In January 1919, the Spartacists were defeated in Berlin by the Reichswehr and the Freikorps – but the threat of a Bolshevik-style socialist revolution was far from over. In several locations across the former empire, radicals were able to seize power and form new socialist states known as German Soviet republics.
The Russian Revolution
The German Soviet republics were inspired by events in revolutionary Russia and in many cases, modelled on Russia’s Soviets (revolutionary councils representing workers, soldiers and sailors).
In Germany, these Soviet movements took shape from various workers’ and soldiers’ councils that formed during and after the Kiel mutiny. Led by radical socialists and idealists, these councils seized control of provincial governments and declared themselves independent Soviet republics.
The Soviet republics that formed in Germany in 1918-19 were often poorly organised, poorly administered or lacked sufficient support. As a consequence, they quickly collapsed or were overrun by government forces or anti-socialist Freikorps.
The Saxon Soviet
The first of these Soviet republics was formed in Saxony, an eastern kingdom encompassing the cities of Dresden and Leipzig. The abdication of the popular King Frederick Augustus III on November 13th 1918 had left Saxony leaderless.
The local workers’ council immediately filled this power vacuum. On November 19th, its leaders declared independence and the birth of the Soviet Republic of Saxony. They then unfurled a radical socialist program including nationalisation of industry and seizure of private property.
The socialist seizure of power was not popular with everyone and the ensuing months were marred by protests, violence and political assassinations.
In April 1919, the Soviet government severed ties with the Weimar Republic, prompting an invasion by Weimar troops. The socialists were removed from power until March 1920 but reassembled and one year later, seized control again. They were finally defeated in 1923.
Bremen and the northern ports
A second Soviet republic was formed in Bremen, an industrial port city in Germany’s north. The workers’ and soldiers’ council there had grown large and powerful and was led by radicals. Inspired by the Spartacist uprising in Berlin, they proclaimed the birth of the Bremen Soviet Republic on January 10th 1919.
Its leaders followed this proclamation with radical measures, seizing bank accounts including those of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), arming workers and declaring a general strike.
Within 48 hours, Bremen’s socialist takeover had inspired similar events in other coastal cities including Hamburg, Cuxhaven and Wilhelmshaven. If the movement was to consolidate and spread, much of northern Germany would be in socialist hands.
The Bremen Soviet Republic lasted just under a month. In February 1919, it was toppled by Weimar government-backed Freikorps troops. Most of its leaders were captured and executed.
The Bavarian Socialist Republic
In April 1919, socialists attempted another revolution in southern Germany. Taking advantage of local disorder, they seized control of the government in Bavaria and declared an independent Soviet republic. They named Munich as their capital, appointed ministers and established contact with Bolshevik rulers in Russia.
The Bavarian socialists were only marginally more successful than their Spartacist cousins in Berlin. In May, after just four weeks in power, the Bavarian Soviet was attacked by 9,000 Reichswehr soldiers and 30,000 members of the Freikorps.
After days of bitter fighting, control of Bavaria was returned to the Weimar government. More than 1,700 communists were killed in the battle for Munich or subsequently executed by the Freikorps.
The suppression of these socialist groups saw the situation ease by mid-1919. The passing of the Weimar constitution effectively brought the German Revolution to a close, though many more troubles lay ahead for the new government.
1. In the wake of the Spartacist Uprising, there were several attempts to replace provincial governments with a socialist regime and proclaim them Soviet republics.
2. These attempts at revolution were instigated by workers’ councils formed during and after the Kiel mutiny and modelled on Russian revolutionary Soviets.
3. The first of these German Soviet republics was formed in Saxony in November 1918. It survived until April 1919 when it attempted to secede and was overrun by government forces.
4. Two of the more significant Soviet republics were Bremen (January-February 1919) and Bavaria (April-May 1919). Both were eventually defeated by Freikorps and government troops.
5. The passing of the Weimar constitution and the consolidation of the national government brought these left-wing revolutions to an end in 1919-20, though the threat of socialist uprisings remained.