Essay on Why Did the Communists Fail To Take Power in Germany Between 1918 and 1923?

Published: 2021/11/24
Number of words: 2944

Germany between the years 1918 and 1923, can be described as a time of “revolution and counter revolution”[1]. In November 1918, a naval mutiny occurred in Kiel. Seven demonstrators were killed on the 3rd of November. This caused a “revolutionary upheaval” which spread through out Germany[2]. It appeared that the revolutions were in support of the communist movement. Despite the strength of these uprisings, the communist parties and supporters were never able to take control of Germany.

Within the course of this essay I will be answering the question, why did the communists fail to take power. In order to achieve this I will be exploring numerous different theories in order to best formulate the reason behind their failure. The theories include the strength of the communist’s opposition, the weakness of communists support, and the splits that occurred within the communist parties and supporters. All three have been attributed to the communist’s failure, but I will attempt to discover the true reason.

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According to Chris Harman, the Spartacists were simply too small to have any real influence over the proceedings during the German revolution 1918-23[3]. To take control of Germany, the communists needed to have numerical support. Not only this, it is also stated that the Independents who supported the communist movement also too small to give any real aid[4]. The communists simply didn’t have enough men to pose a real threat to the government. If they did have more men to fight against the Government and the Freikorps, they possibly would have been able to take control of Germany.

Even Levine new the communists were numerically too weak to take power, he stated that “the seizure of power is for communists impossible while we only have a minority of the working class behind us”[5]. Levine was the leader of the Bavarian Soviet Republic, if someone on the inside of the communist regime can state the reason to be a lack of support, then surely this was the reason for their failure. Even groups who would be expected to support the Communists did not. The sailors, who were involved in the original mutiny which caused the revolution, declared their neutrality during the January uprising of 1919[6].

The communists often had to stoop to desperate measures to keep the little support they had. The party would attempt to provoke the Security Police to attack first, in the hope it would get the workers to fight harder against the government[7]. This shows that not only was the communists support small, but its supporters were not even fully dedicated to taking control of Germany. The lack of communist support could be argued to be a result of the communists themselves. The revolutionary shop stewards for example were refused entry into the communist party. They were refused entry due to their refusal to join in the boycott of the constituent assembly[8]. With the communists weak numbers they were in no position to be erratic in there selection of members, and it was their lack of numbers which prevented them taking power in Germany 19-18-23

There are numerous reasons why the communist party didn’t get the support they needed. Tens of thousands of workers who went on strike during the revolution lost their jobs, and were totally blacklisted by their employers[9]. People were too afraid to be apart of the communist movement, fearing it would damage their career. Some working class however, didn’t support the party because they genuinely didn’t agree with their views. The miners for example saw the call for nationalisation, the start of a society who’s “mode of production, was strictly socialist” [10], and they did not agree with this.

Many Social Democrats kept there promise that they would protect Germany from Bolshevism[11]. They didn’t want the Russians to have such an influence over Germany. It was the German communist support they gained from Russia that can be seen as another weakness. This means it was not just the lack of support numerically, but the lack of quality support that was the reason for the communist failure.

In 1919 the Communist International was founded, this was an organisation set up to overthrow the bourgeoisie, and later totally abolish the state[12]. Moscow was its headquarters, placing Russia as the main policy formulator in the direction that all other communist nation members would take. The KPD for example, pursued the policy of revolt throughout the 1920’s because they were ordered to do so, by Moscow[13]. Russian politicians supporting (and in many ways controlling) the communists in Germany prevented them taking power for numerous reasons.

For example, the KPD became dependant on the guidance Moscow would give it. Without it, they were unsure of what action to take. This shows the communism in Germany to be weak, and reliant on outside influence. Also there was a Bolshevik power struggle in Russia, up until and after Lenin’ death[14]. This meant internal affairs often took precedence over the external affairs of helping the German communists. This left the communists often without support when they needed it most. Russia’s armies were also severely weakened after ww1, this meant that even if help was called upon, they may not have been strong enough to offer real assistance.

Having Russia as a main supporter also served as a disadvantage as the advice Russia gave, was not often sufficient to help the German communist cause. Historian Broue tells how the social conditions in Western Europe, were so different to than in Bolshevik Russia, making the advice Russia gave, at times obsolete and a hindrance[15]. To summarise, the German communists failed to take control of Germany due to their weak support basis. Within Germany they were numerically too weak to take power, and the support they did see from oversees did nothing but hinder the cause. It made them nothing more than an instrument of foreign power, who were barely capable of making a decision for themselves, let alone take control of Germany.

However, it can be argued that the reason the communists failed to take control of Germany, was that the opposition against them was just simply too strong. One opposition which the communist had to face were the Freikorps. They were a paramilitary organisation, which sprang up in Germany. Most members were former ww1 soldiers returning home. Many uprisings by the communist were successfully put down by the Freikorps. They occupied one town after another declaring martial law and effectively controlling the communists[16]. On the 4th April 1920, the Freikorps “swept away” the miners communist attempt at resistance[17]. Another example of the Freikorps suppressing the communists was on the 19th of January 1919. The Freikorps were formally allowed to occupy Berlin. During this time known radicals were killed for supposedly resisting arrest, others just simply disappeared[18]. The opposition to the communists in the form of the Freikorps were able to successfully repress the communists, which prevented them from taking power in Germany 1918-23

Numerous government officials realised the importance of using the Freikorps in the fight against the communists. Ebert for example used the Freikorps due to his fear of Bolshevism[19]. He new using the Freikorps would easily deal with the communist threat. Noske simply lied about the communist party, telling Freikorps that they had murdered policeman[20]. This riled up the Freikorps, who dually went into Berlin and murdered many communists in revenge. A.J Ryder notes Stresemann to be one government official who felt he could put his faith in the Freikorps to stop the communists[21]. The fact so many right wing politicians used and put their faith in the Freikorps to stop the communists, shows the importants they had. The strength of the Freikorps can then be seen as the main reason for the failure of the communists to take control of Germany. If they were not around to quash the communist threat, their uprisings may have been successful.

It was not just the Freikorps who opposed the communists, but the government in general, and it could be argued their political tactics proved to be the reason, that the communists did not take power. Throughout 1919 and parts of 1920, the communists party were made to operate illegally, as they were not recognised as a political faction by the government[22]. This made it very difficult for the communists to operate and could have been a reason which prevented them taking power. There are various examples of the government specifically formulating policy, around the idea of stopping the communists getting into power. For example Stresemann told his government, not to take an anti socialist line as it would push the SPD into the hands of the communists, making them more powerful[23]. The government even expelled the communists from Council leaderships[24]. The government cleverly stripped the communists of any support and power they may have had, using political tactics. This left the communists in a very weak position, this can be said to be the reason they were never able to gain enough strength to take control of Germany

In all, the opposition the communists faced was simply too much for them. During the March action alone, 145 workers were killed, and 3470 were taken prisoner[25]. 21 students were also killed for being suspected members of the Red Army[26]. Being a communist was made to be too risky by the government and the Freikorps, pushing support away from the party and weakening them so much they were not able to take power in Germany. However, it was also the opposing force of Nationalism, which Carsten believes to be, a more unifying force among the working class[27], which prevented them from attaining power. Nationalism became a more attractive political ideology amongst the German people. With all these factions against the communists, it is no wonder they failed to take control of German 1918-23.

Another explanation for the failure of the communists to take control of Germany could be, the splits which occurred within their own party. There was not one singular communist party which the people could support. Support and power was divided among smaller communist factions, this made it difficult for the individual parties to attain any power. There were many splits within the communist movement. On the 30th of December 1918, the Spartacists broke away from the USPD, to form their own party known as the KPD[28]. However it was not a simple matter of all communists supporting the KPD, this new party only had a few thousand supporters across the whole of Germany,[29] as many still stayed with the USPD and independent parties. There were more breaks in the communists, from the KPD, another smaller party was formed, the KAPD[30].

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Levi was one man that felt the communists were too fragmented to succeed. He particularly wanted to see a closer political relationship, between the USPD and KPD[31]. The lack of cooperation between the parties caused distinct separation in their ideologies. For example the KAPD wanted more of an alliance with the middle class, whilst the KPD wanted to remain separate from them[32]. This meant the communist supporters would have to choose which party they supported based on small trivial issues. Without a coordinated centre party, the communists were considerably weaker, and this prevented them taking power. Broue blames the lack of coordination between the parties to be the reason they failed to take control during January 1919. The KPD were practically absent from the events of January 1919, but if they had been informed, they could of given the movement more support[33]. The splits which occurred within the communist parties, only made mass support more difficult. This meant the combined efforts of the government and the Freikorps were able to easily see off the numerous small threats, from the various communist factions.

To conclude, I feel that all the reasons for the communists defeat mentioned, are interlinked and combined together, to stop the communist party taking power in Germany 1918-23. It must be noted that the Government and the Freikorps successfully fought off the communists and prevented them from getting power. However, this was made easier for the opposition by the weakness in support the communists had, which was caused by the splits the communists made within their political parties. Tactically the communists did themselves no favours. There use of Putches not only discredited the party[34], but did nothing but cause showdowns with the Freikorps the communists were simply not prepared for[35].


Henry Ashby Turner, Stresemann and the politics of the Weimar Republic, (Princeton University Press, 1963)

Peter Broue, The German Revolution 1917-1923, (Haymarket Books, 2006)

Carsten, Revolution in Central Europe 1918-19, (Temple Smith 1972)

Ben Fowkes, Communism in Germany under the Weimar Republic, (Macmillan, 1984)

Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution, (BPC Wheatons, 1997)

McKenzie, Weimar Germany (Blandford Press 1971) Richard Bessel, Social change and political development in Weimar Germany, (Redwood Burn 1981)

Rosa Levin-Meyer, Inside German Communism (Pluto Press Ltd, 1977)

A.J Ryder, The German Revolution of 1918, (Cambridge University Press, 1967)

Simon Taylor, Germany 1918-1933, revolution, counter revolution and the rise of Hitler, (Duckworth, 1986)



[3] Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution, (BPC Wheatons, 1997) p.82

[4] McKenzie, Weimar Germany (Blandford Press 1971) p.22

[5] Ben Fowkes, Communism in Germany under the Weimar Republic, (Macmillan, 1984) p.32

[6] A.J Ryder, The German Revolution of 1918, (Cambridge University Press, 1967), p.201

[7] Rosa Levin-Meyer, Inside German Communism (Pluto Press Ltd ,1977) p.18

[8] A.J Ryder, The German Revolution, p.198

[9] Peter Broue, The German Revolution 1917-1923, (Haymarket Books, 2006), p.506

[10] Richard Bessel, Social change and political development in Weimar Germany, (Redwood Burn 1981) p.37

[11] Richard Bessel, Social change and political development in Weimar Germany, (Redwood Burn 1981), p.47


[13] McKenzie, Weimar Germany (Blandford Press 1971) p.103

[14] Simon Taylor, Germany 1918-1933, revolution, counter revolution and the rise of Hitler, (Duckworth, 1986), p.38

[15] Peter Broue, The German Revolution 1917-1923, (Haymarket Books, 2006), p.522

[16] A.J Ryder, The German Revolution, p.210

[17] Ben Fowkes, Communism in Germany, p.47

[18] Simon Taylor, Germany 1918-1933 ,p.15

[19] Simon Taylor, Germany 1918-1933, p.10

[20] Simon Taylor, Germany 1918-1933, p.21

[21] A.J Ryder, The German Revolution, p.211

[22] Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution, p.191

[23] Henry Ashby Turner, Stresemann and the politics of the Weimar Republic, (Princeton University Press, 1963), p.81

[24] Simon Taylor, Germany 1918-1933, p23.

[25] Simon Taylor, Germany 1918-1933, p.37

[26] Simon Taylor, Germany 1918-1933, p.34

[27] Carsten, Revolution in Central Europe 1918-19, (Temple Smith 1972) p.245

[28] Simon Taylor, Germany 1918-1933, p.14

[29] A.J Ryder, The German Revolution, p.195

[30] Ben Fowkes, Communism in Germany, p.40

[31] Ben Fowkes, Communism in Germany,p.39

[32] Ben Fowkes, Communism in Germany, p.40

[33] Simon Taylor, Germany 1918-1933, p.262

[34] Richard Bessel, Social change and political development in Weimar Germany, (Redwood Burn 1981), p.43

[35] A.J Ryder, The German Revolution, p.196

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