A hundred years ago today, the German Communists tried to spark a revolution, but their would-be uprising ended in disaster. In this extract from a recently discovered memoir, Rosa Luxemburg’s biographer Paul Frölich describes the failure of the 1921 March Action and its impact.
In December 1920, the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) merged with the left wing of the Independent Social Democrats (USPD) under the leadership of Paul Levi. The unified party had a membership in excess of four hundred thousand. Its members had recently helped defeat an attempted far-right coup, the Kapp putsch, and had great confidence about the future. Within months, however, the KPD launched an ill-fated uprising on March 17, 1921 that became known as the March Action. The insurrection was a complete failure; in its aftermath, the KPD lost more than half of its membership.
Paul Frölich (1884–1953) is best remembered today for his classic biography of Rosa Luxemburg, which is still in print. Frölich was a member of the KPD leadership in the 1920s and witnessed events firsthand. In this extract from a recently discovered memoir, lost until 2007 and now translated into English, Frölich explains why the KPD came to launch the March Action and how it unfolded. He also gives his impressions of influential Communist leaders like Paul Levi and the Hungarian Béla Kun, and recalls a discussion with Lenin in Moscow after the failure of the March Action.
The following is an abridged extract from Paul Frölich’s memoir In the Radical Camp: A Political Autobiography 1890–1921, translated by David Fernbach as part of the Historical Materialism Book Series.
It was both objective political events and psychological preconditions that led to the so-called March Action, both in the KPD and in the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI). There was a general will in the party for a more energetic policy, and the unification with the left USPD also seemed to have created the preconditions for a stronger activity. We all overestimated at this time the growth of the party.
But we made a further error of judgement. During the Kapp putsch we had been able to note almost everywhere in the provinces that a weak party such as ours could nonetheless exert a very great influence on the movement, so that large masses followed the party in action. Now we simply extended the party’s radius of action by the organizational growth that the merger with the left USPD had brought.
This, however, was wrong. The party cadre was substantially strengthened, and in many districts, it was only now that a party was really formed. But the direct influence on the masses did not for a long while follow in the expected degree. Besides, it needed really major circumstances, immediately understood clearly by the masses, to bring them into a general movement.
The impatient pressure for action was still greater among the former USPD functionaries and members than in the old KPD. They felt liberated from the impediment of the right-wing leaders and experienced something like a moral obligation to prove that they had now become genuine revolutionaries.
The mood in leading Russian circles was very depressed, among many people desperate. The civil war had left in its wake scarcely anything but ruins. The war with Poland had led to defeat. The Kronstadt uprising had been a glaring alarm signal. The New Economic Policy (NEP) had been introduced, with the abolition of requisitions, the encouragement of private capitalist initiative, and the concessions policy.
It was in no way predictable where the NEP would lead. There was a very strong fear among the Bolsheviks that after the October Revolution, they might now be the pioneers of a capitalist Russia. They yearned for relief from the proletariat of the West. It is certain and understandable that the Russian comrades wanted an action that would relieve them. But this in no way means that they wanted one in the form that the March Action then took.
Béla Kun and the Comintern
What was the situation with Béla Kun? He has gone down in this story as a real devil, always conjured up when the reactionary side needs a scarecrow. Truth and falsehood are also mixed together in the depictions drawn of him by his opponents in the workers’ movement.
He was certainly not the noblest figure in the Comintern. The first impression that he gave was that of an unusually energetic person, ruthless to the point of brutality. He was not selective in his choice of means: Ernö Bettelheim’s revelations after the Hungarian defeat of 1919 have brought proof of this. But after these revelations, it is necessary to emphasize right away that he was entirely disinterested and gave everything without hesitation to those who were close to him.
Despite the ugliness of his facial features, he emanated a strong charm. He understood how to inspire people and carry them along. He had made great efforts to school himself theoretically and politically, but he had too unrestrained a temperament to assess situations calmly. He was attracted by adventure, and always ready for action.
Naturally, Grigory Zinoviev and Nikolai Bukharin, who sent him to Germany, were aware of these qualities of Béla Kun. But they counted on German caution and knew very well that even the left wing of the party displayed a strong resistance towards artificial actions. Still more so could people like August Thalheimer and Heinrich Brandler be relied on to apply the necessary brakes.
The Crisis of 1921
If Béla Kun was easily able to win the majority of the party leadership for a risky policy of offensive, the reasons lay essentially in the general situation. Germany’s foreign policy position was as perilous as hardly ever before. The international conference in London had led to open conflict between the Allies and Germany. On March 8, Düsseldorf, Duisburg, and Ruhrort were occupied militarily by the Entente. In Upper Silesia, there was fighting between Germans and Poles. People counted on the possibility of a German-Polish war.
There was strong discontent among the working class, particularly the miners and even the agricultural workers. The devaluation of the mark, which had come to a halt for a while after the Kapp putsch, had once again rapidly accelerated, and inflation fuelled discontent among the whole population. In this situation, even Paul Levi turned sharply against the policy of pure propaganda and pressed for action.
The government’s behavior also showed that it saw conflict with the working class as unavoidable. It took the necessary measures even before the will for action had taken concrete form in the party. All the same, we overestimated the tensions, did not see the inhibiting factors, and particularly failed to recognize the possibility of a compromise in German foreign policy.
It was as a result of this overestimation that Béla Kun very rapidly managed to win the majority of the party leadership for an offensive policy. I myself favoured an offensive policy from the start. I believed at that time — and this had long been the basic point of contention with Paul Levi — that it was our duty to make use of every possibility for a revolutionary advance.
I failed to recognize as a general strategic lesson the necessity of a retreat or escape in a dangerous situation; this would only be brought home to me under the pressure of very harsh facts in the particular case. The fact that on this occasion the party leadership shared my view naturally gave my temperament a strong impulse.
It is certain that without the work of Béla Kun, without his influence on the most prominent members of the leadership, the readiness for action would not have been aroused. But we should guard against the conclusion that the March Action was undertaken either directly or indirectly at the command of the ECCI. At this time, the ECCI had a great moral authority, and the Russians were seen as almost infallible on tactical questions. But they did not yet have in their hands the means of pressure to enforce their directives.
We would not have acted — or failed to act — because of a command from them. It is true that we lacked the necessary critical equipment with which to confront proposals or ideas from the Russians. At all events, no one of the then party leadership is entitled to hide behind the Russians or Béla Kun. We all bore full responsibility for the action.
On the other hand, none of us wanted a “March Action.” The intention was, as soon as the expected open conflict erupted in one place, to bring to a head the festering conflicts where we had the possibility of doing so — in other words, on the field of social struggle. If this succeeded, then the further development would show what possibilities for action had arisen. The action should be conducted with the aim of the overthrow of the government.
What was immediately at issue was to create the readiness for action in the party by means of both propaganda and organizational methods. When the central committee of the party was convened for the middle of March, no one believed in an immediate outbreak of armed struggle. We certainly did not yet know the point where we would engage. That depended on objective conditions.
News then reached the session of the central committee that the Social Democrat interior minister Carl Severing had ordered the occupation of the Mansfeld industrial district and its factories by the police. The party found itself like an athlete poised ready to leap who suddenly receives a blow in the back: he stumbles, manages with difficulty to regain his balance, but remains confused and spoils his jump.
It is extremely important for the historical record to take due account of Severing’s police action. It is generally left out of consideration, thus ignoring one of the most important preconditions for the March Action, so that this seems just complete madness. In fact, Severing’s action had been prepared for weeks in conjunction with the big industrialists of central Germany.
It arose precisely from the general situation that led us to envisage an offensive approach. Its object, admitted by Severing himself, was to impose on the adversary a battle that would intimidate, weaken and surprise them on a particular territory, before the material for conflict had generally matured. The action was organized in such a way that it was designed to provoke armed struggle.
We found ourselves in a psychological state that did not allow calm consideration of the situation. We were just preparing to put our forces into marching order when the enemy attacked. We were mentally disposed to an offensive and saw ourselves suddenly surrounded. We were incapable of switching from the offensive idea to defence, since we generally overestimated greatly our influence over the masses.
If we were reluctant to order a complete retreat immediately after the outbreak of armed conflict in the Mansfeld region (and such an order would have meant the demoralization of the party and the resignation of its leadership), all that remained was to widen the struggle. In our already overheated mood, we committed the following mistakes:
- We declared the struggle that had been forced on us to be one that we had initiated, making defence into offensive in our proclamations. The SPD and USPD press immediately seized on this. We appeared before the working class as the instigators of needless bloodshed, and they turned against us.
- In order to widen the field of struggle we seized on the most extreme means, insurrection, though it was only a matter of stirring up the workers in order to test how far the mass of them were ready to act.
The Hamburg Strike
On the central committee, we received information on March 22 of a planned action in Hamburg, which struck us as too general and dangerous. I was dispatched there immediately, in order to intervene if possible. I arrived in the night.
On the way to the headquarters of the action executive I learned the following details. This executive had issued a leaflet on March 22 calling for a general strike. On the 23rd, the day that was just dawning, the unemployed were to surround the dockyards and force the workers there to abandon work. From all the information that I received, it was clear that the dockworkers were not prepared to strike, and that force would have to be used in order to enforce a shutdown.
I was horrified by the light-hearted way in which this undertaking was approached and tried to make clear to the comrades that they were simply preparing a putsch, that the idea of forcing the workers into struggle by force was ludicrous, that an enterprise of this kind was morally condemnable, doomed to failure from the start, and bound to bring the party fearful repercussions.
I demanded in the name of the central committee that the enterprise should be immediately broken off, and the preparations made reversed. I spent a long time arguing with them, but to no avail. In the early hours of March 23, the action was carried out as planned.
The dockyards were indeed cleared out. The workers left half convinced and half unwillingly. There were demonstrations, shooting, and a number of dead. In the afternoon it was clear that the enterprise had failed.
Levi’s Expulsion From the KPD
On the central committee the decision for offensive action was not carried without the heated opposition of a minority. One part of this minority then kept its distance completely during the action. Another part kept discipline while seeking at the same time to prevent the worst.
Paul Levi seems to have been travelling at the time of the March Action. Neither he nor Ernst Däumig made any kind of attempt to influence events. They then organized a comprehensive report, the result of which was published by Paul Levi in his booklet Unser Weg (“Our Way”).
Levi completely misconstrued the situation in the party at this time. There was indeed a certain unease among the members about the tactic embarked on. But apart from a small group of functionaries, the members supported the action and took upon themselves the defeat. And then Levi appeared, who had neither warned nor advised during the action, with a text that was not a critique of particular party comrades, but a hostile blow against the party.
It was only this blow that was felt, and all the more strongly, as the party was subject to heavy persecution. In these circumstances, Levi found no reception for his arguments and criticism. At the beginning of April, he was expelled from the party for this text, and the party stood behind this measure.
Theory of the Offensive
After the end of the March Action, the party leadership felt the understandable need to justify its policy. In particular, it had to argue against Levi’s critique and was naturally driven to an extreme position, the so-called offensive theory.
Béla Kun, Thalheimer, Brandler, and myself were particularly involved in conceiving these ideas. They more or less corresponded to my pre-existing views. I summarised these ideas in an article in the booklet Taktik und Organisation der revolutionäre Offensive (“Tactics and Organization of the Revolutionary Offensive”).
The offensive theory had a very short life, which was ended at the Third Congress of the Communist International in Moscow. We went to Moscow with the feeling of being completely on the right path, and we were enthusiastically welcomed by Russian functionaries. They were completely in accord with us. But this changed after a few days.
Their attitude towards us remained the same. But they explained that Lenin was against us; they could not understand this, but it had always turned out in the past that Lenin’s view was correct, even when he had everyone else against him. Karl Radek had told me that Lenin was extremely annoyed about the March Action and our pamphlet. He was unable to sleep, and afraid that we might commit new Blanquist stupidities again in future.
Conversations With Lenin
The discussion with Lenin made an extraordinary impression on me. But since I have no notes, I can only reliably recall parts of the conversation that had personal importance for me. We first had to give a report, the detailed themes of which we had rehearsed among ourselves.
After I spoke, something surprising and disturbing happened. Radek handed me a piece of paper on which he had reproached me with very crude words. Why had I said such unnecessary things? All that mattered was to win over Lenin, but I had pushed him over to the other side. I was tremendously disturbed by this note. Were things such that diplomacy was the game and we had to try and dupe one another?
I believed that we had to go over the facts together and seek the correct policy. This meant being completely open and speaking things objectively and unvarnished. I was not prepared to accede to Radek’s demand. But his note was like the blow of a dagger, which never completely healed. A large part of my trust in the ECCI and the Russians went out of the window.
After the reports, Lenin spoke. He failed to convince me, speaking in too imprecise terms for my expectations. I finally asked him clearly the one question that had been for me that most important problem of the March Action. We had been attacked by Severing. The Mansfeld workers had taken up the struggle. Should we have left them in the lurch, rather than doing everything to support them? Should we not stand in the lead and widen the field of struggle if a section of the working class is struggling against reaction?
Lenin replied that it was not necessary to fight in all conditions. This seemed to me an evasion. I wanted to have a clear answer, a kind of formula, in what conditions one should engage in such a struggle and in what conditions abstain. There was nothing more to be got out of Lenin.
It was only much later that I understood that it was wrong to conduct a vanguard struggle in a bad position and with an unfavourable balance of forces for a decisive battle. Further, that it is impossible to apply suitable tactical formulas for all cases; one must rather depend in each situation on a correct view, instinct and intuition.
Paul Frölich was expelled from the KPD in 1928 for opposing the policy of its leadership. He first joined an opposition group led by former KPD leaders Heinrich Brandler and August Thalheimer, then a left-wing breakaway from the Social Democrats, the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany (SAP). His SAP comrades included the young Willy Brandt, who later became chancellor of West Germany.
Frölich was put in a concentration camp after the Nazis seized power in 1933 but was fortuitously released later that year and went into exile, where he wrote his biography of Rosa Luxemburg and this memoir. Frölich returned to West Germany from the United States in 1950 and died in 1953. After gathering dust for many years, Frölich’s memoir was discovered in the archives of Amsterdam’s International Institute for Social History in 2007.
This post was originally published on Jacobin.