Chapters 7 & 8: Deterioration and the End of the Eisner Regime
FbF Book Club: Revolution in Bavaria, 1918-1919 (Mitchell, 1965)
By January of 1919, the honeymoon phase of the November Revolution was over.
Violence was spreading throughout Munich as councils became more radicalized due to both the fear of being eliminated and communist infiltration of these same councils. At the same time, the economic situation was deteriorating rapidly, just as the elections for both the Bavarian Landtag and the National Assembly in Berlin were due to be held. Eisner’s delicate balancing act was reaching the end of its rope, as both the inevitable SPD-led government and the left radicals agitating for “all power to the councils!” were moving in completely opposite directions from one another.
The Elections of January 1919
Bavarians went to the polls twice during January 1919, first to vote for a new Landtag, and then one week later for the new National Assembly in Berlin.
Contrary to expectations, both votes went off without a hitch. Bavarians went to the polling booths in record numbers due to an expanded franchise (including women for the first time in its history), voting to not only continue with parliamentarianism in Bavaria itself, but also to send its representatives to Berlin in order to represent their interests and define the southern republic’s relationship to it.
As per Bavarian tradition, voting broke down largely along confessional lines with Catholic regions mainly supporting the former Zentrum now Bavarian People’s Party (BVP), and Protestant regions in the main supporting the SPD:
As Mitchell notes, only in and around Munich did the SPD manage to break the confessional barrier, with the SPD drawing the most support. This was still not enough for the SPD to be the outright winner of the vote, as the BVP managed to win a plurality, but in the knowledge that they would not be forming the next government due to a lack of viable coalition partners.
The SPD won the lion’s share of the votes of those inclined to vote for socialist platforms, resulting in utter disaster for Kurt Eisner and the USP. Eisner’s humiliation was repeated one week later during the vote for the upcoming German National Assembly, one in which the resulted reflected those of the Landtag election:
The USP managed only 2.5% of all votes in the Landtag election in Bavaria, while doing a little better one week later in voting for the National Assembly, securing 3.7% of the overall total. No silver lining was possible to see here. These results were a catastrophe for both Eisner and his party, proving the case that neither he nor the USP had the popular support of the Bavarian people, on whose basis they claimed to effect the November Revolution, and on whose basis they claimed to act during the provisional government’s existence. Auer and the SPD could point to these results and state that the USP was superfluous to its needs to form a new government.
Nevertheless, Eisner attempted to argue that a government without the USP would lead to either a “bourgeois” regime, or a Bolshevik one. Only an all-socialist unity government could forestall further revolution, or counter-revolution. Auer and the SPD were left unconvinced. The clock on Eisner’s Premiership was ticking, as the Catholic press concluded: "A man, a Jew, who still flusters after the Berlin putschists, should no longer stand at the head of a Volksstaat whose voters have just prepared for him a crushing defeat.” Where Eisner had managed to overthrow a regime during a power vacuum with the support of only twelve key individuals, two elections managed to expose just how little popular support he had managed to gain by doing so.
If Eisner and the USP were in trouble, the communists of the KPD were in an existential crisis. Their agitation for the end of parliamentarianism in Bavaria meant that they could be outlawed as “seditious” by the time the next Landtag convened. It was this sense of self-preservation just as much as their revolutionary fervour that mobilized them to radicalize rapidly via the council system so as to prevent the convocation of the next Landtag.
A meeting of council delegates was opened by Gustav Landauer's demand that the radicals also be included in the united front. In the midst of "great agitation" Eisner attempted to defend his exclusion of them. He said that he would "stand and fall with the workers', soldiers', and peasants' councils," but that he could not endorse the threat of armed force; nor could he hope, as a practical matter, to gain the cooperation of the SPD if he made such an endorsement. When the meeting then lapsed into disorder, several Independents exchanged insults with radical leaders Miihsam and Max Levien. In the confusion a reporter was able to record only that Eisner was charged with perpetrating "vulgar lies." Other Independent leaders such as Ernst Toller, who represented both the USP and the council system, attempted to save the situation, but a falling-out between the Communists and the Independents was, under the circumstances, unavoidable. The immediate result of the Landtag election was thus to leave the USP more isolated and the KPD more adamant. On the Wednesday after election day the first issue of the Communist Miinchener Rote Fahne appeared with the slogan: "DOWN WITH INTERNATIONAL CAPITALISM! ALL POWER TO THE COUNCILS OF WORKERS, PEASANTS, AND SOLDIERS!"
The USP was left stranded as it could not join with the communists, and was unwanted by the triumphant SPD. Nevertheless, it continued to agitate for the formalization of the council system via a new constitution that was to be drawn up by the next government. On the other hand, Auer and the SPD continued to pay lip service to the councils as they recognized that they symbolized the revolution and could not yet be done away with. They would then proceed to keep watering them down, waiting for the new Landtag to take office. The unresolved future role of the councils would act as Damocles’ Sword over the heads of Bavaria.
With Damocles’ Sword above their heads, a quickly collapsing economy best evidenced by galloping inflation and surging unemployment proved to be a series of punches to the Bavarian gut.
Sources of unemployment:
The immediate sources of unemployment in the capital were close enough to the surface to be seen with the naked eye. The inevitable regimentation of the war years had increased in importance and size the administrative functions of the state government located in Munich. Despite the severe attrition of Bavarian troops in combat (which took an estimated 13,600 citizens of Munich alone), the population of the city had increased steadily since 1914 and was approaching 650,000 by 1919. For the period immediately following the Armistice it is proper to speak of overpopulation, due in the main to the problems created by the demobilization of manpower and the reconversion of wartime industry.
The return of the troops from the front:
The return of Bavarian troops from the front had begun in force during late November and continued unabated throughout January. Munich was both a major processing center for those being mustered out and an attraction for discharged veterans at loose ends. Civic officials had made every effort to meet the problem of crowding, assuming it to be temporary, by requisitioning school buildings, hotels, and beer-hall cellars, and by beginning on November 26 to organize a program of quartering in large private homes. By mid-December Munich already had one hundred barracks and temporary dormitories, housing 50,000 men in groups of 60 to 3000. The return of additional troops during the Christmas holidays and thereafter stretched the city's facilities and tolerance to the limit. It is therefore not difficult to appreciate the importance of this mass in terms of political instability and economic liability.
Lots of idle, angry, hungry, and broke men milling about does not make for a good situation. It makes them very prone to radicalization. Compounding this situation was the fact that the ‘reconversion’ of the wartime industry meant that thousands of thousands of workers were, after Eisner’s cabinet dragged their own feet, put out of work because their factories were shut down to retool for non-wartime purposes. As Mitchell describes, the situation by January 1919 in Munich was highly “combustible”.