Oskar Hippe

Selected Chapters From

...And Red Is The Colour Of Our Flag

After The November Uprising

Chapter 4

I was instructed by the party to take a report to Halle and not to return to Berlin for the time being. The KPD was relatively strong in the central German industrial area, especially in the Geisel valley coalfield. The party introduced me to a comrade who worked as an engine driver at the Elise II pit, and who was chair of the KPD branch in Miicheln, a small town in the coalfield. Since no youth group existed here as yet, it was my task to set one up. I made my home in my parents’ house.

Each evening I spent at the trade union building: that is where comrade Haubenreisser lived. On 15 January, a courier brought us the news of the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. On the very same evening, party officials and shop stewards met to discuss how the workers should respond to this.

The local executive of the USPD was also meeting in the trade union building, likewise deciding on their response to the murder of Karl and Rosa. In a joint meeting of the KPD, workers’ committees and the USPD, we decided to call a protest demonstration for the next day, which would end up at the market place in Mücheln. Fifteen thousand people had gathered at the square when comrade Scheibner, the USPD chair, opened the meeting. There were similar meetings in Querfurt, Schafstàdt and Lauchstädt, towns near Mücheln.

A protest resolution to the government demanded that the murderers of Karl and Rosa should be punished. Then the news reached our meeting that the chair of the District Workers’ Committee in Querfurt had been arrested. (The workers’ and soldiers’ committees at this time were authorised by the provisional government, and thus were official bodies.) This man had tried to round up all the weapons which the peasants in Oberw~nsch, a farming village, had received from ‘Orgesch’, an organisa- tion of right-wing military groups. The peasants had beaten him up, attached him to a chain and locked him in a large kennel.

The masses, who were already stirred up by the news of the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, demanded of the organisers of the meeting that they march to Oberwünsch to free the chair of the District Workers’ Committee. Hundreds, including myself and many other young workers, marched to Oberwunsch. The leadership lay in the hands of an old miners’ official by the name of Karl John. We were joined by demonstrators from Querfurt and Schafstädt. Just before the village, we were shot at. In the meantime, demonstrators from Lauchstädt had met us. Although we had no weapons, it was decided that we should enter the village from all directions and try to force the peasants to hand over their weapons and free the District chair. And in most cases, this tactic met with success.

But in one street, a farmer and his three sons—all four army officers -had entrenched themselves. As we later discovered, they had also armed the Russian prisoners of war who were working on their farm, and told them to shoot at us. Sheltered by the houses, we succeeded in reaching the farm and getting through the gate. But before we could cross the farmyard, several of us fell wounded. The peasant and his uniformed sons were disarmed; the Russian POWs were left alone. They were simply told that they had shot at revolutionary workers.

Our leaders decided that the farmer and his three sons should be tried before a people’s tribunal—naturally, only a symbolic trial—to be held in the inn across the road. They were brought from their yard into the main room of the inn.

The way there was lined by the demonstrators who—still enraged by the murder of Karl and Rosa—hit the prisoners as they passed. Although the leaders tried, they did not succeed in stopping this entirely. The people’s tribunal was held, and condemned all four to a long jail sentence. They were found guilty of acting against bodies of the government and their representatives, which was the equivalent of high treason. But they were told that the monarchy had come to an end, that the republic had taken its place, and that this, if the workers had their way, would eventually be a socialist republic. Although the chair of the District Workers’ Committee, now free again, put in an official complaint against the peasants of OberwUnsch before the High County Court in Naumburg, nothing ever came of it.

Instead, a few days later, workers who had participated in the events began to be arrested; I fell victim to this as well. One of the first arrested was the miners’ official Karl John. The charge sheet included riot, serious

breach of the peace, looting and assault. The charge of looting came about because several demonstrators, having entered the farmer’s house, had cleared out a part of the smokehouse. This was understandable in those years of hunger after the war, even if not politically defensible. I was taken in handcuffs from MUcheln to Halle by two policemen. We travelled by rail, in a ‘shift train’ taking hundreds of workers to Halle and Merseburg. The workers were greatly perturbed, but luckily there was no confrontation with the policemen. At Halle, we took the tram from the main railway station to the central prison—the ‘Ox-head’ as it was popularly known. For weeks, my parents had no news of me.

Only in April, when we were transferred from the Ox-head to the remand prison, did I at last have a chance to get word to them. In Halle, the political climate since the November uprising had been determined by the Workers’ Commitfee, Later, the SPD and USPD joined in. In the central German industrial area generally there was a strong left-wing movement, in which the USPD played a decisive role. In March 1919, the government transferred the ‘Maercker Freikorps’ to Halle. The story was that they were there to restore the peace, which in reality no one had actually disturbed. Both the unions and the KPD and USPD protested against the presence of the Freikorps and demanded their withdrawal.

The only reply was the arrest of trade union officials, regardless of whether they were town councillors or Communists or members of the USPD (Independent Social-Democratic Party of Germany). The workers reacted with a strike. Then the central strike leadership was arrested as well. There were clashes with the military. There were battles at the town theatre, in the market place and in the Stein Strasse. After three days, the working class of Halle was beaten. Hundreds were dragged off to the Ox-head.

Although the Maercker Freikorps were supposed to be ‘republican’ and ‘democratic’—at least that is how the government described them, and they were later incorporated into the official army which was 100,000 strong—they were no different from the other Freikorps in their brutality against workers.

Guard duty outside the cell-blocks was also undertaken by the Freikorps. If a prisoner showed himself at a cell window, the cry rang out: ‘Get away from that window!’ If this order was not immediately complied with, a shot would be fired. The members of the Maercker Freikorps were mostly high-school students, young people of seventeen or eighteen, whose faces were almost completely covered by their steel helmets: but they were completely at home with their antique rifles. In the eyes of the workers, all the Freikorps were the same—reactionary and monarchist. But Noske, as war minister, took part in the meetings between army officers and the officers of the Freikorps which directed their deployment.

At the end of April, around 85 of us were transferred from the Ox-head to the remand prison. The food was bad, just as it had been in the Ox-head, mostly ‘barbed wire’ and dried vegetables. If you were unlucky and were served last from the pot, you generally got a thick layer of sand at the bottom of your plate. Additionally, in the mornings and evenings, there were two slices of bread. If my mother had not been around at this time, I would have starved. She came to visit me once a week, with a big basket over her shoulder containing underwear and some food, including a large home-baked loaf.

In contrast to the Ox-head, we did not have to worry about any tricks at the Stein Strasse prison. The screws treated us correctly and we were not plagued by bedbugs. In the meantime, we got to see the indictment. As I have mentioned, we were charged with riot, serious breach of the peace, looting and grievous assault. We were defended by Dr Barbasch, a famous lawyer in Halle who had already played a role in the socialist movement before the war. After a period of detention, most of the accused were spared further imprisonment; only comrade John, as supposed ringleader, and those few who had been witnessed in acts of assault and looting (or so our lawyer was told), were kept in prison.

In July, we were allowed to return home. Our solidarity ensured that those who had to remain imprisoned were provided for. During the period of our arrest, our organisation had been further strengthened, and even the youth organisation now showed some promise. None of those arrested kept away from political work. On the basis that ‘whatever does not kill us can only make us tougher’, we threw ourselves into our work again.

The MUcheln branch of the KPD did not restrict itself to local matters. A series of surrounding villages also came into the Mücheln district organisation. The miners’ community at Neubiendorf, attached to the Cecilie pit which belonged to the Werschen-Weissenfels Lignite Company, provided the majority of branch members. Many members and officials of the miners’ union had enrolled in the KPD. The lignite works in the Geisel valley was going at full blast. Workers came not only from Merseburg and Halle, but also from Sonneberg in Thuringia, and they had been recruited from the Bavarian Forest district.

Most of them were housed in huts which had sheltered POWs during the war. The barbed wire had been removed, but the people in the huts still lived cheek-by-jowl just like the POWs. The beds were pushed closely together or stacked in bunks. In one corner there were army surplus metal lockers, 30 centimetres wide, and in the middle of the room a stove. Those who slept near the stove sweated all night, while those sleeping around the walls could never get warm.

At first it was very difficult to make contact with the workers in the huts. During their spare time they usually played cards; and ‘King Alcohol’ also played a major role. It was not unusual for pent-up aggression to burst out into fist fights, which often led to bloodshed.

These men worked either on the spoil heaps or down the pit. It was very heavy work which had to be done in all weathers, even when it rained. When they returned from their shift, they had to dry their wet clothes at the only stove in the hut. These workers were also the worst-paid. The men who lived in the huts never had any money to spare, and they were always in debt at the company store.

It was difficult for me to find employment in the coalfield in my trade as lathe worker. There were a few metalworks in Merseburg. At the Leuna works, where 25,000 workers were employed at that time, there was a lathe shop and capstan lathes. But there was no opening for me there, since those who already had work also hung onto it. The majority of the metalworkers from Halle and Merseburg had found work in the lignite coalfield or in Leuna.

I received no unemployment benefit, since young people living with their parents could not legally qualify for support. My brother, who also stayed with us, worked at the Cecilie pit on the spoil heaps, since he could find no work in Leipzig. So, since I was still without a job four weeks after my release from prison, I started at the same place as my brother. This was 45 minutes from the pit. If you were lucky, you could get there on the pit train, though that was forbidden in the safety regulations. Most of the time you had to walk there, because the train was still being loaded. The workers living in the barracks had even further to go.

The spoil heap lay in the middle of open land; the waste—including clay, sand, stones and even perfectly good soil—had been piled up here for many years. The company did not concern itself that good land was being destroyed.

The work at the tip was very hard. There was a shelter for bad weather, but when the trains arrived immediately one after the other we could not really use it. Sometimes the ground became so wet in the rain that the rails sank in and the wagons tipped over. The trains had sixteen to eighteen wagons. There was a bonus for the drivers of the power shovels and the train drivers, and for the team leaders, if more than eighteen trains were completed in a shift. The workers on the teams never got anything extra.

Sometimes, when the ground under the rails was slippery from rain, the first few wagons were derailed. If the pins that joined the wagons were not pulled out quickly enough, then the whole train could slide down. On one occasion the whole train, complete with locomotive, fell down the embankment. That put paid to the bonus for that day and the following day, since the wagons had to be pulled back up again; there was a special team looking after the locomotive. The team leader fumed, but it did not bother the men much.

Apart from myself and my brother, there were another two men from the village. They belonged to the USPD, it is true, but in discussions they always supported our arguments. These discussions always aimed at explaining to the men from Bavaria or the Thuringian Forest the difference between the social classes and the exploitative nature of capitalism. These men had never heard anything about a progressive workers’ movement before. They knew nothing about trade union struggles or of the workers’ parties. We often brought them leaflets or the Class Struggle, the regional paper of the Communist Party. Between trains, if the rails did not have to be adjusted or tightened, discussions took place. They called my brother ‘the propaganda minister’.

Gradually we gained some influence over our colleagues. On top of this, younger men, who had got to know local girls and married them, often moved into the houses of their politicised in-laws: many of them, who had only just joined the union, then became organised politically. The workers’ committees brought up with the management the subject of the appalling conditions in the huts. But nothing got done about it, neither at the Cecilie, nor at the other pits. After the men in the huts had been persuaded that only a strike could bring any improvements, the union delivered an ultimatum: if better living quarters were not provided immediately, then there would be strikes at the plants. But even then the management did not react. Only when the strike had been called did they give in.

For us in the the union, this was a great victory. Not only did our colleagues declare their solidarity with us in future struggles, but now they became active on their own account. This was to be shown most clearly in the struggles against Kapp in 1920, when many workers from the barracks marched alongside us against the putschists. In the meantime I began to build up the Communist Youth League (KJV) with other young workers. We found fertile ground for this. The groups in Mücheln and Neumark were especially strong. The Mücheln branch of the KJV had well over a hundred members. Now we had to underpin our organisational success with ideological foundations.

Both the Merseburg regional sub-committee and the regional leadership in Halle gave us support by supplying lecturers who gave talks on the foundations of scientific socialism. A popular subject was the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917. In the early days especially, we conducted our educational evenings as seminars, so that all the members could take part in the discussion. At the first leadership elections, I was selected to attend a delegate conference of the Merseburg sub-region.

In November 1919, my sister Martha fell ill. Her husband had been killed in the war. In Mücheln there were only two doctors for some 20,000 people. My sister complained of pains in her abdomen, and she had diarrhoea and a high temperature. Since she could not attend the surgery, it was some days before the doctor could see her at our house. His diagnosis was tuberculosis.

When my mother suggested that it might perhaps be typhoid fever, he declared: ‘Frau Hippe, your daughter has tuberculosis, that is quite evident.’ He gave her treatment accordingly, without taking any precau-tions to prevent the spread of infection.

My sister Frieda now lived in the village, though she still came to our house regularly. It was not long before she began to show the same symptoms. A short time later, it affected my sister Emma, who was married to a man in the village. In spite of this, the doctor did not change his diagnosis. Only when my mother fell ill—she being registered with the Railwaymen’s Health Insurance as an employee’s relative—did a doctor from the insurance decide that it was typhoid and order her transfer to the local hospital in Merseburg. I, too, suffered the same symptoms, but continued to go to work. Since I had no faith in the doctor, I went to a homeopath in Leipzig. The medicine which he prepared for me brought some relief, but my complaint remained, and so I was taken to the hospital as well.

There were seven of us lying there in hospital, five adults and two of my sister Frieda’s children, while my sister Martha’s two children and my father and brother remained alone at home, since they had been spared. My brother looked after the children, washed the clothes, cooked the meals, and was very proud one day when he came to visit and reported that my sister’s two daughters, who never usually wanted to eat carrot stew, had eaten more than a plateful for him. Later, when my mother and I had returned home, we found the carrots in the plate drawer of the kitchen table, where the two girls had shovelled them when unwatched.

My sister Frieda and my sister Ottilie from Leipzig, who had come to look after things, both died. The doctor was never called to account, although the true facts were known both to the hospital and the health authorities.

The trial arising from the events in Oberwünsch took place in January 1920. Eighty-five people sat in the dock, except me, who still lay in the hospital. None of the accusations were withdrawn. The defending lawyer pleaded for acquittal, on the basis that neither riot nor breach of the peace could apply. After all, the accused, in danger of their lives, had simply wanted to liberate a representative of the young republic, a man who, as chair of the District Workers’ Committee, was simply complying with an edict of the government. The removal of food from the farmer’s house could surely not be treated as looting, but rather as theft of food, and even that had only been committed by a few of the accused. Similarly, the accusation of bodily harm was without foundation, since it could only have been committed by a few of the accused and against the will of the main accused, Karl John.

These speeches for the defence scarcely made the slightest impression on the judge. The trial, which lasted several days and during which the accused barely got to speak, ended with the speech of the public prosecutor in which fifteen years penitentiary were demanded for the accused Karl John. For the other accused, he demanded between three and five years penitentiary or prison, and for the Sitte brothers, who were accused of participating in the looting, eight years penitentiary. The judge chose these sentences.

Only my friend and 1, who were sentenced in the summer of 1920, received ‘just’ eighteen months’ prison. We came under the amnesty which the government announced after the Kapp putsch. Of the other men sentenced, only comrade John and the brothers Sitte were released under a later amnesty. A great number of workers were angered and embittered by the sentences, and there were protest demonstrations and strikes. The KPD and USPD tried in a major campaign to explain the role played in this matter by the SPD, the German Democratic Party and the centrists, as the Trojan Horses of reaction.

Neither the Government of People’s Deputies nor the first government constituted during the National Assembly at Weimar had got rid of the old ministerial bureaucracy or the monarchist judiciary, who were permitted to continue to pass judgement in the name of democracy. On 13 January 1920, the government of the Social Democrat Gustav Bauer supplied ample evidence that it was not simply an oversight that the ministerial bureaucrats and the monarchist judiciary had not been sacked and replaced by democratic forces, but rather that it was the intention of the government to proceed in alliance with these reactionary forces against the rebellious working class.

When the law on works councils was being read, a demonstration of factory workers at the Konigsplatz demanded the implementation of Article 165 of the Weimar Constitution. Article 165 proclaimed that waged workers and salaried staff were to be given parity with employers in deciding wages and working conditions and to be given a full say in deciding overall economic development. The government, in its confronta-tion with the unions and the opposition in the workers’ movement—KPD and USPD—had promised to apply Article 165 in full, and further, to complete the ‘socialisation’ of key industries. But it did not keep a single one of its promises.

The law which now lay before parliament proposed the election of separate workers’ and employees’ committees, which would then meet to form the works council. Additionally, there was only to be a right of complaint, but not a right of co-determination, and not a single word about cooperation in production. A central committee of shop stewards formed by the KPD and USPD called the demonstration on the day that the bill was being considered. More than 100,000 workers congregated. Many of them had already left their factories at lunchtime.

For no apparent reason, the soldiers and policemen hidden behind the pillars of the Reichstag shot into the crowd. Forty-two workers met with their deaths and over a hundred were injured. The newspapers reported that the police had laid into the retreating crowd with a brutality which had not been seen even in the strike of the munitions workers. In the central German industrial area, there were enormous demonstrations and protest strikes, but there were no other actions.

The bloodbath in front of the Reichstag brought to a close a year in which the revolutionary section of the working class had been obliged to abandon positions which it had won in the first months after the war. The forces of reaction had regained the upper hand with the help of the SPD. Apart from the ‘Army of 100,000’, new Freikorps had been formed. In the beginning, big advertisements for the Freikorps were to be found, even in the Social-Democratic press, inviting people to join up. Only protests by members forced the party leadership to prohibit such advertisements. The revolutionary section of the working class was beaten in many places in Germany, but not conquered.