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When Social Democracy and Communism Acted Together

December 29, 2020

The 1926 German Referendum to Expropriate the Nobility

Could Hitler’s rise to power in Germany have been blocked by common action by Social Democracy and Communism? On one occasion, in 1926, such a working alliance came briefly into existence. As German historian Marcel Bois demonstrates, the results were dramatic.

The following text is excerpted from “‘March Separately, But Strike Together!’ The Communist Party’s United Front Policy in the Weimar Republic,” by Marcel Bois, in Historical Materialism, 28.3 2020, pp. 148–52. Translation by Darren Roso. Reposted by permission.

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By Marcel Bois: The Communist Party of Germany (KPD) first coined the united front policy in 1921, representing a promising effort to bolster Communist influence in the workers’ movement of that country. … [T]he KPD recruited large numbers of new members and significantly improved its electoral returns as a result. Despite this success, however, the party only pursued the united front policy in two phases (1921–3 and 1926)…. [T]he KPD bid farewell to the united front as ‘Stalinisation’ began to set in during the Weimar Republic’s final years – with lethal consequences, as its abandonment decisively abetted the victory of German fascism.[1]

The united front policy was an object of bitter debate in the young KPD. While the ‘right’ wing of the party campaigned for greater concessions to the SPD so as to develop more united actions and thereby radicalise the workers, a stronger ‘left’ wing warned against abandoning the party’s independent Communist profile. The application of the united front policy was an art form: neither collapse into capitulation before the SPD, nor remaining stuck in self-imposed isolation.

The KPD did not always manage to pursue the policy successfully. It isolated itself during the years 1924 and 1925 when the left wing around Ruth Fischer, Arkadi Maslow, and Werner Scholem held the reins.[2] The KPD returned to the policy in 1926 to conduct the most successful united front project of the 1920s: the campaign to expropriate the nobility.

Ruth Fischer, KPD (1895-1961)

The assets of the German princes, dukes, and kings had been confiscated during the 1918–19 revolution, but a right-wing turn in domestic politics from the mid-1920s onwards encouraged the nobility to demand their property back.[3] They even notched up a few successes: on 18 June 1925, for instance, a Reich court judge declared the expropriation of the Duke of Saxony-Coburg and Gotha to be unconstitutional.

Barely four months later, the Prussian finance ministry delivered an extremely favourable settlement for the House of Hohenzollern whereby the Prussian state was to return three quarters of the disputed property to the former dynasty. The Saxon House of Wettin also reached a by-all-means convenient agreement with the regional government in 1924 leaving them assets amounting to 100 million Reichsmarks. King Friedrich August III remained the wealthiest man in Saxony even after his abdication.

These concessions to the former rulers were sharply criticised in the public sphere – especially given that unemployment was rising rapidly and around eight million Germans were on the verge of starvation. The historian Robert Lorenz wrote that there was ‘no question … the successful struggle of the princes for their old property was the stuff of scandal’.[4]

Not only the SPD and KPD condemned this development, but the left-liberal German Democratic Party did as well. On 23 November 1925 the DDP parliamentary group introduced a resolution in the Reichstag intending to bring an end to the juridical conflict over the princely assets. According to it, the states were to be authorised to strike a balance of interests with the former rulers expressly ‘under the exclusion of legal appeal’. The SPD supported the Democratic Party’s effort.

Otto Wels, SPD (1873-1939)

The KPD, on the other hand, did not agree with these concessions to the nobility. It rejected repealing the confiscations even partially and demanded expropriation of the nobility without compensation instead. To this end, the party’s Reichstag delegates introduced their own proposal calling for the transformation of the princes’ castles into assisted living facilities, or their use to relieve the housing crisis.

Furthermore, the princes’ landed property was to be divided among small farmers and tenants and the expropriated liquid assets given to wounded veterans and surviving dependents. Given the social polarisation rife throughout the country, these demands proved to be extremely popular.

In order to exert extra-parliamentary pressure to this end, the KPD Central Committee drafted an open letter to the leaderships of SPD, ADGB, AfA, and the General Association of German Civil Servants. The letter was also addressed to the national leaderships of the self-defence organisations Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold and the Roter Frontkämpferbund (RFB). The Communists put forward the idea of a general referendum on the expropriation of the princes without compensation under the slogan ‘Not a Penny to the Princes’.[5]

The SPD leadership initially neglected to respond to the Communist proposal. Philipp Scheidemann explained in the Reichstag on 2 December: ‘The Communist proposal is entirely agitational. It is of little use parliamentarily’. He forcibly warned against an extra-parliamentary decision: ‘Ladies and gentlemen! There’s enough fuel for conflict outside. Beware another spark flying out that could cause wild havoc. Just imagine how the people would be wound up by a referendum’.[6]

Philipp Scheidemann, SPD (1865-1939)

Yet the Communists succeeded in exciting the SPD’s membership for the undertaking. At this time, Die Rote Fahne repeatedly reported unanimous decisions at trade union and workplace meetings in favour of the referendum. The KPD also organised several demonstrations for the expropriation of the princes. Following intensive agitation among Social Democratic workers, for example, the party managed to mobilise between 60–100,000 people for a mass rally at the Lustgarten in Berlin in late December.[7]

The response among SPD members was so enthusiastic that the party leadership came under pressure, fearing they would lose members to the Communists if they refused to support the action. Consequently, in early 1926 the SPD leadership decided to prepare a plebiscite with the KPD.

Social Democrats and Communists formulated a resolution in cooperation with the ADGB to be voted on as a prelude to a referendum. They also founded a ‘Committee for the Execution of the Popular Referendum for the Expropriation of the Princes without Compensation’. The economist and demographer Robert Rene Kuzynski headed it, while its deputy was the Communist media mogul Willi Münzenberg.

The duo proved to be a lucky strike for the campaign. According to Robert Lorenz, together they pulled out ‘all the stops of contemporary media communications’.[8] They issued placards, handouts, and other publications. They even shot a film with the programmatic title Keinen Pfennig den Fürsten (No Penny for the Princes) that was screened in Berlin’s cinemas. Further ideas like radio ads or a marquee advertisement failed in the face of resistance by authorities or a lack of funds, but demonstrated the great degree of innovation the two committee chairmen could muster.

Well-known artists and intellectuals like Albert Einstein, George Grosz, Kurt Hiller, Erwin Piscator, Max Pechstein, Alfred Kerr, Käthe Kollwitz, Kurt Tucholsky, and Heinrich Zille supported the campaign. The RFB and the Reichsbanner participated in the popular initiative enthusiastically. The initiators clearly reached the necessary quorum of one-tenth of voters (roughly 3.9 million). In March, over 12.5 million people enlisted for the plebiscite – three times the number required by the constitution. The next step had been reached, and the popular referendum was scheduled for 20 June.

Ernst Meyer, KPD (1887-1930)

The political right did everything it could to prevent a successful vote. In April the bourgeois Reich government explicitly declared the left-wing draft law’s constitution-altering nature. This meant that the initiators now had to win the approval of the majority of all eligible voters – nearly 20 million. The right-wing parties, churches, large landowners, and the employers’ associations called for a boycott of the vote. The secret ballot was in this way effectively abolished, as whoever went to vote publicly revealed their stance.

These means of social control likely frightened away supporters of expropriation particularly in rural areas. In Pomerania, agricultural workers were threatened with dismissal if they took part in the vote. Some landowners in the East Elbe opted for a more unconventional method, albeit one that was no less successful: they set up free beer festivals along the way to the polling stations in many districts on the day of the vote, leading visitors to forget where they intended to go in the first place.[9]

The Left remained unintimidated and mobilised massively for the referendum. The SPD and the trade unions were at pains to ensure they issued joint materials but engaged in no joint activities with the Communists. Yet as in the days of the revolution itself, many formed local unity committees.[10] Former KPD member Wolfgang Abendroth later recalled: ‘Nobody could imagine today how good the cooperation between the Social Democrats and ourselves was, although the leadership of the SPD demanded that each party should operate for themselves’.[11]

The result of 20 June was impressive: 15.6 million voters had been mobilised. In Hamburg, Berlin, and Leipzig between 90 and 95 percent of workers took part in the vote,[12] and 14.5 million of those who went to the ballot box supported the Left’s initiative. That represented a clear majority of votes cast and corresponded to 36.4 percent of the total electorate. The initiators missed the necessary quorum of 20 million yes-votes, but succeeded in reaching even traditional conservative voters.

Gerhart Eisler, KPD (1897-1968)

The result marked a vote increase of 4.8 million compared to the results the Left parties received in the presidential election. For Abendroth the referendum was therefore ‘the greatest success the workers’ movement in the Weimar Republic accomplished’.[13] In fact, the KPD and SPD (and USPD) combined would never again receive a result that high throughout the whole period of 1918–33.[14]

Despite its victory, the German Right was aghast at the vote. Former Kaiser Wilhelm II commented from Dutch exile: ‘So there are 14 million bastards in Germany’. DNVP leader Kuno Graf von Westarp expressed concern that even the Right, indeed ‘all voter circles, let themselves be deceived, out of uncertainty, envy and covetousness … by the lies and temptations of expropriators, the robbers, and thieves’.

The unexpected high numbers of yes-votes shocked the Reich Agricultural League, the largest representative of German agriculture. The Left, on the other hand, saw its defeat as a victory. The SPD spoke of ‘a great moral victory’. The KPD was pleased to have succeeded ‘in unifying, for the first time, the Communists, the Social Democrats, and a large portion of the independent and Christian workers into a united front’.[15]

The Communists truly had reason to be excited, as the party freed itself once again from the social isolation it was dragged into in 1924–5 when the left wing was in control. Their opposition to trade unions and sectarian policies led many KPD workers and voters to turn their backs on the party, while after the referendum not only did Communist influence grow in the trade unions but party membership also rose, albeit slightly. The KPD gained in most regional elections in 1926 and 1927.[16] Communists and Social Democrats alike made significant gains in the 1928 Reichstag elections – proof that the united front policy strengthened not only the KPD, but the workers’ movement as a whole.


[1]. This paragraph is taken from the Abstract to Marcel Bois’ paper .

[2]. Bois 2014, pp. 142–68.

[3]. A bourgeois coalition of the centre, DVP, and DDP had governed the republic since the end of 1923. The conservative, right-wing DNVP entered the government in January 1925, shortly after which Hindenburg was elected President of the Reich.

[4]. Lorenz 2011, p. 144.

[5]. Die Rote Fahne, 4 December 1925.

[6]. Verhandlungen des Reichstages, Bd. 388: III. Wahlperiode 1924/1928, Stenographische Berichte, Berlin, 1926, p. 4734f.

[7]. Die Rote Fahne, 13 December 1925 and 15 December 1925.

[8]. Lorenz 2011, p. 142.

[9]. Winkler 1985, p. 280.

[10]. Mallmann 1996, p. 269.

[11]. Abendroth 1977, p. 77.

[12]. Politburo minutes for 22 June 1926, Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisationen der DDR im Bundesarchiv Berlin, RY 1, I 2/3/6, p. 122.

[13]. Abendroth 1967, p. 23.

[14]. At least in absolute numbers: among many Reichstag votes the combined vote share of the workers’ parties was over 36.4 percent, and three times (1919, 1920, 1928) even above 40 percent. However, this corresponded to a maximum of 13.3 million voters (July 1932).

[15]. All citations from Schüren 1978, pp. 234–8.

[16]. Bois 2014, pp. 174–6.

Works Cited

Abendroth, Wolfgang 1977, Ein Leben in der Arbeiterbewegung. Gespräche, edited by Barbara Dietrich and Joachim Perels, 2nd edition, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Bois, Marcel 2020, “‘March Separately, But Strike Together!’ The Communist Party’s United Front Policy in the Weimar Republic,” in Historical Materialism, 28.3 2020, pp. 148–52.

Bois, Marcel 2014, Kommunisten gegen Hitler und Stalin. Die linke Opposition der KPD in der Weimarer Republik. Eine Gesamtdarstellung, Essen: Klartext.

Lorenz, Robert 2011, ‘Zivilgesellschaft zwischen Freud und Frustration. Der Aufruf der Intellektuellen zur Enteignung der Fürsten 1926ʼ, Manifeste. Geschichte und Gegenwart des politischen Appells, edited by Johanna Klatt und Robert Lorenz, Bielefeld: transcript, pp. 135–67.

Mallmann, Klaus-Michael 1996, Kommunisten in der Weimarer Republik. Sozialgeschichte einer revolutionären Bewegung, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

Schüren, Ulrich 1978, Der Volksentscheid zur Fürstenenteignung 1926. Die Vermögensauseinandersetzung mit den depossedierten Landesherren als Problem der deutschen Innenpolitik unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Verhältnisse in Preußen, Düsseldorf: Droste.

Winkler, Heinrich August 1985, Der Schein der Normalität. Arbeiter und Arbeiterbewegung in der Weimarer Republik 1924 bis 1930, Bonn: Dietz.

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