Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
On January 11, 1919 hell breaks loose in front of the building of Vorwärts, a newspaper run by SPD (Social Democratic Party) in Lindenstrasse 3 in Berlin-Kreuzberg.
The building had been occupied since January 4 by members of several far-left groups, one of them known as Spartakusbund. Only a couple of days before the uprising began, the Spartacists´ League founded by Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin and Karl Liebknecht in response to the Social Democratic Party´s inability (or lack of good will) to represent the working class, took a new name: German Communist Party (KPD).
The occupation of the SPD´s „media centre“ (newspapers at the time had terrific power: they were the most influential source of information and could literally decide the fate of the land) was the last chapter in a conflict which erupted in the last months of 1918.
After the end of WWI followed by the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in November 1918, Germany became a republic. The monarch was punished for pulling the country into a murderous conflict that cost it millions of lives and wreaked havoc to its economy. However, not everyone applauded that change: some of the social-democrats – the new main political power in the land – as well as hard-core monarchists and plenty of other political groups believed that the country would profit more from creating a new balance of power. Let the Kaiser keep his post but put clear limits to his rule, or counterbalance it, by adding a strong parliament to the equation.
Obviously, many others demanded a republic be established without any monarch to meddle with its politics. However, there were also those who believed that Germany should follow the example of Russia: the country should be ruled by the committees of workers and soldiers. After all, it was them who took the brunt of the war – both the men on the battlefields and their families left at home (often without any income and protection). The old ruling classes: the upper and the middle as well as the higher echelons of the military proved themselves incapable of managing the country in a responsible and socially just way. It was time for a change. At least that´s what the workers and the regular soldiers believed when working together with some of the disillusioned social-democrats they began the November Revolution that catapulted the Kaiser away from the throne and out of the country.
However, by the end of December 1918 it was clear that in the new, Kaiser-free Germany there will be no “rule of the people by the people” in its pure form. “The People” would have to accept the fact that although the king was dead, the rest of the social structure remained more less intact. This was to guarantee order within the country and to avoid turning Berlin into the next “red” Saint Petersburg. To many, especially to the members of the now ruling SPD, Communism was just as horrific a vision as the last war.
So by the end of the year 1918, with the general mood in the society getting out of control like Foucault´s pendulum gone mad: tuberculosis and influenza were killing hundreds of thousands of weak and undernourished grown-ups and children (only in Berlin 200,000 died in 1919!), food shortages made life in the city unbearable for many, suicides of those who no longer managed (especially mothers and children) multiplied daily and most people felt that the sky over the trench in which they were all still sitting as not bullet-free yet. Unsurprisingly, soon the situation reached breaking point: Social Democrats and Communists supported by USPD (Independent Social Democratic Party, an SPD split-off disagreeing with the party´s current line), by then deadly enemies, went at each other´s jugulars.
From that moment on the situation deteriorated fast. To establish themselves as an official political power, Communists created their own political party – KPD was born on January 1, 1919 in today´s Berliner Abgeordnetenhaus (Berlin´s state parliament) in Niederkirchnerstrasse, the street separating Kreuzberg from Berlin-Mitte. Three days later the ruling SPD stroke back: they replaced Berlin´s Police President, Emil Eichhorn from USPD (the only far-left wing member of the republican government) with their own man.
Several hours later groups of armed (admittedly very poorly) supporters of the Communist Party and SPD´s opponents entered Berlin´s Zeitungsviertel (Newspaper Quarter) – the area between Lindenstrasse in Kreuzberg in the east, Wilhelmstrasse in the west, Leipziger Strasse in the north and Belle-Alliance-Platz (Mehringplatz) in the south, where until WWII all leading newspapers, publishers and printing houses had their seat . They forcefully entered several of the main newspaper buildings as well as printing houses to gain control over the mass media. The final, desperate step towards reaching the biggest possible group of the current and potential adherents.
The occupation of the building of Vorwärts in Lindenstrasse is also the final slap in the Social-Democracy´s face – Vorwärts was their newspaper, their chief communication channel with the supporters. So when the new Revolutionsausschuss (Revolutionary Committee) called for the general strike and the toppling of Friedrich Ebert´s government – Ebert was a prominent SPD politician before 1918 and the first German president after WWI – Ebert reacted by slipping the dogs of war.
Through his Secretary for Defence, Gustav Noske he “unleashed” the government-faithful forces. He also used the help of the Freikorps troops that had been gathering in and around Berlin already for weeks. Until today a strongly debatable step: social-democrats employed anti-Communist paramilitary units established by highly aggressive and confrontational former soldiers of the German WWI army. Ironically, those were the same people who not only refused to come to terms with Germany´s defeat and due to their extreme war experiences were often incapable of returning to normal life, but whose hate of the SPD with its new republic was almost as strong as their spite for the Communists. Most Freikorps leaders considered the former, Ebert´s government, to be a “pathetic, miserable socialist rabble”. And they felt their time was still to come: Freikorps was home to many leading Nazis like Himmler or Röhm (heads of the SS and the SA respectively). Also to Höß, the future commander of the Nazi death camp in Auschwitz and the man behind the idea to use Cyclone B gas to increase the “killing capacity” of his camp…
Having to choose between two “evils”, the Freikorps decided to go for what they believed to be the lesser one: they answered Noske´s call to arms and did what they could do best: attack and kill. And so on January 11, 1919 the members of the Freikorps Potsdam stationed at the former Garde-Dragoner-Kaserne, the cavalry barracks in Belle-Alliance-Straße (since 1947 Mehringdamm; today its impressive main building houses the Finanzamt Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg) set off towards Lindenstrasse. The attack on the Vorwärts building, defended by poorly armed, badly organised and by now seriously weakened revolutionary troops, was quick, horrific and merciless. Machine guns, flame throwers, artillery and mortars – all souvenirs from the last war – were used to break their resistance.
When it became clear that any further fighting was pointless and the building as well as lost, the revolutionaries sent seven emissaries to negotiate a peaceful surrender. All of them were arrested, brought to the Kaserne in Belle-Alliance-Straße, tortured in the most horrific way and eventually shot dead. Their fate and their names were be commemorated many years later on a plaque hanging right behind the door of today´s Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg inland revenue building.
As for the fate of the others who remained in the newspaper building, 295 of them were arrested and tortured in the same barracks in exactly the same bestial manner as their emissaries. By the next day the uprising was over: all other occupied buildings were back in the hands of their owners. The body count reached 156 on the side of the revolutionaries (many of the victims were civilians who happened to be on the wrong spot at a very wrong time) as well as 13 dead plus 20 wounded among the military.
The attempt on the part of the workers to keep what they thought they had won through the November Revolution – more rights, more freedom and more respect – failed completely. It failed despite the Kaiser´s surrender of the power, despite the seemingly socialist spirit of the new republic and in spite of the People´s honest wish to create a better and more fair society than before the hated war. It failed because it had to: with no agreement as to what that new society should be like, with no money to feed the war-weary people or kick-start the economy and with that war´s terrible trauma burning holes in people´s souls like acid, it could hardly work.
Only two months after the old Wilhelminian world was done away with, in January 1919 another revolution devoured its own children. Three days after Spartakusaufstand was quenched, the Communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered. They were almost battered to death and eventually shot by anti-republican Freikorps soldiers. At the Socialist government´s wish. Within this mess, right in the middle of the deep political confusion the way for the extreme, nationalist and right-wing moods stood wide open.
Here is a short video explaining the situation in Germany around the events above described (through an excellent history education portal Alpha History).