Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 2

Arthur Rosenberg

The Kapp Putsch and the Working Class

On 13 March 1920 a coup organised by General Walther von Lüttwitz, the military commander of Berlin, deposed the coalition government under the Social Democratic Chancellor Gustav Bauer. A new government was announced, with Wolfgang Kapp, a senior state official in East Prussia and the founder of the extreme nationalist Fatherland Party, as Chancellor. The most reactionary elements in the armed forces and the Freikorps, which the Social Democratic leaders had unleashed upon the revolutionary workers of Berlin in 1919, had turned upon their masters. The national government fled to Stuttgart, but Karl Legien, the leader of the Socialist trade union federation, who had once described Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of the revolutionary mass strike as ‘mass nonsense’, called a general strike, which paralysed the country, and led to the rapid collapse of Kapp’s government.

When Legien issued the strike call, the Central Committee of the German Communist Party (KPD) considered that the German workers were too apathetic to respond, and declared that the KPD was not prepared to take part in a fight between two reactionary forces. Paul Levi, who was in prison, immediately protested against this imbecility, which was a forerunner of many to come, such as the theory of ‘Social Fascism’, which stated that there was no difference between Fascism and Social Democracy, and which played a major part in facilitating Hitler’s victory in 1933. The tremendous response of the working class to Legien’s call led the KPD’s leaders to reverse their attitude on the next day, and to support the strike.

We reproduce below some extracts translated by Mike Jones from Arthur Rosenberg’s classic account of the Weimar Republic, Geschichte der Weimarer Republik (EVA, Frankfurt am Main 1961). An English edition of this book was published under the title of A History of the German Republic (Methuen, London 1936), but has not been republished since. These extracts mainly deal with the workers’ response to the putsch, and the struggle to form a government after its defeat, as it has been argued that in 1920 the German revolutionary left was presented with an opportunity which it wasted. A general description of the Kapp Putsch can be found in Chris Harman’s The Lost Revolution (Bookmarks, London 1982, pp. 157–91).

IN the industrial region of Rhineland-Westphalia, the Kapp Putsch led to a great working-class uprising. Regardless of their party affiliation, the workers rose up, seized weapons, and attacked and drove away the pro-Kapp Freikorps. In Central Germany, above all in the region from Halle to Leipzig, and in Thuringia as well, open fighting broke out between armed workers and pro-Kapp troops. Kapp could not count on any real support west of the Elbe or in Southern Germany, and even the new Bavarian government pledged its loyalty to the Reich constitution, and avoided being associated with the Freikorps. [1]

In terms of power politics, Germany during the Kapp days was divided into five parts. Firstly, there were the lands to the east of the Elbe, in which Kapp mainly had the upper hand, although the general strike presented his administration with great difficulties. Secondly, there was the region in which the old government was still recognised; above all in Württemberg, Baden, Hesse and the districts bordering the North Sea. Thirdly, there was the region of Rhineland and Westphalia, where the working-class uprising was victorious. Fourthly, there was Bavaria, with its peculiar development. Fifthly, there were the Central German states where neither of the warring sides had a clear dominance, but where pro-Kapp troops, revolutionary workers, and supporters of the legitimate republican government struggled for power.

The ascendancy which the army and the middle classes had gradually regained in the Weimar Republic was seriously endangered by Kapp’s premature rebellion, as the middle classes and the troops were divided over their attitude to it, and were therefore to some extent paralysed. On the other hand, the working class surged forward with a will to struggle and a desire for unity. The working-class supporters of the Majority Socialists were now demanding the removal of Noske and Heine, and for an alliance with the USPD. [2] Even the Christian workers were prepared to join a bloc in defence of democracy and against the old ruling class. The forces that opposed Kapp were for the most part not the supporters of the Weimar Republic and the policies of Noske and Ebert [3], but the advocates of working-class action which intended to reverse the ebb of the revolution, and to continue the work of 9 November. [4]

It took only four days to finish off Kapp’s government. Receiving unfavourable reports from most parts of Germany, Kapp fell into despair, and he resigned on 17 March. The question then arose: who was to succeed him? The majority of the working class did not want a return to the discredited Weimar system, which had allowed the Kapp Putsch to occur, but desired the creation of a political system in which the Socialist workers would have a decisive voice. It was, after all, the trade unions, with the Majority Socialist Legien [5] at their head, which recognised the necessity of such a step. Legien wished to replace the Weimar coalition government with a workers’ government based upon the SPD, the USPD and the Socialist and Christian trade unions. Noske’s tendency in the SPD had been so weakened by the recent events that it would have been incapable of putting up any resistance to such a development. The army was so disintegrated by the putsch, especially since its collapse, that it would have been incapable of taking action against a workers’ government.

Such a workers’ government, which was at this point an absolute possibility, could well have been able genuinely to democratise the German army and state administration, and thus have stemmed the retrogressive development of the revolution. The failure to establish a workers’ government was not so much the fault of the SPD, but was largely due to the doctrinaire rigidity of the left-wing of the USPD, and above all of Däumig [6], the most influential member in its Berlin organisation. As the USPD refused to participate, the SPD had no other choice but to create another coalition in the old manner … [7] Since, however, the new coalition was not backed by any new forces, everything remained much the same as before. The working class had once more demonstrated in March that it could conduct a united armed struggle. But it was not capable of politically rebuilding Germany, and the Kapp Putsch effectively resulted in the defeat, not of the army, but of the working class. [8]

At a meeting of the Berlin Industrial Councils on 23 March 1920, Däumig said in respect of a workers’ government:

During the last few days, Legien has made an attempt to dispose of the Bauer-Noske government, but, it must be said, only in respect of the personalities. The principles of bourgeois democracy and trade unionism were not attacked at all. Legien, together with the Free Trade Union Association and the German Union of Civil Servants, also contacted the USPD in order to discuss the programme he had formulated. [9] For its part, the USPD advanced a series of far-reaching demands, and declared that it was opposed to any cooperation with the compromised right-wing Socialist Party. After that, Legien went to see the coalition parties.

In the course of his speech, Däumig stated that the idea of a Socialist workers’ government had been exhausted.

After Däumig, Pieck [10] spoke for the Communist Party. Amongst other things, he said:

The present situation is not ripe enough for a council republic, but it is for a purely workers’ government. As revolutionary workers, a purely workers’ government is exceedingly desirable. But it can only be a transitional phenomenon … The USPD has rejected the workers’ government, and has thereby failed to protect the interests of the working class at a politically advantageous moment.

The report notes at this point: ‘Violent opposition and applause.’

In the journal Die Kommunistische Internationale (no. 10/1920), a well-informed KPD member, under the name of ‘Spartakus’, has provided a description of the Kapp Putsch. Among other things, he writes:

The situation in Berlin was such that, after the six-day general strike, the Kapp government was totally bankrupt, as Kapp himself resigned, and the trade union federation under the leadership of Legien was forced under the pressure of its members to place demands upon the Ebert government, which caused the fragmentation of the bourgeois-Socialist coalition. The possibility existed of forcing from the Ebert-Bauer government, through the continuation of the general strike, the formation of a workers’ government with the expulsion of the bourgeois parties. Legien negotiated with the USPD, in order to induce it to enter the government. The right wing of the USPD was inclined to agree with this suggestion. The attitude of the left wing depended upon the attitude that the KPD would adopt in the event of Legien’s proposal being accepted. As the left wing exercised a great influence within the party, whether or not Hilferding and Crispien [11] would accept Legien’s proposal depended upon Däumig. When our representatives amongst the strike leaders [of the general strike in Berlin — AR] unofficially learnt of this situation, they said that a workers’ government that excluded the bourgeois parties would naturally be preferable to a return to the old bourgeois-Socialist coalition, which, whatever the changes in personalities, would be the same as the Noske regime.

Following from this, the KPD’s Central Committee decided on 21 March that it would constitute a loyal opposition to a future workers’ government based upon the SPD and USPD. That meant that the KPD would not make preparations for an armed revolt, but would confine itself to peaceful propaganda. At this time, the SPD under Legien’s leadership, the right wing of the USPD, and even the KPD, were in favour of a workers’ government. The plan was wrecked by the opposition of the left wing of the USPD led by Däumig. This explains Pieck’s attack on Däumig at the Berlin meeting of the Industrial Councils.

The official biography of Legien — Leipart’s Karl Legien: ein Gedenkbuch (Berlin 1929) — does speak of Legien’s role in the Kapp Putsch, but unfortunately is silent upon the important question of the workers’ government. [12]


1. The Kapp Putsch was paralleled in Bavaria, and a military revolt forced the Social Democratic government to resign. Nonetheless, the incoming administration did not side with Kapp.

2. The term Majority Socialists means the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Gustav Noske (1868–1946) was a right-wing leader of the SPD, who as Minister of Defence ordered the Freikorps to crush the Spartakist rebellion in 1919. Wolfgang Heine (1861–?) was an SPD leader and the Minister of the Interior in the Prussian government during 1919–20. The USPD was the Independent Social Democratic Party, a left-wing split in April 1917 from the SPD. It split in 1920 (cf. n56, Thomas article), with a majority joining the KPD, and a rump returning to the SPD in 1922.

3. Friedrich Ebert (1871–1925) was a right-wing leader of the SPD, and the first President of the Weimar Republic.

4. A reference to the revolution of 9 November 1918, which overthrew Imperial rule in Germany.

5. Karl Legien (1861–1920) led the ADGB, the union federation allied with the SPD. Up until the Kapp Putsch, he had customarily stood on the right wing of the SPD, supporting the First World War, and opposing the revolutionary upheavals of 1918–19.

6. For Ernst Däumig, cf. n67, Thomas article.

7. Noske and Heine retired from their posts, as did the Chancellor, Gustav Bauer (1870–1944), a leading Socialist trade union leader. The new coalition was led by SPD member Hermann Müller (1876–1931), and it lasted until May 1921.

8. The above paragraphs are from pages 96–98 of the German edition, and correspond to pages 137–39 of the English edition.

9. This was a nine-point programme which called for the democratisation of the state apparatus, the dismissal and disarming of reactionary elements, improved social legislation, the socialisation of mining and power production, and the dismissal of Noske and Heine.

10. Wilhelm Pieck (1876–1960) was a minor official in the SPD, but stood on the left of the party. He was a founding member of the Spartakusbund and the KPD, and was subsequently a loyal Stalinist, becoming the President of the DDR.

11. Rudolf Hilferding (1877–1942) was one of German Socialism’s foremost economic theorists. He joined the USPD, and returned with the right-wing minority to the SPD in 1922. Exiled after Hitler’s victory, he was arrested by the Gestapo in Paris in 1940. Artur Crispien (1875–1936) was an official in the SPD, joined the USPD, and returned to the SPD in 1922.

12. The above paragraphs are from pages 220–21 of the German edition, and correspond to pages 333–35 of the English edition.

Updated by ETOL: 20.9.2011