Munich 1919: Diary of a Revolution, by Victor Klemperer, Polity Press, 183 pp, ISBN: 978-1509510580
Nothing about Kurt Eisner would have pointed to him becoming a revolutionary leader in Bavaria. He was in his early fifties and most unprepossessing. He was Jewish, a journalist, a bohemian and a Berliner, all of them attributes unlikely to endear him to chauvinistic Bavarians. Yet when he got up to speak at a demonstration in the Theresienwiese, the crowd responded with enthusiasm. The event had been organised by Erhard Auer of the Social Democrat Party. A large crowd had assembled in the unseasonably warm weather. Auer had intended that the crowd would proceed from the park in an orderly parade through the city in support of peace and bread. He had organised a marching band to lead the procession and, in advance of the march, the band was entertaining strolling groups of workers and soldiers. Eisner, though, was not there to entertain; he wanted nothing less than revolution. He urged all the soldiers present to return to their barracks, seize weapons and ammunition, mobilise the rest of their comrades, and “make yourselves masters of the government”. Soon he was leading thousands through the streets. Within a day, King Ludwig III of Bavaria had fled his palace; the Wittelsbach dynasty, that had reigned for over seven hundred years, was no more and Eisner was the prime minister of a Free State of Bavaria.
Eisner was already well-known in Munich and had earlier been a significant political figure in Berlin, where for a time he edited the SPD newspaper Vorwärts. He had been selected for this work by Wilhelm Liebknecht, a founder member of the party and the paper’s previous editor. However, it was a difficult assignment for Eisner as he tried to steer a course between the moderates and radicals in the party. In the event, he pleased neither and lost his job. He then moved to Munich, earning a modest living as a journalist and poet. He founded the USPD (Independent Social Democrats) in Bavaria and played a leading role in a major strike in January 1918.
The USPD (Independent Social Democrats) had broken away from the SPD in 1917 over the issue of continued support for the war. It was mostly composed of the radical wing of the party; those who had earlier been opposed to the reformist line advanced by Eduard Bernstein in 1899. The USPD was not itself free of ideological conflict; within it the Spartacist League, led by Karl Liebknecht (son of Wilhelm) and Rosa Luxemburg, represented a Bolshevikist position and was soon to become the nucleus of the German Communist Party (KPD). These divisions were to have a significant impact on events in Munich, where, unlike in other cities, the revolutionary leadership was dominated by the USPD.
All of Germany was a cauldron of anger and resentment as it became clear that the war was about to be lost. Two million Germans had died in the trenches and many millions more were physically or physiologically disabled by the conflict. The sacrifice was all for nothing; the people discovered they had been misled and betrayed by the ruling military junta. While the working class scavenged for food, the Junkers (landed gentry), the war profiteers, the industrialists and upper middle classes continued to thrive. Only they could afford to pay the inflated black market prices.
The spark that had set the country ablaze was a sailors’ mutiny. The naval high command had decided on a glorious last stand. The fleet, which had been mostly inactive throughout the war, was ordered to put to sea to attack the Royal Navy. The purpose could only have been to restore the admirals’ lost prestige; there was no hope of reversing the inevitable defeat. But the crews were not prepared to sacrifice themselves for their masters’ sense of honour. The sailors mutinied and they were joined by thousands of port workers. The revolt quickly spread to other navy ports; workers’ and sailors’ councils were established in Lübeck, Bremen and Hamburg. Within days, all the major cities in western and central Germany were ruled by popular councils. On November 9th, two days after Eisner’s success in Munich, Berlin was convulsed; strikes in all the major industries were supported by garrison soldiers. Kaiser Wilhelm’s abdication was announced and a republic proclaimed by Philipp Scheidemann of the (majority) Social Democrat Party while, separately, Karl Liebknecht proclaimed a free socialist republic.
Victor Klemperer arrived in Munich from Leipzig for a few days in mid-December, too late to witness the November revolution. He was there to procure his army demobilisation papers, to arrange the resumption of his lectureship at the university, and to find lodgings for himself and his wife, Eva. A Jew with a middle class family background who had converted to Protestantism, he volunteered for the army in 1915, aged thirty-three, and saw action on the western front before contracting an illness in March 1916. After release from hospital, he was assigned to an army censor’s office, where he worked until the end of the war. When he arrived in Munich he found the city bedecked with flags, the blue and white of Bavaria, the black and yellow of the city, the red, black and gold of the republic and, atop some public buildings, the red flag. Entirely absent was the black, white and red of the empire. With an old friend, an intimate and admirer of Eisner, Klemperer gained entry to a USPD election rally in a large assembly room at the Hotel Trefler. Elections were due for a Bavarian state parliament and the prime minister himself was due to speak. The proceedings were boisterous, noisy and typically Bavarian. Waitresses carrying up to ten mugs of beer pushed their way through the throng. Speakers were cheered when they praised Eisner, shouted down if identified as a follower of the SPD; “bourgeois, bourg!” – “I’m a Socialist” the speaker protests -‑“You’re full of rubbish!” is the response. Localised disputes were breaking out at tables. Then, as Klemperer later recalled in his memoirs,
Suddenly it went quiet, and everyone looked towards a side door where a small cluster of people had formed. Whispering, like orders passed down a skirmish line: “It’s Eisner!” The speaker breaks off and abruptly exclaims, “Long live our prime minister, hur-”, then breaks off again before shouting “Hip, hip Hurrah!”. The room and galleries roar with him. Eisner passes by me, his sleeve brushing mine. Afterwards I have a long time to observe him from three steps away. A delicate, tiny, frail, stooped little man. His balding head is of unimposing size, his dirty grey hair hangs to the nape of his neck, his full reddish beard is turning a dirty grey, his heavy cloudy eyes peer through spectacles. There is nothing brilliant, nothing venerable, nothing heroic about his entire appearance. He is a mediocre, spent man that I peg at being at least 65, although he is still in his early fifties. He does not look especially Jewish …
Despite his appearance, Klemperer was taken with Eisner. In contrast to his firebrand rhetoric in the Theresienweise, this time he spoke softly and was humorous and self-deprecating, relying on jokes rather more than pathos. The audience heard him in rapture, only breaking their silence to laugh and cheer him on. “I speak not as the prime minister. I speak as an Independent [Social Democrat] and a traitor. I’m supposed to ask you to vote Independent, but I’m not going to,” he declares. “Follow your beliefs and let us be united.” He did, however, go on to appeal: “Just give me a little time, I just want to be able to serve you as prime minister for a few days longer.” Someone called out, to applause, “a hundred years”, to which Eisner made a theatrical bow, “I will attempt to comply with your friendly request.” It was, in retrospect, a poignant exchange, for within two months he was dead.
The Council Republic government was not exactly representative of Bavaria or Munich. Klemperer, himself an outsider, mused: “you find yourself asking: where are the Munich natives or the Bavarians?” Given, as he put it, that “the Bavarian is so proud of his heritage, so averse to all things foreign”, most especially Prussian, a designation that encompassed many of the members of the revolutionary cabinet, it seemed a paradox. Klemperer’s solution to the puzzle was that Munich politics resembled art; indeed he considered them as one. Bohemians contribute to both and here the people do not require their bohemians to be native; that would be perverse, for, as he put it: “the bohemians of Munich are a foreign legion, kept for amusement and fun” in art as in politics. But whatever about their entertainment value in the arts, their contribution to governance was to prove more inane than comic.
With regard to openness and transparency, Eisner, however, could be said to have been ahead of his time. His door was open to all and every piece of correspondence, diplomatic paper, or minute of a meeting was available for anyone to read. Richard Watt, in his book The Kings Depart, quotes a visiting French journalist’s impression: “his ideas are always excessively bold, sometimes fantastic and paradoxical as well, often bordering on anarchy”. Eisner was happiest expounding philosophical abstractions; Rosa Luxemburg, who knew him during his Vorwärts days, and couldn’t stand him, once, presumably frustrated by his fondness for Kant, exclaimed: “may you drown in the moral absolutes of your beloved Pure Reason”. Nothing in his temperament prepared him for the type of challenges he faced as prime minister of Bavaria.
Klemperer left Munich to return to Leipzig shortly after the Hotel Trefler meeting and only returned in early February 1919, when he was to begin lecturing on French literature at the university. By then, he had agreed to become a part-time correspondent for the Leipziger Neueste Nachrichten, sending dispatches to Leipzig under the byline “AB correspondent”: AB stood for “anti-bavaricus”, a private joke that was not entirely without substance. The articles he wrote for that paper, combined with that part of his memoir relating to the revolutionary period in Munich, form the contents of Munich 1919: Diary of a Revolution. Klemperer’s World War II diaries have been a rich source for historians researching Jewish life during the Third Reich, although this is the first publication to reproduce his accounts of the revolution in Bavaria. He was a talented reporter and memoirist, but he was not an impartial observer. He was at that time a liberal democrat, a supporter of the German Democrat Party (DDP), unsympathetic towards socialism and positively hostile to the communists who were soon to assume power in Munich.
National and state parliamentary elections were held in January 1919. The SPD won most seats in the national constituent assembly, followed by the (Catholic) Centre Party, and the DDP. The USDP was supported by less than 8 per cent of the electorate nationally and in Bavaria won only three seats in the new state parliament. The (Catholic) Bavarian People’s Party had the largest share of the vote in Bavaria, having campaigned strongly against “the Jewish Bolshevist revolution”, and the SPD came a close second. The more radical elements within the USPD never wanted parliamentary elections, having proposed instead that the workers’ and soldiers’ councils be given legislative and executive power. Nationally and in Bavaria, the tense alliance between the radical and moderate socialists began to fall apart, just as counter-revolutionary forces were growing in strength and anti-Semitic fervour. Eisner faced challenges from left and right.
In Berlin, a Spartacist attempt to seize power collapsed, defeated by an unholy alliance of the SPD government and Freikorps (paramilitary militia) troops. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were murdered soon afterwards. Six days later Kurt Eisner suffered the same fate, shot by a young aristocrat, Count Anton Arco-Valley, then a student at Munich University. Despite his mother being of Jewish descent, the assassin was a rabid anti-Semite. He was in turn shot by Eisner’s body guards but survived, and was soon acclaimed a hero by the right.
Having delayed his decision for a number of weeks after the election, Eisner was about to resign as prime minister when he was shot. The party had little support outside Munich, but even in the city, where he had been rapturously acclaimed in November, his popularity had greatly declined. He had managed to put down a Spartacist-supported putsch in December, but economic conditions had worsened. The railway network had been deprived of much of its rolling stock as a result of war reparations and the exchequer was bare, in part due to payments to demobbed soldiers and the growing numbers of unemployed. Basic food stocks were scarce or unaffordable. Anti-Eisner demonstrations were a daily occurrence. He and his government of fellow bohemians were viewed as incompetent. Anger had become personalised and took on an anti-Semitic character.
Klemperer, who had been absent from Munich during January, was saddened by Eisner’s death and spoke kindly, although not flatteringly, of him in his dispatch to the Leipziger Neueste Nachrichten.
No one doubted Eisner’s entirely pure intentions. He wanted nothing for himself; although the abruptness of his ascent had naturally filled him with self-assurance, he had none of the excruciating vanity of Karl Liebknecht or the bloody fanaticism of Rosa Luxemburg. He wanted to keep his hands free of money, and of blood …(H)e managed to stay upright, in all of his innocence, under pressure of the parties of the Right and Left. He floated, in fact, since the solid ground had long been pulled from under him, and since he did not know what to do with solid ground anyway, and this is why the dead Eisner now has infinitely more followers than the living one ever did.
In death, he assumed the status of a martyr; 100,000 gathered for his funeral, although the Catholic clergy had to be forced at gunpoint to toll their church bells. His reign was to be recalled as a chaotic but relatively peaceful interlude, in stark contrast to what followed.
Auer, now SPD minister of the interior in Eisner’s cabinet, although no friend of the late prime minister, was shot, although not fatally, while he was unconvincingly eulogising the murdered man in the newly instituted Bavarian state parliament. The parliament instantly took flight and decamped to Bamberg, more than 200 kilometres to the north. Fearing more assassinations, the workers’ and soldiers’ council took scores of the local bourgeoisie hostage. A general strike was called and a curfew imposed. The crisis allowed more radical elements within the council to declare the council the sole legitimate government of the Bavarian republic. A group of bohemian radicals, associates of Eisner, took charge: Ernst Toller and Erich Mühsam, both writers and Prussian Jews; Gustav Landauer, also Jewish and, like Mühsam, an anarchist; and the clinically mad Franz Lipp. The latter took to writing to the pope and Lenin, complaining on one occasion that Adolph Hoffmann, the head of the parliamentary state government, had stolen the key to his ministerial toilet. He also announced that he was declaring war on Switzerland and Württemberg because neither would send him the locomotives he had requested. Landauer, as commissioner of public instruction, told Klemperer that the traditional study of history and economics in the university was to be replaced by lectures by socialists “who would promulgate the truth about how Prussia and Bavaria had been stolen” in contrast to that “arch-reactionary” Max Weber, who was teaching in the university at that time. The commissioner for housing announced that all living rooms must be located above the kitchens and the minister for finance considered the abolition of money before introducing a new currency. All this was happening while the population was attempting to cope with an unprecedented cold snap ‑ fifty centimetres of snow lay on the ground – without any coal supplies and little food.
After a failed coup by an SPD faction, the communists then took power within the workers’ and soldiers’ Council. They announced that the Bavarian Council Republic would become part of a Danubian revolutionary confederation, involving Hungary, where a Bolshevik regime under Béla Kun had taken power, and Austria, where it seemed at that time that workers’ councils had gained control. The council, operating on soviet lines, was now led by a triumvirate that became known as “The Russians”: Eugene Leviné, Max Levien and Tobias Axelrod. All had Jewish and Russian and ethnic-German backgrounds. They established a “Red Army” and a “Revolutionary Tribunal”, neither of which proved as fearsome as their Russian and Parisian equivalents. The tribunal never condemned anyone to death and it even prosecuted red army soldiers for illegal treatment of civilians. The Reds Guard’s early victims were pheasants from the English Garden in the city who provided a welcome supplement to barrack rations. Klemperer pointed out that, “This diversion was not entirely harmless, because when their comrades heard the clatter from the English Garden, they were occasionally deceived into thinking there was an actual danger and fired warning shots in return”. Shots were also directed at planes which appeared overhead dropping leaflets in support of the rival Hoffmann government. Klemperer estimated that the amount of ammunition expended in a futile attempt to down the planes “would have been enough to hold off a small assault in Flanders”. He tended at that time to view the revolution as farce: “there would probably be a few victims, because scuffles were part of the fun”. Not everyone saw the funny side.
The correspondent AB would not have known then of the revolutionary experiences of two soon to be historic figures. Adof Hitler had lived in Munich before the war and was stationed there again in 1919. Ian Kershaw, in his Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, provides compelling evidence that the future dictator was an elected representative of his battalion under the revolutionary council system and that he would have worn a red armband. He appears to have supported Eisner and other moderates within the Revolutionary Council, people whom he was later to denigrate as the “November criminals”. Whether out of political conviction or opportunism, he was at that time a supporter of the SPD. With the emergence of the communist-led council in late April, this affiliation would have made him suspect, an ally of the Hoffmann government and a potential fifth columnist. This may explain an episode he recounted in Mein Kampf: “In the course of the new revolution of the Councils I for the first time acted in such a way as to arouse the disapproval of the Central Council. Early in the morning of April 27, 1919, I was to be arrested, but, faced with my levelled carbine, the three scoundrels lacked the necessary courage and marched off as they had come.” This piece of self-exaltation was intended to disguise his then socialist affiliation and his embarrassing failure to join the fight against the reds, even after the Freikorps entered the city.
Eugenio Pacelli, later to become Pope Pius XII, was also at that time resident in Munich as papal nuncio to the Bavarian state. Following encroachment on a number of embassies, the nuncios’ uditore (chargé d’affaires) was dispatched to seek protection from Levien, head of the revolutionary council. John Cornwell revealed in his Hitler’s Pope that he found a letter purporting to describe what transpired in the Vatican archives. It was signed by Pacelli, although probably composed by his uditore, and is replete with anti-Semitic references. The author refers to the presence in Levien’s entourage of, “young women, of dubious appearance, Jews like all the rest of them” who appeared to be led by “a young Russian woman, a Jew and a divorcée”. The correspondence, which was addressed to the papal secretary of state, described Levien as “a young man, of about thirty or thirty five, also Russian and a Jew …. dirty with drugged eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulsive, with a face that is both intelligent and sly”. Despite obtaining a certificate of immunity from appropriation, the nunciature was visited twice by red guards seeking to acquire Pacelli’s limousine. On the second occasion, during the final battle for Munich, a gun was placed to the future pope’s head. However, as with the earlier attempt, the guards’ orders were countermanded by their superiors and the car remained with its lawful owner. Apparently, Pacelli had bad dreams about the episode for the rest of his life. It is reasonable to assume that this may have contributed to his inclination to view Nazism as a lesser evil than communism.
After Red Army defenders at Dachau town, led by Toller, defeated a force raised by the Bamberg-based government, Hoffmann sought the assistance of the Freikorps, nominally under the control of Gustav Noske, the notorious minister of defence in the SPD-led government in Berlin. The Reds were outnumbered and outgunned and, by the end of April, faced defeat. Rudolf Egelhofer, the commander of the Red Army, ordered the execution of the hostages held in a city secondary school. The prisoners were taken in pairs to be shot, and twenty were killed before Toller rushed to the school to put an end to it. That atrocity, which disgusted citizens of all persuasions, was soon to be surpassed by the savagery of the Freikorps, known then as the “Whites”.
The Munich military garrison who, to a man, had earlier sported red armbands, suddenly switched to white ones, “hastily cobbled together from bandage material” as Klemperer keenly observed. Still, the few remaining Reds fought on bravely in the city centre against impossible odds. As the AB correspondent, no sympathiser, reported: “the desperate resistance of the communists surpassed all expectations”. They had little choice, for the Whites took no prisoners. The communists were only a fraction of the many hundreds killed by the Freikorps in early May 1919. The dead included twenty-one members of a Catholic journeymen’s association, executed in their clubhouse having been suspected of being Spartacists. It was of no account, for as Major Schulz of the Lützow Freikorps told his men, “It’s a lot better to kill a few innocent people than to let one guilty person escape.”
The Freikorps were the forerunners of the Nazi stormtroopers and the Munich revolution helped fuel the myth of the “stab in the back”; the concept of a Jewish-Bolshevik plot owes much to events in that city. Most of the leaders of the revolution were executed; Landauer most brutally. Toller survived thanks to the testimonials of those he saved and Axelrod owed his life to Lenin, who threatened to retaliate on German diplomats if he was killed.
Klemperer was lucky to survive Nazi rule. Being a war veteran, a convert to Protestantism and married an “Aryan” helped him avoid the fate of most Jews until near the end of the war, although he and his wife Eva suffered degrading treatment. He was living in Dresden when he was notified that he was due to be transported to a concentration camp, almost certainly to be murdered. That same night the infamous bombing of Dresden occurred and in the devastation the couple managed to escape the city and reach American lines. He continued to live in Dresden after the war and taught in the university there. He joined the East German communist party, although he soon ran into difficulty following criticism of his literary work. The experience led him to privately concede, as Richard Evens writes in The Third Reich at War, that he remained at heart a liberal democrat.
Klemperer was an eloquent and insightful writer who cast an ironic eye on events in Munich. However, the reader would need to have some prior knowledge of the events described to comprehend fully what is going on. An appended historical essay by Wolfram Wette might have better served as an introduction, while the interposing of newspaper articles with journal extracts leads to duplication at times. None of these qualifications detract from the historical worthiness of this publication, nor should they greatly diminish the pleasure of reading Victor Klemperer’s eye witness account of an extraordinary year in Munich.
Tom Wall is a retired assistant general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.