S2 E5: Soviet Republic of Bavaria transcript
Listen to our episode on the Bavarian Soviet Republic.
Welcome to Countries That Don’t Exist Anymore.
Where was the Bavarian Soviet Republic?
In Bavaria, Germany.
Wait. Let me check that out…(tapping keys) Ok...that checks out.
Yes, the Bavarian Soviet Republic sounds cool because “soviet” has that classic communist chic, but actually soviet just means council...and anything involving the word council just seems much less interesting.
FX: Sparkling reception
Ambassador, I’d like to introduce you to the esteemed delegates of the Bavarian Council republic. His excellency the Secretary of Cycle Lanes and the Minister for Sheds.
How long did the BSR last?
One month, from 6th April 1919 to 3rd May 1919. If this were really ran by local government, that would be just enough time to decide what kind of biscuits everybody wanted.
How did Bavaria go Soviet?
After defeat in WW1, tensions were high - which led to the break out of the German Revolution of 1918. This kicked off when sailors were ordered to fight one more battle but mutinied en masse at ports across Germany.
Was wollen wir machen?
Brot und mermaidfrau.
Only a year before, the Russian Revolution had happened and, throughout Europe, dangerous leftie ideas were doing the rounds. Since the Kaiser had abdicated, Germany was hungry, angry and ready for radical change.
Armed unrest was popping up all over the place, like the leftist Spartacus revolt in Berlin, was more than the new Weimar government could handle. The old order was being swept away, leaving the door open for a brave new world. In all the tumult, King Ludwig III of Bavaria fled Munich.
Ludwig's family had been ruling Bavaria for more than 900 years, but just buggered off.
Into the vacuum came theatre critic Kurt Eisner who led a strike that turned into a peaceful coup, declared a socialist republic and sort of just wandered into the seat of government and sort of just decided to form something called the People's State of Bavaria.
Hang on. What was the People's State of Bavaria and why aren't we doing an episode on it?
Well, the Soviet Republic of Bavaria formed out of it but to understand why that happened, we have to get what the People's State was all about. So really, this episode is about both these little states because they are inextricably linked and, just to be even more confusing, the People's State of Bavaria was a rival to the Soviet Republic of Bavaria because at one point they existed at the same time.
What the bloody hell are you talking about?
We'll come to that. The Soviet Republic was straightforward communism...or as straightforward as communism gets...which isn't very...Kurt Eisner, though a socialist, didn't really seek to impose a system, other than:
There was direct democracy.
Everything was discussed.
Decisions were made by normal people, like people and sailors. NB: There were a lot of soldiers in the area. Munich was a staging post for soldiers returning from war. This is another reason that the city was a bit of a hotbed of revolution straight after the war.
For the most part, both the Left and the Right, the communists and the monarchists were ok to let him just get on with it. War had exhausted pretty much everybody. Most ordinary people just wanted peace and stability.
Eisner wasn't really a threat. He wasn't seizing property or guillotining anybody. Quite the opposite really.
You mean he was returning property and reattaching heads.
Well, not quite. But not far off.
Eisner encouraged plenty of concerts, parades and speeches, but didn't necessarily do much actual governing. In Catholic, Conservative, rural Bavaria, many weren't exactly delighted with a bunch of leftie, Jewish intellectuals fooling about with the levers of power in Munich.
With strikes against the government many saw this as a period of anarchy. Munich became an attractive destination for hippies from all over Europe, who had heard that a theatre critic could play president.
Eisner said he wanted "government by kindness", and would create a "realm of light, beauty and reason." Naturally, the nationalist right thought he was a total drip and wanted him gone, generally preferring government by cruelty. But as they say, you've got to be cruel to be kind. They being cruel people.
But Eisner didn't help how own cause. He admitted to German guilt for WW1 and published papers showing how Germany had pushed for war. As well as talking Germany down and being a socialist, Eisner was also Jewish. Those are the top three Family Fortunes answers for "what do German nationalists of the early 1900s most hate?"
His utopianism didn't catch on either. Holding elections 3 months into his administration, he got 2.5% of the vote. Things only got worse for Eisner when, on his way to resign, he was assassinated. Iconically, the assassin was a proto Nazi who was trying to prove himself to other proto Nazis who wouldn't play with him because he had a Jewish grandfather.
With Eisner firmly out of the picture, the overall winner of the elections Johannes Hoffman became president. Surely a man that had been elected by the populace would bring peace and stability to Bavaria.
How long did Johannes Hoffman last in power?
Or 12 months
Hoffman took office in March 1919, but then had to flee to Bamberg when there was an uprising against him when the Bavarian Soviet Republic was announced. So really there were two governments and two competing states that existed at the same time. The People's Republic and the Soviet Republic.
Like how Superman was both Christopher Reeves AND Dean Cain, because they were alive at the same time.
Yeah ok sure.
So, a bit about Hoffman...a bit about Hoffman. *ahem*
Who was Johannes Hoffman?
Thank you. Socialist Hoffman, who'd served as Minister of Education in Eisner's government, was an anti-militarist and former school teacher. Forming a coalition government on 7th March 1919, things didn't last long before communists and anarchists declared a Soviet Republic - mainly encouraged by a left-wing revolution in Hungary.
So now we get to the Bavarian Soviet Republic.
So this was the actual Bavarian Soviet Republic?
Oh, come on!
So, the Soviet Republic itself has two stages.
First we have the government of Ernst Toller, who became Chief of State. So, like Eisner the theatre critic and Hoffman the poet, Toller was a playwright. When you think about it, it makes sense. Playwright overthrows the work of a theatre critic.
“Convoluted was it? Amateurish? When I’m Bavarian president, you’ll be first against the wall...”
I'm sure it was in no way PERSONAL.
Though Toller had fought in the trenches in WW1, this didn't seem to make him any good at recruitment.
For example his Foreign Affairs Deputy, Dr Franz Lipp, had formerly been a patient in a psychiatric hospital, and once wrote to Russian leader Vladimir Lenin complaining that Johannes Hoffman had fled to Bamberg with the key to the ministry toilet.
To which Lenin replied…
"We thank you for your message of greetings, and on our part wholeheartedly greet the Soviet Republic of Bavaria. With sincere greetings and wishes of success. Lenin."
P.S. I don't know where your toilet key is. Have you looked down the back of the sofa? Also is there a McDonald's nearby you could use?
Franz Lipp used his time in office productively. Highlights included declaring war on Wurttemberg and Switzerland for the Swiss refusal to lend Bavaria 60 locomotives. Writing to a fellow Minister, he said:
"My dear colleague, I have declared war on Wurttemberg and Switzerland because those dogs have not immediately handed over the 60 locomotives to me on loan. I have no doubt that we will be victorious. Furthermore I will seek the blessing of the Pope, who is a good friend of mine, for this victory."
And that didn't end the ridiculousness for Toller's government. It was a massive merry-go-round of people totally unqualified for their posts.
The commissioner for military affairs was a former writer.
The police president was a former burglar.
Takes one to no one I guess?
And that principle holds true for the commissioner for transportation, who was a part time rail worker.
I bet he told all his mates “when they put me in charge, I’ll make sure we get proper portaloos with plenty of toilet paper. You’ll see” but then he got in power and looked at the budget and thought: “I mean...are toilet breaks even strictly necessary?”
Meanwhile, the man in charge of Bavaria's Catholic schools was Jewish. Which probably wouldn't have been so much of an issue if it weren't Germany in 1919 with anti-semitism pretty damn rife.
Now, although letters to and from Lenin may suggest fellow travelers writ large, but the Soviet Republic of Bavaria was hardly following the communist playbook. Toller initially went with an open government approach, saying: "Let the people come and tell me how to change the world."
So Ernst Toller set himself in the bathroom of the palace and let people tell him their ideas. Why the bathroom? Well, he felt that sitting himself in one of the larger rooms would make it seem like he was putting himself above the people. It does leave to wonder where he actually sat in the bathroom though.
FX: Echoing toilet. Dripping etc.
So Herr President….
Kurt. I was thinking about the state of the roads. You see I run an up and coming pencil sharpener business ...umm...Kurt?
I'm listening. Hey, you couldn't be a helpful fellow comrade and see if there's any toilet paper out there, could you?
SKETCH WITH TOLLER AND FRAN LIPP. TOLLER SAYS “MEETING ADJOURNED” AND FLUSHES TOILET.
After a day of enduring pretty crazy suggestions, Toller decided to come up with his own. And there were plenty.
What were the laws of the Soviet Republic of Bavaria Mark One?
No new house could be built with more than 3 rooms.
Living rooms must always be positioned above the kitchen and bedroom.
All cafes to close at 6pm.
The teaching of history was banned at Munich University as it was deemed "hostile to civilisation."
Capitalism to be brought down by "Freigeld" or "making money free."
That last one. Absurd.
Free money. Money can't be free. Money has to have meaning. It has to be earned.
No. I mean not unless you're an investment banker or a global bank or a western government.
More sensibly, from a ‘let’s make this thing last’ point of view, he called upon the Bavarian Red Army to support the new state and stamp out any counter revolutionary efforts, probably thinking of Hoffman in Bamberg.
What was the Bavarian Red Army?
It didn't actually exist, but Toller reckoned if you built it they would come. A bit like Kevin Costner in that film...Waterworld.
Either way, the Bavarian Red Army didn't exactly bring peace and stability to the new republic. Deciding that their barracks weren't up to scratch, they took up residence in local schools instead.
So, 2 and 2 is…
FX: Machine gun firing.
Sorry, I thought someone said “war.”
Despite the general confusion, the fledgling republic didn't cause much of a fuss elsewhere. The central government of the German Weimar Republic was too busy trying to deal with street fighting in Berlin against much more militant communists.
And despite his barking mad government, he wasn't doing all that much harm. The old imperial civil service in Munich had survived the war and were still making sure that things were more or less running. Plus, despite the communist branding, Toller's lot weren't actually doing much of the property seizing, bloodletting or redistribution associated with the Russian Revolution.
Toller liked to play the part of the Bavarian Lenin, but didn't really follow through on the program. All this was to change, however.
Just six long days into his government, Toller was pushed aside by bonafide revolutionary Eugen Levine and the Bavarian Soviet Republic *entered its final stage.
Who was Eugen Levine?
Eugen Levine was a revolutionary communist born to a Jewish family in St Petersburg, Russia. He'd fought in the failed Russia 1905 and was exiled, subsequently sheltering in Germany. After serving in the war, he joined the German Communist Party.
When Levine took power, Lenin said (upon the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution):
"The liberated working class is celebrating its anniversary not only in Soviet Russia, but in Soviet Bavaria."
And probably also: "And don't ask me about the f***ing toilet key either."
Levine hadn't been totally impressed with the antics of the Soviet Republic up until now. He said:
"In the factories the workers toil and drudge as ever before for the capitalists. In the offices sit the same royal functionaries. In the streets the old armed guardians of the capitalist world keep order. The scissors of the war profiteers and the dividend hunters still snip away. The rotary presses of the capitalist press still rattle on, spewing out poison and gall, lies and calumnies to the people craving for revolutionary enlightenment... Not a single bourgeois has been disarmed, not a single worker has been armed."
But Levine didn't just rock up and decide to take over. Power change happened during the defence of Munich from the an invasion masterminded by Hoffman's competing People's State of Bavaria. Even after this transfer of power, Ernst Toller was still prominent in the Soviet Republic. Remember - this was a council republic. None of the men we have mentioned thus far were out and out dictators.
In the face of this invasion, Levine's rather more serious communists came to the aid of Toller's dead poet's society. Rebuffing the first Freikorps attack, these rather more committed communists decided that they were better placed to defend and govern. For the Soviet Republic of Bavaria, it was no more fun and games. Inspired by the Russian Revolution, Levine went to work:
What were the laws of the Soviet Republic of Bavaria Mark Two?
Luxury flats were seized and given to the homeless, which is….bad. Obviously.
Factories were to be run by joint councils of workers and owners and workers' control of industry. Err. Boo. Obviously.
Bank withdrawals were carefully controlled.
Plans were drafted to abolish paper money.
Oh so, contactless?
Sounds like it.
Doesn't sound too bad.
During Leviné's rule the problem of food shortages (that afflicted much of post war Germany) became even more of a problem, especially the milk shortages. Never keep a German from their milch.
How am I supposed to pull my radical roller blade tricksen ins zentrum without my 10am power smoothie?
Levine's attitude to public criticism over the milk shortage didn't help him much. He said:
"What does it matter? ... Most of it goes to the children of the bourgeoisie anyway. We are not interested in keeping them alive. No harm if they die – they’d only grow into enemies of the proletariat."
Politics lesson number 1: Never try to be blase about dead children. Unless it's foreign dead children.
Hoffman was none too pleased with what Levine was up to, blocked supplies from entering Munich and gathered 8,000 soldiers that were defeated by a force of 30,000 Red Army troops led by Ernst Toller.
Having lost the physical invasion, Hoffman started a propaganda war. Posters and leaflets started to fall from the sky, dropped from biplanes. Some of them read:
"The Russian terror rages in Munich unleashed by alien elements. This shame must not endure for another day, another hour... Men of the Bavarian mountains, plateaux and woods, rise like one man... Head for the recruiting depots. Signed Johannes Hoffman."
The man knew nothing about advertising. Where's the upbeat ukulele music in the background?
So, like, sometimes it's kinda good to share stuff. With the people we love. Friends together, sharing special times. But when it comes to heavily armed soldiers drunk on potato moonshine evicting you from your luxury apartment while a cackling old crone with rotten teeth and stinking cabbage breath darns your most instagrammable moomoo into a communist flag, I'm like...umm guys... capitalism?
Meanwhile in Munich, thousands of rifles were handed out so that the revolution could be defended. And as we know from the NRA, more guns equals more peace. Levine justified this action at his trial.
"Why, having gained power, do we build a Red Army? Because history teaches us that every privileged class has hitherto defended itself by force when its privileges have been endangered. And because we know this; because we do not live in cloud-cuckoo-land; because we cannot believe that conditions in Bavaria are different - that the Bavarian bourgeoisie and the capitalists would allow themselves to be expropriated without a struggle - we were compelled to arm the workers to defend ourselves against the onslaught of the dispossessed capitalists…"
That’s all very well, but I just asked you to state your name for the record.
All cars had been seized for official purposes. Armed workers marched about the place. Lorries of armed workers were buzzing around town, being cheered by other armed workers. In summary, there were a lot of armed workers.
Hoffman and his Free State of Bavaria weren't put off by the initial defeat and teamed up with 20 - 30,000 Freikorps troops just spoiling for a fight.
Who were the Freikorps?
When The Armistice was called and Germany accepted defeat, not everybody got the memo. Out in the Baltic, some German soldiers were fighting on. Apparently unconvinced by this whole "you lost thing." Many soldiers didn't feel particularly defeated, including one young corporal called Adolf Hitler. You may have heard of him?
Rather than giving in, the Freikorps were on the rampage looking for new enemies and, with a raging nationalist anger, the antics of the Soviet Republic looked like a pretty good target. And the Freikorps were in no way dissuaded by the Weimar Republic, who were happy to let the attack dogs on the Red Menace - something they would pay for in the long-term.
In a second assault this anti-communist alliance known as "the White Guards of capitalism" by the communists had more success, taking the city of Dachau and how surrounding Munich.
Now in a siege situation, Levine's BSR started to weed out the quote unquote disloyal elements in their midst. This included aristocrats and nationalists of the right-wing Thule Society, who were to be held as hostages.
Panicked by the surrounding forces six hostages were executed including the well-connected Prince Gustav of Thurn and Taxis. Cousin of Reichsmarshall Minicab von Uber.
The executions broke any remaining unity in the soviet, with Ernst Toller being strictly against them, just as he had been against the last stages of the Bavaraian revolution in general. He said: "I consider the present government a disaster for the Bavarian toiling masses. To support them would in my view compromise the revolution and the Soviet Republic.”
The White Guards broke through the city defences leading to all out war in the city, including flame-throwers, heavy artillery, armoured vehicles and aircraft. People were shot on sight without trial.
At least 600 people died, with half that number being civilians.
The anarchist's dream turned into a bloody nightmare, with up to 1,000 deaths in the four weeks of Levine’s Bavarian Soviet Republic..
Communist leaders either died in the fighting, or were tried and executed. Between one and 2,000 communists and anarchists were executed. Others served long prison sentences, totalling 6,000 years in all.
At his trial, Ernst Toller argued:
“"We revolutionaries acknowledge the right to revolution when we see that the situation is no longer tolerable, that it has become frozen. Then we have the right to overthrow it.
The working class will not halt until socialism has been realized. The revolution is like a vessel filled with the pulsating heartbeat of millions of working people. And the spirit of revolution will not die while the hearts of these workers continue to beat. Gentlemen! I am convinced that, by your own lights, you will pronounce judgement to the best of your knowledge and belief. But knowing my views you must also accept that I shall regard your verdict as the expression, not of justice, but of power."
This impressed the judges and Toller got away with 5 years in prison. I guess if they sentenced him to death he could have said “Seeee?” In prison, he used the time productively - writing some of his best plays.
Hey Ed, maybe you could use some time in prison. It seems to take you about a year to write one podcast episode.
Nice one, Phil.
That gives me an idea. How about you make us a cup of tea?
Umm okay. Seems an unconnected idea though...
That's right, leave the room...hello, police, I'd like to report a crime. His name is Ed O'Meara. What's the crime? Hmm...what gets you 5 years in prison with monthly podcast recording visits? Interesting…and the writing desk comes with you say? Oh hang on…
*Rattle of tea cups*
Head of the invading army, Burghard von Oven, declared the city...
Who was Burghard von Oven?
No, we’re not doing that now. I’m wrapping up.
Sorry, just thought it sounded funny. Oven? Burger oven? Burger van oven? Maybe you could do something with that.
Declared the city secure on the 6th May...and there ended the Bavarian Socilaist Republic.
Although Hoffman was restored as head of a new Free State of Bavaria wrapped firmly within the German state, Bavaria was not to be some socialist dream land. The Right now held sway in Bavaria. So much so that one Adolf Hitler centred his new movement in Munich. Four years later, he chose Munich for his putsch, with the idea of marching on Berlin from there...
I don't know. Rings a bell, but…
Why didn’t the Bavarian Soviet Republic last longer?
First and foremost, Bavaria wasn’t the natural spot for a leftwing revolution. Tetchy factory workers were only a feature of Munich itself. Outside that city, Bavaria was a land of red faced conservative Catholic farmers who didn’t want much to do with the lefty Jewish rabble in Munich.
Even Levine doubted that the establishment of a Soviet Republic in Bavaria was a good idea, and only came to its defence when it was threatened. Thereafter he tried to rush through some Leninst actions to try to make the Soviet Republic a more legitimately communist idea...but it was all a bit shutting the gate after the bourgeoisie had bolted. But really, the different incarnations of the Soviet Republic and its predecessor in the Peoples’ Republic showed the only thing that united revolutionary elements in this part of the world at this place in time is that they didn’t really know what they wanted and they didn’t really know how to achieve it.
What was the legacy….
The failed experiment in Bavaria turned public opinion in Germany more solidly against the Left, probably allowing the Nazis to sneak in through the backdoor. Although seizing nice apartments and executing aristocrats isn’t the answer to anybody’s problems, It’s unfair to characterise the Bavarian Soviet Republic as some bloodsoaked Stalinist regime when, even in its final incarnation, much of the death and chaos came when the Freikorps were let loose on the streets of Munich. The fact that some of the BSR’s notables were also Jewish did much to add petrol to the fires of antisemitism, with dreadful consequences.
Post war Germany offered a brief window of time when there was just enough anarchy and just enough of a power vacuum and just enough exhaustion with the old order that, just before that window was slammed shut, anything seemed possible. Poets and playwrights could be revolutionaries and presidents, the common man on the street might take control of his destiny and a former asylum inpatient could declare war on Switzerland because of trains.
And they never did find that toilet key.
Flush sfx into theme
Ballad of Ernst Toller
Sitting on a toilet in Munich
Trying to get the people a break
Levine stood and hollered
"Damn you Ernst Toller
Your Soviet Republic's a fake."
Hans, you know it ain't easy
You know utopia’s a pain
The way things are going
We’ll invade the Swiss over trains
Handing out freigold willy nilly
Closing all the cafes at six
Last night the frau said
Oh Ernst you dickhead
You made scheisses cabinet picks.
Marx you know it ain't easy
To be a revolution'ry
And Franz Lipp's complaining
that he can't find the toilet key.
Finally overthrown by Levine
Then beaten by the capitalist White Guard
Hoffman called to say
You can make it okay
Writing plays in prison aint hard.