In the last installment of this miniseries, we looked at the fall of Imperial Germany, the abolition of the monarchies within the Empire, and how Bavaria was no different. Here’s a quick recap of the situation: the war ends with the Allies on the doorstep of the German Empire, and elements such as Prince Max of Baden—desperate to save the Empire at any cost—announced the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Wilhelm fled to the Netherlands (where, three weeks later, he officially announced his abdication to live the quiet life of a country gentlemen on the estate of Huis Doorn), and things were briefly looking up for Max and a potential interim government where the monarchy could be salvaged. But by briefly, I mean an hour or two—Phillip Scheidemann, an arrogant, revolutionary-minded Socialist and committed republican—announced to a huge crowd the proclamation of a German republic. The more respectable Friedrich Ebert, who wanted to retain the monarchy in a more constitutional form and had lost two sons in the war, rightfully ripped into Scheidemann (who probably had a chuckle over it and went back to eating his soup). Sadly, this did not result in a restoration. Revolutions, started in the Kiel Shipyards by various naval divisions, began spreading all over Germany. Ludwig III Wittelsbach, the reigning King of Bavaria, was strolling in his garden when an aide came up to him, begging him to come to the palace. Waiting for Ludwig III and the royal family was one Kurt Eisner, a Jewish drama critic turned Socialist revolutionary from Berlin. Eisner emphatically stated that the safety of the royal family could not be guaranteed, and although an official abdication never came, the writing was on the wall: 700 years of Wittelsbach rule in Bavaria was extinguished.
Kurt Eisner set about creating a government based more on theory and intellectual ventures rather than concrete policies, and while for a time Eisner was liked (especially in Munich), there were wolves in the forest waiting to tear into the eccentric pastures of Eisner’s Bavaria. Eisner’s government began falling apart a mere three weeks after its declaration. The economy was in freefall and thousands of soldiers were bankrupting the government through demobilization pay, and essentially loitered in their barracks with no purpose. Food was running low and a meeting with Ebert in Berlin went very sour, very quickly. A Spartacist revolution erupted in Munich in December and was barely put down, and a snap election proved to Eisner that he was finished as a revolutionary leader—his Independent Socialists were annihilated at the polls. With factions on the left and the right growing in power by the day and his party all but done for, Eisner did the only thing he could: he resolved to tender his resignation and return to a quiet life of critiquing drama and literature.
He never made it to the Landtag to tender that resignation, and it is here where we resume our story.
Feburary 21st, 1919
Anton Graf von Arco auf Valley
Before we get back to Kurt Eisner, let us step back for a moment to introduce ourselves to another figure: Count Anton Arco-Valley. Arco-Valley was born in Sankt-Martin, Upper Austria, in 1897. His father, Maximilian, was an estate owner and his mother, Emily Freiin von Oppenheim, came from a wealthy Jewish banking family. Arco-Valley fought in the last year of the war as a lieutenant of a guards infantry regiment of the Bavarian Army, despite hailing from Austria. Returning from the frontlines to the wreckages of postwar Bavaria, Arco-Valley was disillusioned and furious at the state of affairs. He tried to soothe these feelings over by joining a local organization called the Thule Society, a club of intellectuals dedicated to the study of Germanic culture…in theory, anyway—in practice, they devoted themselves more to anti-Semitic causes and read more literature disparaging the Jews than studying the origins of an ancient “homeland” that never existed, that place being “Thule”, the supposed lost Nordic kingdom and birthplace of the Germanic peoples. The Thule Society had grown exponentially in the months after the war; they actively recruited writers such as Dietrich Eckart and young officers such as Rudolf Hess, and charter members included people such as Alfred Rosenberg, who arrived from his Baltic homelands with copies of various anti-Semitic works such as the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion. They adopted the Hakenkreuz as their symbol and greeted each other by crying out “Heil!” (Although the membership list reads like a “who’s who” of future Nazi Party members, there is significant debate of who was actually a member and who was merely invited to speak at their conferences. The links forged by Anton Drexler between the Thule Society and extremist worker factions in Bavaria, however, were definitely a thing, and helped contribute to the rise of the NSDAP later on).
Arco-Valley desperately wanted to join this organization, but due to his mother’s Jewish heritage, he was flat out denied by the Thule Society. Desperate to prove himself, Arco-Valley—knowing that the Thule Society had failed to kidnap Kurt Eisner in December, decided to one-up them—he set out to assassinate the now-deposed revolutionary. On the morning of February 21st, the 22-year old Count stalked Eisner as he made his way to the Landtag. Shortly before 10am, Arco-Valley walked up to Eisner (who was flanked by his devoted secretary Felix Fechenbach and a personal guard) and fired off two shots into Eisner’s head. Kurt Eisner was dead before he hit the ground, and Anton Arco-Valley was shot by Eisner’s guards; ironically it was Fechenbach who saved Arco-Valley’s life by preventing a mob from murdering him on the spot. A surgeon operated on the young Count, sparing his life.
Kurt Eisner’s funeral procession
Munich itself, however, was not spared of the coming earthquake that this assassination produced.
Believing the assassination to be some sort of rightist conspiracy, workers all over Munich began taking their revenge. An hour after Eisner was killed, a butcher’s apprentice named Alois Lindner casually walked into the Landtag and shot Eisner’s rival, Erhard Auer (he somehow survived). An Army officer that jumped at Lindner was shot and killed by this apprentice, who melted away into the crowd outside the Landtag. All over the city, church bells were chiming for Eisner, and a Red Guard stood watch over the spot where Eisner was murdered. The city was paralyzed by a three-day strike on the day of Eisner’s funeral (February 26th), and the Majority Socialists, now headed by Johannes Hoffmann, had to flee to Nuremberg in order to preserve a semblance of government (Nuremberg was within range of a few Freikorps units who could offer actual protection…don’t worry, though, they’ll show up later on in a very big way).
Falling To Pieces
The chaos surrounding Eisner’s funeral—placards calling for bloody revenge and the massive strikes that brought the city to its knees—was only intensified. With the only legitimate government in Nuremberg, Munich was left in a state of total anarchy. A Bolshevik revolution in nearby Hungary, led by Soviet-trained and financed Bela Kun (sent to Hungary under the guise of being a Russian representative of the Red Cross) created a major problem for Bavaria. With Eisner’s assassination and the ensuing state of anarchy in Munich, the Majority Socialists could only hope to exert a very shaky influence over the city, never mind the former kingdom. They had to abide by the requests of rapidly-growing workers and soldiers’ councils, who held the real power in Bavaria. By the end of March, with the Bolsheviks coming to power in Hungary (and receiving instructions directly from Lenin everyday), time was all but up for the Majority Socialists and their leader, Johannes Hoffmann. March was harsh on Munich in another way: it was a particularly icy month and the lack of foresight and grasp of basic economics left the city without any coal. The city had to resort to printing its own currency in order to keep the unemployment payments going. Workers now owned arms and ammunition, and nightly rallies by the Communists and Independent Socialists were growing larger and more frightening. The kicker for Hoffmann’s Majority Socialists came when the news of the Hungarian Soviet Republic reached Munich. On April 6th, proclaiming a “Republic of Councils” in the hopes of joining with Hungary (and perhaps Austria) in a revolutionary confederation of Danubian nations, a 25-year old poet and playwright by the name of Ernst Toller, along with several other intellectuals in Munich (all of them members of the Independent Socialists) assumed power in Munich with the vast support of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils. Hoffmann’s government fled to Bamberg, Upper Franconia, the next day, establishing a sort of Bavarian government-in-exile. Pledging allegiance to Ebert’s government in Berlin, Hoffmann could only bide his time until an opportunity arose to reestablish a “proper” government in Munich.
The reign of Ernst Toller’s “Coffeehouse Anarchists” was characterized by how eccentric they were: they outdid everything Kurt Eisner did. Toller began his rule with a proclamation that the arts were to lead the way in the liberation of the spirit of humanity, and the University of Munich—long a hotbed of monarchist sympathizers—was to be free to all who wanted to attend. “History”, proclaimed Toller’s regime, “that enemy of civilization”, was to be suppressed as a viable form of education (naturally, this touched off a lot of fistfights in the university as the students there absolutely refused to have anything to do with leftists). The Commissar for Finances was given the green light to experiment with his own ideas for money (to the detriment of the Bavarian economy, now in a state of disintegration), and the Commissar for Foreign Affairs—Dr. Franz Lipp—was quite literally insane. He decorated his office everyday with red carnations, and probably caused Lenin to have an aneurysm or three with the telegraphs and letters he would send off to Moscow: he wired Lenin complaining that Johannes Hoffmann stole the keys to “his ministry’s toilet”, sent Lenin two theses regarding the works of Immanuel Kant, and wired all of the Commissars of the Republic of Councils that he was personally declaring war on Switzerland and Württemberg because they refused to grant him 60 trains, and made it quite clear he was going to ask the Pope for his blessings in the endeavor.
The Coffeehouse Anarchists lasted all of 6 days. Then, the Communists arrived.
The Communists who arrived in Bavaria were an interesting sort. They weren’t authorized, official representatives of the German Communist Party, who were still in a state of rebuilding after their attempted revolution was utterly crushed by the Freikorps in March. The Communist Party in Germany even told its followers to abstain from any armed conflicts for the time being. Because of this, they had no interest in the events going on in Bavaria. Another interesting fact about these Communists who called their government the “Munich Commune” was that they were not representatives of Lenin or his international movement (Towia Axelrod, one of the three Communists now in Bavaria, was with Lenin in Petrograd for a short time—only Axelrod could be considered anything like an international “delegate”. More on him in a moment). These Communists were called “the Russians”, and I’ll explain who they were, one by one:
Towia Axelrod: As mentioned, Axelrod was the only one of these three that could be considered a delegate in any sense of the word, of international Communism. Axelrod was born into a Jewish family in Moscow in 1887, and grew up to become a revolutionary and an advocate for Communism. With the Bolshevik takeover of the Russian government, Axelrod was assigned to the staff of one Adolf Yoffe, the Soviet ambassador to Imperial Germany. Days before the Armistice, Yoffe’s staff was tossed out of the country as he aroused suspicions that his staff was in the process of inciting a Communist revolution (this wasn’t far-fetched: Ottokar Czernin, the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Foreign Minister, remarked that during negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, Yoffe very sincerely told him that he had “hoped to raise the revolution in your [Czernin’s] country.” So we have a clear view of Yoffe’s intentions for foreign policy). Yoffe and his staff were tossed out of the country, Axelrod hung behind to keep an eye on things. With the news of Eisner’s takeover of Munich, Axelrod fled south to avoid the inevitable clashes with agitated Berliners in the wake of the abdication of Wilhelm II.
Max Levien: Max Levien was the scion of a wealthy Jewish merchant family that claimed both German and Russian heritage, and was also born in Moscow. Levien fled Russia for Germany before the war and studied at the University of Halle before moving back to Russia…where he was arrested for revolutionary activities and sentenced to work in Siberian lead mines. He escaped this punishment and fled to Zurich, Switzerland, where he met with Vladimir Lenin, and made his way back to Germany, only to find himself drafted into the German Army. Silently advocating revolution in the early years of the war, when the war began falling apart for the German Empire Levien openly called for revolution and became a Spartacist. He desired an Allied win over Germany, stating:
“It is necessary that Germany be humiliated, that the colonial troops of France and England march through the Brandenburg Gate, that Helgoland become the property of the English, and that the German fleet be taken away.”
In mid-December of 1918, Levien moved south to Bavaria to organize Spartacist groups there, and with the assassination of Eisner in February, he took advantage of the chaos and fervor in Munich to declare the Catholic cathedral in the city be turned into a “revolutionary temple”, which he got—and taking things one step further, Levien insisted that the “Goddess Reason” preside over the ceremony. Max Levien was a man of action and motion, and totally dedicated to the Communist cause (he was also described by many in Munich as being sadistic, which given his penchant for invoking the French Revolution, executing hostages, and utilizing terror tactics to get his way, was in all likelihood an accurate description).
Eugen Levine: Not to be confused with Levien, Levine was the third “Russian” and the oldest of the three. Hailing from a Jewish family in St. Petersburg, Levine also came to study in Germany as Levien did. Levine returned to Russia in 1905 to witness the uprisings, only to head back to Germany in 1909. Also like Levien, Levine was drafted to fight in the German Army and became a Spartacist. During the chaos of the postwar, he was sent by the infamous Rosa Luxembourg to Moscow as a representative of the German Communist Party to the Comintern (international Communist Congress of sorts). Levine wasn’t able to cross the border, which wasn’t surprising given the chaos of Polish soldiers fighting with German irregulars over territorial disputes and personal spats. Directed by Paul Levi (head of the German Communist Party after Freikorps assassinated Rosa Luxembourg in late 1918) to organize the Communist Party in Bavaria, Levine left for Munich in March. Taking command of the Party, he proceeded to purge the committee, executives, and membership by taking in their cards and reissuing less than 3,000 of them back. A fanatic for the Communist cause, Levine funnily enough shied away from violence and terror, preferring a practical, less stringent approach.
The only truly German national in the Munich Commune that occupied the upper crust of the Communist Party was a 26 year-old sailor and veteran of the Kiel Mutiny, Rudolf Egelhofer. He was well liked by “the Russians” for his iron-clad devotion to the Communist cause, and Levien adored him for his ruthlessness. Egelhofer was charged with creating a Communist army in Bavaria, and was made the military commander of the “Republic of Councils.” Lacking the brains as it were, Egelhofer commanded a fantastic ability to rally people around the cause, and in mid-April of 1919, he issued his call to arms. While exact numbers are not known, it is estimated that by the end of the month Egelhofer commanded an Army of about 20,000. His army was one of the best-paid in history, with basic privates earning 25 Marks a day, non-commissioned officers getting 130 marks, and officers were making money beyond avarice. The Bavarian Red Army also promised prostitutes and liquor, and delivered on both. Russian POWs were recruited from nearby prison camps and swelled Egelhofer’s ranks. His agents began arresting and shooting known nationalists and anticommunists, and soon Stadelheim Prison began swelling with prisoners—primarily middle-class and noble families. Unlike Toller’s Coffeehouse Anarchists, the Communists simply shut down all the schools and universities, and began purging moderate leftists. The Majority Socialists tried to initiate a coup but they were annihilated by Egelhofer.
The economy of Bavaria was in total ruin by this point in time. The Bavarian Red Army demanded constant maintenance of their wages, which drained the treasuries of Bavaria to nothing. Even worse, the Majority Socialists, while exiled in Bamberg, managed to create a semi-successful blockade of Munich, relying on the farmers in the countryside who distrusted the money coming out from the city. Food shipments were now halted, and the situation in Munich was not looking very bright. The Soviets in Russia were in the dark as to what exactly was going on in the city, so they were reduced to cautious cheerleading from the sidelines. However desperate the situation was in Munich, the Majority Socialist government under Hoffmann couldn’t take advantage of it at all. Bavarian antipathy towards Prussia, mixed with Eisner’s stances on pacifism, made it nearly impossible to recruit Freikorps in the region, thus depriving the Majority Socialists of a true military force. Bavarians, while distrusting the Communists and at times openly rebelling against them, were also not fond of Hoffman’s government or his party. Faced with the prospect of engineering an invasion by mostly Prussian-led, Prussian-staffed Freikorps (which would certainly drive Bavarians into the arms of “the Russians”) and trying to create an army from scratch (almost impossible given that much of the manpower was concentrated in the ranks of the Bavarian Red Army, and the Communists controlled the important armories and their supplies), Hoffmann’s government decided on the latter despite Gustav Noske’s offer of Freikorps armies to assist with the retaking of Bavaria. Turning down Noske, Hoffmann scrapped together a small, pathetic force of his own, hoping to maybe spark some kind of insurrection against the Communists.
The Majority Socialists sent their forces south and on April 20th, near the German town of Dachau, they engaged the Communists, who were sent out to meet Hoffmann’s forces. It was a total disaster. The Majority Socialists broke down and ran, being chased by the Communists who resorted to throwing rocks at their fleeing adversaries. The commander of Hoffmann’s ill-fated expedition commandeered a train to flee the area, and the Communist forces, commanded by Ernst Toller (of Coffeehouse Anarchist fame…the Munich Commune made him a military commander, believe it or not), took nearly 40 soldiers and 5 officers prisoner. The captured forces didn’t endear themselves to their captors with their flight from battle, nor by the blue and white-colored armbands they were wearing, those colors not only being Bavarian but the colors of the former Wittelsbach dynasty. Egelhofer wired Toller to have the prisoners shot on the spot, but Toller, who was a pacifist and an intellectual, flat-out refused.
The End of the Majority Socialists
This battle, while seemingly small, comedic and insignificant, was to have a major and devastating effect on the Bavarian Revolution. Hoffmann and the Majority Socialists, who had hoped to retain a semblance of Bavarian independence in the postwar world, were now forced to undertake the unthinkable. Accepting their situation as hopeless without any genuine fighting force, Hoffmann and his Majority Socialists in Bamberg traveled to Weimar. Kowtowing to the German government, they accepted the terms of Gustav Noske and Friedrich Ebert: any notions entertaining the idea of Bavarian independence were to be completely forgotten, and the reoccupation of Munich was to be seen as keeping Bavaria within the Weimar Republic rather than its liberation and establishment as the capital city of an independent Bavaria. Hoffmann would retain his position as Minister-President, legitimately elected by the people of Bavaria, but he wouldn’t head a separate Bavarian nation: he would, from this point on, answer to the central government. The Freikorps forces sent to Bavaria would only answer to Noske and the central government, and were under the strictest orders to ignore Hoffmann’s orders, should Hoffmann get any ideas. That the Freikorps mobilized so quickly and had a working plan in order showed that the Majority Socialists’ embarrassing defeats were predicted by the Weimar government.
This surrender of the Majority Socialists and acknowledgement of the central government’s superiority would result in the destruction of the Communists in Munich. Even with the resources of Weimar stretched beyond critical, they still had the immense numbers of Freikorps forces, all of whom could boast of frontline experience during the war, had maintained rigorous discipline and cohesive command structures, and most importantly, had been very effective in smashing the Communists during the 1919 uprisings. With around 30,000 of these battle-hardened troops on the borders of Bavaria, and with the increasing numbers of desertions in the Bavarian Red Army, along with the situation in Munich garnering the full attention of the central government, the stage was set.
The Bavarian Revolution was entering its final, tragic, blood-stained phase.