Berlin March 1919
the second Spartacist uprising

February 11, 1919: Ebert appointed provisional 'Reichspräsident'

When it became clear that the war was lost, a new government was formed by Prince Maximilian of Baden which included Ebert and other members of the SPD in October 1918. Following the outbreak of the German Revolution, Prince Max resigned on 9 November, and handed his office over to Ebert. Prince Max also declared that the Kaiser had abdicated. Ebert favoured retaining the monarchy under a different ruler ("If the Kaiser does not abdicate, the social revolution is inevitable. But I do not want it, I even hate it like sin" he had said to Max von Baden on 7 November). On the same day, however, Scheidemann proclaimed the German Republic, in response to the unrest in Berlin and in order to counter a declaration of the "Free Socialist Republic" by Karl Liebknecht later that day. Ebert reproached him: "You have no right to proclaim the Republic!" By this he meant that the decision was to be made by an elected national assembly, even if that decision might be the restoration of the monarchy.
Scheidemann's proclamation ended the German monarchy, and an entirely Socialist provisional government based on workers' councils took power under Ebert's leadership.
Ebert led the new government for the next several months. He used the army under the command of Minister of Defense Gustav Noske and also Freikorps (paramilitary organizations of ex-soldiers) to suppress a Spartacist uprising against the establishment of a parliamentary democracy. Spartacist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered by members of the Freikorps. When the Constituent Assembly met in Weimar in February, 1919, Ebert was chosen to be the first president of the German Republic.

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Friedrich Ebert 

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Friedrich Ebert

The Spartacists however thought that - despite the defeat in January - a continuation of the revolution would be possible. On 3 March 1919 the plenary assembly of the workers council of Berlin decided with a overwhelming majority on a political general strike to protect the revolution. They demanded the recognition of the worker and soldier councils, the release of political prisoners, the abolition of the military court martial, the foundation of a revolutionary workers resistance, the abolition of the right-wing extremists volunteer federations, etc.

General strike Berlin March 1919
(the cards show the transport strike)

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Noske immediately declared a state of siege in the city and gave the order for the Freikorps to enter Berlin on 4 March.  That afternoon, crowds gathered outside the police headquarters on Alexanderplatz and, having roughly handled a Freikorps detachment, promptly found themselves on the receiving end of armoured car machine guns.

March 4, 1919
Alexanderplatz and surroundings

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March 5, 1919
attack on the police headquarters (Polizeipräsidium)

On the next day the People's Naval Division received news that they had been 'disbanded' after the government issued an official announcement of the fact.  Disgruntled, a group of sailors approached the Berlin Police HQ to voice their protest.  Jumpy from the previous day, one of the Freikorps soldiers shot and mortally wounded a sailor.  Enraged and wanting revenge, the People's Naval Division threw their lot in with the revolutionaries.  That night angry mobs, including sailors, surrounded the police station and were only kept at bay by sustained rifle fire.

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March 6, 1919
People's Marine House

March 6 saw the climax to the fighting.  Colonel Reinhard arrived near the Alexanderplatz with his Freikorps and even a tank.  The infantry split into small groups and began to slash a path through the revolutionaries, rapidly taking over their key strong-points.

However, the defenders in a neighbouring building named the 'People's Marine House' offered stiffer resistance.  To help crush these revolutionaries an air strike was called in – yet the sailors continued fight on.  Reinhard ordered an outright assault, but it took three attacking waves before victory was secured.

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March 9-12, 1919
the battle of Lichtenberg

The Spartacists and their allies were then slowly beaten back to working-class tenements of East Berlin.  Here they threw up barricades and turned the entire suburb of Lichtenberg into an armed fortress.  An estimated 10,000 revolutionaries prepared for the final showdown.
On 9 March a rumour circulated that the Lichtenberg police station had been stormed by revolutionaries and that 70 police officers had been executed in cold blood.

The Vorwärts, like many other publications, reported the next day that the men had been: 'shot like animals'.  The story was an exaggeration.  Five policemen had been killed, although the exact cause for why still remained unknown.  Regardless of the facts, however, Noske now issued his notorious order declaring: 'Any individual bearing arms against government troops will be summarily shot.'

For the next four days the Freikorps ripped into East Berlin.  Thirty sailors from the People's Naval Division were gunned down in a courtyard for having the audacity to turn up to a government office demanding back pay.  In one case a father and a son were dragged into the street and shot. T heir crime: possessing the handle of a stick grenade.

By 12 March, the Freikorps burst into the building housing the Workers' Council of Berlin, the Spartacist nerve centre.  The Council was forcibly dissolved and peace slowly returned to Berlin's streets.  Noske had destroyed the Spartacists and seen the sailors crushed, yet the price had been high: between 1,200 and 1,500 were dead and roughly 12,000 wounded, although with negligible losses to the Freikorps.

March 9, 1919

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March 12, 1919

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Many of those involved in smashing the Berlin uprisings sincerely believed that that they were saving lives in the long run by stopping Germany from descending into a Red Terror as experienced by millions in Lenin's Russia.

In this their fears were well grounded.  Liebknecht certainly had no bones about calling for the blood of his enemies, and the Spartacists and the People's Naval Division had a propensity for using fighting methods equally as brutal as those favoured by the Freikorps.

But regardless of the threat Germany faced, it is difficult to excuse much of the suffering the Freikorps inflicted on Berliners, particularly in March 1919.  The freehand given to them in the capital, the lessons they had learnt there, and the official recognition they subsequently received would critically weaken the new Weimar Republic.


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