The International Situation and the Red Army

IV. The Events in Germany in the Autumn of 1923

Report to the Third Moscow Provincial Congress of the All-Russia Union of Metal Workers

October 19, 1923

Transcribed and HTML markup for the Trotsky Internet Archive by David Walters

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We are passing through weeks and months such as rarely occur in a thousand years, and which are even, perhaps, without precedent in history. Before the October revolution we saw as the event in world history that was most important and closest to us the Great French Revolution and the events which followed it, including the Napoleonic Wars. But those events are utterly insignificant compared with what is now approaching in Central Europe. The proletarian revolution in Germany has matured. We believed that world revolution would follow the world imperialist war. Six years after, unceasing class battles continue in Europe. In 1918 the Hohenzollerns were over-thrown in Germany. A Socialist Government was formed there. Copying the Petrograd example, the ministers were called commissars. The working class had come to power, but it was led by Social Democrats. The Social-Democrats acted as though they were plenipotentiaries of :the bourgeoisie for liquidating the proletarian revolution. The Social Democratic ministers gradually reduced themselves to nullity, yielding all power to representatives of big capital. The country’s economy collapsed. The mark fell so fast that even our nimble Soviet rouble could not keep pace with it. Twelve millions of Germany’s working people are under the heel of foreign capital. Up to 75 per cent of the coal and iron-ore of the Ruhr has been seized by the enslavers. Germany has no way out of the social crisis. Either collapse, impoverishment, cultural savagery, or proletarian revolution. Renewed attempts are being made to resort to the help of the Social-Democrats. But, at the same time, the power and influence of the Communist Party over the masses is growing.

For a revolution to succeed, it is necessary that the economic conditions for it shall have ripened. Have they ripened in Germany? Yes, they have. German industry is concentrated, and is so well organised technically that it is surpassed only by America. It will be considerably easier to organise a socialist economy in Germany than here, owing to our backwardness. The cultural level of the German worker is sufficiently high for him to carry through the revolution. Thus, technical and political conditions are present which are favourable for revolution in Germany. What are the conditions where class composition is concerned? Here, at the time of the October Revolution, there were three million workers out of a total population of 150,000,000, most of whom were peasants. In Germany, of the population of 60,000,000, fifteen million are industrial workers and three million agricultural workers. That is an imposing force. One more condition is needed, namely, that the class shall want and shall be able to take power. The Social-Democrats who led the German proletariat gradually degenerated into an agency of the bourgeoisie. The line of conduct of the Social Democrats during the imperialist war proved to be bankrupt from the class standpoint. After the war, the working class of Germany hurled itself towards power. But between it and power stood the Social-Democrats.

In the last few years the Communist Party has begun to come to the forefront. There is no doubt that this party, as the leader of the workers’ movement, wants to take power. The question remains: can it? It is quite beyond question for us that revolution is inevitable in Germany, that the working class is ready for it. Since 1918 the German working class has shed much blood for the conquest of power, but has not succeeded in conquering power because its leaders were too weak for their role. Since the Third Congress of the Third International the importance of the German Communist Party, the new leader of the working class, has progressively increased.

The present crisis in Germany has grown out of the occupation of the Ruhr. Stresemann surrendered to French imperialism. But French usurers’ capital did not want to talk with the vanquished. The German bourgeois state is in its death-throes. Essentially, there is no longer a united Germany. Bavaria, with its population of nine millions, is under the rule of moderate Fascism. [1] Saxony, with its population of eight millions, has a coalition government of Communists and Left Social-Democrats. Neither state takes any notice of the central government, of Berlin, where the helpless Stresemann now rules. Parliament has ceded to him its powers, the powers of impotence. Stresemann holds on only because neither the Communist Party nor the Fascists have as yet finally seized power. But the Left Wing of Germany’s political front continues to grow.

What are the chances for the working class in the impending struggle?

We already possess our revolutionary coup d’oeil. Technically, the country is ready. The level of the working class is sufficiently high. The class is led by a Communist Party which manifests the will to power. But it is not sufficient to calculate resources, they have to be put to use. Will the German Communist Party be able to make use of conditions now present?

What is the difference between the conditions that existed here at the time of the October revolution and the conditions in Germany today? We had an armed mass of oppressed people, the army of that time, which followed our slogans. The working class of Germany is confronted by the state’s army of 100,000 men, including 3,000 officers. The Treaty of Versailles forbids an army any larger than that. This army is recruited from volunteers, who join for a twelve-year engagement. The army is scattered all over a country of 50 million inhabitants (if we exclude the Ruhr), of whom more than a third are proletarians. This force is not a reliable support for the bourgeoisie, especially in present-day revolutionary conditions. Then there is the state police force of 135,000 men. It is made up of members of trade unions, most of whom are Social-Democrats, with a Menshevik outlook. Few in number, elderly, burdened with families, they are hardly likely to be eager to fight for the cause of Stinnes and capital. [2] The third counter-revolutionary force consists of the Fascist battalions. These are led by general staff officers who are well skilled in the art of massacring people. They are familiar with railway transport matters, in so far as these are germane to their purposes. The numbers of the Fascist battalions are a military secret. But there are grounds for thinking that they amount to between two and three hundred thousand men. They are made up of sons of the bourgeoisie, members of the petty-bourgeoisie and of the reactionary-minded section of the peasantry, and lumpen-proletarians.

These are the forces on one side, and on the other side stand the Workers’ Hundreds. [Hundertschaften is sometimes translated as ‘centuries’.] What are their numbers? We do not know. That is a military secret of the German working class. But we can assume that, in a country with 15 million industrial and three million agricultural proletarians, the proportion in the Workers’ Hundreds must be adequate.

Such is the relation of forces.

At one meeting I was asked whether it was not opportunism on the part of the Communists of Saxony to enter a compromiser government. This is not opportunism but a revolutionary measure. Remember that in August 1917 we proposed to the Mensheviks and SRs that we form a bloc against the counter-revolutionary forces. Then, later, we had the coalition with the Left SRs owing to the need to find support among the opposition-minded peasantry, who at that time followed the Left SRs.

The Social-Democrats of Saxony found themselves gripped between pincers. On the one hand was the working class and its representative, the Communist Party, and, on the other, General Müller, acting on behalf of General Seeckt and the central government. Workers’ Saxony and Fascist Bavaria, the places d’armes of the opposing sides, were gathering their forces. General Müller demanded that the Workers’ Hundreds be disbanded, and prepared to strike a blow at Saxony, bringing up troops and artillery to its frontier. The workers refused to obey the central government’s order transmitted by General Müller. We are on the brink of civil war, if Müller and Seeckt put their threat into effect. The government of Saxony has been compelled to appeal to the workers of all Germany to support the Saxon proletariat. The central committee of the German Social-Democratic party has asked the Government what is the significance of the campaign against Saxony. Just imagine how the average worker in Berlin will react to the news that a workers’ coalition government has been formed in Saxony, and that Seeckt, as agent of the central government, is moving against it. The workers of Germany, and, in particular, the workers in railway transport, are preparing a strike in order to paralyse the Fascist blow against Saxony.

The pace of military developments is getting swifter throughout the country. Events are proceeding according to plan. Circumstances are taking shape which are extremely favourable for the working class. But Germany is not alone. She has neighbours, and she does not occupy such an extensive territory as we do. Will the German workers keep power in their hands, given the present international situation, that is the question. The main enemy of the German revolution is Britain, that time-honoured enemy of all revolutions. Britain is helpless on land. Her previous strength was based upon the mutual antagonism of two powerful adversaries on the continent – for example, France and Germany. Britain’s helplessness on land was shown particularly clearly in the affair of the Curzon ultimatum, which has left a notch in our memory in the shape of several aeroplanes. No less vivid an example of Britain’s helplessness on land is her position on the Ruhr question, and also in relation to Turkey.

The revolution is taking place on land, and on land, as we have seen, Conservative Britain is not dangerous. Germany’s strongest and most dangerous neighbour on the Continent is France. The Communist Party of France is strong, but it would be inexcusable optimism to overestimate its importance.

However, what does this mean – that the German revolution will be crushed by foreign soldiers? We have the example of the German occupation of the Ukraine, which required an army of 250,000 men. And in the Ukraine there were far fewer towns, and an insignificantly developed network of railways. A foreign occupation of industrialised Germany would need between 1,500,000 and 1,750,000 soldiers. It has been observed that occupation troops become revolutionised very quickly, and to some extent disintegrate as a military force. The French army numbers 700,000 men. France’s own army would not be sufficient if she were to decide to occupy a revolutionary Germany, and other countries, such as Poland and Czechoslovakia, could supply her with no more than 500,000 extra men. This means that France would have to meet the shortfall in the numbers of the army of occupation by calling up eight age-groups. In our country such a call-up would produce a contingent of one million in a single year. It was my lot to spend the first three years of the war in France. And I saw what effect the losses suffered in the imperialist war had upon French society. For a nation of 39 millions, distinguished by its meagre growth of population, the loss of one and a half million men was colossal. There was hardly a single family in France that had not had some of their kinsfolk killed in the war. In France today there are many Italian, Spanish, Czechoslovak and Polish workers. If the French peasant finds himself burdened, over and above the 300 milliards war debt, with a war of occupation and the call-up of eight age-groups, he will not put up with it. Intervention by France in revolutionary Germany is not only not practicable, it would be plain madness. However, we do not know what madness a moribund bourgeoisie will venture upon in order to save itself.

It is hard to suppose that Poland would risk advancing on Berlin. All it could gain would be a tuft of the bear’s ear. It is said that war with Poland is inevitable. But that is not so. There are many reasons for thinking that there will be no war with Poland. What would such a war mean for us? It would cause us unjustifiable economic and cultural harm and strike a monstrous blow at our constructive work. We do not want war, and we must and will do everything possible to avoid it. We are wholly on the side of the German workers. We would eagerly stretch out a hand to them over the head of Poland in order to encourage them, where necessary. The German workers do not need military support in their domestic struggle. It is a poor look-out for a revolution if it cannot conquer by its own forces. But what the German worker who has begun his revolution cannot do without is Soviet grain. Just as the German worker needs our grain, so the Russian peasant needs an outlet to the European grain market. Our grain prices are disastrously low. Given the present price-conjuncture it is going to be hard to ensure that the peasantry will go forward in single economic harness with the workers. The German proletariat has command of the industrial products that we need. Reciprocal exchange of goods must begin between Germany and the Soviet Union, in the interests of both sides. The geographical key to this exchange is in the hands of Poland. Poland can serve us as a bridge, or can become a barrier. If she proves to be a bridge for our traffic we will pay her in cash. If we cannot convey our grain across Poland to the German workers, and in exchange receive the manufactured goods we need, we shall suffocate economically. Consequently, if Poland proves to be a barrier between us and Germany, she must find herself between pincers. We are ready to pay dearly for peace, but we will not allow our country to perish economically and the German proletariat to die of hunger. After the war with Poland we sought to obtain a common frontier with Germany, but we had Wrangel in our rear and were unable to get what we wanted. Now we are offering to Poland, in exchange for peace and transit across her territory, facilities for transit to the East across Soviet territory. That is our position in the present international situation. [3] Our demands are realisable, but whether they will be realised it is impossible to say with any certainty. The odds in favour of peace are 51 to 49. The moment calls for unusual self-control, and we need to prepare for war as though it were inevitable. In this connection we are now paying particular attention to the state of our army, our aircraft and our war industry.

Some comrades suppose that, because the revolution is maturing in Germany, we do not need to bother about everyday work, about NEP, about trifles. This mood must be repressed. In fact it is not possible to skip out of everyday preoccupations. On the contrary, where everything is concerned that you have to do in the sphere of everyday work, you must now do it three times as well, three times as much, three times as fast. The German revolution does not require of us that we brush aside the practical tasks of the day. On the contrary, our current practical work has now become more responsible than ever.

I repeat, war is undesirable, it is not inevitable, but it is probable. If it should come, it will be a war that has been forced upon us. We must not lose our nerve amid the events that are approaching. The country will understand that we wanted to avoid war, but could not. The working masses, headed by the organised working class, will follow us and we shall emerge from this new trial with honour and in triumph.

From the archives


1. The Bavarian Government ‘of moderate Fascism’ was a reactionary separatist government which aimed to restore the Wittelsbachs to the throne of Munich and take Bavaria out of the Reich. Although it gave refuge and protection to Right-wing elements from all over Germany, those of them who were ‘centralists’ (for a united Germany), such as the Nazis, were bound to clash with it – as duly happened, in the’beer-hall putsch’ in November 1923, when the Bavarian police killed 16 Brownshirts, to whom Hitler dedicated the book Mein Kampf, that he wrote in prison after this experience. (This was the original allusion of the line in the Horst Wessel Song which speaks of ‘comrades shot down by the Red Front and by the Reaction.’)

2. Stinnes, a well-known German capitalist who headed a very big industrial grouping which included enterprises in the coal industry, iron and steel, engineering, the electro-technical industry, etc., and owned steamship lines and a number of newspapers, wielded great influence in the political life of Germany.

3. There was no question, in 1920-1921, of an actual ‘common frontier’ between Soviet Russia and Germany. What was sought was a common frontier with Lithuania, which state, out of fear of Poland, was disposed to co-operate with Russia. At the Russo-Polish armistice negotiations Joffe proposed a frontier which would have given Russia direct access to Lithuania and, through that country, to Germany (East Prussia). But the Poles insisted that they must have a common frontier with Latvia, and their seizure of Vilna effectively separated Lithuania from Russia.

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Last updated on: 30.12.2006