The Ruhr uprising (German: Ruhraufstand) or Märzaufstand was a left-wing workers' revolt in the Ruhr region of Germany in March 1920. The uprising took place initially in support of the call for a general strike issued by the Social Democrat members of the German government, the unions and other parties in response to the right-wing Kapp Putsch of 13 March 1920.
However, the communists and socialists in the Ruhr had previously laid plans for "winning political power by the dictatorship of the proletariat" in the event of a general strike. After the collapse of the Kapp Putsch, the German government sent in the Reichswehr (the German army) and rightwing Freikorps, to crush the ongoing insurgency of the around 50,000 members of the "Red Ruhr Army". This was done with considerable brutality and involved numerous summary executions.
As the Treaty of Versailles came into force on 20 January 1920, the German government had to drastically reduce the headcount of its regular armed forces, and dissolve paramilitary units like the right-wing Freikorps. Consequently, the German Reichswehrminister (defence minister) Gustav Noske ordered the dissolution of the Freikorps Marinebrigaden "Ehrhardt" and "Loewenfeld". The highest ranking general of the Reichswehr, Walther von Lüttwitz refused to comply, which resulted in what became known as Kapp Putsch or Lüttwitz-Kapp-Putsch. On 13 March 1920, the right-wing Marinebrigade Ehrhardt led by von Lüttwitz marched into Berlin, occupied the government buildings and installed Wolfgang Kapp as new chancellor, calling for a return of the monarchy. To restore order, Noske then asked Hans von Seeckt, who at the time was the head of the Truppenamt im Reichswehrministerium, to order the regular army, the "Transitional Reichswehr", to put down the putsch. Von Seeckt and the other senior commanders with the exception of General Walther Reinhardt refused and the government was forced to flee from Berlin. Since the ministerial bureaucracy did not cooperate with the Kapp government, however, it could not govern effectively. On the very day of the putsch, the Social Democratic members of the government and Otto Wels, head of the SPD, signed a call for a general strike to topple the putschists. It was supported by the Allgemeiner Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (ADGB) led by Carl Legien, the Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Angestellte (ADA) and the Deutsche Beamtenbund. Separately, the KPD, USPD and the DDP also called for a strike. Although protests by conservative groups including the Reichswehr soon caused the Reichsregierung to distance itself from this call to strike, the general strike of around 12 million workers helped bring about the putsch's collapse on 17 March 1920.
Strike and uprising in the Ruhr region
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The first demonstrations against the putsch were in the Ruhr region on 13 March 1920. For example, in Bochum, 20,000 people turned out. Whilst the Kapp Putsch was in progress in Berlin, on 14 March 1920, in Elberfeld a meeting of representatives of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) was held. The left-wing workers' parties decided on a spontaneous alliance against the putschists. The SPD, USPD and KPD drafted a joint appeal to "winning political power by the dictatorship of the proletariat".
As a consequence of this appeal and in the context of the general strike, some workers' organisations attempted to seize state power on a regional scale. Across the Ruhr area, spontaneously formed local "Executive Councils" took over political power. These were mostly dominated by the USPD, with the KPD also participating. The anarcho-syndicalist Free Workers' Union of Germany (FAUD) was also represented. Worker-soldiers were deployed, who controlled the cities.
The Red Ruhr Army, whose strength was estimated at approximately 50,000 members judging by the number of rifles that were later confiscated, managed to prevail over the government forces in the area in a very short time.
On 17 March 1920, units of the Red Ruhr Army near Wetter attacked an advance party of the Freikorps Lichtschlag under Hauptmann Hasenclever, who upon being asked had identified himself as a supporter of the new Kapp government. They took the enemy force's weapons, captured 600 Freikorps members and occupied Dortmund. On 20 March 1920 in Essen, a Central Committee (Zentralrat) of the Workers' Councils was formed, the latter being in the process of taking power in parts of the Ruhr. Another central organ was in Hagen. The uprising possessed no common leadership nor a common political program, although turning ownership of important industries over to the workers was an important issue.
After the defeat of the Kapp Putsch
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The general strike was officially declared as having ended on 22 March by the unions, the USPD and the KDP after additional concessions by the government of chancellor Gustav Bauer. These included the dismissal of Reichswehrminister Noske as well as changes to social and economic policies. General Reinhardt also resigned. Otto Gessler succeeded Noske, von Seeckt became Chef der Heeresleitung. The demands by the USPD that a socialist workers' government be installed to prevent a move of the Reich to the right were rejected.
The legitimate government, newly returned to Berlin, issued an ultimatum on 24 March, demanding that the workers' councils put an end to the strike and the uprising by 30 March (later extended to 2 April); the councils did not comply with this. On 25 March, the government of Gustav Bauer resigned and on 26 March Reichspräsident Friedrich Ebert appointed Hermann Müller as the new chancellor.
The consequence was the renewed proclamation of a general strike. More than 300,000 miners (about 75% of the work force in mining) joined this. The communist uprising brought Düsseldorf and Elberfeld into the hands of the communists. Until the end of March the whole Ruhr area was taken.
Those involved in the uprising, who were often world war veterans, even received wages from the workers' councils. They often operated in small groups, transporting themselves by bicycle. The Zitadelle Wesel was attacked on 24 March, but here the Ruhr Army experienced its first defeat.
The structure of the Ruhr Army was, like the political demands and positions of the different workers' councils, very heterogeneous and subject to frequent changes. In general, one can make out a strong difference between East and West. The USPD-dominated eastern Ruhr area organised and armed itself earlier, but did not support a continuation of armed action against the newly restored Reich government. On the other hand, the mobilization was slower in the trade union-dominated western Ruhr area, but later the continuation of the uprising found greater support here.
On 2 April 1920, Reichswehr units marched into the Ruhr area to suppress the uprising. This force also contained units that had supported the putsch only days previously, such as the Marinebrigade von Loewenfeld and even the Marinebrigade Ehrhardt.
With the support of the Reich government, the uprising was suppressed by General Watter, approaching from the north. Based in Münster, his staff led the civil war in the Ruhr area. Units of the Reichswehr and Freikorps successfully suppressed the Red Ruhr Army. The fighting was followed by death sentences and mass executions. Those who were found carrying weapons at the time of their arrest were shot—including the wounded. On 3 April 1920, Reichspräsident Ebert forbade these summary executions. On 12 April 1920, General von Watter forbade his soldiers from engaging in "unlawful behaviour". The actions of both sides in the fighting have been described as showing "a maximum of cruelty".
On 5 April, a large part of the Ruhr Army fled before the Reichswehr to the region occupied by the French Army. In response to the Reichswehr presence in the Ruhr, which contravened the Treaty of Versailles, the French occupied towns like Frankfurt, Hanau and Darmstadt on 6 April.
The Reichswehr stopped itself only at the river Ruhr, as the British occupation forces were threatening to occupy the Bergisches Land due to the breach of the Versailles Treaty. By 8 April, the Reichswehr controlled all of the northern Ruhr area.
By the end of the fighting, the participants in the uprising had lost in excess of 1,000 lives, the Reichswehr 208 dead and 123 missing, and Freikorps about 273 lives.
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- "Biografie Gustav Noske (German)". Deutsches Historisches Museum. Retrieved 12 June 2013.
- "Der Generalstreik 1920 (German)". Deutsches Historisches Museum. Retrieved 12 June 2013.
- "Der Militärputsch 1920 (Lüttwitz-Kapp-Putsch)(German)". Deutsches Historisches Museum. Retrieved 12 June 2013.
- "Chronologie 1920(German)". Deutsches Historisches Museum. Retrieved 12 June 2013.
- "Der Märzaufstand 1920(German)". Deutsches Historisches Museum. Retrieved 12 June 2013.
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