It was a chilly January night in Berlin and a group of soldiers and officers were milling around the back entrance to the Eden Hotel when the first prisoner, Karl Liebknecht, was led out. He was a small, moustached man in his 40s with receding hair that was black, curly and matted with blood. One of the soldiers, Otto Runge, lunged forward swinging his rifle as a club. The butt crashed across the prisoner's head sending him sprawling. Semi-conscious, Liebknecht was dragged into a car that then sped off towards Tiergarten Park. Once there, the vehicle came to a halt and Liebknecht was ordered out. Staggering forward, he was oblivious to the pistols raised behind his back. The assassination was over in a split second.
Twenty minutes after Liebknecht's departure, a second detainee, Rosa Luxemburg, also came stumbling out of the hotel. This diminutive woman was in her 40s too and, just as before, Runge rushed forward using his weapon as a club. This time the victim collapsed either dead or dying. She was thrown into the back of another waiting car, which drove around 100 yards when a pistol shot was heard from within its interior...
In September 1918 Germany's Supreme Command realised that their country was on it last legs and decided to sue for peace and, in order to gain more favourable terms, set up a constitutional monarchy.
General Ludendorff was replaced by General Wilhelm Groener and Prince Max von Baden became Imperial Chancellor. But while the Supreme Command worried itself over the armistice terms, the German people seethed: indignant, angry and, often overlooked by historians, embittered by grief. The hostility was further heightened by stringent rationing that was now leading to starvation. With the war lost, the socialists in German society saw a chance to manoeuvre into power. The SPD (the majority socialists), were the largest party with the greatest support in Germany; their socialism was calm and methodical.
They were fronted by Fredrich Ebert, a podgy man with a gruff expression. He was an excellent organiser and was capable of taking decisive actions. Gustav Noske was to become his right-hand man. Tall and thickly built, Noske was a good speaker, with the ability of getting his enemies to bend to his will through words alone. But Noske was also ruthless enough to use violence to obtain his goals.
As the days wore on, the situation in Berlin and the country worsened. In early November, the sailors of the High Seas fleet Kiel revolted, although they were soon calmed by the brilliant realpolitik of Noske who was especially sent to tame the mutiny. However, many of the sailors upped sticks and headed either towards Germany's other main ports or to the capital. Of the latter, a large contingent numbering around 3,000 took over the Imperial Palace, the Schloss, and the imposing Imperial stables, the Marstall. They named themselves the People's Naval Division. Other destabilising elements were rife: army deserters roamed the streets alongside communists, anarchists and criminal gangs.
Despite the growing chaos, the SPD initially attempted to work with Prince Max von Baden's government. Unfortunately, von Baden's attempts to secure the Kaiser's abdication were painstakingly slow and, when he did finally receive confirmation that the Emperor was stepping down, it was too late.
Massed protests and strikes against the government and the monarchy were sweeping the nation, particularly in Berlin. The SPD, now fearful of losing popular support, withdrew from von Baden's government, leaving him no choice but to hand them power and the office of Chancellorship on 9 November. That evening, one of Ebert's colleagues, Philip Scheidemann, announced the foundation of the German Republic to protesters gathered below a set of French windows at the Reichstag.
Ebert was livid: how could he be an Imperial Chancellor of a Republic? Fortunately, constitutional complexities were far from the minds of most Germans. The new Chancellor's main tasks were to secure the armistice, maintain power and then gain a democratic mandate through elections. He faced many enemies and, although the greatest threat was not from the right, but from the left.
Danger from the left
The Independent Socialists, the USPD, had spilt from the SPD when the former refused to continue supporting total war. However, the right of their party still felt able to work with Ebert. The far left of the USPD opposed the SPD's stance and wanted to sweep away the old order entirely.
In Berlin the USPD had taken over the city police when Emil Eichhorn, an extreme leftist, had walked to the police headquarters on the Alexanderplatz, shoved his way through a large demonstration, entered the building and then brazenly announced: "I am the new police president." With a crowd baying for their blood, the policemen were keen to get out the building alive and the new 'police president' offered them a chance to leave unharmed. Eichhorn was duly appointed.
The Spartacists were further to the left of the USPD; their core support was small and based in the working-class slums, while the unusual name was an invention of their leader, the fiery Karl Liebknecht. During the war he had issued flyers deriding the Kaiser, but to avoid arrest he signed them 'Spartacus'. Liebknecht was a brilliant orator, although he was also impulsive and somewhat disorganised. Supporting him was Rosa Luxemburg, a Polish-born Jew who was also a good speaker, as well as an excellent theologian. She frowned upon Liebknecht's calls for direct action as too pre-emptive and too dangerous, especially when their militant supporters, the Spartacists, were still disorganised.
With the armistice signed, Germany prepared to welcome home the millions of men that had served in the Imperial Armies. But in Berlin and other parts of the country many had already walked away from their units to drift back home. Others joined militant groups on the far left. Some stayed in their barracks, half heartily carrying on with their duties.
Still, a right-wing putsch was attempted by using units still available in and around Berlin. The aim of the putsch was to rid the government of the Independents and was probably organised in connivance with the SPD. Several hundred troops surrounded the Chancellery, while others had rounded up prominent USPD men. They proclaimed Ebert 'president', although the Chancellor displayed a distinct lack of enthusiasm and refused to support them outright. Having failed to secure Ebert's support, the putschists hastily retreated. However, on central Chauseestrasse, a tragedy unfolded: an army machine gun opened fire on a Spartacist demonstration, killing 16 and injuring 12.
The Spartacists claimed Ebert had organised the putsch and then, having seen the lack of troops, backed off disclaiming all knowledge of events. That the investigation into the massacre was suspiciously halted points towards SPD foul-play somewhere along the line.
Ebert now waited for nine first-rate Imperial Army divisions to reach Berlin. With their support, he could begin to decisively manoeuvre against his enemies and keep the peace. The divisions arrived in the capital on 11 December. But much to Ebert's frustration, many of the soldiers simply walked away, with only a fraction of those available returning to their barracks and reporting for duty.
The battle begins
The People's Naval Division, having seen how quickly these army units dissolved, began to flex its muscles; they started to demand money and supplies. Exasperated by the threats, the Chancellor decided to starve the sailors out by withholding their pay, starting with their Christmas 'bonus' of 80,000 marks, a sizable sum at that time. They would only receive their money once they had evacuated the Schloss, handed its keys to Otto Wels (military governor of Berlin) and made arrangements to leave the Marstall. After this, Ebert hoped they could be pressured into disbanding for good.
Wishing to maintain their life of comparative luxury, the sailors decided to try and negotiate with the USPD – their natural allies. On 23 December, a delegation arrived at the Chancellery with the palace keys wanting to talk with USPD representatives. Each Independent they met with suggested that decisions could only be taken by those higher up within the party's ranks. Eventually, the sailors were told to negotiate direct with Ebert. In this they were thwarted, having been informed that the Chancellor was out to lunch.
Meanwhile, a group of other sailors had arrived at Wels' office demanding their pay. Wels made some phone calls but could receive no precise information as to the whereabouts of the keys. He put the phone down and effectively told the sailors that there was 'nothing doing'. Enraged, they tore up Wels' office and beat its occupant for good measure. They then took Wels and two of his subordinates hostage.
The hostage takers demands were simple: the hostages would be released once the sailors received the 80,000 marks. To speed the government's decision, a large contingent of sailors than left the Marstall and marched to the Chancellery, refusing to let anyone either enter or leave the building. Ebert now rushed to the scene and told the angry sailors to remain calm, declaring that his government would be willing to negotiate. He then went to his office and contacted army High Command via a secret telephone. Ebert was told to remain calm at that soldiers would march into to Berlin and 'set you free'.
As the People's Naval Division sailors straggled back to the Schloss and Marstall to celebrate what they believed to be a government capitulation, around 800 men of the Imperial Horse Guards were heading towards Berlin. The sailors demanded the army retire – otherwise they would stand and fight. Ebert began to worry; he was loathe for street fighting to erupt in the city's centre and so put in another phone call to High Command, now withdrawing his earlier request for help. Groener refused, stating: '[We] are determined to hold to the plan of liquidation of the Naval Division, and we shall see to it that it is carried out.'
In the early hours of 24 December, as the opposing forces stood eyeballing each other after an extremely tense night, Ebert asked the army to let him through their lines so he could negotiate with the sailors. His request was turned down, while the sailors also made it clear that they had nothing to discuss.
At 5 am the SPD managed to secure the release of Wels and his subordinates. It was hoped that this action would diffuse the tension. This was wishful thinking on the government's side; at 7.30 am the sailors in the Schloss were informed they had ten minutes to surrender. There was no response.
True to its word, the army began operations as soon as the time had expired. Guns blasted away at the façade of the palace, while Guardsmen dashed into the building to find it virtually empty. The sailors had fled to the Marstall via an underground passage. This building was now the primary target and, after a sharp bombardment, the occupants raised a white flag. The sailors asked for a 20 minute truce in order to arrange their surrender; many of them were wounded and over 30 had been killed.
The army made a fatal mistake by agreeing to this; within minutes street agitators had gathered thousands of protesters who then pushed their way into the army's positions, demanding the assault stop. Surrounded by civilians, the bemused troops held their fire, while the sailors promptly withdrew their white flag. Defeat had been snatched from the jaws of victory and the red-faced army commanders ordered a retreat.
News of the fiasco was received with horror by both High Command and the SPD. Meanwhile, Liebknecht and many of his Spartacist supporters were calling for an outright revolution. They should strike now before the elections (to be held in January) gave Ebert a democratic mandate, they argued. Rosa Luxemburg again urged caution, but was ignored. In celebration and in preparation for the forthcoming takeover of power, Liebknecht's bloc re-named itself the German Communist Party, the KPD.
Lull before the storm
Desperate, Ebert phoned Groener, asking what was to be done. The general replied that the Chancellor should immediately recall Noske and make him defence minister. Ebert took the advice. In the meantime, Liebknecht, far from organising a plan to take power, busied himself putting together a special edition of the extreme-left newspaper, Rote Fahne, which denounced Ebert's government.
Concurrently, the USPD inadvertently aided Ebert's cause by withdrawing from his government, in the belief they could only keep their support base by being in opposition. In this instance it was was a poor political move as it gave the Chancellor further control over the apparatus of the state. As for the sailors, they were content to rest on their laurels.
Noske arrived in Berlin bristling with confidence a few days later. His job would be a tough, dirty and dangerous, but he was ready: 'Someone must become the bloodhound,' he declared. Noske and Ebert now began a high-stakes strategy of moving against their opponents, starting with Berlin's troublesome police chief, Eichhorn. They demanded he step down. Eichhorn refused, confident that the government had no means of forcing him to go.
He had also been in talks with Liebknecht and his colleague Wilhelm Pieck (the future president of Communist East Germany), and had gained the Spartacists' support. Together with the militant trade unions, they called for a general strike to begin on 5 January; this was to be the start of a final showdown with Ebert's government. Few on the left at that time could have imagined the force about to unleashed by the SPD: the Freikorps had arrived.
The Freikorps appeared, even to those in power, to have come out of nowhere. In fact, their seeds were sown as the Imperial Army was collapsing when High Command decided to allow the formation of elite volunteer units. The men were hand picked for their reliability and a good number had been Stormtroopers on the Western Front. Arms and equipment were readily available, as Germany was awash with unused weaponry. The first Freikorps unit was created by General Ludwig von Maercker. His men were well paid, well motivated and they loathed, above all else, the far left. Maercker had also chosen some excellent staff to help develop new urban warfare tactics.
Other Freikorps were being formed too. For example, in rebellious Kiel several brigades had been created, including the 1,600-men 'Iron Brigade', set up under Noske's auspices after he had quashed the mutiny. However, in January 1919 the number of Freikorps units was comparatively small; there still no more than a dozen available, although the numbers were starting to swell with every passing day.
On 4 January, as the Spartacists plotted, Noske invited Ebert to a military camp 35 miles south-west of the capital to inspect the results of Maercker's work. Standing in the grim cold, they were presented with 4,000 men marching ram-rod straight across the parade ground in perfectly ordered ranks. Noske and Ebert could hardly contain their glee as the soldiers stomped past. The defence minister even gave the Chancellor a hearty slap on the back, saying: 'Now you can rest easy; everything is going to be all right from now on.'
Sunday January 5 saw a gigantic protest march in favour of Eichhorn. As the crowds gathered, revolutionary groups seized the major railway stations and communications centres. That evening leaflets were printed calling for more massed demonstrations on the next day. The Marstall sailors were invited to join the rising, but they remained non-committal, unwilling to risk the position they had only just managed to hold.
The following day, the crowds gathered again, with almost all expecting that a full-scale revolution was about to be declared. Nothing happened. The 'Revolutionary Committee', a 53-man group headed by Liebknecht, debated, hummed, hawed and came up with no decisive measures. It was this dallying that gave the SPD their lifeline.
By 7 January the lead elements of the Freikorps had gathered in leafy West Berlin under the guidance of Noske. About 900 other men were stationed at the north Berlin barracks of Moabit under the command of Colonel Wilhelm Reinhard. Another Freikorps unit, the 'Potsdam Regiment', had also mobilised and numbered around 1,200 men. They were under the immediate command of Major von Stephani and, on the night of January 9-10, were ordered into Berlin to prepare for operations.
Once the order had come through, Stephani decided to head out in advance and make his own reconnaissance. He raced over to the offices of the SPD newspaper Vorwärts that had been taken over by the Spartacists and, disguised as a revolutionary, made a detailed investigation of the building. Stephani was confident of success. On returning to his forces, he issued a demand for the Spartacists to surrender. Predictably, they refused and at 8.15 am on 11 January the Freikorps' machine guns, howitzers and trench mortars blasted the Vorwärts building. The Spartacists tried to reply with their own machine guns but, once registered, were promptly obliterated by the Freikorps' overwhelming firepower.
Having faced several minutes of ferocious assault, seven Spartacists left the building waving white handkerchiefs and offered to discuss details of a possible truce. The Freikorps demanded unconditional surrender. One of the Spartacists was sent back to tell his comrades, while the other six were taken away and shot. Then, not bothering to wait for a reply (there was to be no repeat of the Marstall fiasco here), Stephani's shock-troops ran forward and stormed the building, capturing around 300 prisoners. Many of the Spartacists were beaten senseless and, again, some were shot out of hand.
On January 11, Gustav Noske and of his forces in West Berlin moved out in force, with the defence minister walking at the head of a large column made up of men predominately from the bulk of Maercker's Volunteer Rifles and his own Iron Brigade that had rushed to Berlin to join in with operations. After arriving in central Berlin the force proceeded to Moabit barracks, where they linked up with Reinhard's forces.
That night a strong detachment of Reinhard's men was ordered to take back the police headquarters on the Alexanderplatz. They attacked with vigour; artillery was brought up and shells screamed into the building, smashing vast chunks out of it. Freikorps infantry followed up, storming into the building. No quarter was given, although some Spartacists managed to escape via the rooftops.
On January 12, Noske decided to consolidate his positions. Within 24 hours he was ready to unleash his entire force. Freikorps men, working in small teams now closed off blocks of Berlin at a time, placing civilians under strict curfew. Protests were simply broken up, often with force. Searchlights were then set up and anyone caught in their glare after the curfew was deemed a legitimate target. Faced with this onslaught, the general strike was called off. By midnight January 15 the Spartacist revolution collapsed.
The leadership of the uprising was now being hunted down. The two major prizes were, of course, Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Liebknecht initially escaped to a safe house in a working-class district. But on January 14, fearing the authorities were on to him, he fled to a cousin's house in the middle-class district of Wilmersdorf. He erroneously thought that nobody would think of searching for him in the midst of the bourgeoisie. Wilhelm Pieck and Rosa Luxemburg joined him shortly afterwards. On January 15, Liebknecht and Luxemburg wrote their last articles for the Rote Fahne. Liebknecht's parting shot proclaimed: 'Our programme will live on: it will dominate the world of liberated humanity.' Perhaps Liebknecht foresaw his fate.
At 9 pm a patrol from a Freikorps unit stationed nearby broke into the apartment, having been tipped off by a local resident. The soldiers seized the communist leaders and took them to the Eden Hotel for 'questioning'. Wilhelm Pieck seems to have cut a deal to stay alive, as he was eventually released him. As for Liebknecht and Luxemburg, the Freikorps had other plans for them...
Liebknecht's body was dumped at the morgue near the zoo, while Luxemburg's was thrown into the Landwehr canal. It would be found five months later, barely recognisable. The Freikorps celebrated and were so sure of their position, and so contemptuous of their opponents, that they only bothered to construct half-hearted alibis.
Ebert knew that the Freikorps had executed the two revolutionaries in cold blood and so ordered an investigation. But the Freikorps were not about to let these 'heroes' be sent to prison and the judiciary agreed. In a risible trial, only two of the men, Lieutenant Vogel (the man who probably fired the fatal shot into Rosa Luxemburg), and Otto Runge, were given sentences: two years each. Vogel was promptly helped to escape by Naval Lieutenant Wilhelm Canaris and then driven to safety of the Dutch border. Canaris would later command the Nazi Abwehr and German Military Intelligence.
Having survived the uprising, the government called the promised elections. They were held on January 19 and the SPD came first with an overwhelming 40% of the vote. As the new Assembly gathered in the town of Weimar, unemployment and starvation were ravaging the nation. Reacting to the discontent, Communist uprisings flared up across the country. Unfortunately for the USPD, KPD and their allies, no single supreme command for co-ordinating their revolution existed. The government was able to move Freikorps units to each flashpoint and use them to crush each insurgency one at a time. By March, all eyes were turned again to Berlin. Having re-grouped, the Spartacists tried to seize control for a second time. On the morning of March 3, the Rote Fahne proclaimed a general strike.
Noske immediately declared a state of siege and gave the order for the Freikorps to enter Berlin on 4 March. That afternoon, crowds gathered outside the police headquarters on Alexanderplatz and, having roughly handled a Freikorps detachment, promptly found themselves on the receiving end of an armoured car's machine guns.
On the next day the People's Naval Division received news that they had been 'disbanded' after the government issued an official announcement of the fact. Disgruntled, a group of sailors approached the Berlin Police HQ to voice their protest. Jumpy from the previous day, one of the Freikorps soldiers shot and mortally wounded a sailor. Enraged and wanting revenge, the People's Naval Division threw their lot in with the revolutionaries. That night angry mobs, including sailors, surrounded the police station and were only kept at bay by sustained rifle fire.
March 6 witnessed the climax in the fighting. Colonel Reinhard's Freikorps arrived near the Alexanderplatz, bringing with them a tank just in case. The infantry split into small groups and began to slash a path through the revolutionaries, rapidly taking over their key strong points. During the battle, the Friekorps had come under fire from the Marstall. Furious, they turned their heaviest guns on the building. Within half an hour the former Imperial stables had been seized and the army's Christmas humiliation avenged. However, the defenders in a neighbouring building named the 'People's Marine House' offered stiffer resistance. To help crush these revolutionaries an air strike was called in. But still the sailors continued fight on. Reinhard now ordered an outright assault, although it took three attacking waves before victory was secured.
The Spartacists and their allies were now beaten back to working-class tenements of East Berlin. Here they threw up barricades and turned the entire suburb of Lichtenberg into an armed fortress. An estimated 10,000 revolutionaries prepared for the final showdown.
Blood on the streets
On 9 March a rumour circulated that the Lichtenberg police station had been stormed by revolutionaries and that 70 police officers had been executed in cold blood. Like many other publications, Vorwärts reported the next day that the men had been 'shot like animals'. The story was an exaggeration. Five policemen had been killed, although the exact causes remained unknown. But regardless of the facts, Noske now issued his notorious order declaring: 'Any individual bearing arms against government troops will be summarily shot.'
For the next four days the Freikorps had carte blanche in East Berlin. Thirty sailors from the People's Naval Division were gunned down in a courtyard for having the audacity to turn up to a government office demanding back pay. In one case, a father and a son were dragged into the street and shot. Their crime: possessing the handle of a stick grenade.
By 12 March, the Freikorps burst into the building housing the Workers' Council of Berlin, the Spartacist nerve centre. The Council was forcibly dissolved and peace slowly returned to Berlin's streets. Noske had destroyed the Spartacists and had seen the sailors crushed. But the price had been high: between 1,200 and 1,500 were dead and roughly 12,000 wounded. The Freikorps reported negligible losses.
Many of those involved in crushing the Berlin uprisings sincerely believed they were saving lives in the long run by stopping Germany from descending into a Red Terror as experienced in Lenin's Russia. In this, their fears was well grounded. Liebknecht certainly made no bones about calling for the blood of his enemies, while the Spartacists and the People's Naval Division had a propensity for using fighting methods often equally as brutal as those favoured by the Freikorps. But regardless of the threat Germany faced, it is difficult to excuse much of the suffering the Freikorps inflicted on Berliners, particularly in March 1919. The freehand given to them in the capital, the lessons they had learnt there, and the official recognition they subsequently received would critically weaken the new Weimar Republic.
In the long run, many would turn against Ebert, the German people and, eventually, the rest of the world; a large proportion of Freikorps veterans found their way into influential positions within the administration of the Third Reich and its most fearsome terror organisations.
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Last updated: October 4, 2013