(Occupation of the Newspaper District in Berlin by revolutionary demonstrators, 6 January 1919)
On 6 January 1919, some 200,000 Berliners demonstrated against the social-democratic government of Friedrich Ebert and Philipp Scheidemann, formed in the November Revolution which had overthrown the Kaiser and led to the signing of the Armistice which ended the First World War.
The demonstrators, mostly working-class Berliners, were protesting against the government and in favour of the advancement of more socialist policies. Triggered by the government’s dismissal of the left-wing police chief of Berlin, the protests were called by the Independent Socialists, Communists and Revolutionary Shop Stewards. It was the beginning of what became (rather inaccurately) known as The Spartacist Rising.
(Front page of the occupied Vorwarts newspaper, 6 January 1919)
As the demonstrators held the centre of Berlin, occupying newspaper offices and other key buildings, their leaders in the ‘Revolutionary Committee’, made up of Independent Socialists, Communists and Shop Stewards, debated and dithered in seemingly endless meetings. An Independent Socialist present described the meeting as ‘total confusion’ and described how ‘the masses called for the leaders to give them directions for further action, but the leaders were not at hand, and anyone who could shout gave orders.’
(Stahlberg, quoted in Ottokar Luban, ‘Rosa at a Loss; The KPD Leadership and the Berlin Uprising of January 1919: Legend and Reality’ Revolutionary History, vol. 8, no. 4 (London, 2004), 19-45)
(Occupation of the Vorwarts newspaper building, 6 January 1919- Deutsches Historisches Museum)
The next day, Rosa Luxemburg published an article entitled ‘What are the Leaders Doing?’ in the Communist newspaper, Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag) in which she expressed sentiments similar to Stahlberg’s. She described the 6 January demonstrations as ‘magnificent’ and happily wrote that the workers of Berlin had ‘become aware of their power’ at last. Confirming that the demonstrators had occupied several key buildings in the newspaper district and were now awaiting orders from their leaders, she asked:
“meanwhile, what have these leaders done? What have they decided? Which measures have they taken to safeguard the victory of the revolution in this tense situation in which the fate of the revolution will be decided, at least for the next epoch? We have seen and heard nothing! Perhaps the delegates of the workers are conferring profoundly and productively. Now, however, the time has come to act.”
Warning that the Ebert-Scheidemann government were ‘quietly preparing intrigues’ and ‘counter-revolution’ in order to ‘assassinate’ the revolution, Luxemburg warned against any compromises with the government by ‘spineless elements’ and called on the demonstrators and their leaders to:
“Act! Act! Courageously, resolutely, consistently – that is the ‘accursed’duty and obligation of the revolutionary chairmen and the sincerely socialist party leaders. Disarm the counter-revolution, arm the masses, occupy all positions of power. Act quickly! The revolution obliges. Its hours count as months, its days as years, in world history. Let the organs of the revolution be aware of their high obligations!”
(Rosa Luxemburg, ‘What are the leaders doing?’ in Die Rote Fahne, 7 January 1919)