Ninety Years On: Remembering the Kapp Putsch

March 19, 2010 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

The German Revolution, which began in 1918, brought the First World War to an end. The Revolution was the product of all the class antagonisms that festered in German society, exacerbated by the hardships of World War. At the outbreak of the Revolution Germany had the most modern economy and the strongest working class in Europe, yet it was basically ruled by the Kaiser and the junker landlord class.

The Revolution threw up Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils that guided the actions of the revolutionaries. These were democratic rank and file bodies, which potentially were organs of workers’ power. The Russian Revolution of February 1917, which began as a Revolution against the Tsar and the horrors of war, also involved the creation of Soviets, democratic organisations of workers and soldiers, in the process of struggle.

Dual Power

What we saw in both cases was dual power, where real power was in the hands of the revolution. The men and women who made the revolution were not conscious of their power, and elements of reaction lurked in the background, desperate to restore the old order. The two sides measured one another up and clashed. In October 1917 the Russian Revolution swept away all the elements of the old order of society and moved towards workers’ power and socialism. It succeeded in this because of the rapid crystallisation of the advanced elements of the working class around the programme of the Bolsheviks, dragging the mass along with them.

In Germany the reaction engineered a provocation in Berlin in January 1919, during the course of which they succeeded in murdering Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the outstanding Communist leaders of the German working class. The forces of revolutionary Marxism were very weak at this time. The traditional mass party of the working class was the Social Democrats, which was nominally Marxist, but the leadership had betrayed the workers by throwing their support behind the imperialist War in August 1914. Later the Independents split away from the majority Social Democrats on an anti-War basis. In the course of the Revolution they became a centrist current, vacillating between reform and revolution.

The Revolution of 1918 was essentially a spontaneous rising. The Social Democrats retained the support of the majority of workers in the Councils, and in parliamentary elections later on. They were forced to declare a republic, but left the state machine essentially untouched. For instance they put a price on Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s heads, and had them murdered by the Free Corps (Freikorps), a proto-fascist bunch of thugs with swastikas emblazoned on their helmets. The Social Democrats were the main prop of capitalism at this stage of the Revolution. They were determined to introduce bourgeois democracy and dissolve the Councils.

Versailles Treaty

In 1919 defeated German imperialism was forced to sigh the predatory Versailles Treaty. Germany lost a tenth of its population, an eighth of its territory and all its colonies. The German officer caste knew they had been staring defeat in the face a year earlier, but it was useful for them to let the Social Democrats collect the ignominy of signing the treaty. After all, nationalism was the only ideology the reaction could mobilise behind. Actually the Communists also denounced the Treaty as an outcome of imperialist war, just as they had denounced the Brest-Litovsk Treaty that German imperialism had imposed on the infant Soviet Republic in 1918 as its price for dropping out of the War.

The Social Democrats became the government of national humiliation. It was time for the reaction to try another provocation in order to roll back the Revolution. The conspiracy was hardly concealed. Noske, the Social Democrat who prided himself on the cosy relation he had built up with the officer caste, pleaded with them to stop the conspirators. The answer came: German soldier would not fight German soldier. The state machine would not defend ‘democracy’ and the government of the Social Democrats.

The coup leaders were Luttwitz, the commanding officer in Berlin, and Kapp, the director of agriculture for Prussia, who directly represented the junkers. The coup was apparently a complete success. Berlin was taken on March 13th by the reactionary Erhard Brigade without a shot being fired. The government fled ingloriously.

But the Revolution was not exhausted. The workers were prepared to fight to defend what they had gained. Karl Legien, a right wing Social Democrat and leader of the main trade union federation, issued the call for a general strike. The Independents supported the call, but began to organise separate strike committees. The German Communist Party (KPD), which had a history of ultra-left sectarianism as a natural response to the opportunism of the Social Democrats, at first refused to support the strike. It was understandable that they should hate the murderers of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, but this policy was fundamentally wrong. Fortunately the workers, including the KPD workers, knew better. On March 15th the KPD leadership reversed its position, but remained marginal to the movement because of their initial hesitancy. Most of their rank and file, however, threw themselves unhesitatingly into the struggle.

Workers’ Demonstration Fired Upon

In Leipzig the Free Corps fired on a workers’ demonstration. The workers responded by arming themselves up and down Germany. The strike was virtually invisible, but it was strangling the plotters’ government. They couldn’t find a single worker in Berlin to print their posters. The sailors in Wilhelmshaven mutinied and arrested their officers. The city of Chemnitz was in the hands of an Executive Council of the workers. In Erzegebirge-Vogtland Max Holz, a maverick Communist described as a modern-day Robin Hood, robbed banks and looted shops to feed the workers. A Red Army was formed in the Ruhr, the industrial region then occupied by French imperialism, The Red Army began to march on Dortmund.

A general strike poses the question of power. Who would feed and water the working class? How would the strike be organised? How could the workers overcome the coup?

Berlin, capital of the plotters, was on the verge of starvation. So Kapp lashed out. He ordered the troops to shoot down the ‘agitators’. He was prepared to unleash civil war. But this was a civil war the capitalist class realised it could not win at this stage. A delegation of big employers explained, “The unanimity is so great amongst the working class that it is impossible to distinguish the agitators from the millions of workers who have stopped work.”

In any case the soldiers themselves were becoming unreliable. There were mutinies in Berlin. The workers took Dortmund. The police, under the influence of the Social Democrats, went over to the side of the Red Army against the Free Corps. Barricades appeared in Berlin itself. Nuremburg faced insurrection. After just 100 hours in power, Kapp was forced to flee, a ridiculous figure. The general strike continued. The whole of Germany was effectively being run by strikers’ executive committees or action committees. The working class was determined to press home its advantage.


Trials of strength are a basic feature of dual power. In August 1917 the Russian Revolution was threatened by the coup attempt of Kornilov, a strikingly similar movement to that of Kapp and Luttwitz. The Bolsheviks did not hesitate. They proposed a united front with the reformist workers to defend the gains of the Revolution from counter-revolution.

The watchword of the Bolsheviks was, “march separately, strike together.” They did not conceal their differences or stop criticising the reformist leaders such as Kerensky, whose behind the scenes manoeuvring had actually made the Kornilov coup attempt possible. But they gladly stretched out the hand of friendship to the reformist workers who were prepared to stand and fight the counter-revolution. And the fact that they were the best fighters for their class did not go unnoticed among workers and peasants who were still weighing up the political situation. Contrast this to the initial reaction of the KPD, that the workers “will not move a finger for the democratic republic.”

Kornilov’s troops melted away, just like the ‘invincible’ forces behind Kapp. This shows that not a wheel turns, not a light shines without the support of the working class. It shows that, if we are united, we are invincible. This is how the working class could have stopped Hitler.

Evelyn Anderson comments (Hammer or Anvil, Left Book Club, 1945), “Never before and never after was the solidarity of the common people of Germany as great as it was during the Kapp days. Never before and never after had they so great a chance to rid themselves, once and for all, of the powers of reaction and aggression and to lay the foundations for a living democracy. This chance they forfeited.”

The Central Strike Committee in victory demanded a real workers’ government, a purge of the state machine and socialisation. At that time they had the power to make of this a reality. It never happened, because of splits in the labour movement. Later Hitler took power on account of divisions in the organised working class. Positively and negatively, the fundamental lesson of the German Revolution is the need for a workers’ united front against capitalist reaction.

This article first appeared on Socialist Appeal.

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This post was written by Mick Brooks

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