News | History - Party / Movement History - German / European History The Legend of the Spartacist Uprising

The suppressed report of the Committee of Inquiry on the January Unrest in Berlin in 1919

On 19 March 1919, the Prussian Constituent Assembly elected in the wake of the November Revolution instituted the Committee of Inquiry for Determining the Causes and the Progression of the Unrest in Berlin and Other Parts of Prussia in the Year 1919. In the following months, the 21 committee members interviewed dozens of witnesses while working their way through mountains of documents. By July 1919 it had been established: the Communists had not caused the January upheavals, let alone led them. Rather, the so-called Revolutionary Stewards and the Berlin branch of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) were essentially responsible for both.

The Revolutionary Stewards were mostly trade unionists who had been plotting the illegal overthrow of the monarchy in Berlin’s armories since 1916, and on 9 November 1918 they led the masses onto the streets. Most of the Revolutionary Stewards were members of the USPD but wanted to preserve their autonomy from the party leadership. With the outbreak of the revolution, they became a serious power player in Berlin.

The Communists were merely involved in the uprisings, a finding which could not have satisfied any of the committee members. Such a public verdict on what really happened in January 1919 would have made it harder to justify why the Communist Party had been forbidden and its members outlawed since March 1919.

In spite of all its rhetorical flourishes, the Committee of Inquiry could not avoid the following conclusion (even if it avoided incorporating it into its so-called Recommendations):

“On the Sunday following these events, the Revolutionary Stewards and their confidants came together again […] and decided to call for a general strike for the purpose of waging a full frontal assault on the government. Here, the involvement of [Heinrich] Dorrenbach [1888–1919] appears to have been decisive in the decision of the Volksmarine division and the majority of the regular troops of the Berlin garrison to get behind this action, and in the fact that they were joined by influxes from Spandau and Frankfurt. […] It is true that both independents and Communists played a leading role in the action, and also that both independents and Communists warned against it. For example, Rosa Luxemburg appears to have thoroughly disapproved of the plan, and the Central Committee of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany explicitly declared in its latter announcement that it did not stand in solidarity with the undertaking led by the Berlin branch of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Spartacus League together with the Revolutionary Stewards, of whom in turn more than 60 belonged to the Independent Social Democratic Party and little more than ten to the Communist Party of Germany. It is certain that the intellectual leaders of the movement were Karl Liebknecht, Georg Ledebour, Emil Eichhorn, and Dorrenbach. This is not to say that they had long been planning this action specifically for 5 January, or that they were the ones on 4 and 5 January who most eagerly urged the attack. That being said, it was these men who believed that the majority socialist People’s Deputies were illegitimately occupying their offices and needed to be overthrown with violence.”

As Crooked as It Gets

The report of the Committee of Inquiry is dated 8 February 1921, in the middle of Prussia’s parliamentary recess: the Constituent Assembly had dissolved on 14 January 1921 after concluding its work, and the first Prussian Parliament was elected in accordance with the new law on 20 February 1921. The immunity of the new parliamentarians was suspended until then, allowing the police to hunt them.

The report was not handed over to anyone but rather printed word for word in its entirety: in volume 15 of the Collection of Printed Materials of the Constituent Assembly of Prussia at some point in 1921. As was not unusual with such collections, its contents were never supplemented with bibliographical data. Thus, attempts to research the Committee of Inquiry with the help of bibliographic aides have been in vain.

Historians have come across these printed materials time and again over the last almost hundred years, but to this day no one has seriously evaluated them. Even though important historians such as Heinrich August Winkler have put to rest the legend of the Spartacist Uprising under the leadership of “Bloody Rosa” since 1984, this legend continues to be actively spread.

Jörn Schütrumpf's new volume, "Spartakusaufstand" (Dietz, 2018), reproduces this surpressed report and makes it available to the public for the first time. 

Translated by Adam Baltner