Violence and the German Revolution of 1918-1919
Cambridge University Press 2018
This is the English language version of the book by Dr Mark Jones, who is a young Irish academic. He is a research fellow at University College Dublin and has spent a lot of time at the Free University of Berlin and in the German National Archives.
This book is a published version of his PhD thesis. The events described are part of the turbulent aftermath of WWI, which has until recent years been largely overlooked. It was an era of anarchy, disorder, paramilitary violence and murder. The year 1917 had seen the Russian Bolshevik revolution and there was great fear amongst all the European states of similar events happening in their country. Germany was no exception. It is the events in Germany that this book deals with in great detail, from the period of the fall of the monarchy in November 1918, aided by the naval mutinies in Wilhelmshaven and Kiel, to the end of the Munich communist regime in May 1919.
As such, the book deals in considerable detail with the progression in the use of violence by the Weimar regime, from it being an almost benign regime to the use of the army and paramilitary Freicorps to repress the communists, known as Sparticists in Germany at this time. The use of force was escalated by the “shoot to kill” order given by the government to its forces which permitted arbitrary executions of persons deemed by those on the ground to be “revolutionaries”. There are examples of the atrocious murders carried out by the government forces in early 1919.
The author makes extensive use of newspapers of the day to illustrate the inflammatory rhetoric that was used, and the sheer inaccuracy of the information being bandied about. Fake news is not new. The two key political figures of the Sparticist movement were Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg. Liebknecht’s profile and influence was much exaggerated firstly by the man himself, when he claimed to have done and said things which, the author points out, Liebknecht had not. Secondly, the right wing press regarded him as a bogey man and attributed words and deeds to him which were not his. Thus, his myth was greater than his words and deeds.
The January 1919 Sparticist uprising in Berlin is analysed by the author as a haphazard affair, rather than the popular recollection of it being an organised uprising. It involved the insurgents barricading themselves into buildings, as inept a tactic in Berlin as it had been in Dublin in 1916. Liebknecht was deeply involved in the events of early January. However, the failure to attract the support of the bulk of the armed forces doomed the enterprise. In the week or so of the uprising some 150 to 200 people died, many of them innocent civilians. After the fighting had ended, a group of army officers from the ultraconservative Guards Cavalry Division held Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg in the Hotel Eden in Berlin, and then murdered them, discarding the bodies. There was no independent investigation into the deaths. German military law had precedence over civil law at that time, and there was a whitewash of those involved.
In southern Germany, the communist Bavarian Council’s Republic had been established in Munich, an island of radicalism in a sea of Catholic conservatism, partly due to the population of industrial workers and the presence of many demobilised soldiers in the city. Government regular forces and Freicorps attacked the area on 29th April 1919. The author describes the panicky, arbitrary killings, massacres and the murder of hostages, which occurred as the attackers assumed that there were reds under every bed, so to speak. Some 700 people were captured and executed. The government forces used all the panoply of modern warfare, including artillery, planes and machine guns, against their own citizens.
The final chapter “Conclusion” is in fact a good introduction to the book, as is often the case, and would be better being read first rather than last. Overall, the book does read rather like a PhD thesis at times, and would have benefitted from severe editing to make it more readable and shorter. However, it is good book on an obscure area of post-WWI history and is worth reading.