Berlin March Fights
The Berlin March Fights of 1919 represent the preliminary final phase of the November Revolution of 1918. On the one hand, they were a general strike by the Berlin workers to implement the expectation of the socialization of key industries , the legal protection of the workers 'and soldiers' councils, and thus the broad expectation of the November revolution the democratization of the military. On the other hand, it was the street and house fights that developed in parallel with the free corps groups around Alexanderplatz and above all in the city of Lichtenberg .
The beginning of the March fighting was formed by a decision on the general strike on March 3rd to enforce these demands, which the government under the military commander-in-chief Gustav Noske immediately responded to by imposing a state of siege on Berlin and Spandau . The general strike was ended on March 8 by the workers. There were some concessions on the part of the Weimar government (workers 'councils, labor law, socialization, military jurisdiction), with which a delegation of the MSPD workers' councils had negotiated. But it was not until Noske lifted the shooting order on March 16 that the clashes on the streets ended.
According to Commander-in-Chief Noskes, the bloody street and house fights ended with more than 1,200 dead, 75 of them on the government side; other estimates suggest around 2000 deaths. There were no official censuses by the authorities. This makes them one of the bloodiest, but largely forgotten, conflicts in the context of the revolutionary disputes in Germany after the end of the First World War .
Causes and conflict
The cause of the March fights was the demand of large sections of the radicalized workers, embittered by the course of the revolution so far, for a socialization of the key industries, the introduction of the council system and the democratization of the military in accordance with the " Hamburg points " resolved by the first Reichsrat Congress . From the beginning, these demands were central concerns of the November Revolution, which was essentially driven by the workers. Socialization, too, had already been decided in December 1918 by the first "Reichsrätekongress" of all German workers 'and soldiers' councils . In Berlin there were also republican revolutionary troops in the form of the “Republican Soldiers 'Army” and the remnants of the People's Navy Division, whose position and claims (soldiers' councils) were threatened by the emerging free corps and the anti-republican officers of the former imperial army.
Little had been done on the part of the majority Social Democratic government regarding the central expectations of the workers. As for the military, she had even taken countermeasures. The election to the German National Assembly did not bring the expected socialist majority, but led to a new political power constellation. Since the National Assembly met in Weimar, the “ Council of People's Representatives ” has been formed by the parties of the Weimar coalition (SPD, DDP and Zentrum). It was opposed to the demands of the workers for socialization and the continuation of the council system .
The Berlin general strike followed the fighting and general strikes in Upper Silesia (January 1919), in the Ruhr area (February 1919) and the general strike in central Germany (Halle / Merseburg / Erfurt) from late February to early March. During this time there were also many attempts to enforce council rule locally (Bremen, Braunschweig, Munich council republic). In particular, the striking workers in central Germany hoped for early support from the Berlin workers. The publicist Sebastian Haffner describes this period (from January to May 1919) as a "civil war" in Germany: "In reality, it was all about one thing everywhere: the existence of the workers 'and soldiers' councils and thus the legitimacy of the revolution."
The general strike in Berlin
Since mid-February there have been efforts in the workers' councils of Berlin to convene a new Reichsrätekongress, which should take up the demands of the November Revolution again. There were similar efforts on the part of the soldiers' councils, who also saw their demands for the restructuring of the military in line with the resolution of the first Reichsrätekongress (" Hamburg Points ") in danger. The Central Council, which was controlled by the MSPD alone and was supposed to organize such a new council congress, hesitated and played for time.
In plenary meetings of the Berlin workers' councils on February 26 and 28, a resolution was adopted by a large majority, also with the support of members close to the MSPD, which protested against the previous behavior of the Weimar National Assembly and invoked the fight for the demands of the November Revolution . Resolutions and reports on the mood of the workers in the factories were sent by telegram to the Reich government in Weimar. After the experiences with the militarily suppressed January uprising , however, both the revolutionary chairmen, the USPD and the KPD were careful to stay away from the streets and mobs; workers should instead concentrate in the factories.
At this general assembly on February 28, a delegation of workers from the AEG Hennigsdorf brought the request to resolve the general strike. However, this was no longer voted on and was postponed to the next meeting on March 3rd. When the General Assembly took up the question again on Monday, March 3, many delegations from large companies appeared at it, who reported that the strike had already started there. This then moved some of the majority Social Democratic councils to support the decision to initiate a general strike, although the Berlin MSPD had warned against this in an article in Vorwärts on the same day. The forward reports to the following day: "By a show of hands is decided with 400 votes against 120 votes in favor and 200 abstentions, the general strike". The strike targets were decided:
- Recognition of the workers 'and soldiers' councils as an economic factor
- complete implementation of the 7 Hamburg points
- Release of all political prisoners
- Repeal of the standing courts
- immediate dissolution of the volunteer corps
- Conversion of the existing courts into people's courts
- Resumption of relations with the Soviet republic
- Trial of the main culprits in the war before a revolutionary tribunal.
The leadership of the strike was transferred to the Berlin Executive Council. However, because of the majority Social Democratic participation in the strike leadership, the communists declared that they would not participate in it, but would instead have their own strike leadership.
The strike decision of the workers' councils was followed by the working population with few exceptions, so that on March 4th industry, trade, commerce and transport were largely shut down. However, the printers did not initially join the strike, so that all the bourgeois papers including the Vorwärts could appear on March 4th. Only the "Freedom" of the USPD and the "Red Flag" of the KPD did not appear. After disputes about this, the general assembly of the Berlin workers' councils decided that the printers should also be fully involved in the strike and that no newspapers should appear. The communists, on the other hand, demanded that only the “Red Flag” and “Freedom” should be printed. Because of the conflict, they withdrew their members from the Executive Council.
On the fourth day of the strike (March 6), communists and independents demanded an extension of the strike by shutting down the supply companies for water, gas and electricity because of the worsening situation in Berlin due to the entry of the Freikorps. The motion was accepted with a small majority, whereupon the representatives belonging to the MSPD withdrew from the strike leadership and also left the general assembly of the councils. The Berlin trade union commission, which supported the strike on March 4th, has now called for the general strike to be called off. The Social Democratic Councils followed suit; the printers were the first to go back to work. On the other hand, the communists refused to go into a unified strike line with the independent workers' councils. From the point of view of the remaining strike leadership under Richard Müller and the USPD, it was therefore imperative to break off the general strike on March 8th. Negotiations that had previously taken place on the strikers' demands with the Reich government and with Commander-in-Chief Noske were broken off without result. The end of the general strike was decided by a narrow majority.
Deployment of the Freikorps: The street and house fights in the east
As early as March 3rd, immediately after the decision to initiate a general strike, the Prussian State Ministry declared Berlin to be under siege with extraordinary courts-martial , and Gustav Noske was appointed “Commander-in-Chief of the Navy”. On the same night, the editorial office of the “Red Flag” was completely destroyed by government troops.
Already in the afternoon and evening of March 3, many people gathered in the Scheunenviertel and around Alexanderplatz , with the first clashes with the police. This was followed by the looting of shops and storms in over 30 police stations to steal weapons. The political leaderships of the workers' councils and parties suspected that the events were staged by the military and provocateurs. The report in Vorwärts of March 5, 1919 also emphasizes that these events, which continued on March 4, were not committed by the strikers, but by “light-shy rabble”. In fact, this could later be demonstrated with regard to individual particularly militant people. On the other hand, there were many revolutionary-minded workers, unemployed people and former sailors and soldiers of the January fighting living and hiding in these eastern parts of the city, who took up the current fighting despite warnings from the party leaderships of the USPD and KPD. A concrete insurrection plan could never be proven.
On March 4, units of the General Command began to march into the city. On the part of the counter-revolutionary military, the Reinhard Brigade , the "German Protection Division ", the Lützow Freikorps , the Hülsen Freikorps and the Guard Cavalry Rifle Division were involved, which was under the command of Lieutenant General Heinrich von Hoffmann , but actually from its first general staff officer, Captain Waldemar Pabst . The commander-in-chief of the responsible general command for Berlin and the surrounding area was General Walther von Lüttwitz .
On that day there were the first skirmishes between armed rebel groups and the units of the Freikorps of the "German Protection Division" at Alexanderplatz. On March 5, there were then serious clashes with parts of the Republican Army and the People's Navy Division , who were ordered from their quarters in the naval building on Jannowitzbrücke to Alexanderplatz to arrest looters. Their units were - allegedly accidentally - shot at by soldiers of the “German Protection Division”. The leader of a deputation of the People's Naval Division, which wanted to clarify these incidents in the police headquarters, was shot from behind while leaving the building. The outraged sailors then went back to the naval house and handed out weapons to the workers. Now barricades were erected around the entrances to Alexanderplatz and attempts were made to storm and capture the police headquarters on Alexanderplatz. There were heavy fighting with the Freikorps, who were already using artillery here. When the Freikorps counterattacked on March 6, using heavy artillery, armored vehicles and airplanes, the insurgents withdrew to the further east of the city.
In the days that followed, the fighting shifted to the streets north and east of Alexanderplatz, especially along Prenzlauer Allee and Grosse Frankfurter Strasse and Frankfurter Allee as far as Lichtenberg. However, there were also street fights and military clashes in the districts of Prenzlauer Berg, Spandau, Moabit and Neukölln. Those involved on the part of the insurgents were parts of the Republican Army, remnants of the disbanded People's Navy Division, members of the KPD-affiliated Red Soldiers' Union and many armed civilians.
The high number of victims among the insurgents and civilians can be explained by the use of heavy artillery in residential areas and by a large number of civilian shootings. The “German Historical Museum” writes: “A few days later, Noske issued an order, which is not covered by any law, that every gunman was to be shot immediately by the government troops and the volunteer corps. The instruction, which was valid until March 16, was based on the false report launched by the Prussian State Ministry that insurgents had murdered 60 police officers in the fiercely contested Lichtenberg. "
The "Lichtenberg prisoner murder" and other atrocity reports
On March 8, the Lichtenberg post office, which was occupied by members of the voluntary corps, was stormed and captured. Then the storm began on the Lichtenberg police headquarters, where around 50 officers, some with families, were staying. After fierce fighting, the insurgents were able to capture the presidium. Twenty officials were arrested, but released that night; the other officers, including the Chief of Police Salmuth, were able to flee. The latter reported to the government troops, so that the supposed cruel incidents then reached the press. "The command of the protection team reports: All officers of the Lichtenberg police headquarters have been murdered." This report and other reports about "bestial atrocities" were unchecked on March 10th in all bourgeois newspapers throughout Germany and in Vorwärts . The stated number of initially 60 police officers killed increased to 200 in the press reports. It later emerged that only two police officers, five according to other counts, fell victim to the fighting. “For days it was teeming with bloodthirsty accounts.” These often fictitious horror reports about “the Spartakists” apparently served to justify the brutal actions of the troops of the Guards Rifle Division and the other Freikorps. Another piece of false news reported that "Spartakist" pilots from Kottbus had dropped bombs on civilians outside the combat zones. More made-up atrocity stories about acts of the "Spartacist bunch" were circulated in the newspapers. “Many newspapers paint the actual and fictitious crimes of the insurgents in gruesome detail. You use scandalous and dehumanizing language. "
It was not until March 13th, when the fighting by the victorious military ended, that the previously reported atrocity reports were corrected in the press:
“All of these reports were false. It was not until March 13 that the BZ reported that the officers had actually been dismissed. On the same day, the 'Vossische' and the 'Vorwärts' declared on the basis of the statements of Mayor Ziethen that 'all the news about the mass shootings of policemen and detectives during the conquest of the Lichtenberg police headquarters have proven to be untrue'. Finally, after the March 14 issue of 'BZ' and the obituary for the fallen, it turned out that only two police officers were dead. One of them had died in battle and nothing could be determined about the way the other died. "
The action of the military
On March 9th, Noske ordered:
"The atrocities and bestialities of the Spartakists fighting against us force me to the following order: Anyone found fighting against government troops with weapons in hand must be shot immediately."
Noske had this order to shoot at the beginning of the fighting; its actual author was Waldemar Pabst.
The military went even further in a secret order of their own and ordered their commanders involved to shoot all those who carried weapons or who had weapons found in the house. The Soldateska , often made up of very young men, used light and heavy field artillery, mortars and machine guns to attack houses from which they were supposedly shot at. Aircraft with bombs were also used. There was great damage to houses and apartments. The population fled into the cellars, but supported the rebels with food and drink.
Martial law shootings were carried out everywhere on those who were caught with guns or on whom guns were found in house and apartment searches, who were simply denounced as "Spartacists" or who uttered thoughtless utterances. On March 11th, 29 sailors from the People's Naval Division, who were supposed to surrender their weapons and collect their dismissal wages from a military depot on Französische Strasse, were selected from around 250 detained sailors and shot with machine guns. Colonel Reinhardt issued instructions that the prisons were already overcrowded and that the weapon should therefore be used as extensively as possible.
On March 11th, the conservative Lichtenberg mayor Oskar Ziethen tried to reach an armistice at Noske "to avoid further bloodshed and further destruction of Lichtenberg". Noske refused and insisted on " unconditional surrender or nothing ". On March 12th, the last barricade fell on Frankfurter Allee at the corner of Möllendorfstrasse (Lichtenberg exhibition).
According to Noske, a total of 1,200 people lost their lives during the uprising (other estimates such as the Müller's put on 2,000 deaths). Among them was the communist party leader and editor of the KPD organ Rote Fahne, Leo Jogiches, who was shot shortly after his arrest. The March fighting ended with the government troops taking Lichtenberg without a fight on March 13, 1919. Two additional secret orders from Waldemar Pabst were responsible for the high number of victims, according to which the houses were to be searched and anyone found with weapons to be shot. Many WWI veterans still kept weapons or weapon components as souvenirs and were executed after house searches. There were also executions on the basis of denunciations and mere suspicion.
Several such arbitrary shootings and murders by the Soldateska were documented in Gumbel's book.
In addition to the quick shootings ordered, there were a number of arrests. About 4500 people were brought to the overcrowded prisons of Moabit and Plötzensee, where inhumane conditions prevailed. The prisoners were often ill-treated, some being beaten to death and others dying from their injuries.
As early as December 1918, the imperial military had planned to disarm the population and the revolutionary troops. In March, they ruthlessly implemented these plans. " This time we will do a great job, " said a statement from a captain in the War Department. The People's Navy Division was disbanded, the city command of the Republican Army Soldiers was deposed and its leadership was arrested, and its original crew strength was reduced from 16,000 to 6,500 particularly reliable soldiers. The Weimar National Assembly passed a law on the provisional Reichswehr on March 6, through which the Freikorps were institutionalized.
The Lichtenberg city assembly investigated the damage to property in a commission and presented its results in April 1919. It came to a damage value of 1.5 million Reichsmarks for the public purse and private damage of 450,000 Reichsmarks.
Due to the cooperation with the Freikorps, the MSPD lost a particularly massive amount of influence and votes. Lichtenberg became a stronghold of the USPD and then the KPD. Overall, the March events in Berlin and Germany led to the massive hostility between Social Democrats and Communists, which became insurmountable until the victory of the National Socialists and made this possible in the first place.
Sebastian Haffner sums up the March fights in Berlin as follows: “ Even in these March fights in Berlin, despair led in places to hopeless resistance from a bitterness that was not known before in the German civil war. "
The historian Ralf Hoffrogge sees the general strike and the March fighting as a turning point in the history of the November Revolution and emphasizes their national importance:
“Unlike the January uprising , the March strikes were a supraregional movement and therefore far more dangerous for the government. In the Ruhr area, Central Germany and Berlin, mass strikes called for the recognition of the workers' councils and the immediate socialization of key industries. The National Assembly in Weimar was virtually surrounded by the general strike and unable to act. [...] But the strikes were not coordinated in terms of time and space. While they were gaining momentum in one region, they were already beginning to crumble elsewhere. They forced the government to make verbal concessions, but could later be suppressed individually. "
Numerous details of the soldiers' excesses were put on record from December 1919 onwards in several trials and later by Emil Julius Gumbel in the writings Two Years of Murder (1921) and Four Years of Political Murder (1922).
For the 100th anniversary, the “Museum Lichtenberg” has created an exhibition “Shooting Orders in Lichtenberg” with a large number of documents and an accompanying brochure. The exhibition is open from January 20 to May 5, 2019.
Eyewitness reports from Berlin
Alfred Döblin had a doctor's practice on Frankfurter Allee. In 1928 he wrote in retrospect:
“I was in Lichtenberg at the time and witnessed this putsch and the gruesome, outrageous, harrowing things of the conquest of Lichtenberg by the white troops. At the same time that in our area the grenades and mortars of the liberators demolished whole houses, where many sat in the cellars and then, terribly, where many were fusilized in the small Lichtenberg cemetery on Möllendorfstrasse - you have to have the corpses there in front of the school have seen the men with the caps in front of their faces, to know what class hatred and the spirit of vengeance are - around the same time there was fun dancing in the rest of Berlin, there were balls and newspapers. "
Karl Retzlaw writes in his memoirs:
“The Lichtenberg district was surrounded, the individual blocks were cordoned off and mass murder began, something that had not happened in Germany since the Peasant Wars. People were killed or shot on the streets, in the courtyards and in the apartments. ... The government later stated that 'about 1,200 Spartacists' had died. ... Later investigations revealed over 2,000 deaths. "
Arthur Freiherr von Salmuth was police chief and wrote his experiences on the events of 3–10. March 1919 in a 13-page report:
“When the gate was finally opened, there were about 20 officers in addition to me, including two police officers. Negotiating was not possible at all. With wild roars: 'Put the dogs against the wall, kill the pigs', the gang rushed up the stairs; waving the Mauser pistols and hand grenades and shouting 'hands up'. I myself stood in the midst of my officials and, since I did not want to let them down, I did not flee through my apartment. My son, who absolutely wanted to go with me, finally followed urgently his mother's request to stay with her, considering that perhaps she needed his protection. So later both managed to save themselves through the private apartment. We were now all taken together to Alfredstrasse, which was filled with a howling and howling crowd, the women in particular performed particularly well in scolding and yelling. Again and again the call is heard: 'The pigs have to be shot here, put the dogs against the wall'. A woman shouted: 'We want to drink your blood'. Rifles and pistol barrels flashed at us from all sides and they prepared to shoot us all together on the spot. In the meantime, we were being beaten with pistons and clubs, and a blow of the piston led after me slipped on my shoulder as I made a quick sideways movement. It was impossible to negotiate with people in any way. "
- Alfred Döblin : Linke Poot's German masked ball. Knowledge and change! Walter, Olten and Freiburg i. B. 1972.
- Emil Julius Gumbel : Four Years of Political Murder. Berlin 1922. ( Online )
- Axel Weipert: The Second Revolution. Council movement in Berlin 1919/1920. Bebra Verlag, Berlin 2015, ISBN 978-3-95410-062-0 .
- Dietmar Lange: mass strike and order to shoot. General strike and March fighting in Berlin 1919. edition assemblage, Münster 2012. ISBN 978-3-942885-14-0 .
- Richard Müller : A History of the November Revolution. Berlin 2011. ISBN 978-3-00-035400-7 (new edition of the three volumes: Vom Kaiserreich zur Republik , The November Revolution , The Civil War in Germany Vienna / Berlin 1924–1925.)
- Karl Retzlaw : Spartacus. Memories of a party worker. 5th edition, New Critique, Frankfurt a. M. 1985.
- Wolfram bet: Gustav Noske. A political biography. Droste, Düsseldorf 1987. On the March Fights: Chap. VII.1, p. 410 ff.
- Regina Knoll: The general strike and the March fighting in Berlin in 1919. In: Scientific journal of the Karl Marx University Leipzig , 1957/58, social and linguistic series, issue 4, pp. 477-489.
- Klaus Gietinger: The counter-revolutionary. Waldemar Pabst - a German career. Hamburg 2009. ISBN 978-3-89401-592-3 .
- Ralf Hoffrogge: The end of a revolution. In: Forum Wissenschaft . 2009
- Reinhard Sturm: From the Empire to the Republic 1918/19. Federal Agency for Political Education , December 23, 2011 .
- Gerd Nohr: March 1919. In: Marxist library. Archived from the original on May 10, 2007 .
- Paul Levi: Letter to Lenin (March 27, 1919). In: Marxists Internet Archive . August 9, 2008 .
- Old postcards - Berlin street fights_01 - Historical postcards. In: heimatsammlung.de.
- Arnulf Scriba: The March fights 1919. In: Deutsches Historisches Museum . September 1, 2014 .
- Richard Müller: A History of the November Revolution . 14th edition. Die Buchmacherei, Berlin 2011, ISBN 978-3-00-035400-7 , p. 772 .
- Sebastian Haffner: The German Revolution 1918/19 . ebook edition. Cape. 12. Rowohlt, Reinbek bei Hamburg 2018, ISBN 978-3-498-03042-1 (Haffner, however, ignores the question of socialization).
- Müller, p. 660.
- The strikes in Berlin. In: Forward 116/36. March 4, 1919, accessed on January 27, 2019 (reproduced in: Historical press of the German Social Democracy online of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung ).
- Müller, p. 664.
- Müller, p. 666f.
- Müller, p. 668.
- Müller, p. 675.
- Lichtenberg district office of Berlin, Museum Lichtenberge (ed.): Shooting order for Lichtenberg. The violent end of the revolution of 1918/19 in Berlin . Berlin 2019, ISBN 978-3-00-061609-9 .
- Arnulf Scriba: The March fights 1919. In: German Historical Museum . September 1, 2014, accessed March 3, 2019 .
- after Müller, p. 683.
- Emil Julius Gumbel : Four years of political murder. Berlin / Fichtenau, 1922, pp. 15-17 , accessed on January 30, 2019 .
- Gumbel, pp. 21f.
- Müller, p. 689.
- See Ralf Hoffrogge: The end of a revolution. In: Forum Wissenschaft . 2009, accessed March 3, 2019 .
- Gumbel's book "Four Years of Political Murder" is online
- January 20 to May 5, 2019 - special exhibition "Shooting orders for Lichtenberg - the violent end of the revolution 1918/19 in Berlin". In: Museum Lichtenberg. Retrieved January 27, 2019 .