Die Rote Fahne (5th September, 1920)

(35) John Peter Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (1966) page 767

(36) Rosa Luxemburg, Die Rote Fahne (7th January, 1918)

(37) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998) page 98

(38) Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution (1982) page 60

(39) William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1964) page 77

(40) Simon Taylor, Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Rise of Hitler (1983) page 10

(41) Richard M. Watt, The Kings Depart: The Tragedy of Germany: Versailles and the German Revolution (1973) page 299

(42) Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution (1982) page 84

(43) Gisela Notz, Clara Zetkin: Letters and Writings (2015) page 25

(44) Pierre Broué, German Revolution (1971) page 516

(45) Dieter Nohlen and Philip Stover, Elections in Europe: A Data Handbook (2010) page 790

(46) Clara Zetkin, letter to Nikolai Bukharin (March, 1929)

(47) Clara Zetkin, speech in the Reichstag (30th August, 1932)