More Deaths in December

Funeral procession to the Cemetery of the March Revolution for the dead of 6 December, with coffins that had lain in state, Federal Archive

In December 1918, right-wing circles attempt a coup. The army is returning from the front at that time. Its officers consider the councils a bolshevik threat similar to that in Russia and wish to eliminate them. Anti-revolutionists want to work with leaders of the majority Social Democratic party (MSPD), especially with Friedrich Ebert. This breeds distrust among the left. There are two violent clashes with multiple deaths, and each side holds the other responsible.

The dead of 6 December 1918

Karl Liebknecht speaks at a rally on Siegesallee during the funeral procession on 21 December 1918, Federal Archives

On 6 December 1918, a group of soldiers outside the Reich chancellery attempts to proclaim Friedrich Ebert the president of the Reich. Ebert declines. At the same time, other soldiers unsuccessfully try to arrest the executive council. Alarmed by these news, multiple demonstrations organized by the Spartacus League approach the city centre. At the intersection of Invalidenstraße and Chausseestraße, they encounter a fusiliers’ guard unit armed with machine guns. A shot goes off and soldiers open fire on the demonstrators. More than a dozen people die, including civilians who were there by chance. Fourteen bodies are taken to the Cemetery of the March Revolution in a procession on 21 December 1918. Along the way and at the cemetery itself, multiple rallies held by the Spartacus League accuse MSPD members of the council of people’s deputies of partial responsibility.

The League of Red Soldiers

Members of the League of Red Soldiers at the funeral procession on 21 December 1918, alamy

On 15 November 1918, revolutionary soldiers, furloughed servicemen, and deserters loyal to the Spartacus League form the League of Red Soldiers (Roter Soldatenbund ‒ RSB). Its first goal is to stir up action among the troops. It distributes flyers to returning soldiers at train stations and publishes the newspaper Der Rote Soldat. It also holds gatherings, such as one on 6 December which formed the demonstration whose participants were fired upon. The RSB subsequently serves as an armed guard at Spartacus League demonstrations. It participates in the January uprising in 1919. Many members are active in the March 1919 battles in Berlin and military clashes in Bavaria that year. Considered erratic and infiltrated by spies, the RSB is dissolved by the Communist party (KPD) leadership in June 1919.

Return of the army

Soldiers enter Berlin on 10 December 2018, Illustrierte Geschichte der deutschen Novemberrevolution 1918/19, Dietz Verlag Berlin 1979

The army enters Berlin on 10 December 1918 with a celebratory parade. Its supreme command opposes the revolution. Yet the army command is also convinced of the need to work together with the leaders of the MSPD. Friedrich Ebert and commander-in-chief General Wilhelm Groener hold regular talks by phone. Officers plan to appoint Ebert president of the Reich with dictatorial powers when the soldiers return to Berlin. They want to disband the councils and all revolutionary organizations, by force if necessary. However, Ebert does not agree. Also, most soldiers leave their units and return to their families upon reaching Berlin. The plan therefore fails.

The Christmas conflict

Mass gathering in front of the Palace after the skirmish, Federal Archives

On 23 December 1918, a dispute escalates between the people’s naval division and city commander Otto Wels (MSPD). Wels wants to reduce the division’s size and move it out of the palace and the royal stables (Marstall), and therefore holds back wages. Two sailors die in a firefight outside the commander’s office, at which the remaining sailors take Wels prisoner and escort him to the stables. Pressured by officers, MSPD members of the people’s council give their permission for troops to be deployed under the army supreme command. On 24 December troops occupy the centre of the city. They besiege the palace and stables and fire artillery at them. Workers hurrying over from factories as well as other civilians including women and children stop the attack. Fifty-six of the attacking soldiers and 11 sailors die in the battle.

The people’s naval division

People’s naval division soldiers in the Berlin palace courtyard, November 1918, Federal Archives

In the wake of the November Revolution, a group of naval pilots from Johannistal found the Volksmarinedivision, or „people’s naval division“. Sailors from Berlin who return to the city during the revolution join the division. They guard government buildings and the palace, and are housed in the royal stables (Marstall). Their political leanings represent all elements of the workers’ movement. Following the violence in December, most of the sailors tend toward the USPD and the Spartacus League. After the Christmas conflict, the division is reduced in strength from 1,800 to 800 and moved to the navy building at the Jannowitz bridge. It declares itself neutral in the uprising of January 1919. During a general strike in March 1919 fights break out between sailors and Freikorps militia members. The people’s naval division is subsequently dissolved. Many sailors are among those summarily executed during the battles in March.

The USPD leaves the government

The government formed on 29 December 1918 (left to right): Otto Landsberg, Philipp Scheidemann, Gustav Noske, Friedrich Ebert, Rudolf Wissel, wikimedia

MSPD members of the people’s council give their permission for military use of force against the people’s naval division, without discussing the matter with their colleagues from the USPD. Trust among the government is thereby broken. Central council members join a meeting on 28 December 1918, siding with the MSPD people’s deputies. The USPD members then declare their resignation. The government is reformed on 29 December 1918. Rudolf Wissel and Gustav Noske from the MSPD join the cabinet to replace the USPD deputies.

Funeral procession and demonstrations on 29 December 1918

Sailor Otto Trost speaks at a mourners’ assembly at the palace, 29 December 1918, ullstein bild

Several large-scale demonstrations are held in Berlin on 29 December 1918. The first is a funeral procession for seven sailors and one person who died later from injuries incurred on 6 December. The coffins are laid out on Schlossplatz and carried from there to the Cemetery of the March Revolution. The funerals are organized by the USPD and the Spartacus League. People chant slogans blaming the remaining MSPD deputies for the bloodbath. That same day, the MSPD and bourgeois parties hold multiple demonstrations in the city centre. Participants in these events accuse the Spartacus League and the radical left of spreading unrest and chaos and seeking to establish a Russian-style dictatorship.

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