Germany’s radical left spearheaded opposition to a futile, destructive war after 1914. Alongside famous leaders like Rosa Luxemburg, there were lesser-known figures such as Johann Knief, whose political life illuminates this vital period of socialist history.

German socialist Johann Knief. (Wikimedia Commons)

Prior to World War I, the German Social Democrats (SPD) were the most successful and prestigious socialist party anywhere in the world, with a million members and a dense network of allied trade unions, newspapers, and cultural associations. The SPD was also the largest and most cohesive political force in German society, setting an example that awed everyone who had contact with it.

During the war that shattered the unity of German social democracy, Johann Knief (1880–1919) belonged to a small cohort of radicals who attempted to drive socialist politics further to the left. Knief applauded the antiwar demonstrations, plundering of food and retail stores, and street fighting with the police.

In his journalism, he encouraged further protests and workplace takeovers, and spoke elegantly about an altered social system that would vanquish inequality and exploitation. Knief was important because he helped reconceptualize socialist politics as they had been practiced until then. A closer look at his political career can shed important light on this crucial period in the history of German and European socialism.

Education and Elections

Nothing about Knief’s background indicated that he would play a significant role. He came from a relatively privileged background, with a father who owned a retail store in Bremen. The family’s income was sufficient to provide him with an exceptional education. By no means an exemplary student, he nonetheless qualified for advanced training as a teacher.

Johann Knief belonged to a small cohort of radicals who attempted to drive socialist politics in Germany further to the left.

At his first job, he joined the teachers’ association and quickly rose to a position of responsibility. Often asked to present discussion themes at meetings and contribute articles about education to the local Social Democratic newspaper, his interest in humanistic and student-centered education put him at odds with the state-mandated curriculum that emphasized religion and patriotism.

Knief’s advocacy of secular education also broadened his understanding of social issues. The children he taught were working class, and he saw firsthand the toll that poverty took on them. Many of them performed paid work before or after school that left them too exhausted to concentrate on their schoolwork.

Social Democratic interest in school reform overlapped with initiatives from parts of the middle class, although the socialists were anchored foremost among the city’s dockworkers, sailors, factory employees, and working-class neighborhoods. Debates among progressive teachers cut several ways: for instance, they discussed whether to reform the existing system by removing religious instruction and state interference from the curriculum, or alternately to create new schools that would be run on a strictly secular basis.

Knief witnessed the suppression of these efforts to bring about change by the civil servants in charge of education, with harsh disciplinary measures meted out to errant teachers. As government employees, teachers were required to maintain strict political neutrality.

Reform of the German political system was a tedious affair, one of several issues that divided the socialist movement against itself. Over half the electorate in Bremen voted for the SPD in the 1912 national elections, where universal male suffrage prevailed. On the local level, however, there was a tiered voting system through which taxpayers were divided into eight groups according to the size of their tax contributions. This effectively marginalized the SPD.

This combination of electoral success and political marginalization illustrates the dilemma in which the German Social Democrats found themselves. The party’s platform juxtaposed revolutionary goals with pragmatic reforms: in fact, democratizing the electoral system would be one of the party’s signature accomplishments during the upheavals that followed the war. The heavy focus on electoral success and democratization, however, worried the radicals, who assessed that the party’s revolutionary ambitions were receding in importance.

The German Radical Left

After seeing efforts at educational reform sidelined or manipulated by the local educational and political establishment, Knief lost confidence in his ability to make a difference through his work as a teacher. Panic attacks, insomnia, and a generalized mental breakdown led to a three-month period of disability leave. An offer of an editorial position on Bremen’s leading radical newspaper confirmed his decision to leave teaching.

As a journalist, he wrote opera, orchestra, and concert reviews, often discussing cultural events in terms of their class-based sentiments. Journalism also propelled Knief into the front ranks of socialist writers and theorists in Germany’s northern region, where he rapidly emerged as a spokesperson for the movement’s radical wing.

Like many radicals, Johann Knief had close ties to Social Democratic youth groups whose anti-militarism aligned with his own.

Prior to the war, the radical left had not functioned as a cohesive whole. Knief became involved in a prominent squabble between Karl Radek and Rosa Luxemburg, both of whom had a background in the Polish socialist movement. While the SPD’s central administration supported Luxemburg, Knief sided with Radek, in a foreshadowing of the divisions that would hobble the radical left during the uprisings that followed the war.

Like many radicals, Knief had close ties to Social Democratic youth groups whose anti-militarism aligned with his own. The intensity of the antiwar protests during the eighteen months prior to the outbreak of war gave a misleading impression of the balance of forces. The SPD delegation in the Reichstag approved funding for the German war effort and began its own propaganda campaign, presenting the war as a conflict between modern civilization in the form of Germany and semifeudalistic barbarism in the form of Russia.

Knief, who was then in his mid-thirties, was drafted into the German army. His family’s income shrunk by half and pushed them into poverty. After a short but tumultuous ten weeks at the front, during which he witnessed atrocities against unarmed civilians and disarmed enemy soldiers, Knief suffered another major breakdown and was institutionalized for four months, with another six months’ of seclusion to follow.

By the middle of the war, German socialism had divided into hostile factions.

Since he was on medical leave, Knief could nonetheless use the time to write and travel, and this enabled him to reengage politically. On his return to Bremen, he once again became a pivotal figure for the city’s radical left as a journalist and orator. This period lasted until he was arrested in 1917.

By the middle of the war, German socialism had divided into hostile factions. The dominant group remained prowar and was now known as the Majority Social Democratic Party because of its enduring influence over the working class, the size of its treasury and organizational apparatus, its affiliation with the unions, and its control of dozens of local and national newspapers and journals. The antiwar opposition within the SPD eventually emerged as the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), but only after the Majority expelled its members and expropriated resources it had been using. About one-third of the original group was gathered in this new entity.

The radicals were themselves a minority within the antiwar opposition. The differences that emerged between Knief and Luxemburg were instrumental to its further development. Knief’s influence was largely confined to Germany’s northern seaports, while Luxemburg’s influence was nationwide.

There were other lines of division between them as well. Whereas Knief’s focus was cultural critique and criticism of social-democratic strategy and tactics, Luxemburg wrote about economic theory and was engaged in debate with socialists from other countries, especially Poland and Russia, to a degree that was not true for Knief.

Luxemburg was widely beloved within the socialist movement, not only by the rank and file but by leading members of the party as well. The latter might not have shared her radicalism, but they nonetheless greatly respected her talents as a writer, theorist, teacher, and orator. This was not true, however, for the party’s bureaucracy, an array of paid functionaries, volunteer activists, and organizers who viewed her as a threat to the party’s continued well-being.

Knief, though, increasingly alienated people around him. An ugly separation from his wife and two young sons meant further destitution for the family, to such a degree that they moved in with his father. Knief’s new partner was seventeen years younger and an heiress, someone whose income was sufficient for both to live upon.

His new partner provided apartments and travel expenses during his time in the underground. To people close to him, his personal life did not align with the politics he advocated. The fact that he had left Bremen to live in the capital city of Berlin also embittered former colleagues. Nonetheless, he spent 1918 in jail, and like Luxemburg missed the events that led to the revolutionary outbreak in November of that year.

Organizational Affiliations

The radical left clustered around the Spartacists, for whom Luxemburg was a leading figure. Like the socialist antiwar movement more broadly, the Spartacists were fearful of breaking structurally with their successive parent groups. This at first meant remaining within the ever-more right-wing Majority Social Democrats, and later within the party of the antiwar center — the Independent Social Democrats — who were attempting to hold true to the original SPD platform.

Knief did not share this hesitancy about forming a fully independent organization. The Spartacists appeared to him both as a militant antiwar faction cloaked in revolutionary phraseology and as a group willing to risk all for the sake of revolutionary transformation. In his opinion, they could not be both. The failure to break decisively, he reasoned, compromised the ability of the radicals to put forth a politics that was identifiably separate from these other groups.

A mutiny of sailors in one of the northern seaports led to nationwide protests and widespread revolts and desertions throughout the armed forces.

These differences within the radical left became moot with the November 1918 revolution. A mutiny of sailors in one of the northern seaports led to nationwide protests, widespread revolts and desertions throughout the armed forces, and thousands of factory and workplace takeovers. Within days, the kaiser and his ministers abdicated, and the Majority and Independent Social Democrats jointly formed a provisional government.

The radical left, including Luxemburg and Knief, coalesced in its own separate party. From the very beginning, however, it was weak, disorganized, and fractionalized. Nor was it popular within the working class. The radicals found it especially disappointing that a hastily convened congress of workers’ councils opted to endorse new national elections. They foresaw that universal suffrage would re-enfranchise the social classes that the revolution, workers’ councils, and the provisional government had just replaced.

The radicals were themselves divided about questions of participation in elections and how to relate to the preexisting union movement. The majority of members opposed taking part in either of them. But Luxemburg and Knief both disagreed, even though they had previously been highly critical of the SPD’s electoral bent and the complacency and conservativism of the unions.

They feared that their organization would become isolated from the broader working-class struggle and that its rejection of the electoral system and the union movement would be interpreted as a type of abstentionism rather than as a fundamental refocusing of socialist politics away from tactical decisions and toward actions aimed to immediately overthrow the existing order. Having played pivotal roles in the foundation of the new party, Luxemburg and Knief found themselves overtaken by events and outvoted by their radical colleagues on these matters.

Other differences emerged within the radical left regarding organizational structures. The Spartacists had adopted a decentralized model during the war, but this was largely out of necessity, not conviction. Repression and lack of resources allowed for little else.

As soon as the war ended, however, the new radical party attempted to reorganize itself along lines that mirrored the Majority and Independent Social Democratic Parties. Here again, the majority of the new party took matters in other directions, part of a reconceptualization of socialist politics that included electoral boycotts and the creation of alternative workplace organizations. They favored a confederation of local groups so that primary decision-making would rest with the rank and file.

Unfinished Legacies

This proliferation of organizations and ideas reflected the fact that the Left was in a rapid state of realignment, mirroring the developments and chaos within Germany and the international system in general. This situation prompted a rethinking of radical politics that would move in different directions and at various speeds.

The radical left that emerged during the early 1920s was altogether different from the one that had existed before the world war.

Knief and Luxemburg had overlapping but not identical critiques of the developments in Russia, where the Bolsheviks had seized power and were in the process of neutralizing the workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ councils that had transformed the country. Both Knief and Luxemburg believed that these councils had to be the basis of any form of social reconstruction, which put them at odds with Bolsheviks and Social Democrats alike.

Neither Luxemburg nor Knief, however, would be part of these ongoing discussions and maneuverings for long. Luxemburg was murdered by right-wing paramilitaries who were sponsored by the Majority Social Democrats in mid-January 1919, a few weeks after the merger of the radical left into a single political party. Almost simultaneously, Knief fell ill with acute appendicitis. Misdiagnosed at first, he underwent five emergency surgeries during the next ten weeks before finally succumbing in April 1919, just short of his thirty-ninth birthday.

The radical left that emerged during the early 1920s was altogether different from the one that had existed before the world war. It would take inspiration from people such as Anton Pannekoek and Otto Rühle, each of whom had participated in important debates and struggles about forms of organization and revolutionary measures.

The basic issues and dilemmas that arose in this period nonetheless have continued to agitate and aggravate the radical movements of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: the limits and frustrations of efforts at reform; the question of whether electoral participation can ever lead toward an alternative future; the tendency of centralized organizational structures to morph into authoritarian forms and the inverse tendency for decentralized structures to be overly time-consuming; and the importance of grassroots democracy, despite the ease with which it can be dominated by a minority.

If neither Luxemburg nor Knief could find definitive answers to these questions, that speaks to the broader dilemmas of socialist politics as well as the fact that their own lives were tragically cut short.

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