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1920: German Workers Foil a Rightist Putsch

January 7, 2021

General Strike Sent Rebel Generals Running

(See also Part 1: “How Socialists Resist Rightist Coups
Part 2: “Toward a United Front Against Fascism.”)

By John Riddell: The strongest workers’ upsurge in Europe in the early years after the Russian revolution took place in March 1920, when 12 million workers in Germany rallied in a giant strike against a right-wing military coup.

During the months following the German revolution of November 1918, which swept away the country’s monarchs and ended World War 1, militant workers there had suffered a stinging defeat at the hands of murderous monarchist and proto-fascist militias, known as “Freikorps.”

The right-wing assault had been organized by none other than the leaders of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which then led Germany’s government. The SPD’s betrayal cast a deep shadow over hopes for united workers’ resistance. Yet despite this stinging defeat, the workers of Germany soon rallied in renewed struggles.

Hundreds of thousands of workers turned away from the SPD during 1919 and early 1920, outraged by its role in organizing the assault on militant workers and restabilizing the capitalist state. These forces reinforced revolutionary-minded currents in the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) and the unions. Mass workers’ struggle resumed in December 1919, as strike movements developed in key industrial centers across the country.

For a broader discussion of the issues raised in this text,
see “How Socialists Resist Rights Coups.”

On January 13, 1920, a huge throng of workers demonstrated in front of the Berlin Reichstag (parliament) in defense of the workers’ councils in Germany. Security police machine-gunned the rally, killing forty-two workers. The government then reimposed a state of siege across half the country and jailed central leaders of the USPD and Communist Party. For a time the USPD was forced into the same semi-underground status that the Communist Party in Germany (KPD) had been driven into a year earlier.

Rightist military detachments seize Berlin, 1920

The rightist forces were spurred to action by government moves to implement a reduction in the size of the country’s armed forces imposed by the powers that had defeated Germany in World War 1.

Emboldened by these events, right-wing Freikorps units carried out a coup in Berlin on March 13, driving the SPD-led coalition government into flight from the capital and installing a would-be dictator, Wolfgang Kapp.

General Strike

The leaders of the Social Democratic-led trade unions, threatened with the suppression of the movements from which they drew their power and privilege, responded with a call for a general strike against the coup. The strike was solid across the country. Army commanders in the capital and across northern and eastern Germany backed the coup and launched murderous attacks against the striking workers. In Dresden fifty-nine workers were killed. Workers organized militias, which cleared army units out of the Ruhr industrial district and fought back arms in hand in more than two dozen localities. Armed workers’ detachments gained effective control of important industrial districts.

On learning of the call by the SPD and USPD for a general strike against the Kapp putsch, the Communist Party leadership initially responded in sectarian and ultraleft fashion. The KPD initially urged workers to stand aside from the mass struggle on the grounds that working people had no stake in defending the country’s bourgeois-democratic order.

The KPD stand was rejected in practice by the working-class ranks of the party. They recognized the broad opposition to the Kapp putsch as a revolutionary opening, a chance not only to defend hard-won democratic rights but to deal the class enemy a decisive blow. Communists Party cadres played a leading role in the strike and in workers’ armed self-defense. The party’s central leadership soon endorsed this course, reversing its initial decision.

The putschist regime fell after only four days. Its rapid overthrow of the Kapp regime demonstrated dramatically the power of united working-class action. Encouraged by Kapp’s fall, militant workers continued their strike, seeking a way to end antilabor repression and the ravage of the military and of rightists under military protection.

Call for Workers’ Government

In the face of this growing pressure, Carl Legien, the reformist head of the main trade-union federation, sought to regain control over the mass movement. He proposed to leaders of the SPD and the USPD, and of other unions that they join in establishing a government of workers’ organizations, both parties and trade unions.

Although workers’ parties lacked a parliamentary majority, the legitimacy of such a government would be assured by the overwhelming working-class and popular support for the strike.

Among this government’s tasks, Legien suggested, would be a purge of counterrevolutionaries from the armed forces and leading posts in the state administration.

On March 22, the Central Bureau of the Communist Party adopted by a one-vote margin a statement declaring that since the “objective basis for a proletarian dictatorship is not yet present,” the formation “of a Socialist government excluding the bourgeois-capitalist parties” could create “favorable conditions for the proletarian masses” to prepare to take power.

Such a government, the statement said, could create a situation “where political freedom can be fully utilized, where bourgeois democracy cannot function as the dictatorship of capital.” Communists would not join such a government, but they would act toward it as a “loyal opposition” – retaining full freedom to criticize it, but refraining from attempts to overthrow it.

Subsequently, the statement was repudiated in a divided vote by the Communist Party Central Committee and the party congress. The statement was also criticized by Comintern president Gregory Zinoviev in his written report to the Second Congress on behalf of the Comintern Executive Committee. Lenin, on the other hand, held that the tactic proposed in the statement by the Communist Party of Germany was “quite correct both in its basic premise and n its practical conclusions.” Where the statement erred, in Lenin’s view, was in lending unjustified credit to the credentials of the centrist and reformist leaders of the USPD and the SPD as socialists and a defenders of democratic rights.

Missed Opportunity

The workers’ government proposal was blocked above all by opposition from the USPD. The proposal’s failure strengthened the hand of the SPD. The bourgeois government reasserted its authority; the general strike came to an end. Nonetheless, the “workers’ government” discussion reflected the conviction of millions of workers in Germany that they must achieve a revolutionary government of working people. The continuing strikes and armed actions after Kapp’s fall demonstrated workers’ capacity to fight for this goal.

The Kapp struggle provoked much debate in the KPD, mostly over the workers’ government proposal. At the Comintern congress in June-July 1920, however, there was little mention of the Kapp events. The concept of workers’ unity in action received new expression later that year through KPD initiatives for united workers’ action for their most urgent needs – an approach later termed the “united front.” (See “The Origins of United Front Policy.”) 

(See also Part 1: “How Socialists Resist Rightist Coups” and Part 2: “Toward a United Front Against Fascism.”)


For a fuller discussion of the Kapp episode’s political context, see John Riddell, ed., Workers of the World  and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Proceedings of the Second Congress, New York: Pathfinder, 1991, pp. 1–61. This two-volume, 1147-page work is available from Pathfinder for US$52.

See also Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917–1923, London: Merlin, 2006, pp. 349–380.

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  1. Anton permalink

    For a broader discussion of the issues raised in this text,
    see “How Socialists Resist Rights Coups.” [LINKK] link does not work

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