Strange states: Bavarian Soviet Republic (April – May 1919)

A KPD election poster from Bavaria.

The revolution in Germany that overthrew the unworthy Kaiser Wilhelm II, at the tail end of World War I, ended with the establishment of a newly democratic German Reich under the auspices of the Weimar Constitution of 1919. This shaky young republic was threatened by far-right nationalist and monarchist parties such as the DNVP and most famously the NSDAP (a.k.a. the Nazi Party, which would overthrow the republic a mere 14 years after its creation.)

However, the process that turned the multi-party democracy of the Weimar Republic into the single-party dictatorship of Nazi Germany was not inevitable. Democratic Germany also faced left-wing threats to its existence, namely from the Soviet-aligned KPD (Communist Party of Germany). In a way, Germany was a natural candidate for a communist revolution. The founders of the communist philosophy, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, were Germans themselves, and the economic chaos that befell Germany at the end of World War I created the perfect situation for an armed takeover by leftists promising benefits to the masses that the old imperial government had denied them. And indeed, one of the very first threats to the new government in Berlin led by the center-left Social Democratic Party came from KPD insurrectionists in Munich, the largest city in southern Germany.

In November 1918, when the imperial government was dissolved and Germany surrendered to the Allies, control over the Bavarian state government was assumed by Kurt Eisner, a politician at the head of the USPD (Independent Social Democratic Party), a left-wing splinter of the already socialist SPD. Although a left-wing socialist himself, Eisner rejected the idea of communist revolution and worked within the new democratic framework set up by the SPD in Berlin, stepping down when the USPD was voted out of power at the beginning of 1919.

When you think of Munich, you probably think of Oktoberfest and beer halls, but it used to be home to some political extremism too. (By Thomas Wolf, www.foto-tw.de, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26601798)
Munich, today looking peaceful and tourist-friendly, was not an advisable tourist destination in 1919. (By Thomas Wolf, http://www.foto-tw.de, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26601798)

More extreme left-wing elements in Munich did support a communist revolution, however, and Eisner’s assassination by a young right-wing aristocrat just after his defeat in the polls agitated these activists to more decisive action. On April 6, 1919, USPD politician and modernist playwright Ernst Toller led a takeover of the Bavarian state government together with other left-wing socialists and anarchists, who declared the establishment of an independent Bavarian Soviet Republic.  Toller’s government naturally made contact with the Bolshevik-controlled government of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, soon to be the core of the not-yet-formed Soviet Union.

Toller’s government would only last six days. This short period of rule perhaps had to do with the fact that Toller was the sort of person to proclaim a “Revolution of Love”, and also to appoint a man like Dr. Franz Lipp to the head of the fledgling state’s foreign ministry.  Dr. Lipp famously attempted to declare war upon the neutral Switzerland over their refusal to lend trains to the new Bavarian government.  Even stranger, the new foreign minister complained to Vladimir Lenin, then de facto head of the RSFSR, that the ousted former Bavarian president had fled Munich with the key to the ministry lavatory in his pocket, as though Lenin could have done anything about that.  (One also has to wonder what Lenin, the hardened and bloody prophet of communist revolution, thought of such a lame complaint. I would have told him to find a locksmith, myself.)

Eugen Levine, looking like a proper revolutionary dude.
Eugen Levine, looking like a proper revolutionary with beard and coat.

After the fall of Toller’s cabinet, the government of Bavaria was taken over by a capital C (or more properly in German, capital K) Communist, a St. Petersberg transplant into Germany no less, named Eugen Levine. A former member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party of Russia and a former prisoner of the Russian Empire, Levine presumably had stronger revolutionary credentials than the weirdo playwright Toller. Sadly for Levine and his new government, this wouldn’t help them spark a successful communist revolution throughout Germany as they had hoped.

Levine and his commissars began to put into place the kind of plans you’d expect – for property redistribution, the creation of an official Red Army, reforms to education, and so on. They even had the chance to carry out a few executions of anti-communist figures in Munich, including a nobleman (though not the one who had murdered their socialist cousin Kurt Eisner.) However, the communist party in Munich only lasted for about three weeks following Levine’s coup. The solidly republican Social Democratic government in Berlin decided to order paramilitary units (the Freikorps, whose members unlike those of the SPD leaned hard to the right) to bring Munich back into the Republic. The tens of thousands of regular army and irregular Freikorps units steamrolled the Munich Red Guards and soon captured Levine and co. The month-long Bavarian Soviet Republic was dead, and with it the last serious left-wing threat to the Weimar Republic.

So how did it all end? The principal figures in our strange story met various fates. Eugen Levine was made the chief defendant of a show trial and was executed a mere month after his capture. Ernst Toller, who had control of the Bavarian state for just under a week, was sent by the German authorities to prison for five years and later departed for the United States, where he would eventually commit suicide (but not before writing some plays that gained acclaim.) Many of the Red Guard fighters themselves would be killed by Freikorps and allied soldiers, either during the fighting or in extrajudicial executions.

This is supposedly a photo of a communist rebel in Munich being executed by firing squad. It's actually staged, but it's worth looking at simply to see the devil-may-care pose the young leftist is striking.
This is supposedly a photo of a communist rebel in Munich being executed by firing squad. It’s actually staged, but it’s worth looking at simply to see the devil-may-care pose the young leftist is striking.

The USPD fell apart soon after the Bavarian fiasco, but strangely enough the KPD, despite its participation in both the Munich rebellion and the January 1919 Spartacist revolt in Berlin, would continue to exist in Germany. Although the KPD remained a Soviet-aligned party with the goal of destroying the Republic, it switched from revolutionary to democratic tactics, running candidates in elections until its dissolution by the Nazis in 1933. And Munich itself would turn from a center of left-wing extremism to one of right-wing extremism, becoming the birthplace of the Nazi party and the adopted hometown of its leader, Adolf Hitler.1

1 Hitler was in fact already living in Munich at the time, fresh out of his service as a German Army corporal during World War I.  Two months after the Bavarian Soviet Republic fell, Hitler was appointed by the Reichswehr to infiltrate the German Workers’ Party (DAP), a small extreme right-wing party local to Munich.  He instead ended up joining the party later that year as a genuine member and quickly wrested control away from its original founder, Anton Drexler.  As they say, the rest is history.

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