“Where are the golden 20s?” asks The Incredible Herrengedeck in “Berlin Stinkt!”, “Communism was a real possibility!” Yes, the decade is best remembered for the gilded soirées of the artists and the hedonist gatherings of the super rich. You can read all about the the Weimar era in our city in Exberliner’s new issue.
But the 1920s in Germany were above all a decade of revolution. The post-war economy was in permanent crisis, both until 1923 and after 1929. The counterrevolution massacred tens of thousands of workers, but there were also attempts at communist insurrection in 1921 and 1923.
In the last Weimar elections in November 1932, it was the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) that got the most votes in the capital – an astounding 37.7 percent. This party shaped the city like no other in the 1920s. So what did Communist Weimar Berlin look like? Here’s a tour:
1. Abgeordnetenhaus (The Berlin Parliament building)
Not many people know about it, but Germany experienced a revolution in 1918-19. The revolution, which started with sailors in Kiel, reached Berlin on November 9, 1918. Hundreds of thousands of workers poured into the streets for a general strike. Within hours, the Hohenzollern dynasty had fled and the war was unceremoniously ended. The revolutionary deputy Karl Liebknecht (today honored with a big street borderings Alexanderplatz) had spent most of the war in prison – but on this day, he proclaimed the Free Socialist Republic of Germany.
The leadership of the workers’ movement remained in the hands of the Social Democrats, who had supported the war and opposed the revolution “like the pest” (their words). As SPD leader Friedrich Ebert later explained, they placed themselves at the head of the revolutionary movement to chop off its head at the right moment.
This is why Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and other revolutionary socialists – in the heat of the revolution itself – tried to form a new workers’ party. On New Year’s Eve 1918, delegates gathered at the Prussian House of Representatives, which had been taken over by revolutionary workers, to form the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).
The house is now Berlin’s parliament, the Abgeordnetenhaus. The meeting took place in the ballroom, which is directly above the entrance. A miniscule plaque commemorates this event.
2. Gedenkstätte der Sozialisten – Socialist Memorial
The Communist Party was weak. But the new government, composed of Social Democrats under Ebert and the Reichswehr (military) leadership under Wilhelm Groener, recognized that Liebknecht and Luxemburg were the faces of the revolution and inspired millions of workers. They wasted no time. Both KPD leaders were assassinated by right-wing paramilitaries (“Freikorps” or proto-Nazis) under the command of the government on January 15, 1919.
They were buried in the socialist cemetary in Friedrichsfelde. In 1925, the KPD constructed a monument with those famous last words of Luxemburg about the revolution: “I was, I am, I will be!” This construction was destroyed by the Nazis. But in the early 1950s, the East German regime built a much more grandiose “Memorial to the Socialists”, where generations of workers’ leaders are buried and a large stone proclaims: “The dead warn us!”
Berlin’s poor Jewish quarter, the Scheunenviertel around Hackescher Markt, was home to the first illegal headquarters of the KPD as the party worked to regroup. There is a plaque right next to the entrance of the Kino Central in the Rosenthaler Straße 38. It was here that Werner Scholem, the OrgLeiter of the revolutionary party, pulled the strings of a communist apparatus. He might be better known today as little brother of philosopher Gershom Scholem.
In 1926, in times of stabilization, the party moved into a much more representative headquarters at the Bülowplatz, today called Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, in Mitte. The building was originally a factory, but it radically transformed into the Karl Liebknecht Haus and the seat of the KPD’s Central Committee. “For bread and freedom, for Soviet-Germany!” proclaimed the giant slogan. Now the house, with the same name, serves as the headquarters of the party DIE LINKE.
Every second Sunday in January, this story is remembered in the coldest demonstration of the year. Thousands march to the Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s graves to remember the two and place red carnations. It starts this Sunday at 10am sharp at Frankfurter Allee.
Many of the workers’ houses – the tenements known as Mietskasernen – have been replaced. But Berlin still contains lots of locations to remind us how, less than 100 years ago, the working class tried again and again to take over this city.