April 6th in German History: The Proclamation of the Bavarian Socialist Republic

Ernst Toller, first leader of the Bavarian Soviet Republic. Image Credit: Wikipedia

On April 6th, 1919, the Bavarian Soviet Republic was proclaimed in Munich. Following the First World War, a series of revolts and mutinies within the military resulted in civil unrest throughout Germany. In Bavaria, a state in Southern Germany, King Ludwig III fled and Kurt Eisner became minister president of the People’s state of Bavaria in 1918. Eisner was somewhat of a moderate, he promised to protect private property, but he was assassinated after losing the parliamentary elections in January of 1919. Following the assassination, fighting erupted between conservatives and leftists and that led to a general breakdown of government. The left was victorious and the anti-militarist former school teacher Johannes Hoffman created a parliamentary coalition on March 7th and reasserted control of the People’s State of Bavaria. On April 6th, however, a more radical force of communists and anarchists launched a coup and forced Hoffman to abandon Munich and flee to Bramber. These more violent revolutionaries proclaimed the Bavarian Soviet Republic on that same day. Initially, this state was ruled by Ernst Toller, a playwright who called on the Bavarian Red Army, which did not exist, to ruthlessly put down counter revolutionaries and protect the Soviet state. He had a penchant for nonsensical government appointments which included a criminal to the position of Police President of Munich, a part-time railroad maintenance worker as Commissar for Transportation, and a Jewish person as Minister for Education in Catholic Bavaria in which nuns ran the schools. Perhaps most amusingly, he appointed psychiatric patient Dr. Franz Lipp as Deputy of Foreign Affairs. Lipp promptly declared war on Switzerland and the German State of Wurttemberg and soon called the Pope to complain about Hoffman having stolen the key to the ministry toilet.

This regime was replaced by an even more radical one when the Communists, led by Russian emigres headed by Eugen Levine, seized power on April 12th with the blessings of Lenin. This new government implemented more radical policies like the commandeering of churches, the implementation of worker-owned factories, and the confiscation of food and private guns. The government also took aristocrats as hostages. There were shortages of almost everything, especially milk, under this government and there was an attempt by the Hoffman government and the Thule Society, a predecessor to the NSDAP, to depose Levine, but this was put down. Soon after, though, the Freikorps, a right wing paramilitary group, in concert with Hoffman’s government laid siege to Munich after taking Dachau. The Freikorps broke into Munich on the First of May and took the city. At least 606 were killed in the fighting. Once the Feikorps took control they imprisoned or killed most of the Communist leaders; Eugine was executed by firing squad. The leader of the Freikorps, Lieutenant General Burghard von Oven, declared Munich secure on May 6th and the Bavarian People’ State was nominally returned to power. This was, however, illusory as actual control shifted to right wing parties and Bavaria was made a free state within Weimar Germany on the 14th of August.

The main result of the short-lived Communist control of Bavaria was the creation of a right-wing and ultraconservative Bavaria. The population, even the workers and peasants, feared and hated communists because of the shortages and repression that resulted from their rule. This climate fostered the rise of extreme right parties. Capitalizing on the fear of communism, a fear entirely justified given recent events, parties like the German Worker’s Party, which later became the Nazi Party, grew in strength and popularity in Bavaria. Munich, after all, was where Hitler tried to overthrow the government in the Beer Hall Putsch. The revolution also split the left. The Social Democratic Party viewed the Communist Party, the KDP, as Russian puppets, which they largely were, and the KDP thought the SDP were traitors to the revolution. This only further facilitated the rise of Nazism in Germany. Not only was the political climate made easier for the Nazis, but members of the Nazi Party, most notably Rudolf Hess, gained experience fighting in the Freikorps. The failure of the Communist Revolution in Bavaria is yet another instance of a pattern of European revolutions leading to more authoritarian governments than the ones they overthrew, or at best a government only somewhat more liberal than the one it replaced. The French Revolution led to Napoleon and then to the Bourbon Restoration, the 1848 revolutions led to Bismarck and Napoleon the Third, and the Russian Revolution precipitated Stalinism. Extreme revolutionaries, filled with lofty ideals of perfect societies of abundance and plenty, are generally confounded by a populace that cares little for grand theories and simply wants food and security, and by their own inability to provide either. The revolutionaries’ only choice, then, is to create a system far worse than the one before it in order to maintain power, or else see reactionaries reassert control. In seeking to create a utopia, radicals only create chaos and dystopia.

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