Pierre Broué

The German Revolution

Chapter One
The Battlefield

Today we have one soldier in five, in a few years time we shall have one in three, by 1900 the army, hitherto the most outstandingly Prussian element in Germany, will have a socialist majority. That is coming about as if by fate. The Berlin government can see it happening just as clearly as we can, but it is powerless.

Thus Friedrich Engels, the companion-in-arms of Marx, and with him the founder of scientific socialism, wrote in the early 1890s in his analysis of the prospects before the German workers’ movement. He envisaged only one remaining serious obstacle – war:

A war would change all that ... But if war is to break out ... one thing is certain. This war, in which 15 to 20 million armed men would slaughter one another and devastate Europe as it has never been devastated before – this war would either lead to the immediate triumph of socialism, or it would lead to such an upheaval in the old order of things, it would leave behind it everywhere such a heap of ruins, that the old capitalist society would become more impossible than ever, and the social revolution, set back by 10 or 15 years, would only be all the more radical and more rapidly implemented. [1]

Engels thus expected Germany to be at the centre of the battlefield on which proletariat and bourgeoisie would face each other in the final conflict.

An advanced capitalist country

Marx and Engels considered that the preconditions for socialism were predicated upon the development of the forces of production within the capitalist system, the numerical increase and concentration of the proletariat, and the ability of the proletariat to develop its class consciousness and forms of organisation. According to this analysis, Germany at the start of the twentieth century was one of those advanced countries in which the prospects for victory of the revolution were both closest and most realistic.

Germany experienced a profound economic transformation in the closing years of the nineteenth century and the opening years of the twentieth. Its natural resources in coal, the basis of an industrial economy at that time, its extremely rapid demographic expansion, which had resulted by 1913 in a population of 67.8 million, and its long-established commercial development which had accumulated the necessary capital for an industrial revolution that had raised Germany within a few decades into the ranks of the most advanced capitalist countries. With a production of 190 million tonnes in 1913, Germany was the second-largest coal producer in the world. With a production of 27 million tonnes of iron – which was not sufficient to meet its needs – Germany held the first place in Europe. Its coal and potash mines – 10 million tonnes being extracted in 1913 – enabled it to reach the first rank with the output of its chemical industry. From 1890 onwards, Germany was the first European state to undertake on an industrial scale the exploitation of the new sources of energy, electricity and the internal combustion engine. On the eve of 1914, it led Europe in the production of electrical appliances. Not only was German industrial preponderance so clearly marked that in this field it could be compared only with the USA, but it showed a remarkable capacity for using new technologies and procedures. No other country had initiated a system of scientific research so closely linked to industrial applications. In research laboratories and in establishments of technical education, Germany was in the vanguard of progress and of the scientific organisation of production. [2]

The German economy, like the British or the American, can serve for the study of the imperialist phase of capitalism, even though the belated character of its development meant that it lacked a colonial empire like that of France or Britain. In 1913, the value of its external trade was 22.5 million marks, double that of France, and 85 per cent of that of Britain. [3] It had commercial connections with the entire world, and as it could no longer absorb all of its products in its internal market, it sought outlets for them across the globe.

An incomplete bourgeois revolution

The German state is a very recent creation. For a long time it was a question only of ‘the Germanies’. The movement of nationalities which shook Europe in the nineteenth century seemed in 1848 to be drawing Germany along the road of realising its unity by revolutionary means. But the German bourgeoisie had neither the boldness nor the confidence in its own strength of the French bourgeoisie in 1789. Threatened by the proletarian movement which was taking shape on the extreme Left of the democratic movement, it preferred security behind the ramparts of the monarchical state to a popular-democratic adventure. It made its choice between political liberalism and the profits which the unification of the country under the Prussian fist ensured. It has been said that German unity was erected in the years 1852–57 ‘on coal and iron’ [4], and that ‘Saint Manchester was the godfather at the baptism of the new Reich’. But it was the Prussian army, led by Bismarck, which inscribed German unity in the reality of frontiers and law. In this way, Prussia stamped on unified Germany the imprint of its double aspect, that of the triumphant bourgeoisie more absorbed in the pursuit of profits than in ‘sterile political games’, and that of the landed gentry of the East, the junkers in their helmets and boots, whose arrogance and military strength were to make Europe tremble after the 1860s.

This double aspect could be seen in the complexity of the Imperial Constitution. The Reich was not a unitary state; it was a federation, made up of twenty-five states – from Prussia, which had more than half the population and nine-tenths of the mining and metallurgical resources, to tiny principalities of 50,000 inhabitants, by way of Bavaria, Saxony and Wurttemberg with a few million inhabitants, and the three ‘free cities’ of Hamburg, Bremen and Lubeck. [5] Each of these states retained its own constitution. Prussia had its king, who was also the German emperor. Bavaria, Saxony and Wurttemberg had their own kings, Baden and Hesse their grand dukes, and the free cities their senates. Each had legislative assemblies, with a nominated upper chamber and an elected lower chamber. The electoral system varied from one state to another: Wurttemberg adopted universal suffrage, while Baden gave the right to vote to all who paid taxes. In Bavaria and Hesse, one could vote if one paid a charge. The Landtag in Prussia was elected by a complicated system of ‘classes’ into which electors were grouped according to their property. [6] In Cologne in 1908, this system gave the same electoral weight to 370 rich electors in the first class as to 22,324 electors in the third – as well as, in the 58th section of Berlin in 1903, to a certain Herr Heffte, a manufacturer of sausages and the single elector in the first class, the right to form a class for himself alone. [7]

The Imperial government was in charge of matters concerning the whole country: foreign relations, the army and the navy, post and telegraphs, commerce, customs and communications. The Emperor, who wielded very extensive executive powers, delegated them to an Imperial Chancellor responsible to him. Legislative power was shared between the Bundesrat, made up of delegates from the states, and the Reichstag, a national assembly elected by universal suffrage. In practice, the way in which the constituency boundaries were drawn (which favoured rural electors), the custom of holding elections on workdays (which prevented many wage-earning electors from going to the poll), ‘official’ candidatures, and the absence of payment for deputies, restricted the effectiveness of the electoral principle. The powers of the Reichstag were constrained. It could not initiate legislation, it could not pass any without the agreement of the Bundesrat and it could not depose the Chancellor even when a majority of its members opposed him. [8]

This regime – neither parliamentary nor democratic – was characterised, moreover, by the dominant position of Prussia in the Imperial government. The King of Prussia was the Emperor and the Prussian Prime Minister was the Imperial Chancellor. The seventeen Prussian delegates to the Bundesrat could stop any measure which displeased their government, from which they received an imperative mandate. [9] Nothing was possible in the Reich without the agreement of this government, which itself was the product of the ‘class’ electoral system in the Prussian Landtag. Prussia continued to be the bastion of a warrior-aristocracy of junkers. The officer corps was a proud caste of warriors combining the arrogance of a feudal baron with the superiority of a technician. They personally pledged allegiance to the Emperor, and were convinced that they had been entrusted with a sacred mission to defend the state. The junkers formed the overwhelming majority of the higher cadres in the state, and their mentality prevailed in the military hierarchy. It was the same in the Imperial bureaucracy. The federal civil servants were mostly Prussian, cast in the same mould as the military chiefs, whose conception of authority and whose arrogance they shared. It was to this caste that the Emperor could hand over absolute power by decreeing martial law – ‘a state of siege’ – which suspended all constitutional liberties and guarantees, and installed nothing less than a military dictatorship.

A pre-socialist society

In reality, this political structure was an enormous anachronism in relation to the country’s social evolution: one of the contradictions which makes revolutions necessary. The social structure of Germany presented all the characteristics of a society ready for socialism. Whereas, in 1871, one-third of the Germans lived in cities, two-thirds did so in 1910. The population, of which the overwhelming majority consisted of working-class people, was concentrated in very large cities, of which, in 1910, 23 had more than 200,000 inhabitants. Greater Berlin had 4.2 million, Hamburg 930,000, Munich and Leipzig 600,000, Cologne 500,000, Essen and Düsseldorf between 300,000 and 350,000, and Bremen and Chemnitz between 250,000 and 300,000. [10] In central and southern Germany, there were many small and medium-sized peasant holdings, but over the territory as a whole there were 3.3 million agricultural workers, and the large estates, of which 369 included more than 1,000 hectares each, covered a quarter of the whole cultivated area. [11] This medieval survival created the possibility of the alliance, dear to Marxists, between the urban proletariat and the poor peasants, the rural proletariat.

By dispossessing the middle bourgeoisie, and monopolising the instruments of production in a few hands, the concentration of the economy in the hands of a few industrial magnates seemed to have created the conditions for the socialisation of industry. Mining was dominated by Emil Kirdorf, the chairman of the Gelsenkirchen mines and director of coal syndicate of Rhineland- Westphalia, which in 1913 controlled 87 per cent of coal production. [12] The Fritz Thyssen Konzern was a model of vertical concentration, it possessed coal and iron-ore mines, blast furnaces, rolling mills and metalworking plants. Krupp employed over 70,000 workers, of whom more than 41,000 worked in its establishments in Essen alone. This was effectively a closed city, with its own streets, police force, fire brigade, and 150 kilometres of internal railways. [13] In the chemical industry, Badische Anilin employed over 10,000 workers in Ludwigshafen. [14] The rest of chemical production was controlled by two firms, the fusion of which in 1916 was to lead to the birth of I.G. Farben. [15] Electrical equipment was dominated by Siemens and by Rathenau’s AEG, which in the Berlin region employed 71,000 workers in ten plants. Two shipping companies, the Hamburg-Amerika Line and the Norddeutscher Lloyd, provided 40 per cent of maritime transport. [16]

The fusion of banking capital with industrial capital was more thorough than anywhere else, except in the USA. The banks dominated economic activity, and 74 per cent of banking business was concentrated in five large establishments in Berlin. [17]

The magnates – Kirdorf, Thyssen, Krupp, Hugenberg, Stinnes, von Siemens, Rathenau, Ballin and Helfferich – formed the top of a very thin stratum, some 75,000 heads of families representing between 200,000 and 250,000 persons, whom we may regard, with Sombart, as the rich bourgeoisie, whose annual incomes exceeded 12,500 marks. With the middle bourgeoisie, consisting of 650,000 heads of families and between 2 and 2.5 million people with annual incomes of 3,000 to 12,000 marks, these upper, governing classes formed no more than around four or five per cent of the population. At the other end of the social scale, Sombart calculated that in 1907 there were 8.64 million industrial workers, 1.7 million wage-earners in trade and transport, and 2.3 million minor white-collar workers in industry and trade, about 12.5 millions in all. He drew the conclusion that the proletariat, in the broad sense of the term, including women and children, made up between 67 and 68 per cent of the total population. At the end of his study of German society, Edmond Vermeil stated that ‘on the eve of 1914, the Germany of Wilhelm II was a country three-quarters proletarianised’. [18]

The general increase in the standard of living had been to the advantage, and then only up to 1908, of a relatively thin layer of highly-skilled workers, a real ‘labour aristocracy’ [19], the role of which is by no means always a conservative one, because many socialist educators and organisers have emerged from its ranks. However, the German proletariat had nothing in common with the still immature, wretched and prostrate proletariat which filled the factories at the beginning of the industrial revolution. Relatively well-educated, familiar with technology and machines, with a sense of collective work and responsibility, with a taste for organisation, the German proletarians were modern workers, able to defend their immediate interests, to devote themselves to militant activity, and to become conscious of a society which treated them merely as tools, and also aware that their solidarity made them into a force which could change their lives and that of the petty bourgeoisie, who capitalist concentration crushed, and who they judged, with some reason, could become their allies in struggle.

War or revolution

The general features of Germany as an advanced capitalist country and its political structure ensured that it was a battlefield favourable to the workers’ struggles. Not only was the working class the only social force able to complete the democratic revolution in Germany by destroying the anachronistic power of the landed aristocracy and the privileges of the army and the state bureaucracy but in the course of this struggle the working class was inevitably led to present its own candidature for the succession to the old ruling class, and to demand power for itself in the name of all the exploited. The struggle to democratise political life, for the extension of universal suffrage, required that the constitutional framework be broken; it called for a class struggle which could end only in an armed struggle and in the violent destruction of the officer corps, the bulwark of the state. Article 68 of the Constitution clearly expressed its very essence, because it excluded the hypothesis of a peaceful transformation by the parliamentary road, it was the opposite of that suggested by the evolution of the political structures in Britain at that time.

From this point of view, the conditions – military, social and political – in which German unity had been achieved, the efforts of Bismarck simultaneously to preserve the power of the junkers and to expand the bourgeoisie’s field of operations, resulted in Germany being deprived of those safety-valves that operated in other advanced countries: a political structure based upon universal suffrage, parliamentarism and a democratic ideology. In other words, the rulers of Germany deprived themselves of the most effective means of protecting capitalist property.

The international position of German imperialism suffered from the same insecurity. Germany’s industrial development took place in a period when the riches of the world were nearly all shared out, and German imperialism was denied the advantage of having those extra safety valves, namely markets in the colonial empires which other powers dominated. Historians usually emphasise the role of Anglo-German competition as one the main factors which caused the Great War. Indeed, from 1890 onwards, Great Britain experienced the first signs of the decline of its world leadership. The USA and Germany surpassed it in terms of production in several departments. Its exports were more and more exclusively directed towards industrially backward countries, and on this ground Britain ran up against German industry. Germany, the second industrial state in the world, was almost sure of winning in conditions of free competition, but a large part of the world was closed to its direct expansion. And at the same time, the colonial empire which it needed could not be formed without a fight. The Anglo-German rivalry in the field of naval armaments has to be considered from this angle, as has the systematic opposition of British diplomacy to the establishment of German supremacy in Europe. The stake in the struggle was a world too small for the needs of the contenders. This struggle arose out of the need of capitalism itself to expand. War was inevitable now that the division of the world was completed, and the pressure of the latest-comer, German imperialism, called this into question. From the beginning of the century, the choice was between civil war and world revolution, or imperialist war, which, as Engels had foreseen, could in turn be transformed into revolution and civil war.

Nationalism or socialism

In 1912, the Congress of the Socialist International in Basel agreed afresh on a declaration which outlined the tasks of the International, its constituent parties and the working class in each country in the case of the outbreak of war:

If war is declared, the working classes in the countries affected, as well as their parliamentary representatives, have the duty to mobilise their forces to prevent hostilities from breaking out, with the support of the coordinating activity of the International Bureau, by applying those means which will seem the most effective to them, means which evidently will vary according to the more or less aggravated turn which the class struggle may take and in relation to the general political situation. If, in spite of their efforts, war should break out, their duty is to struggle actively for a speedy end to the fighting, and to make every effort to use the economic and political crisis which the war causes to rouse the people, and in this way to speed up the abolition of the rule of the capitalist class. [20]

The ruling classes in Germany, confronted with such a socialist, internationalist, proletarian position as this, in a country increasingly mechanised homogenised and proletarianised, and where the industrial proletariat held such an important place, was obliged on pain of death to ‘reconcile the proletariat with the Reich’ – to use Vermeil’s phrase [21] – by convincing the proletariat that it was an integral part of the national community. This is the meaning of the efforts expended by the apostles of ‘social Christianity’, such as Monsignor Ketteler or the Reverend Stocker, of the ‘national socialism’ of Friedrich Naumann, or the ‘social policy’ of Wilhelm II. [22] Here we have the role of the nationalist ideology, based on the feverish and anxious national feeling of a people which had had to fight for national unity before seeing this unity bestowed upon it, on pride in its gigantic economic achievements, on the superior culture of ‘a chosen people’, and on a feeling of frustration as a power that had come too late to the division of the world. Education, the press and propaganda conveyed this message.

Vermeil has shown how national socialism and Hitlerite anti-Semitism had their roots in the efforts of the ruling classes to tear the proletarian masses away from any internationalist, revolutionary ideology. At the opening of the twentieth century, anti-Semitism (which August Bebel called ‘the socialism of fools’) had been the means for diverting the anger of the petty bourgeoisie who were crushed by the development of big capital, and were threatened with being driven down into the proletariat. The ruling classes in Germany had no other means of surviving than by going forward to conquer the world, and no other way to win over the proletariat but to lead it – as Vermeil writes – ‘into the ambience of fanatical nationalism’. [23]

Marxists considered that the first stages on the road to the socialist revolution in Germany were the struggle for the class consciousness of the proletariat, and the organisation of the proletariat as a class in the socialist party, a section of the International. Nobody can dispute that Engels’s optimism could be justified by the successes which had been won on this road, and, in the first place, in the building of that great workers’ organisation, the German Social-Democratic Party, as it was before 1914.


1. F. Engels, Socialism in Germany, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Volume 27, Moscow 1990, pp. 240–5.

2. P. Renouvin, L’Empire allemand de 1890 à 1918, Volume 1, pp. 11–25.

3. Ibid., p. 17.

4. A parody of Bismarck’s remark that Germany would be unified by ‘blood and iron’. [Translator’s note]

5. Renouvin, Volume 2, op. cit., p. 104.

6. Ibid., pp. 105–6.

7. A classic example, taken from H. Moysset, L’esprit public en Allemagne vingt ans après Bismarck, Paris 1911.

8. Renouvin, Volume 2, op. cit., p. 107.

9. Ibid., p. 109.

10. Renouvin, Volume 1, op. cit., pp. 69–70.

11. Ibid., p. 71.

12. Ibid., p. 31.

13. G. Raphael, Krupp et Thyssen, Paris 1925, p. 211.

14. Renouvin, Volume 1, op. cit., p. 27.

15. C. Bettelheim, L’Économie allemande sous le nazisme, Paris 1946, p. 67, n. 2.

16. Renouvin, Volume 1, op. cit., pp. 28, 65.

17. Ibid., pp. 32-3.

18. E. Vermeil, L’Allemagne contemporaine, sociale, politique, culturelle (1890–1950), Volume 1, Paris 1952, pp. 92–4.

19. Henri Burgelin writes that ‘it is possible that certain categories of workers, especially the unskilled, did not see any increase in their real standard of living’ (La Société allemande, 1871–1968, Paris 1969, p. 91). Since 1934 no new study has covered the material dealt with in J. Kuczynski’s Die Entwicklung der Lage der Arbeitschaft, Basel 1934.

20. Text of the amendment moved by Lenin and Luxemburg at the Stuttgart Congress, in J. Braunthal, Geschichte der Internationale, Volume 1, Hanover 1961–3, pp. 370, 372.

21. Vermeil, op. cit., p. 114.

22. Ibid., pp. 101, 104.

23. Ibid., p. 114.

Last updated on 13.2.2014