By Volker Weidermann

Pushkin Press. 253 pages. £16.99. ISBN 978-1-78227-504-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns

November 7th, 1918, and crowds of soldiers, sailors, and trade unionists were pouring through the streets of Munich, many of them armed and convinced that it was time to seize power. Germany was generally in chaos, as units of the navy and army mutinied, and the threat of revolution hung over everything. The final stages of the Great War had brought near-starvation, with the Allied naval blockade preventing food from reaching an already-desperately hungry civilian population. Strikes, demonstrations, and other methods of expressing dissatisfaction, had almost brought the country to a standstill. At the front, elements of the army were convinced they should carry on fighting and that they were being stabbed in the back by agitators at home and, in particular, by Bolsheviks and Jews.

 Resistance to the would-be revolutionaries in Munich was light, or non-existent. To his surprise, and perhaps that of many others, Kurt Eisner, a drama critic, described by Anthony Read in The World On Fire: 1919 and the Battle with Bolshevism (Cape, 2008), as “the very epitome of the bohemian café intellectual”, found himself elected Prime Minister of the new Republic of Bavaria. The King had fled, and the parliament, previously controlled by the Majority Social Democrats, had disintegrated. Eisner declared Bavaria “a free state”, and a new government, based on a system involving Councils of Soldiers, Workers, and Peasants, began to take shape.

Wilhelm Herzog, a dramatist and journalist, was appointed Press Secretary and Chief Censor. Josef Staimer, a former warehouseman, became Chief of Police almost by accident. Eisner, realising that his government would need the support of the existing bureaucracy if it was to function efficiently, also inclined to the view that he ought to cultivate relations with members of the Majority Social Democrats (SPD). His own party, the Independent Social Democrats (USPD), “had very little structured support, particularly in more rural areas”. The problem of trying to interest people in those conservative rural areas in radical change would become a key one. Munich depended on them for its food supplies. But, as Volker Weidermann, points out: “As much as he put on a Bavarian accent and emphasised his love for the state, the Berlin Jew Eisner had a very difficult time in the rural parts of Bavaria. More bluntly, he didn’t stand a chance”.

Eisner’s difficulties were further increased by the fact that, though he claimed to be heading a revolution, he didn’t move fast enough, or decisively enough, to satisfy the more-extreme supporters of the new order. When Eisner met Karl Liebknecht from the German Communist Party he was told that they wouldn’t back what was seen as a “compromise regime……Socialism could only be introduced if everything else was first torn down. The country could only be built anew once the entire capitalist system had been destroyed”. As was usual with the Left, different factions began to form: “A Russian-German student from Moscow, Max Levien, founded a branch of the communist Spartacist League”. And the poet, playwright, essayist and anarchist, Eric Mühsam, started “a union of revolutionary internationalists”. Levien later got out of Munich safely, but died in one of Stalin’s purges in the 1930s. Mühsam died in a Nazi concentration camp.

When elections were held in January, 1919, Eisner’s USPD made a disastrous showing, whereas the moderate SPD, with Erhard Auer at its head, and the conservative Bavarian People’s Party, between them got the majority of the votes.  So, who ruled in Bavaria? Matters came to a head when Eisner was assassinated by a disgruntled ex-army officer who declared “I hate Bolshevism”. Whatever government existed virtually fell apart and the Workers and Soldiers Council attempted to take over. A Congress of Councils met to elect a new leader, though some of those proposed as candidates were reluctant to take on any responsibilities. One of them, Johannes Hoffmann, a former schoolteacher, had been a minister in Eisner’s short-lived government, and had “instituted an anti-clerical education policy that had made the Catholic Church’s blood boil”.  Weidermann says that he had “the threat of death hanging over him”. Hoffmann may have been anti-Catholic, but he was also anti-Communist, and would later move against them when he thought they were becoming too prominent in Munich.

Referring to the “ungoverned city, in this ungoverned state,” Weidermann describes the “arrival of dreamers, winter sandal-wearers, preachers, plant-whisperers, the liberated, and the liberators, long-haired men, hypnotists and those who have been hypnotised drifters”. Gustav Regler says that he turned up in Munich with “scanty luggage and little money, confused but with the feeling of having reached a new and better land”. Regler would manage to get out of Munich when the end came and, a committed communist, he fought in the International Brigades in Spain in the 1930s.

The Council Republic drew up a list of “People’s Delegates” (the new name for Ministers) that proposed Erich Mühsam as responsible for Foreign Affairs, though as one of his colleagues remarked, “he was such a literary bohemian that no one could imagine him in a dignified official post”. So, Franz Lipp was given the post instead and turned out to be insane. He sent numerous telegrams to the Pope and one to Lenin which said that the Bavarian proletariat was “as firmly joined together as a hammer”, but also complained that his predecessor had taken the key to the ministry toilet with him when he left.

And there was Silvio Gessell, who claimed to “know how to reform the financial world” by keeping “money constantly on the move, circulating, working for the workers, not the capitalists who hoard it”. His theories did have some merit, and several other people had similar ideas in the inter-war period, but it was not the time or place to try to put them into practice. Many ordinary citizens of Bavaria, hearing of Gessell’s plans, were convinced that their savings, and their property, would be seized.

Ernst Toller, poet and playwright, became head of Bavaria’s government, insofar as one existed, but he was besieged by hundreds of oddballs and misfits insisting that their personal problems and beliefs be immediately dealt with. Weidermann lists some of their demands, relating to sex education, eating cooked foods, the arrest of personal enemies, and non-porous underwear. None of this had anything to do with the very real problems relating to unemployment in Munich, the failure of supplies of food to reach the city, and other practical matters.

There was a “hardening of attitudes” among the revolutionaries with the “humanitarian dreamers”, no longer in charge. The communists were increasingly playing an active role and the government “was now working flat out to form a Red Army”, though It was probably a little late in the day. There was a determination on the part of the authorities in Germany generally, and those in Bavaria, to put an end to the chaotic situation in Munich. The Freikorps, largely comprised of ex-officers and patriotic other ranks, was being armed, albeit surreptitiously, by the regular army and numbered around 22,000 experienced soldiers.

Berlin had also ordered units of the army into Bavaria, and some troops who had previously aligned themselves with the revolutionaries had switched to the counter-revolutionary forces. Meanwhile, the so-called Red Army could muster around 15,000 men, many of them just workers with guns and not trained soldiers. They were comparatively lightly armed when compared to the tanks, artillery, and other equipment that the Freikorps had access to. There was also a lack of discipline among the Red Army personnel that would affect their operational performance when faced with well-organised troops.

Toller had somehow been given command of the Red Army, and he did manage to have one or two minor successes when the fighting started. But the end was a foregone conclusion and by the 30th April, 1919, the Red Army had fallen apart. There had been rumours of the summary executions of prisoners and other atrocities by both sides, and when the Freikorps finally entered Munich they discovered ten bodies, hostages who had been executed on the orders of hard-line communists, who had effectively taken over under the leadership of Eugen Leviné. He is credited with the famous statement, “We communists are all dead men on leave”.

The sight of the dead hostages was enough to send the Freikorp on a rampage of reprisals, with dozens of alleged supporters of the revolutionary government, and even some perfectly innocent citizens who happened to be in the wrong places at the wrong times, rounded up and shot. The luckier ones, including Toller, who had tried to be a voice for moderation, and was appalled at the killing of the hostages, were imprisoned. Toller eventually received a five year jail sentence. Eugene Leviné was arrested, tried, and executed by firing squad.

Volker Weidermann paints a broad canvas with a large cast of characters, only a few of whom I’ve been able to mention. There was Gustave Landauer, a great enthusiast for the works of Walt Whitman and with wide-ranging, provocative ideas about education and culture. Gusto Gräser. who wore “a kind of toga made of sackcloth, held together with wooden pegs”, and “preached texts by Chinese philosophers, passages from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, and his own aphorisms”. And Ret Marut, who managed to escape from Munich when the revolution collapsed and later turned up in Mexico, where, under the name of B.Traven, he wrote novels like The Death Ship, The Cotton Pickers, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Dreamers tells an intriguing story, but it’s also a sad one. That the Munich revolution would eventually collapse was inevitable, given the circumstances. The insurrectionists had failed in Berlin, and two of its leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were killed by the Freikorps. It must surely have been obvious from the start to people like Kurt Eisner and Ernst Toller, if not to some of the more-utopian minded individuals in the city, that the central government in Germany would never allow Bavaria to separate itself from the rest of the country. It’s also more than probable that other governments had an interest in seeing the uprising crushed. The world was in turmoil in 1919 following the Russian Revolution, a short-lived communist take-over in Hungary, and what seemed like extreme radical activity in many places, including France, the United States, and Britain. The authorities everywhere probably breathed a sigh of relief when a revolution failed.

There is also the question of whether or not a revolution in Munich could ever have succeeded, given the nature of many of the revolutionaries. While they were often engrossed in theories about the role of the arts, financial reform, educational policies, and such matters, what concerned most ordinary people – jobs, food, security, efficient running of essential services, and the like – was being overlooked. It does seem that, in many ways, the focus of attention was solely on Munich. As noted, what happened there held little interest for the population of rural areas. And even in Munich itself, most citizens probably looked askance at the bohemians and weird characters who drifted into the city. It must have seemed to them that every crank with a cause had come to town. Once the Freikorps had taken over, there was a drive to get rid of those who wouldn’t conform: “Death to the Reds. Death to the Jews. Death to the Russians”. And anyone else who didn’t fit in.