The Hamburg Uprising started on October 13, 1923, during the Weimar Republic in Germany. Post-World War I Germany was suffering economically and socially, resulting in poor working and living conditions and high inflation. The social and political environment created useful conditions for the rise of socialist movements in Germany. Particularly, it increased the popularity of the communist party, the KPD, which tried to launch a “German October” and establish communism. The attempts to take control with military means failed as it lacked support from the rest of Germany and the Soviet Union.
The government brutally suppressed the insurrection, which was over in a day. The communist insurgency soon disintegrated. Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky later referred to the Hamburg uprising as “a classic demonstration of how it is possible to miss a perfectly exceptional revolutionary situation of world-historic importance.” Even though the exact details of the rebellion remain highly vague, it is clear that the failed Hamburg uprising became a useful tool for the government to establish greater control over society and laid the foundation for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in a few years.
Germany Before the Uprising
Germany was soundly defeated in World War I. In addition to the tremendous cost of human life and material resources for waging war, Germany was obliged to pay 132 billion gold Marks (US $33 billion) to France and other major powers under the Versailles Treaty signed in 1919. The reparations were meant to cover the civilian damage caused by Germany during World War I. Germany’s post-World War I period was characterized by revolutionary upheavals and political turbulence.
On January 11, 1923, in response to Germany’s refusal to pay the reparation payments required by the Treaty of Versailles, France and Belgium occupied the heavily industrialized Ruhr Valley, the heart of Germany’s steel and coal industry. The occupation of the Ruhr worsened Germany’s political and social crisis and increased workers’ dissatisfaction with the existing establishment.
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The Social Democratic Party (SPD), under the presidency of Friedrich Ebert, supported the far-right German government led by industrialist Wilhelm Cuno (Cuno himself was not a member of the SPD nor any other political entity), responded to the crisis by encouraging passive resistance. In reality, this meant that businesses and municipal government entities in the Ruhr boycotted the occupation forces. The local government’s salaries were still being paid, and to make up for the losses, the government provided subsidies to the coal and steel businessmen.
The German currency completely collapsed due to these massive expenditures and the lack of desperately needed coal and steel from the Ruhr. Both workers and those living on a pension lost all means of subsistence. During 1923, the Mark dropped from 21,000 to the US dollar at the beginning of the year to 6 trillion at the end.
However, certain groups of manufacturers and speculators profited from inflation. Due to the low salaries, anyone with access to foreign money or gold could sell German goods to other countries and make enormous profits. These were mainly the forces behind the ruling party. As a result of social division and the demise of the middle-class, political polarization became intense. The SPD swiftly lost supporters and voters and eventually fell apart.
By the autumn of 1923, hyperinflation reached its peak, giving the Communist Party (the KPD) a boost in popularity as the Social Democratic Party of Germany lost its strength gradually. The trade unions, which had been a crucial driving force of the party, disintegrated as most of the German workers left the associations. Within a year, the KPD grew its membership from 225,000 to 295,000 as the Social Democratic Party’s power declined.
The Cuno Strikes
The Cuno strikes were a nationwide wave of strikes in Germany in response to the high inflation and poor economic conditions. Rebels demanded the resignation of Reich chancellor Wilhelm Cuno, protesting his policy of passive resistance to the Belgian and French occupation of the Ruhr that had resulted in high inflation and the collapse of the Mark, even though Reichsmark remained in use till 1948.
The strikes began in June 1923 and were opposed by the Social-Democratic leaders, who warned that the dangers of disruption might only contribute to enhancing the Communists’ influence. These strikes also highlighted the factory councils’ growing influence. Their “Committee of Fifteen” challenged the existing leadership of the unions. On June 16, the Committee addressed the working class of Germany, describing the catastrophe that was threatening German society as a whole, and reaffirmed that only the working class could solve the crises:
In June and August, strikes and demonstrations broke out, demanding the Cuno government’s resignation. The communist party KPD tried to initiate a general strike and bring down the Cuno government. On the other hand, the SPD was pressuring the trade union to reject the call for a more massive general strike. Nevertheless, even within the SPD, some supported the demonstrations.
The wave of strikes spread to other regions of Germany, such as Hamburg, Saxony, and Thuringia. Communist workers occupied factories and work fields. It is estimated that approximately 3.5 million workers went on strike. Even the KPD leadership’s expectations for the strike’s response were exceeded. Cuno and his government were forced to resign on August 11, 1923, and the strikes ended peacefully. Gustav Stresemann took over the leadership.
In the Soviet Union, the Cuno strikes fueled the vision of a German revolution. Leon Trotsky and other influential members of the key communist organizations, including the Political Bureau (Politburo) and COMINTERN, believed that the timing for initiating a socialist revolution in Germany was ideal. Heinrich Brandler, the leader of the KPD, disagreed, but despite his reservations, the Soviet Politburo started to endorse the plan for a “German October.” The communists aimed to take over and spark a new wave of revolutions in Central Europe by imitating the 1917 Russian October Revolution that established communist rule.
To prepare for a communist revolution in Germany, the Political Bureau of the Russian Communist Party formed a “Commission for International Affairs” to supervise the preparatory works in Germany. Among others, the Commission consisted of high-level communist leaders, including Joseph Stalin, Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev.
Before the actual uprising, there were numerous discussions and correspondence with the Soviet and KPD leaders. Financial, logistical, and military support was organized. Finally, organizers chose November 9 for the uprising. But things began to progress rapidly.
Following Chancellor Stresemann’s announcement to end the passive resistance against the French and Belgian occupation of the Ruhr on September 16, the German government issued an act abolishing the eight-hour working day. Thus, the already tense political environment between the extreme right and the government was accompanied by increasing working-class resistance, particularly in Saxony and Thuringia. In these two states, the communist KPD formed a coalition with the left-wing SPD government to strengthen its position for simplified access to weapons if needed.
However, the commander of the Reichswehr in Saxony, General Müller, did not recognize their authority and, with Berlin’s consent, began to subordinate the police forces under his command. Threatened by these developments, the KPD initiated a congress in Chemnitz, Saxony on October 2 and called for a general strike in Germany.
However, the representatives of the leftist Social Democrats disagreed, and the leader of KPD, Heinrich Brandler, decided to cancel the uprising. He thought that the situation and the political environment were not mature enough to bring victory for communists in Germany. The decision to call off the rebellion did not reach Hamburg on time. There, an insurrection was already organized but appeared isolated and thus defeated within days.
The Hamburg Uprising
On October 22, 1922, Hugo Urbahns and Hans Kippenberger, who coordinated the insurrection in Hamburg, received an order for the rebellion from the regional party leadership of KPD. Even though the Hamburg KPD had nearly 14,000 members, only 1,300 actively participated in the uprising. On October 23 at 5:00 AM, the communist rebellions attacked 26 police stations and took weapons. In some parts of Hamburg, communists blockaded train tracks and streets. In the small town of Bargteheide, insurgents captured local government leaders.
In Schiffbek, where the KPD enjoyed more support, rebellions urged the residents to support the uprising, declaring, “Long live Soviet Germany! Long live the Federation of Soviet states of the world! Long live the world revolution!”
In a few hours, the majority of the revolt was suppressed but continued in Schiffbek until noon. In Barmbek, where the KPD had earned about 20% of the vote in the previous election, residents helped erect barricades and brought them food. Despite the constant armed confrontation, the rebels were able to hold their position the entire day. But at night, persuaded of the futility of their position, they gave up and left the site. The police launched a major offensive on abandoned barricades the following day.
The Hamburg uprising resulted in the deaths of 61 civilians, 21 rebels, and 17 police officers. Around 70 policemen and 175 rebels were injured. Fourteen hundred people were detained, and 443 were tried in a special court trial. Because of disturbances in Schiffbeck, where the KPD received 32.4% of the vote in the May 1924 election, 191 persons were detained and later convicted at the Altona Landgericht in February 1925, becoming the largest trial against the insurgents.
The Legacy of the Failed Revolution
The attempts of communists to organize a mass uprising in Germany during the Hamburg uprising failed and resulted in the demoralization and disorganization of the whole KPD. The failed uprising diminished the communist support within the German middle class, which became more attracted to anti-communist rhetoric as a result. Hence, in 1924 when the Hamburg elections were held, the German National People’s Party’s votes increased from 12% to about 20%. It also created a basis for the ruling elite and military establishment to consolidate power over German society. Capitulation without a fight was certainly the worst possible outcome for the future of communism in Germany.
Within Soviet leadership, the failed revolution was disguised as the sole responsibility of KPD and, particularly, Brandler, who could not lead the uprising. He was replaced by young intellectuals from bourgeois backgrounds, Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow, who did not have a revolutionary past and could not deal with the future challenges of the KPD, paving the way to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power ten years later.