Pierre Broué

The German Revolution


In 1970, in the great lecture theatre of the Polytechnic Museum in Moscow, one of the main cities of the United Socialist States of Europe, a history lecture is being given dealing with the Russian Revolution which opened the way for the victory of socialism in Europe. The professor-fitter has just recalled the difficult conditions of the struggle during the first years of the Soviet state, the obstacles created by the rural and backward nature of the country and its initial isolation. He explains:

If the revolution in the West had been delayed too long, this situation could have led to an aggressive socialist war by Russia, supported by the European proletariat, against the capitalist West. This did not happen because the proletarian revolution was by this time already knocking at the door owing to its own inner development. [1]

After a long period of instances of dual power, especially in Germany, the capture of power by workers’ councils in several industrial centres gave the signal for a bitter civil war from which the German workers emerged victorious. But this victory unleashed an attack by the capitalist governments of France and Poland. The Red Army of the Soviet Union responded, whilst the imperialist regiments, undermined from within by revolutionary propaganda, melted in the fire of the German Revolution. Now it was the turn of the French and Polish workers to rise. The European revolution triumphed, and the United Socialist States of Europe were established. The lecturer concludes:

New Soviet Europe opened a fresh page in economic development. The industrial technique of Germany was united with Russian agriculture, and on the territory of Europe there began rapidly to develop and become consolidated a new economic organism, revealing enormous possibilities and a mighty breakthrough to the expansion of the productive forces. And along with this, Soviet Russia, which previously had outstripped Europe politically, now modestly took its place as an economically backward country behind the advanced industrial countries of the proletarian dictatorship. [2]

In 1922, the young Communist leader Preobrazhensky imagined that this would be how, half a century later, a new generation would be taught about the unfolding of the final struggle, the first episodes of which his contemporaries were living through. It was still no more than a picture of the future presented in the form of a literary fiction. However, a year later, one of the main leaders of Soviet Russia, the President of the Communist International, Grigory Zinoviev, wrote in Pravda, the central organ of the Russian Communist Party, a series of articles on the coming German Revolution:

The German events are developing with the inexorability of fate. The path which it took the Russian Revolution twelve years to cover, from 1906 to 1917, will have taken the German Revolution five years, from 1918 to 1923. In the course of the last few days, events have speeded up even more. First of all, the ‘coalition’, then the ‘grand coalition’, thereafter the Kornilov episode, the cabinet of specialists, of personalities, and now, once again something like a ‘grand coalition’ – in short an endless whirlwind of governments. This is what was happening ‘above’. But ‘below’, the masses are seething with excitement, and the fight which, in a short period, will decide Germany’s future, is about to begin. The proletarian revolution is knocking at Germany’s door; you would have to be blind not to see it. The coming events will have a world-historical meaning. Very soon, everyone will see that this autumn of 1923 is a turning-point, not just for the history of Germany, but for the history of the whole world. With trembling hands, the proletariat is turning the vital page of the world-wide struggle of the proletariat. A new chapter is opening in the history of the proletarian world revolution. [3]

The President of the International added:

The key fact is that the German Revolution will have a powerful industrial base ... In this sense, Lenin’s words remain correct: ‘In Western Europe’, he said, ‘and above all in countries like Germany, it will be much more difficult to begin the proletarian revolution than in Russia. But it will be much easier to continue and complete it.’ ... The German proletariat no longer runs the risk of taking power prematurely. The conditions for the victory of the proletarian revolution in Germany have long been ripe ... The German Revolution will have the advantage of the full assistance of the Russian experience, and it will not repeat the mistakes of the Russian Revolution ... As for the wonderful energy which twenty million German proletarians, steeled, educated and organised, will be able to display in the final struggle for socialism, we cannot yet have the remotest conception of it. [4]

Lenin and his comrades in the Bolshevik Party led in Russia a revolution which in their eyes was only a struggle of the vanguard. But the main battle did not take place, and the Russian vanguard remained isolated. The German Revolution – the decisive phase for all revolutionaries of the time – finally failed, after five years of ups and downs.

Since that time, many commentators have drawn conclusions which suited their ideology or their politics; some have seen the superior revolutionary qualities of the Russian people, the new Messiah; others have discovered the deep democratic sentiments – or alternatively the congenital militarisation – of the German people; and all have noted the illusions of the Utopians who believed they could transplant into a Western country, in the heart of an advanced society, the experience of the Russian October Revolution.

Writing on the eve of the Second World War, an eminent Germanist judged that the aborted German Revolution had consisted of ‘no more than a disturbed interval of which the cause could be discovered in the temporary crisis of nervous disequilibrium produced by the physical privations of the war, and the physical collapse consequent on the defeat and collapse of the Reich’. [5] Others had tried to explain the Paris Commune by what they called ‘the mass psychosis of the besieged’. But this author, apparently attached to the democratic ideal, gave a more specifically political explanation of the failure of the revolution:

Very rapidly, the organised German worker understood the fundamental difference which separated Germany from Russia, and sensed the irreparable catastrophe that would have been produced in Germany, a land of developed and scientifically organised industry, by the sudden establishment of full-blooded communism such as had been achieved in Russia. [6]

It seems worthwhile to recall these comments, inasmuch as, in fact, the revolution in Germany was supplanted by a counter-revolution which, a few years later, under the name of Hitlerism, was to launch on the world an assault of barbarism such that we may wonder to what other ‘catastrophe’ it could be compared, even by an ‘organised worker’! We shall encounter the men of this counter-revolution in the course of our pages: Faupel, the staff officer who tricked the delegates from the soldiers’ councils, and who, twenty years later, was to command the Condor Legion in Spain; Canaris, the naval officer who assisted the escape of one of the murderers of Rosa Luxemburg, and twenty years later was to command the Abwehr; the political officer, power behind the throne to better-known generals, Major Kurt von Schleicher, briefly Chancellor in 1932; and also Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering, Krupp, Thyssen and I.G. Farben. The battle fought in Germany between 1918 and 1923 shaped our past, and undoubtedly weighs on our present.

It also concerns our future. From 1918 to 1923, in revolutionary Germany, the struggle was not street-fighting and the storming of barricades everyday; it was not waged exclusively with machine-guns, mortars and flame-throwers. It was also, and above all, the hidden struggle in the factories, the mines, the community centres, the unions and the parties, in public meetings and committees, in political and economic strikes, in street demonstrations, polemics and theoretical debates. It was a class struggle and above all a struggle within the working class; what was at stake was the building, in Germany and in the world, of a revolutionary party which was fully determined to change the world. The road leading to this goal is neither straight nor simple, nor even easy to perceive. Between ‘ultra-leftism’ and ‘opportunism’, between ‘sectarianism’ and ‘revisionism’, between ‘activism’ and ‘passivity’, the German revolutionaries toiled greatly, and in vain, to trace their path to the future, to discover, sometimes through their own negative experiences, sometimes in the successful example of their Russian comrades, the means to ensure the seizure of power by the working class in their country.

Many of the key documents we needed to illuminate this attempt were lacking: political necessities have, for the time being, condemned them to lie dormant in archives to which we have been refused access. Far from the least of the problems posed in this narrative of the aborted birth of a ‘mass’ communist party is the role played by the Communist International, and, within that International, by the Bolshevik Party in power in Russia.


1. E. Preobrazhensky, From NEP to Socialism, London 1973, p. 99.

2. Ibid., p. 123.

3. G. Sinowjew (G. Zinoviev), Probleme der Deutschen Revolution, Hamburg 1923, pp. 1–2.

4. Ibid., pp. 7–11.

5. H. Lichtenberger, L’Allemagne nouvelle, 1936, p. 12.

6. Ibid., pp. 11–12.

Last updated on 13.2.2014