The Rise and Fall of an Infamous Marxist Icon
by Chris Oakley
Up until the fateful moment in 1918 when he was gassed on the Western Front, everything in Adolf Hitler’s political development had been steering him in the direction of ultraconservatism. A case can be made, in fact, that had he not spent the final days of World War I in a field hospital trying to recover from that gassing, he might have become a fascist along the lines of Italy’s Benito Mussolini or Spain’s Francisco Franco. But in the midst of his long convalescence, the Austrian corporal was launched into an ideological metamorphosis that would have far-reaching consequences for Europe and the entire world...
Had anyone other than Heinrich Stuckart been occupying the bunk directly below Corporal Hitler’s while Hitler was being nursed back to health, it’s unlikely the future dictator would have entertained even the vaguest notion of becoming a Communist. Stuckart, the only child of Dusseldorf shopkeepers, had gone into the German army as a fervent believer in both Kaiser Wilhelm and Wilhelm’s war against Britain and his allies; that, however, had radically changed as the war bogged down into an endless series of suicidal charges against barbed-wire fences and artillery barrages that did little or nothing to change the overall strategic situation either for the Germans or the Allies. By the time he and Hitler met in late August of 1918, the lanky redhead had become bitterly cynical about the Kaiser and all that man stood for; he had also come to embrace the tenets of Marxism.
He and Hitler argued vehemently and often about the merits of Karl Marx’s political philosophy. At first the Austrian corporal clung to his traditionalist views like a drowning man on a life raft; however, Stuckart was a master debater, a skill he’d first acquired during his days as a student in Dusseldorf’s main public secondary schools, and Hitler slowly found himself beginning to agree with Stuckart on a few issues. Then one day in October of 1918, just a few weeks before the Armistice was signed, the Dusseldorf native showed Hitler a leaflet urging its readers to join the German Communist Party and bring peace to their war-torn homeland.
Aloud Corporal Hitler said nothing about the leaflet Stuckart had thrust into his hands. Privately, however, he saw in its pages the opportunity he’d been waiting for his entire life-- the chance to become a great leader and bring Germany back to what he saw as its rightful place of being the dominant power in continental Europe. By the time Kaiser Wilhelm was overthrown on November 9th, 1918 the Austrian national had become the German Communist Party’s newest member and promised himself that he would become its leader before too long...
Marxist revolutionaries Karl Liebknicht and Rosa Luxembourg regarded Hitler with suspicion when he came to them shortly after the Armistice and volunteered to fight in the militia they had raised to overthrow the provisional German government. After all, he had heretofore been a fervent advocate of the same right-wing ideologies they were now trying to abolish. But as he told them of the debates with Heinrich Stuckart that had led him to embrace Communism, and described his experiences on the battlefield, their suspicions began to fade, and eventually they accepted his offer to fight on their side in their impending uprising.
It took until the spring of 1919 for everything to fall into place for the Communist rebellion in Germany; Hitler put that time to good use, drilling his soon-to-be comrades-in-arms in the basics of infantry warfare and unleashing his formidable rhetorical powers to recruit additional volunteers for the revolt. One of these recruits was Paul Joseph Goebbels, an aspiring author with a club foot and a gift for making propaganda which Hitler believed would be invaluable in fostering support for the Communist revolution.
The cynical Goebbels was a stark contrast to the ideologically zealous Hitler; he had no creed save his own personal advancement, and privately looked with contempt on Liebknicht and Luxembourg. But he knew an opportunity when he saw one, and the impending Communist uprising promised to vault him to heights of fame and power he had previously only dreamed of. Thus he poured himself heart and soul into the task of winning converts to the Marxist cause.
His command of the new medium of radio was particularly impressive-- and frightening. In a voice laden with demonic charisma, he urged his listeners to "smash the rotten skeleton of capitalism" and help the KPD1 install a new Marxist government in Berlin. Before long, thousands were flocking to Communist Party offices throughout Germany to enlist in the revolution and oust the Ebert provisional regime in Berlin.
Desperate to stop the uprising before it started, Friedrich Ebert allowed General Erich Ludendorff to deploy the Reichswehr against the Communists-- and in so doing played right into Goebbels’ hands. Claiming that this decision constituted proof of the Ebert government’s intention to wage war on Germany’s working classes, the KPD propaganda chief urged the masses to march on the Reichstag and arrest Ebert, Ebert’s cabinet, and any legislators who sided with Ebert’s government.
On March 11th, 1919 hundreds of soldiers, sailors, factory workers and farmers set out to fulfill that command. When they reached Unter den Linden they were met by battalions of Reichswehr infantry and mounted cavalry; bystanders in the crowd nearby ran for cover, fearful of being caught in what looked like a certain massacre. But-- as the Reichswehr troops were about to discover to their alarm --the demonstrators had not come to the fray unarmed. Every man and woman in the group had at least one weapon at their disposal, and in some cases more than one; Hitler himself had brought a rifle, two pistols, a hand grenade, and a pair of brass knuckles to the fray.
The rebels did indeed suffer heavily in the pitched street battles that followed. Rosa Luxembourg, who against Karl Liebknicht’s advice had opted to march alongside Hitler at the head of the throng, was killed when a Reichswehr cavalryman slashed her throat with a sword at the height of the struggle; Liebknicht himself was wounded by infantry snipers. Some 300 of the Communist fighters would not live to see the final downfall of the Ebert government.
But as badly as the rebels suffered, the government troops fared even worse. Not only were they forced to confront the Marxist revolt, they also had to defend themselves against ordinary Berliners who joined the uprising out of frustration over the hardship and repression they’d been forced to endure for nearly five years. General Erich Ludendorff, leader of the Reichswehr force sent to crush the revolt, was seized and lynched when he attempted to place Hitler under arrest; half of his troops were stabbed, shot, or beaten as the rebels made their slow but inexorable way towards the Reichstag. Using a flanking maneuver that would have done credit to any of the Kaiser’s marshals, Hitler’s former hospital bunkmate Heinrich Stuckart-- now chief tactical advisor for the Marxist rebels -- breached the defenses of the Reichstag itself just after 4:00 PM that afternoon and led three battalions of rebel soldiers into the building.
Seeing the handwriting on the wall, and wishing to stop or at least minimize further bloodshed, Chancellor Ebert instructed the remaining government forces to lay down their arms; minutes later, in a voice trembling with despair, he informed the astonished Reichstag deputies that he was resigning as chancellor and turning control of the government over to the rebels.
When Hitler and his associates heard the news, they could scarcely believe their ears-- or their luck. They’d expected a fight for control of Berlin lasting days, possibly weeks; not once it had ever crossed their minds that Ebert might peacefully hand over the reins of power. But the Communists weren’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth, and on March 15th, 1919 Karl Liebknicht formally proclaimed himself the first chancellor of the new German People’s Republic(Deutsches VolksRepublik).
Hitler became war minister of the new government, with Heinrich Stuckart appointed chief of staff for the new Volksarmee(People’s Army) which was intended to take the place of the Reichstag. Walter Ulbricht, a junior secretary in the KPD’s Berlin branch, was appointed Stuckart’s adjutant and entrusted with the task of creating a national secret police agency; Goebbels was named propaganda minister.
The first order of business for the new government was consolidating its power. There were numerous threats to the Liebknicht regime, both within and outside Germany’s borders; these had to be neutralized as quickly as possible if the People’s Republic were to survive. Of particular concern were Germany’s recent Great War adversaries France and Britain, who were already sending troops to Russia to topple the fledgling Communist regime of Vladimir Lenin and now openly suggested that they wouldn’t hesitate to do likewise where Germany was concerned if they thought their interests on the continent were threatened by the new order in Berlin.
Karl Liebknicht was by no means a shrinking violet, but by the same token neither was he a fool. He understood-- if many of his followers didn’t -- that fighting a second Great War with the other major powers in Europe so soon after the first one had ended was a losing proposition that could only end in catastrophe. So he decided, albeit with great distaste, to meet with Ebert and offer to join with him in a coalition government in return for Ebert’s pledge not to prosecute anyone who had supported the Marxist uprising. Much to Hitler and Liebknicht’s relief, Ebert accepted the offer.
Also to Hitler and Liebknicht’s relief, the Western powers backed off. They had bigger fish to fry-- Lenin’s Bolsheviks in Russia to be more precise. By the time Hitler, Liebknicht, and their associates staked their claim to power in Germany, the former Russian Empire, which had been remade in the Bolsheviks’ image as the Soviet Union, had already spent a year deep in the throes of a civil war. And Lenin, at least in the eyes of mainstream politicians and diplomats, was a more immediate threat to Western security than the KPD.
Over the next five years, the new Germany-- or "the Weimar Republic" as it was known aboard since the meeting which led to the Ebert-Liebknicht coalition had taken place in Weimar --took the first tentative steps down the road to postwar economic recovery. In spite of what some Germans saw as the onerous and vengeful reparations exacted from them by the Treaty of Versailles, there was a mood of hope that the country might regain at least some of the prosperity it had known before the Great War began.
Unfortunately for the peace of Europe and the world, it was precisely at this point that the alliance between Hitler and Liebknicht started to unravel. An ideological schism had developed between them paralleling the Stalin-Trotsky split in Russia-- whereas Liebknicht wanted to consolidate the Marxist revolution inside Germany, Hitler sought to spread it across all of Europe.
To Be Continued...
1 Kommunistichen Partei im Deutschland.