The Spartacist uprising (German: Spartakusaufstand), also known as the January uprising (Januaraufstand), was a general strike (and the armed battles accompanying it) in Germany from 4 to 15 January 1919. Germany was in the middle of a post-war revolution, and the two paths forward were social democracy or a council/soviet republic similar to the one which had been established by the Bolshevik Party in Russia. The uprising was primarily a power struggle between the moderate Social Democratic Party of Germany led by Friedrich Ebert, and the more radical communists of the Communist Party of Germany, led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who had previously founded and led the Spartacist League (Spartakusbund). This power struggle was the result of the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the resignation of Chancellor Max von Baden, who had passed power onto Ebert as the leader of the largest party in the German parliament. Similar uprisings occurred and were suppressed in Bremen, the Ruhr, Rhineland, Saxony, Hamburg, Thuringia and Bavaria, and another round of even bloodier street battles occurred in Berlin in March, which led to popular disillusionment with the Weimar Government.
Events leading up to the uprising
The Spartacists concluded after their experiences with the SPD and the USPD that their goals could be met only in a party of their own, so they founded the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) at the end of 1918. Because of the unhappiness of many workers with the course of the revolution, they were joined by other left-socialist groups. After deliberations with the Spartacists, the Revolutionary Stewards decided to remain in the USPD.
Rosa Luxemburg drew up her founding programme and presented it on 31 December 1918. In this programme she pointed out that the communists could never take power without the clear support of the majority of the people. On 1 January she again demanded that the KPD participate in the planned elections, but she was outvoted. The majority hoped to gain power by continued agitation in the factories and by "pressure from the streets".
As in November 1918, a second revolutionary wave developed on 4 January 1919 when the government dismissed the Police Chief of Berlin, Emil Eichhorn, who was a member of the USPD and who had refused to act against the demonstrating workers during the Christmas Crisis. The USPD, Revolutionary Stewards and KPD took up Eichhorn's call for a demonstration to take place on the following day. To the surprise of the organizers, the demonstration turned into a huge, mass demonstration which also attracted the support of many Socialist Party members. On Sunday 5 January, as on 9 November 1918, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the centre of Berlin, many of them armed. In the afternoon the train stations and the newspaper district with the offices of the middle-class press and the SPD's "Vorwärts", which had been printing articles hostile to the Spartacists since the beginning of September, were occupied. Some of the middle-class papers in the previous days had called not only for the raising of more Freikorps but also for the murder of the Spartacists.
The leaders of the movement assembled at Police Headquarters and elected a 53-member "Interim Revolutionary Committee" (Provisorischer Revolutionsausschuss), which failed to make use of its power and was unable to agree on any clear direction. Liebknecht demanded the overthrow of the government. Rosa Luxemburg, as well as the majority of KPD leaders, thought a revolt at this moment to be a catastrophe and explicitly spoke out against it.
The leaders of the USPD and KPD called for a general strike in Berlin on 7 January, which attracted about 500,000 participants who surged into downtown Berlin. A movement was organized by some of the participants to oust the government and launch a communist revolution. Key buildings were seized by the insurgents and their supporters, which led to a stand off with the government. During the following two days, however, the strike leadership (known as the ad-hoc "Revolution Committee") failed to resolve the classic dichotomy between militarized revolutionaries committed to a genuinely new society and reformists advocating deliberations with the government. Meanwhile, the strikers in the occupied quarter obtained weapons.
At the same time, some KPD leaders tried to persuade military regiments in Berlin, especially the Volksmarinedivision (People's Navy Division) to join their side, however they mostly failed in this endeavour. The navy unit was not willing to support the armed revolt and declared themselves neutral, and the other regiments stationed in Berlin mostly remained loyal to the government.
On 8 January, the KPD resigned from the Revolutionary Committee after USPD representatives invited Ebert for talks. While these talks were taking place, the workers discovered a flyer published by Vorwärts entitled "Die Stunde der Abrechnung naht!" (The hour of reckoning is coming soon!) and about the Freikorps (anti-Republican paramilitary organizations) being hired to suppress the workers. Ebert had ordered his defense minister, Gustav Noske, to do so on 6 January. When the talks broke off, the Spartacist League then called on its members to engage in armed combat.
Attack by the Freikorps
On the same day, Ebert ordered the Freikorps to attack the workers. These former soldiers still had weapons and military equipment from World War I, which gave them a formidable advantage. They quickly re-conquered the blocked streets and buildings and many of the insurgents surrendered. 156 civilians and 17 Freikorps soldiers died during the fighting. On the evening of 15 January, Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were discovered in a Berlin-Wilmersdorf apartment, arrested and handed over to the largest Freikorps unit, the heavily armed Garde-Kavallerie-Schützen-Division. Their commander, Captain Waldemar Pabst, had them questioned. That same night, both prisoners were beaten unconscious with rifle butts and shot in the head. Rosa Luxemburg's body was thrown into the Landwehr Canal, where it was found only on 1 July. Karl Liebknecht's body was delivered anonymously to a morgue.