The Spartacist revolt in Germany (1918-1919)

The Spartacist revolt in Germany (1918-1919)

The Spartakism (German Spartakusbund, “Spartakus league”) was a group of revolutionary socialists and ancestor of the German Communist Party formed in 1916 by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Its aim was to provoke an insurrection in an attempt to set up the revolution on the Bolshevik model. In January 1919, in a Germany on the verge of chaos the day after the defeat, the Spartacist movement was crushed in blood in Berlin and its leaders executed. It is one of the last episodes of the German revolution of 1918-1919.

The origins of the Spartacist league

Originally, this group, dominated by intellectuals, belonged to the Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD). But from the start of the First World War, this group opposed the majority of the Social Democrats, reproaching them for accepting the imperialist policies of the government of the Second Reich and arguing that supporting the war is a betrayal of socialism. Very committed to pacifist internationalism, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht tried in the fall of 1914, to bring together socialist militants opposed to the vote of war credits. Criticizing the warmongering of the Social Democrats, they were also the target of repression from the authorities: Rosa Luxemburg spent a year in prison, from February 1915 to February 1916, for a speech delivered in September 1913.

However, from April 1915, the members of the group organized the anti-militarist struggle, advocating a common action by the workers of the countries at war to end the combat and overthrow the capitalist system (publication by Liebknecht of Die Internationale immediately banned). In September 1916, the Group of the International took the name of "Spartakus League" when Liebknecht signed several pacifist articles under the name of Spartacus, the leader of the famous slave revolt in ancient Rome. They organize several pacifist demonstrations in Berlin and, in July 1916, Rosa Luxemburg returns to prison until November 9, 1918, the day of the abdication of William II and the proclamation of the republic; she continued to write there, participating in Political Letters, published under the title Spartakus.

The call to insurrection

Excluded from the German Social Democratic Party, the Spartacists, whose influence began to extend to workers in the big cities of Germany, founded in April 1917 with other excluded from the SPD, the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD ). From the beginning of 1918, the Spartacists called on the soldiers and workers to revolt. They will be heard in the first days of November, when in most of the big cities, insurrectional committees are formed which demand the establishment of the republic and the end of the war, while a certain number of them appear openly revolutionary.

After the abdication of William II and the establishment of the Weimar Republic, the Spartacists opposed the government of the Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert, which was concerned to curb the insurrectionary movement. Their organ, Die Rote Fahne, celebrates the Bolshevik experiment, which Rosa Luxemburg enthusiastically studied, while being very critical of the lack of democracy and the authoritarianism of the Russian Communists. Unable to rally the USPD to their revolutionary positions, the Spartacists published a manifesto in December 1918 and created the German Communist Party (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, KPD), which affiliated with the Third International in 1919. Shortly after, a revolutionary committee is formed in Berlin, dominated by independent socialists and Spartacists.

Repression and execution of Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht

What we called the Spartacist revolt in Berlin, originally a strike movement, will have somewhat escaped the KPD (of which the Spartacists were only one of the constituents), moreover divided on the conduct to adopt against the government of Chancellor SPD Ebert. If Karl Liebknecht defends a government overthrow by force, Rosa Luxembourg advocates a more cautious policy. Regardless of the possibility of mutiny among the troops present in the Berlin region, Ebert resolves to violently suppress the movement. To do this he appealed to the Freikorps (Corps Francs), paramilitary movements whose hearts lean to the right, and which are burning to crush the communist movement.

The affair as we know, will end very badly, hundreds of deaths among the Communists (but also among the civilians) and of course the execution of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg on January 15, 1919. These events will have a very important repercussion in Germany, enshrining a lasting enmity between socialists and communists. Become an essential element of communist mythology, it will be worth to Ebert a reputation of traitor and tyrant, and the disaffection of the Communist militants for a republic perceived as just as repressive as the Empire which preceded it. These events will also be symbolic of the role that the paramilitary organizations will play throughout the Weimar Republic, constituting a "black" and unofficial army, with which many governments will have to reckon well in spite of themselves.

Posterity of the Spartacist revolution

Spartakism was one of the many movements which attempted, after the armistice of November 11, to spread the Bolshevik revolution throughout Europe: major strikes in Italy, England, Germany, France, revolution in Hungary, then seemed to be able to bring down the capitalist system. Their audience in fact very limited, their strategic hesitations (Lenin did not take a favorable view of the Spartacist exaltation of the spontaneity of the masses), the real solidity of the states emerging from the war, explain their failure, the dramatic conclusion of which contributed to transform the Spartacists into heroes and martyrs of the revolutionary movement.


- The Spartacists: 1918: Germany in Revolution, by Gilbert Badia. Aden, 2008.

- Revolutionaries! From Spartacus to Rosa Luxembourg, they wanted to change the world, from Renaud Alberny. Jourdan, 2018.

Video: 15th January 1919: The deaths of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg