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1919-1939 - Communist Party of Germany

The Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands - KPD) was founded as the Spartacus League (the "Spartakusbund"), headed by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, on 30 December 1918. The party, which had no strong roots among the population in its early days, aspired to establish a Bolshevik dictatorship based on councils which were modelled on the Russian soviets. They rejected the parliamentary system and did not stand for election to the National Assembly. Instead, they tried, through mass strikes and demonstrations, to win over supporters and defeat the forces of democracy. Weakened by internal conflicts and secessions, the KPD polled only 2.1% of the vote in the Reichstag elections of 1920.

Not until the end of 1920, when some 300,000 members of the left wing of the USPD defected to the KPD, did the latter start to develop into a mass party, guided by Moscow, which was able to secure the allegiance of about 10% of the electorate. The United Communist Party of Germany was formed in late 1920 by a union of the Spartakusbund with the left Independent working masses. The Independent Socialists applied at Moscow to be received into the fold of the Third International, whereupon the Third International had set up 21 conditions of admission, among them the exclusion from the party of all leading members who professed any kind of democracy or were infected with any kind of "social patriotism."

At the Independent Socialist party congress held at Halle these conditions were accepted, after a speech by the Russian Bolshevik Zinoviev, on Oct. 16 1920, against a strong minority vote. The minority, the right wing of the Independents under the leadership of Crispien, thereupon separated from the New Communists, whose leaders were Daumig and Stocker. The latter united in Berlin on Nov. 1 with the Communist party (led by Paul Levi and Clara Zetkin) and formed the "United Communist party of Germany, Section of the Third International."

The United Communist party instigated in March 1921 in central Germany, in the region between Halle and Eisleben, an insurrection, the chief object of which was to demonstrate their revolutionary character to their masters at Moscow. Paul Levi and Klara Zetkin had shortly before this Putsch been compelled to retire from the leadership of the central committee of the Communists, in order to make room for people who would blindly obey the orders of Noske. The nine leaders who declared their solidarity with Paul Levi on the matter of the March Action were expelled with him. The resolution which endorsed the expulsion of Paul Levi from the Communist party of Germany was signed, for Russia, by Lenin, Trotzky, Bucharin and Radek.

The Chief President of the Prussian province of Saxony, Horsing, had recourse to the services of the armed police (Schutzpolizei) in consequence of the intolerable situation in several great factories, where thefts, intimidation and strikes were the order of the day. The Red Banner (Die Rote Fahne), the organ of the K.P.D. (the Communist Party of Germany), thereupon called a general strike and exhorted the whole of the workmen to take up arms.

Many of the workmen of central Germany accordingly rose. The large industrial cities of Central Germany were the scene in March of Communist outbreaks and strikes. Radical workers in Hamburg seized the Administration buildings; other Communists in Dresden, I/eipsic, Rodewisch, and Halle attacked the court houses, city halls, public banks, and police stations. The riots raged for a week, spreading at last to Berlin, where a series of dynamite explosions occurred. Finally there were uprisings throughout the Belgian zone of occupation, the most serious riots taking place in Rheinhousen, Moer, and Crefield. The riots in the Belgian zone were quelled by Belgian troops, German police restoring order in other sections.

What might be called the military conduct of the insurrection was assumed by the locksmith Max Holz, who extorted money from "the bourgeoisie" for his Red Army and set their houses on fire. Attempts were made to wreck railway bridges and stations, post-offices and banks. In the great Leuna nitrogen works near Merseburg, the center of the movement, all authority was for some weeks, on the Russian model, in the hands of the workmen. The Prussian Government, which at that time was predominantly Socialist, considered it politically expedient not to employ the regular army (ReicJiswehr) against the insurgent workmen, but to use only the armed police (Schutzpolizci). This police liberated the central region of Germany after hard fighting. The violent agitation conducted by the central committee of the K.P.D. in Berlin had meanwhile succeeded in causing the insurrection to spread to other towns, particularly Hamburg.

The movement altogether cost the lives of several thousands of workmen and armed police. The insurrection had proved that by far the greater part of the Socialist working classes were no longer inclined to be driven into hopeless enterprises by irresponsible agitators. The failure of the insurrection led to further disciplinary measures and splits within the Communist party in the Reichstag and also at the Communist party congress. Holz was tried and condemned to penal servitude for life.

By 1922 the Communist Party of Germany was of unwieldy size. It represented 3,200,000 voters. Its program consisted theoretically of allegiance to the Russian leadership in World Revolution and Dictatorship of the Proletariat; actually it was a passion for some radical change which might improve the personal fortune of the individual members. Too many stories of Russian misery and Bolshevist misrule had penetrated into Germany to make the desire for a Russian alliance, even among the most illiterate and starving, more than merely theoretical.

The Communist leaders were of two groups. Some few of them are highly refined idealistic dreamers and poets who were able to divorce communistic ethics from Bolshevist practice and who revel in delightful dreams of blessed Utopias. Because the rank and file of German Communists are recruited from the most illiterate section of the population, the effect of these dreamers was not so disintegrating as it otherwise would be. The other leaders were demagogues who delighted in their power to sway the masses as they please. They had far more ambition for political power than conviction regarding the principles which they hurled at the confused minds of their followers.

With the coming of the great world depression of 1929 that brought an end to Germany's prosperity just as it did to that of the rest of the world. The radicalisation of the political landscape in the wake of the Great Depression enabled the party to rise to third place in the Reichstag elections of 1930 to 1933. Together with the NSDAP, it constituted an obstructive anti-parliamentary majority in the Reichstag. The propaganda campaigns launched by the KPD against democracy and the 'tyranny of finance capital' played a significant part in the demise of the democratic order.

By 1932 the struggle was between the Nationalists and Communists, and deadly conflicts were the order of the day. "The Hitlerites and Reds menace the German Republic," wrote Knickerbocker (in The German Crisis, 1932) ; and America was asked to consider what would become of its $5,000,000,000.00 industrial loans to Germany - "$100.00 to each American family." The "red" vote went on to a total of 6,000,000 (739,235 in Berlin) as the Nationalists in June, 1932. soared past the 12,000,000 mark, and the street fighting became ever more fierce and determined. In the Parliamentary election of July, 1932, the Nazis won 230 seats out of 648, the largest number any party had held in the history of the Weimar Republic. In another election held in November, 1932, the Nazis lost 34 seats, and the Communists increased their membership in the Reichstag from 89 to 100. On January 30, 1933, Hitler formed a coalition with the Nationalist (militarist) party of Franz von Papen and became Chancellor, with von Papen as Vice-Chancellor. But Hitler and the Nazis were not interested in coalition parliamentary government; their program called for the dictatorship of a Fiihrer. Hitler immediately called for a new election. During the month-long election campaign the Nazis gave the German people ample opportunity to see what a Nazi victory would mean. They used their newly won power to march and shout and terrorize Jews and Communists. In the last stages of the campaign they abolished personal, civil liberties. Five days before the election, on February 27 the Reichstag building was mysteriously burned. The Nazis utilized a fire which gutted the Reichstag building (generally believed to have been set by Goering) as an excuse to redouble their terrorism against the Communists. The Nazis charged that the Communists had started the conflagaration as a signal for the overthrow of the government and the establishment of a Communist dictatorship. The Communists and other opposition groups accused the Nazis of firing the building to promote a Red scare. But they had little opportunity to publish their charges. In the election of March 5, 1933, the Communists, in spite of the vicious persecution, polled almost as many votes as they had ever received-4.8 million; the Centrist (Roman Catholic) party received 5.5 million; the Social Democrats polled 7.8 million. The result was that Hitler's candidates won 44 per cent of the votes cast on March 5. With his Nationalist allies he now had a majority of seats in the Reichstag. Hitler then proceeded to outlaw the Communist and Social Democratic parties. At the first session of the new Reichstag, from which the Communists were outlawed and excluded, Hitler was voted dictatorial powers for four years. Hitler and his party into a position from which they readily assumed almost absolute power within a very short period after taking over the government. The world already knew what to expect from Hitler's party: his stand was "unalterable" from the beginning. When Hitler gained power in Germany, German communists headed Hitler's enemy list and were the first group he and his followers tried to eliminate. As a first act in consolidating their gains, the Nazi government, as the Dritte Reich, caused the immediate arrest of several thousand Communist leaders and Jews who were under suspicion of having participated in the Communist outrages preceding the Nationalist triumph. Rough treatment was accorded many, as they were thus suddenly seized and rushed to jails or concentration camps. Some were killed outright. Many Germans, of course, though after 1933 always a definite minority, genuinely opposed Hitler and the Nazi program. The most stubborn organized opposition came from the Communist party and the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Many others undoubtedly disapproved many acts and methods of the Nazis. Despite constant pressure during these dark years--including a disastrous initial response in 1934-1935, a betrayal by their Soviet patrons in 1939-1941, and a general ineffectiveness--the surviving communist resisters never wavered in their opposition to Nazi Germany.

At the opening of the world conflict, Karl Liebknecht, leader of the left wing of the Social Democrats, alone failed to support the war credit, refusing, as only he did, to vote on that issue. By 1916, having withdrawn from the moderate Socialist party, Liebknecht with Rosa Luxemberg organized the Spartacus League to oppose a continuance of the war. In that same year, Admiral von Tirpitz took the lead in the organization of the Vaterlandspartei, forerunner of the Nationalist Volkische groups from which arose in part the present Hitler organization. As the distress of Germans at home increased following the crop failure of the kohlriiben yahr ("the turnip year," 1917), and the possibility of ultimate defeat was first considered, the Spartacus Leaguers saw their opportunity and took full advantage of it. So that things happened fast in 1918, and the Jews undoubtedly had a full part in the collapse. Liebknecht and Luxemburg were charged with engineering the munitions factory strikes early in that year. On October 28th came the organized mutiny of members of the fleet, who put out the ships' fires when ordered to steam out of the harbor of Kiel. It was the Socialist leader, the Jew Schiedemann, who, on November 7th, demanded of the Chancellor the abdication of the Kaiser, and renunciation by the Crown Prince of his claim to the throne. The following day, with no answer from the Kaiser, the Socialists resigned en masse from the government and threatened to call a general strike; on the morning of November 9th the workers walked out, at the same time the Socialists advising the cabinet of "the people's desire" to take over the government. News had just come by wire of the Kaiser's abdication; the Chancellor resigned; Ebert immediately proclaimed "the People's Government," and two days later his representatives signed the Armistice of November llth, 1918.

Socialist Unity Party of Germany
Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands - SED

The most important political institution in East Germany was the ruling communist party, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands -- SED). The SED was founded on April 19, 1946, in the Soviet zone of occupation through a merger of the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Communist Party of Germany, the two major left-wing political organizations in the eastern part of Germany. The two parties had played significant roles in the Weimar Republic but had been suppressed after 1933 when the Nazis took power. Since its inception, the SED, in which the Communists achieved early dominance over the Social Democrats, has undergone a number of organizational as well as ideological changes. According to Peter Christian Ludz, a recognized analyst of East German politics, perhaps the most important change was the SED's shift from a totalitarian party to one that exhibited more "consultative-authoritarian" tendencies.

Upon its formation in 1949, the East German regime was a provisional political entity that lacked legitimacy in the eyes of most of its citizenry. Unlike the communist parties in Eastern Europe, the SED generally has been able to avoid major internal conflict since the last massive party purge initiated by Ulbricht in 1957. The erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the promulgation of the New Economic System at the Sixth Party Congress in January 1963, and the emergence of a generation of political leaders that had matured in East Germany since the war were all factors that helped stabilize SED rule in the country.

The first major event of the 1970s occurred when Ulbricht, who had been party leader during the two previous decades, was forced to relinquish his control over the SED in May 1971; he was allowed, however, to retain his chairmanship of the Council of State and full membership in the Politburo until his death in August 1973. Ulbricht's replacement, Erich Honecker, brought about a series of changes in party policy. Among the more important was the SED's declaration that East Germany had abandoned its goal of national reunification with West Germany, which Ulbricht had consistently stressed and codified in an article of the 1968 Constitution. Honecker also emphasized East Germany's special relationship with the Soviet Union.

In the 1970s, the SED became known as a leading exponent of Soviet-style Marxism-Leninism. East Germany was then a staunch defender of the Soviet ideological view in Eastern Europe and a critic of the more liberal Eurocommunism in Western Europe. However, the 1980s signaled an important change in East German attitudes toward the Soviet Union and its role as a model to be emulated by other socialist countries. Although Moscow was still considered the ultimate guarantor of communist rule in East Germany, the leader of the socialist community, and East Germany's primary economic partner, since the early 1980s, East Germany no longer viewed the Soviet Union as a model of socialist development worthy of emulation in all respects.

The Soviet Union's leadership of the socialist community remained unquestioned, but the days of blind devotion appeared to be over. East German officials argued that their country was at a different stage of development and that they must seek solutions that correspond to local conditions, a theme increasingly heard elsewhere in Eastern Europe since the early 1980s. Although attempts to carve out a separate identity as a socialist state had occurred before, particularly under Ulbricht in the 1960s and the early 1970s, the SED generally had been seen as an orthodox ally of Moscow and a staunch defender of Warsaw Pact unity. However, during the mid-1980s, a trend toward greater autonomy was evident in East German ideological pronouncements and domestic policy initiatives.

The SED's most important connective tissue remained MarxistLeninist ideology. Ideology retained an overriding significance even in the Honecker era, where it has played the role of an integrating and mobilizing force in society. Ideology determines the norms of conduct, guided social and political action, and integrates the leadership elite. In the SED's proclamations on the "unity of ideology, party, and economy," ideology appeared first. Since the Ninth Party Congress in 1976, three factors were linked and defined as "characteristic of the nature of party work." Even at the Tenth Party Congress in 1981 when Honecker reversed the order and spoke of the "unity of politics, economy, and ideology," he still emphasized the significance and the "superiority of Marxist-Leninist ideology."

Communists Under the Federal Republic

In 1948-49, a militant anti-Communist stance pervaded West Germany. The Communist Party of Germany was decreed unconstitutional in 1956, and many party officers and members were sentenced to long prison terms. In 1968, however, the West German Legislature passed an amnesty for all persons jailed as Communists and changed the corresponding provisions of the penal code. While this marked the end of the criminalizing of the Communist in West Germany, it was not the termination of Berufsverbote - enemies of the state.

The German state worked to protect against penetration of its institutions by communists preaching peaceful coexistence as a guise. In January 1972, the so-called 'Radicals Decree' was enacted with the aim of keeping all political 'extremists' out of Government service. Every public agency or private agency doing business with the Government was required to investigate employment applicants' backgrounds to ensure that persons who have any affiliation with radical groups or movements are excluded from Government-related employment.

By the late 1970s the Communist parties which grew out of the new left were separate organizations divided in their views of the Soviet Union, although all were striving for the socialist revolution. The Communist Party of Germany (9,000 members), and the Communist Party of Germany--Marxist/Leninist (800 members) had not grown in the 1970s, although the Communist Union of West Germany (2,000 members) had expanded and the Communist Union, an organization of radicial young revolutionaries, had the most success. The Group of International Marxists was noted for its extensive theoretical analysis of Marxism. These parties of professional revolutionaries presented an extremist potential which can be mobilized against the state at any time, but were not immediately dangerous because of the lack of effective support abroad.

By the late 1970s the strongest extremist groups in terms of membership and resources were the orthodox communists, the German Communist Party (40,000 members), the Youth Organization of Socialistic German Workers' Youth (13,500 members), the Marxist Student Union--Spartacus (4,700 members), and the Young Pioneers. All were allied with the Marxist views of the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic, and Marxism-Leninism was extensively discussed in their journals. These organizations supported an ideology practiced in other countries, and the Federal Republic wished to normalize its relations with these countries.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:55:18 ZULU