The German October 1923. A Revolutionary Plan and its Failure. Edited by Bernhard H. Bayerlein et al

The German October 1923. A Revolutionary Plan and its Failure

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The German October 1923. A Revolutionary Plan and its Failure.

Edited by Bernhard H. Bayerlein, Leonid G. Babitshenko, Fridrich I. Firsov und Aleksandr Ju. Vatlin, Berlin (Aufbau-Verlag)

Introduction by Bernhard Bayerlein. Essays, analyses und commentary by Hermann Weber, Fridrich Firsov, Pierre Broué und Karsten Rudolph, 480 pages.


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The autumn of 1923 was the last time a social revolution was politically, militarily, and strategically planned and launched in a highly industrialised European key country. At the height of the existential crisis of the Weimar Republic, the armed uprising of German workers prepared by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Communist International and KPD was to carry the October Revolution to Western Europe and deliver the Soviet Union from its political isolation. On 9 November, the uprising was to begin and – starting in Saxony and Thuringia – establish a revolutionary republic in Berlin.

The German Revolution ended in failure before it began – but as the volume compiled by Bernhard H. Bayerlein and the Russian co-editors Leonid G. Babitshenko, Fridrich I. Firsov and Aleksandr Ju. Vatlin show, it was a long-overlooked central event of the century, even in its failure. In the Soviet Union, where its defeat nourished the conservatism of the fledgling state, Stalinism benefited most of all: the result was a gradual re-arrangement of Soviet foreign policy along the lines of ‘socialism in one country’, i.e. primarily the defence of the Soviet Union by diplomatic means and with the help of the Comintern.

In Germany, the dress rehearsal for dictatorship provided by the Reichswehr invasion of Saxony and Thuringia and what August Thalheimer called the ‘third-class funeral’ of the revolution was followed by the creation of the founding myth around the figure of the workers’ leader Ernst Thälmann and the deepening of the rift between Social Democrats and Communists. The urge for authoritarian solutions to the crisis intensified, which contributed significantly to Hitler’s seizure of power ten years later.

The explosive documents from previously secret Russian files – e.g. from the presidential archives of the Russian Federation – contained in the extensively annotated edition German October 1923 prove that in 1923 an attempted uprising militarily and financially led by Moscow was prepared in Saxony and Thuringia, complete with all the details of arming, financing and cadre instruction. The fact that this edition could be published during the opening phase of the Russian archives was made possible by the cooperation of Russian historians and the financial support of the German-Russian Commission of Historians.

Especially in the German Democratic Republic, the so-called ‘Hamburg uprising’ was kept alive in collective memory as the most important episode of the ‘German October’. The present volume significantly relativises and deconstructs the historical myth of the ‘Hamburg uprising’: in fact, as Wilhelm Pieck explained, these actions led by Ernst Thälmann were based on a serious breach of discipline, with quite fatal consequences. Moreover, Hamburg can be seen as a kind of model case for similar attempts by the Comintern in the years to come: it was followed by the bomb attack on Sofia Cathedral in 1925, the ‘Canton Uprising’ in 1927 and the failed coup under Luiz Carlos Prestes in Brazil in 1935, all of which turned out to be barely veiled (and, moreover, ill-prepared) coup attempts.

It can now be considered beyond dispute that, despite the Treaty of Rapallo with Germany, an agenda of international revolution continued to prevail until then in the Russian Communist Party, with the intention of uniting the two ‘pariah powers’, Russia and Germany. The volume on the ‘German October’ of 1923 sheds new light on the end of the interwar revolutionary crisis as the conclusion of the first cycle of the Weimar Republic and German-Soviet relations.

Along with politburo minutes and letters by Pieck, Brandler and Ruth Fischer, a surprising look into the internal life of the CPSU and KPD is also provided. Karl Radek’s reports from Dresden and Berlin as an emissary of the Russian politburo and the Comintern are among these important and stirring contemporary testimonies. They convey coup strategies, the disintegration of the KPD and the shady machinations surrounding the succession to Lenin in the Soviet Union. The dramaturgy and explosive nature of the events are documented by the protocols, letters, instructions and reports and explored in analyses and commentaries by Hermann Weber, Fridrich Firsov, Pierre Broué and Karsten Rudolph.

Our translation will be published as part of Brill’s Historical Materialism book series. Recent publications include new English translations of classic political theorists from Germany e.g. Karl Kautsky and Paul Levi as well as new books dealing with the history of political movements and actors, such as Werner Scholem eine politische Biographie (1895-1940) by Ralf Holfrogge (published in 2017 in the Historical Materialism series as A Jewish Communist in Weimar Germany: The Life of Werner Scholem 1895-1949). 

Historical research from German and Russian-speaking countries is a particularly important resource for the series. As the first truly comprehensive and well-founded documentation of the ‘German October’, the translation will undoubtedly emerge as a standard work in the academic milieu, as study material on European History, political and social movements of the twentieth century, and for general audiences interested in history.

Our translation of this important volume into English will also finally fill the research gap that has emerged and continues to exist in Anglophone countries on this subject since the ‘archival revolution’. Moreover, it will raise the level of international debate on this chapter of history and contribute significantly to a critical and informed reappraisal of the past.

The English translation of ‘German October 1923’ will not only be the first translation of these historical materials. It will also be the first publication in our series, long overdue in our view, by the German historian centrally responsible for this edition, Bernhard H. Bayerlein, who is recognised worldwide as a leading researcher of international historical communism and socialism.

Nonetheless, the translation costs for such a project cannot be financed through sales alone. Specialised literature and source editions like this cannot be printed without subsidies and voluntary contributions. We would therefore ask you to consider helping us to make this important project happen.


Press reviews

Die Zeit, Hamburg 11 December 2003

Much research and writing has been done on these plans. But all investigations suffered from one shortcoming: the strictly classified holdings of the Comintern and the CP of Russia remained closed to researchers. (...) Now, as part of a German-Russian cooperation project, an edition is being published which, 80 years after the stormy events, provides access to over 100 of the most important documents. For the first time, it will thus become possible to reconstruct in detail the changing considerations and decisions in the Soviet government. ... After the book on the Thälmann scandal, Aufbau-Verlag has published another source work with this edition, which sheds light on a key episode in the history of the Communist movement. The findings are depressing: in the plans for a "German October" of 1923, the KPD was destined from the outset to play only the role of a willing enforcer of Soviet interests. After the failure of the enterprise, it fell completely into dependence on Moscow, becoming no more than a compliant instrument in Stalin’s hands”. (Volker Ullrich)

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 28 July 2004

The date of the Communist seizure of power was, of course, decided by the Soviet leadership. The edition published by Bayerlein, Babičenko, Firsov and Vatlin containing documents on the 1923 revolutionary plan includes the minutes of the politburo meeting of 4 October 1923, at which Stalin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Molotov and a number of other Russian CC members involved in the matter set 9 November as the date for the beginning of the German October Revolution”. (Jochen Staadt)

Junge Welt, Berlin, 11 January 2004

These documents offer a prime example of the disastrous effect when illusions are asserted by force against insight. Quite a few documents captivate with their expert, superior analyses, others are an expression of blind factional zeal. The editors have added short contrasting texts to some of the documents to shed light on the content and function of the documented statements. Readers hungry for knowledge of the facts will devour the book and then read it again and again”. (Werner Röhr)

Osteuropa, Berlin, 2/2004

This very exciting documentation is supplemented by introductory essays by the Mannheim historian Hermann Weber, the Moscow historian and former head of the Comintern Cabinet in the archives of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Fridrich I. Firsov, the French historian and Trotsky biographer Pierre Broué and the Bochum historian Carsten Rudolph, who provide the broader historical context and shed more light on individual aspects of the "German October". ... Some minor unevennesses do not change the excellent quality of the documentation, which publishes almost all documents for the first time”. (Ralf Zwengel)

Vorwärts, Berlin, July 2004

Until now, there had been few reliable records on the plans of German Communists to overthrow the state. Only the opening of Russian archives made the relevant files accessible. A team of European historians has done an excellent job. Their volume of documents, which is well worth reading, contains 103 informative resolutions, memoranda and letters from German and Russian Communists”. (Rolf Helfert)