Our spring issue, “Pandemic Politics,” is out now. Get a discounted subscription today!

When Workers’ Councils Defeated the Far-Right Coup in Germany

Axel Weipert
Loren Balhorn

On March 13, 1920, twelve million workers struck across Germany to block an attempted military coup. The successful resistance was organized by the workers’ councils — a form of grassroots democracy that allowed the masses to assert their own power.

Photograph of a demonstration in Berlin, Germany against the Kapp-Lüttwitz putsch 1920. Photograph uncredited / Wikimedia

“Not the half, but the whole revolution!” This and similar slogans echoed across Berlin and large parts of Germany in the eventful years of 1919 and 1920. Following the uprising dubbed the “November Revolution” in fall 1918, the country saw several years of pitched battles between Right and Left, concluding in the consolidation of the fragile Weimar Republic.

One key feature of these years was the emergence of workers’ and soldiers’ councils — largely self-organized bodies that united supporters of the revolution, exerting pressure on the political establishment as well as the left-wing parties. In Berlin alone, the councils succeeded in organizing hundreds of thousands of people to fight for their own interests.

Today, the councils — and the “second phase” of the revolution that followed the November 1918 uprising — are largely overlooked, in public commemoration as in mainstream scholarship. Yet this experience contains many lessons for today.

At the core of the council system was the idea of the democratization of society from below. The councils were not limited to purely “political” matters — rather, they took a practical interest in many areas of society, from the management of workplaces to the revolution in the classroom. And when the forces of reaction sought to strangle this democratization, as in the Kapp Putsch of March 13, 1920, the councils provided a tool for the masses to coordinate their fightback.

Origins

The historical backdrop for the councils’ emergence was the sailors’ and soldiers’ mutinies that brought the end of World War I. In November 1918 a ceasefire was declared, the monarchy was abolished, and a new government took over the administration of the German state, led by the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and, initially, its left-wing competitor, the Independent Social Democrats (USPD).

Yet beyond these changes at the top, many other things went unchanged. The same state bureaucracy remained in operation and the economy stayed in capitalist hands, despite important reforms such as the eight-hour day. Even the old imperial officers remained at large, founding violent right-wing paramilitary squads known as Freikorps that terrorized the Left. With change slow, frustration began to take hold among the worker-militants who had been the backbone of the revolution. One summed up his feelings with the phrase: “it was our determined will to make a whole revolution out of the half.”

A number of uprisings were launched in 1919–20 in pursuit of a “second revolution.” Workers’ councils formed in the tumult to coordinate the uprisings and manage daily life. They were a visible and politically effective expression of the dissatisfaction with the state and the economic order — but also with the traditional parties and trade unions.

From their inception, the councils thus sought to give their members as much influence over decision-making processes as possible. This was to be guaranteed by mechanisms like the instant recall of representatives and obligations to report back to constituents regularly. Particularly important to the council system, however, was the widely held belief that the masses should take part in political action rather than limit themselves to delegating their voice to representatives.

The council movement embraced remarkably wide sectors of German society. Not just workers and soldiers — traditionally recognized as the lead actors — but also groups like apprentices, the unemployed, intellectuals, and artists all formed their own council structures. Indeed, the diversity of Berlin’s councils showed that for a brief period the movement captured the imaginations of the German masses, as a potential vehicle to radically democratize both the economy and society as a whole.

Socialization and Council Power

The general strike in March 1919, calling on the government to “socialize” key industries, constituted both a high point and a turning point for Berlin’s council movement. With roughly one million participating, the strike brought economic life to a veritable standstill for a week. Similar strikes broke out around the country but lacked coordination. Major demands included the socialization of the economy, extensive reforms to the military, and, long-term recognition for the councils themselves.

A major change of attitudes in Berlin’s factories had been visible already in February 1919. Groups of workers began to formulate demands and signal their support for a political strike. Such was the case of the 3,000 employees of the AEG turbine factory, who passed a resolution backing the idea. One delegate justified the resolution by explaining: “Because [the workers] do not see socialist work in the National Assembly, but rather work against socialism and the proletariat, the only guarantee we see is to secure the workers’ councils, through mass actions across the board.”

The councils played a central role in organizing and mobilizing workers for the strike that came in March. Though the leaderships of both left-wing parties opposed the action, and the SPD daily Vorwärts warned its supporters against such a strike, it was approved by a vote of the Berlin councils’ general assembly. This clear rejection of party discipline — a relatively rare occurrence — demonstrated the radicalization of the revolution’s working-class base.

Pressure for the strike had, instead, come from below — directly from the factories — and the elected councils were unable to reject their demands. Even SPD representatives joined the strike leadership, even though it was, in reality, opposed to their own comrades in government. The councils allowed workers to assert their interests directly, above the heads of their traditional elected leaders.

The week-long strike eventually collapsed. Yet this owed less to a lack of popular support as to savage military repression — causing over one thousand deaths. The government made verbal concessions, convincing strikers to go back to work by promising that “socialization is marching on.” But only a few of these commitments were actually kept after the revolt ended; the promised expropriation of mining and industrial enterprises never came.

The Students’ Councils and the Apprentices’ Strike

Councils also emerged as key players in the apprentices’ strike in summer 1919. In this era, many apprentices attended Berlin’s vocational schools — similar to the dual system of vocational schools common in Germany today, in which young workers pair factory work with a theoretical education. Yet learning conditions were poor, and instruction was held after work in the evenings or on weekends. Authoritarian teaching methods including corporal punishment were the source of much chagrin.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the political and social revolution that was electrifying Germany also made itself felt in the schools. One student later wrote: “More than a few of the apprentices had actively experienced the November Revolution with the workers of their factories. The vocational students increasingly opposed the previous pedagogical methods.”

In early 1919 a multitiered system of students’ councils had emerged. Its most important action was the school strike in summer 1919. The strikers’ demands included ending evening instruction by shifting their work schedule, abolishing corporal punishment, and recognizing the students’ councils. At least 30,000 of Berlin’s 35,000 further education students participated, demonstrating both the popularity of its demands and the councils’ ability to pull off such an action.

The school strike resulted in a partial victory. The abolition of corporal punishment was agreed upon in principle but could not always be implemented in practice against the stubborn resistance of conservative teachers. The demand for instruction during the workday, by contrast, was in fact met. Another result was a change in the relationship between students and teachers, as one of them later recalled: “The tradition of the revolutionary Students’ Councils of 1919 lived on for quite some time, just as the fighting spirit during the student strike long remained the subject of personal reflections. The apprentices were less easily intimidated now, and protested successfully.”

Women in the Councils

Women’s participation in the revolution and the council movement was closely related to their changing role in economic life. During and after the war, women represented a swiftly growing segment of the workforce. It was thus particularly important for the movement to show its ability to respond to women’s interests, and socialists thus discussed various ways to incorporate them into the council system.

A woman from Frankfurt named Toni Sender, who left the SPD for the USPD, suggested that women should be represented in the councils in proportion to their presence in the workplace, with housewives in turn forming their own separate electorate. This suggestion implicitly recognized unpaid housework as equally worthwhile labor. The Communist Clara Zetkin argued that housewives ought to be able to vote in their husbands’ workplaces. Her proposal sought to counter women’s isolation and gain a hearing for women’s particular interests in the factories. Yet it also posed the risk that they would continue to be defined largely by the social status of their husbands.

In practice, women’s involvement in the councils was relatively marginal. There were only one or two dozen women among the 800 delegates to the general assembly of the Berlin councils, and none could be found in its leading body, the Executive Council. Even outside of elected bodies, women remained strongly underrepresented in council work. The reasons for this were manifold, including the stubborn persistence of traditional gender roles even in the working class, and that soldiers were demobilized and returned to the factories in place of women — pushing them back into the home and out of public life.

Defeating the Kapp Putsch

In the first revolutionary weeks of November 1918 the newly formed councils enjoyed broad support among the population. The left-wing parties — the SPD, the USPD, and later the Communist Party (KPD) — were well-represented in them, along with a large number of trade unionists and even supporters of the liberal German Democratic Party (DDP).

This began to change in the spring of 1919, as the SPD and the liberals concentrated on establishing a parliamentary republic for which the councils were little more than an annoying disturbance. The trade unions also feared that the councils, well-established among workplace activists, could threaten their political hegemony in the labor movement. Trade union leaderships soon began to debate how to deal with the challenge posed by the councils. Some functionaries argued for abolishing them outright, while others sought to instrumentalize them for the unions’ aims. Similar debates were also held in the SPD.

The councils remained popular among the broader population and workers in particular — and could not simply be dismissed by the official parties. The government adopted a dual strategy in response: more radical forces in the councils were opposed, even violently, while moderates were integrated into the ruling order. The works councils law passed in early 1920, stipulating worker participation in workplace management, relegated the councils to a marginal status, denying them both political influence as well as a role in socializing the economy.

Protests broke out against the law, culminating in a massive demonstration in front of parliament that was bloodily repressed. Berlin’s so-called “security police” fired into the crowd with machine guns. At forty-two deaths, it would go down as the largest number of victims killed at a political demonstration in German history.

On March 13, 1920, exactly two months after the bloody demonstration in front of parliament, far-right Freikorps squads marched into Berlin. They were heavily armed, sported imperial flags and swastikas, and determined to overthrow the fledgling republic in a coup d’état that came to be known as the “Kapp Putsch.” Prominent figures from the nationalist, conservative, and proto-fascist political spectrum led the movement both from the front and in the background. They declared Wolfgang Kapp, founder of the nationalist and militaristic Fatherland Party, the new Chancellor of the Reich. General Walther von Lüttwitz, the most important Freikorps leader, was named Minister of Defense.

It was clear to every politically astute person at the time that a massive political rollback was underway. The old government fled to Stuttgart via Dresden, and the SPD ministers called for a general strike. This was practically unnecessary, however, as the workers in the factories had no illusions about what the coup meant.

Shop-floor union militants and not least the works councils began mobilizing for a political strike immediately. It encompassed the entire country, and at 12 million participants was the largest strike in German history. The economy collapsed, together with electricity, gas, and water supplies. The new “Chancellor” was forced to dictate his orders by candlelight. By March 17, his defeat was obvious. Kapp hopped on a plane to Sweden and his fellow conspirators went underground.

The old government, still in Stuttgart, now called to end the strike as its goal had been met. But this did not happen, as the trade unions and the councils called for further social and political concessions, the resignation of the particularly disliked Minister of Defense Gustav Noske, and other reforms. That was not at all, for from the start of the strike a new council movement had begun to emerge, experiencing a veritable “second spring.” New organs were founded and wide-ranging discussions about needed changes to the state and society commenced. The coup had revealed how fragile the republican order was, and how powerful the old elite remained.

A “Red Ruhr Army” with roughly 50,000 soldiers formed in the Ruhr Region, managing to take control over Germany’s most important industrial districts after pitched battles with the Freikorps. Similar developments occurred in large parts of the agrarian state of Pomerania and many industrial cities. Berlin was the site of armed skirmishes in multiple neighborhoods, and a new, multitiered council structure was erected.

As soon as the threat posed by the Right was neutralized, the old government ordered the army and Freikorps to deploy against the left-wing mass movement. At the same time, it initiated negotiations with the Red Ruhr Army, leading to the so-called “Bielefeld Agreement” compromise. The strike was ended a few days later, and the fighters surrendered their weapons.

Yet neither was the agreement adhered to, nor was the strikers’ decision contribution to defeating the putsch honored. The government more or less continued on in the way it had before March 13. Subsequent elections in summer 1920 brought significant defeats for the governing parties and the SPD in particular, while the oppositional USPD performed much better. But bourgeois parties continued to dominate the government, without further concessions.

The End of the Councils

When the Nazis took power in 1933, they quickly abolished the domesticated works councils, while extending the “Führer principle” into the factory. New councils were introduced in West Germany after World War II that occupied a function similar to those in the works councils law and continue to exist today. In many cases they defend workers’ interests effectively — which often leads employers to oppose them viciously or even prevent them from forming in the first place.

On the other hand, particularly in the large car factories of Volkswagen and Daimler-Benz, some top-ranking members of works councils view themselves as “co-managers” and tolerate anti-social restructuring measures while taking in hefty salaries. Works councils have become an integral part of the “social partnership” that organizes modern Germany’s economic system, far removed from their radical-democratic origins.

Memories of the council movement that emerged out of the November Revolution fell victim to the split between Social Democrats and Communists in the workers’ movement and later Cold War politics, and were largely erased from official history.

Even if the councils failed to live up to their aspirations, they and their supporters in the years between 1918 and 1920 should not be forgotten. They represented, if only for a brief moment, a real alternative to the staid reformism of Social Democracy and the authoritarian brand of Communism that would later crystalize in the KPD — showing that the most effective tool for defeating right-wing reaction is the political mobilization of the working class. Their defeat — and the end of the kind of unity they represented — would ultimately lay the political foundations upon which German fascism could be built.