In 1923, with Germany gripped by hyperinflation and far-right insurgents, Social Democrats and Communists formed a joint government in Saxony. It was a pioneering experiment in working-class democracy — before the military overthrew it.

An anti-Fascism protest in Dresden, Saxony, in late summer 1923. (Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

For a century, the year 1923 has stood for a serious crisis in Germany’s political self-understanding. It is a year known for runaway inflation, the French–Belgian occupation of the Rhine and Ruhr, and finally Adolf Hitler’s so-called “beer hall putsch” in Munich. After this year of crisis, so the standard narrative goes, things began moving forward again in Germany. Stabilization was soon followed by the “Roaring Twenties,” the happy era under liberal chancellor Gustav Stresemann.

Much less attention is paid to the events in the German state of Saxony. But here, too, the opinion among mainstream historians is almost unanimous. The policies of Saxony’s left-wing governments under Social Democratic (SPD) minister-president Erich Zeigner, supported by the Communist Party (KPD), are said to have destabilized Saxony and the Weimar Republic as a whole, encouraged a Communist coup attempt, and opened the door to “Moscow” influence.

It was therefore necessary for the German Army, or Reichswehr, to march into the state and depose the government. The army’s so-called Sachsenschlag, or “Saxony strike,” they claim, is all that preserved the republic. A 2021 school textbook, Edition Geschichte, Gesellschaft konkret, summarizes this interpretation succinctly: “In Thuringia and Saxony, the KPD and left-wing Social Democrats formed workers’ governments in an attempt to establish a communist state. These attempts at revolution were put down by the army.”

This interpretation simply does not hold water. In fact, the Reichswehr action destroyed an important democratic bulwark against the far right. It also served to pacify the powerful far-right government of Gustav von Kahr in Bavaria, which aspired to establish a fascist dictatorship under its own leadership, instead of smashing it. Democratic Saxony, which sought to defend the Weimar constitution, was merely a pawn.

Already in 1923, not just in the 1930s, the Weimar Republic’s structural weaknesses became very apparent.

Perhaps, one could argue, the left-wing government in Saxony is also overlooked because the Communists seemed prepared to support, or at least work within, the parliamentary political system for a time. This obviously does not fit into the prevailing narrative of Weimar historiography, which paints the Left as posing a greater danger than the Right. In any case, one thing is clear: to portray the Saxon workers’ government primarily as a threat to the Weimar Republic is untenable.

A Rocky Start

Recent historical research increasingly shows that the failure of the Weimar Republic was not only the fault of those who deliberately destroyed it — particularly the Communists, fascists, and big industrialists — but indirectly also of those who hesitated to stand by it without reservations, especially the Social Democrats. For the SPD sought to slow down the democratic revolution instead of pushing it further, as would have been necessary from today’s perspective. The old structures in politics, society, and the economy were not fundamentally changed, the power of the old elites was not restricted, and the military was not subjected to democratic control. This was, indeed, a heavy burden for the republic.

These structural weaknesses were already very apparent in 1923, not only in the early 1930s. Germany threatened to slide into dictatorship at this early stage. The aspirations of reactionary forces became more and more apparent and the threat from fascist Bavaria ever stronger. On the other hand, the democratic forces were growing weaker — especially the free trade unions, which appeared powerless in the face of the growing economic crisis and lost many members as a result.

In Saxony, socialists and communists tried to implement decisive structural changes … transforming the country into a more ‘social’ democracy.

In Saxony, on the other hand, socialists and Communists tried to implement decisive structural changes. The left-republican project was a counter-project to the right-wing trend in Germany as a whole, with the aim of gradually transforming the country into a more “social” democracy.

Saxony, the most economically developed region in Central Europe at the turn of the century, was not only the cradle of social democracy but also its stronghold. The SPD had consistently been the strongest political force in the state, even when political circumstances and the constitutions of Saxony and the German Reich restricted its development. After the revolution, therefore, in Saxony — unlike in the rest of the country — a government with parliamentary legitimacy was ready to follow this new path, even against the resistance of a powerful bourgeois conservative minority.

The chaotic conditions of 1923, which hit Saxony particularly hard, reinforced this desire. Hunger and inflation drove workers onto the streets. Now or never — that was the mood on the political left. It now had the opportunity to realize its ideas and carry out a revolution in politics, the economy, and also the education system — on an entirely legal foundation.

However, it is questionable whether governing against the trend in the rest of the country, against the national government, against the rather “conservative” Berlin Social Democrats, and against the economic bourgeoisie in Saxony itself was possible in a small state like Saxony. Moreover, the SPD consistently had only a very shaky and narrow parliamentary majority in the Saxon parliament. It depended on the toleration of the KPD until October 10. Only after the KPD entered the government did it enjoy a narrow majority of two seats, but even then, the voting patterns of the Saxon Communists remained highly uncertain. The fact that the left Social Democrats nevertheless made such an attempt therefore speakers to their courage.

The Left-Republican Project

Despite facing massive resistance from the bourgeoisie, conservatives, and the Association of Saxon Industrialists (VSI), the project to gradually transform Saxony into a socialist democracy began as early as the early 1920s. Previous cabinets led by SPD member Wilhelm Buck, often minority governments supported by the KPD, initiated important reforms in areas such as school policy. Yet things really took off when Zeigner took over the reins of government on March 21, 1923. Zeigner, a man whose track record has proven polarizing even among historians, belonged to the SPD’s “young guard” that pushed the democratic socialist project in Saxony forward.

However, Zeigner only had a few months to see his project through. His options were also severely limited by the state of emergency imposed by the national government and, above all, by the economic crisis. Measures toward economic transformation were therefore hardly possible. In other areas, however, the government succeeded in initiating important reforms, which were then brutally cut short by the illegal invasion of the Reichswehr.

For example, while serving as minister of justice under Buck, Zeigner had pushed forward the republicanization of the judiciary. He promoted the establishment of the Republican Association of Judges and reprimanded judges and public prosecutors who openly opposed the Weimar Republic. Moreover, he sought to direct the judiciary’s attention more to the social context of criminal offenses. These represented hopeful beginnings.

Comparable restructuring measures also took place in the police. Until then, the political left had generally viewed the police as thugs in service of the authorities, but now they were to be transformed into an important agency of the new democratic state, a new style of work was to be introduced, the idea that workers were the enemy was to be dismantled, the relationship with the authorities was to be redefined, and the internal structure of the police was to be democratized as much as possible.

From now on, the police were to be animated by a democratic world view and an understanding of the needs of the working population. “Democracy training” for the entire police personnel, as well as the introduction of government commissioners to monitor the police’s democratic conduct, were important steps in this direction.

A municipal constitutional reform also introduced the principle of democratic self-government in the municipalities with a focus on democratizating electoral law. The aim of the reform was to break the decades-long dominance of the liberals, which rested on an undemocratic electoral law. In 1923, the left-republican project granted the municipalities a constitution that was more democratic than that of any other state in the republic — and clearly ahead of its time.

The Zeigner government’s most successful, but also most controversial reform was in education policy — an issue dear to many socialists’ hearts. The principle of social selection, which had long defined elementary school education in Germany, was finally to be abolished. It was to be replaced by a common school for all, free of religious and political indoctrination, secular and accessible to the whole population, and based on the principles of the New Education movement. This constituted a cultural revolution. The church, businessmen, conservatives, and even many liberals were outraged at the prospect and deployed all available means to try to prevent the reform’s implementation.

Saxony’s Young Left

The main supporters of the left-republican project were on the left wing of the SPD. There could be no talk of unity among Saxony’s Social Democrats, not even in 1923. Most of the older comrades who had been socialized in the prewar German Reich advocated a more modest course of reform. The trade unions adopted a similar stance. The majority of the SPD’s often long-serving members of state parliament were also not convinced proponents of the left-republican project.

Instead, the project was essentially carried by the “youth” of the Saxon SPD, the new members who only joined the party after World War I. Not yet firmly integrated into party discipline, they rejected the ossified “pragmatism” of the establishment and sought to advance a new kind of socialist politics detached from the concerns of party elders. Thanks to their tireless activism among the rank and file, they soon succeeded in bringing about a shift to the left.

They even managed to rally the party as a whole behind the idea of cooperating with the Communists. Many Social Democrats, however, assented to this new path only reluctantly, not least because of their negative experiences with the Communists up to that point. In March 1923, however, the “young leftists” succeeded in pushing through their agenda. Only by approaching the KPD would the SPD be able to secure their new policies in parliament.

The young Zeigner was a key figure in this project. Serving behind the front line during the war, he only joined Social Democracy in 1919 — and not the left-wing Independent Social Democrats (USPD), but the more conservative “majority” (M)SPD. His decision demonstrates that he sought to conduct politics within the framework of the republic’s constitution. Zeigner had a bourgeois background and a doctorate in law. Such figures were more than rare in the socialist movement. This fact, as well as his affiliation with the left wing of the party based in the city of Chemnitz, facilitated his rapid rise. He became minister of justice as early as 1921.

Zeigner’s lack of socialist socialization was, in one sense, an advantage. It gave him a certain political freedom and guaranteed the support of many from the “young,” but on the other hand was also a disadvantage, as he was not firmly integrated into the party and its institutions and did not exhibit the same socialist “pedigree.”

He also lacked tactical skill both vis-à-vis his own hesitant comrades and vis-à-vis the national government and the Social Democrats in Berlin. This was also evident in his attacks on the illegal actions of the Reichswehr, which he repeatedly denounced in public. He also interfered in German foreign policy, which turned the national government against him and his government all the more. Above all, however, they disapproved of his cooperation with the KPD.

Most of the left-wing government’s fierce enemies were more concerned about their possessions than about the preservation of democracy.

Nevertheless, Zeigner was by no means naive in his cooperation with the Communists. He knew that they could only be relied on to a limited extent, because their decisions were significantly influenced by the policy pursued in Moscow, which sought to launch a world revolution. When the government was reconstituted, he therefore kept their ministers away from positions where they would have had access to weapons or the police.

Even in the joint (usually unarmed) fighting squads of the Proletarian Hundreds, a nightmare for the German Army, the Social Democrats were always in the majority. All members of the government swore allegiance to the constitution. Last but not least, the Social Democrats were by far the strongest force in the joint government: in the elections on November 8, 1922, the SPD took in 41.8 percent of the vote, while the KPD only gained 10.5 percent.

One thus cannot help but wonder what the enemies of the project perceived as such a threat and finds the answer in the fact that most of them were more concerned about their material possessions than the preservation of democracy. They feared the influence of the revolutionary Communists, distrusted their friendly political overtures, and gladly took their subversive, revolutionary, anti-constitutional, and not least violent language at face value. This was enough to classify the Left as more dangerous than the Right — a grave mistake, as history would show.

Moscow — Berlin — Dresden

The behavior of the Communists in government was pivotal for the success of the project. However, their actions were not only determined by the Saxon Communists themselves, but also by the balance of forces in the Communist triangle between Dresden, Berlin, and Moscow.

The party’s close political ties to the Communist International in Moscow clearly distinguished the situation of the Saxon Communists from that of all other political parties. The Third International sought to execute a (violent) world revolution via Germany, but exactly how this was to be done was highly controversial in Moscow, where fierce battles over Vladimir Lenin’s succession were raging at the time.

Nevertheless, Moscow demanded obedience from the party in Saxony. Berlin demanded the same. However, their respective ideas did not always coincide. This was a source of considerable tension, but also created a certain political space in which the Communists in Saxony could maneuver.

The Saxon Communist Party, which had received about 267,000 votes in the 1922 state elections (the SPD won over one million), was not a club for debating theory, but a social movement of highly determined, mostly young comrades socialized in the proletarian milieu who had to — and wanted to — make concrete decisions on the ground.

Moreover, despite the revolutionary rhetoric that was common in Saxony, in large parts of the state the actual differences with the left wing of the SPD were far smaller than as “ordered” by Moscow and Berlin. This “moderate” attitude was mainly due to the fact that the Communist leaders in the Saxon workers’ movement had maintained good connections with the left wing of Social Democracy for years.

The future model conceived in Saxony merely stood for social and democratic politics. It was a political alternative within the framework of the constitution, not against it.

Heinrich Brandler, for example, who simultaneously held leading positions in Saxony, Berlin, and Moscow was an explicit supporter of a socialist united front as a result of his experiences in Chemnitz, in contrast to the Berlin KPD leadership around Ruth Fischer.

Paul H. Böttcher, who had spent many years as a trade unionist and journalist and in 1923 served as chairman of the KPD’s state parliamentary group, was also among the supporters of the left-republican project. This was also true of Friedrich Heckert, who was active in Chemnitz, the Saxon KPD’s stronghold. The former leading member of the Spartacus Group had also mutated into a realist and supported temporary cooperation with the SPD left.

According to their own statements, all three KPD leaders wanted to destroy the Weimar Republic, carry out the world revolution in the name of the Third International, prepare the dictatorship of the proletariat, and even “liquidate” it. The way to achieve this aim, however — and this distinguished them from the leaderships in Berlin and Moscow at the time — was through temporary cooperation with the SPD. What would follow after that remained to be seen.

The KPD in Saxony therefore demanded autonomy, albeit discreetly. It was not prepared to give up the positions of power it had already acquired for a coup with a very uncertain outcome. Above all, it understood the balance of forces and who held a majority in the state and that a coup could not succeed. Saxony was not ready for revolution — at least not yet.

On October 21, facing a looming invasion by the German Army, all the important forces in the Saxon workers’ movement came together — Communists, Social Democrats, and trade unionists. The KPD wanted to call a general strike — they had already abandoned talk of a violent uprising — and thus clear the way for a Communist revolution. But the assembly rejected Brandler’s motion almost unanimously, and the KPD leaders bowed to the vote without complaint. They proved themselves to be good democrats.

By accepting this decision, the Saxon KPD leadership probably prevented the sort of bloodbath that a hopeless uprising would have meant. In Communist historiography, however, Brandler and his comrades-in-arms were henceforth regarded as renegades. Ernst Thälmann, on the other hand, who initiated a completely senseless uprising in Hamburg, became the hero of the KPD.

The Saxon Strike

Taking a closer look at the reforms implemented in Saxony and the actions of the KPD in government, it is hard to see what was so dangerous about the project that the army had to smash it. The model conceived in Saxony was merely social democracy in the truest sense. It represented a political alternative within the framework of Germany’s republican constitution, not against it. It did not rely on violence, and it was not a threat to the state.

Obviously, however, the government and the army feared a project that opened up German politics to the Left and tried — not without risk — to politically integrate the KPD. The Reichswehr fundamentally rejected any kind of politics that limited its influence and denounced its illegal machinations in domestic policy.

The national government and Chancellor Stresemann, in turn, saw their right-wing and conservative policies threatened by the Communists’ participation in government. Stresemann was not simply subject to pressure from the industrialists — as a long-time attorney for the VSI, he was entirely on their side. Stresemann, still an imperialist and deeply capitalist at heart, consistently rejected an opening of the republic toward left-wing ideas. Better to let reactionary Bavaria have its way than to give progressive Saxony a chance was the national government’s motto.

The invasion of the German army on October 21 and the illegal dismissal of Minister-President Zeigner thwarted the chance to implement a political counter-project to the growing far-right current in Germany within the framework of the constitution and supported by an (albeit narrow) majority in the Saxon parliament. The leading figures of the left-republican project would pay dearly for this. The Nazis’ revenge later hit them with full force. Almost all of them ended up in concentration camps or had to emigrate as early as 1933.

Far from saving democracy, the army intervention paved the way for Nazism. It destroyed the attempt to break up the entrenched social structures, to make the republic more social, to limit the power of the entrepreneurs, and to integrate the left wing of the workers’ movement into the state. The chance to create a bulwark against Nazism was defeated.

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