The Spartacist uprising

liebknecht spartacist uprising
Karl Liebknecht, the radical leader of what became known as the Spartacist Uprising

The Spartacist uprising was a critical event in the German Revolution and the early Weimar Republic. It was an attempt to seize control of Berlin and replace the transitional government with a radical socialist regime. The uprising was launched in January 1919 by the Spartakusbund, a group of radical socialists led by Karl Liebknecht. It failed due to the intervention of the military and Freikorps units, which mobilised to defend the government.

The Spartacists

On November 9th 1918, following the forced abdication of Wilhelm II, two Social Democratic Party (SPD) politicians took the helm of government. Friedrich Ebert was named as chancellor, replacing Max von Baden, while Philipp Scheidemann delivered an impromptu and unauthorised speech declaring the birth of a new German republic.

Ebert and Scheidemann were not the only contenders for power, however. Two hours after Scheidemann’s declaration, Karl Liebknecht addressed enthusiastic supporters in a Berlin park and also declared the birth of the new state: the “Free Socialist Republic of Germany”.

Liebknecht was the leader of the Spartakusbund, a radical left-wing party that had begun as a faction of the SPD. The group broke from the SPD in 1915 over the party’s ongoing support for the war effort, something the Spartacists opposed. Liebknecht had spent more than two years in prison for publishing criticisms of Kaiserism, militarism and the war.

The Spartacists were led by Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, socialist activists and writers of Jewish descent who drew their inspiration from the 1917 Russian Revolution. They had no regard for Ebert and the moderate wing of the SPD, condemning them as instruments of the bourgeoisie and echoing their conservative, pro-war agenda.

A workers’ revolution

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A Spartacist leader delivers a radical speech to German workers in 1918 -19

The Spartacists’ political program called for a workers’ revolution to begin the formation of a German Soviet state. In the last weeks of 1918, as Ebert’s government was finalising the armistice and organising elections for a national assembly, the Spartacists were busy in the cities, attempting to convince industrial workers to organise, mobilise and rise up.

After a short period of relative calm, the German Revolution flared again on Christmas Eve 1918 when unpaid sailors occupied a government building. There they were joined by Spartacist members and armed guards. The Reichswehr (military) was sent to arrest the protestors but withdrew after a brief standoff.

On December 30th, the Spartacists held a congress in Berlin where they re-formed as the KPD (Communist Party of Germany). There, Rosa Luxemburg told those assembled:

“The 9th of November was a weak, half-hearted, half-conscious and chaotic attempt to overthrow the existing public power and to put an end to class rule. What now must be done is that all the forces of the proletariat should be concentrated in an attack on the very foundations of capitalist society. There, at the base, where the individual employer confronts his wage slaves… there, step by step, we must seize the means of power from the rulers and take them into our own hands… And we must not forget that the revolution is able to do its work with extraordinary speed.”

The battle for Berlin

On January 5th 1919, the Spartacists attempted an armed takeover of Berlin. Hundreds of industrial workers and unionists were given arms and ordered to seize critical points around the capital. Telegraph offices, police stations, government buildings and the SPD headquarters were all occupied. The revolutionaries also barricaded or manned checkpoints on key roads and intersections.

Liebknecht and Luxemburg also called for a general strike, hoping to trigger a workers’ revolution against the Ebert government.

On January 5th 1919, the Spartacists attempted an armed takeover of Berlin. Hundreds of industrial workers and unionists were given arms and ordered to seize critical points around the capital. Telegraph offices, police stations, government buildings and the SPD headquarters were all occupied. The revolutionaries also barricaded or manned checkpoints on key roads and intersections.

The uprising stalls

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A group of Spartacists photographed in the streets of Berlin during the January 1919 uprising

The Spartacist uprising was initially successful, chiefly because it had caught Berlin police and government units by surprise. In the first few days of the insurrection, the Spartacists won most of their street fights and managed to paralyse significant areas of Berlin.

While Liebknecht was able to drum up support from a half-million Berliners and paralyse the city, he had no clear plan for seizing power. With the uprising at its peak, the Spartacist leader and his 53-person revolutionary committee dithered. Rather than pushing forward to demand the overthrow of Ebert’s newly formed government, Liebknecht withdrew to an office to write newspaper articles.

Meanwhile, the SPD government moved to resist this new, more radical revolution. In doing so, it called on elements of the old order and its cautious alliance with the military, first agreed on November 10th 1918.

The Freikorps

Citing the need to restore order, Ebert recalled defence minister Gustav Noske and sent him to Berlin. There, Noske began organising the mobilisation of around 3,000 Freikorps, or volunteer militias comprised of former soldiers. 

The men of the Freikorps were, for the most part, fiercely nationalist and anti-communist. More importantly, they were trained, battle-hardened troops still equipped with weapons of war: rifles and machine guns, artillery, even flamethrowers.

By January 10th, these Freikorps were massing and preparing in the suburbs of western Berlin. They advanced into the city the following morning and engaged in a series of bloody street battles with the rebels, who were hopelessly outgunned.

Liebknecht and Luxemburg killed

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A 1920 woodcut by Kollwitz showing German workers mourning the loss of Dr Karl Liebknecht

It took less than three days for the Freikorps to crush the Spartacist uprising and capture Berlin. Its two principal leaders, Liebknecht and Luxemburg, were chased through the suburbs for another two days before being betrayed and captured. Luxemburg was beaten to death with rifle butts, her body hurled into Berlin’s largest canal. Liebknecht was shot in the head and dumped at a local morgue.

These summary executions invited criticism from Ebert and his ministers, who promised that those responsible would be held accountable. Evidence obtained later suggests Noske and probably Ebert authorised their murder. Two Freikorps members were tried but given light sentences. Around 100 other Spartacists and 17 Freikorps were killed during the battle for Berlin.

The Spartacists, now reformed as the German Communist Party or KPD, survived but were outlawed and driven underground. Karl Retzlaw, a veteran of the failed January 1919 uprising, described the months that followed:

“During the first months of 1919, we lived under siege in Berlin and under the terror of martial law. Any political activity was prohibited for us communists. We had no journal and no legal means to confront the lies and defamations of the government and the press. Any expression of public discontent, anything that did not suit the authorities, was blamed on the Spartacists… We had to organise illegally and under the most dangerous conditions. But the death of our party leaders could not keep us from following their vision. The KPD had to be consolidated.”

german revolution

1. The Spartacist Uprising was a January 1919 attempt to seize control of Berlin and replace the transitional Weimar government with a socialist regime.

2. It was carried out by Karl Liebknecht and his group, the Spartakusbund, which had begun as a radical socialist and anti-war faction of the SPD.

3. Liebknecht had declared a free socialist republic in November 1918. On December 30th, he played a leading role in the formation of the German Communist Party (KPD).

4. The Spartacists made their move on January 5th 1919, capturing key locations across Berlin and taking police and government forces by surprise.

5. The Spartacist uprising was eventually defeated by units of the German military and Freikorps, which moved to defend the government. Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were both arrested and executed, prompting controversy and criticism.

weimar republic sources

Karl Liebknecht calls for a socialist revolution (1918)
Karl Liebknecht proclaims a Socialist Republic (1918)

Citation information
Title: “The Spartacist uprising”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
URL: https://alphahistory.com/weimarrepublic/spartacist-uprising/
Date published: September 12, 2019
Date accessed: Today’s date
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