Soviets in Munich? The 1919 Bavarian Soviet Republic

The Bavarian Soviet Republic, established after the end of World War I, existed for a few weeks before the new Weimar Republic dissolved it.

May 24, 2024By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations

soviets munich bavarian soviet republic


The German Empire and its ruling Wittelsbach dynasty ceased to exist following the end of World War I. The political climate in Germany became unstable. Inspired by Bolshevik ideas, left-wing socialist journalist and politician Kurt Eisner seized the opportunity and proclaimed the Bavarian Soviet Republic in April 1919. The socialist republic appeared short-lived as it faced both internal and external challenges. In May 1919, the German government, led by the new Weimar Republic, violently crushed the socialist forces, and the Bavarian Soviet Republic collapsed.


Prerequisites for the Creation of the Bavarian Soviet Republic

demobilised sailors workers kiel mitiny photo
Demobilized sailors and soldiers during the Kiel Mutiny. Source: Renate and Klaus Kuhl


The German Empire was defeated in World War I. The defeat and turbulent years of social unrest and political instability culminated in the German Revolution in October 1918, initiated by German Army soldiers and workers.


The revolution began in the naval town of Kiel on October 29, just before the end of World War I, and quickly spread through the rest of the country, reaching south to Munich in early November. Frustrated with the results of war and subsequent severe socio-economic conditions, sailors of the German Imperial Navy refused to obey the orders of Admiral Franz von Hipper and Admiral Reinhardt Scheer, who planned to deploy the fleet for the final battle against the British Navy. The assumption that the war was already lost further aggravated public discontent. The revolt quickly spread beyond sailors and included workers and soldiers as well.


Participants of the revolt established workers’ and soldiers’ councils, inspired by the Soviet model of councils, or council democracy, in which representatives were directly elected and responsible to their electorate. New councils in Germany demanded the end of World War I, improvement of living conditions of ordinary citizens, and a more democratic and equal political system. The event is widely known as the Kiel Mutiny.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


The Kiel Mutiny galvanized support for the revolutionary changes in the German Empire, and the wave of change quickly reached the Western Front and all the key German cities, including South Germany. On November 7, 1918, with joint efforts, soldiers and workers forced King Ludwig III of Bavaria to abdicate. He fled from Munich to Salzburg, Austria with his family.


kurt eisner assasination photo
Kurt Eisner on the day of his assassination. Source: Muenchner Stadtmuseum


During the subsequent power struggle, Kurt Eisner, a member of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), emerged as a prominent political leader. The views of workers’ and soldiers’ councils aligned with Eisner’s pacifist and anti-militarist beliefs. Kurt Eisner declared the establishment of the People’s State of Bavaria on November 8, 1918, and he was soon named Minister-President of the newly formed socialist Republic. Eisner envisioned establishing a socialist state that would address the socioeconomic concerns of ordinary German citizens. He established an interim government consisting of members of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils.


However, workers and soldiers did not see improved socio-economic conditions under Eisner’s leadership; on the contrary, they quickly deteriorated. Eisner struggled to successfully establish a stable government and implement his reforms due to the strong opposition from radical and anti-republican forces. Subsequently, Eisner and his Independent Socialist Party suffered a setback in the elections of January 1919, winning only 35 seats out of 144. Just a month later, on February 21, 1919, when Eisner was on his way to the parliament to announce his resignation, he was assassinated by the right-wing nationalist Anton Graf von Arco auf Valley. Before the murder, his assassin wrote a note:


Eisner is a Bolshevik; he is a Jew; he is not a German; he does not feel German; he undermines all patriotic thinking and feelings; he is a traitor.”


Eisner’s death further intensified the instability. It created a power vacuum between the left-wing and right-wing factions and led to mass protests.


The Revolution in Bavaria & Proclaiming the Bavarian Soviet Republic

german election poster 1920 photo
Poster “Vote communists! Not these enemies of the workers!,” 1920. Source: Friends of the National Libraries UK


Following the death of Kurt Eisner, the Congress of Councils proclaimed their own government on March 1, 1919. However, an underlying issue was that the working class did not have a revolutionary leader. Their political aspirations aligned with the newly emerged Communist Party of Germany (KPD). However, having few members by that time and lacking the organizational structure, the party did not enjoy a strong base within the working class.


The KPD’s program called for the establishment of a socialist Soviet Republic. It significantly contributed to the collaboration of the party and the Congress of Councils, and KPD’s influence gradually increased. Max Levien, a prominent political figure within the workers’ movement and the chairman of the Munich Soldiers’ Council, emerged as a prominent leader of the KPD. Eisner’s assassination and the transition of a political climate to the left contributed to the escalated tensions within the ruling Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).


Rumors spread that Bavarian SPD leader and interior minister in Eisner’s government, Erhard Auer, was responsible for Eisner’s assassination. Some SPD members joined the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) or the KPD, but neither party could mobilize the needed public support.


A second revolution seemed inevitable. Hoping to ease the pressure and maintain the power, the SPD nominated former schoolteacher Johannes Hoffmann as a new leader on March 7, 1919. Hoffmann’s leadership was short-lived, however. The communist revolution in Hungary in March 1919 and the establishment of the Hungarian Soviet Republic inspired communists to pursue their goal—to create the Bavarian Soviet Republic.


gibson lidya ernst toller portrait painting
Ernst Toller: Portrait with Cigarette by Lydia Gibson, ca. 1925. Source: University of Massachusetts Amherst


On April 7, 1919, the KPD and the USPD proclaimed the establishment of the Bavarian Soviet Republic. A social activist and poet, Ernst Toller, was declared the new leader of the revolutionary government. A new government consisted of the Central Council, dominated by anarchists and intellectuals; among them were anarchist writer Gustav Landauer, merchant Silvio Gesell, and playwright Erich Mühsam. Toller referred to the event as the “Bavarian Revolution of Love,” and his government became widely known as “the regime of the coffeehouse anarchists.”


The Hoffmann government fled to Bamberg in northern Bavaria, leading the government into exile from there.


On April 13, 1919, Hoffmann’s counter-revolutionary government sent forces to Munich to suppress the new government. The first armed clash occurred in downtown Munich, which resulted in 80 injured and the deaths of 21 people. The Bavarian Soviet Republic forces won, and Hoffman’s forces abandoned their position, escaping the city by train.


november revolution germany photo
A row of armed revolutionaries in the street, Photo collection: Imperial War Museums, United Kingdom, 1919. Source: Anne Frank House, Amsterdam


This particular event contributed to the rise of the KPD’s influence within the new government and just six days into Toller’s government, Eugen Leviné emerged as a new leader. Leviné was eager to follow the example of Bolshevik Russia and transform Bavaria into a communist state. He introduced more hardline communist reforms; he formed the Bavarian Soviet Republic’s Red Army, consisting of factory workers, expropriated apartments, seized cash, and nationalized factories. The revolutionary leader of Bolshevik RussiaVladimir Lenin, referred to the development in Bavaria with the following words:


The liberated working class is celebrating its anniversary not only in Soviet Russia but in… Soviet Bavaria.”


The Demise of the Bavarian Soviet Republic

election campaign bavarian soviet republic poster
“The election storm is sweeping the land! Bavarian blue and white against Russian red! Bavarian People’s Party,” 1919. Source: The Library of Congress


The pivotal moment in the brief history of the Bavarian Soviet Republic occurred on April 18, 1919. Nearly 8,000 soldiers were dispatched to Munich by the Berlin Reich government and Hoffman’s People’s State of Bavaria in Bamberg to crush communism. Leviné managed to gather up to 10,000 soldiers. An initial clash at Dachau on April 18 proved successful for the Bavarian Soviet Republic.


However, Hoffman received support from an additional 30,000 Freikorps from Württemberg and Prussia, which were advancing to Bavaria from the north and west.


This army, along with Hoffmann’s loyalist soldiers from the German Army, was widely referred to as the “White Guards of Capitalism.” The Freikorps entered Munich on May 1, 1919, causing violent street fighting. On the afternoon of May 2, 1919, the communists surrendered.


The struggle was intense and violent. In response, Leviné chose means of terror and violence to resist. He ordered the arrest of political figures, nobles, and military officers and kept them hostage. It has been reported that the hostages suffered such severe torture that it was nearly impossible to identify them. His cruel actions were strongly denounced by the Soviet Council and Leviné’s political partners. On April 29, 1919, the day Dachau fell to Hoffman’s forces, he was forced to resign.


These developments shifted the political balance to the right, and Hoffman’s government was nominally restored in Munich. Approximately 600 people died during the fighting, half of them civilians. Hoffman ordered a series of trials by May 6, and Leviné was sentenced to death. The Bavarian Soviet Republic ceased to exist.


A new Constitution of the Free State of Bavaria, also known as the Bamberg Constitution, was formally ratified on August 14, 1919, marking the establishment of the Free State of Bavaria under the new Weimar Republic.


Legacy of the Bavarian Soviet Republic

german communist execution 1919 photo
Execution of a German Communist in Munich, 1919. Source: Rare Historical Photos


The chaotic years of 1918–1919 had both short-term and long-term impacts on the Bavarian people. On a broader scale, the creation of the Bavarian Soviet Republic stands as a symbol of the revolutionary struggle for socialist and communist movements around the world, particularly during the first half of the 20th century. The establishment of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic and its system of governance in the form of workers’ councils introduced direct democracy as a new form of governance and challenged traditional political structures.


The rapid rise and fall of the Bavarian Soviet Republic, subsequent socio-economic and political struggles, violence, and instability cemented hatred in the German public toward left-wing rule. These perceptions were more buttressed following the creation of the Weimar Republic and the government’s propaganda efforts against communism. The main example utilized in propaganda to highlight the dangers of far-left political aspirations was Rotes Bayern, or “Red Bavaria” in English. The right-wing political entities had successfully exploited this socio-political environment to push their agendas forward, resulting in the rise of radical movements, including Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party.

Author Image

By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.